Sparky Clarkson

Jun 262017
 

How Good Is It?

Goldfinger shaped nearly every Bond filmed that followed for more than 50 years, and if you want to know why, consider this: on a budget of $3 million, it returned $125 million. In 2017 dollars that’s almost $1 billion in box-office revenue. If modern movie executives could make blockbuster bucks on the kind of budget you’d normally see for an awards-season dramedy ($24 million in today’s money) they’d try to make 40 of them too.

Thus the Goldfinger model emerged. Bond’s villains would mostly be megalomaniacs with no direct Cold War stake, setting up outrageous plots for world domination that Bond would foil using elaborate gadgets whilst inadvertently getting at least one beautiful woman killed. And, while these elements mostly range from silly to offensive, the formula stuck because it worked.

The action prologue works: it serves a featurette to quickly establish character and tone. The death of Jill Masterson works: it establishes Auric Goldfinger as a depraved, vengeful danger. The visit to Q branch works: it sets Chekhov’s Gadget on the table, setting up the anticipation of wondering how Bond will use that. Even Goldfinger’s cartoonish megalomania and absurd plot work because they make just enough sense to be threatening for the length of the movie, even as the script’s comedic aspects reassure that the hero will in fact save the day.

Goldfinger also works because it’s just a well-made film. Consider the seemingly absurd sequence where Bond crashes his Aston Martin because he saw headlights in a mirror. The film builds the logic of that moment clearly – his vision is obscured by the shattered glass, he is driving extremely fast, the layout of the plant is very confusing. There are many individual shots that establish the logic of how he is fooled by a mirror. It’s just solid work, and Guy Hamilton had, in this film at least, an eye for striking images. Jill Masterson on the bed is the most famous, but Bond’s spread-eagled imprisonment and tuxedo-beneath-wetsuit also quickly spring to mind. Of course, the importance of Harold Sakata’s marvelous turn as the villainous henchman Oddjob can hardly be overstated.

So, while the structural features of the film were consistently emulated, the core of its success is due to the quality of the script and direction. Even as Goldfinger’s plans spiral into ever-greater absurdity, the characters take action that makes sense for them (with the exception of the scene mentioned below), and the physical logic of every scene is perfectly clear. Goldfinger’s success is not a fluke; it’s a legitimately masterful film.

How Gross Is It?

That said, I think some modern audiences will find Goldfinger a bit hard to stomach. This isn’t a matter of pervasive awfulness, although the film arguably serves up two fridgings. Most of the film is perfectly acceptable, but the climactic scene between Bond and Pussy Galore is odious. It starts with the two characters judo-throwing each other in a decidedly non-flirty way, after which Bond crawls on top of Galore and, forcing her arms out of the way, kisses her without her consent. Connery’s body language screams sexual assault (which is, after all, what the scene depicts), and that’s not in the least moderated by Galore’s apparent willingness to continue the kiss once it’s initiated. It’s almost incomprehensible to me that this scene this could ever have been considered acceptable, much less romantic, and its stomach-turning nastiness really spoils the film’s final act.

How’s The Song?

Goldfinger marked the first time the theme was sung over the opening credits and it worked really well. The song “Goldfinger” regularly comes in #1 in top ten lists of Bond themes even today. This is remarkable because it’s not really that good of a song. I couldn’t imagine enjoying it separate from the film, which is a standard “From Russia With Love” meets easily. The big fanfare hits hard, and Shirley Bassey sells the hell out of it, so it’s not a loss. Still, the melody feels kind of dopey and the lyrics are, at best, a bit on the nose. The credits sequence, projecting moments from the film (and From Russia With Love) on gold-covered bodies, helps set the tone and sell the song. I can see why it worked, especially at the time, but “Goldfinger” doesn’t do it for me.

Jun 202017
 

Once again I’m talking exercise material: this time it’s The Seven Deadly Sins, a fairly typical shounen anime based on a manga by Nakaba Suzuki. The obvious formative influence on this one is Akira Toriyama. The art hews so closely to Toriyama’s style some of it almost seems traced, and the show plays out like a linear combination of Dragon Quest and Dragon Ball Z.

By this I mean there’s a Euro-medieval fantasy setting where the fights are usually one-on-one affairs where the points don’t matter and the power levels are always going over NINE THOUSAAAAAAND. Naturally the fight scenes also frequently serve as opportunities for the combatants to reminisce about their tragic pasts. It’s all entertaining enough if you turn off your brain and don’t try to construct a consistent picture of how strong anyone is relative to any other character.

