28 June 2019

"To unfold all the precious things love has in store": On Her Majesty's Secret Service

This was the first George Lazenby film of my Bondathon. Of course, it's also my last because it's the only one he ever did. I've never seen this one; we must have never grabbed it off the VHS shelf at the library when I was a kid (or maybe it wasn't even on it to behind with).

George Lazenby turns out to be pretty good. He's not playing Connery's character, but why should he be? He's a little more suave, and comes across as hotheaded in, say, the scene where he tries to resign, rather than brutal like Daniel Craig or early Connery. Sometimes the quips land, sometimes they don't, but never do they come across as smugly as Roger Moore's bon mots. He's good at the obligatory Bond flirting (the bit where he seduces two different women sequentially using the same lines is hilarious). Where Lazenby does really well is the romance with Diana Rigg's Tracy di Vicenzo. The two have a real attraction, and a real relationship; you can see why Bond would really fall in love with her. The scene where they take refuge together in a barn during a blizzard is genuinely sweet-- and utterly impossible to imagine Connery's Bond pulling off. Yet Lazenby does it and remains recognizably Bond.

Jon Pertwee would be jealous.

Diana Rigg is great as Tracy, of course. A lot of time, women are shown to be "worthy" of Bond by making them like him in some way: violent and action-based. Melina in For Your Eyes Only and Agent XXX in The Spy Who Loved Me are both like this, and both among the better "Bond girls." But Tracy is different. She's not a secret agent like XXX, nor even a amateur like Melina, but like Bond, she knows what she wants when it comes to pleasure and takes it, and is good under pressure, and is a little bit damaged. The two suit each other well, in both action sequences-- the whole snow chase in Switzerland-- and in quieter moments-- like when she makes her gangster father hand over the location of Blofeld to Bond. Her rebuttals and intelligence when interacting with Blofeld also really show her off at her best. And the montage of her and Bond getting to know each other was charming. Of course, it helps that she's played by Diana Rigg, one of the most beautiful actresses and cutting actresses there ever was.

I liked her casino outfit a lot (pictured here), but her wedding dress (below right) was also great.

Of course if you're doing this all in book order, you know Tracy is doomed; we saw her gravestone in For Your Eyes Only. It still works even if you know this, I think, and possibly even works better. Of course Bond can't be happy; we learned that back in Casino Royale. The wedding scene itself is great, with Moneypenny crying up a storm, Q adopting a fatherly sort of attitude, and Tracy's father trying to convince her to be an obedient wife. It's spirited-- but you know it has to end badly, and indeed it does, in a scene that's heartbreaking for how broken Lazenby shows Bond to be. It's a real shame that he quit, and that the next film chronologically (Diamonds Are Forever) ignores these events completely, because the idea of a broken Bond played by Lazenby hunting down Blofeld is fantastic.

Outside of the romance, it's a solid Bond film, too. As often happens, the film improves somewhat on Fleming's weird plotting. In the book, Bond has been search for Blofeld for sometime without success; he asks Tracy's father for help, who reveals Blofeld is in Switzerland, but the Secret Service are unable to follow up on that lead. Then, coincidentally, the College of Arms tells the Secret Service they've heard from Blofeld in Switzerland. Here, Tracy's father gives Bond the name of Blofeld's lawyer, Bond sneaks in to access his legal correspondence in a nice sequence, and in there, Bond discovers that Blofeld is corresponding with the College of Arms under a pseudonym. The film also gives more of a reason why Bond needs the Corsican mafia's help to take down Blofeld at the end, and increases the stakes of Blofeld's plot (which in the novel is just against Britain's food supply, not the world's).

The action sequences are good-- there are a number of genuinely tense standouts, like Bond's escape from the mountaintop chalet via a cable. I do wish there hadn't been such over-the-top punching sound effects dubbed on throughout, which make some fights that could be grim much less so. The film, like the best Bond, manages to meld in goofiness appropriately; we go from this very tense part where Bond has to hide from Blofeld's people, to him and Tracy accidentally smashing into a Christmas-day stock car race. The opening on the beach, where Bond stops Tracy from committing suicide, is beautifully shot, too. Like the best Bonds, it manages to be expansive in scope without being ridiculous.

Other Notes:
  • I liked the touch that the first non-Connery Bond film featured clips from all the Connery films in its title sequence.
  • On the other hand, it amused me that the book that established Bond was of Scottish heritage was the first film where he was not played by a Scot. He wears a kilt anyway, though! (Lazenby looks good in a kilt.) This Bond feels a bit more fashion-forward than Connery's and Moore's, a lot of frilly shirts and such.
  • If we believe all the Eon-produced Bond films take place in a single continuity, Diamonds Are Forever has to precede OHMSS, even though it was made later, doesn't it? Nothing about Bond's demeanor in Diamonds is really consistent with the idea that Blofeld killed his wife. If you make that shift, then OHMSS becomes Blofeld's last appearance until Bond kills him in For Your Eyes Only.
  • Telly Savalas plays Blofeld here. I spent the whole film wondering what I knew him from; he played the detective in Gene Roddenberry's high school sex black comedy, Pretty Maids All in a Row. I liked him. He has a sort of glint of humor in his eye, like he knows the whole thing's ridiculous, and that's why he loves it. His two scenes with Bond (one where they are playing nice, one where they are not) are excellent.
  • George Baker is in this! He's one of those mainstays of 1970s British television (he's in Doctor Who and I, Claudius), and he was actually in my previous Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond impersonates Baker's character for a while, and apparently Baker dubbed Lazenby for those scenes, because Lazenby didn't do a good George Baker imitation. I learned this from Wikipedia; I wouldn't have noticed from the film itself.
  • Joanna Lumley plays one of Blofeld's "Angels of Death"; like Diana Rigg she co-starred in The Avengers with Patrick Macnee, and she also played the thirteenth Doctor in The Curse of Fatal Death. Alas, I didn't notice her here.
  • More skiing! But this one adds bobsledding, which is awesome.

