Monday, January 16, 2017

Better In Your Head?--MOONRAKER

Ian Fleming

"They want us dead. So we have to stay alive."

Set over the course of one week, entirely within the confines of England, Moonraker is one of the best Bond novels. It takes its time applying its grip, but good luck extricating yourself once it does.

And it all starts when M suspects a man cheating cards at his club.

The man is mystery-shrouded millionaire businessman Hugo Drax. He's a hero to the English, a legend, builder of the "Moonraker," a nuclear defense project that will show the Reds and the Yanks and whoever else that the Queen's own are not to be trifled with. The missile is outstanding in the field thanks to the magic of columbite, a mineral that affords the weapon expanded range and increased heat resistance. (As well as a mineral that Drax has a monopoly on.) Both M and Bond speak admiringly of the man, so the revelation that Drax really is a cheat leaves both men a tad disillusioned.

Once the Moonraker project's chief of security is murdered, M inserts 007 as his replacement. People are strange, when you're a stranger--every man on the missile-building base (save for the best and worst of them) rocks a baldie and a stash, and Bond is one of only two non-German workers. The other is Gala Brand, a Scotland Yard agent doing undercover biz as Drax's assistant. She's dedicated to her duplicity, and not very interested in flirting with Bond.

Other characters flit round the periphery; one, Willy Krebs, comes much closer. When Bond and Brand share their suspicions that he is snooping around with Drax, they nearly don't live to regret it.

In the end it's Brand who shows her snoopy muscles, hijacking Drax's launch trajectory measurements. There's no out-lifting Krebs, however, and Gala finds herself restrained in the back seat of Drax's Mercedes.

They don't call James Bond "The Original Commander Save-A-Bird" for nothing! For the second time in three books, our hero gives good chase only to find himself tied up in a car, next to a female ally. (I'm not entirely convinced Bond didn't plan it that way.)

In the time between having her cover blown and Bond's pursuit, Brand has figured out Drax's actual plans for the Moonraker missile. With the help of a nuclear warhead supplied by the Soviets, England's great benefactor is set to blow its crown jewel into oblivion under the guise of a test launch. After tying the infiltrators to chairs (three out of three there), Drax delivers a B+ "motive rant," revealing himself as a former Nazi who stole a British soldier's identity after being horribly injured in the last war. He's been building his fortune, accruing a country's goodwill, and the time has come to cause calamity. Since his days as an awkward German boy stuck in the English school system, he has loathed the Limeys. He has their love and gratitude, but soon enough, he will have their animosity and fear.

It is this insecurity Bond pounces upon, taunting "Sir Hugo" into a frothing unbecomingness. Drax's voluble, violent reaction drains half his brain power, causing him to leave behind a key component to Bond and Brand's (protracted) escape.

Bond sucks it up and resigns himself to self-sacrifice. Brand flicks her nipples and reminds him the melodramatic twat that she was on this base long before him, working diligently on the Moonraker project, fully immersed in her assignment, and other options exist. Options that will not result in one or both of them leaving a permanent shadow.

With Drax and crew evaporated in an official "tragic accident", Bond sits in M's office and reflects on his beloved London. The people, the pigeons, and how close they all came to "no new memories" status. And would have, indeed, but for one avaricious man's insistence on cheating at bridge in a club owned by the head of MI6.

Fleming's direct, focused prose paints the pages in bleak blue and stark gray. The card game between Drax and Bond is easy to read, if difficult to recall, but once the news breaks that the Moonraker's security chief has been murdered, the suspense rockets.

Director-Lewis Gilbert
Writer-Christopher Wood

"I think he's re-attempting re-entry!"

Book series, film series…when you reach ten of anything, inertia is perhaps inevitable. Creative types will look to the untapped and/or unlikely well to draw from. In the case of the James Bond franchise, slipping in prestige and no longer a trend-setting cultural phenomenon, Eon Productions followed up one of the most divergent book adaptations in film history with another "Nice title, let's take that and nothing else!" entry, For Your Eyes Only.

Then Star Wars happened. And, like a GIF of the Truffle Shuffle, kept happening until it threatened to subsume the entirety of humanity.

How could the Cold War, with its implicit threats and garish propaganda tactics, compete with Death Stars and mind tricks and pew-pew!? Easy: James Bond in outer space! We're beyond cities and states, provinces and prefectures, countries and continents...get ready for stars, quasars, planets and galaxies!

But first: James Bond caving in to fan demand!

This plot is bullshit.

The Moonraker space shuttle (on loan to the United Kingdom from the United States, via Drax Industries) has been hijacked. Watch out now. 007 flies out to the California estate of Hugo Drax, featuring (as pointed out by lovely copter pilot Corrine Dufour) a mansion made of stones shipped one by one from France! Or, blatant footage of an actual French chateau superimposed on an aerial view of the Mojave Desert!

My great God. Just have the fucking mansion be in France. Why the trickling pee. And if Drax is going to gradually rebuild a striking structure in another country thousands of miles away, why not snatch up Stonehenge? The evil Irish guy in Halloween III did exactly that! You're telling me a malevolent Irish bastard had a grander vision than a malevolent English bastard? Well I sure hope Ian Fleming was buried in a barrel, all the cooler for him to roll around!

Drax! Ah ahhhh! Star Conqueror! Bond! Space Station Seizer!

The box-shaped fiend speaks like he's holding a swinging solid gold wristwatch, he looks like Peter Dinklage dressed up as Eddie Munster for Halloween, but hey--the role could have been Sinatra's. So let us all count our blessed chickens. (How many movies am I gonna review that Ol' Blue Eyes just missed out on, anyway.)

At the shuttle-manufacturing complex, Bond makes the acquaintance of astronaut/scientist/CIA spy Dr. Holly Goodhead (high up on the list of Bond movie jokes I didn't get as a young lass). She's played by Lois Chiles, whose two facial expressions are one more than a woman that gorgeous needs, but four less than a qualifiably "decent" actress needs. Further, she and Roger Moore share the sexual chemistry of a mermaid and a porcupine.

Bond being Bond plays a game of musical broads, and enlists the pilot Dufour to help locate vital blueprints before she gladly gives up the goods. 007 travels to Venice, where Drax maintains a secret lab and oh man, if reading about all this leaves you shaky and gobsmacked, imagine watching it!

Wait, Jaws is back? Motherfuckers, Jaws never left. After two spectacular failures, he at last nabs Bond (and Bond Girl), directing them to Drax just in time to hear his recitation of "My Awesomely Insane Plot, And Why It Will Actually Work Unlike All Those Other Plots You Foiled." This one's named "Operation Orchid," and guys, it's bulletproof. Drax wants to create "a new master race," so he's shuttled a few dozen winners of the genetic lottery to his space station, where the breeding will begin in earnest after fifty globes of nerve gas disseminate in the Earth's atmosphere and wipe out all the 9s and down.

(That's where Hitler messed up--keeping the Holocaust terrestrial.)

Jaws pulls off the most gratifying Big Man face-turn since Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania VI once he realizes that Drax's utopia will not have room for the likes of he or his lovely little blonde girlfriend. He rebels, and what else should ensue but a laser battle fit to make the ghost of Ed Wood squeal. Drax gets shot, shot out, and then it's time for Luke and Han I mean James and Holly to laser blast three already-launched globes of sinister gas before they can reach Earth.

In summation: Bond works with a female foreign agent to stop a corrupt corporate ogre from destroying the current world to allow for a new one. Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me with a more memorable villain and a more forgettable everything else.

Oh, and Drax stole his own Moonraker shuttle. Fascinating.

Bond films should always contain a dollop or two more than the daily recommended amount of gravitas. Moonraker doesn't even measure a thimble's worth. The movie's so goofy, Drax should have worn a turtle neck and a vest instead of a Mao jacket. "Flimsy, inconceivable, but not without a modicum of charm" is the best blurb I can provide--perhaps I was silly to expect anything more? (The ending credits even boast: "Shot on location--Italy, Brazil, Guatemala, USA and Outer Space!")

Of course boffo box office was had. Gaudiest till Goldeneye nearly twenty years later.

How is a plot to wipe out the entire planet less impressive than one to wipe out a major city? It boils down to solemnity, and the lack thereof. Ian Fleming had half a mind to title his third novel Hell Is Here. Scant mystery, much accuracy. Bond and Brand are each haunted by dire visions of a devastated London. Their anxieties resonated with readers who struggled with the nagging dread that the Cold War would intensify in heat, perhaps reaching a temperature that the center could not bear, dooming life on the planet.

Merely turning London into "The Big Smoking Crater" wouldn't do for the 1970s, however. The stakes are so high, I'm surprised Eon didn't cast Tony Randall as Drax. Instead, French-English actor Michael Lonsdale won the plum gig.* I experienced no difficulty pushing his stout, raven-haired figure from my mind as I read about the red-haired, long-thumbed, scar-ridden villain of Fleming's vision, even though I rather prefer the look of movie Hugo Drax, and not simply because he isn't a ginger. Attitude-wise, both are scornful pricks who don't prepare for failure because they can't fathom the scenario.

The film contains a sickening glut of outlandish moments. Chang attempting to assassinate Bond via centrifuge chamber would have been harrowing had I not been laughing forcefully enough to rupture my spleen. The gondola chase belonged in the original Casino Royale. James Bond, star warrior. Jaws in love.

