30 September 2012


The biggest October news 'round here, of course, is the 48th Chicago International Film Festival, about which I will have more to say in the next week or so. I will promise this much: I'm not even going to attempt to match my screening record of 37 films from last year, because the speed of it nearly broke me.

In the meanwhile, let us turn to the more sober matter of the month's wide releases: a typical October blend of genre films, also genre films, and the odd outcropping of Oscar hopefuls. To this point, 2012 has not yet paid off any of my hopes for a whole month to live up to my expectations, but that does not keep me from maybe dangerously voicing the thought that, all things considered, the genre films look decent, and the also genre films even more so.


I don't quite get why Taken 2 exists: I was under the impression we'd already had a Taken 2, and it was called Unknown. But here we are, with Liam Neeson once again recusing a female relative from terrorists, and if it is as much exactly the same thing as Taken as the trailers indicate, it should at least deliver on the front of Liam Neeson kicking all the ass he can find. An important front, no doubt. But I'm picky about my sequels: I prefer them not to be carbon copies. After all, I have the ability to watch Taken any time I feel like it; why pay $10 for the privilege?

Speaking of "a different thing, only the same", Tim Burton makes his second stop-motion animation feature, after 2005's Corpse Bride, in the form of horror-parody Frankenweenie, in which a creepy young boy brings his beloved dog back from the dead. Making the second time Burton has directed this exact scenario: in 1984, he made a live-action short Frankenweenie, to which he owes basically his entire subsequent career: it was the kind of perfect gem that made executives want to throw projects at him. All of 29 minutes long, it's one of the director's most successful projects, and I truly don't see how tripling its length is going to work out well; but I am not Disney, and I do not have the ability to force movies to be successful through sheer ornery perseverance.

Pitch Perfect hits wide release after a water-testing week which kicked off the kind of cool reviews and moderate box office that is exactly not what studios want from platform releases.


A crowded weekend, with an extremely clear hierarchy of importance: rapturously reviewed Oscarbait; smart thriller with a tony cast and significant writer-director; concepty horror film (the first of three consecutive weekends with a horror release, because that is how you do October); high-concept comedy with an actor whose fanbase does not overlap with the concept much at all, and will almost certainly bomb.

In more concrete terms, that means Argo, the third feature made by Ben Affleck with his director hat on, the toast of Toronto, an historical political thriller with resonance to the modern day, a cast to die for, and a scenario - the CIA fakes a movie set to rescue hostages from Iran - that looks to be both fun and serious in alternation. It's the kind of thing you'd get out of a laboratory specially designed to make crowdpleasing, critical hits that win awards.

Then comes laureled playwright Martin McDonagh's second film, Seven Psychopaths, with five hugely exciting male actors and two not very exciting at all women, which will not help with McDonagh's laddish reputation; Sinister in which Ethan Hawkes fights an early Christian demon hiding in 8mm film; and ill-advised Kevin James/UFC mashup, Here Comes the Boom, in which fatty faw down.


They made a Paranormal Activity 4. Don't wanna talk about it.

I also don't really want to talk about Alex Cross, which witnesses Tyler Perry taking over a character played in the '90s by Morgan Freeman and trying to become an action star; when you think about the degree to which Madea's early films were all variations on "unstable freakshow waves a gun and screams", the jump to action stardom is not quite so strange, though I wonder how they plan to fit a pro-church message in there.


I owe a debt to the friend who pointed out that Cloud Atlas is basically The Fountain, only made by insanely ambitious popcorn entertainers and not a moody auteur. Speaking personally, I don't see any way for the collaboration between the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to result in an especially coherent movie, doubly so given that it consists of six overlapping stories in six different historical periods, all linked by a piece of music that gives the film its title. But if all we can hope for is a glorious mess - and I think it is - all signs point to it being one of the most hypnotic, magnetically glorious messes of recent memory.

Having failed once, there is now a second attempt at forcing survival horror video game Silent Hill to succeed as a movie, with the 3-D Silent Hill: Revelation, which I am going to see on account of my known fondness for setting money on fire. There's also a Halloween party comedy thingy called Fun Size, about which I know nothing; and for some reason, Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted are collaborating to make an abnormally niche-ey looking movie about surfers called Chasing Mavericks. This last film earns the honor of being the 2012 wide release film in the United States that I am least inclined to ever want to see.


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

Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein,
from a story by Michael France

Premiered 13 November, 1995

Pierce Brosnan's four-film, seven-year residency in the tux of Britain's greatest spy, James Bond, started off at its very peak, with what I believe to be the longest of all pre-credit sequences at that point in the Bond franchise, and my own personal pick for the single best pre-credit sequence; it is not merely the pinnacle of Brosnan era Bond pictures, but among the best extended moments in the entire history of the character.

Back in the '80s, during the Cold War, Bond sneaks into a Soviet chemical research facility, where he meets up with fellow MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), code name 006; they sneak through the building and banter with the easy familiarity of old friends, preparing to blow the place to hell. They're caught, though, by Colonel Arkady Grigorovich Ourumov (Gottfried John), who callously puts a bullet in 006's brain, and is about to do the same to 007, though by hiding behind a cart of highly inflammable gas tanks, the spy is able to sneak out, and run like hell to an airplane about to take off; chasing it off a cliff on a motorcycle, he's able to fly away from the facility as it explodes.

If the absolutely tremendous opening to Octopussy can be called the definitive short film guide to the Roger Moore Bond, this GoldenEye opener is even better: it's the definitive guide to all things Bond, past, present, and future. It's bookended by two of the best stunts in the franchise - a bungee jump down the sever concrete face of a gigantic dam, and Bond's dive off a cliff on a motorcycle to catch a plane (the visual effects let this second one down a bit - there is some sneaking about and spying, there's oodles of flippant banter between 006 and 007, a nice vigorous dose of casual brutality for the people still smarting that Timothy Dalton only got two movies, a big fireball for the mindless popcorn action fan, and Brosnan is at his absolute best, cool and witty under fire.

Plus, it's the basis for my favorite level in the N64 game GoldenEye 007, which isn't worth points per se, but I figured we might as well start to the references to The Best First-Person Shooter Ever early, the better to squeeze in as many as I conceivably can.

Rating: 5 Union Jack Parachutes

I take this one to be divisive; I can recall, certainly when a much younger version of myself had no use for this song at all. But the song "GoldenEye", written by Bono and The Edge and sung by Tina Turner, but it has since grown into one of my very favorites. This has much less to do with the at times nonsensical lyrics (they are high on imagery and finagling the word "GoldenEye" into the line, but low on any sustained emotional message), than with Turner's absolutely perfect performance, low and purring, with a measure of cruelty, and it drips sex. Take note, Gladys Knight and your vanilla "Licence to Kill" - this is how you sing a Bond theme: like one hand is down your pants and the other is on the trigger of a gun. If the word "smokey" has ever been accurately applicable to any song, than it surely applies to this one.

Rating: 4.5 Shirley Basseys

Say what you will about Brosnan's tenure as Bond - and I will join you in much of it - but it was Golden Age for credits sequences. Which I say with all apologies and respect to Maurice Binder, whose work with silhouetted naked women and solid-color backdrops defined so much of the mood of Bond for three decades. But Daniel Kleinman's experiments with computer animation really do take the cake - and we get off to an astoundingly good start with a sequence in which partially clothed or entirely naked (and tastefully shadowed) women stand in a flaming landscape of orange explosions, littered with relics of the USSR; positioned in the film's narrative between 1986 and 1995, this sequence effectively dramatises the downfall of the Soviet empire, with the requisite sexy girls hammering and chipping away, and otherwise dealing with the violence of post-communist, free-for-all Russia. Virtually perfect; my single complaint is the image of a two-faced woman (this ties into the plot), who ejects a gun barrel out of one of her mouths; the design needed at least one more go-round to make her neck not quite so skinny and deformed, and the gun itself protruding from her wide-open jaw is sort of gross. A distasteful, even upsetting image that shaves off that critical half-point.

Rating: 4.5 Silhouetted Women

Fun fact: in my ranking, the top three categories for this movie combine for a higher score than in any Bond film we have looked at, and, unless I have forgotten something significant, than any Bond film yet to come. So, in effect, GoldenEye has the strongest start, visually and aurally, of any Bond movie, though I could certainly do without the horrifying synth-driven remix of Monty Norman's 007 theme that accompanies the spiffy new CGI gun barrel in the opening logo.

That delicious feeling we thus get comes to an abrupt, violent halt, as Bond speeds down a highway with a woman, Caroline (Serena Gordon), assigned by the new head of MI6 to evaluate his skills. It's a desperately perfunctory sequence that becomes even more desperately perfunctory when a woman in a bright red sports car pulls up alongside, challenging Bond to a race; if what follows can be accurately described as a "car chase", then it is among the lamest in English-language cinema.

After sexing up Caroline, Bond follows the sports car woman to a casino in nearby Monte Carlo, learning that she is a certain Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), member of the legendarily secretive Janus syndicate, and she is a poor loser at baccarat. She's also hooked up with a Candian admiral, whom she proceeds to kill during sex by crushing his abdomen between her legs, and from there goes on steal a brand new experimental helicopter along with the now-General Ourumov.

A couple of weeks later, this helicopter is used during an attack on a remote Russian satellite lab, in which Ourumov steals the keys to a device called GoldenEye, an orbiting nuke, essentially, that can generate a big enough electromagnetic pulse to destroy every electronic device in a city. Why a Soviet program would be called - and themed! - GoldenEye is anyone's guess, but "because that was the name of Ian Fleming's home in Jamaica" is a likely candidate. Making this, incidentally, the second Bond film with a title derived from Fleming, but not shared by any of his written works.

Such a big explosion does not go unnoticed, and in London, Bond is assigned to follow up with this matter, having previously been told that tracking the stolen helicopter was not a high priority; and in this he takes some private satisfaction, that he has been able to score a point against the new M (Judi Dench), whom he regards as a statistics-driven prig with no real sense for the spy game.

In Moscow, Bond meets up with CIA operative Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), who puts him in touch with Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), a Russian mafioso with some knowledge of Janus; this goes nowhere, but it sets enough of an alarm that Onatopp shows up to kill Bond; he overpowers her and she leads him to Janus, who turns out to be none other than a very much not dead Alec Trevelyan, who nurses a grudge against Great Britain for killing his people (he is descended from a Nazi-aiding anti-communist population of Cossacks), and an even more specific grudge against Bond for letting him die in that explosion, failing to note that Bond already took him for dead, and if you can't count on a Bond villain for being rational, who can you count on?

