Sunday, May 31, 2015

7 Days in May | Tomorrowlands and Tesseracts

Tomorrowland (2015)



Brad Bird's latest film is getting mixed reviews and I understand why. It has great ideas and I love the way it encourages not only optimism, but doing something with optimism. Really it's about action more than it is about how much water there is in a glass. The problem with the world isn't cynicism; it's laziness. I can imagine a way that cynicism can also spur people to action, but Tomorrowland decidedly picks optimism and inspiration as the best way and I subscribe to that belief. If nothing else, I love the conversations that Tomorrowland is creating.

Not that its ideas are all that the movie has going for it. It has terrific actors and a few great set pieces. And there are moments when it's as affecting as I hoped for it to be. Not as many as I wanted, but some.

It does have some big problems though, and it's probably my least favorite Brad Bird film so far. There's no need for a human villain in a movie like this, but we get one and his motivations make no sense. And the community that gives the movie its name never quite lives up to its role as a source of encouragement. I don't think I want to spoil anything by saying more, but we can get into that in the comments if you want to.

Overall, Tomorrowland is trying to do more than it's capable of and that's disappointing. But I'm glad it tried.

Thor (2011)



The Marvel re-watch continues and watching them in chronological order I realized that the pre-Avengers films end the way they began: with the Norse gods. The earliest thing we see in one of these movies is the Red Skull's invading a Norse temple and stealing an artifact. The last thing we do before getting to The Avengers is explore the gods in more detail and see that artifact reenter the plot. It's a nice bookend.

I often hear Thor listed as people's least-favorite Marvel movie, but I love it. That undoubtedly has a lot to do with my dual crushes on Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, but I'm also a sucker for the character arc that Thor goes through. It's very similar to the one Tony Stark experiences in Iron Man (and maybe that's why people don't go for it), but I'm not one to dismiss a story just because I've seen something similar. As long as both are done well, there's room for both. And Thor is done really well. It's main character may go through a similar journey to Tony Stark, but he does it surrounded by different people. His father, his friends, and especially his brother all make Thor a significantly different experience from Iron Man.

Or maybe it's just how dreamy Hemsworth and Portman are.

The Avengers (2012)



So the Tesseract makes another appearance as the focus of an adventure. In First Avenger, Hydra was primarily interested in it as an energy source and The Avengers reveals that that's what SHIELD wants it for, too. But of course - as we saw in First Avenger when Red Skull touched it - it also has the ability to open a hole in space.

One of my main reasons for doing this re-watch is to track the Infinity Stones through the series. As of The Avengers, they still haven't been mentioned by that name even though two of them actually appear in the movie. I'm trying to avoid talking too much about them before I get to the movies that reveal those details, but it's useful to track that the Tesseract and Loki's Scepter are powered by Stones.

The Tesseract obviously has power over space, so that one's easy to figure out. Loki's scepter, given to him by Thanos, is a little more difficult since it seems to have multiple abilities in The Avengers. In addition to their primary abilities, both the Tesseract and the Scepter simply give off enormous amounts of power. It's easy to focus on that as Hydra and SHIELD have been doing, so when Loki uses the Scepter, a lot of times he's just using it as a generator for destructive power. The Scepter's true purpose though is what he uses it for when he touches someone with it and takes over their mind.

That didn't become obvious to me until Age of Ultron, but I should point out that I have zero prior knowledge of the Infinity Stones and what they do. I've been aware that there was something called the Infinity Gauntlet and that Thanos wanted to control it, but I'm playing catch up on the details and doing that is a lot of what's fun to me about the Marvel movies. I'm enjoying watching this story unfold without a clear vision of where it's going.

There's so much more to talk about with these movies, but I feel like these capsule reviews aren't really the place. I kind of want to do a longer series at some point that tracks the individual characters and sees what makes them tick. Black Widow is especially a favorite, but there's a lot to say about all of them. One day.

Batman (1943)



Having finished the Captain America serial, I started the first Batman one. I've seen this one a few times and it's one of my favorites. It was one of the first serials I ever watched, come to think of it.

Filmed and released in the middle of the US' involvement in WWII, it has Batman working for the government and fighting fifth columnists in Gotham City. The bad guys are a bunch of disgraced and disgruntled industrialists led by a Japanese mastermind named Daka, who's working on behalf of his nation to undermine ours. And let me tell you, it's super racist. The characters, including the heroes, use every slur I've ever heard against the Japanese and several new ones. There's even a point where the narrator talks about how the "wise government" rounded up all the citizens of Gotham's Little Tokyo district and got them out of there, creating a ghost neighborhood.

Because the serial was created during wartime and is expressing anger towards an enemy nation (though in a very misplaced way, no doubt), I'm largely able to compartmentalize my feelings about that from my enjoyment of the mad science (it's filled with ray guns and mechanical zombies) and the portrayal of Golden Age Batman driving around in his normal sedan and trying to keep his fiance in the dark about his secret identity. It's weird and fun.

I also immensely enjoy the character of Captain Arnold, who sort of sits in for Commissioner Gordon. Gordon's not in the serial, so Arnold is the head cop and he has a cool attitude towards Batman. He's envious of Batman's ability to bring crooks in, but also cynically good-natured about it. If he can't have Batman on the force, he's content to just take credit for Batman's work. And he's very open about doing that. He's a delight and one of my favorite things about the serial every time I watch it.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Live and Let Die (1973) | Music



When it came time to score Live and Let Die, John Barry was apparently working on a musical and not available. His replacement came on board in kind of a backwards way. Saltzman and Broccoli had hired Paul McCartney to write the theme song and McCartney brought in Beatles producer George Martin to record it. Saltzman and Broccoli were so impressed with Martin's arrangement of the song that they asked him to score the film, too.

"Live and Let Die" is one of the most popular Bond theme songs and it's easy to see why. Bond themes are usually soulful ballads, so it and the few other rock themes stand out. And if your tastes run towards classic rock, it's your only option. Even for those of us who aren't classic rock fans, it's a great song.

This might get me into trouble, but I have a lot of problems with most of McCartney's Wings-era stuff. I'm not familiar with that many of his songs, but that's because the few I've heard have turned me off enough that I don't want more. I find the melodies repetitive and dull, and though they often change up in the middle of the song (an idea I like), the new melody usually isn't any more interesting than the one it's replacing.

Having said all that, "Live and Let Die" is easily my favorite of his. It might be because of the Bond connection - it probably is - but I genuinely like it. I like how the break in the middle is reggae-influenced, tying into the movie's Caribbean setting. And I like how the lyrics accurately express the sentiment - expressed by Bond in the novel - that gives Live and Let Die its name. Whether or not I love the song aesthetically, I admire the crap out of its construction.

For the title sequence, Maurice Binder supports the movie with a lot of voodoo imagery: flames and skulls and body paint. That makes it cool and kind of scary, but there's this one bit about a minute-and-a-half in where it gets silly. A silhouetted woman is just waving her hands around - looking like she's frantically trying to clean an invisible house with invisible rags - against some kind of weird, swaying, fiberoptic lighting or something? I don't know what that's about.

Martin uses the Bond Theme a few times - much as Barry did in Diamonds Are Forever - to highlight important moments in Bond's mission. It appears when Bond is tailing Whisper in New York, which is the point where he actively begins his investigation. It plays again when he encounters Solitaire and Tee Hee, his introduction to Kananga's inner circle. A third time is a snippet we hear after he hang-glides to Kananga's estate and is getting ready to infiltrate it. And finally, it plays again as he and Solitaire "follow the scarecrows" to discover Kananga's poppy fields.

Top Ten Theme Songs

1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
2. Diamonds Are Forever
3. You Only Live Twice
4. From Russia With Love (John Barry instrumental version)
5. Live and Let Die
6. Dr No
7. Thunderball
8. Goldfinger
9. From Russia With Love (Matt Monro vocal version)
10. TBD

Top Ten Title Sequences

1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
2. Dr No
3. Thunderball
4. Goldfinger
5. From Russia With Love
6. Diamonds Are Forever
7. Live and Let Die
8. You Only Live Twice
9. TBD
10. TBD

Friday, May 29, 2015

Live and Let Die (1973) | Villains



In the novel, Mr. Big is a brilliant, ruthless villain. He may work for SMERSH, but he's created his own criminal empire that's arguably more powerful in its hemisphere as SMERSH is in Europe. The movie version has similar dreams, but he's much less smart. Dr Kananga is prime minister of his island nation and has used his influence to build the foundations for a criminal empire, but he's not quite there yet. And the US and British governments are both on to him before the movie even starts.