Fanservice is at typical levels. Women dress absurdly skimpily unless they are evil, and the main character is a gropey pervert at whom women nonetheless constantly throw themselves. If you can’t stand that kind of shit consider yourself duly warned.

The one thing the show does well is pulling off well-built reveals, though it’s really best to hit the show without having watched any of the promotional materials. The first episode’s reveal of its Sin is skillfully done, and the late reveal of what’s actually up with Gilthunder is both clever and satisfying.

The first season resolution hinges on mysterious new powers being revealed at the last minute, which is a little disappointing, if typical. The “second season” on Netflix seems to consist solely of 4 completely disposable episodes that serve as an interlude between major arcs. They tie up a few loose ends from the first season but can otherwise be skipped without regret. Then again, the same could be said of the whole show.

Jun 202017
 

How Good Is It?

From Russia With Love is among the best Bond movies and pretty high up among spy movies, period. It’s unusually grounded for a Bond film, featuring a sensible Cold War espionage goal (obtaining a decoding device), a conventional means of getting it (turning a member of the embassy staff), and a reasonable complication (it’s a trap). Almost to the end of the film Bond thinks he’s facing a Russian op, and if that were true (rather than SPECTRE being behind it) the film would be an almost plausible tale of Cold War chicanery. Even the gadgets (this is the first film with Desmond Llewelyn as Q) all seem like something spies might actually have.

The concept also plays out quite well on the screen, with the exception of a fairly bad interlude in a Roma camp. Connery had a handle on Bond in this film and had figured out how to play him as an actual human being. Robert Shaw does the film a huge favor with his portrayal of SPECTRE assassin Don Grant, playing equally well as a silent threat and a huckster barely keeping his grift going. The fighting and gunplay are suitably inelegant although the action scenes start to go a little over the top towards the end.

An improved budget (double what Dr. No had) results in a better overall product with only a few moments of obvious fakery. As a result of all this From Russia With Love feels at once plausible and dreamlike, an early example of the “heightened reality” that would eventually animate superhero films.

One can imagine an interesting trajectory for the Bond films following on from this story, one where the focus is on small espionage coups of one kind or another that he facilitates or prevents. In this world he performs almost-plausible spy work in almost-plausible ways. It was not to be, however, as the runaway success of Goldfinger would shape the narrative of almost all Bond films for the next 50 years.

How Gross Is It?

From the moment the credits start showing up on the bare skin of belly-dancing ladies, you know Bond is about to get pretty gross. For all that it’s more grounded than its predecessor, From Russia With Love also treats its ladies worse. Sylvia Trench gets barely more than a moment, and Tatiana barely plays any role in the espionage op that’s centered on her. Her change of loyalty from the USSR to Bond receives no play, and she spends a good deal of the film absent or unconscious. Notably the film makes an early effort to elicit sympathy for her by portraying Rosa Klebb as a threatening lesbian, and letting Tatiana kill Klebb is the only agency the film really allows her.

At one point two women have a vicious catfight that is presented as the “traditional gypsy way” of settling disputes, which should tell you a lot about the movie’s implicit politics.

How’s The Song?

Although Goldfinger gets the credit as being first, From Russia With Love does have a theme song, but only an instrumental version plays over those cheesecake credits. The song eventually plays diegetically (in the scene with Trench) and over the closing credits. It’s a competent romance tune, performed by the guy who did Born Free, and does a competent job of evoking a feeling of nostalgic fondness. If the romance were really the centerpiece of the story, as opposed to just a plot strand, I might think more highly of it, but the song doesn’t really capture the essence of the film.

Jun 162017
 

How Good Is It?

Even at its outset, the Bond series had a tension between espionage action and comedy. While Dr. No falls squarely on the espionage action side, actually taking time to show Bond checking his room for bugs and checking to see if it was tampered with, the comedy still shows up a bit in the form of Bond’s one-liners and goofy stuff like the “dragon”.

As a film Dr. No is kind of a shambles. The villain himself shows up very late and does little that makes any sense. The choice to make No an agent of SPECTRE rather than the Russians (as he is in the book) makes the rocket-misdirection point nonsensical. The extended episode of Bond, Ryder, and Quarrel dodging soldiers on Crab Key feels like a waste of time.

While Bond is on Jamaica the film is much more interesting, although the conspirators there never seem even potentially a match for Bond. They also engage in the series’ first needlessly complicated murder attempt: if you can get close enough to slip a tarantula into a man’s bed you can get close enough to just shoot him. Nonetheless the conspirators come across as a mostly competent bunch who are willing to die for their cause. Unfortunately the titular villain himself seems unequal to this radical devotion.

