Dr No (1962)

Dr No

You are carrying a double 0 number. It means you are licensed to kill, not get killed. British agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) by head of the Secret Service M (Bernard Lee) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, Strangways (Timothy Moxon) to determine if it is related to Strangways’ decision to co-operate on a CIA case involving the disruption of rocket launches from NASA’s base at Cape Canaveral in Florida by radio jamming. When Bond arrives in Jamaica, he is immediately accosted by a man claiming to be a chauffeur sent to collect him who is really an enemy agent sent to kill him. Before Bond can interrogate him, following a struggle, the agent kills himself with a cyanide capsule. After visiting Strangways’ house, Bond confronts Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) a boatman who was collecting mineral samples from Crab Key for Strangways and who reveals that he is aiding the CIA, introducing Bond to agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), who is also investigating Strangways’ disappearance. Local geologist Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) claims the samples are normal but Bond is not convinced. Dent travels to the underground base of megalomaniac Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) a Chinese-German with prosthetic metal hands who is the operator of a bauxite mine on the Caribbean island of Crab Key (and a reclusive member of SPECTRE) who is plotting to disrupt the US space programme … Cyanide in a cigarette? Fantastic! The first in the series, based on Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel (the sixth in the book series) this really introduced Connery to the world. Shot with a relatively low budget, it’s fast-moving, whip smart and set the tone for a secret agent trend that has never really ceased. Fleming originally came up with the idea for the story as a screenplay for a film called Commander Jamaica with Dr No a riff on the character of Fu Manchu. That film never got made so Fleming adapted it into a novel. The screenplay for this was based on that as well as several other strands of Fleming’s work: Richard Maibaum and Wolf Mankowitz did the original draft which the producers rejected then Maibaum did one while Mankowitz removed his name; Irish writer Johanna Harwood who worked for Harry Saltzman rewrote that draft with thriller writer Berkely Mather. SPECTRE wasn’t mentioned until Thunderball, the 1961 novel that the producers had originally wanted to adapt first before legal issues complicated that plan. This may not have the bells and whistles of later films in the series but it has many of the iconic elements that became part of the identity of this long-running franchise including Ken Adam’s production design, Bond being introduced to the Walther PPK and an undertow of S&M. Connery’s performance is nigh-on perfect, a combination of violence, suave intelligence and droll wit; while shell diver Honey Rider’s (Ursula Andress) arrival like Venus on the beach is for the cultural ages. Directed by Terence Young. I do not like failure

Octopussy (1983)

Octopussy

Englishman. Likes eggs, preferably Fabergé. Likes dice, preferably fully loaded. British MI6 agent 009 drops off a fake Fabergé jewelled egg at the British embassy in East Berlin and is later killed at Octopussy’s travelling circus. Suspicions mount when the assistant manager of the circus who happens to be exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), outbids 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) for the real Fabergé piece at Sotheby’s. Bond follows Kamal to India where Bond thwarts several ingenious attacks, kidnapping by Kamal and encounters Kamal’s ally, the anti-heroine of the title (Maud Adams), an international smuggler who runs the circus as a cover for her illegal operations. It seems that Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a decidedly rank and belligerent Russian general is planning to raise enough money with the fake Fabergés to detonate a nuclear bomb in Europe and then defeat NATO forces once and for all in conventional warfare… The West is decadent and divided. The thirteenth in the series and Moore’s seventh appearance as the sexy superspy as well as the first to feature Robert Brown as M following Bernard Lee’s recent death, this is derived from a number of Ian Fleming’s stories: the title is from his 1966 short story collection and there is a scene inspired by another story, The Property of a Lady (included in 1967 and later editions of Octopussy and The Living Daylights), as well as one brief bit of characterisation lifted from Moonraker; while the events of the titular story Octopussy form a part of the title character’s background which she relates herself; but the bulk of the narrative is original, the screenplay credited to novelist George MacDonald Fraser who suggested that it be set in India, series regular Richard Maibaum & producer Michael G. Wilson. In fact Moore had intended retiring from the role but was deemed the most profitable actor for the part when the rival production Never Say Never Again with former Bond Sean Connery was up and running at the same time: James Brolin was apparently due to take over from Moore – can you imagine! The perception of this as the weakest of Moore’s particular Bond films doesn’t hold up despite its apparently problematic heroine (her MO is a bit slight) but Bond’s seduction of a woman who is his equal is particularly well observed –  in fact they both have a death to avenge. The narrative is especially prescient – to have a nuclear bomb planned for Germany, at the time the centre of Cold War fears (see the TV show Deutschland 83 for a dramatic interpretation of the time), feels utterly relevant and Moore is given great space for both humour and action, pitched at a perfect balance here and decidedly lacking in camp. It’s probably the best written of all his Bond iterations. The chases (and there are quite a few) are brilliantly mounted, including trains, planes automobiles and elephants and there’s a great homage to The Most Dangerous Game when our man is the jungle prey. The climactic aerial stunts are some of the most astonishing you’ll ever see – utterly thrilling. Legendary tennis player Vijay Amritraj has a great supporting role as Bond’s MI6 ally in India and even Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets in on the action with a fabulous hot air balloon! Jourdan makes for a suitably insidious villain and Berkoff (almost!) has a blast as the nutty military man who makes the KGB’s Gogol (Walter Gotell) look sane. There is a terrific performance by Kristina Wayborn as Kamal’s stunning henchwoman Magda – her exit from a night with Bond has to be seen! Adams had of course appeared opposite Moore in previous Bond outing The Man With the Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s doomed mistress and she gets to flex more muscles here albeit her entrance is not until the film’s second half. Watch out for former Pan’s People dancer Cherry Gillespie as Midge, one of Octopussy’s bodyguards.  It’s wonderfully paced, with each sequence superseding the action of the previous one and the flavourful locations are beautifully captured by Alan Hume’s cinematography: this has undergone a pristine restoration. Among the very best Bonds, an episode whose influence can clearly be seen in both the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible franchises.  The theme song, All Time High is written by John Barry and Tim Rice and performed by Rita Coolidge. Directed by John Glen, the second of his five outings at the helm. Perfect escapism. Mr Bond is indeed a very rare breed, soon to be made extinct

