Monday, September 22, 2014
Who's In It: Lance Henriksen (Aliens, The Terminator, Millenium), Tom Nagel (Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter's Cove and a bit part in Man of Steel), and Rebekah Kochan (Eating Out, Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds, Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat).
What It's About: A loose adaptation of Treasure Island in which Jim Hawkins (Nagel) is in his 20s and dating Anne Bonney (Kochan), while Long John Silver (Henriksen) lost his leg to giant insects.
How It Is: This found its way into my Netflix queue I'm sure because I was just adding pirate movies one day. If I ever knew what it was, I'd forgotten until I popped it in and saw the opening words, "The Asylum Presents." Coming out the same year as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, this was The Asylum's mockbuster rip-off of that franchise.
I go back and forth on my feelings about The Asylum and did so again during the ten seconds after I saw their logo on this thing. First my heart sank, dispirited that I wasn't about to discover some hidden gem. But that disappointment quickly turned into "let's do this" and a determination to enjoy whatever goofiness I was about to jump into.
The effects - what few there are - are actually okay. The giant insects that inhabit Treasure Island are rare, so the CGI team only needed to create a couple of them and they look pretty good. Director Leigh Scott even hired a real ship to film on, though it's obviously not moving in the scenes that are shot on deck. The effects and ship money all came out of the costume budget though. The wardrobe (as Chris Schweizer pointed out when I tweeted some images) looks like it was borrowed from a community theater, and even then some hats and other pieces get reused between characters.
We know going in though that any Asylum film is made on the super cheap, so let's not belabor that. What's worth judging is how they tell the story and Pirates of Treasure Island makes some fun choices. Making Jim Hawkins older changes the story in a big way, but it's still interesting, especially when his girlfriend turns out to be a famous, feared pirate who doesn't want that life for him. Giant insects are also a nice twist and an early indicator that the movie isn't taking itself at all seriously. As are the wacky novelty glasses worn by Blind Pew and having Captain Smollett demand that everyone use the French pronunciation of his name. And while I wouldn't dream of spoiling them for you, the dying words of a major character are unbelievably stupid and hilarious and end the movie in the same spirit that it began.
Rating: Three out five giant, peg-leg making bugs.
Monday, September 01, 2014
Painting by Daryl Mandryk [via]
Today would have been Edgar Rice Burroughs' 139th birthday, so Happy ERBday, everyone!
The last couple of weeks have been crazy, so I didn't have a lot of time for reading or posting, but the Bondathon will resume as soon as I finish On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Back into the groove now, so hopefully not too much longer.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Music is important in every movie, but especially with the James Bond films. That starts with the James Bond theme itself. Monty Norman composed the score for Dr No, but Saltzman and Broccoli weren't into what he came up with for the main theme. They hired jazz musician John Barry to quickly come up with something short and sweet that they could fit into the title track, but he didn't even have time to watch the movie, so he just modified some of his own stuff. The result was the crazy popular, now classic theme.
As the Bond series went on, the Bond theme got used more and more sparingly, but it's everywhere in Dr No. It's playing when he first introduces himself and then keeps showing up: when he leaves the casino, when he arrives at the airport in Jamaica, when he's walking across the hotel lobby, and when he's driving to Miss Taro's. Dr No cements the association between the character of James Bond and this music, even when he's not doing anything especially exciting. But it's used in a couple of cool, dangerous moments too. It's playing when he surprises Miss Taro by showing up at her door; then a brass variation on it plays when he murders the follow up guard in the river on Crab Key. That kind of thing is what the theme eventually becomes known for, so I'm looking forward to tracking that as we go through the series.
Back to the credits though, what's interesting about them - and sort of jarring - is that the Bond theme is only one of three pieces that play over the opening credits, the other two being a section of just tropical drumming and then "Three Blind Mice," which leads right into the first scene. It's not even a very well arranged medley; each piece just fades and dissolves into the next one without anything to bridge them. But it does introduce the tone and setting for the movie: the Bond theme is dangerous and exciting, then the other two create images of the Caribbean where the movie takes place. One of the other things I'll be looking at in this project is how well the opening titles and music suggest the movies' themes and settings. As clunky as the transitions are, the Dr No titles and music do that very well.