Dr. No was made on a relatively skinny budget and it shows. The “aquarium” is a special effects fail so terrible that the script actually had to be changed to deal with it. The fact that Connery has a pane of glass between him and the tarantula is painfully obvious (when the spider is on a human it’s an uncredited stuntman). A mid-movie car chase has poorly-scaled projection that makes the in-car shots look needlessly goofy. Also, the nuclear reactor in the climactic scene operates backwards (somehow becoming hotter as control rods are inserted).

Ultimately Dr. No is one of the weaker entries in the series. It’s not outright bad, but the villain is weak, the plot is scattered, and it builds tension poorly. It’s worth viewing as a curiosity but not really worth seeking out.

How Gross Is It?

The Bond films include a lot of sexual politics that seemed outdated even at the time of their filming, so people who want to explore the older ones for fun should be ready for some unpleasantness. Dr. No’s worst sin is that the title character (and most Asian characters in the film) is a white person in yellowface.

The sexual politics are less terrible than some subsequent films: Sylvia Trench, despite being on the receiving end of Bond’s almost sneering introduction, gets the better of him, and Miss Taro at least has some agency. Honey Ryder is there mostly to look good in a bikini (she does) and is largely useless. Considering the era and Bond’s intrinsic nature it’s not particularly disturbing stuff.

How’s The Song?

As the first film in the series, Dr. No predates the tradition of having a title song. The James Bond Theme instead segues into calypso music accompanied by colorful dancing silhouettes. The concept of the stylized introductory sequence would be used in most of the subsequent films, and in some instances is the best part of the movie.

As for the James Bond Theme itself, one of the reasons it’s iconic is that it perfectly suits the series. Its opening riff plays towards the idea of intrigue, but then it turns towards a bombastic, almost comedic swing routine and tops it off with a great action-catastrophe cue. That covers pretty much everything about the character as he existed up until the Craig years.

Jun 142017
 

I watched Kuromukuro because I like to watch 30ish minute shows while I exercise and hey it was just sitting there on Netflix. It’s not a great show… not because it lacks hooky ideas but because it never manages to do a damn thing with them. Ancient Japanese ogre legends refer to a thwarted alien invasion: cool idea. A man out of time who fought the aliens awakens in the modern age: been done, but still cool. The aliens clone humans to do their fighting for them: pretty cool. Earth’s only hope is a high school lout who doesn’t want to get in the fucking robot: oh noooooo. It is pretty neat that for once this character is female, but Yukina is insufferable.

In fact, that applies to almost all of the major characters and most of the side characters that receive any kind of characterization. Kennosuke is at least not actively terrible most of the time, but the show never manages to make anything of his “man out of time” feelings and, in a stroke of incredible stupidity, he goes to the fucking high school. Why are all these people who pilot the only robots that can protect humanity still going to the fucking high school in the middle of an alien invasion? Lack of creativity is my best guess.

I did not care for the high school bits, in case you didn’t notice. The high school stuff doesn’t really go anywhere except at the very last moment, and even that doesn’t feel like a culmination of the character arcs as much as “I guess this will work”. Yukina’s school and her friends mostly exist to create weird coincidences (like a school fair with cosplay) that allow for unexpected attacks, but to get there the show wastes a ton of time and energy on a bunch of stuff I found completely uninteresting. That sets the burden on the war story, but the enemies, inasmuch as they are characters at all, only exist to provide idiot-ball explanations why they don’t do the obvious thing and call for assistance against an unexpectedly troublesome planet.

A consequence of all of this is that the show never manages to establish any kind of tone at all. It seems like the creators couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be a drama or a weird high school comedy, so they go for both and end up nowhere. Kuromukuro is too dumb to be a drama but hundreds of people die every other episode so it’s hard to swallow it as a comedy. Weird touches like the icy loli warrior Sophie, her “butler” Sebastian, and dissection-obsessed Dr. Hauser make it seem like the show isn’t taking itself seriously, but the show asks us to invest when it comes to Kennosuke’s obvious anguish in dealing with the loss of Yukihime and the appearance of Muetta. All the faffing about leaves the show with little time to deal with the serious stuff, leading to a somewhat anticlimactic and expo-dumpy ending.

The only thing that works, really, are the fights, which at their best feature startlingly human animations for the titular mech. Once the mechs leave humanoid architecture behind, however, the action gets weaker, and the really weird enemy mechs are never able to fulfill the promises of their designs. So even here in its best parts Kuromukuro is, as it is everywhere else, a fallow field in which interesting ideas fail to flower.