 

Dolittle (2020)

Dolittle

The doctor is back. Eccentric Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) lives in self-imposed solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. Devastated by the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), his only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when little Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), accompanied by young orphan Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), asks him to assist young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) who has become gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark with Stubbins, now his new apprentice, on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure. He is pursued by Dr Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), a jealous medical school rival who is conspiring with evil courtier Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) to kill the monarch. However he must don a disguise to fool his former father-in-law, the wild brigand King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) who still resents Dolittle for taking away his beloved late daughter. And to obtain the cure for the Queen of England, Dolittle must do battle with the mythical dragons that lie in his way but Müdfly gets there before himI’m too beautiful to die. A remake of the legendary 1967 musical flop (and Eddie Murphy’s 1998 dissociative iteration) based on Hugh Lofting’s Victorian friend of the animal world, from a screen story by Thomas Shepherd, this is written by director Stephen Gaghan & Dan Gregor & Dan Mand & Chris McKay. From squid and stick inset spies, to a parrot narrator (Emma Thompson), a gorilla answering the door and Downey essaying every accent in the British Isles while attempting to alight occasionally in Wales, this is a creature feature of a different variety. Unfairly maligned, this is mild entertainment determinedly pitched at a kiddie audience. It skips through a vaguely sketched plot that even has an Innermost Cave taken from the Hero’s Journey story model, giving Sheen mugging opportunities in another Blair-ite role; while Frances de la Tour has her impacted CGI dragon colon relieved in a leek-induced surgery clearly meant for bottom-obsessed children. This is wonky but it has a good heart and some inappropriately contemporary linguistic efforts to befriend an ethnic audience using a big-name voice cast for the CGI animals (including Ralph Fiennes as a troubled tiger called Barry, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Kumail Nanjiani), plus some of that toilet humour to ruffle the feathers. It’s far from a masterpiece but you know that already and Downey is, well, Downey. For some of us that’s plenty, even when his charm is severely tested talking down to the youngsters. Team work is dream work

Aquaman (2018)

