Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Phantom Planet (1961) - MST3K Review

Humans just love hurling themselves into the cosmos, and now that America has  a swell moon base (because it is 1980) humans can journey even further into distant space. But when one of the rockets goes missing, a rescue mission is sent, with Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) at the controls. The journey is dangerous, as asteroids hurtle around the ship and end up causing it some serious damage. Chapman loses his copilot and finds that his rocket is out of control and hurtling toward one of the larger chunks of space rock.

But he does not find a space slug on this asteroid; instead the atmosphere causes him to shrink down to a handy pocket size. There he meets the Lilliputian people of the planet Rheton. They are lead by the wise Sesom (Francis X. Bushman). There is the sultry Liara (Coleen Grey), the pretty but mute Zetha (Dolores Faith) and the angry Herron (Anthony Dexter). All Chapman wants to do is return to earth, but that may not be so easy. You see the evil Solarites are waging a war against the people or Rheton. Chapman is caught in the middle, and he may have no hope of ever escaping The Phantom Planet.

Movie Review:
Frank is the first known Poke-naut!
If you are familiar with the rocket movies of the 1950s then you have a pretty good idea of what The Phantom Planet is like. It’s got the square jawed American hero landing on a strange world, the alien babes immediately fall for him, there’s a jealous alien man who tries to thwart him, the leader is a wise old guy and there’s some kind of crazy monster that does some damage before the hero kicks its butt. All the beats are hit so no real surprises from this movie. But it is the little things that make The Phantom Planet a bit of an oddity.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an astronaut more annoyed to be in outer space than Captain Frank Chapman (even Captain Cameron from Star Trek: Generations seemed more eager to explore the unknown). I’m not sure if it is Fredericks acting or the script or maybe a combination of both, but Chapman just doesn’t see any wonder or awe in space travel. He’s brave, yes, but he’s also kind of a jerk. His first act upon meeting alien life – he attacks it! He is annoyed that the aliens have different rules than the good old U.S. of A! He’s miffed that he isn’t given free reign to wander around the alien world and touch anything he wants. He’s grumpy when two super hot space babes are drooling all over him. And he whines that Rheton isn’t just like Earth. He reminds me of the annoying American tourists who go overseas and complain that the McDonalds doesn’t taste just like the one back home.

For Makonnen it is all about the good and the beautiful. 
What is funny is that his copilot, Ray Makonnen (Richard Weber) actually seems to want to travel in outer space. His little bit of character development shows us that he is looking for “the good and the beautiful” in the universe. If he had survived the first act I’m guessing he wouldn’t have attacked the aliens on sight or been so darn grumpy about first contact with another life form. But too bad for us, Makonnen does deliver his dead-meat speech about wanting to find “the good and the beautiful”. This seals his doom, and while he sacrifices himself to save Frank we sigh and hope he gets sucked into a wormhole and ends up on the planet with the Fire Maidens from Outer Space.

Speaking of maidens, the two ladies of the story do a pretty good job with the roles they are given. Coleen Grey plays the sexy and manipulative Liara very well. Fans of MST3K will recognize her from The Leech Woman. She serves as Franks main source of information about the world of Rheton. She obviously has the hots for him, but mostly because she likes strong men, and Herron just isn’t doing it for her. Not hard to see why since Herron is almost as big a wet blanket as Frank is. Again, I’m not sure if it is the script or the acting, but Dexter doesn’t give the character much life, other than really, really hating Frank.

Liara is the beautiful and Zetha is the good.
The Phantom Planet also gives us the lovely mute Zetha, who spends most of the film pining away for Frank. She can’t talk, but she can sure look crest fallen whenever Liara wanders away with our wooden hero. For some reason, she falls for him the minute she sees him. And for some reason he falls for her (granted Liara is a bit pushy). The writing here is all done for plot convenience, so don’t expect any deep character development in the love story.

Francis X. Bushman is probably best known for his role in the silent production of Ben Hur. He certainly has a bit of gravitas and he brings that to role of the wise elder Sessom. He makes the Martian wise man in Santa Claus Conquersthe Martians look like joke. But I do wonder if his performance inspired the similar character in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. The other big name (although he was unknown at the time he made the film) is Richard Kiel. He’s in a huge goofy costume and he spends most of his screen time trapped in a futuristic jail cell. I kinda feel bad for Kiel, since he is walking around very gingerly. I’m betting he couldn’t see a darn thing in that outfit. Unfortunately his shambling around and careful motions make him far from frightening. The only monster I’ve seen move slower was Tor Johnson in The Beast of YuccaFlats.

