Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Dr No": The Comic Strip

For the "Dr No" adaptation, the Daily Express had writer Peter O'Donnell fill in for Henry Gammidge. O'Donnell would go on to create the Modesty Blaise strip three years later, but he's already doing interesting things with his time on Bond. For starters, he drops the first person narration that Gammidge introduced and relies more on dialogue and short captions to tell the story.

As with the other strips though, "Dr No" jumps into the action as quickly as possible. Bond's convalescence after being stabbed with a poison shoe-knife was a one-panel epilogue in "From Russia with Love," so by "Dr No" he's ready to go. M doesn't explicitly refer to the Jamaica mission as a holiday, but Bond still sees it as a cake assignment and is grumpy about it.

That's just lip service to the book though, because the strip dives so quickly into the plot of "Dr No" that it doesn't feel like an easy assignment at all. There's more lip service paid to everyone's thinking that the two Jamaican agents ran off together, but really everyone knows that the agents were looking into Dr No and it's taken for granted that Bond will start his investigation there.

I've avoided naming the missing agents so far, because the strip does too for a good while. That's weird, because Strangways appeared in the strip version of "Live and Let Die," so it's not like O'Donnell is trying to fix a continuity issue, but maybe he wasn't aware of how the earlier story had used Strangways. Whatever the case, O'Donnell ignores the fact that Bond has a previous relationship with the missing agent, even when characters start referring to him as Strangways later in the story.

Once Bond's in Jamaica, the strip adapts the book closely, though Honey Rider is a bit more of a scaredy cat than she is in the novel. She still ends up rescuing herself though and O'Donnell plays a nice trick by intercutting between her being tied up on the rocky beach and Bond's navigating No's obstacle course. Whenever we see Honey, she's frantically worried and wondering to herself about how Bond is doing. If you don't know the story, you might think that she's hoping he'll free himself and rescue her, but she's actually just legitimately concerned for him. She's going to be fine. That's more clever and artful than I'm used to seeing from Gammidge.

It's great to see the end of the book brought to life accurately. I'm so used to the film version that those images are the ones I've always imagined when thinking about the story. But John McLusky's Dr No is perfect and I love that the obstacle course ends the way it's supposed to: with a giant squid fight. That's not a surprise considering how faithful the other strips have all been, but it's especially welcome with this story. McLusky draws some mean tentacles and a way cooler dragonmobile than the movie comes up with.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"From Russia with Love": The Comic Strip

It would be heresy (and not even true) to say that the comic strip version of From Russia with Love is better than Fleming's novel, but it does fix the problems I had with the first half of the book. Scenes of the Soviets planning Bond's fall are intercut with scenes of Bond in London that Fleming alludes to in the novel, but never shows. The strip also shows Kerim's initial meeting with Tatiana as it happens in relation to other events instead of Bond's only hearing about it later. This all front loads the story with more action than the novel has and works really well.

In fact, the whole adaptation is one of the best in the comic strip series so far. My only nitpicks are a couple of character designs: Red Grant looks old and out of shape and Kerim Bey distractingly resembles Clark Gable. Oh yeah, and Kronsteen is accidentally referred to as Klonsteen a couple of times. But if any of Fleming's novels could use a faster paced, slimmed down adaptation, it's From Russia with Love. The strip focuses the right amount of attention on the good parts while breezing through the dull ones.

There's of course not nearly as much tension in Bond's being stabbed with a poison shoe-knife at the end, because newspaper readers only had to wait until the next day for the resolution instead of the whole year that book readers endured. That can't be helped though and Bond's falling unconscious after being stabbed is a perfectly good if not unusual cliffhanger for that day's strip.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

For Your Eyes Only | "For Your Eyes Only"

The final story (chronologically) in For Your Eyes Only is the one that gives the collection its name. It's also the only one that made its debut in the collected volume, not having been published anywhere else previously.

Fans of the film For Your Eyes Only will recognize the story of a young woman who goes looking for revenge against the man who killed her parents. In the film it's Malina Havelock with her crossbow, but in Fleming's story she's Judy Havelock and prefers a traditional bow.

Bond is involved because M was a close friend of the Havelocks and even served as best man at their wedding. There are shades of Moonraker here as M uncomfortably navigates the ethical dilemma of using a government agent in what could be construed as a personal vendetta, especially since the Havelock mission involves outright assassination instead of just beating a cheater at cards. There's a wonderful scene though where M is absolutely stuck and puts Bond in the unfair predicament of making the decision. Bond gallantly suggests that assassination is the logical, impersonal response to a foreign agent who murders British citizens on British soil. Easily the best relationship in the entire Bond series is the one between Bond and his boss. It's very much a relationship between father and son, though with plenty of Stiff Upper Lip to keep it from getting sappy.

In the course of their conversation, the topic of Bond's toughness comes up. Bond truly does have to sacrifice something when he volunteers to kill the Havelocks' murderer. He's not used to those kinds of decisions and he stammers quite a bit as he tries to support M in such unfamiliar territory. Bond says that he's able to withstand all kinds of hardship "if I have to and I think it's right, sir." He realizes that's a weak answer and continues, even more lamely, "I mean ... if the cause is - er - sort of just, sir." In the end, I got the feeling that Bond volunteers not because he's 100% convinced it's the right thing to do, but because he's 100% convinced that that's what M wants. It's a beautiful act of selflessness, though one I could easily see the Bond of Live and Let Die doing as easily as the post-Dr No Bond.

