Streep Fighter vs The Twitter Warrior

Did anyone catch Meryl Streep’s speech last night? Donald Trump certainly did! His tweeted response was typical Trump fair: attack them personally, link them to your political opponent, deny the charges, remind the audience that Trump is a winner, attack the media, etc. Well, without unpacking Streep’s whole speech, here are a few thoughts on it. ‪
It was enevitable that the left, and its propaganda arm in Hollywood, was going to find something not to like in a Republican President. This would have been the case whether the occupant was the walking faux-pas that is Trump or the less flawed Marco Rubio. That being said, it is disingenuous, bordering on the ridiculous, for Trump to pretend that Streep had no point. Trump did poke a little fun at a certain reporter’s disability. He told his rally audience, “You gotta see this guy,” and then begin flailing his arms around in mockery of this person’s particular affliction. Hey, he can do that if he wants to; he’s breaking no law! If Trump wants to establish new heights for the avant-garde of sticking-it-to-the-establishment by bucking their stupid rules about not attacking weaker people, he can. Seems a silly crusade, but ok. However, he shouldn’t lie about it, especially when the reality is so obvious to anybody with access to YouTube. Also, the PEOTUS shouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people, even Hollywood types, find his particular form communication troubling. If Donald is a little ashamed or embarrassed by what he did, he should try apologizing. However, at least be man about it.

As for Streep’s other concerns, not everything was objectionable, at least on its face. Besides her plea for civility from those in power, she called for the need of a “principled press” to hold power to account while making an authority appeal to the Constitution. What’s to disagree with? The President does need to be accountable to the Constitution, and held to account by a watchdog press (lately playing Obama’s lapdog). Assuming I disagreed, don’t even vapid liberal actors, who are as far removed from regular people as Michael Moore is from a salad, have just as much right to use their particular platform to advocate for their beliefs as anyone else does?

There is one issue, however, regarding the Golden Globes editorial that deserves addressing: consistency. I must have missed the time that Ms. Streep showed concern for the Constitution and an independent press when Barack Obama was ruling through executive fiat and having his Justice Department conduct raids on reporters who were investigating his administrations various scandals. For some reason, that didn’t seem to bother Meryl, or at least she didn’t use her fame then to criticize the President on some of the more troubling abuses of his authority. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s nice to hear from all these born-again federalists! Welcome to the party! However, it is noteworthy that when a more favorable tyranny was being perpetrated by one from her own political persuasion, Streep saw fit to not speak out.

There are many areas that Donald Trump is and will be deserving of critique. Certainly, Streep’s performance was only one of many salvos yet to come from the S.S. Tinseltown. Yet, until Streep and her class of actors-cum-political gurus address and apologize for 8 years of turning a blind eye to the violation of the principles they now seem to have whole-heartedly embraced, they’ll have zero credibility. Their criticisms will fall on deaf ears, persuading no one that doesn’t already agree. Good thing for her, credibility or persuasion isn’t what Streep’s after, nor Martin Sheen, nor any number of celebrities that have been popping up to do insipid and homogeneous political ads. Rather, what they want is to signal to their pals, other vapid Hollywood actors, to say “Look at me! I’m a good person!” Well, to that I’d say, “Mission accomplished!” Be satisfied, because you’ll have little else. I still loved Streep in Julie & Julia, however!

-Ryan Thorson
**UPDATE***

New info has come to my attention that Trump wasn’t mocking the aforementioned man’s disability. Though the video on its own with Trump’s words seemed pretty clear, I have to admit that this time I got it wrong.

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Rogue One: A Fan-Film Story

Now that the political season is over, I thought I’d concentrate a little more on the cultural side of things. That’s right, I have a few more belated movie reviews to throw your way. And so that I don’t sound like I’m way behind the curve, I thought I’d begin with a review last month’s anticipated offering from Lucasfilm/Disney, Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. If you haven’t seen this film by now, any reasonable expectation of not having anything ruined for you should be gone. So, read on at your own risk.

26200797002_95a305038a_bRogue One is the story of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the legendary Death Star plans, the McGuffin of the first Star Wars. The film focuses on the character of Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso, one of the Death Star’s less than willing progenitors. As the film progresses, Jyn transitions from a child fugitive of the Galactic Empire, to pawn of the Rebellion in an assassination attempt on her father, and from there to the leader of a suicidal effort to recover the Death Star plans from an Imperial data center. The data, once recovered, should reveal the Battle Station’s weakness, purposely manufactured into it by Galen, and provide the Rebels with one shot at destroying this ultimate weapon that before it destroys them.