I keep going back to Fiona's advice to Largo in Thunderball about how killing Bond will only let the authorities know they're on the right track. That's so smart, but we've seen Blofeld fail at it in You Only Live Twice and Kananga does the same thing in Live and Let Die. The whole way that Bond gets put on the case is that Kananga simultaneously kills three British agents who have been investigating him. Dumb. He's failed before Bond even shows up.

That's all in the writing though. Like with Solitaire, Live and Let Die casts an excellent, charismatic actor over this flimsy role. Yaphet Kotto can be as charming as he is menacing and we see both sides in Kananga. He seems much smarter than he's written and I love every second he's on screen. As foolish as he is, he's one of my favorite Bond villains.



The movie makes pretty good use of Big's array of henchmen from the novel, but with some changes. Fleming's giggling Tee Hee becomes a merely grinning character with a claw for a hand (perhaps an homage to the hook that Felix Leiter gets after what happens to him in the book). Julius Harris (Super Fly, Shaft's Big Score) is great in the part, but I wish the claw effect worked better. Later in the movie we see that the prosthesis replaces most of his arm, but the prop only covered Harris hand and he keeps bending his wrist when he uses it.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Live and Let Die is almost like a reboot of the series. I'm not sure what I meant by that, but I do see a lot of reminders of the first couple of Connery films. The Caribbean setting and Quarrel Jr call back to Dr. No and Bond's final fight with Tee Hee in the train is clearly supposed to evoke From Russia with Love (though it's a severely watered down version).



Whisper is another character from the book, but he's been promoted from communications officer to assassin and generally handy dude to have around. He kills Bond's chauffeur, checks in on Bond at the San Monique hotel, and he's hanging out with Kananga in the villain's HQ at the end. He's not great in a fight, but his size and his quietness make him an interesting, memorable henchman.



The best villain in the movie is Baron Samedi, played by dancer/7-Up spokesman Geoffrey Holder. In the novel, Mr Big keeps his organization in line through fear of voodoo and the belief that Big himself is Samedi, the loa of the Dead. In the film, Big's dual identity is that he's actually just a disguise for Kananga, but the movie still keeps the voodoo influence and the character of Baron Samedi. Freed from Mr Big, though, Samedi is free to be as supernatural as he wants and the movie uses that really well.

Like everything else about the script, Samedi's not really fleshed out, but it works to his advantage this time. It keeps him mysterious. We get a sense of his role in Kananga's organization, but not for how Kananga keeps control over him or if, in fact, Samedi is actually pulling Kananga's strings somehow. Some of Samedi's abilities are revealed to be tricks, but not all of them can be explained, including his final appearance in the movie. I've always wanted to see Samedi come back for another Bond film, but as the full-blown villain. He has the potential to be a better nemesis even than Blofeld.

Top Ten Villains

1. Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
2. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (From Russia With Love and Thunderball)
3. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Dr. Kananga (Live and Let Die)
5. Doctor No (Dr. No)
6. Emilio Largo (Thunderball)
7. Rosa Klebb (From Russia With Love)
8. Kronsteen (From Russia With Love)
9. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice)
10. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Diamonds Are Forever)

Top Ten Henchmen

1. Baron Samedi (Live and Let Die)
2. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
3. Grant (From Russia With Love)
4. Oddjob (Goldfinger)
5. Irma Bunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
6. Miss Taro (Dr. No)
7. Tee Hee (Live and Let Die)
8. Professor Dent (Dr. No)
9. Whisper (Live and Let Die)
10. Morzeny (From Russia With Love)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Live and Let Die (1973) | Women



The missing Italian agent from Bond's first scene is a nothing character. We're told her name is Caruso, but the credits list her as "Beautiful Girl," so that's how much she matters to the movie. Madeline Smith is funny in the role though.



Rosie Carver is infuriating. She's a horrible agent and it's even more unbelievable that she's a double. I can only think of two possible reasons that Felix has assigned her to Bond. The first doesn't say very nice things about Felix, so I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he just never read her file and doesn't realize how incompetent she is. Bond is a creep though, so I don't mind saying bad things about him. He actually says at one point that Rosie is "a lousy agent, but the compensations speak for themselves."

I have no idea why Kananga uses her though. When she leads Bond towards a trap, Kananga muses that she's "been more efficient than I anticipated." So he doesn't respect her either and honestly, what's to respect? She's ridiculous. I don't know which bothers me more: her ineptitude or that Bond's so dehumanizing with her.



And then there's Solitaire. It's tough not to like Jane Seymour and she does add layers to the character. But despite that there's no denying that Solitaire is written as flimsily as the other two women in the movie. Fleming's Solitaire had big problems too, especially in the last half of the book, but she's an infinitely stronger character than this version. Book Solitaire actively seeks out Bond as an escape from Mr. Big while Movie Solitaire has almost no will of her own. She seems content to stay with the villain until Bond tricks her into sex, making her no longer valuable to Kananga. Once that's done, she's distraught and it looks like there may actually be consequences to Bond's lie, if only that he's hurt her. But no, her misgivings only last about five minutes before she decides that she's totally into Bond and sex. I have no problem with her deciding she likes sex; I just don't like how it lets Bond off the hook for what he did.

None of these women crack the Top Ten.

My Favorite Bond Women

1. Tracy Bond (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
2. Paula Caplan (Thunderball)
3. Tatiana Romanova (From Russia With Love)
4. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
5. Domino Derval (Thunderball)
6. Honey Rider (Dr. No)
7. Sylvia Trench (Dr. No and From Russia With Love)
8. Aki (You Only Live Twice)
9. Pussy Galore (Goldfinger)
10. Tilly Masterson (Goldfinger)

Live and Let Die (1973) | Bond

Actors and Allies



Surprisingly, Live and Let Die makes no fuss over the introduction of Roger Moore as Bond. On Her Majesty's Secret Service teased out George Lazenby's first appearance and Diamonds Are Forever delayed the reveal of Sean Connery's face, but you'd never know that Live and Let Die is Moore's first Bond movie.

I didn't talk about Moore's hiring yesterday, but it's a weird, remarkable story. Even though Connery clearly didn't want to play Bond anymore and had done a horrible job of it the last two times, Saltzman and Broccoli tried to get him back. Sleep-acting or not, audiences wanted him. Diamonds Are Forever was it for him though. "Never again."

To replace him, United Artists really wanted an American. They considered John Gavin again and names like Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford were also tossed around. But Saltzman and Broccoli insisted on a British actor. They seriously considered Michael Billington from the TV show UFO, but ultimately went back to Roger Moore, one of the people they'd looked at for Dr. No (Moore is actually three years older than Connery). In the ten years since Dr. No, Moore had been busy on TV, most notably playing Simon Templar on The Saint.

Moore's TV characters were dashing heroes who relied on charm and wit more than their fists. Because of that, Live and Let Die screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz adjusted Bond to play to Moore's strengths. Moore looks entirely comfortable in the role. He's as irreverent about his job as Connery's version was, but it works even better for him. He's less rugged and macho; more cultured. He feels like a man who's led a privileged life and has never really had to take anything seriously. I think that makes Connery's the more interesting version, but there's no denying that Moore is cool and suave. At least for the most part.

There are times in Live and Let Die when Bond is decidedly not cool. He's very serious and square when compared to '70s Black culture, for instance. That's not a complaint. The movie wins points with me for letting Bond not be the coolest guy in the room.

Another uncool thing about Moore's Bond though is an issue and that's how he treats women. Bond's never been a feminist, but his attitude towards CIA agent Rosie Caver and then Solitaire is shameful. He creepily hits on Carver while she's freaked out about a snake and later, when she's been revealed as a double agent, he threatens to kill her and then mocks her for letting him screw her first. As for Solitaire, he famously tricks her into sleeping with him, negating her value to Kananga and essentially forcing her to become an ally.

