Wednesday, August 29, 2012


In the late 20's and early 30's the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia where so rife with bootleggers that at night the fires from the stills lit up the mountains like fireflies. This is the setting for John Hillcoat's new film Lawless. It centers on the area’s most infamous moonshiners, the three Bondurant brothers.

The leader is Forrest (Tom Hardy), a hulking man who, in Goodfallas parlance, doesn't have to move for anybody. Jason Clarke plays Howard, the muscle of the group. When Forrest says "sick 'em," Howard sicks 'em. Sometimes he does it when he hasn't been told. I guess stump whiskey does that to a man. The youngest is the put upon lookout, Jack (Shia LeBeouf). Over the years, a legend has grown up around the three boys, particularly Forrest, that they are invincible.

Of course, the problem with being invincible is that people are going to want to test that. In comes a special deputy named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pierce). Rakes is an odd man with his shaved eyebrows and a 3 inch gap in his hair part. His goal isn’t to stop the bootleggers but rather to extort a toll from them. The Bondurant’s refuse and face an all out war with Rakes and his small army of cops and hired thugs.

This all plays out predictably right down to the “look how well we’re doing” montage of the Brothers solidifying their rural empire. Still, Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (he also provides the soundtrack) create a striking sense of immediacy here. This isn’t some generic, homogenized vision of the late 20’s, this feels like the real thing. The roosters fighting in the yard, the fog rolling in over the giant willow trees, and the Bell brand jars the Bondurant brothers use to store their White Lightning whiskey are all little details that help the film live and breathe.

The ensemble do a mostly commendable job. Hardy’s mono-syabic performance is menacing and weirdly warm at the same time. Jessica Chastain does some nice work with her underwritten character, and Guy Pearce’s is a very cartoonish villain, but holds back just enough to keep from going off the rails. Shia LeBeouf on the other hand is just okay; he’s made leaps in his acting ability, but not bounds. It looks as if we're going to be stuck with LeBeouf as a leading man for a while, but he's yet to demonstrate that he's earned that privilege.

The absolute best thing about the film is the exquisite soundtrack put together by Cave and Warren Ellis. The two rockers have provided moody instrumentals for several of Hillcoats other movies but here the pair have put together a house band, The Bootleggers, and have created one of the best roots soundtracks since O Brother Where Art Thou. The band, with the help of guest stars like Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris, cover a wide array of songs by Link Wray, John Lee Hooker and even The Velvet Underground, while throwing in a few originals too. It’s a slam-bang soundtrack that oozes personality form every note.

Lawless is a solid crime film held back by it’s own formula and a mediocre lead performance. However the verisimilitude with which the period, not to mention the violence, is portrayed coupled with a fantastic soundtrack help balance out the flaws. At the very least you should pick up the album.

Grade: B

Here's a sample of The Bootleggers cover of Link Wray's "Fire and Brimstone"

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Things where going so well. The Spy Who Loved Me was a fun, relatively smart James Bond adventure that reaffirms everything that makes the franchise great and even manages to make Roger Moore bearable. This is one of the few times that more of the same would have been wonderful, but alas the movie-gods have given us Moonraker.

The plot will be familiar to anyone who's seen more than one of these before: an experimental space shuttle known as “Moonraker” is stolen while on route to England and Bond (Roger Moore) is sent to investigate. He starts by looking into the company that built the shuttle, run by eccentric industrialist Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale). Drax immediately tries to kill Bond via ethnic henchman and fails. As is customary, Bond meets two women, one with an obscene name who is the love interest, and an insignificant girl who will be killed to show how evil the villain is. This doesn't matter to Bond, who travels the world playing with absurd gadgets before blasting into space for a final confrontation with Drax.

It doesn't take very long for Moonraker to start being bad. Pinpointing the exact moment would be difficult because it's never exactly 'good' to begin with. Instead, the film alternates between boilerplate and off the wall 'what the fuck' moments. This is most evident in the film's Venice section where Bond get's involved in the lamest action sequence of his life. This involves an assassin who operates from a coffin and a boat chase where Bond's gondola climbs out of the water and turns into a hovercraft. If that wasn't ridiculous enough, there are not one, but two reaction shots of local animals being absolutely amazed by this, including a double taking pidgin!

The second silliest thing ever to appear in a Bond film...