The film is technically amazing, as one should expect from such an expensive big-studio space opera. I disagree with those who felt that the first half of the film was slow, finding the pacing pretty spot-on. The musical score was adequate, having a good enough balance between original material and reprises from John Williams. And while many of the characters seemed to be underdeveloped in the motivation department, there were many good performances, and the whole effect was satisfying. It will doubtless make a lot of money. However, I am a Star Wars fan, and as such am probably a little more gracious then I would be if Rogue One were a stand-alone film wholly unconnected to the power of nostalgia-vision.

To me, Rogue One felt like the greatest fan-made Star Wars movie ever filmed: a product created out of love for an existing property, but not necessarily an example of great story-telling. Beyond the inescapable problem that the film focuses on the quest to steal the plans to destroy the Death Star, rather than the quest to destroy the Death Star itself, the other obvious flaw is that the film is not very accessible to the casual viewer at times. Although this may not matter if you can get the gist of who these characters are and what they’re doing via context clues, at other times an audience may be a bit lost due to their probable lack of more esoteric Star Wars knowledge, info beyond knowing who Vader is. Think the original theatrical cut of Dune, and how it was received, and you’ll see what I mean. The way Rogue One dished out copious amounts of SW references and cameos had even me blushing at times! The combined effect of returning prequel actors, re-cast original trilogy characters, re-purposed SW footage, expensive CGI re-creations of long-dead thespians, or even walk-ons by new actors in familiar costumes somewhat took the film off the focus of advancing the plot and brought it into the dark valley of “wouldn’t it be cool if…?!” Don’t get me wrong, for the ten-year-old boy in me loved all of them! The Darth Vader scenes alone were worth the price of admission! Even the return of Grand Moff Tarkin as a functional character in the story (not that you forgot for a second you were looking at CGI) was very enjoyable. However, often the homecoming of all these characters, props, and vehicles to the Star Wars universe felt a bit too saturated, and was at best only partially useful in organically advancing the story.

Even though this film errs on the side of self-referencing sentimentality, there are still things to be grateful for. For instance, Rogue One doesn’t hit you over the head with some ham-fisted political message! Sure, it panders a bit in the ethnic diversity area, but who cares? Someone must play the characters, and it’s not as if having a multi-ethnic cast of new main characters in the Star Wars universe affects the story in any adverse way. Criticism aside, Star Wars has always featured some ethnic diversity (to earthly eyes), and so this film is not inconsistent nor distracting. After all, ethnicity among the human characters in Star Wars has no meaning; it’s alien/human relations that get attention. Free from an in-cam shot of a flashing arrow neon sign declaring “DIVERSITY,” people are free to draw as much or as little meaning from this as they please, like all good Sci-Fi.

Additionally, I’m quite happy that the final cut was spared the over the top “I rebel” line given by Jyn Erso in the film’s trailer. At the time, it looked like we were in for yet another cinematic example of the ascendancy of teenage-girl models as some kind of new super-human, effortlessly sliding into their roles without the need to gain new skills (or a man to help them) and accomplishing their tasks with ease!  Lately, this has been the approach of Hollywood to women in fantasy films, making every would-be damsel in distress into a sword-wielding fighter with an attitude! That’s fine for the first 50 films, but after that, it starts to lose its novelty. Although, if you listened to the film-makers, you’d think they were the first one to try it! Applicability is one thing, propaganda is another. I don’t mind having a strong female leader in a film, even for pandering, but if it does so at the expense of the story telling, then no thanks. The problem with superwomen is the same as with supermen: invulnerability means no compelling story. No character is interesting without a struggle. However, Rogue One seems to narrowly escape this fate. Aside from incredulity of rough-and-tumble rebels choosing to disobey the Alliance and follow Jyn on a heist mission after her short yet less-than inspiring speech, I found that the presentation of the female protagonist wasn’t half as bad as it could have been. Although she could have been better developed, Jyn had weaknesses as well as strengths and made for a fairly good character.

Rogue One provides plenty of fun and excitement, in addition to a lengthy walk down memory lane. Even though my review may seem a bit brutal towards Rogue One’s nostalgia-goggles, I’m mostly satisfied with this newest offering, an experiment as Disney figures out how it will handle the Star Wars property. I for one would prefer that Disney go on making nostalgia films based on Star Wars (I can at least appreciate that) than either trying something new that destroys what the public already likes about this property or taking it into the realm of political advocacy. Once you start down that “dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny” as it has with other revived and ruined beloved properties. Three out of five.

 

-Ryan Thorson

 

 

 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Good DC Movies?

