November 25, 2015

The Rocketeer

I've been listening to a fun new podcast lately. WHAM BAM POW is a loosey-goosey conversation about sci-fi and action movies. Much like the James Bonding podcast refreshed my appreciation for Bond movies, WHAM BAM POW has repeatedly inspired me to rewatch my favorite sci-fi and action movies.
I saw The Rocketeer back in the day - I don't recall if I actually went to the theater in 1991 or what - but I probably haven't seen it all the way through since. The Rocketeer is a very pleasant family action movie. Disney carefully groomed this picture in the hopes of starting a franchise, and as a result, it has a very professional studio sheen. The action is more fun than exciting, the humor is easy, and the peril and sex are gentle.
Billy Campbell is all-American handsome and innately moral to the point of boredom. Jennifer Connelly looks great as an aspiring actress in the 1930s, she underplays her role, exudes intelligence - if anything, her character seems too smart to aspire to be an actress - and she barely plays the victim. I'm pretty sure The Rocketeer is the rare film set in the 1930s that passes the Bechdel Test as Jenny and her girlfriend complain about a rival actress and discuss their aspirations.
Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton do their best to give their roles personality, and Jon Polito and Paul Sorvino are both top notch: the previous year they had appeared in Miller's Crossing and GoodFellas respectively. The rest of the cast is filled with quality character actors: Eddie Jones, William Sanderson, Ed Lauter, and Margo Martindale.
TRIVIA: Strangely, Joe Johnston has directed another comic book movie set during WWII where undercover Nazis are plotting to steal American technology in order to create super-soldiers: Captain America: The First Avenger. Compounding the strangeness, both movies feature wealthy industrial tycoons with a penchant for bold inventions and awesome moustaches: Howard Hughes invented the rocket in The Rocketeer; The real-life Hughes is the inspiration for the Howard Stark character in The First Avenger.

November 24, 2015

For Your Eyes Only

When all the Bond films were available for free on Amazon Prime in 2014, I watched nearly all of them.
I tried watching For Your Eyes Only but the pre-titles opening sequence was so awful I turned off the TV and read a book or something.
I won't describe why the first ten minutes is so bad - it just makes me depressed - but I will say the helicopter stunts are impressive. I recommend muting your TV and enjoying the stunts, then turn the sound back on in time for Sheena Easton's theme song. Except for this pre-titles sequence, and the last 5 minutes of the movie (featuring a then-famous Margaret Thatcher impersonator),
For Your Eyes Only is the best Roger Moore Bond movie after Live & Let Die.
A solid plot that makes sense, absolutely zero Bond gadgets, good Bond girls, great car chases, fun ski chases, cool allies, and memorable villains.
Bond must recover a decoding device that sunk on a British surveillance vessel before the Russians get it. Bond relies on no gadgets this time around- perhaps a course-correction after previous gadget-heavy adventures? His Lotus sports car only makes a brief appearance. There is a cool submarine, and an extended SCUBA sequence inside the sunken ship, but the fanciest gadgets Bond uses are his carabiners and lines when scaling a sheer cliff face during the gripping (pun intended) third act assault on the villain's mountaintop lair.

He's allied with Melina, the daughter of the marine archaeologist who was assassinated before he could search for the ship. She's out for revenge, and deadly accurate with a bow and arrow.
The crossbow-wielding, underwater archaeologist is competent, can defend herself, and Bond doesn't even treat her as a sexual object until the mission is over- this is progress! The bad news is she's 30 years younger than Bond- yikes!

Bond also beds Lisl, who is also smart, competent, and only 21 years younger than Bond, which is relatively appropriate?  Trivia: Lisl is played by Pierce Brosnan's first wife Cassandra Harris, who sadly passed away in 1991 after battling cancer. Brosnan first met Bond producer Cubby Broccoli while visiting the set of this film.

Lynn Holly-Johnson plays a boy-crazy aspiring Olympic skater who tries to bed Bond. I think she's supposed to be a teenager- Holly-Johnson was 22 when they filmed the movie but she acts younger "my trainer thinks I'm still a virgin!" and her voice is dubbed to make her sound like a kid. Her character is named "Bibi" - a little too close to "baby" for comfort! The good news is, that despite slipping naked into Bond's bed - a callback to From Russia With Love - Bond treats her (gently) like a kid and (gently) throws her out.

