Category Archives: Hollywood and Vine

Celebrities, the entertainment industry and other such frivolities.

A best guess approach to picking the lesser known 2014 Oscar winners

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Remember when movies were cheap?  Like, not-bank-breaking-to-see-one-a-week cheap?  It wasn’t that long ago that you could wander into your local multiplex without having to fork over the proverbial arm and leg for your ticket and bag of popcorn, or slice of pizza.  My friends and I used to try to venture out weekly, which was occasionally rough going during those dry months when the studios were dumping their guaranteed flops into the rolling-tumbleweed timeslots said dreck was similarly guaranteed to disappear quietly within, while doing the least damage to their reputations as producers of quality entertainment.  But it also meant you had a better than average shot of seeing all the movies that were up for awards contention.

Having said that, seeing the movies didn’t mean you were in any better position to judge whether or not they would win awards.  There are distinct, often inexplicable differences between the mind of the critic, the average viewer, and the award voter.  And what wins is a matter not necessarily of quality, but of an unfathomable brew of popularity, body of work, perceived merit and good old fashioned ad campaigns.  In the end the whole affair is about money anyway – someone did a calculation once where they figured out the percentage by which an Oscar win would boost a movie’s box office revenue or an actor’s asking price, with the typical caveat that in Hollywood, there is no such thing as an absolute:  F. Murray Abraham certainly isn’t pulling in $20 million a picture.

So if you’re trying to win your office Oscar pool, what do you do?  You read umpteen columns like this one, both professional and amateur, try to get a general sense of the trends, and toss your darts accordingly.  I’ll go through each category in brief and offer my own uninformed thoughts and guidelines.  You’ll note that as per the title of the post I’m staying away from the big ones like Actor, Actress and Picture, and focusing instead on the technical and “minor” categories, because a) I’m curmudgeonly that way and b) everyone else is doing posts about the big ones, so I’m standing up for the little guy.  You know, like Rob Ford says he does.

Animated Feature Film

Nominees:  The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises

Frozen is rightly being celebrated as Disney’s return to the form of its Renaissance era after years struggling in the shadow of Pixar, and it deserves every accolade it gets.  It doesn’t matter how highly regarded The Wind Rises’ director Hayao Miyazaki may be, nor even that he announced it would be his final film – the Academy will not stand idly by and let the wild success of Frozen go unacknowledged.  The other three contenders may have their own individual merits, but they had the misfortune of being nominated in Frozen‘s year.

Cinematography

Nominees:  The Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners

There are two schools of thinking here.  The Academy tends to prefer movies that are shot outside as nature is harder to light than a soundstage.  They also like slow-paced films where the shots look like paintings.  However, they bend the rule when it comes to mind-blowing images that have never been seen before, which is why Inception won this award in 2010.  One thing mentioned universally in reviews of Gravity was that it made you feel like you really were in space.  The cinematography was one of the biggest components of that so this one would be my pick.

Costume Design

Nominees:  American Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave

Anyone who remembers Priscilla, Queen of the Desert‘s designer Lizzie Gardner picking up her award in a dress made of AmEx Gold Cards will note that award-winning costume design is all about flash over substance, so the sequins and dazzle of The Great Gatsby are the odds-on favorite over the drab outfits of 12 Years a Slave or the coked-out American Hustle suits.

Documentary Feature

Nominees:  The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet from Stardom

The rule for documentaries has always been, “pick the one about the Holocaust.”  Absent that, any documentary about war, death or the general inhumanity of man is the strongest contender, although the Academy does have a soft spot for movies about entertainers or the entertainment industry in general.  20 Feet from Stardom could be the dark horse, as it’s about backup singers.  However, you have The Act of Killing about mass murder in Indonesia, Dirty Wars about America’s dark foreign policy or The Square about the Egyptian uprising of 2011.  Go with The Act of Killing.

Documentary Short Subject

Nominees:  CaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Otherwise known as the “your guess is as good as mine” category.  The latter is about a man in his 80’s dying in a prison, so given the goodwill shown towards hopeful prison movies like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption in the past, I’d lean towards it.

Film Editing

Nominees:  American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave

Editing is always a tricky category to gauge in that the best editing is the kind you don’t notice, however, if the film is edited in a particularly audacious and in-your-face manner, it may get awarded simply for calling attention to itself.  Absent that whatever wins Best Picture wins Best Editing, so this one would be between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.  I would favor Gravity again because even in the trailers and clips that you’ve seen, editing is up front.

Foreign Language Film

Nominees:  The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Omar (Palestine)

This is the category where the winner always gets played off in the middle of his speech while he’s trying to make a point about important issues in his homeland.  And there wasn’t a foreign language film this year that crossed over into the mainstream, the way previous winners Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life is Beautiful did.  So you guessed it – dartboard approach again.  As a general rule, Somber beats Laugh Riot, Stately beats Fast-Paced.  It would be interesting to see Omar take the trophy as a Palestinian film, to my recollection, has never won before.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Nominees:  Dallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger

This one is pretty easy to figure.  The latter two are Johnny Knoxville in latex as an old man in a gross-out comedy or Johnny Depp with a dead crow on his head in a universally disliked big budget remake of an old 50’s radio show.  The former is likely to see two acting winners on Oscar night.  As they all say, you do the math.

Original Score

Nominees:  The Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks was composed by perennial also-ran Thomas Newman, who was nominated and lost for Skyfall last year, so cross him off straight away.  The score for All Is Lost, which won the Golden Globe, wasn’t nominated, and The Book Thief is by John Williams who already has a pile of Oscars.  Can you hum the score from Her or Philomena?  So that really leaves Gravity – unless the Academy decides to be charitable and end Newman’s Lucci-esque losing streak.

Original Song

Nominees:  “Happy” from Despicable Me 2, “Let it Go” from Frozen, “The Moon Song” from Her, “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom

Again, I am biased here, but “Let it Go” is the front runner, with one Ireland-sized caveat:  “Ordinary Love” is by U2, and the Academy gets giggly about the possibility of giving out song Oscars to famous singers – improves the TV ratings, dontcha know; plus Bono gives infamous acceptance speeches.  However, you’re not exactly seeing masses of folks post YouTube covers or parodies of “Ordinary Love,” and it is miles removed from the realm of U2’s best work.  The lyrics are so vague that you’d never guess it was from a movie about Nelson Mandela, and it will be forgotten as soon as the Oscar show ends.  Whereas “Let it Go,” like the movie it’s from, is a cultural phenomenon.

Production Design

Nominees:  American Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave

Pick period here, every time.  That kiboshes Gravity and Her right out of the gate.  And like costume design, the flashier the better.  I would hazard that 20’s glam Gatsby will outperform the bleaker 70’s and 19th Century.

Animated Short Film

Nominees:  Feral, Get a Horse!, Mr. Hublot, Possessions, Room on the Broom

You saw Get a Horse! if you saw Frozen, and its fourth-wall-breaking inventiveness, homage to classic animated shorts and of course, popularity, will help it triumph over the four titles nobody’s ever heard of without breaking a sweat.

Live Action Short Film

Nominees:  Outside of their immediate families, does it matter?

Sorry to be blunt and cynical, and it is a real shame that more audiences don’t get to see these (a fact pointed out in every acceptance speech made by every winner of this category every single year), but nobody knows the movies, nobody knows the people who made them, and thus nobody knows how to pick the winner.  Eeny, meeny, miney mo is probably the best method.  Good luck!

Sound Editing

Nominees:  All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor

It’s interesting to see The Hobbit get one of its only three nominations here when you consider what an Oscar powerhouse the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was.  Perhaps the attitude towards it is a little on the “been there, done that” side.  No matter, it’s not likely to win anyway.  Sound Editing concerns created sound effects, and the most popular movie always wins, so go with Gravity again.

Sound Mixing

Nominees:  Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor

Sound mixing is more about the overall tonal quality, or sonic atmosphere, of a movie as opposed to explosions, footsteps and gunshots.  It’s also rare that a movie will win both sound awards, so I would suggest avoiding Gravity.  Instead I’ll go with an ostensibly oddball pick, Inside Llewyn Davis, and that’s chiefly because the movie is about music.

