Comics Ate My Brain

January 21, 2009

The "Hey, You Look Familiar" Meme

Filed under: james bond, meme, star trek, twin peaks, x files, x-men — Tom Bondurant @ 10:16 pm
Kalinara mentioned a couple of variations on a meme (ha!) and I thought I’d try ’em both.

Version One:

[C]reate a team of four heroes, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, only the catch is that each hero must be a character portrayed by the same actor.

Thus, the League of Extraordinary Patrick Stewarts:

1. Ahab, monomaniacal commander of the whaling ship Pequod;
2. Ebenezer Scrooge, newly-reformed uber-capitalist (and the group’s financier);
3. Professor Charles Xavier, mutant telepath and educator; and of course
4. Jean-Luc Picard, starship captain.

One could also have the League of Extraordinary Sean Connerys:

1. Allan Quartermain;
2. Robin Hood (from the film Robin & Marian);
3. James Bond; and
4. Draco the dragon (from Dragonheart).

Finally, the League of Extraordinary Johnny Depps:

1. Jack Sparrow;
2. Ichabod Crane;
3. Willy Wonka; and
4. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Then there’s Version Two:

[C]reate a team of four to eight members, which comprise of sets of doubles as played by the same actor.

Here goes…

1a. Dr. Sam Beckett, time-traveler (Scott Bakula),
1b. Jonathan Archer, starship captain (Scott Bakula),
2a. Dennis/Denise Bryson, DEA agent (David Duchovny),
2b. Fox Mulder, FBI agent (David Duchovny),
3a. Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson),
3b. Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson),
4a. Brisco County Jr. (Bruce Campbell), and
4b. Ash (Bruce Campbell).

How’s that?

December 1, 2006

Royale, No Cheese

Filed under: james bond — Tom Bondurant @ 9:45 pm
I talked about Casino Royale in a roundabout way over in this week’s Grumpy Old Fan, but I know Nik wants to hear what I thought about it as a movie. Here you go, and watch out for SPOILERS:

I liked it. It was a little long, and I still can’t quite get used to the substitution of poker for baccarat, or Daniel Craig’s blond hair. Those are minor nitpicks. The Best Wife Ever liked it too, probably because she hadn’t brought all her fannish baggage. We tried to go on opening weekend, but it was only on one screen at our lone theater, and it sold out that weekend. It sold out for our show last Saturday too, just after we got tickets.

It was a better introduction to Bond than Dr. No, although that’s not fair to Dr. No. CR has a couple of big advantages over its (by now distant) ancestor, mostly forty years of the public’s familiarity with the character. There will never be another 1962 audience that didn’t know it could be so entertained by a Scottish actor playing a British assassin. Casino Royale, the movie, is pumped full of action that the book doesn’t have, but which audiences would naturally expect. Bond’s relationships with M and Vesper are both riffs on traditional series elements, but they’re handled in ways that would be familiar to casual fans or even non-fans. Bond’s tweaking of M is particularly reminiscent of any number of plays-by-his-own-rules heroes. Here it works, because this Bond is finding himself and dealing with new responsibilities the extent of which he probably doesn’t appreciate yet. He’s not the polished agent of the previous movies, so it’s understandable that he would be testing boundaries at this early stage.

Before I forget, I want to mention the fantastic work of composer David Arnold. He builds the score around a very catchy figure, so syncopated it almost sounds like mixed-meter, and uses it to such effect that I barely noticed the relative absence of the classic Bond theme. When the Bond theme does creep in, it’s mostly the bass-clef foundation, whetting our appetites for the Real Thing to erupt, fully formed, over the end credits. I can’t decide if David Arnold or credits designer Daniel Kleinman is the best thing to happen to Bond (before Craig) in a long time, but they should both be locked into the series for as long as possible. I can’t remember a lick of lyrics from “You Know My Name” (beyond that phrase), but I’m still humming that syncopated figure. It’s a shame that the themes (by and large) haven’t carried over from film to film, because it would make a good addition to the music library, along with John Barry’s “007” and OHMSS themes.

And that’s a decent segue into the real issue with these kinds of back-to-basics movies: at what point does an innovative Square One movie give way to the inevitabilities of its parent series? This film placed the “gunbarrel sequence” at the end of the opening scene, but don’t we all expect the next Bond movie to open with it? The fan consensus I’ve seen is hopeful that the mystery organization after Le Chiffre is SPECTRE, freed from the shackles of litigation by the same deal that allowed MGM and Sony to co-produce this film.

