Friday, December 8, 2023

Baz Jazz Hands: Christmas cards with Elvis

This is the final in my 2023 bi-monthly series rewatching the films of Baz Luhrmann.

We ordered our Christmas cards late this year, but they arrived early. I think it might be part of a ploy by Snapfish to create the impression of excellent customer service, to tell you your order is expected on Friday and then deliver it on Tuesday.

Having been out all day Wednesday at work followed by Ferrari and Saltburn, though, I couldn't start stuffing them in envelopes until Thursday after work, and because of my younger son's school holiday concert, couldn't actually start until that night. When I wanted to watch a movie.

I figured, what better accompaniment to the task than the last entry of Baz Jazz Hands, Baz Luhrmann being a filmmaker whose strengths (some would say weaknesses) come across through an overall impression of what he's doing, not a minute attention to every detail on screen? Especially if you've already seen the movie once?

If I actually wrote in my Christmas cards, it probably wouldn't have worked, but I gave that up ages ago. The only writing I do is the address and the return address on the envelope, and all I was really doing at this stage was writing my return address and the recipient's name on each envelope, kind of like a machine completing a task in parts. I'd look up their addresses later on when I wasn't watching a movie.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the opening scene of Elvis actually features Christmas cards. Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) is putting away a box of Christmas cards on a high shelf when he suffers the stroke that sent him to a hospital bed from which he would never emerge. I almost did a double take, my own Christmas cards right there in my lap. 

It's not the only Christmas element in this movie. In fact, there's a whole to do that feels like it takes up 20 minutes about whether Elvis will wear his Christmas sweater and sing "Here Comes Santa Claus" on a television broadcast designed specifically for those two purposes. (Spoiler alert: He does not.)

The salient facts about Parker's death seem mostly accurate -- he died on January 20, 1997, so indeed he could have been putting away Christmas cards, though Wikipedia does not say anything about that. He also did not die until the next morning, so in theory, his deathbed narration of this story, by the light of a night in Vegas, could have also occurred. 

That isn't, however, the impression one gets from the Christmas special episode, which bothered me more than it should. But more on that in the moment.

My ranking of Elvis as my #7 film of 2022 was, in part, the thing that inspired me to do this Baz Jazz Hands series. At that time I had seen only two of Luhrmann's six films more than once, and I thought this made a good excuse to revisit the others, to note how Luhrmann's style has developed and solidified over the years. Now that I've done this, I feel I can confidently say he is the only filmmaker -- or for sure, the only filmmaker who has made multiple films -- where I've seen his entire output more than once.

The first 45 minutes of Elvis were an absolute confirmation of the affection I'd felt for it the first time. The colors, the editing, the performance of Austin Butler as the green Elvis, the absolute joy emanating from anything and everything ... it was intoxicating. As Elvis is driving his pink Cadillac, I thought to myself that I had never seen the color pink look quite like that on screen, and I was enthralled by it.

An interesting thing about this film is to watch its color palette become more muted as Elvis sinks deeper into the drug and health problems that would ultimately claim him. You aren't supposed to have as much fun with the second half, or even the final two-thirds, of this film, and that doesn't lessen it as a film -- it just presents the reality of a man's life.

One thing did lessen it, though, and I'd say it probably came about the halfway mark.

I mentioned the whole donnybrook over whether Elvis would meekly accept his commitment of playing a family-friendly Christmas special. In order to draw further thematic resonance from this, Luhrmann chooses to group it together with an event that did not occur, that could not have occurred, at the same time, making it seem as though they were contemporaneous. Two events, actually.

The first in the narrative of these three total events is the assassination of Martin Luther King. We see Elvis receive the news and feel heartbroken. 

Not straight away in the narrative, but within maybe ten more minutes of screen time, we start to get into the Christmas special and whether Elvis will behave. Then as they are preparing the Christmas special and there is excessive discussion of Santa Claus coming or not coming to town, and whether he will be reaching town via the lane that bears his name, Robert Kennedy is shot and killed, creating yet more perspective in Elvis regarding what is and what is not important. 

Here's the thing: King was shot in April of 1968. Kennedy was shot in June of 1968. There was no Christmas season between those events, or especially at the time of either event.

I said in my review of Elvis (which you can read here if you like) that the movie has a strong sense of emotional truth, if not literal truth at every juncture. I was effectively granting Luhrmann license to take liberties with the truth as long as it was furthering the effective portrait of this man.

However, I do take issue with combining events that were so transparently not related to one another, where it is easily verifiable that they weren't. I first came to this by thinking "Wow, I didn't know Bobby Kennedy was assassinated right around Christmastime." Of course, he wasn't. Luhrmann thought that Elvis' commitment to the Christmas show made an effective metaphor for his selling out of his original persona, a slow-moving compromise that had been going on for some time at this point. And that the death of a political leader he admired would demonstrate just how vacuous were the others things he was doing.

If this were the desire -- and if the movie wants to grapple with Presley's uneasy relationship to Black culture and the debts he owes it -- why not have it be King's death he's struggling with at the same time as the Christmas show? Did Luhrmann just figure people would better remember the time of year King was killed than the time of year Kennedy was killed, so it would make his mild subterfuge less noticeable?

I can't say that this really impacted my enjoyment of the film the second time, but it ate away at me for the rest of the movie, so it obviously stuck in my craw. 

Overall, though, this Elvis viewing confirmed the thing I have been steadily realizing all year, or putting into words at least: Luhrmann is a maker of myths. If his characters lack in nuance, it's because he's giving us archetypes, not finely detailed and complicated human beings. If his biopic adheres to the standard components of a biopic, just exploded outward in his unique style, then that's because he wants to make the ultimate biopic, the biopic that might go in the dictionary next to the definition, not something that surprises us by only examining a small part of the subject's life, or examining him by having five different actors play him.

In short, the things Luhrmann does are things I appreciate. The scope of the big screen is strong with this one. He understands that movies are made on a large canvas and that the subject matter should match. 

In thinking about filmmakers with a signature style, I think Luhrmann is one as much as Wes Anderson is one. You know you're watching a Luhrmann movie when you're watching it. He comes back to the same sorts of shots, the same sorts of editing techniques, the same anachronistic use of music. There's one shot in Elvis where the casino owner is writing out the terms of Elvis' contract at the International Hotel -- or more specifically, the benefits Parker will get from this commitment -- and I swear there is another shot just like that, focusing ominously on the letters as they are being written, in another Luhrmann film. At this stage I can't remember which one it was. But the moment marked this as a Luhrmann film as much as anything else.

There are differences between a filmmaker like Luhrmann and one like Anderson, though. These differences don't make one better or worse than the other, but I do think they help explain why Anderson gets so much backlash from his haters while Luhrmann gets relatively little, even though he too has plenty of haters.

For one, Luhrmann has made about half the number of films as Anderson in the same period of time. His style has had less opportunity to grate on us for its repetitious nature, especially when he goes nine years between making films, as he did between The Great Gatsby and Elvis.

But I also think the "same style, different subject matter" approach they share befits the sorts of projects Luhrmann tackles better than the sorts of projects Anderson tackles. Again, no slight on Anderson as I really like two-thirds of his movies. But on the ones I don't like, I smack my forehead about how Anderson seems to be going back to the same well, again and again. 

With Luhrmann -- especially with the scarcity of movies he gives us -- I feel like this well will never run dry.

Thus concludes the series. I will conclude King Darren before the end of the month, which will make Darren Aronofsky the second director whose every film I have seen more than once, and which will bring all three of my 2023 bi-monthly series to a close.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Ursa Major on my movie screen

Short one today.

Last night I saw Saltburn, the second of two movies at the Village Cinemas in the increasingly moribund Jam Factory in South Yarra. I had arrived at 6:30 for an advanced screening of Ferrari, which doesn't open here for another month. To get this out of the way at the start, I liked both movies.

Writing about the Jam Factory today was one option, if I really wanted to depress myself. Might as well fit in some quick thoughts.

Indeed this was once a jam factory, and from the looks of it, they are trying to turn it into one again. When I first went there, the cinema -- which was always the centerpiece of the space -- was surrounded by clothing stores, restaurants and a Big W or KMart or Target, I can't remember which.

Now, all the restaurants and the Big Target Mart have closed, and the one remaining clothing store has its main entrance from the street. The entrance from the interior courtyard doesn't even open.

Here's a photo of the video screen on the way out. You can see behind it where some of the food court style restaurants used to be. This is what we call a "blue screen of death" in IT circles, when your computer has a fatal error that takes it out of the operating system entirely, and you have to reboot. I thought it was a good metaphor for the Jam Factory, only the reboot may never happen.

