Saturday, September 29, 2012

Diamonds are Forever - Dir. Guy Hamilton (The Bond Project #7)


Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Dir: Guy Hamilton

Sean Connery is Back... 
By Jay Maronde

                Before the EON productions team had completed shooting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby had already declared that he would not reprise his role as 007.  Again the producers were left with a tremendous problem of who would be the next Bond. Numerous leading players were considered again (including Adam West), as were new candidates, such as Burt Reynolds. But no one was available or fit the producer’s fancy. The studio folk loved Sean Connery in the role, and orders were given to return him to Bond at any cost. The result was a world record breaking contract that included more than £20 Million (adjusted for inflation to 2012; approximately $32.3 MM in US Dollars), and a promise to produce two movies of his choice. But Connery was back on board.
To be honest, this might be my only real complaint about this movie (which has been panned by numerous critics over the years). Connery looks a little old for the role, and almost seems a little pudgy. He still Bond, he’s still awesome, and in fact he almost seems a little colder and angrier, which clearly fits in with his role as a secret agent, but he’s definitely older and you can tell that the hard living had worn on him (reportedly Connery filmed all night, and gambled and golfed all day during all the shooting in Vegas). Other than this one complaint, I think that this movie is great fun. Everything isn’t perfect, and I can see where some hypercritical folk might denigrate the film, but it is definitely worth viewing if only for the highly amusing campy attitude the film takes with itself (which was part of the reason that some people hated it, and part of reason that it has been vindicated by history—in retrospect it doesn’t seem too campy at all—just 1970s spy movie-ish).
                I should mention now that this film doesn’t really follow the book’s plot. The book portrays a revenge on Bond by Goldfinger’s twin brother. This was going to be the plot of the movie, until one night “Cubby” Broccoli had a dream where his dear friend Howard Hughes was kidnapped and impersonated by evil villains. Cubby felt that this was a fantastic plot (which it is, especially when the villains are building a space laser out of diamonds) and spoke with his friend about making this movie essentially about him. Cast wonderfully to play the Howard Hughes character (named Willard Whyte) is None other than “Jimmy Dean Sausage” Jimmy Dean, cousin of the late, great James Dean, and at the time a casino performer in several of the real Howard Hughes’ facilities. Jimmy Dean was more than a little concerned about imitating his boss and tried to escape the role, but Hughes liked him and insisted he take the part. Hughes loved the idea of the movie being about him, and offered tremendous assistance to the production allowing them to shoot on his properties. For his fee, Hughes only asked for a personal print of the film. This was extremely beneficial to the production as too much money had been spent on Connery and there was already some talk of having to scale back the special effects.
           Another highlight of this film is the casting of the two gorgeous Bond Girls. First off these two have some of the best names in the series: Plenty O’Toole (played by Lana Wood) and Tiffany Case (played by Jill St. John). Jill St. John got her role by auditioning for the role of Plenty, but the director, Guy Hamilton, who also directed Goldfinger, decided that she was better as Tiffany Case, thereby becoming the first American born Bond Girl. Lana Wood was cast as an indirect result of her fame following an appearance in a full Playboy spread. Both women are very beautiful and also perfectly cast. Hamilton even got around Wood’s particularly short stature by having her stand on a milk crate in any scene she was in with Connery. Notable also is that Wood almost drowned while filming the scene in which Bond and Case find her dead from drowning.
The crew jumped into the pool at the last minute and saved her, but in one of those “truth being stranger than fiction moments,” the first thread of a complex web of coincidence, love, casting, and death was spun. To wit: Jill St. John is currently married to Robert Wagner, who was on the boat (with none other than later Bond Villain Christopher Walken) the night that Wood’s famous sister, and Wagner’s earlier wife, Natalie Wood, drowned. Wagner would later appear as the villain “No. 2” in Austin Powers and while it may be hard to resist speculation about the nature of human existence and the ironies that befall not only famous lives, but all properly-examined lives, it would go beyond the scope of this review.  Suffice to say, whatever strange “Hollywood herpes circle” connections might exist between these two women, they are both excellent in their roles.
            The villains are also excellently cast. In this film Bond meets and kills no less than four Blofelds (it’s quite comical that the character of Blofeld had appeared and escaped in four movies previous to this film). Obviously they aren’t all Blofeld—it’s one Blofeld and 3 of his plastic surgery borne body doubles. Cast to play all these Blofelds is Charles Grey, who had previously played a Bond ally in You Only Live Twice, and he is the best of all the Blofelds in the franchise (I should also note that this is the last film that includes any mention of Blofeld, and contains no mention of SPECTRE, as Kevin McClory’s legal battles had been successful and the Fleming estate and EON productions lost all rights to those ideas). It is slightly disconcerting to me that this actor played a Bond ally in an earlier film (and may cause a double-take in the viewer following the franchise chronologically), but his performance will erase any doubts that he is, in fact, a slick super-villain, and no longer a creepy old man.
Also in this movie are two of the most famous henchmen in the entire Bond Franchise: Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint.  The characters (who were not in the book but created for the movie) are a pair of homosexual hand-holding assassins that snuff people out all over the world, but fail three times to kill Bond. These two provide a real sense of evil for the film. They are just hit men, but their very weird attitude towards their job and towards each other will not only creep you out, but leave you thinking about their performance for a long time to come.
Also back to reprise her Bond role is Shirley Bassey, and “Diamonds Are Forever” is easily one of my favorite Bond title songs ever! The song has been extensively sampled including for Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” Bassey’s big voice dominates the tune, which was loathed by the producers for being “too sexual.” In truth, years later Music Director John Barry would admit that he instructed Ms. Bassey to think of “penis” while recording the song. This little tidbit brought new light to the song for me, but still couldn’t change my opinion that it’s a great catchy tune with an incredible singer really belting it out.
                Director Guy Hamilton certainly did not produce another fantastic epic such as Goldfinger, but Diamonds Are Forever is nevertheless a fantastic film that stays very true to the franchise is a ton of fun to watch.  



Friday, September 28, 2012

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Dir. Peter R. Hunt (The Bond Project #6)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Dir: Peter R. Hunt
GEORGE F***ING LAZENBY!!!
By Jay Maronde
                A long time ago, in a London Towne far, far away, two men had a problem. These two men were Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, and their problem was that they had built one of the most successful film franchises of all time around a tremendous actor, who didn’t want to make any more movies for the franchise. The world was clamoring for another Bond, but there was no one to play the role. The next movie had already been promised, scouted, and financed. Thus, production of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service began.
Luckily for history, Peter R. Hunt had already been promised to direct the next James Bond film as part of his deal for editing You Only Live Twice. Hunt had said from the beginning that he wanted this “to be his Bond, and no one else’s” and this dedication towards creating a masterpiece served OHMSS so well that despite all of its flaw and foibles, this film is absolutely radiant and possibly saved one of cinematography’s finest franchises from an unnecessarily early demise.
                Around the same time as the aforementioned two men had their problem, there was a strapping young (only 29 years old at the time, making him by far the youngest Bond) pseudo-unemployed Australian (making him the only Bond not born and raised under Her Majesty’s Flag) actor named George Lazenby, and he also had a problem. Lazenby’s problem was that he was tired of being a used car dealer and magazine model, and that shooting television commercials wasn’t making him a rich and famous actor fast enough.
Now our first two men were auditioning all sorts of famous and or important and or talented actors for this most iconic of roles, at one point the position was even offered to Adam West, who declined, feeling that the role was best left to a Brit. Now, George Lazenby felt that he could do it, and concluded rationally that if he could be Bond, it would be the role of a lifetime. But he had almost no acting experience, so he set a little plan in motion: he would act like Bond. He bought himself a Savile Row suit, always dressed dapperly, and, on the day before his audition, even went to Sean Connery’s London barber to get the correct haircut. It was at this location where the fates took over, for also having his hair cut that very same day, was one of our two men with a problem, Albert Broccoli. Broccoli was impressed by Lazenby’s devotion to the cause and felt the he fit the part. During the audition, Lazenby accidentally punched a stuntman in the face and broke his nose, and this pretty much sealed the deal for the producers: the world had its new James Bond.
George Lazenby isn’t a bad Bond. He was, however, an incredibly inexperienced actor, and in general he was a silly young dude. He said in interviews that he had no idea how to be an actor, and was doing his best to “act” like Sean Connery. He also complained that the director Peter Hunt instructed everyone on set to leave him alone and not talk to him, because Hunt felt that it would make him a better Bond. There is a story that Telly Savalas (who is amazingly well-cast as Ernst Stavro Blofeld), once invited Lazenby to a poker game with the Teamsters and promptly cleaned him out of all his per diem money (producer Saltzman is said to have come back to the same poker game the next night, won Lazenby back all his money, and instructed Savalas “not to mess with my guy”). Lazenby also attempted to do some of his own stunts, which resulted in a broken arm, tremendously upsetting the studio and insurance folk, and setting back production for some time.
Despite all this, Lazenby overcomes. He looks the role, and any viewer can tell that he loves what he’s doing and that at all times he is giving “110%.” Lazenby may not be the greatest actor, but he certainly is not a bad Bond by any means, and his performance has so much heart that even though he may have had one of the toughest roles in history—replacing an iconic character who had been built around another iconic actor—he comes off with a shining performance and manages to continue the franchise’s success with what became one of the most popular films that year.
                Opposite this new unknown Bond, the producers knew they needed not just a big star, but a huge star. Numerous starlets from the world over were auditioned, including, but not limited to such beauties as Brigitte Bardot, Jacqueline Bisset, and Catherine Deneuve. Finally, the producers chose Dame Diana Rigg as the Countessa Teresa (Tracy) di Vincenzo, the one and only woman that Bond would ever marry.
It’s worth mentioning that Rigg has since been voted the Sexiest TV star ever by the readers of TV guide magazine (Rigg appeared prominently as Emma Peel in “The Avengers” from 1965 through 1968), and you can easily see why from this film. She oozes a very particular type of sex appeal—a skin-crawling allure that almost leaves one breathless. She stacks up as a character foil to Bond, and she even looks great showing off her “Avengers” moves, fighting it out in several scenes. Rigg’s failing is that she doesn’t sell the role as well as Lazenby.
Rumors from the set filled the British tabloids during shooting: the established Rigg loathed the newcomer Lazenby. All of the rumors, stories, etc., have since been denied by all parties involved, but if you really watch the film you can almost taste her disgust for Lazenby. She seems almost more comfortable in her scenes with Blofeld (possibly because there were extra writers brought in to jazz up those dialogues and perhaps because she just felt that much more comfortable with the old pro actor Telly Savalas). Now for an ordinary Bond girl, none of this would have been a problem: a one-night-only conquest for the Queen doesn’t need to sell her role, she needs to smile and look good. For me, however, Bond’s one and only wife should not only be somehow more beautiful, but should also seem to be truly in love with the man.
SPOILER ALERT:

