Dr. No: A Brief Appreciation

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With the James Bond movie franchise celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr. No, it behooves us to look back at that first (sort of) film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s super-spy in light of the twenty-odd films that follow.

If the Bond films are anything, they are predictable insofar as they hit certain marks, like a stage actor giving her hundred-and-thirty-fifth Wednesday matinee performance. Viewing a Bond film, one expects to see the opening pre-title shot when Bond turns and fires at the gun muzzle camera, the moment when Bond says, “Bond, James Bond,” the shaken-not-stirred martini, the super-villain’s overly elaborate lair, the love interest with the risqué name, the repartee with Moneypenny, and the end shot of Bond and whatever damsel survived drifting off together in space/at sea/what have you.

Little to the left . . .

In looking at Dr. No, it’s striking how many of these benchmark moments are established from the very first film. The film starts with a decidedly off-centered Bond whirling to shoot the camera, and after you suffer through a title sequence of flashing and blinking circles (reminiscent of a computer panel display), Maurice Binder brings out sixty-eight seconds of his soon-to-be-trademark dancing silhouettes.

Trademark Binder

The pre-title action vignette does not make an appearance in Dr. No, and indeed, the film does not introduce Sean Connery as Bond until roughly seven minutes in.

The introduction remains, however, the finest “Bond, James Bond” moment in the entire series. Never has a cigarette dangled more insouciantly from curiously dispassionate lips. And, of course, no changing of chemin de fer to poker as in Casino Royale.

Bond, James Bond

Most notable about Dr. No, though, in light of the films that follow, is not the combination of humor and seriousness (which frankly surprised me, as I remembered Dr. No as a mostly serious-toned film), but rather the signal lack of gadgets. Bond uses no gadget more exotic than a geiger counter. No suitcase gyrocopters or souped-up Aston Martins for this Bond.

Indeed, the film features very little of what a modern audience might call action—a perfunctory fight in Dr. No’s nuclear reactor lair (the first of many Ken Adam’s lair designs), a car chase, a few punch-ups, some dismal pistol shots at a flamethrowing tank, a murder in cold blood (by Bond), a mob scene when the lair explodes, and an icky spider. There’s no huge climactic action set-piece as one finds in later films. Dr. No simply gets thwacked and falls into the nuclear reactor at the end without so much as a grandiose retort.

Absent the gadgets and elaborate action sequences, though, Dr. No provides the cinematic framework for all the Bonds to follow, a framework that has endured for fifty years.

Great Moments in Cinema: The Purple Guinea Pig in Twice-Told Tales

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I’d like to believe that with Vincent Price films, what you see is intended to be taken literally, without a hint of irony or camp. Thus it is that we are expected to recoil in horror as Doctor Rappaccini, played by Price himself in his Twice-Told Tales (USA, 1963) injects a guinea pig with a poisonous concoction.

Guinea Pig in Trouble

So far so good—lots of smoke and a twitching guinea pig model. Convincingly scary as a concept played with a bit of subtlety. But then, alas, it turns purple.

Guinea Pig in Purple

See, because it was poisoned, it turned . . . oh, nevermind.

With any luck, once you stop laughing you’ll turn to the source material for this portion of Twice-Told Tales, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not much laughter there, and also no guinea pig.

The Best Video Game Movie Ever

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It’s something of a truism that movies based on video games are, well, terrible. Really, truly, unabashedly terrible. I’m still trying to get my money back for having sat through Wing Commander (USA, 1999), even though it was a matinee. And I went on a free pass.

The attempt to transfer the experience of playing a game, interacting as an active participant, to the decidedly passive experience of watching a film, fails, without fail, time and time again (cf. Uwe Boll). Not to assign value to the various modes of culture consumption—film, at its best, offers a transcendent experience and forces active mental participation, while the mere fact of interactivity in video games does not guarantee a worthwhile, active thinking experience—but the basic expectations one brings to playing games differ from those one brings to watching a film.

Choices, options, paths are, of course, constrained by the game as readily as a director positions actors in a scene, but the illusion of choice, of agency, remains, and this sense of being in control appeals to the gamer—and it’s this sense that doesn’t translate across genres.

Video game films fail most often because they attempt to portray figures from the games that the gamers themselves control. If the long delayed Halo film ever comes to fruition, it will fail, because what the screen Master Chief does is not necessarily what I would have done; his thoughts, given voice on the screen, as he mows through the Covenant forces, were not my thoughts as I did the same in the game.

But they finally did it. I finally saw not just a good video game movie, but the best video game movie ever.

Best Video Game Movie. Ever!

What is it? The Damned United (UK, 2009). But, you protest, that’s not a video game movie! Isn’t, it, though?

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Great Moments in Cinema: The Giant Head in The Sun Also Rises

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When you’re willing to waste the talents of Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, and Eddie Albert, you better have something to show for your efforts, and Henry King’s sadly mediocre The Sun Also Rises (USA, 1957) makes up for the film’s non-Hemingway-esque ending with a gem of a shot:

It's a giant drinking head. Huh. Don't see that often.

With all of Hollywood’s focus on CGI effects these days, you just don’t find such fine papier-mâché craftsmanship anymore, and I doubt there are many actors who could pull one off (literally, perhaps). The entire fiesta sequence of the film is, indeed, one long paean to the giant papier-mâché head in all its glory.

A Rendezvous with "C'était un rendez-vous"

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Now, I’m no gearhead, but through my recent experiences with Forza 3, I’ve gained a slight appreciation for the sound of a fine engine as it pushes the redline then drops down after a smooth shift. Engines actually sound differently at different revolutions. Who would have thunk?

So when Wired ran a story featuring a short film with Jay Leno taking his new AMG SLS out for a spin on the near-deserted early-morning streets of Los Angeles in homage to a film called C’était un rendez-vous, I was curious:

You’d have to be mad to try to remake Rendezvous, Claude Lelouche’s high-speed dash through the streets of Paris at dawn. Rendezvous is a classic. A one-off. It is best left alone, as that remake The Run showed.

But that’s not to say you can’t riff off it.

So I located the source film thanks to the magical Internet, and while I was disappointed that the engine noises are seemingly dubbed in, unlike the Leno film, I wasn’t disappointed at all in the nine-minute slice of cinéma vérité I found.

(Update: The video was pulled by the rights holder. There’s a short trailer on YouTube posted by the rights holder, but I can’t recommend it, as they place annoying synth-pop over the driving, which is even worse than the dubbed engine noise.)

It’s the little bit of artifice at the very end that makes this film art, rather than a reckless stunt. Without that scene, the literal “date” of the title, this is just a car driving very quickly through Paris.

Station to Station: Bergen to Oslo on Film

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This, then, is the brilliance of publicly-funded television: Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) produced a documentary of the train ride from Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, to Oslo (original, non-translated link), to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Bergensbanen. But rather than an overview of the route, they showed the whole thing — the entire seven plus hour journey.

Bergensbanen on flickr.com by abbilder via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives License

This, too, then, is the brilliance of publicly-funded television: more than a million Norwegians watched it.

Or maybe this, then, is the brilliance of publicly-funded television: NRK has released the footage they took from the front of the train to the public under a Creative Commons license.

Now we want to give the material to our viewers, the whole thing, for download.

The documentary had picture-in-picture clips with videos about Bergensbanen, a reporter interviewing people on the train, music and two cameras pointing to the sides of the train. Because of rights, we had to remove the music and many videoclips, so we decided to make a clean frontcamera version for this download.

The footage is a real gift and an example of a public institution serving the public.

(Via Boing Boing, via Espen Andersen)

(Image courtesy of abbilder via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives License.)