Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bondage, Pt. 18: Tomorrow Never Dies

Pierce Brosnan's sophomore effort as Bond was the sole Brosnan Bond film not to open at No. 1 at the box office...probably because it came out the same day as Titanic.

Synopsis: Evil media mogul Elliot Carver tries to use a stolen American-made GPS system to instigate WWIII between China and Britain, in order to set up a Chinese government that will offer him exclusive broadcast rights.

The Villain: Elliot Carver is played by the excellent and vastly underrated Jonathan Pryce (who accepted the role after Anthony Hopkins turned it down). The character is a scathing parody of both Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch. He's utterly without regard for human life, and totally ruled by his own megalomania and ambition. The character is an interesting choice for a Bond villain, and, unlike many of them, is a strong reflection of the times in which the movie was made. Pryce is somewhat campy, making Carver a hateful, but humorous, villain.

The Henchman: Three guys could be considered henchmen in this one. One is more of an assistant, sort of like Boris in GoldenEye - this is Henry Gupta, an American "techno-terrorist" in Carver's employ. He procures the GPS system vital to the plot at a Russian arms bazaar just before the British blow it up with a missile (against M's wishes - Bond was present there, investigating, and he's obliged to escape in a stolen Russian aircraft). Gupta is played by Ricky Jay, who is always entertaining. He's one of a long line of assistants and henchmen who is killed by his villainous master. The more classic "henchman" is Stamper, played by Gotz Otto (see "Fun Facts," below). Stamper is one of a long line of big, bad, blonde henchmen, heir to such characters as Red Grant and Necros. He outlives his boss and has an underwater fight with Bond, who kills him by trapping him in a missile-firing mechanism and swimming away before the missile goes off. Finally, instantly-recognizable character actor Vincent Schiavelli plays an assassin named Dr. Kaufman who does work for Carver, such as killing his wife. Bond dispatches him handily early in the film.

The Bond Girl: Wai Lin is a Chinese spy on the same case as Bond. After initial mistrust, they team up (in more ways than one). She's played by Michelle Yeoh (from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and joins Kissy Suzuki as one of only two Asian Bond girls. Like all Bond girls of the more modern era, she's an action hero in her own right, and the only swooning thing about her is that she, like all women, is susceptible to Bond's unstoppable charm. Teri Hatcher plays Paris Carver, the villain's trophy wife, who had a previous relationship with Bond. It leads to a bad end for her.

The Sidekick: Wai Lin is both Bond girl and sidekick in this one, although American CIA agent Jack Wade reprises his role from GoldenEye. Why they used Jack Wade through this period instead of the traditional CIA Bond-friend Felix Leiter is beyond me, unless we're expected to believe he is recuperating after his bad turn in the final Timothy Dalton film. He does not return until the Daniel Craig era (when he becomes black).

Gadgets: The most obvious has to be a mobile phone that doubles as a remote control for Bond's car, which he manages through a car chase in a not-so-oblique reference to popular video games. There's also an exploding cigarette lighter, phone fingerprint scanner, and a few other traditional things.

Music: Longtime Bond composer John Barry wanted to sit this one out, and recommended the excellent David Arnold, who scored Stargate and Independence Day. Like his predecessor Eric Serra, who scored GoldenEye, Arnold opted for some modern touches to the soundtrack, working with rockers Propellerhead for some chase sequences. Unlike Serra, Arnold also attempted to merge the modern with the classic, re-using some musical phrases heard in From Russia With Love. It's probably the best score of the Pierce Brosnan years. Multiple artists contributed theme songs, and one by Cheryl Crow was ultimately selected. Arnold had written what I think is a far better song, Surrender, performed by k.d. lang (why do some folks insist on not capitalizing their names?). It's played over the closing credits and the melody is heard throughout the film. Finally, Moby did an interesting revision of the traditional Bond theme that works well.

The Director: This job was offered to GoldenEye director Martin Campbell, but he didn't want to do two Bond films in a row. It went instead to Roger Spottiswoode, who had previously done such screen classics as Stop or My Mom Will Shoot and Turner and Hooch (sarcasm intended). Nevertheless, he does a fine job on this one, and gives the film a very "big" feel.

Fun Facts: Parts of the film had to be rewritten at the last minute, as it focused on Britain giving Hong Kong back to the Chinese. By the time the film started shooting, this actually happened in real life. A fun fact about Gotz Otto, who plays the henchman Stamper, was that he was given 20 seconds to audition for the role. He did in five, saying, "I am big, I am bad, I am blonde, and I am German." Terri Hatcher was hired because the producers wanted "Sela Ward, but 10 years younger." Some locations that had been used in the Bond movies Goldfinger and The Man With the Golden Gun were re-used in this one.

Favorite Lines: As Bond is sleeping with his language tutor, he quips, "I always enjoy learning a new tongue." The best line comes from the villain, Carver, who says, "The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success." Finally, M, now a female, has a good line when an admiral tells her she doesn't "have the balls for this job." Her excellent response: "Perhaps. But the advantage is, I don't have to think with them all the time."

Other Stuff: This was the first Bond film made after the death of longtime producer Albert Broccoli, to whom the film is dedicated. He had been involved with every production since the first, although in GoldenEye, his health already failing, he had a limited role.

Next time, we look at The World is Not Enough


Monday, October 22, 2012

Bondage, Pt. 17: GoldenEye

After a seven-month break, I now return to my reviews of each James Bond film. In April, I took a break at the close of the Timothy Dalton years. Now we look at Pierce Brosnan and later, Daniel Craig, including the newest film, Skyfall, which will hit theaters on Nov. 9.