 ...followed swiftly by the silliest thing ever to appear in a Bond film
A long standing criticism of the Moore-era Bonds is that they got a little gadget crazy, and this is the film where it happens. In addition to that ridiculous gondola, we also have poison pens, a watch that shoots darts, a flamethrower perfume bottle and a second boat that turns into a hang-glider. There's plenty more, but you get the idea. As if the overabundant gadgets weren't enough, we are also treated to random fighting monks, weird monologues about orchids and Bond dressing up like Clint Eastwood in Brazil and did I mention the fact that 007 goes into space? I understand how popular Star Wars was in the late 70's, but was it really necessary for Bond to explore the final frontier?

I really don't know who this film was for. Sometimes it's aimed at young children, but on the other hand it still has enough sex to make Hugh Hefner proud not to mention some horrific death scenes involving nerve gas and vicious guard dogs. The last film, The Spy Who Loved Me, was a fun, coherent Bond film. By contrast, Moonraker feels like it was written by a committee of people trying to shoe-horn in every idea they had regardless of whether or not it gels or makes sense for the character.

It's not a total loss, there are two very good action scenes. One involves skydiving and the other is a suspenseful fight atop to cable cars suspended high over Rio, both scenes feature excellent stunt work and can be enjoyed on their own merits.

Also Jaws (Richard Kiel), the great henchman from the previous film, returns. While his reuse here amount's to little more than bad fan service (in an inexplicable twist, he gets a love interest to soften his image), his re-introduction is nice. Drax's primary henchman has been killed and needs to be replaced. Drax calls what can only be described as Henchmen 'R' Us. The idea that there is a henchmen-villain matching agency is one of the few jokes that actually works in this film. Also, seeing Jaws trying to go through an airport metal detector with his steel teeth isn't bad either. I don't know, maybe the comedy angle could have worked if the filmmakers had better jokes and committed to it more.

Reading the novel only makes this film a greater disappointment. They don't have anything to do with each other and this time, it's for the worse. Moonraker the film is the most ridiculous film of the series (until Die Another Day at least) whereas the book is one of the most down to earth of Ian Fleming's cannon. In the novel, Drax is actually an interesting character having reinvented himself from nothing after losing his memory in the war. After becoming the wealthiest man in England he builds his country a nuclear ICBM, dubbed "Moonraker", to protect Britain from her enemies. But his sincerity called into heavy doubt by a game of cards with Bond. It may not be the most cinematic of Flemming's novels, but it is one of the best and following it closer would have certainly given the film some solid footing.

Moonraker isn't the worst of the Bond films, but it may be the most infamous and not without reason. In an attempt to be broader and more appealing to a mass audience it abandons everything that makes the franchise worthwhile. It becomes a flight from logic and sanity, entering an almost dream like realm. Unfortunately it's not a dream I really want to have.

Grade: C-

Moonraker is currently streaming on Netflix Instant.

Enjoy these other Bondathon entries:
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, August 18, 2012


After The Man With the Golden Gun, the Bond series got into a spot of bother. Co-producer Harry Saltzman’s bankruptcy forced him to give up his shares of the franchise. The ensuing delay also meant the loss of director Guy Hamilton and the script he was developing with John Landis (The Blues Brothers). So it was that Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, now the sole producer on the franchise, settled on frequent Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum (with help from Christopher Wood) and director Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice) to develop and direct what would ultimately become one of the best films of the series, The Spy Who Loved Me.

In the prologue we learn that both the British and Russians have mysteriously lost a nuclear submarine. We then find Bond (still Roger Moore) in a cabin in the Austrian mountains with his latest conquest. He gets called in by M (Bernard Lee) and on his way down the mountain he gets involved in a gigantic ski chase with Russian agents culminating in a heart-stopping jump off a cliff.

Bond’s investigation into who’s absconded with Her Majesty’s submarine takes him to Egypt, where his contacts are being murdered by a metal toothed heanchman named Jaws (Richard Kiel). While Bond scrambles over the Pyramids trying to figure out who’s behind it all, he finds himself competing with Soviet super-spy Major Amasova (Barbara Bach), also known as agent XXX. Eventually 007 and XXX team up and link the stolen submarines to an industrialist named Stromberg (Curd Jürgans). Stromberg is one of those themed villains we often get in these movies, this guy loves the ocean and plans to use the submarines for nefarious aquatic based purposes. 

After three substandard Bond films in a row, it's amazing how much this film gets right. Action is fluid and dynamic. In addition to that great ski chase, we also get our first proper Bond gadget car since Goldfinger. This one is a Lotus Esprit that transforms into a submarine at the push of a button. Other great images include Jaws, who's Karloff like presence is used to often surreal effect by Gilbert, often showing us just segments of him (an arm, a shoulder) to emphasize his size and power while his victim is frozen in fear. It's a shame that for other scenes Gilbert reverts to a more traditional style of photographing the character as it deflates his effectiveness as a villain.

