A View To A Kill

A View To A Kill (1985) Director: John Glen

★☆☆☆☆

The title for A View To A Kill comes from the Ian Fleming short story called “From A View To A Kill” in an anthology although the film shares almost nothing in common with the story. Throughout A View To A Kill we become painfully aware that Roger Moore is far too old to continue playing the role of James Bond. His face looks stretched and gaunt like a skeleton, and in fact he apparently had quite a bit of cosmetic work done prior to shooting the film, though he always denied it. In fact, many of the women he encounters in the film are old enough to be his grandchildren –this is not exactly the dashing hero of years past. A View To A Kill was the last Bond film to feature Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, and thankfully it was the last to feature Roger Moore as James Bond.

The best part of the film is the opening scene in which we find Bond in Siberia grabbing a microchip from the frozen body of 003. He is then caught in a dramatic ski-chase scene, but it quickly devolves into a silly moment with Bond skiing to the tune of “California Girls” by the Beach Boys for some reason. He escapes to his hidden submarine and so on. When we finally get to the main plot, it revolves around dated ’80s technology – microchips are being produced by the Russians, likely the KGB, through a shell company called Zorin. MI6 shadows the CEO of Zorin at a horserace, the man is named Max Zorin (played by Christopher Walken). This eventually leads Bond to pose as a millionaire and he attends a horse auction in France to further investigate Zorin, but he is then caught up in a high-speed chase through Paris, which leads up the Eiffel Tower, and across the city in pursuit of Zorin’s guard, an androgynous woman named May Day who Bond eventually sleeps with in one of the most uncomfortable Bond Girl moments (May Day is played by Jamaican pop icon Grace Jones).

However this is all merely a cover. The true plot becomes evident as the film progresses. Zorin (who is apparently the victim of Nazi experiments) goes rogue from the KGB and he unveils a secret plan to destroy Silicon Valley by detonating bombs along the Hayward and San Andreas fault-lines causing massive earthquakes and flooding. Bond prevents the explosions and he trails Zorin to his blimp-like plane over the Golden Gate Bridge where they dramatically battle until Zorin falls to his death in the San Francisco Bay -perhaps the best scene in the film. Interestingly enough, the Soviets wind up praising James Bond in the end for killing this rogue criminal -a remarkable sign of the easing Cold War tensions in the late ’80s.

Among the long list of terrible James Bond films, A View To A Kill should be relegated somewhere near the bottom of the pile. It is a miracle that James Bond survived the 1980s at all!

To top it off, A View To A Kill features one of the worst Bond theme songs performed by Duran Duran (though it was a cheesy ’80s hit tune). Two other Bond girls make appearances in the film alongside the aging hero: actresses Fiona Fullerton and Tanya Roberts -both about thirty years younger than Roger Moore.

To Catch A Thief (1955) Review

To Catch A Thief Director: Alfred Hitchcock (1955)

★★★★★

To Catch A Thief is a joy to watch. I have yet to meet a Hitchcock film I have not truly loved. The film tells the simple story of a retired jewel thief who is forced out of hiding to capture an impersonator who is framing him. For me, the beautiful and luxurious European vistas play a key part in the film.

It stars Cary Grant (in his penultimate Hitchcock film followed only by North By Northwest) as John Robie, a now-retired jewel thief who was once notoriously known as “The Cat.” He was pardoned of his criminal activity due to his work with the French Resistance. Robie lives out his retirement growing grapes and flowers from a villa atop the Mediterranean hillsides overlooking the French Riviera. However, he is brought under suspicion when a series of robberies matching his style surface in France. He goes to visit his old gang, now working at a restaurant in France, but the police chase him. Robie narrowly escapes with the help of one of his former gang member’s daughters, Danielle (played by Brigitte Auber, a French actress).

Robie’s plan is to lay a trap for the new “Cat” burglar in order to prove his own innocence. He gets help from a local insurance agent who helps Robie identify everyone staying along the French Riviera while carrying expensive jewelry. Robie takes on an alias as a lumberman from Oregon and he quickly befriends a wealthy woman named Jessie Stevens (played by Jesse Royce Landis, who also played the roll of Cary Grant’s mother in North By Northwest) and her beautiful daughter, Frances, or “Francie” (played by Grace Kelly, her final role in a Hitchcock film). Frances and Robie strike up a romance and she discovers his secret past. One night while she seduces him, her mother’s prized jewels are stolen and Robie is blamed. Racing against the clock, Robie discovers the true culprit on the roof during the night of a masquerade ball -his former gang member’s daughter, Danielle.

Grace Kelly gives a stunning performance, bolstered by the costumes designed by Edith Head. Interestingly enough, Truffaut once called To Catch A Thief one of Hitchcock’s most cynical films. At age 50, Cary Grant was slowing down and planning to retire (much like John Robie) but Hitchcock convinced him to play the part. The hero is a thief and he falls in love with a bored but wealthy heiress who wants to help him steal jewels for cheap thrills. Their romance is filled with one cheeky innuendo after another, but Grace Kelly steals the show, along with Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, Robert Burkes, who elegantly captures the beauty of the French Riviera.

