Licence to Kill (1989)

Monday 8th April 2013 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time since I last watched Licence to Kill, that most ’80s-ish of the ’80s Bond movies. In my memory it’s always been one of my least favourite entries in the entire series. I’m pleased to say that upon today’s rewatch, I enjoyed it a lot more, and can now honestly say I like it – even if I still don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as Dalton’s preceding film The Living Daylights.

The plane-hooking opening sequence is fun (just look at that shot of Felix Leiter and his DEA allies’ slow-mo charge forward – see, told you it was oh-so-’80s!), but the movie doesn’t really start to get good until Bond discovers the very brutal thing that happened to Felix Leiter and his new wife. The idea of Bond going rogue on a personal mission outside of MI6 is a good one, but not enough is really made of it. Unlike something like the later Mission: Impossible, it doesn’t feel like Bond’s former allies could be just as much of an obstacle as the bad guys: a while after Bond’s “with one bound he was free” escape in the scene with M, one agent turns up angry at him, then immediately dies, and that’s pretty much it. Bond’s licence to kill is revoked, but this has absolutely no effect on his ability to proceed to kill just as many people as ever. He even still gets to have Q helping him – in one of that character’s biggest roles, in fact!

Having said that, it’s not quite true to say that this might as well be an officially sanctioned mission: I really like the neat plotting of the way Bond’s solo quest for vengeance screws up two other groups’ attacks on Sanchez. The way 007 effectively fuels Sanchez’s concerns about betrayal within his organisation is also good, and the length of time Sanchez remains oblivious to the fact that Bond is his enemy makes for an extremely unusual Bond movie. Overall, perhaps because so much of the movie is kept relatively grounded and low-key, the plotting generally (with a few exceptions) progresses more logically than it does in most Bond films. (Everyone: for some excellent commentary on story structure points like this, go and read Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes on the movie. It is indeed the “knifiest Bond ever”!)

The sequence with Bond sneaking around Krest’s operation is a good one; the “maggot coffin” is a fun baddie takedown, and the scene has a satisfying conclusion thanks to how Bond kills Felix’s betrayer. (The way Sanchez dies at the end of the movie – hey, it’s a Bond film, it’s not a spoiler to say that! – is also one of the most satisfying in the entire series.)

The film contains two very good action sequences, the harpoon-plane-waterskiing (featuring gunfire to that da-dada-da-da Bond theme rhythm!) and the concluding tanker chase. They easily make up for the crap bar brawl (noteworthy only for the swordfish bit) and ninja attack. (Ninjas… who are Hong Kong narcotics agents? Mixing up your nations of the Orient a little bit there, aren’t you, writers?) The section inside Sanchez’ smuggling base ranks somewhere in between: the conveyer belt fight against Benicio del Toro is nice and tense, but the setting seems even more Made Of Explodium than the hotel in Quantum of Solace.

As it’s a revenge story, it’s understandable that Timothy Dalton’s performance would be more downbeat than it was in The Living Daylights. But, combined with a general lack of memorable dialogue for him, it does mean that I find him much less fun to watch in this movie than in his first one, which may be a big part of the reason why I like it a lot less. The two Bond girls are also far from the greatest of characters or performances.

(A ridiculously minor nit-picky point, which doesn’t really belong in a review but I want to moan about it anyway: one of the baddies kills Bond’s DEA ally and says, “Guess what? His name was Sharkey!” The emphasis in that sentence has always felt like it’s on the wrong word, as if he’s simply confirming that his name was what he already thought it would be, rather than drawing attention to the irony of his cause of death. For similar reasons, I get disproportionately annoyed with a likewise mis-delivered line in The Matrix: “The image translators work for the Construct program…”)

[003 out of 005]

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Monday 11th March 2013 Leave a comment

The Fountain.
Magnolia.
Adaptation.
Synecdoche, New York.
A Cock and Bull Story.
The Hours.
Memento.

Look, I admit it – I’m a sucker for cinematic experiments in metafiction and form. Such movies tend to attract critics’ comments like, “All this self-referentiality, not-too-subtle thematic interlinking, and chronological jumbling are mere gimmicks; once you’ve solved the superficial puzzle-box, there’s little of substance to them. They’re not really as profound or interesting as they think they are – they exist only as exercises for writers and directors to smugly say, ‘Look how clever I am!'”

But for me, that clever-clever self-referentiality, not-too-subtle thematic interlinking, chronological jumbling, and puzzle-solving is exactly what wins me over. (Usually.) And it certainly worked in the case of Cloud Atlas!

