The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence (1993) Director: Martin Scorsese

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★★★★☆

Martin Scorsese’s film version of Edith Wharton’s remarkable Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a bit of a departure for Scorsese (click here to read my review of the novel as part of my project to read all the Pulitzer Prize winning novels). The film boasts an all-star cast, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder.

Surprisingly, The Age of Innocence remains mostly true to Wharton’s novel. Newland Archer is the main character -a rising attorney among the elite of Gilded Age New York. He is engaged to May Welland, but things go awry when a new woman arrives in their social circle, the Countess Olenska. Newland quickly falls in love with her, but he is in denial about the situation because of his existing commitment to May. The film is slightly more gratuitous than the novel, though not to any large degree. The novel is more about an affair that never was. Newland very nearly leaves May for the Countess, even after marriage, until it is discovered that May is pregnant. Newland decides to remain for the sake of the children and the family.

My favorite scene in both the book and the film occurs at the end. Many years later, May has passed on and Newland travels to Paris with his son who is now engaged. They pay a visit to the Countess Olenska at her flat. Upon arrival, however, Newland changes his mind and sits down on a park bench outside while his son goes up for the visit. Newland prefers to keep Mrs. Olenska as a memory. He looks up and catches a glimmer of sunlight, remembering Ellen Olenska as she once stood out on a pier overlooking the water.

I enjoyed this film (more than I have enjoyed certain other Scorsese films), though it was a box office failure at the time. Both Edith Wharton and Martin Scorsese portray the malaise of the upper crust of the Gilded Age in New York City wonderfully -the dreariness, the rigid conventions, the endless gossip- and suddenly, Ellen Olenska appears, representing freedom and an honest future. Yet somehow, we (and Newland) cannot escape. Newland is bound by a certain fate, tied up in his choices and social conventions. It is about ‘a love, not unrequited, but unconsummated.’ The Age of Innocence is an enjoyable film.

Live and Let Die (1973) Review

Live and Let Die (1973) Director: Guy Hamilton

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★★☆☆☆

Live and Let Die is the eighth Eon James Bond film, and the first to feature Roger Moore in the lead role (after Sean Connery refused to reprise the role, though Connery later returned in the non-canonical Bond film entitled Never Say Never Again –the title was a playful reference to the fact that Connery vowed “never” to play James Bond again). Both Adam West and Burt Reynolds were approached for the role of James Bond in Live and Let Die, but the producers were not eager to approach another cinematic outsider after controversies surrounding George Lazenby’s tenure so Roger Moore was a nice compromising fit in their eyes. At the time, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were barely on speaking terms so they divided producer credit for separate Bond films -Broccoli was given lead credit for Diamonds Are Forever while Saltzman was listed as producer for Live and Let Die.

The plot for Live and Let Die is based on Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name, though the book and the film have key distinctions. Live and Let Die is something of an oddity in the James Bond saga as it contains numerous “blaxploitation” references by showcasing black drug lords, pimpmobiles, strange voodoo cults, and so on. Also unlike other Bond films which have tended to focus on megalomaniacal super villains, Live and Let Die is about Caribbean drug traffickers smuggling heroin into the United States. After three agents are found dead, Bond finds himself trailing an infamous drug lord known as “Mr. Big” (Yaphet Kotto) who turns out to be Dr. Kananga (so-named because of the crew’s experience scouting for locations in Jamaica and stumbling upon a Crocodile Farm owned by a man named Ross Kananga). In the film, Dr. Kananga is a corrupt Caribbean political leader, whereas in Ian Fleming’s book, “Mr. Big” is a crime lord with connections to SMERSH who is smuggling Henry Morgan’s “pirate gold” into the United States. Both premises are pretty amusing. In the film there is a fairly remarkable boat chase scene, and it is intriguing to see England’s top gentleman spy cruising the seedier night clubs of Harlem. Between talk of “honkeys” and “bad mothers” as well as trash-piled, smoke-filled New York skies, this is a unique outing for Mr. Bond to say the least. This time, Bond’s romantic counterpart is Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a tarot-reading virgin tightly controlled by Mr. Big. Can she be trusted? Bond pays a visit to her vast seaside palatial home and seduces her which (she believes) causes her to lose her supposed psychic tarot abilities. In the end, Bond disrupts the planned heroin drug trade. He kills one of the primary henchmen, a tall cackling man Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) by tossing him into a coffin filled with snakes, he battles another henchman man with a metallic claw for a hand named “Tee Hee” (Julius Harris). Bond rescues Solitaire just before she is put on display to be ritually sacrificed but they are soon captured. Next, Mr. Big slowly lowers Bond and Solitaire into a shark-infested pond but Bond escapes using a magnetic watch (for some reason no one is watching Bond while he escapes?) and then Bond kills Mr. Big using a small inflatable gadget which causes Mr. Big to expand and explode in what is perhaps the most comically ridiculous demise of any Bond villain. While they escape via a train (perhaps a nod to From Russia With Love) Bond is again attacked by the occultist henchman Tee Hee. He kills the clawed man by throwing him out a window leaving only his attached hook while Solitaire remains enclosed in a fold-up bed, unaware of the whole situation unfolding. The film ends with the “undead” Baron Samedi –one of the voodoo occultists who Bond previously had thrown into a coffin filled with poisonous snakes– laughing maniacally on the edge of the train as it speeds off into the night.

Live and Let Die is a clear departure for the James Bond franchise, though it is shockingly not the worst of the Roger Moore era. It is an uncomfortable film at times, with its many racially-motivated cliches, and in all I would say this is a mostly silly film, but there are actually worse Bond films in the series and to be fair some of the scenes of New Orleans and the Caribbean are quite impressive. Live and Let Die is the first Bond film to also feature a black Bond girl –a CIA agent named Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry)– though United Artists refused to allow a black actress in the lead supporting role. Indeed the production crew apparently ran into considerable racism during filming in Louisiana, particularly for their black actors, hence why certain production decision were made –such as the brief appearance of a bumbling racist imbecile named Sheriff J.W. Pepper (who also reappears in The Man With The Golden Gun). It brought a smile to my face to see that “Quarrel Jr.” is introduced in this film (apparently he is the son of Quarrel from Dr. No), and the scenes with Felix Leiter and the CIA are nice but they are more or less frivolous background characters –contributing to the theory that James Bond is a subtle critique of the American method of espionage. At best, Live and Let Die is an entertaining movie and in the end, what more can you really ask for with a James Bond picture? At least, the Paul McCartney & Wings theme song is terrific and memorable! The notable Bond composer John Barry was forced to sit this one out for tax reasons so legendary Beatles producer George Martin completed the score for Live and Let Die. 

Read my review of Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die here. Generally speaking, I prefer the novel to the film but neither are particularly stand-out achievements for the James Bond series.

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.