The writer made no effort to distill what made the novel a quality series of sits. Understated humor, for instance. M and Bond's first conversation about Drax runs so long that 007 misses an important lunch date. Drax's mini-speech over BBC Radio on the eve of the Moonraker launch just avoids devolving into maniacal laughter. (I promise the filmmakers would not have been so kind. Drax rubbing his hands together, eyebrows wagging, then a cut to a wino and a pigeon by a radio sharing disbelieving looks.)

Krebs is missed, along with his look-alike Panzer pals. He and his single impressive stunt are replaced by the cartoonishly indestructible Jaws (who gets two), and that pointless felcher Chang.

The Bond Girl ain't safe either. Gala Brand had a good deal of use, but Holly Goodhead was utter rubbish. I much prefer Corrine Dufour to both. She's a classic second-tier Bond babe: pretty, helpful, and destined to be killed by at least one animal.

I am one of the bigger defenders of Rog-as-Bond. I absolutely get where his detractors are coming from (and going to). Still, no matter his faults here, he had much worse on the horizon. Yes yes, Moore already looks too old for this shit, and his is still one of the most ungainly running styles ever captured for posterity, but I never got the impression he required a stunt double for scenes where Bond sits down. And that bad-ass take-down of a would-be sniper deserves at least three palm strikes. Now, his attitude here compared to Fleming's Bond? Same as any of his other turns. Moore never matched up, physically or emotionally, with the paper-bound vision. He would have bombed in a film like Dr. No. Here, saddled with the lamest script of the pre-Brosnan era, Moore is at least in his element: eyebrow raised, sigh pending, lame pun in the chamber.

The book wins, flawless victory, although a distinct lack of "double-take pigeon" is either to its eternal credit or its infernal detriment. I waffle daily as to which, and I imagine I'll die undecided.

Both versions of Moonraker concern an insecure man of tremendous wealth who yearns for ever more, who longs to be remembered in the books of history forevermore. Money is power is control, and no claws dig deeper into vibrant flesh than those attached to the (bird) of death. Only one imbues itself with any dignity.

Hugo Drax's path to his new post-war identity might rate low on the Probability Meter, but the scenario of a cryptic outsider-turned-national hero destroying the very people he pledged to protect? Will that ever seem unlikely again?


*Fleming's novel refers to Hugo Drax as "a Lonsdale figure," referring to Lord Lonsdale, the first-ever President of the National Sporting Club. Bond, according to Brand anyway, resembles American songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. I would not, incidentally.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Better In Your Head?--LIVE AND LET DIE

Ian Fleming

SPOILER ALERT--novels from the pre-Civil Rights era, written by middle-aged, well-off white British war veterans might lack a certain sensitivity.

"The evening awaited him, to be opened and read, page by page, word by word." 

Live and Let Die established the Bond formula: 007 travels to an exotic locale to suss out and snuff out the nefarious plot of an odd-looking baddie whose lusts will play into their downfall. As a bonus, Bond will cross paths with a hottie who is so dependent on the secret agent that the reader may find it difficult to imagine she can lift finger one with his rugged, musky assistance.

SMERSH is back to bedevil Bond, this go round in the form of agent Buonaparte "Mr. Big" Gallia, suspected of selling 17th-century gold coins to finance Soviet spies in the States. The currency has turned up in New York and Florida, so that means...Bond in the USA! Already better than Casino Royale.

Felix Leiter returns* to assist Bond in locating Big (which includes taking in a primal, prurient stage show at one of his nightclubs) but the criminal mastermind found them long before, with the aid of a sort of neighborhood watch known colloquially as "The Eyes." They're lowered into his office via a "trap table," and separated. Only Bond gets to absorb Big and his surroundings, which include talismans of voodoo and a psychic beauty nicknamed "Solitaire." Big pooh-poohs torture as "messy and inconclusive," which must have sent Bond's testicles into a consecution of grateful twitches. That's why Big got a spendidly-monikered cadre of goons (Tee Hee (in lavender trousers!), McThing, The Flannel and Sam Miami) who pick that day of all days to suck at being goons, which is how Bond finds himself in a train from NYC to Florida with Solitaire at his side.

My heart rate accelerated 1.5 beats per minute with each page flip, waiting to discover how Bond would thwart Big's plan. (It's fairly pedestrian, but utterly satisfactory.) The pair meet up with Leiter at a thoroughly-described safe house. Before you can squeeze three oranges dry, though, Solitaire's been snatched up, Leiter's caught snooping 'round the bad guy's warehouse and it's official personal now.

Bond, being Bond, succeeds where Felix failed, discovering that the coins are being smuggled in via tanks of poisonous fish. Off to Jamaica! Quarrel and Strangways (!) are set up near Surprise Island, the site of Sir Henry Morgan's buried pirate treasure, which Mr. Big and his folk have almost finished draining dry. With help from the letter Q, Bond dons scuba gear and familiarizes himself with the unfriendly local waters.

The mission in motion proves even more harrowing than Our Man feared, but he manages to attach a limpet mine to the hull of Big's yacht, set to explode as the vessel sets off with the last of the booty-laden fish tanks. It is inevitable that his plan will work to near-perfection, just as it is inevitable that he will be captured, lectured, reunited with Solitaire, and given a first-row seat to enjoy the villain's ironic comeuppance.

Live and Let Die may not seem an epic spy tale, and that's because it really is not an epic spy tale. But! Ian Fleming in his generosity gave us: buried treasure, Communism, personal vendettas, sharks and a man pledging love to a woman to procure aggressive cuddling.

Compared to its predecessor, Live and Let Die is a shot of vodka in hot chocolate. Lurid by the standards of the day, engrossing across all generations, and humorous as a whoopie cushion on a time delay. The very first line--"There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent"--is quite funny if and when one decides to re-read the novel. Bond has to deal with a bum left hand for much of the story, and the prospect of traversing waters full of sharks and barracudas unnerves him so profoundly, he's wracked by nightmares.

Which just helped Fleming realize his stated goal for the second Bond entry: to make the spy a bit warmer, a bit more likeable, while still being a total bad-ass. The sentences are still clipped, but Fleming's knack for scene-setting improved, and he even trusted himself to show a bit of clever (along with the unfortunate attempts of recreating local flavor). Live and Let Die isn't only more readable than Casino Royale, it's actually re-readable. Hell, Eon Productions took elements of the novel for us in a total of three films*, beginning with

Director-Guy Hamilton
Writer-Tom Mankiewicz

"Names is for tombstones, baby! Take this honky out and waste him!"

Sean Connery stepped away from the role that made him an international superstar for the second time in 1971. Producer Albert Broccoli, wanting to avoid a repeat of the George Lazenby fiasco, sought an actor with experience, loyalty and a non-idiot agent. Englishman Roger Moore, well-known on the small-screen for The Saint, won the role at age 45--or, eleven years older than Connery when he debuted in Dr. No.

The summer crowd got their first glimpse of the new 007 in a film that amplified the source's supernatural themes while also clutching at the tail feathers of the era's blaxploitation craze.
The stern tone of the prior films begins to fade here, replaced with a smooth, quippy Bond who seems to regard his duty to Queen and country as an amusing hobby. The first we see of the "new" 007, he's at home, post-boff. M has come to see him, perhaps partially to satisfy a curiosity as to what exactly someone like James Bond does when at home, certainly mostly to fill him in on this Mr. Big business.

Forget all that jabber about coins and pirates and SMERSH (especially that last one, which has always sounded to me like something Popeye would exclaim during orgasm)--this Mr. Big is a Harlem-based drug lord with plans to distribute two tons of free heroin and put his rivals out of business. Also, he's a tad a fraud, the disguised alter ego of Dr. Kananga, dictator of the (fictional) Caribbean island San Monique. And he's linked to those three murdered MI6er's. Also, Solitiare is now a Tarot card reader and Tee Hee has a pincer for a hand and no lavender trousers.

With much less help from Felix Leiter, Bond makes his way to one of Big's restaurants and (as in the novel) gets lowered into the Big fella's offices. Book Big speaks lengthily (and only semi-pretentiously). Movie Big legitimately has zero seconds to waste on pesky honkies. The henchmen though? Still wildly incompetent.

Bond joins forces with CIA agent Rosie Carver and Quarrel Jr. in San Monique. (Nice for Moore to get the son in his first Bond go, since Connery got Dad in his.) The trio boat it to Big's poppy fields, protected by truly deadly voodoo scarecrows. Bond locates Solitaire and convinces her (with a stacked card deck in tow) to give up the goods and escape with him to New Orleans.

It's this act of treacherous disloyalty that pushes Big over the edge. Solitaire, see, was a virgin. Preserving her psychic abilities meant preserving her hymen, and vice versa. Big planned to one day introduce her to "Little Mr. Big," after which she would presumably devote her time to churning out future criminals of great solemnity. As Bond watches in mild disbelief, he tears the latex from his face and reveals his true identity--Kananga! (The makeup, while dreadful, does succeed as a nod to the original Mr. Big's grey-ish skin tone.)
Kananga delegates to his detriment. He sends Solitaire to meet a ritualistic death at the hands of the ineradicable Baron Samedi (who's apparently real for the purposes of this film!) and entrusts Tee Hee with dispatching Bond. The perpetually cheerful chrome dome does a commendable job showing Bond around a farm/drug lab in the Louisiana backwoods, but a less than stellar job when it comes to hanging around and making sure the guy who is supposed to die actually dies. A boat chase ensues, and it rules. (So does J.W. Pepper, I don't give damn one what ya say.)

