You Only live Twice. 007 goes oriental.

After becoming a household name in the course of just four movies, it was decided that the franchise would be taken one step further; this time to the far East.

Broccoli and Saltzman had wanted to adapt On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ever since they’d wrapped production on Goldfinger, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shoot Thunderball; which was a book they’d wanted to adapt since the very beginning, but couldn’t, because of the rights issues the book was tied into at the time. This time around it wasn’t possible either, because of the lack of suitable Winter locations to shoot the movie.

You Only Live Twice seemed like a good alternative, but it was a choice that would bring its fair share of problems.

Inception

The next Bond movie was due to be released on 23rd of June, which proved to be something of a problem, as the producers found themselves behind schedule, and without a writer and director to helm the project. Albert Broccoli thought it a good idea to offer the role of director to Lewis Gilbert, who was primarily known for directing small, low budget, character pieces, and who’d gained some notoriety for directing Alfie, which turned Michael Caine into a household name that very same year. Gilbert was reluctant to accept the role as he didn’t think he was suited for the material, but Broccoli made him change his mind about it. He, nevertheless insisted in bringing along his Cinematographer Freddy Young, who was renown for his work for David Lean in both Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Next step was to get someone to pen the script. The job fell on children’s writer Roald Dahl, who had no credit as a screenplay writer, but knew Ian Fleming, and was familiar with his work.

Family reunion

Having overcome those hurdles, it was time to get back some of the old faces who’d worked in the previous movies. Actors Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewellyn as Q were some of the familiar faces who were coming back to the fold, along with Production Designer Ken Adam, Peter Hunt; who, on this occasion, filled the role of Supervising Editor and Second Unit Director, Special Effects Supervisor John Stears, Composer John Barry, and Title Sequence creator Maurice Binder. Sean Connery was returning as James Bond, but the unprecedented media pressure to what he was being subjected during the shoot in Japan, and the fact that he was terminating his contract, made him consider abandoning the role, and moving on to something else.

Location Scouting

Before the pre-production on the project started, producers Albert Broccoli, Harry Saltzman, Production Designer Ken Adam and Director Lewis Gilbert flew to Japan to scout for suitable locations where to shoot the movie. Broccoli hired an expert Helicopter pilot to fly them around the country, and they managed to explore 2/3 of the country in three weeks. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any of the locations described by Fleming in his book. The villain in the book, who as in the film, turns out to be Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, lives in a Japanese castle by the sea. They couldn’t find anything like it. What they did find where some striking looking volcanic formations on one of the islands, and viewing the size of some of the volcanic craters from the air, it was decided on the spot, by both Broccoli and Adam, that it would be an interesting idea to have Bloefeld’s lair inside a hollowed-out volcanic crater. That decision would turn into one of the most amazing Set Design feats in Cinema.

New faces

To play the part of Bloefeld, the producers had chosen Jan Werich, a Czech actor who didn’t quite fit the requirements that Gilbert was looking for, and after five days working on set, the decision was made to replace him for American actor Donald Pleasance. His proved to be a more threatening presence, even if his role in the movie is quite short. Being as it was a movie that takes places primarily in Japan, the idea was to cast professional actors from the country, and while the producers lucked out when it came to casting the Head of the Japanese Secret Service, “Tiger” Tanaka, who would be played by famous Cinema and TV actor; Tetsuro Tamba, who’d previously worked with Gilbert, and Teru Shimada as Mr Osato, one of Bloefeld’s minions; they wouldn’t be so fortunate when it came to the female casting. The producers couldn’t find an actress with enough experience; or knowledge of English, for that matter, to play the parts of Japanese secret agent Aki, or that of Kissy Suzuki; with whom Bond pretends to get married to go undercover as a humble Japanese fisherman on a small island where he suspects SPECTRE’s base of operations is. The casting director finally chose two actresses; Akiko Wakabayashi, who was going to play the part of Kissy Suzuki; and Mie Hama, who was going to play the part of Aki. Both girls were taken to England so they could rapidly learn to speak sufficient English to play their respective roles, and while Akiko proved to be quite adept at learning fast, the same could not be said about Mie Hama. Hama was informed by Gilbert, through Tetsuro Tamba; who acted as a sort of spiritual father to all the Japanese actors in the film, that she would be returning to Japan. Under the threat of suicide by the actress, the producers agreed that something could be done with her, but her role was reversed with Akiko’s, and she’d end up playing the part of Kissy Suzuki instead, as her lines of dialogue and time on screen were less. For the part of the “bad” Bond girl, the producers went with German actress Karin Dor to play the role of SPECTRE agent number 11, Helga Brandt. The lack of a work permit to work in the UK meant that she almost didn’t get the role. Regrettably, her presence on screen is way too brief.

The fun starts

The movie was shot on location in Japan with the cast and crew even taking over a Japanese castle to set up a Ninja training school, an island off the coast of Japan; which doubles as the small fishing village where Bond goes undercover, an underground train station that serves as the entrance to Tanaka’s underground Headquaters, Kobe Docks; which serves as the place where Bond finds the location of the Ming Po, and where the dockside fist and gunfight ensues, and some amazing exterior locations for the establishing shots of the volcano area where Bloefeld’s secret lair is hidden. This is the area where the crew attempted to shoot the aerial battle between Little Nellie; Bond’s retrofitted Gyrocopter, and Bloefeld’s squadron of helicopters. Unfortunately, due to an accident during shooting in which one of the aerial cameraman, John Jordan, was injured; the scene had to be postponed, and shot later on in Andalucia, over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, in Spain. Other scenes were shot on location in Gibraltar Harbour, Gibraltar, for Bond’s fake sea burial at the beginning of the movie, in the Bahamas; for the scene in which a couple of scuba divers pick up Bond’s wrapped up body from the bottom of the ocean, and off the coast of Bermuda; for the scene at the end where life rafters are thrown off the back of military aircraft to rescue Bond and his army of Ninjas.

The bulk of the sets, however, were built as always in Pinewood Studios. Amazing sets like Tanaka’s underground Headquaters, the NASA control room, the high-tech Japanese operating room; where Bond undergoes his physical operation to transform him into a humble Japanese fisherman…All of these, however, pale in comparison to the set design tour de force that was the recreation of Bloefeld’s underground volcanic crater lair. It was a feat of engineering, the likes of which had never been seen in British Cinema. The set was humongous, and occupied an entire soundstage. It even had a life replica of the Space Rocket that could be lifted out of the set using wires attached to a crane to simulate it being launched into Space. Even the retractable crater ceiling was a working prop that would open using a winch attached to steel cables. They even built a monorail track with carts that could move around the set!.

Bob Simmons, was again, the stunt coordinator for the show. Not only did he plan out and execute most of Connery’s fights in the movie; like the one between Bond and one of Sato’s henchmen in Sato’s office, but he also coordinated with the team of Japanese stunt men, especially brought over from Japan to act as Tanaka’s Ninja fight force in the movie’s climax. These were skillfully trained Martial artists that showcased some very innovative fighting styles and choreographies when it came to the action sequences. John Stears also threw everything but the kitchen sink at the scene, making use of some very spectacular pyrotechnics for the end of the movie. Even though the movie has lots of action set pieces, it’s not especially loaded with gadgets. The “Little Nellie” aerial fight scene was the exception to the rule. This retrofitted Gyrocopter was the brainchild of RAF Commander Ken Wallis, who accepted Broccoli’s offer to go to Japan and fly the Gyrocopter for them in the aerial fight sequence. Adam would, of course, make some changes to it; fitting it with all manner of machine guns and missile launchers, even giving it a new yellow and white paint job that would make it look like a bee.

Final thoughts

You Only Live Twice is a fun movie. It was the first of three directed by Lewis Gilbert, and often considered one of the best. It is certainly a more entertaining and better paced movie than Thunderball. It’s got a very well put together script, and the action set pieces are even better than those from the previous movies; which is saying something. It’s got a wonderful score by John Barry; one of his most inspired and lyrical. The Wedding scene music is especially beautiful, with its enchanting oriental notes. A side note to the title song sung by Nancy Sinatra; one of the best and most recognizable of the entire series. It makes very good use of the Japanese exterior locations, giving the entire thing a travelogue feel. Ken Adam went far and beyond, delivering some truly remarkable sets. Connery plays the part effortlessly by this point. Not much else that could be improved there. As for the rest of the actors; it is unfortunate that most of them don’t get to shine as much as they should. Some of them; like Karin Dor, Teru Shimada, or even Donald Pleseance seem kind of wasted, in my opinion. This wasn’t the case with all the villains in the previous movies like Gert Frobe’s Goldfinger, Adolfo Celli’s Largo, or even Luciana Paluzzi’s Viona Volpe; in my opinion one of the best “bad” Bond girls of the franchise. Not even the Bond girls in this movie are that remarkable. Their lack of acting skills shows in more than one occasion. The same cannot be said about Tetsuro Tamba, who glides through the movie on pure charisma. Another gripe that I have with this movie is Connery’s silly Japanese makeover. The thing is so ludicrous and far-fetched, that not even harfcore Bond fans can swallow that one. A disguise that, “magically dissapears” as soon as Bond enters Bloefeld’s lair. All in all, a fun, entertaining and colourful entry to the series.

