Logan, the X-Men, & the beauty of data

THE LAST FILM I went to see at the cinema was Logan and, I implore you, definitely go see it if you can find a place still showing it. But don’t do like I did and get lost contemplating the various intricacies of the inconsistent X-Men film series. Instead, just make use of this handy series of charts I’ve created and compiled for you!

Look, it’s got everything you might possibly need to know, charting which of the X-Men films…

  1. Are actually about the X-Men

are about the X-Men

2. Take place in which timeline…which timeline

3. Take place in the future…

past or future

4. Posit a Bad Future

posited futures

5. Feature Wolverine…

featuring Wolverine

6. Feature Wolverine fighting his double…

Wolverine fights his double

7. Feature Storm…

featuring Storm

8. Have a plot centred on human-mutant relations…

human-mutant relations

9. Introduce mutants via an underground fighting ring…

mutants introduced via fight ring

10. And sorted by score on Rotten Tomatoes.

sorted by RT score

Licence Revoked, Licence to Kill, & bad Bond luck

Tim Dalton

IN MY LAST BLOG POST, I was chatting about how the 16th Bond film, Licence Revoked, suffered an undignified and expensive last-minute name change to Licence to Kill. That wasn’t the only thing going wrong behind the scenes on one of the least inspired, least successful entries in what is, for the most part, a reliable series.

Firstly, Timothy Dalton, who had made his début in 1987’s The Living Daylights, was certainly the 007 with the rottenest luck. First approached by the producers in 1969 to replace Connery for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dalton’s conscience or sense of purism wouldn’t allow him to accept the part, believing himself to be too young. In 1981, however, he was all set to take over in For Your Eyes Only; a condition of accepting the rôle was that the script take Bond in a darker, more gritty direction that took more cues from the Fleming novels and short stories. In the end, Dalton didn’t end up appearing in that film either, but the script intended for him supplied Moore with one of his best, and certainly his darkest, adventure. By the time Dalton was finally ready, in 1987, the tables were turned, and The Living Daylights sees him awkwardly making his way through a script intended for Moore. The resultant high-camp doesn’t sit well with the character Dalton is playing, and the picture is largely confused and forgettable, with a few honourable bright spots. GoldenEye, an exceptionally sharp scipt written especially for Dalton, would eventually star Pierce Brosnan, and in the meantime Dalton was lumped with the only script written for him that he would ever actually appear in, something called Licence Revoked.

In many ways, it was to be the tentative first modern Bond, in the sense that many series mainstays were either gone or on their way out. The early entries are magnificent pictures due to their good fortune in having a wonderful production team behind them. It was time to prove that the formula could outlast its creators: it was the first film not to bear a title from Fleming, and the last for some time to use any Fleming elements in its script. It was the last to star Timothy Dalton. It was the last written by Richard Maibaum. It was the last directed by John Glen. It was the last with titles by Maurice Binder. It’s the last to depict Bond as a smoker, and the last in which the original version of Felix Leiter appears. It was the last produced by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, though he would be retained on GoldenEye as a consultant producer. Harry Saltzman and Peter R. Hunt had long since left the series, and it was the first film following John Barry’s departure. It was also the first to feature a photographic, rather than a painted, poster, and it was the first to scrutinise Bond’s masculinity, something that has been retained in all eight subsequent films.

You have to admire Dalton, for his devotion to the Bond literature, his willingness to put artistic integrity before commerciality, and the fact that he’s a damned fine actor, not to mention that his overlooked status in the franchise makes him automatically sympathetic. But I’ve always found that Sean Connery’s ability to play high charm with a threat of violence that may explode from under the surface at any moment to more authentically capture the character of Bond than does Dalton’s portrayal, which is a perpetually ticked-off but ultimately not very dangerous type of rogue. The Licence Revoked script picks up on the worst aspects of that characterisation, stripping out even the tenderness that makes up for the many flaws of The Living Daylights.  Here, Bond is as totally cold as he ever got, going up against a bunch of drug-dealing lowlives responsible for various acts of rape, torture and murder, including putting his friend Felix Leiter in a coma. Naturally, Bond goes into a full-on white rage, murdering his way through a script full of such horrors as shark feeding frenzies, maggot tanks, viscerally exploding heads, bad guys burnt alive, crooked televangelists and huge clouds of cocaine dust. He even attacks his old friend M, going rogue without a Licence to Kill (it’s never explained why he escapes prosecution for going on a murder-spree, nor what strings could possibly have been pulled to see him reinstated by the time of GoldenEye).

A Bond script is a plastic thing, though, and surely a series of rewrites could have salvaged Licence Revoked, were it not for the unfortunate timing of the 1989 Writers’ Strike. Director John Glen was on his fifth Bond outing by this point; a former second-unit director, he made efficient, satisfying and cheap Bond pictures with none of the grandiosity of Guy Hamilton, the cool of Terence Young, or the humour of Lewis Gilbert. One of those directors might have found some hidden inner charm or flair that would give Licence to Kill an identity. Glen’s approach is workmanlike and drab, doing nothing to compensate for the lack of an engaging script.