Aquaman.jpg

He is living proof our peoples can co-exist. Once home to the most advanced civilisation on Earth, the city of Atlantis is now an underwater kingdom ruled by the power-hungry King Orm Marius/Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson). With a vast army at his disposal, Orm plans to conquer the remaining oceanic people – and then the surface world. Standing in his way is Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Orm’s half-human, half-Atlantean brother, the son of lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temura Morrison) and Atlanna Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and the true heir to the kingdom’s throne. With help from royal counsellor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) who advises caution, and Princess Mera (Amber Heard), who urges him to take on his half-brother, Aquaman must retrieve the legendary Trident of Atlan and embrace his destiny as protector of the deep… I solve my problems with my anger and my fists. I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it. I’ve done nothing but get my ass kicked this whole trip. I’m no leader. Technically, the dog days of summer ended two weeks ago but it seems right now like they’ll never end. So, to matters nutty and comic book, a film that didn’t need to be made, a mashup of every action/superhero trope with ludicrously good visual effects, a plot contrived from many old and new stories and a big surly but charismatic guy obsessed with his mom. So far, so expected. Except that this works on a level that’s practically operatic while also plundering sympathies of Pisceans such as myself for creatures like seahorses, who have their own army, not to mention an octopus with a fondness for percussion. Got me right there. And then some – with frogman David Kane reinventing himself as supervillain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), pirates, messages in bottles, gladiatorial combat, wormholes, the centre of the earth … For those who care about this kinda stuff, Arthur/Aquaman first showed up in Batman Vs. Superman and then materialised in Justice League but here he’s part of a Freudian under the sea show that’s quite batty and compelling. Obviously Dolph Lundgren shows up, as King Nereus. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, from a story by Geoff Johns, director James Wann and Beall, adapting the Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris story/character. Directed with no-holds-barred gusto by Wan. A total hoot from start to finish about evolution, equality and what lies beneath. Crazy fish people, mostly.  Jules Verne once wrote: “Put two ships in the open sea, without wind or tide… they will come together”. That’s how my parents met: like two ships destined for each other

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

Goodbye Christopher Robin.png

You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is an actor of narrow range and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

Knight of Cups (2015)

Knight of Cups.jpg

For optimal sound reproduction the producers of this film recommend that you play it loud. Screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) tries to make sense of life in Hollywood. We follow him on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a series of adventures with colorful figures, identified by eight tarot cards, with Rick as the Knight of Cups who sleeps with a half dozen women, leaves his own wife and impregnates another man’s…  Or as I like to call it, another episode in an occasional series known as When Good Auteurs Go Bad. See also:  Phantom Thread. Terrence Malick disappeared up his own fundament a while back:  if anyone thought To the Wonder was anything other than nonsense then they never saw real art house films.  This latest version of Hollywood Eats Itself functions as allegory:  of what, we don’t know, because it’s unnecessary.  All those years of living the life of someone I didn’t even know These movies have been around almost as long as Hollywood itself – but this is the experimental version. Cate Blanchett is Judgment, Natalie Portman is Death, Antonio Banderas is the Hermit, Brian Dennehy is the Hanged Man, and oh, for goodness’ sake, it looks wonderful. There are situations that almost approach coherence, particularly in the (only developed?) scenes with Portman;  an excursion to that simulacrum of plasticity in the desert, Vegas, in the company of a stripper; and the apartment burglary when the thieves bemoan Rick’s lack of possessions. Rick is haunted by the death of his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who brings him on a tour of LA’s homeless. There are some insights amid the dissociative witterings and fragmentary musings and overheard bites of conversation inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progess but for the most part you won’t believe your ears as Christian’s character thinks he’s Christ wandering through his midlife crisis. Pity the actors, who had no script. Peter Mathiessen tells Rick that a man living in a cave eating nettles doesn’t concern himself with this sort of thing. Those desert monks had a point. This was in an edit suite for two years. After a cold compress go watch Sunset Blvd. Or 8 1/2. Whatever happened to visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick? We are too media-savvy not to understand the metaphors. We know that not all narratives are ordered or complete. But it’s a filmmaker’s job to get us at least some of the way there. And why squander the talents of these marvellous actors?  Presumably their best work wound up on the cutting room floor, as is Malick’s wont. Just to, you know, show them. As Forster would counsel, Only connect.  Woulda coulda shoulda. Begin

 

Casino Royale (1967)

Casino Royale 1967.jpg

You are joke shop spies, gentlemen.  The original James Bond (David Niven) is the debonair spy, now retired and living a peaceful existence. He is reluctantly called back into duty when the mysterious organization SMERSH begins assassinating British secret agents (through the medium of sex) and he is impersonated by six impostors and his return to service includes taking on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) who is hired by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the greatest Bond girl of all!) to be yet another iteration of the great spy as she plays both ends against the middle.  Then there’s Bond’s bumbling nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)… Producer Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in 1960 but despite protracted negotiations with Eon could never agree terms so decided to send it up – everyone else was making Bond spoofs, so why shouldn’t he?  Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers play fast and loose with the source and it’s directed variously by Ken Hughes, John Huston (who gets blown up early on in the film as M/McTarry), Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and an uncredited Richard Talmadge. Niven has fun in the film’s early sequence overlong though it is stretching credibility at its occasionally joyless spoofing. However there are compensations – Ursula and Peter’s sidelong romance;  motormouth comic Allen becoming silenced in the presence of his famous uncle;  Welles doing a magic trick. And what about Bond finding his illegitimate daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) by Mata Hari?! Meta is the word. And I love seeing Charles Boyer and George Raft (as himself!), Deborah Kerr sending up her Oirish accent from Black Narcissus playing the nun-wannabe widow of Huston, French spy spoofer Jean-Paul Belmondo, TV stars Ronnie Corbett and Derek Nimmo (and Catweazle plays Q!) with starlets Jacky (Jacqueline) Bisset and Alexandra Bastedo. Mad and quite bad it might be – there’s a flying saucer! And cowboys! – but heck it’s also a lot of fun, dated as it is. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard, Nicolas Roeg and John Wilcox is decadence itself. And then there’s the Burt Bacharach soundtrack and that song:  the desert island classic…

