Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Better In Your Head?--DR. NO


1958
Ian Fleming

"All the greatest men are maniacs."

Recovering from tetrodotoxin poisoning has kept James Bond from doing what he loves most: fighting the Cold War. The sudden disappearance of SIS agent John Strangways and a female companion could be related to his assignment in Jamaica, trying to get the goods on one Doctor No. Or, perhaps the lovers skipped town. M demands Bond get to the hard rock bottom of the mess. As a final reminder of who is the de facto boss, M orders 007 trade in his beloved Beretta for two firearms--a Smith & Wesson and a Walther PPK.

The ultimate destination is Crab Key, a guano island sat between Jamaica and Cuba. The discovery of the super-rare Roseate Spoonbill led to the Audubon Society leasing a corner of the island as a bird sanctuary. Their numbers swelled exponentially, and there was much rejoicing. After the war, guano prices rose, and a man named Julius No expressed interest in purchasing the island. The Audubon Society allowed the transaction, stipulating only that he not violate the sanctuary. They didn't stipulate protection for their two wardens on the island, however. Investigators couldn't prove any foul play, but they did note seeing very few Spoonbills, news that sent the Audubon folk into apoplexy. The mystery of the missing rare birds thus fell into the dignified lap of MI6.

Bond reunites with Quarrel at the airport. A Chinese girl working for some rag called "The Daily Gleaner" snaps his photo, and even calls out his name. She pops up yet again at a restaurant as Bond and Quarrel talk shop. Despite a literal arm-twisting, she refuses to reveal for whom she works, only that, "He'll get you."

007 nearly gets "got" by a poisonous tropical centipede in the middle of the night (gender unknown). With a blend of relief and dread, he joins Quarrel for a solid night's canoeing to Crab Key. The whistles of a near-nude young lady collecting shells along the beach rouse Bond from slumber. Her name is Honeychile Rider, and she is the definition of "unsuspecting third party."

The trio avoid detection and death, walking and wading for what seems like five days before finally settling in to a meal of dead man's beans and wet bread. You know what other animal enjoys beans and bread? You got it--the dragon.

Bond had heard tell of this alleged creature, this beast of Crab Key, which turns out to be a huge marsh buggy fitted with a flamethrower and dressed up for tricks or treats. Quarrel gets barbecued, the other two get captured, and it's lair time!

Bond and Honey are treated like a honeymooning couple. Their room is strikingly luxurious; must've felt a bit like waking up in Maryland after spending a week in Mississippi. Just the prospect of a hot bath has Honey fixin' to ride, but Bond is focused on the mission. He is hungry, mind, just for actual food, and he devours a breakfast that is delicious--and drugged. (If a spy cannot be wary of a meal served in the lair of a man suspected of murdering a fellow spy, what exactly can he be wary of?)

The pair regain their senses in time for dinner with their host. Of all the physically striking villains in Flemingland, No's look hits especially hard. Head like a one ball, eyes artificially darkened, face pulled taut, and he glides like an especially large worm. Also, he has mechanical hands. His ancestry is belied by his attire (kimono) and attitude (stoic yet manic), and his ego is in full flower as he fills his guests in on all the vital moments of his life to that point: orphaned, hardened gangster, thief among thieves.

The doctor covets power and privacy, so the Audubon Society's stated plan to turn build a hotel on the island in hopes of luring ornithophiles understandably upset him. Bond struggles to get one over. No is intelligent, vicious and rich. Those men tend to be troublesome to topple. Particularly when one has no plan whatsoever to combat their scheme. Bond has no offensive strategy, no defensive strategy, he's basically the Cleveland Browns of European secret agents. So he keeps talking, and No lets him on the bigger deal behind all of the guano production and homemade aquariums--No and his men have been helping out the Russians by futzing up rocket launches from Cape Canaveral via an underground facility on Crab Key.

(Always those Red bastards, even when it ain't.)

No has an elaborate means to dispose of Bond--an obstacle course in the ventilation system. 007 doesn't know how he'll avoid death, but he knows the tools he'll use. As No gabs on, the sneaky Brit finagles a knife and a lighter into his kimono. Honey's led off to provide a luscious meal for ravenous black crabs and Bond is directed to a cell with a ventilation grille made of thick wire. This marks the start of the obstacle course that No assured him earlier was unconquerable--and provides further weaponry, to boot.

This segment represents the pinnacle of the novel. The movie wishes it had a single moment so breathtaking. Each stages increases not only in difficulty, but in sheer horror. Although his creator insisted upon Bond's ordinariness, there is nothing bog-standard in his determination and ingenuity. A lesser man would have vomited out his own bloody guts halfway in.