Another sorely felt loss to the Bond formula was sex, vetoed due to AIDs. The Living Daylights reformed Bond; he’s a chaste, yet deeply romantic and tender figure. It’s one of only a handful containing a convincing romance, along with From Russia with Love, The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale. Of course, the picture itself doesn’t lack sex; depicted or implied sexual violence is commonplace, but its already unlikeable protagonist is made more inhuman yet by his seeming sexlessness. There are women for him in the picture, two of them in fact, but the bizarre culmination of their flirtation is that he pushes both of them into a pool, like some kind of sexually asexual psychopath able only to get his jollies through humiliation. It should be noted that he blows off Felix Leiter, the friend that all this revenge was supposedly in aid of, to do this. Not to fuck either girl, or even both at once, but to push them into a pool while a fish winks at the audience. Even the cringing nature of Moore’s romance with young-enough-to-be-his-daughter Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill is preferable.

Something else A View to a Kill had that Licence lacks is a great theme song. “Licence to Kill” is probably the worst of the lot, histrionic, synthetic and, like so much about the picture, anonymous.

Floundering to find a market and making do without classic elements and without writers able to write around that absence, the producers looked to American audiences to secure a future for Licence Revoked. The change of title was made to court American audiences, who apparently found the existing one comical, it being a phrase commonly used by the DMV, a favourite fallback target of American humour. Changing the title at this point, however, with much promotional material already printed, cost the producers not just in cash but also in marketing momentum.

The issue may well have been not in changing the title partway through production, but in gearing up the marketing machine before a sensible title was settled on. There’s something dark and enticing to my ears about the Licence Revoked title, but at least Licence to Kill more clearly connects with the Bond brand. That brand was less in evidence given other tweaks to the established formula also presumably tailored to please American audiences; Licence to Kill plays out as an American action film of the 80s, an influence underlined by the hiring of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard composer Michael Kamen. There’s an anonymity to Licence to Kill‘s violent revenge fantasy, as if it could just as well be Dirty Harry, or Death Wish, or any number of similarly mean-spirited, hard-boiled flicks. It’s that approach which earned Licence to Kill a 15 certificate, further hurting its commercial potential though adequately warning kids away from the amped-up violence* of a series already more adult-oriented than its legions of kid fans would lead you to believe. The Sunday Times‘ Ian Johnstone was put off, finding that the film had eradicated “any traces of the gentleman spy” envisaged by Fleming; Bond here is “remarkably close both in deed and action to the eponymous hero of the Batman film”.

He makes an apt comparison. Either Jaws or Star Wars is usually cited as the birth of the Summer blockbuster, but in truth it’s not a phenomenon that arrived fully-formed, as evidenced by the conflicting citations of two different pictures from different Summers. Batman was huge in an unprecedented way, not a word-of-mouth success like Jaws or Star Wars but a marketing juggernaut, impossible to avoid even months in advance of the release date. You can’t fault Licence to Kill for borrowing elements of its approach. But going up against it in the box-office is a decision that smacks of hubris. In fact 1989’s whole summer season was a brutal gauntlet, with action audiences pulled in different directions not just by Batman, but also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade**, Lethal Weapon 2 and Ghostbusters II, all of them not just better films than Licence to Kill but also healthier representatives of their respective franchise.

All told, you can’t fault audiences in 1989 for failing to connect with Licence to Kill. It failed both at bringing Bond convincingly up to date and at paying tribute to the series’ well-loved roots, both tasks managed seemingly effortlessly in GoldenEye . Of course, that film would have its own painful birth, after six years of legal and financial stresses and the loss of Tim Dalton, who would even express an interest in Kevin McClory’s Warhead 2000 A.D.. Still, Bond was saved, and would never find himself in any trouble again…until Quantum of Solace appeared, an underwhelming Bond which fails to connect with the classic formula due to a rushed production schedule, a name that audiences hated, a writers’ strike, and a sad desperation to piggyback on popular action tropes. It even lacked a proper romance for Bond. If only the producers had had an example to learn from, there…

*Milton Krest’s horrible death scene certainly lingered with me as a child, as did Benicio del Toro’s jeering rapist: “We gave her a niiiiice honeymoon!”

**Complete with meta-Bonding Sir Sean Connery

Quantum of Solace, Licence to Kill, & what’s in a name

Who’s going to be the next actor to play James Bond? Well, fingers crossed Daniel Craig will sign on to do one final picture: it would mean that his run matches the original five of Sir Sean Connery, and would allow the producers to finish the arc that has run through his pictures since 2006’s Casino Royale, resolving the cliffhanger ending of Spectre and leaving things open for a relatively fresh start with 007 Number Seven. Sadly, Craig’s unlikely to sign up for another, having claimed he’d rather “slit [his] wrists”. So if not him, then who? The big four names being tossed around are Aidan Turner, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston, and Idris Elba, presented there in descending order of how good a choice I think they are. Incidentally, here’s that popular shot from Poldark of Turner sans shirt, getting some scything in and unknowingly auditioning for the Bond part:aidan-turner

Well, that’s all well and good. But what are they going to call Bond 25, I wonder-? Most likely, they’ll come up with an original title, probably something one-word and mysterious, like Skyfall or Spectre. Hey, how about naming the movie Risico, in that case?