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai.JPG

Personally I prefer a girlfriend not to have a husband. An Irish-American seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired by renowned criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) to work on a yacht after rescuing the man’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a disturbing attack in Central Park NYC. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for the climactic hall of mirrors scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass…. Orson Welles’ adaptation (with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle) of a novel by Sherwood King was so confusing that Columbia boss Harry Cohn offered a reward to anyone who could make head or tail of it. Somebody please tell me what it’s about! But the plot of this murder mystery pastiche is hardly the point:  it’s a gorgeously shot tongue in cheek meditation on the games men and women play. Sometimes they wind up in murder. The narration is crucial. The hall of mirrors scene is justly famous. Shot by Charles Lawton (and Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker) with the yachting scenes done on Errol Flynn’s Zaca, this is the one where Hayworth’s fiery locks were shorn into a shockingly short blonde bob and Welles sports a cod Oirish accent presumably culled from his days at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Mad, strange and blacker than black, this is all about shadows and deception and imagery and set-pieces. Stunningly edited by Viola Lawrence. I never make my mind up about anything until it’s over and done with.

Closer (2004)

Closer movie poster.jpg

Patrick Marber is a hell of a writer. I loved his play Dealer’s Choice so when I heard his next play Closer was opening in London I grabbed a flight:  I just couldn’t wait. And it was – is – superb. Evidently I wasn’t the only fan because Mike Nichols directed this adaptation a half dozen or so years later. This is a modern and classic story of the roundelay of relationships:  NYC stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) is literally knocked sideways when she meets obituarist Dan (Jude Law) on a London street. A year later he’s written a book about her and flirts with the American photographer Anna (Julia Roberts)hired to do the jacket. It’s another coup de foudre. He messes in an online chatroom and unwittingly introduces Anna to dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen, who played Dan on the stage) whom she marries. A year after her exhibition (titled Strangers) opens, all their tangled relationships fall asunder as infidelity after infidelity is revealed… A play on Cosi fan tutte (with a cunningly integrated score by Suzana Peric), this is a stunningly intelligent treatment about love and sex:  and it messes with your head because it treats of the subject as it really is. Identity. Roleplay. Images. Pretending to be the person the other person thinks they want. (Unutterably exhausting, as Gone Girl informed us).  The closing reveal is a right shocker to people not paying attention. Alice is at the centre of everything:  that is clear when you rewind it mentally. The soundtrack is distinguished by Damien Rice’s extraordinary song The Blower’s Daughter. London looks great thanks to Stephen Goldblatt, it’s edited superbly and all the performances are excellent. I wish Marber would write more.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941)

The Man Who Came to Dinner poster.jpg

Yes I know it’s a Christmas movie. But, Sometimes it snows in April … as my idol Prince once wrote. Julius and Philip G. Epstein (yes, the Casablanca guys) adapted the Hart and Kaufman hit for the screen.  It tells the story of noxious self-important radio star Sheridan Whiteside (a play on well-known Alexander Woolcott’s waspish personality, well acted by Monty Woolley) who gets stuck in the Stanley household over the holidays after slipping on their icy front stoop whilst on tour in the dread Midwest. His secretary Maggie (Bette Davis) joins the household and has to watch while diva Lorraine (Ann Sheridan) arrives and sets her sights on local journo Bert (Richard Travis) whose play Maggie loves: she has a thing for him, too. The house is besieged by unwanted gifts, prisoners and penguins. Whiteside sets the cat among the pigeons by encouraging the children to do as they please while mom Billie Burke wants to please him and hubby Grant Mitchell wants him gone. Whiteside continues faking his injuries and blackmails him over his sister’s involvement in an axe murder! Davis’ role is very minor but this is an A-list Warners production and veteran William Keighley does an excellent job holding together what is essentially a chamber piece. Some very funny lines.