Invictus (2009)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 August (10.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The Rugby World Cup is here, and to celebrate ITV are screening perhaps the only appropriate film they could (I can only think of This Sporting Life otherwise, but suggesting that they put on a movie about League is pretty much heretical). It’s a good one. Invictus concerns itself with South Africa’s famous victory in the tournament when it was played there in 1995, an unlikely one also as the host nation was largely unfancied, especially with New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu casting a looming shadow over all competition. But really it’s about much more than that. The contest was symbolic of ‘the Rainbow Nation’s attempts to unite its racially diverse population after decades of Apartheid and oppression. President Nelson Mandela recognised the importance of sport as a unifying principle, and allied himself with Springboks captain, Franois Pienaar, in emphasising the team’s success as key to the country’s well-being.

It’s only twenty years ago since the events depicted in Invictus took place, so it’s relatively fresh in our minds, indeed as a teenager I remember doing some work on South Africa as part of my History GCSE. Back then, Apartheid was still in full swing under the auspices of President Botha. The country faced sanctions from the world’s community. Mandela remained a political prisoner, the subject of a popular song from The Specials whilst the refectories we frequented later at university were invariably named after him. His release in 1990 was one of those world events you needed to see. Watching the stooped figure of this little old man walk to freedom was important; his rise to the presidency mattered, but in South Africa things were naturally more complicated as the country remained divided along racial lines and was sinking into financial ruin.

The pressure on Mandela must have been enormous, and it’s his attempts to overcome the massive issues he faced as President that form the film’s focus. ‘Madiba’ (as he’s affectionately called by the people, referencing an 18th century chief) is played by Morgan Freeman, the sort of casting decision that seems a ridiculously obvious ‘Hollywood’ thing to do before you forget it’s a world famous actor you’re watching and that he completely submerges himself into the part. The old joke goes that after taking on roles of the American President (Deep Impact) and God (Bruce Almighty), Nelson Mandela was the only way up, and Freeman puts in a note perfect study, mimicking the man’s posture uncannily well along with taking on the clipped accent. Another A-lister, Matt Damon, plays Pienaar, the embodiment of healthy white South African masculinity who crucially comes to believe in the President’s cause as the mens’ relationship develops.

Early in the film, there are perceived death threats against Mandela that never materialise, highlighting both the tensions within the country and latent paranoia of the security staff who surround him. A sub-plot has black and white bodyguards mixing, at first very uneasily and then bonding over the growing interest in the home nation’s successes at the World Cup. It’s a little cloying, but it still works well enough, the emerging friendship between the security staff serving as a microcosm of South Africa’s enhanced sense of unity. ‘Invictus’ is the title of a poem Mandela held close to his heart whilst serving out his lengthy prison service on Robben Island. In one of the film’s best scenes, Pienaar and his fellow Springboks visit the jail, the captain clearly affected by the harsh conditions faced by his leader and friend.

I’ve never been a huge fan of sports films, thinking they struggle as a rule to replicate the unscripted drama, twists and turns of an actual sporting event. This one does well, though, and who would imagine that rugby union would provide the ideal game for some brilliantly mounted footage? Invictus was directed by Clint Eastwood, who uses the camera to invade the middle of scrums and team huddles, shooting in places you would never get to see in a real-life match to focus on the human struggle and emotion. The final is especially good, emphasising the grunts of big men clashing on the pitch, the crunch of bodies colliding, the way crowd noises are enhanced and then reduced as audience participation becomes a critical part of the spectacle and then nothing as the players concentrate fully on what they’re trying to do.

I really like Invictus, partly because Eastwood is probably the perfect man to have made it. A great deal of the film’s content is emotionally driven, Mandela its clear hero and core as he battles age-old prejudices, his own failing health and the broken relationships with his family that can never be healed. A lesser director might have made these moments cloying, writing those struggles large, over-egging the frustration of patrician whites as they fail to come to terms with South Africa’s new reality. All these elements are present in Invictus, but Eastwood at his best makes the sort of films where they’re just shown as part of the action, shooting scenes and leaving viewers to join the dots, which is just how it should be. There are moments when the sense of manipulation seeps through – the team’s visit to an impoverished slum to teach street kids about the basics of rugby, a black kid who winds up as obsessed with the radio commentary of the final as a pair of cops – but that doesn’t happen very often, and instead Eastwood lets the events speak for themselves. One of my favourite things about the film is that the story is good enough for dramatic cinema and scenes that feel scripted actually happened. The bit where a Boeing 747 flew low over Ellis Park, which was about to host the final, bearing a message of good luck to the Springboks, was real and is recaptured nicely. YouTube footage of the moment shows just how well Invictus depicts it.

Invictus: ****

PS. An apology for the lateness of this entry (it would normally appear at midnight). It’s been a heavy, heavy week at work and the prospect of coming home to spend more time sat at a computer was something I couldn’t quite manage physically, hence the delayed posting.

Jurassic Park (1993)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 June (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s almost certain that we will be visiting the cinema this weekend to watch Jurassic World, so I thought it might be timely to talk about Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 behemoth of a movie that kicked it all off. Everyone else is discussing it, after all, and I am rather enjoying the number of podcasts I listen to at the moment, often managed by people who would have first seen it when they were children, where the critical faculties have given way to gushing and memories of younger years, the sheer joy of the first time they caught it. I was 21 when Jurassic Park came out and, whilst suitably enchanted, it seems to be regarded as something really special by those who were around the age I was when I first saw something like The Empire Strikes Back and knew, innately, that I’d experienced greatness at exactly the right age to experience it.

For the record, my trip to watch Jurassic Park at the Showcase Cinema in Stockton with a group of friends was one of my first times at a multiplex. Several screens were showing it; at one point I nipped to the loo and returned, sat down, and then carried on watching for several minutes before I realised the film wasn’t at the right point, I was sat next to complete strangers and, eventually, that I’d walked back into the wrong theatre. D’oh!