[That reminds me — if memory serves, this movie is the first to list Craig as playing “Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007,” and also to state that it is “based on the novel by Ian Fleming.” None of the previous films had the latter credit, styling themselves as “Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger” (for example) or as featuring “Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007.” Another byproduct of the settlement, perhaps?]

So anyway, if Bond 22 is full of the classic theme-music and has Bond fighting SPECTRE — or even if Bond 22 is a faithful adaptation of another novel (Live and Let Die was the follow-up) — how long will it be before Craig gets his first rocket-launching Aston Martin or laser-torch wristwatch? I really can’t see Craig playing opposite John Cleese’s Q (and indeed, we might not see Q for a while, since he wasn’t as prominent in the books). The stakes presented by Casino Royale were economic and therefore more abstract, with the danger to the world’s largest airliner feeling almost like an obligation to threaten something big and explodey. A more familiar Bond-movie setup would end with the danger to the big explodey thing, but I think that’s the lodestone towards which the series is expected to gravitate.

It’s the same problem that the sequel to Batman Begins faces: now that the gangsters and the lower-profile supervillains are out of the way, The Dark Knight promises not only more Batman in costume, but the Joker too. I guess the challenge is to invest the Joker and the further development of the first film’s characters with the same quasi-realistic approach, which allows The Dark Knight more leeway in terms of where they’re “supposed” to end up. The Batman mythology, extensive as it is, is helped further by being more setup than narrative, without the same kind of continuous-storytelling throughline that, say, Marvel built into its cornerstone characters. Spider-Man has the death of Gwen Stacy, the Fantastic Four have Reed and Sue’s wedding and Franklin’s birth, and Bond has Tracy’s death. Batman doesn’t have anything after-added which is that iconic except the addition of Robin, and apparently that can be ignored in the interests of avoiding excess frivolity. (Robin opens all kinds of worm-filled cans, including Batgirl, Nightwing, and Dick’s successors.)

Actually, as important as Tracy’s death was to the literary Bond, it may well be fading in the rear-view mirror of the cinematic Bond, especially in light of Casino Royale‘s character-definitive ending. Ironically, Casino Royale‘s fidelity to Fleming’s sensibilities may do the most to liberate the franchise from 40 years’ worth of expectations. I’m ready to see it again, and I’m excited about the next one.

November 17, 2006

Bond Issues, Part 2

Filed under: james bond — Tom Bondurant @ 4:00 am
Keeping Marc’s warning in mind, I nevertheless plunged ahead with the remaining “official” James Bond films. (Also, forgot to mention last time that I watched the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “Operation Double 007,” starring Sean’s goateed brother Neil and about as good as you’d think. Still better than A View To A Kill.) The Moore Era gets tough towards the end, so brace yourselves….

Moonraker (1979): I think I can sum up this movie through one comparison — it turned Jaws, the relentless, unstoppable killer from The Spy Who Loved Me, into Silent Bob. The big guy gets some moments of menace, most notably a creepy scene during Rio’s Carnivale, but overall he’s reduced to surviving improbably and mugging for the camera. Oh, and falling in love with another social outcast who wouldn’t have been part of Drax’s master race. I don’t know if that’s meant as biting commentary, given that Lois “Holly Goodhead” Chiles seems to have been cast for her looks, not her talent. I did like the gondola/hovercraft and the return of John Barry’s alternate “007” theme, and if you grade the Bond movies on a Nick Fury, Agent Of SHIELD curve, Moonraker just seems to make it.

For Your Eyes Only (1981): Am I correct in observing that this is the only Bond film where the underlying conflict is simply Britain vs. the USSR, with no caveats for SPECTRE, crazy generals, arms dealers, etc.? It’s probably the most well-made of the Moore films. However, my unrepentant affection for The Spy Who Loved Me remains steadfast. Lynn-Holly Johnson is blackboard-scratching annoying, and I thought the obvious comparisons between the Countess and Bond’s late wife could have been explored more. Also, Bill Conti’s score is a little too bright and jazzy. Still, the cinematography is gorgeous, especially in Greece. Moore should have gone out on this one.