Visual Effects

Nominees:  Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness

Remember that Forrest Gump won this category in 1994?  (You’re saying “huh?  I don’t remember any effects in that movie.”)  But it did, both for making audiences think Gary Sinise was a double amputee and letting Tom Hanks have conversations with dead Presidents.  Visual effects applied to realistic, non-fantasy films are always preferred over flights of wild imagination.  The dragon was cool as was the starship rising from the ocean, but here it’s gonna be  Gravity, Gravity, Gravity.

Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:  Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

Yay, the writing awards!  The first of the two categories is generally the more boring, and easier to predict.  It only gets shaken up when a celebrity writer is nominated, like Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network in 2010, or someone who’s famous for something else gets a nod for “aw, look, they can write too!”, i.e. Emma Thompson for Sense and Sensibility in 1995.  Absent that, look for 12 Years a Slave to come up trumps here, because movies favored for Best Picture are also the best written, correct?  You’d think so.

Original Screenplay

Nominees:  American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska

The winner here is always the movie that lives and dies by its concept.  Stories that hinge on absurd premises, mind-bending twists or brilliant, quotable dialogue are the way to go.  The race here is between American Hustle and Her, and I give the edge to Her because the idea of a man who falls in love with Siri is more out-there than the misadventures of con artists in the 70’s, and also because it’s the only award it’s likely to win on Sunday night.

So there you have it – absolutely, positively, 100% not guaranteed to help you triumph over your cinephile friends, because every year we do these lists and every year the Academy throws us a curve (or several).  About the only thing you can ever reliably predict about the Oscars is that they will be long and that the host will make a joke (or several) about how long they are.  But we’ll all stick it out for the Best Picture award, of course, and the winning producer’s claim that the movie’s victory will be a watershed moment in the human struggle with whatever the movie was about.  Which of course, it won’t be.

Happy viewing!

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Weighing in on Wonder Woman

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“Don’t let them screw it up,” was producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s advice to his daughter Barbara as he handed her the reins of the James Bond franchise.  The same six words tremble on the lips of every comic book fan who dreams of seeing Wonder Woman represented on a theatre screen with hundreds of millions of dollars and a booming Hans Zimmer score behind her.  While the last three decades have seen Superman and Batman go through their cinematic paces with both triumphs and nadirs, WW remains shackled in the vault, a victim of Hollywood’s utter inability to figure out how to handle her.  While her comic continues to sell, and she’s seen some action in animated form, the leap to live action feature remains daunting.  Big industry movers and shakers like David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon have tried and failed to bring her to life.  But as everyone with even a passing interest has heard, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known from the recent spate of Fast & Furious franchise offerings, has been signed to appear as Wonder Woman in the next Superman movie, alongside Henry Cavill reprising his role from Man of Steel and Ben Affleck taking over for Christian Bale as Batman.  That’s all we know at this point.

What we can offer by way of conjecture is that the role for Wonder Woman in a film already top-heavy with marquee characters and A-list names, built around a conflict between DC’s two heaviest hitters, is not fated to be of the substance her biggest fans crave.  Firstly, the movie is intended as a sequel to Man of Steel, so it’s not meant to be an ensemble piece with each character having his and her requisite beats.  Superman remains the lead part with Batman as a second lead/supporting player.  The primary character arc, the hero’s journey, will be Superman’s.  The demands of a limited running time mean Wonder Woman is unlikely to be given much of an origin story; she’s likely to merely show up at some critical point (or be disguised as Diana Prince, new reporter for the Daily Planet and Lois Lane rival, for the majority of the plot before a third-act costumed reveal).  And the character’s Greek mythological (i.e. fantasy) background is an uneasy fit in between Superman’s science fiction nature (at least, as it was depicted in MoS) and Batman’s hard-boiled detective leanings.  The Justice League animated series adopted a “just go with it” approach whereby the characters simply got on with battling whatever military/magical/alien villain happened to show up this week, without stopping to explain how all these genres could logically coexist.  But I doubt that an intended-for-mainstream-audiences movie will be satisfied with that.  Marvel’s The Avengers had the advantage of five different introductory movies to get the exposition out of the way so you could accept the idea of Thor and Iron Man together; MoS II or whatever it’s going to be called has no such luxury.  (Part of the problem is that the rollout of the DC properties has been haphazard, first with the mediocre Superman Returns, then the abysmal Green Lantern, and the incompatibility of Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy with an overarching story, and now they are struggling to play catch-up to Marvel’s much more strategic approach.)

The thought, then, is that her extended cameo in Man of Steel vs. Dark Knight, or whatever they’re calling it, may serve as a springboard for her own standalone spinoff.  That puts a heckuva lot of pressure on Gadot to deliver a performance that stands out just enough amidst the testosterone-fueled Kryptonian/Gothamite smackdown without taking so much focus off the two male leads that we lose interest in their story.  And she has to accomplish that herculean (hera-ian?) task while competing for attention with Amy Adams, no slouch she with screen presence.  While the trolls trashing the relatively unknown Gadot for not having the right look or not being American or not being insert favorite large-breasted actress you’d love to sleep with here need to open a window in that basement of theirs (seriously folks, have we learned nothing from the short-lived backlash over Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight?), legitimate questions can be asked about how the character will be written for her to play.  For one of the most difficult characters for any person to write well is an empowered woman, and especially difficult is a superpowered woman.  Going back to my mention of James Bond earlier, while he may be held up as an aspirational example of a certain kind of masculinity (he shouldn’t, in my view), hardly anyone in criticism writes of Bond as a template for Man.  But every time a woman of significance appears on screen in a role that calls for slightly more than “focus group-required love interest,” critics leap to immediately assign her a greater significance in the canon of All That Is Female.  Woman becomes Everywoman.  So too, we expect, will Wonder Woman.

And they won’t be able to help themselves.  Wonder Woman is essentially, a goddess; flawless beauty and figure combined with indomitable strength and abilities, an aspirational, unachievable paradigm of feminine perfection.  You’re the writer of Man of Steel 2: Batman Boogaloo or whatever.  Now quick, go pen some dialogue for this character.  Dialogue that, you know, intrigues and endears audiences but doesn’t send them bolting for the exits with a preachy collection of dumbed-down feminist stereotypes, or turns a beloved icon into a brainless git making sure to point her shapely hind end provocatively at the camera while slam-punching supervillains through buildings.  Fancy that assignment?  Particularly when we’re still operating within the restraints noted above, that she has to be memorable but not so memorable that she diminishes Batman and/or Superman, the latter of whom the movie is mainly supposed to be about?

If it sounds like I’m not holding out a lot of hope for Wonder Woman circa 2015, you’d be partially correct.  I hope she’s the most awesome version of the character we’ve ever seen, leaving folks asking Lynda who? and begging for Wonder Woman Begins.  What I’m missing is the faith that this can be executed properly by the creative team handling her live-action feature debut, or indeed by any creative team in the realistic position to handle this potential franchise.  Because too often in the past, we’ve seen them (the generic them) screw it up.  They screw it up by refusing to invest female action heroes with humanizing nuance, by writing them as archetypes instead of as people.  Broad caricatures who have to lose what makes them women in order to compete on the same playing field as men.  Or, they venture too far the other way, where femininity is cranked up to vampy extremes for the benefit of naught but teenage boys.  The Lara Croft movies presented a lead utterly without warmth or any discernible charm and consequently any audience empathy.  Catwoman put its lead in bondage gear and involved her not in a battle for the fate of the world, but in a silly plot about toxic makeup.  (And the failures of these films set back the female action genre by years, as shortsighted executives figured people weren’t going to see them because they didn’t like action movies with female heroes, not the real reason – because the movies themselves just sucked.)

What I’d like to see, and what I expect folks who are far greater fans of Wonder Woman than I am would want to see as well, is a character who despite her superpowered trappings still possesses emotions that we can understand and encounters situations we can recognize.  (You know, like walking to work one day and running into a massive, marauding interstellar beast.)  A character with some real weight and depth.  A goddess who is still human where it counts most, in her heart and in her head.  That’s what will make us love her and want to see more of her.