Flaming popcorn attacks the extra crispy piece.
The production design is typical of a low budget science fiction film of the era. The rockets are your typical design, lacking the flair of the spaceships seen in The First Spaceship on Venus. I love the asteroids; they look like huge chunks for granola or maybe pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken hurtling through the void. Most of the alien technology in The Phantom Planet is strange looking crystal control panels and the gravity plates, which were probably just plastic or rubber squares put on the set. The flaming spaceships of the Solarites are kinda funny, since they are literally on fire as they swoop through space. The sound effects for their weapons sounds just like old west six shooters. Some of the most creative special effects are used when Frank shrinks down in size. His giant helmet actually becomes one of the sets, and was probably the most expensive element of the production.

But special effects don’t make a film. The story and some of the scientific concepts are what end up scuttling this one. The plot is very predictable, not a bad thing in itself, but our lead is so unlikable. I just want to slap Frank when he starts whining about how Rheton is not like the USA. Well duh! You’re on another planet! Isn’t that why you wanted to be an astronaut in the first place? With this guy being the focus of the film, it’s hard to get too invested in his fate.

Just to keep things honest, Frank admits that not everything
shrank in proportion. 
But then you get the science. A key plot point of the entire film is that Frank shrinks down in size. This keeps him from escaping Rheton, because even if he does escape, how will anyone find his teeny tiny body floating around. And then if he goes back to earth, he’ll be put in the first sideshow NASA can find. At least that is how Frank imagines it. Later Frank learns that his size is actually due to the atmosphere, so if he breathes his oxygen from his own tanks on his space suit, he’ll grow again. Wait, what? As Crow points out, “So humans are just like big old flesh balloons?” I also love how all the spaceships are able to make hard turns in outer space. It is hilarious looking. Then you have the crazy physics of The Phantom Planet itself as it hurtles around willy-nilly through space. How does it retain an atmosphere, or light or anything really?

In the final analysis, The Phantom Planet isn’t a great movie, but it falls right in the middle of other rocket movies of the era. It certainly could compete with 12 to the Moon or Project: Moonbase, but lacks the interest and dynamics of something like Moon Zero Two or even The First Spaceship on Venus. Still there is more than enough for Mike and bots to work with.

Episode Review:
Somewhere under all that is a very young
Richard Kiel.
One of the favorite genres for fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the rocket ship flicks of the 1950s and 1960s. Especially during the Comedy Central years (and during Joel’s run as host in particular), lots of fun riffing accompanied these films. Most were black and white affairs, filled with American white men delving into space. Even Mystery Science Theater: The Movie featured a variant of this when it tackled This Island Earth. So it comes as a bit of surprise that this is the final rocket movie the series tackled.

In fact it had been a while since the crew had watched a film in this genre, so I think they were ready to go. The riffing comes pretty strong and steady throughout the film, and fits the pacing that was typical during the Sci-fi Channel years.

The shoving the bar event will never make
the Olympics.
The one thing that always pops into my head when I think of the riffing to The Phantom Planet is how fixated the guys get on the copilot Makonnen and his monologue on “the good and the beautiful”. The minute he stops and delivers his famous dead meat speech, the boys chuckle and then they start dropping references to it throughout the film. During the scene where the rocket is in peril and the two men prepare to space walk, Tom asks, “Permission to speak in flowery prose again sir?” When Frank starts to grumble about how screwed they are, Mike replies, “That was a bad and unbeautiful thing to say, sir!” And when we see Makkonnen flailing around as he hurtles off into the void after saving Frank, Crow declares him a Spazz-tronaut.

Mike and the bots have some fun with the asteroids and The Phantom Planet itself. They can’t decide what kind of food they look like, but they come up with all kinds of suggestions. Tom declares them “Honey bunches of DEATH!” and Mike thinks that “Those nooks and crannies really hold the butter.” Then when the doglike Solarites attack, Crow feels that “if the planet didn’t look like a chicken McNugget then the dogs wouldn’t attack.”

"I think he's running a little rich there."
Speaking of the Solarites, Mike and the bots have a ton of fun with the silly costumes and flaming spaceships for these creatures. As the Solarites swoop in to attack, Mike says in his dog voice “We just need a place to scoot!” Crow thinks “They are throwing flaming milk bones.” A close up of the Solarite piloting his ships as the flames lick up into the cockpit window causes Tom to say, “My check engine light is on. I wonder why?”

During the big finale, as Frank is growing back to normal size, he has a montage of the previous 80 minutes flash back into his brain. Including the scene that happened right before the montage started. Crow gets very irate and yells, “You can’t flash back to something we saw ten seconds ago!” Sad to say, I’ve used that line when watching many movies since then. Note to directors – please heed Crow’s advice. He knows what he’s talking about.