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Director: John Sturges

“The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.”

★★★★★

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The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s amazing re-imagining of Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant Seven Samurai (which was, itself, inspired by classic John Ford Westerns). John Sturges offers a star-studded and grippingly simple tale about seven individual veteran gunslingers who are hired to defend a rural Mexican farming village from a brutal bandit who is extorting their food supply. In watching the film we are asked to contemplate the stories and personalities of each individual gunman (i.e. what motivates him to defend these remote farmers) and also we are invited to contrast the bandit, Calvera, with our seven heroes. What is different? Why is Calvera, a profit-seeking warlord, considered evil; whereas the gunslingers, many of whom are also profit-seeking mercenaries, honored as heroes? When is a hero forced to choose the noble path?

“The fighting is over. Your work is done. For them, each season has its tasks. If there were a season for gratitude, they’d show it more…Only the farmers remain. They are like the land itself. You helped to rid them of Calvera the way a strong wind helps rid them of locusts. You are like the wind, blowing over the land and passing on. Vaya con Dios” -closing words from the village elder to the hired gunmen.

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The lead actor, Yul Brynner, initially approached producer Walter Mirisch with the idea of acquiring the rights to the story from Toho Studios in Japan (Brynner was late unsuccessfully sued by friend and fellow actor, Anthony Quinn, who claimed they worked on the idea together). The Magnificent Seven was shot on location in a variety of Mexican locales and interestingly enough Yul Brynner was married on the set while making the movie.

The film is about a small Mexican farming village that is being extorted by a ruthless group of bandits led by a man named Calvera (Eli Wallach who also memorably appears as “the ugly” in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). Calvera steals food from the farmers under threats of death. After a villager is killed, several men consult the village elder (played by Russian actor Vladimir Sokoloff) who advises them to fight back against Calvera. So they ride north to a town across the United States border. Initially, they intend to barter for weapons, however they soon witness a remarkable scene. A veteran Cajun gunslinger named Chris Adams (played by Yul Brynner) offers to deliver the body of a recently dead Indian to the cemetery on the hill, which is guarded by a group of racist cowboys who prevent Indians from being buried in the cemetery. Chris is then joined by another gunslinger, Vin Tanner (played by Steve McQueen). Apparently Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen had quite a rocky relationship offscreen, though they play compatriots in the movie. McQueen was upset with his minimal dialogue, and as recompense he would use various tactics to distract the audience while Brynner spoke -such as by lowering his hat, flipping a coin, or rattling his shotgun shells. Also, the actors battled over their height on camera. Brynner was slightly taller than McQueen and he would build a small mound of dirt to stand on just before a shot to highlight his height advantage, but McQueen would often kick the dirt away before the take.

At any rate, returning to the story, the villagers hire Chris and Vin, who recruit Chris’s friend Harry Luck (played by Brad Dexter) who only joins because he believes there may be riches hidden out in the hills; Bernardo O’Reilly (played by Charles Bronson), an Irish-Mexican gunslinger in need of money; Britt (played by James Coburn), an expert knife-fighter and gunner who handily wins a random duel using only a knife; and a well-dressed gentleman named Lee (played by Robert Vaughn), who is haunted by fears that death is chasing him after many gunfights over the years. En route they are drunkenly confronted by a hot-headed young man named Chico (played by Horst Buchholz) who demands to join the group, and when denied he follows them to the village and ultimately earns their respect.

Upon arrival in the village this ‘magnificent seven’ begins training the farmers to fire guns and build fortifications and traps for Calvera when he arrives. Chico discovers the women in hiding, out of fear that the gunslingers might rape them, but they are invited to join the group again. One day, three scouts visit the village on behalf of Calvera, but the seven gunslingers kill the scouts. So Calvera, himself, surrounded by a large force arrives but this time he is scared him off into the hills. In the evening Chico infiltrates Calvera’s camp and learns that Calvera’s men are starving and struggling. However when the seven plan a raid on Calvera’s camp they return to the village to find they have been betrayed by some of the farmers. Calvera confiscates their weapons and he banishes them from the village, but fearing reprisals from their friends, he lets them live and returns their weapons several leagues from the village, mistakenly believing they have learned their lesson, only for six of them to return with a vengeance (the seventh later joins). In the end, three of the seven survive the shootout: the original compadres Chris and Vin, and also the young buck, Chico, who stays behind in the village with his young lover (played by Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros).

“The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.”

Elmer Bernstein composed this inspiring score -one of many including To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Ten Commandments among many others. The Magnificent Seven spawned several unsuccessful sequels (and a remake in 2016 that I refuse to see as a protest against more recycled unoriginality from a lazy, contemporary Hollywood).

Despite receiving mixed reviews, John Sturges got the one vote of approval that mattered – when Akira Kurosawa saw the film he was so impressed that he reportedly sent a ceremonial sword to Sturges.