She gets murdered by Blofeld & Bunt (also a delightful casting decisision—Ilse Steppat in her last film, as she died four days after the premiere). This whole love story is what makes the movie run as long as it does (the only Bond film that has a longer running time is 2006’s Casino Royale, which also has a huge love plot that consumes a lot of time). I hate this, the entire schemata of a Bond wedding seems completely cuckoo to me. The only thing I can say is that this whole thing is somewhat redeemed by the lovely scene in which she dies. According to legend, Hunt had Lazenby perform the scene twice. The first time, Lazenby came to tears, at which point Hunt promptly yelled “CUT” and informed Lazenby that “Bond does not cry.” This, however, wasn’t the only obstacle that Hunt had to overcome in his directorial debut. The whole “George Lazenby as the new Bond” thing was problematic in so many ways. Initially the producers wanted some sort of rewrite to include Bond having a plastic surgery to make himself look different and thereby elude his enemies.  Eventually that idea was scrapped, and the plan became just to run with this new Bond as though there had been no change, and to have cast regulars such as M, Q, and Moneypenny treat him just a little more special. Tie-ins to other Bond films were included. The decision was also made to make the best possible film that could be rendered; as in You Only Live Twice, no expense was spared on locations or effects.
Hunt was quoted as saying that he wanted every shot and every angle to be as interesting and as perfect as possible. The Alps give much cinematic beauty to this film as there are many sweeping shots of the resplendent scenery throughout the film. Also noteworthy is the fantastic “fast-cut”* work that really livens up the action sequences, a technique which had been developed extensively for the franchise by Hunt himself during his time as editor of the early Bond Films, but used to its fullest extent in this film.
Additionally, one of the most fantastic sets ever was acquired as the location for Blofeld’s mountaintop fortress/allergy clinic: The Piz Gloria. The Piz Gloria is a real place, the world’s first revolving restaurant on top of a mountain; it is really on top of a Swiss Alp, and really is only accessible by helicopter or cable car. In real life the place is still called Piz Gloria, not just because of the fame brought to it by this film, but also because without the film, it is questionable as to whether the building would have been completed. When the director and producers were scouting locations, they came upon the Piz Gloria (at that time only partially completed), and financing for the project had dried up. In exchange for exclusive shooting rights, the film’s producers agreed to a large cash payment and assistance in the completion of its construction.
                Peter R. Hunt could be called the real hero of this James Bond film, not just because he saw through to completion what had to be one of the most difficult Bonds to produce, not because he had to work with a completely unknown and untrained actor as his Bond, but because he clearly took the time and effort necessary to turn what would could have been the whimpering finale of the Bond series into a majestic classic which stands up against all of the other films in this classic franchise.** As for George Lazenby, he tried hard, and put in a very good performance as Bond, but alas—much like Val Kilmer in his one-time turn as Batman—he will always be remembered as the “new guy.”
*Credit must potentially be given to Jean-Luc Godard as well, for he pioneered the use of “jump cuts” in his classic 1959 debut, Breathless.
**It is perhaps worth noting that there is no title song in this Bond, ostensibly because the producers felt it would be too much like a "Gilbert and Sullivan" opera if such a long title were turned into a song lyric.  Instead, there is a musical love montage, featuring "We Have All the Time in the World" by Louis Armstrong, which would turn out to be his last recorded song. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

You Only Live Twice - Dir. Lewis Gilbert (The Bond Project #5)

You Only Live Twice (1967)
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
 
James Bond Gets Yellow Fever
by Jay Maronde
 
Every so often in the course of filmmaking history, all the aspects and fates and personalities of a particular project come together in a perfect amalgam that yields an outstanding piece of cinema that truly stands the test of time. You Only Live Twice is certainly an example of this rare occurrence. The film, while possibly not the best Bond, is nevertheless a tremendous epic and a highly entertaining Bond--which is a refreshing reprieve after all the underwater nonsense of the previous film.     

To really understand this fortuitous collaboration, one must first place certain events in their historical context. First, Bond, and spy films in general, were hugely successful and outrageously popular at this time during the 1960s, so there was a huge budget for YOLT.  Though by this point Sean Connery had expressed his desire to retire from the Bond franchise, he was essentially bribed with a contract far larger than the entire budget of Dr. No, plus a promise of 12.5% of the film's gross earningsSecond, The Cold War was steaming away, so the opportunity for Bond to literally stop World War III from breaking out betwixt the USA and USSR seemed almost too good to be true from a production stand point. Finally, the James Bond cinematic franchise was very popular in Japan, so the opportunity to shoot the movie (which would be based on a book that one screenwriter referred to as "essentially a travelogue of Japan") on location was impossible to pass up.

Which while we are on the topic of "passing up," the director Lewis Gilbert tried repeatedly to pass on directing this movie, but a personal call from producer Albert R. Broccoli, who said, "You can't give up this job. It's the largest audience in the world,” luckily changed his mind. So with production locations much more difficult to find for the next Bond in the pipeline, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and I should mention that certain prints of the film Thunderball contain the closing credit that: “James Bond will return in OHMSS”) the producers chose to revamp what was the last Ian Fleming James Bond novel published during Fleming’s lifetime (the rest were released posthumously), and so came the delightful You Only Live Twice.   

The making of You Only Live Twice wasn’t all plum sake and cherry blossoms though--there were definitely some obstacles to be overcome. First and foremost, the novel has little to no plot, at least not one that could appropriately serve as the basis for an epic action film. To solve this problem two separate screenwriters were brought in. First, a man named Harold Jack Bloom was given the task, and while the producers didn’t like his outcome, they used enough of his ideas to give him the “additional story material” credit. The second person was an inexperienced writer (in film, at least) and friend of Ian Fleming’s, who would go on to have tremendous literary successes of his own: Roald Dahl.