It’s worth remembering that, before this one, Spielberg was undergoing a bit of a lull. His previous films, Always and Hook, whilst not exactly bad, were widely viewed as below par works from him (I’ve no particular desire to see either again, which says it all for my feelings), so there was something ‘make or break’ about Jurassic Park. 1993 would turn out to be an annus mirablis of sorts for Spielberg. With his pet project, Schindler’s List, also released that year, the two films formed the consummate home run of home runs, instantly conferring on him both the commercial and critical crowns, the latter building to Academy Award glory with Oscars showered on his story of another Oskar. Over the years, my views on both movies has changed somewhat. I can’t watch Schindler’s List without getting the sense that my feelings are being manipulated, when the subject matter is surely powerful enough to stand on its own without the need to deploy such cinematic tricks (the girl in the red coat, good grief). I should save my comments on that particular work for another day, suffice it to say here that, as far as I’m concerned, all the praise seems to be for the devastating subject and the film’s success in bringing it to peoples’ minds, rather than its greatness as a piece of cinema.

As for Jurassic Park, I’ve grown to love it, even now – numerous viewings down the line – soaking up the tension, the special effects, the brilliant design work, the very fine acting, the masterly way it conveys swathes of exposition and scientific background to viewers without collapsing under its own weight. That last point is important. We’re asked to take in a lot of information about (i) how the dinosaurs were artificially created (ii) the reasons for doing so (iii) what dinosaurs actually were (iv) how the park works (v) the man who would steal its secrets, and yet it never really slows down. That’s some damn fine storytelling. We’re kept waiting for the first full shot of a dinosaur, and it’s worth the wait, the little jeep carrying Sam Neill and Laura Dern stopping long enough for them to gawp in helpless wonder at the sight of Brachiosaurs eating. It works for two reasons. One is the reactions of the actors, which only adds to the moment’s sense of authenticity and gravitas. The second is the use of CGI. Jurassic Park was like a great leap forward in special effects technology. Before this, the only way to see dinosaurs on film was the stop-motion animated models shot painstakingly by Ray Harryhausen and his peers. Suddenly, all that was consigned to cinema history thanks to digital effects, work that holds up today because Spielberg knew how to use CGI judiciously rather than too often, also when to deploy animatronics instead for the more interactive scenes.

Naturally, the film’s story of a theme park housing real-life dinosaurs reaches its point when the security breaks down and its denizens start running amok, looking for food. Jurassic Park is careful to describe the creatures as animals rather than monsters, which makes them feel more real. In the meantime, Jeff Goldblum’s character is a chaos theorist who argues that the park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has shown a critical lack of judgement in reviving beasts that are extinct for a reason, which comes to pass when things start going horribly wrong. All this makes the attack by a Tyrannousaurus Rex the perfect exercise in tension. Announced by the now famous water ripples formed by its approaching footsteps, the king of carnivores sees two young children as lunch and goes to work, systematically destroying their oh so fragile car in its efforts to reach them. The combination of CGI and puppetry to create the dinosaur looks seamless, and whilst it must have been painstaking to develop and film there’s no doubt it’s great to watch, not to mention listen to with the Rex’s roar filling the screen every bit as much as its body.

The Tyrannosaur is the main star from a dinosaur perspective, but its impact is overshadowed by the smaller Velociraptors, those pack hunting hyenas of the reptile age. A little larger than human height (though in reality, they were about the size of chickens) and working together in order to attack from all directions, the raptors make for fantastic pursuers as the human characters try to run and hide. The scene in the park kitchen is much celebrated and rightly so. John Williams’s score is absent – as it is for the Tyrannosaur attack – to allow the natural noises of the dinosaurs and the panicked movements of their prey to take over. Whether you’re hearing a talon tapping on metallic work surfaces or a raptor snorting into the air, it all leads to a gripping chase that’s a masterclass in tension and classy editing. A quick further word on the sound design, which is truly excellent, adding an iconic and quite unique soundtrack of animal life that sounds completely alien because it’s been extinct for 65 million years.

For all their brilliant realisation, the dinosaurs actually occupy little screen time overall, harking back to Spielberg’s earlier Jaws, in which the shark was rarely seen. Investment therefore has to be made in the actors, both for their reactions to what’s happening and their overall characterisation. Spielberg went for a cast devoid of A-list stars, going instead for reliable character actors to tremendous effect. Sam Neill leads as Alan Grant, a serious minded fossil hunter who has no time for children (so naturally, he ends up caring for Hammond’s grandchildren) but an innate knowledge of dinosaurs, so that he can provide the survival tips when faced with carnivores. His partner, Ellie Sattler, is played by Laura Dern. She’s more an expert on extinct plant life, is practical enough to dig with her hands through a pile of droppings to investigate the ailments of a sickly Triceratops, and fends off the attentions of Jeff Goldblum’s suave Ian Malcolm with wry amusement. The latter provides the film with its questions of philosophy and morality, having some great sparring conversations with Hammond, who in Attenborough’s hands is a well meaning, grandfatherly figure (with a Scottish accent that, ahem, comes and goes) rather than the heartless businessman as presented in Michael Crichton’s source novel. Of the supporting players, Samuel L Jackson puts in a pre-Pulp Fiction appearance as a chain smoking site engineer, Bob Peck is on hand as the big game hunter who finds himself ultimately out of his depth, and Wayne Knight plays the treacherous Dennis Nedry who kicks off the story of the park turning to hell before meeting his own ‘sticky’ end.

If Jurassic Park’s effect has dimmed a little over time, then there are those lesser sequels to take into consideration, the second one a further Spielberg helmer that has some good moments but little of the original’s sense of majesty (it’s a monster movie, pure and simple) and the rather tired third instalment, which largely replaces suspense with CGI. But this first episode is really good. There’s a lovely sense of characters being genuinely awestruck by the returning to the world of long dead creatures, helped along by Williams’s music, which gives the whole thing an air of respect and legitimacy.

