Dr. No

 bond, movies  Comments Off on Dr. No
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The Bond films include a lot of sexual politics that seemed outdated even at the time of their filming, so people who want to explore the older ones for fun should be ready for some unpleasantness.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.

Dec 082007
 
As Tin Man, the Sci-Fi Channel’s “re-imagining” of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz entered its fifth hour, I found myself wishing that I was watching The Wiz instead. I don’t mean that The Wiz was a better piece of cinema than the new mini-series, though arguably it was more visually inventive. However, it shared an important virtue with the book and the original movie musical that the present adaptation lacks: it knew what it was. The Oz story is not a sophisticated adult story about contemporary morality, it is a child’s story about wonder and adventure. It can be turned into something more sophisticated, with enough effort, but that’s a task at which Tin Man manifestly failed.

The presentation looked more sophisticated, I grant. But dressing people up in black leather does not, in fact, make for a sophisticated story. All this dark, steampunk set-dressing looks pretty cool, but it doesn’t really fit with the theme of magical little girls who save their world with the power of love. The more adult visuals simply didn’t mesh with the story that was presented. As a result, I felt a certain dissonance, as if I were seeing Strawberry Shortcake depicted as a dominatrix.

And while the story was unsatisfying on its own merits—a tale of a counterproductive MacGuffin fetch quest that heavily involves amnesia, of all damn things—it was even less satisfying as a re-imagining of Baum’s original. When you re-imagine something, you ought to say something new, otherwise you’re just making fan fiction. But Tin Man is essentially childish in its presentation of good and evil, and the only adaptations it makes to Baum’s world are to insert stock elements from other sci-fi worlds and movies, as well as importing Nurse Ratched’s hair. You can read Wizard of Oz crossovers at fanfiction.net if that’s what you want; there’s no reason to make a movie out of them.

Don’t misunderstand me, Tin Man isn’t bad. It looks nice, and the actors largely do a good job (although the child who plays little DG was not very good). The music leaves something to be desired, but doesn’t offend. But Tin Man just feels unnecessary, a superfluous bit of fluff trying to staple a grown-up look onto a childish and irrelevant story.

The Sci-Fi channel is a curious contradiction. Most of its original series (at present, anyway) are actually pretty good, and their re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica may be the best scripted show on television. Their original movies, however, are largely pathetic drivel starring actors that have washed up on this shore after fading from better careers. And then there are the mini-series, which are typically of very high quality, probably because many of them are adapted from books. In this case, it seems, the movie quality bled into the mini-series. Although the production values of Tin Man were high, the writing was poor, and in the end, you’d be better off watching the original, rather than this fanfic.

Aug 202007
 
Last night I rented and watched Taboo, or Gohatto if you use the original Japanese title. I don’t think I would have found it on my own, but the Netflix recommendation algorithm spat it out and I gave it a try. Taboo is a fascinating, well-acted gay samurai mystery art film, and you cannot be any more surprised by reading that than I was by writing it.

The conceit of the film is that an exceptionally pretty boy named Kano Sozaburo joins a samurai military unit towards the end of the Shogunate (the politics of this era play a minor, but substantive role in the story). Many of the men become infatuated with him, and their jealousy starts to tear the unit apart until a bloody episode that ends the film. Beat Takeshi stars as the unit’s second-in-command Hijikata Toshizo, who is the one that has to deal with the problems Kano creates. These are many, as Kano seems to catch absolutely everyone’s eye, including the commander, at least one lieutenant, and even perhaps Hijikata himself.

This is not the best movie I’ve ever seen by any standard. The plot seems to come and go at times, and the tension builds only unevenly towards the final confrontation. While the movie centers on Kano little is done to give the viewer a real handle on his character. He blows hot and cold, and Matsuda Ryuhei at times just doesn’t seem equal to his task. Takeshi does more with less; Hijikata is much easier to grasp, even though he has his own set of unresolved questions. In the end the viewer is left to resolve most of the movie’s central mysteries.

The directing is very interesting. Oshima Nagisa’s camera tries to let action speak for itself, which works splendidly in some scenes (Kano’s embarrassing kendo bout against his lover) and not so well in others (an extended entrance by a geisha). As is often the case, color features prominently in the film (Kano’s frequent wearing of white against the black of the militia’s livery), but it bears thinking about what the colors mean in the cultural context.

Some cultural context may also be needed for westerners watching the film. An American might find it strange that all these men are attracted to Kano, who seems by our standards pale and rather pinched. The seeming lack of romance in the love scenes (there is one sex scene, but barely anything is shown) may also seem a little odd. These aren’t flaws but rather important components of the historical and cultural setting, ultimately helping to build a fairly accurate picture of this world.

Taboo isn’t easy to understand and just isn’t for some people. I don’t mean this pejoratively; you aren’t a better person if it is for you. It’s the strangest case ever made against gays in the military — beware, all the straight men might become infatuated! And yet, though some of the plot seems totally alien, it works, even the slightly strained ending. Beat Takeshi is to be credited for this, as he grounds a film that could have easily flown off into space. Sakagami Jiro, Takeda Shinji, and a few others in the supporting cast also do great work, propping up (in my opinion) Matsuda, who just doesn’t seem to have quite enough poison in his eyes for this role. If you think a gay samurai mystery art film might be for you, then try to get your hands on it, at least for a rental.

I also watched Hot Fuzz; all you need to know about this film is that it is very funny and you should rent it.