Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Diamonds Are Forever": The Comic Strip

By "Diamonds Are Forever," the quality of the James Bond strip has stabilized into mediocre. Artist John McLusky has moments of greatness where he's put a lot of thought into a composition or is clearly having fun with a particular panel, but he's inconsistent. There are just as many examples of his work looking rushed and unfinished.

For his part, writer Henry Gammidge continues presenting Bond as a stock adventure hero. I love that he occasionally takes a panel to describe what Bond's eating or to portray some other detail from the book that's insignificant to the plot, but even though Bond's narrating the strip, Gammidge offers no look into what makes Bond tick as a character. He doesn't even present Fleming's take on Bond, much less offer any insight of his own.

This is especially problematic in Bond's relationship with Tiffany Case. That's a complicated relationship in the novel, with Bond needing to use Tiffany, but highly reluctant to hurt her. When he finally confesses that he's falling in love with her, Fleming's already convinced me that that's true. And the same is true of Case's feelings about Bond. None of that is present in the comic strip though, so we just have Bond and Case running around together and then suddenly being in love at the end. The story hasn't earned that revelation.

It's also unearned when Bond grows impatient in his undercover role as a lackey for the mob. Unlike the languid pace of the novel, the strip is so brisk that it's hard to believe that Bond is bored. So when he disobeys the mob's instructions to him about not gambling in their facility, it's nothing more than an act of petulance. With nothing motivating it, it just feels like Bond does it unnaturally in order to keep the plot moving.

That kind of rushing also weakens the power of the telegram the mob gets from England blowing Bond's cover. There's no mention of how the London branch of the mob knows that Bond isn't actually Peter Franks; it just says that Bond's a fake and should be killed. Gammidge doesn't seem interested in actually adapting the story to comic strip form; just translating it as efficiently as possible to hit all the scenes. Thanks to McLusky, that translation is sometimes beautifully done, but not always.

There are other problems too that have nothing to do with the story. Like for instance when Felix refers to his previous career in the FBI instead of the CIA. Or the numerous instances of word balloons being placed oddly so that the eye reads them out of order. The lettering is a problem that stays with the strip at least into "From Russia With Love."

There's too much Fleming in the James Bond strip and I like too much of McLusky's work to let me hate it or lose interest. I'm always curious to see how McLusky is going to interpret a character or setting. But I also don't love or especially recommend the strip. It captures the stories, but not the soul of Fleming's work. And its creators don't offer enough of their own to replace that missing spirit and make the strip great.

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Moonraker": The Comic Strip

With their adaptation of Moonraker, Henry Gammidge and John McLusky depart even further from the tone of Ian Fleming. Now Bond isn't just narrating in caption boxes, he's drawn talking directly to the reader. As I said when I wrote about the Live and Let Die adaptation, it's no good comparing the strip to Fleming's style. The author was absolutely right to be concerned that the comics would dumb down his stories and it's best that I just accept it.

It's still interesting though to see what changes Gammidge made to Fleming's plot, because we do get a couple in "Moonraker." The whole day-in-the-life-of-Bond opening is gone, so we don't get to meet Bond's secretary or even read mention of the spy's home life and personal habits. Instead, with no explanation as to why, Bond begins the story by relating the public history of Hugo Drax.

After that, Bond's first in-story appearance is sitting in M's office and being told that Drax cheats at cards. Readers of the novel understand why that's important, but the comic doesn't really say and the mission comes across as embarassingly petty, especially without the benefit of M's own involvement. There's no mention of personal favors and M isn't even revealed to be a member at Drax's club. He doesn't go to Blades with Bond, but sends the agent out to investigate on his own as if this were any other assignment.

Once the card game begins between Bond and Drax though, the rest of the story plays out like it does in the novel, though severely abridged. We never do get an explanation of why the Secret Service is involved in a murder investigation on British soil, and there's no mention of the mystery of Drax's mustachioed men.

McLusky has a lot of fun with Drax's appearance though, including his comical moustache. And he draws a gorgeous Gala Brand, though she's blonde for some reason. He's still working on those facial expressions and I've started to notice that his Bond has a perpetual smirk. I kind of like it, but it's not much like the super dark Bond of these early novels. He's more of a children's adventure hero, but that really fits the tone that Gammidge seems to be going for.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Captain Kidd (1945)

Who's In It: Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Randolph Scott (Ride Lonesome, Ride the High Country), Barbara Britton (The Revlon Girl), John Carradine (The House of Dracula, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula), and Reginald Owen (A Christmas Carol).