Well, after a couple of interesting teasers and one horrible, HORRIBLE, trailer, the much anticipated/dreaded Batman v Superman has finally been released. Early reviewers, from what I gleaned, absolutely hated this one, and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in seeing it on opening day. However, I found, strangely enough, that I liked it! I say “strangely,” because I was underwhelmed by Man of Steel, its predecessor, and was dismayed by that one trailer for BvS that gave away too much about the film, even the fact that our two titular heroes eventually set aside their differences to fight a common foe. I know that last part should be a given, but if you call it BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN, that’s still a conclusion that should have probably been left up in the air. Anyway, here’s my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice!

First of all, let me get some of my dislikes out of the way. It has become very trendy to be against CGI, and let me assure you that I am not one of those who have any prejudice against its ongoing use in films. However, it’s painful for me to see CGI being used where practical effects could have been employed more credibly. Over all, BvS has excellent production values, but there are moments where you wonder what they were thinking. Case in point, there is a scene where Batman (Ben Affleck) avoids a cop by climbing up a corner of a room, and then performs an almost Spider-Man like escape when he’s noticed and engaged by the cop and his shotgun. Setting aside for the moment that Batman, a sans superpowers hero, does a very good imitation of a superhuman, perhaps too good, the CGI model of the Batman just hanging out near the ceiling in all of his waxy glory just did not look very good. It would have been much better if the director had Affleck hoisted up there for the initial shot, and transitioned to CGI as he made his escape.

Next, I didn’t care much for Ben Affleck as Batman, but he was a lot better than I expected him to be. You will always run a risk in casting a character like Batman with a well-known actor, and while this has almost always been standard operating procedure for Hollywood Batmen, often to great success, in this case it was a slightly mixed bag. While there are plenty of times where Affleck is quite good as Batman/Bruce Wayne, there are also scenes that are so jarring and Affleck-ish that you’re taken out of an otherwise good moment. It would have been better if they had used a lesser known actor, but all in all, he wasn’t horrible. I give him a B- in his portrayal.

Last on the list of flaws is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Never mind the ridiculous business of making this Lex superfluously the son of another Lex Luthor (which doesn’t appear in the film), the new Lex is not the confident and cold-blooded villain that most of us liked from the comics, the early movies, or the Superman animated series. No, Eisenberg’s Lex is a quirky, slightly insane character with a hinted at past of being abused (let’s feel sorry for the bad man). Also, this characterization of Luthor with his ticks and exuberance bares more than a passing similarity to the Riddler than any Luthor that I’m familiar with. As a stand-alone villain, he would’ve been otherwise fine, but Eisenberg was playing the Man of Steel’s arch-nemesis, and his performance was just too different for such an iconic character, even to the point of being distracting.

Now that the warts are all out of the way, let me tell you about what made this movie good. First, Batman v Superman made Man of Steel a better movie. Many people, like this reviewer, were a little disappointed with MoS because we didn’t get to see much of the hero that is Superman. Instead what we got to see was a lot of excessive destruction with little real assessment of the humanity lost. It’s fine to take a good character to a dark place, that’s drama, but as a first act of an ongoing saga, it is odd that MoS starts dark, remains dark, and ends dark. However, when paired with BvS, suddenly we get to see the cost of what happened in MoS. Most of the movie focuses on Bruce Wayne’s conviction that Superman (Henry Cavill) is a threat, a decision he reached after the Zod-Superman fight (from the first film) destroyed a Wayne tower in Metropolis. Though Bruce did everything he could to save his employees, he ultimately watches helplessly as they die with a prayer on their lips. Bruce acknowledges little of the stakes of the last film, his concerns are that Superman contributed to the deaths of his friends and he, by his great powers, represents an existential danger to every man woman and child on the earth… a danger that Batman alone must deal with. Without the events of MoS, BvS wouldn’t have had its central struggle, and without BvS, MoS wouldn’t have had much meaning to its massive display of destruction. So, MoS improves just for having this next chapter.

Next, it didn’t feel to be crowded with characters nor have a cobbled together story, as I feared it would. A big worry was that DC was going to rush to catch up with the Marvel movies by forcing this one to be a de facto Justice League movie, with a ton of DC heroes thrown in. Thankfully, this did not happen. Other than some blessedly short video clips of 3 other heroes, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is the only other hero/heroine to appear, and she’s limited to a few scenes where she helps the plot move forward rather than appear as so much window dressing. And although this film borrows some from the comic story lines of The Dark Knight Returns and another that I won’t name for fear of giving away the film’s ending, it remains its own story that flows quite well. You end up caring about these characters beyond their nostalgic appeal, which is a testament to a well written screenplay and the film maker’s skill.

Additionally, the film has a great humanity and moral exploration to it. It deals quite well with theme’s such as whether or not morality is a negotiation or an absolute, what the source of legitimate authority is,  the possibility of  morality apart from God, and of course the long pondered proposition of whether or not the ends justify the means. The thematic discourse in this film adds a level of seriousness to it that sets it apart from your average summer movie or comic book film.