Having conquered the maze of doom, 007 scampers to the loading docks, where the doc himself is overseeing the unimpeded flow of guano. Bond takes control of the main crane and--after some understandable difficulty--buries the hand-less madman in the stuff. So nasty. Quite by accident he runs into Honey and together they locate the "dragon."

Dr. No is, in the main, goddamn essential James Bond. An unequivocally bad-ass super sleuth joined by an enthusiastic ally and an allegedly voluptuous female. Juggling two plots of unequal gravity drained Fleming of some cleverness, and Bond's inner reactor is heard from a bit too often but those are sins far more forgivable than the decision to not end the novel with the escape from Crab Key. Everything after is filler. How's the government going to handle the aftermath? Will Honey be yet another lucky victim of acculturation? Will she and Bond ever get their "slave-time"? Check out my Sally Brown-level apathy!



1963
Director-Terence Young
Writers-Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood & Berkely Mather

"World domination. The same old dream."

Ten years after the publication of Casino Royale, Ian Fleming finally saw one of his books hit the big screen. Producers Harry Saltzmann and Albert Broccoli had been wanting to adapt a Bond for years, and through Eon Productions, their shared wish came true.

Broccoli fancied Cary Grant in the lead role, but the actor would only agree to star in one film. Seeking someone willing to go long-term, the producers selected 32-year-old Scot Sean Connery, a busy actor of some renown who would soon come to loathe the role that made him an international superstar.

Dr. No's plot is Cold War as fuck. Strangways had been helping the CIA with the case of the disrupted Cape Canaveral rockets and suddenly went MIA. Bond scoots off to Jamaica and follows the trail to Dr. Julius No, a former thug turned island owner who has been jamming the launches for the benefit of SPECTRE--SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.

Birds? Fuck birds!

From touchdown, Bond's a popular guy. Bitches takin' pictures, ill-wishing chauffeurs. In Chez Strangways, James spots a photo of John with a boatmen named Quarrel. Bond locates the red-shirted man-child who'd been John's guide 'round Crab Key island as he gathered mineral samples. Which just so happened to be radioactive. A receipt leads Bond to Professor R. J. Dent, who proves far less amenable than Quarrel.

Such inquisitiveness gets Bond kilt, damn near. If you take a swing at the king, best not whiff. Just ask the corpse of R. J. Dent, specifically the second bullet hole.

Quarrel boats Bond onto Crab Key. Nothing spectacular happens until a bikini-clad blonde rises from the ocean waters holding shells. It's Honey Ryder, the very first Bond Girl. She helps lead the men inland, and all the bullshit these three characters had to duck and dodge in the novel followed them onto the screen. Quarrel shares the same bad luck as his counterpart, while Bond and Ryder are taken to be decontaminated (remember, the radiation?) and deposited into a room where the coffee is delicious--and drugged. (Wow, it's like Bond took the Idiot Ball and shoved it up his ass before leaving England.)

Dinner with Dr. No consists of Bond failing to coerce a facial expression out of his nemesis before being tenderized and thrown into a cell. A vent beckons, but there is no obstacle course here, just a way to grab a radiation suit and infiltrate Dr. No's control center, where another signal-jamming is about to commence. Bond overloads a nuclear reactor and knocks Dr. No into a cooling vat, where he promptly boils to death.

You know those greeting cards that play music when you open 'em? I'd love a special pressing of Casino Royale where as soon as you crack the cover, Monty Norman's iconic theme blared.

Dr. No is an extended advertisement for the New Real Man: the suave, globe-scaling lothario, a fist-swinging, gun-slinging soldier on an elusive battlefield. He is the taker of great risks, and the recipient of great rewards. If he's told you his name once, he's told you it thrice.

Face carved from stone, voice molded from marsh, Sean Connery deserves each and every hosanna ever hurled into the air for his performance. But the real star of these early Bond films is editor Peter Hunt. Every script has a beat, and he got it like a Go-Go's roadie. Still, the first 007 movie shouldn't be superior to the sixth 007 novel, and it is indeed not.

The film begins vibrantly, reveling in the fact that no one knows what the hell to expect. The book builds upon an established formula, gradually gathering currency before finally cashing in and damn near breaking the Coinstar.

The best part of any roller coaster ride is the ascent.



BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
For the plot of the first-ever Bond revolve around guano production would have been somewhat of a travesty. The decision to jettison the quirky plot and focus instead on the more serious one took, I hope, less than three seconds. Of course that means we miss out on the awesome obstacle course--which turns the book into a true THRILLER--but again, such an omission makes sense in the context of a debut film. There was no guarantee that the public would take to Bond on the large screen, so producers needed to play it safe. Thus, the protagonist cannot be suffering or struggling (at least not to the extent he was in the source material, skin burnt and blistered, joints on the verge of snapping, body bruised and bloodied, rendered inert for minutes at a time). Nor can he be seen eating beans out of his own hand. The first step must be a strong one, and if Connery projects anything consistently, it's power.

