SEAN CONNERY

Best: Goldfinger
Some critics prefer From Russia With Love because it is a more faithful adaptation of the book. But for my money, “more faithful” means “more deadly self-serious.” When you’ve got a motion piture that people are STILL parodying 50 years later, you have got something special. No other Bond captures the perfect dichotomy of action and urbanity, serious stakes and silliness, as this did. Connery should have given SPECTRE a rest and gone after crime lords more often! Do yourself a favor and listen to John Barry’s score too alongside the prototypical Bond song, too. I will say, though, that the barn scene gives off some SERIOUSLY rapey vibes today, and if ever there was an occasion for “Greedo-shot-first” tinkering with a film, that scene is it.

Worst: Diamonds Are Forever
You could argue that Dr. No was objectively worse, but Diamonds is so disappointing because it is less than the sum of its parts. Sean Connery! Guy Hamilton! Jill St. John! John Barry! The final defeat of Blofeld! And yet for all that, the movie is a languid mess. Connery phones it in. The plot is jokey and makes no sense. Blofeld goes out with a confusing whimper. Bond races a cheesy lunar lander. More than anything, I wish that this film and OHMSS could swap Bonds. The hokey jokey tone of Diamonds would be a much better fit for Lazenby. The saddest thing? It’s still a better Bond movie than Connery’s unofficial Never Say Never Again.


GEORGE LAZENBY

Best: OHMSS
One of the best Bond foils ever in Diana Rigg. Fantastic, high-octane alpine stunts. Groundbreaking Moog-based score by John Barry. One of the warmest, saddest songs ever. One of the warmest, saddest endings ever. OHMSS is, by any definition, a hidden Bond gem that is as tragically overlooked now as it was in ’69.

Worst: OHMSS
When you only do one Bond movie, well…yeah. George Lazenby looks the part, but he can’t act it. He’s a black hole in the middle of an otherwise terrific film, and just can’t sell it. Lazenby might have grown into the role, but he clearly felt that he was too hot for prime time and let his swollen ego take him away from a seven film contract (!), even though he’d never make another movie, come crawling back in a few years, and wind up spending his twilight years as the one James Bond who will come to your convention so long as his check clears.


ROGER MOORE

Best: The Spy Who Loved Me
Roger Moore eventually grew into the Bond role just as Lazenby might have, compensating for his awful first two entries in the series with this witty, urbane, and action-packed entry. It brings back the same mix of world-ending stakes and eyebrow-waggling fatuousness that the best Connery Bonds had, but with the added zing of better special effects and a terrific female lead who is every bit Bond’s equal. The movie was so good that they basically remade it two years later as Moonraker. Just try to ignore all the disco-era trappings in the decor and Marvin Hamlisch score.

Worst: Live and Let Die
Like a time capsule from the shagg-carpetiest corner of the 1970s, this film looks and acts as if a blaxploitation film had gotten a few pages mixed up with a Bond film when two copyists smashed into each other. Borderline racist, ridiculously silly, and so campy it hurts, it’s a miracle the Bond series survived the one-two-three punch of Diamonds, this, and The Man with the Golden Gun.


TIMOTHY DALTON
Best: The Living Daylights

Basically concieved as an antidote to View to a Kill, which was quite silly with a geriatric Bond that seemed lost in time. Daylights was framed as a hard-nosed Cold War thriller–the last time Bond would tangle with the Soviets outside of flashbacks–with electrifying action scenes and a dazzling final Bond score by the late, great John Barry. It even used an Ian Fleming short story as a jumping-off point, and its literal jumping-off points in the form of a skydiving intro and finale were also terrific. The subplot about Bond helping basically Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan is a little uncomfortable today, though not as much as Rocky III.