Over to you, Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Gal Gadot.  Show us the Wonder.

Bond 24: And they’re off!

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So, this piece of news hit the Interwebs yesterday:  Bond 24, officially announced, to be directed again by Sam Mendes and released on this side of the pond on November 6, 2015.  While Mendes had withdrawn from consideration some months ago, citing his theatre commitments, and fanboy excitement had been stirred to exploding by the revelation that producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli had met with Christopher Nolan, in the end it seems that after Skyfall blew apart box office records across the planet, no one was willing to let Mendes go – even if that meant delaying production to wait for him to finish up his work on the London stage.  So yeah, it blows that we have to twiddle our thumbs two and a half more years, but I’m happy to wait for a production that equals or even betters the last one rather than have a rushed, half-assed job by some other hack-for-hire.  Sam Mendes will become the first director to make back-to-back 007 movies since John Glen in the 80’s.  And of course Daniel Craig will be back, along with Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw as Q.  John Logan is handling writing duties.

That is all we know at this moment and all we are likely to know for quite some time.  However, that won’t stop the entertainment press, per their S.O.P., to print thousands of words of misinformation and other misleading nonsense in the hopes of drumming up clicks and ad revenue tied to the golden touch of 007.  Whenever a new Bond movie goes into production the same rumors spring up like the annual dandelions in your otherwise impeccably manicured front lawn.  They get the same circulation and eventually someone from Eon (Bond’s production company) is forced to issue a denial.  In the interest of expediency, I thought I would save the press some time and write the story for them here, based on the fifteen hundred other versions of it we’ve seen ever since the first Bond-related article sprang up in cyberspace many moons ago.  They can then plug in the name of the requisite D-list starlet whose overzealous publicist is trying to boost her profile by linking her falsely to a Bond role.  Anyone who follows Bond gossip will find it all too terribly familiar.  Please to enjoy:

(GENERIC ACTRESS) Set to Star in Next Bond Film

HOLLYWOOD – (Generic Actress) is being wooed to match wits with the cinema’s most dashing secret agent, James Bond, in his next adventure, (Misguided Entertainment Publication) has learned.

(Generic Actress), who has appeared in (Swiftly Canceled CW Teen Fantasy Series) and (SyFy Channel Original Movie Featuring Sharks and Tornadoes), is the number one choice of Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who are said to be “desperate” to ink the rising star for the upcoming production, tentatively titled Bond 24.  “(Generic Actress) is perfect for the role of 007’s leading lady because she’s beautiful and alluring, with that slightly dangerous edge that marks the greatest of the Bond girls,” says a source inside Eon Productions, who asked not to be revealed for this story.  “We’re excited that (Generic Actress) will be a part of this film and are certain she’ll make a memorable addition to the James Bond legacy.”

Next up for (Generic Actress) is a formal screen test with Bond star Daniel Craig to take place at Bond’s home base, Pinewood Studios in London, and a meeting with director Sam Mendes.  Also rumored to be joining the cast is (usually Kevin Spacey) as the villain, and (Completely Unknown Bollywood Actor) as a henchman.  (Forgotten X Factor Winner) will be performing the theme song.  Bond 24 is set to be released in cinemas in November of 2015.

Use it wisely, my friends.  Royalties are not required, but would be nice.  Just leave me your bank account number and password in the comments.

Star Trek, Superman, “coolness,” and truth

Cool.
Cool.

My friend George sent me a link to a really long (but interesting nonetheless) rant about Star Trek Into Darkness the other day.  The author of said rant was not in any way a fan of Damon Lindelof, the Hollywood screenwriter who co-created Lost and contributed to the scripts of both Ridley Scott’s misfired Alien prequel Prometheus and the most recent reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  To paraphrase, it’s perhaps enough to say that the author’s main gripe with Lindelof is that his writing forgoes logic, rules and consistent characterization in favor of “gee whiz,” “cool” and giggling at boobies instead.  Even as someone who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness for what it was, I found it hard to dispute this point.  One of the biggest of my own gripes about it was the ending, cribbed almost note for note from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the point where it came off as something like a cinematic exercise in karaoke.  Movies in this genre nowadays rarely, if ever, make you feel anything.  And the reason, plainly, is that they are being made by a generation of filmmakers who have not felt, but rather have experienced life only by watching other movies.

I don’t know Damon Lindelof and I can’t pretend to know what he’s gone through in his life.  Certainly his drive and his skill at achieving the career he has is to be admired and envied.  But he seems to be one of a breed of young writers and directors from the mold of Quentin Tarantino, who spent their formative years working in video stores, absorbing thousands upon thousands of famous and obscure movies into malleable brains, uploading raw data Matrix-style to that place where the memories of life would normally be stored.  The work they produce now as the chief drivers of the Hollywood machine is endless pastiche; pieces of other works recombined and reimagined for modern consumption.  I had a discussion with my uncle recently about the decline in quality of movie scripts and I told him it’s because foreign markets make up the majority of a movie’s profit potential, and vehicles driven by visual effects and explosions and “cool!” will do better overseas than more literate works filled with idioms and ideas and cultural mores that don’t translate into Mandarin or Hindi.  Studio executives hire filmmakers who can deliver dollars, not philosophy.  (If they can do both at the same time, fine, that usually means Oscars, but the former is always preferable).  This is where folks like Damon Lindelof find their wheelhouse.  (In fairness to him, Star Trek Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and certainly director J.J. Abrams had major story input as well).  They can deliver the popcorn with consistency and efficiency.  But that’s all.

There is a semi-famous story (to Trekkers, anyhow) around the writing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  When Nicholas Meyer was hired as its director, he was told there were at least five different scripts for it floating around, none of which were suitable to shoot.  Meyer suggested a meeting whereby the creative team made a note of everything they liked from any of the drafts – a character, a scene, even something as minor as a line of dialogue.  Meyer took these notes away and wrote a draft of what would become the movie we saw in only twelve days, forsaking a writing credit simply to get the movie in shape to shoot.  In any other hands such a cut-and-paste job might have resulted in a hackneyed, disjointed mess, but Meyer’s literary background enabled him to infuse a theatrical quality into what was otherwise a straightforward story of revenge and sacrifice.  What was most remarkable about the screenplay was that it dared to present its hero as old, tired and washed-up – traits actors loathe playing because they think the audience will project them onto their real-life selves.  Meyer was young when he wrote the screenplay, but as a struggling artist he could empathize with those things.  Hotshot screenwriters who’ve bounced effortlessly from pre-sold blockbuster to pre-sold blockbuster as the new Star Trek team have done are incapable of this.  They don’t know what it’s like to fail, to come up against your own limitations and find yourself wanting.  They simply can’t dramatize what they have never felt.  And so they reach toward the only place they’ve ever found traces of those feelings – other, better movies.

When I picture Nicholas Meyer writing Star Trek II, I see an angsty face hunched over a typewriter, sucking down his twentieth cigarette, plumbing the depths of his soul as he agonizes over le mot juste, fighting to find the emotional truth of the story.  When I picture the story break sessions for Star Trek Into Darkness, I see a room full of young guys in baseball caps scarfing down pizza and Red Bull and trying to one-up each other with statements like “You know what would be totally awesome?  A shot of the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.”  “How about they come across this ship which is twice their size and totally painted black?”  “COOL!”  “Hey, guys, check this out.  What if the bad guy… is Khan?  And the end is exactly like Wrath of Khan only we switch Kirk and Spock’s places?”  “Yeah!  I love it!”  “It’s pretty good, but we need some hot alien chicks with tails.  And more Beastie Boys songs, that went over so well last time.”