The true standout is the climactic raid on Stromberg's supertanker. Ken Adam's set was so huge that it necessitated the construction of an entire new sound stage. But where other Bond films have gotten lost when dealing with sets of this scale, Spy keeps it practical. It's designed around a script that calls for a lot of shifting plot objectives that allows the action to fill up the giant space organically.
Flat Fact: Stanley Kubrick secretly advised as how to light this set.
The score by Melvin Hamlisch lives up to all the acclaim. His take on the Bond Theme may be a bit too funky for modern audiences but other stretches of the score are quite playful (like a quotation of the Lawrence of Arabia theme). Most of all, his title song Nobody Does It Better, sung by Carly Simon, is easily one of the best songs in the cannon. It's one of those times that the song is much more sophisticated than the film it's supporting, so good that it makes up for Maurice Binder’s outrageously goofy title sequence with people bouncing off trampolines and doing nude gymnastics on giant guns.     

The biggest problem with the Moore-era films so far has been tone. Part of the issue is Moore himself. Connery played his Bond as a dark, sadistic anti-hero which suited the material. By contrast, Moore's Bond is a goody two-shoes who makes lots of bad jokes and is visibly uncomfortable with the darker side of his role. You'd think that would lead to the films laying off the violence but instead they amp it up, trying to defuse it with broad comedy which just makes the violence that more unpalatable. In Spy however, Gilbert and Co. are able to avoid most of the Moore-era traps by toning down the quips to a reasonable level and taking out most of the sadism, allowing Moore to play to his strengths without overindulging them.

The trend of not antagonizing the Russians by portraying them as villains continues here in the implementation of the Bond girl. I like the idea that there’s a female Russian equivalent of Bond complete with her own version of M running around somewhere. Also introducing her in bed with her latest conquest is a nice touch that effectively references the way that Bond himself is often introduced. It's also nice to see a Bond girl who's strong, capable and not tripping all over herself. Their relationship develops tension when we learn that one of the men Bond killed in the prologue was XXX’s greatest love. This culminates in a scene where Bond is forced to admit that he does, in fact, kill real human beings, giving a brief moment of depth and maturity to a franchise that has until this point treated all life, and especially those of women, as entirely disposable . It doesn’t matter that the issue is smoothed over far too easily or that Barbara Bach can't really act. It’s a smartly written character and it’s the most grown up subplot the series has dealt so far and a perfect antidote to the forced camp of Golden Gun.  

The Spy Who Loved Me is a blast. Moore still isn't Connery, but the script is so inventive that it doesn't matter much. This film never became a transcendent icon onto itself the way that the early films did, but it's not for lack of trying. That effort makes this easily the most enjoyable Bond since Goldfinger.

Grade: A-

Monday, August 13, 2012


Live and Let Die wasn’t the best Bond but for better or worse it established Roger Moore as the newer, more ironic face of the franchise and secured it’s future. So successful was Live at the box office that producers decided to make The Man With The Golden Gun immediately so that it would be ready the following year. This rapid production style suited the franchise well in the beginning when all screenwriter Richard Maibaum had to do was make minor alterations to the books to turn them into scripts. But by this point in the franchise, screen stories where being largely constructed from scratch ignoring most everything but the books titles. This approach can work, especially with some of the sub-par books, but this time it results in a film that feels like a frustrating first draft with just enough good things in it to make its total failure all the more infuriating.
Here’s the stuff that could have been good – Bond (Roger Moore) being marked for death by the world's greatest assassin, Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). There is little doubt that Scaramanga will succeed unless Bond finds him first. The idea of giving Bond a Moriarty type nemesis is a smart one, and Lee, with his mad eyes and controlled demeanor is the perfect choice for the part. Why, he's able to sell even the silliest aspects of the character, such as his insistence on golden bullets and his Lady From Shanghai death maze.
Less promising is every other single element in this film. There's an atrocious title track by Lulu with laughable lyrics like: "His eye may be on you or me. Who will he bang? We shall see. Oh yeah!" Oh yeah indeed. Even Scaramanga’s uniqueness as a villain is brought down by an out of place subplot where he takes over a solar power company (tying into the ’73 energy crisis) so he can have a more conventional superlaser factory for Bond to blow up during the climax. Bond isn’t particularly good either. The film treats him blandly, even denying him a thrilling entrance, he just walks through a door and says 'howdy.' Watching him maneuver through Hong Kong is dull at best, irritating at worst. Director Guy Hamilton tries desperately to inject personality by bringing back J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), the hillbilly cop from Live and Let Die as Bonds sidekick, in one of the most forced introductions in cinema history. Pepper's presence is grating, he's the Jar Jar Binks of the Bond films. But the final sign that the series has fully descended into broad camp doesn’t come from Pepper, but the slide whistle that Hamilton uses to underscore the films most climactic and dangerous stunt.

