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You Only Live Twice

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**½

Rule number two: in Japan, men come first, women come second.

If you found Live and Let Die to be too politically correct for you, then this is your movie. Sure, the above could be mistaken for mere male chauvinism, but that would not do this movie credit. In this Bond goes to “ninja training” and has his chest waxed, eyes slantied, and skin darkened to appear “more Japanese.” Does it work? I would guess that if I had not told you that, but instead showed you a clip of Sean Connery in disguise that you would have thought it were James Bond staring into the sun.

As with any Bond film, there are pluses. Two of the villains, Osato-Teru Shimada-and the busty Helga Brandt—played well by Karin Dor—are interesting and thoughtful. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka, does the best he can with lines like the tosh above. And the villain’s lair is mighty impressive—it is in a volcano and looks like it too.

Unfortunately, the Japanese Bond girls are pretty, but interchangeable. When Bond is told that he has to get married as part of his cover, his contact, Aki gets excited and moves closer towards him. How does Sean Connery, the original James Bond react? He smiles warmly and seems to have his excitement grow. Bond? The marrying type? Because this young agent gives a crappy massage and is willing to sleep with him? Instead he is to marry someone else. That night, Aki gets killed in a failed attempt on Bond’s life. That must have devastated him, since he wanted to “marry” Aki. If so, he keeps such emotion to himself and goes about trying to sleep with his new fake wife. Yuck.

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Thunderball

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As I said in 50 Years of Bond, I love Bond movies. Even the bad ones are enjoyable. I usually think of this one as one of those, but watching it for my blog I think it deserves more credit. Not the A- that Entertainment Weekly gave it, but it is at least a third tier Bond.

The Good: Sean Connery had Bond down pat by this point. The Bond girls—Molly Peters, Claudine Auger, Luciana Polizzi—are more active and all stunning. In fact, Polizzi’s Fiona gets the best line, “But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue…but not this one.” Adolfo Cell’s Largo makes for a great villain too, but more than that, he makes a great Bond villain with the appropriate cadences, vices and strengths. Best of all has to be Tom Jones’s theme song.

The Bad: While this has all of the hallmarks of a good Bond movie with fancy gadgets, exciting locales, beautiful women, Sean Connery, the MI6 team, Felix Leiter, it also has a certain sloppiness. I still do not know who was higher ranking in SPECTRE, Largo, aka Number Two, or Fiona, who is from SPECTRE’s execution division. I do not understand why the four goons who have Bond surrounded flee once their superior gets shot. SPECTRE seems to kill their employees for failure, so maybe sticking it out and trying to kill an unarmed James Bond makes more sense than running away. Conceivably, some of those same henchmen were on the ship trying to take on a flotilla from the US Navy and firing away like they would rather die than get captured. While that happens some sped up footage is meant to convince us that a boat is going really, really fast. So, to be fair, there is a lot of bad too.

The Ugly: Those orange wetsuits with shorts. The fight scene is less impressive now than it would have been in 1965, which is just a fact.

I think that adds up to a ***½ movie, Bond movie.

True Grit

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****

You couldn’t see it if you saw it. 

First, I am not a John Wayne fan. Second, I had seen clips from this on TV over the years, and it always seemed so cheesy. Third, I loved the Coen Brother’s remake. Still, viewed from the beginning, this is a much deeper movie than I anticipated. The humor comes to lighten the dark mood. The music is great and the views are amazing.

John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn was the role of a lifetime. This Mattie Ross–Kim Darby–is wonderful. So many great performances, but they had such great things to say, thanks to the novel by Charles Portis and the screenplay by Marguerite Roberts. Henry Hathaway directed this and made some excellent choices for what to include, add, and utilize.

The one scene that sold me on this film was the hanging. Showing the hullaballoo that hangings were, the hypocrisy of leading prayers before an execution, and the showcase—”hot tamales here!”  Normally the film would root for the death of its antagonist, or for him to be brought back alive to face trial. This film wonderfully does not take a side, but gives the viewer what he does not expect.

The Best Directors: A Series—Stanley Kubrick

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I have seen six of Stanley Kubrick’s films, but not 2001 or The Shining, which might be a bit surprising. My favorite films of his are some of his earliest—Paths of Glory and Spartacus. My third favorite is A Clockwork Orange, although saying favorite about it makes it sound like fun, which would make about as much sense as listening to “Singing in the Rain” during a home invasion. The other three are famous, but only pretty good: Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket.

Through those films Kubrick spanned decades and crossed genres. Both Paths of Glory and Spartacus have battles and uniforms, but depart from the traditional war films and sword and sandal flicks. They both star Kirk Douglas, so I suppose that means, he was Kubrick’s greatest collaborator. Peter Sellers may be his best remembered collaborator, but two madmen in a film might be one madman too many.

He hated war, violence, and politicians. He loved those who could endure suffering, those who made the best of difficult situations, and those who had a gallows’s humor. Watch any of his films and you can see those beliefs; watch them all and you will start to believe them too.

Ocean’s 11

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***

They way I figure it is like this: the eleven of us cats against this one city…? 

It turns out that the Rat Pack did not really match up against the remake’s cast. That said, it was a delight to get to see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammie Davis Jr, Peter Lawford et al. in their primes. Besides Sinatra, they sing some nice songs, which you do not get in the remake.

