Saturday, November 26, 2016

Film Review: Diamonds Are Forever

"Diamonds Are Forever"  *** (out of ****)

Sean Connery and the diamonds sparkle in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971).

"Diamonds Are Forever" was the seventh feature-film James Bond adventure and the sixth to star Sean Connery as the 007 British secret agent. Mr. Connery had decided to walk away from the role after "You Only Live Twice" (1967). The next actor to be cast as James Bond was George Lazenby in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969). There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet (who would have thought?) regarding the circumstances as to why Mr. Lazenby did not return. Some suggest he too walked away from the role while others indicate the audience didn't accept him as the character.

That is where we find ourselves with "Diamonds Are Forever" and Mr. Connery's return to the character he made famous and in turn made Mr. Connery a superstar. There seems to be a mixed reaction to the movie. Some movie fans believe the story is too campy in a pre - Roger Moore era. Others, I have read, suggest this is one of the best Bond adventures and belongs side by side as one of Mr. Connery's best portrayals of the character.

The first hour of this two hour movie, works nearly flawless but it is not the Bond audiences had come to expect, the suave socialite with a martini in his hand, a double entendre on his lips and a pretty girl in his sights. Our introduction to Bond (pre-credits) shows an aggressive Bond looking for SPECTRE agent Blofeld (Charles Gray), as Bond beats henchmen after henchmen for Blofeld's whereabouts. It could in some ways serve as a pre-cursor for the Daniel Craig interpretation of the character. Many believe this sequence was meant to be a direct consequence of the events in which "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" ends on.

There are sequences which support the theory "Diamonds Are Forever" has a comical tone. A police chase scene with five police cars after Bond and Bond interrupting what looks like a moon landing re-enactment. However the overall tone of the movie doesn't feel comical. Instead it comes across as a tough cop movie with a detective looking for smuggled diamonds. If "Goldfinger" (1964) is the archetype of the Bond franchise, "Diamonds Are Forever" falls short as it deviates from the formula in terms of both structure and character. Your enjoyment of the movie will depend on how much of a "purist" you are. If you enjoy Daniel Craig in the role, "Diamonds Are Forever" may suite you fine. If you believe only the early Connery Bond movies are worth watching, you'll have a difficult time accepting this movie.

The plot to "Diamonds Are Forever" has been described as "complicated". It really isn't. Bond (Connery) is sent on an assignment to break-up a diamond smuggling ring, by impersonating a noted smuggler himself, which leads him to Tiffany Case (Jill St. John). Bond is to smuggle the diamonds out of Amsterdam to Las Vegas. The bad guys sense a double-cross when the diamonds are discovered to be fake. Have they figured out Bond's identity or is he working for someone else? Bond needs to find the head of the operation while Tiffany seeks leniency for her cooperation, as she has discovered who Bond is. The villain's ultimate goal is to destroy all government nuclear weapons.

If the plot doesn't seem to demand a secret agent of the stature of James Bond, Sean Connery's performance doesn't suggest it. Mr. Connery plays the character quite serious, which is a contrast to the way people seem to remember Mr. Connery's interpretation. With Mr. Connery at the helm, he is able to balance exaggerated sequences with a wry smile on his face while giving serious action scenes their due weight. One would imagine that is why Mr. Connery is the preferred James Bond of so many. He knew when to wink at the camera and when to bring the audience in and could often do it in the same scene.

There is one element to the story which feels largely out of place. Two hitmen known as Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith) who kill everyone that comes into contact with the diamonds, while usually engaging in puns after the death of their victims. There is also a slight homosexual implication between the characters as in one scene they walk away holding hands. 

When I was growing up if you were to ask me to name my favorite James Bond movie, I may have said "Diamonds Are Forever". Watching it again, after countless viewings, I no longer feel that way but do greatly admire the first hour of the movie which creates a strong sense of danger for Bond, placing him in deadly situations. In one sequence Bond has been locked in a casket and is about to be cremated. How on earth will he escape? 

But, I now see the movie doesn't perfectly fit into the cannon of Bond films. There is an absence of what audiences like to see in the Bond movies; gadgets, expensive cars, exotic locations (one would think the Las Vegas location with temptation might have created some fun situations for Bond) and a strong Bond girl. It does however have one of my all-time favorite Bond theme songs, sung by Shirley Bassey, marking her second time performing a Bond theme. Ms. Bassey would be asked to sing one more theme.

If "Diamonds Are Forever" works at all for viewers it will be because of Sean Connery's performance. The actor takes full command of the movie with its silly and underdeveloped plot. Unfortunately Ms. St. John isn't memorable as a Bond girl. She is used mostly for comic relief and struts around in a bra and panties or bikini in scenes but isn't active enough in the plot and disappears for chunks of the movie.

Still the movie works. Not necessarily as a "James Bond" movie but as a good action movie which keeps its audience involved. Mr. Connery is very good in the lead role in his last "official" outing as Bond. After this movie we would begin the Roger Moore era for the remainder of the 1970s and into the mid-80s. "Diamonds Are Forever" is worth watching. A rewrite of the second half of the movie could have made this one of the best.

