REVIEW: Brad Bird pleas for optimism in Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland's poster

Tomorrowland’s poster

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, dark has been fashionable at the movie box office. Climate change, wars and other calamities since then have reinforced that.

With Tomorrowland, director Brad Bird pleas for a optimism. His second live-action film is a Valentine’s to dreamers in the form of a science fiction/fantasy story.

Bird’s 130-minute movie, which he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof, isn’t a Pollyanna endeavor. It more than acknowledges the challenges facing the world. Still, it has a simple message: We can’t just give up.

Tomorrowland is a place created by dreamers including Tesla, Verne and Eiffel (with Edison taking credit). In the course of the film, we meet former boy inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney), a disillusioned former dreamer, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a young woman who still is one.

At the start of the movie, Walker is trying to describe events while the more optimistic Casey keeps interrupting his narrative. Bird & Co. doesn’t tip his hand. It takes a while for the story to unfold and the audience needs to pay attention.

Eventually, a confused Casey finds her way to Tomorrowland. Along the way, she encounters friendly robot Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and a number of hostile ones. She’s led to Walker who, we learn, found Tomorrowland at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York but who later was exiled.

Early in the proceedings, we see a display with a countdown. As things stand, something bad is going to happen, but it takes some time to find out what. Walker and Casey, fighting off hostile robots, manage to get to Tomorrowland.

This is a story that couldn’t be told — at least in live-action form — without computer effects. Late in the middle portion of Tomorrowland, things threaten to get away from Bird — similar to how Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar movie got away from him. However, the director pulls things together in the film’s final act.

When all is said and done, the director delivers an emotional and human ending. Here, GCI is a tool. An elaborate tool, to be sure, but one that serves the purpose of the story and not an end to itself.

Summer films are supposed to be “popcorn movies,” and that applies to Tomorrowland. Yet its strong final act provides an additional dimension. Having a human story and computer effects aren’t mutally exclusive. GRADE: A, mostly because of the powerful final act.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a re-evaluation

OHMSS poster

OHMSS poster

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has a special place in the James Bond film series.

It’s the film closest to its source material, Ian Fleming’s 1963 novel of the same name. It’s also a movie whose reputation has improved over the years.

Yet, fans keep pining for things that cannot be. If only the movies had been made in order of the novels, instead of reversing the order of Majesty’s and You Only Live Twice. If only the experienced Sean Connery had played Bond in Majesty’s instead of newcomer George Lazenby.

Here are a few thoughts on that:

OHMSS would have been a lot different if it had been filmed in 1966 instead of You Only Live Twice. The fan argument about the filming the Fleming novels in order (Majesty’s first, followed by Twice instead of the other way around) assumes we’d have gotten essentially the same movie as the one released in 1969.

As stated in Majesty’s, “I wouldn’t go banco on that.”

Charles Helfenstein’s The Making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, published in 2009, provides a rundown of various Majesty’s treatments and script drafts. According to Helfenstein, Richard Maibaum had a 1966 OHMSS treatment and draft including “an aquatic Aston Martin” a lot more gadgets than the 1969 film would have and the relevation that Blofeld was the brother (treatment) or half brother (draft) of Auric Goldfinger (pages 27-29).

That’s only one example. The book includes a table (pages 38-39) summarizing the differences of 10 different treatments and drafts, from 1964 through the 1969 film’s shooting script. The main thing in common is Tracy, Bond’s doomed wife, dies in all of them.

Peter Hunt, making his directing debut in Majesty’s, was one of the driving forces to keep the movie faithful to the novel. Had Majesty’s been after Thunderball, Hunt wouldn’t be the director. We might have gotten a similar film, but it’s likely we would have gotten something with more gadgets and a different tone (probably closer to Goldfinger) than audiences received in 1969.

Would Majesty’s really be better with Sean Connery than George Lazenby as Bond? For many, the answer is “of course.” Lazenby had no real acting experience before the film and Connery was, well, Connery. But not everyone subscribes to this conventional wisdom.

Writer Jeffrey Westhoff IN THIS ESSAY (in which he details why Majesty’s is his *favorite movie* not just favorite 007 film), argues against that idea. Here’s an excerpt.