I have not read David “Not The One From Peep Show” Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, but before going to see the film, The Fountain was the reference point I had in mind. And sure enough, of the above examples, The Fountain is the film that it most resembles, in its cross-cutting between vastly different time periods in order to emphasise symbolic links between events and characters.

I enjoyed the film very much. The 2144 segment was always going to have the most immediate appeal for someone primarily interested in this film because of the Wachowskis’ involvement, and it’s a relief to see that they have lost none of their flair for action direction. (If, indeed, it was the siblings and not Tykwer who directed that segment’s action scenes: the end credits suggest that they did, but interview comments1 suggest that the credits give a misleading impression of how distinctly the film’s directorial responsibilities were divided.) However, all the stories had something to recommend them (the humour of the 2012 segment; the conspiracy of the ’70s thriller; the interaction between Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent’s characters in the 1930s), so that I was rarely disappointed when the film interrupted a story I was enjoying to switch to another one. The abruptness of the transitions between the different stories’ tones and genres was also something that appealed to me rather than a disorientating irritation. Overall I found it a very well-paced movie, flowing along about as well as any non-linear three hour movie ever could. (Although I could have done with a few less solemn, pseudo-profound statements about interconnectedness in the voiceovers.)

Many people have complained of being distracted by the make-up, and Tom Hanks’ attempts at certain accents – it’s true that I was distracted by those things too, but with only a couple of exceptions, keeping an eye out for the different roles each actor took on was an enjoyable distraction.

Hugo Weaving has said in interviews that roles in mainstream blockbusters no longer really appeal to him as an actor. If that means he won’t be doing any more of them, then at least we have Cloud Atlas to represent the ultimate culmination of all his villain-portraying! (Although: yeah, he does resemble the Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh at one point…)

[4 out of 5]

1 See Lana Wachowski’s comment in this AV Club interview:

We keep trying to explain to people that, first of all, the credit you see in the movie was this kooky thing invented by the Director’s Guild, because they couldn’t understand how three people could direct a movie together. And they have this convention that the only way directors can be multiply credited on a film is if it’s an anthology, so they invented this bizarre credit to allow their rules to make sense for our film.

Halo 4

Monday 28th January 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve had Halo 4 for about three weeks now, and played through it once on Heroic and the first four levels on Legendary, and in multiplayer I have reached SR35. Impressions so far: it’s a great Halo campaign, but not my favourite – at the moment I don’t think it’s quite as good as Halo 3 or Reach. I didn’t mind playing as the Rookie ODST or Noble Six, but as someone who believes that Halo games’ storylines are of tertiary concern to their gameplay mechanics and level designs, I was surprised by how pleased I was to have the Chief and Cortana back.

Unfortunately, in Halo 4 there isn’t as much close-range fighting with Elites as I’d like, I’m not too impressed with the Promethean Knights, and time will tell how replayable the levels are. (The developers seem to have done less to encourage players to replay the campaign this time – although they’ve added a “personal bests” system to the website, the removal of Bungie’s “metagame” score/time attack system feels like a huge loss to me, and Campaign Challenges refresh much less frequently than they did in Reach.) At the moment my best-to-worst ranking of the campaigns is something like: Combat Evolved/Anniversary > Halo Reach > Halo 3 > Halo 4 > ODST > Halo 2.

Multiplayer is good, but when it comes to loadouts, surprisingly I’m not sure I like having quite so much freedom to choose weapons, armour abilities, and tactical/support packages – unlike Reach’s limited selection of presets, there’s so much freedom in 4’s loadout system that I seem to spend more time umming and ahhing and worrying about whether I’ve picked the right combination of tools than I do simply getting on with playing! However, unlike some players, I don’t have a problem with not knowing what opponents are using – it’s simply the choice of what to pick for my own loadout that bothers me!

I’m not too impressed with Spartan Ops; the mission objectives aren’t that interesting, and the unlimited lives means it feels like there are no stakes to anything – you’re just brute forcing your way through. Pretty cutscenes and bespoke voice acting are really no replacement for the customisability, Skulls, Scoring and Lives of Firefight. (A Halo mode without Grunt Birthday Party? Now that’s just wrong!)