One more stop, and it's a biggie--the villain's lair. Nice to see that as much has changed with this new era of secret agent, the bad guy still doesn't consider "instant death" as an option. Tying Bond up, painting some blood on his arm, then "slowering" him into a shark tank is, however, the very best option. This gives plenty of time for 007 so save the day with his watch. Recall the Rolex at the start, equipped with the magnet capable of deflecting a bullet? Turns out, the rim of the thing rotates, creating a mini-saw. He cuts himself (and Solitaire) free, dispatches of Kananga and hops aboard a train (finally!) with Solitaire. She looks real good without all that extra crap, heh heh, whoa! Tee Hee outta nowhere! Imagine the classic fisticuffs from From Russia With Love with a black guy and a really fake-looking prosthetic arm. (This does not make up for cutting out their train ride to Florida, which included a stopover at a scuzzy diner. Read that preceding sentence and tell me you don't want to see Roger Moore in that precise scenario. Either in a film or in real life.)

And that ending. Whenever Geoffrey Holder laughs, the whole world smiles. 

Besides being Moore's debut, Live and Let Die marks several other firsts for the franchise: black villain, black Bond girl (albeit second-tier and disloyal), visit to the Bigs (Apple and Easy), a Bond-free pre-credits sequence. The film is bigger, broader and--following the lead of its new, um, lead--jokier. If Live and Let Die were a woman (and with James Bond, it would have to be), she'd have an ass fit to rest a bottle of Skyy on.

Ridiculous, crude, and irresistible. Welcome to the Roger Moore era.

While scouting shooting spots in Jamaica, the crew came across a crocodile farm owned by Ross Kananga, a man so charismatic that his family name was given to the main villain. He also performed
the sense-defying "croc-jump" stunt, a scene emblematic of why I so love Live and Let Die the film yet can't quite give it the nod.

Movie Bond is brimming with confidence, ever-ready with a remark of detectable wit. Book Bond is wracked with self-doubt. His successes are due to great effort. Roger Moore probably never made "great effort" at any point during the filming of Live and Let Die. Fun as hell to watch; wouldn't keep me reading.

(Worth remembering: Live and Let Die was the second book and the eighth film. Thus, Ian Fleming's flaws are far more forgivable than those of Eon Productions.)

The inevitable increase in action is fine (boat chases tend to agitate the senses more pleasingly than boat dockings, for instance) but there's certain elements that need to be nailed. Evil lairs matter. When it comes to evil lairs, the book wins, ten down. Pirate booty. Arcing lights. A pool. Surrounded by water, dude has a pool. Kananga has sharks, but so did Mr. Big! Alongside pirate booty!

All right, on to the characters. Solitaire is far more tolerable on the big-screen. Fleming's uses for her: highlight 007's virility, craftiness and resourcefulness, and carry out a merciless verbal assault on the state of Florida decades before that became a meme. The film version of Solitaire is not only refusing to throw herself at the feet of this dashing spy-savior, she doesn't seem initially all that impressed with him! Can you imagine Diana Ross in the role? That's who the screenwriter suggested. Luckily a young Jane Seymour was cast, even if they did insist on slathering her in all that garish make up.

Big/Kananga is portrayed by Yaphet Kotto, and he wastes no time in stealing scenes. Fleming has a thing for telegraphing the nemesis: in this case, a rounded head twice the size of the average man's, dotted by naked eyes that glow an unnatural yellow. Big fancies himself a "wolf" at loggerheads with sheep. He surrounds himself with fierce creatures. Yaphet Kotto will break a shark across his leg. He will bite a barracuda's head off. He will crack open a shotgun, let the slugs fall to the floor, and then beat a black bear to death with the barrel.

The movie could not afford so many disposable despicables, so not only does Tee Hee (a treasure, as I've informed you) get a new life-lease, we're treated to the apparent physical manifestation of the Ioa Baron Samedi and...Whisper. Who must have been a childhood friend of Kananga's. Yes, I think they made a pact that whichever made good first would then help out the other. And it was a given that Kananga would be the good-doer (not the do-gooder) since no one can understand a word that other ham-shaped meffer says. Recall how Stan "The Hammer" Burrell bankrupted himself by being a stand-up friend? Paying dudes a teacher's salary to stand onstage and exude a reasonably intimidating aura? Kananga hired his barely audible, clearly obese buddy to do his dirty work.

I receive more enjoyment from watching the movie than reading the book (Kananga sending a couch-bound Whisper ass over cauldron never fails), but the book is better. The film producers were not concerned with dichotomies beyond good/bad or us/them. Thus, no ramblings about the inferiority of the American automobile or Felix honky-splaining Harlem. Fret not, the sartorial chaos of the decade alone ensures you will not regret sitting through at least one-half of the movie. Suede trench coats, flared trousers, bright trilby hats, animal print vests! People in those days didn't just put clothes on, they wore them, y'dig?

Ian Fleming was a clever chap. Not a sensitive one, but a clever one. He composed a sentence containing "worsted in gun battles" and for that, I forgive him a great deal. Bond's smartly-edged inner monologue during a turbulent plane ride covers the remainder.

Both book and film feature the trope of "white hero saves white girl from non-white villain" but only the book infantilizes an entire culture of people.

Ian Fleming wrote with authority and affection about London and Jamaica, places he knew intimately. Harlem and Florida were another matter. It is a poor idea for any writer to scribble about only what they know, but a poorer idea still to scribble at considerable length about something you know only somewhat. The phonetic dialogue is on one level admirable (in that Fleming made the attempt and took the risk) and on another level, mad cringe. I can only squirm thinking of how titillated the high sadity readers felt, taking in "the jabber of negroes." My earliest scribbles borrowed heavily from my own upbringing and thus featured a lot of phonetic dialogue, but since I wasn't on the outside looking in, I had no shame in doing so. Luckily, Fleming's little experiment didn't last long enough to repulse me. (I cannot speak to equal patience in other readers.)

No matter how poorly any of the black characters are written in the film (the stunning uselessness of peanut-brained Rosie Carver is the most irritating example), I could argue none of them plumb to the depths of Bond rigging a Tarot deck to convince a virgin his is the chosen wang. Hell, Kananga on the main is cooler than the alleged super spy. Even his death is spectacular: Bond shoves a pellet from the shark gun down his gullet, and for reasons probably not even fathomed by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, Kananga inflates, floats toward the ceiling, and then bursts, bloodless and boneless. Senseless, too, but it's just so wonderful.

But then Bond can't even stick the landing!

"Where's Kananga?"

"He always did have an inflated opinion of himself."

Eh?! MI6 needs to drug test their field agents more frequently, tell ya what. 

Trapper Jenn MD will return in..Moonraker.

*Leiter was portrayed by David Heddison, who'd later reprise the role in 1989's Licence To Kill, making him the first actor to portray Bond's truest ally in multiple films. Hilariously, the shark attack (and cheesy note) from the Live and Let Die novel followed him. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Better In Your Head?--CASINO ROYALE

SPOILER ALERT, the bitch is dead.

Ian Fleming

"I did so want to be gay. And I am gay."

Ian Fleming had been threatening, for years, to pen the ultimate spy novel. As the personal assistant to Director of Naval Intelligence Admiral John Godfrey during the Second World War, Fleming dealt directly with such secret intelligence agencies as the OSS, MI6, and NKVD. He observed agents directly, served as a liaison, and had a hand in plots and plans. But, he was still a bureaucrat. Nothing sexy about bureaucracy. The spies in the field, however….

Seven years after demobilization, Fleming retreated to "Goldeneye," the Jamaican bungalow named after an unrealized operation he'd formed for the Allied forces in 1940. There, he began work on a Cold War espionage thriller/gambling tutorial. The protagonist/post-war-UK proxy was a Royal Naval Reserve Commander/intelligence agent in MI6's "00" section, an amalgam of several men he'd crossed paths while in service to Godfrey and country. Fleming needed a name, of course, something simple and plain and manly. Fleming found the perfect one not in a book, but rather on one: Birds of the West Indies.

Influenced by the likes of Chandler and Greene, and working at a clips of 2,000 words daily, he produced Casino Royale, the first of an eventual dozen adventures featuring James Bond, AKA "007."

"The scent and sweat and smoke of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."

Bond has one job: go to France (the most intriguing spot on the planet), bankrupt Le Chiffre (a paymaster for a trade union controlled by SMERSH, a real-life Soviet counterintelligence organization) at high stakes baccarat. Attempts on his life? Just a day in the! Lose millions of your government's funds, seethen get back in the game with the help of the CIA? It is what is, and well, it happens. A female tag-along? Outrageous!

Kidnapping, torture and assassination ensue while the blissfully insensitive secret agent curses women's delusions, and while it's not as exciting as landing a dropkick to the chest of a nemesis, it's at least as thrilling as locking a lover's legs in a figure four. Bond goes from being bothered by MI6 assistant Vesper Lynd to being bothered by her, if you follow. After his balls are pulverized by Le Chiffre, though, Bond worries he will never be bothered again.

