Tuesday, March 24, 2009

James Bond review: Never Say Never Again (1983)

CUT TO THE CHASE: The best Bond of the ‘80s, and one of the best ever. And it’s not even an official Bond.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Long story short, one of the screenwriters on Thunderball ended up with the rights to that story, and in 1983 he found a studio willing to remake it. The fact that the official series had degenerated into farce made it easy. The fact that they convinced Sean Connery to come back made it a good idea.

And it’s glorious to see Connery back in the role. I loved Lazenby, and I love a couple of Moore’s outings, but there’s no denying that the role was made for Connery.

The thing is, though, this film is more than just a chance to see Connery take a victory lap, or kick some sand in Roger Moore’s face. It’s the best Bond in ages because it’s a well-written, well-filmed, well-directed film that totally gets James Bond.

The premise is brilliant. They acknowledge Connery’s age by having the character himself written as something of a relic of an earlier era of espionage. M doesn’t approve of his methods, and thinks he’s lost a step. Of course Bond gets to prove him wrong, and that’s satisfying. It’s also satisfying that by acknowledging the actor’s age and rebuilding the role around that, the producers get in a dig at the official series, which hadn’t made that adjustment, and was stuck looking silly because of it.

But more than that, the age theme allows the film to acknowledge that the kind of manhood Bond represents was outdated by 1983. The world really had left Bond behind. But this film makes that look like the world’s problem, not Bond’s. Bond doesn’t adjust to a changing world: he makes the world change to accomodate him. That’s something the official series producers have never really gotten.

And so this film gets to return to the classic Bond feel: impossibly self-confident masculinity, dangerous sophistication, real wit. It never takes itself too seriously, but more importantly, it never takes itself less seriously than it should either. It remembers why we cared about 007 in the first place, and celebrates that.

What Makes Bond Bond: He has never lost. We know it’s not true – we saw him lose in the wargame in the opening sequence – but in the moment, we believe it. And because he makes us believe it, it’s true. But what it really tells us is that Bond always wins when it counts. When it doesn't, he doesn't particularly care. He has no use for mere exercises.

What Makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: The fact that he could waltz in and play Bond again, twelve years later, and make you forget anybody else had ever played the role. You get the feeling he could have done the same thing in 1993, or even 2003.

BAD GUYS: It’s the same basic plot as Thunderball, of course, but that hardly matters. They change it enough that it really doesn’t feel any less original than most Bonds.

In fact, I think the plot works better this time around than it did in Thunderball, if only because they have a much better actor playing Largo. Klaus Maria Brandauer is one of the all-time great Bond villains. He plays Largo as a cross between a charming little boy and a jealous psychopath, and it works. “You’re crazy,” Domino says. “Ahh, yeah, maybe,” he responds. Brandauer makes you hang on every line, with his off-balance delivery; in another movie, this would be overacting, but for a Bond villain, it’s perfect.

His Evil Henchman is a woman, Fatima Blush, played by Barbara Carrera, and she’s awesome too. She’s a wicked parody of a certain variety of early-‘80s feminism – Bond’s politics certainly haven’t changed – but she’s also a new type in Bond. She’s a female killer. We’ve come close to this before, with this character's prevous incarnation in Thunderball for example, but previous female assassins in 007 films killed as part of the job. Blush gets a thrill out of it. The upshot of all this is that her duel with James has both sexual and psychological undertones. Highly effective.

We should make special mention of Max von Sydow. He’s my favorite Blofeld; he’s the only Blofeld who looks like the owner of the voice in From Russia With Love.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Here, too, this film excels. Barbara Carrera is not only an Evil Henchman, she’s a hell of a Bond Girl, too. With those shoulderpads and dominatrix heels, she brings the series into the ‘80s proper.

She’s balanced by Kim Basinger as Domino. Basinger plays the character as an innocent, and she pulls it off well; she also gives Domino enough life to hold the screen with both Connery and Brandauer, no mean feat. Basinger, of course, is one of the very few Bond girls to go on to bigger things. I guess the curse doesn’t apply if it’s not officially part of the series.