Bond is captured and set in a death trap with Natlya Fyodorovna Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), the only survivor of the attack on the GoldenEye facility; they're able to escape at the very last second and track Trevelyan to his armored train (after a spectacular escape from Russian police), where they fail to stop him, but do figure out that his ultimate base of operations is in Cuba - a giant satellite facility (played by the truly spectacular radio telescope dish at Arecibo, Puerto Rico) where he plans to deploy the second GoldenEye satellite to wipe out London, triggering a worldwide financial collapse, and much more importantly, get his revenge on the country towards which he has been nursing such a fanatical hatred for his whole life.

It's all a bit more convoluted than it needs to be, but there's stuff in here that works awfully well: everything up until Bond encounters Trevelyan is some of the best spying-as-spying in the series, not quite up to the level set by Dalton's films, but surely better than the Moore and Connery eras, in which the plots mostly consisted of "find the villain's splashy base, and engage in taunting mind games with him". And once it kicks into the more conventionally Bondish world-threatening plot, it continues to go well, with the plot being sufficiently elaborate and sci-fi inflected to seem melodramatic, but not so crazy that it tips into rancid "let's set off earthquakes and flood California!" awfulness.

On the other hand, there is so much extraneous material: the whole Monte Carlo sequence and the stolen helicopter that ends up being just a tertiary part of the villainous plot; the tour of post-communist Moscow, which is mired in the film's general scheme of trying way too hard to be self-consciously post- Cold War. And why the film has to grind to a complete stop between Monte Carlo and Moscow, I cannot say, unless it's to give Bond and M a chance to snarl at each other for a bit. Generally strong, and miles better than anything else in Brosnan's career, but there are clumsy patches. It's not a tremendously good sign that the plot flows much better, has swifter momentum, and generally makes more sense, when it's being used in a damn video game.

Rating: 4 Stolen Nukes

If anything in this review goes strongly against what I perceive to be the conventional wisdom, it's this: Alec Trevelyan is a great villain. Just plain great. Setting aside how unbelievably shocking it is for Sean Bean to play a character who starts off as a good guy but turns out to be a villain, it's a top-notch performance: a variant on Bond's own persona that gives us a good sense of the kind of person apt to seek employ in MI6, while also suggesting what Bond himself might look like if he was broken in some important way. I adore Trevelyan's backstory: simultaneously grandiose and petty, and unlike the more common Bond villain, whose world-dominating plots often seem like something hatched up during a post-lunch nap ("Man, I'm tired of simply being rich - maybe I'll build a fleet of space shuttles to help create a race of eugenically pure superpeople"), there's enough actual, recognisable human emotion involved that the shape, if not the scale, of his rage is easy to comprehend. He also gets a fuckton of amazing bad guy one-liners, of which I will share only my favorite: "Mr Bond here will have a small memorial service with only Moneypenny and a few tearful restaurateurs in attendance."

Rating: 4.5 Evil Cats

Credit must go to Scorupco in one regard: in a film with more terrible Rooshin accents even than most actual Cold War-era thrillers, she has, by far, the least odious one, though to compensate, she occasionally drops it (I imagine that being Polish helped out with this considerably).

I guess that's kind of a meanish way to start. She's actually pretty good, given the script, and the character as written isn't dreadful: the biggest problem with her is that she's part of the film's desperate "update Bond to the 1990s" program, which in this case consists of Natalya glaring at Bond and fuming about the senseless violence of it all. And calling him on being a chauvinist. Which is fine - I enjoy it throughly when Bond Girls call Bond on his shit - but it's sort of the only personality she has, even as she manages to be something of an action heroine (unlike many Bond Girls, she has a vital role to play in the solving of the plot, and gets the "tied up damsel" routine taken care of long before the climax). The distinct impression I get is that the screenwriters wanted very much to avoid the classic Bond Girl cooing and sex object-ness, but didn't quite know what else to do, and so she never really emerges as anything more than a plot point that Bond has sex with - an essential plot point, but it's not the same as being a person.

Better, though, than in the GoldenEye game, where she's part of one of those hellish "keep the NPC character alive" quests, made several times more obnoxious because of the unseemly glee with which she keeps walking in front of your fucking gun, and just lets you fucking shoot her, because AI was not at its peak in the mid-'90s on 64-bit machines.

Also, she has unfortunate hair, which doesn't actually mean anything, but it kept distracting me.

Rating: 3 White Bikinis

We got a proper little army going, and all of them kind of suck: the low-hanging fruit is Ourumov, a vacant military suit played and written without distinction, who exists just to move the plot forward.

Then comes Xenia Onatopp, who is the first woman with a lurid sexual pun for a name in quite a long time; and man, how lurid it is! Particularly coupled with the gaudy gimmick of killing people with her thighs, and reaching orgasm at the moment she kills. I do not, necessarily, mean "gaudy" and "lurid" in a bad sense, particularly since GoldenEye is, overall, so nervous about being seen as sexist and old-fashioned, and having such a ripe, misogynist character as this is kind of a relief from too much respectability. It helps that Famke Janssen is particularly hot, and a fairly decent actress - though her attempt at a Georgian accent is hilariously atrocious, the worst accent in the movie just as surely as Scorupco's is the best - but the character is still awfully silly, the most Roger Moore-ish element in a film that evades them.

Last up is Boris Grishenko, a smutty computer programmer played with intense self-amusement by Alan Cumming, whose accent is pretty bad itself - his catchphrase, "I am invincible!" is just begging to have that "v" replaced with an Ensign Chekov "w" - and whose characterisation is far too smug and slimy to allow for the comic relief that he is nominally there to provide. Even Trevelyan looks happy when he gets smacked at one point.

Rating: 2 Metal-Plated Teeth

Xenia Onatopp is frequently cited as the adjunct Bond Girl, including on the poster and video covers, but that's plainly not right; she's a villain, and Bond never sleeps with her. I very nearly checked this one off as a missing category for the film, but then there's Caroline, the flighty MI6 observer from that tepid car chase at the start of the movie: Bond's only other sex partner in a movie that clearly wants to roll back on the "Bond has all the sex" shenanigans that the series was known for. Because we don't do that in the '90s.

And having made that choice, I'm stuck with her, one of the most disposable iterations of a character designed from the ground up to be disposable. She does nothing but act nervous and say banal things, and stare like a nervous bunny rabbit, and by the time her scene is over, you've already started to forget she exists.

Rating: 1.5 Golden Corpses

Let us imagine that you are 12-year-old boy tasked with putting the MOST AWESOME thing into a Bond movie. Do you put in a tank chase through the streets of Moscow? Because that is exactly what GoldenEye comes up with, and it is the MOST AWESOME, so if you didn't say that, you were wrong. Seriously, to the degree that these films are, ultimately, fantasy movies and lifestyle porn for adolescents, the tank chase through Moscow is the franchise's crowning achievement; and, blessedly, since it was shot in 1995, director Martin Campbell makes damn sure that the action is physically continuous, and easy to follow, and it goes on for a long time without losing its energy, so we have plenty of time to enjoy just how delightfully big and dumb and fun the whole thing is. Add the terrific opening sequence, and we have us one hell of a great action movie, right?

Well, not as much as all that. To balance things out, there's also some dreadful material: Bond's fight with Onatopp in a sauna is a humiliation, and his chase with Trevelyan on top of the satellite rig, while better, is marred by clumsy editing and effects and weak fight choreography. The initial car chase, I have already alluded to as being unspeakably lame.

A mix of supremely high highs and supremely low lows, then; make no mistake, the highs linger more than the lows do. But the lows exist, and that's all it takes to cost a perfect score.

Rating: 4 Walther PPKs

Not just my all-time favorite gadget in the franchise: my two all-time favorite gadgets, though in one case, it's for a really bad reason: in this movie, Bond's watch (an Omega, owing to a new product placement deal) has a laser in it, and at one point the spy has to carve away a hole in the bottom of an armor-plated train car while a clock is ticking, and the equivalent moment in the video game is my very favorite part of the whole thing. Which tells you all you could ever need to know about my personality as a video game player.

The other is a little pen grenade: click it three times to arm it with a four-second fuse, click it three more times to turn it off. It occurs to me that I don't know what the name of the clicker-button is called. The bit that you click to make the writing tip come out or recede. I have literally no idea why I love this thing so much, but even today, 17 whole years after the movie came out, I will still sometimes, when I am bored, click a pen three times, and pretend that I have just armed a bomb, and throw it. Which tells you all you could ever need to know about my personality as a 30-year-old human being.

Incidentally, both of these devices are used in scenes constructed according to thriller rules, not action rules; and in both of them, Campbell further distinguishes himself as a rather nice director of tightly-paced thrillers.

There are other toys: a grappling-hook belt, and a fancy new weapon-ready BMW Z3 that we never see do anything, and shows up onscreen just long enough for the producers to receive what I imagine was an offensively large check from BMW.

By the way, you know who gets to do any say absolutely nothing that is even a little bit amusing or useful? Desmond Llewelyn. But still, grenade pen, so I don't care.

Rating: 5 Easily-Riled Welshmen

THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Production designer Peter Lamont remains hamstrung by scripts that don't let him go nuts with big sprawling nightmares of sets, but at least we're back to "impossibly large object rising out of a watery hidey-hole" territory, and the inside of Trevelyan's secret base at the end is a sleek, shiny control room with a great big glowing board. Not imaginative - it looks kind of like NASA mission control on speed - but impressive for what it is. There is, however, one truly magnificent location: the misty graveyard of broken Soviet statues where Bond meets the still-living Trevelyan for the first time, a location that deserved a more Expressionist, moody film than a spy thriller.

Also, I have to say this part: the sets are re-created in some startlingly exact detail in the video game, and they are really goddamn cool there - I mean, generationally-defining video game level cool, sort of cool. I won't let that be a reason to add points, but don't think I wasn't tempted.

Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses

Anything would have been a step in the right direction after the pointedly inelegant Licence to Kill, and GoldenEye gets off to a promising start by showing Bond driving an Aston Martin DB5 - the lifestyle porn Bond car to rule them all - in that same crappy car chase. And while there's something pandering about it, the fact that it had been, at this point, fully thirty years since Bond's last DB5 makes the pandering okay. And then Bond immediately heads to Monte Carlo and plays baccarat, which is also pandering, and also the sort of pandering that works.

And while that gets us off to a good start, it's not sustained: GoldenEye is so anxious to deprive Bond of any fun that the rest of the movie stops even trying. Brosnan would prove multiple times during his tenure that he could be a damn classy man, but it doesn't quite show up all the way here.

Rating: 3.5 Vodka Martinis

Immediately after ordering a vodka martini and winning at baccarat, the spy introduces himself to Onatopp.
Forced or Badass? Though it is no fault of Brosnan, who undersells it as much as he can, the whole moment is so "look at the Bond tropes! Bond is back!" that it's very forced.

