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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1963)


2. From Russia with Love

Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were determined to transform James Bond into an on-going series. How determined? The minute “Dr. No” became a world-wide hit, the same team was reassembled for a sequel. The very next year, “From Russia with Love” arrived in cinemas. The second Bond movie proved to be an even bigger success then the first. Hardcore Bond fans don’t agree on much but many consider 007’s second outing superior to his first. Among those that think that?: Sean Connery, who ranks the film as his favorite Bond adventure.

MI6 is contacted by a Russian agent stationed in Istanbul, promising to defect and hand over a decoder device called a Lektor at the same time. The agent, Tatiana Romanova, specifically requests Bond. Certain this is a trap but intrigued by the beautiful woman, Bond agrees. It is a trap but not by the Russians. Two SPECTRE agents, Rosa Klebb and the imposing Red Grant, plan to steal the Lektor and sell it back to the Soviets for a hefty price. This provides the secret criminal organization the perfect oppretunity to exact revenge on Bond for ruining their Jamaican operation in the last film. Bond, his new Russian mistress in hand, has to figure this out on his own and survive.

“Dr. No” was the prototype for the entire franchise. “From Russia with Love” shows the series evolving further into what we think of as a James Bond film. It established what we think of as the Bond opening credit sequence. The credits are projected on the body of a gyrating belly dancer, lit in moody colors. It’s not silhouettes of naked woman dancing around vaguely spy related items but it’s closer then the abstract imagery of “Dr. No.” “From Russia with Love” is also the first film in the series to have a specific theme song. An instrumental of the song, which slowly segues into the traditional Bond theme, plays over the opening, with the lyrical version only appearing at the end of the film. Matt Monro sings the vocal version. Monro’s delivery is high-flying, vaguely reminiscent of Frank Sinatra, and representative of what popular music was at the time. It’s not a breakaway pop hit but, as far as the first Bond movie theme goes, it’s not bad. The same could be said for the credit sequence.

“From Russia with Love” continues to establish the franchise formula roughly outlined in the last movie. Bond flirts with Moneypenny, steps into M’s office, receives a mission briefing and some good-natured ribbing from his boss, is assigned a gadget from Q division, and sets out on his adventure. He even tosses his hat onto a coat rack in both movies! Though only the second entry, “From Russia with Love” also plays with expectations a bit. It’s the first film in the series to have an action scene following the required gun barrel sequence but before the opening credits. We see Bond, dressed in a tux and armed with his Walter PPK, hunted by an unidentified bad guy. Only the bad guy catches our hero, killing him! Of course, this isn’t actually Bond. However, it’s interesting to see that, as early as part two, Eon Productions were subverting audiences’ expectations. Further evidence? Bond himself doesn’t appear for another ten minutes.

As the title indicates, “From Russia with Love” has 007 in a more romantic mood. Though he beds four different women throughout the film, he sends most of the run time in the company of just one. In “Dr. No,” Bond used his skills with the ladies mostly in service of Queen and Country, or for a casual hook-up. Tatiana, played by the radiant Daniela Bianchi, is genuinely in love with Bond. The two share many romantic moments together. Their initial hook-up in a hotel is a typical Bond seduction. However, the two remain close. He tries to keep her on topic while discussing the Lektor but she’s more interested in jumping his bones. Sweetest is a mid-day rendezvous on a train, Tatiana dressed in a flowing nightie the spy purchased for her. Though Bianchi was dubbed over by a different actress, she and Connery have great chemistry together. The characters’ romance is so well done that I’m honestly saddened that Bond drops her after this movie.

Even in a movie with an obviously romantic tone, Bond is never a one-woman man. “From Russia with Love” features a brief reappearance by Eunice Gayson’s Sylvia Trench. Though planned as Bond’s starter girl in every film, this is the last appearance Gayson would make in the series. It’s a shame, since she’s a lot of fun, sensual in a funny, free-spirited way. However, the film gets quite lascivious as times. Bond drops more sleazy one liners then ever before. While staying in a gypsy camp, the film pauses for a catfight between two gorgeous gypsy girls. Soon afterwards, both offer themselves to Bond. That’s right, the movie implied a threesome all the way back in 1963. It’s apparent that Bond doesn’t have much need for women beyond carnal desires. He even smacks Tatiana around at one point, when he’s worried she’ll betray him. The movie’s constant horniness stops just short of sleazy. For all its romantic overtures, “From Russia with Love” probably wouldn’t win any fans with modern feminists.

“Dr. No” felt more like a mystery. Future sequels would focus on action. “From Russia with Love” has the spy actually, you know, spying. Bond is collecting information, barely avoiding being whacked by enemy agents, and balancing delicate social-political situations. He’s less about killing bad guys and more about making sure the job gets done without igniting the Cold War. Notably, Bond receives his first real gadget. Desmond Llewelyn, though not credited as such yet, makes his first appearance as Q. He gifts Bond with a pretty sweet suitcase, packed full tear gas, a knife, and a collapsible sniper rifle. Also featured is a camera that conceals a recording device. Both items have plenty of cool value yet stay within the realm of plausibility.