Lastly, in a small but important point, I was pleased to see that BvS was the first Batman movie to give credit to Bill Finger. For those that don’t know, Bill Finger was the co-creator of Batman along with Bob Kane in 1939, * but was never given credit for his efforts in his lifetime. His contributions included the look of the Batman costume that endures until this day * and key contributions to the creation of the Joker and Robin. * Knowing about Bill and the raw deal he got for the important work he did on one of the most iconic characters (an old song in the comics industry), it was pleasant to see him get his due, if only posthumously.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is a thrilling film that holds one’s attention despite its length, its production values are largely top-notch, its story was well crafted and interesting, it was thought provoking and even emotionally evocative, and its lesser parts aren’t strong enough to overwhelm the excellence of the rest of the film. This is easily one of the best films I’ve seen in months and I think this could show that the DC film franchise to has the potential to be every bit as good as the successful Marvel one. I give it a four out of five.

– Ryan Thorson

 

* http://www.legionsofgotham.org/HISTORYfinger.html

 

 

 

 

 

Does the Force Awaken or Hit the Snooze Bar?

After over 30 years of waiting, at last there is a sequel to Return of the Jedi. Finally, we have a movie that will drive out the bad taste of all those prequels that we endured, right? Well, not so fast. The following is my brief review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

There was a lot riding on this one. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was supposed to be the movie that not only made fists-full of cash (which it is doing quite well), but also served as a springboard for an entire new Star Wars cinematic universe that would include a whole slew of money-making side films complementing  the primary films of Episode VII, Episode VIII, etc.  If such a strategy was successful, it would justify all of the billions of dollars invested by Disney in order to acquire Lucasfilm in the first place. But perhaps more importantly (at least to the movie-going public), SWTFA was going to be a magical film that would thrill millions of fans and bring us all back to a simpler period where we experienced Star Wars for the first time. But let’s be honest, there’s no going home. There are no nostalgia-goggles big enough to recreate the almost perfect circumstance of uniqueness in the cinematic market, the original creative approach to the material, and a Jimmy Carter depression climate (although B.O. is trying) that all add up to equal the same youthful escapism at the theater that we found in watching the original Star Wars. Unrealistic expectations aside, SWTFA is a pretty good film. It’s nice to see the old characters and familiar elements again, the new characters seem O.K. and at least have humanity to them, and the film has pretty good moments of humor. On top of that,  SWTFA has excellent production values, a reluctance to be too political in an overtly and trendy way (I wonder how long that will last?), and quite a few schmaltzy moments that make you remember an earlier age where you lost yourself in a tale of a farm-boy with dreams of adventure.

Now, it’s time for gripes, and I have a few krayt dragon bones to pick with this film in which I will be revealing a few mild, general spoilers. I won’t talk about anything major that will ruin the film for you, but if you want to be completely surprised, you might want to skip to the last paragraph.  I will begin with my biggest issue in that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in many ways, felt like a reboot/remake of the original Star Wars. That is not to say that there wasn’t any original material in it, there was, but what you had was not just another Star Wars movie, but an almost retelling of that same story of a callow youth from a remote world who goes on a dire mission, and together with new friends, defeats the bad-guys and their planet-destroying thing, all while discovering the power within. Now, some might say that’s just because Star Wars is part of the quest trope, and Joseph Campbell, and blah, blah, blah, and that maybe right, but it was a little disappointing.

Another issue that I had with SWTFA is in its approach to the death of some of its characters. Sometimes a character, played by a distinguished actor, will be introduced only to be abruptly eliminated soon after that introduction, leaving you scratching your head as to why they wasted such talent. I’m reminded of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where they had to introduce us to new-old-friends for Indy because the original actors had passed on the project or had passed away. In Indy, it didn’t really work, for lack of a good script, but in the case of SWTFA, these new-old-friends were killed off in short order before we had any time to assess if they added to the story or not. Additionally, the film pretends to kill off some of its characters, only to reveal a little later that they hadn’t perished at all. I’m not a fan of “I’m still alive, bro (high-five)!” type storytelling, especially when the death of the characters might have given some graver meaning to the future perils awaiting them. Please understand that I’m not trying to have it both ways (e.g. if you kill them, I’m unhappy, but if you don’t kill them, I’m unhappy). What I believe is that in drama, the death of a character, or the surprise return of a character, should have meaning. Kill them or don’t, but don’t needlessly off them or bring them back in such a way that doesn’t add anything to the story more than offering an easy road to plot complication C.