Jurassic Park: *****

Licence to Kill (1989)

When it’s on: Sunday, 15 March (3.40 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The 1980s were troubled times for James Bond. There was a pervading sense that the gentleman spy was past his sell-by date, that he’d had his best years. The fag end of the Roger Moore era did him no favours, despite the three 007 films he made across the decade attempting to bring his stories back to earth following the high concept nonsense of Moonraker. And then there’s Timothy Dalton. I’m a big fan of The Living Daylights, his harder edged debut in the role, which added some much needed realism and grittiness to a character that was tipping over into utter silliness beforehand. But it left many audiences confused. This wasn’t the James Bond they knew, Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang from the endless circulation of his films on ITV, who walked away from situations that put both himself and the world in peril with little more than a hair out of place.

Licence to Kill was a further retraction from the Moore years, indeed entering new territory by compelling Bond to go ‘rogue’ in his pursuit of a drug baron. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the least successful of the series, and with The Living Daylights also at the foot of the rankings it pretty much did for Dalton’s tenure. Too convoluted. Difficult to follow. Too arsey a Bond. It seems strange now, with Daniel Craig lending many of the same qualities to the character, to find how little it appealed to viewers. Looking again at the profitability rankings, we find Skyfall is right at the top. Perhaps it was simply the case that Dalton’s take on 007 came too soon. As a consequence, the following decade gave us the Pierce Brosnan entries, a return to the fun escapades at the expense of any real substance.

Not that Licence to Kill is a masterpiece. John Glen directed all the Bond entries from the eighties and did so efficiently. This one carried the lowest budget of any 007 film for some time and was filmed mainly on location around Florida and in Mexico to cut down on the costs of shooting at Pinewood Studios. But there’s also a flatness to his direction, the lack of great cinematography that was traditionally used to fine effect in opening up those glamorous exotic climes where the action took place. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, but then there’s very little to wow viewers either. Even the stunts have a degree of predictability about them, excepting some rather thrilling car chase scenes towards the end that involve massive Kenworth trucks crashing into each other along tight hairspin bends on remote mountain roads. It’s as though the director was uninterested in any of this, preferring Licence to Kill to stand primarily as a character study, that character being Bond and the things he gets up to when he’s no longer working for Queen and country.

The premise is certainly absorbing enough. Licence to Kill opens with Bond celebrating the marriage of his best friend, Felix Leiter (David Hedison). But then things go horribly wrong. Before the wedding, they’ve apprehended that classic scourge of the 1980s, a South American drugs baron, Frank Sanchez (Robert Davi). He escapes from incarceration, with the help of an avaricious agent, played by Everett McGill, and then takes a terrible revenge by murdering Leiter’s wife and then literally feeding him to the sharks. Bond in turn demands retribution, but is told in no uncertain terms that he’s needed elsewhere and has to give up his pursuit of Sanchez. And so, in a thrilling decision, the agent does what we would all like to see him do and turns rogue, losing his ‘licence to kill’ and going after Sanchez his way.

What follows is quite different from the usual fare. The plot follows Yojimbo, the classic Kurosawa tale that’s been much copied since about a samurai who wanders into a town and plays two rival gangs off against each other. Here, Bond steadily infiltrates Sanchez’s circle and gets close to the man himself, feeding him details that lead to the drugs lord killing many of his own henchmen. It’s good stuff, quite gripping to find 007 coldly directing Sanchez’s actions, whilst getting inevitably close to his girlfriend, played by the lovely Talisa Soto. Meanwhile, he’s helped out by Q (Desmond Lleyweln), who’s ‘on vacation’ and, delightfully, gets far more to do than his usual shtick of supplying gadgets, along with agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), one of those rare Bond girls who is a lot more involved in the action than finding herself in trouble and simpering into his arms. There’s some great interplay between the pair, both seeing themselves as the ‘senior’ partner and Bond having to take charge because they’re in South America, a man’s world.

Davi plays a good villain, and the film gives him an opportunity to show both ruthlessness and the easy charm that would justify his character having the capacity to make it to the top of his particular tree. Amongst his henchmen is a young Benicio Del Toro in his first major, big screen role.

All told, it’s a better film than the insipid box office and reputation of the time would suggest, and whilst it’s too flawed to deserve the same revisionist love as a classic like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, there’s plenty to like about it, not least its aim to try things with the character that had never previously been done. There’s a sense that Ian Fleming might, for once, have been pleased with the character in this one. Whilst Licence to Kill follows the same basic plot as many 007 films, it’s really interesting to see Dalton take his character down a darker path, one reflected in its ’15’ rating (though in truth, it’s at the lower end of the certification).

Ultimately, a sad end for the actor’s brief association with 007, and it would take six years for him to return in Goldeneye, his licence returned but much of the fire restrained. Even my DVD copy (I own the Special Editions, which are packaged in a very nice tin case) is an apologetic, limp affair, featuring a somewhat ‘soft’ transfer that has all the feel of a ‘just one for the completists’ attitude towards it. The ‘Making of’ documentary is quite a fun watch, particularly the crew describing their adventures during shooting on the remote Mexican roads, which had been closed to public use due to the sheer number of accidents and fatalities it had claimed. By all accounts, they came across a number of ‘apparitions’ and spooky episodes, vehicles moving of their own accord and the like, and of course the famous photograph one crew member took of an explosion, his still picking out a hand in the flames. Spooky…

Licence to Kill: ***

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

When it’s on: Saturday, 17 January (9.20 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Helen Fielding’s novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary, was published in 1996 and waited a further five years for its film adaptation to be released. It wasn’t, as I recall, an instant bestseller, but rather one of those slow burning successes that steadily found its way onto bookshelves via word of mouth reviews, nor was the book an easy choice for the big screen with its diary structure suggesting it was virtually unfilmable.

But eventually, the film arrived, inevitably it arrived really, given the snowball effect created by the novel. Taking few chances, it was released by Miramax, co-opting the services of the US-British Working title Films, which had scored major hits with the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, and easing in the involvement of Richard Curtis on writing duties and Hugh Grant as one of its stars. Curtis co-wrote the script with Fielding and Andrew Davies, who had adapted Pride and Prejudice for the BBC and was an apt choice considering Bridget Jones’s Diary is, in many ways, a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic. In a neat casting decision, the film cast Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, an in-joke that gave him the same role as he had played for the TV series of Pride and Prejudice.

