Friday, September 19, 2014

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

By the time You Only Live Twice wrapped up filming, Sean Connery was done. Making the films was proving to be grueling and the intense spotlight of being James Bond was getting too bright. He wanted out and the producers couldn’t convince him otherwise. A lot of people felt that the series was done. For them Sean Connery was James Bone – period. But the producers felt they had a viable franchise and formula. Bond could be played by another actor, and they were going to prove to everyone that James Bond would Return.

James Bond (George Lazenby) is still pursuing his nemesis Blofeld (Telly Savalas). But the trail has gone cold and Bond is spending his time gambling on the French Rivera. It is there he meets Tracy (Diana Rigg) the daughter of a powerful and wealthy “businessman” named Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). Draco may be the head of a crime syndicate. Tracy and Bond connect in a way neither expects. When Draco learns of this, he makes a deal with Bond. If Bond can get Tracy to fall in love with him and calm her reckless and wild ways, then Draco will provide Bond with information where Blofeld is hidden.

Bond’s desire to capture Blofeld is stronger than his drive to enjoy a bachelor’s lifestyle, so he agrees. He quickly finds himself caring about Tracy and really falling for her. So it is actually with some regret that he obtains a lead from Draco. But Bond figures this will be his toughest one yet, because Blofeld is hatching a deadly scheme that will destroy the world’s food supply. If Bond can stop him, then this is the last mission he will serve On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But fate is going to deal him quite a different hand.

Good Points:
  • Takes the best plot from the Fleming novels and brings it to life
  • One of the best scores of the entire James Bond franchise
  • Brings the thrills and danger back to the franchise
Bad Points:
  • The romance heavy first half may be too slow for some viewers
  • James Bond in love this isn’t James Bond!
  • Tries too hard to be familiar and new at the same time
This movie has its flaws, but George Lazenby isn’t one of them. He is the main reason I see people write this one off. However it’s got a great story that actually evolves James Bond as a person. It puts him in some real danger (with the awesome stunt work to show it off). Rigg and Savalas are excellent in their roles. The whole package is top-notch material, and is easily one of the best 007 adventures of the 1960s.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 5
Music: 5
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Bond. James Bond. - 1969
No matter who followed Sean Connery for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service they were going to be unfairly compared and probably disliked. The mentality that Connery was Bond was nearly a given. The producers were fighting an uphill battle and I think they knew it. So they had to knock this out of the park or else it was the end of 007. What is funny is that most people think this movie bombed and was received poorly by critics. But the movie actually did very well in theaters. No it didn’t reach the highs of Goldfinger or Thunderball, but to expect that isn’t realistic. Most critics enjoyed the movie. This was not a half assed low budget cash in. You can see the effort on the screen, something that can’t be said for the films that followed, which can look pretty cheap in comparison (yeah Diamonds Are Forever I said it!).

An honest to goodness avalanche.
When most people remember the setting of this film, it is the snowy peaks of Switzerland that dominate the final two thirds of the film. There is some amazing location shooting in this movie, with impressive helicopter shots. I also have to mention the footage taken on skis. OHMSS features the first James Bond ski chase, and actually gives you two for the price of one. Some of this footage is just plain crazy. When you see all the various camera techniques used to film these action scenes it is amazing. The stunts are top notch and no other Bond film has come close to this much excellent ski action (but ForYour Eyes Only comes really damn close). To top it off, the avalanche you see in the film was actually real. You read that right, no models in those shots. There is also a completely insane car chase scene that puts Bond and Tracy in the middle of a stock car race.

Portugal gives us some additional location footage, mostly for the scene around Draco’s home and during the Riviera sequences. Draco’s birthday scene is most impressive with a full-fledged bullfight captured on screen. But the location is used again for the wedding at the finale of the film, and the mountain top road leading away from it.

Bond meets the Angels of Death.
In addition to the location work, the production design for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is handled well. The movie is going for a more realistic look and Adam’s futurist style would not have fit. Many of the sets have the opulent looks that you expect in a Bond film, but lack that extra touch of fantasy of the previous three films.

Like nearly all the James Bond films of the 60s and 70s, there is some rear projection work in this movie that is less than convincing. It can be distracting and I’ll admit that does affect the final face off of the film a bit. The final sequence occurs on a bobsled run with Bond and Blofeld attempting to kill each other at high speed. The stunt work is jaw dropping, but the rear projection inserts look silly. It’s a shame too, because it robs this final battle of the punch it should have.

Who knew? James Bond invented the slip and slide.
One more key element to the visuals is the unique editing used in the film. Of all the James Bond films up until Skyfall this movie is the most visually interesting when it comes to camera angles, fight scene editing and overall execution. Director Peter Hunt started out as an editor, and his influence on the final visual product is distinctive. It really gives the film it’s own rhythm and feeling. This is a long film, clocking in at 142 minutes, but Hunt’s visual style and editing panache help the whole movie just fly by.

