Friday, May 25, 2012


In 1951 a man was about to be married. Like many people he had cold feet. He trudged up and down the beach trying to work up the nerve to go through with it. To this effect, he created an alter-ego, and went on to write a book about him. The man’s name was Ian Fleming and the alter ego was James Bond. The books became successful, particularly after John F. Kennedy named them as  favorites. The first book Casino Royale was made into a relatively forgettable TV production, but eventually a proper film emerged from producing partners Harry Saltzman and Albert (Cubby) Broccoli. Based on the sixth novel in the series Doctor No. While the film was not without precedent (the films of Alfred Hitchcok, particularly North By Northwest had an enormous influence on the Bond films), it’s success spawned the longest running franchise in film history, and helped solidify the formula of the modern action movie. In anticipation of the latest film in the series Skyfall, g-blatt’s dreams will be reviewing all 23 official Bond films (one per week) as well as some "unofficial" entries. Also, where relevant, I will be comparing them to the books in order to gain a more definitive take on the films.

As a film Dr. No is a mediocre thriller. MI6’s man in Jamaica is assassinated along with his secretary before a check in. With lines of communication broken, MI6 head, known only as M (Bernard Lee), sends James Bond (Sean Connery) to investigate. Bond is not an ordinary agent, he is designated 007. 00’s are special agents with the license to kill when they please, whom they please, where they please. When he gets to Jamaica there is an immediate attempt on his life, which he foils with the smooth, yet ruthless aplomb that will become the characters trademark. Along the way, he meets CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), and his assistant, a local fisherman named Quarrel (John Kitzmiller). Looming over the proceedings are rumors about strange happenings on a nearby island called Crab Key and its owner Dr. Julius No. (Joseph Wiseman). After way too many attempts on Bond’s life, including a ridiculous incident where someone attempts to poison Bond with a tarantula (they’re poisonous, but by no means deadly), he eventually figures out that the guy who owns a mysterious island with radioactive rocks is the villain (HUGE SHOCK!). On the island, Bond meets a sexy shell diver with the improbable name of Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). Together they make their way to No’s island base, where the doctor reveals himself to be an agent of a terrorist group known as SPECTRE out to disrupt the American Space Program. SPECTRE is one of the more pulpy acronyms in fiction. It stands for (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion).

Whatever shortcomings the plot has, it’s a great character introduction. Bond was a new kind of hero for a new age, reflecting the changing morays of the time. The film was one of a line of more explicit films that started to appear in the waning days of the Hayes Code. Bond doesn’t just have premarital sex, he has premarital sex with 3 different women. There is an implied rape and some actual blood is shown, all of this would have been unthinkable in a mainstream film a few years before.

Also, there the depiction of Bond as an anti-hero. At one point in the film a man enters his room at night and shoots at his bed until the gun is empty. Bond then reveals that he was not in the bed, but hiding in the corner. He coldly remarks that the assassin has a nice gun, but he’s had his 6 shots and then shoots him dead. In 1962 it was unusual and shocking for the hero of a movie to shoot an unarmed man in cold blood. Bond isn’t the first movie anti-hero, but he’s one of the best, and his appearance marks an escalation of how far their non-heroic qualities can go.

There are other results of the film being made in 1962 that are not as admirable. Being 50 years old, the film is not at its best when depicting women and non-whites. As this is a male fantasy, the women of the film all desire Bond, obviously. But they are all either feral, animistic creatures or somehow sinister.  More problematic are the Jamaican characters, who are depicted as a superstitious lot, impervious to physical pain. There is a sequence near the end where we are expected to believe that Honey and Quarrel mistook a painted tank for a dragon.

Pictured: Obviously not a dragon, but it would make a bitchin' Mad Max car.
These are people who would know better. Honey has lived all over the world. Quarrel is an experienced boat captain who works closely with the CIA. Surly they know what a tank looks like and can tell the difference between tire treads and footprints? It’s not the low-point of intolerance in 60’s cinema (or even of the Bond series) but it’s not good. At best it’s a badly executed idea, at worst it’s casual racism and sexism. Also, as good and menacing as Joe Wiseman is as Dr. No, he doesn't have the character's Chinese origin and plays the part in "yellow-face."