The film also establishes SPECTRE as a genuine threat. The organization was mentioned in “Dr. No” but, here, we see the syndicate’s villainous machinations in action. The ludicrously acronymed cabal intends on playing the world’s superpowers against each other, slowly building towards World War III. And, in the aftermath, they’ll rule the ruins. This is illustrated via fish metaphors. Though their motivations are hardcore super-villainy, SPECTRE’s master plan at least makes sense. (Though how an organization like that this is run or financed isn’t answered. This is a popcorn movie, after all.) The film also gives us our first glimpse at Bond’s eventual arch-nemesis Blofled, via his iconic white cat. Though it's truly just a glimpse. We don’t even know his name yet. He’s just Number 1, served by his lower numbered underlings.

The actual villains of the film fill the roles of muscle and mastermind. Rosa Klebb is played by the stern Lotte Lenya. With a thick accent, harsh physical features, and implied-almost-to-the-point-of-unnoticed lesbian tendencies, she’s an iconic villainous. More imposing is Red Grant. Considering Bond is the baddest of cinematic badasses, it’s impressive the filmmakers were able to cook up a henchman that could physically intimidate him. Robert Shaw, who towers over Connery, fills the role. Grant is a man of few words, not speaking until the movie’s nearly over. He’s all harsh determination and brutal execution, literally crossing minor characters under his feet. His weapon of choice is a wrist watch concealed garotte, brutally strangling his victims. When Bond and Grant come two-to-two, he reveals a calculating intelligence as well. Ultimately, Grant is Bond’s Soviet counterpart, a home-brewed killing machine with his eyes solely on the mission. He’s one of my favorite Bond villains.

Despite their later reputation for flying their character all over the world, “From Russia with Love” takes place primarily in two places. (Neither of them, oddly enough, are Russia.) Bond lands in Istanbul. The film briefly makes use of the country’s local color. However, large portions of the story takes place in back alleys and undistinguished country side. Most importantly, Bond befriends Kerim Bey, the MI6’s contact in Turkey. Bey and Bond have a similar appetite for woman and a way with a one-liner. Bey’s involvement doesn’t contribute much to the story. A subplot involving his own assassination attempt is mostly an extraneous detour. However, Pedro Armendariz is fine in the part, working well with Conenry. It makes it even sadder that the actor took his own life not long after filming ended. Most of the rest of “From Russia with Love” takes place on the Orient Express, the film mining the train’s cramped locations for suspense.

Though the story is arguably even more low-key, “From Russia with Love” does feature more action then “Dr. No.” The first big set piece comes during a chaotic shootout inside the gypsy camp site. Bullets zing through the air and wagons get set ablaze. My favorite part of this sequence is how calm Bond is throughout, nonchalantly rolling a flaming wagon into a trio of attackers. More impressive is the close quarters melee between Bond and Red Grant. The two spies are already established as being on equal footing, during the tense lead-up to the fight. The small train compartment does not leave much room for theatrical judo tosses. Instead, it’s a tough struggle between two burly men determined to kill each other. They stumble into walls, pushing each other around, attempting choke holds and grasping for limbs. It’s an intense fight and leads to an especially satisfying conclusion.

Weirdly, that is not the climax of the film. “From Russia with Love” continues onward, throwing in two vehicle chases. The first has Bond being pursued on foot by a helicopter. Though ridiculous on paper, and close to ridiculous in execution, the quick cutting makes the scene believable and exciting. The second chase has the spy on the sea, followed by a small fleet of enemy speed boats. The conclusion here shows Bond thinking quickly on his feet and throws in the required giant explosion. Are either of these moments truly necessary? Probably not. Are they fun to watch? Yep.

“From Russia with Love” is less theatrical and less heavily plotted then “Dr. No.” It’s also more suspenseful, with better defined action, more humor,  and a superior adversary. The supporting cast is great, Connery is fully comfortable in the part, and the action is tighter. The sequel is closer to what we think of when we think of a James Bond movie. Eon knew they had an on-going series on their hand. “From Russia with Love” concludes with the first “James Bond Will Return…” tag, dropping the title for the next film to an audience eagerly anticipating it. [Grade: B+]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[] Wears a Tux

Monday, March 2, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1962)


1. Dr. No

By 1962, Ian Fleming had cranked out 10 James Bond books. The character was an established property. Several attempts had been made to transfer Bond’s success on the page to success on the screen. Fleming himself was drafted to work on a television series which never came to be. Fleming worked on an adaptation again, this time a movie, which also never materialized. Finally, the collaboration of producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli brought Bond to the screen. Since the rights to “Casino Royale” having been previously sold off to another company, the newly formed Eon Productions choose the sixth of Fleming’s novel to adapt, “Dr. No.” Eon was savvy enough to realize that the Bond series’ unique combination of sex, violence, exotic locations, and political intrigue was a license, not to kill, but to print money. Bond was planned as a franchise from the beginning. It wouldn’t have happened without this one. 

In his first film adventure, James Bond 007 heads to Jamaica. Two MI6 operatives are killed while on the line with the British agency. Bond is sent to investigate. The murdered agents were snooping into strange events at a local island, which appears to be radioactive. There’s a target on Bond’s head from the moment he arrives. He makes friends, beds a few beautiful women, and unravels what’s going on, uncovering the villainous Dr. No and his plot to jam Cape Canaveral rocket tests and manufacture nuclear weapons.