“Risico” was one of the short stories featured in Sir Ian Fleming’s collection For Your Eyes Only. But how can that be? When the 16th Bond film was still in production, the producers made an announcement: they had exhausted the pool of Fleming titles, and the new picture would have an original name, Licence Revoked. The title was a probable reference to John Gardner’s continuation Bond novel Licence Renewed, but it later became Licence to Kill, following its original title’s poor testing with US audiences (the title change came at great cost to the producers, just one of the many factors in the disaster of Licence to Kill‘s production). But the producers were telling blatant fibs! Fleming wrote twelve Bond novels; eleven of those twelve formed the first eleven Eon Productions pictures, though filmed out of order compared with their source material. Even referring to the novels as source material is slightly misleading; as the series continues, the films diverge more and more from the novels whose titles they borrow. Dr. No, From Russia with Love*, Goldfinger, Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service provide basically straightforward adaptations of their source novels, while You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun take the basic plots of the novels simply as templates, playing out in a grander, more comedic style with a number of original story additions. The film supposedly based on The Spy Who Loved Me, the one novel Fleming was embarrassed by, instead uses an original story, albeit one that borrows elements of You Only Live Twice, and was sufficiently different from the novel whose title it uses that Christopher Wood was also hired to pen a novelisation entitled James Bond, the Spy Who Loved Me. Its follow-up, Moonraker, used the villain name, but little else, from its novel; millionaire British philanthropist and secret Nazi Sir Hugo Drax became American entrepeneur and secret eugenicist Hugo Drax; once again, the original plot was novelised by Christopher Wood, and once again, past Bond films were a partial inspiration, Drax’s scheme and motivation being a space version of the underwater vision of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s Karl Stromberg.

At that point, with no more novel titles to use (Casino Royale was legally unavailable to the producers, thanks to the 1954 television film and 1967 spoof versions), the producers turned to short stories, first fancying “For Your Eyes Only”, then “Octopussy”, “From a View to a Kill”**, and “The Living Daylights”. In fact, the end credits of The Spy Who Loved Me announce the next film as For Your Eyes Only, showing the producers intended to turn to short story titles before even exhausting the novel titles available to them (the success of Star Wars caused them to embrace the science-fiction-sounding Moonraker title, though the novel itself contains no space-travel elements, unlike You Only Live Twice). These short stories predictably proved difficult to stretch to feature length, and the films at this point became cannibalistic hybrids: For Your Eyes Only draws part of its plot from “For Your Eyes Only”, but also looks to “Risico”, From Russia with Love, and one unused sequence from the Live and Let Die novel. “Octopussy” forms the backstory of Octopussy, the story itself being told in brief by the title character, and takes an auction scene from “The Property of a Lady” and its broad plot from Goldfinger. A View to a Kill uses its short story as a very loose basis for one scene in Paris, but soon moves on to a plot that once again draws on Goldfinger, with some original elements. The Living Daylights similarly adapts its short story for one scene in a mostly original plot; the final act recalls that of Octopussy, and the film overall bears a number of similarities to the Bond spoof Carry On Spying, but both of these are probably coincidences.

But the producers still had literary content left to mine, in spite of their public fibbing. Licence to Kill re-uses elements from the Live and Let Die film and novel as well as The Man with the Golden Gun novel alongside elements from the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity”. Licence to Kill thus bears the same degree of similarity to that short story as FYEO, Octopussy, AVtaK and TLD do to their respective short story titles, so why isn’t it entitled The Hildebrand Rarity? The likely answer is that what was meant was that they had run out of story titles that sounded good. “Risico”‘s title comes from a phonetically-rendered pronunciation of “risk”; “The Property of a Lady” would have worked for Sir Roger Moore but not for Timothy Dalton’s harder-edged interpretation of the character; “The Hildebrand Rarity” sounds more like Sherlock Holmes than James Bond; “007 in New York” is deeply underwhelming; and “Quantum of Solace” is basically word salad.

About that. GoldenEye takes its name from Fleming’s Jamaica house and uses an original plot (with some elements of the villain drawing on the Moonraker novel); Tomorrow Never Dies was a garbled version of the in-story newspaper slogan, “Tomorrow never lies”, and used a wholly original plot; The World is Not Enough is Bond’s family motto from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and uses yet another original plot (though aspects of the finale draw on Kingsley Amis’ continuation novel Colonel Sun). Finally, Die Another Day‘s title is a fragment from a Housman poem, and draws mostly from the previously unused plot of the novel Moonraker, plus re-used elements of the Diamonds Are Forever film, and brief references to the novels The Man with the Golden Gun and Colonel Sun.

Then in 2006 came Casino Royale, the first Bond to bear a novel’s title since 1979’s Moonraker (and the first mostly straightforward adaptation of a novel since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Having recovered the rights to adapt the famous first Bond novel, the producers opted to reboot the franchise entirely, discovering in the process a reverence for the Fleming source material that had been missing from the series for some time. In trying to craft a followup, the producers opted to continue with the Fleming loyalty, picking as a title Quantum of Solace, taken from an atypical short story which homaged Somserset Maugham and in which Bond was barely a character. Of course, the Quantum of Solace movie opted not to adapt that story, and instead went for something mostly original, though one scene did adapt “007 in New York”, and the remainder of the story grew out of the last act of the Casino Royale movie (and also bore an unfortunate resemblance to Licence to Kill). Daniel Craig, for his part, claimed that the film reflected the same themes as the short story, but to date “Quantum of Solace” remains the only one of Fleming’s novels or stories not to have any part of its story worked into a film.