Sadly, Bond's relationship with Judy isn't as great. That's an understatement; Judy is a tragedy of a character along the lines of Pussy Galore. She spends most of the story as an amazingly strong and independent woman, but completely melts by the end. With Pussy, it was Bond's manliness that changed her, but with Judy it's just the natural, womanly reaction (according to Fleming) to having killed someone. Bond keeps telling her throughout the story that murder is "man's work" and the end of the story reinforces that notion as she sobs in his arms and lets him make a woman out of her. Gag.

Monday, July 28, 2014

For Your Eyes Only | "From a View to a Kill"

"From a View to a Kill" was first printed in the Daily Express a few months after Goldfinger came out, making it the earliest of the For Your Eyes Only stories to be published. It starts well with the dramatic murder of a NATO motorcycle courier and Bond's being called in to help investigate.

Bond's involvement is purely political. NATO command already isn't happy with the security risk of Britain's having it's own offices outside of the main headquarters, so M sends them 007 as a way of showing that Britain is involved and taking the matter seriously. Bond was nearby anyway, relaxing in Paris after a failed mission to help a defector come over from Hungary.

I had a hard time connecting to the investigation itself. Bond's a capable detective, but in the end he solves the thing with intuition and being the only person to suspect a previously unnoticed lead, which is a tactic that M specifically instructed Bond to take. I'm not saying that Bond merely stumbles across the right clues, just that his investigative techniques aren't especially compelling. And I'm not sure how I feel about the rather outlandish revelation of who's behind the murder. On the one hand, it's more fantastical than its lead-up prepared me for. On the other hand, it's kind of cool and a taste of things to come in the Bond series.

The meaning of the title isn't explicit in the story, but one theory is that it's a hunting reference. "D'ye Ken John Peel?" was a popular song in the nineteenth century about a fox hunter and one version includes the line, "From a find to a check, from a check to a view, from a view to a kill in the morning." In other words, first you see the prey, then you kill it. It's not one of Fleming's stronger titles, but at least it makes me hear Duran Duran in my head when I read it.

There's one bit of character development for Bond in the story, though it's from a small throwaway line about Bond's drinking preferences. Fleming writes that Bond dislikes Pernod "because its liquorice taste reminded him of his childhood." He gives no more detail than that, but it's the first hint that Bond's childhood wasn't completely happy and full of golf and fancy tea parties. A curious piece of the puzzle as we try to reconstruct Bond's early life as Fleming imagined it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

For Your Eyes Only | "The Hildebrand Rarity"

"The Hildebrand Rarity" was published in Playboy just a month before For Your Eyes Only came out. In it, Bond is in the Seychelles Islands (northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean), having just finished a security check for the British Navy. Most of the stories in For Your Eyes Only occur while Bond's hanging out after some routine mission ("Risico" and "For Your Eyes Only" being the exceptions) and this time Bond has a few days to kill before a ship arrives to take him home.

We already know from Live and Let Die that Bond's an accomplished diver, and that's how he's spending his time on his break. When a buddy of his on the islands gets an opportunity to help an American philanthropist track down a rare fish - the Hildebrand Rarity - for the Smithsonian, the buddy recommends that Bond come along too. (Side note for Creature from the Black Lagoon fans: the plan is to use Rotenone to catch the fish.) Unfortunately, the wealthy Milton Krest is a first class jerk who insults his guests and uses his charitable foundation to write off pleasure expenses. Most heinous though, he has a habit of beating his wife Elizabeth with a stingray tail when she displeases him.

Bond connects with Elizabeth, partly because she's British, but mostly because she seriously needs a friend. This is what I love most about "The Hildebrand Rarity" and one of the reasons it's my favorite in the collection. Elizabeth is beautiful, but there's not the usual sexual tension between her and Bond. I mean there is tension there, but it comes from knowing how Bond usually interacts with beautiful women and from knowing that Milton Krest is a dangerous man to offend. If Bond acts as he usually does, life on Krest's yacht is probably going to become deadly.

But that's not what happens and Bond simply befriends the woman. Her nervousness and unsuccessfully concealed desperation touch Bond and turn him into a listening ear for her. He becomes an oasis of comfort and normality in the life of fear that she's leading, which is a really odd role for him to take. But he wears it well and it's another great example of the post-Dr No Bond at work.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

For Your Eyes Only | "Quantum of Solace"

Originally published in Cosmopolitan a couple of months after Goldfinger, "Quantum of Solace" is the one short story in For Your Eyes Only not based on a plot outline for CBS's scrapped Bond series. Instead, Fleming wrote it as an homage to W Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage, Ashenden: The British AgentThe Razor's Edge), one of Fleming's favorite authors. According to the British Empire website, Maugham enjoyed writing about "the remote locations of the quietly magnificent yet decaying British Empire" and the people who worked and lived there. He was a master at juxtaposing "realistic depictions of the boredom and drudgery" of plantation life or civil service with "the desire and trappings of what [British citizens who lived in those places] would regard as civilisation."

Fleming evokes all of that in "Quantum of Solace". It's an odd Bond story in that Bond is only there to serve as an audience as the British Governor of the Bahamas relates the story of Philip and Rhoda Masters, a tragic couple who lived on the island earlier. "Quantum of Solace" opens after a dull dinner party where Bond and the Governor are the last remaining attendees. The two men have nothing in common with each other and each is completely uncomfortable. Bond is in the area after blowing up a boat full of contraband weapons. He's bored by the Governor, a lifelong civil servant who values quiet and routine. Desperate to get the conversation going somewhere interesting, Bond makes an intentionally offensive comment about wanting to marry an airline hostess if anyone at all. The Governor refuses the bait, but is reminded about the Masterses because Rhoda was an airline hostess when Philip met her.