A number of actors were considered for the film’s eponymous heroine before Texan Renee Zellwegger was offered the part. By no means the first American adopting a British accent for a UK film, Zellwegger nevertheless threw herself into the role, infamously putting on twenty pounds to play Bridget and affecting a note-perfect, cut-glass Received Pronunciation dialect.

Ideal casting isn’t the only reason why the film was a big success in 2001. It’s also very funny. Too often, this writer has been subjected to romantic comedies that load sentiment where the laughs ought to be, but Bridget Jones’s Diary has more than its fair share of comedic gold. In part this is down to the characters, a full complement of great British actors – Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s befuddled father, her wayward mum played by Gemma Jones, James Callis making his cinema debut as one of her best friends, alongside Shirley Henderson and foul-mouthed Sally Phillips – adding class. Grant subverts his screen image as a bumbling, stammering toff to play the film’s sleazy boyfriend and steals every scene he’s in. As the aloof, straighter edged love interest, Firth has the tougher sell but gets a great scene when he takes on Grant in a street brawl. And then there’s Zellwegger, a big open-hearted presence at the heart of the film, both adorable and identifiable as the woman who’s essentially looking for love and finds the route to it holds many pitfalls.

Also, there are many funny scenes to enjoy. Bridget works for a publishing company and is asked to introduce the boss at a prestigious book launch, duly making a hash of it. She tries her hand at presenting the news and finds herself being filmed sliding down a fire station pole, filmed from below as her arse moves quickly into close-up. She agrees to go to a tarts and vicars party, only to find that she’s one of the few people not to be informed the guests are going in formal dress instead.

Being a joint-Anglo-American production, Bridget Jones’s Diary of course takes place in that resolutely Home Counties setting that resonates with so few Britons, but seems to be the vision of this country designed for Americans. Bridget’s home town is a picture box vision of village England. She appears to have no trouble working and living in Central London without a second thought about how to make ends meet. The characters are all resolutely middle class with few real world troubles to get in the way of the romantic plot. The post-funeral scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral took place in a working class area and seemed jarring, a glimpse of actual Britain amidst the confetti, but there are no moments like that here.

That sense of confection aside, it’s a winner of a film. Genuinely funny and containing real heart, it’s a lot better than it has any right to be, and stands as a rare instance of a film adaptation that eclipses the novel upon which it is based.

Bridget Jones’s Diary: ***

The Living Daylights (1987)

When it’s on: Saturday, 8 September (3.20 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Time to look at the James Bond who’s most divided the critics. Timothy Dalton is either a terrific reading of the character, closer in tone to Fleming’s spy and adding a necessary air of toughness and danger, or he’s just no fun, lacks charm and takes himself way too seriously. It’s easy to see why the latter opinion is so popular. Not helped by Dalton’s unwillingness to ‘play the game’ in media circles and instead demand the right to a private life, his 007 is an entirely different animal to the near self-parody essayed by Roger Moore for years. If he was nothing else, Moore’s Bond was a character who knew it was all a bit of a joke. Even his most serious entry, For Your Eyes Only, had its arch moments, whilst otherwise the sight of this supposedly secret agent chasing someone through central Paris in half a car was proof of a production with the collective tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.

In The Living Daylights, Bond returns to a world of spycraft, murky Cold War politics and a lead character who has little place beyond his most recent mission. Its second half is dominated by action scenes set in Afghanistan and with the Mujahideen as the good guys, but the first hour is undeniably better, particularly when Bond’s involved in a plot to defect a KGB agent from Bratislava and has a biting exchange with his contact over how to make it happen. His dealings in the Eastern Bloc provide a real sense of unease, a vanishing arena where everyone is watched and nobody trusted. It’s one where 007 feels at his most comfortable, contrasted with scenes back in England where he’s supposedly at home yet comes across as restless.

Dalton had been in the frame for Bond for some years, indeed he’d first been considered after Sean Connery’s initial departure in the late 1960s. Rightly enough, he felt himself to be far too young at the time, though in the intervening years he would do all he could to distance himself from the role. This made the casting process much tougher following Moore’s ‘retirement’, with Pierce Brosnan coming close to landing the part nearly a decade before he finally did. His wait is one of those unfortunate twists of circumstance. Approaching the end of his involvement in Remington Steele, NBC having cancelled the show, as Brosnan became more closely linked with playing Bond interest in it soared, which prompted a change of heart, another series commissioned and a clause in Brosnan’s contract activated whereby he had to commit to starring in it. The actor was subsequently dropped from The Living Daylights and, sure enough, viewing figures for poor Remington dipped and the new series curtailed. Another actor who came close was Sam Neill, and on the Special Edition documentary there’s some fascinating screen test footage of Neill alongside Fiona Fullerton. Perhaps best known at the time for his starring role in Reilly: Ace of Spies, the prospect of Neill as Bond remains one of those tantalising ‘what if’s, though those of us who grew up watching him playing villains in Kane & Abel, The Final Conflict and Ivanhoe (and being quite the best thing in all three) might have struggled to go with him.

So in the end Dalton it was, and getting back to the point at the top of this piece, I think he makes a brilliant Bond. It seems unfair on his portrayal that Daniel Craig’s 007 is close in tone to his and has been critically lauded, whereas at the time Dalton’s ‘serious’ demeanour was one of the fiercest objections of his detractors. In any event, this and his later entry – Licence to Kill – have, like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, almost been pushed into the background of the Bond canon, as though EON would far rather promote the films of Connery and Moore and prefer us to forget these aberrations. A shame. The Living Daylights is a fine film, easily a high point amongst John Glen’s contributions and, for me, Dalton convinces completely as Bond. He’s at his finest in those small moments, such as when he accidentally pulls his gun on a mother and child and looks utterly shameful at their sudden fear. The development of his relationship with cellist Kara (Maryam D’Abo) is entirely credible, winning her over during a romantic interlude in Vienna whilst getting irritable at her insistence of returning for her cello after a daring escape.