With Moore as a less violent Bond, Live and Let Die drops the brutal fights that Connery's Bond was known for and turns instead to stunts. A friend pointed out to me on Google+ that we got the first car stunt in Diamonds Are Forever when Bond puts a car on two wheels to get it down a narrow alley. Live and Let Die continues that trend with four vehicle set pieces. Right after arriving in New York, Bond has to drive from the backseat when his chauffeur is killed, then there are extended chases featuring a double-decker bus, an airplane that never leaves the ground, and of course the famous speedboats. And outside of the vehicles, Bond escapes a tiny island surrounded by alligators by running across their backs to dry land. That alligator stunt is my favorite part of the whole movie. The scene builds the tension well and Bond tries using a gadget to escape before resorting to the more complicated route. I'm not happy with a lot of things about Moore's Bond, but adding a lot of stunts to the series is an undeniable benefit of his run.

As for Bond's allies, M is still grumpy with him as he has been in the last few movies. Q doesn't even appear in Live and Let Die (though he is mentioned) and I wonder if that's because he and M are essentially sharing a personality at this point. As much as I like Q, it's refreshing not to have him and M double-team Bond in their disdain for his flippant attitude.

After Moneypenny's painful mooning in Diamonds Are Forever, she's refreshingly good-natured in Live and Let Die about Bond's having a female agent in his apartment. She even helps hide the fact from M. I know I've said this a lot, but I love it when she and Bond are mutually flirty friends instead of his being her unrequited crush.

Felix Leiter shows up again, but he doesn't have much more to do here than he did in Goldfinger or Diamonds Are Forever. He's just the face of the American government. But David Hedison is a charismatic actor, so his Felix is fun to watch anyway. I can see why they brought him back to play the same role in Licence to Kill, and it's cool that he gets to do more with it in that movie.

A fun surprise is Lon Satton as CIA agent Harold Strutter. As he tails Bond into Harlem, the movie lets you think that he's another of Mr. Big's men until he reveals his true allegiance. He doesn't have a lot to do, but he comes across as a smart, competent agent and I'm sorry not to get more of him.

Finally, there's Quarrel Jr. In the novels, Live and Let Die comes before Dr. No, so Quarrel is introduced in one and killed in the other. With the order of the movies being switched, the Quarrel of Live and Let Die has to be the son of the man who was killed in Dr. No. It's a nice bit of continuity that ties Moore's Bond into Connery's and Roy Stewart is a worthy heir to the role.

Best Quip



"No sense in going off half-cocked," in response to Solitaire's request that they delay their mission for more sex.

Worst Quip



"Butterhook," when Tee Hee has trouble removing Bond's watch.

Gadgets



The gadgets are understated in Live and Let Die. The fanciest is Bond's magnetic watch and I like that he uses it more than once during the adventure. The saw-blade function comes out of nowhere though and feels like cheating.

Other than that, Bond has a fancy shaving kit with what look like multiple gadgets. The only one he uses though is a brush with some kind of Morse code signaler built in. And then there's the gun that shoots compressed gas pellets. That's another out-of-left-field gadget that saves Bond's bacon at the end. He gives some kind of lame explanation for having it, but it and the saw are some deus ex gadgeta I could do without.

Top Ten Gadgets

1. Aston Martin DB V (Goldfinger and Thunderball)
2. Jet pack (Thunderball)
3. Little Nellie (You Only Live Twice)
4. Rocket cigarettes (You Only Live Twice)
5. Magnetic buzzsaw watch (Live and Let Die)
6. Attaché case (From Russia With Love)
7. Propeller SCUBA tank with built-in spearguns (Thunderball)
8. Rebreather (Thunderball)
9. Camera-tape recorder; mostly because it reminds me of a camera my dad used to use (From Russia With Love)
10. Seagull SCUBA hat (Goldfinger)

Bond's Best Outfit



Black turtleneck with a shoulder holster. Classic spywear; the iconic secret agent look.

Bond's Worst Outfit



For the '70s, Bond doesn't do too badly in Live and Let Die, but I'm not sure he pulls off the skimpy, white tank top under a powder blue leisure jacket.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Live and Let Die (1973) | Story



Plot Summary

Bond investigates Dr. Kananga, the prime minister of the Caribbean island of San Monique who's killed every other British agent that's gotten close to him.

Influences

Diamonds Are Forever may not have been an artistic success, but it was a financial one. That reinforced the producers' and studio's ideas that audiences wanted a) Sean Connery and b) American locations. Connery wasn't an option for the next movie, but there was still another Fleming novel that took place in the Western hemisphere.

The filmmakers had long considered Live and Let Die to be one of Fleming's stronger novels, but didn't feel that the middle of the Civil Rights movement was the right time to make a movie about a vast criminal network made up entirely of Black people. But by 1973, we had two Mr. Tibbs sequels, Shaft, Super Fly, Blacula, and a host of other blaxploitation films that completely changed the notion of what mass audiences would accept.

US screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was brought back to do the script. He'd worked on Diamonds Are Forever, helping usual Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum to give it an American feel, but this time he went solo. His script also included inspiration from the good-ol'-boy southsploitation films that had sprung up in the '60s and early '70s. Except for Deliverance (1971), though, it predates the most popular examples of that genre. Walking Tall came out the same year as Live and Let Die and Smokey and the Bandit wouldn't be for another four years after.

How Is the Book Different?

Fleming's novel has Bond tracking and closing down an operation run by Mr. Big that funds SMERSH out of a pirate's treasure horde. In keeping with the urban crime of blaxploitation films though, Live and Let Die changes that to drug trafficking and Mr. Big becomes an alias for Kananga.

Like the novel, the movie opens in New York and ends on a Caribbean island (the fictional San Monique instead of Jamaica), but adds a huge section in New Orleans and rural Louisiana. Bond actually solves his case on San Monique an hour into the film, but keeps going to investigate New Orleans and wrap up loose ends.

Moment That's Most Like Fleming



There are a few moments right out of the book - or inspired by it - like the trick table in Big's restaurant or the scene where Tee Hee is going to break Bond's finger if Solitaire says the wrong thing. Both of those are heavily tweaked for the movie though.

The thing that the movie has most in common with Fleming is its focus on racism, especially in the Louisiana section. For example, the disgusted look that two state troopers give each other when they mistake a Black man for Sheriff Pepper's brother-in-law. It's arguable that the movie holds these attitudes up for ridicule, so I'm not going to judge it as harshly as I do Fleming.

Moment That's Least Like Fleming



Bond and the other good guys aren't the racists. Instead, new characters like Sheriff JW Pepper were created. I don't think I'm going to talk about Pepper in the Allies section tomorrow, because he's not really an ally, but I'll come back to him (and how his racism is portrayed) in The Man with the Golden Gun when he actually teams up with Bond.

Cold Open



I don't know if they were trying to be mysterious about the new Bond or what, but it's always bothered me that Bond doesn't even appear in the cold open for Live and Let Die. It's just three murders that we'll find out later are the catalyst for Bond's investigation of Kananga. They're weird and interesting assassinations, but not exciting. My least favorite cold open of the entire series.

Top 10 Cold Opens

1. Thunderball
2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
3. Goldfinger
4. From Russia With Love
5. Diamonds Are Forever
6. You Only Live Twice
7. Live and Let Die
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Movie Series Continuity



There's very little continuity from previous films except for Quarrel Jr, whom we'll talk about tomorrow. It's almost like they're rebooting, but we'll talk more about that tomorrow, too.

A couple of meta things though: First, M comes to Bond's house (with Moneypenny!) to debrief him. Presumably because it's so early in the morning? I don't get it. It does continue a tradition of relocating the debriefing scene from M's office though. Maybe they felt it was more exciting to have that occur elsewhere, but it doesn't make logical sense and I miss the office setting.