In addition to Fatima and Domino, we have the nurse in Shrublands and the unnamed hot date in Nassau (played by Valerie Leon). Which adds up to a whopping GS of 4. In addition to which, there are a number of memorable faces and intriguing figures – Nicole, Bond’s French assistant; the receptionist at the health spa. Again, this film understands James Bond.

AND VIOLENCE: The one real weakness of this film is the decision to set the final battle underwater. I say it every time there’s an underwater sequence in a Bond film: underwater sequences don’t work. On a technical level, I’m sure there’s a lot of wow involved, but as drama, there’s none. You can’t see faces, everybody’s moving in slow motion, and nobody’s saying anything. It’s bad enough whenever an underwater action sequence shows up to disrupt the action, but setting the film's climax underwater is a big mistake. You'll be pardoned for not realizing that yes, they do indeed kill Largo in the end.

Other than that, it’s a fine entry as far as violence is concerned. The fistfight in Shrublands is one of the three or four best fistfights in the series, up there with the elevator fight in Diamonds Are Forever, or the train fight in From Russia With Love.

BOYS WITH TOYS: This is sacrilege, I’m sure, but I almost prefer Alec McCowen’s Q (“Algy,” as Bond calls him – but Leiter calls him Q) to Desmond Llewellyn’s; mostly that’s because the writing is so good. It’s fun to see him griping about being underfunded; more fun to see him calling for more “gratuitous sex and violence.”

Gadgets? Well, there’s a splendid motorcycle, a great watch, and a handy pen. Nothing too original, but I think that’s the point. This film is simultaneously a 007 film and a 007 tribute; by sticking to classic gadgets, with a modern twist, they’re making it kind of an homage to past Q-branch triumphs.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: The Bahamas was kind of a given, as it’s a remake of Thunderball. Nice, then, that it turned out to be a feint, and the real action was in the Mediterranean.

ETC.: Edward Fox makes the best M of anybody before Judi Dench. He really nails it. “Lunch at my club,” indeed… Watch for Rowan Atkinson’s cameo as Our Man in the Bahamas. Hilarious… Not being an official Bond film means they can’t use a lot of the trappings of the franchise, which does matter. No gunbarrel opening, no James Bond theme. Musically they try to compensate with a lush score by Michel Legrand; it doesn’t quite hit the spot, though. It sounds like a groovy Mediterranean vacation in the early ‘60s, but not quite like a spy movie. The title song, sung by Lani Hall, is better than “All Time High;” it’s a worthy addition to your Bond Theme Song mix… The title sequence doesn’t try to compete with the official series. Instead of a pre-credits action sequence followed by a non-narrative title sequence, they put the opening action tease under the theme song and credits. Normally, I would object (see Die Another Day), but here it’s effective, creating an amusing contrast between Hall’s languid vocals and the various explosions and gunshots Bond’s administering. The message: Bond is truly back, for once…

RATING: 007.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 6: Man on the Street

I like, guardedly, the idea of interspersing the action with clips from “man on the street” interviews with Angelenos about the “dollhouse” urban legend. I imagine the writers sitting around brainstorming this episode before the season started, and fantasizing that by this time Dollhouse would be a hit, and water cooler/common room conversations across the country would be centering on the ethical queasiness of the show’s central concept, so that when people tuned in and saw these interviews echoing what they’d been saying, it’d be cute. Unfortunately, the show isn’t a real big hit, and I have my doubts many of those conversations are actually happening; these fake interviews now seem like wishful thinking. But I still think they’re cute, and they do represent a pretty good array of views of the show’s premise. Positive, negative, all points between. If you’re still trying to figure out how you feel about the Dollhouse, I think they have you right where they want you.

This was the week that Stuff Started Happening. Mellie’s a doll. Ballard gets confirmation of the Dollhouse’s existence. Ballard leaves the FBI. Somebody inside the Dollhouse is, we think, working against them. The Dollhouse has a hidden purpose.

