Post-Oscars: 2012

argoscar

Before looking back on last night’s Academy Awards telecast, a few notes:

1. I don’t know about you, but I tend to forget a lot about the substance of most awards shows about a week after I read the last article or hear the last podcast discussing them. Memorable moments always stand out and winners, upsets and surprises are not quickly forgotten, but if you were to ask me to give any more than a vague recollection and a “great/good/okay/bad/awful” rating for any past show, I’d be struggling to come up with much. I have enough trouble remembering what it is I think I want to say about the movies I see and write about here, it seems a waste to spend too much time thinking about the movie awards show and how things compare to previous years. Continue reading

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Building a Bond Villain: Where Does Silva Rank?

I’ve still only seen Skyfall one time, but I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit as more of my friends have been trekking to theaters to watch the latest Bond extravaganza. A lot of things I’ve heard and read about the film praise Javier Bardem’s Silva as one of the best (or perhaps, the best) villains in the entire series. Though I was cautious in my first Skyfall post, choosing to say vaguely that the film was probably near the top half of the series (until I’ve seen it again at least), I been thinking about Silva and exactly where he ranks in the James Bond rogues gallery.

While eventually I might like to turn this into an in-depth film-by-film look at all Bond villains, I won’t do that here. I do think that it is worthwhile to at least briefly consider many of the main baddies and find out specifically what doesn’t work, what does work and why Silva is getting so much praise. Please keep in mind that this isn’t a comment on the quality of the films, or even the performances, it’s just my way of beginning an analysis what might make a cool/good James Bond villain. Many villains embody some or all of the few characteristics I list below, but I wanted to try to separate them a bit, not only because it’s fun to make lists, but also so I’ll have a bit more to write (and you’d have more to read).

What Doesn’t Work So Well

-Weak/Old Men: Ernst Blofeld (Donald Pleasence in You Only Live Twice), Karl Stromberg (Curt Jürgens in The Spy Who Loved Me), Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies).

They may be creepy or charismatic, but they’re just not quite imposing enough to be Bond’s main antagonist. Granted, Blofeld is a HUGE part of the Connery films, but Pleasence just seems so slight in YOLT, despite his creepiness. I feel like the only thing the filmmakers could decide on for Stromberg was “menacing,” otherwise he seems like a clumsy retread of Pleasence’s Blofeld mixed with Dr. No (webbed hands, really?). Price chewed the scenery appropriately and really went after it with his one-handed computer keyboard, but he’s not exactly imposing. These three guys were each helped with the physical side by tough henchmen (Hans, Jaws and Stamper, respectively) who were more a match for Bond, which brings me to…

-Villains who won’t get their hands dirty: The above, plus Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale in Moonraker), Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan in Octopussy), and Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé in The Living Daylights).

These guys have henchmen too, though perhaps they could hold their own if they weren’t so lazy or cowardly. Koskov is fun at times, but he’s never really a threat. Drax has some great lines, but Lonsdale seems to be sleeping through some of the film (though he’s better than Lois Chiles in Moonraker, who appears to be clinically dead). Jourdan (pictured above, as Kahn) was also in his early 60s when Octopussy came out. That makes him one of the older villains, a trait which is offset by the fact that he was squaring off against Roger Moore, who was in his mid-80s at the time.

Worth a mention: Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi in Thunderball) as well as the Telly Savalas and Charles Gray versions of Blofeld (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever), and perhaps Aris Kristatos (Julian Glover in For Your Eyes Only) kind of feel like they should fit into the first category. They’re not all exactly old or weak, but they just don’t seem ready for the fight. They each partake in some of the action, however, which keeps them off the lists proper.

What Does Work Well

-A villain who is in charge: Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe in Goldfinger),  Max Zorin (Christopher Walken in A View to a Kill), Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi in Licence to Kill), Elektra King (Sophie Marceau in The World is Not Enough).