The first of many inamoratas for our boy, Honey Ryder is almost always placed among the very best/hottest Bond Girls in the entire series. She's okay in the novel--"ash blonde" hair to her shoulders, boy-butt, whistling a calypso tune that Bond can't help but mimic. She's okay in the film--blonde hair to her shoulders, girl-butt, singing a calypso tune that Bond can't help but mimic. She doesn't turn over my bowl or send my plate airborne, in fact I can sit and enjoy a meal without any interference. That's not even Ursula Andress's real voice we hear! Does that matter? Absolutely that matters. You sign for the whole package, baby. Decent face, benign body, lukewarm ass...and she's the Bond Girl? Stop it...five, maybe six out of ten.

Hearing Dr. No (well) before actually seeing him? If this part of the script were a doggie I'd never stop rubbing its belly.

When we do finally set sights on No, he's quite different compared to Fleming's vision--donning a white mandarin-collared jacket rather than a dark kimono, two inches shorter than Bond instead of six inches taller. The chilling forthrightness remains.

Movie Bond snatches a knife from the dinner table and conceals it in his clothing. Dr. No tells him some time later to put it back. Great nod to the book.

No matter the medium, James Bond just does not suspect food or beverages ever! The book makes delirium a possibility/excuse, but Movie Bond allows a rival to commit suicide through sheer negligence. Not very impressive, old man.

The old gangsters No double-crossed didn't just chop off his dick beaters, they shot him in the heart. Or so they thought. They didn't know his heart was located in the right side of his body, an actual medical condition known as "dextrocardia." Would have been right at home in a Roger Moore film, but a bit too out there in 1963.

"Suffocated by bird shit" would've been perfect for a Moore film too, come to think.

No Felix Leiter in the book, but like anybody was gonna say "nah" to Jack Lord's hair.

Bond's straight-up execution of Dent was added to hammer home to audiences that Double-0 agents have a license to kill, not injure or maim.

Just like Live and Let Die, Bond asks Quarrel to get him in shape for the strenuous journey ahead. If only training montages had been a thing then!

The noctivagant trek to Crab Key is a perfect example of a sacrifice that makes for a good movie while assuring the book will remain better.

Spiders are more cinematic than centipedes but man, Fleming wrote his ass off for that scene. I shivered more than twice.

"Eaten by black crabs" is a pretty ironic death for an avowed animal lover.

Giant. Fucking. Squid. Was the boss of the obstacle course. I'd rather get high off the effluvium of bird droppings than read about curious tentacles ever again.

MIND THE GAP
Before M speaks with Bond in the novel, he dials a well-respected neurologist who's wary of tossing Bond into the fray too quickly. M bristles at the other chap's nerve; such namby-pamby talk will be the death of masculinity yet! What the hell did they even fight a war for! The conversation proves fairly illuminating, as we learn two important things re: the conclusion of From Russia With Love. First, Bond owes his life to Rene Mathis and second, Rosa Klebb is dead. The reveal of which made me snort.

"The Jamaican is a kindly, lazy man with the virtues and vices of a child." 

Were those musical stabs during the Great Spider Smash uproariously funny in 1963 as well?

Wait, Ursula Andress with dry hair? This changes everything!

Julie Christie was considered for the Honey Ryder role, until producers deemed her insufficiently sexy. My mind reels with sarcastic replies. Have you seen a picture of Julie Christie back then? Have you seen a picture of Julie Christie now? I'd still hit it. With all the lights on.

Max von Sydow turned down the role of the villain, the worst guy. Lucky us, since we know remember the character as "Dr. No" instead of "Max von Sydow as Dr. No."

Julius No is not his given name, can you believe it. What is? Never says. The inspiration behind his new handle's pretty cool, though.

Book Bond, without fail, always shows more tenderness to the plight of his broads, however facile. He basically drags Honeychile Rider into the crap, shattering the placidity of her world, he should feel bad. Paying for the surgery to fix her busted beak is a start, mate.

The Three Blind Mice aren't in the book, but 007 does shoot three dudes in a tunnel as he makes his escape from Crab Key.

Of all SPECTRE-ites, which one says "SPECTRE" best? The No one.

"Honey, there just aren't such things as dragons in the world." Correct, and that is why the world blows.

