The Good Earth (1936) Review

The Good Earth (1937) Director: Sidney Franklin, Victor Fleming (uncredited), Gustav Machety (uncredited)

The Good Earth

★★★☆☆

This is the film version of a play based on the Pulitzer Prize winning 1931 novel of the same name by Pearl S. Buck (she later also won the Nobel Prize). As part of my project to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, click here to read my reflections on The Good Earth.

Paul Muni stars in this film as Wang Lung. Muni was also celebrated in 1937 for his Oscar-winning performance in The Story of Louis Pasteur, as well as the Best Picture-winning film, The Life of Emile Zola. Wang Lung is a poor farmer in Northern China who gets married to a slave named O-Lan (Luise Rainer won Best Actress for her performance) and, thanks to his business acumen, once he begins turning a profit from his wheat sales, he purchases more land. He buys land from a once great, now declining, house in the village (the same house from which Wang had acquired O-Lan). However, soon a drought strikes causes massive turmoil for poor Chinese farmers. Nearly everyone starves so Wang takes his whole family to a prosperous Southern city, before returning to build his farming empire. As time passes, Wang has many children but he grows tired of O-Lan and he falls in love with a concubine named Lotus, whom he purchases and moves onto his land. This whole part of the story is present, albeit somewhat glossed over the in the film to keep up appearances that Wang Lung is an innocent and noble Chinese farmer. However, his children bring him great troubles. One day, he catches his son with Lotus and Wang realizes that his son has never had to work the land, so beats his scholarly son and sends him away.

At the end of the film, just like in the book, O-Lan grows ill and dies shortly after witnessing the wedding of one of her sons. The film has met with some minor controversy in recent years as Paul Muni played Wang Lung is “Yellow Face,” though his intent in playing the character in no way belittles Chinese or Asian people. If anything, his performance is much more of a celebration of poor Chinese farmers, an often overlooked group of people in Chinese national history. The producer, Irving Thalberg, initially sought to hire all Chinese actors for the film but he was forced to conceded that American audiences were not ready to relate to such a film. Thalberg died several months before the release of the film -the credits list this picture as one of his last great achievements. The movie was shot on a 500-acre farm in the San Fernando Valley (Porter Ranch, California).

The Good Earth is a decent film, though not one I will soon recommend. The pacing is sluggish and nothing of particular interest happens. It stays relatively close to the plot of the famous novel, or at least as close as one might expect from Hollywood in the ’30s, but the film is mostly dry and uninteresting. The second half of the movie, in particular, seems to drag on and on, only to arrive nowhere. Paul Muni’s performance is somewhat forgettable, as well.

Casino Royale (2006) Review

Casino Royale (2006) Director: Martin Campbell

“I’m sorry. That last hand… nearly killed me.”

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★★★★☆

The story of Casino Royale making it back onto the big screen is fascinating, filled with many twists and turns. After Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953, the television rights were purchased by CBS for $1,000 the following year. The very first portrayal of 007 was on a television variety show entitled “Climax!” It was a single hour live program that starred the great Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, and Barry Nelson as the Americanized James “Jimmy” Bond. A year later, Ian Fleming sold the film rights to Russian actor/director George Ratoff for $6,000, but production never took off and he died in 1960. His wife then sold the rights for Casino Royale to Charles Feldman, a Hollywood attorney and producer of A Streetcar Named Desire. Around the same time, President John F. Kennedy listed From Russia With Love as among his favorite novels, sending the Bond franchise into the stratosphere. Canadian Producer Harry Saltzman quickly purchased the rights to all current and future Bond stories. He joined together with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli to form the Eon (“everything or nothing”) production company.

Charles Feldman pushed forward with attempts to make a Casino Royale into a movie directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant. However, after Eon’s Dr. No was quickly released on the cheap to a surprising amount of popular fanfare, Feldman’s Casino Royale project was nixed. Still, he persisted in other avenues –he refused to cooperate with Eon by demanding an exorbitant fee in exchange for the rights, and he continued to cycle through scripts, including one by Billy Wilder. Feldman eventually settled on an absurdist comedy where MI6 was faced with numerous different agents all calling themselves 007 –and Feldman hired no less than four separate directors for the project, including the legendary John Huston. Unsurprisingly it was a mess of a film although it featured stars like David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Ursula Andress, and others (feel free to click here and read my review of 1967’s Casino Royale). It was a ridiculous cacophony of a film, but a year later Charles Feldman died and the rights to Casino Royale went to Columbia Pictures.