Being the first film in the series, not all of the formula elements are set yet. Bond will eventually become a genre unto itself, but for now it's still evolving. Dr. No has no gadgets, no prologue and no Bond Song (unless you count Under the Mango Tree, a "local" tune that recurs through the film to give "flavor"). It does have the famous James Bond Theme by Monty Norman. Also the film features sets by Ken Adam, who's incredible work on the series will make him a legend and the only production designer most people can name. The futuristic sets, particularly Dr. No's lair, really help make the film look classier than it is. Other tropes Dr. No introduces include the, "shaken not stirred," the flirtation with Moneypenney (Lois Maxwell), Bond girls, and the Mad Scientist who should really kill Bond instead of explaining his plan and making it easy for him to escape. Also, Bond's propensity for making jokes after people die. For now it's an amusing statement of Bond's blaze toughness, but eventually will start to devolve into a series of groan-inducing puns in later films.

Unlike later films, Dr. No is actually a fair adaptation of the novel. The movie has more chases, and more women for Bond to seduce but follows the arc well. The soviet agency behind the novel’s proceedings, SMERSH, was a real organization (although how faithfully it was portrayed is debatable) and the substitution of Russian villains for the politically neutral SPECTRE was an attempt by the producers to not add to tensions with the USSR.

Another of the major changes has to do with continuity. The previous book, From Russia With Love (which would be adapted next), ended with (spoiler alert) Bond’s apparent death (end spoilers). As a result, Fleming’s novel takes time to concern itself with Bond’s recovery, and subsequently his physical and mental health. An MI6 physician wonders if Bond can mentally handle another tough assignment. This is a major difference in the way Fleming depicts Bond and the way the film does. In the novel’s (or at least, these middle entries) is that Bond, in addition to being the things we expect him to be, is allowed to have doubts, to be flappable, vulnerable and human, which has the strange effect of making him more of a badass. The cinematic Bond was supposedly based, at least partially, on the personality of the films director, Terrence Young (particularly his dress sense and physicality). But also closely resembles the cool, confident persona of Cary Grant.

Bond, Terrence Cary Bond
In fact, producer Cubby Broccoli, a friend of Grant, asked him to play Bond. Grant agreed, but insisted it would only be for one film. As amazing as a Cary Grant James Bond would have been, it was for the best. Even if Grant could be persuaded to do more films, he was nearing 60 at the time and was a little old to be doing Judo flips.

Dr. No the film, is not the best of the Bond films, but it's not a bad one by any means. What it lacks in strong plotting and political correctness, it makes up for in style. It's full of iconic moments and characters and serves as a good introduction to the series.

Grade: B

Bondathon entries:
Dr. No
From Russia With Love
Thunderball / Never Say Never Again
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Diamonds are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun 
The Spy Who Loved Me
For Your Eyes Only
A View To A Kill 
The Living Daylights  
Licence to Kill 
Tomorrow Never Dies 
The World Is Not Enough  
Die Another Day 
Casino Royale 
Quantum of Solace


Saturday, May 19, 2012


Those of whom who say that Hollywood doesn't do anything edgy need only look at Sacha Baron Cohan. Since 2006's Borat, Baron Cohen has been a staple of biting, gross out political satire. He uses extreme characterizations to expose and deconstruct the way bigot's view minority groups (immigrants, the LGBT community, etc.). Even though his characters often predate the movies in questions, he has a great sense of timing, which continues unabated. This time his target are the North African/Mid-East dictatorships that have been challenged by the Arab Spring revolts in the last year.

Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, dictator of the fictional North African country Wadiya. Aladeen lives his life as decadently as he can. He can buy anything from gold plated cars to a night with Megan Fox (but she refuses to cuddle). He competes in his own private Olympic games and shoots anyone who might beat him. The most amusing abuse of his power is that he changes all of the words for positive and negative to his own name. A doctor asks a patient: "Do you want the Aladeen news, or the Aladeen news?"

Eventually, Aladeen goes to New York to address the United Nations but is betrayed by his primer Tahir (Ben Kingsley) and his American bodyguard (John C. Reilley). Aladeen manages to escape torture and death but looses his beard. Roaming the streets, unrecognized by everyone, he meets Zoey (Anna Faris) who owns an ultra leftist, health food store. He is also helped out by a nuclear scientist (Jason Mantzoukas) that Aladeen thought he had executed.

it's a very different kind of film than Baron Cohen's other satires. Gone is the psudo-documentary, performance art style of Borat and Brüno. Some have suggested that Baron Cohen has gotten too famous to go unrecognized anymore, but more likely the approach didn't make sense for the character. Regardless, he and director Larry Charles have gone the other way and made something more recognizable as a traditional film with a strong narrative full of recognizable actors. As a result, the film doesn't resemble Punk'd as much as it does Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator or The Marx Brother's Duck Soup. The comic tone is all over the place, sometimes pointedly political, often obscene, sometimes sweet and often just bizarre. It's an anarchic stew from Baron Cohen, and I can't wait to see what else he can do with this approach. All hail Aladeen!