Here are some more detailed comments about different aspects of the game…

PRESENTATION

Interesting that for the game’s menu system they’ve gone back to the chunky, screen-filling rectangular panels of the original game, when every game after Halo 2 has used a system of small text menus. Maybe it was mandated by Microsoft, for consistency with the tile-based Metro design of the dashboard? It’s an OK change, but in the pre-match lobbies, I preferred the way players and information were displayed in Reach.

Annoyingly, Challenge and Commendation XP earnings aren’t shown in the post-match XP breakdown, even though that seems to be the point when they’re added to your total. Can’t imagine why that was omitted!

In Reach, the Commendation screens displayed your overall totals for each type of action. In Halo 4, it only shows you the total number you’ve done within your current proficiency level, so you have to go to the website to see your true overall total – not a change for the better, in my opinion.

When you press the Back button to bring up the scoreboard in multiplayer games, you can no longer move while it’s displayed. It also no longer shows which players are in Party Chat like it did before. And when highlighting a player you want to review or mute, you can’t use the right stick – you have to switch to the D-pad. WTF is up with that – holding Back and using the D-pad do not go well together!

What do you mean, saved screenshots don’t get uploaded to the Waypoint website the way Halo 3 and Reach screenshots used to go on Bungie.net? A minor thing, but a step backwards from something that, back in Halo 3, was so innovative for a console game. 😦 In fact, even with the background video disabled I find the Waypoint website as a whole (which I think uses Silverlight?) much slower and more awkward than Bungie’s less flashy, but faster and more usable version.

The Saved Films system has taken a few steps back from previous games – not least because unlike Halo 3 and Reach it no longer shows clip lengths, only file sizes, which is information that’s less front-and-centre and less useful to know. After a good match, it’s quick enough to save a video from Temporary Files to Local Files – but because you can’t choose what name/description to give it, you then have to dig into the map list and find the video in order to give it a more unique description. Then you choose Save to give it a more descriptive name – but it doesn’t rename it, it saves a copy of it. So in order to delete the unwanted duplicate, you have to check the exact save time and file size of both copies (which would be easier if you could compare running times) before deleting the unwanted one. These are minor things, but again, they represent backward steps from Reach (whose file browser system wasn’t perfect either, admittedly).

I loved the Reach level Long Night of Solace, but one thing that kept putting me off replaying it was those long, unskippable cutscenes as it transitioned between the on-foot and space combat sections. (Same way the unskippable end sequence sometimes put me off replaying the original Halo level The Maw.) I haven’t yet replayed Halo 4’s levels enough to tell, but I do hope that it won’t turn out to contain cutscenes as gratuitously unskippable as that…

WEAPONS, ARMOUR ABILITIES, LOADOUTS

New Halo game, new grenade arc to get used to! This time you have to aim much higher than ever before, and I still haven’t got the hang of it…

Farewell, plasma rifle, needle rifle, and plasma repeater – never the most useful guns, but ones I always enjoyed using. The Storm Rifle seems like an alternate version of the Plasma Repeater, and I haven’t really found it very useful yet. Likewise, the Suppressor seems less effective than the human Assault Rifle.

I was a fan of the Grenade Launcher from Reach, and although it’s a shame that the sticky detonator loses the EMP effect, the fact it comes with its own radar screen is a lovely touch that can be very useful.

I like the Hard Light Shield much better than Armour Lock in Reach! It loses the satisfying boosting-vehicle-smashing capability, but because players using it are still mobile, it doesn’t bring gameplay to a halt in the same way. And because it’s only effective against attacks from certain angles and delays shield recharging, its strengths and weaknesses are better-balanced. Also, it seems to be the only decent defence against the ridiculous Incinerator Cannon that I’ve found so far…

The Thruster armour ability puts a nice little twist on fighting the Hunters in the penultimate Campaign mission, but at first I didn’t find it very useful in multiplayer: it doesn’t have the speed or range of Evade from Halo Reach, and it recharges far too slowly to use it more than once in any one gunfight. But then I realised that it’s not so much a tool for throwing off an enemy’s shooting/reload/melee rhythm (the Hard Light Shield is the thing for that), and more a defensive tool to escape behind cover when you have no chance of winning a fight. I’ve found it particularly useful on Abandon, where you can fall off one of the high building’s ledges and then Thruster-boost through a ground level doorway.

I like the mechanism used for the Boltshot charge and the Railgun – you have a bit more freedom to choose when to release them than you do with the Spartan Laser, but you can’t just hold it down and wait for something to touch your crosshairs like you can with the Plasma Pistol. (The Plasma Pistol runs down far too quickly for my liking, but I suppose that was how they chose to balance out the fact you can spawn with it.)

