Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The James Bond Films

The James Bond Films (aka 007)

The James Bond series of films is based on the wildly successful series of novels by British author Ian Fleming, which helped popularize the genre of espionage novels by creating a fictional intelligence agent whose adventures resembled those of swashbuckler films of the 30’s.

The novel Casino Royale was author Ian Fleming’s first, and introduced the world to his glamorous and amorous debonair spy, James Bond. He is given the code name 007, the double-ought series of agents being those with a license to kill in the line of duty. This novel largely revolves around the high-stakes casino card game of baccarat, in which two players go head-to-head like a duel, with money rather than blood at stake. This novel being more cerebral and involving less action and womanizing, it was not filmed until 2006 – more on this film follows below.

The first novel transferred to film was Doctor No, and made an international star out of little-known Sean Connery. Producer Albert Broccoli’s wife had noticed Connery in the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People and suggested to her husband that he would make a dashing and attractive spy. Broccoli wisely followed his wife’s advice, and Connery created a handsome and macho hero equally attractive to both genders. The film also introduced a bikin-clad Ursula Andress to the world and she became the archetype for the subsequent series of what are now called Bond Women.

The second film, From Russia With Love (1963), remains my favorite, as Bond is assigned to woo a secretary at a Russian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, who has agreed to help the British obtain a Russian cryptology decoding machine, which she will turn over to Bond. To me, this is the most realistic of all the Bond films, and introduced the now famous props of spy gadgets that became a mainstay of later 007 films. In this film, it took the form of a briefcase that had disabling gas, hidden money, and weapons, all of which weren’t obvious to the unsuspecting examiner.

After a series of successful Bond films with Connery up through 1968, including the highly popular Goldfinger, he tired of being typecast and let his contract expire. A rather critically successful film was then made with unknown Australian actor George Lazenby, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). This film has some terrific action sequences in its favor, Telly Savalas as the evil villain, and a beautiful post-Avengers Diana Rigg as a Spanish count’s daughter, and who becomes Bond’s only onscreen wife to-date. The film-going public didn’t take to Lazenby in the role, however, and he was cast aside after just one film, which ironically remains superior to any starring the successors to Connery.

The studio, not willing to kill the golden goose, then cast a rather bland and unexceptional Roger Moore as Bond, after an exhaustive series of auditions, one of whom, Pierce Brosnan, was rejected only to be later hired as Moore’s successor. These films are forgettable compared to the Connery vehicles. When Moore became too old, the series was continued with Brosnan, with similar results: a few more un-stellar efforts with more action than plot, usually involving a typical Cold War enemy, some Russian with designs on wreaking havoc with nuclear missiles, or holding the world at ransom using weapons. These were not from novels written by Ian Fleming, which is one reason the plots are lame and stereotypical in comparison.

The series almost died out until the first novel, Casino Royale, was filmed in 2006 after the sudden revival of interest in high-stakes poker on tv. (The title had been previously used in a comedic satire starring David Niven and Woody Allen, but the story had nothing to do with the novel or the series).

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

That first Bond novel, was devoid of gadgets and violence, and most of it revolved around the high stakes European casino card game baccarat, similar to blackjack in that the player’s goal is a point total that one can’t exceed. In this game a player becomes the bank, and goes against another player head-to-head, so it is the ultimate card game of machismo, much like a medieval duel, with wealth and not blood at stake. The studio re-wrote the story to include lots of action, and the rugged, everyman look of actor Daniel Craig revived the Bond series in popularity.

In fact, this spurred a renewal of interest in casino card games worldwide as the Bond series became popular with a new generation of fans. Those who wondered where Bond got his wealth, which was apparently far above the salary of a government employee, had apparently not read this novel, for his luxurious lifestyle is largely funded by his winnings at baccarat.

Like most games that combine chance and skill, such as the now popular Texas Holdem form of poker, it behooves the average player to first develop a strategy that employs the use of mathmatical odds. Baccarat is not for the novice for it is usually the highest stakes game in any casino. In the Casino Royale remake, Craig as Bond has his card duel with Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, in an intense showdown that will leave one of them financially scarred and with designs of vengence.

If you’re thinking of emulating Bond when playing in any casino games, I highly suggest you first educate yourself with strategies and techniques by reading a lot of baccarat strategy articles. Those who don’t will be at a disadvantage to those who have and those with more experience.

My capsule review of this excellent film is posted at 1000 Dvds to See, Casino Royale (2006)

It’s said that the debonair Bond is based on the real life of agent Sydney Reilly, an émigré from Russia to Ireland at the beginning of the 20th centlury, who created his persona before becoming a spy for England, achieving results for them in getting oil leases in Arabia, and stealing German battleship plans before World War I.

In the PBS miniseries, Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983), we see an international traveler of similar sophistication and a womanizer wherever he goes, often obtaining the affections of women like a bored countess, especially if it can help him gain intelligence needed by the British government. This series made an international star out of Sam Neill, who has gone on to have a fine film career.