Yes, that Roald Dahl, who wrote many beloved children's novels (one of which was adapted into the cinema classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and others which were made into memorable films such as The Witches, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and the more recent Fantastic Mr. Fox) was commissioned to write the screenplay. The novel didn’t really leave him much to work with, but the man definitely had a fantastic imagination, so he ran forward with a big, broad, epic sweeping story, which he said was the best he could do with the “formula” that he was told to work with. Personally considering the influential outcome (most notably inspiring huge parts of the Austin Powers Film series--which I was trying to avoid mentioning in these reviews--particularly Dr. Evil as an obvious parody of the fantastic performance of Donald Pleasence) of the film, I think he did a more than adequate job.

It should be noted however, that YOLT deviates from the “formula” in certain ways: Bond spends almost the entire movie in one country (Japan) and rides in a Toyota. YOLT is actually the only film in which James Bond never drives any car. Also, the car he rides in is a custom “roof-less” model, made to look like a convertible in the film, but the cars (only two of which were ever manufactured, with one currently in the James Bond Museum and one in a private collection) had to have their roofs removed for filming, not necessarily to look “cool,” but because Sean Connery was simply too large to fit in the car with the roof.  Moreover, YOLT is also the first film to deviate substantially from the original novel: the only matching elements of the stories are the characters of James Bond and Kissy Suzuki and the country of Japan. Thus, almost the entirety of the script is a result of the sheer genius of Dahl. 

Dahl wasn’t the only genius involved in this production; director Lewis Gilbert also exerts his cinematic talents to the fullest. Most notable was his work with set designer Ken Adams to achieve the fantastic look of the film. Even very early on in the film, this writing/directing/set-designing trilogy of geniuses work out all sorts of issues, like how Bond should be briefed by M and Moneypenny if he is never to step foot in Great Britain (he meets them in a unique office within a British submarine) and how he is going to receive his traditional Q branch briefing without going to their offices either. While on the Topic of Q branch, Desmond Llewelyn returns yet again to equip 007, except in a clever twist to include the gadgets (and therefore stay within the “formula”), Bond requests that “M send Little Nellie and her Father.” Little Nellie is the name the franchise gives to the Wallis Auto Gyro. This was a real, working, mini-helicopter on which Bond has one of his most memorable scenes of the entire franchise: he fights off a whole wing of angry enemy helicopters in an epic air battle that was a tremendous feat of filmmaking so essential to the rest of the production that it consumed over five hours of film and a camera person's foot, which was severed in the process.

Another outstanding part of this film is Ken Adam’s amazing volcano set, which is stormed by an army of ninjas. The volcano is the setting for the finale of the film at the evil villain’s super-secret lair (and was also the inspiration for Dr. Evil's lair in the first Austin Powers movie)--easily one of the most recognizable artifacts from this film. In real life, the volcano base, which was constructed outside of London at Pinewood Studios, was almost 150 feet tall, could be seen from 3 miles away, and really had a working heliport and monorail. Clearly without the tremendous budget allocated for this film, such an extraordinary set would not have been available to the production staff.

Many have said that You Only Live Twice was only successful because it followed the standard James Bond Formula of "girls, gadgets and action," but I would espouse that the film’s success comes from its producers following the far more classic formula of a creative script, a budget that spared no expense, a talented group of actors and production workers, and superb timing.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Never Say Never Again - Dir. Irvin Kershner (The Bond Project #4.5 (Thunderball Remake))


A THUNDERBALL ADDENDUM ::: NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983)
The Super Ugly
by Jay Maronde

So if you read my review of Thunderball, you probably remember that there was a prolonged legal battle stemming from the very beginning of the film. As part of the settlements, one of the original collaborators, Kevin McClory, was awarded the film production rights to the story. In 1983, Mr. McClory, and Warner Brothers film studios put those rights to use and released the extremely controversial Never Say Never Again, in which the entire story of Thunderball is re-imagined. This was not an “Official” James Bond film, as EON productions released Octopussy the very same year, and as such I will not be writing an official review of the film, (at least not with this collection of essays.) I do, however, believe that this film deserves some note and so this ever brief commentary will serve as such.
I like this film. I find it amusing. However, I feel Thunderball is infinitely better. The plot is essentially the same. In what may be the most shocking case of "cash-making-someone-eat-their-words" in Hollywood history, the Bond is the same; a "retired" Sean Connery was coerced into reprising his role. Despite Connery's usually welcome presence, this is one of the huge gaping flaws with the film. Bond looks super-duper old, borderline geriatric, and the fact that he is staying at a health farm during the start of the movie should come as no surprise, because compared to his Bond of almost two decades before, he looks decrepit. The film also has a very beautiful actress playing Domino, a very young Kim Basinger, who I will gladly admit is great in her role, exceedingly beautiful, and actually a better casting decision than the aged Connery. But for my money, she’s no Miss France, Claudine Auger, who is so beautiful I currently have one her press photos from Thunderball as the wall paper for my phone. 

The one part of the film that  I will concede to be better than Thunderball  is the yacht. The yacht is bigger, which was mostly due to that fact that 20 years of yacht building technology had happened, and yachts had gotten bigger. This isn’t even to say I don’t like the original yacht because I do, but the new one is certainly bigger. The yacht also highlights for me where this all went wrong: the movie lacks all the standard class of James Bond. The new yacht is  named the English translation of the old yacht’s name (The Disco Volante became the Flying Saucer). 
This "dumbing-down" underscores the common critical complaint about this particular Bond: almost all of the usual class and suave has been removed from the character by various directing/script decisions. As far as I am concerned, the rest of this movie is tasteless, and in a way almost only worth viewing as a sideshow piece to be compared to the canon of true Bonds.

Monday, September 17, 2012

James Bond 007: Thunderball - Dir. Terence Young


James Bond 007: Thunderball (1965)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
by Jay Maronde