Piz Gloria is one of the most spectacular locations
in the franchise.
Most of the sound effects work in the Bond films is impressive. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service doesn’t disappoint in that regard. But what is interesting is that Hunt decided to shake things up a couple times during the film and used sound in interesting ways. During a fistfight in a tight corridor where Bond attempts to escape some of Draco’s goons, the punches and sounds of the bodies hitting the walls is run through an echoplex.  The result is one of the most surreal fistfights in a 007 adventure. On top of that, you have what director Peter Hunt wanted to go down as the noisiest fistfight in action film history. Bond beats up one of Bloefeld’s minions in a shack filled with bells. The men throw each other around and create one hell of a ruckus. It’s an unusual battle to say the least.

The soft glow of John Barry's score adds to
the romance of the movie.
Composer John Barry returned for his fifth consecutive James Bond adventure. Many film score fans feel that his score to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the best film score he ever wrote for a James Bond film. In addition to a thrilling main theme for the action, he also composed a beautiful love theme called We Have All the Time in the World, sung by Louis Armstrong. I wrote a whole blog about the music and how it works in the films, you can check that out here. Suffice to say, this is easily one of the best scores to any of the 007 films, and is a great place to start your James Bond music collection.

Lazenby was a gamble.
Let’s hit the heart of the argument here. George Lazenby is the make or break for a lot of people. I find that it is the Connery fans that seem to dislike Lazenby the most, maybe feeling that Connery got robbed of one of the better 007 scripts in the franchise. In some ways I can sympathize, but at the same time, I think Connery was burnt out on Bond. You can see it in her performance in You Only Live Twice and you can really see it in his work on Diamond Are Forever. I’d rather have a new actor trying his best over an established actor barely going through the motions.

The outfit that inspired Austin Powers!
That said, Lazenby doesn’t quite seem to have the part down. He works fine in the action scenes and does a decent job with the ladies in Bloefeld’s hideout. But his acting during the relationship building scenes with Tracy doesn’t quite work. He also seems a bit overmatched by Savalas. Now to be entirely fair, Lazenby has a large portion of his dialogue over-dubbed when he is under cover. That adds up to about half an hour where we don’t have him actually speaking. On top of that, someone, somewhere decided that more quips and witticisms were needed in the film. So Lazenby ends up with a bunch of one-liners, obviously dubbed after the fact and often when he isn’t even on the screen. This may add to the feeling that Lazenby was a bit too cheesy in the role.

007 spends some quality time with his favorite
I see an actor who had an immense pressure put on him. He really is trying his best, but his experience prior to this huge film was working in commercials. In a lot of ways, he had to really step up his game and do it really fast. Knowing all this, I think Lazenby did a fine job. Yes, it could have been better. But I also think that if he had tackled Diamonds are Forever that movie would have given us an improved actor along with a more involved actor. The result could have been a better film. As it stands On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the only Bond film in Lazenby’s resume. For various reasons (depending on who you talk to, they shift) Lazenby was not invited back for the next film. But I feel that his onscreen performance was not the reason for it.

Diana Rigg doubts the veracity of your claim.
Besides, no matter what you think of Lazenby’s performance, it is hard to find fault with Diana Rigg as Tracy. If you read the novel, you may feel that Rigg was miscast. But I think she actually changes the dynamic in a way that works well. She seems a better match for Bond, as confident as him at times. And Rigg certainly shows that Tracy can handle herself well. The tremendous car chase scene actually has Tracy in the driver’s seat the whole time. She also does battle with one of Blofeld’s larger henchman. This confidence is certainly appealing, but it the fragility that Rigg brings to the character that attracts Bond. We get glimpses of it throughout the film. It’s a really great performance, certainly making Tracy my favorite Bond girl of the 1960s films.

He's given up the sucker for a cigarette and a
diabolical plan.
When it comes to Blofeld, most James Bond fans feel that Donald Pleasance was the perfect version in You Only Live Twice. And for a more comic book version of Bond, which that film certainly is, he works great. But On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a much more serious film. Blofeld needed to be less cartoonish, and Savalas strikes the perfect balance. He is urbane, cold and ominous. Of all the actors playing Bloefeld he feels the most like he could be a physical match for Bond (which is closer to the novel version of the character). Savalas also has a ruthless charm about him that I like. He really carries the part off well, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see him return for the next film.

007 undercover as an upperclass twit.
The supporting cast is also very good. We have the usual London crew with Bernard Lee as M and Louis Maxwell as Moneypenny getting some good time interacting with Bond. Moneypenny’s reaction to the wedding at the end is pretty funny. Desmond Llewlyn doesn’t get much screen time as Q in this movie. In general the gadgets are downplayed. Gabriele Ferzetti plays Draco as a smooth and confident operator. In an odd turn of events, it appears he’s been completely re-dubbed, so his performance is a bit tricky to judge. Ilse Steppat as Blofeld’s dangerous and determined partner in crime does a good job looking threatening and yet competent with her job. Finally there is the bevy of beauties that are the “Angels of Death”. All are quite lovely, but Angela Scoular steals the show as Ruby, the English gal who throws herself at Bond. But sharp-eyed viewers will also see Joanna Lumley in the group.