Furthermore, I got the impression that the script was a bit lazy and predictable. Character development occasionally happened because it was necessary to advance the plot, but didn’t feel very motivated. This is especially true where the force is concerned, with one of the characters discovering their powers because it was required to get them out of a sticky point, but made little sense for it to happen like it did. Additionally, a big deal is made out of the inclusion of a new female enemy, but in the end the character and their gender serve little purpose in the story. That character could have been anyone under that armor; nothing they did was so important that any nameless Stormtrooper couldn’t have done as well. Although the villain looked cool and appeared like she could do some serious damage if given half a chance, ultimately she did almost nothing to justify her existence, nor her unique look. The dramatist A. P. Chekhov observed, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” * I think this female villain was a needlessly-hung pistol. And lest I forget to mention, in a bit of a disappointment, the emotional climax of the whole movie, that part that everyone’s going to talk about, could have been seen from miles away. And while it may have been fated to happen because of story reasons and actor’s wishes, I really think more of an effort should have been made to make it more of a surprise.

So, that’s my take on what is likely to be the first of many, many films set in the Star Wars universe. Of all the possible measures you can use in determining the value of it, the one real testament of whether a movie of this sort (episodic) is good or not is inherent in the question: “Would you see another one?” As for me, I’m ready for Episode Eight. While in the case of the prequels, I was looking forward to the next one knowing that I was likely to be disappointed, in this case I measuredly foresee good things. My previous gripes notwithstanding, the story of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was pretty good, containing a good amount of warmth, wonder, and excitement. It wasn’t a perfect movie, nor one that sold my childhood back to me in a bottle, but it was well done. Bravo, J. J. Abrams. I rate it a three out of five.

 

-Ryan Thorson

 

 

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun

 

Why is the Evil Empire “EVIL”?

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Not all change is good change!

As of writing this, it is December 17, 2015, and that means preview night for The Force Awakens! And much like many of you, later today I will be at a local theater watching the latest Star Wars movie! Eventually I will do a non-spoiler review on it, but first I thought I’d dust off an essay that I wrote a few years ago that examines the moral ambiguity forced on the original films with the addition of the ill-famed prequel trilogy. And so if you’re game (warning: it’s a bit dry), in celebration of the release of The Force Awakens, and with tongue somewhat planted in cheek, I give you a unique moral/political treatise on Star Wars in, Why is the Evil Empire “Evil”?

(Click on the link below.)

WhyIsTheEvilEmpireEvil

The Peanuts Movie Review

On Thanksgiving Day of this year, I and my family, having had to make our plans for the day’s observance conform to my work schedule, decided after a turkey dinner at Marie Callendar’s to go and catch a movie. The movie we saw was The Peanuts Movie.  Anyway, I wanted to get my five cents in about this film. So, briefly, this is what I thought of The Peanuts Movie.

This is the story of one Charlie Brown, who lives in a town where he is merely tolerated by most of his friends as the awkward kid that seems irredeemably average. However, this starts to change when the new kid moves in across the street: a pretty red-headed girl. Charlie then begins his mission to make himself standout in order to impress the new kid, but somewhere on his quest to attain likeable uniqueness, he proves that just maybe there was something special in Charlie Brown, all along.

Have you ever gone to the theatre to see the big-screen send-up of a beloved childhood property only to discover that the film-makers merely took its name and hollowed it out to fill with their own tripe and demonstrate their failure to understand what made this property a success in the first place? Well, I have… many, many, times. Peanuts is, thankfully, not that movie. This film got to the real core of the Peanuts comic strips and cartoons and nailed exactly what we like about it: its heart. While it is filled with nostalgic homages to its previous T.V. appearances, it is still original material that nonetheless has a feeling that makes it fit quite well into the continuity of those early specials. I personally applaud the producers for resisting the urge of updating it much, in an attempt at chasing the elusive and mythic animal of relevancy. As a result of letting the story and characters stand on their own merits, the film has a timeless feel to it, and its relevancy is proven in the laughter of the children who were taken to see it. In a wise move, they even have the Vince Guaraldi music in it! Additionally, it’s animation style is inspired, a sort of compromise between classic cell animation and CGI, producing the characters in textured 3-D, but rendering the faces in pencil lines and approximating the frame-rate of the original T.V. specials in how the characters moved, while at the same time using a greater frame-rate for background scaling and tracking.

So if you haven’t already seen it, or you could see it again, I highly recommend The Peanuts Movie. It is remarkably creative, faithful to the source material, and emotionally evocative. Adults will enjoy it, plus, it is a rare thing being a children’s film that is safe for children to see. I give it a four out of five.