Octopussy (1983): This film gets points for working in the eponymous short story as being part of Bond’s and Octopussy’s shared backstory. Having the crazy Soviet general’s plot depend on manipulating NATO politics is also fairly clever. Unfortunately, once Moore dons that clown costume, the last shred of his dignity drops away. Good thing John Barry is in fine form, contributing what may be the quintessential arrangement of the Bond theme.

A View To A Kill (1985): This movie actually has a couple of good parts; namely, Moore’s scenes with Patrick Macnee, and the Paris car chase. I liked the blimp too. Okay, and I liked the Duran Duran song. The rest of it, though…. I mean, I know the Bond people want to present the so-called “Bond women” as more than bimbos, but if your geologist is played pretty unconvincingly by Tanya Roberts, what good is that? (See also Lois Chiles.) By this point, Moore looks like Bush 41.

The Living Daylights (1987): This isn’t a bad Bond movie at all, and it’s certainly an improvement over much of the Moore Era. However, Timothy Dalton never seems comfortable as Bond. To be sure, the movie requires him to be playful and charming, a la his predecessors, but to convey this he puts on a kind of nervous smile the rest of his face can’t quite back up. This does not support the two-crazy-kids vibe the movie wants to promote between Dalton and Maryam D’Abo. The movie itself is sprawling, almost bloated, with a plot that’s a challenge to keep straight. It feels about 3 hours long, so what should have been its climactic setpiece in Afghanistan only gives way to an anticlimactic showdown with Joe Don Baker and his sublimated erectile-dysfunction issues. The techno-flavored score provides a nice bit of late-’80s nostalgia.

Licence To Kill (1989): This movie’s straightforward revenge story goes too far the other way. Its dramatic beats are grounded in Bond’s friendship with Felix Leiter, and in the loss of his official status. (The resolution of the latter is, naturally, a foregone conclusion.) Unfortunately, the friendship had never really been established, thanks to the umpteen different Leiters over the years (including the stiff in The Living Daylights), and the actors don’t sell it here. Now, if Moneypenny’s fiance/new husband had ended up fed to a shark, that might have worked out better. (For the movie, that is.)

GoldenEye (1995): Pierce Brosnan finally gets to play 007 in a fun, self-aware, self-confident performance that lifts the whole movie. Actually, everyone in GoldenEye seems to be having a good time bringing Bond into the post-Soviet Union era (not to mention the Internet age). It’s as if the producers made a list of essential Bond elements and decided to do right by each while still allowing for upgrades — for example, Daniel Kleinman’s opening titles. The new M and Moneypenny both call Bond on his casual sexism, and Famke Janssen and Izabella Scorupco are both tremendously appealing in their roles. The only questionable part for me is Eric Serra’s minimalist score, wisely replaced with a full orchestra for the grandiose tank chase and not entirely out of place otherwise.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Perhaps the most openly satirical Bond film, but that’s not saying much. Most of it is running and fighting and shooting and driving, and that’s all done well. TND also benefits (at least for me) from incoming composer David Arnold, who recognizes the value of a flamboyant score to this series. However, like the object of its alleged satire, TND is ultimately pretty superficial, which for a Bond film is saying something. I do like a lot of little moments — M’s rolling briefing, Bond and Q at the Avis desk, and Bond and the torturer, in particular. Still — not that I want this to be a Crime-Alley-“my-parents-are-dead” motif — given the circumstances of her relationship with Bond, Paris’ death might have been another opportunity to remember Tracy’s.

The World Is Not Enough (1999): The best Brosnan Bond, Denise Richards notwithstanding. I thought Brosnan was a good fit from the beginning, but he grew into the part more with each movie. In this one he seems more mature, again romancing a woman comparable to Tracy Bond (and again, that aspect passing without explicit comment). TWINE also brings back Robbie Coltrane’s Russian gangster from GoldenEye. One of the least effective parts of the movie (again, besides Denise Richards) is John Cleese’s “R,” but that gives Bond and the audience a chance to say goodbye to Desmond Llewellyn’s Q.

Die Another Day (2002): Perhaps this movie works best as a sort of coded commentary on the whole series. There are certainly enough Easter eggs, with at least one reference to all 19 movies thus far. However, in its move from gritty, post-9/11 realpolitik to orbiting death rays, invisible cars, and electrified body armor, it wants to be bigger than any of them. I could live with the orbiting death ray, and the cloaking device might actually work, but the body armor was too much. (It’s still easier to take than the rifle-plus-shield that Joe Don Baker wields in The Living Daylights.) Bond in Cuba thanks to China is an ironic treat, “London Calling” is played, and John Cleese seems more on the ball than in his debut. I can’t remember if Hugh Grant was ever seriously considered as a Bond, but main villain Gustav Graves looks enough like Grant to make me wonder if that wasn’t some kind of message too.