Worst: Licence to Kill
A Bond film that doesn’t seem like a Bond film, it takes an interesting premise and squanders it in an attempt to feel like a stereotypical late-80s action flick. The action is limp until an admittedly rousing final chase, the film is full of bizarre non-sequiturs like a wannabe Gordon Gekko working for a drug lord and Wayne Newton as a televangelist (!). It’s also by far the most stomach-churning Bond ever, even when compared to the face-drilling scenes in Spectre: guys get fed to sharks, fed to maggots, exploded in pressure chambers, and ground up in industrial machinery. Q’s expanded role is terrific, but just not enough to save this mean, gross film.


PIERCE BROSNAN

Best: Goldeneye
Like Skyfall, this is a “revisionist Bond” that successfully marries aspects of the clasic formula with a new geopolitical and sexual reality. Bond is in a world that’s dominated by computers, shades of grey, and no longer has the confort of a monolithic Soviet enemy or easy sexism. In many ways, he’s a man out of time, and Goldeneye takes the time to consider that, and the lonliness it brings, while still packing in explosive stunts and witty one-liners.

Worst: Die Another Day
Like a reverse Roger Moore, Brosnan’s Bonds got sillier and more dated as they went on, and this was by far the worst of them. Squandering an interesting premise of Bond abandoned and tortured, it offers up mostrously silly scenarios without anything to balance them out. Why not have an albino Korean with diamonds in his face drive a gadget car against Bond’s invisible Aston Martin in an ice hotel? Why not give the performer of the worst Bond song ever a cameo? Perhaps the most unforgivable sin of this film is that it led the producers to cast aside 19 movies and 40 years of continuity due to its sheer awfulness.


DANIEL CRAIG

Best: Skyfall
Like Goldeneye, a revisionist Bond about how a man like this can exist in our modern world. But unlike that, it takes him to a deeply personal place and leaves with him deeply wounded. No other film but Goldeneye delved even a little into Bond’s past, and the progression by which Bond brings a technologically-savvy foe every bit his equal in savagery down to his own level is masterful. Add in the best Bond song since, well, Goldeneye and you have easily the best Bond film since, well, Goldeneye.

Worst: Quantum of Solace
Plenty of Bonds are bad. But very few are so bad as to contaminate their predecessors; even Diamonds didn’t do this, as Bond’s hunt for and slaughter of his wife’s killer is the high point of that film. Quantum takes up Casino Royale‘s dangling plot threads and prompty forgets about them in a muddled transition to water issues in Bolivia that makes even less sense in retrospect as it does in situ. Worse, its resolution to the previous film’s cliffhanger is dreadful–it took until 2015 for us to find out what happened to White, for instance, and the whole Vesper subplot is tied up in a hasty three-minute epilogue! Add in a Bond song so misguided it rivals Die Another Day, and you see just why the produers let Skyfall take so many gambles. It was the only way to wash out the bitter taste.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!
Advertisements

You’s think that, given a title like the one above, that I’d be ranting against Hollywood’s lack of innovation, its crass celebrity culture, its smug sense of self-satisfaction, or any one of the numerous sins the industry has committed in the 100 years of its existence.

You’d be wrong. I come before you today to rant about something very different: Hollywood’s double standard when it comes to censorship and activism.

One of the major points that industry professionals have emphasized is the ability of their movies to make social points and advance worthy causes, addressing racism, classism, other -isms, and oppression at home and abroad. And it’s true that movies have done that…up to a point. But it’s only recently that the line in the sand has become clear.

Remember in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Soviets were the go-to bad guys? Films weren’t afraid to point out the brutal nature and horrific human rights abuses committed by the communists. And yet, in films today, you never see the few contemporary communist regimes–with one exception as we shall see–portrayed as the rights-abusing boogeymen that they often are. Why is that?

The answer is simple: money. The old Soviet bloc, and other states that espoused similar versions of nastiness in favor of a future utopia that would never be (as opposed to the fascists, who espoused similar versions of nastiness in favor of a past utopia that never was)…they never screened American films, or did so only rarely. There was no money to be lost by pointing out horrific crimes, because there was no chance of Hollywood movies unspooling officially behind the iron curtain.