But instead of spending the lion's share of this post on what COVID hath wrought, I wanted to go slightly more optimistic and just talk about a possible sign of decline of the cinema ... or maybe just a maintenance issue that needs to be addressed.

My Saltburn screen had a mini big dipper on it.

Not the handle, just the dipping part.

What I mean by that is four small pricks in the surface of the screen that emitted a faint blue light from each. 

The small pricks were exactly in the shape of the four main parts of that most famous of constellations.

It's almost like it had to be intentional. How do you get four small pin pricks of equal size on your movie screen, spaced exactly perfectly to approximate Ursa Major? (If I'd been thinking of it, that's what I should have taken a picture of.) Sure, one pin prick could be an accident (if this is actually a physical hole) or screen degradation, but four spaced perfectly like this? Highly suss.

In any case, it did not sufficiently impact my viewing of Saltburn. I only really noticed it when the action on screen was particularly dark. (Which it always was in this movie, though in that case I'm using the word metaphorically rather than literally.) 

I'll have to try to go see something on screen 4 sometime early next year, to see if this is a recently occurring maintenance issue that will be fixed, or a precursor to the closing of the theater. If things are as depressing for Village Cinemas in this location as they are for the rest of the Jam Factory, they might just be letting themselves go in antiticaption of their own blue screen of death.

And here I thought this second point might be less depressing.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Ranking all 25 Bond films

As promised, my rankings of all 25 Eon Bond films. (I hate that you have to keep sticking in the qualifier "Eon" just because of two others that weren't part of this chronology, one that was intended as a parody.)

I've written enough Bond in the past two weeks to make your eyes bleed, so I will dispense with the preamble on this one.

I did, however, want to say that I didn't agonize too much over the exact order of these, going mostly by feel, and in some cases with a lack of recency that meant I was ranking them on an impression that was formed 40 years ago. I might at some point become more familiar with them and consider this exercise again, but more on that later.

For now, my rankings from 25 to 1, with 50 words or so of explanation about each.

25. The World is Not Enough (1999, Michael Apted) - The worst of any thing you might rank is probably hurt by the conditions in which you experienced it. But either I was having a really bad day when I saw this, or I did really think Denise Richards was that terrible.

24. Die Another Day (2002, Lee Tamahori) - Two Pierce Brosnan films as my worst -- really? Perhaps not, but I do remember hoping DAD would bring me back into the Bond fold after the disappointment of TWINE and being sorely disappointed in that hope. 

23. License to Kill (1989, John Glen) - There was a reason Timothy Dalton was shown the exit after only two Bond films, and License to Kill was it. All I really remember about this is Robert Davi and some sharks. Incidentally, this is only the seventh title that comes up when you search "License to Kill" on IMDB, which is crazy for a Bond movie and indicates how little people remember and/or think about this movie.

22. Quantum of Solace (2008, Marc Forster) - This is actually one of the most recent films I've seen in that I only got to it in 2015, just before seeing Spectre. But I don't remember much about it at all and feel like it was a pretty anonymous entry in the series, the one that temporarily gave them pause about whether to continue onward with new movies.

21. Moonraker (1979, Lewis Gilbert) - "James Bond in space" is the four-word phrase that will continue to hamper my memory of this movie even though it is probably just fine. This is where I first met Jaws, who did scare me quite a bit, but I feel like I ended up laughing at this movie -- even though it may have been the first Bond I ever saw. (There's a debate about whether it was this or For Your Eyes Only, or if I only saw both of those after I saw Octopussy.) 

20. A View to a Kill (1985, John Glen) - "Nope, they couldn't keep up the Octopussy magic" was mostly my reaction to Roger Moore's final Bond movie, though I do remember liking the Duran Duran song and finding Grace Jones a very interesting, confronting Bond girl. I think also the cultural conversation about how he was too old to play Bond (two years shy of his 60th birthday) had seeped into the brain of even the 11-year-old me. It was the first Bond I saw in the theater though. (A friend of mine on social media the other day suggested we saw Octopussy in the theater, but I don't think so.)

19. Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell) - There's an argument to be made that this belongs in the 20s since when I saw this, I actually disliked it. However, being in such a minority in that opinion, and the fact that I've always liked Daniel Craig in the role, tempers my feelings about Casino Royale and suggests I should probably watch it again sometime. I remember I was really annoyed by the ridiculous hands in the poker game they play in the movie. 

18. The Living Daylights (1987, John Glen) - I remember being pleasantly surprised by Dalton's first appearance as Bond, and the discussion at the time that they were trying to make Bond less of a lothario. So my only enduring memory of this movie is Dalton quaintly holding hands with Maryam d'Abo as they board the London Eye. 

17. Dr. No (1962, Terence Young) - I hate to not give more love to the original, but the fact remains that I was perplexed about the sedentary nature of the action of this movie. Clearly, in a first movie of anything you have no idea what it's going to be, but my interest in this movie was largely an academic interest in discovering where it all began. (I also still think Dr. No is a funny name for the first movie in a Bond series. Shouldn't the first movie have been called James Bond or something?) Incidentally this is my lowest ranked Sean Connery film. 

16. Spectre (2015, Sam Mendes) - When we all thought this was Craig's last Bond movie, I thought it was a decently satisfying way for him to go out, and met the high filmmaking standard that Mendes had brought to Skyfall. Bonus points for Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. 

15. Thunderball (1965, Terence Young) - This is one of the two movies I'd seen in the last decade before I got restarted with On Your Majesty's Secret Service two weeks ago, and even though I've seen both of them within the past three years, I have trouble remembering what happens in Thunderball and what happens in You Only Live Twice. I do remember that Thunderball was the silly one with an excessive number of boobs, and that it earns it #15. 

14. You Only Live Twice (1967, Lewis Gilbert) - I originally had this movie two spots higher, but considering what I just said about not remembering what happened in which movie, and that I gave both of these movies three stars on Letterboxd, I think I have to movie this one down to just before Thunderball -- though it probably could have also gone just after. 

13. For Your Eyes Only (1981, John Glen) - I don't remember a lot about this movie other than there's skiing in it. However, I do have some memory of it relative to how I felt about Moonraker, which was something along the lines of "This restores order after the fiasco known as 'James Bond in space.'" Incidentally, this was the movie they were supposed to make directly after The Spy Who Loved Me, except that the success of Star Wars prompted them to jump the queue with Moonraker.

12. The Spy Who Loved Me (1976, Lewis Gilbert) - And here we get to another pairing where the plots blend together -- even though I just saw these two movies last week. So I'm not going to use this space to argue for the merits of TSWLM over ... 

11. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974, Guy Hamilton) - ... this movie, which gets a higher ranking because I think Guy Hamilton brought something special to this franchise in terms of goofy humor, whereas if Gilbert was doing that also, it didn't land in quite the same way. (I'm inclined to think I'd view Gilbert's Moonraker differently if I saw it today, potentially making him the equal of Hamilton.) All I know is I had fun during both of these movies on Friday but I don't remember what happened in what movie. 

10. No Time to Die (2021, Cary Joji Fukunaga) - Okay so the top ten is when we start getting serious about really "good" Bond films. Perhaps because of the [unprecedented thing] that occurs in this movie, it holds a really distinctive place within the Bond chronology, and because it's Fukunaga, the filmmaking is also quite good. 

9. Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes) - After I had not liked Casino Royale and not even seen Quantum of Solace, I was surprised to enjoy this as much as I did. The first time I remember a Bond film seeming "arty," but in all the right ways. Still a little shocked by the way Craig blows off the cold-blooded murder of his apparent love interest right in front of him, though.

8. Goldeneye (1995, Martin Campbell) - The debut of Brosnan felt like a breath of fresh air after the series had been petering out for an entire decade beforehand ... but his reign would require another reboot 11 years later. Goldeneye was one of two good films, the other of which we haven't gotten to yet.

7. From Russia With Love (1963, Terence Young) - Although the Bond series had not yet found its defining traits in only this, its second movie, I was pleasantly surprised by it being a confident step in that direction, after being generally unimpressed by Dr. No. In order to stay in sequence, I watched this the day before watching Goldfinger, which I needed to do for other reasons. The urgency of the viewing didn't make me like it any less. 

6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969, Peter R. Hunt) - The only film starring George Lazenby and the only film directed by Peter Hunt obviously made an impression on me when I saw it last month, though I think this might be a little inflated by recency bias, plus by being impressed with where the story goes in the last minute before the credits. 

5. Live and Let Die (1973, Guy Hamilton) - Possibly more recency bias at play here, but this movie is silly and funny and Yaphet Kotto gets blown up like a balloon at the end. What more do you need? 