The bulk of "Quantum of Solace" is the Masterses' story, a tragedy of betrayal brought on by the boredom and drudgery that Rhoda feels towards life in the Bahamas. She wants the trappings of a proper British life, but can't get them out in the colonies, so she acts out, hurting her husband enormously. The story's title refers to a theory of the Governor's: that bad marriages can endure if each member can offer the tiniest amount of comfort to the other. Rhoda was unable to do that and in the end it damaged her as much as Philip.

It's a powerful story of heartbreak, not a rousing Bond adventure, but that's the point it's trying to make. I have to spoil it to talk about it adequately, but Bond ultimately learns that Rhoda was in fact a very dull woman he'd sat next to during dinner. He realizes that he misjudged her and that what he's always thought of as an adventuresome life has been empty of the emotion and meaning - however tragic - that filled hers. For that reason, it's an important story in Bond's character development, second so far only to Dr No. Bond continues to be confronted by his own self-absorption and to grow from those experiences.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

For Your Eyes Only | "Risico"

As we move into some of Fleming's short stories about James Bond, I need to talk a bit about chronology. There are three ways I could integrate the short stories with Bond's longer adventures: I could write about them in the order in which they were originally published by magazines and newspapers, I could write about them in the order in which they were collected in book form, or I could write about them as they happened within the chronology of Bond's career.

So far, I've been tackling this project in publication order and there's been no conflict because Fleming wrote and published the novels in the same order that they occur in Bond's life. With the short stories though it gets more complicated, especially when we get into the stories collected in Octopussy and The Living Daylights, which were published after Fleming's death and clearly take place earlier in Bond's career rather than after the dramatic events that closed Fleming's series.

Because I'm interested in Bond as a fictional character and how Fleming developed him, I'm going to write about the short stories as they happened to Bond. But that's going to be an anomaly in this project. After Fleming's death, a consistent chronology of Bond's life becomes impossible. So while I'll include the non-Fleming books in the project, I'm not going to pretend that they're about the same character. That'll free me to just take them in publishing order and transition to thinking about James Bond as a phenomenon instead of a character.

There are a couple of major chronologies that put Fleming's stories in order of when they took place in Bond's life. The one I like best is John Griswold's from Ian Fleming's James Bond: Annotations and Chronologies for Ian Fleming's James Bond Stories. Griswold uses the publication order of the novels and then fits the short stories into that. It's nice and simple as opposed to the other major chronology which rearranges some of the novels.

Both chronologies agree though that "Risico," the fourth out of the five stories collected in For Your Eyes Only, takes place earliest; soon after Goldfinger. That's because M mentions the Mexican assignment that Bond was musing about at the beginning of Goldfinger as happening "earlier this year."

It comes up again in "Risico" (named after the way a character mispronounces the word "risk") because the short story has Bond on another drug case. This time he's tasked with shutting down the flow of heroin into England from Italy. I don't want to say too much about the plot, because it's a twist-ending kind of short story, but if you've seen the movie For Your Eyes Only, you're familiar with the characters of Kristatos, Colombo, and Lisl Baum (renamed Lisl von Schlaf in the film) and their relationships with Bond and each other.

Fleming developed the story for a Bond TV show that never made it to the air. CBS had been happy with the results of the "Casino Royale" episode of Climax! and wanted more, so Fleming wrote some plot outlines. After CBS dropped the idea, he worked the outlines into four of the short stories collected in For Your Eyes Only. The fifth is the one we'll talk about tomorrow, but "Risico" was the last of them published, debuting in the Daily Express newspaper simultaneously with the publication of the whole For Your Eyes Only collection.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Diamonds Are Forever": The Comic Strip

By "Diamonds Are Forever," the quality of the James Bond strip has stabilized into mediocre. Artist John McLusky has moments of greatness where he's put a lot of thought into a composition or is clearly having fun with a particular panel, but he's inconsistent. There are just as many examples of his work looking rushed and unfinished.

For his part, writer Henry Gammidge continues presenting Bond as a stock adventure hero. I love that he occasionally takes a panel to describe what Bond's eating or to portray some other detail from the book that's insignificant to the plot, but even though Bond's narrating the strip, Gammidge offers no look into what makes Bond tick as a character. He doesn't even present Fleming's take on Bond, much less offer any insight of his own.

This is especially problematic in Bond's relationship with Tiffany Case. That's a complicated relationship in the novel, with Bond needing to use Tiffany, but highly reluctant to hurt her. When he finally confesses that he's falling in love with her, Fleming's already convinced me that that's true. And the same is true of Case's feelings about Bond. None of that is present in the comic strip though, so we just have Bond and Case running around together and then suddenly being in love at the end. The story hasn't earned that revelation.

It's also unearned when Bond grows impatient in his undercover role as a lackey for the mob. Unlike the languid pace of the novel, the strip is so brisk that it's hard to believe that Bond is bored. So when he disobeys the mob's instructions to him about not gambling in their facility, it's nothing more than an act of petulance. With nothing motivating it, it just feels like Bond does it unnaturally in order to keep the plot moving.

That kind of rushing also weakens the power of the telegram the mob gets from England blowing Bond's cover. There's no mention of how the London branch of the mob knows that Bond isn't actually Peter Franks; it just says that Bond's a fake and should be killed. Gammidge doesn't seem interested in actually adapting the story to comic strip form; just translating it as efficiently as possible to hit all the scenes. Thanks to McLusky, that translation is sometimes beautifully done, but not always.