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only 
  5. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
  6. Thunderball
  7. Goldfinger
  8. The Spy Who Loved Me
  9. Moonraker
  10. Never Say Never Again
  11. A View to a Kill
  12. Live and Let Die 
  13. Diamonds Are Forever

26 June 2019

Hugos 2019: Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

Trade paperback, 294 pages
Published 2018

Acquired April 2019
Read May 2019
Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

I was really looking forward to this book: the premise of Eurovision in space seemed like exactly the kind of thing the often grim genre of sf could use more of. Well, if you want Eurovision in space, you don't get it until page 169 of 294, when the main characters finally get where they are going after page upon page of overwritten, unfunny, sub-Douglas Adams backstory. Valente dumps tons of galactic history on you, but the overly cute narrative voice it's told in quickly grates on the reader and it just becomes exhausting.

I also think it's weird that a woman who wrote a book criticizing the women-in-refrigerators trope wrote a book about two men, whose character motivations entirely spring from the dead (Manic Pixie Dream Girl) woman in their backstory.

What's here is just so thin, stretched out to novel length. I suspect this would have been a great short story, or a good novelette, or a solid novella, but instead it's an interminably mediocre novel. (Incidentally, there is already a Doctor Who story with the premise of Eurovision in space, the audio drama Bang-Bang-a-Boom! It's not great, but it is better than this.)

25 June 2019

Review: Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 6 by Jim Shooter, Curt Swan, George Klein, et al.

Comic hardcover, 221 pages
Published 1997 (contents: 1966-67)
Acquired March 2016
Read December 2017
Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 6

Writers: E. Nelson Bridwell, Jim Shooter, Otto Binder
Pencillers: Curt Swan, George Papp
Inkers: George Klein, George Papp
Letterer: Milton Snapinn

This volume sees one of the first attempts at an ongoing story for the Legion. The Fatal Five are introduced as deadly enemies for the Legion, recruited in a Suicide Squad-esque thingy where the Legion needs the help of the worst of the worst to defeat a Sun-Eater on its way to the Earth. Famously, it kills Ferro Lad; I might have cared if Ferro Lad had every done anything other than get killed. Unfortunately, he was introduced in volume 5, which I don't have, so he seems pretty much like a nobody here. The Fatal Five is potentially interesting, but like a lot of 1960s Legion concepts, I think later writers will do more with it than its originators do themselves.

Outside of Ferro Lad, it's the usual stupid Legion hijinks. The famous "adult Legion" story comes in this volume, which should really be famous for Cosmic Boy's hairline, and the fact that apparently the marker of adulthood in the 1960s was pipe-smoking:
Cosmic Man's hair loss is matched only by my scan's gutter loss.
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #354 (script & layouts by Jim Shooter, art by Curt Swan & George Klein)

There's also a story where five of the Legionnaires end up as babies, who get adopted by parents from a planet with sterile inhabitants. Even by Legion standards, it's contrived.

But of course!
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #356 (script by E. Nelson Bridwell, art by Curt Swan & George Klein)

I don't really get how Jim Shooter got a reputation as a great Legion writer based on this stuff. I mean, it's great for a thirteen-year-old, and it's okay for the 1960s Legion, but that doesn't mean I'd hire him at age 57 in 2008 to make a new, more appealing version of the Legion, yet DC did so for some reason. Curt Swan and George Klein draw the hell out of the Legion, though, especially its pretty ladies, so there's that.

Dream Girl, Insect Girl, Princess Projectra, and the Emerald Empress. (The last is not a Legionnaire, I know.)
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #355, 352, and 353 (scripts by Otto Binder and Jim Shooter, art by Curt Swan & George Klein)
Next Week: More of the Legion, in Archives, Volume 7!

24 June 2019

Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hardcover, 492 pages
Published 2016

Acquired December 2016
Read June 2019
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice, but that's not why I read it; I read it as part of a mission to read novels set in my hometown of Cincinnati. Sittenfeld grew up in Hyde Park, and even though she hasn't lived there in her adult life, her brother PG Sittenfeld is a member of city council. The local color is pretty good: Darcy and Liz bump into each other at Skyline, people are always making out-of-towners try Graeter's raspberry chip, and the Bennets size up a sister's potential by asking where he went to high school. It's much more East Side than the Cincinnati I grew up in, but Sittenfeld gets the vibe of the richer-than-you East Side families pretty good. (As snobs, they are of course offended when someone from a coastal state like Darcy is snobby to them.) The mother in particular felt like a real Hyde Park woman, with he slightly concealed casual racism. So that was fun, although the last quarter of the novel largely abandons the Cincinnati setting.