The credits themselves were designed by Maurice Binder. He'd been designing titles for a few years by that time on films like Indiscreet, The Road to Hong Kong, and The Grass is Greener. The Dr No titles are fun, but not especially unique. That kind of animated sequence was super popular in the late '50s and early '60s, with Saul Bass being one of its most successful users. It wasn't until an accident during the production of From Russia with Love that Binder found the style that would define the rest of the Bond series. For Dr No though, he begins with a lot of meaningless, but exciting flashing dots and squares, then transitions to silhouettes of island dancers during the drumming and the "three blind mice" themselves during that song. It's all fun imagery and makes the music changes less awkward.
Top Ten Theme Songs
1. Dr No
Top Ten Title Sequences
1. Dr No
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Dr No tones down its main villain from Fleming's version in understandable, but somewhat disappointing ways. It leaves the character Chinese, which is great (No was inspired by Fu Manchu, but isn't himself a true example of Yellow Peril fears in action), but loses the pulpier details. The literary No glides when he walks. With his bald head, he reminds Bond of a giant worm with claws for arms. The movie No replaces the claws with metal hands that are still odd, but - for better or for worse - not as visually striking. The result is an unusual, but believable villain. It's unfortunate that they cast a white actor instead of a Chinese one (as they also did with Miss Taro), but race aside, Joseph Wiseman does an excellent job creating a creepy, memorable antagonist for Bond's first film.
No's tactics are also de-pulped somewhat from the book, but less successfully. Book No has created a labyrinthine obstacle course for the express purpose of testing enemies like Bond. That's too silly for Movie No (and would require an expensive squid battle at the end), so the film loses the obstacle course angle and just has Bond navigate a weird series of air ducts to escape his cell. Stripped of their original purpose, the ducts make no sense with their hot sections and being randomly used to transport water for some reason. (No's plan for Honey is also modified from the novel, but at least it's rational.)
Another change from the novel is No's political allegiance. In the book, he's dabbling in rocket toppling with an eye on offering his services to the Soviets. That's almost an afterthought though and No's real motivation is simply to be left alone with his illusion of sovereignty. In the film, toppling is the focus of his operations and he's working for SPECTRE. It's how Movie Bond learns about that group and one of the things I love most about the Connery (and Lazenby) movies is how they form a saga of Bond's uncovering and fighting that organization. In Dr No, SPECTRE is nothing but a name and that's very cool.
Another thing I like about Dr No is its creation of Professor Dent. He's a lousy liar and a worse assassin, but as ineffectual as he may be, he's wonderful in his slimy patheticness and he's a memorable henchman.
Dent also represents one final thing I want to point out about Doctor No. I'm stealing this idea from the James Bonding podcast, but even though they came up with it, they rarely carry it out so I feel it's fair game. In just about every Bond movie, there's a moment when the villain could easily get rid of Bond and win the day. So as we go through the series, I'm going to point that out and talk about how the bad guy might have succeeded in his plans.
Doctor No tries to kill Bond a few times long distance on Jamaica, but his assassins are mostly ridiculous. A gang of hitmen try to shoot Bond once and are so frightened by some passing headlights that they never try again. Then there's No's own plan to murder Bond with a poisonous spider, which has the benefit of looking like a natural death, but is super unpredictable. At least No is trying though and he almost succeeds a couple of times first by trying to run Bond over a cliff and then by sending Dent to murder Bond in person. Bond gets out of those by his own wits and skill, which is awesome.
Where No fails is on Crab Key. He's already seen that Bond is talented and resourceful, so he offers Bond a place in SPECTRE and when Bond refuses... he locks Bond up? In a cell with giant air ducts. And then totally ignores him. Doctor No gets great marks in style and creepiness, but loses points for being ineffective and kind of dumb. As a henchman, Professor Dent has the same issues as his master.
Top Ten Villains
1. Doctor No
Top Ten Henchmen
1. Miss Taro
2. Professor Dent
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
I'm a little uncertain about how I want to approach this aspect of the Bond films, so I may make some changes as we go through the series. I know I want to talk about a couple of things pertaining to the main female character in each film, but I'm not sure how much focus to give to other women in the movies. I'll keep talking about Moneypenny in the Story and Bond sections, but I'm less interested in characters like Sylvia Trench and Miss Taro.