His recovery in the hospital is marked by profound worrying: good vs. evil, battles vs. wars, impotency vs. suicide. On the eighth day, God rested; on the eighth day, James Bond asked to see Vesper Lynd so he could determine if his chubby-popping capabilities were at all compromised.

She cries, he soothes. They agree to share fluids in the near-future. Funny thing, though. Before one stitch of clothing has been removed, Bond and Lynd get to know one another. Words, not actions, bring them closer. (He even calls her "my love" before they've boned.)

O grande amatrice!

A retreat to a peaceful guest house seems to be precisely what the doctor decreed, but Vesper is a muddle of paranoia and sorrow. At a loss to understand why the woman he's fallen for is driving a wedge between them after mere days together, Bond seeks solace in the cold comforts of the sea. And, still, of Vesper Lynd.

It's no great shock when Bond discovers his lover dead in her bed. She did not die alone--an empty bottle of sleeping pills and a "come clean" letter brimming with regret and resignation rest nearby. Turns out, the woman Bond was prepared to marry was doing double duty, serving MI6 as well as the Russian MVD. SMERSH had abducted her lover and blackmailed her in order to ensure his release.

Love. What doesn't it ruin? Although, to be real, Bond's mind had been clouded before he gave his heart away.

007 dreaded Lynd's presence on the Le Chiffre mission from day one, since a female in the field meant distraction at best, disaster at worst. So eager to dismiss what he perceives as Lynd's rookie errors, Bond missed what they truly were: signs of deceit.

Fleming's Bond, was not a static character. Dude got his two most vital organs smashed about, and is all the harder and colder for it. But wiser (as a spy and a lover)?

Casino Royale's flaws (porous characterization, the occasional irrationality--what was with the divergence into second-person near the beginning?) are forgiven by the strengths (establishing place, attention to detail), as well as the realization that the ride has only just begun.

Director-Martin Campbell
Writer-Paul Harris, Robert Wade & Neal Purvus

"Shaken or stirred?"
"Do I look like I give a damn?"

First Bond book, 21st Bond film? How'd they manage that, then?

Producer Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire, What's New, Pussycat?) acquired the film rights to Ian Fleming's debut novel in 1960, doing nothing with them until four years later, when Eon Productions released Goldfinger, the film that made James Bond a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Feldman's offer to collaborate with Eon was met with great interest, the latter tentatively agreeing to produce Casino Royale after On Her Majesty's Secret Service (intended to come after Goldfinger) but then Eon acquired the rights to Thunderball and those plans went the way of the war pigeon.

Not wanting to compete with the big boys, Feldman decided Casino Royale should be a spy spoof loosely based on the book. This version was released in 1967, its all-star cast topped off with David Niven as the James Bond (distinction required since there are six total "Bonds," one of them his daughter, who is kidnapped by SMERSH in a flying saucer). Zanier than a bourbon-burping meerkat, and I wouldn't review it if you paid me. Less than seven figures. After taxes.

Eon Productions finally acquired the film rights to Casino Royale in 1999. Fortunately, Pierce Brosnan (still three years away from acting in the worst Bond film yet) didn't get a chance to fight ninjas atop an invisible train or whatever the hell would have happened. Barred from referencing either SMERSH or Spectre by a continuing copyright dispute, Eon decided to move on from Pierce Brosnan with a reboot.

The sixth Bond was finally announced in 2005: 37-year-old Englishman Daniel Craig, at the time best known for his role in the 2004 crime thriller Layer Cake. At 5'10" Craig would be the shortest actor to play 007, as well as the first blond. He prepped proper, packing on twenty pounds of muscle and reading all twelve Fleming novels. (Wonder if he chuckled at the title of Casino Royale's 18th chapter. Well, I did.)

The four year gap between Die Another Day and Casino Royale proved to be the break Bond desperately needed. The first 21st century entry was not simply the antithesis of its predecessor, it remains one of the best entries in the franchise: invigorating, enthralling, raw. (Why the hell did they let Martin Campbell get away after Goldeneye?)

No Moneypenny, no Q, no Cold War, no problem (never mind M). Casino Royale kicks off with an extended black-and-white sequence showing the audience how Bond earned his numbers. Chris Cornell's theme song is the only ho-hum thing across the entire 144 minutes.

The casino is now in Montenegro, and baccarat has been replaced with the trendier poker variant called Texas Hold 'em. Le Chiffre is part of the terrorist cell Quantum and in dire need of mad cash since Bond inadvertently bankrupted him. Also representing Quantum is the movies-only Mr. White, who proves a bigger badder than Le Chiffre.

Turning Le Chiffre from a fat ugly man of considerable menace to the lean mean sexiest man-machine in Denmark made sense, as did giving him an especially creepy physical anomaly, since honestly he's one of the least-interesting villains Bond's faced. At least in the book he gets a few great lines. "I am without mercy and there will be no relenting," he informs Bond mid-torture. That's awesome.

(Nitpick about the torture: I wasn't a fan of Bond's joking around even before I read the novel. It's just too goofy. Book 007 is just barely clinging on to dearest life. Movie Bond is buff and witty and the audience isn't allowed to just be scared for the guy.)

The love story between Lynd and Bond (Bynd?) is intact, and far more affecting (one scene is so tender as to make me feel ashamed for intruding). Heavy hitters such as Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron were considered, but the coveted role went to Eva Green. Her chemistry with Craig is practically visible, and nearly without precedent for the franchise. So great. Least, until her perfidy is revealed.

What of the new guy? Deepest of the freshest, really. Craig's Bond is seized by a maddening recklessness that earns him a fierce upbraiding from M (Judi Dench, ever-marvelous). He's a scrapper, a seducer, a killer, a thwarter of terrorist attacks in one of the two United States that could actually benefit from one…so what's the big deal over inches above ground or the hair color? He matches his papyrus counterpart in stony demeanor, while coming off as less cerebral and tormented.

And he gets to utter the best "Bond, James Bond" yet. 

The novel represents a good start. The film, a great re-start.

The decreased dependence on gadgets and CGI shifts the focus onto the performances (which are magnetic), the action (which is phenomenal), and the story (which honors the source without falling to its knees). The filmmakers' reverence for Fleming's universe is evident early on, in animated title credits which took inspiration from the first edition cover of Casino Royale. The torture scene and Bond's scathing dismissal of Lynd were not only taken from the book, the producers mandated to the scriptwriters they be included. Then there's M describing Bond as a "blunt instrument."

Still, the film gives us more. The plot is meatier and a twist salvages Vesper's character (somewhat). Gambling is certainly better watched than read about (unless we're talking about an oral history of Phil Hellmuth's greatest breakdowns at the poker table), and the drama with the poisoned martini is a heart-pounder. Of course you know how it ends, but it's actually a richer scene on further examination. How, exactly? Patience! Here is not the place!

Making a 213 page book fly on by is no great feat. But when a two and a half hour movie pulls if off? That's playing the game with antihistamine money. 

One of these things contains a man concerned that sex with a particular woman would ever after "have the sweet tang of rape." One of these things, well, does not!

Book Bond's brain room may lack width and depth, at least in a modern context, but the man does know how to decorate. I am forever tickled at how, on the eve of a mission, he goes over every possible scenario, working every angle, determined to eliminate the element of surprise. You just can't get that on a screen, of any size.

I'm also a fan of Bond's hospital-bound lamentations to Mathis (the world's gone gray, evil cannot be properly defeated since it has not been awarded the same respect by documentarians and fabulists as good), although they are replaced in the film by a tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte on a train with Vesper. Not only does this conversation (and every subsequent verbal exchange) blow away Fleming's dialogue, it reminds me of the considerable struggles that Mr. Bond's honorable creator had with female characters.

Re-imagined, reconstructed, whatever the word, the film did a number on Vesper Lynd. She's likable and lickable, sympathetic and detestable--a human being. (As opposed to the imminent collapse in a cute skirt in the book.) Her death is still dismally inevitable, but only the film imbued it with the warranted spectacle.

There's so much more I want to say on the matter of the Bond/Lynd union, so much more that I will say--in a later review.

Trapper Jenn MD will return in...Live and Let Die.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Better In Your Head?--FILTH

SPOILER ALERT, you caused this.

Irvine Welsh

"I love doubt in a woman. It's nearly as sexy as determination."

Another unfilmable slice of Scottish seaminess courtesy of Irvine Welsh! This time, we follow the phonetical misdeeds of Detective Sgt. Bruce Robertson, a misanthropic manipulator bedeviled by genital eczema ("sacne"?), panic attacks, tapeworms, and a high-profile murder case as he tries to maintain his peculiar sanity inside a vacuum of sex drugs and schemes.

Brucey boy's not entirely unworthy of admiration, mind. He possesses the good cop's attentive eye and confident strut even as he is possessed by the bad cop's everything else. He's joined on the job by a game partner, a despicable supervisor and (of course) a strident female detective he wants to hate-fuck just like every other woman he meets. Blame it on the ex; she ran off, took the bairn, and Bruce misses them, much too much, but wallowing in the muck of self-pity will always require less effort than atoning for one's sins through righteous reassessment and rearrangement.

Failures on and off the job mount. Before long, the presumptuous lawman's world (within and without) begins to deteriorate with alarming quickness.