I had the same problem with Superman Returns, which I watched again recently, and I chalk it up once more to a screenplay written by capable but very young scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (they have cameos in the movie as high school students) who were great at dreaming up “Cool!” trailer-worthy moments like a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye but not so skilled at crafting emotions or believable characters.  Superman is a difficult character to write even if you’re a seasoned pro, but the main reason that movie didn’t connect with audiences was because Superman really has no story in it.  He’s just… there, as lifeless as the dated-looking CGI used to render him in some of the flying scenes.  He talks about having been gone for a while but doesn’t seem to have been changed by his experience, or have any compelling reason to have come back (apart from using his powers to stalk Lois Lane in several unnerving sequences).  The movie is more interested in the “whiz-bang” spectacle of Lex Luthor’s overly complicated plot to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean using stolen Kryptonian crystals and kryptonite, which in the end Superman just ignores as he lifts the entire landmass into outer space (a point not lost on my young son who remarked “isn’t kryptonite supposed to make him weak?”)  And for a movie that directly raises the question of whether or not the world needs Superman, it never gets around to debating this point in a satisfactory way.  Compare the wafer-thin Superman Returns to the profundity in the Richard Donner original that it is paying homage to, and it comes up extremely short – because the young writers of the former simply don’t have the chops of the great veteran Tom Mankiewicz (whom they crib lines from in the movie’s only memorable scenes, just as Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman quoted Meyer’s famous dialogue verbatim in Star Trek Into Darkness).  Instead, we get dumb gags about dogs eating each other.

Someone once decimated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace by pointing out that the plot was a series of scenes of characters going from meeting to meeting to meeting, a reflection of the life of George Lucas at the time.  I’m all for encouraging young screenwriters to get their shot at the big time, but as a lover of stories that matter I prefer the visceral resonance you’ll see in works by writers who’ve lived long enough to have had their asses kicked around the block a few times.  If you’ve never been the underdog, you can’t know what it’s like to be looking up at the mountain and be paralyzed with the fear of taking the first step.  In the absence of those memories you reach for what others have done in older, better movies, and cough up pale copies that rely on flash and swagger to cover the absence of substance.  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter that none of these characters say or do anything memorable or touching, ’cause… cool badass aliens with frickin’ laser beams!  Like in that other movie that people enjoyed!”  The abiding irony in all of this is that as it concerns Star Trek, some of the most memorable dialogue in The Wrath of Khan was itself lifted from other sources, namely Moby Dick et al.  But in that movie, it didn’t feel so obviously recycled, because Meyer’s informed writing and directing (and terrific performances, by the by) sold the emotional truth of each word.

I’m not saying there should be some rule that you can’t write a movie unless you’re at least 40, have been divorced once and be suffering a deep psychological resentment of your parents for taking your favorite blankie away when you were four.  I’m saying that some of these young guys pulling in six and seven figures for rewrite jobs should perhaps look away from a screen once in a while, get out and live a bit of their lives.  Read some classic literature.  Rediscover what it means to feel something that isn’t necessarily just the high of sleeping with models after a gala premiere.  Worry less about what’s cool and more about what connects.  Recognize that what touches us about movies and stays with us long after we’ve left the theater isn’t the awesome shot of the ship tumbling end over end into the atmosphere, it’s the quiet dignity of man in his darkest hour and the deep bonds we forge to fight against our intrinsic loneliness.  It’s the humanity.  And if you can’t feel that in your own life, you’ll never successfully translate it to the page, let alone to the screen.

James Bond: What’s next?

Looking to the future.
Looking to the future.

With what can now safely be called the Bond Begins trilogy coming to a close, as Skyfall ends, in essence, right where Dr. No commences (at least thematically if not quite chronologically), the logical question becomes, where does James Bond 007 go from here?  Absent any hard information about Bond 24 for the time being (save a confirmation of Skyfall’s John Logan returning as screenwriter), 007 fans will return to their usual far-fetched speculation about titles, creative personnel and theme songs, while every D-list actress and reality starlet’s publicist will plant specious stories about their perpetual wannabe clients being pursued by “desperate” 007 producers to star as the new Bond girl (can we collectively agree going forward that after stacking up massive critical acclaim – including five Oscar nominations – and grossing over a billion dollars on Skyfall, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli are anything but desperate?)  What is of interest to me is not the minutiae of who plays whom and who directs what; it’s what will be done with the character of James Bond.  With the ghosts of Vesper Lynd and M laid to rest, anything is possible for the next chapter.  But will the producers slip lazily back into formula, or will they push through to something new and untested?  Even Skyfall borrowed from previous Bonds, using a facially-scarred former MI6 agent as the villain (Goldeneye) and centering the plot on M’s dark past (The World is Not Enough).  There is an obligation now, it seems, to outdo past glories yet again, lest the disparaging reviews write themselves (“Well, it’s no Skyfall, but…)  Is James Bond finally trapped by his own success into running aimlessly like a tuxedoed mouse on a wheel?  I’m sure no one wants to return to the era of Bond in the 80’s, where an aging star creaked his way through formulaic plots assembled lazily by committee with no deeper insight into Bond’s character.

I’ve lurked on the message boards of major and lesser-known James Bond websites for years, and it’s always mildly amusing to read the ideas that are pitched for future adventures.  Some are quite awful.  Others are simply impractical.  A great number are recycled, whether deliberately or in subconscious plagiarism, from what has gone before.  What is most interesting though is the almost uniform approach these well-meaning fans take – to whit, the place from which they begin:  the villain and the plot.  The bad guy should be this, that or whatever (usually a fairly one-dimensional stock madman) and his plan should be to threaten to do this.  And in fairness, some of the plots that are concocted are fairly elaborate, if awfully familiar.  The biggest question that arises when reading these synopses is, where is James Bond?  (He often isn’t plugged in until the third paragraph, usually in afterthought:  “…and Bond has to stop him.”)  With apologies to my fellow Bond fans, they’re all missing the most crucial ingredient for any story that draws inspiration from the classical hero’s journey – what is that journey?  Why is he taking it?  What will he learn about himself along the way?  How will he forever be changed by it?  Anyone trying to dream up a realistic Bond 24 plot needs to answer these questions before they start dreaming up cheesy names for seductive, large-breasted henchwomen.

To resolve the issue of where does Bond go, we have to look back at where he’s been over the last three films.  He has loved and been betrayed (Casino Royale), he has learned the futility of vengeance (Quantum of Solace), and in Skyfall he has buried his “mother.”  What do you take away from the man who’s lost everything?  I mentioned in one of these 007 posts somewhere along the way that there is a theme running through the entirety of the Bond series – less pronounced, perhaps, in some of the more pedestrian efforts – that being James Bond withers the soul; that his life, despite its exotic trappings, is not one to be envied or emulated.  What keeps Bond going is what Silva mocks him for in Skyfall:  “England, the Empire, MI6… so old-fashioned.”  Even in Quantum of Solace, as Bond seeks to strike at the organization responsible for Vesper’s death, duty remains paramount in his mind, cemented by his final declaration to M that “I never left.”  The films have never touched on in any great detail where Bond’s sense of duty comes from.  As an orphan he seeks to identify with any parental figure, and given that governments are frequently described both in positive and negative terms with parental analogies, it’s not too difficult to see why such a “maladjusted young man,” as Vesper calls him, might gravitate toward public service – first, as indicated in Bond’s official biography, in the Royal Navy, and ultimately in its Secret Service.  Queen and country is what drives Bond, ironically, even with his “pathological rejection of authority based on unresolved childhood trauma.”  In reviewing The Man with the Golden Gun, I talked about the oddity in the construction of the plot that had Scaramanga scheming to create a monopoly on solar power that would drive the oil companies out of business – something of a laudable goal, not your typical supervillain scheme that threatens the entirety of humanity.  Yet Bond is still driven to stop him by any means necessary, out of fidelity to England.  Scaramanga himself points this out when he tells Bond, “You work for peanuts… a hearty ‘well done’ from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.”  Skyfall literalizes this sense of duty to country by personifying it as M, and yet, even after her death, Bond’s England soldiers on – as does he, recommitted fully to his work and arguably, his destiny, as he happily accepts a new assignment from M’s successor before the final fade out.

But what if this were all taken away?

What has never been examined in any great detail in any of the 007 films is Bond’s moral compass, absent his loyalty to England.  What if England itself was the enemy?  Who is Bond then?  What if Her Majesty’s loyal terrier is compelled to break off the leash – what if doing the right thing means betraying queen and country?