As a novel otherwise, it's okay. Its cardinal sin is that I don't think the antagonism between Liz and Darcy comes across like it ought; he's an outright asshole to her in scene one, but from then on he's behaves so mildly toward her it's hard to see why she's mad. And I think that's the point (I haven't reread Pride and Prejudice since early in my M.A., so my memory is foggy), but Sittenfeld doesn't convince you that Liz would be so negative toward him. Whereas he kinda feels like he's barely there! There's a lot of good tie-ins to contemporary issues, but the way reality tv takes over the plot in the final quarter feels very implausible and out there. I also felt there was a lot of clunky exposition in the beginning, and contrived circumstances, designed to get the reader up to speed on why five unmarried women would still be living with their parents.

I did really laugh loudly at the epilogue, though, so there's that.

21 June 2019

"But just keep it comin'": The Spy Who Loved Me

Some of the Roger Moore James Bond films are just ridiculous, and go for it utterly: Moonraker or Live and Let Die. I don't think either of those are good films, but at least you can see what they're trying to do. Others try to balance the serious with the ridiculous. Sometimes this actually works: For Your Eyes Only goes straight from brutal assassination to comedy car chase, and it's Roger Moore's best film, and one of the top-tier Bond films overall. But often it does not; I think A View to a Kill and The Spy Who Loved Me were trying to do the same thing, and it just doesn't take off. We get the occasional intense scene-- tons of sailors being machine-gunned down in the climax-- but then the movie will turn goofy. Sometimes in a fun way-- Bond's Union Jack parachute is amazing-- but too often you just roll your eyes-- the bad guys try to take Bond down with a motorcycle where the whole sidecar is a missile.

The more Roger Moore films I watch, the more I'm convinced he's just not a very good James Bond. Especially as someone coming to Bond (now at least, if not initially) via books, Bond is best when he's charming, sexy, and dangerous. There should be this contained sense of jeopardy beneath his flirtations. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig both do a great job at this, and you believe women would want to be with their Bonds. (Other Bond actors are still forthcoming in our Bond journey; George Lazenby's sole outing is actually next.) Roger Moore just comes across as this boor that has to make a sexual comment at every woman he sees. Like, c'mon dude, why do you got to make a comment about the breasts of the hotel employee who comes to your room to give you a note? I can't imagine the book Bond doing that, and Moore just comes across as sleazy in those scenes.

C'mon, Bond, show some class.

What's striking given Bond's reputation for charm is that Bond has four sexual/romantic partners in this film-- and all four are faking it and/or doing it under duress! At the film's opening, Bond is sleeping with a woman in a mountain cabin, but then it turn out that she's working with the KGB to kill him. Then when he visits an Arab sheikh / college chum for information in Egypt, the guy gives Bond one of his women to sleep with. Then Bond goes to see another guy for information, but finds a woman who is part of a trap set for him; she kisses him to distract him (and gets killed anyway). And then he puts the moves on the KGB agent he's competing with, and I rolled my eyes because how quickly she went for it wasn't convincing at all... but it turns out she was tricking him! Bond is much more convinced of his charms than I am. Later, of course, he seduces her for real, but it doesn't really make him seem sexy when four out of five encounters are not actually about him, and in fact, does just the opposite. This guy can only get women to sleep with him under duress; how un-sexy must he be!

Speaking of that KGB agent, she was one of the best and worst parts of the movie. The film opens with both a Soviet and British nuclear submarine disappearing; both powers send their best agent to figure it out. Agent XXX (eye roll), Major Anya Amasova, is introduced in a nice fake-out scene: there's a man and a woman sleeping together, and the guy kind of looks James Bond-y so you figure he's the Soviet agent, but it turns out he's a lover she's leaving behind for a mission! I knew about Agent XXX going in, so I wasn't fooled, but my wife was. The problem with her is that she alternates between hyper-competence and hyper-incompetence. I really liked it when she lets Bond think he seduced her, then knocks him out, steals his stuff, and runs off, and she occasionally demonstrates that she has more knowledge about things, including cars (though first we have to suffer through a lot of women driver cracks from Bond, of course), plus she can usually hold her own in a fight. But at other times, especially once she's not competing with Bond, but working with him, she just sits there, going "Oh, James!" whenever danger is approaching. What happened to the KBG's best agent?

I was about to criticize her for impractical desert spywear, but I suppose a tuxedo doesn't make much more sense.

The film was lifted by its villain. Though Moonraker is essentially this movie right over again (millionaire villain wants to depopulate Earth and start over, just with a space colony instead of an underwater one), I really liked Curt Jurgens's performance as Karl Stromberg, which was slightly off in the way that a good Bond villain should be. I loved the scene where he plays classical music while his treacherous assistant is eaten by sharks. His performance is aided by the special effects, in that the grandeur of his scheme is very apparent because it all looks grand. His underwater base is amazingly, improbably huge, and the supertanker that can swallow submarines also looks fantastic. In fact the whole movie has an above-average visual sense. I particularly liked the way the Egyptian landmarks were used; both the Sphinx/pyramids and desert temple locations look great, and make for great fights.

I love when Bond uses one of the turn signals underwater.

And there are times the ridiculousness works. Like a lot of Roger Moore movies, there's a goofy form of transportation. The chase with his new car starts kind of boring, but becomes amazing when the car he's in reveals it can transform into an underwater submersible! Sublime. On the whole, this was a promising movie that went in unpromising directions, a weaker Bond film of the middle tier, I would say.