Thanks for reading.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Journey begins…

When back in 1999 filmmaker Peter Jackson took it upon himself to adapt J.R.R Tolkien’s massive, and considered by some, unfilmable book to the big screen, he would embark on a filmmaking journey that would take him, and all those involved, the better part of five years to complete. It would end up being one of the biggest cinematographic endeavours achieved by a single filmmaker, as the decision had been made really early on to film all three movies, one for each part of the book, back to back.

A daring enterprise

Jackson came to the public attention with the movie Heavenly Creatures (1994), starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. The film gave Jackson the sufficient notoriety for producer and filmmaker Robert Zemeckis to give him a leg up to direct his first major Studio picture, The Frighteners (1996), starring Michael J. Fox and Trini Alvarado. Jackson’s very striking visual and storytelling style soon came to the fore, and he began to be noticed by the Industry, but that sadly didn’t give him the creative and financial clout necessary to embark on his next proyect; the adaptation to the big screen of Lord of the Rings.

Being as he was a huge fan of J.R.R Tolkien’s seminal literary masterpiece, Jackson had acquired the rights to adapt the books. He’d written, along with his wife Fran Walsh, and screenwriter and collaborator Phillipa Boyens, a draft of the script, and had some Conceptual art at the ready to show to the Hollywood Execs to try and shop his proyect around the Studios. He would get lots of doors slammed in his face, as most producers thought the proyect too expensive and risky to undertake. It would be New Line Cinema, with Robert Shaye at its head, who would find the idea interesting, but insisted in there being three movies instead of just two, as he thought that the material wouldn’t be given the proper justice when compressed into just two movies. The idea of shooting just two movies came because Jackson didn’t think that any Studio would want to invest the amount of money needed for such a large production, and extend it for three movies in total, as the production was already expensive and ambitious enough as it was. Alas, with New Line’s backing, Jackson was free to expand upon his original ideas, and not be creatively constrained to bring about the books to the big screen in the proper manner.

Off to the races

With the necessary financial support in place, Jackson went about rewriting and expanding upon his original draft, and started assembling the best creative team around him that would enable him to bring his grand vision to the silver screen.

The first stepping stone was to enlist the help of Illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe as Conceptual Designers; as they were the official Tolkien Illustrators for all the different books and Tolkien related media over the years, and would have the best appreciation of Tolkien’s visual world to translate it to the screen.

It didn’t take Jackson too much convincing to get both Lee and Howe in, and once they were, Jackson and his team of Production and Set Designers started flying all over Jackson’s home turf, New Zealand; scouting for locations to shoot the movie with Lee and Howe in tow, with a sketch book, drawing designs for the movies. It had always been Jackson’s desire, from the very beginning, to shoot all three movies in his home country; as he’d imagined growing up, reading the books, that New Zealand was the ideal setting for Middle Earth. First ideal location they came upon for the movie was that of Mata Mata, a rural area on the north of the island, which Jackson thought would be perfect to build Hobbiton. Access to the location was very difficult, and roads had to be constructed to bring in all the set materials needed for the construction of the entire town. The construction crew took over the entire area with an idea that once the shoot was finished, everything would have to be put back the way it was, to preserve the area as a place of astounding natural beauty. The crew of set designers went to great lengths to make Hobbiton look the way Tolkien had described it in his books, and how both Alan Lee and John Howe had drawn it. It’s a wonderful piece of set design that is a testament to the great work done by Richard Taylor and his team from Weta Workshop.

Weta magic

Weta Workshop and its visual effects counterpart; Weta Digital, had been founded by Peter Jackson a few years back. It was a relatively small Effects Company that was based in Wellington, New Zealand, and the bulk of its employees were native New Zealander craftsmen and women, who were very proficient at their job, but there was some doubt on New Line’s part that this small Effects company could handle the massive amount of Effects work that the movie would need for all three movies. Weta proved nonetheless to be up to the daunting challenge, and endeavoured to rise to the occasion everytime it was needed. Under the supervision of Richard Taylor; who oversaw, at the behest of Peter Jackson, everything from Miniature building, to costume and prosthetics, and makeup design, gathered around him a very competent team of technicians who gave it their all. The use of miniatures, or as the crew would lovingly call them given their size; “Big-atures”, was extensive throughout the shoot, and gave the movie such a scale and an old school feel, which resulted in some of the most striking and beautiful images seen in the movie, like the elf cities of Rivendel and Lothlórien, the mines of Moria, the Tower of Barad Dûr and Isengard, and its massive array of underground tunnels and pits, all of this enhanced with the use of visual extensions and matte paintings. The makeup and costume design, which were handled by both Richard Taylor and Ngila Dickson is a work of Art encompassing the worlds of men, orc and elf, giving a distinctive look to them and being faithful to a fault with Tolkien’s descriptions in the books.

Alongside Weta Workshop, its Visual effects counterpart; Weta Digital do a wonderful job marrying the practical elements such as set design, miniatures and matte paintings with digital enhancements like the bowels of the mines of Moria, and complete CGI creatures like Gollum and the fire monster Balrog.

It is the combined efforts of all these departments, and people like Production Designer Grant Major, Visual Effects Supervisors Jim Rygel and Christian Rivers, and Set Designer Dan Hennah; to name just a few, who worked tirelessly to bring about the best possible product. And they succeeded. But all of this couldn’t be possible without the right cast.

The perfect cast

Rarely is a filmmaker afforded the opportunity of finding the perfect cast for a movie, but that’s exactly what happened with the Lord of the Rings. The original idea was to cast British actors for the main roles, especially those of the four hobbits, but when American actor Elijah Wood learned of the casting for this movie, he recorded a tape of himself reciting lines from the book as Frodo, and putting on a convincing British accent to sale his audition. He was immediately cast upon Jackson watching the tape. Another American actor portrayed his faithful companion, Sam Gamyi; Sean Austin, better know for his role in the 80s cult classic The Goonies, Richard Donner (1985). The other roles were filled by Scottish actor Billy Boyd as Pippin and British actor Dominic Monaghan as Merry. For two of the most important roles of the movie, two great British actors were enlisted; both Ian Mckellen and legendary Hammer star Christopher Lee would portray the roles of wizards Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. Lee was actually, at one point, in the run to portray Gandalf. Being an avid reader and very knowledgeable about the source material; as he’d read the book once a year ever since he was a teenager, and had been acquainted with Tolkien himself, he regretfully had to step down and take the role of Saruman as the physical demands for the part of Gandalf, given his age at the time, would have been too taxing.

A relatively unknown young British actor, Orlando Bloom, was chosen to play the part of the elf Legolas and the role of his bickering companion; the dwarf Gimli would be played by larger-than-life John Rhys Davies, who would end up having a hard time with all the facial prosthetics involved to portray his character. He could only play the part for a day with the makeup on, and then take a three-day rest, as he proved to be allergic to the glue used to apply the makeup. On those occasions, a double would step in to shoot some of the long shots, and to help with the more strenuous fight scenes.

Other roles fell on the shoulders of British actor Sean Bean as Boromir, Hugo Weaving as Elf king Elrond, Liv Tyler as his daughter The Lady Arwen, Cate Blanchett as The Lady Galadriel; but one of the most important roles would be one that would come very late in the game, when principal Photography was already a few days in. The part of Aragorn was going to be played by another actor with whom there was a problem at the last minute. Jackson and his team were pushed into a corner, but they’d heard good things about Viggo Mortensen, and decided to get in touch with him and offer him the role. After a lengthy conversation with Jackson over the phone, Mortensen accepted the role on the basis that his son was a huge fan of Tolkien, and had overheard the whole conversation. Mortensen was reluctant to accept it because that would mean spending months away from home, and plus, he’d never read the books or knew anything about them. As it turns out, he ended up being the best possible choice for the role.

Long and arduous shoot

As all three movies in the saga would end up being shot back to back, over a period of several months, and with a hectic shooting schedule; that meant that the physical and mental demands on both the actors and crew would take a toll on all those concerned. The actors portraying the hobbits, orcs, dwarves and elves had to endure extensive makeup sessions that would normally start very early in the morning, and last for a few hours; most of them having to have prosthetic feet and ears attached to them, some of them, like in the case of those portraying the orcs, having to wear whole body rubber suits, complete with heavy armour and prosthetics. Not to say anything about the hours dedicated to Costume fittings, combat training (for which Jackson brought in legendary swordsman Bob Anderson), horse riding and, in the case of some actors, even Elvish lessons. It was important to Jackson to be respectful of Tolkien’s novel, and so a Tolkien linguist; David Salo, was brought in to make sure that the actors speech was as accurate as possible to what Tolkien had envisioned. Dialogue coaches were brought in to assist the actors in that regard. Hundreds upon hundreds of all kinds of weapons and armours were forged at Weta Workshop by actual Blacksmiths to give them a sense of realism. The process was both expensive and time consuming, but yielded astonishing results.