The book gave us twenty times the tarantulas the film did. No big deal, since spinnen sind meistens harmlos. Including tarantulas. Really, Dent would have done better to smash Bond with the sheet of glass the spider was crawling across.

"Sex and machete fights," goddamnit, there's another "Potential Autobiography Title" I have to cross off the list!



TRAPPER JENN MD WILL RETURN IN...'GOLDFINGER'

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Better In Your Head?--FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

1957
Ian Fleming


"The Americans are unpredictable people. They are hysterical."

James Bond's been knocking off SMERSH's best men recently, and frankly, the Reds are a little aggrieved. What else to do but issue a death warrant.

Master planner/chess enthusiast Colonel Kronsteen and Head of Operations/torture enthusiast Colonel Klebb recruit pretty, young cipher clerk Corporal Tatiana Romanova to approach MI6 as a spectacular defector--not only does she come bearing the coveted decoding machine known as a "Spektor," she's besotted with one of their most outstanding agents.

Bond. James Bond.

She's just the honeypot, though. The coup de grace that will re-establish the Soviets as an unmatched power in the espionage universe is to be delivered by Chief Executioner Donovan "Red" Grant, an Irish-German defector who lives to bring death.

SMERSH could not have selected a more opportune time to make an attempt on Bond's life. The old boy's been bogged down in "the soft life" since Tiffany Case packed up. No thrills, no chills, no fills.

Both he and M should have known better. Each man has their doubts, sure, but the lure of the Spektor, the prospect of crippling the Russians, overrides all suspicions.

Tatiana contacted the British SS's "Station T" in Istanbul, promising to hand over the device if Bond would meet her there, and accompany her on a train ride to England. Bond touches base with Kerim Bey, head of "Station T," and the agent with whom Tatiana spoke. He's also one of the most intriguing characters in any Bond book, an exuberant son of a gigolo with whom 007 feels an instant connection. "I'd follow you to Hell and back" is a hoary promise, but Bond actually gets to make good when he follows Bey through a rat 'n' bat-infested tunnel just to spy on the Soviet consulate and then, into a Gypsy catfight that ends in gunfire.

As a reward (of sorts), 007 returns to his hotel to find a near-nude Tatiana in his bed. Sexy results! Then it's time to hop aboard the Orient Express for the lengthy return trip to the home of the world's most underwhelming bacon. How long? Enough days for wrenches to screw the works, in the forms of three M.G.B. agents along for the ride. Using bribery and trickery, Kerim Bey manages to have two of them removed.

Bond is off with Tatiana, meanwhile, undergoing a gradual "re-softening" that makes inevitable the terrible.

The loss of Bey is one thing--a horribly unfair thing at that--but the arrival of MI6's own Captain Nash is a whole other. He doesn't respond to Bond's attempts to, um, bond, and he's rather fond of ending every third sentence with the words "old man."  Still, James is merely irritated. Nash might be flavorless soup, but the main course is closer than ever. No way that Nash is actually Red Grant, and whatever his plans are, they certainly do not include dropping roofies in the bowl and shooting up the plates.

Luckily for Bond, Grant fits the stereotype of the shithouse with one brick missing. He not only details SMERSH's master plan (sex scandal! Murder-suicide! Splodey things!) he informs 007 exactly how he will die--a bullet to the heart as the train speeds through a tunnel.

Re-enter hard man James Bond!

Grant also let slip that he would be disembarking in Paris after the conclusion of his mission to meet up with the adorable Colonel Klebb. Eager to find the mistress of pain before she finds him, 007 deposits Tatiana and the Spektor with the proper authorities, then grabs a room at the Ritz. The well-hardened agent is scarcely fooled by fake French accents, and he susses out Klebb just before the bullets from her telephone (yes, the bullets from her telephone) can penetrate flesh and bone. Poison-tipped knitting needles don't hit their target either, and Klebb is subdued seconds before the arrival of Rene Mathis from the Deuxiéme Bureau.

Contented that the vanquished hag will soon be sallied forth to the waiting armpit of justice, Bond goes soft yet again. Face like a fish, heart like a lion, that's Rosa Klebb, and the bitch is packing a poison-tip spike in her shoe that none of the four men in the room see in time to prevent it from striking 007 in the leg.

From Russia With Love tends towards classic-ness more often than not, and I'll call it the best thing Ian Fleming ever wrote. It's certainly the most uniquely-structured Bond novel--the first several chapters concentrate solely on the bright red baddies, and the man himself doesn't even warrant a direct mention until the conclusion of chapter five. Will you care? Dunno 'bout that, but I didn't. Reading more about the ins and outs of the Soviet's revenge plot (to say nothing of the who's and what's) not only staves off any encroaching staleness, it gives the reader a unique advantage over James Bond himself, as we are aware of the danger well before he is.