SPECTRE Movie Review

SPECTRE copy

Finally, I took the time to see the new James Bond film SPECTRE. I understand that I’m a bit more than a week behind the curve when it comes to this movie review, but in the following, I will give you what few reviews on this film have been able to give… a good review. That’s right; I liked this film. It wasn’t the best Bond, but it was a good Bond. In the following, I will give you my brief impression of SPECTRE, but first let me write the obligatory warning: spoilers!

SPECTRE is being touted as the finale of the previous films done with the most recent incarnation of Bond, Daniel Craig, who is also rumored to be departing the role. Throughout his tenure as 007, Craig’s Bond had been fighting the unseen hand of a criminal organization at the heart of all of his adventures. In this current film, that organization is given a name: SPECTRE. Against the backdrop of a new multinational intelligence gathering program going on-line, as well as the impending obsolescence of the double O program, Bond strives to solve the mystery behind the ring he took from terrorists in Mexico, one bearing the symbol of the octopus. His search leads him into a strained relationship with MI6, and also into a strange alliance with an old enemy. As Bond enters the world of SPECTRE, and that of its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he discovers that in this game, the stakes he plays for could never be higher.

In the world of Bond, SPECTRE (which stands for the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) holds the chief role as antagonist, but it wasn’t always the case. When Ian Fleming first began his books, the original heavy was a Soviet organization called SMERSH, which is a reduction of the Russian words that mean “death to spies.” Fleming later developed SPECTRE, a sort of third-party, non-nation-state organization whose focus was profit as opposed to the Marxist ideology of the Soviet SMERSH. Once SPECTRE’s introduction was a success, Fleming apparently saw no more use for SMERSH as they were relegated to mere references in later books. When the movies came out, the producers went a step further and completely substituted SMERSH with SPECTRE at every opportunity, robbing SMERSH of a single cinematic outing even though it figures largely in several well-known Bond stories, such as in From Russia With Love. The new Bond series continues this tradition, making the rogue Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, and all the villains that followed employees of SPECTRE. However, different from the books and the original films, this newest film transforms the back story of SPECTRE’s founder, intimately connecting him to Bond’s childhood as well as making the deaths of the women in Bond’s life over the years as some sort of intentional retribution on the part of Blofeld against Bond. While this was slightly interesting, it ended up feeling a bit forced, less like a master plan put in place back in Casino Royale and more like an afterthought to make the film seem grander.

As a story, SPECTRE holds up well, but you can’t escape that feeling of de je vu that hovers over the film. In watching, I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of ThunderballOn Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice, or even Goldfinger. On prominent display are the Blofeld accoutrements such as his high-collared tunic, volcano (crater) lair, white cat, and facial scar; it’s clear that the producers wanted to pay homage to Bonds previous to the reboot. However, I felt that these homages were welcome friends as opposed to annoying guests. I especially liked the naming of the safe house as “Hildebrand”. For those who are not fans of the Bond books, there are few Bond stories that have not been adapted to film, or at least haven’t lent their name to a Bond film that bears little resemblance to its namesake. One of those stories is that of The Hildebrand Rarity.

SPECTRE has what we’ve come to expect from a Bond film: plenty of intense action, exotic locations, menacing villains, and beautiful women. The film work and editing were very well executed. The opening scene features a sustained steady-cam shot that was quite skillful.  And, of course, the opening credits were very imaginative. And even though there were some moments were you felt like they could have done something more, it was nonetheless satisfying. For those of my audience that are libertarians or conservatives, there were even a few moments of applicability. The surveillance state looms over the plot, with a new spying apparatus created by unprincipled men. There’s even a moment when one of the film’s villains almost mirrors in dialogue President Obama, Hillary, and Rahm Emanuel’s ominous sounding phrase about never failing to take advantage of a crisis. I don’t know if that’s what the film-makers had in mind when they wrote this, and I certainly doubt that they would admit it if it were so, but it certainly works along those lines.

In conclusion, if you like the Bond series, spy thrillers, or merely action movies, SPECTRE is not one to miss on the big screen. I give it three and a half out of five.

 

Ryan Thorson

Let Bond be Bond!

Sir_Roger_Moore_B
Sir Roger Moore as James Bond 007.