The movie was shot in both location; whenever possible, taking advantage of New Zealand’s remarkable landscape, and in the Studio, in Wellington, New Zealand; where huge sets were carefully put together to match up with the live action footage. The close proximity of the Studio to the local airport meant that shooting would often be disrupted by the noise of huge commercial airliners engines, rendering most of the on-set sound recording to be unusable, and most of it would have to be re-recorded and looped back in, later on in Post-production.

Visual trickery

The movie succesfully uses a different blend of techniques, both practical and visual effects throughout; but some of the most innovative have to do with the way forced perspective shooting techniques, (which consists in shooting two actors in the same scene at two different angles to give the illusion that one of them is shorter than the other), along with the construction of the same sets in different sizes; replicating even the props in it according to the size of the set, for both men and Hobbits, and blue screen filming (where the actors will shoot their part in any given scene separately in a soundstage, and it’s edited back together later on using, either digital or filmed background plates); is used to highlight the height differences between the hobbit and dwarf characters to those of the men. They used practically every trick in the book; resorting even to the use of scale doubles to get the job done, delivering amazing results.

Piecing it all together

Things wouldn’t get much easier in the editing room, as Jackson would have to juggle between being on the recording studio in London; supervising the soundtrack recording sessions, and back in Wellington, where the sound mixing and editing was being done. As he couldn’t be in two places at once, a remote satellite communication system via computer was set up in either London, or New Zealand, so a direct line could be created for Jackson to supervise both teams at the same time. That meant that all those involved would get very little sleep in order to deliver the movie in its allotted premiere date. This would be a trend that repeated itself in all three movies.

Critical and box office reception

The movie premiered on December 19th, 2001 to great acclaim. The movie proved to be a huge critical and financial success, grossing a worldwide total of $883.726.270. Was critically praised everywhere it premiered, proving to those nay-sayers that Tolkien’s book could succesfully and faithfully be adapted to the screen. Peter Jackson became a household name overnight, but the bar had already been set too high for the two upcoming movies, and it was up to him to back those expectations up with something even more spectacular and daring.

Extended Edition

On December of the following year, and to tie in with the release of the second instalment; The Two Towers, an Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring was released on DVD including 40 more minutes of unseen footage that had been trimmed from the theatrical release. In the words of Jackson himself, he didn’t style this new cut as a Director’s cut of the movie, rather an alternate version of the movie to be enjoyed at home. Most of the new scenes further develop some secondary characters, and even main ones, and dig deeper into the rich history of Middle Earth. Given that some of the additions had an important significance on things that would happen in The Two Towers; this version of the movie would end up being the preferred version to watch for those of us who are fans of the movie

Personal thoughts

The first installment of the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece, there are not two ways about it. It ticks all the right boxes; it’s beautifully crafted, acted, with a superb score by Howard Shore, who proved, for the first time in his life, that his range as a composer could extend beyond musically reimagining David Cronenberg’s twisted cinematic worlds. His score is epic, sweeping and heartfelt. The Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie is magical; giving the world of Middle Earth an otherworldly but, at the same time, grounded look that befits Tolkien’s world. Everything from makeup to costumes and set design are top notch. The visual effects department at Weta Digital deliver some truly epic imagery; like the entering of the Fellowship into the mines of Moria and the escape over the Bridge of Kazad Dûm from the Balrog monster. Many moments that seem to be taken right out of the books. It’s a truly remarkable visual and storytelling landmark that proves that Jackson was the man born to usher Tolkien’s words into the big screen. All of this topped off by a wonderful cast who seem to creep right out of the pages of the book. Once you’ve seen the movie, it’s difficult to separate these actors from their characters. That’s how good a job they did. To me, the defining fantasy movie.

Thanks for reading.

The Thing. Terror from within.

On June 1982, one of the most emblematic movies of the 80s and, by extent, of the Science Fiction/Horror genre was released. It was panned upon release by critics and audiences alike, who didn’t understand its artistic and storytelling merits, and who added it to the growing list of Body Horror movies that were so popular during that decade. Time would put both the movie, and the critics who slammed it in their place. To understand why the movie failed both critically and at the box office, we have to go back to a time and place, and especially a year, that was rife with cinematic landmarks. To say that the movie came out at the wrong time is an understatement. Let’s find out why.

Inception

When the rights to John W. Campbell’s novella; Who goes there ?, written under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, became available, Stuart Cohen, an executive for Universal Studios’ Television department grabbed them, and immediately started working on adapting it to the big screen. Early development work was done by filmmaker Tobe Hooper and writer Kim Henkel. Producers Laurence Turman and David Foster were the ones in charge of bringing the proyect to life, and didn’t like Hooper and Henkel’s treatment. It was then that filmmaker John Carpenter was approached by his long-time friend Stuart Cohen on the possibility of tackling the proyect. Carpenter immediately jumped at the idea, as he was a long time admirer of the 1951 Howard Hawks and Chritian Nyby adaptation; The Thing from Another World. Carpenter had also read the novella on which said movie was based, and really liked it. The 1951 adaptation bore little resemblance to the original text, as the creature of the film was a plant-based creature that looked more like a Frankenstein-esque monster than anything else. Carpenter wanted to go back to basics and take the original concept of the thing being a creature that could pretty much imitate any life form by assimilating its host and creating a perfect replica undistinguishable from the real thing. That shape shifting quality gave the story a unique edge in that anyone could be the creature, thus creating an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia that would go hand in hand with Carpenter’s themes and obsessions from previous films. Sadly, it would be some time until Universal decided to step up and greenlight the proyect, mostly due to the massive success of Alien (1979), Ridley Scott. It was believed that audiences had, once again, an appetite for this kind of movies. Shooting, though, wouldn’t be without its problems.

An all male Ensemble piece

With a director pretty much in place, it was time to look for a crew and cast that could be up to the task in bringing Carpenter’s vision to light. Bill Lancaster, son of actor Burt Lancaster, was entrusted with writing the screenplay, of which he would end up writing three drafts. He struggled with the big number of characters from the novella, and ended up slimming them down to twelve, thus making the story more manageable and understandable. Director of Photography Dean Cundey, Editor Todd Ramsay and Production Designer John J. Lloyd were other important pieces in the creative jigsaw puzzle that Carpenter was trying to assemble. But no piece of the puzzle would be as essential as that of Rob Bottin as Make-up artist and Creature Designer. His was a fundamental contribution in giving the film the look and feel that would turn it into the cult classic it would become. Being a huge admirer of Carpenter’s previous work, he arranged a meeting with the filmmaker through a mutual friend and collaborator of Carpenter’s, Dean Cundey, thus resulting in their first collaboration in the film The Fog (1980). Going off, at first, on the extensive storyboard work that had been done by artists Mike Ploog and Mentor Huebner, Bottin ended up going with his own ideas and concepts for the creature, coming up with some very crazy, and inventive ideas for the creature design, in an attempt to forego the idea of having someone in a suit performing as the alien, and creating something more organic, which suited Carpenter, who was opposed to the idea of the suit, as it was something that had been used in the original movie, and on the recent Ridley Scott masterpiece. Bottin created such a wealth of designs for the film, and had such little time to deliver his work, that he wound up working seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, causing him to be sent to hospital due to mental and physical exhaustion. It was at this point that Stan Winston and his team had to step in to work in some creature design for the scene in which the Thing, in the form of a dog, attacks the rest of the dogs in the kennel of the American station.

Another member of the team who had his work cut out for him was Production Designer John J. Lloyd, who went to Alaska early on during Pre-production to scout for locations. The initial idea was to shoot the movie in Montana, where the 1951 version had been shot, but due to a lack of snowfall during the last two winters, it was decided that production would be moved to Stewart, British Columbia, near a glacier, where a replica of American Scientific Station 31 would be built by a Canadian construction crew during the Summer, and would hopefully be covered by snow by the time the cast and crew came to shoot during the following Winter. The site was perfect, but presented one major logistical problem in that there was only a one way access road used mainly by the workers of a nearby mine. The crew had to come up to the set and go down to the coastal town where they were staying, each day using this road, but making sure they stayed in radio contact with the miners and truck drivers who used it, as those driving down the road couldn’t stop. Some parking spaces along the road were dug up, so the upcoming traffic could park to one side to let the vehicles coming down come through. When the time came for the crew to start shooting in location, the whole encampment was snowed in, and the results were astounding. Shooting days were long, exhausting and the crew and cast had to contend with below zero temperatures that also took their toll in the equipment, which had to stay outside, covered and protected, as the variation in temperatures, if brought inside the set, could cause them to break down.