There are other problems too that have nothing to do with the story. Like for instance when Felix refers to his previous career in the FBI instead of the CIA. Or the numerous instances of word balloons being placed oddly so that the eye reads them out of order. The lettering is a problem that stays with the strip at least into "From Russia With Love."

There's too much Fleming in the James Bond strip and I like too much of McLusky's work to let me hate it or lose interest. I'm always curious to see how McLusky is going to interpret a character or setting. But I also don't love or especially recommend the strip. It captures the stories, but not the soul of Fleming's work. And its creators don't offer enough of their own to replace that missing spirit and make the strip great.

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Moonraker": The Comic Strip

With their adaptation of Moonraker, Henry Gammidge and John McLusky depart even further from the tone of Ian Fleming. Now Bond isn't just narrating in caption boxes, he's drawn talking directly to the reader. As I said when I wrote about the Live and Let Die adaptation, it's no good comparing the strip to Fleming's style. The author was absolutely right to be concerned that the comics would dumb down his stories and it's best that I just accept it.

It's still interesting though to see what changes Gammidge made to Fleming's plot, because we do get a couple in "Moonraker." The whole day-in-the-life-of-Bond opening is gone, so we don't get to meet Bond's secretary or even read mention of the spy's home life and personal habits. Instead, with no explanation as to why, Bond begins the story by relating the public history of Hugo Drax.

After that, Bond's first in-story appearance is sitting in M's office and being told that Drax cheats at cards. Readers of the novel understand why that's important, but the comic doesn't really say and the mission comes across as embarassingly petty, especially without the benefit of M's own involvement. There's no mention of personal favors and M isn't even revealed to be a member at Drax's club. He doesn't go to Blades with Bond, but sends the agent out to investigate on his own as if this were any other assignment.

Once the card game begins between Bond and Drax though, the rest of the story plays out like it does in the novel, though severely abridged. We never do get an explanation of why the Secret Service is involved in a murder investigation on British soil, and there's no mention of the mystery of Drax's mustachioed men.

McLusky has a lot of fun with Drax's appearance though, including his comical moustache. And he draws a gorgeous Gala Brand, though she's blonde for some reason. He's still working on those facial expressions and I've started to notice that his Bond has a perpetual smirk. I kind of like it, but it's not much like the super dark Bond of these early novels. He's more of a children's adventure hero, but that really fits the tone that Gammidge seems to be going for.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Captain Kidd (1945)

Who's In It: Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Randolph Scott (Ride Lonesome, Ride the High Country), Barbara Britton (The Revlon Girl), John Carradine (The House of Dracula, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula), and Reginald Owen (A Christmas Carol).

What's It About: History walks the plank in this version where the pirate William Kidd (Laughton) pretends to go straight in order to escort a British treasure ship back to England. But his plans are complicated not only by the mutual treachery between him and his men (including Carradine), but also by the arrival of a mysterious gunner (Scott) with secret motives of his own.

How It Is: Whenever villains are described in literature as "toadlike," Charles Laughton is the man I think of. Paunchy and blubbery, Laughton isn't a traditional pirate captain, but he's perfect for this role. His Captain Kidd is a scheming, slippery devil who makes up in betrayal what he lacks in brawn.

Pitted against him is Randolph Scott, the straight-shooting Western star who's traded in his six-shooters for a rapier. At first, Scott feels bland as Master Gunner Adam Mercy, but he becomes a great juxtaposition to Kidd. He's not exactly dashing, but he is handsome and honorable and an effective straight man to Laughton's wickedly humorous performance. Scott makes Laughton that much more fun in comparison.

Carradine, on the other hand, serves to give Laughton's Kidd some genuine menace. Carradine exudes danger and deadliness, so seeing him evenly matched and genuinely threatened by Kidd was a constant reminder to take Kidd seriously, even if I was laughing at him.

Rounding out the cast are Barbara Britton and Reginald Owen. Britton plays a noble woman traveling on the treasure ship that Kidd is escorting, but she doesn't have much to do other than raise the stakes for Scott. Owen (most famous to me for playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1938 Christmas Carol) is much more fun as a servant hired by Kidd for the doomed task of helping the salty captain appear respectable in polite society. Once everyone's on the same ship, Owen's character is an amusing wild card, since he's a good-hearted fellow, but also has a decent working relationship with the captain.

Captain Kidd isn't a classic of the pirate genre by any means, but Laughton's performance is a joy to watch and there's enough double-crossing and swashbuckling to make the rest of it worthwhile.

Rating: Four out of five hidden caves with buried treasure.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

I'll save my full commentary about the movie Goldfinger until we get there, but Fleming's novel is a lot like it in more than just plot and characters. Both versions mark a significant shift in tone for their series. I'd forgotten that was true for the novel as well as the film.

Fleming introduces the idea right away. The book opens with Bond in Miami, waiting on a connecting flight after a particularly hairy and violent mission in Mexico. Most of the first chapter is Bond's sitting in an airport lounge, brooding about the assignment over his double bourbon. That's not at all unusual for the Bond we've come to know over the series so far, but Fleming throws in a twist at the end of the chapter and has Bond thinking to himself, "Cut it out. Stop being so damned morbid. All this is just a reaction from a dirty assignment. You're stale, tired of having to be tough. You want a change." And that's exactly what Bond - and his readers - get.