This film contains some of the best ski stunts
in the franchise.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the few James Bond movies of the 1960s that actually attempts to develop James Bond as a character. This comes right out of Fleming’s novel, probably one of his best of the series. The script follows the novel very closely, allowing Bond (and us) to meet and fall in love with Tracy, and then get pulled into the Blofeld’s dark plan. The final result works great in the novel, but the movie ends up feeling a bit uneven at times. The first half is pretty much all set up, with the romance taking up a lot of the screen time. It is necessary, and it keeps the relationship from feeling arbitrary or forced. At the same time it contrasts wildly with the action packed final third of the film. This is something that comes right from the source material, so I can’t fault them too much. But I wonder if a better balance could have been found, to give this film a flow that works better. The 2006 version Casino Royale had a similar design, but executed it much better.

Tracy doubts the veracity of Blofeld's claim.
There is also a strange script element that I’m really surprised no one caught. In the novels, James Bond does not come face to face with Blofeld during Thunderball. His first meeting is during On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The men meet for the final time in You Only Live Twice. Since the films switched order a bit, Bond and Blofeld meet in You Only Live Twice for the first time. But in the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a key plot point revolves on the fact that Blofeld doesn’t know what Bond looks like. This makes sense in the original order of the novels, but not in the movie version. This has lead to jokes that Blofeld didn’t recognize Bond because Lazenby was playing the part.

Bobsledding insanity!
The script gave Peter Hunt a great base to make one of the best James Bond films. Aside from the pacing issue, there is very little to dislike about how he executed the film. Some of the moments meant to reassure fans that this was still the James Bond they knew and loved don’t play too well today. They are painfully obvious, and are pretty much filler. You have the scene where Bond goes through his desk and remembers moments from all his previous adventures (prompted by props and helpful music cues from the other films). You have a janitor whistling the theme from Goldfinger. You even have characters saying things like “Same old 007.” It is distracting and a bit silly.

Tracy drives like a mad woman!
There was also the decision to have Lazenby attempt to look, and act as much like Connery as possible. This was something that none of the following actors had to deal with. Each one got to put his stamp on 007. But Lazenby was basically filling Connery’s shoes and they wanted him to do just that. This was a decision made at the production level, and I can’t blame Lazenby for it. But instead of reassuring people, it invited a direct comparison. This was a stupendous backfire for the production. If Hunt had been a bit more seasoned, he may have had the clout to push back on this idea.

Bond faces his perfect match.
But as a first time director, Hunt brought energy, creativity and excitement back to the series. The best elements of the final third of the film are the action and thrilling suspense scenes. Hunt uses all the tricks in the book to keep ratcheting things up. James Bond really feels like he is in peril in this film, with Blofeld’s relentless pursuit pushing Bond to more and more desperate acts. The escape from Piz Gloria is really one of the best thriller sequences of the entire film series.

Bond did return, but poor Lazenby didn't.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ends up being a James Bond film that is unique in many ways from the rest of the franchise. It breaks many of the conventions of the series that had been established. Other times it stays firmly locked to them. It has a dynamic look and feel that no other Bond film ever managed until Skyfall. It is a story that focuses on James Bond, and gives the character some real gravitas. The final scene of the film gives Bond a defining character moment. One that Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan all got to use in at least one film. Within that block of the first 20 Bond films it is a milestone not just for the story, but also for the entire production. For all those reasons On Her Majesty’s Secret Service deserves to be revisted and reevaluated. The great thing is, I see the movie constantly near the top of “Best of Bond” lists frequently. It is nice to see that it is being judged on it’s own merits, instead of what fans back in 1969 wanted it to be.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Movie Music Musing: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

The producers of the James Bond series were at a major crossroads in 1969. They had a new actor in role of James Bond and were not sure how audiences were going to react to this. So they went out of their way to make sure that audiences knew that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (or OHMSS as I’ll call it from now on) was the same James Bond film they expected and wanted, but with a new actor in the role.

One of the key production elements to help with this concept was the music. The producers brought back John Barry, who provided the score for the previous four James Bond films. His signature brassy boldness was what made everyone know this was a 007 adventure.

However, OHMSS was not your typical Bond film (no matter how much the producers tried to convince everyone). The result was that John Barry actually composed a more colorful and intricate score than most of his previous ones (with Thunderball matching it for variety of themes and color).

The first thing Barry did was give Lazenby his very own orchestral theme. This is probably one of the best action themes Barry ever wrote for the series. You get to hear it in full during the opening credits. This makes OHMSS the only film aside from Dr. No that doesn’t have an opening theme song. The theme is played several times, especially during the action scenes in the second half of the film. The Monty Norman James Bond theme (that we all know and love) is used sparingly and usually only hinted at. It shows up bold and proud in the gunbarrel sequence and the end titles. In the film you also get the classic version from Dr. No played as bond storms Piz Gloria.