And with that, Brosnan closed out a series of four films which tried to ground themselves in espionage-flavored adventure stories but which ended up playing riffs on their predecessors. Under Moore especially, the Bond movies had settled into some pretty familiar formulae, so that by the time Dalton took over, the boundaries had been established. However, to me, Licence To Kill showed that erring unfailingly on the side of “reality” doesn’t necessarily work either. Thus, Brosnan’s movies inevitably included an element of self-awareness, not least thanks to Brosnan’s love for the series and previous history with it. Depending on one’s perspective, I suppose that either helps gloss over the Brosnan Era’s shortcomings or diminishes it in light of the series’ more undisputed high points. Me, I liked Brosnan pretty well as Bond.

Still, they all could have used the three-inch scar that Fleming gave him….

November 10, 2006

Bond Issues, Part 1

Filed under: james bond — Tom Bondurant @ 2:30 pm
It may be hard to justify, but in the run-up to every new James Bond movie, something compels me to watch all the others in chronological order. Not, like, in a punishing marathon of two sleepless days, and not even on a strict “Seven [Time Periods] Of 007” schedule, but just whenever. It’s probably some subconscious threshold event — if I can make it from Dr. No through Die Another Day and still have an appetite for the character, then I’ll see the new one.

I might not make it this year. I’m at the halfway point with a week to go, and I can’t see devoting an entire weekend to ten films’ worth of Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan. Therefore, here are my thoughts so far.

Dr. No (1962): I’ve also been re-reading most of the books in publication order (just Octopussy left) and it’s ironic, but this was the first book that really felt like it could propel the character to film stardom. I can see why it was chosen for the first movie, despite it being one of the later books. The movie is a little more compressed, and I think it suffers from not yet having developed some of the trappings of the series. It is also not as slick as its successors, but that’s probably to be expected. Regardless, you can’t argue with Sean Connery’s presence in the role, backed up by the famous Monty Norman theme (woven into a score by John Barry). Production designer Ken Adam, who really brought a lot to the series, contributed a couple of space-age sets (most notably the room where Dr. No’s voice is first heard) and otherwise livened up the mundane London and Jamaica locales.

From Russia, With Love (1963): This is probably Connery’s best Bond, a thrilling tale of pretty straightforward espionage given a twist by the incorporation of SPECTRE into the book’s SMERSH-centered narrative. Red Grant doesn’t get the buildup he does in the book, but Robert Shaw makes him plenty menacing, and Daniella Bianchi is excellent as Tatiana Romanova.

Goldfinger (1964): Probably the quintessential Bond film, but I rate it just slightly below FRWL due to Pussy Galore’s conversion. (It’s about as likely as Tilly Masterton’s swooning over Pussy in the book.) Other than that, there’s a lot to like about this movie, which really opens up the scope of the series. The books never went in for gadgets on the scale of the Aston Martin DB V, and they tended to short-circuit the villain’s plot just before it got to the crucial step. Here, Bond gets down to the 0:07 mark before the bomb is defused, and Goldfinger’s still at large. Plus, Bond comes to Kentucky, and golf!

Thunderball (1965): The first real widescreen (2.35:1) Bond raises the stakes even more. Unfortunately, it dumps the book’s angle that Bond is ordered to the spa for his health (this is restored for the remake, Never Say Never Again) and I can never quite connect the funeral with the rest of it. However, once the bomber is hijacked, we’re off. This feels like an expanded and slightly reworked Dr. No, if only because it’s SPECTRE causing trouble in the Caribbean, but with the elaborate underwater sequences it goes ‘way beyond what the first film presented, and even Goldfinger’s big final battle.

