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.

Live and Let Die (1973) Review

Live and Let Die (1973) Director: Guy Hamilton

Live_and_Let_Die-_UK_cinema_poster

★★☆☆☆

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.”

Casino_Royale_2_-_UK_cinema_poster

★★★★☆

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.