Film Review: Son of Kong

"Son of Kong"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

It is not difficult to understand why Hollywood would have made a movie called "Son of Kong" (1933) but one wonders why did they settle on this story.

The original "King Kong" (1933) is considered by most movie lovers as something of a masterpiece. An exciting movie with dazzling special effects which helped define the creature feature genre. It was filled with memorable visuals, including the famous climax on top of the Empire State Building. "Son of Kong" however hasn't secured a strong reputation. Most people have not seen it and fewer have heard of it. We all know the countless remakes that have been made, the most recent example was Peter Jackson's 2005 version starring Naomi Watts (with a new version set to come out next year) but Hollywood actually decided to make an official sequel to the original film.

"Son of Kong" is an example, one of many, of movie sequels that never should have been made. First of all, did "King Kong" end in an ambiguous way? Did viewers wonder if he actually fell down the Empire State Building? Secondly, hearing a movie title such as "Son of Kong" and looking at the art work for the poster, viewers may feel they have the story all figured out. You don't! Trust me. You don't!

That's the problem with "Son of Kong", it doesn't give the audience what they want. Some might argue, but Alex, what did you want this movie to do? Merely be a retread of everything that happened in the first movie? Don't you know sequels never do that. No sequel has ever simply copied the original story. To which I would reply, "are you kidding?" As it stands now "Son of Kong" at best is misleading and at worst is meaningless.

"Son of Kong" takes place nearly immediately after "King Kong" as filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is being held responsible for all the damage Kong caused as he roamed the streets of New York. Now he is being hit with lawsuit after lawsuit. Broke and desperate to get away, Carl takes a job working a cargo ship with friend, Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher). Each man, without saying it, seems to be intrigued by going back to the island where Kong was found. Neither man however is willing to say it, as they chart a course near the island.

Stopping at a port in Dakang, the two men meet Captain Nils Helstrom (John Marston), who lost his last ship at sea. Now he is mostly a drunk and may be responsible for the death of a man, whose daughter, Hilda (Helen Mack) may turn him in. Helstrom would love to leave Dakang and lures Carl and Englehorn to leaving and head to Kong's Island, where there is a lost treasure. Carl and Englehorn don't need much convincing and soon the three men and Hilda, who has taken a liking to Carl, head to the island.

As the movie's title reveals, the group encounters another giant gorilla, who happens to be the son of Kong. This son of Kong is a bit smaller and as luck would have it, more friendly as Hilda and Carl treat the gorilla as a friend. Carl even feels a sense of responsibility to be nice to the son as Carl blames himself for what happened to Kong, leaving the son fatherless.

If a lot of this is beginning to sound ridiculous to you that's only because it is. If your imagination starts to get the best of you and you start to think oh yes, Carl will want to take the son back to New York to recoup his losses. This son of Kong is more manageable. It won't cause the same level of terror the father did, thus greed influences Carl to make the same mistakes all over again. It is a nice idea and quite frankly what "Son of Kong" should have been. Instead the move has a lighter tone, sometimes looking for humor.

For my cinematic taste buds humor and King Kong doesn't blend nicely together. If Hollywood screenwriters were concerned about repeating their story the answer to that problem was simple. Don't make a sequel. But this idea of turning "Son of Kong" into a light-hearted humorous tale of adventure doesn't work and doesn't do enough to sustain my interest even at 69 minutes. There is not enough conflict, not enough motivation for the characters. The fact that not one character even suggest bringing the son back to New York is astonishing.

In "King Kong" the movie wasn't really about the characters. The star attraction was of course Kong. That may have been the one flaw of the movie. In "Son of Kong" there is more emphasis on the human characters, supplying the viewer with more motivation for why they all end up on the island but once on the island the movie runs out of ideas. It basically has a lot of fight scenes between the son and dinosaurs, which should make audiences think of the classic silent movie "The Lost World" (1925).

That may be the bright spot of the movie; the creatures. The visual effects resemble what Willis H. O'Brien did on the original Kong and "The Lost World" with his stop-motion animation technique. Mr. O'Brien is not given screen credit however as he may have had limited involvement with this movie.

"Son of Kong" was a misguided movie. It didn't need to be made as it does not to further advance the story-line of the original movie, which was complete as it. Having said that, this final product doesn't give audiences what they would have expected a "King Kong" sequel to be. The movie runs out of ideas once the characters reach the island, after doing a more than decent job establishing characters.

The movie was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, who would direct a "King Kong" - esque rip-off "Mighty Joe Young" (1949), which is also a bit disappointing. The script was by Ruth Rose, whose first writing credit was "King Kong", she would also go on to write "Mighty Joe Young", the woman has gorillas on her mind and the adventure movie "She" (1935).

"Son of Kong" lack innovation, plot-wise. It doesn't add anything to the Kong brand. It serves more as a curiosity piece for those that enjoyed the original film. Under no circumstances should you see this movie before seeing the original.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Film Review: The Lost World

"The Lost World"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Worlds collide in the silent, science-fiction adventure movie, "The Lost World" (1925).