The use of Quantum of Solace as a title was well-meant, but as soon as it was announced there came an enormous backlash from casual fans who were unaware that blame for the (admittedly horrendous) title lay with Fleming, not Eon. I believe that, had it not been for that backlash, Bond 23, which became Skyfall, would likely have been entitled Property of a Lady. I also believe, given the increasing concessions to the style of Roger Moore’s era evidenced in Skyfall and Spectre, that it would have been a wholly appropriate title. It’s certainly the most Bond-y feeling title of the remaining unused ones, but my hopes are high for a Bond film entitled Risico, after which, we’ll see about Property of a Lady and The Hildebrand Rarity. We’re unlikely to ever see a Bond picture entitled 007 in New York, and with “Quantum of Solace”, it is also one of only two Fleming novels or stories never to have any of their story elements used in a film. But how about a fun little short entitled “007 in New York”? It could be released on YouTube to build hype for the next movie, shown in cinemas before an appropriate feature, released as a DVD extra, or made to tie into a major television event, like the 2012 Olympics’ “Happy and Glorious” Bond short.

So, what’s in a name? Well, nothing really. I understand the producers’ eagerness to use a cool-sounding Bond title, and that that desire trumps a sort of historical completionism. In the meantime, little bits of innuendo towards the stories are creeping in, meaningless throwaway references such as Casino Royale‘s character of Solange, named for one in “007 in New York”, or the presence, in Spectre, of a “Hildebrand Antiques and Rarities” as well as a repurposed Hans Oberhauser (“Octopussy”), all of which are all well and good, but add up to very little.

Still, I’ll be going to see Bond 25 no matter what title it gets saddled with, and I note at this point that I disliked the generic Skyfall title even more than the outlandish Quantum of Solace one. Anyway, nothing will stop me from hoping.

*This was the first Bond to slightly adapt a title, losing the comma from the novel’s title of From Russia, with Love.

**The short story is entitled “From a View to a Kill”; the film simply A View to a Kill. This decision was obviously made after the film was in the planning stage, as the end credits of Octopussy announce the next film’s title as From a View to a Kill, becoming the second instance of the end credits making a mistake regarding the next film’s title. After A View to a Kill announced The Living Daylights, this practice was dropped entirely; otherwise, The Living Daylights would have mistakenly announced Licence Renewed, GoldenEye would have mistakenly announced Tomorrow Never Lies, The World is Not Enough might have mistakenly announced Beyond the Ice and, if I’m correct, Quantum of Solace would have mistakenly announced Property of a Lady.

Skyfall, 007 Legends, & rehabilitating the Bond canon

007 Legends.jpgASIDE FROM THEIR RATHER UNFORTUNATE resemblance to Austin Powers in Goldmember, one thing that’s puzzling about the two most recent Daniel Craig-starring Bonds – Skyfall and Spectre – is the inconsistent way in which they attempt to revive the canon of the old Bonds.

From 1962’s Dr. No to 2002’s Die Another Day, the twenty James Bond films existed in the same loose, yet mostly consistent, continuity; the understanding was that GoldenEye‘s opening scene took place during Timothy Dalton’s tenure in 1986, and this didn’t cause any conflict since both actors were still portraying the same character. Similarly, each of George Lazenby’s successors had scenes alluding, explicitly or implicitly, to Tracy Bond, the wife he loses at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only, Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill, and Pierce Brosnan in The World is Not Enough (potentially in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies also). However, in 2006, someone at Eon decided to take a cue from Batman Begins and give the series a gritty reboot, modernising certain elements and retelling the character’s origin to keep him in line with the times*; thus, the four-film arc that Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall & Spectre together constitute is to be understood as a standalone timeline, that has no direct story connection with the 1962-2002 series of films.

Or not. While Casino Royale & Quantum have a hard-boiled, mostly humourless approach informed by the Bourne series, Skyfall and especially Spectre evidence a yearning for the grandiosity of the 60s Bond, even suggesting confusingly that the old continuity isn’t completely uncanonical, referencing Goldfinger‘s DB5 and GoldenEye‘s exploding pen. Possibly the world depicted in the old films is canonical to the new ones, i.e. spycraft really was sillier back in the day, but their specific stories clearly are not, since we know that neither Bond, nor Moneypenny, nor Felix Leiter nor Blofeld were around back then. A main thematic strand of Skyfall/Spectre, similarly to GoldenEye, has to do with whether Bond, an old agent with old ideals, is still relevant in the modern world. This is hard to take when Casino & Quantum‘s main thematic strand is that Bond is a hotheaded rookie, not yet made cynical by years of experience. Following The Dark Knight Trilogy (&, coincidentally, the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, in which all but the first & final battles of the Clone Wars take place offscreen between the 2nd & 3rd entries), we seem to have missed out on seeing our hero in his Golden Age of heroism, when he was hampered by neither inexperience nor age.