4. Diamonds Are Forever (1971, Guy Hamilton) - I think I just really like Hamilton's films. Although this movie, which I watched the night before I went to the Bondathon, also loses some of its distinctiveness in my memory because I watched it in the same 24-hour period as three other Bond films, it primed me plenty for those three films and was a lot of fun.

3. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997, Roger Spotiswoode) - Well hello there Pierce Brosnan up in this rarefied air. This is one of three Bond films that I "love" where that affection has also stood the test of time, though I have to say, I can't fully remember why Brosnan's second time as Bond was such a win for me. I'll definitely have to put this ranking to the test at some point in the future.

2. Goldfinger (1964, Guy Hamilton) - And here's Hamilton again, meaning three of my top five were directed by him. This is, by most people's assessment, the "gold standard" of Bond films, the time when Connery and the screenwriters both started really having fun with the role, in terms of both colorful villains and Bond girls, particularly their names. Don't forget, this film features Pussy Galore, Auric Goldfinger and a henchman with a killer hat named Oddjob. 

1. Octopussy (1983, John Glen) - What else could it be? For most people, this was just a random late-period Moore film with a titillating name. (Yes, I just realized that both of my top two Bond films have a pussy in them.) For me, it was a beloved VHS tape that I watched about ten times between 1985 and when I graduated high school in 1991. However good it may or may not be, I cannot see past the role it had as cinematic comfort food for me in the 1980s, and so of course even when I watch it today (as I did most recently back in 2012), it still seems great. As I've mentioned several times while writing about Bond these past few weeks, it's the only Bond film I've seen more than once. 

I was curious to see how closely the list I made organically (with only one minor adjustment) matched the actual star ratings I've given these films on Letterboxd, and it's pretty close. Here you can see them in the reverse order with the star ratings listed afterward:

1. Octopussy - 4.5 stars
2. Goldfinger - 4 stars
3. Tomorrow Never Dies - 4 stars
4. Diamonds Are Forever - 4 stars
5. Live and Let Die - 4 stars
6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service - 3.5 stars
7. From Russia With Love - 4 stars
8. Goldeneye - 4 stars
9. Skyfall - 3.5 stars
10. No Time to Die - 3.5 stars
11. The Man With the Golden Gun - 3.5 stars
12. The Spy Who Loved Me - 3.5 stars
13. For Your Eyes Only - 3 stars
14. You Only Live Twice - 3 stars
15. Thunderball - 3 stars
16. Spectre - 3 stars
17. Dr. No - 3 stars
18. The Living Daylights - 3 stars
19. Casino Royale - 2.5 stars
20. A View to a Kill - 3 stars
21. Moonraker - 3 stars
22. Quantum of Solace - 2 stars
23. License to Kill - 2.5 stars
24. Die Another Day - 2.5 stars
25. The World is Not Enough - 1.5 stars

Pretty close to descending order in star ratings, with a few exceptions thrown in -- but never by more than a half-star out of sequence. Only five of these got less than three stars from me, meaning thumbs down rather than thumbs up, and even two of the last three were no worse than 2.5-star movies. 

So I guess I do like Bond pretty well overall, and have had a fun time immersing myself in the character recently.

Fun enough to consider doing my own elongated Bondathon, rewatching all the films in order?

Yes definitely, but not today, and not likely as soon as next year. However, I do note that at least as of right now, it breaks up pretty well as two annual monthly projects, maybe worth starting as soon as 2025 -- and not necessarily in place of a regular monthly viewing series. Maybe I'll need to run it in addition to that as I don't really want to sacrifice two years of good monthly viewing series projects for this, especially since I've already got two years' worth of ideas backed up.

I say "as of right now" because it's unclear how soon we'll get a 26th Bond movie. However, Barbara Broccoli has said that it could start filming in 2024, meaning a potential release as soon as 2025. Then again, they have to cast someone first.

And since I'm all caught up now, that's probably the next time you'll hear about Jimmy Bond on this blog -- when they've told us who's slipping into the tuxedo next. 

You know I'll have opinions. 

Monday, December 4, 2023

To re-MUBI or not to re-MUBI

I have been pretty disappointed with my 2023 subscription to MUBI.

Which is no shade on the person who gifted it to me last Christmas, should he be reading this.

I'd been considering subscribing to the service myself, as I was enamored with their unique model of making movies available for 30 days, with one new movie appearing on the service each day. Each day you could check in to be surprised by some long-lost gem, some elusive title you'd been meaning to watch for years, or just some weird thing you'd never heard of but looked like it was worth trying out. Having the choices pre-curated by MUBI takes out some of the randomness of choosing a single movie from a service that may make thousands of them available.

But during the year, MUBI abandoned its signature format.

I can't remember the reasons for this. I'm sure it presented challenges and I'm sure the cost associated with licensing films for 30 days of viewing was prohibitive, relative to the benefit of the format, when they'd be better off just having it for a year or however long. If they wanted to license 365 films -- and I'm not sure if they do have that many -- better to make them all available for the whole year.

In theory, that's no different of a service from having 30 at a time -- in fact, maybe it is better in some ways. But it means MUBI is not distinct from a dozen other streamers, at least at the fundamental level of its structure. It might offer more interesting titles ... or maybe it just offers a bunch of movies you've never heard of for good reason. 

Then early in the year I learned that they got exclusive distribution rights to the movie in this poster, Ira Sachs' Passages. I've seen most of Sachs' movies and his Love is Strange made my top ten of its year. So it gave me a little thrill that at some point during the year, I'd be able to watch this on MUBI.

Not so much. The distribution rights were for the U.S. I am in Australia. I cannot watch Passages on MUBI. In fact, now I'll probably have no way to watch it before my list closes at the end of January.

Then there were the emails I would get from MUBI telling me about the new availability of some title. Maybe they got my geography wrong -- it makes sense as I have some services set in the U.S. (like iTunes) and some set in Australia (all the others) -- but in these instances as well, almost without exception, I would go into MUBI to try to watch the movie in question, and get nothing. U.S. only, apparently.

If services are going to offer different titles in different countries, they should at least figure out what country you're in so you are not getting constantly teased about movies that you can't watch.

Then the offerings themselves.

Things started on a good note when I watched Cleo from 5 to 7. The Agnes Varda film was a regret for me when I watched Varda films a couple years ago for my Audient Auteurs series, because I couldn't locate it at that time. I hadn't specifically sought it out since, but having it handed to me here gave me a taste of the exclusivity MUBI promised. I was tickled pink by the MUBI possibilities.

But as I tried to delve into random movies I wouldn't hear about elsewhere, some of them were just too random, especially this one called The Red and the Black that I suffered through one night. 

Another MUBI highlight was watching The Balcony Movie, which I had meant to catch at a previous MIFF and really liked. But then there were also lows, as when I watched Trash Humpers, which is now my lowest ranked film on Flickchart. I can't blame MUBI for my poor choice in that respect, but it didn't help with my overall impression of the service, regardless of who was to blame.

Is it possible that these are the only four movies I've watched on MUBI this year?

It's possible. 

I went back through the movies I've watched this year and did discover at least two others: Where is the Friend's House, which I didn't love despite it being Abbas Kiarostami, and Actual People, a movie about as bland as its title. I thought I might have watched The Pez Outlaw on MUBI, but if so, it's no longer available. (Six is a better return on my friend's gift than four, and seven would be even better.)

I've tried to watch others. I've used MUBI as a possible last resort when there was a movie I couldn't find on any other service that I needed to watch during a particular period of time. None of the times I've checked has MUBI actually saved me.

Then the real tease is that MUBI has a page for almost any movie you can think of, even if it can't play the movie. So you get to the page and you get all hopeful, and then there is just no play button.

This past week, as I realized my renewal would be due in late January, I had another determined peruse through the various featured films, to be sure I wouldn't be struck by another sudden rush of optimism about MUBI's potential role in my viewing life. I was struck by more disappointment, namely:

1) There were so few featured titles that the same titles kept on popping up in different featured categories. I'm not sure how one movie can be a film noir, a superhero movie and a romantic comedy, but that's the sort of thing I was seeing. Not that any of the genre assignments were inaccurate, just that the categories themselves were written in such a way to allow the same movies to appear in multiple ones -- creating the impression of more titles than they actually had, an impression easily disproven by the most casual memory of the titles you had just seen featured in the other categories.

2) There was one particular category that focused on 1940s classics. This is the type of place I'd expect MUBI might help me out. There were exactly three movies listed here, all bonafide classics like Citizen Kane. I don't need MUBI to watch Citizen Kane.