The other main theme is the love theme. It is actually the main song from the film. We Have All the Time in the World is given some lovely renditions in the film, with a full string version during Bond’s first intimate encounter with Tracy, and later a tender version as Bond proposes to Tracy (in the clip below). Louis Armstrong performs the most famous version during the falling in love montage. This was the last piece that Armstrong ever recorded, and he does an excellent job with it.

These two themes make up the majority of the score, as Barry uses them to show us both sides of James Bond. They are both top-notch themes and very adaptable. Based on that alone, this score would be one of the best of the franchise. But Barry adds some extras to make this one a classic.

First off is an extremely silly and syrupy Christmas song that you hear a couple of times in the film. It is called Do You know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? and the lyrics are wretched,  but the tune is pure Christmas cheese. You hear it when Bond first arrives in Switzerland with all the other tourists. But one of the best uses is when you hear it dripping with irony as Bond is being hunted by killers in the small village. Director Peter Hunt (who was an innovative editor in the previous Bond flicks) synchs his edits with this silly song, providing a horrifying counterpoint to the danger as it swells around Bond and when he looks up and sees Tracy and the children’s chorus sings, “… he needs love!”  But one of my favorite uses is when Bloefeld explains his evil plot to poison the major food resources of the earth. He does this while there is a huge Christmas tree in the background. Barry plays a sinister version of the song. It’s a nice musical joke, as Bloefeld explains his horrible Christmas present to the world (it is certainly not love).

There are also some interesting motifs only heard one or two times in this film and then never heard again. When Bond attempts to crack a lawyer’s safe, Barry creates a nice tension theme that gets more and more intense as it plays. This track Gumbold’s Safe also highlights a 007 first. OHMSS is the first score in the franchise to use electronics. You can hear them most clearly in this track, but they appear in the gunbarrrel sequence and opening titles as well. You also get a taste of them in the track Bobsled Chase which also features it’s own motif. There is even a romantic sub-theme for when Bond meets and romances the gals at Piz Gloria.

This track, Blofeld’s Plot, gives you a taste of the various styles and minor themes. It has the silly Christmas song in it’s sinister form at about a minute in. It has an electronic pulse at two minutes and forty seconds in as the girls fall under the hypnotic suggestion. At about four minutes the music turns into a mix of slow build to a stinger near the five minute mark. Bond just got clobbered.

This is very robust score, with a lot of variety and some really excellent tracks that balance action, romance and thrills in a nearly perfect fashion. It’s a masterful fit to the film. You really get the feeling that Barry was inspired on this one. He wouldn’t hit this kind of high point until the 80s with TheLiving Daylights, another introduction to a new actor in the role and a switch of tone for the series. So while Goldfinger and Thunderball provide nearly iconic versions of the brassy Barry sound, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the best 007 score of the 1960s.

And here is the version of We Have All the Time in the World performed by Louis Armstrong.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Anime Juke Box - The Dream Within - Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

So you could make a strong argument that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is not technically an anime film. But It is based on a Japanese game, created by a Japanese animation company and has a lot of elements commonly found in Japanese anime. While the movie is often considered a considerable box office bomb, I've always thought it was an interesting experiment.

One element that caused a lot of anger among fans of the video game series was the fact that an American Hollywood composer was brought in to work on the score. Of course this composer is anything but typical. Elliot Goldenthal has a very unique and atonal style and he created one of his most epic sounding and powerful scores for Final Fantasy. The main theme for hope and love in this movie was used as the basis of the song The Dream Within, and was performed during the end credits by Lara Fabian. You rarely see this kind of integration of a theme from the score into a song. Only James Bond does it regularly. Goldenthal's theme adapts very well and Fabian's voice is quite lovely. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Nostalgia Nugget: Trauma of the Planet of the Apes

Fair Warning: This little trip down memory lane is filled with SPOILERS to the entire Planet of the Apes series from the 1970s. If you want to avoid SPOILERS then avoid this blog until you’ve seen all the movies. Anyone left? Ok, lets go.

Ah the VHS face of
childhood trauma!
My grandmother and grandfather were fans of science fiction and action movies. They lived with us for a few years when I was young and I remember spending afternoons watching old episodes of Star Trek (the original series, this was before Next Generation). My grandmother actually got into Robotech, and wanted to see if Rick Hunter ended up with Lin or Lisa. These are the same grandparents that too me to see Ghostbusters and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. So when the complete box set of all the Planetof the Apes films came out on VHS, it was a big event in our house. I’d never seen them before, but I was told they were sci-fi, just like Star Wars or Battle Beyond the Stars. How awesome was that? Because they had apes too, and every kid loves monkeys and gorillas. King Kong rules!

Little did I know the horrors that awaited me.

