Friday, May 30, 2014

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) – MST3K Review

Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is a brilliant surgeon who saves lives with his daring and innovative techniques. But this skill comes at a cost. He is obsessed with full limb transplantation, and experiments with cadavers and his hapless assistant Kurt (Anthony La Penna) in his spare time. He is very close to being able to transplant a dead arm to a living body with no nasty side effects. He’s about to show his girlfriend Jan (Verginia Leith) his secret laboratory when the moron goes and crashes his car. Bill is thrown clear, and so is Jan… well her head anyway.

Bill races with Jan’s head back to his hidden lab and using his secret serum he manages to resurrect Jan’s head! Now all he needs is a body. Bill figures it is time for an upgrade so he starts looking for all the smokin’ hot girls he can find, and decide which one he will decapitate and bring back to his lair. In the meantime, Jan is not pleased with her fate. But she discovers that the serum has given her telepathic abilities. She can communicate with one of Bill’s mistakes hidden in a closet. Will Jan cause havoc before Bill can find a body, or will he end up facing his former love: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

Movie Review:
"So he's a scientist you see."
Take your basic mad scientist concept right from Frankenstein, throw in a healthy dose of ogling women’s bodies, and cap it off with a mutated creature ripping a man’s arm off and you’ve got this fine film. But let’s be honest here, anyone who loves black and white drive-in monster flicks has at least seen still images of Jan’s severed head in the pan. This classic horror image has gone on to inspire imagery in films like Reanimator and The Man with Two Brains. Is the concept kind dumb? Sure it is, but it is also a lot of fun.

I’ve actually seen a tamer edit of this film, which moves a bit better in the pacing department. Gone are all the scenes with Bill attempting to pick up sleazy women. Instead it is much leaner and meaner approach. But the crew of Mystery Science Theater went for the longer cut of The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and I have to say it was a wise choice.

Visually the film has some interesting moments. When Bill retrieves Jan’s head, the whole scene is filmed with a frantic hand held approach. Surprising to see in a black and white B film. We also get lots of point of view shots, usually as Bill sizes up his victims. But we get a few shots from Jan’s severed head angle.

"I hate ALL MEN!" Yes, yes, you've said it
three times already.
But there are also a bunch of odd insert shots, usually of Bill staring into space, or looking smug. They seem to be thrown into the film at random, maybe to break up the two shots or something. I’m not sure. But it is very reminiscent of Coleman Francis work in Red Zone Cuba or Skydivers.

Overall the special effects are low budget fun. Jan’s head in the pan is pretty nifty. The make up effects for the mutant, and the bloody violence as Kurt and Bill get attacked are handled pretty well. I was surprised by the amount of gore in the film. Didn’t know we were getting into that much blood letting until the later 60s. On the flip side, the operation that opens the film is pretty laughable, especially the patients vinyl skull.

The sound effects work well enough. But the music in The Brain and Wouldn’t Die is a curiosity. When Bill is cruising for a new body, the score kicks into some saxophone heavy jazz. I’m not sure what they are trying to imply here, but I kept waiting for a 90s Skin-a-max movie to kick in. The music used for the creepy moments is stock stuff. If you’ve seen enough of these movies you’ll probably recognize it. Most of it works fairly well actually.

Kurt does his Johnny Tremain one man show.
The acting tends toward over the top. Evers goes in full mad scientist mode: arrogant, cocky, superior and prone to lines with double meanings. It is the perfect performance for this kind of movie. Right along with him is the La Penna as Kurt the assistant. He gets more and more panicky and loud as the film continues. I love his ranting tirades at Jan as she goads and manipulates him. Kurt is pretty much an idiot (who else would let Bill cut off his hand and replace it with a corpse hand).

In the ladies corner you have Leith as Jan. It must have been a tough shoot for her, and I admire her dedication to this very silly movie. She has to talk in a raspy voice for about 85% of her dialogue. But she has the angry stare down pat. When she declares vengeance on Bill, you believe it. There is also Adele Lamont as Doris Powell. Doris is the unfortunate gal who Bill brings home to be the new body for Jan. Doris has a great body, but an angry boyfriend cut up her face. As a result she hates all men! She declares this on several occasions. Bill manages to convince her that he can help, but of course his help is just chopping off her head and tossing it away. Lamont plays the whole thing very broadly, and it is a bit of as shame since the character is supposed to be one you feel bad for. Most of the time I was just wondering how annoying she could really get.

As for the script… do I really need to discuss it? With a title like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die you pretty much get what you expect. The plot is ridiculous; the dialogue is extremely ripe and filled with great lines. It lacks the clumsiness of Ed Wood’s script work, but gives Bill plenty of dialogue with sinister alternate meanings. In it’s basic form, the script fits the title.

