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
 

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.

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.

Apr 152008
 
Maybe you know someone who has been suckered in by the numerous distortions, outright lies, and malevolent accusations of the “documentary” Expelled, starring famous bore and Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein. Perhaps even you have been convinced by its “startling” array of important “facts” about the “controversy” between the scientifically useless design conjecture and staggeringly successful evolutionary theory. If so, I urge you to direct your credulous friend (or yourself) to Expelled Exposed, a website devoted to debunking the lies of this appalling propaganda flick. Even if you favor a creationist viewpoint I think you will find it highly disturbing how freely the creators of this film distort the truth to favor their views.

In addition, for general knowledge on debunking the claims of creationists you should check out The Panda’s Thumb, TalkOrigins, TalkDesign, TalkReason, and the National Center for Science Education.

Also, New Scientist has an excellent article up featuring 24 misconceptions about evolution. Read it.

Also check out some other articles about the film and its marketing:
Biologist PZ Myers, interviewed in the film, is expelled from a screening of Expelled. But they let Dawkins in.

An animation in Expelled was ripped off from Harvard University and XVIVO. It should be noted that famous cdesign proponentsist William Dembski was for a long time in the habit of stealing this film to display in paid lectures.

Expelled tries to draw a line between belief in evolution and anti-Semitism. Interestingly, one of the creationist scientists they interview is the anti-Semite Maciej Giertych.