You Only Live Twice (1966): Naturally this movie had to be bigger, so the plot shifts to SPECTRE hijacking space capsules in order to trigger nuclear war. This may be the best-looking and best-sounding Connery movie, with Ken Adam and John Barry really outdoing themselves. By putting a face on Blofeld, Donald Pleasance also gives Mike Myers’ career a second act. (I watched this right after I watched Halloween, coincidentally.) However, the film’s misogyny and its attempt to make Bond “Japanese” haven’t aged well.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): When I first saw this movie, I tended to wonder how it would have turned out if Connery had returned alongside Diana Rigg. Her character has to look pretty forlorn next to George Lazenby, and it’s not like he’s not credible — he certainly looks more like Fleming’s Bond than Connery does — but Connery + Rigg > Connery + Honor Blackman, even. Still, Connery apparently wasn’t aging well, judging by the next film, so this is probably for the best. The movie itself is very … mod, I suppose, although I’m probably misusing that word. Director Peter Hunt was the previous films’ editor, and fills the fights with quick-cut gimmickry. Ken Adam’s absent too, for the first time since From Russia, With Love; and there’s a truly annoying Christmas-y song (the movie takes place at the holidays) which could have come from the Barney songbook. Other than that it’s pretty good, and would have been a good transition into Roger Moore.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971): However, Connery came back for one last “official” hurrah, and I have to say, he looks more like Bond’s dad than he does the guy from You Only Live Twice. The pre-credits sequence doesn’t quite work, because it’s hard to connect Connery with the character who married Diana Rigg. Other detriments to the film include its assassins, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. I don’t have a problem with them being gay; I have a problem with them being annoying. Also annoying is Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) and Shady Tree, the old gangster who moonlights as an unfunny Vegas comedian. However, Ken Adam is back, and Connery’s old mojo works more often than not.

Live And Let Die (1973): This year, I watched with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz’s DVD commentary on. He does a good job contrasting Roger Moore with Connery, explaining that Moore’s style allowed Bond to have a different kind of humor. Specifically, Moore almost brought a “twit” sensibility to the character that Connery definitely didn’t have. Moore’s Bond could walk into the Fillet of Soul and play the buffoon, whereas a similar scene with Connery would have ended in violence. Now, that might have been closer to the original novel, but for 1973 I doubt it would have gone over very well. Ken Adam, Q, and John Barry are all on vacation for this one, so one of the high points is music by George “I Managed The Beatles” Martin and, of course, the classic title song by Paul McCartney and Wings.

The Man With The Golden Gun (1974): Bond takes on the former Dracula as Christopher Lee classes up the joint with his portrayal of the titular villain, Francisco Scaramanga. Surprisingly, Moore isn’t as outclassed as one might imagine. Maybe it’s because Scaramanga sometimes gets lost in all the travelogue-y details of Bond’s tracking him throughout the Far East. These include the camera’s unfortunate gawking — that’s the best way I can think to describe it — at the locals, as they in turn gawk at the weird white man being chased by maniacal killers. The Moore movies did this a few more times, especially in Octopussy, and it never really got any less offensive. The movie wants to present this as a commentary on the carnage invading these peaceful little villages, and to underscore that TMWTGG brings back Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a slightly more cultured ancestor of Buford T. Justus, who gets to be the Ugly American again. However, where J.W. actually got to comment on the carnage invading his little Louisiana fiefdom in Live and Let Die, here he’s just a goo-based punchline. Oh, and the theme song is one of the worst too, although John Barry uses the melody well in his score. Ken Adam is still absent, but a sunken M.I.6 office is a set-design highlight, as is Hi Fat’s mansion. Finally, Herve Villechaize is a lot of fun as Scaramanga’s henchman, Nick Nack.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): My favorite Moore movie, and in my top three Bonds overall. Sure, this movie starts from practically the same premise as You Only Live Twice, its SPECTRE elements were excised to avoid litigation, and it opened the door to the over-the-top Moonraker, but it has such swagger and joie de vivre, it’s hard for me to resist. Ken Adam is at the top of his game here, offering the undersea citadel of Atlantis and the mammoth submarine pen, as well as a mix of expressionistic and Jet Age headquarters for M.I.6 and the KGB. The song, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” is perfectly complemented by Marvin Hamlisch’s score, which is infused with wakka-chicka guitar work eminently appropriate to the era. Nods to continuity include a reference to Bond’s wife, as well as M’s first name and Q’s last name. There’s a moody set piece incorporating a Laser Floyd show at the Pyramids. All this and I haven’t mentioned the Union Jack parachute, Jaws, or the Lotus. It’s a long way from From Russia, With Love, and there are some groaners, but on the whole it all works in spectacular fashion.

Not a bad way to end the first half. We’ll have to see if the second ten reach similar heights.

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