Other Notes:
  • This is the third Roger Moore film where there is skiing: A View to a Kill and For Your Eyes Only both had it. (And wasn't there water-skiing in Live and Let Die?) Plus, if On Her Majesty's Secret Service (which I've read but not yet watched) is at all faithful to the novel, there will be skiing in that too. Was skiing just really popular in the 1970s and '80s?
  • When Bond's car drives out of the water onto the beach, I commented that like the other Bond films where he drives something goofy (e.g., the hover-gondola in Moonraker), there's always a guy who does a double-take. But then when I read Wikipedia, I learned that it's actually the same guy in all three movies!
  • The Spy Who Loved Me basically owes nothing to the book, which is a first-person narrative by a young woman who gets in criminal trouble that a passing Bond rescues her from; he's only in about a third of it. The one exception is that in the book there's a criminal named Sol "Horror" Horowitz, who has steel-capped teeth, who is seemingly the inspiration for Jaws. Horowitz's are just normal teeth, though; he can't chew through metal! It's weird watching Spy Who Loved Me after Moonraker, because Jaws here is a menacing, almost vampiric figure, a cold-blooded killer... then in Moonraker we're meant to cheer as he gets a happily ever after send-off!
  • A few thoughts on (re)casting:
    • Robert Brown appears as Vice Admiral Hargreaves; he would play M from Octopussy through License to Kill, and some figure that his M is Hargreaves.
    • Desmond Llewellyn's Q is called "Major Boothroyd" here, the only time this happens. (The only other time his name was used is Dr. No, when he was played by Peter Burton.)
    • Having already seen A View to a Kill, I kind of wonder if Pola Ivanova, the KGB agent that Bond has a preexisting romantic relationship with, was originally meant to be Anya, instead of a new character.
  • In the book, the "spy who loved me" is James Bond... but here I feel like it actually refers to Anya.
  • Why do Bond villains always have a thing for sharks? So far: this movie, Live and Let Die, Thunderball, and For Your Eyes Only have all featured shark battles.

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only 
  5. Thunderball
  6. Goldfinger
  7. The Spy Who Loved Me
  8. Moonraker
  9. Never Say Never Again
  10. A View to a Kill
  11. Live and Let Die 
  12. Diamonds Are Forever

19 June 2019

Hugos 2019: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

It begins again! This is the third year in a row I'm voting in the Hugo Awards; I'll be writing up detailed reviews of the books I (or my wife) own on Wednesdays, starting this week. All the others I'll be covering in a series of recap posts at the end of the voting period.

Hardcover, 531 pages
Published 2018

Borrowed from my wife
Read April 2019
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

This was the first 2019 Hugo finalist I read (excepting those I read before the finalists were announced, and excepting the fact that the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book is "not a Hugo"). My wife and her book club had read it not long after it came out, and I knew from their discussions that it was influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender. If I'd not known that I wonder if I would have recognized the parallels, but they were incredibly, frustratingly obvious once they were pointed out. Except that Children of Blood and Bone is nowhere near as good as Avatar.

Adeyemi never made me care about any of these characters or their relationships; the one innovation over the set-up of Avatar is that the main characters end up adventuring with the sister of the Zuko-analog, but even though she's one of the book's three first-person narrators, she ends up feeling the sketchiest. She's done this huge thing in throwing away her family, but you have almost no sense of her as a person for some reason. There's a lot of will-they-won't-they between different combinations of (all straight) couples, but it all kind of comes down to the male characters noticing the female characters' "curves" again and again.

The novel is written in the present tense, which normally I don't mind, but based on this book, I have to conclude that it just does not work for epic fantasy. (A few weeks after finishing this book, I read Ursula Le Guin's Conversations on Writing, where she claims that present tense is good for "high suspense, high drama, cut-to-the-chase writing" but not "a big, long story," especially one engaged with history-- as epic fantasy in general and CBB in specific are.) Adeyemi also way overuses the one-sentence paragraph in an effort to make things seem dramatic, and soon the book's constant dire pronouncements become comedic.

Bits of the novel-- often key scenes-- just seemed poorly written. There's a bit where Our Heroes participate in an arena battle between ships. Somehow these battles happen every day and feature dozens of ships, each of which has to be crewed by dozens of slaves... and no one survives most of the battles! How do they not run out of slaves and ships so quickly as to make it unprofitable? The battle itself features the main character underwater, but the way Adeyemi writes, it never really feels as if she's underwater, because she can always tell what's going on on the surface... and she can even speak in order to create her spells. Or there's another scene where the main characters pause their epic quest to prevent genocide which has a deadline of days away in order to go to a really rocking party. It's hella contrived.

At 500+ pages, this book quickly wore out its welcome to me, but I persevered to the end. I am unsurprised to learn it was optioned for a movie before it came out; it feels like a novel written with the movie in mind. I am also unsurpised but disappointed that this is what people think the best of YA sf&f is, generic knock-offs with a thin veneer of innovation. I get that there is little epic YA fantasy with African influences... but you have to do something with those influences other than produce a generic piece of epic YA fantasy, otherwise what's the point?

18 June 2019

Review: The James Bond Omnibus, Volume 001 by John McLusky, et al.