And once all bodies are on board the Orient Express, the Super Bowl of spy games begins. No, the NFC Championship of spy games. (The New England Patriots can never be involved in that one.)

The "than not" concerns the first chapter. Aside from a typically brilliant opening sentence, the text was scratched out with a rusty spoon. "Unable to be fathomed" is the cocktail of curdling solids and spoiling liquids that popped and fizzed Ian Fleming's circuit board, rendering it incapable of discerning good prose from prose that would send a debut author's manuscript directly to a publishing house's restroom.




1964
Director-Terence Young
Writers-Richard Maibaum & Johanna Harwood


Within the pages of Life magazine, 3/17/61 edition, President John F. Kennedy provided a list of his ten favorite books. Only one work of fiction made the cut: From Russia With Love. The monumental endorsement sent the damn thing fairly flying from bookstores nationwide, and made it easy on Eon Productions when time came to select the de facto sequel to Dr. No.

From jump it's obvious that the second Bond film is a considerable step up from the first. We have the first-ever John Barry score and the introduction of Maurice Binder's credits full of women--on the heels of a great fake-out, at that.

SPECTRE's "Number One" summons a couple other high numbers to his dreadfully dangerous office. We will come to know them as Colonel's Tov Kronsteen and Rosa Klebb (although we do not come to much about "Number One," other than his fondness for white pussy). The topic--the elimination of James Bond as payback for his elimination of their own Julius No. A hot piece of espionage equipment (here, called "The Lektor") and a hotter piece of blonde Russian tail should do the trick!

Unlike the first film, Major Boothroyd read the script well in advance, and is on hand in M's office to present James with the first official gadget in the series: a briefcase kitted out with a knife, fifty gold sovereigns, ammo, an AR7 sniper rifle and a tear gas canister that explodes if and when the case is opened incorrectly.

Bond flies to Istanbul to meet Kerim Bey, a true "one of one." Shit gets James, Sylvester James in short order. They spy on the Soviets, watch Gypsy bitches throw hands, and eliminate loose cannons shooting out the mouths of babes. Then Bond finds Tatiana in bed and nasty things happen because they simply must, that is why she's there.

Aboard the Orient Express there is romance and tragedy. Our hero persists, and his girl persists, and furthermore England persists, in the stoic face of Captain Nash from MI6, who hops aboard to accompany Bond and Tatiana on the last legs of the journey. The two men don't establish an easy rapport, and Nash's lack of refinement at the dinner table does him in--he is, in fact, notorious defector-turned-SPECTRE killing machine Donald "Red" Grant.

What he lacks in wine etiquette, Grant possesses in hubris. After he delivers the "Here's how SPECTRE's gonna ruin the reputation of you and those fuckboys you work for," Bond fools him into eating tear gas, and then the passenger car brawl to end 'em all is well and truly on, ladies and gents.

James and Tatiana disembark in Venice, grabbing a hotel room due to be cleaned by an especially ugly maid. Klebb attempts first to shoot, then spike Bond, only to be felled when Tatiana (eventually, perhaps miraculously) shoots her.

This is how you adapt a great book. Magnificent trimming of the edges, deft re-imagining of the action, and vigorous performances. The added twist of Grant blowing his own cover had to drive Fleming nuts on some level, just for being so sly and clever.

I forgive the movie any and everything, including the wipe editing.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Sure, JFK put the novel in his top 10…but the film is in the top 5's of three men who played James Bond.*

Both are tightly-plotted thrillers, but I have to edge it to the film. Fleming weaves an enticing li'l plot, but he could not force the actors out of my head as I read. Further, he did not lavish the love upon Turkey that he did for Jamaica (for obvious reasons) and thus it's up to the film to show us the markets and the mosques, the ornate architecture…as well as the rats. (No bats, though.)

About those actors.

Sean Connery is at his best in From Russia With Love. Here, as well as in Goldfinger, he seems to be most vested in the role and truly relishing every second. He's a bad-ass in toto--suave, bemused, brutal, whatever the situation calls for.

Tatiana Romanova is portrayed by 1960 Miss Universe runner-up Daniela Binachi, in body only. She's okay, if you like blond(e)s, which I kinda don't really. She's got thick black hair in the book, really the only thing to recommend her since Fleming credits her with "faultless" arms and breasts. I want, nay, demand, distinguishing marks and loose skin. Tatiana also boasts "jut-butt" (my term), which the author dismisses as undesirably masculine. Oh that Ian!