Some might argue that Licence to Kill touches on this briefly, as Bond walks away from M and England to pursue private vengeance, but the film features only one brief scene set on British soil (not even filmed there, ironically) and Bond never actually questions or betrays his fidelity to his homeland, he just considers retribution for Felix Leiter to be more important at the time.  So as far as I can tell, this is completely unknown territory.  (Quantum of Solace did flirt with this idea of Bond being considered a rogue by his own government, but the screenplay was so underwritten it never took the time to explore this idea to its fullest extent.  In that movie, despite pretensions of being on a mission of vengeance, Bond is really doing Her Majesty’s work his own way, and simply not stopping to file the required TPS reports.)

I’m not saying I expect Bond 24 to follow this line of thought.  Such questions tend to veer into the realm of the political, and Wilson and Broccoli, like her father before them, shy from making political statements.  Villains of a particular nationality are usually portrayed as rogues, with a sympathetic character from the same homeland always included to disavow all official connection with them – witness the genial Soviet General Gogol versus the crazed General Orlov in Octopussy, or the conciliatory North Korean General Moon against his megalomaniacal son in Die Another Day.  From Russia with Love’s adaptation changed the bad guys from the novel’s Soviet Union to the stateless SPECTRE.  Yet you can see the groundwork laid for an exploration of these shadows in Quantum of Solace – the usually reliable CIA (at least in the Bond movies) are portrayed as willing accomplices in a Bolivian coup d’état, and one of the leading members of Quantum is a “Guy Haines,” said to be a top advisor to the British Prime Minister, and whose fate is left unresolved at the end of the film.  And the worldwide audience is at a place now where trust in government is at a record low.  Corruption and incompetence is expected and tolerated; democracy is an exercise in spending rather than ideas.  And yet one can see the threads of the greatness that once was drifting in the cynical wind – hope has not been extinguished yet.  Where is Bond’s Britain on this new political map?  Is David Cameron meant to be the “PM” whom Q, Tanner and Mallory worry about in Skyfall?  Does Bond worry about what cuts to the National Health Service may mean for his martini-damaged liver?

In Skyfall, we saw a James Bond who wasn’t sure he wanted to be 007 anymore – addicted to painkillers and doing tequila shots at a beach bar, before family loyalty called him back into service to try and regain his classic self.  The man who stumbles around in exile in the first act, drinking Heineken (horrors!) as he can barely be bothered to notice the beautiful girl lying next to him, is a man without purpose.  At the end, as he stands on the rooftop of Regent’s Park contemplating the promise of the morning sun and the Union Jack soaring in the breeze, Moneypenny hands him his final gift from M – her prized porcelain British bulldog; bequeathing M’s sense of duty to a greater calling that she knew in her dying moments that he shared.  A powerful gift – and if it is somehow taken away from him, what becomes of Bond then?  Bond vs. England to save it from itself would be a powerful story, with Bond forced to question everything about who he is and whom he’s chosen to align himself with.  From this seed, the rest of the story can spring forth.  Then you can start figuring out the shape of the ideal, modern villain who could somehow turn Bond against his own homeland, and a love interest who can help Bond smash the conspiracy and restore honor to his life.

I should be clear – I am not interested in a rehash of the exhausted “one man must clear his name, the villain is his former mentor” trope that was every action movie released in the late 90’s.  Nor do I want to see Bond turn into Jason Bourne, pursued relentlessly by agents of the organization he is trying to leave behind.  This would be Bond choosing to betray his country for a compelling reason, and the consequences of that betrayal.  Testing whether Bond’s loyalty is truly to Her Majesty or to a deeper moral code, hidden somewhere in the murky ambiguity that accompanies a licence to kill.  Stripped of any issues of loyalty, where is James Bond on the grand divide?  Can a man who murders people for a living be, fundamentally, a good man?  That’s the question my hypothetical movie would want to examine, and my starting point for developing the screenplay.  If, you know, I got the call from Eon.  That phone can ring anytime, guys.

Wherever John Logan, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli choose to take 007 next, just as a fan I hope for two small things, both involving the leading lady – first, I really hope we’ve seen the last of the “Bond’s equal” female spy, a la Jinx, Wai Lin, Anya Amasova, etc.  As I’ve said before it’s an unimaginative stock character that gets shoehorned in when there is no more logical reason for having a love interest in the movie.  And second, after three movies where Bond ends his adventure alone, it would be nice to see the poor guy have a walk-into-the-sunset moment with a gorgeous companion at his side, in a cleverly-written scene that doesn’t involve puns about how many times Christmas comes in a year.  Everyone Daniel Craig’s Bond has slept with has died, and he’s earned an old-fashioned Connery-in-the-raft ending, methinks.

Sigh… long wait to November 2014.

May the Mouse be with you

Above:  The single coolest image of a Jedi battle ever seen anywhere.
Above: The single coolest image of a Jedi battle ever seen anywhere.

It’s old news now, but given that it happened in the midst of my James Bond countdown and then the holidays and a bunch of other things hit at once, I never took the opportunity to comment on the revelation that sent Star Wars fans into a Force-induced tizzy – that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm Ltd. to The Walt Disney Company for $4.05 billion, and accompanying this massive corporate transaction was the equally hefty revelation that Star Wars Episode VII will be released in 2015.  Ever since Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Lucas has been insisting up and down that Star Wars as a cinematic enterprise is finished, done, or, as Emperor Palpatine would put it succinctly, “complete.”  Yet the Mouse House confirmed in the same press release that there would be many further trips to that galaxy far, far away.  Star Trek has been going strong in multiplexes, despite a few missteps, for eleven movies now with a twelfth on the way, so shouldn’t la guerre des étoiles be able to blaze across our screens for as long as the medium is viable?  Clearly Disney thinks so and has immediately begun soliciting creative talent to assemble the next voyage.  J.J. Abrams turned down an offer to direct, citing loyalty to the other space franchise he helped relaunch.  Michael Arndt, a screenwriter whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, has been chosen to pen the next instalment, with Lawrence Kasdan – who wrote the masterful The Empire Strikes Back and co-wrote the not bad Return of the Jedi before opting to sit the prequel trilogy out – in the wings to script further adventures.  It’s safe to say that these titanic moves were not on anyone’s radar, and that Star Wars fandom, which has struggled in recent years to reconcile their love of Lucas’ creation with their hatred of his incessant (and yet perfectly legitimate, as far as I’m concerned) tinkering with it, has seen its universe upended, with resignation about the quality of the prequels now sprinkled with optimism about what the future might hold.  What I’m not sure about is how Disney intends to treat them – as much as some fans like to dump on George Lucas for the reason of the moment, I don’t know if the fans recognize how good they’ve had it under the amiable real-life Galactic Emperor, and how things may change for the worse.  And I say this as an admitted lover of Disney!

It’s not necessary to rehash the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars – the marriage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth with science fiction to craft an enduring story that inspires little boys to wave flashlights around against an imaginary Darth Vader.  In the real world the bad guys win much too often; in the world of Star Wars, good always triumphs over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for one’s fellow human being (or Wookiee) is the greatest cause to which one can aspire.  We still talk about Greek myths over two thousand years on, and so this trilogy of movies from the late 70’s and early 80’s is a relative zygote in terms of how long it’s had to inspire its audience.  Yet its reach is unparalleled – movies, TV and literature across every genre can get an immediate laugh by dropping in a quote from Star Wars, and everyone can smile and feel like they’re part of the world’s biggest and most inclusive club – one that stretches across all cultural and regional divides.  One of the most enduring traits of Star Wars is its ability to be passed on, down through generations now as the kids whose eyes opened wide at the scratchy print in the rickety old movie house alongside their parents now watch the same adventures with their own children in the comfort of a surround sound-equipped home theatre.  And many who touch the flame of Star Wars use it to fire their own creative candles, as those who first heard the stories of the Greek gods offered their own interpretation of those tales to new audiences.  Star Wars likely holds the record – if indeed, it were possible to count – for the sheer volume of unofficial derivative works, written, sketched, painted, sewn, sculpted and filmed parodies, homages, tributes and other acknowledgements of what has become a shared universe.   (A quick search for “star wars” on YouTube yields 1.4 million hits, ranging from remixes of John Williams’ iconic theme song, Lego recreations of famous Star Wars scenes, animations of dancing stormtroopers, girls in Princess Leia’s metal bikini and Zeus knows what else).  That universe, the most remarkable example of remix culture, has been, until now, watched over in silent guardianship by George Lucas, who has permitted these myriads of creations so long as they are not for profit.  What then do we make of the stewardship of Star Wars and all it represents being entrusted to the company that famously sued a daycare for painting Mickey Mouse on its walls?