ONATOPP: "You don't need the gun, Commander."
BOND: "Well, that depends on your definition of safe sex."

Licence to Kill promised, in 1989, that "James Bond Will Return", but he very nearly did not: the whole story is told elsewhere, but basically between the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a legal dispute between Danjaq (the holding company of Eon Productions) and MGM, the series was in mortal jeopardy, with a six-year gap that remains, at this writing, the longest break in the series by some two and a half years, that threatened to destroy whatever popular interest in the character that remained.. Timothy Dalton either grew bored of waiting or was asked to leave so that there could be a fresh start, depending on which version of the story you like; so when all the wrangling was done and a script had been written that addressed the seismic political changes of the early 1990s, a new Bond was needed.

Albert R. Broccoli found one in the form of Pierce Brosnan, who was the next option after Dalton when Roger Moore left; and when Bond returned in 1995, the meaner, darker, crueler version of the character that had informed The Living Daylights and dominated Licence to Kill was replaced with, effectively Roger Moore mk. 2 - it being the ossified wisdom already that it was precisely that same meanness and darkness that had led to the '89 film being one of the lowest-performing movies in the franchise's history. But not a flop; that is entirely an exaggeration.

Brosnan's Bond, to me, is the hardest to get a handle on, especially because of the gulf separating his first movie from the others. GoldenEye is a fantastic Bond movie, a damn good action movie, and a virtually perfect mixture of the fluffy esapism of the early Moore films and the grounded spy action of the Dalton films; the next three range from draggy mediocrity to outright putridity. That's not necessarily a reflection on the actor's performance; a similarly epic drop in quality occurred between the first and second Daniel Craig Bond pictures, but Craig himself remained very nearly at the same level of accomplishment. Brosnan did not: more than any other actor to portray Bond in multiple films, he never settled on one interpretation. If every other Bond is a "type" - Connery the Gentleman Bastard; Lazenby the Sensitive Warrior; Moore the Jolly Government Employee; Dalton the Cold Killer; Craig the Soulful Thug - Brosnan never breaks down into something so basic. The impression I always got was of an actor who wanted to play a more elegant version of the Dalton Bond, but kept getting saddled with Roger Moore scripts that he didn't particularly enjoy.

We'll get there soon enough: as it happens, GoldenEye is enough closer to the Dalton model than the Moore model that it's the one and only film where Brosnan's indecisive borrowing from Dalton actually works to its overall benefit. The lingering stench of his last two movies had made me forget just how much I actually do love this film: it is broad enough to be fun, serious enough to have real dramatic stakes, and Martin Campbell, as was confirmed eleven years later with the even better Casino Royale, is an absolutely brilliant James Bond director, maybe even the best since Terence Young himself. When the time comes to foreground the over-the-top action, Campbell (or, anyway, his second unit) present it with enough stripped-down focus that it never seems ridiculous, the bane of Lewis Gilbert, but he's willing to slow the movie down to let the puns and witticisms blossom, something that John Glen was only able to do intermittently. He's a whiz at ticking-clock scenarios, and for all that the films are often described as "James Bond thrillers", not a single one of them prior to 1995 was as effectively or consistently suspenseful as GoldenEye, maybe the only Bond film for which the word "thriller" honestly deserves to apply.

It helps that he has a nifty script: though padded (the last Bond movie without any lard being well back into the '60s), there's enough incident that it movies quickly. And the attempts to justify Bond for the 1990s, though frequently much too on-the-nose, set it apart from the movies that failed to justify him for the 1970s, or didn't attempt to justify him for the 1980s. It helps that the film's most overt scene, the famous "sexist, misogynist dinosaur" encounter with M, is anchored by Judi Dench's scorching, wildly effective take on the character; while no-one will ever replace Bernard Lee in my affection, Dench comes extremely close, getting just one scene to be at once savage and competent, a firm, unyielding wall for Bond to run up against, and her hesitant delivery of the character's last line - hoping that Bond does not die on his mission - is perfection itself, in one short sentence revealing that underneath this harsh, commanding persona as the boss, there is a feeling person. She's so perfect that the slighting of Q, and the underwhelming new Moneypenny, Samantha Bond - she'd grow into the character, but here cannot find any balance between powerful '90s woman and flirtatious co-worker - don't even register as problems.

Yes, the constant "post-fall Russia" plot points do get a bit thick, but not beyond the limits of what a popcorn movie for the broadest possible audience can support; and it reveals an intelligence about the sociopolitical state of the modern world that I would never expect a movie of its scale and market quadrant to attempt today.

The one significant, unanswerable problem - the same one that nearly torpedoed For Your Eyes Only - is the score. Beginning with the grisly re-orchestration of the Bond theme at the very start, Eric Serra's attempt at setting Bond's adventures to music runs into problems from the very first, and never lets up. The GoldenEye game used the same cues to terrific effect; but for the most part, they sound exactly the same there as in the movie proper, and what works for a 64-bit video game in 1997 is of a considerably more synthetic nature than you could possibly get away with in a movie in 1995. Certain passages are so electronic, so plonking, so insubstantial, that I cannot imagine what, other than rock-solid release date obligations, could have permitted the producers to allow the thing into theaters without a massive overhaul. Tellingly, one piece was composed by John Altman: a rollicking, driving arrangement of the Bond theme used during the tank chase, sonically assuring us that this is Bond as his most quintessential, and doing all in its power to combat the anonymous, grating noise on display everywhere else in the movie.

Unsurprisingly, Serra was not invited back; the one way in which all of GoldenEye's successors significantly and objectively improved upon it. For, frustratingly, while this film was a smash hit that brought Bond back to life in a great big enjoyable way, none of its promises paid off: the series immediately lurched towards disastrous plots, increasingly ludicrous fantasy elements, and the appealing mixture of intensity and flippancy that made Brosnan work well in this case collapsed. GoldenEye might have resuscitated 007 at his most dangerous low, but none of the lessons it taught were properly appreciated for a long time.


28 September 2012


Here's a thing that I was absolutely not expecting to happen during this tour of Disney's direct-to-video sequels: that I'd end up seeing a sequel that I preferred to the original. Also not expected: that the film to cross that threshold would be the widely-derided Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, a film that typically puts in an appearance somewhere on "Worst Disney Sequels" lists, and has been attacked with a ferocity typically reserved for the perpetrators or war crimes.

Of course, this has something to do with my feelings toward Disney's 1995 Pocahontas, best described as "cold". 10 worst Disney films ever sort of cold. If the worst that Journey to a New World was going to do was to betray entirely the principals, characters, and story of Pocahontas - and it does this very thing - I wasn't going to complain loudly.

That said, it starts the betrayals early, and lustfully. Some time after the events of the first movie in 1607 (years, months - the movie actively does not care about chronology) John Smith (Donal Gibson, the only replacement voice actor - he's stepping for big brother Mel, not the last time that Disney would play this trick) is being chased through London by a pack of the king's thugs, finally being pushed into the sea to drown by the sneering John Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), former Jamestown governor, who had presumably been sent off to serve time for his crimes, but was able to trick King James (Jim Cummings) into believing his own version of events at the colony, persuading the monarch that the Powhatan people of the area are a real, immediate danger to the lives of the British colonists, and that Smith was an Indian-loving traitor. The latter part of which, in scrupulous observance of the facts, is in fact true, but let's not start quibbling about logic. The point being, we are immediately in a gloomy, atmospheric, nasty state, that could not be more of a vigorous "fuck you" to the first movie if it tried.

News of Smith's death reaches his former lover, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), who we first see finally coming to terms with her grief in the snows of winter. She acts, it would seem, as the chief interlocutor between the Powhatans and the whites, helping to maintain a delicate peace that is very nearly wrecked by the arrival of John Rolfe (Billy Zane), the designated diplomat sent by James to ascertain whether or not Ratcliffe's rather overheated version of events is entirely true. Pocahontas and Rolfe spar for a while, he doubting her ability and she doubting his intelligence, until a Wacky Misunderstanding results in her becoming the Powhatan's official emissary to England, and so the headstrong, adventurous girl prepares to take a journey... to a new world.

Once there, Pocahontas immediately crosses paths with Ratcliffe, who prepares to humiliate her in front of the court; Rolfe attempts to stop this from happening, but she ends up in jail anyway, where Rolfe and a still very much alive Smith rescue her; following this, the three of them, with Pocahontas's unspeaking bodyguard Uttamatomakkin, race against time to stop Ratcliffe's armada from sailing to America, finally uncovering the villain's plot in front of the king, thus restoring Smith's name and securing peace between the races of Virginia. Which leaves only the terrible issue of who Pocahontas will stay with: her former love Smith, or her new love Rolfe, the adventurer or the stable man; Smith's desire to ever seek new frontiers makes up her mind for her, and she and Rolfe embrace as they sail back to her home.

The commonest, most fannish criticism of the movie is that Pocahontas and Smith don't end up together, and this argument can only be made by someone who has more investment in their anodyne relationship from the first movie than I ever managed; but I suppose it's fair, on the assumption that the only people apt to be interested in Pocahontas II are those with an attachment to Pocahontas. The defense, of course, is that Pocahontas, baptised as a Christian and renamed Rebecca, did marry Rolfe. This, anyway, was the best argument that I though the movie needed in its defense, before I saw it and learned that the Pocahontas/Rolfe relationship is quite possibly the only point at which Journey to a New World stumbles into historical accuracy, very probably by accident. This is a film in which John Ratcliffe, dead in Virginia in 1609, can be made so unspeakably evil as to lead a massive, though fictitious and strategically insane, military expedition against the indigenous people of North America that overlaps with the visit of Pocahontas to England in 1616, made when she was already Rebecca Rolfe, that ended, not with her return to Virginia a week or so later, but with her death while still on the English mainland a year later. In which John Smith is a fugitive from law and not an explorer seeking to expand the influence of England in the New World. In which William Shakespeare, dead in April, 1616, could be inspired by Pocahontas to write the "To be or not to be" line from Hamlet, which certainly existed by 1602. And he does this within a musical number.

At that point, they might as well have stuck Pocahontas back with Smith, and bought of the fangirls; fuck, they might as well have had Pocahontas, Smith, and Rolfe fight robot ninjas from an alternate dimension. We have moved, here, far beyond the "Disneyification" of history, right into the realm of hallucinogenic fever dream, in which history is regarded not even as an inconvenience, but a barely-comprehensible rumor.