The 1962 model Floozy!
But the execution is where things get dicey. The 70-minute version moves along pretty well. But the 82-minute version fills time with Bill hitting on any floozy he can find. It’s a mixed bag, because these scenes don’t have much tension to them, but they also feature some of the funniest dialogue. When it comes to scares, the movie also doesn’t quite click. Jan’s severed head isn’t very scary at all, but the way the movie is filmed, I think we are supposed to think she is. Director Joseph Green does a better job building up some tension with the mutant in the closet and around Bill’s murderous plot. But the scenes with Kurt and Jan bickering feel like padding. But then again, the dialogue is hilarious and I wouldn’t want to loose that.

Is the movie an effective scare machine? Not really. But The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is a fun monster flick with a lot of riffing potential. It was the perfect first flick for Mike to tackle as the new host of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Episode Review:
Jan in the Pan! Neck juice not included, some
disassembly required.
For fans of MST3K, the shift from Joel to Mike was a game changer. Things have mellowed over the years, but when this happened – man, it was brutal. Some people rejected Mike completely and never gave him a chance. Others immediately loved what he brought to the riffing and declared they were happier now that Joel was gone. Both of these groups are nuts! The show changed, but it gave us a new style of riffing and took things in unexpected and fun directions.

With Joel leaving, the crew at Best Brains decided to give the show a bit of a facelift. First off they had to create new opening credits (since the originals featured Joel in the visuals and in the song). They kept the same tune for the opening credits, but changed the lyrics to reflect Mike’s misadventures as they occurred in the episode Mitchell. These include Mike getting hit on the head with a clown hammer and shot into space. The new opening credits even feature a clip from this episode: The Brain that Wouldn’t Die.

Doris is not buying Mel Blanc's pick up lines.
The other visual change was tunnel sequence used in the series to show Cambot’s journey into the theater. A new tunnel was created and all the little puppets, bubbles and sliding doors were timed for the single shot. This new sequence would be used for the rest of the Comedy Central years of the series.

This was actually a great selection of movie for a transition episode. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die falls in the familiar territory for the writers. It’s black and white, a monster movie, it’s got a goofy mad scientist, silly music and ridiculous dialogue. Let’s keep in mind that Mike had been head writer for years, and had performed in front of the camera numerous times playing characters like Gamera, The Amazing Colossal Man and of course Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate. The big difference here is that Mike would be taking a center stage role. And he handles himself well.

"The road is attacking me!!!!"
The movie offers several sequences of visual fuel for the fire. One of my favorites is during the drive Bill and Jan take to the “country place”. A random bit of ADR declares “I have to hurry!” I’m assuming it is Bill, but it is really hard to tell, and is unrelated to the rest of the dialogue that you can’t help but laugh. The boys join in and then start commenting on editing of the car racing down the road, the assortment of street signs, and close ups of Bill’s face. Tom gets off some great timing lines with the signs “Stop? What stop? Curve? What curve?” Use these lines during your own road trip and see how your passengers react. When the crash occurs and Bill discovers Jan’s body, Mike says, “Oh no, honey roasted!” Bill then scoops up Jan’s head, wraps it in his coat and runs off with it, clutched under his arm. He looks like he’s going for a touchdown, and Mike can’t help but yell, “He’s at the forty, the thirty, no one can stop him!”

Of course with the title The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, things really get cooking when Jan’s head is placed in her pan with neck juice (Mike and Bots words, not mine), and she comes back to life. They dub her “Jan in the Pan” and they get a big kick out of her constant lamenting her fate. When Bill reveals Jan to his assistant Kurt, he says, “What you see is real.” Mike adds, “What you smell is unfortunate.” Later, when Jan and Kurt are verbally sparring, and Kurt is losing badly Tom imitates his bluster with a “Shut up you stupid little pan woman!” When Jan bemoans “Why did he let me die?” for the millionth time, Crow bursts out, “You still on about that? Well we got problems too lady!”

Awww, it's true love.
Meanwhile Bill is on the prowl for a sexy body, and the slimy saxophone music is in high gear. Tom declares that Bill must have his radio tuned to “K-PORN, sleezy slutty music all day long”. When Bill heads off to a bathing suit competition Mike and bots riff on just about everyone on stage. Bill then heads off to, what I think is supposed to be burlesque club, but it seems so small and cramped, it makes the club in The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies look like the Smithsonian. The dancer is doing her thing, and Mike and bots figure she is actually presenting the menu using interpretive dance, “This dance represents that there are no baked potatoes after five.”

The finale, in which Bill brings Jan her new body and Jan unleashes her final retribution features wall to wall riffing fun. As Doris is laying under a sheet, and her prominent chest is jutting forth, Mike asks as Bill “But honey, can you say no to these?” Her answer is to bring forth a monster that Crow declares “looks like Boo Radley!” The creature manages to grab Bill through a tiny hole in a door (don’t ask, just watch the movie. It actually makes some sense). The boys offer helpful hints to the monster, “You know just pull the door away and beat him to death with it.” At this point, Bill is no longer our wacky protagonist, but a grade A jerk. As the film ends with everyone trapped in a burning laboratory, we hear Jan laughing. Mike says, “Oh, it was a comedy!” Well Mike and the bots certainly made it funny.