The ensemble cast was made up of mainly character actors of which the standout one was Kurt Russell as helicopter pilot MacCready, who had previously worked with Carpenter in Elvis and Escape from New York. The actor was viewed by Carpenter as the anchor on which the rest of the performances rested. Brilliantly played by the likes of Wilford Brimley as Dr. Blair, T.K Carter as the Cook Nauls, David Clennon as Palmer, Keith David as Childs, Richard Dysart as Dr. Copper, Charles Hallahan as Norris, Peter Maloney as Bennings, Richard Masur as the dogs keeper Clark, Donald Moffat as the Officer in charge of the station Garry, Joel Polis as Fuchs, and Thomas Waites as Communications Officer Windows.

It was a rare case in that it was an all male cast driven movie, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the industry for some time.

Braving the elements

It was a difficult shoot all round, not only in location. Most of the indoor scenes were shot inside refrigerated sets in Universal Studios. What made it especially difficult was that 1981 was one of the hottest Summers in memory, so actors would walk out of refrigerated sets onto the scalding hot street outside, causing most of them to get sick. They also had to put dry ice inside their mouths to make the effect of vapor coming out of their mouths. All of this, in addition to the thick winter gear the actors had to wear while shooting, made it especially tough, as most of them would elect to keep their winter clothes on, instead of having to change into something more suited for Summer, everytime they went outside for lunch or to rest.

Fortunately, the cast had had the chance to rehearse all their scenes together months before actual shooting started, creating such a strong bond and camaraderie between them that not much on-set prep work was needed when the time came.

Financial and critical reception

The movie came out at a time where lots of major releases, which were more appealing to the public at the time, where coming out. There was one major release though, that I think, stopped this movie from turning a profit at the box office.

E.T The Extraterrestrial was the biggest earner at the box office that year, and one that caused a lot of movies that year to either underperform, or as it was the case with The Thing, to outright flop at the box office. Critic reception was divisive too, to say the least; some critics praising its technical merits, while others, like Roger Ebert famously did, giving it the thumbs down. Some critics retracted in their original assessments overtime, but some, like the aforementioned Ebert, never did. Most audiences found it downright repulsive in that they thought it focused too heavily in the gore aspects of the piece, disregarding the more nuance aspects of its character study in isolation and mistrust. Those same audiences would come around years later and regard it as the masterpiece it is, thanks in great part to its success in the home video market.

Final Thoughts

The Thing is a thoroughly engrossing film experience that thrives on tense atmosphere and paranoia. Even though most people classify it as a Horror movie staple, and it has some truly horrifying gore sequences, the movie is more a character study of a bunch of people couped up in a remote Antarctic Station, who are faced with an impossible situation, in which mistrust and deception are rife, and nothing, and no one is what it seems. Carpenter succeds in increasing the suspense and building tension with each passing scene, in defining the characters with a few well-placed character descriptions, all of this with the help of a brilliant cast, claustrophobic set design, moody Cinematography and a score by Ennio Morricone that is on point in setting a suspenful tone for the film.

It’s also a showcase of practical and visual effects with the work of two of the best professionals in the industry: Make-up and Creature Design wizard Rob Bottin, and Matte Painting artist and Alfred Hitchcock regular, Albert Whitlock. The first in bringing about one of the most terrifying creatures ever seen on the big screen, and the second in coming up with some truly breathtaking scenes, like the one in which MacCready and Co, find the unearthed Alien spaceship. The movie is also intelligently narrated, giving you just enough information, and showing you just enough of the creature and its intentions, to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s unsettling enough, thanks to some very smart editing, to keep you guessing at all times; to the point of not knowing who is who. And that’s the brilliance of it. The terror comes from within. It’s just unfortunate that audiences at the time were unable to appreciate it.

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Thunderball. First true Bond Juggernaut.

After the massive success that was Goldfinger, and the Bond character being so firmly established in the public consciousness, it was time to take it to another level; a more lavish one.

Thunderball would become the first movie in the series to become a true artistic and financial Juggernaut. But the road to its production was a rocky one, to say the least.

Inception

Thunderball had originally been conceived as a screenplay for the big screen, for which Ian Fleming enlisted the help of producer Kevin McClory, and screenwriter Jack Whittingham. The proyect went nowhere, and after languishing for some time in a drawer, Fleming took the material up again, and turned it into a successful novel.

When both McClory and Whittingham learned of this, they took Fleming to court, which failed in favour of them in that they were entitled to a writing credit for the book, since they had suggested, or outright come up with most of the ideas that would later be used by Fleming in the novel.

When Harry Saltzman took up an option to adapt Fleming’s books to the big screen, and would later do so after forming a partnership with producer Albert R. Broccoli, he had every intention of adapting Thunderball as the first ever Bond adventure to get the big screen treatment. Given the rights issues in which said property was embroiled, he and Broccoli had to desist, which would prove to be a blessing in disguise in the long run, as the scale of the production was too big and ambitious to be given justice with a small budget, as the first Bond movie, Dr No had been.

After coming to a agreement with both McClory and Whittingham, to give the first a producer’s credit, and the second a writing credit, the production was green lit, and ready to move ahead. Terrence Young came back into the fold for what would be his last Bond movie as director. It was only fitting that the man who pretty much breathed life into Bond to become a fully fledged cinematographic character would return, once again, to helm the most ambitious and lavish movie of the series to date, and the first one that would usher Bond into the realm of the Cinemascope format.

This would not be the end of the story, though, as years later McClory, still holding the rights for the Thunderball story, and with the help of producer John Schwarzman and Warner Bros., produced in 1983 a remake of Thunderball with the title Never Say Never Again, directed by Irvin Kershner, fresh off directing The Empire Empire Strikes Back, and Sean Connery reprising his role as 007. This unofficial entry in the series would clash directly with the official installment in the by then, exclusively produced Broccoli Bond movies, and the sixth with Roger Moore in the role of 007; Octopussy. Octopussy would ultimately prevail in the box office showdown, despite the McClory produced movie making a profit.

The Old Guard is back

With Terrence came back the old troop of both actors and crew, who had practically become a mainstay in the series since its inception. Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewellyn and of course, the man himself Sean Connery, all returned. So did most of the technical and creative team behind the previous entries like Editor Peter Hunt, Cinematographer Ted Moore, Production Designer Ken Adam and Composer John Barry.

Writer Richard Maibaum came back, once again, to pen the script, this time with the help of fellow screenwriter John Hopkins, who’d been hired by Saltzman to work on the script for Funeral in Berlin, the next installment in the Harry Palmer series made famous by actor Michael Caine. Unfortunately for him, and against the advise of many of his fellow crewmen, he decided to stay behind in London, working on both scripts, instead of going to the Bahamas, where most of the crew was, thus missing out on the fun.

And some new faces

Some new blood, as always, was required to play Bond’s new romantic interest and some of the most iconic villains and villainess the series has had. First off, Italian actor Adolfo Celi would play the role of Emilio Largo, number 2 in the criminal organization Spectre, and the mastermind behind the plan of stealing two nuclear weapons and ransom NATO for them, Luciana Paluzzi, who had auditioned for the role of Domino, Largo’s mistress and Bond’s new romantic interest, played the role of ruthless SPECTRE henchwoman Fiona Volpe. The role of Domino fell on French actress and former Miss France, Claudine Auger, whilst Young’s old acquaintance from previous casting sessions for the two first movies, Martine Beswick, landed the role of Paula, Bond’s MI6 assistant in Nassau, British actor Guy Doleman played Count Dippe, another one of SPECTRE’S operatives with whom Bond has a near-fatal encounter in the recovery clinic Shrublands concerning a certain spine stretching contraption, Rick Van Nutter took over the role of Felix Leiter from actor Cec Linder from Goldfinger. His was supposed to be a recurring appereance for the next movies, and was actually contracted to do so, but being as it was that the character would not show up for the next two movies, when the time came for Van Nutter to reprise his role, he was engaged in other projects, and would never reprise the role again. Another interesting piece of casting was that of Molly Peters, who plays the role of Pat, the nurse who takes care of Bond in Shrublands, and who is the first object of Bond’s sexual attentions in the movie. With all the elements in place, it was time to bring about, in record time, what would be one of the most costly and difficult shoots in the series to date. A challenge compounded by the fact that a good chunk of the movie would take place underwater.

Under pressure

The shoot would prove to be one of the most challenging of the entire series. There were 4 Units shooting at the same time in the Bahamas, Florida, France and Pinewood Studios, UK. Most of Ken Adam’s lavish sets were painstakingly recreated at Pinewood Studios and Ricou Browning, an expert, along with his partner Jordan Klein Sr in underwater filming, who had devised a retrofitted camera for shooting underwater, were in charge of filming all the underwater scenes, of which there were many.

Most of the Scuba diving equipment that Largo’s SPECTRE crew uses during the Vulkan plane hijack and to move from the Disco Volante to the underwater hideout were the bombs are placed, was designed in London and then assembled in location in the Bahamas. There was such a wealth of material shot for the underwater sequences that the first rough cut of the movie ended up with a running time of over 4 hours, which proved to be so something of a challenge for editor Peter Hunt to trim down to a running time of a little over two hours. Young wasn’t very fond of this aspect of the film, and thought that the excessive amount of scenes that took place underwater slowed the movie down considerably. Nevertheless, the underwater sequences, especially the final underwater battle scene, proved to be one of the most outstanding features of the movie, and one of the reasons why this movie in particular is so fondly remembered by most fans.

