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The Dark Knight Rises and the Trilogy Trend

Friday 27th July 2012 Leave a comment

Here’s a little thing I noticed – spoilers regarding something that The Dark Knight Rises has in common with the third parts of other movie trilogies…

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 1 comment

RIDDLER: Riddle-me-this, Gothamites! What just-released movie about our Batty arch-nemesis has numerous annoying inconsistencies; strains believability irritatingly frequently; is not as good as either The Dark Knight or Batman Begins; is undeniably very flawed… but nevertheless contains some tremendously well-done, spectacular and uplifting individual moments and sequences? My friends and I will attempt to solve this quandary.

Spoilers below.

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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 1 comment

(Rewatched 22 July 2012.)

The first time I saw most of the Bond films was when ITV showed all of them over consecutive weeks in 1999, in the run up to the release if The World is Not Enough. However, even though I videotaped OHMSS at that time, it went unwatched for several years. I really regretted that, because when it was finally viewed, it turned out to be one of my favourite of all the 007 movies.

If there are three things that most people remember about OHMSS, it’s that it was George Lazenby’s one and only portrayal of James Bond, that it features one of the only instances of fourth wall-breaking in the entire series (“This never happened to the other fellow!”), and that it concludes with THAT ending. However, the movie has a lot more to recommend it than just those three things.

George Lazenby has come in for a lot of stick for his Bond performance, although both he and the film as a whole seem to be better-regarded now than when it was first released, when there was no-one but Connery to compare him to. I don’t claim to be the world’s best judge of good and bad acting, so I won’t call him “flat” – I’d say “deadpan”, I suppose. I like him in the role – particularly in his scene with Miss Moneypenny, and also in the movie’s final scene. I think that at least part of the negative reaction to him is that he spends a good proportion of the movie dubbed, which is extremely distracting and means that for that period of the film we can’t tell how Lazenby himself is delivering the lines.

There are two elements of the movie which take a backward look at all the Bond movies so far: the hourglass-themed title credits, and a scene in which Bond (in his office at MI6!!!) browses through mementos of previous cases (with accompanying musical stings). They prefigure the nostalgia-fest of Die Another Day, and seem to be included to say to viewers: “We know you don’t like losing Sean, but this guy’s still the same character – honest!” There are Bond fans who absolutely hate that cute souvenir scene, but I quite enjoy it.

Even if Lazenby himself didn’t re-invigorate the series, the screenplay (one of the closest to Fleming’s original novels) and the direction certainly did. The film is home to some of the 007 films’ best action sequences, several of which (as well as Bond’s run-in with a polar bear!) are shot in an unusual way for the series: lots of quick close-up shots of flailing limbs, each of which zoom into even closer close-ups. It’s a distinctive, energetic and exciting approach to fight scenes, even if it’s not the clearest for seeing exactly what’s going on. In addition, the climactic bobsleigh action scene is excellent, with rear-projection shots that look much less silly than the ridiculous speeded-up hydrofoil scene at the end of Thunderball.

Ski chases are a recurring breed of action sequence in the Bond series, and in this film we get not one, but two of them, both of which are brilliant. In the second of them, Blofeld brings down a flippin’ avalanche on not just our fleeing heroes, but three of his disposable underlings as well! Speaking of villains: although Irma Bunt comes across as Rosa Klebb-lite, Telly Savalas is probably the best of the Blofelds (or at least the best of the fully-seen ones; I have to admit that my primary image of the character is still that of the unseen, Dr Claw-esque, cat stroking SPECTRE Number One).

The scheme that Blofeld uses to hold the world to ransom is reminscent of the use of hypnosis in The Ipcress File, and is a lot more creative than a standard “hijacked nuke” or “space-based weapon” plot. The fact that Bond has been on the trail of Blofeld ever since the previous movie’s events, and yet Blofeld does not recognise Bond upon their meeting here, is a good example of the Bond series’ fast and loose approach to continuity – and is also a relic of the reversed order of OHMSS and YOLT when compared to the novels.

One of the unusual things about this Bond movie is that it’s the only one other than Dr No to feature an instrumental theme tune. It’s a fantastic track – good enough to be rearranged by the Propellerheads and then used by Pixar in their teaser for The Incredibles. As an action accompaniment, it’s at least as exciting as “The James Bond Theme” itself or John Barry’s “007” theme. (However, I always find it a shame that in these early Bond movies, the original recording of “The James Bond Theme” is simply overlayed onto the action. I would have liked to have heard more of John Barry incorporating tweaked rearrangements of the theme into new, bespoke scores for each action scene, as subsequent composers did.) The film also has a second theme song: Louis Armstrong’s classic “We Have All the Time in the World” was written for this movie.