From the very beginning, the Bond series was designed to be distinctive, of the moment, and the definition of cool. This is evident right from the film’s opening sequence. So many of the things that have become ingrained with the character, and thus with whole waves of popular culture, are present here. The gun barrel opening is so iconic. Imagine seeing it for the first time. It immediately sets up Bond as a man of danger and action. The enemy’s scope is always on him but he’s always gunning them down first. A series of flashing bright lines dance over the screen, introducing us to the title. John Barry’s theme blares over the images. Barry’s Bond theme is one of the most famous pieces of film music ever created, perhaps only rivaled by the “Star Wars” theme. The jangling guitars establishes Bond’s cool. The blaring horns hint at the danger and excitement he’ll be faces. For everything iconic about the opening, it’s also more eccentric then expected. The Barry theme gives way to calypso music, silhouettes of dancing couples, and a steel drum variation on “Three Blind Mice.” We’re not there yet; even the goofy sound effects that accompany the gun barrel sequence seems odd; but there’s no denying that “Dr. No’s” opening is fantastic and distinctive.

Equally iconic is Sean Connery’s introduction. We first only see his hands, opening a cigarette from his case. Connery utters the immortal line, solidifying his place in pop culture history. If it’s possible, let’s look pass the towering place Connery occupies in fiction. A former body builder and only 30 years old, Connery was still a new discovery at the time. His accent was not exaggerated to the heights of parody. Connery is cool and steely but focused. Even while kissing women, his mind remains on his mission. He’s observant enough to know when he’s being watched or when his driver is a hitman. Yet it’s not impossible for him to be caught off guard, such as a surprisingly suspenseful, if outwardly silly, moment when he assassinates a tarantula. Two moments best sum up why Connery was so great in the part. First, he man-hands a young female photographer at a bar. She’s seemingly not involved with the villain but he still grills the girl, destroying her film. He’s cold and serious, not worrying about stepping on toes. Even more impressive is when he coldly shoots a would-be assassin at point blank range without a second thought. This is Bond, a blunt instrument, a killing machine. But Connery can pull off the pithy one-liners or the romantic entanglement. Whether or not Connery is even a good actor is irrelevant. There has never been a better combination of material and actor. Connery fully inhabits Bond. Connery might as well be Bond.

Being based off an on-going series of books, a certain formula was already in place for the budding Bond series. Bond wanders into MI6 offices, flirting with Moneypenny after tossing his hat onto the coat rack. He is briefed by M, who dutifully busts his balls before giving him his mission. We even have someone from Q branch walking in, though all he does is assign Bond his soon-to-be-iconic Walter PPK pistol. Bond travels to an exotic location, as in every other future entry. He seduces beautiful women, because of course he does. The villain’s base is infiltrated and destroyed. It’s hard to say how many of these things were intentional attempts to establish reoccurring trends and how many of them just fell into place over the years.

In many ways, though, “Dr. No” is very different then the numerous sequels that would follow. “Dr. No” is far more low-key then future installments. It’s practically a mystery for its first hour or more. Bond spends more time then expected sleuthing. He follows leads, bumping into Felix Leiter and his cohorts. He snoops around Crab Key Island, investigating. He talks to suspected people, seducing a doctor’s secretary more for the information she can provide then simply because she’s beautiful. (Though, presumably, this has something to do with it.) It’s not until the final act, when Bond wanders into the villain’s secret lair, that “Dr. No” truly begins to resemble Bond’s future.

In line with this approach, “Dr. No” does not feature the kind of high-flying action that would become synonymous with the series. Bond doesn’t slay bad guys in the film’s opening scene, only a baccarat table and Syliva Trench’s heart. The first action beat comes when Bond judo-flips a driver. The tumbling is raw if slightly awkward, Bond flipping the man single-handedly. There’s a big car chase, climaxing in a flaming vehicle careening down a mountain side, which is mildly exciting. Both deaths are check marked with the first of many post-mortum one-liners, both of which are pretty good. Bond doesn’t gun down hundreds of henchmen. His style seems more to sneak up on people, snapping their necks from behind. He does that twice! When not doing that, he’s punching dudes off railing, which he also does twice. Despite utilizing his license to kill frequently, perhaps the best action beat in the film is one of the least elaborate. When Bond sneaks out of his cell, he’s sweaty and uncertain. Sneaking through the pipes, even Bond doesn’t seem to know if this will work. The climax features explosions, wrestling, and daring escapes, all the first of many. That solid mixture of visceral violence and genuine surprise keeps “Dr. No” exciting.

Another element of the series seemingly established from the beginning was the bevy of beautiful women Bond becomes entangled with. First, we meet Eunice Gayson’s Syliva Trench. The sight of Gayson lounging in Bond’s apartment only in a buttoned-up shirt, thumbing a golf club and showing off her very long legs. Gayson has immediate chemistry with Connery and would rightfully return next time. Trench became the first opening Bond Girl, the girl the spy mingles with at the story’s beginning. The first of the quote-unquote evil Bond Girls is Miss Taro, played by Zena Marshall. Marshall’s natural exotic beauty is emphasized by slightly Asian make-up. She is easily the most sexual of the film’s women, wearing only a towel in one notable scene. (Amazingly, she also makes it out of the movie alive.) Easily the most iconic of the film’s female characters doesn’t appear until the movie is nearly over. Ursula Andress steps out of the surf, in that perfect white swimsuit, and entered puberty-driven fantasies of hundreds of young males. Andress is incredibly sexy, of course, and the film repeatedly puts her in various stages of undress. However, the cheekily named Honey Ryder doesn't contribute much to the plot. She has her character-establishing moment, detailing some back story. Mostly though, she’s a damsel in distress and eye candy. Magnificent eye candy, yes, but imagine how different “Dr. No” would be if Sylvia Trench has accompanied Bond throughout the whole film.