It’s this element of grumpiness that makes him such a believable Bond. You can imagine someone with his abilities growing annoyed when those around him slow him down or get in the way. There are clearly years of toughening behind his 007, times in his life when he’s learned to show his emotions sparingly. His wooing of Kara works because you imagine it would take him some time to open himself up to  her at all; it’s a million miles from when Moore had to cock an eyebrow to entice Britt Ekland into bed and a thousand times better. As for D’Abo, how refreshing it is to have a heroine who possesses some relevance to the plot rather than tick the ‘Bond girl’ box.

Elsewhere, John Barry’s score for The Living Daylights (his last following a long association with the series) proves to be one of his best, and there’s a lot of good feeling also towards A-ha’s title track. Glen clearly enjoyed this one. His shooting in Vienna must have been an exercise in joyful nostalgia, as he got to film in the same fairground where famous scenes from The Third Man (one his earliest assignments, as an Assistant Sound Director) were put together.

The Living Daylights: ****

Never Say Never Again (1983)

When it’s on: Saturday, 1 September (3.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Never Say Never Again should be terrible. It’s a remake of Thunderball, nobody’s idea of the best of Bond though it remained an obsession of Kevin McClory’s, the copyright holder who’d won the right to make an independent James Bond film featuring SPECTRE as the villains. Why anyone would take a second rate adventure like Thunderball and feel people needed to see it again is anybody’s guess, but into the works it went, after a string of legal delays setting itself up for a head to head clash with the ‘official’ Octopussy in 1983. Sure enough, by the end of the year Broccoli and Wilson could claim victory, with Roger Moore’s India based nonsense winning the war of the box office. The challenger came off a not too distant second, though both films made little dent on the success of Return of the Jedi, which walked away with the year’s takings.

That it isn’t a disaster is largely down to the presence of Sean Connery in the lead. Never Say Never Again had various working titles before the Edinburgh actor accepted a disproportionate salary to play Bond once more, the film’s name coming from a jokey reference by Connery’s wife to his famous vow to never again star in a Bond picture. Perhaps it’s weeks of sub-par Moore entries that provoke this sentiment, but Connery as 007 just feels right, like he fits the superspy in a way no one else quite manages. The script even makes frequent references to his age, Bond’s retort of ‘It’s still in pretty good shape’ coming across as entirely welcome after watching the increasingly creaky Roger Moore fart around in yarns that cry out for someone twenty years his junior.

Other moments chime with Connery’s Bond, such as the often messy methods of dispatching baddies, his reading of the character as essentially fatalistic and his natural charisma when it comes to the opposite sex. The differences are obvious enough – Connery is Bond, whilst Moore is a debonair actor who’s clearly playing a tongue in cheek character. Most appealing is the lack of musical cues, awful gags and impossible stunts. Connery may very well have defined Bond as a virtual superhuman, but during the Moore years it became a running joke that he could get out of any scrape with barely a hair out of place. Ironically, whilst the screenplay demands a spy who’s long in the tooth, this Bond feels less tired and out of steam.

In some instances, the film plays with the usual cast of characters, giving them new tropes and dimensions. Q has turned into a Cockney geezer named Algy (Alec McGowan) who replaces Desmond Llewellyn’s weary barbs with banter. M (Edward Fox) is younger and clearly dismissive of Bond’s old school methods. As usual, Moneypenny (Pamela Salem) is mishandled and given next to nothing to do. Max von Sydow makes for a charismatic Blofeld, whilst Klaus Maria Brandauer knocks memories of Adolfo Celi out of the park as Largo, giving the film’s villain a psychologically rich study of megalomania and inferiority that makes him strangely vulnerable. Kim Basinger is lovely as Domino, but like Claudine Auger is there to get captured and scream.

The most controversial bit of casting has former Playboy centrefold Barbara Carrera taking the part of Fatima Blush, SPECTRE’s femme fatale as essayed by Luciana Paluzzi in Thunderball. Carrera plays her as a ball of sexual energy, Bond’s equal in ability and determined to turn their contest into a personal battle. Unfortunately, this leads to various instances of overdoing it, hamming shamelessly, with an undercurrent of instability that appears to be what she was going for. At the heart of her unhinged performance is a need to be the best, as evidenced in her climactic scenes with Bond where she makes him write a note confessing her as his most talented lover. I prefer Paluzzi in this instance, if for no other reason than she knew how to project menace whilst staying perfectly still, but both are performances of their respective times.

The action scenes vary wildly, from the good – any scenes with the motorbike – to the Thunderball referencing underwater fights, which don’t take up so much time but are as insipid as ever. Director Irvin Kershner seems more comfortable with the moments when nothing much happens, the lower key times like the computer game duel between Bond and Largo, which somehow elicits tension from an arcade machine. Michael Legrand’s jazzy score, whilst an intentional departure from John Barry, is about as bad as these things ever get. It’s awful, as is the main song, elements that really make you miss those melancholic Barry overtures. Rowan Atkinson’s needless cameo is poor, but Legrand ensures it isn’t the worst thing about Never Say Never Again.

Never Say Never Again: ***

A View to a Kill (1985)

When it’s on: Saturday, 25 August (3.00 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The pre-credits sequence of A View to a Kill tells you everything you need to know about what was wrong with Bond during this period. Removing an item from a dead man frozen into some snowy waste, 007 is soon being pursued by Soviet soldiers across the icebergs. Despite seeing this sort of thing many times before, it’s thrilling enough, and then he loses his skis, getting about instead by snow surfing on some broken vehicle’s equipment, and the music pipes in with California Girls by The Beach Boys. Like it wasn’t entertaining enough already, guys?