A scene that takes place in a Shark-filled salt water pool, and the use of live Sharks for practically the whole of the production, was a major cause of concern for most over the stunt men, actors and crew, due to their unpredictable nature. A plexiglass wall was erected inside the pool to separate the actor from the Sharks for the scene in which Bond falls into the pool after fighting one of Largo’s minions when he goes to Largo’s estate to try and rescue Paula. Unfortunately, due to a shortage of plexiglass, the wall was shortened, thus allowing one of the sharks to slip through, causing a near-fatal incident between Connery and the predator. For some of the underwater sequences, like the final Battle, the sharks had to be tethered by the crew to be made to move around whenever needed. However, most of them would slip out of their restraints and escape, forcing the underwater crew to go after them, to try and capture them again. Aside from these problems, the weather and shooting conditions were mostly benign for most of the shoot.

Another logistical nightmare was the Junkanoo parade sequence, a sort of local Mardi Grass, in which Bond uses the mayhem and crowds to evade capture by Largo’s men. It’s a very colourful sequence that the producers thought would be the perfect chance to showcase Nassau, and their traditions. The sequence was completed with the help of hundreds of local extras that, for two nights of shooting in a row gave it their all, even causing some consternation to the crew when some of the extras showed up wearing the logo 007 emblazoned on their costumes.

Other standout set pieces are the Disco Volante, Largo’s retrofitted yacht/moving base of operations that splits in half during the movie’s climax with the front part speeding away. It’s also equipped with an underwater hatch under the keel to conceal the Nuclear weapons and transport them to a cleverly concealed underwater hideout. SPECTRE’s Parisian secret conference room with its array of moving electric chairs, Q’s base of operations in Nassau and MI6 conference/war room were all meticulously recreated in Pinewood Studios. Having such a large budget at his disposal, allowed Ken Adam to let fly his imagination without any restrictions.

Box office performance

The movie was a worldwide runaway success, breaking box office records all around the globe, and it became, and stood for a long time, along with Goldfinger, as one of the most profitable movies in the series, and one that would cause the spy craze and everything related to the Bond property to become a hot market commodity. The marketing campaign for the movie was extensive, and the sells of merchandise like toys, articles of clothing and books went to the roof.

Final thoughts

Not as grounded in reality as his two previous Bond-helmed movies had been, Thunderball is nonetheless a very enjoyable and entertaining entry in the series. It ticks all the right boxes; a charismatic and somewhat sadistic villain, his duplicitous and resourceful henchwoman, a stunning-looking, but at the same time strong female lead, a very well put together plot, beautifully striking sets and locales, exciting action sequences, and a wonderful music score to top it all off. John Barry delivers here one of his strongest scores for the series, even though the main title song by Shirley Bassey; “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”was never used at the insistence of the producers of having a main title song with the movie title in it. The song was re-arranged and worked around the movie’s title, but time would prove with subsequent Bond title songs whose lyrics couldn’t be worked around the title, and working nonetheless, that it was the wrong call; especially considering how uninspired the resulting song sang by Tom Jones would end up being. The script is well written, despite the on-screen execution being somewhat meandering, and Editor Peter Hunt was, once again on point with his very dynamic and innovative editing style, that came to the fore in the action set pieces. A combination of quick cuts and sped-up footage made for some very fast moving, but comprehensive fight scenes. Ken Adam was his usual brilliant self, delivering some of the most inventive and innovative sets in the series, now without the hurdle of a restrained budget.

Connery was fully settled in the role at this point, and plays the part effortlessly. The same thing can be said about all the other recurring actors. As for the main villain Emilio Largo, Adolfo Celi does a wonderful job perfectly conveying with his voice and body language a sense of threat that always seems to be simmering below the surface, ( even if the Italian actor, like his fellow actress Luciana Paluzzi, and the French speaking Claudine Auger had their lines dubbed over in Post-production). Even though Claudine Auger does a decent turn as Domino, it was really Luciana Paluzzi who delivered the best performance as the “bad” Bond girl of the piece, and seems to genuinely be having fun with the part. This may be in part due to the level of complicity that Young would develop with his leading ladies on set, to the point that he would remain friends with all of them years after they had worked together.

Some of the action set pieces, like Bond’s face-off against SPECTRE’s number 6, colonel Jaques Bouvar are superbly choreographed and executed, whilst others, like most of the underwater action set pieces, especially the final underwater Battle sequence, would go on for a tad too long. And that’s my main gripe with the movie. It moves at a brisk enough pace for the first half of the movie, but once Bond arrives to Nassau to try and find where the bombs are hidden, everything slows down considerably. A complaint voiced by director Terrence Young, once the final cut of the movie had been finalized. Unlike Goldfinger, whose running time breezes past without you noticing it, this movie is not only one of the longest entries in the series, but one with seriously glaring issues when it comes to its pacing, something that I think is due to the use and abuse of its underwater sequences. In my opinion, a good 10 min could have been trimmed out of it. That being said, and in true Terrence Young’s fashion, the final product is a well thought out, and executed spy adventure that lives long in the memories of its fans despite its flaws. Incidentally, this was the first ever time that Connery had the chance to shoot the gun barrel sequence for the pre-credit opening sequence, something that up until that point, stuntman Bob Simmons had done. And in Cinemascope, no less.

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Goldfinger. The James Bond movie that broke molds.

This review contains spoilers

Even though the United Artist-produced 007 movies were already making waves in the box office of cinemas the world over, with only two movies out at the time; Dr No and From Russia with Love, it was certainly Goldfinger that would establish itself, not only as a cinematic landmark, in terms of artistic and box office success, but also as the James Bond movie that would forever etch the name of Bond, James Bond into the public consciousness, and would definitely lay out the blue print from which all other James Bond movies would be molded after.

Inception

Given the success that producer Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had had with director Terence Young, they tried to recruit him, once again, to take over filming of the next installment of the saga. Young would end up abandoning the proyect due to creative differences, but was quickly replaced by Guy Hamilton, with whom Broccoli had worked before, and already knew Sean Connery socially before he became famous for playing 007.

Guy Hamilton’s style was quite different from that of Terence Young’s in that he wanted to play the tongue-in-cheek elements of both the character and story more strongly, and do away with the more down-to-earth and realistic approach used by Young on the two previous entries. He also pushed for the use of more comedic elements and one-liners, that would become one of the hallmarks of the series. One example of this was the pre-credit sequence, in which Bond, after blowing up an opium factory, slips out of a wet suit to reveal an impeccable white tuxedo underneath, with no creases to speak of, and a red rose to pin on his jacket lapel. That immediately informs the audience of what type of movie they’re in for, and that the tone of it is going to be a drastic departure from what had be seen on the previous two movies.

Most of the recurring cast members; like Bermard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny and Desmond Llewellyn as Q were back, once again. It was now only a matter of finding the right actors and actresses to portray the role of the main villains and Bond girls.

For the role of the main villain of the piece, Auric Goldfinger, German actor Gert Fröbe was chosen after the filmmaker and producers had seen Fröbe playing the role of a child molester in a German film. His menacing physical presence would prove to be an asset when it came to showing the devious nature of the character, but there was one major drawback that would drive the producers over the edge when they learned of it; Fröbe couldn’t speak a word of English. Guy Hamilton got around this by having the actor learn to speak the words phonetically as fast as he could, so it would be easier later on to dubb him over. The end result was perfect and if I hadn’t found out about it, I would be none the wiser.

Shirley Eaton would land one of the most iconic Bond girl roles of the entire saga, and would be the protagonist of one of the most beautifully eerie moments of the series; the sequence in which Bond after having been knocked out cold by Goldfinger’s henchman; Oddjob, awakens to discover the naked body of Shirley Eaton’s Jill Masterson covered entirely in gold paint. It’s one of the most eye-catching, and instantly recognizable scenes of the whole saga. It was a role that would also give further legs to her aspirations of becoming an actress in Hollywood as, up until then, she’d been relegated to play roles in some small produced British comedies, like the “Carry On” movies. For the role of her vengeful sister Till Masterson, model Tania Mallet was chosen. Clearly a very inexperienced actress, her role in the film was very minor and reduced to begin with, ending abruptly with her death at the hands of Oddjob, halfway through the movie.

But the one actress who would end up playing the main Bond girl role of the movie and a very controversial one at that, from a censorship point of view, was British actress Honor Blackman. She had been a mainstay of the famous 60s spy thriller The Avengers, which run from 1961 to 1969. The origin of this controversy was because of the apparent lurid nature of the name chosen for her character, a name that was already present in Ian Fleming’s book; Pussy Galore. Despite the numerous attempts by censors at the time to stop the producers from using the name, or even trying to convince them to pick another one ( reference to the character’s name were even removed from the promotional material used to market the movie worldwide), the producers, and especially Blackman were adamant in using the name whenever they could, as she thought it to be just another tongue-in-cheek element inseparable from the funny and over-the-top tone of the movie. Her time in The Avengers, and experience practising Judo for the action sequences on that show, would also prove to be a major asset when playing her character. The sassy, irreverent and highly independent nature of her character, would transform her into one of the most memorable and beautiful Bond girls to grace the big screen.