Mike an the bots are proud of their hats for
Jan in the Pan
The host segments for The Brain that Wouldn’t Die are pretty good. Most of them deal with Mike attempting to adjust to his new surroundings. Things start off with Mike being trained by the bots. Tom: “Mark Singer walks out in a loin cloth, what do you say?” Mike: “Now I know why the show was called V.” For the invention exchange the Mad scientists have a device that can pop a kid’s balloons from a distance. Frank bursts into tears when his balloons pop. Mike shows off his umbrella with a gutter system attached, so your feet don’t get wet. At the first break, Mike tries to obtain control of the Satellite of Love from panels in the floor. All he ends up doing is squirting cheese everywhere. At least, he thinks its cheese. When they come back for the next break Mike and bots have created various hats for Jan. I love the lazy Susan hat that makes her the centerpiece at any party. When we come back, Mike and bots are discussing trust. It ends up with Mike sharing an embarrassing story, and the bots proceeding to ridicule him. After the movie ends, Jan in the Pan visits the satellite (courtesy of Mary Jo Pehl), and Mike ends up insulting her. Dr. Forrester decides to try to remove Frank’s head and keep it alive in a pan. Quoth Frank, “Here we go again!”

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is a fun episode. The riffing is solid, the movie is ridiculously watchable and it makes for a great transition episode for the hosts. In the scheme of things, it sits in the middle of Season Five, but it is well worth seeking out.

I give it three heads in pans out of five.

Even Jan has to smile at this episode.

This episode is available on the single DVD from Rhino, but was also included on a disc with Mitchell in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 25th Anniversary Edition boxset.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

The early 00s had Disney re-examining their approach to animation. Their films weren’t the huge hits they experienced in the 90s. Other studios were stepping up their game, mimicking the Disney formula to compete with the animation juggernaut. In addition anime was making inroads with viewers, as Pokemon became a huge hit. Disney decided to switch gears and make an action adventure animated film without any catchy songs, and with a story inspired by Jules Verne instead of the brothers Grimm.

Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is convinced that he can find the lost continent of Atlantis; all he needs is some funding, and someone to believe in his little quest. Well both come his way in the form of wealthy benefactor who needs Milo’s brains to guide his team to the lost world. So Milo joins the mercenary Commander Rourke (James Garner), his femme fatale second in command Helga (Claudia Christian) and a whole host of oddballs and misfits.

After a treacherous submarine journey, followed by a trek through the earth’s crust they find the Atlantis, still around and supporting a civilization. The King Nedakh (Leonard Nimoy) is dying, but that doesn’t keep him from trying to protect his people from outsiders. His daughter Kida (Cree Summer) takes an interest in Milo and his world. But Rouke has other plans for Atlantis and its mysterious power source. If he can bring it back to the surface, he and his crew would be wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Of course doing that will destroy the kingdom and it’s people. Now Milo must decide if he wants to return home a wealthy man or fight to save Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Good Points:
  • Some wonderful stylized and creative animation
  • Captures the vibe of classic adventures stories
  • A fine score by James Newton Howard

Bad Points:
  • Some of the comic relief characters are too ridiculous
  • No catchy musical numbers or super cute characters
  • Is more violent and intense than typical Disney fare

Disney executes a fine animated experiment. This is a heck of an adventure movie, with likable characters, amazing visuals and a large scope that Disney had not tackled before. Unfortunately some of positive elements get tainted by overly comic characters like “The Mole”. But the turn of the century design, the intense action scenes and wonderful momentum make this one worth checking out.

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

In Depth Review

This film has a visual scope not seen in most
Disney animated features of the era.

No matter how you feel about Walt Disney’s animation, it is impossible to deny the amazing longevity and legacy of that started in the 1920s. Not too many entertainment (and animation) studios can boast this. I think part of the reason for that longevity is the Disney animation attempting to go in new directions and adapt to changing tastes in entertainment. Obviously Disney himself was a master of innovation and getting the right people together for projects. But the animation studios have weathered some big storms.

By the late 1990s Disney animation had over-tapped their formula. Broadway style musicals with cute animal sidekicks and happily ever after endings were causing audiences to shrug their shoulders at each new animated offering. The studio knew they had to go in a new direction, but seemed uncertain how to proceed. In the end they picked a direction very similar to the one they attempted back in 1985 with The Black Cauldron. They would attempt a non-musical adventure story. Instead of attempting to adapt a well-known and loved fantasy series, they’d use Jules Verne as inspiration. The result is Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Milo marvels at the production design.
The first thing that strikes most viewers is the visual imagination on display. The design of the submarines and other equipment the expedition uses are well thought out and executed. Yes, there is a little bit of an homage to Disney’s design for the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but for the most part this is an unique look that Disney had never attempted before.