The use of heavy-handed humour during an action scene – is there anyone who finds this sort thing actually funny? – reeks of a lack of confidence, a sentiment that runs through the entire film. It’s Roger Moore’s last, the venerable actor by this point the wrong side of 55 and commenting that it’s time to bow out when he’s older than his leading lady’s mother. She’s Tanya Roberts, one of those sure signs that what you’re watching belongs to the 1980s (along with femme fatale, Grace Jones). One of the more insipid, screechy heroines, Roberts has little to do but wait around for Bond to rescue her, otherwise making her performance in The Beastmaster from earlier in the decade look good. Jones has more business in A View to a Kill, and looks as though she’s quite enjoying herself, swapping blows and bedtime romps with Moore. A shame her character takes a ridiculous about-turn in loyalties at a crucial point in the narrative; heavens, please don’t let it be a result of Rog’s sexual prowess!

There’s a combination of great set pieces and poor ones; sometimes the good leaks into the poor, such as Bond’s escape from the burning City Hall of San Francisco merging into a police chase through the streets that involves a comedy cop, your man driving a fire engine and for reasons that make absolutely no sense finding himself hanging off the end of a wayward ladder. Also ridiculous is the pursuit across Paris, which slaps the face of any occasion that someone refers to Bond as a ‘secret’ agent. The climactic fight on the upper reaches of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is rather better and somehow pulls off the danger of scrapping hundreds of feet in the air when the whole scene was filmed as a combination of trick photography, model shots and recreating the Bridge at Pinewood. There’s a glorious inventiveness to how this stuff has been conceived and put together, and it makes me a little sad that such trickery has been largely overhauled with CGI. Oh well.

What saves A View to a Kill from despair is the casting of Christopher Walken as chief villain, Max Zorin. Nominally the head of a microchip contractor, it emerges Zorin is attempting to corner the market by destroying Silicon Valley, whilst his past is mired in Soviet attempts to genetically engineer perfect human beings. The result, Bond is told, was children with superior intelligence but clear signs of psychosis, a sinister development that Zorin largely lives up to. The scale of his megalomania is rather refreshing – in flooding Silicon Valley, he’ll kill millions of people, but who’s counting, right? There’s a casual disregard to everyone around him, even his own people; in one moment of nastiness that scales new heights within the franchise, he personally trains a machine gun on miners working for him. Moore found this scene utterly distasteful, suggesting it removed the fun tone of the movies, but it works rather well, giving enough impression that here’s a villain who’ll go to any lengths to achieve his ends.

A View to a Kill: **

Octopussy (1983)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 August (3.20 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Following the James Bond series on these pages, it’s become clear to me that at heart I’m a 007 fan and, as such, prepared to overlook many of its little foibles. But then I reach Octopussy, which to me is an irredeemable turd of a picture, and it seems the franchise has reached the limits what I can realistically forgive.

As usual, the smashing ‘Making of’ documentary on the DVD offers insights into why this was the case. Back in 1983, the film that would become Octopussy was in a race for public affections against the ‘non canon’ i.e. not produced by Eon, Bond being churned out by Warner Brothers. Worse still, the alternative project had somehow coaxed Sean Connery into the lead role, whilst reintroducing SPECTRE and Blofeld thanks to the script by copyright holder, Kevin McClory. The possibility that Never Say Never Again might gazumph the original series in terms of audience affections appears to have put the frighteners on everyone involved. As a consequence, George MacDonald Fraser’s script was tinkered with to the point of lacking all intelligibility, and to ensure a ‘safe’ entry that ticked the usual boxes, offering spectacle, thrills, laughs and pure entertainment.

This was supposed to be the film that unveiled a new 007 to the world. Roger Moore was understandably ready to hang up his Walther PPK after For Your Eyes Only, leaving the producers to suggest the likes of Timothy Dalton and Michael Billington for the role. The ‘Making of’ even includes a screen test of James Brolin, playing against Maud Adams and actually coming across as more than a credible option. In the end, Moore was persuaded back by a production desperate not to upset its box office chances with a new face. Moore’s far from the worst thing in Octopussy. Moments in the plot give him the opportunity to show a tougher streak than we’re used to seeing, though there’s no getting away from the actor’s advancing years and the complete bypass of credulity at seeing him in bed with the much younger Kristina Wayborn, making lewd comments to Michaela Clavell or using an expensive Q gadget to focus on a woman’s cleavage. Nothing wrong with that, right?

But that’s the main problem with the film – mere moments, tantalising glimpses at the film that might have been. The best is Steven Berkoff’s over the top rogue Soviet general who’s prepared to stage a nuclear strike to spark off a Third World War, his raving speech during a meeting of the High Command suggesting a yarn in which Bond’s playing for the highest stakes imaginable. The tension should almost take care of itself, yet due to the production fulfilling a desire to be set largely in India, the Cold War angle quickly gets lost amidst the elephants, sheep’s brain main courses and Octopussy’s harem of women, which serves no purpose other than to shoehorn as much scantily clad flesh into the film as possible.

Everything is played strictly safe. A jaw droppingly awful chase scene through the Indian jungle becomes an excuse to inject some terrible comedic stunts, such as Bond telling a tiger to ‘Sit!’ (it does), ordering an encroaching snake to ‘Hiss off!’ and making his escape by swinging across tree vines, drawing inexplicable attention to himself by bellowing the Tarzan cry. The film scores a coup by casting tennis pro, Vijay Amritraj, as ‘our man in India’, but then throws in a ridiculous stunt involving a tennis racquet during a car chase through the crowded streets.

If there was a word I’d use to sum up Octopussy, it would be ‘tired.’ The whole affair looks exhausted, utterly spent of any sense of originality and spark as it goes through the motions. Louis Jourdan’s villain plays backgammon with loaded dice and loads nuance into every time he says ‘Octopussy.’ The overall impression is that Jourdan takes none of it seriously, and that’s fine, but when Bond later bollocks Berkoff for his nutty scheme the two worlds within the film collide.

None of it really mattered in the end. Octopussy did well at the box office, eclipsing Never Say Never Again by more than a $30 million margin and giving the ‘official’ franchise the seal of approval it so nakedly sought. But it’s worth remembering that  Eon’s desire to edge out the competition was the entire motivation behind the film, not such noble sentiments as bringing the character ‘back to basics’ that underpinned For Your Eyes Only. In America, both films made up the numbers as 1983 belonged commercially to Return of the Jedi, whilst Terms of Endearment (a film that seems to say ‘Look, real tears! Can I have my award now?’) received the critical nod. Bond’s position at the top of the tree was over, a sorry dip in interest following the highs of the 1960s.

