Friday, January 16, 2009

James Bond review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

CUT TO THE CHASE: “This never happened to the other fellow.”

BOND, JAMES BOND: Sean Connery leaves, and after a worldwide search, Australian George Lazenby is given the keys to the Aston-Martin. This raised the question: could the series survive without Connery? The movie did reasonable business, but then Lazenby’s manager convinced him he’d be better off as the answer to a trivia question than as Bond for the ‘70s, and he quit after this film. Rather than settle on another actor right away the producers prevailed on Connery to return, thus delaying the definitive answer to that question.

Quite simply, I really like Lazenby’s Bond. I like how he pulls off the self-deprecating, metacinematic moment when, at the end of the pretitle sequence, when the girl he’s just saved tears off in her Cougar leaving him alone on the beach, he looked into the camera and says the line quoted above.

I like how he approaches the role with enthusiasm and a bonhomie that never cancels out the harder edges of the character: note how quickly he shifts from charm to menace and back again in his hotel-room scene with Tracy. I like how his Bond is game enough to dress in a kilt when the mission requires it, and rugged enough to make you think it looks fabulous. I like how he toasts the Queen when he resigns her secret service.

It helps that the script packs into this one film all the character development they’d been denying the character in the first five films. Bond is personally obsessed with Blofeld! Bond is discontented with his job! Bond falls in love! Bond gets married! Bond is bereaved! There’s actually acting to do here. Part of me wants to see what Connery would have done with it.

But in a way it’s perfect that all of this gets shunted into Lazenby’s one and only outing. The vulnerability and – let’s call it a spade: sweetness – that Bond displays here is wonderful and welcome, but at the same time one realizes that it, like Bond’s marriage, never could have lasted. And if Lazenby had, we’d all be asking what went wrong with his second film. Since he left, we’re forced to think of this as a golden interlude in the series, splendid but isolated. No matter how dark or how farcical the series would get in the future, it wouldn’t matter: we’ll always have OHMSS.

What Makes Bond Bond: When leaving his hotel room after a brawl with a bad guy, he stops by the door to sample the caviar he’d had sent up earlier. It’s not just the fact that he pauses for pleasure; it’s not even the fact that he walks out muttering, “Hmm. Royal Beluga – north of the Caspian.” It’s the insouciant way he plops the caviar on the toast, cavalierly scattering eggs on the tray, and the way the toast so magnificently bends, but doesn’t break, under the weight of the delicacy. It’s a totally accidental moment, but memorable, and very Bond.

What Makes George Lazenby George Lazenby: Not only does he peruse Gumboldt’s Playboy – a winningly Everyman touch – he swipes the centerfold.

BAD GUYS: SPECTRE again, again. A direct encounter with Blofeld, again. This time it’s Telly Savalas. As casting choices go, this was completely insane. Blofeld is really Kojak? Absolutely not.

The thing is, though, it works. Savalas is so perfectly unctuous, in his own gruff way, that you soon enough forget about what Blofeld is supposed to be and start enjoying what this Blofeld is. Which is: nuts, of course, but in a way that’s completely gonzo, and utterly sui generis, right down to the way he holds his cigarette.

His scheme? Something about causing a worldwide epidemic of infertility through poisoned chicken. Who cares? The important point is that in order to carry out this scheme he’s ensconced himself on his own private Alp with a multicultural bevy of nubiles, a psychedelic light show, and a hypnosis-inducing eight-track tape deck. Awesome.

They innovate a bit here by making the evil henchman a woman: Irma Bunt, Blofeld’s stolid second-in-command at Piz Gloria. She doesn’t have the physical menace that, say, Oddjob had, but she is fun to dislike, with her unbending propriety. A suitable obstacle for Bond. She’s less an enforcer than a den mother to Blofeld’s angels, and it’s this authority of hers that's her most interesting trait. The first real female authority figure Bond’s had to face in the films. The dynamic is tense, to say the least.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Diana Rigg just may be the best of the Bond girls. Certainly she’s the first one to match Bond in strength and panache. Watch the way she comes to his rescue as he’s trying to escape from Blofeld’s cronies in the ice rink. It’s beautifully staged and shot: Bond huddling on a bench, turning up the collar on his stolen coat, then he glances down at the ice just in time to see a pair of skates skid into view. He looks up at legs that just won’t quit, and there she is, his salvation. And then he lets her drive.