Just as Honey Ryder enters the film late, so does its titular character. Despite staying off-screen for most of the run time, Dr. No casts a long shadow. Professor Dent is egged into committing an attempted murder simply by the force of No’s voice. His henchmen are loyal to him because its apparent how scary the guy is. When Dr. No enters the film, the camera emphasizes his frightful reputation. Dr. No is, in many ways, still the iconic Bond bad guy. He invites Bond to dinner, making him comfortable, attempting to sway him to the side of evil. He drops references towards SPECRE, showing that, even this early on, the producers were setting up Bond’s reoccurring archenemy. The other stereotype associated with Bond villains, some sort of physical deformity, is also accounted for. Dr. No has robotic hands, clad in sleek leather gloves. They end up not playing a particularly large role, more for atmosphere then plot reasons. For extra Yellow Peril bonus points, No is given vague Oriental features, even accompanied by some Chinese chimes on the soundtrack. Joseph Wiseman’s mixture of refinement and quiet menace is the main reason the film’s titular adversary still remains one of the best of Bond’s rivals.

What of the supporting cast? No one ever talks about them. Jack Lord plays Felix Leiter almost as Bond’s literal American counterpart. Though we don’t see much of him, it’s suggests that he may be as cool as his British pal. (Leiter’s been played by multiple different actors too.) Bernard Lee as M and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny would grow into their parts in time. Maxwell is immediately darling but Lee comes off as an indistinct boss character. Probably the bit part that gets the least amount of credit is John Kitzmiller as Quarrel. Quarrel accompanies Bond for long portions of the film, being more of a sidekick then Leiter is. He’s got no problem with twisting a woman’s arm and has a natural kinship with James. Kitzmiller’s demise, via ridiculous dragon wagon, is sadly brushed over, considering the quick friendship he formed with our hero. Thus is the life of a spy.

When so much of the Bond legacy is focused on the actors and reoccurring story choices, director Terence Young tends to get overlooked. Young guides the film with a slick visual presentation, perfectly suited to the material. Take, for example, the moment when Professor Kent is forced to attempt tarantula-assisted homicide. He stands in a darkened room, blue light shining through the web-like grate. Considering how many instantly iconic entrances “Dr. No” has, it’s obvious that Young knew how to frame and execute a shot. Aside from some rough visual effects, “Dr. No” looks as smooth and cool now as it did back in 1962.

What does get plenty of credit is the unforgettable production design. The supervillain’s underground lair has been parodied to death, even by the Bond series itself. But give credit where its due. Dr. No’s lair is a fantastic set. The dining room with its slanting fireplace and strange wild life on the walls marks him as a man of refined, if eccentric, taste. (Knowing that Fleming’s inspiration for the literary Dr. No was Aleister Crowley, that makes a lot more sense.) The film’s weirdest element, which is hardly commented on, is the tank full of giant, mutated fish Dr. No keeps. Imagine a Bond movie getting away with an off-handedly odd touch like that today. The radiation plant features my favorite costumes. The workers wear containment suits with rectangular, clear helmets. It doesn’t seem very safe but it’s cool as hell. The same could be said for the almost comical giant wheel Bond turns to plunge the base into chaos. There’s a reason these troupes would enter pop culture so deeply. They were impressive from day one.

Though not an immediate phenomena, “Dr. No” grew into a sizable hit world over. The risk Eon Productions took paid off. Nobody knew it then but they had just successfully birthed a fifty year film legacy. Though not without some early installment weirdness, “Dr. No’s” look and feel would define, not just Bond but, the entire spy boom of the sixties. It’s a fun, captivating watch, full of fantastic, indelible moments. The movie’s success insured one thing: James Bond would return. [Grade: B+]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1954)


It's been a long time coming. Just like many other recent nerds, I first became invested in the James Bond franchise, one of the longest running and most popular series in cinema history, when the Daniel Craig films made the decade-old spy cool for a new generation of millennial asshats. I lived through the nineties, so I was aware of the series, through the Pierce Brosnan films and annual marathons on TBS. I watched that crappy "James Bond Jr." cartoon and played many rounds of "GoldenEye 64." Yet its lack of robots, aliens, or monsters kept me from being too interested as a child. As a disaffected, horny teen, the series' mixture of violence, sex, world-wide travel, a general disregard for the feelings of women (That was a joke), and its' incomparable grasp on coolness, really appealed to me. I've owned the Blu-Ray box set of the series since it came out a few years back. I've been planning this Series Report Card for quite some time. With a new film in the series coming later this year, I decided it was finally time to head down Bond highway. For completest nerd sake, I'm not just sticking to the officially sanctioned EON Productions films and am throwing in the three "unofficial" films in the series, as you'll see below.

To pay homage to my good friends at All Outta Bubble Gum, each review will also feature the 007 Seven, a check list of seven traits, cliches, and hallmarks usually, but not always, featured in the films. Why am I doing this? Because it's fun. It's the only reason to do anything.


0. “Climax!: Casino Royale

The James Bond series is one of the longest running, most successful franchises in the history of cinema. Bond and his adventures are not merely famous but truly iconic. For the huge place Bond occupies in pop culture history, the series had a beginning that can only be described as humble. The first on-screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s legendary spy did not feature Sean Connery, wasn’t produced by Eon Productions, and wasn’t even released in theaters. Instead, it was a modest television production, a one hour episode of the live anthology series “Climax!” So how do the obscure, long overlooked origins of the James Bond series hold up?