That’s all changed. In a move that can only be described as Machiavellian brilliance, nasty regimes have opened up their markets to Hollywood films with strict central control. You can make your millions from a movie-hungry foreign audience…but only if the powers-that-be say so. This creates a powerful economic incentive not to piss off a given country, like China, by calling attention to any social points or worthy causes. Thus instead you have craven sucking up to the selfsame governments where once there might have been criticism, like the scenes added to Iron Man 3 or the evil, inept Americans as a contrast to the heroic, competent Chinese government in Transfourmers: The One With Swords and Dinosaurs.

Perhaps a worse example has just been dumped on our laps, though: The Interview. For a long time, North Korea has been one of the few acceptable movie bogeymen, with its abuses and excesses and brutality always on glittering display, because the Hermit Kingdom, like the Soviets of old, allowed no American movies outside of the Kim family’s private theater and there was therefore no chance of alienating a revenue-paying audience. Only the Nazis, discredited and repudiated and dead to history, were more reliable villains throughout the 2000s and 2010s–hell, several movies and video games (like the remake of Red Dawn and the first-person shooters Homefront) were reworked at a late date to swap out Chinese villains for North Korean ones in defiance of all logic. North Korea was “safe.”

But that’s all changed. The Interview apparently touched a deep nerve with the North Koreans, portraying as it does the attempted assassination of King Jong-Un. So the Koreans retained a group of hackers to sabotage Sony, the producer and distributor of the film. Releasing internal documents, emails, and even a few completed films…all this hurt the filmmakers where it hurt most, in the wallet. Realizing that they were in the same position to lose money through hackery, theater chains have begun pulling the movie entirely. They’re billing it a “safety” issue, but it’s really a monetary one–North Korea has proven, at least for now, its ability to cost Hollywood money, and no one wants to pay that price for their principles.

So, in an even more craven move than crudely editing Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing into Iron Man 3 to suck up to China, the fear of revenue loss has essentially allowed the world’s most brutal dictator veto power to censor media critical of him. People are dying under jackboots in the Hermit Kingdom as they have been since 1945, but rather than let even a relatively mild “Springtime for Kim Jong-Un” satire unspool safely, Hollywood would prefer to quietly go back to making money.

I’m sorry. That’s craven, it’s crass, and it sets a dreadful precedent for everyone who doesn’t like their portrayal in free media: if you cost people enough money either by denying them revenue or hacking it away, they’ll meekly let you go about your business. That, in my mind, is the biggest reason to seek out and see The Interview if you can find anyone brave enough to distribute it: to send the message to those selfsame craven, crass bean counters that there are bigger things at stake than their damn bottom line. A thousand reboots, a thousand thousand remakes, a thousand thousand thousand vanilla rom-coms before handing the veto stamp to those who deserve the harshest, glitziest spotlight the industry has shone upon them.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“I was thinking Chinese for dinner tonight. Wife says I need to lay off, but then she eats just as much as I do when I bring it home.”

“Are you even listening to yourselves?” I said. “Talking about moo goo gai pan when a man is dead and murdered in his own home?”

The officer shrugged. “It’s no worse than one of his movies. You ever see any of them?”

“Yes,” I said, my insides heaving at the splatters of blood and the outline on the floor which depicted the unrecognizable heap in which director Candon Verbridge had been found. “I wasn’t a fan. Too gory.”

“Too gory?” the officer said. “That was the best thing about them. Best splatterpunk director to come out of America during the last fifty years.”

“And you don’t find it at all odd that he was, himself, splattered and cored?” I asked. A police officer with a fondness for splattercore seemed a much better preparation for the scene of a violent homicide than a lifetime of reviewing films.

“Huh. I suppose it is,” said the officer. “Maybe it was a copycat. Some nutty fan. The scene looks a lot like The Scattered Stains, doesn’t it?”