Comic trade paperback, 303 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1958-62)
Acquired and read June 2019
The James Bond Omnibus, Volume 001

Adapted by Anthony Hern, Peter O'Connell & Henry Gammidge
Art by John McLusky

Alongside my reading of James Bond novels, watching of James Bond films, and listening to James Bond radio dramas, I've also been reading James Bond comics. This volume collects the installments of the James Bond comic strip that ran in the Daily Express from 1958 to 1962, adapting the plots of Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds are Forever, From Russia with Love, Dr No, Goldfinger, "Risico," "From a View to a Kill," "For Your Eyes Only," and Thunderball into strips of 2-4 panels; each novel gets condensed into about 125 strips.

They're heavy on the narration and the recapping; I wouldn't say the writing of the adaptations is any great achievement. Except for Thunderball, which is massively cut down (once SPECTRE steals the plane, Bond defeats them in six strips!), the plots are pretty much intact, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies. Because so little plot is cut, the opening of Goldfinger goes on too long just as it does in the novel; the need to communicate so much means that most conversations are disjointed and expressed in narration. In the first couple stories, the narration is in the third person, then it switches to first person from Bond for a couple, then it goes back to third for the rest. I did think the short stories from For Your Eyes Only really shone at this length; I think they have less compression, and don't feel as drawn out. They become cracking little action pieces, especially "For Your Eyes Only." I did note that these are the only Bond adaptations to maintain Fleming's careful inventories of Bond's meals; on the other hand, they change the third ingredient in the vesper from Kina Lillet to vermouth!

The art is great, though. Sharp black-and-white stuff that suits the mood of Fleming's stories admirably. John McLusky does his best with landscapes and creatures; Bond battling the occasional sea creature also looked great. His villains are grotesque, his women stylish, and his Bond cruel. I don't know that I really recommend sitting down and reading them all through in a couple days as I did, but if you're a Bond devotee (and maybe I am?), they're worth investigating.

Next Week: I'm caught up on James Bond reviews, so I'll be switching gears to catch up on my Legion of Super-Heroes comics!

17 June 2019

Review: The Expanse: Drive by James S.A. Corey

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2017 (originally 2012)

Read March 2019
The Expanse: Drive
by James S.A. Corey

Drive is an ebook of a short story set in the world of The Expanse, covering the somewhat accidental and somewhat tragic creation of the Epstein drive, the highly efficient propulsion system that makes the quick intrasystem travel depicted in the series possible. It's a decent story, well told, alternating between Epstein's final flight and his life leading up to that point, but I doubt anyone would have taken much notice of it if it wasn't set in the world of a bestselling novel series. There's an episode of the tv show that covers the same content much more efficiently and about as effectively.

14 June 2019

"Nights could be long and sweet": Never Say Never Again

Famously, due to complicated rights things, Thunderball was adapted into a film twice, the second time in 1983. At this point, Roger Moore had appeared in six Bond films, and would go on to appear in one more, but Never Say Never Again brought back Sean Connery for the first time since 1971.

I spent some time puzzling out how this movie fit into continuity. I mean, obviously continuity in Bond is always loose at best, and obviously that's even more true in this film, but I felt like it posited an alternate world where Connery never stopped being Bond, and so by 1983, he was a dinosaur in a world that was leaving him behind, to the extent that the 00 section is shut down for budgetary reasons by M; the film's Bond is clearly an experienced old hand who is out of step with how things are being done these days. This seems to imply to me that some of the old films had happened, so that Bond has an actual history--- but of course Thunderball itself could not have happened, because no one in this movie ever goes, "Hang on, haven't we seen this all before?"

Anyway, it's okay, better than I thought it would be in some parts, worse than Thunderball in others. Fitting in with what had happened in the Bond films over the past decade, it makes things bigger than in the original; instead of confining itself to the Bahamas, the film moves from there to France and then Ethiopia, which doesn't feel grafted on, and gives the movie a nice sense of scope. I liked the setting of the final battle, an ancient Muslim temple in an underwater oasis.

On the other hand, a lot of the changes are clearly mistakes. Changing the casino showdown between Bond and Largo from blackjack to a cheesy world domination computer game that sends electric shocks to the loser... I know it was the 1980s, but surely this played poorly even then? Nice is a great location for some chase scenes, but that it all ends with Fatima Blush (the replacement character for the awesome Fiona Vulpe in the earlier film) trying to get Bond to sign a declaration that she was the best sexual partner he ever had... lol wut? And though the setting of the final battle is great, the whole thing feels oddly anticlimactic, maybe just because of the nature of underwater fights.

On the whole, it's clear the screenwriters consistently looked at the script for the original film and asked, "How can we do this again, but bigger and more?" I like the increased scope, but a lot of the changes are just answers in search of a problem that doesn't exist; the original isn't a top-tier Bond film, but it was fine as is.

Other Notes:
  • The recasting of some key Bond roles is one of the most successful elements of the film. Pamela Salem is of course charming as Moneypenny; in her 30s at a point where Lois Maxwell was in her 50s, she's much more in line with the idea of the character, too. Bernie Casey is probably one of the better Felix Leiters, managing to demonstrate some actual competence and charisma. But the best bit of new casting was Alec McCowen as Q who might be-- is this sacrilege?-- funnier than Desmond Llewellyn.
  • On the other hand, Rowan Atkinson is in this movie for some reason. I guess why not?
  • Given that this movie was standalone and I don't think (am I wrong?) they expected to make a sequel, it seems odd to cast someone of Max von Sydow's caliber as Blofeld and then not have him receive any kind of comeuppance at the end. If Blofeld gets away at the end of a normal Bond movie, you know Bond will be back to track him down... but Bond retires at the end of this one!