Though condensed to an hour, this “Casino Royale” hews relatively closely to Fleming’s text. However, there are some obvious, frequently pointed out differences. American secret agent Jimmy Bond, working for an organization called Combined Intelligence, is tasked with taking down Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent. Le Chiffre’s weakness is gambling, especially baccarat. Bond is assigned with beating the villain at his favorite card game, bankrupting Le Chiffre and leading to his extermination by the Russians. Valerie Mathis, a former lover of Bond who is now under Chiffre’s control, is sent to spy on the American agent. When Bond does defeat the bad guy at cards, the spy is captured and tortured, Valerie being exactly no help at all.

Of all the visual mediums, I think television ages the worst. “Casino Royale” is sixty years old and is nearly unrecognizable compared to modern TV. Befitting an anthology series, there’s a brief introduction from a host, tossing a baccarat shoe at the audience. The show was filmed live, as was the style of the time. There’s no musical score, save a brief jazz record that plays in one scene. The style of direction is stale and stationary, usually focusing on characters as they sit around and talk. The execution is generally stiff. There’s no exciting action or big explosions in this “Casino Royale,” that’s for sure. Those expecting the typical Bond thrills and spills will be disappointed.

This film, if you could even call it that, is Bond in his infancy. However, if you squint, you can see the vaguest, thinnest wisp of the traditional Bond archetypes. This was, after all, the first time Bond would ever sit around a table in a casino, wearing his tux. He teams up with Clarence Leiter, who briefs him on his mission, recalling many future meetings in M’s office. (This scene also gives Bond the oppretunity to explain the rules of baccarat to the audience, some clumsy exposition.) There’s a femme fatale, Valerie Mathis filling in for Vesper Lynd, that is sent to betray Bond but falls for his charms instead. Considering the Bond formula is so ingrained in the public consciousness, it’s interesting to go back to the very beginning and see how different everything once was.

At the center of the episode is Barry Nelson as Bond, the first, forgotten cinematic Bond. Nelson doesn’t have the immediate charm that many of the other actors who assumed the part over the years would have. However, he’s not at all bad. Like Bond is supposed to be, his wits are relatively quick. In the opening minutes, he dodges a bullet meant for him. He locks lips with a smooth lady, trades banters with supporting characters and villains alike, and relies just as much on luck as he does his spying skills. Nelson occasionally has a roughness to him that fits Fleming’s conception of the character. His slightly sardonic, which I also like. He’s also distinctly American, Nelson sporting some variation on a Maine accent. This obviously makes him very, very different then what we usually think of as Bond. If you look closely though, you can see the loose threads of the iconic character that would be.

The generally agreed upon highlight of the film is Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Lorre made a career playing sweat-caked villains. His toad-like face, bulging eyes, and whispered accent were an ideal fit for Le Chiffre. Though not the most dynamic villain as presented here, Lorre plays the bad guy as someone who is always plotting but also at the end of his own rope. Beating Bond is literally a matter of survival for Le Chiffre. Lorre is conniving but also acknowledges the sympathetic aspect to the character. It would have been interesting to see him as the villain in a more traditional Bond movie.

If Barry Nelson is the first, unassuming Bond, Linda Christian is the first Bond Girl. Valerie Mathis isn’t the most compelling character. Though Valerie is supposed to be working for the bad guy, she never seems very interested in betraying Bond. Instead, she immediately falls to his charms. Maybe it’s just a side effect of condensing a larger story into an hour long drama but even the weakest Bond girls in the future usually took longer to be turned then that. Linda Christian is pretty but not particularly memorable in the part. Better is Michael Pate as Clarence Leiter. Yes, a British version of Felix Leiter is as weird as an American James Bond. Pate has decent chemistry with Nelson and it’s fun to watch the characters’ back-and-forth. There aren’t many other notable characters in the film, as the format keeps the story as small as possible.

Five decades later, Martin Campbell would make the card game central to “Casino Royale” way more exciting then anyone would have expected. In this “Casino Royale,” baccarat is a bore to watch. Bond and Chiffre read cards, push chips forward, barter money, and generally plot against each other. The scene drags on and on, never generating any suspense or interest from the audience. We basically watch two men sit at a table and stare at each other. It’s a big, bloated, sluggish moment in the middle of the episode, making the hour run time feel much longer.

So what passes for action and intrigue in this “Casino Royale?” There’s very little fisticuffs on hand. Bond gets a cane-gun poked in his back and pushes the guy aside. Later on, he briefly trades blows with one of Le Chiffre’s gruesome henchmen. Probably, the most exciting moment is after Bond gets captured. He’s tossed in a bathtub and is tortured with a pair of pliers. What exactly Le Chiffre is doing to Bond is left to the audience’s imagination, though I assume it involves Bond’s toes. It’s surprisingly grisly for 1954 television. The film builds an iota of tension in the last act, when Bond finally turns the table on his capture. It’s a fairly low-key finale but at least the bad guy fights the good guy. And they're not just playing cards.