It's at least partially for this reason, I think, that I enjoy Journey to a New World more than its predecessor: if it can't fix the problematic representations, stiff characters, or limp songs of the original, at least it can be completely batshit crazy. I have given more films a pass on the grounds of batshit crazy than a decent man would care to admit. But there you have it: by the time that Ratcliffe prepares to trap Pocahontas by singing the weirdly sinewy, minor-key "Things Are Not What They Appear", with the help of several psychotic clowns who look to be auditioning for The Dark Knight Returns, we have hit a point where I'm willing, if not to call the film "good" - for it's clearly not "good" - at least "goddamn strange in a way that is both vaguely unpleasant and also tremendously magnetic".

Pocahontas was, anyway, one of the few Disney movies so up its own ass with a sense of Serious Purpose that being thrown through a funhouse mirror could only have helped: and while there are places where that results in something unambiguously terrible - for example, all of the comic bits involving the wacky animals, Meeko the raccoon (John Kassir), Flit the hummingbird (Frank Welker), and Percy the dog (Danny Mann), are horribly strained and much too "big", killing all the animal naturalism that made them one of the best parts of the original; not to mention that, for no clear reason, Meeko keeps going off-model - for the most part it's like a version of Pocahontas that was served with story notes all mentioning that full-scale warfare and a thrilling adventure subplot would have been much more interesting than a subdued romantic drama about incompatible cultures. But, please, leave that part in place, and just graft the thriller on top of it. This works about as well as you'd expect, but damn me if it isn't more interesting.

Heck, even the songs, with writers Marty Panzer and Larry Grossman replacing the rather more A-list Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, manage to at least equal Pocahontas, one of the least tuneful, least narratively interesting of Disney's Broadway-style musicals, the hugely over-praised "Colors of the Wind" notwithstanding. Frankly, Pocahontas's new "I Want" song, "Where Do I Go from Here?" is the best piece of music in either film: melancholy, grown-up, and Judy Kuhn, Pocahontas's singing voice, is in particularly good form. Then there are less interesting, more readily forgotten bits: "Things Are Not What They Appear", which has a good unnerving energy, but suffers from hideous rhymes, and the alleged showstopper "What a Day in London" tries to do too much, offering a chorale introduction to the city while also showcasing Pocahontas' first impressions of the Londoners and their first impressions of her, with plenty of random jokes about Uttamatomakkin's height, and a melody that is like a feebler version of a half-dozen better Disney songs. I am certain that "Wait Till He Sees You", sung by Jean Stapleton as Rolfe's comically blind housekeeper, exists; but I have otherwise forgotten everything about it.

Visually, the film doesn't embarrass itself: largely a collaboration between Disney's Tokyo and Toronto studios, with an assist from Vancouver (between this and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, the short-lived Canadian arm of Disney's television animation division has already become my favorite), it cannot begin to compete with Pocahontas, of course, one of the four movies made by Walt Disney Feature Animation during the technical peak of its 1990s renaissance,* but there is a complexity and ambition to the imagery that is far above most theoretically "television animation" productions of that time. In fact, if the film were animated with a slightly higher framerate (certainly no more than animation "on twos", or 12 fps, compared to Disney's "on ones", or 24 fps; but a damn site better than most cheap animation, then or now), it would absolutely be theatrical-quality animation, with its clean lines that do proper homage to the heavily stylised character designs in the original; elaborate shading and layering; smart use of low-grade CGI; and some awfully nifty lighting.

Though for some reason, King James looks awful, like he and he alone was animated by some third-tier Korean studio that promised to do the job in a week for $10.

Of course, not a single word of what I've said, even though I think the film actually looks beautiful - a third thing that I had not expected to happen - obviates how intensely dumb the movie is. Children's movies, of course, are not held to be historical lessons, so the fact that Journey to a New World is filled with the most surreal cavalcade of lies is not supposed to bother us, especially because of an unbelievable disclaimer in the end credits that says, in almost exactly so many words, "This project has nothing to do with the real Pocahontas. For information on the real Pocahontas, go online". And yet, children absorb things through movies rather too easily, and you just know that somewhere, a high school student was dumbfounded that he got a failing grade on an essay proclaiming the sinking of the Spanish Armada to have been a decisive turning point in the English-Indian Wars.

Anyway, the film's history lesson is too ludicrous to view as anything but comedy; the absurdly bad character drama is more immediately problematic, with the Smith/Rolfe/Pocahontas situation resolved because, essentially, Smith decides on the spur of the moment that he's an insensitive jerk now; while Ratcliffe schemes and snarls with abandon that would embarrass a silent melodrama villain, and would be out of place in a particularly exploitative biopic of Rasputin. Things happen in this film because they are obliged to drive the plot forward, which frequently happens inelegantly - the sequence which I might best summarise as, "we'll never thwart Ratcliffe if I can't teach you how to be a proper English lady in an afternoon so that you can win the Hunt Ball" is so impossible in every regard that even a timorous musical montage can't make sense of it.

Still, the film has an energy that never flags, no matter how strained and wrong it goes; more than can be said for the original Pocahontas, which stops to declaim every ten seconds or thereabouts. Anyway, if it was good enough to inspire Terrence Malick to make The New World, it's more than good enough for me. Unfortunately, there is not, to my knowledge, any evidence that Malick has ever seen it. But we can pretend that he did, and then pretend that the raccoon in that one scene of The New World is actually Meeko, and that makes everybody oh so very happy.

27 September 2012


Is it possible to talk about The Master without talking about the whole conversation surrounding The Master, sucking up nearly all the oxygen in the cinephile community this past week? Not for me, I find, and I feel sorry about that: we're supposed to let movies speak for themselves, not filtered through the things we've heard other people say about them. But the more I tried to do that, the more daft it seemed. This is, I suspect, a problem that would only be faced by the critic who didn't particularly respond to The Master, as I did not; but then, I have a history of not responding to the work of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. But not-responding seems particularly evil of one in the face of the kind of chatter going on around the movie, where it's held to be some sort of unbelievably challenging and deep and ambiguous piece of cinema.

I don't want to commit the sin of accusing people who loved the film of being liars; clearly, something speaks to them that I simply do not see on any level whatsoever, and I'm glad for them - so "deep", then, is a matter of personal opinion. I do think, though, that calling The Master "ambiguous" and "challenging", as has been done, says more about the awful place of contemporary filmmaking; because to me, it seems awfully straightforward, with nary an ambiguous bone in its body until the very last shot, which is inscrutable. Certified Copy, with characters whose identity is purposefully withheld, is ambiguous; Stalker, drenched in symbolism that may or may not also be literal, is challenging. The Master has a lot of ellipses in its plot, and does not hold anyone's hand as it moves through its plot, but that is a different thing - that merely demands that you pay attention, something so few American movies do anymore that when one comes along that actually expects an audience of intelligent, thinking people, we are, as a culture, wholly befuddled by it.

But, in fact, there's a hell of a lot that the film tells us, in a perfectly straightforward manner: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and suffers from what hadn't yet been given the name of post-traumatic stress disorder. To deal with it, he drinks: alcohol, but also a lot of other substances, wherever he can get them, including paint thinner and engine lubricant. This drinking problem, combined with the PTSD, has made it virtually impossible for him to relate to other people, and he fails his way across the country, until in 1950, one of his nightmare concoctions poisons a man in Salinas. Stowing on a passing yacht, he falls into the circle of the boisterous Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of a pseudoscientific, New Agey self-help program called The Cause. Dodd and Quell fascinate one another, and the Master, as he too happily permits himself to be called by acolytes of The Cause, decides that he will fix this broken man who never really gives any indication that he wants to be fixed, or can remember far enough back that he knows what "fixed" even means.

The crux of the movie is the relationship between these two men, and it is, I suppose "ambiguous", insofar as there is no scene where Quell pipes up from the corner, "You know, Master, I think the time has come for me to explain exactly why I drink and am defensive and indeed willfully resistant to improving myself", to which Dodd reponds, "Good, and once you have done that, allow me to describe why I'm willing to set aside such a huge portion of my personal energy to working with you" (though actually, this latter point almost is clarified explicitly: saving an unsalvageable man would be the feather in Dodd's cap and the best proof of The Cause's efficacy). I have a hard time believing that there exists anyone who thinks that such a scene would not be to the film's detriment; but it doesn't actually take such a scene for us to start to put together the ingredients of the Quell/Dodd dynamic: the security it offers, the chance for power, a little bit of surrogate father/son going on, just a dash of subdued but unmissable homoeroticism.

To the degree that any of this is hard to follow, that is largely because Anderson wants it to be, and here we wade right into it. I am no real fan of the man's work - There Will Be Blood is a miscast Paul Dano away from being a masterpiece, and Hard Eight is one of the best of the mid-'90s character-driven indies, but his three intermediary films leave me various shades of cold - and if I wanted to be snippy & not engage with the work at all, I'd accuse The Master of being a movie made by a man who took the Kubrick comparisons too much to heart, and has made the film he perceives A Great Filmmaker would have made, resulting in all sorts of self-aware narrative disjunctions and deliberately unfriendly gestures, a self-conscious "look how smart I am" movie.

But I do not want to be snippy.

For one thing, The Master is a glorious work of technique: starting with its extraordinary 65mm cinematography by the fairly green Mihai Malaimare (which, having seen a digital projection, I feel ill-equipped to judge), which is both beautiful and intense, focused on more lingering, assaultive close-up shots than I thought American movies knew how to do anymore, Phoenix's or Hoffman's or Amy Adams's (as Dodd's wife, collaborator and final arbiter of what happens in his self-help empire, master to the Master) faces filling up the screen with all their tiny facial gestures and worn skin. The editing does a superb job of relating disconnected moments while breaking connected moments into discrete chunks, boggling continuity in a way that serves the narrative not at all, but effectively communicates Quell's sense of removal and alienation. Johnny Greenwood's is fantastic, manipulating tones in a way that feels extraordinarily well-suited to the post-war modernism of the film's setting, while also providing a flexible but steady emotional spine to the drama. And on, and on - the film is assembled perfectly, almost as perfectly as I can imagine.