As if on cue, an American millionaire named Du Pont approaches Bond and recognizes him from their time together in Casino Royale. He and his wife sat next to Bond at the baccarat game against Le Chiffre and Du Pont wonders if Bond might be available to help him out with another situation involving cards. Du Pont is being swindled at Canasta by a man named Goldfinger and wants Bond to help him get back at the cheater. Bond's already facing an overnight layover anyway, so he accepts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Poseidon (2006)

Who's In It: Josh Lucas (Hulk), Kurt Russell (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), Jacinda Barrett (Zero Hour), Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow), and Mía Maestro (Alias)

What's It About: A rogue wave flips over an ocean liner, forcing passengers to make their way up towards the former bottom of the ship where they hope to find rescue.

How It Is: Surprisingly good. When Poseidon hit movie theaters, I couldn't have been more disinterested. My childhood dislike of the original Poseidon Adventure combined with my disaster movie fatigue (which went back to the late '90s after Twister, Volcano, Armageddon, Titanic, etc., etc.) to keep me far away. But having revisited the 1972 Poseidon Adventure and enjoyed it, and having not seen a recent disaster movie in a very long time, the timing was right for me to watch Poseidon with an open mind.

Frankly, watching it so closely after the 2005 Hallmark mini-series also helped. That version was so padded out, so cheaply made, and adapted the original's characters in such unflattering ways that I was impressed when Poseidon didn't make those same mistakes. It's a low bar to step over, but Poseidon does it and delivers some good stuff in the process.

My hopes for the movie rose during the first few seconds of the credits when I was reminded that the director is Wolfgang Petersen. I haven't loved all of Petersen's films, but I have soft spots for Outbreak and Air Force One and there's no denying that he's a capable filmmaker. I was expecting Poseidon to be directed by someone like Roland Emmerich, so I relaxed quite a bit when I saw Petersen's name.

And I relaxed some more when I saw the long, continuous, opening shot of the ocean liner as the camera flies around the outside of the impressive ship, occasionally picking up glimpses of Josh Lucas running on deck. There's a lot of money on screen there, which is a huge relief after the crude simulator-quality animation of the Hallmark mini-series.

The pace of the story is faster than any previous version, starting out on New Year's Eve and letting viewers learn about characters mostly during the disaster rather than through an abundance of buildup and back story. There are some brief introductions before the wave hits, but there are also less characters than in earlier versions, so it doesn't feel tedious.

Speaking of the characters, they aren't nearly as fascinating as those from the original, but Poseidon still has some nice moments with them. Unlike the Hallmark version, Poseidon doesn't use any names from 1972, but there are still some analogues to the originals. Josh Lucas doesn't play a priest, but he is a guy who values strength and a professional gambler used to surviving alone and by his wits. That worldview is challenged though when he finds himself feeling protective of a single mother (Barrett) and her son (Jimmy Bennett, who played young Jim Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek reboot).

Richard Dreyfuss' character is the most interesting. He's a gay man who's just been dumped and is heartbroken to the point of considering suicide. He's actually on deck and climbing over the rail when he sees the enormous wave rushing towards the ship, which immediately kicks his will to live into gear and sends him rushing inside to warn the other passengers. That will is still strong later when he joins the group of hopeful escapees and does something heinous to another person in order to save himself. And the guilt of that action then pushes him into protecting a terrified woman (Maestro) even when doing so puts himself in jeopardy. The film doesn't pull everything out of Dreyfuss' character arc that it could, but the arc is still there and it's a good one, even if Red Buttons' similar, but more honorable character was more touching in '72.

The group of characters that didn't work for me was Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum, and Mike Vogel (Cloverfield). Russell is Rossum's father, while Vogel is the boyfriend to whom she's secretly engaged. There's a bunch of stuff about when they're going to tell Russell about the engagement and Russell is trying to be the threatening dad, but is mostly just ticking the other two off. All of which comes to a head during the disaster a la Armageddon (or Transformers: Age of Extinction) and yadda yadda yadda. It's great seeing Russell be all tough and actiony during the disaster, but his family's drama is pretty lame.

What saves Russell's character and the others though is that there aren't a lot of obvious parallels to the '72 version. Dreyfuss and Buttons come closest, with Lucas and Hackman being a distant second, but their individual stories are so different that it's not really worth comparing them. That's true of the rest of the movie as well. There are a lot of set pieces from '72 that get repeated exactly in the Hallmark version, but only one or two make it into Poseidon. One that comes to mind is when the group leaves the ballroom against the advice of an authority figure, but even then there's no big confrontation where everyone has to make a decision. The captain (Andre Braugher from Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) encourages everyone to stay and wait for rescue, but doesn't try to force it and there's zero drama when the main characters sneak off on their own.

That sounds like criticism - and I admit I was disappointed - but it's indicative of something that is actually a strength of the film. It constantly finds its own way to do things, making it a reimagining of the '72 story rather than a remake. I have no idea which version is more faithful to Paul Gallico's novel or how the book affects the decisions made by Irwin Allen and Wolfgang Petersen, but Poseidon is different enough that it works as almost a whole new story that just uses the same concept. Taken that way, it's better than most other modern disaster films and has enough going for it (like an escape plan with an actual hope for survival at the end) that I like it quite a bit.