If looks as if Jame Bond is here to stay, a superhero in the guise of an everyman, covert intelligence agent. He fuels the imagination of those of us stuck in mundane jobs in one locale as we envy anyone who gets employed to be a globe-trotting adventurer leaving a trail of dead villains and broken-hearted beauties in his wake.


Friday, February 24, 2012


Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011 (9.0*)

Ryan Gosling plays a man we see in the beginning of the film driving a getaway car for men pulling a heist. The audience is immediately sucked into this film by having it start in the middle of some tense crime action. We later find out that Gosling also works in a garage, and performs driving stunts part-time for films.

Early in the film we learn a little of his personal side as he helps a young mother, Carey Mulligan, who also lives in his apartment building, when she needs a ride after he car breaks down. (Mulligan's character has little acting to do in this compared to her brilliant role in An Education.) We slowly see Gosling as more than a heartless criminal, and realize his character may be more dimensional than most in crime films.

Interspersed with scenes involving Gosling’s character, we also learn a little about some small time organized criminals, a business owner played by Ron Perlman, and Gosling’s garage manager, played by Bryan Cranston (without the same passion and strength as his role on Breaking Bad). Cranston gets a shady mogul, superbly played by Albert Brooks in a rare dramatic part, to invest in a race car to be driven by Gosling. Brooks has won eight awards for supporting actor for his performance, but was skipped over for an Oscar® nomination.

The audience is slowly drawn into Gosling’s world, as he is drawn into that of Mulligan’s, whose husband is said to simply be away – we later find he was in prison after he is released. On top of that, he became connected with some rather despicable men while incarcerated, and to whom he is now in debt.

For me, this film has enough similarities to George Stevens’ western classic Shane to be inspired by it. It has an heroic outsider, Gosling, coming to the aid of a family facing criminals they can’t control, largely due to his attraction to the wife and her young son. His past is murky, like Shane’s, he may be a criminal himself, but not by choice, and at all times he tries to do the right thing, like a samurai warrior. He’s a warrior, but with a code of ethics and personal honor.

The pace is well maintained by Danish director Nicolas Refn. It never seems forced, slow, or too action-packed, there’s just enough of each element to make it a well-crafted film. In fact, I’m a bit surprised (and peeved) that it wasn’t nominated for best picture since they came up with nine, it could have just as easily been ten. I’m willing to bet without having seen but a couple so far that it was better than at least five of those nine. This is going to be considered a quiet, understated classic over time.

It’s currently ranked #237 on the IMDB top 250, and has won 38 awards out of 94 nominations. Only a handful of other films has won this many awards for 2011: The Artist, The Tree of Life, The Descendents, The Help.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Powwow Highway

Jonathan Wacks, 1989 (8.2*)
This is a funny modern Native American film that also has some points to make about the survival of N.A. traditions in the modern era, and how some manage to walk with a foot in two different eras.

A Martinez (born Adolph) plays Buddy Red Bow, struggling against persecution and greedy capitalist developers to keep his people independent on a Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. His friend Philbert (Ed Farmer), follows and espouses Native American wisdom and lore wherever he find it, sometimes on tv or in the movies. His war pony, is a beat-up, barely running Buick.

Buddy's sister Bonnie (Joanelle Nadine Romero) has been arrested in Santa Fe, so much of this movie involves a road trip from Montana to New Mexico as he and Philbert set off to look after kids and get her out of jail (one way or another). Philbert's faith challenges Buddy's cynical and sometimes violent view of the world.

This film really deals with the realities and dreams of being Cheyenne in the modern, techology controlled US, and manages to make us laugh along the way. As road trip films go, it’s one of the best. As films about modern Native American life, it's one of a handful of must-see films, along with Smoke Signals (1998).


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Downton Abbey

Jim Carter as the butler leads the servant staff (L), while
Hugh Bonneville as the Earl heads the family (R)

Brian Percival and Brian Kelly, directed four episodes each; several others directed two episodes.

Season One: 2010 (10*)
Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, best tv mini-series or movie
During the reign of England’s King Edward, estates of the wealthy aristocrats grew to their ultimate in wealth and power. By the first decade of the 20th century, there were 100 estates that owned over half the land in England. Their wealth came from owning huge amounts of land, then collecting rents from all those who lived on, farmed, or hunted on their land. The patriarch of the estate was usually given the title of Duke, Earl, or Marquis, and the property was always passed on to eldest male heirs, and by law, never to women. If there was no male son, the nearest other male relative became the heir, often cousins.

However, as all things pass over time, this class structure was about to change forever. Cheaper shipping allowed the importation of less costly agricultural products from India and the Americas, and the great estates were in decline, along with the manors or castles of the aristocratic families. The upper class still tried to maintain their lifestyles for as long as possible, or at least the appearance of luxury, which required large staffs of servants. The head cook had her assistant and kitchen maids; the head housekeeper had a staff of housekeeping maids; while the butler was the overall head of the staff, and there were also valets, and the lowest of the male order inside the house, the footmen. Outside the manor were also the gamekeepers and wardens, garden staff, and stables of horses to maintain.