                Thunderball, the fourth film in the James Bond film franchise, takes the series to some new places and some old places, but the journey could be the longest and most fraught of all the Bond films. In the course of making an omelette you gotta break a few eggs right? Well Thunderball is one hell of an ugly omelette, and there are definitely a few egg shells in there, but is quite delicious nonetheless. So in my usual spirit of optimism I’m going to explain first the ugly, then the bad, and then the good; so the reader leaves with a pleasant taste in their mouth.
                Thunderball was supposed to be the first Bond film. Ian Fleming and a team of collaborators wrote the original screenplay many years before Dr. No in what would be a failed attempt to start the Bond movie franchise. Terrence Young, who returns to direct this Bond (making it his 3rd) would later comment that it was a lucky twist of fate that Dr. No was made first, as its meager one million dollar budget would have been insufficient for such a large effects-heavy film. One could easily understand if this were the reason for Thunderball’s "delayed" production, but the truth is much much uglier, as most all lawsuits are. That’s right, I said lawsuit. 
                You see dear reader, shortly after an early studio team denied production of the original Thunderball script, Ian Fleming cannibalized the story for a James Bond book, with the same title (As he was apt to do, considering that at the time he was producing not only Bond books, but also short stories, and comic books.). This obviously upset the other collaborators, and they sued. 
                The lawsuits went on for many years, and some of the rights were eventually re-assigned to the other collaborators. Head amongst this cadre of former writing buddies turned litigants was the ultimate Bond villain in history: Kevin McClory. Mr. McClory was very upset that he felt his ideas were stolen (wow an intellectual property battle in the 1960’s--James Bond is ahead of his time even in the world of litigation) and as a result of the lawsuit was not only given a producer credit, but was awarded the rights to the story. He was unhappy with this arrangement: he had always wanted to direct the film, and besides continuing his lawsuits well into the next millennium, he also would go on to direct a Warner Brothers produced version of the film later in the 1980’s that was called Never Say Never Again. Personally I feel that this highlights the ugliness surrounding the film: the disgrace to the series is still incomprehensible to this day.
                Clearly Thunderball was a film that has its issues, but with legal hurdles cleared, production continued, and with the “spy film fever” at its height, no expense was spared, and while spending a lot of money can very often produce great action movies, certain aspects of this film go too far over the top. Certainly for this writer, and many other of critics throughout history, the verdict is clear: this film DRAGS. The opportunity was there, and Young apparently couldn’t stop himself from literally putting everything but the kitchen sink onto the screen. Peter Hunt, the film's editor, stated that he “simply needed more editing time, the original cut was over four and half hours,” to explain the two month delay in releasing the film. Even at the final cut of over two hours the movie still seems to drag. 
                Bond simply exhausts every locale, woman, toy, hotel, and situation. And while the underwater scenes are fantastic, they go on too long, and I’ve also heard rumors that numerous divers died while filming the extensive underwater battles. I’m sorry to say this, but even though the filming and the idea of an underwater movie/ battle was new and interesting at the time, the film leaves you with the feeling that you’ve just watched the newest Jacques Cousteau documentary. 
                Another part of the film that Young goes too far with is the women. Perhaps because of Bond’s extreme success with the misogyny and “pimpin-ness ” during Goldfinger, Bond seems to go even farther during this movie. He has company-funded lady sidekicks both in Paris and Nassau, and he quickly blackmails a nurse at the health farm into a steam room tryst. After he fornicates with Fiona Volpe (played masterfully by the gorgeous Luciana Paluzzi (who auditioned for the role of Domino, but while not cast, so entranced the producers that they changed the script to include her character)) she reveals herself to be a SPECTRE agent, and Bond tells her: “My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself, what I did the evening was for King and Country, you don’t think it gave me any pleasure do you?” Overall I don’t feel the misogyny plays as well or is as endearing for the character, and most of Bond’s liaisons don’t contribute to anything besides the already too long run time.
                One tryst that doesn’t just add to the run time is Bond’s seduction of the evil villain Largo’s girlfriend Domino. Claudine Auger was a former Miss France and a Miss World runner up, and considering all her snorkeling scenes, gorgeous is too weak of a word and more fitting would be “wet dream.”  Here again Bond seduces the villain’s girlfriend, and this time it directly helps him save the world, as she is eventually the one to kill the villain in the final scene aboard the Disco Volante. 
                 The boat is also a huge part of the movie, the final scene in the film is a massive boat chase climaxing with an Oscar-caliber explosion. In fact the movie would win the academy award for effects most notably for the final explosion and destruction of the boat. In real life the explosion was produced using an experimental rocket fuel supplied by the US armed services and when the charges were lit on the day of the filming, many windows along the beachfront in Nassau (30 miles away) were shattered.  Nassau also plays a prominent role in the film as Bond once again returns to the Caribbean, which served as the perfect location for filming the numerous undersea battles including the famous "battle royale" between a US Navy SEALs team and the villain’s henchmen.
                Finally, before I close I would like to comment on one of my other favorite parts of this film: The theme song: “Thunderball,” which is performed to iconic perfection by none other than Tom Jones. This song was actually the third version recorded for the film as the other two (recorded by Shirley Bassey, later re-recorded by Dionne Warwick and hidden until the later 1990’s) were deemed unacceptable by the producers. Johnny Cash also recorded a version of the song, which told the story of the film in its lyrics, but was never used*. The song is EPIC, and during its recording Tom Jones actually passed out from the exertion of belting out the final note. Much like the rest of this film, while utterly fantastic, apparently it’s so fantastic that sometimes it sucks all the oxygen out of the room.
                 Thunderball is not without its moments, but after the high watermarks set by the first three Bond films, all of which may fairly be considered true cinema classics, the viewer cannot help but feel a vague sense of disappointment.  As Sean Connery prepared to pass the role onto the next actor, and as other actors would similarly "pass the torch" a few more times, the franchise always had (and still has) the potential to have new life breathed into it.    

NOTES (by JK)
*While Tom Jones turns in a stunning performance of this song that is clearly most appropriate for the opening titles, the Johnny Cash song demands to be heard.  Not only does it feature the excellent songwriting and original singing style that made Cash the legend he became, but it also sounds like "Ring of Fire" and could be considered a sort of "companion piece" to that classic.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress: Exams/Grades

This is labeled NIED #15 on my computer, but this is the second NIED column to be rejected (and it may be the shortest--but the notes I have added in this post may make it the longest).  The first was "Batman in Aurora" which became a "Special Comment" on Flying Houses rather than an Op-Ed for the BLS Advocate.  That decision I could understand.  There, I was not writing precisely about law school, but there was only a tangential issue discussing a potential expansion of tort liability (on which I am, unfortunately, not an expert).  As may be clear from this blog I am pretty much incurably obsessed with Batman due to my film project and I mainly wanted to write about Batman*. 

This column, however, is very much about law school, but was rejected because the editorial board of BLS Advocate agreed that the point I was trying to make wasn't clear.  I will let you decide for yourself and comment.  This is unedited.  

The next NIED column for BLS Advocate will be #16.  #15 will not appear on BLS Advocate unless by way of reference.  


NIED #15: Exams/Grades             
By this point probably no one who finds this article does not realize that law school grades are derived almost entirely from an anonymously-graded exam given once at the end of a semester. Perhaps there are a couple readers stumbling upon this piece that do not realize profs may boost your grade up to 1/3 of a letter based on your in-class participation.  Those are the two single-most-acknowledged elements of law school grading – at least for 1Ls. 2Ls, 3Ls (and 4Ls, now, as they have apparently become recognized as a class) have a possible third element: write a paper.  Obviously, if you want to have control over your grade, and there is a paper option for the course (“in lieu of an exam”), write the f***ing paper**. Those courses are few and far between, though, and many are 2 credits.  And Legal Writing, I think most will agree, is not exactly a walk in the park, though the past elements of control are present. 
***Grade school, high school, and college grades were comprised of a mix of quizzes, tests, exams, papers, homework assignments, and class participation. Taking out quizzes, tests, and papers seems like a relief from the student’s perspective, but there are still “homework assignments.” However, while some profs will threaten to lower your grade by 1/3 of a letter, my guess is that this is a rare occurrence that only happens to the student who completely does not give a f***(****), does not read, barely makes it to 50% of classes, gets high in the morning, and feels as if they can magically intuit the rules of the law for the course. Thus, there is a distinct possibility that the majority of students occupy some region in between super-smart-nerd and super-dumb-jock, and that no matter how strong your understanding of the course, no matter how many trenchant comments you make or questions you ask, there is always a risk that your mind will explode when the proctor yells, “BEGIN!” and you hear a hundred booklets being flipped over, and you know the professor has said no cheating, no study aids, this is a closed book exam—but maybe they say “limited open book”—just bring your Code—and they tell you “no writing in your Code” but you know, you know that students are writing in their Code. Or else they have a crib*****.
There is just as much (if not more) cheating going on at law school as there was in grade school, high school, or college. And this time—we’re expected to believe—our grades actually matter. Sometimes profs themselves are just flat-out negligent when writing their exams******. Last year I took an open book exam and I brought in one of my “practice answers” from a previous exam given by the same professor. The same question, verbatim, appeared.  I looked at my answer and thought to myself, “Well, this will be a nice way to make up some time.”
But then doubt seeped in—what if I hadn’t written a great practice answer? Sure, I had reviewed that answer with other students previously, but did I take all of their comments properly into account? Whatever, I needed the time, and it was a decent answer.  I started transcribing from my three-ring binder that held all of my study materials and I looked up at a proctor for a moment. He seemed to be looking right at me—like I was turning my head from page to screen, page to screen, page to screen, in a clear act of cheating. I didn’t want to cause any commotion, so I stopped, thought to myself, “Even if I can’t transcribe this, I know this, and I know it better now than I did then.”
But then again, I am an open book. Most students—I recall—at least those that had their practice answers with them—did just transcribe. Some people in another exam cried or else threw-up; others wrote more in their Codes than (ambiguously) permitted. Most of the time there is no great surprise and everyone seems remarkably sure of themselves and it is in those instances where I know that I just f***ed up*******.
All the mystery, stress, paranoia, cheating, and loneliness of exam-taking should be thrown out of the law school curriculum********.  Unfortunately we live in a world governed by the ABA, and though most people will agree that there could be better alternatives, we’re not permitted to consider them.  Keep teaching Property as a core first year course.  Keep grading anonymous.  Keep exams in the same basic format, even though you could get way more creative and actually test practical skills.  Keep the OCI system in place.  I must admit, it feels mighty good to be this helpless in a system purportedly teaching us to help.

Christopher J. Knorps is a 3L at Brooklyn Law School.  He enjoys studying bankruptcy law. 

NOTES
*See http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2012/09/batman-in-brooklyn-mission-statement.html (a very long piece on the Batman film I will make), http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-dark-knight-rises-dir-christopher.html (a review of the newest film, qualified immediately below in this note), http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2012/08/special-comment-batman-in-aurora.html (the piece referenced), http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2012/07/killing-joke-alan-moore-and-brian.html (a review of a famous Batman comic), http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2012/06/dark-knight-returns-frank-miller-with.html (a review of a famous Batman graphic novel). As a side note, I saw The Dark Knight Rises again last weekend, and after a second viewing I will fully admit that it is a flawed film, and suffers from an extremely "non-creative" script.  The first half of the film is excellent, but I might go so far as to say the second half of the film is laughable (sample line: 1: So, you came back to die with your city? 2: No, I came back to stop you.  --Should be changed to-- 1: So, you came back to die with your city?  2: No, I just wanted a rematch.).  Regardless, my rankings stand (still feel Dark Knight Rises eclipses Batman Returns) and I still believe everyone should see it.  (Though--other side note--I am very much looking forward to the forthcoming review of License to Kill for The Bond Project....)