And that's enough to give it a recommendation - we do like good technique around these parts - but not enough to answer the question that, crucially, goes not only unanswered but unasked: why are we bothering to watch The Master? I am sincerely puzzled by this, more than all of the film's other "ambiguities" put together. On paper, there's a lot that could by said by this scenario - on paper, the film is saying it - it could explore the psychic dislocation of the American male in the years after World War II; it could study the sociology behind the self-help movements that began around that time, partially in response to that same dislocation; it could be a critical but not condemnatory look at the founding of the disproportionately influential cult of Scientology that sort of forms the inspiration for The Cause (The Master is "about" Scientology to roughly the same extent that Citizen Kane is "about" William Randolph Hearst); it could examine the appeal of pseudoscientific philosophy in the middle of what was meant to be the most rational century of human history. Hell, it could be a simple character exploration about the relationship between two men, as their relative power to one another shifts over time. And it does of all these things, sort of, insofar as those ideas are on the table; but it does nothing with them. Occasionally, there is an odd scene here or that with a piercing truth to it: for example, Dodd's interrogation of Quell, a one-on-one acting marathon made up almost entirely of uncomfortably tight close-ups and two shatteringly great performances (it's the only moment in Hoffman's performance that I really liked; Phoenix is terrific throughout), resulting in the most severe and easily the best scene in the movie. Or the slow, teasing way that we discover Adams's Peggy Dodd is just as controlling and arrogant as her husband.

But for the most part, the film just sits there, demanding that we do all of the work to uncover... aye, uncover what? Two hours and seventeen minutes go by, and I wait for the moment that's going to make me care about any of them; and while it would appear, from outside evidence, that I did something "wrong" to not see any of that, I certainly don't feel like I did. Just an example of emphatically Not Being On The Same Page As The Filmmaker, maybe, because for all that the film is perfectly-mounted, it is also perfectly uncompelling, keeping whatever ideas it has about all the sociological and psychological forces it observes locked firmly in its handsome skull.

8/10 (but heading with stately grandeur towards a 7, the longer I think about it)

7/10 (I thought about it)

25 September 2012


My dislike for End of Watch, as I must confess out front, is wildly disproportionate to its dramatic sins, which certainly exist but are, as such things go, not crushing, and more than compensated for by its significant merits of characterisation. What we have here is a pretty basic thing: an off-the-shelf buddy cop movie done up as a ride-along, giving us a peek into the lives of two LAPD police officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), over the course of about four months in 2011. There is, apparently, no real narrative spine to those four months, nor the almost two hours it takes to dramatise them, except that when it's all over you can look back over the whole thing with a good sense of "ah, so that's what was going on", and it's rather nimble of writer-director David Ayer to hide a story in plain sight, by burying it underneath what look for all the world like disconnected moments in the day-to-day life of two young men fighting crime in South Central L.A. This is not much of a comfort during those almost two hours, when it seems awfully like End of Watch is just rambling around, trusting that we're more than content to do nothing but sit around, hanging out with these guys, gasping at their not-infrequent brushes with gunfire.

Truth be told, it's not all that hard to be content with exactly that: the heart and soul is not Ayer's boots-on-the-ground tribute to the LAPD - a subject that comes up with deadening frequency in his filmography - but the sparkling interplay between Gyllenhaal and Peña, whose individual performances are fine without being particularly extraordinary (although Gyllenhaal hasn't been this good in a whole lot of years; Peña is, generally speaking, more consistent and thus less revelatory), but whose combined performance of the Taylor/Zavala partnership, taken as an individual thing and not the confluence of two individual people, is one of the best characters I've seen in a movie in months. A more precise, lived-in depiction of the friendship between two hyper-male bros you'd be hard to come by; and even if that description makes it sound kind of awful, like it would sound to me (I have an extremely low tolerance for bro-ish behavior, myself), the effect is so organic and comfortable that the sheer humanity of the characters together more than overcomes anything unappealing in who the characters are.

And so, against the odds, End of Watch does manage to work awfully well as the hang-out movie that its formless, incident-light plot structure would seem to insist on; a stroke of luck for all concerned, given that hang-out movies are such a tricky proposition to start (the kind of actors who tend to gravitate towards them are frequently not prone to the kind of characterisations that we'd necessarily want to hang out with for very long), and when added to the generic requirements of a cop thriller, would seem to be positively suicidal; and yet Ayer's incredibly casual dialogue, saturated with the bland profanity of people who aren't monitoring what they're saying and thus seem to be at the most relaxed and natural, coupled with those impeccable central performances, actually manages to make the prospect of spending God knows how much time in a cramped squad car with our cops seem rather fine altogether.

Indeed, the movie nails this central mission so precisely, that the more it drifts away from it, the less interesting it becomes, not so much in its escalating drug war plot, as in the unnecessary lard provided by the cops' significant others: Zavala's pregnant wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez), and Taylor's new flame Janet (Anna Kendrick), roles not remotely large enough to give the actresses anything worth doing (I cannot start to conceive what possible motivation Kendrick had for taking this part), but too large to be readily ignored. The point of it, presumably, is that End of Watch is something of a love letter to the police, and the introduction of the ladyfolk in these men's lives is showing us exactly what it is they fight for, who they are as men when they're not in uniform; except that listening to Gyllenhaal and Peña rag on each other's love lives gets the some point across in a much more concise and interesting way, and unlike the other momentum-sapping visits with various tertiary characters, such as the other cops that Taylor and Zavala cross paths with here and there (America Ferrara among them, another actress who strikes me as much too prominent for the dinky nothing role she's saddled with), the material with Gabby and Janet moves too far outside of the film's "real" métier, and given how deeply uninteresting they are on any dramatic level, there's nothing to distract us from just how much they belong in a different sort of cop movie.

All of that, though, is largely minor; there's not that much of Gabby and/or Janet, or even the tertiary cops; flaws though they be, End of Watch would still be an easy pass as a totally functional, if not especially revelatory genre picture. What really just pisses me right off, is the way the thing was shot, and particularly the go-nowhere narrative kink it takes to justify it: see, Taylor is taking a film class elective, so he's decided to film all of his daily work and make something of a documentary about the lives of cops. Found-footage cop movie! you say to this, perhaps in excitement, though I hope it's more in a mounting sense of dread. And the answer is, no, it is not a found-footage cop movie, but rather one in which first-person camera footage, of which there is a considerable amount, is cut in arbitrarily and unsuccessful with third-person footage that is not, as far as we can tell, supposed to originate from any in-universe camera. Except you'd never know to look at it, since Ayer and cinematography Roman Vasyanov shoot the whole entire movie in the same outrageously shaky faux-documentary style of the hectic first-person footage, and more gallingly, with the same harsh digital edge.

There is, that I can tell, absolutely no reason to do this: it blurs the distinction between character POV and objective camera in a way that certainly doesn't service the narrative in any meaningful way, and one gets the horrible suspicion that the whole matter of Taylor's uncharacteristically obsessive cinematic bent was introduced just to motivate the use of cheap digital cameras throughout the entire feature. Not since Act of Valor earlier this year has a movie reveled so enthusiastically in looking so fucking ugly, to so little purpose - I can't even bring myself to say that I disagree with Ayer's aesthetic, because as far as I can make out, it's not an aesthetic. I see no evidence of conscious choices being made; it's more like pointing the camera at shitting and pressing "record", and to hell with lighting or framing or blocking, which in turn means to hell with editing, and that means that whenever the film switches over to action and gunplay, which happens relatively often, it becomes totally impossible (for me, at least) to follow anything of what's going on in more than a general, "our guys are winning/losing" sense, and sometimes not even that.

The fact that End of Watch opened on the same day that The Master had its wide expansion feels like the absolute worst kind of passing of the torch: Paul Thomas Anderson's project, pridefully filmed in the extinct 65mm format, rubbing elbows with a movie that looks like somebody uploaded YouTube videos right to the theater, fills me with nothing less than an instinctual sense of revulsion. Look, we all know that digital cinema won, celluloid lost; we do not, however, need to be happy about it. And if things like End of Watch can be enthusiastically praised by most of the admittedly smallish, self-selecting audience that sees it, in despite of looking like twelve kinds of ass, it's easy to be even less happy. I have no intention of turning a reasonably sturdy cop movie undone by terrible visuals into the basis for some kind of Death of Cinema jeremiad, but Christ, if this is what the future is going to look like, it might be time to start rehearsing my grouchy old man routine.



The second attempt at adapting the classic British comic book antihero Judge Dredd to film, titled just Dredd, is a vastly better movie than the last attempt, 1995's Sylvester Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd; but this is true of nearly all movies, which makes it a some pointless observation. Anyway, except for the name of the main character, and the basic idea of the costume design, there is absolutely nothing that the two movies have in common, which very much favors the new one (I have absolutely no familiarity with the source material, but I understand that it's also a great deal closer to the comics). And granting that "better than Judge Dredd" doesn't say much, perhaps this does: Dredd is good, actually. Shallow as all hell, but good; anyway, there are shallow films that are well-made and rewarding, and shallow films that are broken and inept, and Resident Evil: Retribution is still too fresh in the mind to simply ignore how much more successfully Dredd plays the same game: violence for the sake of it, depicted in frequent slow-motion shots that use 3-D to emphasise the texture and physicality of the destruction. Except that Resident Evil is deeply annoying, while Dredd is exciting and tense and, at times, reaches a kind of blood-spattered visual poetry. The world is just silly like that, sometimes.

Unlike the exposition-besotted '95 film, Dredd plunges right into its narrative after a cursory explanation of where we are (post-apocalypse U.S., where remnants of humanity live in "megacities" dominated by huge towers called "blocks", which are basically like bigger, more industrial, more used-futurey versions of our housing projects), and zooms through the subsequent hour and a half with a gratifying singularity of purpose, refusing to stop (as, for some unknown & godforsaken reason, so many action films nowadays do) to elaborate on its plot and explore its setting. Indeed, Alex Garland's screenplay is noteworthy especially for how much it doesn't dawdle or wander: we get a really straightforward concept built into a three-act structure so classically arranged you could set your watch by it. Viz: the first sequence is menu, palate cleanser, and appetizer, all in one, introducing us to the grim, helmet-wearing Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a supercop with no sense of humor and a sense of morality that is absolutely yoked to the hyper-strict rules governing his world, by means of a high-speed motorcycle chase that is one of the best action sequences I've seen this year for the reasons that a) it is cut together quickly, but without sacrificing continuity or spatial relationships, something that just about never happens anymore; b) it looks phenomenal in 3-D, as Dredd weaves in and out of the narrow spaces between speeding cars and the camera flies right in after him.

After this quick introduction the movie, we're tossed into the happily unfussy main story, and we never leave until the very last scene: Dredd has been assigned to take a rookie judge, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), out on her first day in the field, to assess her capabilities; they go to a particular block, Peach Trees, where there has been a gangland killing; the boss of the gang, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), arranges to have the block locked down, requiring the two judges to fight their way up a 200-story structure to kill her for her crimes, and escape. That's it: just one long chase up a skyscraper, an idea simple enough to have served as the basis for one of the greatest of all action films, Die Hard, as well as the Indonesian The Raid: Redemption, which was in U.S. theaters earlier this year; it's also the central idea behind most of the brawler arcade games of the 1990s, which Dredd practically is already - it even has two playable characters.