I have often heard film critics and fellow Bond fans acknowledge the superior script and technical work in OHMSS, but then say, “It would be the best James Bond movie if only Sean Connery were in it.” I reject that.
(snip)
But let’s pretend a younger, amenable Connery was cast in an OHMSS directed by Hunt. It’s still a dubious proposition. For the story of OHMSS to work, particularly the ending, Bond must be vulnerable. From Goldfinger onward, Connery’s Bond was invulnerable, Superman in a tuxedo. I’m not saying Connery didn’t have the ability to play Bond as vulnerable, but after Goldfinger I doubt the audience would have accepted it.

For many reasons, OHMSS required a new actor as Bond….Lazenby’s athleticism in the fight scenes cannot be matched, and his acting improves as the film progresses, reaching its fruition in the proposal scene. More than any scene in the entire series, this one puts the greatest demand on the actor playing Bond.  (emphasis added)

The thing is, there is no right or wrong answer to all this. Without a time machine to go back to change events, or the ability to travel to an alternative universe where things occurred differently, there’s no way to know.

At the same time, real life is more complicated than what we want. So it is with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The only certainty is the movie remains — perhaps flawed but still one of the best entries in the Bond series.

Whiplash: The Telegraph on Skyfall

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image

On May 8, The Telegraph newspaper in the U.K. had a story about THE TOP 10 MOST OVERRATED MOVIES OF ALL TIME.

The No. 1 entry? Skyfall, the most recent James Bond film, which was released in 2012.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the story by Tim Robey.

Awkward in shape and thrilling only periodically, the film’s a fraught salvage job for which (director) Sam Mendes got far too much of the credit.

Look closer and the scars of indecision are painfully obvious, especially in that third act. Ben Whishaw’s Q allows the MI6 server to be hacked by… plugging a pair of ethernet cables into Silva’s laptop? The tube crash is a shambles. The disposal of Severine, after Bond has had his wicked way with this maltreated sex slave, is brutally callous. Daniel Craig seems hardened, waxy, and humourless, with no gift for floating a weak punchline, and the uninspired script (“Got into some deep water”, anyone?) gives him a morass of them.

Interesting critique. Meanwhile, the folks at the MI6 James Bond website sent us a link to The Telegraph’s review of Skyfall, written by Robbie Collin.

The link on The Telegraph’s website gives a Dec. 24, 2014 date, or less than a year ago; comments for the review are dated “three years ago,” suggesting the review was originally published in 2012, when the movie came out. Wikipedia, citing the Collin review, says it was published Oct. 26, 2012.

Regardless, it’s an interesting comparison to the more recent story.

Daniel Craig remains Bond incarnate, although six years on from Casino Royale he has become something more than a brawny cipher. There’s a warmth to his banter with pretty field agent Eve (Naomie Harris), the one-liners make a tentative return, and we even learn about the loss of Bond’s parents: the must-have back story for this season’s conflicted superhero.

Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan’s script constantly reminds us Bond’s physical prowess is on the wane, but his verbal sparring, both with M and new foe Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent turned vengeful computer hacker, is nimbler than ever.

(snip)

“We don’t go in for exploding pens any more,” quips a fashionably tousled Q (Ben Whishaw). Nor do audiences, and it’s no wonder Skyfall was a stratospheric hit.

That sounds like a rave review and it gets four out of five stars. If Skyfall is overrated, it would seem The Telegraph did its fair share of making it so.

To be fair, the two pieces were written by two writers with two different viewpoints. Still, one would think an editor at The Telegraph would at least want to reference the paper’s own review.

Without that acknowledgment, a reader gets a bit of whiplash.

John Stephenson, original Dr. Quest, dies

John Stephenson

John Stephenson

John Stephenson, a veteran character actor and the original voice of Dr. Benton Quest, has died at 91, according to BLOGGER MARK EVANIER, who frequently writes about television and comics.