Trying to see Rosa Klebb's "toad-like" face as any other than that of Austrian singer/actress Lotte Lenya--I'll sooner see a fifty-pound starfish, okay? She's basically Dolores Umbridge with the stones to do her own dirty work.

Whether "Donovan" or "Donald," it doesn't matter. Red Grant is forever that big blond box of meat Robert Shaw and if he fights Bond ten times, he wins nine.

Whenever a party was about, Kerim Bey could be trusted to arrive with a big bag of black bread and a bigger bottle of a spirit slightly lighter in shade. Bond is clearly affected by the death of his salt-breathed friend, and honestly, I was as well. Film Bey (Pedro Armendariz) is infinitely more tolerable than his sleazoid progenitor, and while he may have some old-fashioned ideas about men and women, apart and together, nothing he says or does sends me into an involuntary Icky Shuffle.
(The scene between Bond and Bey's son just after Kerim's murder is more affecting on the page, for additional length and touching detail.)

The decision to leave Bond near-death allowed Ian Fleming to end the series if he so chose. The filmmakers, bedeviled by no such ambivalence, were thus free to make a much more pleasant ending. I admire the hell out of Fleming's chutzpah though; no Bond film would dare dangle so precariously.

MIND THE GAP
The producers also added helicopter and boat action to ratchet up the tension. The explosion in Bey's office? Had already happened in the book by the time he and Bond met.

The Ritz hotel room in the novel suggests "the days of wines and roses." The hotel room in the movie suggests a week or so of lost nights.

If you find that scene between Klebb and Tatiana uncomfortable, try this on for size: Rosa Klebb in a nightie.

More semi-genius--Kronsteen's death scene. It introduces us to the spiked shoe and demonstrates the extent of its threat. Klebb's desperate kicks at Bond in the hotel could have been silly rather than suspenseful--had we not already seen the weapon in action.

"M waved his pipe sideways to indicate the ignorance of those grisly female habits. 'The Lord knows I don't know much about those things….'" I said it was Fleming's best, I didn't say it was Tender Is the Night.

Book Kerim Bey is an okay guy to visit, but I doubt you'd want to live with him. His opinions on the Turkish people are certainly opinions! Here he is on the fairer sex: "All women want to be swept off their feet. In their dreams, they long to be slung over a man's shoulders and taken to a cave and raped."

Sexual Consent 101: it is not possible to want to be forced into sexual activity.

Bey's assertion on the innermost desires of the human female is only the second-most offensive thing in the novel From Russia With Love. I will refrain from discussing the first-most since A) I don't want to spoil it and B) it pisses me off so intensely I get a gnarly pimento cheese taste in my mouth.

Reading about chess sucks more than watching chess sucks more than actually playing chess.


TRAPPER JENN MD WILL RETURN IN...'DR. NO"



*Connery, Dalton, Craig.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Better In Your Head?--DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER


 

1956
Ian Fleming


"Death is forever. But so are diamonds."

Diamonds Are Forever has mood issues.

Animal Kingdom 101 left me restive yet expectant. Diamonds 101 left me despondent that Ian Fleming had lost his mojo after only three books.

Did not bode well.

Well, "Story Time With M" had a purpose. Bond's latest mission involves the infiltration of a diamond smuggling ring run by "The Spangled Mob," moving goods from Sierra Leone to the United States. Unlike its immediate predecessor, Diamonds Are Forever seeks stamps (and fortunately for readers, 007's tolerate/despise relationship with the States persists).

Assuming the identity of smuggler Peter Franks, 007 meets up with Tiffany Case, a young blonde 'n' blue gangster chick who's blatant about her business and latent about her pleasure. As payment for a job well done, a Spangled mobster semi-amusingly named "Shady Tree" instructs Bond to bet on a horse race in Saratoga, NY that has been rigged for his pleasure. But then Felix Leiter shows up like
"nah, son, I paid off the jockey, could you be a sport and deliver the cash?" and that's when we meet Wint and Kidd, a pair of hooded hit men (no honorifics here) who do the dirty work for the Spang Brothers.

Bond still needs to bring down the pipeline, but Shady Tree thinks he's Peter Franks still needing his payment, so he sends him off to Las Vegas. Serrafimo Spang owns a hotel/casino where blackjack dealer Tiffany Case herself will assure Mr. Franks gets all he is owed. Bond being Bond, he refuses to step kindly away from the table, thus blowing his cover.

Serrafimo Spang has 007 captured and taken to "Spectreville," a ghost town restored as a private retreat. Aboard Spang's lavish Highland Light locomotive, Wint and Kidd deliver a vicious beatdown then…leave him to die of old age, I suppose. Tiffany aids in his escape, and what ensues is the greatest chase scene between a train and a pump trolley I have ever read.