Octopussy: *

P.S. Yet another apology for the site’s sleep over the last few days – more Birthday celebrations, last week at work, getting a new computer up to speed, etc. Back to normal service on Tuesday!

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

When it’s on: Saturday, 11 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The dilemma at the heart of For Your Eyes Only is played out in its pre-credits sequence. Providing a degree of continuity with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as though all those films in between took place in his head, James Bond is first seen leaving flowers at the grave of Tracy Bond. It’s a rare moment of recognition of the elements that drive the agent to do the things he does, though cynically one might argue it’s a plot point hauled out whenever the films want to add a note of seriousness.

But then things turn daft. Bond is picked up by a helicopter, believing he’s about to be piloted towards another mission. Suddenly, the pilot’s head is fried after an electrical charge is sent through his headphones, and Bond realises his ride is being piloted automatically by a familiar figure, bald-headed and sat in a wheelchair, who taunts him over the intercom. After being flung about in the skies over London, Bond somehow gains control of the chopper and picks up his enemy, wheelchair and all, before finally tipping him into the sort of factory chimney patronised by Fred Dibnah. The victim, whilst never named, is obviously Ernst Stavro Blofeld, though the film couldn’t identify him due to the rights to all things SPECTRE belonging to Kevin McClory. It’s kind of a sorry end to the former Number One, reduced to something of a joke figure, all for the sake of offering a two-fingered salute to McClory, who at the time was busy developing a non-franchise Bond flick (the remake of Thunderball that became the forgettable Never Say Never Again).

In the space of several minutes, For Your Eyes Only sets the tone of the film it wants to be. What we get is a Bond in distinctly lower key. Those fights are felt. There are moments that hint at the hero being in real danger, and knowing it. Similarly, the plot involves stakes far less high than the routine world saving antics he’s used to. Bond has to stop a Greek smuggler from delivering the ATAK missile command system to the Soviets, whilst becoming entangled in the mission of vengeance led by Melina Havelock. There’s a daring touch of realism to the narrative; this is the kind of job you can just about imagine him carrying out. As always in 007 entries that shift away from high concept action, one of the losers is Q, his gadgets tucked safely away in Q Branch as the man himself does nothing more than help Bond identify an assassin with the help of his trusty ‘Identograph.’

At the same time, the film never completely shrugs off the need to entertain with crazy stunts and action sequences. At times, this is quite joyously planted on the screen with a fantastically staged car chase. This begins with a great wink to the audience when Bond’s fancy Lotus is blown up and he needs to escape with Melina in her Citroen 2CV. Forced to rely on his wits rather than an array of gadgets, the chase down a winding Greek hillside road is well executed and lots of fun. But other action scenes don’t work in quite the same way. An extended series of action scenes at an Alpine ski resort goes on for far too long and shoehorns in moments of the distinctly unfunny comedy that undermines all the fine stunt work carried out to put this stuff on the screen. The tussle at the hockey rink – where the scoreboard tallies up Bond’s dispatching of some baddies – is especially awful.

When the film tries to inject real elements of suspense, as opposed to expensively mounted set pieces, it really starts living up to its mission statement. The best bits involve Bond having to scale a sheer mountain face to reach the villains’ rendezvous point with the Soviets at the Orthodox monastery in Meteora, Greece. For several minutes, John Glen simply screens his perilous climb, Bond showing all his advancing years, huffing and puffing with the effort of hauling his middle aged self up the mountainside. Audiences know it will go wrong, that at some moment he’ll be spotted and threatened, and the perils of being hundreds of feet high with naught but a drop beneath him. For once, Glen appreciates the tension of this entire scene and lets it play out, helped by Roger Moore’s real life fear of heights and the instances where it appears he’s in actual trouble.

John Glen, who’d worked his way through the franchise’s ranks since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and would go on to direct the entire 1980s series of Bonds), finally got his opportunity to helm a film after directing action scenes in the previous films. He was working with a smaller budget than that lavished on Moonraker, and indeed had to oversee a ‘back to basics’ Bond that recalled the first couple of films (exemplified in a scene reminiscent from Dr No where Bond coldly kicks a car containing an assassin over the edge of a cliff). It’s been suggested since then that the franchise was in a crisis after Moonraker, though that plays into reassessments of the ‘science fiction 007’ as a failure, which at the time it clearly wasn’t. However, there were concerns by the producers that the spy had reached a limit of what he could possibly achieve by saving the world from space, and they either had to hit new levels of loopiness (James Bond of Mars!) or bring him back down to earth.

The other aspect was the man playing the lead role. By now, Moore was in his mid-fifties and looked it. Despite initially deciding to back out at this stage, Glen appeared to want the continuity he brought in retaining his services and in turn developed the character into a figure of greater maturity. The sex magnet he rather improbably presented in earlier films has now largely gone. His flirting with Miss Moneypenny feels less charged and more like old friends sharing a familiar joke. He rebuffs the admittedly annoying advances of an ingénue skater and falls in with the flighty but ultimately tragic Countess Lisl von Schlaf (Cassandra Harris). Their brief sex scenes are restricted to little more than the couple wearing post-coital dressing gowns, though Harris turns out to be so sexy in her short time on screen that she’s actually more memorable than the main squeeze, the revenge obsessed Melina (Carole Bouquet). Still, the relationship between Bond and Melina develops over the course of the film, if not entirely convincingly then at least the effort has been made to ensure she doesn’t hop into bed at the first twitch of Moore’s eyebrow.