Rating: Four out of five dashing gamblers

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Live and Let Die": The Comic Strip

Writer Anthony Hern had toned down parts of Casino Royale for the Daily Express' comic strip adaptation, but he kept all the story beats and the general tone of Fleming's novel. He was replaced on the strip in December 1958 though starting with the adaptation of Live and Let Die. His successor was Henry Gammidge, who made a couple of immediate changes to distance the strip from Fleming even more.

Most startling is the use of first person narration by Bond. I don't know if it was inspired by writers like Raymond Chandler, but if so, it's a sad imitation. Gammidge's captions read like a children's book and there's no effort to explain why Bond's telling this story or to whom.

Another major difference between Hern's adaptation and Gammidge's is the length. The "Live and Let Die" strip is a little over 60% the length of "Casino Royale" and it feels rushed in comparison. Without "Casino Royale" to hold it up against though, I'm not sure I would've noticed. Gammidge is certainly more economical than Hern was, but he still hits all the major plot points of Fleming's book without cutting scenes. He even manages to acknowledge Bond's nervousness during his rough flight to Jamaica.

John McLusky's art maintains the strengths and weaknesses it had in "Casino Royale." He's still not awesome at facial expressions, but his Solitaire is slightly more emotive than Vesper was. His action scenes are still dynamic though, his compositions are eye-catching, and he continues to pull me into the story with detailed representations of the fashions, architecture, and vehicles of the '50s.

With its exciting art and fast-paced story, I imagine that "Live and Let Die" was able to appeal to newspaper readers who'd never read the book. To me, it feels less like reading Fleming than "Casino Royale" did, but I'm not so sure that's a drawback. As much as I dislike Bond's narration, it forces me to consider the strip on its own terms instead of just comparing it to Fleming. It was created after the adventure strip boom of the '30s and '40s, but it's as much heir to those comics as it is an adaptation of Fleming's work. I certainly wouldn't hold it up next to Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff in terms of quality, but as an amalgamation of those guys and Fleming, I think it's at least interesting. As I continue reading it, I'm going to try to keep that in mind and judge it as it's own thing rather than how closely it follows Fleming.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Sea Hawk (1924)

Who's in it: Milton Sills (The Sea Tiger, The Sea Wolf), Enid Bennett (1922 Robin Hood), Lloyd Hughes (1925 The Lost World), and Wallace Beery (1922 Robin Hood, 1925 The Lost World)

What's it about: A former English privateer (Sills) is framed for murder and sold into slavery at sea, but rises to become a captain in the Barbary corsairs.

How it is: I haven't read Rafael Sabatini's novel yet, but I'm familiar with other work of his and this feels like a faithful adaptation of something he would write. The heroic Sir Oliver Tressilian tries to do the right thing by his half-brother (the ridiculously good-looking Hughes) who makes the mistake of killing a man in a duel without witnesses. But Sir Oliver is rewarded for his trouble by being suspected of the murder himself and the cowardly brother not only lets Sir Oliver take the fall; he also sells Sir Oliver to an unscrupulous captain (Beery) and starts making time with Sir Oliver's girl (Bennett).

I don't usually describe women as "somebody's girl," but Lady Rosamund Godolphin doesn't have enough will or personality to be her own person. She's completely wishy-washy, has no faith in Sir Oliver, and is really nothing more than a plot device for various characters to scheme and fight over. It's unbelievable that Sir Oliver goes to such effort to win her back.

But he does, and through a series of events at sea, he finds himself freed by Muslim corsairs and made a captain. True to Sabatini, lots of characters come and go, bringing sub-plots and intrigue with them. That gives The Sea Hawk an epic feel, which also reminds me of Sabatini.

There's much more good about the film than bad. The actors are quite convincing, even Bennett, considering what she's got to work with. I quite liked the complicated relationship between the brothers, too. Young Lionel doesn't start off evil, but he's driven to evil deeds by circumstances and weakness of character. All the antagonists in The Sea Hawk have believable motives. And I especially enjoy Wallace Beery's Captain Jasper Leigh, a scoundrel who quickly finds himself in a plot over his head and clings to Sir Oliver for dear life.

Using corsairs as the pirates is a good move too. I usually enjoy the liberty and style of Western pirates more than the structure and uniformity of the Barbary corsairs as presented here, but so many pirate films focus on the Caribbean that The Sea Hawk is a nice change of pace.

Rating: Four out of five English dogs.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

"Casino Royale": The Comic Strip

Around the time that From Russia with Love was published, the British Daily Express newspaper contacted Ian Fleming about adapting the novels into comic strip form. They already had a relationship with Fleming from serializing Diamonds Are Forever in the paper and were going to do the same thing with From Russia with Love. Based on that experience, they were confident that a comics version would be a hit.

Fleming was skeptical though. He was afraid that the strips would dumb down a series that he already thought was fairly low brow and that he might be tempted to then let the quality drop even further until he and the strips were speeding each other faster and faster down the drain. Always eager to see Bond reach a wider audience though, Fleming ultimately relented and the first strip, an adaptation of Casino Royale, was published shortly after the novel Dr No.

Adapted by the same guy who'd edited Diamonds Are Forever and From Russia with Love for serialization in the paper, the Casino Royale strip is - as Fleming predicted - a toned down version of the story. It gives up the novel's cold-open-and-flashbacks narrative structure in favor of a straightforward approach (even introducing Vesper to Bond in London before the mission officially begins) and some of the violence is reduced. For instance, Bond's famous last line is changed to simply, "She's dead." Another major example is the torture sequence, where Bond is naked and Le Chiffre is using a carpet beater, but the art strongly implies that Le Chiffre is using it on Bond's head.