All this cost a lot of money, and without the income from the land, many aristocrats sought new wealth from America. The generally accepted practice was to get a wealthy American heiress, usually the daughter of industrialists or bankers, to marry a titled estate owner, and thus gain a title to provide some hitherto unavailable social status in America, while providing the money to keep the estate going.

This is the setting of the story of one such manor, called Downton Abbey, headed by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, in this work of fiction beginning in the year 1910, created and written by Julian Fellowes. Other works before have explored this system, notably the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited, which actually starts after the era is past but whose story is told as a flashback to a time decades before. Upstairs failed to involve me, I found it boring and passionless.

Brideshead, from the novel by Evelyn Waugh, easily hooked me, largely with it’s terrific cast, which made an international star out of lead actor Jeremy Irons, and included Laurence Olivier, who won an Emmy for his performance as the patriarch, and Clare Bloom as his estranged wife, as well as excellent supporting performances from Julian Glover and the two actors who played the children of Olivier, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick. This is a 'must-see' epic for fans of literature brought to the screen, and runs eleven hours overall.

Downton Abbey is worthy of all the praise and awards it’s receiving. Unlike the two previously mentioned mini-series, Downton is infused with a warmth unseen in previous stories. Fellowes has managed to capture the feel of Charles Dickens literature, with the wit and humor of Jane Austen. When the first telephone is being installed in the manor, the Dowager Countess (the granny of the family), brilliantly played by Oscar-winner Maggie Smith, remarks, “first electricity, now telephones; I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel”.

The story begins with the news of the sinking of the Titanic, and the loss of the hand-picked heirs of Downton, both cousins of the Earl, who has only three daughters and thus no rightful heir of his own. Next in line is a third cousin, who is presently a lawyer in a mid-level corporate legal firm in Manchester – hardly an aristocrat, and someone not especially thrilled at the prospect of changing his lifestyle.

Veteran actor Hugh Bonneville, with
96 titles to his credit, has the role of
a lifetime as the Earl, Robert Crawley

We are swept into the life of the manor in the first five minutes, by following servants awakening and rushing off to their stations with some excellent camerawork that follows people from in front in unbroken shots until the camera turns to follow a different person. From then on you should be hooked on the story.

We see the arrival in the beginning of the new valet, Mr. Bates (brilliant, understated performance by Brendan Coyle) a man crippled from the Boer War, but who has been placed in his new position for being a friend of the earl from the war days, thus bypassing those inside the house who wanted to move up in rank. We are also introduced to the new heir, who meets a different form of disdain, seen as an outsider by the more traditional aristocrats, yet welcome by the younger set, represented by the earl’s three daughters, each single, with the elder two (Mary and Edith) competing as the first across the marriage line. The youngest (Sybil) is more political than social, interested in women getting the vote and finding careers, and uninterested in the traditional woman’s role of wife and socialite.

You know as you watch the dates progress toward 1914 that a world war is coming, so that adds an element of tension to the entire story, which is light on action, but deep in psychological complexity and subtle currents of social change.

British drama doesn’t get any better than this, it’s the ultimate Masterpiece Theater production, expertly filmed and acted. The cast is led by Brendan Coyle as the valet, Mr. Bates. The earl, Robert Crawley is played by Hugh Bonneville, who has a dignified sense of justice. His wife is an American, Elizabeth McGovern (one of the weaker actors), married for her money, needed to keep the estate going. Her money must remain with the estate, else Downton Abbey will not be able to continue.

The eldest daughter Mary, is played by a stern, almost cold-hearted Michelle Dockery. Her conniving, backstabbing younger sister Edith is portrayed as an envious wretch by Laura Carmichael. The youngest daughter, my favorite character, is played by the stunning Jessica Browne Findlay, a former ballerina, and the character with the most spunk.

The Earl's daughters, Ladies Edith, Mary, and Sybil

However, the acting kudos are being stolen by the veteran Maggie Smith, as the traditional and snobbish Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, who is given the lion’s share of great lines. Dan Stevens is passable as the selected heir-to-be, Matthew Crawley, who has trouble fitting into the role of an aristocrat, largely because he’s never been trained to be an elitist, and would rather fend for himself and fulfill some useful career. Veteran actor Jim Carter also shines as the resolute and dignified butler, Mr. Carson, who feels responsible for maintaining a professional staff that can perpetuate this way of life as perhaps Britains contribution to civilization for as long as possible.

The first season has everyone’s appetite whetted for season two, currently airing on PBS, but I wait for the dvd release so I can view the entire season in one sitting. Season one is seven episodes, just shy of seven hours and worth every minute.

This has won 13 awards to date out of 45 nominations, including six Emmys and a Golden Globe, with seven of those awards going to creator and author Julian Fellowes. This has an extremely high rating of 9.0 by just 11,000 fans at IMDB; if it were a film, it would be tied with The Godfather at #2 there, only bettered by Shawshank Redemption's rating of 9.1. It is now one of just 40 perfect 10's I've given on this blog.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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