Like most simple concepts, when it's done well, it's done very well; and if Dredd is at heart just a mechanical device, clicking through escalating fight scenes at regular intervals, it's at least a particularly elegant machine. True, the film at times devolves into being nothing but an exercise in brutality, particularly during its slow-motion fights; see, the core of Ma-Ma's crime empire is a new designer drug, Slo-Mo, which reduces the user's sense of time passing (to 1%, we are told, but that's not what it looks like). Naturally, the popcorn movie coolness made possible by such a drug is not lost on director Pete Travis, who comes up with a really fine way of dramatising the effects of Slo-Mo by cranking up both the contrast and saturation of the image, while slowing the speed down to a crawl (and, as mentioned, using unusually aggressive 3-D effects) to settle us in the POV of the drug-addled thugs in Peach Trees; and since the only time we see them is when they're fighting Dredd, that means that we get many slow-motion sequences of people being shot, or battered, or in the film's most outrageously bloodthirsty moment, landing head-first after an extremely long fall and bursting apart like a rotten plum. At his most pornographic, Zack Snyder himself couldn't use slow-motion to such coarse effects.

There's no defending Dredd on moral grounds: it lingers over, and fetishises, violent acts. But it does so with an uncommon amount of skill, and a really lovely sound mix that makes the violence more abstract and meaningless, if that's your thing. Which returns me to my initial point: shallow is shallow, but there's good shallow and bad shallow, and just because something is effervescent, does not mean it cannot also be well-crafted. And to be fair, the movie has its share of problems: Thirlby is absolutely dreadful, and Urban himself is only good in a very limited range (that we only see his mouth for the entire movie does not make his performance any richer or subtler), and his accent keeps slipping; the very first word in the whole movie, which he speaks in voiceover, is quite clearly "Ameriker" and not "America", though it never gets any worse than that, at least. The whole middle of the film sags a bit (not coincidentally, the part of the movie with hardly any slow-motion), as it becomes more of a skulking-through-the-building movie than a fighting-wave-after-wave-of-bad-guys movie, for about 20 minutes. Out of 95, aye; but a long 20 minutes.

So not a masterpiece; not a great, defining action movie. But a good one, and a lot of angrily nihilistic fun, if one happens to be in the mood for that kind of thing. It is, anyway, a much better movie than its savage box-office reception (the clanking Resident Evil franchise can reach five entries, but this sleek beast of an action movie can't even turn a profit? Madness), and if its pleasures are ephemeral, they are still pleasures.


24 September 2012


On 22 September, 1995, a movie called Showgirls was released on a tidal wave of hype that could only come with being the first major film to get released under the notorious NC-17 rating from the MPAA; a rating which, coupled with the exploitation-friendly setting of the movie, was widely understood to promise, "this movie is porn, getting released like a proper movie". That dread rating has only just started to rehabilitate itself with the 2011 art house release Shame, but considering how much of a ghetto it even now puts a film in (no mall multiplex release for you, Michael Fassbender's dangly cock!) it's still kind of shocking that Showgirls became such a Huge Fucking deal; it is still, by a commandingly vast margin, the highest-grossing NC-17 release of all time, though the curiosity value of its initial release has long since been replaced with a reputation as either one of the worst major releases of the 1990s, or one of the most delightfully campy - or both, for that matter - one of those films that has lost the aura of boundary-busting taboo in light of how trashily stupid it turned out to be.

Now that the movie is old enough to legally see itself, it seemed like the perfect moment to revisit it, and declare as loud as I could: Showgirls is a good movie. Maybe even a great one. Not in some "reclaimed kitsch" way, but in the disappointingly straightforward way that it is intelligently made by a smart director in full command of his powers This is, to be fair, not as revolutionary a claim as it would have been 17 years ago; since that time, there has been a broad reappraisal of all Paul Verhoeven's American films (save, perhaps, Hollow Man), with Showgirls in particular having been the recipient of a great deal of love in the mid-'00s, serving as a subject of what may have been the first-ever film blogathon in January '06 (its historic precedence argued by the fact that the word "blogathon" was never mentioned at the time by any contributor) among other reappraisals.

Still, the idea that Showgirls is an obviously, objectively terrible motion picture remains dominant. It's not hard to see why, either: any positive critique of the film must own up to the fact that, best-case scenario, this is a movie that its director deliberately made to resemble a bad movie, and it's the paradox of an exceptionally well-made faux-bad movie that it will look, in all essentials, totally indistinguishable from a genuinely incompetent piece of shit. There may not be, in fact, any way of splitting the difference without resorting to auteur theory, and in the 21st Century, auteur theory has been in decline amongst the exact same post-modern critics who'd otherwise be the likeliest candidates to cotton to the game Showgirls is playing (it does seem entirely pointless if not impossible to seriously grapple with the film and not talk about Verhoeven, though, and even, in a negative sense, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas).

Also, the rehabilitation of the film has been hung up on the fact that its defenders split into two equally passionate, but largely irreconcilable parties: the "this is a blistering, contemptuous critique of 'American Dream' narratives, and capitalist excess in the United States" camp, and the "uh-uh, it's a tribute to the uniquely American system of garish consumption that made commercial cinema generally and Verhoeven's big hits specifically possible in the first place" camp. I wanted so badly to write a Grand Theory of Showgirls that united these two perspectives; but I was unable to do so, and have fallen in firmly with the first camp (and perhaps, in so doing, I have misrepresented the argument of the second). I will permit the individual reader to determine if this represents an intellectual failing on my part or not.

The film, as scripted by one of the most appalling misogynists in 1990s Hollywood, is the standard-issue backstage melodrama plot from the 1930s transposed into the world of Las Vegas showgirls: and as much as I want to say that Verhoeven snatched everything brilliant about the movie away from Eszterhas, as was clearly the case with Basic Instinct, I cannot shake the feeling that, given how important the wholesale adoption of every shopworn cliché in the book is to the film's total effect, that we might actually be looking at Eszterhas grown into some degree of self-awareness, just in time for his career to implode. More specifically, as has been widely observed, it's All About Eve with strippers and a much more caustic sense of nihilism (which is actually pretty impressive, given Eve's sterling nihilism credentials): wide-eyed innocent, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) arrives in Vegas looking to be a Star! and gets her chance under the mentorship of grande dame Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the headliner of a major new topless revue. Except that innocent Nomi is actually a conniving monster (it takes us, roughly, no seconds to guess this fact), and backstabbing, mind-games, and ravenous bisexuality ensue. It is brutally obvious and ancient storytelling; this is the point. What gets added to the mix here is that good ol' NC-17 nudity, coupled with a jaw-droppingly mean and hateful protagonist who serves as the vessel for all the things Verhoeven wanted to do with Eszterhas's heartily grimy script.

I was recently discussing the movie with a friend, who pointed out its rosier acceptance, in general, among younger people; he proposed that part of this is because Verhoven's subsequent picture, Starship Troopers, by virtue of being much more overt in its satire, but approaching it from roughly the same angle, is the Rosetta Stone for Showgirls, and that people too young to have seen Showgirls in its first flowering, but old enough to have appreciated Starship Troopers as more than just a violent action picture, were in the perfect position to "get" the earlier film. This is not an airtight theory - it ignores that RoboCop, even more overt than Starship Troopers, came out in 1987 - but it certainly works in one key regard: it was only with Starship Troopers that Verhoeven out-and-out admitted that he was deliberately hiding the "point" of the movie from a cast deliberately made up of anodyne, blank pretty faces, and it becomes instantly obvious, armed with that knowledge, that he did the same thing in Showgirls. More to the point: Gina Gershon, whose delicious performance is laced with immensely self-pleased mugging (the way she plays the film's notorious "wow, I ate dog food too!" scene, is glorious: enthusiastic, surprised, a touch mocking, and totally unembarrassed), got the joke pretty early on; Elizabeth Berkley never did, and was almost certainly cajoled into going to relentlessly awful extremes of flailing craziness by a director who knew exactly what he was doing when he cast a girl from TV's Saved by the Bell, just as he did two years later, when he made the painfully vacant Denise Richards play the galaxy's most hyper-competent space pilot.

There are many contributing factors to Showgirls, and I should like to touch upon more of them; but Berkley's performance is always going to be the most important. It's bad acting; some of the most eager Showgirls boosters would throw kind words at the actress, but I can't for the life of me see why. Berkley is terrifyingly unmodulated, lurching from coquettish line readings to fire-breathing eruptions of profanity and flailing rage within a single shot; frequently, she launches into brittle "dances" that beggar description, and are routinely described in positive terms by other characters, a gesture that surely can only be ironic, unless Paul Verhoeven is the single worst judge of dancing skill in the history of civilisation. In her hands, Nomi is neither a scheming harpy or a guileless ingenue; she is a surface-level freakshow of inhumanity, the most fake thing in a movie that is 100% in love with fake things. As befits a movie set in, and with a decent amount of footage shot in Las Vegas, the most fake city in the industrialised world (though a bit less so in 1995 than it is now).

In Showgirls, Verhoeven traffics in absolute, consistent non-realism; starting with Berkley's outrageously alien performance and the strikingly continuity-free lighting, but everything about the movie is pitched at a heightened, ironic level; it is a distance the tempers the most egregious sins of the screenplay, which wants to be much earthier and sweaty, instead of heavily artificial - though even here, some bits of grind house nastiness sneak in, unexpectedly and thankless; I remain unable to do much with all the parts of the closing 20 minutes that have to do with the swift, incredibly brutal rape of Nomi's best friend, and it's this single element as much as anything that makes me downgrade the film from "Verhoeven's American masterpiece" to "Certainly no RoboCop, and not really even Basic Instinct".

Simply stated, I see Showgirls as a slam against the legend of the small town girl who comes the city with big dreams and becomes a star; because in this telling, the girl is such a complete, ridiculous fiction, and the city she arrives at rendered with such a flat, artificial detachment. And since that legend, in its broader guise of "anyone with a dream can make it", is the single myth America likes to tell about itself, Showgirls is rather plainly poking holes in the most foundational idea about America, its scrappy ambition and drive to succeed - though, unlike in RoboCop or Starship Troopers, Verhoeven isn't actually mocking America for this, nor does he take the easy way out of casting Vegas as the tacky nightmare of a late capitalist country devouring itself in an explosion of ugly hedonism. If anything, the Dutch Verhoeven and the Hungarian Eszterhas, foreigners both, have made their tawdry little sex picture something of a trashy cinematic sibling to Alexis de Tocquville's Democracy in America: foreigners taking a snapshot of the United States and summing it up with neither praise nor condemnation, though individual elements might be held up for approbation or scorn.