In the ensuing decades, the world changed and so had James Bond. After the campy ’70s of Roger Moore as 007, James Bond was played by Timothy Dalton and then Pierce Brosnan, but by now 007 had become something of a caricature, or a relic of a bygone era. The Cold War was over, Cubby Broccoli had passed away, and quirky comedy films like Mike Myers’s Austin Powers series made more money satirizing the many repetitive cliches of the James Bond formula. Amidst a string of legal issues concerning the rights to Thunderball, MGM sued Sony, won the lawsuit, and then paid for the rights to Casino Royale. At last, the film rights to the original Bond story were finally in Eon’s hands. At this point, Quentin Tarantino rather loudly requested to make the film with Pierce Brosnan in the lead, but this time as a period piece, a historically accurate vintage black and white Cold War James Bond movie. However, Eon went in a different direction, toward a new reboot of the franchise.

What followed was a brilliant re-introduction of James Bond in the 21st Century. Despite being met with controversy for not matching Ian Fleming’s description of a ‘tall, dark, and suave’ secret agent, Daniel Craig conveys a grittier, more violent, yet vulnerable, less silly, more honest and human version of the character. His character flaws of violence and misogyny are more tragic than comedic. Casino Royale represents a departure from the hokey, silly tropes of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras, as Daniel Craig (a.k.a. “James Blonde”) was remarkably able to transform the role into something new –a revitalizing of the Bond saga.

It might be said that Casino Royale is an early “prequel” to the James Bond series. We encounter a young James Bond earning his ‘License to Kill’ in a delightful series of black and white Noir-esque scenes. He gains his 00 status by assassinating a traitorous gangster in a bathroom. Meanwhile, an international businessman named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), the treasurer of a French Union and member of the Russian secret service, makes a deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and he subsequently bets against an aerospace manufacturer, with insider knowledge of a terrorist attack. On a separate mission, Bond saves the manufacturer, causing Le Chiffre to lose all his money. Bond makes contact with Felix Leiter of the CIA (Jeffrey Wright), and Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) of the French Secret Service. Meanwhile, Le Chiffre organizes a high stakes poker tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro with the hope of winning back his losses. Bond is paired with a woman named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). The poker game fluctuates between Bond and Le Chiffre, and when Bond starts to gain the upper hand, Le Chiffre has Bond’s drink poisoned so Bond, in a haze, flees to his car to use his defibrillator. Vesper follows him and brings Bond back to the poker table, where Bond wins with a straight flush. Subsequently, Le Chiffre kidnaps Vesper Lynd leaving Bond to trail them but he crashes his car in order to avoid harming Vesper in a near crash as she is tied up in the middle of the road. Bond is then captured and tortured by Le Chiffre, who is hoping to discover the bank account and login information for the poker money. At the last moment, Bond is rescued by his contact, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). Bond awakens in an MI6 hospital, and he and Vesper Lynd run away to Venice together in love. Suddenly, M reveals to Bond that the poker money was never deposited. Bond realizes he was betrayed by Vesper but she is taken away by gunmen, so Bond destroys the building which then collapses into the Grand Canal. The gunmen are killed but, sadly, so is Vesper who drowns. Meanwhile, Mr. White escapes with the money. M reveals to Bond that Vesper likely made a deal for Bond’s life – she saved him by giving away the money. Still, Bond renounces her and he hunts down Mr. White at a massive estate on Lake Como. He shoots Mr. White in the leg and introduces himself: “Bond, James Bond” just as the film ends.

Casino Royale is a brilliant rebirth of the 21st Century James Bond. There are no ridiculous gadgets, or overt sexuality (instead Bond uncharacteristically falls in love with Vesper Lynd). In fact, the entirety of the plot rests on Bond’s ability to win at the poker table (in the book, it was a game of Baccarat). One of the many wonderful additions to the new Bond saga is a noticeable lack of CGI -the movie returns Bond to the “old fashioned way” without flashy gadgets or effects. Plus it also features an inspiring and explosive theme song performed by Chris Cornell, a significant improvement from Madonna’s techno song in Die Another Day. Casino Royale is easily one of the best James Bond movies of all time.

Click here to read my review of Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) Review

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) Director: Guy Hamilton

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★★☆☆☆

After the unexpected of departure of George Lazenby following On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Sean Connery returned one more time to reprise his role as James Bond. He was lured by a ridiculous sum of about $20M pounds in today’s dollars. The outcome was Diamonds Are Forever -likely the worst of the Sean Connery Bond era. The idea for the story came to Albert “Cubby” Broccoli when he had a dream about visiting his famously reclusive friend, Howard Hughes, only to find an imposter in his stead.