The seriousness of the Tracy character, and Bond’s relationship with her, is balanced by the deliciously gratuitous sex he has on the mountaintop. He infiltrates Blofeld’s harem, and in the most ironic way possible, by pretending not to like girls. He gives them the pleasure of thinking they’ve turned him. Nice risqué touch, and the international smorgasbord of beauties is a classic Bond phenomenon (although a couple of the cultural stereotypes are downright offensive).

GS: 3 that we know of, although things are a bit hazy up on Piz Gloria.

AND VIOLENCE: This Bond is more of a lover than a fighter. Only occasionally does he start breaking things. That said, when he does, the sequences are quite exciting. The film is slightly sped up when the fists start flying, and the editing is ridiculously fast. It’s more of a b-movie approach to filmmaking than we usually see in the series, but it works in spades.

The best violent bits come on the ski slopes, the first time we see alpine sports in a Bond movie, though certainly not the last. We get a whole series of thrilling variations on the ski chase, including a nighttime duel with Bond on one ski, a daytime chase with Bond and Tracy as the quarry, and a vicious bobsled race. All of this was innovative, the successor to Thunderball’s underwater brawls, and a lot more interesting to watch.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Unusually enough, the film starts with the Q scene, as Q and M engage in some banter about 007’s whereabouts being unknown. This serves to set up the pretitle sequence and the unveiling of the New Bond, but it also happens to be Q’s only appearance in the film. He doesn’t get to brief Bond on any gadgets.

Which is not to say Bond doesn’t use any. There’s the memorable bit with the suitcase-sized safecracker/photocopier – memorable primarily because it gives Bond time to catch up with Hef’s latest. And there’s also his MacGyver moment, when he figures out how to foil the electronic lock on his door at Piz Gloria.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Portugal, then Switzerland. All very glamorous and romantic. Although, we must admit that some of the glamor hasn’t aged well: the Lawrence Welk color scheme in the hotel casino, for example.

ETC.: The title sequence is the second-lamest of the series, trumped only by Die Another Day’s: all the clips from previous Bond movies slipping through the hourglass betray an unseemly anxiety about Lazenby’s reception as Bond, and visually they just don’t work. The silhouettes are nice, though… They broke with (what was admittedly only a recent) formula by having no theme song, only an instrumental overture. It’s a good one, in the best traditions of Bond music, but one does miss Shirley Bassey. They make up for it, though, by including a brilliant original song as a love theme, “We Have All The Time In The World,” the great Louis Armstrong’s very last vocal. Overall this is one of composer John Barry’s finest hours. A great score… And it’s one of the series’ finest hours, too. One of the very best of Bonds.

RATING: 007.

James Bond review: Casino Royale (1967)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Well, it’s not really a Bond film, now is it?

BOND, JAMES BOND: It not really being a Bond film, there’s no point in looking for a real Bond in it. However, Peter Sellers, as Evelyn Tremble James Bond, is a joy to watch, as usual, and Woody Allen, as Jimmy Bond, provides most of the laughs in the film.

VILLAIN AND VILLAINY: The plot is impossible to follow, but that’s not really the point. Orson Welles, as Le Chiffre, is très cool, and his one scene with Peter Sellers is the best one in the film. The early motif of trying to corrupt a sexually incorruptible David Niven, is a cute concept, although it doesn’t actually result in many laughs. Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond/Dr. Noah is great. Did I already say that?

GRATUITOUS SEX: Ursula Andress is, if possible, even more stunning here than in Dr. No. There’s really a cast of thousands in the chick department, but another particularly memorable one is the Italian woman Woody Allen straps nude to the table with stainless steel clamps. More misogynistic than anything in the serious Bond films, one should note.

AND VIOLENCE: Well, that’s not what it’s really all about, is it?

BOYS WITH TOYS: Ditto. But the poofy Q and his assistant are pretty funny.

ETC.: Of course it’s really only a spoof of the Bond films, but it is officially based on the Ian Fleming book, and uses the names and the 007, so it deserves inclusion in the canon. If only to get Dusty Springfield’s ineffable “The Look of Love” on your collection of Bond theme songs. It's one of the very best… There’s nothing at all wrong with the idea of an official Bond spoof. The problem here is that it’s just not very funny. A lot of the concepts are good, like the finicky, celibate Niven Bond character, and the Evelyn Tremble baccarat expert. But the multitude of directors and confusion of cast prevent it from being, in the end, anything more than a violently disconnected series of set pieces. Which, again, wouldn’t be so bad - if only it was funny. It’s just not. It’s “madcap,” I believe the word used to be. A poor substitute for funny.

RATING: 002.

Yes: In The Present tour (2008)

I didn’t see this tour. I seldom go to rock concerts, because I love music too much to enjoy it in an environment with awful sound and in the company of annoying drunks. So there it is.