It didn’t just look like that nauseatingly, horrifyingly gory movie, I thought. It was nigh identical, at least from what I could remember seeing through my fingers at the screening. I was about to say something in reply, to confirm the officer’s theory, when a thought struck me:

The Scattered Stains had been about an incorporeal entity that had murdered anyone who refused it.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Les trois Juliets (1970)
Director: Auguste Des Jardins
Producer: Jens Dardis
Writer: Auguste Des Jardins & Jens Dardis
Cast:
Juliet Delacroix
Marguerite Delacroix
Géraldine Delacroix
Sid Jendras (voice)
Music: Georges Delerue
Editing: Auguste Des Jardins
Distributor: Union Générale Cinématographique

Long considered the masterpiece of French auteur Auguste Des Jardins and overshadowing the other projects he completed before his death in 1976, Les trois Juliets reportedly came about as part of a dinner conversation about the minimum number of actors that would be required for a fantasy film. Des Jardins’ longtime paramour Nadeau Struggs argued that a large cast was necessary, while the filmmaker himself insisted that it could be made with as few as two people, which he later revised to one and a half (with the half person being a voice-only role).

The resulting film follows a lonely woman named Juliet (spelled in the English fashion rather than the more Gallic Juliette) who lives in a Montmartre hovel working an unfulfilling job after the collapse of her dream to move to Paris to become an actress. Through an inventive use of ambient sound, camera angles, and deep focus techniques, Juliet is the only person ever seen onscreen despite the bustling inner city setting. She speaks only to herself or in telephone conversations to her father (Des Jardins’ frequent leading man Sid Jendras in the aforementioned voice-only role).

Only when Juliet spies another young woman in her neighborhood who looks exactly like her does another human being appear on screen, and the meat of the film revolves around her discovery of not one but two young women who seem to share her appearance, background, and even memories (albeit with some key differences). The film plays out as an extended metaphysical meditation with the occasional moments of levity as the three young ladies, each presided over by a father on the telephone that may or may not be the same man and is evasive in his answers. The ambiguous ending, which can be interpreted as a suicide, a merger of the three Juliets into one, or a belated agreement to live their lives as if they had never met, is still cited as an influence by filmmakers to this day.

One noteworthy piece of trivia revolves around the casting. While Jendras is clearly and unmistakably the telephone voice, the situation with the three credited actresses (Juliet, Marguerite, and Géraldine Delacroix) is much murkier. Des Jardins himself claimed that he had happened upon a set of triplets of the proper age and appearance purely by chance (and counted the three as one as a “clever trick” vis-a-vis the original wager). Nadeau Struggs and many critics disagree, insisting that it was a single person filmed with camera tricks, with the reason for the farce cited as a liaison between the star and the director with a triple credit for triple pay (Struggs, for her part, did concede the wager). No triplets Delacroix have ever been located, and Des Jardins’ insistence that the girl or girls weren’t professional actors has made the topic an occasional cause of friction among cineastes. None of the three girls have been seen in public since accepting various awards in 1971.

That point aside, the film is and remains widely popular among devotees of minimalist and fantasy cinema; Kubrick and Tarkovsky both lavished the film with praise and an English language remakes were released to lukewarm reviews in 1977 (Three Juliettes) and 2003 (The Three Juliettes), both notably using the French spelling of “Juliette” rather than Des Jardins’ preferred “Juliet.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“But I’m an entertainment reporter,” I protested. “I don’t cover crime scenes.”

“I know what you are,” snapped Sturlsson. “I sign your paychecks, remember? But this is a big deal, exactly the sort of thing I need to haul the paper out of red ink for the year, and it has an entertainment angle. So you’re on assignment with Baxter and Rodriguez. The address is in your email; I expect you there in 20 minutes.”

“Just…Steve, will you just do me the common goddamn courtesy of telling me what’s going on?”

Sturlsson made a noise halfway between a sign and a groan. “Okay, fine, whatever. You know Candon Verbridge?”

I knew him, all right. An auteur director, dozens of films under his belt, most with buckets of gore and loads of sex. Critics generally loved him because his movies weren’t cookie cutter products of a Hollywood that saw fit to stamp out two trilogies’ worth of Transformers. I hated him because I tended to faint at the sight of band-aid worthy cuts; my ex-girlfriend can fill you in on the sex part.