Mike doesn't seem concerned about the
good or the beautiful at this point.
Host segments start off with Mike, Crow and Tom attempting an Andy Roony-off, while Gypsy acts as a judge. It gets very, very silly. Meanwhile, Pearl receives her “Rule the World Starter Kit”. But some assembly is required. Unfortunately a key (and highly radioactive piece) is delivered to the Satellite of Love instead. The boys hesitate on returning it, so Pearl sends them The Phantom Planet as punishment. At the first break Tom is contemplating “the good and the beautiful”, and Mike helps him out with some suggestions. At the next break, Pearl is having a real problem putting together her doomsday device, when suddenly she experiences some paranormal activity in the castle. Inspired by the Theremin soundtrack, and the control panels used by the aliens of Rheton, Tom and Crow attempt to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star using water glass rims. Mike stops by and shows them up by playing a classical piece! He’s a master. When the movie ends Crow is dressed as a Solarite but stills feels empty inside. Pearl can’t get her doomsday device to work, but she can still work old-fashioned evil, like dumping hot oil on the villagers surrounding the castle.

Our hero, about to complain again.
This is one of those episodes that just hits all the right notes for some viewers. I know several people who love the rocket films and the riffing and for them, this is a great final hurrah for those movies. Ask them you you’ll probably get four or five stars. But for me, I find the whole thing fun, but lacking that extra something to really make it one of my favorites. “The good and the beautiful” jokes are fun, and the Solarite riffing is hilarious. But the rest just seems kinda standard stuff. I’ll recommend The Phantom Planet to fans of the genre, but for everyone else, this is a solid episode, but season nine had a few that were much funnier (especially the next two episodes: Pumaman and Werewolf).

So I end up give this three good and beautiful mute aliens out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 8.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Score Sample: Stargate

When it came to big and bold adventure scores in the 1990s it was hard to top David Arnold. These days most film score fans know him as the man who took over scoring duties for the James Bond series after John Barry retired from the franchise. But Arnold had composed music for three popular blockbusters prior to his jump into the world of 007. I'm not a big fan of Stargate, Independence Day, or Godzilla as films, but the scores are all really well worth checking out. Of the three, Stargate is my favorite. It combines big bold themes, traditional desert movie scoring (think Laurence of Arabia) and choral bombast. Hard to pick a favorite cue, but Kasuf Returns contains a little bit of all those elements. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hamlet (1990)

You know what is kinda weird when you look back at it? The 1990s gave a little renaissance of Shakespeare adaptations. I’m not sure if this all started because of Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful adaptation of Henry V in 1989, or maybe because independent studios were flourishing. Who else but an independent studio was going to take a chance on a Shakespeare adaptation? Well Mel Gibson would. Who would have thought? Franco Zeffirelli apparently.

So stop me if you’ve heard this story. Prince Hamlet (Mel Gibson) has a major case of depression because his father has died. To add to this, his mother Gertrude (Glenn Close) has remarried the new king Claudius (Alan Bates), who was her brother in law. Ouch. Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Paul Scofield) appears and tells him the horrible truth: Claudius killed him to steal the crown!

Hamlet desires revenge, but must tread carefully. So he feigns insanity to hide his plotting. Unfortunately his sweetheart Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter) doesn’t know that to make of this, even though her father Polonius (Ian Holm) has some definite ideas. Eventually tempers will flair, rash and bloody deeds will abound and poison will be imbibed. The only question at the end of all this is whether Hamlet will get his revenge.

Good Points:
  • Some solid and excellent acting by the whole cast
  • Amazing details in set and costumes bring the medieval setting to life
  • The film moves at a quick pace building up to the finale

Bad Points:
  • Purists beware, this version of the play has been trimmed and edited to suit film and modern storytelling conventions
  • Sticks with the standard interpretation of characters and events
  • Gibson goes a bit over the top at times

This version of Hamlet focuses on the story and making the most crowd friendly version of the story. The film drives forward as Hamlet moves from key scene to key scene but with some dialogue (and monologues) moved around, and some scenes shifted or omitted completely. Production elements are wonderful and some of the camera work and visuals are masterful. But this film version will appeal more to people who don’t take every word Shakespeare wrote as gospel. Well worth seeing for some excellent performances and the visual style Zeffirelli brings to the movie.