But I’ve heard a couple of bootlegs, so I can comment on the music.

In all honesty I hadn’t given the Benoit David/Oliver Wakeman edition of Yes much of a chance. I mean, after four years of trying and failing to tolerate each other long enough to squeeze a few more shillings out of an oldies tour, Messrs. Howe, Squire, White, and Anderson finally lay plans for a series of dates as Yes. Wakeman père is out, replaced by Wakeman fils, evidently in hopes of satisfying bloodthirsty Troopers. Then Anderson nearly goes to meet George Harrison, and all bets seem to be off. But evidently the lure of luchre is stronger than the demands of dignity, or in other words, the show must go on (although why this should be any more true in 2008 than it was in 2005, 2006, or 2007 is a mystery to me). And so they cast around for a substitute vocalist. They find a guy in Montreal singing in a Yes tribute band, and, presumably again hoping to fool the punters, snap him up. Then Jon goes ballistic from his sickbed, Spinal Tap asks for the movie rights, and the In The Present tour is announced: “Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White of Yes, introducing Oliver Wakeman & Benoit David.”

Is this a joke?

Surprisingly enough, it may not be. Listen to the music. It’s Yes.

Benoit David (not to be confused, of course, with David Benoit) is a phenomenal Jon Anderson impersonator. That wouldn’t necessarily be a plus, but the fact is, you listen to the tapes of these shows, and it just sounds like Yes. And that is a plus.

What’s more, and more important, David’s a good singer. He’s not just imitating Jon – I’m not sure he’s imitating Jon at all. He’s singing his parts, which is a different thing altogether. Yes, it’s disconcerting at first how closely his tone mirrors Jon’s, but when you listen closely you notice all sorts of subtle differences in timbre and expression. Differences that show that David, like Jon, is a skilled vocal musician. Example: David has to work a little harder than Jon to hit the highest notes in Jon’s vocal lines. But David at his best uses this as an excuse to draw a little more passion out of those notes, nudging them from ethereal to emotional. Not a bad trade. He’s also called upon to sing Trevor Horn’s lines, and he successfully captures their cold beauty – but from within a tonal quality that still has much of Anderson’s softness about it. The result lends his entire performance a sort of chilly melancholy that Anderson never had, coupled with an ease of expression that Horn lacked. Impressive. Effective.

Oliver isn’t quite as impressive, at least on the tapes I’ve heard. He acquits himself well, but only occasionally owns the material. I like, for example, how “Close To The Edge” now ends with some gentle piano ruminations after the Sounds of the Swamp fade away. Then again, as Yes have proved again and again, there’s not a whole lot of room in their compositions for a player to make his mark. Yes don’t allow themselves to improvise much, and all too often the embellishments they do allow themselves sound like variation merely for the sake of variation, rather than attempts at improvement. Like it or not, Yes have always been a compositional unit, not an improvisational one. Oliver plays the parts, and plays them well, and that’s enough for Yes as we know it.

The question is, so what? On their last two tours before they disintegrated in 2004, Yes had completed their degeneration into an oldies band. With no new album to promote, they resorted to digging deeper into their back catalog to make the setlists attractive to diehards. This made boots of the 2004 tour in particular interesting listening for the longtime fan, and that trend continues here. Anderson’s absence allows Squire, White, and Howe to dust off a couple of tunes from Drama, and they also play “Onward,” “Parallels,” and “Astral Traveler,” Anderson tunes that hadn’t been played in decades. But none of that makes them more than a canny oldies act – a tribute band to themselves.

The only new song is “Aliens (Are Only Us From The Future),” a Squire number that he wrote for another project and pressed into Yes service; it’s musically pleasant enough, with a welcome Squire lead vocal, and its lyrics are certainly silly enough to make it a latter-day Yes number. Time alone will tell if it’s a harbinger of the kind of new work this version of Yes could accomplish.

Just as time alone will tell if there is any answer to the so what question. Benoit and Oliver certainly have the chops; it remains to be seen if they have the compositional skills, but even if they don’t, the others may, still. If this version of Yes comes up with a new album, then it might show us that they’re a band worth caring about again. They just might bear out the hope that the In The Present tour is threatening to inspire.

If not – and there are all sorts of ways in which this could fall apart, from Jon insisting that he needs to be part of any official Yes product and then never being well enough or mollified enough to produce any, to somebody else quitting, to this lineup simply touring the oldies until the well finally dries up – then this version of the band will be remembered as a joke after all. Albeit one that made us smile.