Saturday, November 7, 2015

SPECTRE: Or, a franchise in peril

I sat there at the conclusion of the opening pre-credits sequence, numb and confused. “What did I just watch?” Sam Mendes is a ‘serious filmmaker’ and thus he tried to do something impressive by starting the film with a nearly unbroken take taking us through the crowded streets of Mexico on the Day of the Dead (I’m guessing there’s a break somewhere we can’t see). In the process, he created something that I believe is a first for the Bond series: a suspenseless opening salvo. The only suspense here was in the waiting for something to actually get excited about, which never materialized. I had been eagerly anticipating this film for months, even more so when Christoph Waltz’s casting was announced. But less than fifteen minutes in, I was already having serious doubts. Then as the credits rolled, those doubts got much, much worse.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Anticipating Spectre: Brosnan Revisionists

There is a peculiar movement of historical revisionism afoot. People are unable to accurately remember things that happened within the last two decades, and instead spin them to whatever ends they feel best suits their chosen perspective. I’m not talking politics here, I am talking something far more important. Would James Bond still be a viable cinematic property were it not for Pierce Brosnan?

There is a growing legion of folks who seem to think that Daniel Craig saved the franchise from certain demise. These people cite the primary cause of that impending demise to be Brosnan, with a fair degree of shade thrown at the collective team behind 2002’s Die Another Day. Having just revisited the four films this week, I won’t take much issue with the latter. However, the notion behind the former is not only laughable, it is just wrong. There are five good reasons why Craig didn’t save the franchise and Brosnan wasn’t what was sinking it.

“You’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.”

And that was what audiences liked about Bond. But twenty years ago, when GoldenEye was filming, Bond was viewed as a “relic of the Cold War” by the scriptwriters themselves. The Berlin Wall had come down, the USSR had dissolved and politics had changed irrevocably during Bond’s six-year absence from the screen during much legal wrangling with MGM and following Dalton’s departure from the franchise (which sadly gave him very little to work with). They had tried a harder-edged Bond, but ironically America wasn't ready for that just yet. The future of the franchise was in real doubt. The fact that the superb GoldenEye was a success was in large part due to Brosnan. He was the producers’ first choice in 1986 until NBC head-scratchingly refused to allow Brosnan to take the part due to his Remington Steele obligations. That they were able to revisit that decision les than ten years later and get Brosnan while he was still peaking was fortuitous. But the growing contingent who trashes him ignores a simple reality: if not Brosnan, who would have saved the franchise?

I was too an important character before Craig arrived.
The rumors hold that Mel Gibson among others turned down the opportunity to revitalize the franchise. Think how that decision might have looked in the early oughts. But no top-tier actor was going to join a series with declining revenues and diminishing cache. Additionally, long-time lead producer Cubby Broccoli was of failing health and when Barbara took the lead she made it clear that the established film-making team headed by John Glen was not keeping pace with the times. Judi Dench was added as M to mirror the real life shattering of the glass cieling at MI-6 (and despite some assertions, was an integral part of The World Is Not Enough). It was going to be a period of change for the franchise, and an unknown as Bond wouldn’t do. They needed something familiar for the audiences to latch on to, and Brosnan was the one thing that made sense. Well, of course, you can always count on old Q…

Every Brosnan Film was a Blockbuster

The Dalton films both disappointed financially, with License To Kill being the lowest performing Bond film in the U.S. at $34m. But each Brosnan film made more than its predecessor, with GoldenEye shattering the $100m mark in the U.S. at a time when that number still meant something. The steady film-by-film appreciation of the box office take was not because each movie got better (in fact, many would say quite the opposite), but because the team behind the films was able to keep the franchise fresh and current, even if that meant sacrificing a bit of quality along the way. They reached out to new audiences by adding Michelle Yeoh to attract Chinese filmgoers and Halle Berry to broaden to female and non-white audience members. Regardless of what you think of each choice, the dollars rolled in. And now, can you even remember the day where the release of a new Bond film wasn't a major event?

Casino Royale was a nearly literal Fleming adaptation

If you want your man to succeed, give him good material. And in 2007, they gave Daniel Craig the best material possible: the only original Fleming novel to not have been adapted yet. Unlike instances in the past where novel titles were used as loose basis for the films (The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice being the most blatant), Casino Royale used almost the entire premise of the novel. There is a lot of exposition in the film that goes beyond that, but the core is there and more importantly, so is the emotional content. There’s a reason the best Bonds are the same on nearly every list: they were the closest adaptations of Fleming’s original works. Brosnan, on the other hand, was the only Bond to work with only scripts that were entirely original, leading to varying levels of quality and multiple levels of re-writes.