3) There should be a three just for good list-making etiquette, but I'm disappointed enough by 1 and 2 that 3 is pretty much superfluous.

If MUBI can't offer me more elusive classics from the 1940s, if it can't offer me the movies it says in the emails it is going to offer me, and if it doesn't even have a unique structure as a streamer, what good is it to me?

And yet I am thinking of renewing.

The idea of MUBI is still powerful. The potential it has to be great is still exciting. It has a lovely layout that supports both this idea and this potential. Simply put, it looks like the sort of exclusive place I want to spent my streaming time, with the sorts of undiscovered gems I want to discover.

Do I have to give MUBI another year to try to realize this potential?

It's hard to say. 

I have almost two months until my subscription expires. It's enough time to give MUBI a red hot go, to use the Australian phrase.

The problem is, these two months are when I'm watching as many 2023 movies as I can before I close off my list. MUBI does not offer 2023 films, as a general rule.

And when it does, like Passages, I'm in the wrong country to even see them.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Understanding The Big Sleep better, not liking it much better

If you saw Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep on my viewing schedule this week, you'd have good reason to assume it was the last in my Audient Classics monthly series. (Except if you looked closely you'd notice I watched it in November, and I had already watched The Passion of Joan of Arc for that series in November.)

It meets two of the three criteria for inclusion in that series:

1) It was released before I was born;

2) I have seen it only once.

It's the crucial third criterion where The Big Sleep comes up way short:

3) I had really liked the movie.

So why was I watching a noir I hadn't liked very much, starring an actor whom I shun as often as I embrace, on Wednesday night?

Well that was also the day I finished reading Raymond Chandler's book.

I had selected it off the shelf in our house, which is how I get about half the books I read. My wife has a huge collection of books I've never read, so there's always something to read among possessions we already have under our own roof. 

Chandler's book presented me a unique opportunity. If I read this book, maybe I could make sense of why Hawks' movie was such a big miss for me when I saw it back in 2013 -- hey, exactly ten years ago this month, now that we're in December. Then of course I would watch the movie again, always with the blog post I'm currently writing in the back of my mind as additional motivation for the whole thing.

Grappling with my dislike of The Big Sleep has actually been a big motivator for me in the decade since I saw it. It was one of the driving factors for why I did a series on film noir in 2021 -- a series that brought me my favorite Humphrey Bogart movie of all time, Key Largo.

When I started reading the book, it felt like I was off to the races. I immediately took to Chandler's writing and his clipped yet evocative way of describing things, like he was Philip Marlowe himself, but also a gifted writer. (The book is written in first person singular, so the confluence of the writer and his character is not such a surprise.)

About 70 or 80 pages into a 217-page book, my progress stalled for a good three weeks. I was starting to succumb to the same character confusion that had plagued me during the entirety of my viewing of the movie ten years ago. I'd read only a page or two here and there, and was almost tempted to stop reading the book, except I never do that. Maybe noir really just isn't my thing. 

Then a week or two ago, I picked up the pace again and finished on a high note, getting back on track with the story and continuing to love Chandler's way of saying things. The story details became clearer and I could keep everyone straight, and I loved the way the book ended.

Loved it so much that I rented the movie again that very night.

Maybe starting it after 10 p.m. wasn't such a good idea, but I figured, I'd already seen it once, and the characters were fresh in my memory from the page. Fatigue would not be the same factor as if I were sitting through it the first time, with the same lack of bearings I had ten years ago.

I don't think the time of night was really the issue, but I didn't like the movie much better.

Here are the reasons why:

1) The impression of the film's excessive talkiness was still with me. In trying to streamline what is also considered to be a confusing book, the trio of screenwriters (who include William Faulkner) had removed some of the intervening scenes, scenes where Marlowe is alone with his thoughts and with a drink. Because much of his ruminating does, indeed, never escape his thoughts, in the movie he's left having to convey the same discoveries about the case via dialogue with another character. And since there is a lot of information to convey, there are a lot of characters he has to burden with a lot of exposition about the story, with few down scenes to breathe in between.

The next several will be changes from the book that were probably necessary to make a bleak novel more palatable to a wider movie audience. In other words, changes dictated by Hollywood. Some SPOILERS to follow. 

2) The character who is never seen but who drives much of the action is named Tom Regan in the novel, Sean Regan in the film. That alone is not noteworthy, but in the novel he is the husband of the femme fatale, Vivian Regan, whereas in the film he is just unconnected from the action except in terms of being a favorite associate of Vivian's father, General Sternwood. The more intimate connection of him being the general's son-in-law and his daughter's wayward husband works much better, especially since this character is otherwise a puzzling source of obsession threading through the whole story, even the parts that seem to have nothing to do with him. I suspect this was because they wanted to make Vivian a more traditional love interest for Marlowe and the morality of that was sketchy when she's already married, albeit it to someone who has theoretically run off with another woman. (We find out that's not what happened to Tom/Sean, but for most of the story we entertain that possibility.) She does have a failed marriage in her history but she is Vivian Rutledge, not Vivian Regan. She's played by Lauren Bacall.

3) The need to give our femme fatale a lot more screen time than she gets in the book. Vivian is certainly a central character in the novel, the (slightly) more sensible of the two Sternwood daughters, but she doesn't need to pop up in every scene. I counted at least two crucial scenes in the movie where she was present, where she wasn't in the novel, and her presence doesn't really make sense in either of them. Again this has to do with making her a more traditional love interest in the movie. I believe she and Marlowe do kiss in the book, but he views it as sort of a cheeky compensation for all the head games the Sternwoods are playing with him, not love or anything approaching it. I prefer my Marlowe in the novel's more detached mode. 

4) The ending is entirely different. The big bad has to get it in the end of the movie, where he doesn't in a novel, which can have a harsher ending and leave only hollow victories for the protagonist. As such, the Eddie Mars character (played by John Ridgely) is promoted to that role of big bad, whereas he overshadows the proceedings more than anything in the book, and is still decidedly on his feet and ready to get richer at the end. That is more of a noir ending and I vastly prefer it.

5) However, if the goal were to try to make the movie tighter and cleaner, to make sure all the characters get paid off properly, that goal is also fumbled. The novel notably revisits characters we met at the beginning, such as General Sternwood, while the movie doesn't bother with it. Neither is the younger sister, Carmen Sternwood, checked in on after about the movie's halfway point. She's a key player in the final pages of the novel but is basically just discarded in the screen version. 

The big complaint I had about this movie when I saw it -- and the complaint I understand even its fans are willing to level against it -- is that the plot doesn't make any sense. I don't have that problem anymore after reading the book. I find it all connects together well enough, but I also find that the plot does not adapt well to a movie template because it's a bit more sprawling, sort of with two distinct halves that have only a thin relationship to each other. The way they tried to finesse the screenplay to give it more sense actually makes the problem worse, though it's hard for me to see that as easily now because I did just read the book and I do freshly recognize most of the scenes.

Which I guess means I just need to trust the 2013 version of myself and the experience he had. 

I think I do like the movie more now -- more than a ranking of 3,973 out of 6,423 on Flickchart, in any case. But while I thought there was a chance I'd need to re-rank it straight away to upgrade my appreciation of it, and to make more accurate the results of duels between whatever film I'm ranking and the movie that is ranked at that spot on my chart, I now think I'll let it occur organically as it is not likely to jump more than a couple hundred spots. 

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Finishing James Bond where I began

It's hard to believe it took me 40 years to watch all the Roger Moore James Bond movies.

This was my James Bond, after all.

And after my 9:25 p.m. showing of The Spy Who Loved Me last night, I have now seen 24 James Bond movies exactly one time -- and one about ten times. (Will get to that in a moment.)

I can't recall whether I saw Moonraker (1979) or For Your Eyes Only (1981) first, but I'm inclined to say Moonraker just because that keeps the chronological order. Both would have been on cable at a friend's house.

I know the next was Octopussy, because we recorded that off cable ourselves and I continued to watch it regularly, maybe once a year, for the rest of the 1980s. If it came out in 1983 it would have been on cable in '84 or '85, which was when we had The Movie Channel and when I recorded a bunch of other seminal films released about two years earlier that I watched about as often as Octopussy.

A View to a Kill would have been the first Bond movie I saw in the theater, followed by most of the rest yet to come (with exceptions for each of the men who would play Bond, even Timothy Dalton -- I think I didn't see Licence to Kill until it was on video). And that was also the last for Roger Moore, my Bond.

In between when Pierce Brosnan left the role and Daniel Craig started it, I went back to the beginning and watched Dr. No on January 2, 2006, intending to belatedly begin my chronology forward until I'd seen all the films.