What's It About: History walks the plank in this version where the pirate William Kidd (Laughton) pretends to go straight in order to escort a British treasure ship back to England. But his plans are complicated not only by the mutual treachery between him and his men (including Carradine), but also by the arrival of a mysterious gunner (Scott) with secret motives of his own.

How It Is: Whenever villains are described in literature as "toadlike," Charles Laughton is the man I think of. Paunchy and blubbery, Laughton isn't a traditional pirate captain, but he's perfect for this role. His Captain Kidd is a scheming, slippery devil who makes up in betrayal what he lacks in brawn.

Pitted against him is Randolph Scott, the straight-shooting Western star who's traded in his six-shooters for a rapier. At first, Scott feels bland as Master Gunner Adam Mercy, but he becomes a great juxtaposition to Kidd. He's not exactly dashing, but he is handsome and honorable and an effective straight man to Laughton's wickedly humorous performance. Scott makes Laughton that much more fun in comparison.

Carradine, on the other hand, serves to give Laughton's Kidd some genuine menace. Carradine exudes danger and deadliness, so seeing him evenly matched and genuinely threatened by Kidd was a constant reminder to take Kidd seriously, even if I was laughing at him.

Rounding out the cast are Barbara Britton and Reginald Owen. Britton plays a noble woman traveling on the treasure ship that Kidd is escorting, but she doesn't have much to do other than raise the stakes for Scott. Owen (most famous to me for playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1938 Christmas Carol) is much more fun as a servant hired by Kidd for the doomed task of helping the salty captain appear respectable in polite society. Once everyone's on the same ship, Owen's character is an amusing wild card, since he's a good-hearted fellow, but also has a decent working relationship with the captain.

Captain Kidd isn't a classic of the pirate genre by any means, but Laughton's performance is a joy to watch and there's enough double-crossing and swashbuckling to make the rest of it worthwhile.

Rating: Four out of five hidden caves with buried treasure.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

I'll save my full commentary about the movie Goldfinger until we get there, but Fleming's novel is a lot like it in more than just plot and characters. Both versions mark a significant shift in tone for their series. I'd forgotten that was true for the novel as well as the film.

Fleming introduces the idea right away. The book opens with Bond in Miami, waiting on a connecting flight after a particularly hairy and violent mission in Mexico. Most of the first chapter is Bond's sitting in an airport lounge, brooding about the assignment over his double bourbon. That's not at all unusual for the Bond we've come to know over the series so far, but Fleming throws in a twist at the end of the chapter and has Bond thinking to himself, "Cut it out. Stop being so damned morbid. All this is just a reaction from a dirty assignment. You're stale, tired of having to be tough. You want a change." And that's exactly what Bond - and his readers - get.

As if on cue, an American millionaire named Du Pont approaches Bond and recognizes him from their time together in Casino Royale. He and his wife sat next to Bond at the baccarat game against Le Chiffre and Du Pont wonders if Bond might be available to help him out with another situation involving cards. Du Pont is being swindled at Canasta by a man named Goldfinger and wants Bond to help him get back at the cheater. Bond's already facing an overnight layover anyway, so he accepts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Poseidon (2006)

Who's In It: Josh Lucas (Hulk), Kurt Russell (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), Jacinda Barrett (Zero Hour), Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow), and Mía Maestro (Alias)

What's It About: A rogue wave flips over an ocean liner, forcing passengers to make their way up towards the former bottom of the ship where they hope to find rescue.

How It Is: Surprisingly good. When Poseidon hit movie theaters, I couldn't have been more disinterested. My childhood dislike of the original Poseidon Adventure combined with my disaster movie fatigue (which went back to the late '90s after Twister, Volcano, Armageddon, Titanic, etc., etc.) to keep me far away. But having revisited the 1972 Poseidon Adventure and enjoyed it, and having not seen a recent disaster movie in a very long time, the timing was right for me to watch Poseidon with an open mind.