I was amazed at how similar Angie Dickinson resembled Julia Roberts, particularly when Julia’s hair is up. It really explained why Julia’s performance was so seemingly cold. The story divulges noticeably from the remakes: 5 casinos, World War II veterans, no villain, Cesar Romero, post-heist storylines, and the damned Hays Code. Vegas has changed, as has the success of their venture, but that is not nearly as interesting as CESAR F’N ROMERO. I only know him as The Joker on the original Batman tv show. He does not cut a comedic figure, but plays the kindly menacing Duke Santos. He is a man who both criminals and lawmen respect. So cool. Sexist Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra undermined my respect for them with certain attitudes they had. Still, pretty cool.

The Best Directors: A Series—Milos Forman

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Amadeus is a five star film. Milos Forman called upon F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, and Elizabeth Berridge to cross the Iron Curtain to make this film. He took a classic tragedy and out did Aleksandr Pushkin’s version. He made such a visually striking film that I had no idea that it was based on a play. The rest of his career pales in comparison to this one shining achievement.

True, Forman made One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but I never finished it, so my opinion on it should be discounted. Still, I can say that none of the characters in that film resonated the way Salieri did in Amadeus. That is because I have wrestled with many of the same demons he did—yes, I think that I killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But I kid, his speech for speaking on behalf of mediocrities really cuts me to the core, since who truly can compare when measured against a true genius.

Forman’s early Czech films may be ingenious, but I have never seen them. Those were the 60’s. The 70’s had Cuckoo’s Nest, 80’s had Amadeus, and then in the 90’s he tackled some more amazingly interesting characters. With Man on the Moon he let Jim Carrey inhabit Andy Kaufman. In The People vs. Larry Flynt Woody Harrelson played Larry Flynt, but Ed Norton truly ran the show as Flynt’s lawyer. Without being truly groundbreaking, Forman told stories in slightly different fashions, through others’ eyes, or with main characters taking supporting roles. Flynt and Mozart were not truly the stars of their own stories, yet no one goes to see a movie called Salieri, or The Prosecutors vs. Alan Isaacman.

Within biographies lies Forman’s greatness. He has the ability to take extraordinary men and present them in two hour time capsules. To present them, without letting them dominate their own stories. The next film of his on my Netflix queue is Keeping The Faith, so…we will have to wait and see if that film has the same depth as Amadeus.

The Best Directors: A Series—Sergio Leone

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Sergio Leone is the uncontested master of the Spaghetti Western. But who is the best Western director of all-time? The first name that comes to a film buff’s mind is John Ford. This is not meant as a criticism of John Ford, but here is a list of Sergio Leone’s Westerns: A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in The West. According to imdb.com’s Top 250 list those last three films are  #118, #4, and #20 respectively. Eliminating all non-Westerns they would be #5, #1, and #2 respectively. Personally, I think that there have been several Westerns better than The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. But what I consider his 4th best film is voted the 4th BEST FILM OF ALL TIME. So, what you got John Ford? Some nice vistas and John Wayne? I will see that and raise you a Clint Eastwood and Spain with some chancy dubbing.

Maestro Leone took one of Akira Kurosawa’s classics–Yojimbo–and made of his first Western—A Fistful of Dollars. Contrast that success with the 1995 Last Man Standing. That failure already had Fistful as a blueprint for how to make a Western version of Yojimbo and still did not come close. I have to thank my friend Greger for getting me to watch this after quoting what was to be my second favorite scene in the film. Eastwood’s “Man with no name” rides into town on a mule and some ruffians drive him off by shooting at, and scaring, the mule. Before returning to confront them Eastwood, without turning to face the undertaker say to him, “Get three coffins ready.” After taking care of business Eastwood walks back and apologizes, “My mistake, four coffins.”

Next came my favorite of the series—For a Few Dollars More. The Man with no name is back, but this time he is a bounty hunter. He gets a competitor in Colonel Mortimer–Lee Van Cleef–this time around. This film is so good, it manages to make a music box tune the most dramatic sound possible. This almost features a Mexican standoff. I put this DVD in more often than the rest of the set.

While much more operatic in theme and grandeur, I do like not like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly as much as the first two. Still, I always stop and watch it when it’s on tv. The Man with no name is back—as The Good—and Lee Van Cleef tackles a different role–The Bad. The Ugly’s pretty interesting too.

I have never seen Once Upon A Time in America, but it is ranked #76 and stars De Niro and Pesci as gangsters. It is safe to assume that when I do watch it, I will enjoy all three hours of it. It also shares its name with Leone’s best film–Once Upon A Time in The West. This slow paced elegy to the Spaghetti West outshone everything that came before it. The best analogy to this film is the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Seriously, disco was already dying, and then that soundtrack not only captured the sound of disco better than any one artist could have, but it also provided some of the greatest songs of the genre, like Stayin’ Alive. I only wish that a twentieth as many people had seen Once Upon A Time in The West as those who saw the mediocre Saturday Night Fever. 

All told, Leone made the best four genre movies in a row. He might not hit for the cycle, but he hit a lead-off home run, three run home run, ground rule double, and then a grand slam in the world of Westerns. These are great films for all film fans, since I did not like Westerns until Sergio Leone left me no choice but to like them.

P.S. by law I must mention how important Ennio Morricone’s scores were in those four films. If I ever make a list about the best score composers he will have to be near the top.

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