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


In films like Edward Scissorhands and Batman Tim Burton showed a marvelously quirky style that set him apart from Hollywood norms. Even his lesser films like Mars Attacks bare his indelible mark. But in the 00's, it became clear that there was another Burton, a more commercial Burton, who made films like Planet of the Apes (2001), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the practically unwatchable, yet somehow immensely profitable Alice In Wonderland. That is not to say that the last decade has been a wash for Burton. Corpse Bride is well liked, Big Fish is among his best and Sweeney Todd might be his best. That said it cannot be denied that Burton's output has been uneven of late, and it is his more "commercial" projects that are the culprits.

All that said. I am convinced that Burton the auteur made Dark Shadows, the new adaptation of the cult soap opera of the same name. However, he has neglected to make a good film. The film starts off strongly. Back in 1760 the Collins family moves from Liverpool to "the wilds of Maine" and make their fortune in fishing. The young Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) falls for Josette (Bella Heathcote), but in doing so he spurns the affections of a sexy housemaid Angelique (Eva Green), who is also a witch (TWIST!). Angelique uses black magic to kill Josette and turn Barnabas into a vampire and imprison him in a coffin.

Flash forward to 1972. We meet Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote), who is joining the staff of the now run-down Collinwood Manor. Specifically, she is to care for the youngest Collins (Gulliver McGrath) who sees the ghost of his mother. The Ghost looks an awful lot like Josette, but then again, so does Victoria. This could have been the start of a nice, moody, Shining-esque adventure. (Victoria's Approach to Collinwood by train even mirrors the Torrence families arrival by car in The Shining). I would like to have seen that movie. But then Barnabas escapes from that coffin.

Barnabas has now been out of the world for 200 years. Like Rip Van Winkle, he learns that the world has changed quite a bit. A lot of jokes are mined from this. A. Lot. Of. Jokes. Some are good, like a visual gag involving a McDonald's sign. Then there is a groan inducing quotation from Love Story. It is interesting that the new age Barnabas finds himself in is now forty years old. This was probably done so that Burton could include the lava lamp and hippie jokes that where the bread and butter of the T.V. show (I've just been informed that they where not). There is also a great deal of business with Agellique (now the head of a rival fishery) who's trying to win Barnabas's affections away from Victoria. This leads to the worst scene in the film where the two fight/make love while Barry White plays in the background. It is a bad scene in conception and execution, it is a prime example of a jump-the-shark moment in a film and of a director off his game.

As for Johnny Depp... I'm beginning to wonder if Depp is still able to give a good performance without crazy make-up and a wig. This is his eighth collaboration with Burton, and the paring doesn't excite the way it used to. They don't seem to disturb each others molecules anymore. Still, Depp is good enough, his deadpan ignorance gets more laughs than the material deserves but still gets old fast. Burton seems to sense that the material is running thin and starts up the love story again. But by that point, Victoria's story has been so neglected that I had forgotten the character was in the film at all. It is a bad sign when an audience forgets the existence of one of the legs in a love triangle. By the time of the climactic house fire, I had long since checked out.

Even worse are the frightfully dull Collins family. Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns) plays Elizabeth Collins who has no real traits whatsoever. Johnny Lee Miller (Trainspotting), plays a thieving father (a little better), and Chloe¨ Grace Moretz (Hugo, Kick-Ass) plays Carolyn, a teenager who's acting out (imagine that!). Helena Botham Carter's character has the most to do. She's a shrink who thinks she can cure Barnabas of vamperism with blood transfusions. It comes to nothing and the whole subplot seems to be there to mark time and nothing more.

It's still a very Burton film, the art direction isn't as loopy as before, but is still recognizably his. The foggy cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) is frequently striking and moody. No one but Burton could have made the film, I just wish that he had made something else.