Unsurprisingly, childhood issues are at the the root of the fuckery. But y'all, an adult so cruel and unusual could not have sprung forth from the bog-standard "Daddy never hugged me and Mummy wished I'd been a girl" whining of your garden-variety felonious types. Don't believe me? Take it from the tapeworm. It's a surprisingly insightful little thing.

Re-reading Filth for this review felt like forcibly reliving the worst asthma attack of my life followed by the worst panic attack of my life, then watching a dog lick its vomit of of a geriatric git's wrinkly shrinky bits. I was sucked back in, though, like stubborn shit. Despite a few too many characters, and some of the least-arousing sexual intercourse ever described, Filth holds up (although the twist is obvious on second go-round, or maybe even first, I make no claims to a mind other than simple).

God, there's just something about reading Irvine Welsh that makes me appreciate how disgusting words can be. A fearless storyteller requires a fearless reader, though, and that's a dangerous game. First time, I read most of Filth in a bathroom, whether perched on the toilet until my legs conked, or sprawled in a tub until my skin puckered. It helped me get through it, for sure.

Mud spread over a slice of blackened bread it may be, but Welsh's third novel is still less claustrophobic and soul-destroying than his second, the I-promise-you-no-one-will-ever-make-a-movie-of-this classic Marabou Stork Nightmares. (Both books make Trainspotting come off as fey and simpering as Robert Herrick.)

Oh God why did I bring up Marabou Stork Nightmares, now my sleep is going to be haunted by puppies raping chipmunks.

Director-Jon S. Baird
Writer-Jon S. Baird

"Love is cruel."

No matter their shape, or how they're positioned, human beings will always look and sound thoroughly ridiculous during sex.

Kudos to Scotland's own Jon Baird for daring to adapt such a hurricane of immorality. Comparisons to that other Welsh book brought to life are perhaps unavoidable, certainly pointless, but not entirely baseless. Like Trainspotting, Filth is a well-framed, well-lit celebration of odious individuals in an odious world, based on a book whose pages reek of barely-washed crotch.

The main character narrates the action here as well, since no sensible director would dream of placing Filth outside of the bubbling gunk depository known as Bruce Robertson's head.

Blue-eyed bastard James McAvoy (Young Professor X in First Class, and the Danny Boyle/John Hodge thriller Trance) is marvelous as the marred and haggard BRUUUUUCE. Dude's an Ed Norton/Russell Crowe glitch with a pulse, giddily naughty as he attacks the role with no holds barred--I'm talking DDT's on the concrete, RKO's on infants, all that. He grasps the dichotomy of this flatulent sleazebag who longs for the comfort and affirmation of family. Genuine sorrow leaves him speechless, but the fake stuff activates his inner garrulous elixir salesman. He loves his wife, and he loves fucking her sister. He despises the supervisors in the police hierarchy, yet hopes to soon be one.

The center can't hold. The center can't even keep from sweating and shaking.

A person can burn out, fade away or, in a fit of originality, harden up and break into many tiny pieces.

The tapeworm is replaced by a hallucination of Bruce's actual psychiatrist (played by Jim Broadbent), just one of many visions that begin haunting the poor boy's hours as his mental scaffolding commences collapsing. His most dangerous game nearly takes him off the board permanent. He not only gets passed over for a promotion, he's stripped of his detective badge.

Credit James McAvoy's eternally for making Bruce even mildly likable. At a certain point I wanted the HMS Sad Cunt to somehow patch its own holes and rise but the overall damage is irreparable. This man is fucked, and there is no bleaching such an asshole.


Is hatred not as reprehensible when it's all-inclusive? Is a misanthrope more tolerable than a supremacist? "Filth" is in the craw of the beholder, I suppose.

How I envisioned Bruce Robertson back in 1998: early 40s, hair wanting and wary, jaws a tad droopy, cheeks smeared with harsh pink, brown eyes flecked with green and set narrow as European streets. A presumptuous and arrogant semi-person who screws up every good thing before it can become great. If I'd squinted long enough, perhaps I'd make out the handsome fellow he used to be.

McAvoy is no sex god, but he's a damn sight more attractive than the Bruce in my head. This makes the film easier to swallow, but hell, water's easier to swallow than Robitussin. What works better for a cough? There ya go.

Another concession to the visual medium: the victim in the high-profile murder case was changed from a black male to a Japanese one. I assume since Asian slurs are more acceptable to audiences, and just a single slip of the n-word would ruin the main character's chances to connect with viewers. (Drugging on duty, coercing sex from underage chickies, banging buddies' wives…borderline.)

I loved Bruce's best pal "Bladesy" here much more than in the book, and that's all praise due to Eddie Marsan as the pathetic accountant who bumbles alongside Bruce as they vacation in Hamburg (changed from Amsterdam in the book, since who the fuck wouldn't rather go to Germany) and stumbles his way through a comical mismatch of a marriage. Marsan's presence and timing imbue the character with an affability that his book counterpart maintained for, hmm, two pages.

Irvine Welsh is a huge fan of the film, and why not, most of its best lines are direct from his work. But I don't share his belief that it's superior to the novel. For the first two-thirds, it had a decent shot. Then, finish line in sight, the runner stops...takes a seat on the track...shrugs, smirks, end credits.

First, there is the big reveal. Handled superbly, I feel, and anyone unfamiliar with the book will likely be sent for at least one loop (even though I instantly began thinking of Mike Nesmith in the "Fairy Tale" episode of The Monkees.) But then, Filth attempts to become a different movie. The immediate tonal shift is nearly as awkward as walking in on your grandparents fucking while a video of them fucking plays on TV.

Then we have the end.

Bruce dies by his own hand in both. On the page, sheer devastation. Like there I was on the toilet, staring balefully at the black and white, thinking yeah it had to happen but not like that. How it unfolds on the screen fits with the overall tone established by Baird and McAvoy but lacks the emotional impact.

And this is the fault of the director.

Bladesy boy is watching a video of Bruce--dashing in dress blues--doling out some fair yet loving advice to his mild-mannered friend, and it's possibly the most honest the asshole's been in years. Bruce is not trying to con his loyal pal, there's no gun to his head or anvil above it, and I should be wondering what's more riveting, watching him speak or watching Blades absorb his words, but I can't, because underneath it all is the crappest cover of "Creep" imaginable, done by two people who did not even deserve the Google search. Baird really fucked up here. Know what would have been better? "I Want To Know What Love Is." It's even mentioned in the book, Bruce loves that song. I love that song. Yeah, Baird really fucked up.

In Bruce Roberston, Irvine Welsh created a cop not terribly dissimilar from Joseph Wambaugh's harshest (Roscoe Rules, Whitey Duncan, The Bad Czech). Certain police officers who grow so weary of swallowing surplus shit on the streets, they start to share it with the unsuspecting.

When Bruce is harassing a friendly homeless in one scene, then wasting breath on a dying man the very next, the juxtaposition of successful cruelty and failed heroics is not only startling, it's REAL. It's the sort of routine horror that occurs everyday, the whole world over. Another post entirely could have been dedicated to the deleterious effects of police work on such a twisted and raw individual as Bruce Robertson, or this quite sensitive man's struggle with societal mandates on masculinity.

But I'm drained enough as it is.

I recommend Filth in both of its forms (I am still opposed to teen alcoholism in all of its forms) but let me remind you--only one requires an oxygen mask and sanitary gloves.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Better In Your Head?--TRAINSPOTTING

SPOILER ALERT, my God that is the greatest blurb I've ever seen.

Irvine Welsh

Considered "unfilmable" thanks to the unsavory subject matter (and for basically being a short story collection that commits to a plot only near the very end), Irvine Welsh's debut novel highlighted the low-lives of late 1980s-early 1990s Scotland. Desultory tales are told by several narrators of varying reliability and dialect, with the most prominent voice belonging to ginger-haired heroin addict Mark Renton. He is, apparently, relatively attractive and comes off rather intelligent. Regardless, life is one long insalubrious trolley ride of drug abuse, petty theft, and dole-dependency.

Most of his friends are also smackheads. "Sick Boy" Simon is the nominal "best" of the bunch, a charismatic, amoral con artist who thinks with the entire lower half of his body. He and Renton actually don't like each other much. Likewise he and Frank Begbie, who goes primarily by his last name. A swedge-happy thug, the chapters told from his POV are a cavalcade of "fucks" and "cunts" and "fuckin cunts." The only gentle, goodhearted one in the bunch is "Spud." You can tell this since he holds animals in higher regard than people, who would be more tolerable if they would stop putting excess stock into the material possessions he steals from them to keep high and alive.

This is an ugly microworld, the drudgery and blight broken up by flashes of enrapturing debauchery, and the reader will visit it at their own peril. The infamous phonetic transcription is undeniably jarring--who knows how many readers threw up hands and flipped on the tube? (Or left it on the unoccupied seat next to them on the tube?) Imagine waking up to a world where your primary language no longer exists. It has not been eliminated, merely modified by madmen. But Welsh did not indulge in a trick that treats only itself.

Trainspotting isn't another useless cautionary tale re: drug addiction populated by scruffy freaks of unnatural selection; it's a fascinating look through sheet after sheet of mottled glass. It is also a stark reminder that the demands of our bodies will almost always best the commands. Read this book and understand that class warfare would be raging in streets the world over if all of the combatants weren't narcotized. 