Almost 18 years later, that task is finally complete, thanks to the Sun Theatre in Yarraville.

I shouldn't really credit the Sun with helping me finish. I could have done that any old time, considering that just about every, if not every, Bond film is available for streaming on Stan. Any that aren't could be easily rented.

But the Sun's four-day Bondathon, which began Thursday afternoon with Dr. No and ends Sunday night with No Time to Die (incidentally, the only two Bond films with "No" in the title), gave me the excuse I needed to watch the final three I hadn't seen. And really, it was actually the final five, because I had to watch On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever just to get to the point in the chronology where the next film I hadn't seen (1973's Live and Let Die) would align with my first available time slot on Friday after work (5 p.m.).

I should also thank the Sun because the whole thing ended up being free.

Now, I'd fully intended to pay for these tickets. I watch a ton of movies at the Sun for free, because they accept my critics card and they are the closest theater to my house that does so (about a 15-minute drive). I thought this was my way of "giving back" -- to actually fork over money to them for once.

But when I first arrived and chatted up the ticket clerk about how the marathon had been going -- which I had planned to do from the start, in order to get more of a feel for the marathon on the whole -- I also broached the question about whether it made any sense for me to buy all three tickets I needed up front. Of course I fully intended to stay for The Man With the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me after Live and Let Die, but what if my wife called and one of my kids was sick or something? I didn't want to have already forked out an extra $40 for tickets I couldn't use. 

I could tell she was not a "company woman," as eager to roll her eyes at the whole thing as to hawk the product earnestly -- but that also meant she was looking out for me as the customer. Instead of trying to get my money up front, she said I could certainly buy them between sessions, although I had already calculated out that the window of time between the end of one movie and the beginning of the next would be very short, during which I might also need to use the toilet or buy another snack.

I had in fact decided to go ahead with all three -- if I had to leave for some reason, "giving back" to the Sun would take on a whole new meaning. But when she asked if I had any concessions, meaning something that would allow my tickets to be discounted, I did pull out my critics card, knowing that it usually means a couple bucks off even in a situation where the film would not be free, like this one.

Well, the woman said the movies weren't blocked out on her screen, meaning they were still eligible for free tickets, so she just printed three tickets and handed them to me. I actually tried to protest, double checking to be sure, but I wasn't going to argue with her about it.

Wow is the Sun awesome.

I wasn't sure how well the Bondathon might be going now seven movies into the event, but the woman assured me that "they've been here all day." I actually asked if anyone had come to all of them, but I realized she probably wouldn't have been there since 8 a.m. and so couldn't say for sure. 

But there were definitely some diehards there. While the others around me looked a bit more like geeks than aspiring international spies, there was an older man dressed in a tuxedo. Given the relative freshness of the tuxedo, he wouldn't have been there all day. 

One who had definitely been there all day was the programmer/owner of the Sun, not a man I know but he was the right age for it. I suspected this might be Bert Murphy, a name I know from these short films produced by the Sun about their community that play before features, which he directs. In any case, he was dressed a bit like the captain of the Titanic, and he was trying to make his staff wear similar hats. The woman taking my ticket as I went in -- who was the same woman who had sold me it, "sold" being used very loosely there -- removed her hat as soon as he turned his back.

The movies had gotten a little behind due to a small mishap earlier in the day, he told me while we were chatting briefly in the lobby, which is why I could see there was still about ten minutes left in Diamonds Are Forever at the expected start time of Live and Let Die. (I could easily estimate how much time was remaining from the events on screen, given that I'd just watched the movie myself for the first time the night before.) With the tight schedule they'd programmed, which included about five but no more than ten minutes between screenings, there wasn't a good opportunity to catch up once you'd gotten off track. He tried to do so by starting LALD about a minute after DAF ended, but fortunately I was there and ready for that exchange of films. Anyone who had been there longer than that was probably accustomed to the idea that they might miss a minute or two of a film if they required a longer bathroom break between them. (Any time credits rolled on one of these films, the beeline for the exit was noticeable.)

It was when he was standing in the auditorium itself -- the biggest one the Sun has, by the way -- that I got my best idea of whether anyone might have been at all the films. Before LALD started, he asked those gathered if anyone had been seen Dr. No last night, a question he proffered allegedly to see if anyone agreed how great the print looked. (I would certainly agree, all the movies looked great and it was really fun to see them on the big screen.) Informally, I suspect he was trying to do his own calculations about whether anyone else had been crazy enough to be there from the start.

I hadn't intended to get one of the passports they were giving out to people who were going to at least three movies. That was probably another thing the eyeball-rolling woman didn't care about foisting on me when I got my tickets, and since I got them for free I didn't dare ask. But in a conversation with the man I will say was Bert Murphy in the lobby, in which I told them these were the final three movies I needed to see to finish the Eon productions, he told me "Oh well you've gotta have a passport!" And quickly fetched me one.

The image you see above is what a typical page in the passport looks like. There's one for each movie and as you are going in -- or between movies if you're staying longer -- you go back and get a new page stamped. I did indeed get all three of mine stamped. Oh, here's what the cover looks like:

It may be obvious that the content of these three movies, watched in immediate succession and with the same Bond in each film, tended to bleed into one another. And since I've already used up most of my allotment of your attention span on details about the experience, I won't go on at length about each film. But I do think I should make a quick comment about each, especially since I can accompany that with a quick comment about what I ate during each.

To get that established up front, I'll tell you that I went in with two cans of Pepsi Max, a foot-long BMT from Subway, a bag of miniature Reese's peanut butter cups (even smaller than the individually wrapped ones), and a bag of gummy worms. These were all tucked away safely in my backpack. Don't worry, I did also buy some things from the Sun, as you will see. But unfortunately, going in with so much on hand meant that I didn't apportion them out the way I would have liked.

1) Live and Let Die - This was my favorite of the three, though it's impossible to say whether that's because the movie was the best or because my conditions for experiencing it were the best. It was the first so I hadn't yet started to get tired from more than six hours of James Bond movies. This is as close to a blaxploitation film as James Bond ever got, as Yaphet Kotto is the villain and the whole thing has the flavor of the occult to go with its Caribbean island setting for part of the film (in a fictitious island nation called San Monique). Jane Seymour plays a tarot card reader in one of her earliest films, and she's astonishingly good looking. There were some good set pieces here too, but I am having a little trouble remembering them. Oh yeah, there's a great speedboat chase that takes place partially on land.

What I ate: Well this was a rough start in terms of my food resources. I bought a small popcorn going in, both because I wanted to give the Sun some of my concession money and because I wanted to push the eating of my sandwich to the second movie, which more closely aligned with my normal dinner time. But then I ate the first half of the sandwich, thinking that would be it. And then I ate the second half of the sandwich. And then I ate the Reese's peanut butter cups. What are you going to do.

2) The Man With the Golden Gun - Now this was one I knew a little about because a friend's brother -- the same friend at whose house I had watched Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only -- used to talk about Scaramanga, its villain, played by Christopher Lee. As soon as I saw him shirtless I remembered that his thing was that he had an extra nipple. When my friend's brother used to talk about him I think he thought he was drawing on a mutual experience, and I'm sure the two brothers had seen this movie, but I hadn't. The other notable things about the movie are the villain's henchman, played by the erstwhile Tatoo (Herve Villechaize), and the two Bond girls, one international beauty Britt Ekland and the other Maud Adams, who was also a Bond girl (playing a different character) in Octopussy. In terms of the actual plot, I remember less about what happens in this one. Middle child syndrome I think.

What I ate: You'll notice I at least held off on my two Pepsi Maxes in the first film. I drank one of them here. I also ate the gummy worms.

3) The Spy Who Loved Me - I'd heard the named Barbara Bach and she is the Bond girl this time. By the way, all the Bond girls I've mentioned are still alive, I'm glad to see. (Bach is married to Ringo Starr.) Bach plays the titular spy, which I guess means Bond is the titular "me," though since they are both spies and since they both "love" (i.e. sleep with) the other, the perspective is not entirely clear. Here the villain is Curd Jurgens, who I was sure was the "diplomatic immunity" guy from Lethal Weapon 2, but it turns out Jurgens was already dead by then and that is actually Joss Ackland. Anyway, they look a lot alike. If it sounds like I'm not getting to the plot it's because I don't remember this one either. Oh yeah, it was about a device that can track nuclear submarines. And I almost forgot! This is the first appearance of Richard Kiel's Jaws, who would return in Moonraker.