In addition there is the visually impressive and creative designs for the culture and technology of Atlantis itself. It appears to be centered on a more South Pacific (Easter Island) style than the ancient Greek style we usually see in when Atlantis is mentioned. Combined with that look is a technology that reminds me a bit of something you’d see in an anime. In fact, one of the films that Atlantis: The Lost Empire shares a lot in common with is Hyao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, another period adventure story with some wonderful flying action scenes.

Helga isn't bad, she's just drawn that way.
Finally you have the character design that also looks backwards in the Disney cannon. It reminded me strongly of The Sword in the Stone or 101 Dalmatians. But a fellow blogger pointed out that it also appears to be inspired by Hellboy and artist Mike Mignola’s style. This is probably because he was part of the production design. This is a fresh look, much different from Tarzan or Mulan, the films that preceded this one.

All the Atlantian technology, as well as the mechanical devices the expedition uses required some unique sound design. The did a great job with this, giving Atlantis some amazing sound effects and putting viewers squarely in this lost world. But Atlantis: The Lost Empire was one of the most action packed Disney animations I’ve seen. There’s gunfire, explosions and swooping and diving air machines. The finale battle scene is really immersive, and I remember how impressed I was, when I caught this in theaters.

Because there were no Broadway style musical numbers, the film’s score takes a greater importance. James Newton Howard was brought in to provide this music, and his work here is very impressive. It’s got a big orchestral adventure sound to it, very much like what you’d hear in a live action adventure film from the same era. The score carries the movie extremely well, and works wonders during the scenes without dialogue and the travel montages. A nice end title song works well enough and won’t be confused with something penned by Alan Menkin any time soon (whether that is good or bad is left up to you to decide).

Comic relief overload!
The voice cast for Atlantis: The Lost Empire is really good. Michael J. Fox is recognizable as Milo, but he does a fine job with the role, adding that touch of naïveté that the part requires. When he gets tough by the end of the movie, you feel he’s earned it. Garner seems to be having fun as the gruff and dangerous Commander Rourke. Claudia Christian is smoldering as the femme fatale, and certainly adds to her sexy character design. Nimoy gives the King Nedakh plenty of gravitas and world-weariness to the part. And Cree Summer makes for a solid heroine who will do what she must to save her people.

The supporting cast does a good job too, considering they have such a wide variety of oddball characters to voice. Don Novello as Vinny and Jacqueline Obraors as Audrey are certainly the most likable of the group, and provide some solid laughs with their performances. Jim Varney as Cookie, Corey Buron as “The Mole” and Florence Stanley as Bertha… well your mileage may vary there.

"I'm sorry Milo, but your comic book collection
just doesn't impress me."
That brings me to the script. As a straight up adventure move Atlantis: The Lost Empire delivers the goods. All the story beats you expect in this kind of movie, especially one inspired by Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are present. But they are handled with confidence and skill. Milo makes for a unique lead character in the Disney cannon, because he is really a nerd. He loves archeology and research, and is really out of his element with these rough and tumble explorers. But he grows as a character, when Atlantis and Kida start to mean more to him than just an objective. It is a believable character arc, and one that makes us root for him, even in the face of the more mercenary characters.

My biggest issue is the over-reliance on the comic relief characters. First of all, there are too many of them. If the script had kept it down to Vinnie and Audrey, it would have been fine. But tossing in Cookie, Bertha, The Mole and even Sweet (Phil Morris) who doesn’t have much of a character at all, just makes the whole film seem cluttered with extra voices, subplots and cheesy jokes. I found “The Mole” to be particularly annoying and baffling. How was this guy supposed to be funny? I wonder if the screenwriters felt that if they made this too serious they would lose viewers. But I think the thrills and adventures carry the film just fine. All the “laughs” end up diluting the whole thing or worse, stopping the script dead for another “Cookie can’t cook” joke.

One of many amazing action sequences.
There is also another elephant in the room when it comes to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I already mentioned the visual links to Castle in the Sky. There is an anime television series from the early 90s called Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water that shares some of the same plot points and visuals styles with this film. Anime fans were crying foul the minute this move came out. Yes there are similarities between these three. Yes Atlantis feels heavily inspired by anime style of action and editing at times. But that is a good thing. It was a fresh approach that Disney was able to take in and work in their own way. Besides, all three share the same basic DNA with an older style of storytelling – namely Jules Verne and Edger Rice Burroughs. Too call Atlantis a rip off is too harsh. It is inspired by the older works, and takes elements it can use and revamp into it’s own movie. Castle in the Sky and Nadia did the same thing.