Well, now. We kind of suspected Mellie was a doll; we weren’t sure whose (there was some speculation that Alpha had programmed her), but in any case we’re not too surprised that she turns out to be one. What I like about this development is that they played with our emotions about her being a doll. For five episodes we’ve become more and more emotionally invested in Mellie’s crush on Ballard: it’s seemed like the only truly innocent thing on this show. If she’d been revealed as a doll last week, we would have been crushed. This week, though, they send Ballard away, and put Mellie in mortal danger, so suddenly we’re hoping against hope that she really is a doll, because how else is she going to survive this? And of course, she is a doll, and that’s how she survives it, and now how do we feel about it? Her love is not innocent; but then again, she’s alive.

What made Caroline become a doll? Are we going to be saying the same thing about her someday? Her love is not innocent, but then again, she’s alive?

Who’s the mole? Is there really a mole? I think so. On first viewing, I wondered if everything Echo told Ballard was disinformation, part of Topher’s program, but watch again the sequence where Boyd interrupts Topher’s programming. Topher puts the cartridge in the Nintendo, Boyd comes to complain about being benched, Topher ushers him out of the room so they can talk, we become anxious that his cartridge has been left unattended, and then Topher goes back to get it. The other door to the room is now ajar: it wasn’t when Topher left. Therefore, we’re supposed to think that somebody snuck in and out while Topher was talking to Boyd, leaving the door ajar. I.e., maybe there really is a mole.

Maybe not. But assuming there is, who is it? The only person we’ve met who we think could even begin to program a doll is Topher’s cute assistant Ivy, who “lives to serve lunch.” For skills and opportunity, she’s the obvious suspect.

For motive, though, at the moment it’s Dr. Saunders who sticks out; she’s clearly uncomfortable with a whole lot of stuff that goes on, and there’s a hint that she and Topher don’t get along personally. Remember when they were both assessing Victor, and Victory says something about Sierra being beautiful, and Topher wisecracks that they’re all beautiful, that’s kind of the point – notice how right then he looks at Saunders, at her scars, and she gives him a dark look back? What’s between them?

If it’s Saunders, is she acting alone? What about Boyd? Could he be in on it? We’ve seen him and Saunders bonding over the dolls a number of times now; they certainly seem simpatico in their sympathy for their charges. And who was Topher talking with when the program was modified? Boyd. Maybe that’s a coincidence, or maybe the mole was seizing an opportunity. But we already have Boyd utilizing misdirection in this episode to catch Hearn; it would very much fit his profile if he was employing the same tactic to get word out to Ballard.

Ballard. I’ve avoided saying much about him so far, because I think he’s the least interesting character on the show. In fact, I’ve been hoping he would turn out to be either a doll or perhaps even Alpha himself (and he may yet), because otherwise, he’s working purely as a narrative convenience. A suspense-builder. And until this episode, he wasn’t even building much suspense. He was a narrative thread that was just hanging out there, waiting to be pulled.

This week they pulled it, and suddenly he got a lot more interesting, on a lot of levels. As a narrative device, now I think he’s going to be useful: he’s out of the FBI (at least temporarily), and he’s made contact with a mole. So he’s in the process of switching organizations, it seems, out of the FBI and into one that looks to be even shadowier than the Dollhouse itself. We’ll have to see where they go with this, but he looks to be our entry point into the vast conspiracies that the show seems to be setting up. If so, cool.

On a personal level, he’s beginning to come into focus. As I say, so far he’s been uninteresting as a character: he’s Mulder, but without Mulder’s endearing nerdiness, his dark obsessions, his entertaining outlook on life. The only hint we’ve gotten of an inner life in this guy is in the first episode, when we learn he does kick-boxing in his spare time. We have no idea why he’s so obsessed with the Dollhouse, what it means to him personally. We don’t know why he cares, so we don’t care about him.

His conversation with Miner this week puts it all in a new light. Our hero the internet geek points out how Ballard is using Echo for his own wish-fulfilment fantasy, and we know it’s true. We don’t know why yet, but we can begin to speculate; we can begin to suspect, therefore, that he does have an inner life, and motivations of his own. In short, we’re no longer being asked to see him as the white knight. We’re now being encouraged to see him as just another fantasist exploiting Echo. Just another pawn who wants to be a player.

That makes him more sympathetic, in my Kindle.