The “Climax!” version of “Casino Royale” is mostly a curio for hardcore Bond fans. To compare it to any of the later Bond films is an exercise in futility, as they are entirely different beast. Taken on its own, it’s a fairly dull, occasionally interesting hour of ancient television. The show lingered in obscurity for many years, even being considered lost for a few decades before a kinescope emerged in the eighties. As an obscure side note to the Bond legacy, it’s mildly interesting but not an especially compelling film. [Grade: C]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

Friday, February 27, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 59: Tremors - Return to Perfection

Thus we reach the conclusion of my informal "Tremors" week. As you might have expected, my week of reviews were building up to a podcast episode about the series. I originally hadn't plan on posting my reviews of the films here... Yes, I really do sometimes just write reviews in order to mine them for podcast notes. It helps me if I organize my thoughts first. Yes, this amount of research and work goes in most every episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show. However, after utterly wrecking my brain on Oscar movies, I thought the fun-for-fun-sakes "Tremors" series would be a good way to bounce back from Oscar bloat. And why not?

Anyway, here's the podcast. In addition to the four films reviewed here, JD and I also discuss the short-lived TV series and the upcoming fifth film, which I'll probably review when it comes out in October. The episode is short too, coming in at a half-hour.



Here's the plan: Three episodes of the podcast next month, one of which will be a crappy commentary. Also, a new Report Card, a pretty big one. Unless there's some unforeseen disaster, this is the plan.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004)


Prequels are not usually well regarded in nerdy fandoms. On paper, learning more about a character’s past could be fascinating. However, more often then not, prequels just tell us things we already now. “Tremors 4: The Legend Begins” even saddles itself with a lame, generic subtitle. However, the title is actually apt in this scenario. The fourth film reveals that the events of the first film were not the first encounter with the Graboids. Considering the species is millions of years old, it makes sense that they would have squirmed out of the ground at some point before the early nineties. By going so far back into the past, “Tremors 4” brings something new to the series without sacrificing what makes it special.

In 1889, the small mining community of what was then known as Rejection, Nevada, was shaken. Numerous miners have died strangely, causing most of the townsfolk to flee. Essentially, only the Chinese family that runs the local shop, the hotel owner, an Indian and a Mexican, and a handful of miners are left in Rejection. Hiram Gummer, the mine’s owner, shows up to figure out what the heck is going on. Soon, the residents discover the monstrous worms responsible for the deaths. They have to band together to defeat the creatures, for the sake of their lives and their home town.

The “Tremors” series has always been based in Nevada, providing a western atmosphere. So making a film in the series that is literally a western isn’t a bad idea. The film has fun contrasting traditional western tropes with the expected Graboids shenanigans. The Chang family is shown to have roots in the town, filling the role of the traditional Asian shop owners. A telegraph plays a key role in one scene. Without concrete foundations to protect them, the main characters are more exposed to the monsters. One sequence has a Graboid slowly pulling thick wooden planks out of a building with its tongues. Most obviously, an old fashioned gunslinger, Black Hand Kelly played by veteran B-movie actor Billy Drago, is an important supporting character. His jangling spurs get him in trouble and, yes, we get to see a cowboy shoot at a Graboid. There’s a certain pulpy glee to that.

As established in my previous reviews, what makes the “Tremors” franchise so lovable is its cast of characters. Removing that cast presents a problem for “The Legend Begins.” I’m not a huge fan of the trope of a famous character having an identical ancestor. However, ‘Tremors 4” has fun with this set-up, while introducing a new batch of lovable characters. Michael Gross, by now the face of the franchise, returns as Burt Gummer’s great-grandfather. Hiram Gummer is the exact opposite of his great-grandson. He’s a foppish dandy, dressed in a fine suit and bowler hat with a gold stopwatch and diamond cup links. At first, he’s a boorish louse, even stealing the youngest kid’s cake. This gives Gummer an expected character arc of loosening up and no longer being a jerk. There’s even a protracted moment where he leaves town before returning at the very end, deciding to defend his new home. Yet Gross is great in the part and seems to relish playing a different sort of character. Hiram does not share his great-grandson’s love of firearms… At least until the movie’s incredibly charming final scene. (He does share his great-grandson’s affinity for redheads though.)

The supporting cast is fun too and equally full of fun callbacks to the franchise’s history. The Changs, despite not entirely rejecting Asian stereotypes, are a lovable bunch. Kid Fu Yien, played by Sam Ly, is probably the most fun of the lot. His conversations with Gummer are very entertaining. But I also liked the superstitious Lu Wan, played by Lydia Look, and her relaxed husband Pyong Lien, played by Ming Lo. Juan Pedilla may or may not be an ancestor of part one’s Miguel. Either way, he’s a fun character, especially his line about the Alamo. Sara Botsford as Christine has solid chemistry with Gross. Their slap-slap-kiss is fun to watch. My two favorite characters in the the film are Black Hand Kelly, played by Billy Drago doing his usual marvelous thing, and August Schellenberg as Tecopa, the town’s local Indian. Tecopa is a warm, pleasant presence and that’s mostly thanks to Schellenberg’s fatherly persona.

By this point in the series, it was tradition that each new “Tremors” movie feature a new form of the series’ monster. “Aftershocks” beget Shriekers. “Back to Perfection” beget Ass-blasters. “The Legend Begins” gets back to basic, featuring only the Graboids. Unlike the CGI heavy part three, the monsters are mostly brought to life through old fashion creature effects. (There is still some CGI but it’s not horribly distracting.) Referenced for the first time since the original is the worms’ pungent odor. The Graboids are given some fun stuff to do, like bursting through floorboards or dragging miners around. Despite its back to basic approaches, “Tremors 4” can’t resist throwing in something like a new evolution. We see baby Graboids, which are sort of adorable. They leap into the air like flying fish, snatching people’s limbs and pulling them under. This is one of the best sequences in the film.