And then of course, we have the tragic, inevitable ending. It’s extremely effective (especially thanks to the preceding scene, which includes some great little moments from Q, M and Moneypenny), and is easily Lazenby’s most noteworthy moment; he plays Bond’s devastated reaction well. Unfortunately I can’t help but feel that the sombre tone is undermined by that triumphant blast of the Bond theme over the “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” message.

There are some mis-steps – the aforementioned dubbing, a couple of the one-liners (like the one Lazenby dubs in after the bobsleigh fight with Blofeld), and several plot holes (which are analysed to death here, if you don’t mind a bit of excessive bold and italics usage).

But for the most part the movie is excellent fun that occupies a solid position near the very top of my Bond rankings. Incidentally, when it comes to Christmas action movies, I’d say that this one is second only to Die Hard! (Do you know how Christmas trees are grown?)

[4.5 out of 5]

Thunderball (1965)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 Leave a comment

(Rewatched 20 June 2012.)

This Bond film is remembered as The One With The Jetpack And The Health Clinic And Lots (And Lots) Of Underwater Scenes.

You see, there really is an awful lot of underwater stuff. And despite being very pretty, underwater scenes suffer from a major inherent problem: they slow everything down, and are rather limited in the sort of action they can contain. There are only so many ways you can see someone get stabbed underwater, or harpooned underwater, or eaten by a shark underwater, or have their oxygen line cut underwater before it all starts to get a mite repetitive. That’s not to say that no entertaining action takes place in those underwater scenes – just not enough to justify spending so long on them.

At least all those dialogue-free underwater scenes give us lots of opportunities to listen to John Barry’s music. Speaking of which, Tom Jones provides one of my favourite theme songs of the series. (Also, Thunderball was the movie in which Maurice Binder finally nailed down the look of Bond opening credits, after Dr No‘s abstract dots and two versions of credits projected onto bodies.)

If the underwater scenes are oh-so-slow, then there are two occasions in which the film attempts to make up for it by speeding up the action, but ends up overshooting too far and simply looking ridiculous. The first is the rack scene in the health clinic; the second is the hydrofoil climax, spoiled by lots of speeded-up back-projected stock footage. The fight during that scene also contains several continuity errors (at one point Largo instantly switches from piloting the ship to facing the opposite direction in order to punch Bond) – it’s nowhere near the standard of the incredible train fight from From Russia With Love. As for some of the other action scenes: the jetpack escape is memorable, but pretty tame by today’s standards, while I didn’t find the Mardi Gras chase very exciting at all.

The story – SPECTRE using stolen atomic bombs to hold the world to ransom – is pretty much the epitome of a Bond movie plot. Nothing wrong with that; it’s nice and straightforward! The problem is that it’s not really enough to sustain the first 007 film to break the two hour mark: it takes a long time to get going, with a pre-credits sequence unrelated to the main story, followed by the health spa scenes which take a while for Bond to uncover his leads.

Things only really start to pick up in the scenes showing how the bad guys executed their theft of the nukes, which are some of my favourite in the film. The movie also gives us one of the series’ best SPECTRE meetings, complete with Blofeld (at this point still only identified as “Number One”) doing that You Have Failed Me For The Last Time thing to one of his underlings. Great stuff, on a great Ken Adam set! Sadly, Largo isn’t a villain who makes much of an impression – he wouldn’t be at all memorable without his eyepatch. The villain/henchman pairings in this movie aren’t exactly Rosa Klebb/Red Grant or Goldfinger/Oddjob.

The storytelling might not be up to much, but the script contains some of the cuter quips in the Bond series: “Mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead!” Really fun Q scene, as well.

[3 out of 5]

Blade (1998)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 1 comment

(Watched for the first time, 16 June 2012.)

It’s easy to split the history of superhero films into two eras: “Before Batman & Robin”, and “After Batman & Robin”. Broadly speaking, after the excellent first Superman movie there was a gradual decline through successive Superman and Batman sequels, until Joel Schumacher hit the absolute nadir that was his second Bat-Film. (You might say he deconstructed the genre, ha ha.) After that, the Modern Superhero Film began to rebuild itself. First, it sheepishly tried to distance itself from its origins with things like X-Men (“What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”), but then, as it became the decade’s dominant action film genre, it gradually learned to embrace and take pride in its own comic bookiness, until we hit The Avengers fourteen years later.

The starting point of that revival was 1998’s Blade.

Watching it for the first time now, it’s an OK action film. A few memorable images (such as the blood shower scene at the start), some decent action sequences (nice payoff with Blade’s booby-trapped sword), some dated special effects, lots of gratuitous swearing and gory executions (“See,” it tries to say, “this isn’t your average funny-book movie!”) and lots of bog-standard exposition. It’s also far too long.