Goldfinger is the classic villain with classic lines from arguably the most popular Bond film of all. Zorin is appropriately crazy and is, of course, Christopher Walken. Sanchez is ruthless and violent (here comes the PG-13 rating!) and he makes Bond’s hunt personal. King is just manipulative and seems to take pleasure in her villainy. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Marceau is quite attractive. Bond doesn’t technically go one-on-one with all four of these villains, but they are the masterminds behind their grand plans, they are (mostly) charismatic, and they’ll all pick up a gun or a knife if necessary.

[NOTE: Elektra King is essentially on equal footing with Renard (Robert Carlyle), but I think she’s strong enough on her own to fit in this category. I’m hesitant to say the same for Renard, but, considering his co-lead villain status, and his absence in the early goings of that film, I’ll include him in the next category]

-A villain who is an equal to Bond: Red Grant (Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love), Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee in The Man with the Golden Gun), Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean in Goldeneye), Renard (The World is Not Enough).

It’s this category that I think works the best. Grant and Trevelyan are spies; Renard is ex-KGB; Scaramanga is an assassin. They are physical equals to Bond and they can turn a phrase as well as they can throw a punch. Also, I’d put two of these four films at/near the top of my list for the best of the series.

A lot of the guys in charge are often the older men from the first section, and, as mentioned, a lot of the guys who are equal to Bond are the henchman. The physicality that henchmen bring to the films (a trait that the main villain sometimes lacks) helps to balance a film out. Imagine Stromberg without Jaws (Richard Kiel), Carver without Stamper (Gotz Otto), or even, to a degree, Goldfinger without Oddjob (Harold Sakata). Those films wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

Leftovers: Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is a prototypical Bond villain, but he has such little screen time that it’s hard to call him much of anything. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto in Live and Let Die) holds his own and actually fights bond, but he’s got more henchmen than any other villain in the series (Whisper, Tee-Hee, Baron Samedi, Rosie Carver). Orlov (Steven Berkoff in Octopussy) and Whitaker (Joe Don Baker in The Living Daylights) seem sort of secondary, though both are a bit crazy. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale) is imposing, but is also under the thumb of Mr. White (and he’s a careless gambler). Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric in Quantum of Solace) is slimy, but forgettable. The less said about Die Another Day, the better, though the argument could be made that the villains Graves and Frost (Toby Stephens and Rosamund Pike) fall into the “equals” category.

What About Silva?

If you can’t already tell from the above, he fits into the categories that work. In thinking about him, I honestly believe that the writers of Skyfall went back to the previous films in the series to find out who the best villains are and why they work so well, then they modeled Silva after them, at least in part. This holds with my observation that Skyfall is also more of a return to formula for the Bond series (though it still fits nicely with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, despite the lack of Felix Leiter).

Like my group of villains that “work,” Silva is in charge of his outfit of nameless thugs, answering to nobody but himself, but he also gets in on the action throughout the film. Sized up against Bond, Silva is undoubtedly one of 007’s equals. I’d say he is most closely related to Trevelyan. He’s former MI-6, he wants revenge, he had his face messed up. He also owns his own island like Scaramanga (though sadly, we didn’t get to see as much of it as I would have liked). Perhaps the main difference between Silva and the other three is that he never gets a one-on-one showdown with Bond, something that I think is a missed opportunity for Skyfall. However, to the film’s credit, this omission is one you might not even notice. Sure, they have a memorable introductory scene, and they have the shooting match (shades of Goldfinger‘s golf game, Moonraker‘s shooting party, or any number of casino games throughout the series), but they never really get a chance to beat the tar out of each other (like with Grant, Trevelyan or Renard), or even just face off (like Scaramanga). I noted in my previous post how strange it is that Silva doesn’t even show up until almost halfway through the movie. It also takes a little while for Renard to appear in TWINE and for Trevelyan to be officially revealed as the main villain in Goldeneye, so perhaps there’s even some precedent for that, and it isn’t so strange after all.