But first things first - Brosnan's first outing as Bond in GoldenEye. This movie broke new ground, installing a woman as M and ensuring that James Bond could survive the Cold War - which was by no means a guaranteed thing at the time.

Synopsis: Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bond must stop a former 00 agent from using a satellite to take out London and cause a global financial crisis.

The Villain: Alec Trevelyan, the former 006, fakes his death in Russia in 1986 (depicted in the pre-title action sequence), only to return much later as the dreaded leader of the Janus crime syndicate. He has a bone to pick with Britain - he's a descendant of Cossacks who collaborated with Nazis during WWII. He blames the British for the death of his parents. He plans to steal a giant pile of money from the Bank of England, then use an electromagnetic pulse from the GoldenEye satellite to destroy the bank records and ruin Britain's economy. Trevelyan is ably portrayed by Sean Bean, so you know he dies at the end. Sean Bean's characters always die. As a villain, he's somewhat classier and more Bond-like than many of them. Much like Scaramanga, he is sort of a dark antithesis of Bond himself.

The Henchman: She's one of the best: Xenia Onatopp, a sadistic killer who appears to derive sexual arousal from violence and death. This was the first time most audiences saw Famke Janssen in anything, well before she ditched her villain status to play a good guy. Xenia is somewhat over-the-top and obvious, but he best henchmen are, and, like most women in Bond movies, she's easy on the eyes. A less attractive henchman is rogue Russian General Ourumov, who abuses his leadership of Russia's Space Division to further Janus' schemes.

The Bond Girl: She's not Bond's first Russian, but she might be the best-looking. Natalya Simonova, a computer programmer. She is the only survivor of an attack on a Russian satellite station orchestrated by Janus to steal the control disk for the GoldenEye satellite. She's played by Izabella Scorupco, a Polish singer, model, and actress, and I'm surprised we haven't seen more of her. Like most of the Bond girls of this era, she's far more self-reliant and talented that earlier Bond girls, but she's not above swooning for our suave double-0.

The Sidekick: Rather than focus on Bond's sidekick (which is pretty much the Bond girl, although he does get some help from the Russian mob in the form of Robbie Coltrane and an American CIA agent, Jack Wade) I'll focus on a character that could be considered Trevelyans's sidekick: the computer programmer Boris, played by the underrated Alan Cumming. He helped Janus hijack the GoldenEye satellite in the first place, and serves as the lead computer expert for the bad guys. Supposedly a friend and coworker of Natalya, he betrays her. His  habit of clicking a ball-point pen leads him to a bad end and helps Bond save the day. Boris is one of those humorous bad guys that you kind of like in spite of yourself.

Gadgets: The most important is the grenade pen Bond gets from Q; he gets it into obsessive-pen-clicker Boris' hands to cause an explosion that helps him save the day toward the end of the movie. Bond also uses a normal-looking belt that disguises a piton in the buckle, which he uses to escape the Russian archives. Finally, there's a laser watch Bond uses to cut a hole in a train and escape just before it explodes.

Music: Bono and The Edge, of U2, wrote the theme song. It was performed by the less oddly named Tina Turner, and I think it has good use of traditional spy-type Bond music in a pop context. French composer Eric Serra, who composed the music for The Fifth Element, did the score after longtime Bond composer John Barry declined the job. Serra's score was a departure from the big, brassy sounds of the past, and met with mixed reviews. This is evident in the very beginning, when Cerra toyed with the traditional Bond music during the famous gun-barrel sequence that starts each film.

The Director: Martin Campbell directed two Bond firsts - this, Pierce Brosnan's first outing as Bond, and later, Daniel Craig's first in Casino Royale. He got the job after John Woo was offered the helm and declined it. Despite only having done a handful of films, Campbell was able to bring a certain intensity to GoldenEye that was regarded as a successful resurrection of what many considered a dead franchise.

Fun Facts: This was the first Bond film not to use material from Ian Fleming stories as inspiration. However, the name is an homage to Fleming, who, while himself an Intelligence officer during WWII, wrote a plan called Operation Goldeneye - a contingency for the possibility of the Nazis invading Spain. Joe Don Baker, who plays Jack Wade in this one, previously played a villain in The Living Daylights.

Favorite Lines: Trevelyan has a good one when, after delivering a scathing remark during a confrontation with Bond, says, "What's the matter, James? No glib remark? No pithy comeback?" Judi Dench as M says to James, "...I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur." Bond himself is rather short on memorable quips in this one.

Other Stuff: It's worth noting this was the first film where Judi Dench played M, a not-so-subtle reminder that in real life, Mi5 had been taken over by a woman, Stella Rimington. The film also spawned a very successful series of first-person shooter console games that were highly regarded at the time.

Next up we look at Tomorrow Never Dies, in which Bond prevents war between Britain and China.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Time Travel For Dummies

Apparently this guy talks to time travelers all the time. All you've got to do is just learn the Fifth Dimensional Travel exercise presented on his web site.

Who knew it was so easy? All I've got to do is trick one of these chrononauts to give me a copy of Grays Sports Almanac.

All kidding aside, physicists say time travel happens all the...time. Check this out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Medieval Demographics Made Easy

I'm a big fan of S. John Ross, but I'd not yet taken the time to read this article. My good buddy blather recently sent me a link. It's incredibly useful to anyone who needs to come up with plausible medieval/fantasy demographics: "just how many shoemakers would be in this city, anyway?" Now you know.

While you're at it, strolling around the Cumberland Games & Diversions site is a pleasure.