What I ate: I came in a little late to the start of this movie -- just a minute or so -- in part because I needed a little fresh air, and in part because I wanted to buy something else at the snack bar. Was I hungry enough for another thing? Probably not. Was I concerned about needing a jolt of sugar to keep me awake for the whole movie? Yes I was, especially because a Pepsi Max does not contain any sugar. So I bought a bag of peanut M&M's, and finished it without any trouble I am somewhat ashamed to report. I also drank the second and final Pepsi Max. And failed to save them for when I really needed them, the last minutes of the last movie.

And even though I didn't have any more tickets, I did for a moment think about staying for Moonraker at 11:25. I was in a groove in some "movie marathon or die" sense if not in an actual "I can stay awake for one more movie" sense. But I came here to finish exactly the movies I hadn't seen, and staying for Moonraker would have destroyed the perfection of that mission. To say nothing of requiring me to buy yet one more food item and possibly a drink, after which I would probably throw up.

Four takeaways about the experience on the whole:

1) The most fun thing about watching these movies with a crowd was to hear everyone produce gales of laughter whenever Moore dropped a particularly silly one-liner. I think the best was when he's just finished passing himself as Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, a feat he is able to accomplish by affixing a fake third nipple to his chest -- that being the only thing most people know about the man's appearance. Upon reporting back to, I think it was, the Bond girl Ekland, he quips "I think they found me titillating." Even when you see a movie with an appreciative crowd nowadays, you don't usually hear everyone howling at lines like this one, because baked into it is the idea that it's silly and dumb and exactly what we would hope for from a James Bond movie made nearly a half-century ago. And the great thing was that this happened at least three times, maybe closer to five, in every movie.

2) The other thing that got us laughing, though, was the hick cop played by Clifton James, described on Wikipedia as "an uncouth Louisiana sheriff." I recognized James from his similar role in Superman II, a role he almost certainly received as a nod to these Bond films. He's introduced in LALD and pops up again in TMWTGG, and he is turned up to 11 in his southern hick mannerisms, to hilarious effect. It's so off tone for a Bond film but it just reminds us how much fun these movies could be when they wanted to be, especially the ones directed by Guy Hamilton. (Which include Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun.) 

3) I was curious to see to what extent Blofeld, who does not die at the end of Diamonds Are Forever, remained as a villain for Moore's version of Bond. The answer is: not at all. They weren't necessarily making a totally clean break between George Lazenby and Sean Connery in the previous two films, as Blofeld appears in both, but he doesn't show up here. That said, in The Spy Who Loved Me, when Bach's Russian spy is giving Bond a little biographical run down on himself to prove she has done her homework, she says "Married once, wife killed --" before Bond cuts her off in no uncertain terms. So after two movies of making no overt or covert reference to anything related to the ending of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, we do get one quick mention here, keeping alive some small amount of continuity between the films. (And in terms of continuity, I believe we've gotten Bernard Lee as M, Desmond Llewellyn as Q and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny in each of the five films I've watched in the past ten days.)

4) The songs! Hearing Paul McCartney and Wings sing "Live and Let Die" (and have its melody repeated throughout in orchestral form) and Carly Simon sing "Nobody Does It Better" (and have its melody repeated throughout in orchestral form) were both very nice. I didn't know the song from The Man With the Golden Gun but I can sort of remember it emerging from my six-hour James Bond blur. 

To end this long post where I started it off, it was indeed strange that it took me so long to see 3/7ths of the movies made by the guy who was the only James Bond I had ever seen on film until Timothy Dalton took on the role. 

But it occurred to me that these three movies were kind of like a Bond prequel trilogy for me, a primer on the man I'd watched so many times in Octopussy and once each in three other films. Except instead of as is the case with most prequel trilogies, I actually did want to find out where Roger Moore's James Bond had started out, how he had gotten to the place he was when I first met him -- even though these movies mostly have nothing to do with one another and generally make little of the character's past. 

And these three films in particular operated very much along the lines of prequel trilogy logic, especially as Jaws is introduced in the third one. The appearance of Jaws, the man who can tear metal (and kill people) with his bite, was the thing that gave me the greatest sense of finishing where I started off. I remember when I saw Moonraker way back in what was probably 1982, I was a bit terrified of this man, who occupies a bit of the same space in my mind as Non in Superman II (speaking of Superman II). Now I finally got to see how it all began.

This is a lot of talk for a guy who doesn't actually consider himself a huge Bond fan. Remember that Octopussy is the only Bond movie I've seen more than once. Don't worry, I'm almost done.

I do, however, want to finish this off with something that now seems obvious: a ranking of all 25 Bond films. So maybe after a breather of a few days to let the last five films settle into place, I'll wrap up this whole thing mid-week next week. 

Oh, and if you are reading this and are in the Melbourne area, my beloved Octopussy is just about to start as I publish this. While you'll be too late to jump in your car to go see Octopussy, there's still time to get in Moore's last movie (A View to a Kill) and watch all of Dalton, Brosnan and Craig.

One of our last bastions of such great customer service and such delightful programming spirit, The Sun most definitely deserves your money, even if they didn't get much of mine. 

Friday, December 1, 2023

Diamonds are for now, the rest of Bond for later

The Sun's Bondathon is in progress!

They started yesterday afternoon with Dr. No and squeezed in From Russia With Love and Goldfinger before the night was through. About 25 minutes from now as I am typing this, they will resume with Thunderball at 8 a.m. Friday and go from there.

I needn't get on board until 5 o'clock, when Roger Moore makes his Bond debut in Live and Let Die. I'll stay for The Man With the Golden Gun at 7:05 and The Spy Who Loved Me at 9:15, and then I will have seen every Eon James Bond release. (I've also seen Never Say Never Again, a non-Eon release, but have not yet seen the Casino Royale starring Woody Allen. I'll surely want to see that someday, but the canon films are the ones we're talking about here.)

I got in the position I needed to be in thanks to an 11th hour viewing last night of Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery's one-movie return to the role after George Lazenby's one movie. (Representing the only time in history where there were three different Bonds in three consecutive movies.) If I'd tried to see that as part of the marathon as well, a) I think four movies in one day might have broken me, and b) I'd have had to leave work early for a 2:40 start.

I won't go into too much detail about Diamonds Are Forever since I plan to write more Bond tomorrow, and since I need to get ready for work. But I did want to get in a few quick comments:

1) When I discussed the dour ending of On Her Majesty's Secret Service last week, I wondered where they would pick up the next movie after the (SPOILER ALERT) death of Bond's wife in literally the last minute of the film. The options seemed to be to completely ignore it and start fresh with a "new" James Bond (a.k.a. the return of the old James Bond) or to follow on directly from that incident and make the next movie all about revenge.

At the very start it seemed they were doing the latter. In the cold open of Diamonds, Bond is roughing up various low-level criminals to ascertain the location of Blofeld, whose drive by shooting was responsible for the death of his new bride. In short order -- in terms of screen time if not geographical locations -- Bond locates and seems to almost immediately dispatch this arch nemesis, though more with his usual whimsical dismissiveness than with a murderous instinct driven by fury. It would appear that the whole Blofeld character is done and dusted by the opening credits, making a clean break to let Connery get back into his familiar tuxedo and not be encumbered by the story of a different Bond.

Then (SPOILER ALERT) Blofeld returns later in the narrative, meaning the clean break was maybe never what they intended. However, until that point, the narrative had nothing to do with him and Bond just seemed to be on to a brand new adventure involving a fortune in diamonds and a satellite that can shoot laser beams at the earth.

Throughout Blofeld's involvement in the film, though, no mention is made of Bond's dead wife or any specific beef Bond has against Blofeld other than him being his arch nemesis. And he's grinning out of the side of his mouth, making wisecracks and bedding new women with the same non-monogamous lust he's always had. So ultimately, more of a clean break than a direct continuation of the events in the life of Lazenby's character.

2) They in fact don't make any cheeky references to Connery returning to the role, the way they make a cheeky reference at the start of OHMSS about Lazenby starting to inhabit it. Perhaps that would be saved for the non-Eon Never Say Never Again. What's more, there's no sign of Connery returning to the role with a gun to his head or with his tail between his legs. He's just his normal James Bond out there, and damn good at it.

3) This movie has a pair of gay assassins! The movie does not make a lot out of their sexuality, but when they dispatch their first victim, they walk off holding hands. I actually had to go back because I saw it only out of the corner of my eye and wanted to confirm what I had just seen. There's only one more overt mention, when one tells the other that a particular woman is "attractive ... for a woman." I can't figure out exactly what is being said through these characters and whether I should be offended on their behalf 50 years later, but the performances are particularly fun and not because they are played in a campy way -- they are not at all. They're just sinister and good at dropping one-liners in the manner of all the best villains. 