Those who are dissatisfied with The Dark Knight or Star Wars can rectify the problem with some quite excellent animations (For The Dark Knight, Batman: Gotham Knight; for Star Wars, Star Wars: Clone Wars and the similarly-named Star Wars: The Clone Wars), and Bond fans, if they please, can treat the videogames as canon. Four games have been made during the Daniel Craig era: 007: Quantum of Solace is a mostly straightforward adaptation of that film which also includes flashback levels covering the plot of Casino Royale; James Bond 007: Blood Stone has an original story by Bruce Feirstein, who wrote Tomorrow Never Dies and co-wrote GoldenEye and The World is Not Enough; GoldenEye 007: Reloaded is a remake of the Nintendo 64 classic GoldenEye 007, with its story updated to Craig’s reboot era; finally, 007 Legends presents one adventure each from Craig’s five predecessors, remade to star Daniel Craig and told in the style of his films: Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence to Kill, Die Another Day, and Moonraker**.

The gameplay of these four, unlike past classics such as GoldenEye 007 or 007: Everything or Nothing ranges from average (007: Quantum of Solace) to terrible (007 Legends), but they are recommended to truly hardcore fans on the sole basis that they fix the apparent gap between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. James Bond 007: Blood Stone, the best-written one, features a James Bond who is transitioning from the angry young man of Craig’s first two films to a character with more of the smoothness associated with the classical Connery/Moore/Brosnan depictions. After that, with GoldenEye 007: Reloaded, we get to see the modern James Bond living out a properly classic adventure and then, in 007 Legends, five more!

If James Bond lived out seven full-scale adventures between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, then it easily accounts for him being presented as a haggard old warhorse in the latter. Remember, other action heroes have been presented as past-it old men when they’ve had only three on-screen adventures to their name (John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard; John Rambo in Rambo; Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), or in poor old Batman’s case, only two in The Dark Knight Rises. Aside from patching plot holes, treating these games as canon also makes Skyfall ring much truer in a thematic sense. If GoldenEye, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, especially, “happened” to Craig’s Bond then the bombastic feel that Skyfall tries to recapture already has some historical presence in this new universe; it contains, or used to contain, more than just the drab cynicism of Casino/Quantum.

However, while James Bond 007: Blood Stone & GoldenEye 007: Reloaded present no conflict with what’s shown in the actual films, 007 Legends is a little trickier. While it correctly uses the likeness of Daniel Craig’s Bond, Judi Dench’s M, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner in those rôles, someone seems to have forgotten that Jeffrey Wright appeared in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as Felix Leiter, as the Goldfinger missions use a character model based on Cec Linder – this is typical of the laziness with which 007 Legends is put together. Even taking into account that videogame models don’t always capture perfectly the features of the people they’re based on – try to work out who’s meant to be Connery, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan in this screenshot from GoldenEye 007! – and that the Bond series is renowned for changing the actors of almost all its recurring rôles, it’s still hard to square Linder’s whiteness with Wright’s blackness, and clearly the films take precedence here in determining what Felix truly looks like.

There are also other problems: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features an encounter with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, which was absolutely fine and actually quite cool until Spectre came out, confirming that such a meeting was impossible. Until the Blofeld rights mess was disentangled in 2013, this would have been the only way such a meeting could have been possible. In any case the character model used here, a rather pleasing compromise between the Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas portrayals, nicely closes the plot hole of his missing facial scar from You Only Live Twice, while opening a plot hole regarding whether he looks like Telly Pleasance, or Christoph Waltz, and whether or not he’s bald). Also, if Bond lost his wife in the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, you’d think that tragedy would be greater than, or at least equal to, his losing Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, yet it is never mentioned in Spectre. One suspects, in any case, that Madeleine Swann is being set up as a new version of Tracy Bond; her only decent chance of surviving Bond 25 will be if the producers completely ignore the previous story.

Well, it’d be nice to think that 007 Legends added something decent to the Bond canon. Its version of Licence to Kill skips the part where Bond punches M and continues his adventure as a rogue agent; in real life this behaviour would likely have seen Bond spend the rest of his life in Guantanamo Bay, and he certainly wouldn’t have been reinstated as a 00. So in some ways it actually improves on the films on which it’s based. Perhaps there is a place for it in canon; its set-up, borrowed from Hitman: Contracts, sees Bond flashing back to previous adventures while he lingers in the grey area between life and death, at the start of Skyfall when he’s shot and in the water. So maybe his delirious mind for some reason misremembered the real face of Felix, but Blofeld still presents a probably intractable problem. This is a shame as, before the release of Spectre, it really did enrich Skyfall as a viewing experience.

I’m sure many would say that we oughtn’t to be taking something as ephemeral as continuity in Bond, of all places, so seriously. But where’s the fun in that?

*Uncoincidentally, both Batman Begins and Casino Royale follow a film so hideously camp that a complete reboot of the franchise was deemed to be necessary damage control: Batman & Robin and Die Another Day, respectively.