“Tremors 4” climaxes with a showdown between the film’s heroes and the subterranean troubles. This is surprisingly intense, considering how low-stakes the movies always kind of are. It also extends the old west atmosphere. Because of its period setting, part four can’t dispose of the monsters with machine guns and high explosives. This requires some creativity on the writers’ behalves. One graboid is taken out with an enormous punt gun, which was a real thing. Another is dispatched with clever use of a long saw. Lastly, a good old fashion steam engine is used to finish off the final Graboid, but probably not in the way you’d expect.

I wouldn’t have guessed it going in but “Tremors 4: The Legend Begins” might be the second best film in the series. Its loads of fun and delivers on everything we expect from a “Tremors” movie. Yet it also does enough things differently, adding a sense of fun and creativity to the proceedings. As the series has done from the beginning, potential gimmickry is deflected by clever execution, a likable cast, and a sense of sincere fun. [7/10]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)


By 2001, the “Tremors” franchise was well ingrained as a cable favorite. The movies were in constant rotation and probably did a-okay on video shelves. Four years after the last one, “Tremors 3: Back to Perfection” burst out of the ground. I remember the movie’s television premiere, on either the Sci-Fi Channel or the USA Network, and how it was a pretty big deal for my nerdy friends and me. We were big fans of the series up to that point and the third one only increased that fandom. The endless marathons just made me a bigger nerd. However, out of all of the films in the series, “Back to Perfection” holds up the least well.

As the quippy subtitle promises, the third film returns to the original “Tremors’” location, Perfection Valley in Nevada. After going on a Shrieker-hunting expedition abroad, Burt Gummer returns home, greeting some new and old friends alike. Unfortunately for our hero, a new batch of graboids have hatched. The government, declaring the worms an endangered species, move in to protect the critters. This goes spectacularly wrong, allowing the monsters to evolve further then ever before, into a new, especially dangerous airborne form.

“Back to Perfection” develops the story in some natural directions while also throwing in many callbacks to the original film. Burt Gummer becoming a much-sought-after monster expert makes perfect sense. The government becoming involved also makes a lot of sense. Perfection, NV has become a tourist trap, with fake monster tours and a big graboid sign out front. Most fun for me is how the Chang store has developed into Graboid central, full of all sorts of merchandise. From Dark Horse comic books (which poke fun at the company’s “Aliens vs. Predator” franchise and, sadly, don’t actually exist), to books, toys, pinatas, and – my favorite – a graboid hand puppet. In addition to returning to Perfection Valley, the film throws in small references to “Tremors” lore. Earl and Grady are said to have started the theme park they kept talking about last time. Rhonda, Kevin Bacon’s love interest, wrote a best-selling series of books about the graboids. Even Nestor, the ill-fated redneck from part one, gets a shout-out. His old trailer is a plot point!

The tight continuity and fan-friendly callbacks aren’t the main attraction though. The secret weapon of the “Tremors” series has always been the lovable, memorable cast of characters. From his breakout performance in the first movie, Burt Gummer becoming the series’ de-facto hero was inevitable. It’s fun to see that his conspiracy theorist leanings haven’t soften any over the years. Plenty of old faces are back. Tony Genaro as Miguel and Charlotte Stewert as Nancy, always under appreciated bits of the “Tremors” ensemble, are back. I’m happy to see them, especially Stewert. The movie even went the extra mile and got Arianna Richards and Robert Jayne back, as the now adult Melvin and teenage Mindy. Melvin’s development into the despised penny-pincher of the group and Mindy’s tough and capable, if still girly, teenage girl act both work fine. The new additions to the cast are welcomed as well. Susan Chuang, as Walter Chang’s previously unmentioned niece, is a deeply convinced businesswoman, always looking for ways to expand her brand. She’d love Twitter. Even Shawn Christian as Jack fills the role provided by Val and Grady in the past.

The biggest stars are the monsters, of course. “Tremors II: Aftershocks” set a precedence. The strictly subterranean Graboids evolved into the speedy, above-ground Shriekers. “Back to Perfection” sees the monsters heading into the skies. The absurdly named Ass-Blasters are the next stage of evolution. The monsters (which the film, in a really funny moment, clarifies are NOT called Tremors) learning to fly is fairly ridiculous. Yet the plot mostly justifies it. Series creators S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who directs this time out, are clearly fascinated by the monsters’ biology. They cook up a decent excuse as to why this happens, if not a how. See, the Shriekers grow wings and a self-propelled flight system so they can carry eggs to a new area. At the very least, monsters that fly with fart-rockets are a fun addition to the series. The Ass-Blasters, if we must call them that, look cool too, a more avian-like, stream-liked take on the pudgy Shriekers.

Like the rest of “Tremors” franchise, “Back to Perfection” is cozy, creature-filled fun. However, it’s easily the most flawed of the series. The special effects are the least consistent. Shaky CGI, which did not even look good at the time, is employed repeatedly. The Ass-Blasters are mostly brought to life this way. The lower budget is evident in other ways too. The government agents are killed off-screen. Most of the film takes place in a few, in-door locations. The plot is fairly derivative. The heroes have to adapt to a new set of monster rules. The ever-evolving graboids puts the usually-well-prepared Burt at a disadvantage. This has become a disappointing running gag, which can also be said for monster guts raining down on the heroes. “Tremors 3” mostly existed to set up the forthcoming TV series. Accordingly, the film feels too much like a TV show, in presentation and writing.