Stephenson was part of a Jonny Quest cast that also included the voices of Tim Matheson, Danny Bravo and Mike Road. After the first several episodes, Don Messick took over as Dr. Quest’s voice but Stephenson continued to do a lot of voice work for Hanna-Barbera.

Stephenson also served as the announcer who informed the audience of the outcome of a case in the 1960s version of Dragnet. He also was a frustrated Thrush official in New York forced to take orders from Cesar Romero’s Victor Gervais in The Never-Never Affair episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., one of the most popular installments of that spy series.

SPECTRE filming takes place on the Thames

SPECTRE LOGO No real plot spoilers, but the spoiler adverse — especially those who want to know as little as possible before the November release date — should stop now.

The SPECTRE crew, which has been working at Pinewood Studios after a recent shoot in Mexico, emerged to do some work on the Thames. Naturally, in this social media age, some photos showed up on Twitter and elsewhere. Some examples follow. Here are two tweets from Harry Cole, contributing editor of The Spectator:

Here’s another tweet of a sign warning pedestrians:

UPDATE: There are a lot more pictures in THIS STORY in the U.K. Daily Mail newspaper website.

UPDATE II (May 18). The James Bond Brasil fan website posted THIS VIDEO on YouTube.

Lois Maxwell and James Bond by the numbers

The official James Bond Twitter feed offered up this quiz on May 15:

Spoiler alert: It’s Lois Maxwell (1927-2007). We have no idea how many fans got the answer wrong. Regardless, the quiz got us to thinking about a few numbers related to her long run as Moneypenny.

NUMBER OF JAMES BOND FILM APPEARANCES: 14

YEAR OF FIRST 007 APPEARANCE: 1962

YEAR OF LAST 007 APPEARANCE: 1985

PERCENTAGE OF EON-MADE MADE 007 FILMS WITH MAXWELL IN CAST: 58% (includes SPECTRE, still in production, in the calculation, or 14 divided by 24).

PERCENTAGE OF ALL 007 FILMS WITH MAXWELL IN CAST: 54% (includes 1967’s Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again in the calculation, or 14 divided by 26).

MISCELLANEOUS TRIVIA: Maxwell will still have appeared in at least half of Eon-made Bond films until Bond 29 is produced. At a rate of one movie made every three years, that would be in 2030.

Robert Drasnin, spy TV composer, dies

Robert Drasnin (1927-2015)

Robert Drasnin (1927-2015)

Robert Drasnin, a composer whose work included episodes of 1960s spy series, died May 13 at 87, according to AN ANNOUNCEMENT BY DIONYSUS RECORDS.

Drasin scored eight episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. during the second and third seasons, with the music repeated in episodes without original scores. He also scored Mission: Impossible and The Wild Wild West. With the latter, Drasnin specifically composed music for the third episode, “The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth,” the first appearance of Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn). Drasnin’s short theme for the character would be in other episodes featuring the show’s arch villain.

Here’s an excerpt from the Dionysus Records obituary:

Bob is now mostly known for his two masterpiece exotica albums, Voodoo and Voodoo 2, but those are only two highlights in a long and multifaceted career as a player, composer, executive, and teacher.

He joined the Musicians Union at the age of 14 upon being hired to play in the Canteen Kids big band on Hoagy Carmichael’s radio show. He first made his way as a player through the forties, playing alto saxophone and clarinet with a great many big bands, including Les Brown, Freddie Slack, Tommy Dorsey, and others. He studied composition and conducting at UCLA, joined a bebop era Red Norvo Quintet (with whom he recorded), and evolved into a film/tv composer and also a very well regarded sideman (on clarinet and alto saxophone).

As a television composer, he was prolific. Twilight Zone, Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, Man From U.N.C.L.E. all boasted great Drasnin scores, and such giants as Johnny Mandel and Jerry Goldsmith considered him an equal. Rightfully.

In September 2014, fans in the Los Angeles area gathered for The Golden Anniversary Affair, celebrating U.N.C.L.E.’s 50th anniversary. A highlight was a band playing music from the series. Frank Abe, who attended, posted this video of the band playing a piece of Drasnin’s first U.N.C.L.E. score for The Foxes and Hounds Affair.

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