For example, Trench was created merely to be a running gag through the series, but was dropped the first time actor Eunice Gayson's friend Terrence Young wasn't the director. The humor in Bond's trying to maintain a regular girlfriend in London is extremely limited, so it's no loss that that plotline fell by the wayside. As an alternative, the film series could have done some dramatically interesting things with that relationship, but that was never the intention and would have clashed with the overall tone of the series.
As for Miss Taro, she's little more than a plot device. She's a bit character in the novel who was expanded in the film to add some color and detail to No's operation in Jamaica. She doesn't have much personality and her "romance" with Bond is forced and unbelievable, but even though she's just there to pad out the film I kind of like her. It's fun to watch her and Bond try to manipulate each other, even though I know she's never going to get the best of him.
You know who I really like though? The photographer who tries unsuccessfully a couple of times to get Bond's picture and ends up in an uncomfortable meeting with Bond, Quarrel, and Felix. She's got no bigger role in the film than she does in the book, but Margaret Le Wars sells it with the perfect combination of hatred and fear. I want to know more about her, which is the highest compliment I can pay to an actress of a bit character like that.
Then we come to Honey Rider. Out of all the women in the Fleming novels I've read so far, she's my favorite (keeping in mind that I just started On Her Majesty's Secret Service). It was always going to be tough to create a film version of Honey that lived up to the character from the novel. And sure enough, they didn't. Ursula Andress is drop dead beautiful and conveys Honey's innocence pretty well, but she doesn't get at the character's competence and self-sufficiency.
That's largely a script problem. Movie Honey doesn't get to save herself from Dr No, much less Bond, but also her back story has been revised from Book Honey's so that she hasn't been living on her own as long. Instead of losing her parents in a tragic fire as a young teenager, Movie Honey lived with her scientist father until he was killed (she suspects) by Dr No. The timeline isn't specific, but including Dr No makes it seem like it only happened in the last couple of years or so. She simply hasn't had as much time as Book Honey to become tough.
Adding to the issue is Andress' looking way more mature than Honey is described in the book. In the novel, Honey's innocence is all about her youth and lack of social training. Andress was only 25 or 26 when Dr No was shot, so it's not that she was too old to play Honey. The problem is that she's a bombshell and when she acts childlike, she comes across more simple than innocent. And unfortunately, I think she comes across that way whether you've read the book or not.
My Favorite Bond Women
I'll finish this section each time with a running list of my Top Ten favorite female characters from the Bond movies. As new favorites get added with each film, less favorite characters will drop off. (I'll do the same for gadgets and opening stingers once the movies start having those too. And for bad guys and music, but that's tomorrow and Friday.)
1. Honey Rider
2. The Photographer from Dr No
3. Miss Taro
4. Sylvia Trench
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Actors and Allies
As I mentioned yesterday, Dr No goes for a deliberately lighter tone than the novels. That leads to lots of quipping by James Bond, but there's also a gleam in his eye that just doesn't exist for the literary version. Sean Connery was a perfect choice to play this version. He's able to switch effortlessly from bemused to deadly and then back again.
That has a lot to do with sheer confidence. Every time Connery's Bond enters a room, he owns it. Whether it's a hotel lobby, a government office, or the villain's lair, he looks completely at ease and in control. In contrast, the literary Bond is filled with self doubt that ramps up the tension, but he always overcomes it. That would be impossible to put on screen without making Bond a weak character, so Dr No swings the pendulum way to the other side. Viewers know that Bond's in trouble, but he rarely seems to.
Because I don't have a better place to put it, I'm also going to use this section for each film to also talk about Bond's allies and how they're cast and portrayed. I mentioned the Armorer and Moneypenny a little yesterday and don't have much to add about the Armorer except that he's admirably played by Peter Burton (A Clockwork Orange) as professional and humorously disparaging of Bond's preference in firearms.
As for Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell does a great job making her flirtatious, but not completely over the moon about Bond. When he asks her, "What gives?" and she replies, "Me, given an ounce of encouragement," she delivers the line with a melodramatic flourish that reads like kidding to me rather than a true, hopeless crush. Maybe I'm choosing to read it that way, but I prefer to think of Moneypenny and Bond as knowing that any kind of romantic relationship is inappropriate and impossible, but finding each other attractive enough to pretend about it anyway. That may become harder to do as the movies roll on, but let's see how long I can hang onto that interpretation.
