Sparky Clarkson

From Russia With Love

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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.

Dr. No

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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.

Kurumukuro

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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.

No. 6 review

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May 112015
 

No. 6 is a short series (11 episodes) that works really well for quite a while, but crumbles in its closing episodes. It starts as a boy named Shion living in a utopian city helps and feeds an injured child named Rat. Four years later, it’s clear that this moment of kindness has essentially ruined Shion’s life, casting him out of the city’s elite area and into the life of a menial caretaker. In this role he stumbles across a secret that is killing the city’s people and is sentenced to death for discovering it. Rat rescues him, and from there the story develops, exploring their relationship and their conflicting attitudes towards the city (Shion wishing to save it and Rat to destroy).

This goes very well for several episodes, although I felt the show should have spent more time with the boys and with Shion’s friend Safu and less with his mother’s travails within the city. When it comes time to actually deal with the city, however, the story falls apart. From a relatively straightforward sci-fi dystopia the story suddenly shifts to one about a magic bee goddess out for revenge. There are some strong character moments in these episodes, but it goes overboard with near-death and actual-death experiences, not to mention a really silly deus ex machina moment.

Worse, the show ends with an off-putting moment of ambiguity as Rat kisses Shion and then departs. This works better (but still is not fitting) in the manga, where we are at least told (if not convinced) that Rat is a free spirit who needs to wander. The anime does not emphasize this idea, instead adding immediately before this a moment where Rat resolves to stay with Shion and die in a collapsing building rather than flee and save himself. In this context, where if not for the intervention of Magic Bee Jesus, Rat would have given up his life to stay with Shion, his decision to walk away moments later is inexplicable and alienating.

The late turn into fantastic nonsense and the forced ambiguity of the ending doesn’t undo my enjoyment of the preceding episodes, but it makes the series feel incomplete. The show I was watching for 8 or 9 episodes never ended, and the show I was watching in the last 2 or 3 never started.

May 042015
 

Because I got to watch it for free on an airplane, I recently saw The Battle of Five Armies, without having seen the previous two entries in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. I was so struck by it that I decided to go through the whole trio of films on my own. Having done so I feel I can say with certainty that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films are the most startlingly inept adaptation of book to film that I have ever seen. They are bad movies in themselves, and they are even worse in the context of the book from which they were drawn. They were so bad I went back to watch The Lord of the Rings just to convince myself I hadn’t imagined my positive reaction to them.

I hadn’t; I still like The Lord of the Rings movies. They have their problems, but in them Jackson showed appropriate restraint both in removing bits of Tolkien’s books that weren’t really necessary and in adding as little of his own invention as possible. This is important because Jackson’s additions to the plot were generally not very good. Most were entertaining nonsense, like the appearance of the Elves at Helm’s Deep. At worst, they were insultingly stupid, like his changes to Faramir’s arc or the incident he added on the stair to Cirith Ungol. Yet at his very best Jackson managed to add masterful scenes like Denethor eating the chicken in The Return of the King.

His additions reach no such heights in The Hobbit. Few of them even ascend to the level of entertaining nonsense. Radagast is a Jar-Jar-level disaster of a character, and the entire subplot involving the Necromancer’s castle is only marginally comprehensible even if you’ve already watched The Lord of the Rings beforehand (I can only imagine what a mess it is for people going in cold). This is to say nothing of the dozens of actiony sequences added for no reason other than to make it seem like something was happening in a given chapter of this bloated mess of an adaptation.

Worse, Jackson seems to have lost whatever knack he had for creative deletion. The “break the plates” song is actually in here, despite its complete disagreement with the tone Jackson casts over everything that follows. I’m somewhat amazed we managed to get through this trilogy without any elves singing “fa-la-la-lally down deep in the valley”. A wise adaptation might have discarded this nonsense as too time-consuming, but seeing as Jackson managed to commit himself to showing every minute of the Battle of Five Armies and also pissing away some 15 minutes on the tale of Alfrid Lickspittle without bothering to resolve it, time was no object.

Of course I have yet to mention Jackson’s worst, and most controversial addition, Tauriel the elf, who exists so that an actual woman will be in the film somewhere. I am sympathetic to the complaint that Tolkien’s works are sausage-fests and that women deserve representation. However, adding an elf-woman whose main task in the plot is to lust after one of the dwarves and be lusted after by Legolas (a less-bad addition) doesn’t accomplish much. Besides, if you wanted to shoehorn a female character into this story over the objections of fanboys the only correct course is to gender-swap Bilbo. His character arc of going from a state of uncertainty and incompetence to a state of capability and moral strength through intelligence and empathy rather than physical force is one that’s typically given to girls anyway, and the gender swap would add interesting dimensions to the dwarves’ reluctance to accept Bilbo as a useful member of the team.

Of course, Jackson couldn’t have done this even if he had the onions, because he seems not to understand what the story is about at all. Everything about the staging of the films and the incidents he adds speaks to an unrestrained desire to make this into a massive, epic story, which The Hobbit is not. In the first movie Jackson actually adds a moment where Bilbo bravely leaps forward to defend a defenseless Thorin from an orc, essentially negating the point of Bilbo as a character. The whole idea is that Bilbo isn’t a classic warrior hero and he needn’t be. Peter Jackson doesn’t get this; thus the Battle of Five Armies, which occupies less than half a chapter of the book, gets its own film.

In this story, the heroic role ought to be filled by the dwarves, but they’re not available because Jackson thinks dwarves are funny and therefore reduces them to comic relief even as he tries to elevate this narrative from bedtime story to solemn epic. Hence, despite the grinding, torturous length of this trilogy they receive essentially no character development and must make due with ridiculous hairpieces and a superfluous romantic sideplot. Occasionally they get to put on a good show in one of Jackson’s dioramic action sequences but in all honesty the paint seems to have come off the plastic in these. The Hobbit never got me caught up in an action moment enough to miss the fakery.

Jackson doesn’t succeed in making The Hobbit the epic he clearly wants it to be. The core of the story can’t sustain that weight, because epic heroics are not only at odds with the book’s themes, they are entirely opposite. Jackson seemed to have at least understood what he was working with when he made The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings, however, and in trying to make them the same Jackson failed utterly.