CAMPAIGN

Grunts’ backpacks don’t explode any more! 😦 BOOOOO!

The game may look lovely, but it feels less solid than in previous games. Lots of people seem to have had problems with dropped guns disappearing at annoying times – an example of developers needing to cut corners now they’re beginning to push the Xbox 360 too hard?

The Warthog engine sounds a bit weedy in this game…

Jackal snipers and Crawlers with Binary Rifles represent something of a return to the dark days of Halo 2. Oh well, at least this time glowy red things appear over their heads while they prepare to shoot, so you can place your headshots better than you could in Halo 2.

I played through the first mission on Legendary, reached the low-gravity section of the level, died a lot, quit out. Resumed it the next day, and when I shot one of the Jackal snipers, his Beam Rifle floated all the way over to me, and with its help I finished the level in one life – and now the Halo Waypoint website counts that as a Flawless completion, with a best mission time of 10 minutes! I really am not a fan of misleadingly corrupted stats such as that.

At first I thought that way the Jackal sniper’s gun floated over to me in that incident was a remarkable, rare event, but then I read this post by Lothar Hex on Rllmukforum, and since he experienced the same thing, now I suspect that that specific gun may be scripted to preferentially float in the player’s direction:

However I just remembered something from my Legendary playthrough that made me realise why I fucking love the Halo games. On the very first level when you exit the ship, I was fighting some enemies at distance, when I ran out of ammo, I backtracked and discovered a Covie sniper rifle lying near my start position and used it to clear out the enemies. On further playthrough I was looking for this rifle but it never appeared again. Then I realised what had happened. I had taken out the guy with the rifle, and due to the game’s low gravity the Jackal’s death throes had actually launched the rifle towards me because of the area’s low gravity. It just went to illustrate that you can play the game so many times, and the fights will almost never be exactly the same each time. Yes even though games like MOH and COD will have enemies who may try and flank, they are most designed around big set pieces. Halo is design in putting smart enemies in areas of a level and seeing what happens. That situation with the rifle may be a minor example, but the way my battle had turned out combined with the area’s physics and the enemies reactions to my action threw up a little scenario that I doubt could be reproduced so easily.

Elites in this game didn’t really make a huge impression on me. They seem to have a stance that makes them appear narrower than in earlier games, which differentiates them a bit from the broader Promethean Knights. But their behaviour didn’t stand out to me – largely, I think, because most of the combat in the game seemed to take place at longer range than in most other Halos. I’ll try a few missions with Mythic on, to see how they behave when they hang around for longer.

You know in mission 2, Requiem, where as you climb up the tower Cortana says “the Elites have issued a general alert – we’re about to have our hands full”, and then there are four grunts and a Sword Elite who rushes at you? I had to retry that checkpoint many times on Legendary, and found that by timing my sidestep away from the Sword Elite just right, we would continue circle-strafing around each other indefinitely (or until I meleed him a few times, unopposed). That’s not something I ever remember doing in previous Halo games, but here I was able to do it pretty consistently most times I restarted the checkpoint. I wish you could still use Theatre mode in Campaign, because it’s something I’d probably put on my File Share! (But I tried doing the same with a sword Elite I encountered in Spartan Ops, and he seemed to keep doing sword lunges that I couldn’t avoid. Different rank, different behaviour, maybe?)

Those Promethean Crawler dogs are really satisfying to kill with single headshots – just as satisfying as the balloon-like POP that Flood spores made in the original Halo (but only the original). Like Flood spores, their role is to harass rather than really threaten you, but unlike the spores they can do so at range, which is a change that works well. (Annoying that the ones with Light or Binary Rifles can sometimes one-hit-kill you on Legendary, though – but fortunately that orange glow usually gives you some warning.)

I was much less impressed with the Promethean Knights. They remind me of Halo 2 Brutes in their lack of feedback to weapon impacts. I’m normally a fan of flashy digital/Matrix code effects (like the way enemies dissolve in MGS2 Substance’s VR Missions), but in this case it didn’t work for me. There’s just not enough of a visible difference when a Knight’s shield is up or down. Not sure what I think of their teleporting attack – it mixes their attacks up in a good way, but unless you’ve got a close-range weapon like a shotgun, it can result in some cheap-feeling deaths.