The other big ally that needs mentioning is Felix. Jack Lord is possibly my favorite Felix ever, but he's not much like the literary version. Fleming's Felix was a lighter version of Bond and part of his role was to balance out Bond's dark side. Connery's Bond doesn't have a dark side, so Felix kind of struggles to find a new purpose in Dr No. He ends up being mostly just a plot device and a way to comment on Bond's womanizing, but Lord has a great look and tons of charisma, so I love the character anyway.
Finally, I just want to call out Louis Blaazer as Pleydell-Smith, mostly because the character is one of my favorites in the novel. Dr No is Blaazer's only movie credit, so I don't know his story, but he does a fine job making Pleydell-Smith a pleasant ally even if the script doesn't give him as much to do as the novel did.
I don't know if you count this as a quip or not, but thanks to Connery's delivery of it, it's the line that consistently gets a legitimate laugh from me every time I hear it. It's when Pleydell-Smith tells Bond that a package has arrived for him and Bond picks it up. His grin and voice are a childish mixture of excitement and embarrassment as he explains, "Present from home." It's an unexpected reaction and that's what always gets me.
"I think they were on their way to a funeral."
Oh, James, you're not even trying.
Though gadgets had become a thing in the novels (Bond's heel-knife was standard enough equipment by this time that Fleming didn't even need to explain it whenever it showed up), Dr No doesn't really have any. The closest is the geiger counter, his "present from home," but that's really just equipment.
Bond’s Best Outfit
I know nothing about fashion, but I know what I like and what I don't, so for each movie I'll pick a favorite outfit and one that makes me groan. My favorite for Dr No is this lightweight suit that's perfect for looking great while walking around a tropical island.
Bond’s Worst Outfit
One of the few rules I do know about fashion is that you don't match the color of your shirt exactly to the color of your pants. Faux pas, James.
Monday, August 18, 2014
So Fleming got his wish and James Bond finally made it onto the big screen. I'm not going to talk much about behind-the-scenes stuff with the movies except where it directly influences the finished product, but Fleming spent such a long time trying to get a Bond series made - either on television or film - that it's worth mentioning that Dr. No's producers were equally passionate about it. Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli had both tried separately, but unsuccessfully to get Bond films made, but it was only together that they were able to make it happen. There are plenty of books and online resources to get the whole story, so I won't repeat it here, but I especially recommend the documentary Everything or Nothing, which chronicles the whole film series up to Skyfall.
I'm taking a much different approach to the films than I am with the novels. For the literary Bond, I've been curious to track Bond's growth as a person, but that's foolishness with the movies. The films sometimes care about building their own continuity, but they're mostly uninterested in character development. I'll certainly point it out when they do build on previous films, but I can't make that the focus as I write about them.
Instead, I'm going to take the movies on their own terms, while also acknowledging the debts they owe to Fleming's books. To make it easier, I'll divide each film up into five sections: Story, Bond, Women, Villains, and Music with subcategories under each one. Today is all about Dr. No's overall story, then tomorrow we'll look at how it presents James Bond, and so on through the rest of the week. Cool? Cool.
Ian Fleming's Dr. No
Ian Fleming's From Russia with Love (reference to previous mission where Bond was almost killed)
Ian Fleming's Casino Royale (Bond uses a couple of spy tricks from that novel in his hotel room)
Contemporary issues with US rockets' going astray
Same as the novel. Bond investigates the disappearance of a couple of British agents and follows up on their final investigation, which leads him to Crab Key and Dr. No.
How Is the Book Different?
To make all the sex and violence palatable to censors and audiences, Saltzman and Broccoli made sure their adaptation had a lot of humor. We'll get into that more tomorrow when we talk specifically about Dr. No's depiction of James Bond, but while the film doesn't go so far as to wink at its audience, there's certainly a twinkle in its eye.
Plotwise, the film makes a much bigger deal out of missile toppling than the novel did. In the book, rocket interference is something that Dr. No seems to be just getting into. The villain is mostly interested in defending his autonomy and sovereignty, but Fleming seemed to realize that that didn't make him threatening enough and sort of tacked on the toppling as an easy way to raise the stakes.