**Skyfall was made available as DLC after its release; Spectre still lacks a videogame adaptation. Unless this situation is rectified ten years down the line, as 007 Legends did for Die Another Day, it will be the first Bond film since 1983’s Octopussy to lack a videogame adaptation.

Goldmember, Spectre, & the occasional redundancy of parody

SPOILER ALERT: if you still haven’t seen Spectre, then get on with it before this article ruins its one, tawdry, little twist. And if you somehow watch the Austin Powers films for plot, then beware of an Austin Powers in Goldmember spoiler, too.goldmember

Austin Powers 4 is forthcoming; what hasn’t exactly been forthcoming is details. Last time around, with 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember, the Bond parodying got to be a little tired once we actually saw that year’s official 007 adventure, Die Another Day; in some ways, it was less absurd*. But given that, since then, we’ve seen a whole new Bond universe, occasioned by a gritty reboot, couldn’t the Austin Powers series get some comedy mileage out of doing its own burlesquing of reboots, touching not just on Bond but also Batman BeginsStar Trek, X-Men: First ClassRise of the Planet of the Apes, Man of Steel, Godzilla, and so on. It’s either that or do the inevitable, which is rehashing the same old jokes, but in the 1980s this time.

That’s all well and good. But last time I watched it I made the troubling discovery that Goldmember is already a forward-looking parody of the new Bond continuity. First of all, as many fans have already pointed out, Spectre‘s little stroke of idiocy – making the reason for Bond & Blofeld’s animosity a brotherly conflict that’s gotten far out of hand – was presaged by Goldmember, which plays a similar twist with its Bond/Blofeld counterparts, Austin & Dr. Evil. In fact, the details stand in exact opposition – Blofeld hates Bond due to being an older adoptive brother who saw Bond as a cuckoo’s egg, whereas Dr. Evil, an orphan, is unaware that he & Austin share biological parentage, and he ceases his combat with him upon the discovery – but it’s still a remarkable thing. In Goldmember, the joke seems mainly to be on how silly including such absurd soap-opera elements in a spy story – even a larger-than-life one – would be. Joke’s on you, Spectre.

Secondly, Goldmember makes no attempt to hide its crass Heineken product placement, which is as expected given how much product placement has been a part of Bond since the start, but the brands are supposed to be aspirational: Aston Martin, Bollinger, British Airways, Walther. If you want to be like Bond then you know the best brands to wear, to drive, to drink, and to shoot. Heineken, about as perfectly middle-of-the-road a lager as you could hope for, isn’t something you’d expect to see passing the lips of the world’s most famous cocktail drinker, but Skyfall upset those expectations with a prominent early scene that looked more like a beer ad than a Bond movie. Admittedly, Bond was only seen swigging the stuff when he was at his lowest point in Skyfall, which is a nice touch, but then Spectre, which is meant to finally represent Bond back at his 1960s best, keeps the endorsement going.

Finally, an early scene in Goldmember shows Dr. Evil in one of those high-tech containment facilities popularised by The Silence of the Lambs. The prophetic production design doesn’t bear a terribly close resemblance to Dr. Lector’s holding cell, but it looks a lot like scenes from two future films: Magneto’s cell in 2003’s X2: X-Men United, & Silva’s cell in Skyfall. Theoretically, it’s no big coincidence that three films all happened to copy an iconic moment from an iconic film, but what’s a Silence of the Lambs reference doing in what is ostensibly a spy-movie parody anyway? You might say it’s a sign that Austin Powers was running out of ideas, like the many non-scary movies parodied in the later Scary Movies. Or maybe they weren’t running out of ideas, it’s just that those they had were ahead of their time. Either way, Goldmember‘s parodies of Bonds yet to come are actually funnier than its parodies of Bonds past.

*Incidentally – Goldmember‘s predecessor, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, stole a march on Die Another Day, snagging Madonna three years earlier, not to mention getting a much better song out of her (the Galvanic psychedelic-soul of “Beautiful Stranger” vs. the robotic disco-rap of “Die Another Day”).

Republicans, Democrats, & the Presidents of fiction

WITH Donald Trump having achieved a surprise victory in last night’s US election, the Republican Party which had partially disowned Trump in anticipation of a historic loss will now face a minor existential crisis as conservatives decide whether or not to embrace the Trump brand of populism. It could even come to be seen as a turning point in the history of the Grand Ole Party.

Meanwhile in fictionland, they never state which party candidates belong to. The British satirical sitcom The New Statesman was elaborate about it in its first episode, in which anti-hero Alan B’stard, wearing a white rosette that doesn’t match up to any real-life British party, beats both his Labour & Conservative rivals for his seat in the House of Commons. It’s obvious to viewers that B’stard is a Tory, much as it’s obvious that the government in The Thick of It is a Labour one. But if you never say it by name, you have reasonable deniability in case of a libel suit. Additionally, as we’ll see below, American fictional Presidents are more likely to crop up in action films than political satires, & it is important that viewers respect the dignity traditionally associated with that high office, regardless of polarising political affiliations. Well, nuts to that! Let’s try to place some fictional Presidents on the political spectrum.