Let me be clear here. I’m a child of the 1980s. One of the reasons Robotech blew my mind as a kid was because main characters DIED! Actions had consequences. During war people got killed – innocent people. Sure stuff like that happened in Star Wars, but it was a very clean antiseptic violence. To me, Robotech was grim and gritty. Because what else was on TV at the time for kids my age: He-man, Inspector Gadget, Gummi Bears and The Smurfs. Sure you had the afterschool specials, but I always loved fantasy and sci-fi. I wanted weird and wild aliens, incredible adventures, not a bunch of annoying kids I tried to avoid at school talking about their problems.

So we sat down and watched the Planet of the Apes movies. And dear sweet Zeus – I had never seen anything like them before. These apes were serious, they were badass, and they were treating humans like animals. Yeah, they were cool looking and wielding guns, but I just wasn’t ready for the dark side here – especially the ending. It confused me, and when I asked my grandmother what it meant, she explained World War III destroyed everything. Well, that was too damn real. I mean this was the middle of the Reagan years, when we were all about to be blown away like War Games or invaded like Red Dawn. So that freaked me out.

But that was just the beginning of the terror.

So yeah, this isn't ape hell or anything, right?
Up next was Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Not only did this film feature radioactive mutants, but there was a giant ape statue crying blood, there was a huge nuclear bomb being sung too, and oh yeah the EARTH EXPLODES! To paraphrase the kid from The Princess Bride, “Jesus Grandpa, why the hell are you showing this stuff?”

"Mamma!" had me crying for my mother too!
Um... ok, that was vivid. But at least Escape from the Planet of Apes was filled with lighthearted fun antics with Cornelius and Zira interacting with wacky 70s people. Oh the hilarity. I always liked Cornelius and Zira, and it was fun to see them wander around the world of what looked like the old 1970s television series SWAT. Lots of laughs and then… they both get good and murdered. Up close footage, no cut always - just brutal death of two sweet and funny apes. Then to top off the light hearted romp, you get a close up of their baby getting shot repeatedly. The movie ends with a baby chimp saying “Mamma” - nightmare fuel right there. Not even a marathon of The Smurfs could save me now.

And here I was afraid the Russians were going to
bomb us off the planet. I should have been afraid of
the zoo.
And that’s a good thing because Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was up next. At this point I was pretty much done with the series. But for some reason I kept watching. I don’t remember if I was told things got better, or if they just assumed I liked watching all this grim death and destruction. Who knows? All I know is there is the guy from Fantasy Island (and Wrath of Khan too, which I loved). He was being nice to Caesar, and showing him this bizarre world. Then Khan is hauled to a secret lab and Caesar is sold into slavery. Khan falls out a window and dies (but I didn’t follow that at the time. I kept waiting for him to come back. I mean, this is Khan! Falling out a window couldn’t hurt him.) Caesar is treated like less than dirt, and then rises up. The ending is all fire, and violence and apes beating the living crap out of people while everything burns. HOLY SHIT! It was the end of the freakin’ world!

But don’t worry, there’s still Battle for the Planet of the Apes to endure. I don’t remember much about my impressions of this one. It was probably less traumatic then the previous films. I do remember the mutants in their bus as they cross the desert and the bizarre ending with the statue of Caesar crying. But that brought back memories of the giant lawgiver statue crying blood and I spiraled into a deep despair from which I never recovered. Even now I’m typing this from the fetal position in a small padded room chanting “Ape shall never kill ape” over and over again.

So yeah, nothing horrifying about this image...
Ok, so I exaggerate. But to be honest, after that initial viewing of those movies I didn’t revisit them for decades. Seriously. It was probably because I remembered them as being this endless circle of despair and horror from my childhood. Even though clear memories of story and characters faded over time, some of these images remained very vivid to me. So whenever someone motioned Planet of the Apes I instantly remembered Charlton Heston being tormented, the fallen Statue of Liberty, statues weeping blood, people singing to a bomb, Cornelius and Zira dead on the deck of a rusting ship, a baby chimp crying for his mother, apes killing people with flaming buildings all around them, and oh yeah… THE EARTH EXPLODING! Why the hell would I want to watch those movies again?

So yeah, I was a bit too young to really appreciate these movies when I first saw them. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I got around to watching Planet of the Apes again. It was all due to Jerry Goldsmith working on the score and many people claiming it one of his early triumphs. I wanted to hear it in the context of the film and so I forced myself to watch it again. I posted my thoughts on in a review, and kinda left it at that. Because in the back of my mind, I knew the other movies were out there waiting to pounce.

Old School Laserdisc covers! Gotta love em.
After reading John Kenneth Muir’s very interesting breakdown of the films in his book Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s as well as watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes which a lot of reviewers compared to the 70s apes films, I figured it was time to dive back in and watch these. So I did a marathon viewing session over a week. They were actually pretty darn good movies. Some are better than others, sure. Yes, there was a bleak pessimism to the movies, but that fits the 1970s era of science fiction films. Overall it was interesting to see this franchise shift and adapt as it went along. Did I get over my childhood trauma? Well not sure about that. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is one hell of a sucker punch even when you know it is coming. But I have to say that I can see why some people (who were probably a bit older than me when they first saw them) love these films as much as they do. Some interesting ideas are explored and some interesting plots unfold. So I think I can look at the titles now without spiraling into an ape induced fugue state. That’s great news for me. Watching movies preserves mental health!