Based on a novel written by Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle (perhaps best known for his Sherlock Holmes stories) here is an example of true sensationalist, Hollywood escapism in its earliest form. The term "Summer blockbuster" hadn't been coined in 1925 but "The Lost World" in many ways was the precursor to such future films as "King Kong" (1933), "Godzilla" (1954), "Jaws" (1975) and most obviously "Jurassic Park" (1993).

Despite the genre this movie essentially created, one doesn't hear enough about its significance in the history of cinema. Most movie fans may be more familiar with "King Kong" and cite that as an influential movie because of its special effects. But, "The Lost World" beat it to the punch. In fact, the man responsible for the stop-motion effects in the movie, Willis H. O'Brien, also worked on "King Kong" and one of its knock-offs, "Mighty Joe Young" (1949). Without question "The Lost World" was a movie years ahead of its time. But, where's the love? Where's the Criterion Collection DVD? The movie has fallen into the public domain and as a result multiple prints of the movie exist, each with different running times. One version I saw runs approximately 63 minutes however my review is based on a 92 minute version, which combined eight known prints, creating the most complete version known, since the movie first premiered, with a running time of 106 minutes. It was also given a full orchestra score conducted by Robert Israel, whose work is always impressive.

Our adventure takes place in London, where reporter Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes) has hopes of asking his sweetheart, Gladys (Alma Bennett) to marry him. She rejects him before he can ask, stating, "I will only marry a man of great deeds and strange experiences - a man who can look death in the face without flinching." In order to win Gladys' love Ed seeks a dangerous assignment.

Within this sequence we have a theme found in so many movies of the 1920s, 30s & 40s, that of masculinity and the efforts men must go through to prove themselves in the eyes of women, who seek adventurous, muscular men. The scenario is one which usually is the making of slapstick comedies but here the theme lends itself, quite naturally, to an action / adventure story.

In pursuit of his dangerous assignment Ed learns of a Professor Challenger (Wallace Berry) who proclaims he has discovered a land in the Amazon where dinosaurs still roam. The professor becomes the laughing stock not only of the scientific community but society at large. How could dinosaurs still exist? We all know they have been extinct for millions of years. But, Prof. Challenger must save his reputation and demands a small group of brave souls join him on a trip back to the Amazon. Those brave enough to join him are big game hunter Sir. John Roxton (Lewis Stone) and Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father, also a scientist, first discovered this lost world, but was abandoned by his crew and left to possibly die on the Tepui and of course Ed, who sees this as his perfect opportunity to demonstrate his bravery to Gladys.

As was common during the time period, "The Lost World" is skeptical of science, a theme which would progress in horror films of the 1930s and science-fiction films of the 1950s. The Professor Challenger character is initially presented as a "mad scientist" who dares to threaten society by exploring the "unknown", thus meddling in the affairs of nature. It is a theme not unlike the one found in "Creature of the Black Lagoon" (1954). Bad things happen when people are curious. They might actually find something.

And so our characters set off on their adventure, where the usual stereotypes and situations are established. There will be a love story angle developed between Ed and Paula. Roxton will secretly be in love with Paula, but will understand Paula sees him as a father figure and not a possible romantic interest. "The Lost World" will then be a story about young, romantic love, unrequited love and adventure. All the makings of today's standard Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie doesn't create much doubt in the mind of the viewer that such an island exist and doesn't delay the presence of dinosaurs in an attempt to create suspense. When the dinosaurs are seen there is not much of a sense of awe and disbelief. Much of that may have to do with the fact the movie is more than 90 years old. Instead the viewer marvels at the special effects. That is quite the accomplishment for a movie as old as this. Further proof of the movie's significance.

The flaws of the movie is a lack of character development, which doesn't explore the love interest between Ed and Paula enough. It also doesn't do enough to establish Ed as a man afraid on danger, which would create more of a character arc by the end of the movie. Once the characters are on the island, there seems to be little for them to do. The action is mainly comprised of them running away or hiding from the dinosaurs. What was the objective? No one even has a camera with them to take photos for proof.

Still, the movie does everything else we'd expect from the genre today. For better or worse, not much has changed. Watch "Jurassic World" (2015) and you will find similarities. "The Lost World" does a good job of heightening the action and always finding moments to blend adventure with humor.

Of all the performances in the movie it may, oddly enough, be Lewis Stone who comes out looking the best. His character Roxton is the most grounded character in the movie which makes him to most relatable. Contrast this character to Professor Challenger, who is much more animated. Mr. Berry doesn't seem to set any limitations for himself. Paula unfortunately nothing more than a brooding young woman. The movie doesn't even have the decency to make her a damsel in distress.

The real stars of "The Lost World" are of course the dinosaurs. Filmmaker Harry O. Hoyt and special effects artist, Mr. O'Brien, create a unique film world for audiences with thrilling action sequences. The world of cinema owes much to "The Lost World". All serious movie fans should make an effort to see it.