In the film, that's the whole deal. The Jamaica assignment is never the cake assignment that it's supposed to be in the book. M knows from the start that Strangways was investigating stray missiles; he just doesn't know what Strangways' investigation has uncovered. No one believes Strangways ran off with his assistant and there's an ominous feeling around the mystery right from the beginning.
Incidentally, it was Dr. No's missile toppling aspect that made the filmmakers pick it as the source for the first film. They originally had their eye on Thunderball, but the legal dispute around that made them back away. Since there was a real problem in the news at the time with US missiles going astray, the movie Dr. No would have the benefit of tapping into popular interests. That's something that the rest of the series would also be known for.
Making Dr. No the first in the series created some challenges though. For one thing, the novel builds off of Live and Let Die and From Russia with Love in major ways. Strangways and Quarrel were both introduced in Live and Let Die, but the film has to work around that. Bond's never met Strangways as far as we can tell; his loyalty to the dead man is simply as a fellow agent. And Bond has to meet Quarrel for the first time, which is actually pretty great since screenwriters Richard Maibaum, Joanna Harwood, and Berkely Mather give Quarrel reason to distrust Bond at first. That also goes for Felix Leiter, whom Bond too has to meet for the first time.
Finally, there are some other roles that the Dr. No movie either expanded from the novel or completely created, but we can talk about those through the rest of the week.
Moment That’s Most Like Fleming
This is hard to pick, because Dr. No is so faithful to its source material. There are whole scenes right out of the novel. For that reason, I started looking for scenes that didn't directly adapt something Fleming wrote, but managed to capture something important in Fleming's version. There are a couple, but what I settled on was the moment when Bond and Quarrel are setting out to visit Crab Key. Quarrel's nervous, but Bond says, "For me Crab Key's going to be a gentle relaxation."
"From what?" Felix asks. "Dames?" (Felix is kind of grumpy from waiting two hours for Bond to show up.)
"No," says Bond. "From being a clay pigeon."
That's Blunt Instrument talk right there and we see it still in action later when Bond goads Dr. No with insults all through dinner. He's had it with the investigation and just wants to force a confrontation and get this over with.
Moment That’s Least Like Fleming
If you'd asked me before I re-read Fleming what the most Fleming-like moment in Dr. No is, I would've said it's when Bond kills Professor Dent in cold blood. That would have been me reacting against the soft, fluffy Bond that sometimes pops up in Roger Moore movies. I love the cold, hard, "You've had your six" Bond.
But making Bond ruthless doesn't automatically make him faithful to Fleming. Fleming went to great lengths to show that his Bond is uneasy with killing in cold blood. Fleming's Bond has a dark side; it just doesn't include murdering unarmed people. That's not to say that I prefer Fleming's to what we see in Dr. No. I actually don't. But it does mean I'll quit holding up that moment as an example of what the "real" Bond should be like.
Starting with From Russia with Love, I'll use the Story section to talk about and grade the pre-credits stingers on each film. There's not one in Dr. No though.
Movie Series Continuity
I mentioned above that the movie builds on elements of the novel From Russia with Love as well as Live and Let Die. It does that in the briefing scene when M mentions that Bond was just laid up for six months after his Beretta failed him. That's right out of the novel Dr. No and is a reference to From Russia with Love which immediately preceded Dr. No in the book series. In the movie series we'll never learn more about that mission, but the effect is the same and Bond gets a Walther PPK. Because of that, the Walther is Bond's signature gun from the very beginning of the film series.
We also meet Q for the first time, though he's not called that. He's simply the Armorer, which leads some to believe that he's a different character, especially since he's played by a different actor from the most famous Q. But M calls him "Boothroyd" (right from the novel), which - according to the film version of The Spy Who Loved Me - is also Q's name. From that as well as Q's official introduction in From Russia with Love, I think it's clear that the series intends the Armorer and Q to be the same person.
Just before the briefing, Bond enters Moneypenny's office and tosses his hat onto the coat rack from across the room. That becomes a thing through most of the early movies. And speaking of Moneypenny, there's some mild flirtation between her and Bond that before the novel Thunderball I would have said is borrowed from the literary Bond and his secretary Lil. But Thunderball sadly introduces to the books that Moneypenny has a crush on Bond, so this - like "Bond, James Bond" and "shaken not stirred" are right out of Fleming.