4) The whole movie is similarly fun. In fact, this might immediately become as high as my second-rated Connery film behind Goldfinger. I'd have to think about it because I was indeed a fan of From Russia With Love. But this movie is sprightly and goofy in all the right ways, with good set pieces and approaching a modern level of secret contraptions and the like. A really swell time at the movies. 

I think there was one more thing I wanted to say but work calls. Especially since I will need to duck out about 15 minutes early in order to keep my date with Roger Moore. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Gun jumping

I go into the office on Wednesday every week, Thursday most weeks. Because Cinema Kino is downstairs from my office, I always take a gander at the marquee on Wednesdays, as another way of keeping up on release dates when some of the methods I once used have fallen by the wayside.

The thing about Wednesdays, though, is that it's the day before new movies get released, meaning everything I see on there should be at least six days old.

It's a bit confounding, then, that the marquee changers are already showing tomorrow's new offerings. 

And I'm not talking about late at night when they are legitimately preparing for tomorrow. I'm talking about first thing Wednesday morning. 

This week the phenomenon became egregious enough for me to write about it.

On the marquee you see above, there are no less than three titles that aren't actually coming out until tomorrow (or today, by the time I post this). 

I thought it was four, but then I checked and Saltburn is already playing.

The Old Oak, Uproar and Bottoms are not.

I just think it must be frustrating if you are a potential drive by customer on a Wednesday and you say "Oh, I've heard great things about Bottoms! Think I'll go grab myself a spontaneous viewing."

Only to find out that you are 24 hours early.

I get trying to hype the new product. But isn't this false advertising? Is it too much to ask that the movies that appear on your marquee are actually playing?

To say nothing of the disservice it does to currently playing movies whose heat has cooled enough for them to get dropped from the marquee. I guess Kino is discouraged enough about the viewership of Cat Person that they don't care much about trying to get one last drive by viewing. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A good time of the year for context viewings

I sometimes wonder why I bother to maintain my movie list where I keep track of the movies I've seen on a particular calendar date. Instead of explaining that further, let me just show you an example of what I'm talking about:

November 28 = 18

In Love and War (2005), Keane (2007), The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2008), Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009), Jonah Hex (2010), Mother (2009) (2010), Death Race 2000 (2011), CQ (2011), Bronson (2013), Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015), Say Something (2015), The Overnight (2015), Home (2015), I Was Born, But … (2016), The Children Act (2018), Palm Springs (2020), The Water Diviner (2022), The Old Oak (2023)

"Obsessiveness" is the only reason I usually need, but yesterday I got another reminder of its practical usage -- practical, at least, in terms of identifying coincidences.

(Oh, and as a key for deciphering the example above -- the bolded title is the best movie I've seen on that particular date, which in this case is Bong Joon Ho's Mother. And yes, I don't remember the circumstances, but I did apparently see four movies on November 28, 2015.)

Last night I watched The Old Oak, which has been billed as the final film from Ken Loach. That's not because he's dead and they aren't sure if there's a hidden movie out there that may still emerge to complete his filmography. It's because in a rare move for a director, Loach is willingly retiring at age 87. Usually, directors either stop making movies because they die, or because people stop selecting them as a viable option to tell stories people care about. 

In order to give myself some additional context about his career before writing my review -- since I had, improbably, seen only a single other Ken Loach film (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) -- on Monday I watched his 2016 Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake. I was probably overdue for a viewing of this anyway, since I remember being annoyed, at least retroactively, that this movie prevented Toni Erdmann from presumably winning the Palme d'Or. (And again Toni Erdmann rears its head organically on my blog.) Because I hadn't yet seen Toni Erdmann at the time I heard the Palme d'Or winner announced, had only absorbed some of hype about it, I was a lot more annoyed at Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, which nabbed the Oscar I thought Erdmann deserved.

Anyway, doing this sort of context viewing for a review is rare. Given all the other viewing priorities I have, watching one movie in order to write one review is hard enough, let alone investing nearly four hours of movies for that one review. 

In fact, I think the last time I did it was almost on this very same date last year, in order to review a movie far less potentially important than The Old Oak.

You'll notice on the list above that on November 28, 2022, I watched Russell Crowe's The Water Diviner

Why did I do that at a time of the year when I should be ramping up for my big end-of-year blowout by watching only current year movies?

Well, because I was reviewing his new directorial effort Poker Face, and I thought I would benefit from some prior knowledge of Crowe as a director -- maybe especially on an Australian review site. 

As it turned out, and as I could have probably guessed at the time, Poker Face was an instant cinematic footnote, perhaps especially because it was immediately overshadowed by Rian Johnson's television show of the same name starring Natasha Lyonne, which was debuting right around the same time. I didn't hate it but it was also a weirdly paced movie, with lots of build-up and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it climax. 

I did actually quite like The Water Diviner, so if I had been watching it the hopes of it providing fuel for snark in my Poker Face review, I was destined for disappointment.

With The Old Oak and I, Daniel Blake, I am more a fan of the newer film in this case. Perhaps carrying in a little of my retroactive Toni Erdmann bias, I found Blake a bit on-the-nose and didactic in its anti-bureaucracy agenda, which made caricatures of many of the government workers. I was overall favorable towards it. 

And it did provide some helpful context for my review The Old Oak, which I plan to write later today, and which brings a similar progressive/labor-positive agenda in examining a Northern England town dealing with an influx of Syrian refugees in ways both productive and not so productive. In fact, by the time you read this, the review may already be linked over to the right.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Campion Champion & Bigelow Pro: In the Cut

This is the final installment of my 2023 bi-monthly series Campion Champion & Bigelow Pro, in which I watched the remaining three films each I had not seen that were directed by Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow.

To paraphrase former football coach Dennis Green, "It was what we thought it was."

Because Jane Campion is the only woman ever to receive two Oscar nominations for best director, winning one of them, there's been an inclination to reappraise her 2003 thriller In the Cut. At the very least, the hosts spoke about it with some favorability when they looked back on it on Filmspotting. It's tempting to give an artist who has made some indisputably great films a little leeway when looking at her misfires. Dare I say this tendency might be even greater when it's a woman, of whom there are relatively few to celebrate at this level in this industry.

But everyone is capable of making a stinker, even Jane Campion.

I should say the rating I am giving my final Campion feature on Letterboxd is two stars. That might clear it from "stinker" territory. So either this film does have some saving graces, or I am not immune to the notion of boosting my appraisal of the films of someone like Campion.

It's just that when it came out in 2003, it seemed like yet another one of those erotic detective thrillers that had their heyday in the 1990s before slowly starting to peter out in the 2000s, and that's pretty much exactly what it is.

In fact, if I were looking for something to differentiate this from others of its ilk -- some little twinkling idea that Campion brought to the project that a lesser director couldn't have -- I can't really find it.

If you're hoping for a strong character from Meg Ryan, representing an undercurrent of feminism in the film, you'll be disappointed. Even someone with Campion's smart sensibilities is unable to prevent this from being a character who has things happen to her, not who drives the action. She spends a fair bit of time crying pathetically as men toss her around like a rag doll. This was standard practice for a woman in a thriller in 2003, but it has not aged well, and it would have seemed like Campion could have done better by her lead character, even back then.

Then there's the men. Each is reprehensible in his own way, which is okay depending on how it's handled -- perhaps this is the feminism of Campion peeking through. But even though their behavior reads to us as vile, within the film itself it is not sufficiently repudiated, leaving an unsavory taste. Particularly unsavory, at least by today's standards, is the monstrous behavior of a young Black man who is one of Ryan's students, one of the red herrings about who might be the killer. There's a scene where it is implied he would have raped her had there not been a deus ex machina sort of intervention.

Mark Ruffalo is good, as he always is, but I loathed his character and his retrograde opinions about women, even some possible racism. (He says the way to flirt with a Black chick is that you stare back at her.) Clearly Campion is not trying to present us a knight in shining armor, but even within his own character there are inconsistencies. For example, he violates protocol by asking Ryan's character out even though he's just interviewed her as a potential witness to a murder. Perhaps it's not the same as asking out a suspect, but it's sketchy anyway. Then later in the movie there's a line where he says "I was doing perfectly fine before I met you," as though she were the instigator of their relationship and to blame for messing with his head. Then he's got a sexually aggressive quality throughout that is especially hard to stomach today.

In the Cut is one of those movies that uses the psychosexual dynamics of its lead characters as a driver for the parts of the story that are supposed to interest us most, and that's the problem with every erotic thriller -- maybe the reason why it essentially died out as a viable genre. Maybe there was a time we did feel like the animal magnetism between two characters and the various ways they tear each other's clothes off was enough to hold our interest. That time has now passed.