The final execution of the film is impressive. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise keep the whole movie moving forward briskly. Even the stumbles around the comic relief end up being just blips on the journey. Action scenes are handled extremely well, with everything being very clear and yet with a frantic intensity that isn’t often seen in Disney animation. They also work some moments of wonder and awe into the film, to really give the culture of Atlantis some time to shine. Like Milo, we see this as more then a treasure hunt at the end.

Milo and Kida alone in a lost world.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a rip-roaring adventure film. It provides some amazing visuals, intense action and a wonderful film score to support what you see on the screen. As far as Disney’s experiments in animation go, this was a resounding success, much better than the clunky and half-baked Black Cauldron. It is a shame that the film wasn’t more popular with audiences and critics. It is also a shame that Disney over-corrected their approach to the adventure film with Treasure Planet, which adds even worse comic relief and has some really bizarre tone problems. Disney animation would end up collapsing on itself. It wouldn’t be until Pixar’s John Lasseter would come on board that things would be corrected. Still Atlantis stands as a worthy achievement during a challenging time in the studio’s history. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Goldeneye (1995)

The 80s closed with Licence to Kill and Timothy Dalton. It was a dark movie that left many viewers feeling that the James Bond franchise turned a corner away from the tried and true James Bond formula. But hope was on the horizon. In the mid 90s UA announced a new Bond film and a new actor in the role: Pierce Brosnan. For many hopes were rekindled. Brosnan was a favorite for the role before Dalton took over. Would Brosnan prove that he was right man for the job?

British secret agent, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is keeping a close eye on the Tiger helicopter, a vehicle impervious to electromagnetic attacks. He encounters the sexy Xenia Onatopp (Famke Jannsen), and manages to flirt with her quite a bit. But before he can do much more the helicopter is stolen. A few days later the helicopter is used to steal a secret Russian weapon, code named Goldeneye. This satellite based weapon can target a city and destroy all the electronic devices in a matter of seconds. 

With such a dangerous weapon in unknown hands, M (Judy Dench) orders Bond to track down the Goldeneye, and stop whoever took it. His search take him into Russia where he meets lovely computer analyst Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), Valentin Zukovsky(Robbie Coltrane) and the mysterious Janus (Sean Bean). Bond will have to use all his wits, skills, gadgets (and tank driving abilities) to stop the villainous mastermind from using Goldeneye.

Good Points
  • Pierce Brosnan embodies all the qualities viewers look for in a James Bond.
  • Brings humor and a lightness back to the Bond franchise.
  • The script brings Bond into the 90’s but keeps to the familiar Bond formula.
Bad Points
  • The story has a lot of set up and the first hour feels slow
  • Not as much action as later Brosnan era films
  • Eric Serra’s score rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
When it comes to first films for a Bond actor, Goldeneye is one of the best. Brosnan nails the part, and is given a solid and entertaining adventure. The movie reestablishes the tried and true 007 formula and gives it a fresh coat of paint. A fine supporting cast and one of the best chase scenes in the entire franchise make this the most entertaining film of Brosnan's tenure. 

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Music: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Final Grade: 5

In Depth Review
Bond. James Bond. - 1995
It is no secret that I’m a fan Timothy Dalton as James Bond. I don't think folks gave him a fair shot, and the scripts to his two films could have been a bit better all the way around. These days, public opinion seems to be a lot kinder to Dalton and his work as 007. But in the 90s, that was not the case at all. Most people I knew thought he was too stuffy, too serious and his films were just not James Bond adventures. Where were the megalomaniacal villains, the crazy gadgets, the multitude of quips. Coming after Roger Moore, Dalton's take was just too different. Whenever people talked about another Bond film, it was usually followed by, "but get someone else other than Dalton". I think they all really wanted Pierce Brosnan.

A lot of people felt Brosnan got snubbed by not getting the role back in 1987. When Goldeneye was announced Brosnan was ready to take the role.  The script for Goldeneye had been percolating for a while now (originally penned with Dalton in mind) and was reworked to fit Brosnan’s style. But what style would he bring to series? Would he follow Dalton’s lead and attempt to create a more nuanced Bond. Or would he follow in Moore’s footsteps and bring humor and lightness back to the series?
"Half of everything is luck." "And the other half?"

The creative team behind Goldeneye had two goals with this movie. The first was to assure the audience that this was a James Bond movie. All the classic elements first pioneered in Dr. No and perfected in Goldfinger were going to be on the screen. The second element was to show that the world around Bond has changed. The creators acknowledged that with a script that deals firmly with a post Cold War world. During the 1980s as Bond waned in popularity critics asked if James Bond could be relevant in a world that passed him and his 1960s origins by. The answer was captured in one of the tag-lines for the film: "The world has changed, he hasn't." 