For the role of Goldfinger’s henchman, the Korean bodyguard Oddjob, the producers went with Hawaiian Wrestler from Japanese descent, Harold Sakata. The producers were impressed by the sheer size, and physique of the wrestler turned actor, who with his lethal steel-pointed bowler hat, would become one of the most memorable villains/henchman of the series.

Other actors would be Cec Linder as CIA agent Felix Leiter and Michael Mellinger as Kisch, another one of Golfinger’s henchmen.

With the cast pretty much in place, most of the technical and artistic crew like editor Peter Hunt, Cinematographer Ted Moore, Production Designer Ken Adam, Film Composer John Barry and writer Richard Maibaum with the collaboration of writer Peter Dehn this time, would return to familiar territory, but with a much increased budget of $3 million, that would help Adam come up with some of the most lavishly constructed sets for the series, like Goldfinger’s Swiss hideout, the Laser-Beam room, his briefing room that also serves as gassing chamber for those Goldfinger wants to get rid of, and especially, his highly inventive recreation of the interior of Fort Knox, access to which was impossible for the producers, who had to make do with Adam’s imagination. John Barry would also come up with one of his most energetic and inventive scores for the series, for which he was in total control this time around, delivering at the same time one of the most iconic and memorable title songs for the saga, sang by the inimitable Shirley Bassey with lyrics by Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

Filming

Filming took place in location in Miami, Switzerland and Kentucky, US, with the bulk of the production being filmed, once again in the UK, in Pinewood Studios. As Sean Connery was still busy filming the movie Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964), at the time main unit started filming Goldfinger, the filmmakers had to be very clever in the way they shot in some of the locations ( The Fontainebleu Hilton Resort in Miami, or a Car Factory that doubled up as Auric Goldfinger’s Swiss smelting factory), using some of these scenes as background plates that would later on be used as background proyection for the same sets recreated in Pinewood Studios. It was the clever melding of both of these elements in the editing room by Peter Hunt, that would help the production team keep up the shooting schedule without a hitch. One of the most remarkable elements of the movie was the extensive use of gadgets, that would become one of the mainstays and sources of popularity for the series. None was more popular than the use of the Aston Martin DB5, a car model that would replace the Bentley that Bond drove in the novels, and which offered the Art Department the chance to let their imaginations run wild, and load the car with all sorts of gadgetry that would help Bond get out of any sticky situation. Among the most famous gadgets implemented were; machine guns behind the headlights, revolving plate numbers, smoke screen, slick oil that came out of the car’s tail lights, a bulletproof shield that sprung up from behind the car, and an ejector seat. More gadgets were supposed to be implemented, like a hidden compartment for guns under the passenger seat and a car phone, to name just a few. But the Art Department didn’t, unfortunately, have the time to fit all of them into the car in time for filming. One of the main hurdles into which filmmaker and producers run, when wrapping up filming in the States, was the impossibility of filming around and inside the Gold depository of Fort Knox. As it was a highly restrictive area, into which not even the President of the United States was allowed, Broccoli resorted to a military friend of his to get around this by taking pictures of the outside and getting away with some guerrilla filmmaking when it came to shooting the air raid around Fort Knox by Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus. The planes were piloted by expert crop dusters outfitted with blonde wigs to make them look like Pussy Galore’s flying squad. For the sequence in which hundreds of soldiers camped around Fort Knox fall to the ground as Pussy’s flying squad fly over them, they convinced the different soldier units to do it on command on the promise of some money and beer. It was a monumental logistical task that paid off. As for the rest of the sequence taking place both outside and inside Fort Knox, the Art Department under the direction of Ken Adam recreated both sets on the back lot and inside some of the biggest stages of Pinewood. It was a great achievement in Production Design, and stretched the imagination of those working in the Art Department to the limit.

Reception

Goldfinger was an inmediate success. It was the fastest grossing movie of its time, and one of the most successful of the entire series. It also inspired a spy craze that would spawn an unlimited amount of movies that would directly benefit from the success of the Bond movies, some with more fortune than others, but none would come even close to what Goldfinger had achieved. It would even prove to be a difficult task, years down the line, for the producers to top their own product with successive movies. It is a hallmark entry in the series, and one of the most entertaining and tightly edited movies of the saga. A movie that broke molds and set the standard for what was to come.

Final Thoughts

Goldfinger is a brilliant example of what a Bond movie is supposed to be like. It’s got it all; a compelling and charismatic villain, kick-ass henchman, beautiful but, at the same time, resourceful Bond girls, an outlandish, but very well put together plot, great gadgets, brilliant action set-pieces, and a great score. There’s not a dull moment during the whole movie, it’s tightly edited, even though the blend of in location and on-set footage is not always seamless, and some of the continuity errors are quite glaring. So is the end of the movie. The scene in which Bond fights off Goldfinger in the depresurized cabin of a plane, and ends up with Goldfinger being sucked out of the window, is laughable at best. If you can overlook these technical and writing issues, you should be in for a treat. Bond movies were never supposed to be grounded in reality to begin with. The world of Bond is one of fantasy, and the elements and characters surrounding him are supposed to be outlandish and over-the-top. Sean Connery is clearly at his most comfortable as James Bond in this movie. His performance is flawless, and his blend of hard-edge attitude, and tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, would forever define the main character traits of any Bond. If you’ve never seen a Bond movie, this would be the one to go for first.

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The King of Comedy. The tragedy of life

The irony of being a great admirer of Martin Scorsese’s work over the years, and having never before seen The King of Comedy, doesn’t escape me, and it’s a tragedy in itself. Made all the more unforgivable, as this is probably one of his most rounded pictures, and probably the best of De Niro’s performances for the great filmmaker, and one of the most nuanced of his whole career.

It tells the story of Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, whose name, everybody around him, seems to misspell, or not even remember. Pupkin is an aspiring stand up comedian, who is a great admirer of popular TV show host and comedian, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis playing a very down, bitter, and irritable version of himself) . One night, after one of Jerry’s shows, and after successfully saving him from a stalker named Masha, played by Sandra Bernhard, he gets in Jerry’s car with him. Rupert asks Jerry for his help to start in the showbiz. Jerry reluctantly accepts to help him, and tell him to come by his office the next day. Rupert does, but is deflected by Jerry’s personal assistant, who after numerous visits by Rupert, finally gives in and accepts a tape with Rupert’s recorded material in order to get rid of him. After more unsuccessful attempts by Rupert to gain Jerry’s attention, he decides to kidnap Jerry with the help of Masha, and threatens to kill him unless he’s allowed to appear on Live TV as a special guest of Jerry’s show, and prove what he can do in front of the whole world.

It may seem a simple and straightforward story, but it’s got more wrinkles and nuances that it may appear at first sight. Don’t be fooled. Rupert’s attempts to become a stand up comedy star, are nothing more than an effort to escape the day to day drab that his life has become; and as we later on learn; a way of overcoming a tragically difficult upbringing, with bouts of alcoholism and child abuse. As he clearly states at the end of his Live monologue; “It’s best to be king for a day than a schmuck for life”. In other words; he rather go to prison for his crime than face a life of mediocrity, in the off chance of having his 15 min of fame.

In spite of the absurd amount of curb balls that life throws at him, Rupert remains an upbeat character for most of the movie. That is, until after an impromptu visit to Jerry’s country estate, he realizes that he’s not really respected or appreciated by anyone around him, least of all, Jerry. He realizes that he’s been given the run around by most everyone, and finally decides to take matters into his own hands, and do something about it. It is easy to see the references, and how director Todd Phillips took more than one page out of Scorsese’s book for his highly successful Joker (2019). Both Arthur and Rupert are aspiring stand up comedians, and they also want to escape the mediocrity of their daily struggles, and being acknowledged and respected as artists, but especially human beings. They both resort to violence to solve their problems, but in the case of Rupert, the results are strikingly different. Rupert is a softer, less morally damaged person than both Arthur Fleck or his counterpart in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, whose way of dealing with an equally afflicting problem as prostitution and human degradation, is to shoot his way out of it. The end result for both Rupert and Travis is surprisingly the same. In the end, it all works out for them. One way or another. Not so much for Arthur. And therein lies the difference.

As is the case with Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull ( 1980), Robert De Niro delivers yet another amazing performance, arguably his best under Scorsese’s direction, and one of the finest of his career. His character can be both likable and irritable at the same time, which is something quite difficult to achieve, but a test that De Niro passes with flying colours. Another standout performance would be Sandra Bernhard’s turn as a wealthy, but highly unbalanced psycho fan, who is willing to do anything just to get close to the object of her desire, Jerry Langford.