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

In Depth Review

Alas poor William Wallace?
In some ways I think this movie has been forgotten. I remember when it came out there was a huge buzz about Gibson playing Hamlet, because most viewers only knew Mel from his roles in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon. But this movie really showed audiences that Gibson had acting skill, and that he wanted to do more than action flicks. Hamlet was as much an adaptation of a classic as it was a defining moment in Gibson’s career. So when Braveheart came around, we knew Gibson could carry a historical drama.

Because really that is what Zeffirelli has given us, Hamlet as a straight up historical drama. This is not a delving into the text, like the Kenneth Branagh version, or a modern revision like the version Ethan Hawke starred in. This is the bard’s play streamlined down into its basic plot, with everything clearly mapped and executed. If you are open to that concept, then you’ll enjoy the film. If you feel that Shakespeare is all about the language and the subtext, then you’ll find this film disappointing.

Polonius explains it all.
It’s a shame to write this movie off because of that perception, because there is a wealth of good performances in this film. Alan Bates brings a dangerous cunning to Claudius. I love Ian Holm’s stuffy and befuddled take on Polonius, a bit of humor in a dark story. Carter brings frailty to Ophelia, so that when we see her break down into madness, it is believable and touching. Paul Scofield brings gravitas to the role of Hamlet’s father. Even small but key roles of Horatio (Stephen Dillane) and Laertes (Nathaniel Parker) are well acted.

If I have any criticism it is with Gibson and Close. Gibson tries his hardest and that may be the problem. When he is on, he’s very good. Hamlet’s melancholy and anguish feel real and palpable. But there are moments where his rage seems too fiery and too intense. Hamlet is a thinker, not a man of action. I always felt he had a slow burning cold rage. Still it is a minor issue and for the most part Gibson delivers in the role.

This scene goes into whole weird area.
Close does a fine job too. But there are a few moments where I’m not sure if she takes the incest angle a bit too far. You almost get the feeling that Gertrude is lusting for her son as well. It is an odd acting choice and one that Gibson seems to play into at times. Aside from those odd moments, Close does a good job, especially when she starts to lose faith in Claudius.

One of the main reasons to see Zeffirelli’s version of Hamlet is his visual presentation of the story. He keeps the setting of medieval Denmark, with it’s cold dark castle, broadswords and earth colors. David Watkin’s cinematography uses shadows and natural light to amazing effect. Location shooting in Scotland and Kent provides some amazing backdrops to the action. During the burial scene for Ophelia, the vibrant green grass contrasts with the pale white skin of the dead girl and the black outfits of the mourners. But it is the darkness of the castle that seems to swallow Hamlet and many of the other characters up. Warm torchlight or candlelight provides pools where characters seem to be isolated from the background and each other. It really is a wonderful look, something Zeffirelli excelled at in his version of Romeo and Juliet back in 1968.

Ophelia is shocked to see she isn't in a Tim Burton movie.
Speaking of the previous Zeffirelli film, Romeo and Juliet featured a wonderful score by the gifted Italian composer, Nino Rota (who also gave us the music from The Godfather). This time Zeffirelli turned to another Italian film music master, Ennio Morricone. For Hamlet, Morricone keeps things dark and moody, matching the visuals of the film. The music fits the movie well, but it is actually sparsely used, coming in only when it is really needed. The final result is a score that doesn’t really stand out, but always works well within the film. Composer Patrick Doyle took a very similar approach (but with a less heavy style) when he worked with Branagh on the 1996 version of the film.

I’ve seen many Shakespeare fans deride this film for all the changes to the script and scenes. To them, the Bard is untouchable. But I think the film that Zeffirelli constructed here works wonderful as a straight film. The pacing is perfect, and actually builds up to the climax with each scene feeling like it adds to the momentum. Compare this to the Branagh version, which is the entire play filmed in its entirety. Branagh’s film moves in fits and starts, even though the energy is high and the acting impeccable. But the goals of the two films are very different. And I actually enjoy both of them for different reasons.

Hamlet watches for the conscience  of the king.
Zeffirelli gives us a Hamlet that is easy to digest, and is very accessible to anyone new to the story. It gives you a taste of all the key elements, all the important speeches and dialogue, all the character interaction. It never really delves into some of the more offbeat interpretations I’ve seen in other films or productions, but plays things very straight (with the excepting being Gertrude’s odd moments). To me this is the perfect version for students studying this for the first time in Lit class. But it also works as a version of Hamlet that you can just throw on when the mood strikes, and you can enjoy for all its visual splendor as well as its entertaining story. This is far from the dud, that some reviewers make it out to be. Believe me, it could have been a whole lot worse. And yes I’m looking at you Mr. Schell.

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.