Notes below represent edits/comments related to the "unpublishability" of "Exams/Grades."  

**Some might consider this to be an uncouth sentence and the use of the (expurgated) f-bomb to be entirely unprofessional.  However, I use this language to underscore the force of my advice.  I took one class with this option, and while the paper sounded like a huge pain in the butt to juggle with everything else, in retrospect several students told me they wished they wrote the paper.  Not only was it my highest grade, but it was as close to getting the "journal experience" (by which I mean, concentrating the utmost care upon every single word and citation, and organizing one's thoughts and research into a coherent and readable article) as possible for a non-member.  Bottom line: if you have the option, DO NOT take the exam.  You obtain a more robust educational experience, and you will be able to better control your GPA.

***Those past elements of control were present during the earlier stages of our academic upbringings.  

****Language used to underscore the degree to which a student must fail to participate to enable grade-lowering.  I do not like sitting in the back row of law school classrooms because I get distracted by all of the other students being distracted by facebook, news sites, gmail, or, most odious to the poor student, online shopping.  These students may still give a f*** despite their rank indifference to the professor speaking in front of them.  The students that stay up all night doing blow, sleep through class, and attend exactly 40% of classes (or fails to attend because attendance is not actually taken in many classes) and who manage to ace the exam--even they can slip from the professor's memory as being a "poor participant" due to their excellent exam performance.  This is one of the vaguer forms of "cheating" that occurs with surprising regularity.  However, this is an apparent contradiction of my point, and this type of student generally is not going to ace the exam--and if they do, then it is a sign that they must "give a f***" to a certain degree.  Bottom line: students inevitably brag about how little work they do to score incredibly high, and that may cause frustration in the listener if they cannot compete with them.

*****This is an "inside joke"/reference to the most difficult exam I have ever taken (and which I understand, was also considered the most difficult exam any student in that class had ever taken).  If the point here was unclear, it is understandable, but further specificity could be interpreted as slander, which I do my best to avoid in NIED columns.

******I would remove this line if published by BLS Advocate in accordance with the note directly above. I do not believe this professor is negligent--and indeed repeating a question from an earlier exam may not be considered negligence--but rather a gift to the students that made the effort to tackle every practice exam.  However, other professors are certainly negligent in the exams they give students:
They owe us a duty (to foster our understanding of an area of law)
They breach that duty (by testing a concept that they gave short shrift in class)
They cause an injury (to the student's grade because the student could not prepare to answer a question which the professor did not indicate would be tested on the exam)
They cause damages (which are extraordinarily difficult to monetize).
This could be the topic of a long rhetorical essay (and would need to proceed on a case-by-case basis, as some students are just whiners, and some professors will actually spend 5 minutes talking about something, actually put it on the exam, and actually expect students to appropriately focus their efforts on the most time-consuming topics, and quickly note the "5 minute topic") and I will stop here.

*******Language used to underscore the extraordinary sensation of failure and impending sadness caused by such an event.

********This final paragraph could be another major reason for "unpublishability."  Here I come out with guns blazing so my words may be taken poorly.  The point is that "law school reform" is a joke, and there must be real reform if we want to produce an environment where students will be encouraged by their experience and accordingly "be fair" in their practice of law and not discouraged by some of the rank inequalities (potentially causing "ruthless" and/or "morally bankrupt" legal careers) that arise in an "imperfect, though best possible" system.  Bottom line, and basic point to the article: exams are probably the #1 claim students may have against law schools for negligent infliction of emotional distress, and devising a better system where this is no longer the case is definitely possible.  But schools fear the wrath of the ABA.  They fear that "experimental" procedures will reflect poorly on the academic ability of their students.  It's perfectly understandable.  This does not mean however, that people should refrain my imagining alternatives, or writing about their feelings on the matter, even when they concede an important point.  Such passivity allows a totalitarian regime to continue to dominate its subjects and no person who claims to believe that the free exchange of ideas leads to positive societal developments can argue otherwise.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