Overall, although I like the Crawlers and Watchers, the Knights just aren’t differentiated enough from Elites for me – and they certainly don’t have as much character (no equivalent of “wort wort wort”!). Perhaps it’s time for Halo to introduce an enemy type that reverses the “plasma against shields, ballistic against flesh” mechanic (so you’d have to switch to a plasma weapon for an effective finisher, instead of a human bullet headshot), and the Prometheans’ digital nature could have provided a decent excuse for them to behave like that – a missed opportunity?

This post by Aimless on Rllmukforum pretty much sums of the Campaign’s combat for me:

Whilst I definitely rate the campaign highly, I don’t really enjoy fighting the Prometheans.

Crawlers are okay by me: they traverse the environment in a unique way but can be dispatched easily with precision weapons, so they bring a new dynamic to combat. Functionally Watchers are also interesting, although I think they miss a trick by not really requiring a specific approach; as far as I can tell they don’t have a weakspot or a particular vulnerability, so it’s just a case of shooting them with whatever.

For me the Knights are the real disappointment. Fundamentally they require a similar strategy to Elites — pop shield, go for the head — but I think they screw with the dynamic by teleporting away when you’re going in for the kill plus they don’t have the same level of feedback that an Elite’s gradual shield glow, and eventual pop, have. If I’m missing something then hopefully someone can fill me in, but as it stands I don’t really see what they bring to the table other than annoyance; on Legendary the shotgun variant strikes me as particularly cheap.

This is a bit of a tangent, but something I love about the original Halo is that even on Legendary you can take down a Hunter with a single magnum round in the right place. Now I agree they probably should be a little bit more resilient, but the thing I’ve always enjoyed most about the series’ combat is that when you know how to handle them any individual enemy is fairly trivial, the challenge arising from picking apart mixed groups, constantly adapting your approach based on the composition of hostile forces. Whilst this is largely true of Halo 4 — Grunts still only need a headshot, Jackals the one-two to hand and head — I often felt like the only particular strategy the Knights encouraged was “hold on to a power weapon, and don’t put it down or it’ll disappear”.

Here’s another quote from a Rllmukforum post (this one by Kayin Amoh) about something I too experienced in the Banshee sections on Heroic and Legendary:

Although I will say this – if you get into a banshee on Legendary, what happens is ridiculous. Enemies who’ll happily let you snipe them from range (AI at range can be a bit iffy, simply standing around as you pick off their buds) will all – and I mean ALL – immediately turn in your direction and turn you into a melted slagpile within seconds. It’s insane.

I find Banshees less fun in this game than they were before, and not just because of the enemies’ targeting priority: you can’t hover very well, and you can’t fly up as vertically as you could before.

STORY

With rare exceptions (Second Sight comes to mind), I’m not a player who attaches too much importance to videogames’ storylines. Generally, all I need in an action game’s plot are are excuses for it to send me to a variety of memorable settings, to fight enemies in varied ways. The Halo games generally do that very well, but it’s not a universe that I have much interest in pursuing in in media other than videogames.

Having said that, the specific trappings of Halo 4’s plot were rather less appealing than those of previous Halo games. Like the Ark of Halo 3, Requiem is a much less interesting Big Dumb Object than the Halo rings were. The Didact makes a much more generic antagonist than eccentric old 343 Guilty Spark, and the Composer’s activation seems a much less urgent threat than the Halos firing, or Reach getting obliterated. To me, the Master Chief’s aim of getting Cortana back to Halsey to fix her rampancy seemed a more interesting reason to hurry along than yet another “It’s The End Of The Universe As We Know It”.

I don’t really like seeing what the Forerunners looked like. The fact that they were unknowable long-dead creatures, communicating only through their Monitors and the glyphs and architecture they left behind, added a lot to the atmosphere of level exploration in Halo games. I preferred that to finding out that one of them is still around, and basically just looks like Lord Voldemort… 😦

MULTIPLAYER

The announcer’s pronounciation of “LAWST” annoys me every time!

The two Regicide modes are great fun – better than standard free for all.

As for the maps… I seem to have a lot of success on Abandon (especially whenever I get a SAW in an ordnance drop, mwahahahahah!) I don’t mind playing a lot of Ragnarok, but I’m not keen on the way Haven seems to get selected every time it’s an option. Complex feels a bit like Powerhouse from Reach, but I’m not sure it’s as good.