The second thing is that Solitaire's tarot cards have 007 printed on the back of them. If we take that as more than just a cute Easter egg for sharp-eyed fans, it appears that Kananga knows that Bond will be assigned to the case (he does have people waiting to tail Bond from the airport) and had special cards made for Solitaire to use while tracking him. Maybe that gives her more power over Bond. If that's true, then it's another example of Bond's identity and code number being common knowledge among criminals. I think that's the first time we've seen that outside of SPECTRE, so it's a pretty significant revelation.

Fantasy, Oh, Fantasy, Where Art Thou Gone? [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The 1960s saw an explosion in heroic fantasy fiction with Ballantine's The Lord of the Rings and the Lancer Conan paperbacks. Suddenly barbarians and hobbit-like creatures were everywhere. In novels, collections, anthologies and comic books. It was a wonderful decade for fantasy readers. But by 1979, things were changing and soon a desert would be born.

What caused sword-and-sorcery to disappear after the 1980s? I believe it was a combination of things. First, publishers like Belmont were pumping out quick knock-offs to try and grab some of the riches. Books like Quinn Reade's The Quest of the Dark Lady (1969) did nothing to improve what was already seen as a limited sub-genre. Magazines like Heavy Metal (starting in April 1977) did even less, muddying the waters with a weird blend of sword-and-planet and sex. The bestseller, The Sword of Shannara (1977) by Terry Brooks also showed that even really bad Tolkien imitations could make fortunes. Why write short stories of lone barbarians when fat novels about elves and dwarves could sell millions of copies?

Secondly, the role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons (1974) had narrowed the idea of fantasy, pairing Conan and Middle Earth to create a homogenized version of what should have been a genre without limits. Elves and barbarians fight side by side in Gary Gygax's game world. The younger fantasy fans were ultimately gamers and many became writers as well. These include Raymond E Feist, RA Salvatore, Garth Nix, David Langford, Michael Stackpole, and many others.

Thirdly and irreparably, was the movie Conan the Barbarian (1982). What should have been a high-water mark that propelled sword-and-sorcery into the mainstream consciousness, the film was the best of a steadily sinking list of films that are so awful they soon became direct to video. Not until Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 would another major fantasy film wave be created.

So things were pretty bad. What's a writer of heroic fantasy to do? Well, one of the few arenas left for sword-and-sorcery fiction was the gaming magazines. Yes, D&D may have caused some of the problems, but gamers still enjoyed heroic fantasy and published it alongside articles on fighting goblins and dungeon scenarios to play with your friends.

The biggest was TSR's The Dragon Magazine, which began in June 1976 and is still running in some form today. The issues of most importance are the paper ones: #1-359 (June 1976-September 2007). These were the ones that featured fiction. The list of authors who appeared is long but looking at the names I see trends:

The first is old-timers making an appearance. These included Rob Chilson, L Sprague de Camp, Harry O Fischer, Fritz Leiber, and Gordon Linzner. These stories were welcome, but not many. There were also novelists including excerpts to promote a new book: Terry Brooks (Shannara excerpt) and Andre Norton (Quag Keep excerpt). The most interesting of the old timers was Gardner F Fox, comic book veteran and now sword-and-sorcery writer with a long series about "Niall of the Long Journeys" starting in issue #2 and interspersed to #55 (July 1976-November 1981). Ben Bova, science fiction editor extraordinaire, also wrote a series on legendary heroes set in historical Britain between issues #236-311 (December 1996-September 2003).

The second group are names that have since become well-known in other publications like Asimov's, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and paperbacks. These stars of present day publishing include Thieves' World editor Lynn Abbey, Aaron Allston, Neal Barrett Jr, John Gregory Betancourt (future editor at Weird Tales and Wildside Press), Elaine Cunningham, Diane Duane, Esther M Friesner, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Brian A Hopkins, J Gregory Keyes, Jean Lorrah, George RR Martin (Game of Thrones superstar), Ardath Mayhar, Paul J McAuley, John Morressy, Joel Rosenberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (future editor of F&SF), Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Charles R Saunders, Steven Saylor (international bestseller with the Roma Sub Rosa mystery series), Darrell Schweitzer (future editor of Weird Tales), Lisa Smedman, Jeff Swycaffer, Steve Rasnic Tem, Harry Turtledove (sf and fantasy bestseller), Robert E Vardeman, and Lawrence Watts-Evan.

The third group are names we know from later days when the AD&D universe would sprawl out into paperbacks about the Dragonlance saga with its dragons and drow elves. These include Adam-Troy Castro, Troy Denning, Ed Greenwood, Tracy Hickman, Paul Kidd, Roger E Moore, Douglas Niles, Mel Odom, Jean Rabe, RA Salvatore, and Margaret Weis. Many of these books were bestsellers in their own right.

The second major gaming magazine was UK's White Dwarf, which ran from June/July 1977 to this day, but did not use a lot of fiction. The little it did feature was the humorous fantasy of David Langford (along with non-fiction by future fantasy star Garth Nix and the cartoon Conan parody "Thrud the Barbarian" by Carl Critchlow).

Probably the best magazine in terms of quality was Sorcerer's Apprentice, which ran for 17 issues from the Winter 1978 to a final issue in 1983. SA published the very best of fantasy authors with Robert E Vardeman, Charles de Lint, Tanith Lee, Janet Fox, Manly Wade Wellman, CJ Cherryh, and Fred Saberhagen. Roger Zelazny reprinted several of his Dilvish the Damned stories and even wrote a new one, "Garden of Blood" for issue #3. Karl Edward Wagner did likewise with his eternal swordsman Kane. Michael Stackpole, a future fantasy bestseller, wrote many of the non-fiction articles and acted as editor.

The last of the bunch was Ares, a magazine that focused on games besides AD&D. It ran from March 1980-1984 for 16 issues plus two specials. It featured fantasy fiction by M Lucie Chin, Jayge Carr, Ian McDowell, and Poul Anderson. The best sword-and-sorcery stories were "Inn At World's End" and "The Whispering Mirror" by Richard Lyon and Andrew Offutt, part of their Demon in the Mirror series that Timescape published.

November 1982 saw the gaming world enter the world of sf publishing when TSR, owners of AD&D bought Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback's original SF magazine. They would hold the copyright until 1996. Its new editor was George Scithers, who as a fanzine editor of Amra had been godparent to the term "sword-and-sorcery," born out of discussions between Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. He won two Hugos for his editing at Asimov's before moving onto Amazing. The George Scither years at Amazing (1982-1986) held a nice balance between sf and fantasy with stories from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Nancy Springer, Tanith Lee, Pat Murphy, David Langford, Lisa Tuttle, Diana L Paxson, Rosemary Edghill, Jayge Carr, Darrell Schweitzer, John Gregory Betancourt, Harry Turtledove (as Eric G Iverson), and Esther M Friesner. Many of these authors had appeared in The Dragon previously. Scither would leave in 1986 to re-emerge as the editor of another important magazine revival, Weird Tales in 1988, one of the last places to sell sword-and-sorcery in the 1990s.

The '80s saw a few bright flashes but over-all a dwindling in sword-and-sorcery. In paperback, the Thieves' World shared world spawned several books and there were also the Red Sonja novels by Smith and Tierney, Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomeo Gozon series, reprints of Elric, and new anthologies such as Sword and Sorceress by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The magazine markets for short sword-and-sorcery were pretty much depleted by 1980, with the folding of Ted White's reign at Fantastic and the last of Lin Carter's Year's Best anthologies. Fantasy was moving away from adventure and derring-do towards a softer, more literary kind. It also re-branded its name, no longer using sword-and-sorcery as a tag. The gamers went one way and the litterateurs another. The 1990s were coming and that desert I mentioned stretched out ahead, with only Conan pastiches and Xena: Warrior Princess left to remind us there had been a sword-and-sorcery boom twenty years before.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, May 25, 2015

7 Days in May | You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Mad Max

Hulk (2003)



Continuing the Marvel re-watch, I went back to the unofficial first movie in the series. It's unofficial because most people - including Marvel - want to forget it, but I like parts of it too much to dispose of it and it fits with the rest of the series for a couple of reasons. To start, it begins with the military's trying to develop a new version of the super-soldier program. After what happens to the last of Steve Rogers' blood in Agent Carter, the military would have had to go back to the drawing board and David Banner's experiments in Hulk are a logical development of that. So, it fits thematically with First Avenger and Agent Carter.