The main ally is played by Topol, the charming "European" character actor famous for Fiddler on the Roof, and the main villain is played by Julian Glover, currently appearing with a long white beard as Maester Pycelle on Game Of Thrones, but in the Eighties he landed a string a blockbuster villain roles, including Imperial General Veers in The Empire Strikes Back and a Nazi archaeologist in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I fondly remember him as a Dr Who villain! Fun Fact: four years after For Your Eyes Only, Glover appeared on two episodes of Pierce Brosnan's TV show Remington Steele (remember, Brosnan is the husband of Glover's Bond costar Cassandra Harris).
Two great chases- one car chase (in a tiny Citroen no less!) down a narrow, winding, switchbacked hillside road through olive groves, and an extended ski chase to end all ski chases- perhaps this (and the opening to View To A Kill) is why Bond doesn't ski anymore?


November 7, 2015


 Weakest of the four Daniel Craig Bond films, SPECTRE takes a terrific premise and goes nowhere with it.

Spoilers Ahead

SPECTRE opens with the classic James Bond "gunbarrel" sequence, then proceeds with a spectacular opening sequence as Bond follows a SPECTRE agent through a Mexico City Day of the Dead parade, then into a hotel, up an elevator, out the window, and across rooftops...and it's all one continuous shot. In a series of films that must top themselves with stunts and spectacle, nothing like this has ever been attempted. A jaw-dropping cinematic feat.
Thanks to some reverse engineering, the mysterious and sinister organization QUANTUM (see all the bad guys in the first three Craig adventures) is revealed to actually be SPECTRE, the classic cadre of bad guys from the Ian Fleming novels (and introduced in the early Connery Bond films), led by the iconic, mysterious Ernst Stravro Blofeld. Made silly by Mike Myers parody as Dr Evil, Blofeld wears the grey tunic, strokes his kitten, and seeks to extort, corrupt, and control the whole world.
Christoph Waltz's bad guy is certainly mad and evil, but he's not that mysterious; his introduction in a shadowy and gothic SPECTRE conference tingles with mystery and suspense, but in the third act he's completely revealed, and even a little silly as he tortures Bond. It's annoying that the writers masked Waltz' identity as Blofeld until the third act. The plot makes excuses why Waltz' character is known as "Oberhauser" through most of the movie until the "Blofeld" reveal near the end, but this is pure "fan service" - the writers are trying to surprise the audience with a twist, but there's no reason why Blofeld could not be called Blofeld throughout the film. By calling him by an fake name, and constructing an excuse for why he changes his name, the screenplay simply makes the story less clear when it's already mysterious. This petty trick was also pointless because Waltz appears in the trailers as Bond's antagonist, wearing the same tunic as the classic Blofeld, in a movie named SPECTRE? Even a casual Bond fan could put together that Waltz is Blofeld, so what's the point of the misdirection? Star Trek Into Darkness [2013] pulled this same annoying trick, calling Khan "John Harrison" for no good reason until late in the movie.
Once again the Bond film is all about Bond- how did he end up like this? Why does everyone around him die? Why is he alone? What is his purpose? I feel like this ground has all been covered in Craig's first three Bond films. I was ready to move on, but SPECTRE continues to ponder these eternal questions, going to great lengths to tie Bond's childhood history (previously unexplored in the entire Bond film series) together with the genesis of SPECTRE...but it's strangely not explored with much depth or meaning. Either the filmmakers weren't sure what point they wanted to make, or the movie was botched between the page and the screen. I don't think tying Bond and Blofeld together is necessary, but if you're going to do it, really make it resonate!

Bond Girls

I have a movie crush on Monica Belluci, and her seduction scene was very exciting and powerful. Hubba hubba! Ironically her character was completely extraneous in the longest Bond film of all time. She shares information with Bond that moves the plot along, but there's no reason why her character would know what she told him. As much as I love Bellucci, and their seduction scene is very steamy, I might not have included it in the film. (This may be a Bond first - Bellucci is 6 months older than Craig!)
Léa Seydoux is beautiful and competent, but she falls in love with Bond for no reason and so quickly it's just bad writing. She actually successfully defends herself from the bad guys twice, so on the spectrum of capable Bond girls, she's up near the top with Michelle Leoh and Honor Blackman. Her silky grey dress on the train in Morocco is spectacular. (She's only 17 years younger than Bond)
I was sad to see the new Moneypenny squandered. In Skyfall she shoots Bond off the top of that train in the opening sequence, and later assists Bond in the field (remember the shaving scene?) but all she does in SPECTRE is deliver a package and Google some bad guys for him. I was hoping she'd participate in his adventures again - what was the point in developing her character in Skyfall if she isn't used well in SPECTRE?