With special attention, of course, to America's characteristic obsession with sex: a subject the writer and director had explored together in Basic Instinct that serves more as the backdrop to Showgirls than, necessarily, its overriding focus; though of course any movie sold as "mainstream porn with Jessie Spano!" has its sexual component, and as with Basic Instinct before it, I think Verhoeven was having fun mocking American culture's characteristic blend of puritanism and prurience. Certainly, the sex in Showgirls is weirdly non-sexual, partially because there's so much of it that we quickly stop noticing it; more importantly, for all the film depicts sexual hunger and sexual manipulation and sexual marketing, it doesn't really depict sex. Unless you consider the thing that Berkley does, twice, to Kyle MacLachlan, latching her legs around him and shuddering with epileptic torment like a character from an exorcism movie (once in a pool), to be sex.

And, much the same as in Basic Instinct, the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate trick: the film's non-stop dialogue about whoredom almost explicitly points out how, in the fake America that is built on surfaces and artificial culture, sex itself has been turned into just another fake thing. And what is Showgirls, if not a movie that exists solely to promise the viewer, "there will be all kinds of sex", and then fails to promise things? The movie itself is part of the very system it's depicting, in which sex has been turned into spectacle and commodity, and divorced from actual human experience; perhaps the only way the filmmakers could think of the demonstrate this state of affairs was to engage in it, right before our eyes. If Showgirls wants to point out the shallowness of culture, it has the honesty to know that it is, itself, part of that culture, and that in order to make a functional movie, one must buy into the same game of artifice and cinematic construction that things like the generic plot and Berkley's stunningly ill-formed performance have pointed out. This, maybe, is why the film seems so much less savage in its satire than most of Verhoeven's other work; he is here, for the first and maybe only time, admitting his own complicity. It's surely no accident, anyway, that the final shot of the movie promises that Nomi's next stop is going to be Los Angeles; Vegas may be the place where America's deluded sense of entitlement is at its most overt, but Hollywood is where it's most pernicious, in the creation of tacky, tawdry movies just like this one. And Nomi Malone, the patron saint of American striving, will fit in there just fine.

23 September 2012


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

Directed by John Glen
Written by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum
Premiered 13 June, 1989

First things first: the film opens with the first significant change to the scoring of the iconic gun-barrel sequence; though Monty Norman's James Bond Theme comes in when Bond shoots the camera and the blood streams down the screen, prior to that the music playing is not recognisable at all. This will prove meaningful in due course.

Wedding bells! Not for our man James Bond (Timothy Dalton), of course - he's in the Florida Keys to act as best man at the wedding of his very good friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison, the first man to play Leiter a second time; he previously showed up in 1973's Live and Let Die). Oh, but that would be an awfully silly and low-key opening for a Bond picture, which is why Bond and Leiter are interrupted on their way to the church by DEA agents who want Leiter's help apprehending shadowy druglord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi); for the first time in years, Sanchez has set foot on American soil, retrieving his erstwhile lover, Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), from the arms of one of his rivals. This is done via a pleasingly big and overwrought stunt in which Sanchez's plane is hooked from a DEA helicopter, and dragged to earth. Following their success, Bond and Leiter parachute right in front of the church where Leiter's bride, Della (Priscilla Barnes), waits impatiently.

We have here an exceptionally plot-oriented opening sequence; the movie proper begins almost without a pause once we return from the credits. And perhaps as a result, the tone of it is remarkably unlike anything in any other Bond picture: pretty much since the very start, the pre-title sequence serves as a rousing amuse bouche, getting us riled up for adventure with a sprawling action-packed mini-movie, frequently incorporating some grandly overconceived stunt. The stunt, at least, is intact; the rest of it is bogged down in a little bit too much exposition for my taste, and in particular, the attempt to prove how much Bond and Leiter are the bestest buddies ever is rather plainly meant to set up the whole 2+ hours of movie to follow, which requires us to have a much greater investment in the Bond/Leiter relationship than any of the American spy's six previous appearances would naturally lead us to; frankly, I never got the impression until this movie that he and 007 were anything but mutually respectful colleagues. And this mostly unpersuasive pitched character-building makes me altogether suspicious of an opener that is otherwise exactly to order: boisterous, adventuresome, suave. It serves a narrative purpose, and serves it well, but there's just something about it that feels "off".

Rating: 3.5 Union Jack Parachutes

The flirtation with '80s rock acts comes to a crashing stop with Gladys Knight's rendition of "Licence to Kill", written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, and Walter Afanasieff (one doubts that the film's planned title, Licence Revoked, would have supported a theme song nearly so readily), and it is overproduced like a motherfucker. There's no beating the late-'80s/early-'90s corridor for R&B-tinged pop ballads with a ginormous orchestral flourish after the bridge, and that is exactly what we get here, married to lyrics that err rather far on the wrong side of "epically stupid". As in, "Got a licence to kill / And you know I'm going straight for your heart", which is quite possibly the most obvious way to incorporate the phrase "licence to kill" into a pop song, and this does not make it any more freaking cheesy. And, much in the tradition of the inimitable Rita Coolidge, Knight fails to do good and proper post-Shirley Bassey thing, and put a spin on the lyrics that communicates, subtly but unmistakably, "once I've shot you with my love-gun, we are going to have the most amazing, dirty sex". But let's be fair, 1980s solo Gladys Knight was much more about soothing mall music than belting out soul.

Bonus! The end credits boast a second single, Patti LaBelle's "If You Asked Me To", which as always, we do not count towards the official score, though it wouldn't help much if it did. Really, it's just more of the same patently inoffensive background humming that's just exactly slow enough for a junior high dance, with the considerable benefit that the lyrics are not half so imbecilic and grating.

Rating: 1.5 Shirley Basseys

We must now bid farewell to series mainstay Maurice Binder, who designed the credits for all but two of the first 16 Bond pictures; he died in 1991, while the franchise was circling the drain, mired in a legal grey area and series of sociological quakes that made the very survival of the franchise look doubtful. But that is a tale for another movie.

In the meantime, let us consider Binder's unintended finale to his iconic string of naked women slowly dancing in silhouette; after a pretty rough decade of mistakes and stalled efforts (his freakshow effort for A View to a Kill being both the most amazing and most awful of all Bond credits sequences), he ended on an upswing, if not precisely a high note. The credits open with imagery based on cameras - the first thing we see, in fact, is a still photograph of a woman pointing a camera at us, and it is alarming and creepy - and it seems like it's going to be a pretty awful thing to suffer through, but at a certain point, Binder just gives up and shows women dancing, spinning around mostly. And there are two reasons that this is at least somewhat above average: the use of bold colors is really quite striking and innovative and not like anything else he'd done; and it's the porniest of all his sequences, with a particular moment where you absolutely, for certain, see pubic hair and nipples. And, let's be honest, pubic hair and nipples are the two things that one secretly spends every single Binder sequence watching for.

Rating: 3.5 Silhouetted Women

DEA Agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill), seduced by Sanchez's offer of two million dollars to the man who busts him out, decides to do the honors himself; the druglord's very first act as a free man is to sick his goons on the Leiters; Della is killed after, presumably, being raped, while Felix is lowered slowly into a shark tank and loses his leg; this detail was taken from Live and Let Die, and is, I believe, the only touch of Ian Fleming in this entirely original story that was the first Bond film that didn't share its title with any Bond novel or short story; though of course the phrase "licence to kill" is a significant part of the entire Bond mythos, and can thus not be considered entirely original.

A rage-blind Bond goes on a hunt for the men who maimed his extravagantly good friend that we've seen him with once in the last 15 years, dumping Killifer in that same shark tank; for his troubles, he is nabbed by M (Robert Brown) in Key West and told in no uncertain terms that MI6 agents do not go on personal vendettas. Bond quits with a snarl, and M, while refusing to accept his resignation, icily informs him that his licence to kill is revoked (the original Licence Revoked title, in addition to being worse, was dropped out of fears that the target audience wouldn't know what "revoked" meant).

So Bond, now a rogue agent, has to track down Sanchez's army without the benefit of a government apparatus backing him up; it still doesn't take very long to find the druglord's lieutenant, Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), and rob him blind of millions of dollars in drug money, which Bond cheekily invests in Sanchez's own bank in Isthmus City, a really unimaginative attempt at coming up with an analogue for Panama City. He travels there with Leiter's Isthmus City contact, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), who for reasons of her own, also wants Sanchez stopped; meanwhile, MI6 tech guru Q (Desmond Llewelyn) pops up to give the un-spy some helpful tools, strictly against the rules and without M's knowledge. Posing as a suave international hitman, Bond is able to insinuate himself into Sanchez's confidence, and drop hints that Krest is trying to betray him; having also planted "proof" of Krest's infamy, Bond thus makes it all the way to Sanchez's cocaine-processing facilty, where he's recognised by another henchman, Dario (Benicio Del Toro), and forced to explode all the cocaine, before he and Sanchez engage in a deadly tanker-truck chase that results in even more exploded cocaine, one dead druglord, and one redeemed British spy, none of which hopefully comes as so much of a surprise that I've just spoiled everything.

The good: this is beautifully complicated stuff, with Bond actually reduced to - get this - spying, trying to sneakily acquire knowledge and perform his self-appointed mission by subterfuge and cunning. Parts of it are more like a heist movie than a spy thriller, particularly the inch-by-inch attempt to assassinate Sanchez in his casino, and later the desperate chase to plant the stolen money on Krest so he can be found out by his boss.

The bad: simply, that it's not a Bond film. It's a pretty good film for the thing it is; but the thing it is, is the furthest outlier of the entire James Bond franchise - there's a point where turning towards a harder edge and less fantastic scenarios takes us right out of the formula that makes Bond who and what he is, and this film does that. But let's not get too far into that, and instead allow that it's a solid, stripped down plot that works very nicely on its own terms, though they are not the terms for which I signed up.

Rating: 4 Stolen Nukes

We have a saying around here: "You can't go wrong with Robert Davi". Not much of a saying; point in fact, I have never once said it before. But the point remains, you can't go wrong with Robert Davi, and if his Bond villain is by no conceivable stretch of the imagination one of the most colorful, threatening, or gloriously melodramatic, that ends up being very much to the actor's benefit: faced with what was, in the 1980s, a stock action baddie, whose plans have nothing to do with global or even regional domination, but merely with finding a better way to ship cocaine, Davi is able to inject all the color and melodrama back in via his performance, richly charismatic and ice cold. So we have a really swell combination of grounded real-world villainy with all the bubbly menace of a good B-list Bond antagonist. Certainly improvable - it would have helped if his schemes were even slightly more removed from the mainstream of '80s action films - but zesty in all the right ways.