James Bond 007: Goldfinger - Dir. Guy Hamilton


James Bond 007: Goldfinger (1964)
Bond Goes Blockbuster
by Jay Maronde

The third cinema installment of the 007 franchise takes Bond to a fantastic new level, a level which manages to raise the bar for the films of the franchise in so many new ways that its initial release not only changed the world of Bond, but the whole world’s perception on not only the secret agent film genre but the entire concept of James Bond. That’s right, I said it, Goldfinger redefines not only the world of “Bond” but redefines and elucidates the essence of Bond to the world. Pray tell how one film could do so much?..... Well that’s what this article is about! 
First and Foremost let us start with the “firsts.” Goldfinger is the first film in which Commander Bond steps foot in America. It’s also the first film with a completely tangential opening scene, in which Bond uses a fantastic duck snorkel to perform some unplanned demolition of a drug lab.  Now, obviously after your favorite secret agent blows up a South American cartel headquarters, he’s going to need to get out of town, pretty quickly, and obviously he’ll need to go to Fontainebleau* in Miami Beach for some well-deserved R&R.  Before Bond gets to MIA however, the movies cuts away to its fantastic opening sequence complete with the first Shirley Bassey theme song of the series. Bassey would go on to record several more uber-classic theme songs for the franchise, but “Goldfinger” (the song) was the first, and I’ve had its classic hook stuck in my head for more than a few days now.  While the music plays, the title credits roll and scenes from the film are shown projected on gold painted body parts of a beautiful woman.
 This is where the story really begins after the opening credits: Here we find our AMERICAN friend Felix Leiter, tracking down Bond to give him a new assignment, and as Bond and Leiter meet for the first time, the fantastic misogyny begins to ooze, and the metamorphosis of  Bond’s pop cultural definition as the ultimate ladies’ man begins.  Don’t get me wrong, the first two movies contain numerous references to Bond’s proclivities as a lush, but here in this first Miami scene he quickly dispatches his (second (in the film)) lady friend with a smack on the ass and the comment that he and his friend need to have “man talk.” Now personally I love misogynistic Bond. He’s the man, and he’s acting like it in a way that would make a Barnard girl’s skin crawl.  This attitude/swagger/charisma/skew is what makes Bond EPIC, but it does come with its pitfalls: if Bond is more extreme in his character then certainly much more extreme things must happen. And they do. As such the now long-standing Bond tradition of “Sex for dinner, death for breakfast” begins in earnest. Bond’s first move in Miami Beach (after donning an enviable post swimming baby blue terry-cloth onesie) is to not only steal the main villain’s “girlfriend” but to cause Mr. Auric Goldfinger to lose a $15,000 game of cards. (That’s 1960’s money remember, gold is roughly $30/oz in the film, and current prices are well over $1500/oz, you can do the math if you are stickler type**.) Clearly the Villain is displeased, and Jill Masterson (who bears a striking resemblance to one of my favorite bartenders) has to die. Her death scene is not only one of the most referenced Bond lady deaths, but also has inspired its own “Mythbusters” episode, was highlighted with a huge spread in LIFE magazine, and was even referenced in JB007:#22 Quantum Of Solace by way of Strawberry Fields's death. Sadly for the fictional Masterson parents, Jill’s sister also dies in a 007 exploit later in the film.
Another area of "firsts" comes from Q branch. Having realized the popularity of the Quartermaster Corps and the average film-goers fascination with Bond’s gadgets, the producers chose to include a full scene where Bond travels to the Q-branch offices. Herein Bond gets his now standard tour of the new “tools” in development, and is assigned his new car: The Aston Martin DB5. Bond’s car might be the only thing more famous than himself (possibly because its non-fictional) and in an ironic footnote of history, the Aston Martin Company almost didn’t go for it. I’m certainly sure that now they are quite glad they did as Bond’s Classic DB5 is one of the most recognizable cars in global popular culture, and now as they are currently in production as of BOND23, Bond is once again driving an Aston. Further, the producers licensed an “official” JB:DB5 toy car, which later became the bestselling toy of 1964. All these "firsts" are dwarfed in comparison to the big first: THE MONEY.
The Guinness Book Of World Records lists Goldfinger as the fastest grossing movie EVER. In fact, Goldfinger was produced with a budget of the two other Bond films combined. That three milllion dollars of 1964 money (approx. $22M in 2012) yielded a movie that would become the first blockbuster in the franchise. Goldfinger’s producers’ recouped their money in roughly a week, the movie then went on  to gross over $124 million dollars (again, 1964 money, inflation calculators figure that amount would be roughly equal to $850 million in today dollars) in fact the movie was so popular that some cinemas were compelled to stay open 24 hours a day and continuously show Goldfinger just to keep up with popular demand.     
Shockingly, the box office figures only comprised a fraction of the film franchise's profits in other arenas. The producers also “struck Gold,” as it were, by licensing everything they could think of--from lunch boxes, to menswear, to albums. This remarkable amount of money directly correlates to how Goldfinger changed the game even for Bond. Director Guy Hamilton’s new "Uber-Bond" was such a smashing success that spy movies became so popular that in 1965 came the release of no less than 20 other Spy Genre films. The whole world had gone Bonkers for Bond.
The new James Bond of Goldfinger is amazing, in no small part due to the man playing him. This film was Sean Connery’s third appearance as Bond, and the actor seems to fill out the role like never before. Maybe it was just the standard cultural misogyny of the 1960’s or what have you, (I couldn’t tell you, I’m too young to remember) but Connery seems even more perfect as Bond as soon as the first well-gaffed ass smack comes during the scene in Miami. He then proceeds to evoke even more Bond perfection as the movie goes on. During the course of this film, James Bond not only talks his way out of a laser death machine (and by the way, lasers weren’t even invented yet, making that another Bond First), but winks his way out of jail cell, and literally saves the world with his “Mojo.” In all of these scenarios Sean Connery’s gratuitous personal swag comes across the silver screen as clear as an azure summer afternoon and completely “sells” each scene. Only an actor reprising a role which he has already worked extensively on could possibly exude such confidence of character***. Connery and Bond merge forever into the pop culture collective. Connery was great and he knew it; but this led to some very interesting complications, most of which had to do with money. 
As the movie was being filmed and the popularity was growing, Connery realized he should get more money. As such, and due to an injury he suffered during filming, Connery negotiated a 5% cut from the take of all the Bond Films he would star in. (Again, in case math isn’t your forte: 5% of $850 million, is $42.5 Million.) Connery had redefined Bond and movie stardom as a whole.               
All these fantastic gizmos, and lasers, and Gold would be for naught if Connery had been cast beside losers, or nobodies, or even just plain crap actors, so I personally feel that one of Director Guy Hamilton’s most outstanding contributions to whole world of Bond, was to be able to cast wonderful, memorable, important actors to the other roles. The real standout in history is the casting of Honor Blackman as “Pussy Galore,” Goldfinger’s personal pilot, and boss of her very own “Flying Circus.”  First off let us note that this is another Bond Film "first": the blatant hyper-sexualizing of a female name. This (one of my favorite) Bond traditions, has been “flirted” with many times throughout the course of the rest of the franchise, but I really don’t think anything can come close to “Pussy Galore.” Blackman was already famous from “The Avengers” and this played no small part in her being cast. In fact, part of the script was re-written to highlight her judo skills. Further, Pussy’s role as the leader of an all-female cadre of pilots has served to highlight the middle century views of women’s empowerment, and establish Pussy as a feminist foil to Bond’s rampant misogyny. Without the yin there can be no yang, so inasmuch as Bond needed a feminist to offset his sexism, Connery also needed exquisite actors to star as his villains, and here Hamilton shines again.
Many, Many actors were considered and auditioned for the role of Auric Goldfinger. It was the title character of the next film in an already incredibly successful cinematic franchise. Eventually, with Orson Welles demanding an outrageous amount of money, the producers chose the German actor Gert Fröbe. The title character is wonderful. He acts exactly like one would imagine a super villain would: he cheats at everything, pays beautiful women to stay in his company, and always seems to have yet another killing machine for disposing of his enemies. He even has a golden gun! The super-secret about Fröbe was that (much like Ursula Andress in Dr. No) his English was atrocious. Hamilton had him phonetically deliver all his lines (at double speed, so his face looks right in the film) and then dubbed him using the voice of American actor Michael Collins.  Fröbe does such a fantastic job with the acting, and Hamilton with the editing that I never even would have guessed, had I not read it in Wikipedia.
If you were the world’s biggest super villain, clearly you are much too cool and important and busy to do your own bidding, plus you obviously need security. In Auric Goldfinger’s case, you already have a small army of Asian goonies at your beck and call, so your number one assistant obviously should be a Korean Manservant. And here, for our viewing pleasure, we come upon one of most famous cinematic villains ever in Oddjob. Hamilton’s casting skills were beyond reproach again as he cast the Olympic silver medal winning weight lifter Harold Sakata. Previous to GoldFinger Mr. Sakata had been a television wrestler. Hamilton saw him and immediately knew he had his villain. The fact that Mr. Sakata could also barely speak English was also no problem as the role had no words, merely a few well-placed grunts. It’s a tribute to both Sakata and Hamilton that the character of Oddjob still shines throughout all this, and to this day is referenced in many different areas of popular culture.
When the viewer considers the multiplicity of Bond "firsts," it is apparent that Goldfinger, like Dr. No and From Russia, With Love before it, made great strides**** in honing the "Bond formula" that has allowed it to stand the test of time and remain a viable franchise for 50 years.  No other character can lay claim to such a feat.  

 *The Fontainebleau Hotel was embroiled in litigation before Goldfinger was made.  This case (decided in 1959) has not been referenced on Flying Houses before, but was one of the more memorable topics in Property.  The Fontainebleau's owner did not like the neighboring hotel's owner, so he decided to construct an addition which would block the sunlight from the other hotel's pool and tanning area.  The court referenced the "ancient lights" doctrine and noted that it had been universally repudiated in the United States, even though it had been recognized in England (perhaps the producers of Goldfinger were enraged by such a notion, and used the location as a political statement--but it is highly doubtful).  The court ruled that the addition could be constructed, even though it was quite clear that the idea arose out of a personal dispute.  I could not stop writing about this case on my Property exam because I felt it had been so badly decided.  Of course, the neighboring hotel will suffer economic loss because people are not going to Miami Beach to tan in the shade.  -JK

**By my math, Goldfinger would have lost $750,000 in 2012 dollars.-JK

***Which leads me to wonder what Batman Forever would have been like had Michael Keaton retained the role.-JK

****One hopes that the writer of these reviews will be able to deliver a ranking of all Bond films after Skyfall is released.  It is difficult to tell whether he prefers Goldfinger to From Russia, With Love, though it seems clear that while he has great admiration for Dr. No, he does not consider it as strong a film as its two immediate sequels.-JK

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Animal Collective - Centipede Hz

The last time I wrote about music on Flying Houses was on July 20, 2010.  It was a review of the Pitchfork Festival and it is strangely enough one of the most popular posts on Flying Houses.  I felt it was a missed opportunity when I did not review this year's festival--but I only went to Saturday's shows, and felt that something so incomplete should not be included (but to summarize: Cloud Nothings in the driving rain playing 10 minute version of "Wasted Days" = euphoria/horror, 9.3/10; Atlas Sound playing slower songs in heavy torrential rain, Bradford Cox wearing suntan lotion he forgot to rub in, seemingly auditioning for a second career in stand-up comedy = hilarity/boredom and discomfort, 6.7/10; Lotus Plaza in between those two sets, Lockett's dreamy voice floating across the atmosphere through the trees, about two or three songs performed as they should be live = pure abbreviated satisfaction; 8.0/10; Wild Flag opening up with "See No Evil," closing with "Romance," and tearing s*** apart in between = ecstasy, 9.6/10; Sleigh Bells sounding way too eager to please, shouting "F***!" and "S***!" a lot as if exhausted/exhilarated, being way back in the crowd due to later set time and burgeoning popularity of that band = i'd rather be listening at home alone, 5.3/10; leaving before Godspeed You! Black Emperor because I felt that nothing could top Wild Flag, was bored, was tired, was there alone (horrible way to go).  In some fantasy world I'll get a job in Chicago and be there next year even though the Bar will be like, one week later, and actually have friends who like indie rock and will enjoy myself more--but in reality, the festival will probably continue to be populated by increasingly obscure bands, with the best moments saved for the rare new acts that happen to be magnificent, like Cloud Nothings.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Animal Collective played Pitchfork in Summer 2011--the only other year I missed besides 2008, which appeared to be the best line-up of any year, but I digress....I did sort of see Panda Pear at the 2010 Festival while waiting for LCD Soundsystem, but as has been the rumor, live, their band(s) does not seem to inspire excitement, but confusion, delirium, boredom, and incredulity.