For all that though, the strip is remarkably faithful to Fleming's story. It matches the plot beat for beat and it's cool to see artist John McLusky interpret the characters. Bond looks just how Fleming describes him, complete with the scar on his right eye and his black comma of hair. Vesper is tall and lovely and reminds me of a slightly arrogant Audrey Hepburn. Mathis is older and dumpier than I imagine him, but it's a fair interpretation. Felix isn't as handsome as I want him to be either, but I get the hayseed approach that McLusky's going for. Moneypenny doesn't show up in the strip, but M does and it's cool that McLusky keeps Bond's boss in perpetual shadow. That might get annoying as the strip continues - especially in Moonraker - but for now it's a justifiable choice. The one design that doesn't work is the SMERSH assassin who saves Bond's life. He not only wears a ridiculous mask, but he's got a sad-sack look that's even less intimidating.

The main weakness of McLusky's though is that he has a difficult time with facial expressions. This is a big problem for Vesper, who's supposed to be hysterical at times, but none of the characters have a wide range.

Still, McClusky brings the story to life with lifelike representations not only of the characters, but the world around them. From architecture to clothing and cars, the strip puts the story in an historically accurate setting that pulled me into it all over again. Whatever Fleming's reservations, that makes it worthwhile as a companion to the novel.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Dr No by Ian Fleming

When I wrote about From Russia with Love, I repeated the common myth that Ian Fleming was growing tired of the Bond series by then and wanted to kill off his main character. Turns out, that's not entirely accurate. Fleming was certainly experimenting when he wrote From Russia with Love, but not out of desperate boredom. He was simply interested in improving the series and was willing to take risks to do so.

Part of the myth of Bond's death is that Raymond Chandler is the one who talked Fleming out of making it permanent. But according to one Bond FAQ, Chandler's advice to Fleming was simply to criticize Diamonds Are Forever (I agree that it's a weak book) and suggest that Fleming could do better. Fleming took that to heart and From Russia with Love was the result. But there's other evidence - also dating back to Diamonds Are Forever - that implies Fleming always intended for Bond to live beyond From Russia with Love.

Shortly after Diamonds Are Forever was published, Fleming received a now-famous letter from a fan named Geoffrey Boothroyd who was also a gun expert. Boothroyd criticized Bond's use of the .25 Beretta as inappropriate and recommended the Walther PPK as a superior choice. Fleming also took this advice to heart, but was already too far into writing From Russia with Love to make the change for that book, so he replied to Boothroyd that he'd include that idea in the next one, which turned out to be Dr No. Apparently, the intention was never to leave Bond dead after From Russia with Love, but simply to end on a cliffhanger and get readers buzzing for the next installment. The myth could be the result of people getting Fleming confused with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who did grow tired of Sherlock Holmes and killed him off before later changing his mind.

As Dr No opens, Bond is still recuperating from Rosa Klebb's poison and M is nervous about sending 007 back into action. He discusses the agent's shelf life with the neurologist who's been watching over Bond's recovery and we get some insight to M's thoughts on pain in general and how much he expects his agents to be able to take. He doesn't want to coddle Bond and risk softening him up, but M is also aware that Bond's been through a rough time and doesn't need to be thrown up against another threat like SMERSH right away. Instead, M has a gravy assignment in mind for Bond; what M calls a "holiday in the sun."

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Monster Island (2004)

Who’s In It: Carmen Electra (Aerobic Striptease), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Thing), and Adam West (Batman)

What It’s About: A high school senior wins an MTV party for his class with Carmen Electra on a tropical island, but discovers the hard way that the island is crawling with giant insects and piranha people.

How It Is: Awful. And yet amazing.

Look, it’s a Carmen Electra vehicle and on the DVD cover she gets top billing with Nick Carter, who’s barely in the movie, so you know who the target audience is. Also, there are MTV VJs playing themselves. This movie shouldn’t work at all and for the first third, it really doesn’t. The main character (Daniel Letterle) is a sulky dude named Josh who’s just lost his girlfriend Maddy (Winstead) because she wants to be with someone who's interested in the world and has some purpose to his life. Letterie’s performance is as uninspired as his character, but maybe that’s what he’s going for. Either way, I didn’t care about Josh and quickly found myself hoping he’d connect with Carmen Electra so that he’d leave poor Maddy alone.

That wish is granted when Josh meets Carmen and bonds with her over Radiohead and the Ramones, but Maddy may not actually want Josh to leave her alone. Even though she’s already got a new, superboyfriend (who of course turns out to be a prick, but we only know that at this point because we’ve seen a high school movie before), she shows signs of jealousy over Josh’s new interest in Carmen. I was not willing to sit through an hour and a half of this, especially if it was going to stop every once in a while for Carmen to sing songs like the soul-crushingly insipid “Jungle Fever.”

The only thing that kept me going was knowing that Adam West was going to show up at some point as a character named Dr. Harryhausen. The set up might be all wrong, but I had a feeling that the movie’s heart was in the right place. And I was right.

When Carmen is abducted onstage by a giant, winged ant, Josh puts together some friends and MTV employees to go rescue her. That leads into the last two-thirds of the movie, in which Carmen’s presence is replaced by lots of great creatures: mostly giant insects and arachnids, but also a piranha man and a weird fungus-creature invented by the kindly, but probably nuts Dr. Harryhausen. None of the creatures are CGI; they’re all practical effects whether life-size models or stop-motion animation. So while the movie has the cheesy look of the Land of the Lost TV series, it also has the look that someone poured a lot of love into it.