I recently read an article in People Magazine with Roger Moore. For those of you who are too young to remember, Moore was the actor who, after Sean Connery, was most famous for playing the fictional British secret agent James Bond. In the article, Moore addressed the latest buzz about recasting Bond due to Daniel Craig’s imminent departure from the role, particularly about the murmurs that say that 007 should be recast, not merely the actor, but the character itself, as either black, a woman, or gay, or some combination of the three. In response, Moore said, “I have heard people talk about how there should be a lady Bond or a gay Bond, but they wouldn’t be Bond for the simple reason that wasn’t what Ian Fleming wrote.” * I have to admit that this is pretty gutsy of Moore to come out and say in light of the current intolerant PC climate that we seem to live in that seems all too eager to pounce on any perceived heretics. Most venues I’ve seen discussing this issue won’t say anything but praise for any of these propositions, either because they agree with them or just don’t want to be forced out of their jobs by a cascade of angry e-mails and posts from internet trolls demanding that they go. So, while the offense industry explodes at Sir Roger in their usual pearl-clutching condemnation, perhaps we should take a few moments and just consider this before we all take to our keyboards and march into cyber-battle with the rest of the social-justice warriors. Let’s see if we can find an answer to the question, “Why or why not let Bond be Bond?”

First of all, I want to concede that in the world of art (and I suppose that movies qualify) you can pretty much do whatever you want. If a film-maker wants to make a (insert preferred people-group here)-James Bond, there’s little to stop them. For me, this is a matter of personal taste rather than morality. However, if it is permissible artistic license to recast 007 as a gay-black-differently-abled-trans-gendered-female, then that would also means that if you want James Bond to stay as he was created, or Spider-man to stay a cisgendered heterosexual, or even Little Orphan Annie to remain a pupil-less red head, that should also be fine. I see no compelling reason to attribute good motives to one and bad motives to the other, unless somebody has some compelling evidence. Yet, in cases such as these, evidence is rarely offered nor thought necessary. For the evidence needed by the perpetually offended to justify their demands or their condemnation of the secret motives of those that disagree is the evidence of their beliefs, e.g. it’s true because they believe in their hearts that it is. But even, for instance, if the director of a hypothetical Austin Powers reboot dislikes albino midgets and recasts Mini-Me with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then so what? It’s just a movie, right? However, for any film-maker preparing to make radical changes to an established popular fictional character, they would be wise to contemplate any possible ramifications that might interfere with their film being a success.

Worth consideration before one reinvents the wheel is respect for the original creator’s work. At the heart of Moore’s issue with re-molding James Bond was that it would be different than the creation of Ian Fleming. I myself am a very big fan of the Fleming novels, having read all of them once and some twice. If I had my way, TV would produce a miniseries remake of all the original novels, done in the period of the 1950’s and 1960’s, embracing James Bond for what he is, warts and all. Too bad that seems unlikely. What Fleming did with inventing his anti-hero James Bond was proverbially catching lightning in a bottle. Bond is a Scotch-English descendant of landed gentry, an unromantic and amoral assassin who does his country’s dirty deeds, not because he has some belief in the UK’s moral superiority over the Eastern block socialist nations or organization such as the Soviet SMERSH or Blofeld’s SPECTRE, but rather because that’s what he was trained to do. And when it comes to his occupational specialty, Bond is the best. James Bond is not pleasant, sensitive, or giving. Rather, he is a fatalistic and caddish snob that lives it up whenever possible, with assurance that he will most likely die young. Some would make the case that Bond is homophobic, racist, and misogynist, but those critics would be missing a very important point that explains why he may read that way… he simply doesn’t care. Bond is too focused on the task of espionage to make room in his life for philosophical musings or emotional entanglements. Bond is not Dudley Do-Right, he is, in the words of Ian Fleming, a “blunt instrument,” ** with a license to kill. Nonetheless, so evocative is this character to fans around the world that, to this day, Hollywood continues to draw from Fleming’s well. James Bond is still around because, in effect, he works. And if it’s not broke, one should wonder, “Why fix it?”

Also worth considering is the attachment that many have to such a popular character as James Bond is. In the current and successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, the character of Nick Fury is played by black veteran actor Samuel L. Jackson. However, it may come as a surprise to some of you that the original comic book version of Nick Fury was that of cigar chomping, silver-streak haired, white man. I was aware of this modification when the movies started to come out, but didn’t particularly care, because I, and probably most of the MCU’s audience, hadn’t really followed the Nick Fury comics and had no special affection for the character. There’s only one example that I am aware of where this was not accepted: my African-American mother-in-law was a little miffed that Marvel changed her Nick Fury. However, this change was largely successful, probably because most theater goers had a bigger attachment to Sam Jackson than to the Nick Fury of the comics. However, if filmmakers took an iconic and well-seasoned character such as Superman and had given him green skin (let alone black), do you think audiences would accept it and still come out in droves to see his movie? Taking such liberties with such a well know property is inherently dangerous because it might seem like a gimmicky distraction from the story and the characters that audiences already like. For example, consider Superman from his latest film incarnation, Man of Steel. With this version, we had a dark and moody remake that audiences were somewhat disappointed in. Being used to the optimistic and incorruptible hero of their youth, many were somewhat shocked at the 911-esque destruction on display, with very little of the traditional heroics associated with Superman. There’s even a point were Superman, a character that is renowned for not killing his adversaries, brutally snaps the neck of the villain General Zod in an attempt to save the lives of some innocents that Zod was trying to murder. There is certainly justification for this change within the established story for Superman to make what was clearly a hard choice, but many were put-off by this departure from the canon, expecting Superman to take this diseased maniac to prison rather than the morgue. Because of this, Man of Steel was arguably less successful at the box office than it could have been.