Perhaps even more annoying is Bond girl Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland). Goodnight is the dumbest, most incompetent Bond girl in what has sadly become a long line of dumb, incompetent Bond girls. When I started this series I pointed to Hitchcock's North by Northwest as a model for the Bond films. But after watching 9 of these things, I'm starting to understand how ahead of its time Northwest was. Oh, how great it would be to see a woman in a Bond film like the Eva Marie Saint character, but I’ll settle for someone who’s anything more than a sexually subservient plot contrivance. In one scene Bond gives Goodnight the McGuffin and all she has to do is walk out the building with it. Instead she hangs around Scaramanga’s car and gets herself pushed into the trunk, meaning that the whole third act of the film is predicated on her being a moron.
This was Guy Hamilton's final Bond film. His first was Goldfinger, a film that remains a high benchmark of the series. It's a shame that his last Bond is little more than a wasted villain, a terrible title song and a particularly thin example of the formula Hamilton helped establish. I doubt any Bond film will be worse. Skip this one, and while you’re at it, skip the book that Fleming may or may not have completed before his death, its even more tedious than the film, and that’s saying something.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


They had tried this before, this recasting of Bond. George Lazenby filled out the tux in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the most ambitious and unusual film in the series. But Lazenby didn’t work. Not because he was a bad actor, but because he was forced to imitate Connery, in look and manner. It didn’t work. The answer to how you replace an iconic actor is that you don’t try to replace him at all. For an audience to accept a new Bond, he would have to be different enough from Connery to be able to grow into an icon in his own right. As a result Roger Moore was cast for 1973’s Live and Let Die, the most trashy and cartoonish entry in the series yet.
The big problem with the last entry, apart from a visibly bored Connery, was the lack of a clear villain or threat worthy of James Bond. Live and Let Die does better in this regard. Several British agents have been killed and MI-6 feels that it might be connected to Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), the prime minister to a small Caribbean Island. Bond heads to New York where he sees the United Nations before heading to Harlem and meeting a bunch of Blaxploitation stereotypes and Kananga’s woman/virginal Tarot card reader Solitare (Donna Summers). Later in his travels, he is joined by Rosie (Gloria Hendly), cinema’s most incompetent CIA agent ever (she doesn’t even know how to take off a gun’s safety catch). Rosie screams and has nervous fits while Bond seduces Solitare and uncovers Kananga’s plans to monopolize the world’s heroin supply.
Roger Moore is, whatever you think of him, a very firm contrast to Connery.  While Connery came off as rough and a working class secret agent, Moore comes off as slick and privileged. They both represented old imperialism, but Roger Moore does it much more stereotypically. He’s an Englishman first, James Bond second. A concerted effort was made to differentiate him from Connery, he doesn't drink martinis and as a presence, he’s a softer, goofier Bond. The shift towards broader comedy can't be blamed solely on Moore, the trend had started in earnest with Diamonds Are Forever (remember that elephant gambling scene?) and could arguably be traced back further, but Moore’s facility with the jokes helps put the trend into overdrive and is indicative of many franchises that grow sillier as time goes on (Superman, the first Batman series). Moore's 007 doesn't miss one opportunity to crack a joke or make a pun. Nothing in this film can be taken seriously even for a second.

This extends to the action scenes which are really, truly bizarre. In one scene Bond hops across the back of several alligators to safety. There's also a 12 minute boat chase that focuses not on Bond or his pursuers, but on a hillbilly cop (Clifton James). The cop, who we've never met before in the film, spends most of the chase pursuing, but never quite catching up to, the boat chase. Oh, and one character is dispatched by being inflated like a balloon. Yes, you read that right.