Iron Man (2008)

Monday 24th December 2012 Leave a comment

This film happened to start on TV shortly after I’d finished rewatching The Iron Giant, and it amused me to make a double-bill of two such similarly-titled films. 🙂

The key to the movie’s success is, of course, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. He delivers offhand jokes, almost to himself, in ways that make it feel like he’s improvising while everyone else is sticking to a screenplay,* and it’s simply a lot of fun watching him on-screen – especially in scenes alongside Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Terrence Howard makes a much better Col. Rhodes than Don Cheadle did in the sequel; it’s much more believable that he’d be Tony Stark’s friend.

As Tony Stark’s buddy Film Crit Hulk once pointed out, it’s nice that here’s a summer blockbuster in which the action is the least interesting part. In that blog post, the all-caps critic also says, “EVERYONE SEEMED LOVE THAT IT SPENT SO LONG BEFORE TONY ACTUALLY BECOME ‘IRON MAN’ SO THEY GET EXPERIENCE ALL THE GREAT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TO GET THERE. EVERYONE LAUDED THE FUN SENSE OF ADVENTURE THAT CAME FROM HIM ACTUALLY BUILDING THE SUIT”, and I completely agree: the section where Tony gets back to the US and carries out his first experiments with building the suit is perhaps my favourite sequence in the movie. (Yeah, OK, I admit that a lot of it has to do with the way it appeals to the gadget-nerd techno-fetishist in me.) All good superhero origin movies should contain a scene where our hero first experiences the joy of what their superpowers allow them to do (see for example Superman running alongside that Smallville train, or even Neo grinning as he spars with Morpheus), and the test flight of the Iron Man Mk. II suit is one of the very best.

Something I find interesting is the way that the film both has its cake and eats it: it’s based around the idea of a warmonger coming over to the side of the peaceniks, and yet also contains gleeful scenes of t’rr’rist-slaughter which are pure right-wing hawk revenge-fantasy. (I admit I do find some of the film’s depictions of the Bad Brown People fairly uncomfortable at times.)

I do wonder if the little bit of non-linearity that opens the film was only included because of a belief that the audience would grow restless unless the movie opened with a bang. Whatever the reason: I’ve always found that little piece of “how we got here” flashbacking very effective. The high-altitude icing problem setup and payoff also works similarly well (it’s to the film’s benefit that it’s not the final thing that defeats the villain), even if it’s not exactly subtle.

I’ve never read it, but the most famous Iron Man comics storyline is Demon In A Bottle, which tackles Stark’s alcoholism. The Marvel Studios movies haven’t adapted this on-screen yet, and it doesn’t sound like they will do any time soon. This makes a nice change from the way Fox approached X-Men 3 and Sony approached Spider-Man 3: rushing to hit the most famous comics storylines and characters as soon as possible, then getting greedy and cramming too many of them into one movie. Having said that, we do get several sequel-setups: Rhodey’s “Next time, baby” line is a little too cheesy for me, the Ten Rings hints are OK, and as for that post-credits epilogue… I can’t remember if it had been spoiled for me in advance of seeing the movie back in 2008, but I remember thinking that although it was a fun tease, it was something that would almost certainly never come to pass. It’s really quite wonderful to think that the thing set up in that cameo not only happened at all, but actually matched my very high expectations!

[4 out of 5]

* OK, admittedly Downey mumbles a lot of the best lines so you could easily miss them. But its nowhere near as bad as his mumbling in the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes – inaudible dialogue from the lead character is pretty much all I remember of that movie…

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Monday 12th November 2012 Leave a comment

This film contains “I am the Walrus”, my favourite Beatles song, and therefore, by extension, my favourite piece of music by anyone ever. “The Fool on the Hill” ain’t half bad, either, and if “Your Mother Should Know”, “Flying” and the title song are more minor tracks by the band, they’re not unpleasant. (Never been keen on “Blue Jay Way”, though, although it does effectively convey a disconcerting atmosphere.)

So the music video aspects of the film work well enough – the problem is pretty much everything else.

The plot: Ringo and his aunt get on a coach for an outing to an unknown location. (I wonder if the presence of Ringo’s aunt was intended to be reminiscent of Wilfred Brambell’s role as Paul’s Grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night?) The passengers observe some bizarre events, and some wizards up in the clouds observe the coach’s progress. (Those wizards were the main thing I remembered about the film from when I watched it as a kid, but it turns out that they’re only in it for about two minutes.)

Hilarity ensues!

… Except it, er, doesn’t.