The world has changed tremendously since that notorious incident, which predated the Internet and the lingering question of copyright in the digital era.  Progressive media companies and celebrity brands like J.K. Rowling understand the tremendous value to be found in allowing fans to play in their sandbox, realizing that it’s about building a community (and receiving free advertising), and that ultimately, the vast majority don’t mind paying for officially licensed offshoots, be they yet another Blu-Ray boxed set or endless waves of toys.  For decades however, Disney has been the most trigger happy of the lot, ready to unleash their armies of attorneys at whosoever dareth trespass against them.  I’m just saying there’s a reason why you won’t find a lot of Donald Duck stories at fanfiction.net, nor will you find Walt Disney in Love on YouTube.  As someone who has created his own fictional universe and wonders idly about the future day an aspiring scribe decides to pen their own fan fiction trilogy using my characters and settings, it would be tremendously flattering to know I’d inspired someone like that – and truthfully, why else are we writing except to inspire – but if another someone decided to reap financial gain from my work without my by-your-leave I’d be Scanners-head-exploding livid.  I’d be equally as upset if someone produced a derivative work that was pornographic, excessively violent or simply insulting to the spirit of my original.  The trouble is you can’t seem to have one without the other, that either all copyright is enforced to the limit of the law, thus creating the perception that you’re a grouchy Lars Ulrich type and hate your fans, or you go for George Lucas’ approach and accept a certain percentage of the bad stuff (what a retail outlet would call “shrink”) with the understanding that most will be positive and done out of love and only help your brand reach new heights.

The lingering grey area for Star Wars fans is whether Disney will continue what Lucas started, if they will accept that Star Wars is its own entity and deserves a freer hand than what has typically been Disney copyright policy in the past.  After Return of the Jedi in 1983, Star Wars entered a long dry period where nothing save a few crude cartoons and made-for-TV Ewok movies was forthcoming from the Lucasfilm vaults, and instead the creations of the fans, whose interest never waned, kept blowing oxygen on that dwindling spark, until Lucas was finally ready to go back to the well, knowing that he had legions out there who remained loyal to him and to his universe because they felt like they owned a piece of it – an emotional piece that could not be quantified in financial or percentage terms.  Once described by Campbell as his single best student, Lucas always understood that a myth cannot thrive in the care of a single person, and in commenting on selling his baby to Disney he spoke about needing Star Wars to go on without him.  In many ways it already has, and the nightmare scenario of Disney being Disney and starting to remove the likes of Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager and Troops and Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” routine from YouTube will be the beginning of the end of Star Wars as the force – yeah, I went there – for uniting people and unleashing their imagination and creativity that it has become.  The hope is that Disney too has evolved since the daycare incident and understands just what they’ve managed to acquire; a property that has become the unofficial property of millions of people the world over.  People may wear Mickey Mouse ears, but they don’t go around pretending to be Mickey Mouse in the way kids want to be Luke and Han and Leia.  Fingers crossed that the lawyers of the Walt Disney Company don’t cease-and-desist them out of their dreams.

The charms of James Bond’s Vesper

“Once you’ve tasted it, it’s all you want to drink.”

“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean.  They made me feel civilized.”  Ernest Hemingway on martinis, in A Farewell to Arms

Sitting here this morning listening to Adele’s new Skyfall theme song – a definite callback to the heady days of Shirley Bassey after the well-meaning but ill-advised collaboration that was Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die” for Quantum of Solace – it’s a struggle to encapsulate in less than several thousand long-winded words exactly the impact James Bond has had on my life, how he has been a reliable friend in darker times and something of a model for far more men than just I as what exactly it is to be a man.  I can admit that Ian Fleming is probably the third in the holy trinity of writers who have helped me forge my own style, along with Gene Roddenberry and Aaron Sorkin – less in the overall philosophical approach of the latter two but more in how to shape narrative, twist one’s plots and compel readers to turn pages.  But enough about all that.  It’s James Bond Day and it’s an occasion to celebrate literature and cinema’s most enduring secret agent.  Today I’m veering away from the usual heavy stuff and talking about drinks.  In particular, James Bond’s drink of choice:  the Vesper martini.  As originally described in the Casino Royale novel, to be served in a deep champagne goblet:

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

I love martinis.  They are a drink of sophistication and elegance – with a martini glass in your hand it’s natural to find yourself standing a little straighter, feeling a suaveness surging through your veins.  Perhaps they even brace you with enough confidence to approach the voluptuous brunette in the slinky dress at the end of the bar who might just be a Russian agent.  The effort to prepare the martini just right, as opposed to say, simply pouring a scotch over some ice, only adds to its charm.  Admittedly, the definition has gotten a bit fuzzy as they’ve become more popular, to the point where simply putting anything in the right glass is considered a “martini.”  But even though I might enjoy the diversion of a chocolate or berry martini from time to time, when it comes to the martini experience in its purest form, you have to go back to something like the Vesper. 

Ingredients for the perfect Vesper are not as easily found as you might think, making the experience of one a rare sensory pleasure.  The first wrinkle in the ointment is the Kina Lillet.  Lillet is not vermouth, it is what’s called an aperitif wine.  Kina Lillet, unfortunately, isn’t made anymore.  The substitute is Lillet Blanc, and even that can be tricky, but not impossible to track down.  The fortunate thing about it is unless you are planning on having two or three of these daily, one Lillet bottle should last a good while.  Your choice of gin and vodka matter also – I’ve read that the process of manufacturing them has changed somewhat since Ian Fleming’s time, and that the typical Gordon’s or Smirnoff/Stoli/whatever else available commercially are not as strong as they would have been in 1953.  The impact for me seems to be largely in the vodka.  80 proof is the strongest you can purchase in Canada, so I’ve made it a point to stop in at the duty free whenever we’re vacationing across the border and pick up the 100 proof blue-label Smirnoff.  I have noticed, and those I’ve served it to have commented also, that the stronger vodka seems to cut the intensity of the gin somewhat and make for a smoother drink.  Above all, it’s critical that the mixture remain ice cold – a warm Vesper can taste a little bit like lighter fluid.  I find it helps a little to pre-chill the glasses, then pack the shaker with as much ice as it can reasonably handle before adding the ingredients and shaking away.  If one measure as described above = one shot, you will usually have enough to serve two completed drinks (depending how you pour) and don’t forget the critical slice of lemon peel.  Or, you can try the Felix Leiter variation from the movie:  “Bring me one as well, keep the fruit.”  I find that the citrus oils from the freshly sliced lemon are a nice accent though, and after all, the best way to enjoy a Vesper is just the way Bond ordered it.

The quote accompanying the photo is accurate – the Vesper spoils you, it’s that good.  Next to it, appletinis and crantinis and other varieties of fruitinis might as well be watered-down Kool-Aid.  The Vesper is more than a drink; it’s a statement, a marking of one’s territory as a man of refined taste, someone who can cut through the superficial and home in on the richness of life lurking beneath the surface distractions.  There is a world-weariness to James Bond the character – he is essentially a contradiction of a man who is cynical about civilization but still finds it within himself to fight for his ideals of good versus evil.  In his reflective moments, Vesper in hand, the potent potion trickling through his bloodstream, he may find himself questioning the point of it all – why fight on, why continue posing as St. George, when there will always be another bad guy – another dragon – around the next corner?  It is in the fight itself that the resolve of one’s character is proven, win or lose, and like it or not, Bond is not Bond without that fight.  Nor are we.  (See, I can’t escape the philosophical stuff even when I try.)