Making it even more awesome is Maddy’s finding a mystic necklace that turns her into some kind of butt-kicking deity. The romantic plot between her and Josh never rises above the usual tropes, but the longer the movie runs, the less time it spends on that anyway. It’s a goofy film, but a lot of fun and way better than it sets out to be.

Rating: Four out of five teenage warrior goddesses.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Poseidon Adventure (2005)

Who's In It: Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck), Rutger Hauer (Bladerunner, The Hitcher), Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy), C Thomas Howell (Red Dawn, The Hitcher), and Alex Kingston (Doctor Who)

What It’s About: Terrorist activity flips over an ocean liner, forcing passengers to make their way up towards the former bottom of the ship where they hope to find rescue.

How It Is: As much as I liked the original Poseidon Adventure, I don’t think that remaking it into a three-hour miniseries is necessarily a doomed proposition. Making the disaster the result of terrorism is a valid way to update the plot and while the original didn’t need more pre-disaster time with its characters, I imagine that there’s a way to do that without hurting the overall story. It’s just too bad that Hallmark/NBC didn’t figure out what that was.

I haven’t read the novel that the original was based on, so I don’t know how much of Hallmark’s version is a new adaptation of the book and how much is a remake of the earlier film. There are a few characters and set pieces that are the same in both movies, but that doesn’t tell me anything. I’m going to refer to it as a remake, but that may or may not be accurate, depending on how you define it. But wherever you come down on that, the 2005 version is sadly a shadow of the 1972 one.

The characters are an easy way to compare the two. A priest still acts as one of the leaders of the escape group, but instead of Gene Hackman’s unorthodox minister to the strong, Rutger Hauer’s character is written as a conventional, if surprisingly actiony clergyman. Hauer does an excellent job with the role and there are moments that remind me of the emotional depth of his work in Bladerunner, so it’s not a bad character by any means. He’s just not written as provocatively as Hackman’s version.

Another example is the pair of unaccompanied minors from the original. In 2005, they’re very much accompanied by bickering parents who have scheduled the cruise as part of marriage therapy. When Mom (soap star Alexa Hamilton) turns the voyage into a working trip, Dad (Guttenberg) retaliates by having an affair with the ship’s unbelievably forward massage therapist (Nathalie Boltt from Doomsday and District 9). In the original, there’s a great dynamic between the kids as they try to take care of each other, but the miniseries turns their story into a tired drama about an affair.

The miniseries almost finds a way to give that plot life by having Guttenberg and Boltt’s characters in bed when the disaster strikes, so that they have to travel together to find Guttenberg’s family. There’s some great awkwardness in that situation and it ramps up even more once they find the family and everyone has to figure out what to do now that they’re forced to survive together. Unfortunately, all that tension is let off earlier than I wanted when one of the members of the triangle conveniently dies.

Deaths are a problem in the miniseries. Where the deaths in the ’72 version all felt random and real, too many in ’05 feel like they’re just tying up plot threads. I won’t spoil anything by mentioning specific examples, but in spite of the extra time we get with these characters, their lives feel cheaper in the miniseries.

The worst thing the remake does to one of the original characters concerns the purser who encourages passengers to stay in the ballroom and wait for rescue. In ’72, he’s well-meaning, but misguided, and there’s believable tension as people have to make the choice between the ballroom and venturing into unknown territory with Gene Hackman. The miniseries removes all ambiguity about that decision though. The purser doesn’t just have an obnoxious personality, he’s a bona fide villain who’s been stealing painkillers from the ship’s doctor and is now hoarding them from injured people while stridently insisting on being in charge. He’s a ridiculous, moustache twirling cartoon of a character.

One character that actually improves in the remake though is Adam Baldwin’s Mike Rogo (played in ’72 by Ernest Borgnine). Instead of a cop, he’s a sea marshal who’s directly responsible for the safety of the passengers and crew. The miniseries goes too far by piling an offscreen, troubled marriage onto him in addition to his immediate problems, but Baldwin’s great as the glowering authority figure, especially when he’s playing against Hauer’s more gentle leadership.

As long as I’m mentioning Hauer again, the miniseries’ biggest crime is putting him in the same movie with C Thomas Howell (who plays the ship’s doctor) and never allowing them to revisit their chemistry from The Hitcher. I fantasized about some kind of cheesy acknowledgment between their two characters, but I would’ve been thrilled with just a meaningful scene featuring them. They barely interact at all.

Other than the characters, the miniseries’ biggest problem is trying to fill time with an outside rescue mission. The ’72 film kept a lot of tension by leaving the characters in the dark about whether or not there actually was rescue for them if they made it to their destination. The ’05 miniseries shows every step of that operation. But I don’t miss that extra tension as much as I just resent being pulled away from the main action to watch people in control rooms talk about how they’re trying to get a SEAL team to the Poseidon before it goes under.

It helps that one of the main coordinators of the rescue is Alex Kingston, but her character is as frustrating as she is fun to watch. As the miniseries ends and everyone is celebrating the rescue of the survivors, she can’t participate because she’s too upset over the thousands who weren’t saved. That’s a valid thing to be distressed about, but it’s also a weird, anticlimactic moment when she’s completely unappreciative of the very thing the rest of the story has been about: the survival of this small group of people. Because the story has been so distracted with easy villains and plot-ordained deaths, it hasn’t spent enough time representing the human tragedy that should have permeated the entire story. So it tacks this on at the end as a sloppy reminder.

Rating: Two out of five Father Battys.


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