It's all hearsay I guess, since I've never made an effort to see them live because of such fears, and because I like listening to their albums over and over just fine.  That said, I believe I stated that Merriweather Post Pavilion was the best album of the 2000s (better than Kid A), and that LCD's This is Happening would be remembered as one of the best of the 2010's (even though we are still in the early stages of the decade).  Where then, does Centipede Hz. fit in?

I am not going to open myself up to ridicule and claim that this album is better than Merriweather.  But I will say that the visual component of this album gives it another dimension that should be taken into account in any review.  Now true, most people do not want to put on a 53 minute collection of psychedelic visuals to complement the same 53 minutes of music.  You simply have to be on drugs in order to give yourself away to such a meditative exercise.  However, it is worth doing at least once.  I have done it at least five times, I think.

On the basis of the music alone, I might be inclined to agree with Pitchfork's 7.4/10 assessment of the album, but taking the visuals into account, this album deserves a score in the early 9's.  While the visual accompaniment is nothing new, it is a throwback to more innocent times for me.  It reminds me of going to see concerts at Irving Plaza ten years ago where, in between sets, the big projector screen would descend, and DJs would play either music videos or random songs with crazy visuals that only made sense on the most  esoteric level.  This was way better than standing awkwardly for thirty minutes, trying to think of something to say to your friend when you are amidst a spectacle and are curiously bereft of other interesting topics of conversation.

Centipede Hz. is basically made for this--but I have to be honest and admit my suspicion that it is also made especially for stoners.  Animal Collective albums have always been "druggy," but this album goes further than any of those and into all-out psychedelia in its visuals.  Sometimes they are exhilarating, hilarious, profound, spine-tingling, beautiful, or just awe-inspiring.  None of the videos seem professionally shot by the Collective's contemporaries, but rather appear to be pieces of "found footage" with a few self-made lo-fi shots thrown into the mix.  There is lots of repetition and sometimes the lyrics reflect the visuals, which is usually when it is most hilarious.  Like when there is a lyric about a "See-saw" and you see two horses on a see-saw.  Or when darker sounding songs include black-and-white videos that look like they came out of Cold War propaganda, or really sad/scary Disney-type animation.  In particular the openings of "Mercury Man," "New Turn Burnout," and "Amanita" just make me very excited for what is about to come.

But every song is good --there are about three great songs, and about four or five really good songs, and a remaining three or four sounds that are only merely good.

This is not as high a percentage as Merriweather, but these two albums are quite different.  Merriweather is unabashedly mainstream--or least as mainstream as you can get with Animal Collective.  Centipede is the 2nd most mainstream album they have made, and it is the 2nd best album they have made period, in my opinion.

I am sure that other people will claim Feels and Strawberry Jam and even Sung Tongs are better (to say nothing of comparisons to Panda Bear's solo work) but it depends on the kind of person you are, and the kind of mood you are in.  If you like your music fast, loud, weird, and thought-provoking--this is your album.  However if you like it slower, more contemplative, quieter, potentially pleasant-nap-inducing--surely Feels or Sung Tongs is up your alley (or Panda Bear's albums).  If you like an album that's a ridiculous mish-mash from beginning to end but builds to an undeniably mind-blowing mid-album 13 minute two-song suite, then Strawberry Jam is a good option.  And obviously if you like hearing highly-polished Animal Collective at their least weird and most poppy, Merriweather is the place to start (as it should be for anyone new to the band).

This is not a perfect album - I fully admit that a few songs I can look away from the visuals and do some reading or something - but most of the time my attention is too closely drawn, and the songs are just too awesome.  Particularly great is "Amanita" as a closing number, which, along with "Rosie Oh" and a couple other songs, has at least three distinct "parts" which you can't easily define as a verse or chorus, but that add something new each time so the song evolves, while still keeping its basic rhythm.  "Rosie Oh" and "New Town Burnout" are the two Panda Bear songs here, and while I want to say they are the best, I cannot.  While they are certainly among the best, you have to include several Avey Tare songs with them that are on just as high (if not a higher) level.  "Amanita" is the culmination of everything they do on this album, and in a way, their career.
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The last album reviewed here was on July 8, 2010.  It was Wolf Parade's Expo '86, which I praised.  That is [probably going to be?] Wolf Parade's last album, as they are now on indefinite hiatus.  I do not mind so much because if Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown ever toured together, it would become apparent that Wolf Parade is not greater than the sum of their parts.

Another review right before then was This is Happening which most people believe is the final LCD Soundsystem album.  I'm not trying to jinx Animal Collective by writing this.  I just write reviews of albums when I think they are special, or deserve comment.  The visual aspect of this album is what makes it incredible--and song-wise it's not too bad either.  But I hope that more bands in the future will take a similar approach to joining video and music--not necessarily in the expected music video format, but something like this.  It's true that Sonic Youth did a similar thing with Goo, but those videos are all, distinctly, music videos, usually directed by then-obscure, now-famous directors (Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, et. al.) and the album does not hang together as a cohesive whole but just feels like a collection of songs (and even though they're really good songs--the vast majority at least--the effect on the listener-viewer is nothing compared to that of Centipede Hz which is so powerful as to almost totally remove the spectator from reality).

And it is in my humble opinion, that removing the spectator from reality is one of art's highest aims--even if for only an hour, and even if reality must be faced again--these new, dream-like sensations nurture the soul, and may contribute to a person's happiness (if not long term, at least in the short term) and help them find a way to overcome the obstacles that the 2012 daily existence throws in their paths.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Batman in Brooklyn: Mission Statement

Why is Batman in Brooklyn Important?

Because it is a Batman movie.  All Batman movies are important at the time of their release (though opinions may differ, mine is that two of the films--or three--or four--are mostly forgotten to history, but five films endure).  Batman in Brooklyn will be important when it is released.  We are aiming for a release date of December 20, 2013.  The premiere must take place, of course, in Brooklyn.  Preferably at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

But aside from the excitement that each new Batman movie generates upon its release, Batman movies are important in general because they reflect society via metaphor (as all films should aspire to do).  This metaphor has been written about here previously (see "Batman in Aurora" post) but is essentially the struggle between good and evil--that is, the choice to be good or evil.

It is essential that Batman in Brooklyn be made because Brooklyn is Batman's true home.  Yes, I know Gotham City is his true home, and most people associate Manhattan with Gotham--but there are plenty of signs that Brooklyn is a more realistic setting for Batman than Manhattan (See The Dark Knight Rises denouement. See also Bloomberg's decision to divert all traffic in Manhattan so that a "g**d*** Batman movie" could be shot, in the words of Keith Olbermann).

I think it practically goes without saying that Batman is the most commercially successful comic book character film franchise--and will never be topped.  Not by Superman.  Not by Spiderman.  Not by Iron Man.  Not by The Avengers.  No.  (Not by Twilight.  Not by Hunger Games.  Not by Harry Potter.  And not by Fifty Shades of Grey either, or the Lord of the Rings for that matter.)

Those movies do not get nominated for Oscars.

Lord of the Rings did, but I challenge anyone to argue that that Trilogy is better than the new Batman Trilogy.  I do not think there is any better Trilogy except for the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones films.  I would rank one other Trilogy in the same class:

1) Star Wars (excluding the 3 new movies)
2) Indiana Jones (excluding the 4th)
3) "The Dark Knight" Trilogy
4) Back to the Future

The difference is that those films (ALL OF THEM!) are unrealistic action-adventure fantasy epics.  Batman is very much the story of modern society and all of its attendant psychological uncertainties.  (There may be some dispute as to whether BTTF is unrealistic, but most scientists agree that time travel into the past is impossible.)

Batman in Brooklyn is essentially a remake of the original Batman (1988) but elements have been added to the make this film entirely something new.  Here are the key differences:

1) Budget.

Batman had a massive budget, and was the most successful film in box office history (by opening weekend receipts) at the time of its release.  Jack Nicholson became the highest paid actor in film history (until Leonardo DiCaprio copied his idea for--surprise,surprise--Christopher Nolan's one-non-Batman movie amidst his trilogy--another highly-acclaimed film). But it took about ten years to make, numerous script revisions were made, and a last minute horse-riding accident necessitated re-casting the female lead (Kim Basinger subbing for Sean Young).  Roger Ebert's review (which gave the film 2 stars) said that it was beautiful to look at, but did not appear as if anyone had any fun while making it.