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only 
  5. Thunderball
  6. Goldfinger 
  7. Moonraker
  8. Never Say Never Again
  9. A View to a Kill
  10. Live and Let Die 
  11. Diamonds Are Forever

13 June 2019

Audio Catch-up!

At some point, I slipped on cross-posting my reviews of audio dramas over at Unreality SF to this blog, so here is a giant catch-up post, for anyone out there who cares(???).
Uh, that was more than I thought!

    11 June 2019

    Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming

    Mass market paperback, 326 pages
    Published 2006 (originally 1963)
    Acquired April 2019
    Read May 2019
    On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming

    This was really good. After the events of Thunderball (allowing for Bond's American vacation in The Spy Who Loved Me), Bond has been tracking down Blofeld, but to little avail, and he feels like he's being wasted on detective work. Driving back from a mission, he meets Tracy, a damaged woman who captivates him, and he ends up helping her feel wanted for the first time in a long while, and her father-- leader of the Corsican underworld-- tries to get him to settle down with her. Then, following a lead, Bond ends up infiltrating an alpine Swiss resort where it seems Blofeld might be hiding; Blofeld's given himself away by writing to the College of Arms to get himself a title.

    Fleming is firing on all cylinders here. Even though the book's two plots could feel only tenuously connected, they interact much more organically than the way books like Goldfinger or Thunderball open. Tracy is a convincing love interest for Bond; one can imagine that he would settle down with her because they clearly love each other for who they are, damage and all, rather than wanting each other to change.

    The parts with Bond infiltrating Blofeld's clinic are good; Fleming's focus on pedantic detail serves him well when writing about heraldry, and when focusing on Bond as an infiltrator. I like how there's a countdown of sorts once the Secret Service agent from Station Z is captured by SPECTRE, and  Bond must work quickly and efficiently but unobtrusively to find a way out of the situation. The way Blofeld's plot slowly reveals itself is well-handled, and the action sequences are excellent, some of the most tense in the series, as Bond must make two escapes down a mountain, one via skis, the other via bobsled. Fleming makes you feel the intensity and the struggle of these escapes. As always, things are difficult and grueling for the literary Bond. The only thing I don't like is that Blofeld's plan feels like a reduction of stakes after the previous book, less grand and less interesting, while it should be bigger and bolder.

    The very end is famous-- I knew what was coming even though I've never read the book or seen the film-- and it works, even if it's obvious. It really is devastating. Overall, this is probably the best Bond book, except for maybe the first one.

    Some other notes: Bond using the phrase "Sucks to you" was not a thing I expected, nor was him being familiar with the St. Trinian's films. There is a nice callback to Casino Royale at the beginning (we are reminded how much Bond cared for Vesper), which sets up the more emotionally vulnerable Bond of this novel. This was the first Bond novel to be written after the film series began, and Fleming explains why Bond has a Scottish accent on screen by explaining that Bond's father was a Scot, something previously not mentioned. He also debuts the (real) motto of the (real) Bond family, "The world is not enough," which would give its name to a Pierce Brosnan film. The weirdest reference to the films, though, is that Bond sees Ursula Andress, who played Honey Ryder in Dr. No, in Blofeld's clinic!

    Next Week: One last James Bond book, but not a novel-- I hit up some 007 comics!

    Book Rankings (So Far):
    1. Casino Royale
    2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
    3. Dr No
    4. Thunderball
    5. Moonraker
    6. For Your Eyes Only
    7. From Russia with Love
    8. The Spy Who Loved Me
    9. Live and Let Die
    10. Goldfinger
    11. Diamonds are Forever

    10 June 2019

    Review: The Expanse: Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey

    Trade paperback, 569 pages
    Published 2013

    Acquired October 2016
    Read December 2018
    Abaddon's Gate: Book Three of The Expanse
    by James S.A. Corey

    I continue to enjoy reading The Expanse. It might not have the literary complexity of, say, the Ancillary series, but Corey's prose is effectively straightforward, the story is interesting and moves in unexpected directions, the characters are (mostly) well drawn, and the themes are more complex than a book of this type arguably requires. Do you like book about interesting, mostly well-meaning, people doing things in space? Then this is the book for you, and it's definitely the book for me. Parts of Abaddon's Gate make it the strongest Expanse novel yet: a real sense of scale and the unknown, and the complexity of the characters of Rachel and Melba. I liked Rachel a lot; she's in an action series, but her power as person doesn't come from her combat abilities, but her ability to talk to others empathetically. It's very well done, and I hope she pops up again in future installments.