“Yeah,” I said. “His movies never make more than 30 million but I always get loads of hate mail when I pan them.”

“Some of your better work,” Sturlsson said with the air of delivering a magnanimous–if forced–compliment. “Controversy sells papers and generates clickthroughs. Anyway, Verbridge has a vacation home outside of town.”

“Candon Verbridge had a vacation home outside of town?” I cried, a little aghast that the director I panned might have been just a few miles away.

“Nobody knew, apparently. But they will soon.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Someone burgled Verbridge’s cabin, he had to call the cops, and now that the secret’s out, you want me to talk to him while he’s still in shock.”

“Well, you can talk to him if you want,” said Sturlsson, “but I don’t expect he’ll answer. He’s dead. Murdered. Real bloody one by the sound of things, but I have an in with the sheriff and I need someone who knows what the hell he directed as part of the write-up. So you’re in.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

I hate remakes and reboots because they are generally marks of intellectual and creative bankruptcy. But it’s also possible to use the renewal they provide to improve on a flawed original or give an interesting concept a second go. So in the interest of full disclosure, here are some classics I wouldn’t mind seeing remade.

The Black Hole (1979)
Disney’s answer to Star Wars was to employ nearly every old-school effects technician in Hollywood to put together this brilliantly atmospheric but overlong and occasionally ridiculous transposition of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to the event horizon of a black hole. The design of the main ship, a gothic masterpiece of glass and steel, has for my money never been equaled, but the ludicrous third act (which reimagines the black hole as a literal hell), overly cutesy robots designed to cash in on the R2-D2 market, and the extended portions of the film where people breathe in space make it deeply flawed. Imagine what a director with vision could do with the concept, especially if they added a more postmodern sensibility but kept the ship design.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)
A pioneering sci-fi adventure story (read the novelization by Isaac Asimov, it’s amazing) about a team of scientists and military men shrunk down to navigate within the human body to save a man’s life. Its setup is so perfect that it’s almost a trope, but the current film is rather antiquated in its special effects and sleekly 1960s aesthetic, and even more so in the cringe-inducing behavior of the chauvinistic male lead toward the only female character. The same basic setup could be the basis for a white-knuckle ride along the lines of Das Boot; anyone who ever rode on the sadly-defunct Disney World Body Wars ride (directed by Leonard Nimoy!) saw what possibilities there were for an update.

The Land That Time Forgot (1975)
With the 100th anniversary of the First World War upon us, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ daft masterpiece as adapted in the American International Pictures’ daft screen adaptation has never been more ripe for reinvention. What other movie can boast a U-Boat and dinosaurs, let alone combining them in an uneasy-allies story of Imperial Germans and castaway Georgian Brits trying to work together to escape an island overrun with bad special effects? Better special effects and a tighter screenplay could make this AIP cheapie a keeper.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

The Nichol test, named after famed gadfly and author S. Beadle Nichol, is a simple measure of a film’s stupidity and pandering to the basest animal parts of the human brain. Nichol laid out several scenarios that could lead to a film “failing” the test, though the most well-known criteria was (and is) that a passing film may not contain a sword-wielding robot riding a dinosaur.

Critics have long maintained that this is a restrictive criterion, and that many films simply take place in milieus in which robots, swords, and dinosaurs are simply more likely to appear. They cite massively profitable and genre-defining films, like Technosaurus (1977), and films with strong positive dinosaur models who are nevertheless incidentally ridden by sword-bearing robots, like The Passion of Mecha-Annie (1988).

Nevertheless, and despite Nichol’s well-publicized ambivalence on the matter, the Nichol test continues to be used. The latest film to fail the Nichol test, Transfourmers IV: Extinct By Dawn, is perhaps notable as the first to fail based solely on its poster, which features a prominent sword-wielding robot riding a dinosaur, albeit one in a pose which the producers have described as “empowering.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!