But I've also always liked that Hulk ends with Bruce Banner in South America and that The Incredible Hulk opens with him there. You can't make the two movies flow seamlessly into each other, but if you squint hard enough you can pretend that Incredible is a sequel and not a total reboot. And like I said, there's enough about Hulk that I love that I want it to still exist in the Marvel Movie Universe. Mostly that's the Hulk's escape from the desert base and the tank and helicopter fights that follow, but I also very much love Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly's performances as Bruce and Betty. And Sam Elliott was born to play General Ross. Yes, the movie is slow as molasses in winter and the resolution to the David Banner plot is so ridiculous it hurts, but I can suffer through that to get to the good stuff.

Iron Man (2008)



Watching Iron Man right after First Avenger and Agent Carter, I was struck by how easily it also flows from those same themes. Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane are both obsessed with the legacy of Howard Stark. Howard's involvement in Operation Rebirth was one of many projects he participated in or created to improve the US military. And as the military continued its own attempts to perfect a super soldier (resulting in the Hulk), Stark and his partner - and eventually his son - pursued those same goals from other angles.

The problem is that Stane doesn't have the conscience that Howard displays in Agent Carter. And neither does Tony at first of course. That's the beauty of the movie: watching Tony develop that and become a better person. It still totally works after I don't know how many viewings and I still get choked up at the double meaning when Tony thanks Yinsen for saving him.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)



The Incredible Hulk continues these same themes only more overtly than the 2003 movie. Instead of David Banner's working to make soldiers immune to chemical warfare, General Ross is heading up a program that's explicitly trying to replicate the success of Operation Rebirth. I really like how well the Hulk and Iron Man movies pick up and build on different aspects of what was happening in WWII, even though they were made before First Avenger and Agent Carter.

Incredible is a more exciting movie than Hulk and I love how it works in characters, visual references, and musical queues from the '70s TV show. Tim Roth is a cool villain and I buy his motives for going deeper and deeper into the process that eventually turns him into the Abomination. One of my problems with the movie though is the Abomination's look. The comics version is one of my favorite character designs, so it was disappointing to lose the head fins that I've always associated with him.

More than that though, I have a problem with General Ross. Forgetting for a second that Sam Elliot was dream casting for me, Ross is just written really weird in Incredible. In the comics - and in the 2003 movie - Ross is a character I love to hate. I want him to leave Hulk alone, but I understand why he doesn't. He's scared and he's trying to protect the world from what he thinks is a dangerous monster. But in this movie, it's Ross who's clearly the monster. He doesn't want to destroy the Hulk, he wants to weaponize him. That makes Ross an unrelatable, stock villain.

I want to talk about that last scene, too. It seems weird at first that Tony Stark shows up to tell Ross about the Avenger Initiative. What does Ross have to offer SHIELD? He's lost the Hulk and the Abomination was a horrible failure. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We see in The Avengers that Nick Fury isn't afraid to do some questionable things and work with some shady people to accomplish his goals. Maybe with Bruce Banner off the grid, Fury sees Ross as his next best option for getting a Hulk-like creature on the team. Obviously that never paid off and it's kind of embarrassing that The Incredible Hulk doesn't fit more naturally into the rest of the Marvel Movies story, but it works for me that not every avenue Fury explored on his way to The Avengers paid off.

One thing that does pay off from the end of Incredible though is Bruce's learning to control his transformations. That flows into one of my favorite moments from The Avengers.

Iron Man 2 (2010)



This gets a lot of crap for supposedly forfeiting story in favor of setting up The Avengers. I don't see it. I do think there's too much going on in Iron Man 2, but setting up The Avengers is just part of it and it's one of the more interesting parts. It gives us Black Widow, for crying out loud.

Far less interesting is the plot about Tony Stark's dying. It's a fake emergency; a stake that comes out of nowhere and is easily resolved without any real consequence. All it does is introduce some false and unnecessary tension into everyone's lives. There's plenty of drama already in the idea that the government wants to control the Iron Man armor and that Stark's best friend is under orders to take it from him. That plot also continues the themes of the whole series so far: the conflict between individuals who want to make the world a better place and the organizations that want to do that on a larger scale. With Captain America: Civil War on the horizon, I suspect that we're not done exploring that either.

From a continuity standpoint, Iron Man 2 creates some wrinkles by revealing that Stark actually turned down Nick Fury about the Avenger Initiative. He sort of changes his mind in Iron Man 2, but then Fury decides he doesn't want Stark for more than a consultant. That calls into question the final scene of The Incredible Hulk, but I think I remember an interview or something where someone suggested that Stark's conversation with General Ross happened after Iron Man 2, so Stark's acting in his consulting capacity? I don't know if that marries well with The Avengers, but I'll keep an eye on it.

One thing that Stark and Fury's conversations in Iron Man 2 do really well though is set up Iron Man 3. Fury says that he wants Iron Man, but not Stark. Stark objects, "I am Iron Man," but the certainty of that statement is called into question, especially considering Rhodey's actions. Iron Man 3 explores that question in a cool, powerful way.

Captain America (1944)



I finished the Captain America serial. It's not very good. It's not horrible, but it's certainly not any version of Captain America I recognize. The plot stretches out in dumb ways, too. Most serials have long sections of padding, but some deal with it better than others. In Captain America, whenever the story slows down, a new inventor shows up who's somehow grafted onto the villain's motivations and made a target.

And neither the villain nor Captain America are very smart about hiding their identities. When the villain realizes that Captain America is actually the District Attorney who's also been hounding him the whole time, it's not based on any new information that the villain hasn't already had since Chapter 1. The story just realizes that it's time to wrap things up, so the villain finally figures it out.

It's not much better for the villain's identity. He's so at the center of everything that's been going on that it's ridiculous no one ever suspects or at least questions him. Nor does anyone until the end when the villain has gotten so sloppy that he's just appearing to people and counting on killing the witnesses later.

One cool thing about the serial though is the character of Gail Richards. She's the DA's secretary, but she's also in on his secret and works as Captain America's partner. She's no sidekick, but a valuable ally who drives during chases, flies planes, and figures things out before Captain America does. And it's her who - once she's captured at the end and sees who the villain really is - figures out how to get that information to Captain America to save someone's life and bring the whole case to a close.

I don't recommend Captain America to fans of the character, but if you like serials in general - and especially if you like Lionel Atwill - there's enough to make this one worth watching if not exactly a classic.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)



I don't have any special fondness for the first three Mad Max movies. I only ever remember the last five minutes of Mad Max, but I think I enjoyed Road Warrior well enough. All I recall of Beyond Thunderdome is Tina Turner's saying, "He's just a raggedy man!" Which means that I went into Fury Road pretty cold, but - thanks to the reviews - with high expectations for a great action movie. And boy does it deliver.

There was a moment not quite halfway into it where I realized I was watching what would have been the grand finale in most action flicks. That's really what Fury Road is: a two-hour third act. Not that it's light on story. It has plenty of character and emotion; it just gives them to you without a lot of exposition. It's the kind of story I love where the world just exists and no one feels like they have to explain all the details. I get Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and what she's up to. And I even understand what makes Max (Tom Hardy) tick, even though he doesn't say a lot and is actually a secondary character in Furiosa's movie. Theron and Hardy are both doing awesome work and convey more in looks and actions than they do in dialogue. One critic compared Fury Road to a silent movie and that's a valid observation. If only silent movies were all this badass.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Music



I kind of want to rag on the Diamonds Are Forever title sequence like I have most of the rest of the movie, but there are some cool things about it. Maurice Binder's not being innovative - he's found his formula by now and all he has to do is riff on it - but he's still Maurice Binder and he does some fun stuff.

The last shot of the cold open is of Blofeld's angry, apparently orphaned cat, so Binder transforms the animal's eye into a diamond. The rest of the sequence is close-ups of diamond jewelry being worn by women, with some obligatory silhouettes thrown in. In amongst the women and the jewelry though, he also puts the cat, either spoiling or reassuring that Blofeld is still going to be a big part of the show.