Frankly, watching it so closely after the 2005 Hallmark mini-series also helped. That version was so padded out, so cheaply made, and adapted the original's characters in such unflattering ways that I was impressed when Poseidon didn't make those same mistakes. It's a low bar to step over, but Poseidon does it and delivers some good stuff in the process.

My hopes for the movie rose during the first few seconds of the credits when I was reminded that the director is Wolfgang Petersen. I haven't loved all of Petersen's films, but I have soft spots for Outbreak and Air Force One and there's no denying that he's a capable filmmaker. I was expecting Poseidon to be directed by someone like Roland Emmerich, so I relaxed quite a bit when I saw Petersen's name.

And I relaxed some more when I saw the long, continuous, opening shot of the ocean liner as the camera flies around the outside of the impressive ship, occasionally picking up glimpses of Josh Lucas running on deck. There's a lot of money on screen there, which is a huge relief after the crude simulator-quality animation of the Hallmark mini-series.

The pace of the story is faster than any previous version, starting out on New Year's Eve and letting viewers learn about characters mostly during the disaster rather than through an abundance of buildup and back story. There are some brief introductions before the wave hits, but there are also less characters than in earlier versions, so it doesn't feel tedious.

Speaking of the characters, they aren't nearly as fascinating as those from the original, but Poseidon still has some nice moments with them. Unlike the Hallmark version, Poseidon doesn't use any names from 1972, but there are still some analogues to the originals. Josh Lucas doesn't play a priest, but he is a guy who values strength and a professional gambler used to surviving alone and by his wits. That worldview is challenged though when he finds himself feeling protective of a single mother (Barrett) and her son (Jimmy Bennett, who played young Jim Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek reboot).

Richard Dreyfuss' character is the most interesting. He's a gay man who's just been dumped and is heartbroken to the point of considering suicide. He's actually on deck and climbing over the rail when he sees the enormous wave rushing towards the ship, which immediately kicks his will to live into gear and sends him rushing inside to warn the other passengers. That will is still strong later when he joins the group of hopeful escapees and does something heinous to another person in order to save himself. And the guilt of that action then pushes him into protecting a terrified woman (Maestro) even when doing so puts himself in jeopardy. The film doesn't pull everything out of Dreyfuss' character arc that it could, but the arc is still there and it's a good one, even if Red Buttons' similar, but more honorable character was more touching in '72.

The group of characters that didn't work for me was Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum, and Mike Vogel (Cloverfield). Russell is Rossum's father, while Vogel is the boyfriend to whom she's secretly engaged. There's a bunch of stuff about when they're going to tell Russell about the engagement and Russell is trying to be the threatening dad, but is mostly just ticking the other two off. All of which comes to a head during the disaster a la Armageddon (or Transformers: Age of Extinction) and yadda yadda yadda. It's great seeing Russell be all tough and actiony during the disaster, but his family's drama is pretty lame.

What saves Russell's character and the others though is that there aren't a lot of obvious parallels to the '72 version. Dreyfuss and Buttons come closest, with Lucas and Hackman being a distant second, but their individual stories are so different that it's not really worth comparing them. That's true of the rest of the movie as well. There are a lot of set pieces from '72 that get repeated exactly in the Hallmark version, but only one or two make it into Poseidon. One that comes to mind is when the group leaves the ballroom against the advice of an authority figure, but even then there's no big confrontation where everyone has to make a decision. The captain (Andre Braugher from Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) encourages everyone to stay and wait for rescue, but doesn't try to force it and there's zero drama when the main characters sneak off on their own.

That sounds like criticism - and I admit I was disappointed - but it's indicative of something that is actually a strength of the film. It constantly finds its own way to do things, making it a reimagining of the '72 story rather than a remake. I have no idea which version is more faithful to Paul Gallico's novel or how the book affects the decisions made by Irwin Allen and Wolfgang Petersen, but Poseidon is different enough that it works as almost a whole new story that just uses the same concept. Taken that way, it's better than most other modern disaster films and has enough going for it (like an escape plan with an actual hope for survival at the end) that I like it quite a bit.