Bond References

SPECTRE has a bunch of overt reference to the history of Bond movies...
  • Hat on a Bed - it's bad luck to put your hat on a bed, and a Bond girl is spooked by a hat on his hotel bed in Live and Let Die. During the opening shot, Bond tosses his hat on the hotel bed- this cannot be a coincidence. Bond also tosses his hat onto his hotel bed in From Russia With Love.
  • Foot Pursuit In A Parade - Bond chases a guy through the Day Of The Dead parade, just like he was chased through a parade in Thunderball.
  • Snowy Mountaintop Spa - Just like in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond is also admitted to a spa in Thunderball. But when chasing the bad guys down the mountain, he steals a plane - did they feel that skiing sequences were too played out for a Bond film? Bond has such a rich history with winter chase scenes, it seemed odd to eschew skiing or sledding...although it was neat to watch Bond try and steer an airplane sliding on its belly down a snowy hill.
  • Ridiculous Mountaintop Airport - It is impossible to build a runway atop a mountain! This reminded me of the opening sequence in Goldeneye.
  • Daughter Of A Villain - Bond romances, and allies himself with the daughter of one of the villains. Bond has made an uneasy alliance like this before, most notably in Thunderball (although technically Largo is not Domino's father). 
  • Gadgets - The Craig-era Bond films have been light on the gadgetry, and SPECTRE is no different. A classic Bond trope is the gadget Q gives him at the beginning of the movie that is precisely what he needs by the end of the movie- the screenwriters underplay the moment when Q gives it to him; in the old days, Q used to explain in complete detail how each gadget works, but in this film Q only says "it tells time...and the alarm is quite loud, if you catch my meaning."
  • Goldfinger - When Oberhauser says to Bond "I thought you came here to die" I was reminded of Auric Goldfinger's famous line, "No Mister Bond, I expect you to die."
  • Silly Foreigners Are Poor Drivers - I could hardly believe this sequence was even shot: Bond is racing across Rome in his Aston Martin when a Fiat 500 driven by an elderly Italian blocks his progress. Bond tailgates and honks while the Italian slowly creeps along, fussing and gesturing, until eventually Bond rams the Fiat out of the way. The Fiat taps its bumper on a railing and the airbags activate. The airbag joke has been hackneyed for ten years? Twenty? The scene felt like it was lifted whole from a Roger Moore Bond film.

Fun (and sad) Connections: You might not think much about that guy Tanner at MI6 who works with "M" and Moneypenny. Tanner is played by Rory Kinnear, whose dad was also in some iconic British movies - Roy Kinnear played a bumbling scientist in The Beatles' HELP! and Veruca Salt's dad in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Kinnear Sr. died in a tragic horse riding accident while filming a Three Musketeers movie when Rory was just a kid.
(AMC Burlington with Adam)


November 1, 2015

Hollow Man (2000)

Feels very similar to The Fly, but Hollow Man is only successful for its effects. The following synopsis describes both movies:
"Lone wolf scientist develops breakthrough invention, but tests it on himself to disastrous results. The experiment drives him mad. A love triangle acts as a catalyst for his anger, and he goes on a murderous rampage."
The special effects in Hollow Man still look great, after 15 years of technology improvements. The effects of shapes draped over the invisible form, but also the effects of the human (and gorilla) bodies appearing and disappearing one layer at a time look incredible. By the end of the movie, they've shown off the invisibility effects in every way possible- the invisible man has been draped in cloth, covered in liquid latex, walked through steam, drenched in sprinkler water, drenched in blood, immersed in a swimming pool, walked through smoke - he's done everything except become smothered in chocolate sauce.
The rest of the movie is not so great. Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) is a real prick from the very beginning of the movie, so the audience is not rooting for him, and when he evolves from a jerk to a creep to a rapist to a murderer, he doesn't change that much. Whether he's the antagonist or the protagonist, the movie cannot succeed when we can't see the guy's face for most of the film.
Directed by regressive libertine Paul Verhoeven, the movie presents a workplace where the scientists continually bicker, argue, and compete with each other, and scientist Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue) ended an affair with Caine, but now she's taken up with their colleague Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin). Caine continually harasses McKay, who never says "no" to Caine, sending mixed messages to his former lover. It's a real mess from a modern feminist standpoint. It technically passes the Bechdel Test, but when the two women who talk to each other have both been groped by their boss in the previous 24 hours, it hardly feels like a victory for women in film.
Nineties Test: Hollow Man flunks the timelessness test immediately. Not only does it have a long opening title sequence, which were already passe in 2000, the title sequence uses all lower-case letters, which were very trendy, combined with letters floating through space - it was supposed to look like molecules fusing together, but I was reminded of alphabet soup. Some of the costumes are okay, but the late 90s affection for tan, brown, taupe, and grey is everywhere. Joey Slotnick wears an all-brown costume at one point. There are plenty of computers and phony user interfaces, but the invisibility is the star of the movie, so the computers are kept in the background. (On Demand)