Something that sets Silva apart from most other Bond villains is the fact that he’s played by a reasonably well-known actor, Academy Award winner Javier Bardem. The degree of fame achieved by actors playing villains in Bond films tend to vary, quality of performance aside. I don’t think it matters a lot, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, especially in Bardem’s case. Of course, having an Academy Award does not a great Bond character make (ahem, Halle Berry), but still, anyone who has seen No Country for Old Men knows what Bardem can do. Plus, the guy has been nominated twice in the lead category as well (Before Night Falls in 2000 and Biutiful in 2010). He’s got pedigree. Notably, Walken was an Oscar winner prior to starring in a Bond film as well.

Whether they went back to the well of previous Bond films or not, the writers certainly took at least a little look at another iconic villain in recent film history, the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. There are a lot of connections between the two, including the aforementioned “William Tell” shooting contest with Bond (a deadly little game), the army of nameless goons, seemingly unlimited resources, dressing up like a cop, and perhaps most notably, the elaborate escape from MI-6. A friend of mine said that Silva is a combination of the Joker and Hannibal Lecter, which I think is a pretty interesting description. Hopkins and Ledger both won Oscars for those roles, but whether Bardem is ready to add an(other) Oscar to his collection, we’ll see.

In conclusion, if there is a conclusion, have I decided whether Silva is the best Bond villain ever? I’m not ready to say that. However, I think he shares many traits with the best and most memorable Bond villains of the past, plus, he’s in one of the better films in the series (I feel I can fairly confidently say), and that probably puts him near the top of the list.

Skyfall

A disclaimer: In the US, Skyfall was released one day early on IMAX screens only. If you’re reading this late on 11/8/2012 or early on 11/9/2012, you may not have had a chance to see the film. This post is probably best enjoyed after seeing Skyfall, but I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers.

For a blog with a name inspired by a James Bond movie, it would be a missed opportunity not to feature at least something about the newest James Bond movie, Skyfall. Below are simply my initial thoughts and a lot of the usual rambling. I saw Skyfall last night, in a true IMAX theater, at the midnight (technically 0:07AM) screening. Skyfall is unique in that although it was not shot with IMAX cameras, it has been specially formatted in post-production to be screened with a larger aspect ratio than a typical widescreen movie (go here for more info). For this reason, it’s totally worth seeing in IMAX if you have the chance. Surprisingly, the theater was not sold out, which was nice, because back row seats were available, a welcome change from the front row, where my wife and I ended up for The Dark Knight Rises. What follows are some of my rambling initial thoughts on the film, having seen it just this one time. As I said, I’ll try to stay free of major spoilers, but some little bits here and there will probably fall through the cracks.

Skyfall is a departure from the previous two Daniel Craig-starring Bond movies in that it is free from the task of re-introducing the character and it operates more as a standalone film. Sure, there are recurring characters (Bond, M, Tanner), but there is really no direct connection to the plots of Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace, and I’m inclined to say that the movie is better for it. I really liked Casino Royale, but not so much Quantum (though a recent revisit has slightly improved my opinion on the latter). Skyfall falls somewhere between them for me, though closer to the Casino Royale end of the spectrum.

As much as Skyfall fits into the new era of James Bond films, it is also a sort of return to formula for the series. Of course the big action setpieces never went away, but Skyfall also has a bit more globe-trotting, an over the top villain, the introduction of a couple of new, old friends, including Q (Ben Whishaw) who supplies Bond with at least one gadget. There are several references, whether knowing or not, to previous Bond films, and several moments that feel like they could’ve been taken out of earlier efforts. As familiar as some of these things are, it’s strange to see Craig throwing off one-liners à la Sean Connery, or giving a bug-eyed look at a Komodo Dragon à la Roger Moore. It is also difficult not to see some of these moments as fan service, though I think they work for the most part.