Director-Danny Boyle
Writer-John Hodge

Yeah, "unfilmable," but some stories are too good to not at least give a go.

Grim and grimy as the novel was, most prospective directors didn't share Welsh's vision of an adaptation. Trainspotting should not be a heavy-handed morality play, but a vibrant celebration of youth's defiance and independence, with appeal far beyond the art house.

Danny Boyle was not most directors. Trainspotting in his hands is essentially a makeover, a wig on a pig.

Reading the book is by turns invigorating and disheartening. I was frequently electrified by the courage, frequently nauseated by the carnage, but I was never once envious of anyone in Trainspotting. Onscreen, that changed--somewhat. The flash and smash didn't suddenly make me less fearful of hypodermic needles or JMT me into believing that casual sex with scabby no-go's was the round trip ticket to self-fulfillment that the square world could never punch, but maybe, hmm, just a dabble?

The Trainspotting team created pop art (bold that "pop"). Actors and action, saturated and speedy, none more than Scotland's own Ewan MacGregor in the lead role of Mark Renton. Screenwriter Hodge wisely retained the ginger prick as the narrator/central force, and sifted the misshapen bits of the book through his sieve. The future Obi-Wan went all of the hog in order to bring the riveting rascal to sneering life: losing weight and hair, attending recovery meetings, reading a goddamn book for once.

That book, incidentally, kicks off with Renton and Sick Boy sweating like whores in a southwest Texas brothel in mid-August. Ain't a thing sexy about brittle-bones, clammy skin or Jean-Claude Van Damme, so we get striking, bright and wide, clean and energetic. The movie significantly ratchets up the allure of one no-win situation after another even as establishing shot after establishing shot reminds that these fellas are itty-bitty scumbags jammed inside a much larger scumbag, and it's toilet time for everyone sooner or later.

For all the praise due MacGregor, Renton is a plum role. Audiences never once doubt there's a decent guy beneath all that cynicism and self-abuse. Sure he betrays his so-called "mates," but they would have done the same to him, no? There is nothing redeeming about the barely-comprehensible hurricane of lunacy christened Francis Begbie, and it takes an actor of uncommon abilities to keep audiences from wishing such a character dead every single second he's on the screen. I won't say Robert Carlyle should have won an Oscar, but he should have won a BAFTA.

The soundtrack is pretty fucking unstoppable. If "Heroin" made injecting skag seem a no-brainer, "Perfect Day" does likewise for OD'ing on the stuff. "Born Slippy" ruined the words lager and slippy forever.

The UK holds their nuts good and tight for Trainspotting (and understandably so, it's a dynamic rendering of a static story), but their idea of what constitutes proper bacon is literally fucking illegal in my country. Sooo….go ahead and give one final squeeze, then sit down and stop acting like you're too good to swallow pig gut.

Both Welsh and Boyle produced works of undeniable power and rhythm. (Almost unbearably so.) Both dart into my brain at moments both opportune and not. Both left an uptight portion of the populace aghast at the misadventures of the young, restless and reckless. Both caused me to utter aloud: "Well isn't that fucking cheerful."

Although the movie left out nothing essential, it excised enough that there is no way I can consider it better than the source. I mean, the first chapter of the book is titled "The Skag Boys, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mother Superior." Let us go, eh?

No "Second Prize." My favorite second-tier player. Did he have a promising football career derailed by drink? Probably not. He did piss on Begbie's curtains at a New Year's party though. (Better to be classic than classy, I've always said.) Really his presence is only truly missed during the bus ride. What a sight that would've been: my dude drunk and sprawled out, drool leaking from a mouth stretched open so side that an opossum could nestle inside for a nap.

Two Kelly-centric chapters are cut. In one, she bonds with a vacationing lesbian couple over the pernicious nature of that other gender, deciding that males are tolerable "when they're in the minority." In the other, readers get a glimpse of how intolerable they can be when in the majority.

Again, none of these are essential to the actual story. Not even Renton doggy-dooring the massively-pregnant girlfriend of his dead older brother on the day of the funeral...well see, just typing that sentence makes me want to re-read that chapter.

Few false notes are struck. The cot death scene is one. Film Sick Boy ugly cries. Book Sick Boy makes the tragedy about him, big gestures as he vows to kick the nasty habit once and for all! It's the sociopath at his slimiest, and the movie needed a smidge more of that.

Sick Boy's pit bull session had to be altered, however, lest people who were cool with banging underage girls get really offended.

Artistically, the sheen makes sense. Trainspotting would not have found the audience it did, and perhaps not much of an audience whatsoever, had it stayed more than it strayed. Boyle and crew took a punctured lung and turned it into a mere peptic ulcer.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


SPOILER ALERT, candy rots yer teeth and swells yer feet.

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl wrote nineteen novels, of which I've read eleven. It's possible that one of the untouched eight is better than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But I rather doubt that.

For number four, Dahl looked back to boyhood, recalling when the fine folks at Cadbury would send test packages to his private school, eager to get the vital "youth opinion" on their products. Chocolate was serious business then; competing confectionery companies would fire moles at one another's factories to smoke out the toppermost secrets.

Dahl started with a cast of fifteen; at one point, there were thirty children. Other concepts considered: a Wonka son named Freddie, weekly factory tours, a black boy as Charlie. Mike Teevee was originally named Herpes Trout; the Oompa Loompas, Whipple-Scrumpets. Not all of the author's ideas were so damned silly--indeed, the original draft was far more violent, featuring children burned to death from the inside out, kids ground to powder, drowned scamps, tinkers cut to ribbons.

Make no mistake, Roald Dahl was not a well man.

Clap hands, here comes Charlie Bucket! The start is far from whirlwind, a blow of air through a straw perhaps, but what unfolds is supreme storytelling. The Bucket brood--mom, dad, two sets of grandparents--is dreadfully poor, subsisting on starch and cabbage. Charlie in particular is growing more and more gaunt with each slowly passing day.  It's all very sparse and British, and as a child in middle-class America the possibility of a life without junk food horrified me to the point that my Cheeto-stained fingers began trembling with every turn of the page.

Then his luck changes, horrid to tremendous, and he wins a trip to the factory of one Willy Wonka. The world's most notorious candy crafter, Wonka is a striking figure: fresh dipped in a plum velvet tailcoat, gray gloves and green trousers. He's also a "magician with chocolate," meaning he works magic with chocolate, not that he is a magician who just happens to have chocolate nearby. So of course he wears a befitting hat. He is also--


Charlie is but one of five fortunate. The other four are agemates who also happen to be his diametric opposites: rude, selfish, well-fed and television-owning. Alongside their parents (or in Charlie's case, Grandpa Joe), the young ones follow the man of the funhouse as he moves about with gobsmacking alacrity, providing unprecedented access to such edible marvels as experimental gum, never-melt ice cream, strawberry-flavored chocolate-covered fudge...oh come now, that last one is just ridiculous. 

One by one, the children get into some misadventure and drop off of the tour. The Oompa Loompas (freakish factory workers saved by Mr. Wonka from their apparently dreadful native land) provide a Greek chorus after each unceremonious exit, with lyrics specific to the situation.

At the end, only Charlie remains. The kid Bucket goes from Death Valley to Mount Everest--just for following orders and minding manners!

(The less-fortunate four are described leaving the factory, alive but altered. Still, it's noted that each of them receives a lifetime supply of chocolate. What the hell lesson is that? Decent, sweet, good kid Charlie should have been the only one so richly rewarded. This is some "participation trophy" stuff, and I ain't with it. "Participation certificate," sure. Like maybe give 'em all some coupons for "35% off your next ten purchases at your local poison pusher.")

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is among the most pornographic books ever written--if you consider food equivalent to sex, which I do. It's thoroughly Z-grade: it zips, it zings, it zaps, it zooms, and it zagzigs rather than zigzags, because the candy man insists that it can. It's Roald Dahl at the apex of his abilities, and those are the most daunting works of all to adapt.

Director-Mel Stuart
Writer-David Seltzer

"What is this, a freak out?"

Roald Dahl's greatest book became a great film. All it took was the young daughter of David Seltzer asking her dad to make a film with "Uncle Dave" (producer David L. Wolper), who just so happened to be in talks with the folks at Quaker Oats about making a promotional vehicle for a new candy bar.

Serendipity, babes.

The title was changed to tie in with the real-life candies. Both film and food bombed--the former because sometimes brilliance has to pack a lunch, the latter because it melted on store shelves. Dahl detested the movie, especially how it shifted the focus from Charlie to Wonka. He further found the actor hired to play Wonka "insufficiently gay and bouncy." (For writing the original draft, Dahl received 300,000 USD, which he assumedly did like.)

It was also turned into a musical. The last time that happened in this review series, the movie scored a rare victory over the novel.

The book focused on Charlie Bucket, the big-hearted boy who gets everything he ever wanted by simply doing everything he was supposed to do. The movie, however, has something other than itself to sell. It is, for all intents and purposes, the Willy Wonka story.

Movie Wonka is still an unorthodox gent. He subscribes to the philosophy that a good host keeps their guests on their toes--then, smashes said digits with the top of his walking cane. He won't raise a hand to help, but definitely (at least) one eyebrow to judge. He's fond of great literature (credit Seltzer for that character tic) and fond of letting people know of that fondness. Entrusted to a less-gifted actor, Willy Wonka could have been one of the most unbearably mannered people to ever breathe on screen.