These ridiculous gimmicks are not fantastic, but are ultimately for the best because they soften the movie’s pulpier elements, which are really racist. The books, and to a lesser extent the films, have always been very pro-imperialist and Live and Let Die is one of the most naked examples of this. Kananga is the prime minister from San Monique, a fictional country standing in for any number of Caribbean colonies that the British used to own (particularly Jamaica), and so the entire plot could be seen as 'Bond keeping the old colony in line.' But the problem isn’t that the film has ethnic villains, it’s that it has so many of them. It’s possible that the producers had seen Shaft and decided they wanted to exploit that audience but didn’t understand that Blaxploitation was about empowering the community by letting black audiences see themselves as anti-establishment heroes, not as thugs to be defeated by Whitey. As a result, the film ends up perfectly reflecting the worst fears of the white establishment by showing a world where seemingly the entire black population of the Northern Hemisphere are in on the evil scheme. There are times where the film almost feels like James Bond vs. Black People.

In this scene Kananga hires half of New Orleans to kill one man.
Somewhat mitigating the choice of exclusively black villains is Kananga himself. He’s probably the smartest, most fully realized villain in the series so far. For the first time in eight films I was nodding my head while the villain explained his evil plan and thinking, “Yes, that could actually work. Bravo sir!” Now he does not have the wherewithal to actually kill Bond when he has the chance (this is a Bond film after all), but still, a plausible plan is a rarity for these films. He also has an interesting relationship with Solitaire. The Bond series has made it a tradition of having Bond seducing the villain’s woman as a symbol of his masculinity surpassing that of all other men. But she isn’t like the other women in that she is a virgin. Kananga keeps her virginity intact because it is the source of her psychic powers. The link between virginity and magical power is a standard mythological trope but its inclusion in a series built on the frankness of the sexual revolution is interesting to say the least. It also shifts the light in which we see the characters. Whatever Kananga’s anterior motives are, he does try and protect Solitaire’s virtue. Also, Bond’s seduction of Solitaire is a bit troubling because Bond always has ulterior motives when seducing women and also he explicitly tricks her into the deed by playing on her superstitions. Despite his reputation, Bond isn’t a very classy guy.

"I'm just using you to get to someone else. Wait, why are you crying woman?"
So what’s good about the film? Well, the song by Paul McCartney and Wings is magnificent. As is the opening title sequence which is easily Maurice Binder’s best since Dr. No, while has a lot of the standard Bond credit tropes, but he also gives us this flaming skull image which is one of the strongest in the Bond series.

Despite all the misguided racial politics which, let’s face it are in a lot of these films, Live and Let Die is kind of enjoyable. The camp aspects of the film may not be according to Hoyle Bond, but they work. This isn't a good film, but at least it's never boring and that's more than I can say for Diamonds are Forever.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Often in Noir, we meet characters with a somewhat skewed moral compass who commit one terrible, immoral act, far beyond the pale of what any of us would normally consider. The characters in William Friedkin's Killer Joe start there and graduate to progressively greater moral compromises.
Take Chris (Emile Hirsh) for example.  Chris is one of those perpetually troubled noir protagonists. He’s a screw-up drug dealer in debt to people who have run out of patience. It just so happens that his no good mother has a fifty thousand dollar life insurance policy. Let he who is without sin, etc, etc…. Chris enlists his father (a scene stealing Thomas Haden Church) to help hire Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas Detective who moonlights as a murderer for hire. Since they’re broke and Joe likes to be paid in advance, Joe decides to take a retainer, Chris’s younger, virginal, mentally ill sister Dottie (Juno Temple).
Most films are content to have only one Faustian deal, Killer Joe has two. For those keeping count, Chris has Joe  "courting" his sister as a down-payment on killing his mother. No one in the film has a problem with the 'mother' part, but Chris grows more and more uncomfortable about the 'sister' part. He tries to call it off, but things spiral out of control and Joe tightens his grip on the family, and the whole thing climaxes in a darkly comic chicken dinner destined for bizarro infamy.
The key word there is 'comic.' The advertising campaign for this film seems intent on hiding the fact that the film is just as much a parody of Noir as it is a Noir itself. Balancing these contradicting tones would derail a lesser director but Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and screenwriter Tracy Letts (adapting his own play) bounce between the nuances with the deftness of a depraved Elmore Lenard.
The cast does a good job with very tough material. Hirsh is grounded enough to sell the ‘let’s kill mama’ plan as almost reasonable. McConaughey channels a sort of Robert Mitchum coldness and intensity. His scenes with Juno Temple are of particular interest as we watch two very different forms of madness co-existing in the same space. She's a Femme Fatale, but not in any conventional sense. Also, while no one in the cast is undeserving of nomination, Gina Gershon probably wins the Good Trooper Award as Haydon Church’s new wife.
The film is rated NC-17 and with good reason. It's designed to provoke and shock. There are a lot of good laughs in this movie, but if you wanted to take a bath afterwords, I wouldn’t blame you.
Grade: A-