As far as the current James Bond movies go, I can say this for them: they’ve stayed mostly faithful to the character of Bond, if not to the actual page and chapter of the novels. This is probably why they’ve been around for so long. James Bond is undeniably one of those characters that remain an icon, having been beloved since the 1950’s. If, like the afore-mentioned Superman, you are going to make a significant change to that character in your film adaptation, you’d better be able to justify those changes, perhaps even drawing from Fleming’s works, if you don’t want them to come off as trendy and pretentious and (most of all) if you want your film to be a success. I know that reboots, remakes, and sequelae have been all the rage for the reason that name recognition is the only tool that the old studios have left with which to compete against the plethora of entertainment choices that are available today. However, if Hollywood want’s to bank on Bond’s popularity while discarding key elements of that property, the audience (you know, the people you want to lay their money down to see this thing) may very well say, “This isn’t James Bond.” If that happens, then you’ve got a flop on your hands, making the current and probably next iteration of Bond less of a sure money-maker. And once done, I think you’ll find undoing it as next to impossible. If you thought reactions might be bad with a major re-imagining of Bond, wait and see what shrill outrage you’ll get from the few but loud voices that thrive on such emoting if you to try to go back to the old money-making formula after having created, for instance, a black Bond.

Lastly, Hollywood should consider that the likely audience of a James Bond film is there to enjoy a little thrilling escapism and probably not to learn moral lessons that Hollywood thinks will make them better people. If James Bond is to be rechristened as a trans-minority of some manner, then it’s likely that they either think that such a change will be profitable for them or that making money is not the important factor in such a decision. If the latter is true, then the only explanation left is that the Film-makers are trying to sermonize their audience. I don’t know about you, but as for me, when I go to a movie, I want to be entertained and not be ontologically or ethically challenged by a film-maker who thinks they’re the Billy Graham of celluloid. I’ll go to church if I need a good message, not the movies. And what would be the lesson of such a cinematic sermon? Would it be that there’s something wrong with being white, heterosexual, Scotch-English, or liking a character that is all those things? Would the lesson be that if you don’t like the racial or other changes made to Bond, then you are a bad person? Call me crazy, but it seems to me certain that you aren’t going to convince many people to fill those theater seats while promising them a healthy serving of shame with a side of condemnation. No. If the focus of the film shifts from adventure to the pulpit, people will just not come, the movie will bomb, and the film-makers will have to comfort themselves in their failure with how good they believe they are for what they did while blaming their audience for not being as evolved as they. That seems to me to be inadequate consolation.

From Hercules to Luke Skywalker, many of the characters and stories that we have most enjoyed have stayed with us because they, their struggles, and the rich heritage that birthed them spoke to our shared humanity and experience. Every culture has their heroes and stories to cherish, and it is a testament to their power when they are appreciated cross-culturally. Nevertheless, when you start mucking about with those same characters to make them more to your liking, you will likely end up with something completely different, merely bearing the same name. And in the rush to make these often politically motivated changes, you might not even notice that you jettisoned part of the cocktail (shaken, not stirred) of what made them so powerful to so many in the first place. James Bond is white and heterosexual. And as strange as it is that I should even have to say it, there’s nothing wrong with that. Furthermore, there is really no credible motivation for why Bond shouldn’t remain as he ever has been, that English gentlemen spy who fights in her majesty’s secret service against over-the-top villains in volcano lairs. In responding to a similar controversy about the MCU’s decision to continue with their newest cinematic Spider-Man as the character he was created to be (white, straight, etc.), Stan Lee made comments that really summed up the heart of this debate, and I think they are appropriate to end on in a discussion of a new Bond. Lee said, “Latino characters should stay Latino. The Black Panther should certainly not be Swiss. I just see no reason to change that which has already been established when it’s so easy to add new characters. I say create new characters the way you want to. Hell, I’ll do it myself.”**** ‘Nuff said.

Ryan Thorson

* http://www.people.com/article/roger-moore-james-bond-woman-gay

** http://www.universalexports.net/00FlemVision.shtml

*** http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jun/23/stan-lee-spider-man-should-stay-white-and-straight