For its flaws, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the film. Michael Gross gets eaten by a worm but survives. El Blanco, the sorta’-friendly graboid mascot of the series, gets an introduction. The “Tremors” series’ endless, lovable, and innate creativity is still around but lower budgets and a same-old, same-old feeling is beginning to set in. If this is the weakest link in the “Tremors” franchise, I’d say that’s still a pretty good track record. [7/10]

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)


In the nineties, video stores were at the peak of their popularity. At the same time, the horror genre was experiencing a lull. These combined factors allowed unexpected genre successes to grow into straight-to-video franchises. That’s how they made ten “Puppet Master” movies. Knowing all this, it’s still surprising that a sequel to “Tremors” didn’t come until 1996. Originally planned for a theatrical release on the strengths of the script, the film suffered budget cut-backs, location shifts, and production turnarounds, explaining the six year delay. It’s just as well. Considering the first film found its audience through rentals and television screenings, “Tremors II: Aftershocks” was destined for the video market.

In the aftermath of the first film, Earl Bassett, Valentine, and the giant worm monsters of Perfection, Nevada, gained a level of fame. However, Valentine ran off and Earl squandered what exposure he achieved. Six years later, he’s bitter and washed-up. That’s when an oil company from Mexico, themselves having a Graboid problem, enlist Earl to clear out the pests. Teaming up with young buck Grady, geologist Kate, and old friend Burt, Earl heads to Mexico, hoping to make some cash monster-hunting. The Graboids have some surprises in store though, changing the game.

The first third of “Tremors II” is about as good a sequel as fans could have asked for. Putting Earl back at zero gives him a new goal. Instead of trying to make it out of this crappy town, he’s looking for that “second chance” at success and happiness. The change of scenery, from the American desert to the green rolling hills of Mexico, was a nice touch too. The early scenes, of Earl and Grady blasting worms with remote control cars, is a good time, recapturing the sense of Southern-fried fun the first film had. Series creator S. S. Wilson is in the director’s chair this time and maintains the original’s inventive streak. There’s plenty of fun sequences here. A graboid grabs a truck by a chain, dragging it around the area. One worm swallowed a radio, so his appearance is proceeded by muffled music playing from underground. A small, funny moment has an off-screen coyote meeting a nasty fate. One of the things that made the first one fun – a breezy sense of humor and a willingness to explore the central premise – makes this sequel fun too.

The cast was such an important part of the first “Tremor’s” success. There were some losses for this sequel. Kevin Bacon was never coming back, that was certain. Reba McEntire probably didn’t have any place in a straight-to-video monster movie either. Both characters’ absences are noted, the film writing them out in smart ways. Luckily, “Aftershocks” brings back several key cast members. Fred Ward steps into the lead role. Earl is as much of a cowboy as before, being introduced here by lassoing an ostrich. Ward has lost none of his rascally charm, easily carrying the film. Most importantly, Michael Gross returns as Burt Gummer. It’s good to see Burt again. His introduction, watching war footage on a TV while a graboid head is mounted on the wall, says so much about the character. He gets some of the funniest moments in the film, such as his repeated bitching that he was not properly briefed for this adventure and had no way to know certain details. Gross remains the franchise’s MVP.

Luckily, and surprisingly, the new characters introduced in “Tremors II” are nearly as charming as the returning cast members. To make up for the lack of Bacon, Chris Gartin as Grady is brought in. Though the relationship they have is similar, Earl and Grady have a different back-and-forth. Grady is a fanboy of Earl and Burt’s shenanigans and excited by the monsters and worm blasting. The age appropriate love interest introduced for Earl is Kate, played by Helen Shaver. Shaver is cute and, despite delivering some blatant exposition, remains charming and engaging. In the final lap, when the four main characters are banding together to survive the monster attack, “Aftershocks” creates the same ensemble-driven sense of whimsical fun and adventure the first had. (The cast is extremely tight. There’s less then ten actors credited on the film’s IMDb page.)

The biggest change part two makes is to the monsters themselves. And that’s a change I don’t know how I feel about. The Graboids are revealed as the first form in a biological life cycle. The giant worms violently give birth, exploding from the inside-out, to smaller two-legged monsters. Eventually dubbed Shriekers, these monsters have a completely different physiology then the Graboids. They’re small and bipedal, with a velociraptor-style physique. The iconic Graboid-style head is kept but the creatures’ navigated different. They seek by heat, with cool sensory organs on their heads. They reproduce quickly, spitting up babies after eating enough. It removes the film’s central gimmick, less “tremors” then “pack hunters.” The Shriekers are cool looking. Watching them explode or get torn apart is fun too. However, they aren’t as novel or engaging as the Graboids. The puppet effects remain top notch. Yet shaky CGI is used several times to bring the creatures to life. That hasn’t aged well. I admire the filmmakers for deciding to do something different. That change also makes “Aftershocks” a little less pure then the first.

Still, the movie is way better then a six-years-later, direct-to-video sequel had any right to be. The result is a little less polished but the film smartly keeps what’s important about the first film. That being the charm, a creative sense of fun, monsters, and a likable cast of characters. I’m a fan. This one was endlessly replayed on cable back in the day too. Like the first, I’ve seen it many times. Somehow, its small charms remain intact. [7/10]