Happy 50th James Bond – have a Vesper on me.

Selling out circa summer 2012

Like many things in music, The Who did it best.

What is the most annoying trend in popular music?  With YouTube and Auto-Tune making celebrities out of individuals who should never have come anywhere near a microphone, and genuinely talented singers continuing to struggle for any semblance of a break that doesn’t require an uncle in a senior management position with a record company, how could we possibly distil popular music’s faults down to the most egregious offender?  It’s ultimately a matter of opinion, but if I had to pick a single irritant that most damages my appreciation for today’s sound, it’s musicians recording multiple versions of their songs for different markets.  Nothing is more insulting to listeners than this shameless pandering to commercial interests.  Every time you hear one of these bowdlerized abominations oozing through your speakers, you can feel the greasy fingerprints of the Armani-suited marketing committee as they scrape at your eardrums.  Worse though are singers and bands bringing material to the studio they know they’ll have to re-record to ensure maximum market penetration (an apt metaphor if there ever was one).  It speaks of greed, cynicism, contempt for the fans and a fundamental lack of anything resembling artistic integrity.  And the worst part is, it’s totally unnecessary.

One of the big hits of the summer is Maroon 5’s “Payphone.”  Maroon 5 was every mother’s favourite band for their teenage daughters:  catchy and inoffensive with an easy-on-the-eyes lead singer.  They faded away somewhat after their initial explosion onto the scene but are experiencing a resurgent popularity with Adam Levine’s judging NBC’s The Voice and their infectious smash “Moves Like Jagger.”  But “Payphone” is an embarrassment.  It’s whiny emo nonsense that rings completely false – the complaints of a fifteen-year-old upset that his crush doesn’t love him anymore, with no more depth than a chewing gum wrapper.  Most irritating about the song, though, are the final two lines of the chorus:  “All those fairytales are full of shit, one more fucking love song I’ll be sick.”  What’s that, you say?  I must be making this up, you haven’t heard that?  Of course not – the radio version, the one you’ve heard, goes “All those fairytales are full of it, one more stupid love song I’ll be sick.”  And it isn’t Godzilla-esque bad dubbing either – Maroon 5 deliberately recorded two different versions of this line.  The reason?  They knew the line as originally written wouldn’t be played on adult contemporary radio, and that’s a huge audience to forfeit for the sake of some naughty words.  But that’s the thing – why did those words need to be in there in the first place?  The song isn’t great, but at least the message gets across without the potty mouth.  And don’t tell me it’s to express the depth of the singer’s anger; Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a much more honest scream of contempt at the woman who’s left him and contains absolutely no profanity (depending on your opinion of the weight of the word “screwed.”)  “Payphone” is juvenile, a kid giggling at the dirty picture he drew on his school desk, and Adam Levine et al. should know better.  And I say this as someone who admired Levine for telling off Fox News on Twitter after they used a Maroon 5 song in one of their promos.  However, swearing in their songs is just making the case for the likes of L. Brent Bozell and whatever suspiciously well-funded “Parents” group wants to fundraise for the evangelical right on the backs of those evil Hollywood liberals corrupting your children again, and the willingness to record and release a sanitized version for mainstream radio play is evidence of the emptiness of their commitment to branding themselves as rebels, badasses or whatever the point of dropping the F-bomb in the original version was.

“Payphone” contains another example of what pop songs do to try and broaden their customer base:  include a guest rapper in the middle eight.  A few of the singles from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream contain rap:  “California Gurls” features Snoop Dogg and “E.T.” features Kanye West.  Not that you’d know it if you’ve only heard these on the radio – they play the version where, like with profanity, the rap section has been neatly sutured out for popular consumption, in the studio long before your local DJ gets his hands on it.  I have nothing against rap or the blending of genres (Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” collaboration continues to be awesome twenty-five years on), but these aren’t it.  These are stitch jobs.  In all likelihood the rapper and the main performer aren’t even in the studio at the same time – the result is a Frankenstein’s monster of a track where disjointed parts are cobbled together for commercial appeal rather than coherent performance.  The fact that usually the rap can be lifted out without any significant effect (or even notice – it was months after I first heard “E.T.” that I discovered Kanye was on the original version) speaks to the argument that forcing it in to bubblegum pop is misguided, cynical marketing at its most insidious – a way to ensure that even though we’ve got the white kids, let’s make sure there’s something for the black kids too.  More to the point – if the artists know they’re going to have to cut the rap for full radio exposure, why include it in the first place?  The other reason you know this whole phenomenon is marketing B.S. is that it’s never done the other way; sorry for those of you eager for that Jay-Z featuring One Direction number.  Here’s a radical thought – why not just write a better song that can appeal across color lines without pandering to them?

Since there is so much cross-pollination and cross-promotion of entertainment products these days, why not take pop music philosophy and apply it to novels?  (Oh wait, they’re already doing that – witness Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.)  But how ridiculous would it be if, for example, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones came in both regular and sanitized versions, the latter where anything potentially offensive to Aunt Ethel was eliminated, so that Cersei and Jaime Lannister are just good friends, Bran fell out the window on his own and Eddard Stark died offstage due to a nasty throat infection?  Or if somewhere about two thirds of the way in we had a guest chapter authored by Stephenie Meyer where Sansa mopes over the sparkly Tyrion, because we have to make sure to get the youth vampire audience in as well.  Better yet, let’s do this in movies.  Let’s have the second act of The Dark Knight Rises directed by Brett Ratner featuring Chris Tucker as a wise-cracking Gotham City police officer and Jackie Chan as his kung fu master partner taking on Bane (“When you touch my goddamn radio, y’all have my permission to die!”)  Does that sound like anything we’d want to read or see?  Then why do we let musicians get away with it?  Chopped up, bastardized and sewn together alternate versions of songs ultimately please no one and only embarrass the artist.

In the end, quality is quality, and it begins from the ground and proceeds organically – piling stuff on top after the fact, or half-assing out a different version, is a sign of a last-minute lack of confidence fueled by focus groups and marketing gurus who need to look up from their spreadsheets.  Like books and movies, there should be one song, and one song only.  Putting out multiple versions for different demographic markets only reinforces the concept of music as product – the last thing I suspect anyone who fancies themselves an artist wants to admit.

A price above rubies

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) and Christina Hendricks (Joan).

What price does a woman put on her soul?  How blurred is the line between integrity and compromise?

As Puritanical attitudes towards what is acceptable to a television viewing audience have softened, the portrayal of women has evolved as well, with the smiling apron-wearing June Cleaver giving way to ever more complex characters, where what it means to be a woman, in all its wonderful, contradictory glory, is examined on a psychological level – much more deeply than hacky debates on the best make of shoes or how sexually inadequate their partners may be.  Last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” after four and a half seasons of examining the ways in which men compromise themselves in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, took its two strongest female characters and forced them to ask themselves what their own price might be.  Joan agreed to an indecent proposal in exchange for a partnership in the company, while the lately taken-for-granted Peggy decided her worth couldn’t be expressed in numbers and chose to walk when that was all she was offered to stay.