President Thomas J. Whitmore  (Bill Pullman), Independence Day

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President Whitmore’s immediate reaction to alien invasion is nuclear retaliation, a move that backfires spectacularly. If his gung-ho attitude weren’t enough to mark him as a Republican, there is also his celebrated speech, in which he unashamedly equates the USA with the world. Republican.

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford), Air Force One

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Here’s an easy one. James Marshall is a clear Republican, something which becomes only clearer if you remember Harrison Ford playing Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games & Clear and Present Danger. In Clancy’s super-conservative novels, super-conservative Ryan eventually becomes President, & it’s hard not to see Air Force One as an unofficial entry in the Jack Ryan series of films. Republican.

President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman), Deep Impact

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The real-life Freeman is a prominent black conservative, but that might be neither here nor there. President Beck is presumably the first black President, which suggests the Democratic Party; the film was made while Obama was an obscure Senator, but there were other prominent black Democrats, such as Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Sadly for President Beck, his most significant act as President is to gather the best-&-brightest to wait out the impending meteor collision in safety, abandoning the rest of the population without even bothering to alert them of the danger. It’s possible on the one hand to see that as a reflection of laissez-faire Republican attitudes, but equally it could be chalked up to the leftist elitism Democrats are constantly accused of by their opponents. Probable Democrat.

The U.S. President (Billy Bob Thornton), Love Actually

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Love Actually does the irritating dance around the name of a politician (“The President”, “The Prime Minister”, “The Prince of Wales”), so I don’t have the pleasure of typing out of one the astonishingly white-bread names given to almost every other President listed here. Love Actually was released in 2003, a time when anti-American sentiment was high in Britain, & Billy Bob Thornton’s character seems to combine the worst elements of Bill Clinton & George W. Bush. Still, despite the way he leers at a Downing Street intern, the political context makes it clear that what’s really being criticised here are the key doctrines of the Bush era: the War on Terror, & the Special Relationship. Hugh Grant’s Tony Blair stand-in of a PM, David, gives the speech many Brits must have been dying to hear from the real-life Blair. Republican.

President George Sears (John Cygan), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

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George Sears, better known as Solidus Snake, had a busy history, training child sodiers in the Liberian Civil War, being appointed to the Presidency by a shadowy organisation known as the Patriots, sponsoring the development of the super-weapon Metal Gear REX, & masterminding the Shadow Moses terrorist incident before leaving office under a cloud of disgrace, all while covering up the fact of being a clone of the legendary soldier Big Boss. Solidus then goes on to become the head of the rogue anti-terror unit Dead Cell under the guise of his brother Solid Snake, hijacking REX’s successor Arsenal Gear, and finally being killed in a swordfight with his adoptive child soldier son, dying in a prototype power suit before the statue of George Washington outside Federal Hall, wielding two katanas & draped in the US flag, which makes the post-Presidential career of e.g. Jimmy Carter look like underachieving. His position as the 43rd President of the United States, his military background, his appearance, & even his first name are suggestive of George W. Bush. But his hardcore libertarian rhetoric is a far cry from the moderate conservatism of Bush; in fact, with his obsessive invocations of the Founding Fathers  he named his group the Sons of Liberty Sears is the original Tea Partier. Just look at his flag:

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Republican.

President James Johnson (Paul Lukather), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

president-james-johnsonPresident James Johnson resembles Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in looks, accent, demeanour (note the crotch-grabbing incident), & name. He also pledged in 2008 to close down Guantanamo Bay, a pledge also made by real-life Democrat Obama. Yet something’s fishy here: George Sears is stated to have been removed from office after the Shadow Moses fiasco. In real life, such a removal would have led to Sears’ replacement by his VP, which might mean Johnson is a Republican (there’s no way Sears is a Democrat), except Johnson mentions that his path to the Presidency was being the insignificant son of a Senator before being selected by the Patriots. So chalk this one up to ignorance of the American system on the part of the writers. Democrat.

President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), Olympus Has Fallen

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Asher’s all-American square jaw plus his handy approach to ass-kicking suggests a Republican, and his tough approach to North Korea inspires the dastardly plot that results in him being held hostage in the White House. Also, it’s difficult to get Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent out of your mind; unlike President Sawyer, we’re privy to very little of Asher’s key policies, but Dent’s tough-on-crime, lax-on-civil-rights approach had him widely compared to a Bush-era conservative. Probable Republican.

President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), White House Down

president-james-sawyerThis one’s even easier. Young, black, hip, & full of promise, James Sawyer is clearly intended to evoke Barack Obama. The film evidences the hopeful mood that abounded at the start of Obama’s presidency see the Doctor Who serial The End of Time for a particularly quaint example although, peculiarly, Sawyer is said to be the 46th POTUS, suggesting that he succeeded Obama, rather than being his fictional equivalent. It also leaves space for another President to have preceded him Benjamin Asher, perhaps? Regardless, Sawyer is said to have pursued dove-like policies in the Middle East after a failed Bush-like incursion into Iran, & his inexperience with firearms which he soon gets over suggests gun control is on his agenda, also. Democrat.