One major observation (I hesitate to call it an issue) I have is the change in tone between the first and second half of the film. The first part of the film feels like classic Bond, including a great pre-credits sequence, trips to exotic locations and the introduction of the scene-stealing/scenery-chewing super-villain, Silva (Javier Bardem). The thing is, once Silva is introduced, the film starts to shrink a little bit. As much as I enjoy Bardem in pretty much everything, and as good as he his here, I never fully understood the source of his power. His motivations, or at least his end goal are pretty clear, but how he does what he does and why he does it that way ultimately remain a bit hazy for me. He does a great job with the material, being creepy, funny and in the end, crazy, but something tells me the film may have benefited from introducing Silva earlier in the film. Of course, that might have robbed us of his great introductory scene, so maybe it was the best choice.

I think the actual plot of the film works pretty well, though as I said, it seems to grow smaller as the film progresses. There are a couple of larger action/destruction moments having to do with MI-6 HQ and the London subway, but those seem to be forgotten (at least the latter is). Despite high-ranking official Gareth Mallory’s (Ralph Fiennes) best efforts to tie the story to the larger world of British Intelligence and the responsibilities and failures of MI-6 to protect the agents and people of England, it all ends up feeling very personal for the trio of Bond, Silva and M (Judi Dench). Of course, this is nowhere more apparent than in the finale, set in a location at which the series has barely hinted. It all seems a little atypical for a Bond film, but the more I think about it, the more I think I like it.

As is common with Bond films, Skyfall ends with the promise that James Bond will return. As long as they can maintain this level of quality, I certainly won’t be complaining.

Some more notes about Skyfall:

Adele’s theme song is pretty good. It’s better than anything since “A View to a Kill,” with the exception of Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” (I’m also willing to consider exceptions for “Goldeneye” and perhaps “The World is Not Enough”). I didn’t listen to it before the film and I haven’t listened to it (in the one day) since, but I think it’s probably better than average. Sometimes Bond themes are saddled with fitting the title into the lyrics which makes for some awkwardness (“Thunderball,” “The Living Daylights”), but most of the time the titles fit in pretty well. “Skyfall” is fine in that regard.

I’ve already said my piece about Javier Bardem as Silva, but I haven’t mentioned the Bond girls for this one. Probably because they’re not really traditional Bond girls. This might be a bit of a SPOILER but there’s not really a romantic lead. The movie opens with Bond working alongside Eve (Naomie Harris), who is more of a partner throughout the film than a love interest. Think of her as a less-action-y Wei-Lin (Tomorrow Never Dies) or a more competent Mary Goodnight (The Man with the Golden Gun), minus the sex. Bérénice Lim Marlohe is the other prominent Bond girl in the film, Sévérine. She‘s quite good in the role, but doesn’t have too much to do.

Of course, M is the ultimate Bond girl, and Skyfall gives her more to do than ever before. She’s involved in some of the action scenes, but thankfully, the script and the filmmakers don’t ask her to do too much, keeping it believable. I’ve really enjoyed the Bond/M relationship in the Craig films. Despite the nature of their work, these characters care about each other, and Dench and Craig sell their relationship as one that has gone beyond the professional. Dench works better with Craig than she did with Brosnan, or at least more consistently well.

One of the best things about the movie is how it looks. Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in the business and this may be the best looking James Bond movie ever. The opening action scene has the expected level of grittiness and the views of Istanbul, Shanghai and even London are spectacular. Deakins’ work really shines as the film nears its conclusion, finding loads of atmosphere among the misty moors of Scotland. As director, I think Sam Mendes succeeds in bringing us a good action film with some smaller moments, but I’ll have to watch Skyfall again to determine if there is any kind of Mendes stamp on the film or if he becomes mostly lost in the franchise. I’d consider myself a mild Mendes fan. I like his Oscar-winning American Beauty and I’d argue that Road to Perdition is probably his best film (and under-seen). Both of those films are shot by the late, great Conrad L. Hall, and both earned him Oscars (Perdition posthumously). [As a side note, Roger Deakins has the record for most nominations (9) for the Cinematography Oscar without a win, for someone still living.] Anyway, I was excited to see what Mendes might do with a Bond film, and I’m pleased with the result.