For the theme song, John Barry re-teamed with Don Black who'd partnered with him on the Thunderball rush job. They wrote a breakup song that incorporates the movie's title (I always love that formula), but even better is the music itself. He brought back Shirley Bassey to sing it and between her sultrily boisterous voice, some big stingers from the horn section, and a slinky guitar riff, the song is one of my favorites in the whole series.

Barry's back to using the Bond Theme sparingly in Diamonds, but he does it well, always at key moments. It first comes into play when we finally see Sean Connery's face in the cold open, getting us excited about the return of the familiar Bond. The next time it shows up is when Bond is crossing the Channel in the hovercraft, starting his mission. And finally, it appears again when he arrives at Willard Whyte's summer house, his first huge break in the case.

Barry also brings back the 007 Theme he introduced in From Russia With Love. That's what's playing over the movie's finale once Bond gets control of Blofeld's bathosub, the majestic music making it obvious that Bond's now going to be victorious.

Top Ten Theme Songs

1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
2. Diamonds Are Forever 
3. You Only Live Twice
4. From Russia With Love (John Barry instrumental version)
5. Dr No
6. Thunderball
7. Goldfinger
8. From Russia With Love (Matt Monro vocal version)
9. TBD
10. TBD

Top Ten Title Sequences

1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
2. Dr No
3. Thunderball
4. Goldfinger
5. From Russia With Love
6. Diamonds Are Forever
7. You Only Live Twice
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Villains



So they brought back Blofeld one more time and it's once too many. I love the idea of bringing him back for Bond to get his revenge, but not like this. Not with this tone and not played by Charles Gray.

For years I thought I hated Charles Gray, because he kept getting miscast in Bond films. I recently, finally saw a movie that I loved him in though. He plays the leader of a Satanic cult and battles Christopher Lee in 1968's The Devil Rides Out. It's a perfect role for him, because he can be as prissy and cowardly as he wants and I'm supposed to despise him. But those traits make him a lousy Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice and a worse Blofeld. He's a stunning disappointment after Telly Savalas' tough guy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

When he escapes Bond by dressing as a woman, I don't even blink an eye. That's exactly the kind of thing this Blofeld would do. But just try to imagine Savalas or the Blofeld of Thunderball doing that. Heck, try to imagine Donald Pleasance doing that!

One thing he has in common with Pleasance's Blofeld though is that they're both dumber than their cats. There are a couple of times when Blofeld has the opportunity to destroy Bond in Diamonds and doesn't. Having Wint and Kidd just drop him unconscious in a pipe and leave it out in the open - hoping that it gets buried the next day by random workers - is ludicrous. And later, when Bond shows up at the oil rig, Blofeld again passes up having him shot.

Admittedly, it's too late on both of those occasions for Blofeld's plan to succeed. Thanks to Bond's competent - if not especially impressive - detective work, too many people have all the information they need to shut Blofeld down. But Blofeld at least has the chance to rid himself of Bond once and for all, then escape to plan another caper. He doesn't care though. That's a recurring motif in this movie.



Wint and Kidd are memorable henchmen, because they're so odd and disturbing. Especially jazz musician Putter Smith as Mr. Kidd. Apparently, the producers wanted both killers to be played by musicians and originally went for Paul Williams as Wint, but they couldn't reach an agreement about the money. So they hired Bruce Glover to play Wint instead. They originally told Glover he looked too normal for the role, but the actor makes up for it with the same, innate creepiness he passed on to his son, Crispin Glover.

Wint and Kidd are gay like they are in the novel, but it isn't their attraction to each other that makes them so disconcerting. And interestingly for 1971, no one even comments on it except for Bond's criticizing Wint's cologne. Like everything else about them though, Wint and Kidd's gayness is played really weird. They call each other by their surnames and could not look less natural holding hands. They're completely bizzare as a couple and I'm endlessly fascinated trying to imagine their home life when they're not on an assignment.

And speaking of assignments, just who are they working for when they try to kill Bond at the end of the movie? And why are they trying to use flaming skewers and a bomb? They seem like competent assassins earlier in the movie, but between putting Bond in that pipe and the pointless attack on the ocean liner, they turn out to be not that good.



You know who else are pointless and not that good? Bambi and Thumper are completely lame with their crazy dance moves and sort of taking turns attacking Bond. They don't even really take turns, because one of them will just slither around a little or do some cartwheels before throwing it back to the other. And then Bond defeats them because apparently the fight's gone on long enough and it's time for it to end.

Top Ten Villains

1. Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
2. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (From Russia With Love and Thunderball)
3. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Doctor No (Dr. No)
5. Emilio Largo (Thunderball)
6. Rosa Klebb (From Russia With Love)
7. Kronsteen (From Russia With Love)
8. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice)
9. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Diamonds Are Forever)
10. TBD

Top Ten Henchmen

1. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
2. Grant (From Russia With Love)
3. Oddjob (Goldfinger)
4. Irma Bunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
5. Miss Taro (Dr. No)
6. Professor Dent (Dr. No)
7. Morzeny (From Russia With Love)
8. Hans (You Only Live Twice)
9. Helga Brandt (You Only Live Twice)
10. Vargas (Thunderball)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Women



Jill St John is really charming as Tiffany Case, but she's a much different character than the one Fleming wrote. In the novel, Case is a tough, but damaged woman who relates to the also tough, also damaged Bond. In the movie, she's still tough and all-business on the surface, but that's a cover for incompetence, not pain. St John's Tiffany is all bravado that fails her when the pressure really gets going.

She's interesting for a while, agreeing to double-cross her bosses and abscond with the diamonds alongside Bond. St John plays it cool and there's no telling at first whose side she's really on. As it turns out, she's playing Bond and stays loyal to her hidden bosses until it becomes apparent that they're trying to kill her.

Once she's on Bond's side though, she doesn't make sense anymore. She has opportunities to take off and escape prison, but she inexplicably sticks around; I guess hoping that Bond will use some influence to drop the charges against her. That works out for her in the end, but it's a super risky play. The impression I get is that she's pretty tough when she has the hierarchy of the smuggling ring backing her up, but she has no idea what to do or how to survive on her own. So she trades in the smugglers for Bond and hopes for the best.

I mentioned in a previous post that Diamonds Are Forever sets the tone for the Roger Moore era and that's evident in Tiffany Case. She's the prototype of the smart/tough woman who suddenly turns dumb partway through the movie, though in her case she was always pretty dumb and just covered it well for a while.



The other major woman in Diamonds is Plenty O'Toole, played by Lana Wood. She's barely even a character and does nothing but bounce between high rollers in the casino. We know nothing more about her than that. Is she a prostitute? Just a gold-digger? Is there some kind of sad backstory that explains why she's ended up here? No idea. The movie doesn't care.

It also doesn't care to explain how she ends up dead in Tiffany's swimming pool, mistaken for Tiffany. Bond says that Plenty went to Tiffany's place to look for the smuggler, but why would Plenty do that? Does she know Tiffany? Who cares? Not this film.

Neither Plenty nor Tiffany crack my Top 10.

My Favorite Bond Women

1. Tracy Bond (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
2. Paula Caplan (Thunderball)
3. Tatiana Romanova (From Russia With Love)
4. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
5. Domino Derval (Thunderball)
6. Honey Rider (Dr. No)
7. Sylvia Trench (Dr. No and From Russia With Love)
8. Aki (You Only Live Twice)
9. Pussy Galore (Goldfinger)
10. Tilly Masterson (Goldfinger)

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Bond

Actors and Allies 



I used to assume that Connery's return in Diamonds meant that George Lazenby was a failed experiment. That Saltzman and Broccoli were displeased with Lazenby and fired him before coming to their senses and begging Connery to come back. Boy, was I wrong. Lazenby turned down a seven-picture contract and left the series of his own free will to become a hippie. (Incidentally, OHMSS director Peter Hunt was also invited back, but had to decline for scheduling reasons, so they brought back Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton instead.)