President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), Idiocracy

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President Camacho is black, like the Democrats Tom Beck & James Sawyer, & his Hispanic name suggests a continuation of ongoing demographic trends Hillary Clinton’s Presidential hopes hinged on getting out the Latino vote. His vision of a united America isn’t dissimilar from those of Obama or Hillary Clinton, albeit heavily watered-down to the point of meaninglessness. But his brand of gun-toting super-patriotism smacks of the Republicans, & entertainers from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Donald Trump have flocked to the party (Camacho is an ex-porn star). Of course, he’s the President of the future, & both parties have current issues in defining their voter base. Who knows what changed between then & now? A perfect compromise of Republican & Democrat.

Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu, & the Golden Age of J-Horror

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I might not have mentioned, but I was recently at FrightFest, which is always the highlight of the year for me. We’d been promised a mysterious new Adam Wingard picture entitled The Woods, which was set to be the very latest thing in scaring audiences’ pants off. Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t really The Woods at all, but rather a new sequel to The Blair Witch Project. At the same time, it turned out we weren’t really getting to see it at all, but THEN it turned out that instead we were getting Sadako vs. Kayako, i.e. The Ring vs. The Grudge. For me, that was a good result I’d been eagerly awaiting Sadako vs. Kayako since its announcement, & nothing could dampen that enthusiasm.

As it turned out, the picture was only OK, offering a few interesting ideas but undermining itself with tongue-in-cheek humour & never really reaching the nightmare pitch achieved in the best of its predecessors (Ringu, Ju-On: The Curse, Ju-On: The Grudge, The Ring). Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. Those films all came out within a remarkably short period of time a Golden Age for what was called J-Horror.

J-Horror is not simply any horror that comes out of Japan, but in order to qualify it does have to be Japanese. The films from J-Horror’s Golden Age favoured vengeful spirits, usually girls in white dresses with stringy black hair. The approach to horror, while often incorporating a hefty dose of surrealism, was subtle too, usually avoiding gore, or even any specific depictions of harm, in favour of maddeningly relentless pursuits. They were also heavily reliant on intelligent use of the frame, hiding characters in background shadows or just out of shot. Naturally, this meant the films required talented directors making them work, which is exactly what they got: Hideo Nakata helmed Ringu, Ringu 2 & The Ring Two, leaving other, less talented directors to follow him on pictures such as Ringu‘s discredited sequel Rasen, the surprisingly effective prequel film Ringu 0: Birthday, & the tacky, CGI-filled later revivals Sadako 3D & Sadako 2 3D. Hideo Nakata’s relationship to Ju-On is similar; the series had its origins in the shorts “Katasumi” & “4444444444” released in the anthology Gakkô no kaidan G. Nakata expanded around them with Ju-On: The Curse & Ju-On: The Curse 2, before giving the series its first reboot with Ju-On: The Grudge, which earned its own sequel in Ju-On: The Grudge 2. Following the success of Ringu‘s even better US remake The Ring, lavishly staged by later Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, Ju-On: The Grudge received a similar US treatment, yet again directed by Shimizu, who would also stay on for The Grudge 2 before abandoning both the Japanese & American iterations of his franchise. The Grudge 3 went straight to home video, but the American series continues to hold out hope, with a reboot reportedly in the works. In Japan, the series never quite fell out of fashion, & the spin-off films Ju-On: White Ghost, which was pretty good, & Ju-On: Black Ghost, which was less so, marked the series’ tenth anniversary before yet another reboot in Ju-On: The Beginning of the End, whose sequel was Ju-On: The Final Curse. Sadako vs. Kayako, for those who are interested, reboots both series yet again in order to incorporate some minor changes to the mythos.

The US pictures coming out at this time that weren’t remakes of Japanese pictures ended up looking like they might as well be, while the cinemas of China & Korea both responded to the horror waves coming from Japan. A neighbouring, yet different, genre enjoying a little Golden Age of its own at the same time was Asian extreme, best represented by Korean Park Chan-Wook & Japanese Takashi Miike, while the tactics of J-horror fed into, & from, other media, such as the horror manga of Junji Ito, the novels of Kōji Suzuki, or the many survival horror videogames released in the same period.

Nakata & Shimizu made some other excellent horrors; Nakata delivered his masterpiece in Dark Water, which also had a US remake, while Nakata delivered the Junji Ito adaptation Tomie: Rebirth, the Lovecraftian Marebito, The Shock Labyrinth, & Tormented. But other directors were active, too; if you want to easily keep track of them, why not try the J-Horror Theater imprint? It gathered six of J-Horror’s leading talents to deliver one picture each; Nakata & Shimizu pitched in with Kaidan & Reincarnation respectively, while the other pictures were Infection (from Masayuki Ochiai of Parasite Eve, Saimin, Shutter, & Kotodama – Spiritual Curse before taking over for Shimizu on the Ju-On franchise); Premonition (from Tsuruta Norio of Ringu 0: Birthday & Kakashi, which was based on a Junji Ito manga); Retribution (from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best-known for Pulse); & finally Kyōfu (from Ringu screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi). The J-Horror Theater series had mostly died off by its later entries, however, as had the brief, incredibly terrifying success of the genre. Sometimes all it takes to create a Golden Age is one or two great talents. Or maybe there was just something in the water in the late-90s.