Some of the sketches would be called Pythonesque if not for the fact that a) the film was made almost two years before the first episode of Flying Circus was broadcast, and b) they’re not funny. (There is something of The Meaning of Life’s Mr Creosote in the spaghetti scene, and Victor Spinetti’s incomprehensible drill sergeant is very much like a stock Python character.)

A couple of John Lennon’s brief snippets of narration hint at the sometimes hilarious wordplay in his books “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works”. For example, one line of dialogue in the film is followed by the narrator’s storytelling addition “… he said”, and I like his deadpan uncertainty over whether there are “four or five magicians” (perhaps prefiguring Yellow Submarine’s “Once upon a time, or maybe twice”). But these snippets appear rarely and don’t last more than a sentence or two – I wanted more of them!

One bit that is mildy amusing is the cut from Ringo’s Aunt daydreaming of a romance with Buster Bloodvessel, to the reality of the man drearily droning on and on. (Only mildy amusing, though.)

Late in the movie, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band turn up to provide the soundtrack to a stripper’s performance (“CENSORED”), and to some extent they outshine the Beatles in their own movie.

In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney’s main defence of the film is to say “Where else are you going to see a performance of ‘I Am the Walrus’?” but he also makes the claim that he’d heard that “people like Steven Spielberg” saw it in film school and were impressed/influenced by it. I’ve always been skeptical of that claim… but then, in the Arena documentary that accompanied the BBC’s October 2012 broadcast of the film, who should turn up but Martin Scorsese, confirming that he for one genuinely thinks it’s a remarkable film.

Some of the talking heads in that documentary remark on how the film’s approach of drawing upon avant-garde* experimental influences (lack of plot or script, Ringo Starr messing about with lenses in his role as Director of Photography(!), random shots of cheering crowds) and filtering them through working-class Liverpudlian childhood nostalgia (a charabanc coach trip) is representative of exactly what the Beatles did so successfully in much of their music. These are good points – at least until the moment the doc gets Macca attempting to tie MMT’s experimentality to Un Chien Andalou, which is just a little bit of a stretch. (And of course the documentary illustrated the comparison with THAT shot – ARRGGHHH!)

So it’s not a good film. But the story behind it is interesting for what it says about where the Beatles were at that point – after Brian Epstein’s death and dominating the world with Sgt Pepper, they were casting about wildly for new ideas, which eventually led to them going off to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and founding Apple and trying to make a fly on the wall documentary about themselves, and we all know what happened with that. So the film’s scriptless nature is nicely representative of all that – but it doesn’t really make for a very fun film to watch.

[2.5 out of 5]

* “French for bullshit”, I think someone once said. I wonder who?

Categories: Films, Music, Reviews Tags: ,

Skyfall (2012)

Monday 5th November 2012 2 comments

Obviously Skyfall was never going to surpass From Russia With Love as my favourite of the series (what could?), but I was hopeful that it could rank alongside my other favourites: GoldenEye, Casino Royale, and OHMSS. Judging by this first viewing, I’d say it does – which means that The Living Daylights is finally edged out of my top 5. (Sorry, Timmy!)

Spoilers below.

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Moonraker (1979)

Monday 10th September 2012 Leave a comment

(Rewatched 11 August 2012)

Sometimes I wish Roger Moore would come back
With an underwater car or some kind of jetpack
Or a hover-gondola and a Union Jack

Joe Cornish, “The Something of Boris” (an Adam and Joe’s Song Wars entry)

As Cinebro’s review illustrates, “silly” is the operative word when you’re talking about this film. But there’s nothing wrong with silliness; silliness can be very funny, if it’s done well. So although I remembered Moonraker as being by far the worst Bond movie, this time, I went into it hoping to be able to judge it more generously – approaching it with some optimism that it would succeed as a daft spy comedy rather than fail as a spy adventure.

Unfortunately, I think very little of the comedy in this is done well. Forget comparing it to The Naked Gun – this isn’t even Spy Hard.

I’ll start with some positives. The cable car action sequence is good (even if at first, the camera positions in the wheel house set confusingly make it look like Jaws is following Bond and Goodhead down from the top, rather than coming up from the bottom on the opposite car). And I like the look of Drax’s construction facility as Bond flies over it at the start of the film. In fact, Ken Adam’s sets are consistently one of the best things about this film – although I may just be saying that because twenty years later they inspired the brilliant Aztec mission in the GoldenEye videogame!