One of the best ways to capture the classic Bond feel is to provide plenty of globe trotting settings for bond to explore. Keeping in line with the more realistic look of films like For Your Eyes Only  and The Living Daylights, much of the location shooting grounds the film. Shooting took place in Monte Carlo, Puerto Rico (doubling for Cuba) and St. Petersburg for the exterior scenes in Russia. These Russian scenes are some of my favorite in the film, and whenever I think about Goldeneye, that grey overcast sky always pops into my mind. 

Looks like James saw him in "Mitchell"
Most of the sets and interiors have that flashy James Bond version of reality. The most impressive sets being the two Goldeneye bases. These have an almost Ken Adam (the designer of classic Bond flicks like Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me) inspired look to them. The one in Cuba is all glass, railings, metal and view screens. Very cool looking, but not very functional (why are there random drums of gasoline inside the base near the computers?).

Goldeneye  was probably the last of the James Bond films to be made in the pre-digital effects era. Most of what you see here is model work, blue screen and actual stunt work. Taking a page from John Glen’s direction (he filmed all the Bond adventures in the 80’s) all the action is done for real, unless there was particular danger to the cast or stuntmen. For example the bungee jump off the dam in the pre-credit sequence is done for real. However Bond’s freefall to the plummeting plane was done in blue screen (and is obvious with its mat lines and physics breaking maneuvers). Still the overall good outweighs the bad in the visual department.

Hanging out with Xenia is the real gamble.
For the sound effects, Bond films have always been excellent. Gunshots and explosions are top notch. Fight scenes without guns are also handled well; my favorite being the final vicious hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Trevelyan. It sounds painful as both men throw each other at walls, slam chains into each other and do their best to smash the other fella's face in. It’s a great scene made better by the sound. Atmospheric sounds, like in the casino, also work well to set mood and scene.

I also have to mention the opening credits. 14 James Bond movies featured opening credits designed and shot by Maurice Binder. His iconic work on Dr. NoThunderball and You Only Live Twice created the look of what James Bond opening titles should look like. These mini music videos managed to give you a taste of the movie while being visual exciting at the same time. His work inspired so many other artists, not just other folks who create opening titles. Heck, his influence even spread to anime. Check out the opening credits to Gunsmith Cats or Cowboy Bebop to see Binder's influence.

The goldeneye watches us watching the action.
Binder died in 1991, and so the creators of Goldeneye had to find someone else to handle the opening credits. Daniel Kleinman came on board and has worked on all the opening credits ever since (with the exception of Quantum of Solace). Kleinman took Binder's style, but modernized it. His work on Goldeneye is my favorite, with it's smashing statues, women with two faces (a reference to Janus) and of course, a golden eye.

Often considered one of the worst Bond scores, and even one of the worst movie scores of all time, Goldeneye took a real chance. Eric Serra was not an unknown composer. His work could be found in the films of French Director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, la Femme Nikita). At the time Serra focused on electronic scoring, with a minimalist technique. There is a lot of rhythmic sound design in his score, especially for the action and suspense scenes. There is not a drop of jazzy to be found in those cues. It is literally the opposite of what John Barry used when he scored all the early James Bond films. 

Yes, Bond is still smooth with the ladies.
However Serra also creates some wonderful romantic scoring especially when Bond interacts with the ladies. This music would actually fit right into a typical Bond score. Sadly most film score fans don't focus on that good material. The result is a score that James Bond fans and film score fans both really dislike. I actually think it gives the film it's own personality and works fairly well in the film. David Arnold would do a better job of bridging the gap with the jazzy sound and electronica. But I don't think Goldeneye is the colossal failure that some James Bond fans will declare. 

The main song Goldeneye sung by Tina Turner is excellent. It’s one of my favorite Bond themes, and really harkens back to the Shirley Bassy sound but updated for the 90’s. It’s a real shame that Serra didn’t use the music of this theme in his score. It might have helped it. However, the main theme was not written by Serra, but by Bono and The Edge (of U2 fame). The tune that Serra did write, The Experience of Loving is worked into the score and functions as the love theme. Without lyrics it works pretty well. But then we are treated to Mr. Serra singing the song himself during the end credits. This is not a good thing. It brings down the music grade by a whole point. Bad Serra.

Ah, Moneypenny. Still bantering with Bond.
In some ways we all knew how Brosnan would play Bond. Anyone familiar with his role in Remington Steele had an idea of what to expect. In a lot of ways, his take on James Bond is an extension of that role, but with a dark side. He's suave and cool. He's quick with a quip and manages to see humor in unlikely situations. But when he talks about his job, you can see that he doesn't take pleasure in killing. Saving the world, getting the girls is all well and good. But the blood does seem to haunt him a bit. It is something Brosnan developed further in the later films, especially The World is Not Enough.  The final result is a James Bond for everyone. And unlike Dalton, Brosnan seems approachable and fun, much closer to Moore's take on the character.