Now it’s time to watch Lost Highway again. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

After Tim Burton crashed and burned with his remake of Planet of the Apes back in 2001, most of us thought the franchise died. Obviously the studio didn’t think so. So we started to see trailers for yet another film about Apes taking over the earth. But wait a second… are they actually starting the story where the later films like Escape from the Planet of the Apes were set? This could be interesting.

Brilliant scientist Will Rodman (James Franco… stop laughing!) is attempting to create a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. His father Charles (John Lithgow) is afflicted and is getting worse, so Will starts experimenting a bit wildly on chimpanzees. Things end up going wrong, and he ends up on the outs from his company. But he does manage a breakthrough with a chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis).

Caesar begins learning at an amazing rate, obtaining more cognition as well as human traits. The drug seems to work on Charles too, reversing the affects of the disease. Everything is going so well, so we know it can’t stay that way. Sure enough Caesar gets in trouble and is forced into a facility for primates. He is treated brutally by the John Landon (Brian Cox) and his son Dodge (Tom Felton). Meanwhile Charlie relapses and Will decides to alter the experiment, giving his cure virus-like qualities. These events set in motion the fate of the world, as Caesar takes a stand and we witness the Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Good Points:
  • Amazing visual effects bring the apes and especially Caesar to life
  • Creates an interesting premise to lead us to a planet ruled by apes
  • The build up to the great ape escape is filled with tension

Bad Points:
  • James Franco is a super smart scientist… are you sure?
  • Uses quotes to wink at the audience a few too many times
  • Those looking for wall-to-wall ape action will be disappointed

An admirable reboot (or is it?) to the Planet of the Apes franchise. The combination of Andy Serkis and amazing visual effects allows us to connect with Caesar and his story. The film builds on itself until the tense finale where things can go very badly. As the wheels are set in motion for a sequel, you’ll find yourself eager to see where they take this story.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

A lot was made of the fact that no one could predict Guardians of the Galaxy being one of the biggest summer hits of 2014. But in a way I’m not too surprised. It is a real throw back to the fun and visually dynamic movies of the 1980s and 1990s. Lots of people have compared it to the original Star Wars trilogy. To folks of my generation that is a real ringing endorsement, but one that can be tough to follow. Does this film actually meet that criteria?

When Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was a young boy, he was abducted from his home by aliens. Since then he has grown up as a space fairing rogue calling himself Star Lord, blasting his 1970s mix tape, picking up more alien chicks then Captain Kirk and getting into lots and lots of trouble. When he obtains a mysterious orb during a treasure hunt, it puts him square in the sights of the religious overlord Ronan (Lee Pace). A series of misadventures puts Peter into a galactic prison, where he meets some new and exciting friends.

First there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana) an assassin who may or may not be trying to kill Peter. There’s the incredibly strong but incredibly literal Drax (Dave Bautista) who has a major grudge against Ronan. Then you have Groot (Vin Diesel) a sentient tree that can fight as well as an Ent. Wrapping up the team is Rocket (Bradley Cooper) a super intelligent raccoon with a pentient for shooting huge guns and blowing things up. This unlikely group is going to have to do some major team building to become the Guardians of the Galaxy and stop Ronan.

Good Points:
  • Plenty of action and amazing visuals from the very start
  • Fun characters and crazy alien designs abound
  • The perfect selection of 1970s pop songs
Bad Points:
  • If you have a low tolerance for snarky one-liners, then avoid this movie
  • Struggles a bit with the origin story blues
  • Seems a bit too self aware at times
If you are looking for the perfect blend of sci-fi adventure and summer movie madness, then you don’t need to look much further. Packed with fun characters, exciting action, witty banter and more than a few pop culture one-liners, this movie is a blast from beginning to end. If you are a fan of the Star Wars films or anime like Outlaw Star, I think you’ll find this to be one heck of a ride.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 5
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, August 29, 2014

parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) - MST3K Review

Richard (Tim Donnelly) is living the good live in a utopian society. He spends his days participating in good-natured exercise, learning about the mythical land of America and hanging out with his friends. But for all the fun and games, Richard feels like life is missing something. When he meets the lovely Lena (Paulette Breen) she feels the same way. The two begin to notice this little society has some odd elements. The guards seem to talk to no one. People disappear without a trace. Even the wise Dr. Jameson (Dick Sargent) appears to be lying to them.

When Richard does some sneaking around he discovers that the facility they all live in is called Clonus, and that he is a clone of a man named Richard Knight. Richard doesn’t quite understand everything he finds, but it is enough to get him in trouble. Soon he is on the run from Clonus security. Richard escapes the facility and makes it to the big city, but he finds the world completely alien. Can an old reporter Jake Noble (Keenan Wynn) lead Richard to find his original? Or will Clonus and all it’s powerful backers make sure the secret remains buried? Peter Graves rounds out the cast in this paranoid sci-fi thriller.