The buxom redhead Joan has been described by the show’s creators as man-like in her full command of her sexuality, a beautiful woman who is well aware of the effect she has on those obsessed by mammaries.  To their (and Christina Hendricks’) credit, she has never been portrayed as the kind of vampy temptress such a description usually fits; she isn’t working from the Erica Kane playbook, but rather striving, consistently, to prove herself as the best at her job.  As to her relationships with the men and the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, one will forgive what sounds like a puerile argument when the symbolism of Joan as mother figure is expanded upon.  Even those who have expressed sexual desire for her, whether fulfilled like Roger Sterling or unrequited like Lane Pryce, have found themselves in the position of whimpering babes at her ample breast.  Others, like cardboard husband Greg, have been unable to cope.  (Greg escaped, ironically, to the boys-only army.)  Her relationship with serial womanizer Don is perhaps the most complex of all – ironic that the two best-looking people on the show have never taken it much beyond a brother-sister level.  Don is man enough, in the end, to recognize that Joan agreeing to sleep with a lecherous car dealer in exchange for securing the Jaguar account isn’t the path she should take.  The episode played expectations by staging Don’s last-ditch attempt to change Joan’s mind without revealing until later that it took place well after the deed was done.  Was Joan truly as compromised as most reviewers of this episode tend to believe, or was it a logical progression in her evolution – a conclusion on her part, regardless of what we may think of its validity, that to get where she wants to be, she has to use every talent at her disposal, regardless of the collateral damage to her spirit?  Coincidentally, this week’s Game of Thrones featured a scene where the ruthlessly ambitious Cersei Lannister drunkenly observed to the virginal Sansa Stark that a woman’s greatest weapon lay between her legs.  Has Joan crossed that line now?  Has she decided that being good at what she does is only going to take her so far?  One thing is for certain, in the jubilation that accompanied the announcement of SCDP’s winning the Jaguar account, newly-minted partner Joan was as out of place as a prostitute at a church picnic.  Perhaps inside, that was how she felt.

Peggy, on the other hand, while she has had her share of romances (and one ill-advised fling with Pete Campbell, whose abject disinterest in her since that early episode indicates that she was strictly a novelty to him) is the little chickadee to Joan’s mother hen.  Unlike Joan, she’s never really had the option to full-out Mata Hari lecherous men into helping advance her station in life, and so her drive to prove herself comes more from a place of not having much of a choice otherwise.  She and Joan both find themselves brushing against the glass ceiling, and for Peggy, going down the road suggested by Cersei Lannister is not only unpalatable, but unnecessary.  Peggy’s worth is not tied to her future at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – it is, after all, only one of many companies out there where her talents can be of use, as is quickly proven by her meeting and ultimate decision to go work with Ted Chaough.  When she admits this to her mentor, Don – while incredibly empathetic in his encounter with Joan – cannot reconcile the idea that Peggy’s problem cannot be solved with just more money.  But Peggy is in as much a crisis of spirit as the one faced by Joan.  Oddly enough, Joan’s loyalty to SCDP and its people – her mother’s instinct again – was probably what led her to make the choice she did, the dangling carrot of a partnership aside.  Peggy, by contrast, realizes that to grow as a person she must, in a Buddhist sense, divest herself of her attachment to Don Draper and the old gang.  The little chickadee has to leave the nest.  It is a much healthier decision, and explains the smile on her face as she steps onto the elevator for the last time, with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” playing in the background in a final brushstroke of symbolism.

Proverbs 31:10 says that the worth of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.  Joan let herself be bought, some would say for far less than rubies.  Peggy didn’t.  What is most important, however, is that in the end, the choice was theirs.  They may indeed have a price, but they are going to be the ones to decide what that price is.  These women defined themselves instead of letting men do it for them – a greater achievement in the sexist era in which Mad Men takes place.  They were willing to accept the consequences of that definition, whatever they may be.  And taking absolute charge of one’s destiny is, to risk a cliche, true empowerment.

In fairness, I did like The Lord of the Rings too (Part 1)

Frodo eyeing Sting for the first time, duplicating my skeptical look at the prospect of a Lord of the Rings movie.

The Huffington Post quoted me praising Star Wars in their “battle of the franchises,” in which, following preliminary rounds that have seen spirited contenders such as Harry Potter and James Bond fall by the wayside, Jedi now fight hobbits in the quest for the ultimate prize – the top rank in a meaningless, statistically-flawed survey of genre popularity.  Judging such things is a bit like trying to assign criteria to beauty – everyone has his own preference, and for infinite different reasons.  The same can be said for how I and many like me weigh Star Wars against The Lord of the Rings.  How we view them depends on who we are, what our circumstances are when we experience them for the first time, and how those experiences evolve as we grow and accrue the cynicism of wisdom to find endless fault with what once sparked only wonder.

I grew up with Star Wars, but can’t say the same for The Lord of the Rings.  I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated version at a friend’s birthday party when I was six or seven and what I recall most was the entire group of youngsters finding it tiresome and cheap and quickly shutting it off to listen to the newest Duran Duran record instead.  As I got older, it was one of those elements of popular culture that I was always aware of, but never terribly interested in exploring further (kindly recall that this would have been when the idea of sitting down with three enormous volumes of Tolkien prose would be quickly supplanted by the sight of a shapely pair of tanned legs strolling by).  And I was jaded by cinematic fantasy throughout the 80’s and 90’s:  endless chintzy, low-budget productions with lousy special effects, cruddy-looking monsters, embarrassing writing, hammy acting by D-list performers and the infuriating cliché of the “magical portal to Los Angeles.”  After all, why pit your dashing heroes against dastardly villains in a wondrous setting of visceral imagination (you know, something you’d actually have to pay somebody talented and expensive to dream up) when you can have them duke it out on Sunset Boulevard while hip-hop plays over each swing of their enchanted swords?  On television, mainstays like Hercules and Xena were amusing diversions, but drowned in smirking, anachronistic pop culture references, and characters’ ability to die and resurrect ad infinitum, what a friend once called “a day pass to the underworld,” undermined any sense of stakes when the scripts could be bothered trying to aim for it.  You got the sense that the creative sorts behind these ventures considered their target audience strictly ADD-afflicted kids.  Given little consideration was any semblance of “the big ideas” that fantasy can tackle, or any sense that these characters were remotely human.

Around the turn of the millennium I’d heard rumblings here and there that a new movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was underway.  Oh yeah, that crummy cartoon, I thought to myself.  The CV of director Peter Jackson was not encouraging either; the few minutes of The Frighteners I’d seen were silly.  When the appalling Dungeons & Dragons limped its way onto the screen in 2000, I thought it was a pretty accurate barometer of how the new LOTR would turn out.  Nobody could do this right, not with the kind of verisimilitude that fantasy cried out for, and this unknown New Zealander with a few weird-ass movies on his IMDb page certainly wasn’t going to be the first.

Then, in early 2001, someone sent me a Fellowship of the Ring promotional calendar.  And I was floored by what I saw – portraits of esteemed actors like Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm in richly detailed costumes as wizards, elves and hobbits.  Steven Tyler’s daughter looking simply radiant as Arwen.  North and Rudy as Frodo and Sam respectively.  The grizzly-looking guy who played Satan in The Prophecy as Aragorn, and what’s this… the MAN himself, Sean Bean as Boromir.  Okay, I thought, there might be something to this after all.  Especially since the quality of this calendar proved that some serious coin had been poured into this endeavour, it wasn’t a one-off “let’s-cut-our-losses-and-sell-the-rights-to-Taco-Bell” promotion.  Maybe, I dared to hope.  Maybe this time, they’ll get it right.  Thus, unbelieving me decided it was finally time to set about reading the books, so I could see how, despite all this incredible design work, the filmmakers would screw everything up.

Certainly a lot of Tolkien’s original work is decidedly uncinematic (not that it’s a bad thing, just some stuff fundamentally works better on the page).  Goofy Tom Bombadil seemed like a train wreck waiting to happen, and I cringed every time Sam burst into tears or characters broke into song at the drop of a wizard’s hat like they were starring in a Middle-earth revival of Guys & Dolls.  Realistically, I thought, for this to be adapted faithfully you’d have to turn it into a ten-hour musical.  But coming to it late, in the shadow of the upcoming films, I didn’t find any story beat I was particularly attached to, or dying to see realized in 35 millimeter.  I thought it could have made a great movie; I was just saddled with memories of 20 years of bad movies and could visualize the visible matte lines, crude animation and histrionic over-emoting under a synthesizer score that could have resulted.  Even as the months ticked away, trailers leaked out into the world, a traveling exhibit of the movie’s props and artwork made a stop in Toronto around my birthday, part of me tempered my excitement with a pestering reminder that after all of this promise, the inevitable letdown was soon to come.  It still could have gone so wrong.

Then, just after midnight on December 17th, 2001, the lights went down and the screen came to life…

(To Be Continued)