The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice

Bad news from outer space. When an American space capsule is supposedly swallowed by a Russian spaceship it’s an international incident. James Bond has apparently been killed in Hong Kong but he is ‘resurrected’ following his own funeral and sent undercover to Japan to find out who is behind the political aggression and the owner of the mysterious spacecraft. However while Russia and the US blame each other and Japan is under suspiion, he discovers with the assistance of his Japanese opposite number Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) that SPECTRE is responsible for this attempt to start World War III and uncovers a trail that leads to the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) whose evil empire is run from the centre of a volcano … Now that you’re dead our old friends will perhaps pay a little less attention to you than before. The one where Bond turns Japanese and trains as a ninja. A carnival of implausibilities that has the benefit of some gorgeous Japanese locations, stylish direction by Lewis Gilbert and introducing cat-loving megalomaniac Blofeld in the form of Pleasence, who we only glimpse over his shoulder as he strokes his pussycat before the big reveal. What an amazing villain! And how ripe for parody! Roald Dahl’s screenplay may throw out most of Ian Fleming’s novel (there is ‘additional story material’ by Harold Jack Bloom) but he does something clever – he takes the title seriously and has the second half begin exactly as the first, replacing a US with a Soviet rocket and doing a Screenplay 101 with the differing outcome second time around. The Cold War/space race theme might remind you of a certain Dr Strangelove. There are some good media jibes – If you’re going to force me to watch television I’m going to need a smoke, says James before aiming his cigarette at the enemy; astonishing production design by Ken Adam; and very resourceful sidekicks in Aki (Akika Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama); as well as the series’ first German Bond girl, Karin Dor, aka Miss Crime, due to the number of thrillers she starred in. Sadly it doesn’t save her here. This is gorgeously shot by Freddie Young and the restoration is impeccable. The John Barry and Leslie Bricusse theme song is performed by Nancy Sinatra. For a European you are very cultivated! 

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

The Spy Who Loved Me

Why don’t you lie down and let me look at it. When a British and a Soviet nuclear submarine disappear off the radar, MI6’s top agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is ordered to find out what has happened. He escapes an ambush by Soviet agents in Austria and goes to Egypt where he might acquire an advanced surveillance system. He meets Major Anya Amasova ie Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) whose lover he unwittingly killed in Austria. They are rivals to recover microfilm and are obliged to deal with hitman Jaws (Richard Kiel) as they travel across the country. Forced to work together by their respective bosses, they identify the person responsible for the thefts as the shipping tycoon and scientist Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) who is consumed with the idea of developing an underwater civilisation …. There is beauty. There is ugliness. And there is death! Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum’s screenplay may take the title from Ian Fleming’s tenth book in the series but little else. With a son et lumiére show at Giza, a shark tank in the villain’s lair, an MI6 office shared with the Russians inside a pyramid, an astonishing hit man in the form of giant Kiel with his mouth full of metal teeth, a fun relationship between Bond and his Russian opposite number, the wonder was it was made at all, beset as it was by rights issues and production troubles. This includes the replacing of Blofeld as arch nemesis – hence the inventing of Karl Stromberg, a nuke-obsessed Nemo tribute act. Getting a director was another issue, with Lewis Gilbert ultimately taking on the project, returning to the fray ten years after You Only Live Twice, whose plot it mimics somewhat. Gilbert’s influence on the form the film took was profound, notably on Moore’s characterisation in Wood’s draft of the screenplay, which was a return to the humour and tone of the original books, despite the legal issues preventing much of the actual story material being used (and you’ll be hard pressed to see Fleming in the credits). Apparently former Bond scribe Tom Mankiewicz was also brought in for uncredited rewrites on the final draft. Like Connery before him and Craig more recently, Roger Moore’s third foray into MI6 territory would be the most successful with the public, keeping his end up for England. Then there’s the showstopping title sequence with the greatest ski jump ever filmed (performed by Richard Sylvester) with a Union Jack parachute payoff; plus a barnstorming theme song performed by Carly Simon, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager and composed by Marvin Hamlisch (and the first title song not to be named for the film) who does a minor pastiching of the Lawrence of Arabia theme, making this a home run among Bond freaks. Brit flick fans will get a kick out of seeing Caroline Munro (dubbed, as Stromberg’s sidekick Naomi), the director’s brother-in-law Sydney Tafler (as a Russian ship’s captain) and Hammer Horror vet Valerie Leon (as a hotel receptionist). And that’s without even mentioning the awesome production design by Ken Adam, the Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine and a Jaws vs Jaws swimoff! A perfect blend of action, thrills, sex, great gadgets, sly wit, astonishing stunts, explosions and pithy banter. It’s lavish, but I call it Bond. James Bond. How does that grab you?

Captain Marvel (2019)

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You call me ‘young lady’ again, I’ll shove my foot up somewhere it’s not supposed to be. Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers or Vers (Brie Larson) is an extraterrestrial Kree warrior who finds herself caught in the middle of an intergalactic battle between her people and the Skrulls. After crashing an experimental aircraft, Air Force pilot Carol Danvers was discovered by the Kree and trained as a member of the elite Starforce Military under the command of her mentor Yon-Rogg. Back on Earth in 1995, she keeps having recurring memories of another life as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers. With help from S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) Captain Marvel tries to uncover the secrets of her past while harnessing her special superpowers to end the war with the evil Skrulls… We have no idea what other intergalactic threats are out there. And our one woman security force had a prior commitment on the other side of the universe. S.H.I.E.L.D. alone can’t protect us. We need to find more. The first twenty minutes are wildly confusing – flashbacks? dreams? reality? WTF? Etc. Then when Vers hits 1995 we’re back in familiar earthbound territory – Blockbuster Video, slow bandwidth, familiar clothes, Laser Tag references, and aliens arriving to sort stuff out under cover of human identities. And a killer soundtrack of songs by mostly girl bands(Garbage, Elastica, TLC et al). So far, so expected. Digital de-ageing assists the older crew including Annette Bening (she’s not just Dr Wendy Lawson! she’s Supreme Intelligence, natch) but the colourless Brie Larson (well, she is named after a cheese) doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the otherwise tolerable female-oriented end of the action adventure. There is however a rather marvellous ginger cat called Goose happily reminding us of both Alien and Top GunWritten and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I have nothing to prove to you