Movie Review:
"You're swell." "I like how keen you are."
So lets get the obvious out of the way. If the plot to Parts: The Clonus Horror (which I’ll just call Clonus from now on) sounds familiar, that’s because the main story elements were essentially borrowed for the Michael Bay film The Island. It caused a bit of a legal issue that got settled out of court. The two the movies are really similar, with the biggest difference being the budget.

Most of the film is comprised of location shooting around Southern California. The facility for Clonus was filmed at two colleges with some interesting architecture. It looks not quite futuristic, but is certainly a vast contrast the scenes in downtown Los Angeles and in the suburban neighborhood we see in the second half of the film.

The clones all wear variants on the same clothing, essentially shorts and a polo shirt. The guards are dressed in tracksuits with baseball caps. Then you have the doctors in their traditional lab coats. It gives everything a kind of bland conformity that fits the utopian opening of Clonus and contrasts to the late 70s fashions we see in the “real” world later.

Oh Darren, does Sam know what you're up to with Dr.
Mario over here?
While the movie is a science fiction movie, it goes light on the special effects. This is much more of an X-files variety of sci-fi, conspiracies and paranoia. We don’t see the cloning in action, because these clones are grown over a long period of time. We do get to see the preservation process for the clones, as they replace the blood of one clone with green fluid and freeze the poor guy.

The sound effects are pretty standard for this type of film. The score is mostly electronic, with some interesting vocal effects for the more sinister moments. For the low budget it works pretty well.

Clonus does feature some big names in the cast and they do most of the heavy lifting in the film. Peter Graves has a small but crucial role as Senator Jeff Knight. He is very much aware of the Clonus project. When his brother Richard (David Hooks) confronts him with evidence in the form of the clone Richard, Jeff convinces his brother of the need for the facility and the clones. How else are the chosen few supposed to get perfect organs for transplanting in their old age. Graves does the smooth talking Senator role very well, and has some good interplay with Hooks. You believe the two are brothers.

They argue a lot, but the sex is great.
Keenan Wynn as the craggy reporter and Lurene Tuttle as his wife Anna inject some humor into the grim film. They playfully bicker the entire time they are on screen together. This banter also gives us some background on the characters and gives something new for our clone hero to watch and be confused by.

Dick Sargent plays the deceptive Dr. Jameson. He’s obviously in this for the pure science aspect and doesn’t consider the clones to be humans, but treats them as experiments. He does most of his interacting with Dr. Nelson (Zale Kessler), but has a few good scenes with clone Richard.

For the most part, Clonus follows clone Richard on his quest to learn about his isolated world and then to survive the pursuit into the outside world. It isn’t an easy part, because he has to balance a child like naïveté with curiosity and fear. Unlike many of the other clones, he isn’t drugged, or lobotomized, but his education is severely limited. So while he appears to be a bit dense at times it makes sense for the character. Donnelly does a good job with this tough role, although he does seem to go a bit overboard at times, it is hard to judge how a child-like mind in a full grown man’s body would react in these situations.

"Architecture by the Sydney Opera House."
Most of the clones face this challenge in the acting department. Some play this child like simplicity a little too broad coming across as stupid or slow. I don’t want to judge to harshly because it is difficult to conceive how someone would act if they were raised in such a limited environment.

As far as the direction and story construction, Clonus actually works really well. It has decent pacing, and sets up some solid thrills and tension. Because Richard has no clue about our world (or his world for that matter) he makes for a good protagonist. The odds are obviously against him, but we keep hoping that he can escape his horror before it is too late. But this movie was made in the 1970s and that pretty much guarantees that it will all end badly with the government and Clonus winning out. I also love how all the big backers we see are old white men. I’d be curious to see what the women who invested in Clonus are like.

They just started to watch  Manos: The Hand of Fate.
I get the feeling that this movie had been released before 1977 it would be better remembered. But Star Wars came along and changed everything. From that moment on, sci-fi meant space opera and space adventures. Movies dealing with sci-fi concepts in our real world were just not as appealing to audiences.

Yes, Clonus has budget limitations. Sometimes the acting isn’t that great. Sometimes the dialogue is hard to make out because of poor sound work. Sometimes the seams show just a little to clearly. But the movie works as well as you could hope. No it isn’t Logan’s Run, and some elements certainly seem inspired by THX-1138, but the final result is a solid sci-fi thriller that aims high, but ends up a little short. That doesn’t mean that Mike and bots didn’t have much to work with, because there are plenty of odd moments that make Clonus a great target for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

Episode Review:

"If I'm elected, Biography for everybody!"
I’ll admit that Parts: The Clonus Horror is a favorite around our house. Not only because it is a really funny riffing session, and a solid movie on top of it. No, we really love this episode because the two colleges that serve as the  Clonus facility are the two colleges my wife and I attended. The first time we saw this episode when it aired in 1998, we were stunned. It couldn’t be, but there they were: both college campuses, shown through a funky 70s filter. It was odd to see what changed and what remained exactly the same nearly twenty years later. I admit we spent most of the film attempting to figure out where they filmed the keys scenes. Because of that little bit of trivia, I freely admit a  bit of bias toward this episode.