The movie’s pre-title sequence is based around a fantastic parachute stunt sequence – which, unfortunately, is undermined when it concludes with a wacky bit involving a circus big top, and a bizarre transition into the film’s opening credits (falling umbrellas WTF!). Jaws’ appearance in this opening also undermines the later scene in which he’s introduced by walking through a metal detector, which is genuinely fun (an example of the film succeeding in the tone it aims for), and would have made a much better introductory scene for the character. Speaking of Jaws, I have to admit I’m quite fond of the two moments in the film where Bond and Jaws meet and acknowledge each other with a smile before they begin fighting.

What surprised me on this viewing is just how little talking there is over the course of the film. There are large sections of the movie that play out in silence. Surely this must be the Bond film with the fewest lines of dialogue? What dialogue is there gives us some of the comedy that does work, in a few brief but memorable lines:

– “His name is Jaws, he kills people.”
– “Look after Mr Bond. See that some harm comes to him.”
– “Mr Bond, you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you.”
– “At least I shall have the pleasure of putting you out of my misery.”
– “You missed.” “Did I?”

Note that most of the above examples are spoken by the film’s villain, Hugo Drax – but apart from a few lines like those, he’s played very flatly as Bond-villain-by-the-numbers, and isn’t very memorable.

I remember the Moonraker novel being one of my favourites of Fleming’s books, but the film bears almost no resemblance to the book (unless you count the Minister of Defence’s very brief reference to playing Drax at bridge). Bond’s following of clues throughout the film is not at all interesting and not particularly logical, and Drax’s initial attempts to kill 007 seem to be motivated not out of any concern that Bond might discover his plans, but simply because he’s a Bond villain and trying to kill Bond is what Bond villains are required to do. That centrifuge sequence is OK, but comes across rather like a repeat of the rack exercise scene from Thunderball.

I’ve always enjoyed the posts on each of the Bond movies on the “I Expect You to Die!” blog, and that site’s writeup of Moonraker lays out the movie’s flaws particularly well. I like its summary of the similarities between Moonraker and its predecessor The Spy Who Loved Me:

TSWLM: Teaser involves ship being mysteriously stolen, the girl Bond is macking with tries to have him killed, and the teaser climaxes with a Bond parachute stunt.
MR: Teaser starts with a ship being mysteriously stolen, the girl Bond is macking with tries to have him killed, and the teaser climaxes with a Bond parachute jump.

TSWLM: The plot involves an insane billionaire who believes humanity has become corrupt; he wants to eliminate all humans and start over from his undersea base.
MR: The plot involves an insane billionaire who believes humanity has become corrupt; he wants to eliminate all humans and start over from his satellite base.

TSWLM: The main henchmen is a mute giant named Jaws.
MR: The main henchmen is a mute giant named Jaws (with added bonus: a mostly mute Japanese henchmen!!)

TSWLM: The Bond girl is a Russian spy!
MR: The Bond girl is an American spy!

TSWLM: A special Bond vehicle comes out of the water onto dry land, as tourists and animals do double takes.
MR: A special Bond vehicle comes out of the water onto dry land, as tourists and animals do double takes. Except in this one, we get lots more double-takes and reaction shots. Lots more.

Add another example: The Spy Who Loved Me contained a musical clip from Lawrence of Arabia; this one quotes the notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (heard THREE TIMES, just in case you didn’t notice!) and also contains the theme from The Magnificent Seven. Not to mention the Romantic Meadow Run that Jaws and his girlfriend get to do…

Oh, didn’t I mention? Jaws gets a girlfriend in this movie. Also, Bond wrestles a terribly fake-looking python (but it’s played straight, as if it’s meant to be genuinely threatening), and pigeons do double-takes, and the movie’s climax takes place IN SPAAAAACE.

“Bond goes into space” is usually cited as the biggest, most memorable thing that went wrong with Moonraker. But strangely, in principle I don’t have a problem with the idea of Bond (at least Roger Moore’s Bond) in space. Just as The Matrix Reloaded has more fundamental problems than the fact it concludes with that speech by the Architect, just as The Phantom Menace has more fundamental problems than the presence of Jar Jar Binks, I’m less annoyed by Moonraker‘s overblown space station climax than with most of the other problems earlier on in the movie. I wouldn’t have been bothered by a comic relief CGI Star Wars character if it had actually been amusing; similarly, I would have no objection to a wacky, campy, over the top, tongue-in-cheek Roger Moore Bond movie if only it had been funnier. 😦

[002 out of 005]