Grade: C

Monday, May 7, 2012


Marvel studio's epic 4-year plan to create a superhero team-up movie has finally come to fruition with this weeks release of The Avengers. It has been a grand experiment in corporate synergy that seems to have paid off financially. The film made $200 million domestically this weekend and if it's global numbers are any indication, the film will pass the $1 billion mark sometime in the next two weeks. But financial and artistic success are two different things. Those who have been following along with this series will know that Marvel often avoids distinctive directors and are willing to sacrifice good story elements if it means making a more lucrative product that wets appetites for the next installment. Even Iron Man, the best of these films, is flawed, and none of them have particularly good action sequences. The mantra from Marvel seems to have been "good enough!" Does Avengers break this mold?

Early in the film Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the evil brother of Thor (Cris Hemsworth), steals the Tesseract, A.K.A. the Cosmic Cube, a powerful weapon/energy source that fans will remember from Thor and Captain America. Loki want's to use the power of the cube to enslave mankind. Such planetary threats fall to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) head of S.H.I.E.L.D..  If Fury can find Loki and the Cube in time, he might be able to save the planet. He decides that this looks like a job for... everyone.

The team he assembles is made up of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Joining them are power challenged heroes Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the always welcome Agent Colson (Clark Gregg).  Right away the team is at odds with each other and they bicker with each other in the language of beloved writer/director Joss Whedon.

Hiring Joss Whedon to write and direct The Avengers might be the smartest decision Marvel has ever made in making these films. It's not just because Whedon has written actual comic books, but because Whedon understands how to navigate an ensemble peace (see Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse, seemingly everything he's ever done). A film with four protagonists could have easily become muddled, or it could have become Iron Man and Some Other Guys but Whedon knows how to strike a balance. Everyone has a chance to shine and everyone has something to do. It's a testament to the film that many of these heroes, despite their diminished screentime, have more going on here then in the previous films that where dedicated to them. Captain America is a man out of his time, struggling to adjust to life in the 21st century, and Thor has to deal with his brother's betrayal in a much deeper way than before and is dangerously close to being an interesting character. Even a minor character like Black Widow, who was mere window dressing in Iron Man 2, is transformed into a compelling character by Whedon's script.

The best surprise of the film is the portrayal of Bruce Banner/Hulk. The character was played by Eric Banna in Ang Lee's misunderstood Hulk, and Edward Norton in the Avengers setup film The Incredible Hulk. Norton did not reprise his role for whatever reason and was replaced by Ruffalo (proving that Hulks other power is face changing). Unlike the other actors, Ruffalo doesn't play Banner as a gloomy, tortured man but instead creates a more interesting portrait of a man at peace with the monster inside him. Like a recovered addict, he knows his triggers and is tolerant of other people's skepticism about his control. Hulk as a special effect is also impressive. Until now they've never gotten the look right. Ang Lee's version was technically good but was colored a bright, neon green that distracted from the suspension of disbelief, and the later reboot, got the color right, but everything else looked so terribly wrong. After nearly 10 years of trying, The Hulk finally looks like The Hulk should look. 

Whedon's action beats are similarly impressive. It's clear that Whedon understands how to stage and shoot an action scene. There is a masterful and complex sequence on a flying aircraft carrier that really demonstrates the teamwork heroics that the Avengers are going to have to execute if they are gong to save the world. The climactic invasion of New York might remind some viewers of the Chicago siege in the most recent Transformers film, those viewers should also note that Whedon's version is infinitely better done and more interesting. Whedon's deft handling of character, action and humor also give the film something none of Marvel's films have had, a creative stamp. Avengers may not be the most Whedonesque project, but the man's thumbprint is thoroughly visible. It would have been enough if Avengers was just an well made, candy-coated summer blockbuster, but the fact that it also has personality and whit is a huge bonus.

Grade: A-

Note: There are not one, but TWO scenes after the credits. The latter scene is one of the best jokes in the film so be sure to wait.

Previous installments in this series:
Iron Man
The Hulk and The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Captian America

Blog Note: Thanks to everyone who made my Avengers Recap series so successful, you have obliterated all of my readership records. As a result I will be stepping up my game here at G-blatt's Dreams. There will be more reviews throughout the month and on May 25, I will start reviewing all of the James Bond films (1 per week). There will also be a recap of Nolan's Batman films in July AND sometime this summer I will be writing a special, top-secret series in conjunction with our sister site The Film Temple.