This movie is Scorsese at his finest. No one can portray the dirty, gritty, but amazingly good looking urban landscape of New York quite the way he or Woody Allen do. It is, at the same time, an apt social comment on how uncaring life in the big city, and especially in Show business, can be. Helped by a very solid script, solid performances, and very nice Cinematography by Fred Schuler, this is one of Scorsese’s best. I’m just sorry it took me this long to see it.

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Parasite. Scraping for a living.

Parasite is one of the most interesting movies that came out last year, one that, given its limited release in Theaters, I wasn’t expecting to see. Ever since its release, the movie has been growing from strength to strength, thanks to strong word-of-mouth from audience, and excellent reviews throughout in the critic circles. Directed by Bong Joo-hoo, whose excellent Snowpiercer (2013), has more than one point in common with Parasite, this is one of the absolute best movies of last year.

It tells the story of a struggling Southkorean family who live huddled together in a below-street-level tiny apartment. None of the family members has a job that pays well, and they’ve learned to hustle and scrape their living through a string of bad paid part-time jobs that barely help them get by. The family is comprised of both parents and two young siblings, who due to their combined low-income, have been forced to forego their University studies. Opportunity presents itself when a friend of the family, a University student, tells the young son that he’s gonna be away for a while because of his studies, and wants his young friend to take over him as English tutor to the daughter of a very well-off family, who live in the rich part of town. On his friend’s good word-of-mouth, and an English title forged by his sister, the young boy ingratiates himself with the family, and soon enough will find a way to bring in his sister, masquerading as an Art Psychologist for the family’s rebellious little son. It is, in this fashion, that little by little, the entire family work their way into the rich family’s household using morally dubious, and pretty unsavoury tactics to replace the household’s stuff. But there is one more surprise in store for the family that no one was counting on. With huge doses of black comedy, the movie is an apt tale about how far ordinary people are willing to go, in order to not only improve their social status, but also to remain there once achieved. Roles are flipped more often than not, when we learned that, who we thought to be the victims of the story, are not as clear cut as we thought them to be. In a cutthroat society as the one we live in, it’s no surprise the lengths people will go to, to secure economic position. In the end, it’s all for naught, as those above us, that fabled society’s 15 % rich, will always stay on top of the food chain. There are ample visual references contrasting both families’ way of living, going back and forth between the slums where the protagonists live, and the rich part of town, where the rich family live. One is built in an haphazard fashing, to fit in as many people as possible, with no decent facilities or drainage system; the other neighbourhood is built on top of a hill, with state of the art facilities and drainage system. This reference will come into play later on in the movie, in a scene that will be the catalyst of what’s to ensue in the last act of the movie. Likewise, through carefully placed lines of dialogue throughout the movie, we also get a sense of the social, and cultural divide between both families. The patriarch of the family makes some rather cruel comments about the way the ”other half” lives, and smells. As I said, not as clear cut as we might think. Even though the rich family has an outlook of pleasantness and kindness about them, the manner in which most of the time they will deal with the family protagonist, is rather condescending, and callous. The twist halfway through the movie is yet more proof of the level is self-depravation most people have to go through in life just to keep on breathing. Food for thought, and a cruel, but at the same time, wickedly funny tale about the limits of Humanity’s self preservation.

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From Russia with Love: Bond is back with a vengeance.

Given the runaway success that Dr No had been, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were determined to build on that success right away, and immediately started working on the next Bond movie in the series, which will prove to be even more successful than the previous one.

Inception

The Ian Fleming book chosen to be adapted for the next movie was From Russia with Love. The book was written at a time when sell figures for the Ian Fleming spy novels were at an all time low. Fleming was so disillusioned with this, that he’d even considered killing off James Bond at the very end of that book. Indeed, Bond was put into hospital at the end of the novel after Rosa Kleeb had nearly killed him with one of her poisonous shoe blades. Author Raymond Chandler convinced him otherwise, and the fact that the book was included on a list of the then President of the United States’ John Fitzgerald Kennedy favourite books, only helped his case. It was the inclusion on this reading list, which was the determining factor in convincing both Broccoli and Saltzman that they had to adapt it next. Once again, screenwriter Richard Maibaum was brought in once again to pen the script. All other crew members, and most of the recurring characters from the previous movie were once again called upon with the exception of Peter Burton, who’d played the part of Q on Dr No, and was sadly unavailable to reprise his role, and Production Designer, Ken Adam, who was currently working with Stanley Kubrik on Dr Strangelove. Neither did Maurice Binder. The release schedule of the movie was so tight that there wasn’t any time left for Binder to do his usual elaborate credits sequence. Instead, the job fell on the shoulders of Canadian artist Robert Brownjohn, who had the idea of proyecting the credits of the crew and cast on the girl chosen to act on the credits sequence. Apparently this idea was suggested to Brownjohn after his wife walked in front of a slide proyector by mistake. Desmond Llewelyn took over as Q and pretty much for the remainder of the series until come The World is not Enough (1999), after which he was replaced by John Cleese, and Art Director Syd Cain would replace Adam, who would be back for the next entry in the franchise. Terence Young always considered From Russia with Love to be one of Fleming’s best, if not the best, of his books, and it would end up making for one of the more realistic, grounded and solid of the Bond movies ever released. After that, and with Guy Hamilton taking over for the next installment, the Bond series would definitely step into the realm of the outlandish and tongue-in-cheek adventures that would become the series’ hallmark.

With a director, technical crew and principal actors pretty much in place, it was time to start looking for the next Bond girl and the new villain or villains of the piece. For this they went with a former Beauty Contest participant, the italian Daniella Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova, with Austrian actress Lotte Lenya to play the part of SPECTRE operative Rosa Klebb, Robert Shaw as deadly assassin Red Grant, and Pedro Armendáriz as Head of Station T in Turkey, Ali Kerim Bey. The part of Ernst Stavros Bloefeld would be played in this movie, and the next directed by Terence Young, Thunderball (1965), by actor Anthony Dawson, who’d played the role of Professor Dent in Dr No (1962), but would be voiced by another actor, Eric Pohlmann. Unlike in the book where the enemy against which Bond was facing off was the Russian organization SMERSH, the decision was made that they would be changed to SPECTRE, the criminal organization led by Ernst Stavros Bloefeld, that had been later on created by Ian Flemming, Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory for the books, and would be the main point of contention in a legal dispute between Fleming and McClory over the legal use of said organazation in future films that ended up with McClory retaining the rights to use it, along with the rights to Fleming’s Thunderball novel.

Filming

Filming started in Instambul, Turkey, Scotland, Spain and Pinewood Studios, England, where the main sets like M’s office, Karim’s office, a replica of the Gypsy camp in Instambul, and above all, the interior of the Orient Express, which was meticulously recreated and, where one of the most tense and violent fist fights of the entire saga would take place. Other parts of Pinewood, like the garden area where the pre-credit sequence takes place, and which also doubles up as SPECTRE’s training camp.

The shoot would prove to be a difficult and strenuous proposition from the start, as the crew started having crowd control problems, and one of the main starts of the movie, Pedro Armendariz, was discovered to have developed an incurable type of Cancer that would only worsen during the first days of shooting. It was decided that Armendariz’s scenes would be pushed ahead in the schedule, so he could check himself into a hospital as soon as possible. It was thanks, in great part to Terence Young’s help, whose brother was the Queen of England’s surgeon, and was the one who treated Armendariz on the first stages of the sickness, and his quick and effective way of shooting, that the actor’s scenes could be finished promptly. There were also numerous re-writes done to the script by Maibaum during shooting, and thanks to the ingenious ideas of editor Peter Hunt, several scenes could be re-worked during the editing process, like the one where Rosa Klebb and Bloefeld discuss plans to steal the LECTOR decoding machine, where the footage of Lenya had to be reversed, and a re-shot shot of the actress placed in front of an existing one from a previous scene, and the background replaced by a background plate of the same location and used as back proyection. Those were the kind of tricks Hunt and co had to employ to save time and money. With other scenes, however, they weren’t so lucky. Even considering the difficulty of the helicopter chase scene that was shot in Scotland with a mixture of Live footage and miniatures, the boat chase scene, where Bond escapes a small flotilla of SPECTRE’s speed boats using barrels of Kerosene and a flare gun, had to be re-shot after an untimely explosion of the charges that Special Effects Supervisor John Stears had set to go off at the very end of the scene. That, and bouts of seasickness by actress Daniella Bianchi, forced Young and his team to re-schedule the shoot to be done in a water tank in one of Pinewood’s sets. The fight scene between Bond and Grant aboard the Orient Express was another cause for concern from a censorship point of view. There were concerns that the scene would be pulled out due to the considerable violent nature of it but, it was so expertly shot by Young, and performed by both Connery and Shaw ( the stuntmen for both actors were used in one small shot only), that they managed to get away with it. This was the very first time that Bond engineers his escape thanks to one of Q-Branch’s gizmos, a gas exploding suitcase with a concealed knife inside it, that would be the first of many gadgets to come in the series. It was actually the censors that would prove to be a bane in both the director’s and producers lives. Hunt was the one in charge of taking him around to the sets, and showing him the daillies at the end of the day, to make sure that everything was done according to Code regulations. Scenes, like the one where a model expertly concealed as Bianchi to shoot her nude scenes or the two gypsy women fight in the camp, the nature of which was way more graphic in the book, were so tastefully done that the Censors approved of them.