Throughout the film, Connery seems aged, tired, and according to legend the last scene Connery filmed shows him brutally beaten up, thrown into a coffin, and pushed into the crematorium. In the film, Bond is sent to track diamond smugglers incognito which leads him to an odd Bond girl named “Tiffany Case” (Jill St. John). She eventually brings Bond to the infamous Blofeld (flatly portrayed by Charles Gray) who is holding the world ransom while his nuclear-capable satellite threatens to blow up various locales (using diamonds). The film opens with Bond attempting to hunt down Blofeld to exact vengeance for the murder of his wife, though this is never explicitly stated (per the close of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Meanwhile, Blofeld is busy making clones of himself. Bond kills a clone of Blofeld, thinking he has killed the true Blofeld, and then Bond pursues South African diamond smugglers to complete the mission. However this pursuit leads Bond right back to the real Blofeld. There are several complex side plots: one involving Willard Whyte (a not-so-veiled reference to Howard Hughes), a Nevada businessman who allows Blofeld to use his properties; two henchmen women named Bambi and Thumper, both highly odd and off-putting guards over Willard Whyte; and also two ridiculous henchmen (their relationship to the plot was unclear to me) who are quite clearly gay, and also not very threatening. They are killed off in the end when Bond essentially sets them on fire. It is a mostly anti-climactic ending. As per a typical Bond film, the plot is outrageously confusing,

This was the final film focusing on SPECTRE until the 2015 film of the same name during the Daniel Craig era. Shirley Bassey sings the memorable lead song (she also sang the songs for Goldfinger as well as Moonraker).

Diamonds Are Forever is definitely not Sean Connery’s best Bond film. It is a segway between the sleek and impressive era of early Sean Connery Bond films, to the goofy and campy era of Roger Moore as James Bond. The plot of Diamonds Are Forever is extraordinarily difficult to follow, the acting is not particularly memorable, Blofeld’s character is not as dark or mysterious as earlier films, the introduction of cloning and diamonds is not particularly intriguing, and holding the world ransom is pretty ridiculous -and lastly, perhaps the worst part of the film, are the two gay henchman who are odd and not particularly frightening. Why are they included in the film? Their inclusion in the film is baffling. There are far better James Bond films than this one, I might suggest the James Bond of the early Sean Connery era or the Daniel Craig era.

Arrival (2016) Review

Arrival (2016) Director: Denis Villeneuve

Arrival,_Movie_Poster

★★★★★

Sometimes the science fiction genre feels tired, cliche, played out –but Arrival is a surprisingly fresh take on the alien invasion trope. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.

The plot is based on a 1998 short story by Chinese-American author, Jeff Chiang, entitled “The Story of Your Life.” In the film version, a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called up to investigate a bizarre situation. Several large alien spacecraft (massive “pods”) are hovering over disparate places on the earth and are displaying strange signs. As Banks studies the signs from her two aliens (affectionately named “Abbott and Costello,” we learn her backstory. She once had a daughter who died at a young age. She works alongside her counterpart, Ian Donnelly. Meanwhile, China misinterprets one of the alien symbols as a “weapon” rather than a “tool” or a “gift.” Armies mobilize into a hostile stance and the ships move slightly further away from the earth, and several soldiers secretly plant a bomb that injures one of Banks’s aliens. In despair, Banks travels alone to the ship and learns that their language is non-linear -it is a gift to humans allowing for ‘memories’ of events which have not yet transpired. In essence, it allows humans to foresee the future. Using this foresight, Banks returns to earth and prevents the Chinese from launching a war agains the aliens. She and Donnelly fall in love, despite the fact that she now knows they will have a daughter, she will die, and Donnelly will leave after her death. She must learn to see the future, and love her own fate (Nietzsche’s amor fati). Is it truly a gift from the aliens?

Arrival is a surprisingly powerful film. It inverts the War of the Worlds narrative. In this case, the aliens bring a gift, but humanity interprets it as a hostile act and begins war preparations. However, in the age-old debate between arms and letters, the latter wins out in the end of Arrival. The complex linguistics in this film are extraordinary, and the twist-ending is powerful. Language is essential to understanding the movie, as is the nature of grief. The tone of the whole film is bittersweet, mournful, even reflective. We spend most of the movie trying to understand the aliens, when in truth, we discover something more profound about ourselves in the end.