    Parts of Abaddon's Gate also make it the weakest Expanse novel yet: the crew of the Rocinante, aside from Holden, are sidelined for much of the book. That's not necessarily a fault of the book, but of my expectations; they're the main characters of the tv show, but they were never the main characters in the novels. It's interesting how the point-of-view characters rotate. Book one gave us Holden and Miller; book two Holden, Avasarala, Draper, and Meng; and now book three Holden, Bull, Rachel, and Melba. Holden is the constant but everyone else changes. But Naomi, Amos, and Alex are never among the point-of-view characters; it's not them who have the emotional arcs, so why would I see a lot of them? Still, I want to, and I hope book four uses them more than this book did. The other thing that bothered me is that Bull is interesting at first, but kind of fades in interest as the novel proceeds; he felt like he was selected as a POV character for plot reasons, not because the character himself was intrinsically interesting. (Also, isn't it odd that most of the "good" OPA characters are not native Belters? It feels very "white savior" in an allegorical sense.)

    So, altogether a quick read despite its length that kept me interested and also has me interested for the next book. Good twists and turns, and interesting challenges.

    07 June 2019

    "His needs are more so he gives less": Thunderball

    I have a friend for whom this is the quintessential Bond film. That's not the case for me, but I can see it. Watching the films in novel sequence, not production sequence, very much jumbles things up, but you can definitely see how Goldfinger and this defined the film formula going forward: exotic locations, charismatic villains, multiple attractive women, high-stakes conclusions, technical wonderment. (I suppose Dr. No fits into this category too but that one is more gritty than the later ones.)

    In each of these areas, Thunderball succeeds admirably. The Bahamas are a great location for a Bond film, well shown off in a variety of ways: Bond fights sharks, Bond has a chase sequence in a local festival, Bond spends a lot of time underwater. Too much time. The underwater sequences start out nice and creepy (I liked the music when SPECTRE recovered the hijacked plane), but eventually become tedious. The festival chase sequence was good; James Bond films always do well by those kind of things. The shark fights are goofy, but if you don't want to watch James Bond indiscriminately kill creatures who haven't actually done something wrong, then why are you even here?

    I don't think you were supposed to notice there's a glass pane separating Bond from the shark. Oh well.

    Largo is a good villain, if not a great one. There's a good gambling scene between Bond and Largo (another Bond staple, I suppose). We also get some nice insight into SPECTRE, the organization appearing in its most prominent role thus far (aside from Diamonds Are Forever).

    There are four "Bond girls" here; one is Paula Caplan, an American CIA agent that helps Bond and Felix on the case. She doesn't contribute a whole lot (Bond doesn't even sleep with her), which I guess I should have taken as a sign that she was going to die to prove the situation is serious. She's pretty great, though; she commits suicide rather than let SPECTRE get anything out of her. Luciana Paluzzi is also pretty great as Fiona Vulpe, a SPECTRE henchwoman who rides a bad-ass motorcycle, and later seduces Bond. She gets the drop on him, making fun of his belief that he can woo woman to his side by sleeping with them.

    The star Bond girl is Domino, who is above average in these stakes. Definitely not one of the super-competent ones, but willing to give things a go to help Bond, and with a mind of her own. Of course, it wouldn't be James Bond without some messed-up sexual politics, and this movie does worse by consent than most. There's an early sequence where Bond is visiting a health clinic and SPECTRE tries to kill him with some of the equipment. Bond allows the physiotherapist to think his near-death experience is her fault, and then encourages her to sleep with him so that he won't tell her superiors about it. Ugh.

    One of Domino's only outfits that isn't black and white.

    The concluding fight is good, and would be great if it didn't contain the point by which you become tired of underwater stuff. It does get a little implausible how long Largo's yacht is zipping around at unhinged speeds, but it comes down to a man-on-man fight for a adequately plausible reason. I did like the array of gadgets here (even if Q plays little role); a number of them were apparently real, including the rocket jet pack(!) and the raft/balloon rescue system used to recover Bond and Domino at the film's end.

    This is one of Connery's better outings. He works best when he comes across as human (at one point he fumbles and drops his gun!), and when the quips are mixed with brutality; when the violence is sanitized, then they're just flip, but when he can really hurt people, you see how the quips keep everything he does at arm's length. The best scene of that is when Fiona Vulpe catches up with an injured Bond at a nightclub. To keep attention away, he is forced to dance with her while an assassin lines up a shot. He notices at the last minute and turns her into the bullet, killing her. That is brutal enough on its own, actually, but then he places her dead body on a chair, telling the other people at the table, "Mind if my friend sits this one out? She's just dead!" One can only imagine what happens later when they realize the person slumped over at their table is a corpse.

    Looks good no matter how goofy the goggles he wears.

    For me, it's not in the top tier (#1-3 below), it doesn't have that spark. But it does everything I want a Jame Bond film to do, and does it in an entertaining fashion, making it a good example of the mid tier (#4-6).