Oscar-caliber villains make a difference – and are signing on

Born to play a baddie.
In 1995, there was much hubbub about the realistic possibility that Anthony Hopkins would join a Bond film as a villain. Think about that for a moment: the mere possibility that the man who played Hannibal Lecter just four years earlier was in talks to be a Bond villain was huge. Sure, Christopher Walken was in that echelon, but A View to a Kill sure wasn’t. GoldenEye showed the possibility existed though for a quality actor to chew up some scenery. Famke Janssen was superb as Xenia Onatopp, the first henchwoman that Bond couldn’t conquer (and quite honestly we would have rather she conquered him), and Sean Bean was introduced to many Americans in fine form. But after that came a string of character actors (quick, can you name all four?) who never quite reached that level. Daniel Craig got a triumverate of accomplished thespians to square off against: Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, and Javier Bardem. Now he gets Christoph Waltz?!? A two-time Oscar winner who pretty much has shown that he was born to play a Bond villain? That is hardly fair.

Then there’s that whole Quantum of Solace thing

Unremarkable? Because I wasn't somehow disfigured?
Say all you want about Die Another Day, it is that bad. Yet it is only as bad as Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever. However, QoS is on a whole different level of horrible. I have been an ardent Bond fan since middle school and can watch any of the films over and over again and still take some joy out of them. But it took a strong amount of effort and a whole lot of alcohol to get me to sit through QoS even a second time. Unpleasant in tone and joyless in execution, the film has an unremarkable villain, a paint-by-numbers Bond girl, lackluster plot and dialogue, features an out-of-control and out-of-character Bond, and uses jump-cut action sequences that are darn near incoherent. Forster was a terrible choice as a director, and given his two-time success in the job, everything possible should have been done to get Martin Campbell back in the chair. What this clearly shows is the success of the series was no as dependent on the lead actor as it was on the complete product. Brosnan may have had one absolute dud, but he was at least batting .750 otherwise; Craig is still at .667 as of this writing.

So while I am enjoying Craig’s tenure as Bond, especially the exceptional treat that was Casino Royale, I will not do so at the expense of Pierce Brosnan. While in the role, and since moving on, Brosnan has run off a string of terrific performances showing great range including The Tailor of Panama and the front-to-back brilliant film The Matador, both of which should be considered must-see viewing. Even if Brosnan himself thinks that he was never good enough as Bond, it only shows the tremendous amount of respect he has for the character, and the extent to which he hoped to raise the profile of the series. That he is presently not remembered for having done so is not his fault, it is a combination of factors having more to do with hipster hatred for anything more than ten minutes old, and perhaps a diamond-faced Asian henchman who is better left forgotten.

But take heart Pierce: George Lazenby is seeing a resurgence of belated and overdue respect. Your time will come too.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Anticipating Spectre: The best James Bond Theme songs

I sat down to revisit the Brosnan films as a warm-up for this week’s release of Spectre. In doing so, I was reminded painfully of one of the worst periods in Bond theme music. In my teenaged years, I carried with me a cassette of 13 original James Bond themes and cherished listening to them all – the good and the bad. It is hard to fathom first of all that there have been ten more films since I owned that cassette. Harder to fathom is the mere idea that I could even stomach listening to such a compilation today. Let’s face it, a few of the more recent entries in the canon have missed the mark, but fewer still have achieved the lasting legacy that many of those of the bygone Moore/Connery era hold. So I figured, why not rank them all, worst to first, with category rankings to group them. And I'll let you know where I rank the latest some time after Friday. ;)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

In the mist, among giants

[Three days behind again... Darn it!!]

We packed up the tent for the last time this morning, leaving the camping behind to finally ease ourselves back into civilization. We left the California Redwoods yesterday after stretching our three-day trip into a fourth and headed north along the Oregon coastline, arriving at Sunset Bay State Park for a one night stopover, before continuing up to Astoria today. What a week!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The final push west...

[We're getting better! Only two days behind now!]

In the past week, we’ve gone from one set of craters to another, from one state to the next. We’re leaving Oregon today after having visited Craters of the Moon and Boise in Idaho, and stopping briefly in Bend, OR before spending the last couple of days at Crater Lake National Park. This morning, we’ll leave for our last “scenic” stop of the trip – a few days in Redwoods National Park in Northern California. Before that though, here’s the recap.