Luckily for the entire world, Gene Wilder was cast in the title role. Decked out in plum velvet jacket, bowtie and brownish top hat (no goatee, though), he gives a captivating, cocksure performance. Is he mad? Is he kind? A genius, a fraud? Away from his domain, Wonka would be put away and studied. In his element, allowed to be himself, he makes the world taste a hell of a lot better.

Garrulous Yanks, nitwit Brits, and--wait for it--a gluttonous German. The child actors are all great (except the pest who plays Mike, who is merely good). Look virtually nothing, mind you, like Dahl's descriptions, but divergence from the source is not intrinsically negative. In the book, Veruca Salt is a walking wart draped in mink, blonde curls coiled atop her head. In the movie, she's played by perpetually gas-faced brunette Julia Dawn Cole and goddamn she takes the cake straight to the face like baby's first birthday. She was the only of the brats to get her own song (and dance, in a way) aaaannnd her harried father was played by Roy Kinnear, only one of the best reactors of his time.

The score, featuring tunes by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, is a temporary escape into the honey-cloud cover. Don't listen to me listen to "Pure Imagination." A song for any person who ever dreamed of opening their mind and impacting their world. And that's just the one example from a ebullient collection of music that has aged magnificently. Mostly.

"Cheer Up, Charlie" is often (justly) derided, even by those who love the movie, and director Mel Stuart requested it be excised from television airings. Free of charm, guile and melody, I gotta wonder why Stuart even allowed the damned thing to make the film proper?

The Oompa Loompa songs are completely different from the novel, but yep, that's a king cobra in your head. Never mind the graphics, 'twas the Seventies! Flared trouser and platform shoes! Safety pins in lieu of buttons and rocks in lieu of dogs! Maude! Cocaine!

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The TJMD Official Favorite Movie Ever. Over a span of nearly forty years, I have watched it nearly that many times. The absurdities tickle me without fail, the whimsy never feels disingenuous, and warmth spreads toes to nose every time, and by the end I'm overcome with the urge to wrench open the doors of the nearest sweets shack, walk up to the gormless register-ringer and demand (in as clear and concise a voice as can be managed considering the dire circumstances): "Your candies. Give them to me. Now."
There are three distinct visions of the factory: Dahl's, Stuart's and the reader's. The factory as portrayed here is a bizarre, improbable wonderland of wondrous wonder, yet the limitations faced by the filmmakers ensured that another vision of the factory can still comfortably exist inside the head space of anyone who's read the novel. You will not see any pipe-like tunnels, no underground rooms running a hundred yards in length. There are still chocolate rivers (how many people, ya think, wound up biting down on chocolate seasoned with krank fetten Jungen?), giant edible mushrooms, balls full of goo, lickable wallpaper (that exists for the movie Wonka to drop a killer William O'Shaughnessy quote and avoid explaining a dick joke to a very young girl). Those weirdo singing midgets.

The inclusion of Fizzy-Lifting Drink ruffled Dahl's feathers, since it made Charlie seem no different from those other naughty children (the crudity of the scenario--"Burp or die!" essentially--might also have offended his sensibilities), but it lends the film a tension that the novel lacked, and if a movie isn't lifting butts from seats even just the tiniest bit, what is it doing?

The best additions to the story are those scenes of Charlie in school, for giving actor David Battley a chance to dazzle audiences as Mr. Turkentine, an English teacher who is in fact a Math teacher. Every line he utters is fantastic, since they were intended to be uttered by someone with a variant of the English accent.

Has to be said once more before I go: Gene Wilder is a revelation. More actors should study his performance here, then promptly quit acting. I give him a 98.6 out of 100. it better in your head? Holy shit was this close. I mean you couldn't pass a baby hair through this gap. The book is better. You know what did it? The skippable parts. In the novel, you can go without the Prince Pondicherry chapter. In the movie, "Cheer Up Charlie." Difference being, the tale of Prince Pondicherry is filler, yet fun. Whereas "Cheer Up Charlie" is so depressing I wonder if it was written as some grand piss-take.

I didn't even mention the boat ride! Oh sweet face of Jesus on a hot cross bun, the boat ride!

Director-Tim Burton
Writer-John August

"Are you hip to the jive? Can you dig what I'm laying down?"

Oh, it's a fine one. I'm not referring to this movie. I'm referring to the line between "quirky" and "quit doing whatever you are doing before I grab a thing and force you to stop whatever you are doing."

A remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had little chance to be anything other than strenuously annoying. So, director Tim Burton vowed that his vision would be much closer in spirit to Dahl's work. He and his creative cohorts proceeded with the mindset that the 1976 movie did not even exist. Which is pretty fuckin' extreme, a major red flag, DANGER DANGER, do not approach the man in the white panel van, all that.

Among the superstars considered for the role: Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Adam Sandler and Nicolas Cage. Only two of them could have pulled the hat off, and I'm not saying who.

The role eventually went to Johnny Depp. With a look inspired by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Depp's Wonka certainly qualifies as a well-groomed eccentric: black top hat, plum velvet jacket, purple latex gloves, sunglasses. And, for whatever it's worth, Depp's delivery is closer to book Willy's high-pitched voice. How does he compare to Wilder? He doesn't. Imagine Depp in the scene where Veruca goes ape in the Egg Sorting Room, specifically the part where she throws wrapping paper at Wonka. Wilder just stands there, the picture perfect of insouciance, just waiting for the spoiled little brat to fall into the furnace already. Depp would have yelped and leaped back a half a foot. At least.

Consider, also, each man's first impression. Depp's Wonka subjects his captive audience to a puppet show from the off-Broadway equivalent of Hell. Wilder's Wonka faked a limp to mess with everyone's heads.

Whatever Depp was thinking, he should have thought again, thought one more time, then walked off the set. His Wonka is a hollowed-out manchild who seems to loathe his target audience (whereas Wilder's candy man simply detested disobedience and disrespect). "Pure Imagination"? I don't want within sneezing distance of this prissy sociopath's imagination. Scene after scene, he acts like a child standing on his head, stripped to his skivvies, volubly demanding your total attention. (I suppose Dahl would find this obtuse candy man sufficiently gay and bouncy?)

What of the rest?

Thirty years later, special effects evolved to the point where Tim Burton could make a chocolate factory that looked like a monolithic death trap. The choco river is a vast improvement over the first film, as it looks like someone could brave a drink from it without fear of infection. But beyond that..where's the warmth?

The kids? If we must. Violet is blonde here, competitive as ever. (She is so not here to make friends.) Her mother is a vacuous, perky woman who wonders if the candy man in fact can. Charlie is a saint-like optimist who is so familien uber alles that he facilitates the reconciliation between Wonka and his distant father! The chocolate factory will definitely be a step up from the shanty that he currently lives in, just as that shanty was a step up from the cornfield!

I won't lie; I quite like this Mike Teevee. He is a boy of two moods: ticked-off and pissed-off. A YouTube review channel is in that fella's future fa sho.

There is no besting Mr. Salt, so Burton doesn't try. The Gloops look like Hummels. Augustus eating part of his golden ticket is a bit funny, but Dad biting the head off of a microphone in the first film? Gut-buster. The parents here just don't matter. And that's a shame.

The music? Piss off, Elfman, I shan't permit you to triumph!

"Wonka's Welcome Theme" is a theme park-style ditty that would have resulted in my pulling my hair completely off the scalp, were I not such an ardent fan of my illustrious natural waves. Each child (bar Charlie, of course) gets a different style of song when they shuffle off to whatever unsavory part of the factory, which is a nice idea, but only Mike's 80s hard rock send-up is even remotely memorable. The Oompa Loompa songs, snatched straight from the book, lack charm.

I wonder where Danny Elfman places on Kim Gordon's list of "Top 10 Things I Regret Doing."

Narration. Did I mention the narration? Forgivable, barely, and only because the voice belongs to the once-and-forever Baron Samedi.

Casting Christopher Lee as Wonka's stern, grim-faced father doesn't change this plain fact: that backstory is (nicely) superfluous and (bluntly) bullshit. Willy Wonka is supposed to be a man of mystery; that enhances the character's appeal. What are his motivations, does he have any hobbies, where does he come from, where does he want to end up--these are questions the engaged audience should be asking, and they should never receive answers.

No Slugworth (meh), no Fizzy-Lifting Drink (eh). We get to see a few of the kids exiting the factory once the tour is officially over, wow, thanks for staying true to the source, Timmy. That added much to the experience. The first film didn't show them, and I dig that. It allows me to pretend that the Oompa Loompas accidentally snapped Mike in half. The sequence with Prince Pondicherry and the chocolate palace is also from the book, and reminds me why I call Tim Burton's filmography "the Taj Mahal of cinema"--gorgeous and useless. (In the novel, Pondicherry's folly earned its own chapter, and served as both cautionary tale and example of Wonka's unparalleled skills with the sweet stuff.)

Some things were too good to alter, such as all the grandparents in a single bed, and the boat ride. In both films, the hoax golden ticket is the fifth and final. (In Dahl's book, it's the second. Movies need their drama in a certain place at a certain time. Books have options.) And the faithful moments weren't all bad; I really admire that the squirrels used in the Nut Sorting Room were real.