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For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only (1981) Director: John Glen

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★☆☆☆☆

For Your Eyes Only has often earned itself a reputation as one of the less goofy Roger Moore Bond films, but that isn’t really much of a statement. After the science fiction-themed and at times cartoonishly produced Moonraker, the production team wanted to bring the next James Bond film back down to earth. For Your Eyes Only is the twelfth James Bond film, and the fifth starring Roger Moore. It essentially saved United Artists after the notorious box office bomb Heaven’s Gate which nearly bankrupted the whole company.

The film begins with an unusual prologue. James Bond visits the gravesite of his one-time wife, Tracy Bond (who was murdered at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and when he departs, he enters a helicopter that is quickly and remotely hijacked by an unnamed villain on the ground –we are strongly led to believe this assassin is Blofeld (he is in a wheelchair, with a white cat, and a bald head in a grey suit). However, the studio executives were unable to acquire the rights to Blofeld at the time. Nevertheless, Bond somehow regains control of the helicopter, and he flies it, attaching it to the Blofeld-esque character and Bond drops him down a massive chimney which apparently kills him (both literally and symbolically for the studio).

Meanwhile, a British Royal Navy vessel is attacked and sunk off the coast of Greece. It was carrying an Automatic-Targeting-Attack-Communicator (ATAC) which communicates with the British fleet of submarines. James Bond is assigned to retrieve the ATAC before the Soviets can find it, since the device can order coordinated attacks by the fleet of submarines. At the same time, a British archaeologist locates the sunken boat (the St. Georges) but before he can send in his report, he and his wife are killed by a Cuban hitman named Gonzales. Their daughter is left alive on their family boat. James Bond trails Gonzales to his Spanish villa (shot at a real abbey of monks who tried to obstruct the film at every turn), where he spies on a payment transaction but Bond is quickly captured and saved when a mysterious crossbow shoots and kills Gonzales in his own pool. Bond escapes and discovers the hidden attacker, Melina Havelick (played by Carole Bouquet), the daughter of the murdered British archaeologist. They escape together, and, somehow using archaic British technology, Q is able to help Bond identify the man who paid Gonzales. Bond trails the man to Italy where he is attacked while skiing and then he is also attacked by a hoard of goons while on an ice-skating rink. It is revealed to Bond, by his ally named Kristatos (played by the famous English actor, Julian Glover) that the initial attempt at the ATAC was conducted by the KGB, but when Bond and Melina successfully recover the ATAC, Kristatos reveals himself to be a double-crosser. The plot was his all along. They climb up to his secret rendezvous point at an abandoned mountaintop monastery to kill Kristatos and recover the ATAC. However, when Bond does so, the Soviets arrive, and instead of either giving the Soviets the device or keeping it for himself, Bond decides to lob it over the cliff, destroying the ATAC so no one can use it. In the end, Bond and Melina receive a call from Margaret Thatcher from her kitchen, but Bond lets Melinda’s parrot take the call.

The story is drawn from a combination of plot and characters taken from two Ian Fleming short stories from his “For Your Eyes Only” story collection. In truth, For Your Eyes Only should really be watched by no one’s eyes. The only impressive parts of the film are the beautiful shooting locations. Otherwise the opening scene wherein Bond essentially kills Blofeld is an awful sign of things to come. The tone is amusing, but the plot and villains are forgettable, the Sheena Easton opening song is likely one of the worst, and the ’80s background music is just as cheesy and terrible.

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.

Avatar (2009) Review

Avatar (2009) Director: James Cameron

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★★☆☆☆

James Cameron is the Canadian deep sea explorer and filmmaker of such notable pictures as Terminator, Terminator II, Aliens, Titanic, and Avatar. Currently there is talk of creating a sequel to Avatar. Apparently, considerable time and effort went into the massive production for Avatar. When it was first released, the movie caused quite a sensation. James Cameron began production on the film as early as 1994 -it was intended to be released after Titanic, but the technology was not yet available to capture Cameron’s vision.

The Pocahontas-themed plot takes place in a dystopian future. Humans are colonizing other planets to harvest their resources. A group of humans travels to a planet called Pandora that contains high levels of “unobtanium” (yes, that truly is the name for the valuable mineral Cameron chose). However, on Pandora a tribal group called the Na’vi cause trouble for the humans -the Na’vi sacred lands are located directly above the mineral-rich area. The humans decide to assume “avatars” so they can infiltrate the Na’vi tribe and harvest the unobtanium. Predictably, the one man (in avatar) who successfully infiltrates their tribe falls in love with a woman, and then has a change of heart about conquering the Na’vi sacred lands. The story can be surmised from there -the good humans and the Na’vi go to war with the evil, profit-driven humans, and in the end goodness and love conquer evil and so on.

Not to be excluded from a blockbuster science fiction film, Sigourney Weaver stars in Avatar, along with others, like Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana.

As far as I can tell, the only redeeming part of this film is the extraordinary special effects. However, I am someone who is generally less impressed with CGI effects, and more inclined toward old-fashioned films that do not rely so heavily on computer graphics. The plot of Avatar is painfully sentimental, cringey, moralistic, overtly political and so on. It is a film that has not aged particularly well, despite the remarkable graphics for its time.