(Seriously. Absurd though the scenario seems, the drama is real. Bond must concentrate on not only what is he approaching, but what is approaching him. He must rely on his mental arsenal more than his metal one, oftentimes with no more than a half-second to spare, and when the time does come to put the "k" in "kill," 007 shows why he's MI6's finest.)

Tiffany spills the details on the Spangled Pipeline (rather clever, really) and Bond heads to the Sierra Leone, which marks the beginning of the end.

My initial trepidation turned out to be unwarranted. What flaws mar the text (odd structure, casual racism, a comparatively low-key plot) are forgivable given that Diamonds Are Forever boasts the richest characterization in a Bond book yet, including an utterly disarming peek at Bond's internal governor. Sure it's heavily padded, but so's my butt. And never the day will come that I speak a disparaging word against my butt.





1971
Director-Guy Hamilton
Writers-Tom Mankiewicz & Richard Maibaum


"Right idea, Mr. Bond."
"But wrong pussy."

Christmas 1971 brought us an embarrassment of riches: Space Hoppers! The Partridge Family spend Christmas in an Old West ghost town! The return of the OG James Bond!

On Her Majesty's Secret Service, for all its artistic merit, underperformed at the American box office. The disappointing numbers, in conjunction with George Lazenby's jettisoning of the Bond role, left the folks at Eon Productions some panicky pickles. Fortunately they were able to locate a brown paper bag, stuffed with mad skrilla. This bag, along with a bunch of pleas and promises, was sufficient to entice Sean Connery back for one final go in the role he'd grown oh so weary of, in an adaptation of a book that finds Bond spending a great deal of time snoopin' USA.

You can't burn s'mores without starting a fire, and the early heat is a familiar one: Bond impersonates Peter Franks to creep into a diamond smuggling ring. No one bothered to take care of the real guy, though, necessitating a bloodless elevator fight that doubtless had claustrophobic viewers reaching for brown paper sacks filled with mad nothing.

Why leave Franks unaccounted for? Plot. Bond switches actual IDs with the dead man, leaving Tiffany Case impressed that he vanquished such a mighty foe (how does she know who the hell James Bond is anyway?). All three bodies fly out to Las Vegas, the dead one carrying the diamonds in his person, all the better for them to be fished out once he's been cremated.

The real JB barely escapes the big sleep thanks to a stand-up comic/smuggler with no apparent feeling in his hands--Shady Tree! Oh that name's too good to leave between covers. The diamonds were fakes, and he's mad. Bond tells Felix Leiter to send the real deals to a casino where Tiffany will retrieve them. Lots of trust there, and it's not repaid. Her conscience headbutts back pretty quick, though, and she takes Bond to the spot where her smuggle buddy is handing off the diamonds to Vegas big shot Burt Saxby.

Saxby answers to Willard Whyte, a reclusive billionaire an owner of a hotel that Bond scales in hopes of talking to the mystery man, only to find Ernest Stavro Blofeld…and his body double. And some stupid machine that makes Blofeld's voice into a perfect mimic of Willard Whyte's.

Not only did Eon bring back the world's most famous spy, they brought back his most vicious nemesis. The general public knows not (and thus cares not) of the Spangled Mob. They do know well the man Blofeld, though. His plans tend to the grandiose, and this is no different: he's using the diamonds to create a satellite that fires laser beams…from space! After some emotionless back and forth, Blofeld pulls a gun on Bond and shoots him in the heart--heh, no. He forces Bond to step into an elevator, where knockout gas makes it much easier for Blofeld's henchmen Wint and Kidd to drag the body to the desert, where it's left to die. (Again, I can only guess, of old age. Throughout the movie, Wint and Kidd kill swiftly. When time to take out James Bond, who certainly would've been the standout snuff on a long and impressive list, they decide to let something else do the job?)

With no help from anyone, much less from abducted-ass Tiffany Case, Bond escapes and meets with Q, who just so happens to have a voice replicator just like Blofeld's. Via this nonsense, he locates Whyte (played by musician/sausage Lord Jimmy Dean) and subsequently, Blofeld's base of operations. The satellite is in orbit and has already eradicated nuclear weapons in three world superpowers. Blofeld's vision of an international auction for global supremacy is growing clearer by the minute.

The villains downfall (comeuppance?) is real splodey, and it was real nice of the CIA to show up and remind everyone what country this was all taking place in.