Homer Simpson's last two words as he falls into a black hole come to mind.

If Tim Burton were half as audacious a filmmaker as his fanbase fancies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could have wound up a quite fine way to pass the time.

Different types of cheeks deserve different types of slaps. Normally, I'd hesitate to strike too harsh a blow to so gaunt a face, but listen, Burton and co. tried to make the world forget about my favorite movie ever, sooooo I hope I cracked bone. I hope it is a soft-meal life for a month at least.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Better In Your Head?--MATILDA

SPOILER ALERT, girls and books we got it you want it way way too quiet.

Roald Dahl

Expecting decency from your family. It's a hell of a thing.

Dahl's original idea--a boy named Billy coming to grips with his telekinetic abilities--hit a wall. So, he did a gender-flip, turning Billy into Matilda Wormwood, a precocious child who taught herself to read at the age of four, devouring the classics of English literature as a form of escape from a home life marked by ignorance and insults.

Her parents lavish affection on son Michael, who is being groomed to follow in the footsteps of his sleazy, rat-faced car salesman father. Meanwhile, Matilda reads. Then, reads more. (She does take breaks, to attend school and play pranks on her dad.)

Oh, about school. One teacher, Miss Jennifer Honey, is astonished at Matilda's intelligence. Her attempts to move the young girl ahead in her education are stymied by Headmistress Agatha Turnbull. 

The very name Agatha Turnbull suggests brutality and ugliness. She is "gigantic" and "formidable," bulky as a five-pound sack stuffed with eight pounds worth of frozen turkeys. She wears breeches and flats. She despises disobedience and femininity. But all is not rain clouds and chicken gizzards--there are admirable qualities in the headmistress, such as her fondness for throwing children! "They're all mistakes, children! Filthy, nasty things. Thank God I never was one." Her ideal school is one utterly lacking in children. She goes overboard with corporal punishment because she can. What parent would believe such a thing as "The Chokey" exists? A non-lethal iron maiden, a closet lined with spikes? A kid thrown javelin-style through an open window? Outrageous imaginations those young ones have!

Miss Honey invites Matilda to her barely-livable quarters. She'd been raised by a vicious twat aunt who withholds her inheritance--Trunchbull.

As school becomes less tolerable, Matilda's special power appears. She spends her spare hours learning to control her telekinesis, eventually reaching a level of mastery that allows her to get revenge on Trunchbull.

Moved to the top level at school, Matilda is now challenged and no longer telekinetic. One day she returns home to find her parents rushing around, throwing luggage into the family car. Seems the cops are set to arrest Mr. Wormwood for selling stolen vehicles. Before they vamoose, both of Matilda's parents sign paperwork permitting Miss Honey to take over as their daughter's guardian.

A young girl on a ceaseless quest for knowledge? Yeah, I kinda liked this book. My chunky self loved reading (and eating; to this day, I much prefer to read while I eat). I liked eating vicariously through the written word and Matilda sought to expand my palate: fried eggs, fried bread, fried tomatoes. (At least there was bacon and sausage to reassure me that the English were not in fact aliens.) I was also a reader at the age of four, but mainly newspaper articles aloud at the kitchen table to the amazement of my parents.

Matilda made the ten-minute walk to the local library to satisfy her cravings. Mine would have been double that, so my Mom drove me once a week. Although, I never tried reading any Bronte or Austen whilst still in grade school. Or Hemingway. Or Orwell. Or..well, you get the point. I didn't even attempt Dickens until I was fourteen. The librarian advised Matilda to "allow the words to wash over you, like music." Sage words indeed. Nobody ever told me any shit like that.

Matilda liked to read with a mug of hot cocoa by her side. How could I not love this girl? Mind you, I never shared her disdain for the boob tube--to me, it was just another way to receive information, and I got off on information like other kids did from sugar. Nor was she fat. That's where Bruce Bogtrotter came in. For stealing a piece of the Trunchbull's cake, she forces him to take the stage at a school assembly and eat every last piece of a chocolate cake eighteen inches in diameter. I never was that hoggish, but not for lack of trying. I would go through a bag of chips in a single setting, polish off an entire package of Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies like it was nothing. (Gluttonous behavior that I did not recognize as self-punishment because while I was indeed a gifted kid, I wasn't that gifted.)

My parents weren't zealously opposed to my pursuit of intelligence. Weary, perhaps; bemused, definitely. They were overwhelmed, at war with their own ambivalence, knowing decisions had to be made but fearful of making the wrong ones. This struggle is endured by everyone, but is trickiest for parents, as what's at stake is the future of a life they co-created.

TrapperMom and TrapperDad spoke plain and acted plainer; they figured no finer way of dealing with a gifted child existed than to just, y'know, not deal with the gifted child. In the first grade (and later fourth), a teacher recommended to the school principal that I be advanced a grade. Each time, the principal contacted my parents, who each time refused permission, citing fears that being placed with older children would have a negative effect on my social development.

(This, I would discover later, was solely the reservation of my mother. My father didn't want me walking around feeling "different." I wish I at any time had the guts to ask him exactly what he meant by "different." I guess, if I really wanted to find out, I would have asked.)

I envied Matilda. She was skinny and had someone willing to go the extra mile and three-quarters for her. She could move things with her mind. She pulled pranks on her dad. I never pranked my dad. Such a scenario was not even possible to wholly formulate in my super-active mind. There's not even an alternate universe version that played a joke on her dad.

Roald Dahl at his best is a tour guide who speaks with flawless diction and possesses impeccable timing. This is Dahl at his best, second-best actually.

The best is yet to come.

Director Danny DeVito
Writer Nicholas Kazan & Robin Swicord

The biggest change is moving the action from England to the States. Not a terribly big deal. A story like this one, a girl like Matilda, parents like the Wormwoods, are all universal. (Although, "Send Me On My Way" by Rusted Root pops up near the beginning and end of the film. While not even bad music can ruin pancakes, I suspect England would not have permitted this to concur. Not saying they wouldn't have picked some other crap-plop of a song, but at least it wouldn't have been that particular crap-plop of a song.)

Mara Wilson plays the preternatural heroine with suitable wet-eyed curiosity. Danny DeVito triples as director, narrator and criminal slimeball Mr. Wormwood. Rhea Perlman has all the trashy fun portraying the missus. (She's certainly more likable than her book counterpart, although both are essentially terrible people.) The body types of the Wormwoods have been switched for the movie--a small alteration, and rather amusing.

The sole concession to the original locale is the casting of Brit actress Pam Ferris as harsh-faced Trunchball. Ferris plays the bullish dykeishness to the hilt, and if one can resist the temptation to analyze the utilization of the hoary "good woman is attractive, bad woman is unattractive" trope, one will probably appreciate Ferris' performance.

Mara looks great as the plucky brainiac, and does a great job. Mind, she does not appear at all overwhelmed by her freakish ability. She is not timid, but instead downright cocky. "No more miss nice girl." This wouldn't have worked as well in the novel, but for the nuance-free realm of a children's film, hey, well done.

The former Louie DePalma keeps the scuzz bucket filled to the brim, largely without allowing spillover. There are moments where DeVito goes over the top, though, into areas I didn't even imagine the book Mr. Wormwood going. No better example exists than when his daughter disrespecting the television set by reading in front of it. Fed up, Mr. Wormwood stands behind her chair, places both hands on either side of her head, and forces her to watch the action on the screen.

Regrettable, but forgivable.

Then comes the scene of Matilda wreaking havoc at the Trunchbull residence, poltergeist-style. The next day, she returns to pose as the ghost of Trunchbull's brother Magnus. Book Matilda never even enters the home. The movie lost me here and never regained my full attention. (Though I do love that the portrait of Magnus is actually one of Roald Dahl.)

The cake scene remains, thank Jebus. Damn thing looks like a Black Sabbath riff made edible. Bruce himself is basically fat Corey Haim with a foppish center-part.

The ending is more or less as in the book, save for a false-sounding, unearned moment of remorse from Matilda's mom. Ultimately, Matilda is a second-rate adaptation. The special effects are clunky at times, forgoing believability for the sake of risibility. The other child actors cannot keep up with Wilson.

The movie does enough to be entertaining, but I can't place it in the same league as Dahl's work.

--Trunchbull repeatedly calls her niece "Jen," which never happens once in the book. I liked that quite a bit.

--Honey's cottage as imagined by Dahl is a structure of Dickensian drabness. But in 20th century America, people simply don't live like that! So we get the impression that Trunchbull's deplorable disregard for her kin has forced her to live in a…nice, humble home.

--Trunchbull was a bottomless well of bitterness and insults that read great and would have likely sounded great, but sadly all of her greatest hits are MIA ("little Lilliputian? Redundancy, I ain't about you).

--The movie seems to be more about the triumph of a student body rather than the triumph of one individual student…you know, the one the damn thing's named after? The scene where the children burst out of the classroom, hurling things at the headmistress literally while she's down has been seen in a million films before and will be seen in a million more. It's tired. It's uninspiring.

--Honey returns from a trip to the Chokey to be greeted with the sight of the headmistress holding a boy up in the air by his ankle. Anyone who read the novel will know how he got in that position--Trunchbull kicked his leg so hard he turned a somersault, stopping only when she grabbed his ankle. That is child abuse. That would have been awesome to see on screen.