There is a bit of holding back in Brosnan’s performance, and it’s not immediately recognizable until you see the later Bond films. Goldeneye showed off the potential of Brosnan’s Bond. It opened the doors to what we’d see later. While I think that Dalton and Craig topped him in their first outing (they start the movie and you believe that they are James Bond), Brosnan is very good here and he’d only get better.

"I'm not listening. I saw how you treated Frodo."
The new Bond girl is Izabella Scorupco as Natalya Simonova. Scorupco gets a pretty juicy part to play in this film. She’s not super tough, but she’s no push over either. She’s out to save herself and Bond is her best bet to keeping her alive. Sure she’s attracted to him, but you also get the sense (especially early in the movie) that Scorupco’s character wouldn’t take anything lying down. She’s definitely a step forward from the more passive Bond girls, and still a believable character (something that has marred the tougher girls pared with Brosnan in the later films).

As far as villains go 006 or Trevelyan is one of my favorites. Sean Bean is very skilled at playing a hero, villain or flawed hero. He was excellent as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. But it was his role in Goldeneye that made me a fan. His work in the pre-credit sequence does it all. He has camaraderie with James, one that comes from working together. He also has a strange darkness to him, a brutality that James seems to be missing. He kills unarmed scientists. He doesn’t flinch while mowing down Russian soldiers, or when he’s captured and telling James to “blow them all to hell”. Right here we know all about 006, and when he is revealed as the villain later in the film, we know this is going to be tough. It doesn’t hurt that Bean was considered for the role of Bond, and probably would have been great. Here, he takes on the role of the villain perfectly and makes it click.

M is about to give Bond a nice telling off.
Back in London, things have changed… big time. Judy Dench is now M, the head of the British secret service. For some people this was a horrible idea, one that they have never warmed to. I thought it was brilliant. Her performance defines her character; tough, no nonsense, and ready to do what she has to to keep the world safe. Her dialogue is some  of the most memorable. In my mind Dench makes a great M, as good as Bernard Lee in the 60’s and 70’s films. Also new to the London cast is Samantha Bond as Moneypenny. Her character has been revamped: a little more playful and now smolderingly sexy in a bookish way. I have to say that Samantha Bond is my favorite Moneypenny. Her chemistry with Brosnan is tangible and really makes her short scene sizzle. Rounding out the cast is Desmond Llewelyn as Q. He’s still going strong in his delightful scene in the lab.

Bond doesn't mind death my muscular thighs.
Supporting cast for Goldeneye also includes Famke Janssen in her breakout role as Xenia Onatopp. Not since the alluring and deadly Fiona Volpe of Thunderball have we has such a great female villain. She’s over the top, but Famke is having so much fun and steams up the screen so effortlessly it works. She gives one of the more memorable performances in the film. Also worth mentioning is Alan Cummings as Boris, the nerdy, slimy, computer programmer. We also get Robbie Coltrane (pre Hagrid) as Valentin Zukovsky, the Russian crime boss. He has so much charisma in his short scene with Brosnan that he was asked to reprise the role in The World is Not Enough.

There's also Joe Don Baker as CIA agent Jack Wade. His performance has actually grown on me a bit over the years. He's no Felix Leiter, but that's the point. He's the ugly American stereotype, but it makes for a fun change of pace. I like him more in this role than I did as the villain of  The Living Daylights.

The noire lighting of the final confrontation.
For the most part Goldeneye has a solid script. You can tell it was written for Dalton, with the concept of betrayal that drives 007 against 006. But the theme carries over into the rest of the film. Trevelyn is driven by the betrayal of the British government that caused his parents demise. On a larger scale, the world has betrayed both of these secret agents. All the training, the deaths they've caused, the risks they've taken - it was all for nothing. The cold war ended, and both men are struggling to determine their futures.  For 006 it is very much a betrayal, but 007 does his best to carry on. Throughout the film Bond is reminded that he is outmoded, old fashioned and as M so succinctly says, "...a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war." But Bond proves his worth time and again. His gut instincts, ability to think on his feet, and knowledge of 006 are what keeps the world safe this time. This same concept and many of the same plot points were borrowed for Daniel Craig's film Skyfall.

Bond emerging from the shadows.
In direct contrast to the Dalton films, and especially License to Kill, the writers take great pains to establish the world of James Bond. They want to reassure the audience that this is the same character they used to love. They also need to set up the relationship with 006, the concept of the Goldeneye weapon (in 1995 an EMP weapon was not familiar to most viewers), and drop enough the plot to get things rolling. All these elements make for a slower paced first hour to the film. In fact, most of the complaints I see about the film center around the fact that it it is light on the action set pieces. 