The confrontation between Bond/Case and Wint/Kidd on a cruise ship was no surprise to Fleming fans, but Mankiewicz and Maibaum managed to make the showdown more creative and more anticlimactic, somehow. Wint's death is played for easy homophobic laughs, and Mr. Kidd you're on fire Mr. Kidd, ah well least he died as he lived. I'm so glad those two pun/bun-loving killers made it to the end, as they gave Diamonds Are Forever some desperately needed comic relief, and of the "dark" variety to boot.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
The first 60% of Fleming's work is scene-setting. Considering his adeptness, what would be an unacceptable pace for a kiss-bang-zoom-to the moon buggy! Hollywood BOFFO production is a gradual mental message for readers. In particular, his descriptions are more cinematic than ever.

I understand that the Spang Brothers weren't exactly shootin' for the stars, but I do mourn Serrafimo's ghost town resort missing out on the big-screen treatment. His train alone would have been worth half the price of a ticket: crystal, mahogany, a domed ceiling. The other half, when Serrafimo meets Bond decked out in full cowboy regalia.* Instead, moviegoers got Blofeld in drag.

Which brings me to the characters. Casting Charles Gray as Blofeld--tragic. Bond fans had seen him only two films prior as a short-lived dork in a kimono. Not to mention, at no point while he had a gun on 007 did he instruct Bond to take a jump to the left or place his hands on his hips.

Is the movie version of Tiffany Case the first truly regressive Bond Girl? The characters plummet from sassy to liability is painful to witness. I place little blame at the feet of Jill St. John, who can only do so much with the un-demands of a Richard Mankiewicz script. Shame, as I aver Tiffany Case was Ian Fleming's first fully-developed female character, one whose life pre-Bond defined her so sharply that the man himself couldn't fight off a fascination.**

Bond himself shows a bit more of the man behind the numbers here. We get a real treat when Fleming allows us a glimpse at how Bond internally sizes people up, and in case you doubted the overall decency of the guy, he eats soft shell crabs.

Lamentations over the campy treatment of Wint and Kidd in the film are not uncommon, but at least they're amusing. In the book they just made my skin pucker up and crawl away.

The climactic train chase is better in your head, my head, anyone's head, everyone's head. Any director that could have imbued the sequence with the tension needed to keep it from being incredulous would not have even been hired for the task.

In summation, the book is finely-tailored. The movie is wearing a sweater two sizes too big or three sizes too small, depending on what scene you're watching.***

MIND THE GAP
(Okay, there is that racing article Fleming throws in there, like I won't notice that it's as vital to the story as lettuce to the taco.)

When Cubby Broccoli has a dream--an actual dream, twitchy eyes and all--wherein James Bond crosses paths with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, why, a person would be a fool to agree that it would make a great idea for a movie.

And yet.

Things could have played out worse for Diamonds. The story of Auric Goldfinger's twin out for revenge was considered, and wisely discarded like so much moldy bread, but the producers messed up by not pursuing the revenge angle more aggressively. Specifically, Bond's revenge on Blofeld and Irma Krebs for the murder of his wife in the previous film. How exhilarating would it have been, to watch a rampaging, broken-hearted 007 scour the globe for the unrepentant scoundrels who robbed him of the most exquisite happiness a man can feel. Unfortunately, the actress who portrayed Krebs passed away shortly after On Her Majesty's Secret Service hit theaters, making true retribution impossible.

(The pre-credits sequence of Diamonds is as close as we get; might have resonated if Connery didn't approach the business of avenging his late missus with all the zeal of a hungover tortoise.)

The gap's true distance depends on the individual devourer, and the value they place on permanence. Diamonds are forever, but so is death, a truth that does not escape Bond. His victory is a morose one, and even though Tiffany and he seem like they may have a future together, Bond knows deep down how little a chance they stand.

The movie, meanwhile, couldn't even pull off a car stunt. Adding a slide whistle and failing to double-check existing footage are two very different sins, friends.




TRAPPER JENN MD WILL RETURN IN...'FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE'




*Reading the novel, I couldn't help but think of my best friend, a fellow Bond-head who adores trains and abhors Old West imagery.

**Limits! Bond's (Fleming's?) reverie of a woman's passions reborn thanks to a man's mere attentions made every muscle in my body clench for a solid second.

***So, Tiffany Case doesn't identify people based on head shots, but fingerprints? Maddeningly improbable.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Better In Your Head?--MOONRAKER

1955
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.



1979
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.



BETTER IN YOUR HEAD
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.

MIND THE GAP
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?



TRAPPER JENN MD WILL RETURN IN...DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER





*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

1954
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



1973 
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.


BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
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?

MIND THE GAP
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.

1953
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.




2006
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. 



BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
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. 

MIND THE GAP
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 tête-a-tête 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.

1998
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.

2013
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.



BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?

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.

MIND THE GAP
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.