Blade himself isn’t a particularly appealing character – the way his plight is portrayed here isn’t much more nuanced than it was when the character appeared in the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon series. N’Bushe Wright’s haematologist is a far more sympathetic protagonist.

I think I’ve been spoilt by the likes of Buffy/Angel and Being Human, because the “vampire factions in-fighting and talking about how people are cattle” in this movie didn’t interest me in the slightest.

There are lots of dated flashy speed-ramping editing tricks throughout. Unfortunately, although Wesley Snipes can no doubt handle the martial arts perfectly well, he’s let down by some ridiculous undercranking in several of the action scenes (even more obvious than the sparring scene in Equilibrium).

The movie’s climax, involving blood from a sacrifice running along stone channels into a giant circular room in order to resurrect an apocalyptic demon, reminded me of the first Hellboy movie. (Which was, of course, directed by Guillermo del Toro, the director of Blade 2.) It would have had even more in common with Hellboy’s climax if, instead of concluding with martial arts combat, it had gone with the “Lovecraftian monster” battle that was originally shot for the film.

2.5/5

Escape From New York (1981)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 Leave a comment

(Watched for the first time, 16 June 2012.)

Snake? Snake? Snaaaaaake! (Da da de dadada – da da DAH!)

I don’t feel any particular affection for the musclebound he-man action movies of the ’80s. It takes something of the quality of a Terminator or a Die Hard (or at the very least a Predator) to win my heart. This one, I was disappointed to find, didn’t.

The high concept – “New York is a giant prison!” – is great, but from that premise, I could predict the broad strokes of how it would play out: there would be rival factions, and rampaging feral people. Most of the obstacles placed in Our Antihero’s way I just found tedious: oh look! a gladiatorial fight to the death, here we go again.

That was my biggest problem with the movie: I’ve seen its concepts and production design elements duplicated so many times that it was hard for this setting to capture my imagination. I knew in advance that the film was the origin of numerous sci-fi dystopia tropes (in particular, it ranks alongside Aliens and The Matrix as part of videogame developers’ very small pool of setting and design influences). But although I could appreciate the movie for being such an influential source, I didn’t get as much enjoyment from it as I expected.

What did I notice as I watched the film playing “spot the influence”? Well, I was well aware of the Metal Gear!? series’ debt to the movie – but I didn’t realise that Perfect Dark swiped its Air Force One presidential escape pod from here too! And it wasn’t just video games that the movie affected, either: after I’d watched the scene in which Snake gets injected with devices that will kill him within a time limit, I wasn’t surprised to learn that William Gibson had acknowledged the movie as an influence on Neuromancer.

Few of the characters really made much of an impression on me, and even fewer of them earned my sympathies. I didn’t find much humour in the movie, unless you count giggling at the fact that the whole thing looked like a hair metal video.

None of that would matter so much if the movie had really outstanding action to make up for it, but punches never convincingly connect, and gunfire has no recoil. (Having said that, there’s a pretty tense sequence in which the protagonists’ car is attacked by people lining the route on either side.)

Since watching the film I’ve read several reviews – such as this – that praise the movie for its (and Carpenter’s) nihilsim, cynicism and general anarchic subersiveness. Personally I couldn’t see much that could be read into the setting or characters’ actions that was particularly profound or revolutionary. (Although no doubt some people could write whole essays on the metaphors at play when the film concludes with a white President gunning down a black character attempting to escape from his predicament…)

There were a few bits I enjoyed: the atmospheric buildup as Snake wanders through the city with no-one in sight (except for the occasional shadow running past an alleyway) was good; good enough to overcome my natural aversion to ’80s synths! I also enjoyed getting fooled by the surprise turnaround as the woman I assumed would be Snake’s female ally got bumped off as soon as she was introduced. (It’s a shame that the only female character to appear later does absolutely nothing at all except show off her chest.)

2.5/5

The Fountain (2007)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 1 comment

Rewatched 22 April 2012.

Really enjoyed this film when I saw it at the cinema; rather less impressed rewatching it now. For one thing, the film’s Hollywood Cancer, Hollywood Medical Research, and Hollywood Dialogue bothered me more than they did last time. Fortunately, the excellent music makes it easy to forgive issues with the film.

There’s no question that the film contains an immense quantity of interlinked and repeated images and motifs. The question is whether they add up to anything meaningful, or whether Darren Aronofsky just threw as many motifs at the screen as possible and watched to see how many of them would stick. I have seen readings of the film that do manage to sort it out into a coherent whole, so I lean toward the former.

3.5/5

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