It’s probably Moore’s best work as Bond, though throughout the film it screams its suitability as a Timothy Dalton vehicle. Elsewhere, Julian Glover is nicely unassuming as Kristatos, quite credible as a middle man with eyes on a profit rather than world domination. Topol brings bags of charisma to the screen as Kristatos’s business rival, Columbo. There’s even a Cold War aspect to the film, Walter Gotell reprising his role as Soviet General Gogol and hinting at a level of affection for Bond that suggests a thawing of relations with the East is at hand. Bill Conti’s terrible, ‘funked up’ score, on the other hand, makes you realise just how spoiled you were with John Barry’s classy stylings, whilst Sheena Easton’s Academy Award nominated song is a disappointing ballad that, stylistically, has no business playing any part in the film.

For Your Eyes Only: ***

Moonraker (1979)

When it’s on: Saturday, 4 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Poor old Moonraker. It’s routinely lambasted as the poorest of all the Bonds, the ultimate expression of spectacle over Ian Fleming’s concept that, the legend goes, caused so much soul-searching on the part of Cubby Broccoli that its sequel, For Your Eyes Only, was deliberately rebooted on a back to basics platform. The intention of Moonraker to cash in on the success of Star Wars is perceived as shameless and opportunistic, ruining Bond’s good reputation at the cost of squeezing a few more bucks from the craze for science fiction. How could they do that? What happened to the nice, down to earth stories of yore, the ones with hollowed out volcanoes and so on?

The trouble is that the film’s accusers have it about right. Fleming’s Moonraker had nothing to do with space and was instead a nuclear rocket; as the script developed layers of his plot were lopped off so that, in the end, little remained beyond the name of the story’s villain, Hugo Drax. The film appears to have been conceived almost as a compendium of 007’s greatest moments, taking in the likes of Venice and Rio in an attempt to deliver the last word in lavish entertainment. The ‘dream team’ of writer Christopher Wood and director Lewis Gilbert was retained after the success of The Spy who Loved Me, whilst Jaws (Richard Kiel) returned also to resume his popular tussles with Moore’s agent. The whole show had to build up to scenes set in space, and the plot was therefore engineered to have Bond uncover Drax’s scheme to destroy all human life, only keeping a number of ‘perfect specimens’ in a station located above the Earth’s atmosphere, to which 007 will eventually travel for the climax.

It’s undoubtedly very silly, with an emphasis on fun and stuntcraft, the action never pausing long enough for viewers to ask the obvious questions concerning plot holes, or indeed wonder why Drax would even bother wiping out humanity when he’s a very rich man who could, if he so chose, lock himself away in a Kanesian Xanadu and keep the rest of the world at bay, not to mention the convenient way Drax is Bond’s first point of investigation (what are the odds?). However, Moonraker did incredible business, being the first Bond to take over $200 million at the box office and initially enjoying more good reviews than bad. Clearly, the negative opinion is something it’s shouldered over time, turning a film that tries earnestly to entertain into the franchise’s pariah.

A deserved reputation? Well, yes and no. The good points begin with Michael Lonsdale, the French actor hired to play Drax as the production moved to Paris in order to bypass tougher tax laws that had been passed in Britain. Lonsdale plays it cold, gifting Drax with the kind of single-minded megalomania missing from so many flamboyant Bond villains. Check out his rather brutal killing of Corinne Dufour, or the way he tells his manservant to ensure that ‘some harm’ comes to Bond. There’s no feeling in his voice, nothing, just the deadened necessity of getting the job done. In the book, Drax was a Nazi, which justified his brusque attitude to the human race. Here, he has no excuse, and he’s all the more chilling for it.

Then there’s the cash that was lavished on making sure this was the most extravagant of movie experiences. You need a carnival scene? Hey, why not set it in Rio’s Mardi Gras, the biggest celebration of them all? After a classy European location? How about Venice? Want a set piece using glamorous backdrops? Would the Iguazu Falls suit? The latter features in Moonraker to serve a brief stunt, but was hit upon because, at the time, little had been filmed there previously, giving the dramatic Falls a fresh and awe-inspiring appearance. Other scenes flickered seamlessly from location shots to those based in the studio, from Bond standing outside a pyramid in Guatemala to entering a Ken Adams set. It’s all brilliantly executed, the action in Brazil particularly well put together.

Naturally, the action is leading to the science fiction showdown and Drax’s space station, in reality a model situated in Pinewood. For the film’s space scenes, the crew went for the archaic method of filming something, say a shuttle, rewinding the film and shooting something else, the stars perhaps or Earth, and overlaying the images. It works really well, even during its ultimate test of the space battle between Drax’s cohorts and United States marines, all equipped with laser rifles for that authentic Star Wars feel. Adams designed the awesome space station interior, with its clinical, austere look that reflects Drax’s philosophy, but the best bit in the film – and for me, one of the finest ‘money shots’ in the entire series – comes earlier. Bond and Dr Goodhead (Lois Chiles) are on board a space shuttle, heading on automatic pilot for some fixed point, and then the station emerges, lit gradually by the morning sun and rotating serenely, John Barry’s score reaching a suitably grandstanding crescendo.

The downside is a script that tries to inject humour into any given moment. The film’s meant to be a bit of fun and scenes played for comedy are generally welcome, but too often the laughs are heavy-handed and not very funny. When Jaws’s parachute fails in the prologue and he tries vainly flapping his arms, that’s fine because he’s a character largely played for comedic effect and we expect nothing less, and besides Kiel had an under-appreciated sense of timing. Elsewhere, some of the musical cues are just rubbish and hammer home for audiences a visual gag played fairly subtly, such as when the theme from The Magnificent Seven appears to absolutely flat effect. Then we have the reappearance of Victor Tourjansky and the worried glances at his plonk, and even a pigeon performing a double-take.

It’s bottom of the barrel stuff and simply jars with the excellent – and sometimes genuinely life-threatening – work that went into the stunts and the immense care taken over location shooting and Adams’s thrilling sets. Otherwise, it’s refreshing to see Bond treat his lady loves with more than casual disregard, also the moments in the film where he actually looks as though he’s in some peril, as in the centrifuge chamber. Chiles makes for a decent heroine, and if little else works for viewers, then the closing joke, in which Q suggests 007 is attempting re-entry, is one of the better ones.

Moonraker: ***