The producers next approached American actor John Gavin (though they also considered Adam West). Gavin's probably best known for playing Sam Loomis in Psycho. United Artists wasn't having it though. Not wanting to risk another new Bond, they insisted on having Connery back whatever the cost. They bought out Gavin's contract and paid Connery £1.25 million, the equivalent of about £23 million today.

Sadly, Connery was as enthused about playing Bond in Diamonds as he was in You Only Live Twice. But though he looks bored in both, it presents itself in different ways. In YOLT, because of the humorlessness of Roald Dahl's script, Bond comes across as serious and dull. In Diamonds, he takes nothing seriously. He's amused at everything, which removes any possibility of tension from the film.

The one time he becomes serious (not counting the cold open), is when he's talking to Tiffany after Plenty O'Toole is murdered. It's possible that he's upset about Plenty's death, but I get the impression that it's more about convincing Tiffany that she's in danger. He slaps her during that scene, which is where the power balance shifts between the two of them. She realizes then that he's not just some underling who wants to double-cross the smugglers and run away with her. It's a jolting scene and doesn't work for me because it's so out of character for the version of Bond that Connery's playing in the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, it's the only way she's going to take him seriously and get out of the way so that he can be in charge for the last half of the film. That Bond has to resort to smacking a woman to be taken seriously illustrates the big problem with Connery's performance.

Conney doesn't even look like Bond anymore. Maybe it's the gray in his hair, maybe it's his longer sideburns. Maybe it's just a really bad toupee. Whatever the reason, he's no longer a debonair spy, but an aging, slightly creepy old dude (even though he was only 40 when the movie was filmed).

M is irritated with Bond in their scenes, but that's not especially anything new in the series. We've seen it particularly clearly with Q. As Bond becomes a less serious character, that grates on the nerves of the people giving him his orders.

In keeping with the weird tone of the movie, the Moneypenny scene is really awkward. Not only is she in the field wearing a fake uniform to perform an extremely minor task (giving Bond his fake passport), but her banter with him is super inappropriate. He's off to Holland and offers to bring her back something, so she asks for a diamond... in a ring. Whether or not she's serious about wanting an engagement ring from him (and I dearly hope she's not, but you can read it either way), that's just an awful thing to say to someone whose wife was recently murdered. Again, the movie isn't thinking about stuff like that. It's just making sure we get some Moneypenny flirting in and doesn't care if it makes any sense.

Felix Leiter shows up in Diamonds, but he has no personality. He's only there to make Bond's activities official on US soil and to occasionally fix things. It's dumb though that he can't authorize an interview between Bond and reclusive millionaire Willard Whyte. By the time Bond makes that request, he has plenty of evidence proving that Whyte is deeply connected to the smuggling ring, but Felix acts like Bond just wants to see Whyte on a hunch.

And speaking of Willard Whyte, he's the best thing about this movie. Country singer/sausage king Jimmy Dean is awesome, charming, and completely convincing as a guy who's been forced out of his business empire. He's equal parts frustrated by the situation and determined to fix it. Love him a lot.

Best Quip



"Well, as long as the collars and cuffs match..." concerning his preference in women's hair color.

Worst Quip



"Named after your father, perhaps?" to Plenty O'Toole when she introduces herself. What does that even mean? Is he implying that she's Peter O'Toole's daughter? Why?

Gadgets



There are a few gadgets in Diamonds, but some of them are relatively mundane, like fake fingerprints and a grappling gun. Blofeld's voice changer is pretty cool and I enjoy Q's nonchalance about the ease with which he duplicates it.

The water ball that Bond uses to reach Blofeld's oil rig is iconic, but that's less a gadget than another reference to new, real-world technology like the hovercraft from earlier in the film.

That leaves my favorite of Diamonds' gadgets: the finger trap in Bond's holster that snaps a henchman's fingers when trying to confiscate Bond's gun in the cold open. It's brutal and bloody; a good match for what that cold open is supposed to be.

Top Ten Gadgets

1. Aston Martin DB V (Goldfinger and Thunderball)
2. Jet pack (Thunderball)
3. Little Nellie (You Only Live Twice)
4. Rocket cigarettes (You Only Live Twice)
5. Attaché case (From Russia With Love)
6. Propeller SCUBA tank with built-in spearguns (Thunderball)
7. Rebreather (Thunderball)
8. Camera-tape recorder; mostly because it reminds me of a camera my dad used to use (From Russia With Love)
9. Seagull SCUBA hat (Goldfinger)
10. Holster finger trap (Diamonds Are Forever)

Bond's Best Outfit



Can't go wrong with a classic, black tux and the red carnation is a nice touch.

Bond's Worst Outfit



I don't mind the pinkness of the tie; it's the ridiculously short length. The '70s, man.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Story



Plot Summary

After sweeping the last movie's heavy ending under the rug, Bond tries to uncover a diamond smuggling ring before it shuts down. Hilarity ensues.

Influences

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was one of the top money-making movies of 1969, but it still made far less than You Only Live Twice. Saltzman and Broccoli wanted the series back to where it was, so for the next film, they made a conscious effort to duplicate old successes. Goldfinger had done extremely well in the US, thanks in part to a lot of its being set there, so the producers chose another US-based novel, Diamonds Are Forever, as the next film.

Richard Maibaum was brought back to write the script with US writer Tom Mankiewicz coming in to give it an American feel. The basic set up from Fleming's novel was used, but the mastermind behind the smuggling ring was changed from standard gangsters to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

A minor influence that popped into the movie was the English Channel hovercraft. The hovercraft had been operating for a couple of years by the time Diamonds came out, but it was still a cool, new thing. Referencing new, real-world technology soon became a recurring phenomenon in the Bond movies.

One thing that some think is an influence - but isn't - is the conspiracy theory that the US moon landing was faked. At one point, Bond encounters some men in spacesuits on a moon set, but that's just a reference to the space program in general. The facility that Bond's infiltrated does space research, so those are just astronauts in training. The fake moon landing conspiracy theory didn't get big until a few years after Diamonds.

How Is the Book Different?

I've already mentioned Blofeld. His scheme for the diamonds is completely different from the gangsters' plan in the novel, which is just about making money. We'll talk more about Blofeld's plan in the Villains post, but since Saltzman and Broccoli were trying to recapture the feel of blockbusters like Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, they needed Blofeld to do something bodacious with those diamonds.

The movie also skips over all the New York stuff from the novel so that it can get to Vegas more quickly and spend more time there. That may have been partially a budget thing (thanks to Sean Connery's enormous salary for the film), but I don't know that New York was ever in the movie script.

Moment That's Most Like Fleming



Though the villains' plans are totally different in the movie, a lot of stuff early in the film is right out of the novel. Wint and Kidd's shutting down the pipeline is from there, and even the death of Blofeld's double in the cold open is inspired by the mud bath scene from the book.

The scene that's closest though is when Bond meets Tiffany in her apartment. It's not a word for word reenactment, but the tone and the characters are exactly right. Bond's pretending to be smuggler Peter Franks and he's bewildered and a little amused that his contact is a tough woman.

Moment That's Least Like Fleming



Again, there's the whole ending, but more than that, Diamonds strikes a weird, goofy tone that's completely foreign to Fleming. That moon scene is one example, with the astronauts moving in slow motion for no reason as they try to stop Bond. The worst though is when Tiffany is walking through the Circus Circus casino and an elephant inexplicably wanders up to a slot machine and plays it.

The Roger Moore era has the reputation for being silly and over-the-top, but that starts right here. As dumb as You Only Live Twice was, I never get the feeling that it's intentionally dumb. But audiences seemed to love that stupidity and Saltman/Broccoli decided to keep serving it up.

Cold Open



The job of Diamonds' cold open is to resolve the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service as quickly as possible. It opens with a series of beatings as an unseen Bond tries to locate Blofeld and take revenge for Tracy's death. We hear Connery's voice as he questions the underlings, but we don't see him until he arrives at a villa to question a sunbathing woman, choking her with her own bikini top.

She directs him to Blofeld, who's in the middle of surgically creating doubles of himself. Bond and Blofeld fight and Blofeld is apparently killed. Though Blofeld of course turns up later, the cold open wants you to believe that that's it. OHMSS is now wrapped up all tidy and we can get back to the fun Bond that we apparently want.