Rating: Four out of five dashing gamblers

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Live and Let Die": The Comic Strip

Writer Anthony Hern had toned down parts of Casino Royale for the Daily Express' comic strip adaptation, but he kept all the story beats and the general tone of Fleming's novel. He was replaced on the strip in December 1958 though starting with the adaptation of Live and Let Die. His successor was Henry Gammidge, who made a couple of immediate changes to distance the strip from Fleming even more.

Most startling is the use of first person narration by Bond. I don't know if it was inspired by writers like Raymond Chandler, but if so, it's a sad imitation. Gammidge's captions read like a children's book and there's no effort to explain why Bond's telling this story or to whom.

Another major difference between Hern's adaptation and Gammidge's is the length. The "Live and Let Die" strip is a little over 60% the length of "Casino Royale" and it feels rushed in comparison. Without "Casino Royale" to hold it up against though, I'm not sure I would've noticed. Gammidge is certainly more economical than Hern was, but he still hits all the major plot points of Fleming's book without cutting scenes. He even manages to acknowledge Bond's nervousness during his rough flight to Jamaica.

John McLusky's art maintains the strengths and weaknesses it had in "Casino Royale." He's still not awesome at facial expressions, but his Solitaire is slightly more emotive than Vesper was. His action scenes are still dynamic though, his compositions are eye-catching, and he continues to pull me into the story with detailed representations of the fashions, architecture, and vehicles of the '50s.

With its exciting art and fast-paced story, I imagine that "Live and Let Die" was able to appeal to newspaper readers who'd never read the book. To me, it feels less like reading Fleming than "Casino Royale" did, but I'm not so sure that's a drawback. As much as I dislike Bond's narration, it forces me to consider the strip on its own terms instead of just comparing it to Fleming. It was created after the adventure strip boom of the '30s and '40s, but it's as much heir to those comics as it is an adaptation of Fleming's work. I certainly wouldn't hold it up next to Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff in terms of quality, but as an amalgamation of those guys and Fleming, I think it's at least interesting. As I continue reading it, I'm going to try to keep that in mind and judge it as it's own thing rather than how closely it follows Fleming.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Sea Hawk (1924)

Who's in it: Milton Sills (The Sea Tiger, The Sea Wolf), Enid Bennett (1922 Robin Hood), Lloyd Hughes (1925 The Lost World), and Wallace Beery (1922 Robin Hood, 1925 The Lost World)

What's it about: A former English privateer (Sills) is framed for murder and sold into slavery at sea, but rises to become a captain in the Barbary corsairs.

How it is: I haven't read Rafael Sabatini's novel yet, but I'm familiar with other work of his and this feels like a faithful adaptation of something he would write. The heroic Sir Oliver Tressilian tries to do the right thing by his half-brother (the ridiculously good-looking Hughes) who makes the mistake of killing a man in a duel without witnesses. But Sir Oliver is rewarded for his trouble by being suspected of the murder himself and the cowardly brother not only lets Sir Oliver take the fall; he also sells Sir Oliver to an unscrupulous captain (Beery) and starts making time with Sir Oliver's girl (Bennett).

I don't usually describe women as "somebody's girl," but Lady Rosamund Godolphin doesn't have enough will or personality to be her own person. She's completely wishy-washy, has no faith in Sir Oliver, and is really nothing more than a plot device for various characters to scheme and fight over. It's unbelievable that Sir Oliver goes to such effort to win her back.

But he does, and through a series of events at sea, he finds himself freed by Muslim corsairs and made a captain. True to Sabatini, lots of characters come and go, bringing sub-plots and intrigue with them. That gives The Sea Hawk an epic feel, which also reminds me of Sabatini.

There's much more good about the film than bad. The actors are quite convincing, even Bennett, considering what she's got to work with. I quite liked the complicated relationship between the brothers, too. Young Lionel doesn't start off evil, but he's driven to evil deeds by circumstances and weakness of character. All the antagonists in The Sea Hawk have believable motives. And I especially enjoy Wallace Beery's Captain Jasper Leigh, a scoundrel who quickly finds himself in a plot over his head and clings to Sir Oliver for dear life.

Using corsairs as the pirates is a good move too. I usually enjoy the liberty and style of Western pirates more than the structure and uniformity of the Barbary corsairs as presented here, but so many pirate films focus on the Caribbean that The Sea Hawk is a nice change of pace.

Rating: Four out of five English dogs.


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