But Martin Campbell’s direction works so well that it pulls us along for the ride. He handles the exposition heavy first half with skill, its still slow, but is entertaining. He takes time introducing the main players and reassuring the audience that James Bond and his world are back. It’s good stuff the first time you see the film, but when you revisit the movie  it does drag a bit. 

Why drive around buildings when you can go
through them?
Campbell knows his way around an action scene, and when Goldeneye delivers the car chases, gun fights and fisticuffs it all works. He does a fine job with the tension of the pre-credit sequence. The final face off between Bond and Travelyn is brutal and the lighting and shadows in the scene give it a noire look. But the scene everyone remembers is the tank chase in St. Petersburg. .Everything clicks in this scene, it is exciting, ridiculous and funny all at the same time. Campbell makes sure all the action is easy to follow and appreciate something he did very well when he helmed Casino Royale

Bond picks the tank over the BMW, this time.
James Bond was back. Audiences and critics really enjoyed Goldeneye and accepted Brosnan immediately as the new James Bond. The movie had something for everyone, it was entertaining, thrilling, fun and brought the franchise roaring back to life. I wrote a whole blog about how this film brought on it's own little mini-spy mania in the 1990s. It was a great way to start a new era for the series. It's a little sad to look back and realize that this first outing for Brosnan would be his best one. 

Yep, this is my favorite film of the Brosnan era, and one of my favorite Bond adventures of all time. So much of it works so well, and I enjoy it every time I watch it. Even flawed moments like the end credits song, or the first half that drags don't hurt the overall film too much. And yeah, there is a lot of nostalgia for me associated with this film. But the movie holds up each time I watch it, and that does count for something. 

"How long is this review!?!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Movie Music Musings: The Matrix Trilogy Part 3

Composer Don Davis was told to make the music for Matrix Revolutions bigger than anything he had done before. Davis took this to heart and steered his final score for the trilogy toward an operatic epic scale. The highlights of this score are enormous choral delights, and the action music goes for an overwhelming sound as opposed to the more dense and intricate work of the first film.

The techno influence is also downplayed from its role in Reloaded. Juno Reactor did contribute to three tracks of the score, but this primarily Davis’ show. Much like his original score to The Matrix Davis does use some electronics, but he keeps them in the background, adding to scenes, primarily with Agent Smith and his burbling electronic signature.

While the Matrix motif is heard in the score, it is less prominent here, with most of the big action set pieces of the middle of the score using lots of percussion to blaze away at your ears. It is all very dense stuff, but the scale is much bigger and open than the previous scores. It approaches Lord of the Rings levels of grandeur in places.

The other key piece of Matrix Revelations is a final tragic statement of Neo and Trinity’s love in the track Trinity Definitely (a play on the first track of The Matrix called Trinity Infinity). This cue gives us the best statement of this love theme, but Davis tinges it with sadness, one of the few times in the series where this type of emotion is delved musically.

The real reason to seek out this score is for the music Davis crafted for the final third of the film. Here Neo faces Agent Smith one last time, and these tracks are right up there with John Williams Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in the ability to capture an apocalyptic battle of titans. The highlight cue of Matrix Revolutions is Neodammerung a battle cue using Davis trademark matrix style, choir chanting in Sanskrit and pure bombast. Everything comes together in this massive piece and it is a real treat.

Davis then heads into the finale allowing the music to reach a triumphant and melodic conclusion. It is satisfying to hear this after nearly three albums of dissonance and conflict. The final moments of For Neo are a wonderful end to the series.

But Juno Reactor steps in one last time to combine with Davis for the end title track Navras. It is a propulsive and dance worthy reimaging of Neodammerung with clearer statements for the choir and a ton of power behind it. The Matrix Revolutions ends on this high note.

Score fans were treated to a solid album release with the film with a generous CD clocking in at nearly 64 minutes of music. Some of the most aggressive and bombastic Battle of Zion music is missing, but all the key tracks are there. La-La Land delivered a complete version of the score in 2014. It gives a fleshed out vision of the score, as well as some exciting alternate takes that highlight Davis’ amazing orchestral work.

Don Davis’ accomplished work on The Matrix trilogy is something that needs to be revisited by film music fans, and film fans in general. He introduced a new language to film music, and collaborated to create an amazing and effective fusion of electronic dance music styles with orchestra. These scores are unique in their own way, and yet build on one another and create a sonic world and story that evolves over the course of the films. Even if you aren’t a fan of the movies themselves the music will grab you with its unique approach.

For many film music fans, scores of the modern era are in a bit of a stale stasis, with the Zimmer sound dominating all large budget genre and action films. It’s a shame that Davis’ style didn’t take off, and at least provide an alternate vision of what a film score could do. The music to The Matrix is nearly 15 years old at this point, but it sounds so fresh compared to the big budget scores we hear today. It appears that only in video game music has Don Davis’ work inspired. Check out this track from the game Remember Me, and hear some major influence from The Matrix.