The cold open is supposed to be the serious, brutal finale to OHMSS, but it doesn't work that way. Forgetting for a second that the rest of Diamonds completely undermines it, the cold open doesn't even work on its own. Connery's performance (which I'll get into more in the next post) is so disinterested that it's impossible to take his quest for vengeance seriously. Even the voiceover work before you see his face lacks any real emotion. In ranking it, I only put it ahead of You Only Live Twice because at least it has a couple of gruesome mud bath deaths.

Top 10 Cold Opens

1. Thunderball
2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
3. Goldfinger
4. From Russia With Love
5. Diamonds Are Forever
6. You Only Live Twice
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Movie Series Continuity



With Blofeld "dead" in the cold open, everything's supposed to go back to normal. M says as much in the very first scene, callously dismissing any feelings that Bond still has about his wife's death. Which sadly is fair, because Bond doesn't seem to have any feelings about Tracy. Hunting down and killing Blofeld was apparently an obligation, not satisfaction. Bond actually seems amused by it. But then he seems amused by pretty much everything in the movie.

Bond's still a know-it-all (about sherry this time) and it still irritates M. And keeping with M and Moneypenny's field activities in You Only Live Twice, Moneypenny and Q both leave MI6 HQ in Diamonds. I can buy that Q might be needed in Las Vegas (though why he has to deliver Bond's equipment personally is never explained), but there's no reason whatsoever for Moneypenny to show up at Customs - in uniform - to deliver Bond his fake passport. It's nothing but a ridiculous way to get her into the movie, because audiences want to see Bond banter with her. The filmmakers are just putting checkmarks in boxes at this point.

Oh, you know what continuity isn't in Diamonds? The hat rack trick. Apparently Bond's throwing his hat to Moneypenny at the wedding was the last time he'd do that, which actually suits me just fine. I'll miss that bit, but I'm glad that it went out with some emotion and meaning attached to it.

One final bit of continuity is that everyone still knows who James Bond is. His notoriety goes beyond SPECTRE now and includes common smugglers like Tiffany Case or crooked casino managers like Bert Saxby. Bond's faked death in You Only Live Twice hasn't even fooled the general public.

Fanciful Tales of Time and Space: Fan Fire [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Reading a scanned copy of the original Fanciful Tales #1 (Fall 1936) fills me with so many conflicting emotions. Most of them good. On the one hand, just looking at the contents pages delights me with names of authors I love. We have HP Lovecraft, Donald A Wolheim, Robert E Howard, David H Keller and August Derleth. All we need is Clark Ashton Smith and it would be perfect. With the exception of some like William S Sykora, Duane W Rimel and Kenneth B Pritchard, these names are weird fiction royalty. More importantly, I can glean the fannish zeal with which the project was done. I know that "fan fire," that desire to place words and images in a new way that will thrill (hopefully thousands of) readers (more likely less than a dozen). Fanciful Tales' single issue is a perfect example of a "fanzine," created in a flash of inspiration (that doesn't necessarily include a lot of proofing). I have created not a few similar works of my own.

Looking at the contents of Fanciful Tales #1, I see DAW (as Don Wolheim was known) had some great connections with published writers and active fans, filling his zine accordingly. All are quite short, little longer than flash fiction. Let's take a look at each one and consider them individually:

"The Nameless City" by HP Lovecraft is a fan reprint from 1921. HPL was a professional, but this story appeared before his rise in Weird Tales, in the amateur press magazine The Wolverine, November 1921. The story was later rejected twice by Farnsworth Wright but appeared in November 1938 after HPL's death. The story is considered the first of the Cthulhu Mythos tales.

Wolheim
"Umbriel" by Donald A Wolheim is a short science fiction tale that DAW never reprinted. It's not surprising why. The story is a supposed report on why space travelers don't go to the moon Umbriel. Short on plot, the idea is good - a moon as worm-riddled corpse - but undeveloped. It's the kind of idea Clark Ashton Smith wrote to 11,000 words for Gernsback's Amazing Stories.

"The Forbidden Room" by Duane W Rimel is a traditional ghost story about a pirate and his treasure that haunt a room in his house after his death. A typical Weird Tales-style filler, it is a little too thin for the pulps. The author also contributed his art to the issue. Rimel was largely forgotten until ST Joshi uncovered his work with HP Lovecraft in this century.

"Solomon Kane's Homecoming" by Robert E Howard is a poem that recaps Kane's career outside of England, his sea battles along with Richard Grenville, his combats against sorcery in Africa. This was the first appearance of the poem that would be included in all Solomon Kane collections in the future, even adapted by Marvel Comics. It is likely Howard sent in the piece before his suicide or it was submitted by his executor, Robert H Barlow.

"The Typewriter" by David H Keller MD is about a writer who mysteriously buys a typewriter and uses it to pen a bestseller. His wife becomes jealous of the imaginary woman in the novel and destroys the machine in an attempt to get her husband back. This tale is similar to many he wrote for Weird Tales, based on the psychosis he saw in his day job as psychiatrist.

Derleth
"The Man From Dark Valley" by August W Derleth is a typical Derleth ghost story. He wrote literally dozens of these for Farnsworth Wright (this one using astral projection), but he would resell this one to Wright's competition, Strange Stories, four year later. The American setting is a little different as many of his ghost stories are set in England.

"The Globe" by William S Sykora is the only story this active fan ever published. It's referred to as a "midgetale," 1936-speak for flash fiction. The brief plot involves a globe that sucks people's souls out and feeds them to the globe's owner. Sykora was one of the charter subscribers to Amazing Stories in 1926, a member of the Greater New York Science Fiction League along with Wolheim and Sam Moskowitz, and was involved with SF in many ways, including publishing and filmmaking.

"The Electric World" by Kenneth B Pritchard is the longest story in the issue and is described as "scientific words as long as your arm plus humor..." Accurate, a tale within a tale, but the electrical version of reality is confusing and really not funny, so I guess we shouldn't be sad it was Pritchard's last. He had published a few pieces in another famous fanzine, The Fantasy Fan in 1934-5. After Fanciful Tales he disappeared into the mists of fandom.

The fact that no Fanciful Tales of Time and Space #2 (featuring "Judgement of Netheris" by J Harvey Haggard, "The Psycho Traveler" by Ralph Milne Farley, and "The Escape" by Robert Bloch) appeared is not a surprise. In the world of fan publishing, a run of six issues is a grand achievement. Published on a shoe-string, with no distribution, little advertising, and a proscriptive price (twenty cents was a lot in 1936), the story is the same to this day. It's hard to compete.

Howard
Looking at this attempt at becoming (I have little doubt) another Weird Tales - a painfully disappointing task many of us have tried to accomplish and failed - I am not filled with smugness or derision. I tip my hat at the attempt. Of course, in 2015 we know that the names of Lovecraft, Howard, and Derleth live on. Back in 1936, there was no reason to assume any of these writers would endure. Howard was dead by suicide, Lovecraft had less than a year left, while Derleth's Arkham House was still seven years in the future. In fact, all that possesses me when I read these old bleary pages is the desire to start another magazine, another (not my first) try to create a meeting place for future Lovecrafts and Howards, Bok and Finlays, a place that is made of well-printed text matched with intriguing artwork, a solid, beautiful gem locked in time.

But I resist. Not because the chances of success are so narrow. They were in 1936. They still are in 2015. But because the days of print are gone. I could do the same in a digital format but... it's not the same. Not for me. I need to see those pages printed and saddle-stapled. I need to smell the photocopy ink, the envelopes, that list of buyers (always too few). The agonizing process of collation, folding, stapling, etc. is life's blood to the editor of a fanzine. It is the wellspring from which Donald A Wolheim began, before he became the editor of the Avon Fantasy Reader, the Ace paperback series, and eventually CEO and head editor of DAW paperbacks, a line that continues to this day run by his children. I can imagine the "fan fire" that burned for DAW as he held each of these projects in their final form. Robert Silverberg has said DAW was the most important individual in 20th Century science fiction publishing. It started with Fanciful Tales #1, Fall 1936, a tiny spark of "fan fire".

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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