The Fly (1986)

Still creepy and disgusting. The Fly feels almost like a three-person play, or a Twilight Zone episode. The Fly is a brisk 96 minutes, and could have been even shorter without the love-triangle machinations which aren't totally necessary.
The cast list includes only 10 speaking parts: Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), Ronnie (Geena Davis), the "other man" Stathis Borans (John Getz), a bar tramp that Brundle tries to trick into teleporting (Joy Boushel), and six bit parts.
Real life couple Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum have terrific chemistry, and they both exude an egghead intellect that powers the movie.
Of course the science behind the telepods is nonsense, but The Fly stands as a cautionary tale for what can go wrong when a single person designs software and conducts experiments with no oversight or testing. If only he'd programmed his computer to NOT fuse two organisms together! The makeup effects are mostly solid, it's the idea of the fly emerging from Brundle that makes this movie a success.
I laughed out loud when I saw this outfit, even though Davis was delivering
the trademark line "Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid."
Note: Where did they get these bizarre character names? Seth Brundle, Veronica Quaife, and Stathis Borans?
Eighties Test: The Fly mostly passes the timelessness test- the telepods still look great; the computer is housed in a giant casing like a supercomputer, and the UI looks terrific. One of Ronnie's costumes - the one she's wearing when she says "Be afraid. Be very afraid" is so Eighties I almost laughed out loud. Besides her hilarious lapels, the festive scarf does not fit the occasion. (On Demand)

Bridge Of Spies

There's a lot to admire in Bridge of Spies. Spielberg is a master craftsman, and Hanks delivers a strong, distinctive performance, but this isn't really a thriller,  and I was never worried about the outcome of the story. It's more interesting and moving and less exciting and thrilling.

This photo does not show how BRIGHT the outside glow was!
There's a surprising amount of skepticism and paranoia of our secretive government in the films of Steven Spielberg. As a child of the Cold War and as a post-Watergate filmmaker, Close Encounters is not just a wondrous Watch The Skies effects showcase, it's also a government coverup conspiracy thriller. E.T. is full of children and wonder, but also the unnamed spooks who chase E.T. through the woods, then surveil and invade the family home. The warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (and the beginning of Crystal Skull) in Area 51! And of course Minority Report's view of government oversight into our lives reaches nightmare levels.
Bridge of Spies is a Cold War movie and a Red Scare movie. It would have been easy to wander around the era. That movie would have become a panoramic History of The Cold War, but instead we learn about this complicated chapter of American patriotism, politics, and diplomacy while keeping a tight focus on one story in that era.
It's not novel to say Tom Hanks is a good actor, but he's really terrific in this movie. From the opening scene where we learn what a strong negotiator and persuasive speaker he is, to his saavy assessment of his counterparts, to his relentless stubborness, this is Hanks' most distinctive character in a long time.
Spielberg is a master filmmaker, but three items distacted me. Three items which are clearly intended by Spielberg:

  • Heavenly Glow: many scenes include Janusz Kaminski's trademark overpowering sunlight "blowing out" the windows. The gazy, heavenly style has pervaded Spielberg films since Minority Report - I feel he verged into self-parody in Catch Me If You Can - but it's simply distracting now. The prison interview scenes between Donovan and Abel look like a humidifier is running full blast, misting the characters every minute.
  • Wide Screen Lenses - I am not a camera expert, but when camera lenses are especially "wide", you can view an entire room from wall to wall without turning the camera. In Bridge Of Spies, I repeatedly noticed the lenses were so wide, the entire room was in frame, AND the vertical lines at the edges of the screen were curved with a "fisheye" effect. I should not be thinking about the cinematography!
  • Telling Not Showing - this one is minor, but Spielberg communicates so well with images, I get annoyed when he drives points home with words. Francis Gary Powers and his fellow airmen are briefed by a CIA spook in a motel room. When the spook leaves, the camera pans past the motel's neon sign which fills the whole screen MOTEL. We saw the MOTEL sign through the window earlier, why are you rubbing our faces in it now?
Several times Spielberg uses title cards: BROOKLYN, BERLIN, and so on, that are marginally necessary. If the audience can't tell where we are without a title card, AND they have to know where they are to understand the movie, you're not doing your job!
My Stub Hubby grade: B minus.
(Somerville Theater)