Mike and bots have a lot of fun with Clonus, even if I think they end up coming down a little too hard on it. For me, this is similar to the way they ended up approaching TimeChasers, Overdrawn at the MemoryBank or even Soul Taker. All of these are good solid movies with low budgets. The stories make sense, are paced well and provide some entertainment. They are certainly superior to films like Werewolf, Hobgoblins and Horrors ofSpider Island. But the crew treated these films all about the same, which I never thought was fair.

"She really was on top of old smokey."
So you get some pretty harsh slams on Clonus. They go to town on how unattractive our lead character is. They claim the movie makes no sense (something I never understood, because I always thought it was very clear).  They continually say how bad the movie is, and well, I just don’t buy it. I suppose when you have a basis for comparison that includes something like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed up Zombies, well something like Clonus is fine art.

So if you ignore the pretty harsh attacks on the film (a syndrome of the Sci-fi channel years), you get some really fun riffing. The clones make for some of the best jokes in the first half. The happy go lucky community, with the constant smiles and shirtless wrestling opens up lots of riffing opportunities. As Richard and his pal participate in a topless pushup competition (surrounded by clone onlookers) Tom declares it “The longtime companion Olympics.” Later we see two clones wrestling (again without shirts) and Mike advices, “Gentlemen you are doing this on your own, this is not sanctioned.”

Clone Richard is perpetually confused by everything.
The clones are told that at some point they will go to America, and live a life of pure joy. Of course the clones that do end up “going to America” are spirited away to be preserved and stored. But the doctors and clones constantly use the phrase, “Going to America” to which Tom will belt out in his best Niel Diamond “TODAY!” Crow is offended by the films message that “we kill and bag people in America”.

Richard’s nearly constant confusion provides a ton of riffing opportunities. When he finds a can of Old Milwaukee in the river he contemplates it for a long time. Mike references The Gods Must be Crazy when he says, “The little Bushman doesn’t know what to make the can.” When clone Richard goes to a “confessional” to ask about the can, he enters what looks like a phone booth and puts on headphones. Crow declares him “Charles Van Dorkin”, and if you saw the film Quiz Show that line will crack you up. Later Richard is snooping around the facility and finds a map with Milwaukee on it. This revelation is punctuated by Mike declaring, “This is the most interest anyone has ever paid to Milwaukee, EVER.”

Peter just got that feeling that someone is watching
him... on Biography!
Peter Graves opens up a whole host of other jokes. I figured they would go for some Mission: Impossible lines, or even callbacks to other episodes featuring Graves in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 catalogue (such as The Beginning of the End or It Conquered the World). But Clonus is best remember by MST3K fans for the running gags based on Graves hosting the television series Biography. This running joke is hit or miss. Sometimes I find the whole thing terribly funny, other times it feels like they just beat it into the ground. They pretty much riff the entire end credits as Peter Graves providing voice over for a Biography episode about various cast and crew involved in Clonus. If this starts to rub you the wrong way, it is a saving grace that Graves isn’t in the movie very long.

You know... for kids.
You’ve got some fun host segments in this episode. Things start off a bit fuzzy, when Mike shows off his new 70s mustache. The bots mock him mercilessly, so he shaves it off. Then they mock his bare lip. Meanwhile Pearl, Brain Guy and Professor Bobo encounter the horror of the Space Children. Not to be confused with the movie of the same name, these little brats remind me more of the super powerful kids from the old Star Trek  episode. They proceed to torment Pearl and her posse. At the first break a game of Candyland causes Brain Guy to cheat! Meanwhile Bobo gets hit in his area by a baseball. At the next beak Candyland has gone horribly wrong, so Pearl begs Mike and bots to recreate an education television program for the kids to watch. Crow and Tom are you puppet hosts and Mike shows off the letter and number of the day. It goes pretty well until the boys switch in a Spanish language version with loud music, horrible outfits and ridiculous camerawork. The space children burst into tears, and Bobo gets hit in his crotch again. When we return to the space children they are asking Pearl and Co about the birds and the bees. It doesn’t go well and Bobo takes one to the junk again (see a pattern here)? After the movie ends, Crow shows off his new nose and Tom shows off his new lullaby, guaranteed to lull children to sleep. It sounds like a polka on crack and that wakes up the space children. Pearl is less then pleased.

For me the riffing on Clonus is a bit stronger in the first half, when clone Richard is interacting with his fellow clones and wandering around the facility. But my bias at seeing my old university back in 1979 might have something to do with it. The Graves Biography riffing kicks into high gear in the second half, so that keeps it from being a top notch episode. Still this episode is one I have no problem recommending.

Richard finally arrives in America... TODAY!

I give it four confused clones out of five.

This episode is available on The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 12.

When Candyland goes horribly wrong.