As far as the action goes, I have few complaints about the film. The aforementioned pre-credits sequence was perfect. The climactic battle delivered as well, though it initially looked like it might be a bit Home Alone-y (with a touch of Straw Dogs thrown in). It was loud, explosive, brutal and even featured some beautiful shots. Mendes stages action scenes so they’re much more comprehensible than Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace. I really liked how inventive Forster tried to get with some of the shots in Quantum, but the cutting in that film was so quick and all over the place that I didn’t have time to enjoy what worked. Skyfall brings back Casino Royale editor Stuart Baird, somewhat loathed director of Star Trek: Nemesis, but notable editor of several films by Ken Russell and Richard Donner, including The DevilsTommy, Superman, and Lethal Weapon.

Perhaps my favorite bit of action in the movie is a fairly short, stylized scene in which Bond fights with a baddie while silhouetted against the fluorescent lights of Shanghai. Although it’s a fairly quick scene, the bulk of the fighting is done in one take. Shadows against a blue background, the men throw punches at each other and grapple for a gun which goes off periodically, lighting up their faces and blasting holes in the ceiling of the room. It’s a quick moment, but it’s one that really stood out to me.

A big question to consider in the days ahead concerns where Skyfall ranks among the other films of the Bond canon. I think it’s too soon for me to decide, considering I’ve only seen it once. I don’t think it tops Casino Royale, but it’s a definite improvement on the disjointed Quantum of Solace. This latest batch of Bond movies has been so different in tone than almost all of the others, plus, the series has been around so long (celebrating 50 years now) that it’s like comparing apples to oranges to sausages to graham crackers. I’ll play it safe and say that Skyfall is probably in the “Top 15” of Bond films (I hesitate to say “top half” without appropriate consideration). I have a long-term plan to write more in-depth posts about every James Bond movie, but that’s going to take a while (I’ve actually been sitting on my Dr. No post, but you can currently read my post about the 1954 TV version of “Casino Royale”). I’d like to write a post that is strictly concerned with ranking the Bond films, but it may have to wait until I’ve seen Skyfall again, which I might just do soon.

Bond, Jimmy Bond

“It’s like any game, you win or you lose.”
-Jimmy Bond offers a useless description of how to play baccarat.

“Casino Royale” (Climax Mystery Theater)
Broadcast live on 10/21/1954

Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in April of 1953. A year and a half later, CBS televison’s Climax Mystery Theater broadcast a live, one-hour adaptation of the novel. It was the first time James Bond was ever seen in action on a screen of any size. Of course, there are several differences between the novel and the TV special, the most glaring of which is the decision to make James Bond an American, known to (now British) fellow secret agent (Clarence) Leiter as “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond. Yikes. What follows is my own response to the “Casino Royale” television episode.

I believe I first encountered this episode when I saw a VHS copy of it on the shelf of the video section in the local Lewis Drug Store in my home town. It was probably around 1995 or 1996. I rented it and watched it and really have had no lasting recollection of it beyond the presence of Peter Lorre and Bond hiding a check behind the number plate of his hotel room door. I decided to revisit the episode. Directed by William H. Brown, Jr., the program stars Barry Nelson as Bond, Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, Linda Christian as Valerie Mathis and Michael Pate as Clarence Leiter (oddly called “Letter” in the closing credits). I must say that the episode still isn’t particularly memorable, but I’ll write a bit about it anyway.