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight. Scientists, soldiers and adventurers unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Cut off from everything they know, they venture into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery soon becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape from a primal world where humanity does not belong. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, the British Special Forces op (retired!) hired by monster hunter Bill Randa (John Goodman) who’s finagled money for the expedition from a disbelieving Senator. Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Col. Preston Packard, in charge of a special chopper squadron chomping at the bit for a final military excursion. Brie Larson is Mason Weaver (hmm…..) a photographer and anti-war activist. She’s there for the Pulitzer. This is one last op for Nam vets who ain’t too happy at ‘abandoning’ a losing war. A man who believes in monsters. A Bermuda Triangle-type of island where God didn’t get to finesse His creations. Set in 1973, ie the Vietnam era and just before the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges of the wonderful 1933 classic, this is a kind of gung-ho Apocalypse Now retread with extra monsters and gore. Yeah, right:  if you thought Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a gorilla. And there’s more than that because Marlow is played by John C. Reilly and he’s a soldier who’s been hanging on the island for nearly 30 years waiting to be rescued and he knows that Kong is in fact their only hope in this island that is hollow at the centre – and Kong needs to win the turf war against some incredibly frightening creatures who are even worse to humans than he is! So this plugs into modern myths too – all those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands not aware WW2 ended long ago. The character of Marlow narrates all of Joseph Conrad’s books, including Heart of Darkness, establishing the framing story. Hmm, now you’re talking. With a horrible, unlikeable cast (what is it these days? Why are actors so yucky?) and a screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly you might think at some point someone would have pulled the plug or cast people empathetic enough for an audience to perhaps care if they survive an encounter with a gorilla minding his own business in his own home. Nope. They had to do it. They went there. But it is saved by the built-in snark (okay, self-awareness) that is a de facto part of all action blockbusters nowadays, reflecting from early exchanges in the dialogue the knowledge that the monster is …. us.  Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist till you’re looking for them.  There’s a very high body count and the romance is at a minimum but it looks dazzling and moves quickly – even with a little jungle stealth and camouflage. This takes no prisoners – it eats them. I blame the parents. Golly! Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Never Say Never Again (1983)

Never Say Never Again UK theatrical.jpg

They don’t make ’em like they used to. An aging James Bond (Sean Connery) makes a mistake during a routine training mission which leads M (Edward Fox) to believe that the legendary MI6 spy is past his prime. M indefinitely suspends Bond from active duty. He’s sent off to a fat farm where he witnesses SPECTRE member Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) administering a sadistic beating to a fellow patient whose eye she then scans. She and her terrorist colleagues including pilot Jack Petachi (Gavan O’Herlihy) successfully steal two nuclear warheads from the U.S. military for criminal mastermind Blofeld (Max Von Sydow). M must reinstate Bond, as he is the only agent who can beat SPECTRE at their own game. He follows Petachi’s sister Domino (Kim Basinger) with her lover and SPECTRE agent Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to the Bahamas and then befriends her at a spa in Nice by posing as a masseur. At a charity event in a casino Bond beats Largo at a video game where the competitors receive electric shocks of increasing intensity. Bond informs Domino Largo’s had her brother killed … There’s an incredible motorbike chase when Blush captures Bond and a really good stunt involving horses in a wild escape from the tower at the top of a temple in North Africa but this isn’t handled as well as you’d like and some of the shooting looks a little rackety:  inexperienced producer Jack Schwartzman had underestimated production costs and wound up having to dig into his own funds. (He was married to actress Talia Shire who has a credit on the film – their son is actor Jason;  his other son John is the film’s cinematographer).  With Rowan Atkinson adding comic relief as the local Foreign Office rep,  Von Sydow as the cat-stroking mad genius and Brandauer giving his best tongue in cheek as the neurotic foe, this is not in the vein of the original Bonds. It’s a remake of Thunderball which was the subject of litigation from producer Kevin McClory who co-wrote the original story with Ivar Bryce and Ian Fleming who then based his novel on the resulting screenplay co-written with Jack Whittingham before any of the films were ever made. (This is covered in Robert Sellers’ book The Battle for Bond). It thereby sideswiped the ‘official’ Broccoli machine by bringing the original Bond back – in the form of a much older Connery in a re-run of his fourth Bond outing which had been massively profitable. Pamela Salem is Moneypenny and is given very little to do;  while Bernie Casey turns up as Felix Leiter. With nice quips about age and fitness (as you’d expect from witty screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. but there were uncredited additions by comic partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais), good scene-setting, glorious women and terrific underwater photography by the legendary marine DoP Ricou Browning, this is the very essence of a self-deprecating late entry – particularly in the wake of Roger Moore’s forays and he wasn’t even done yet: Octopussy came out after this. Fun but not particularly memorable, even if we’re all in on the joke.