Batman in Brooklyn will be filmed on the most meager of budgets.  The special effects will be a joke.  But it will be fun to make.  And while it will exist in a metaphorical world where Marc Drier is not in jail in 2012, it will be directly situated in real world events.  While the make-up and costumes and art direction may suffer from some aesthetic deficiencies, it will be the quality of the performances that take the film out of the "remake genre" and into the "update genre."

Some films need to be updated, and some do not.  Superman was definitely in need of an update, and we will see how Man of Steel stacks up next summer, but Superman Returns was certainly a disappointment.  The original Superman is not bad at all - from what I understand (I've only seen most of Superman 2 - which I think most people consider comparable to the first) - but it is certainly a relic of its time.  Batman Returns is more of a relic of the early 1990s than is Batman, and so in a sense might be the better film to remake.  However, Batman Returns is a significantly more complex film.  Ebert also gave it 2 stars.

2) Not directed by Tim Burton.

Let me make this clear: I do like Batman Returns--a lot.  But, as Ebert I think correctly points out, the film is very episodic and lacks a coherent plot.  There are wonderful scenes--the opening scene is probably the most heartbreaking scene in any Batman film, period.  Danny DeVito does what he can with the role of The Penguin--but I believe the film suffers from "Burton-vision."

Let's delve even deeper into Burton and Ebert.  Interestingly, Ebert gave Beetlejuice 2 stars.  Beetlejuice may not be a 4 star film (which I would give it), but at least deserves 3.  Ebert concedes that it is a "fairly original" plot (understatement!) but then goes on to denounce Michael Keaton's performance!  He claims that every scene with Keaton is a misstep.  I believe this is patently false and time has shown that performance to be a stroke of comic genius.

(Note: I have not yet read the review of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure but I suspect it got 4 stars...)

It is interesting to note that Burton made Edward Scissorhands in between Batman and Batman Returns.  Ebert also gave Edward Scissorhands 2 stars (he may have given it 2.5, I can't recall).  Again, Ebert is wrong.  Note here that most of the time, I totally agree with Ebert.  I do not LOVE Edward Scissorhands, but it is better than 2 stars.  Deserves 3.  Many people would say it deserves 4.  Some consider it a classic film.

And then look at what Burton went on to do (everything?).  He directed Batman at age 29 (another reason I am meant to make Batman in Brooklyn).  He took Johnny Depp as his de-facto star, and in the 20 years since Batman Returns, became a Hollywood icon of the most unlikely sort, creating a visual style completely his own.

Also interesting to note: Tim Burton's first film was Frankenweenie--a live action film judged to be unsuitable for children.  Tim Burton's upcoming film is Frankenweenie.  Not live action, but "Nightmare Before Christmas-style" live action.  I do think it is important to remember that Tim Burton has made these films since 1992: Ed Wood (excellent), Mars Attacks! (underrated/misunderstood), Sleepy Hollow (boring), Planet of the Apes (a remake worse than the original, as they usually are--See The Parent Trap), Big Fish (excellent), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a remake worse than the original--but not without its certain charm and visual originality that Apes lacked), Corpse Bride (excellent--and though I may be in the minority here, an improvement upon Nightmare Before Christmas), Sweeney Todd (a film I could not watch for more than five minutes - boring), Alice in Wonderland (a remake worse than the original, and lacking a certain charm despite supposed visual originality--too weird), and Dark Shadows earlier this summer (never saw it, heard it was not good).  Frankenweenie will be out before the end of the year and looks to be a very emotionally compelling film. (Trivia: Johnny Depp is in 8 of these films and has appeared with alarming regularity since Charlie.)

 With Frankenweenie coming out, and Tim Burton's career coming "full circle" in some sort of sense, which includes more than its fair share of remakes, this is the perfect time to make Batman in Brooklyn.

3) Bloomberg.

The Mayor of Brooklyn is not Mayor Borg - but Mayor Bloomberg.  He is undoubtedly one of the most ridiculous mayors in American history, and his time will soon be up in New York.  Batman in Brooklyn is, on a sub-textual level, a critique of New York City Post-9/11.  It is a critique of capitalism and the fraud that it necessitates.  It is a critique of politics and media coverage.  Finally it is a critique of humanity--or rather, inhumanity.  That is, "silent/helpless observation," or "apathetic one-dimensional thought."  Whoever is next elected Mayor of New York has a great task ahead--but it will be their leadership that determines whether this city sinks (like in the 1980s) or is restored to another period of glory (2001-2002, late 1990s, mid-1960s, etc.).  Batman in Brooklyn will be the cinematic equivalent of The Prince - a text that informs the powerful how to best govern the citizenry.

4) No famous actors.

Batman in Brooklyn was going to be very important if D.A. Hynes of Brooklyn were to play himself, but word has recently leaked out that he is no longer interested in the project.  While this rumor has yet to be substantiated (I call statements made by press secretaries "rumors"), if it proves true, the project must go on regardless.

While Jay-Z might be a very good celebrity to get involved (or Brooks Lopez, who is apparently a big fan of Batman), we simply lack the personal connections to make such a business arrangement feasible.  But the project continues to evolve, and new forms of serendipity seem to affect it on a weekly, if not daily basis.  Anything is possible--until the scenes are shot.

5) New sub-plot.

The new sub-plot will make the film much more coherent than the original Batman because it will bring in more "macro" concerns that the "Dark Knight" Trilogy has been so good at incorporating.  I am being purposefully vague so I do not ruin the surprise.

However, I must state that some discussion of including Superman as a villain has taken place.  The final decision on this matter has not been made, but while there is a strong presumption in favor of including Superman, adding said element could be the proverbial straw to break the camel's back, given the apparent extraordinary difficulty of making Batman in Brooklyn in the first place.  Everybody wants to see Superman in a Batman movie, but we run the risk of turning the project into more of an absurdity than it already may be considered.

Why Would Batman in Brooklyn Fail?

Because I am not a professional director.  I did not go to film school.  While I will concede that this film is likely to be a failure, it will be completed, even if it gets to the point that I need to play (almost) every single role there is in it.  Batman in Brooklyn is a personal statement for me, and my love for film, and my love for Batman.

When I was about 6, I wrote a screenplay for "Star Wars Part 4" (which probably would have been better than The Phantom Menace proved to be about ten years later).  When I was 18, I opted into Blockbuster's 30 rentals for 30 dollars for 30 days deal - and I went to the store every single day to get a new film (most of them were Woody Allen movies).  I went to NYU, ostensibly for film school, but decided against it at the time.  I did not like the rigid structures that those students had to adhere to, and I did not see how I would make any money straight out of it.  So I focused on writing first.

And I tried to work in the real world.  And I wrote novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, and book reviews.

And I went to law school.  This is the real turning point in my life.  My writing dreams have been dashed due to my own personal belief that the book industry has died due to mass-ADHD-outbreak, where the only books that get read are those that are turned into massively successful film trilogies. And because I have gotten mired in the rigidity that is an education in legal doctrine, I rediscovered my love of film and the freedom such expression entails.

I do believe that law school has improved my writing (this post excepted--for various reasons, primary amongst them its personal nature) and Batman in Brooklyn is my attempt to show the world that just because I did not go to film school, just because it is not made with even "adequate" equipment, just because the players are not actors--but mostly law students (which requires a certain measure of acting skills, to be sure), just because there is no financing, just because it's probably a minefield of copyright and trademark infringements, just because I'm incredibly busy as a 3L looking for a post-grad job, along with balancing my coursework and all the other extracurricular commitments I've foolishly bought into, and just because nobody knows who I am, I can make a film that is truly different and great.

And I do believe, that while Batman in Brooklyn is likely to be a failure, it is a necessary failure--for it is only the first step in a planned set of four films (Back to the Future Part 2: Present to be released October 21, 2015; The Parent Trap Redux to be released November 18, 2016; and Older Wayne's World to be released October 27, 2017).  I know from my experience with writing novels that the first, at least for me, was primarily a learning experience.  I only hope that my experience with film will not cause me to abandon all future projects because of the extreme difficulty of it all.

I know that making a film is not an easy thing, but Batman in Brooklyn is not supposed to be easy.  However, it is supposed to be fun and if we have fun making it, even if it fails to find an audience, then it will bring me much happiness and personal satisfaction.