Starring Peter Lorre as Himself and Linda Christian as someone forgettable

The episode opens by looking into the lens of a video camera. The effect is oddly similar to the gun barrel openings that would become a staple of the official James Bond series. Climax host William Lundigan gives an intro and then we see an attempt on James Bond’s life. It’s an awkwardly staged action sequence, but it’s notable because the gun and the (intended) victim are both seen on screen at the same time, though the gun is clearly pointing nowhere near its target. It’s the only real action we’ll get until the end, which is also fairly awkward.

I don’t want to go into too much plot summary, but the gist is that a Soviet agent named Le Chiffre has gambled away a bunch of Soviet funds and is now at Casino Royale to win them back. “Card Sense” Jimmy Bond (an agent of Combined Intelligence) is there to beat Le Chiffre. If Bond wins, Leiter will make sure Le Chiffre’s loss will be published in papers so the Soviets look foolish. As a bonus, the Soviets will probably get rid of Le Chiffre too. Valerie Mathis is an old flame of Bond’s who is now with Le Chiffre, though in the end it turns out she’s with French intelligence (for some reason) and is really against Le Chiffre too. In the end, Bond wins and hides the check behind the number plate, Le Chiffre tortures Bond to try to get the money, Valerie helps to free Bond and Le Chiffre is shot (off camera) and, presumably arrested.

One great part about the novel (the only Bond novel I’ve read) is the detailed explanation of how the game baccarat works. It’s interesting and informative. I think this TV episode tries to do the same thing by having Bond explain baccarat to Leiter, but it falls flat. Even worse, the greater part of Act II (this special is divided into three acts) is a hand-by-hand game of baccarat. It’s incredibly boring. There’s no music and, despite Lorre’s flamboyant gestures, the scene just drags interminably. The tension that should accompany a high-stakes card game, particularly one in which Bond loses everything, only to be given a loan by Leiter, is entirely absent, which is a shame.

The acting is decent, though nobody really stands out, with the exception of Lorre, but mostly because of his unique look. Still, he would’ve made a decent Bond villain in the official film series. The writing is very simplistic, perhaps to make it easier for the actors to remember their lines, or make stuff up when they forgot. There are a couple of notably odd lines involving a weapon belonging to one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen, a gun that is in the shape of a cane. The henchman puts the barrel of the weapon against Bond’s lower back and says: “My cane is in your back, but it is a gun, not a cane.” It just sounds silly. Leiter does his best to top that moments later when he uses the same weapon to threaten one of Le Chiffre’s other henchmen right in the middle of the casino floor. He demands to know where Valerie is, stating “this gun is completely silent I suppose.” It’s a little ridiculous. Bond does get one good line in toward the end: “You won’t get anything out of me. Pain and killing’s a part of my job.”

I’m only guessing this is silent. It’s not actually mine.
– Clarence Leiter “inconspicuously” threatens a guy

For a live broadcast, the episode is technically sound for the most part. I counted only one noticeable flubbed line (Lorre), a couple of late cues (particularly when dealing with a telephone) and some instances of poor sound recording. Otherwise, the camera placement seems to be fairly complex, considering the movement from set to set. There are a couple of decent shot compositions as well, which are all the more notable since this was a live broadcast. There is almost no music in the episode, save for the radio in Bond’s hotel room and the swelling music to begin and end each act. As stated above, this lack of music hurt the episode, however I don’t know how prevalent a score was for 1950’s TV, so this might just have been status quo. Notably, “original music” is credited to Jerry Goldsmith, one of his earliest credits.

Some interesting shot composition for live TV.
Le Chiffre gives Jimmy Bond a bath.

In the end, I can’t say I’d recommend seeing Casino Royale unless you have a real interest in Bond’s first screen appearance or you’re a Bond completist. Far from being the James Bond we know now, Nelson’s Bond isn’t really too close to the Bond of Fleming’s novel either, though the episode gets to some of the same plot points at least. Watch it to say you’ve watched it, or just don’t watch it at all, you’ll probably feel the same either way.

This version of “Casino Royale” is available on youtube and on the 2002 DVD release of the 1967 spoof Casino Royale.