Final thoughts

This movie achieved the rare feat of improving on both the quality and the box office takings of the previous movie. It was a major success in most of Europe, and especially, the UK. Wasn’t as much of a runaway success as Dr No had been in the States, though, due, in the most part, to a limited theatrical release. It wouldn’t be until the release of the next movie in the franchise, Goldfinger (1964), that Bond would forever cement his place in Cinema History, and become the household name that it is today. The success of Goldfinger would prompt United Artist to re-release the first two Bond movies as a double bill, becoming one of the most profitable double bill features of all time. This, in my opinion, would really be the most hard edge we’d see Bond act in a movie until Licence to Kill (1989), and would see Daniel Craig continue in this fashion for most of his tenure, especially in Casino Royale (2006), and Skyfall (2012). It was also the last really grounded 007 adventure we’d see for a while.

In spite of the numerous re-writes that the script was subjected too, it’s by far, one of the tightest scripts in the franchise. The movie moves at a very swift pace, it’s got one of the more sadistic and effective enemies that Bond has ever faced in Red Grant, Lotte Lenya gives Rosa Klebb both the right amount of evil and coldness that the character needs, Connery is thoroughly immersed and comfortable in the role, Armendariz is one of the best Inteligence Community’s counterparts that Bond has ever had, and Bianchi, admittedly not the best of actresses, lights up the screen with her beauty. The action set pieces, like the fight between Grant and Bond aboard the Orient Express, the Helicopter chase sequence, and the Boat Chase sequence are all very well executed and brilliantly edited. As I mentioned on my previous Bond retrospective, John Barry really does come into his own in this movie, delivering a score that is both tense and melodic at times. His style would be further refined in the next entry in the series, Goldfinger (1964) . All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable spy movie, that shares some of the tropes, but bears little resemblance to what Bond movies would come to be later on. If I had to qualify Bond movies in regards to their faithfulness to the source material, I’d say this, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) are the more faithful to Fleming’s writing. It’s by far the best of the three movies that were directed by Terence Young, and one of the most rounded and memorable of the entire saga. Scenes like the aforementioned Orient Express fight, the Gypsy Camp fight, the Boat Chase, and the highly suspenful last confrontation between Bond and Rosa Klebb and her poisonous concealed shoe blades, are among the best in the series. Connery was at his best on this one, and by the time Goldfinger came around, he’d already taken the world by storm, and became a household name overnight. James Bond was back with a vengeance. And was here to stay.

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Picard. Episode 1 review. Interesting beginning

Given the amount of bad press that this new TV show was getting even before it was released, I was somewhat skeptical about the quality of what I would find, when I finally got to see the first episode. Alas, all my qualms and misgivings have been put to rest. Even though the show resembles the look of the much derided Star Trek : Discovery show, as it apparently has most of the same creative team behind it; this one stays more true in spirit to what we remember Star Trek being.

The show has a very interesting premise. It picks up 20 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, with a Jean Luc Picard retired to his vineyard and winery in France after, as we discover later on, resigning his commission as a Starfleet officer on account of a moral disagreement with the Federation, caused by a catastrophic event that forever changed the political landscape in the Galaxy. Soon enough, he gets embroiled once again in another difficult situation when a young woman, who claims to have some sort of connection to Picard’s past, comes knocking on his door, asking for help.

The interesting thing about this new TV show, without giving much away, is that the Federation as we once knew it, has been turned on its head, some new laws that affect characters loved by all of us have been passed, and a once mighty military, and economic force in the Galaxy, is no more. So far, on this first episode, we’ve only been given a few tidbits of information as to what happened, and we’ve been left wondering what’s gonna happen next. Which can only mean good things.

Needless to say, the show has amazingly good production values; Visual effects, Production design, Make-up and Costume design are still top notch. Not so sure about the music, though. I still think that Jeff Russo is not a good match for Star Trek. Surely they could’ve come up with a better Composer for the proyect. Michael Giacchino comes to mind. Patrick Steward slips right back into the role of Picard. He’s clearly grown more comfortable over the years as an actor, and is not as stiff as he used to be in the old days, due mainly to his background as a British stage actor for The London Shakespeare Company. He, like the wine produced from Picard’s winery, has got better with age. But, the absolute standout so far, is Isa Briones as Dahj. I’m really intrigued to see where they go with her character. On the few instances that she was onscreen, she managed the rare feat of making her completely believable, and compelling. They still need to work on the editing of the action scenes, as the quick cutting style they decided to go with, turn these into a jambled mess. As a said, an interesting beginning, with a promising plot, and engaging characters. Looking forward to seeing where they go with it.

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1917. Emotional Rollercoaster

Saying that 1917 is one of the best movies of 2020, which has barely started, is a bit of an understatement. This, without a shadow of a doubt, is one of the best movies of the last 10 years, and one that will probably make it onto the list of best movies of the 21st Century. It’s that good.

Taking a simple premise: Two soldiers in the middle of war-torn France during WWI, on April 6, 1917, are ordered by the High Command to cross the No Man’s land between the British forces and the German lines, to deliver the very important message of stopping an imminent attack by the British Army on a seemingly retreating German Army. The High Command knows, via some aerial footage, that the German have fortified their positions, and by apparently retreating, have lured the British forces into a false sense of security. They’ve also cut off all telephone lines, making it impossible for the British High Command to communicate the change in strategy to the front lines. So, it is up to these two young soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake, and Lance Corporal Schofield, to deliver the message without getting killed in the process.

Blake has personal stakes on the mission, as his brother happens to be one of the commanding officers in the front line in charge of leading the fateful offensive, and wants to get there as soon as possible to deliver the message, in spite of the overwhelming odds against them; while Schofield thinks is a foolish and dangerous endeavor to attempt crossing the enemy lines in broad daylight, and without the aid of either ground or aerial support.

What ensues is a classic war tale that plays out, most of the time, as an adventure story. To get to their final destination, they will have to overcome an ever increasing amount of obstacles in the form of underground hidden land mines, treacherous terrain, aerial dogfights, snipers, and enemy divisions hell-bent on killing them.

It’s a heartbreaking and, at times, very emotional tale of Hope and Loss, Friendship, and Sense of Duty. In the space of a brief series of exchanges between our main protagonists at the beginning of the movie, we get to know and care for them. It is mainly thanks to the performances of both Dean- Charles Chapman and George McKay, that we get really invested in both the characters, and the story being told. The journey is, ultimately, more important than the destination. Will they get there? Can they fulfill their mission?. We’re always on the edge of our seats, expecting the worst, but hoping for the best. Along the way, they will meet friends and foes, with some very surprising bit parts played by some of the best actors of the British scene like Mark Strong, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch. And it is during these exchanges that we get to see the worst, but also the best that Mankind can offer. It’s not all black and white, there’s grays too. A lot of grey.

Being a filmmaker that I’ve been following with interest ever since his debut in American Beauty (1999), Sam Mendes has slowly, but surely, evolved into one of the most interesting filmmakers today. He’s honed and perfected his skills over the years, offering some of the best movies we’ve seen in the last twenty years, among them, one of the most rounded, and satisfying Bond movies we’ve seen in years, Skyfall (2012). It was during the making of that movie, and the next entry in the Bond series, Spectre (2015), that I believed he developed the skills the deliver one of the most amazing technical achievements that we’ve seen in recent cinematographic history. Deciding to shoot this movie as a one shot sequence, may be a marvel to behold, but it sure was no mean feat to accomplish, and it definitely must’ve been a logistical nightmare. He was helped in this task by brilliant British Cinematographer, Roger Deakins who has, once again, outdone himself with yet another Cinematography job that will surely earn him another deserved Oscar come Award season. Of course, if you look closely, and pay attention, you can see where the cuts are made, as it would be physically impossible to make a two-hour long one shot sequence, otherwise. But the cuts are so seamless, and so well made, that the magic spell is never broken. With a meticulously recreated war-torn landscape of trenches, wire fences, tunnels, mud, and amputated, and bloated corpses lying around for even more dramatic effect, thanks to a brilliant Production Design by Dennis Gassner, and a tense, but at times, majestic soundtrack by film composer and Mendes’ frequent collaborator, Thomas Newman, who sonically ratches up the suspense of the different action set pieces as the movie progresses; we are totally submerged in this experience.

A masterclass of suspense and war movie action, that will keep you nailed to your seat. I know I was. Unavoidable cinematic appointment of the year, and an absolute masterpiece for the ages. One of the absolutely best war movies ever made. Emotional Rollercoaster. Enough said. Don’t miss out.

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