Really, I doubt my impression of In the Cut would have been any different 20 years ago -- no better, no worse. I don't think any one of those erotic thrillers became a special favorite of mine, though if I drilled down into my Flickchart account I'd probably start to find the exceptions. Watching this movie, I kept trying to find the Campionisms, the bits of filmmaking prowess that elevated this material. Outside of a few shots -- there's one involving water on an out-of-focus light that I found quite distinctive -- this felt like it could have been the work of any old hack. 

It's also one of those movies that reminds me of something that's probably obvious, which is that 20 years ago is now a long time ago and films looked a lot different back then. There's a lot of super saturation of color and unfocusing of backgrounds that probably registered as visually dynamic back then, but today just ages the film. I don't suppose any film can really escape the era in which it was made, but some are more indebted to it than others. The great films become ageless, while the lesser ones become part of the wallpaper that defined a particular time period.

Well I wish I could say the end result of this series were more positive. It turns out I'd made smart choices in which Campion and Bigelow films I'd seen and which I'd left to catch up with at some future unspecified date.

There's some positive news in that I loved Bigelow's Near Dark, the vampire movie she made in 1987. (Which almost certainly looks like a film made in 1987, though at least that's a look we aspire to nowadays.) However, I was significantly negative on the other two films I watched, The Loveless and Blue Steel, with Blue Steel actually having a huge amount in common with In the Cut. If I were ranking these six films, Bigelow's would be at either end of the spectrum, occupying spots 1, 5 and 6.

It's hard even to say which Campion film I liked best, though I guess it would have to be An Angel at My Table from 1990. The way the film is tied into her New Zealand roots -- almost to the same extent as her debut, Sweetie, which I really like -- gives it a certifiable edge over Holy Smoke, which shares too much in common with In the Cut in terms of the aforementioned psychosexual dynamics. So I suppose, that does make In the Cut a logical part of her oeuvre, even if it's too generic in all other respects. 

Having now done this in three straight years with Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese and these two women, I plan to give the "complete a filmography" format a rest in 2024, at least for one year. But that doesn't mean I won't have a bi-monthly series, maybe just the one, as opposed to the three I've been working through in 2023. I'll tell you all about that in January. 

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Bond is on

Not long after I wrote this post, in which I aired hopes of trying to finish off the Bond movies I hadn't seen at the Sun Theatre's four-day Bondathon, I realized that the three movies I would need to see -- the first three starring Roger Moore -- play on the same day of the week that I coach my son's basketball games.

Basically giving up hope, I still said "Well, maybe we'll have a bye that day."

Because we'd already had one bye this year and it was only four weeks ago, I considered the likelihood of that pretty low.

And then, it came to pass. I just found out a few days ago, since they only set the schedule about two games in advance.

So now instead of coaching his basketball game next Friday, December 1st, I will be seeing Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me -- conveniently starting at 5 p.m., after I've already finished work for the day.

The next movie in the sequence would be Moonraker, the first Bond movie I ever saw, so that would be a wrap on all 25 Eon movies.

I watched them chronologically, but in two separate chronologies. Until I saw Dr. No in 2006, I'd seen every Bond movie from Moonraker onward in the order it was released. I then also worked my way forward from Dr. No -- with seven-year breaks between Dr. No and From Russia With Love, and between Goldfinger and Thunderball -- while continuing to intersperse the new releases as they came out. (Actually, there was one other chronological break, as I didn't see the 2008 movie Quantum of Solace until 2015.)

Now, as soon as I realized my availability for this small part of the Bondathon, I also realized I had some work to do. In order to remain chronological but watch only those three Moore movies that did not conflict with my work schedule, I had to watch the only George Lazenby movie, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and the last Eon Sean Connery movie, 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. Fortunately, all the Bond movies are streaming on the Australian service Stan, to which I am a subscriber.

On Thursday night I got to work.

While I don't think I'll ever be able to remember the difference between certain Bond movies -- I could only guess at which events happened in Thunderball and which happened in You Only Live Twice -- On Her Majesty's Secret Service has a number of things to distinguish it.

For one, it's the only Bond movie starring Australian George Lazenby, who is still alive at age 84. In fact, he's only five days older than my dad, who is also still alive.

Then there was an event that I knew happened in this movie, I just didn't know when. So now it's time for me to issue a SPOILER ALERT for this 54-year-old movie.

Have you averted your eyes?

I had always known that OHMSS was the movie where James Bond gets married ... and also where his wife is killed on their wedding day.

I didn't have any idea how this actually played out, dramatically. But I had assumed it was an inciting incident sort of thing. We meet Bond's fiancee at the start of the film and get to know her for about 15 minutes, enough to feel a little more than surface-level sorrow when a bullet takes her out in her bridal dress. The rest of the movie, vengeance for Bond.

In fact, the event happens so late in the narrative that I thought I'd gotten it wrong that it even happened in this movie.

During a climactic fight on bobsleds between Lazenby and Telly Savalas -- Savalas took over the role of Ernst Stavro Blofeld from Donald Pleasance -- I thought there was no way for Lazenby and Diana Rigg to still end up at the altar in this movie. Not only is there an inherent comedic aspect to having a fight on bobsleds, but the Bond one-liners had been particularly groan-worthy. When Savalas finally exits the fight, it's by getting caught on a branch. "He's branched off," Lazenby quips, to no one in particular.

It was really hard to imagine transitioning from this silliness to Rigg's Tracy dying, but in the last five minutes of the movie, that's what happens.

After they've left the ceremony, Bond pulls the car over on a coastal road to remove some of the flowers from the outside of their car. They've been waxing poetic about how they now have "all the time in the world." Anyone who's ever seen a movie about a detective on his last case before retirement knows this is the kiss of death.

Indeed, Blofeld and his henchman drive by for a drive-by. Bond is missed but Tracy isn't so lucky.

The way Lazenby plays his last moments on screen as Bond really surprised me. You'd expect bottomless rage over the death of his new bride. Instead, he cradles her head in his lap and tells a passerby, who I guess doesn't know what's going on, "She's just having a little rest," weeping in a barely noticeable manner.

Roll credits.

Bold way to end a film. We get invested in Tracy for an entire film, rather than 15 minutes, and it remains to be seen what kind of revenge Bond will seek for her death.

And I have to wonder if how they do ultimately handle this was dictated the fact that Lazenby didn't return as Bond, which was his own choice.

Historically, to the extent that the character has any memory of the events in his own life at all, that memory has been limited to the time that a particular actor was playing James Bond. In fact, at the start of this film, there is a cheeky reference to this never happening to "the other guy." This was, after all, the first time James Bond had been played by anybody other than Connery.

With Connery resuming the role for one more movie in Diamonds Are Forever, I have to suspect the murder of his wife will not be the most recent event in the life of his James Bond. In fact, they might pretend if never happened at all, since referencing it might remind everyone that Connery's was taking up somebody else's sloppy seconds. Connery's ego wouldn't have that. They could possibly saddle Moore with the memory of these events in his first outing, but I guess I'll find out next Friday. 

As for Lazenby, it's a shame he didn't want to continue as I do think he did the role proud. He was only 30 when the movie came out so he could have had a standard number of Bond outings and not even approached middle age. But, he just wasn't interested, and you have to respect him for that.

A couple other takeaways:

1) This was the most interesting editing I had ever seen in a Bond movie. It was the first Bond movie for editor John Glen, who is better known to Bond fans as the director of five straight Bond movies, those being Moore's last three and Timothy Dalton's only two. He was also editor of the two Moore movies before the first he directed, so I'll have to note if there is similar editing in The Spy Who Loved Me. The fight scenes are fast paced and exciting because each shot lasts a half-second less than you would expect for it to look clean. The jagged results at first seem like they could be poor or dated technique, but I'm ultimately landing in the camp that it was an intentional way of underscoring their rough physicality. 

2) Before he finally picks up a machine gun at the end of the movie, the only other time Bond wields a gun is when he shoots the eye in the standard Bond opening. For the first 80 percent of this movie Lazenby engages in fisticuffs and knife-throwing only. I feel like I remember reading somewhere that this was something Lazenby wanted. 

3) This was the only time I'd seen Rigg in a movie at this age, becoming familiar with her through her role on Game of Thrones and remembering that her final role was in a film I did not like, Last Night in Soho. She was a looker.

Okay, will tick Diamonds Are Forever off the list one of the nights in the next week, preparing me for the Bondathon ... or, about 1/8th of the Bondathon, in any case.