Rating: 4 Evil Cats

Among the most annoyingly inconsistent of Bond Girls, Pam Bouvier, like the actress playing her, swings madly from intense, focused competence, to unmitigated badassery, to helpless, squealing idiocy, to a blank expression like Glen sneaked some reaction shots without bothering to tell Lowell that the camera was rolling. She's certainly handy with a gun, and frequently out-heroes Bond himself, and then sometimes she's used for nothing but a bit of misplaced comedy, and the more the film delves into her schoolgirlish sexual jealousy of The Secondary Girl, the less able I am to take her seriously as the unblinking tough guy that the movie insists, no really, she totally is. But she never ends up the flailing, idiot damsel in distress, which is a delightful change of pace. There's probably a much stronger version of this character than the one Lowell plays; but that has been true of Bond Girls before, and will be true of them in the future.

Rating: 3 White Bikinis

With Davi's Sanchez sucking up all the oxygen every time he shows up onscreen, there's simply not much left over for his featured henchmen, of whom the two most prominent are Krest and Dario. The former, shockingly, is much better, perhaps the only context in which one can say without giggling, "Anthony Zerbe is better than Benicio Del Toro". Blame youth for Del Toro's emptiness; blame an underwritten character with absolutely nothing to do until very nearly the end of the movie. Either way, he mostly just takes up space. At least Krest is active for most of the movie, and while both characters get outré deaths that are the biggest reasons that Licence to Kill received elevated ratings in both the UK and USA (15 and PG-13, respectively), Krest's is way more splashy; probably the single moment of the whole movie that I remember most.

One could count as a third henchman, Professor Joe Butcher, the comic relief fake televangelist who acts as the legal front of Sanchez's operation, played by the illustrious Wayne Newton; but I imagine that the writers are as eager to forget that he exists as I am, so I will simply move on by.

Rating: 2.5 Metal-Plated Teeth

For such a routine character - the bad guy's girlfriend who wants to be saved from his clutches, ideally by a virile British spy, and I think she's like, the sixth one of those, or something - Lupe Lamora is pretty awesome. Partially it's because she clearly hasn't just gone turncoat because of the holy masculine power of the Bondpenis; the opening scene makes it awfully clear that she's well and truly done with Sanchez, and even the nasty whipping he gives her doesn't cow her into submission; it just makes her a whole lot more cautious about how she screw her abusive boyfriend over in the future. Unlike most of the random women Bond sleeps with, she's not just a nice figure to pass the time, either; she is active and important and without her, the plot would not happen at all. Besides which, Talisa Soto is hotter than Carey Lowell, or at least she has way, way better hair.

The problem is, as ever, the acting. Soto's not bad per se, and in fact she gets some fine moments in: one out-and-out great moment at the end, when she ends up losing Bond and turns towards an even better second choice with an exquisite air of "oh well, this one will do just fine". But she also stumbles a lot during any moment that requires actual emotional commitment, most dreadfully in a recitation of the line "I love James so much" expressed in a monotone so halting that the other characters in the scene even make fun of it. The good outweighs the bad, but the bad is vile.

Rating: 3.5 Golden Corpses

There's surprisingly little, in fact: but my God, what's there is excellent. The sequence in which Sanchez escapes the DEA is a terrific little setpiece on the bridges of the Florida Keys, beating the end of True Lies by five years and being considerably better in the process; at one point, Bond water-skis behind a plane using just his feet, and it is nowhere near as wacky as it would have been in a Moore picture; and the final truck chase scene has almost too many explosions, as well as two truck stunts that, to be fair, really don't work all that well (they'd have fit better in the playful tone of the Moore vehicles than the grim, violent Dalton films). Best of all is the frenzy that follows Bond setting the cocaine plant on fire, especially the part where he desperately scrambles not to fall into into a huge grinding mechanism. On the other hand: Bond briefly fights hand-to-hand with a ninja, because this was the 1980s. Perfection, alas, is too much to ask for.

Rating: 4.5 Walther PPKs

Holy shit! Q is out in the field! And he brought quite a large cache of toys with him: an exploding alarm clock that never gets used, a gun with a palm scanning lock, hidden inside a camera that gets used in a place where a normal rifle would have been just as good, and a tube of toothpaste hiding plastic explosive, ignited by a fake pack of cigarettes. Considering that the Dalton films were supposed to be all about a return to basics, that's quite a lot of silly things, even if they are not necessarily employed that way (and it is this latter that costs it a score).

As for Q, Man of Action: strangely, given that this is by far the most expansive role ever given the the quartermaster, he doesn't do much: just quip (like always) and sigh at Bond (like always), and occasionally titter with glee at being out in the world. If the filmmakers felt that Llewelyn's whimsy was a wobbly fit for the Dalton universe, and thus needed to be downplayed... well, it was, and did need to be, so why give him so much more screentime? And barring that, at least don't make him say, a propos of nothing, "Remember, if it hadn't been for Q Branch, you'd have been dead long ago", a peculiar line that Llewelyn fights with manfully, though he loses.

Rating: 3 Easily-Riled Welshmen

THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
The realism train rolls on, and while Peter Lamont's tenure as the franchise's chief production designer has never to this point been exceptional, this is particularly small-scale, with nothing that even contains echoes of the great vast sets that were Ken Adam's great contribution not just to this series, but to all cinema..

That said, there are flickers of life here: Sanchez's estate is a nice study in tacky wealth, all white statuary including an anthropomorphic fish that causes Bond some severe dismay when he wakes up to see it watching him; and also the conveyor-belt dominated cocaine-processing plant, hidden in a pleasantly ersatz meditation center. They are the sets the film needs, and no more than that.

Rating: 2 Volcano Fortresses

The series' absolute nadir, for reasons that are pretty obvious. Mucking about in South America with murder on his mind and no government bankroll? No, this is not a Bond worth envying, not even when he goes to a casino, customarily the place where Bondian elegance is at its ripest; first he takes blackjack unseriously, then he orders a vodka martini with a mean, savage bark. And, once again, Dalton has no damn idea how to wear a tuxedo.

Rating: 1 Vodka Martini

Having successfully wormed his way into Sanchez's office, Bond offers introduces himself and offers his hand, but is snubbed.
Forced or Badass? Very forced. Snubbed by the bad guy? Lame, 007.

BOND: "I help people with problems."
SANCHEZ: "Problem solver?"
BOND: "More of a problem eliminator."

Poor Timothy Dalton, all the bad luck. First The Living Daylights tries to have it both ways, a savage new line of violence and seriousness, but without giving up the frivolousness of the preceding 14 years of Roger Moore pictures; then his second feature, the one tailored to his take on the character, gets released in the famously overstuffed summer of 1989, and while it is a longstanding exaggeration that Licence to Kill lost money (it absolutely did not - no Bond film ever has, in fact) - it certainly got buried, instantly earning the reputation - deserved, I'd say - of being uncomfortably dark for a Bond movie. Then, a legal tangle prevented any further Bond movies for a very long time, by which point Dalton was gone, meaning he never got a shot at the vaunted Third Movie where his take on the character would really gel, the way it did for Sean Connery in Goldfinger and Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me. He will always, to me, be the exciting, promising Bond that never got a chance to pay off, for reasons entirely beyond his control. Certainly, I like Dalton's Bond; at least I think I do. One has to search for it under quite a lot of dross.

But, let us stick with Licence to Kill, the film that is most commonly described as "too dark/violent/whatever for Bond", and second-most commonly described as "the most underrated in the series"; fair to say that it is a divisive film, and probably the single most divisive of them all, unless there is a thriving cluster of Moonraker defenders that I've never heard of.

I already picked my side, of course; and once upon a time, that was the side that was clearly in the majority, though with Daniel Craig having made the idea of a Darker, Edgier Bond more palatable, Dalton's iteration of the character and this film in particular have undergone a significant re-appraisal. There is the argument - director John Glen, Dalton, Llewelyn, and the writers among those making it - that this bloodthirsty, rarely smiling Bond and the stripped-down, violence-speckled adventure he undergoes brings us much closer to the spirit of Ian Fleming's books, which I suppose is probably true. But as I've said elsewhere, hewing closer to Fleming doesn't necessarily impress me: he wrote a good potboiler, but nothing more than that. And the thing about Licence to Kill is, the lowered stakes and increased "realism" (though it takes the flighty fantasy of the Roger Moore Bond to consider anything that happens in this movie "realistic"), don't set it apart so much as they strip it of personality. As a wise, insightful, witty, and altogether sexy writer once said in regards to another Bond picture, "you can put Little Orphan Annie in a rape-revenge thriller, and she's not going to be all pluck and 'Tomorrow', but she's also no longer going to be Little Orphan Annie. In the same way, Bond isn't Bond if you take away his Bondisms". Licence to Kill is, in effect, the story of a rogue crimefighter heading to South America to take on a drug kingpin. You know what other movie tells that story? Almost every other action film produced in the 1980s. The reason Bond matters, the reason he is Bond, is because he is on Her Majesty's secret service; because he is suave and quick with a quip; because he is a gentleman and a bastard. In this film, all of that is removed, and Dalton plays nothing but a wrathful killer in a plot that has been done to death.

He does this excellently; I want to repeat myself, that Licence to Kill is an awfully good version of what it wants to be. It does not want to be a Bond film; even Craig's outings, self-consciously stepping away from the accretions of decades of Bond formula, are Bond films in a way that Licence to Kill isn't. Tellingly, I think, any time a really big, showy piece of action occurs, the sort that only comes in a more fantastic movie, Monty Norman's theme starts roaring out of the soundtrack, replacing the vacuous, generic '80s music provided by composer Michael Kamen (a man with plenty of top-notch scores to his credit, though here he's stuck in the same anonymous groove as Lethal Weapon 2, which scored around the same time); it is as much to say, "See? It really is Bond, doing Bondy action stuff, while Bond music plays". This overuse of Norman's theme becomes an epidemic problem later in the series, and it all traces back to here: a desperate attempt to reclaim some measure of the character's iconic soul aurally, since it is not being done narratively.

An attempt that fails. I do very much like Licence to Kill, but for all the "wrong" reasons, as it were. It's much too good to be slagged as the film which sent the franchise into a six-year deep freeze - if A View to a Kill couldn't kill of Bond, no movie should have been able to - but at the same time, it's not at all hard to see why that might have happened; given the changes the world was going through in the late '80s and early '90s, the severe change in tone and character made by this film seems as much as anything a tacit admission that the "real" Bond didn't fit anymore. And so the Dalton years stalled out just as he was starting to flex and get comfortable, and instead of making an iconic character his own, he ended up going two-for-two on movies that feel like they ought to be much better than they are.