    Other Notes:
    • I used to say I liked Felix Leiter, but I actually think Felix is bleh more often than he's not. So maybe I don't. Rik Van Nutter isn't the worst Felix, but like most, he doesn't convince as being an American counterpart to Bond. (The hook-for-a-hand Pinkteron version from the novels is much better; maybe the film version of Felix will finally get better when he's eaten by a shark. Not sure how much longer we have until that happens.)
    • As good as a writer Fleming is, he clearly struggles to plot the Bond novels, and Thunderball was more weirdly plotted than most. It opens with a long sequence where M, on a health kick for his agents, sends Bond to a clinic. While there, Bond discovers a member of SPECTRE-- which turns out to be a total coincidence to the fact that he's soon embroiled in a SPECTRE plot. The film streamlines this. In the novel, SPECTRE bribes a pilot to help them get the plane with the nuclear warheads; in the film, they use the health clinic to replace the pilot with a lookalike. It is a coincidence Bond is staying there, but the fact that the pilot is brother to Domino is the whole reason Bond ends up going to the Bahamas to investigate her, so things tie up a little more neatly on screen than in prose.
    • At the beginning of the film, Operation Thunderball is of sufficient magnitude that M recalls every 00 agent in Europe for the briefing. There are nine chairs arrayed for this, though there could be other 00 agents on assignment outside Europe, one supposes. (In the novels, the designations go up to at least 0011, as per Moonraker.) Interestingly, the scene is shot so that you don't see most of their faces, though you can make out a couple in profile. (One, hilariously, looks bored to find out that the West is being blackmailed with nuclear destruction. Just another Tuesday in the 00 section, one supposes.) Lots of people on the Internet state one of them is a woman, but I haven't seen any evidence of this. We haven't seen any other 00 agents on film thus far, if I recall correctly, aside from 003's corpse in the pre-titles sequence of A View to a Kill.

    Film Rankings (So Far):
    1. Casino Royale
    2. Dr. No
    3. From Russia with Love
    4. For Your Eyes Only
    5. Thunderball
    6. Goldfinger
    7. Moonraker
    8. A View to a Kill
    9. Live and Let Die 
    10. Diamonds Are Forever

    06 June 2019

    The Scientist in Victorian Literature: Doctor Edred Fitzpiers, Surgeon (The Woodlanders, 1886-87)

    Trade paperback, 360 pages
    Published 2009 (originally 1886-87)

    Acquired January 2010
    Previously read February 2010
    eread May 2019
    The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
    "There is a surgeon lately come—and I have heard that he reads a great deal—I see his light sometimes through the trees late at night."
         "Oh yes—a doctor—I believe I was told of him...... It is a strange place for him to settle in."
         "It is a convenient centre for a practice, they say. But he does not confine his studies to medicine, it seems. He investigates theology, and metaphysics, and all sorts of subjects." (56)
    This is where it all started for me, you know. Way back in 2010, as a second-year graduate student, I read this novel for the first time in a seminar on Darwin, Hardy, and Woolf. I was intrigued by its depiction of a scientist, and how that scientist's behavior outside of science seemed to be affected by his scientific training. I went seeking a source that could tell me more about this-- and I never found one. So now I am writing one, revising my dissertation project into an academic monograph. One of the sample chapters I want to send in with my proposal is the one that includes The Woodlanders, and I haven't read the book since I took that class almost ten years ago, and now I need to revise it. I am sure that that part of the book needs work, since I have (hopefully) advanced as a writer and scholar in the past ten years.

    What I had not remembered is how much Fitzpiers is an off-stage presence at the beginning of the novel. It initially seems like it might be about Marty South, daughter of a rural woodsman, but soon focuses on Grace Melbury, daughter of a timber-merchant, and whether she should marry Giles Winterbourne, another local woodsman, now that's she's been elevated by a middle-class education out of town. Fitzpiers is spoken of from p. 8 onwards, glimpsed on p. 60, but does not properly appear until p. 92, almost a third of the way through the novel. We hear a lot about him before he appears so, as in the above quotation. We're told he reads Spinoza (45), and that he has widespread interests (56), and that he has paid the Melburys' servant, Grammer Oliver, ten pounds so that he can have her brain after she dies-- he is intrigued because her head is the size of a man's (46). The locals both do and do not trust this highly educated doctor, whose like they don't normally see in a place like Little Hintock. Some think he studies black arts and sold his soul to the devil... but they kind of like that, because the worse the person, the better the doctor! (28) The other local doctor is so nice, he won't even give you foul-tasting medicine, so obviously it's not actually doing anything.

    But it turns out that a bad man is a bad doctor. Like other too-educated surgeons in rural communities (e.g., Thurnall in Two Years Ago, Lydgate in Middlemarch), he struggles to build much of a practice; he's certainly no Mr. Gibson from Wives and Daughters. When he suggests treating Marty's father, who is being driven mad by a tree, by chopping down the tree, Marty's dad dies. Worse than the outcome of the experiment is his highly casual reaction to the loss of a man's life, as he seizes the opportunity to ask Giles about a hot chick he saw the other day:
    Nothing seemed to avail. Giles and Fitzpiers went and came; but uselessly. He [Mr. South] lingered through the day, and died that evening as the sun went down.
         "Damned if my remedy hasn't killed him!" murmured the doctor.
         Dismissing the subject he went downstairs. When going out of the house he turned suddenly to Giles and said, "Who was that young lady we looked at over the hedge the other day?"
         Giles shook his head, as if he did not remember. (94)
    Later, Fitzpiers gets some of Mr. South's brain, and it's while looking at a sample of it that Grace first starts to fall for him!

    Fitzpiers's case is more complicated than many of the ones I look at, though, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. Fitzpiers is a would-be scientist, but as I've said, his interests are diverse: he also studies philosophy, and French romances, and so on. This dilettantism is what's consistent across both his personal and intellectual lives. He wants to do experiments, but cannot follow them through to completion. He falls in love with Grace, but is interested in not only her. Does this mean Hardy thinks he would be a better person if he stuck to science? Then it would seem that science is not the culprit, not entirely, but I don't find this entirely satisfying. Which I guess is appropriate, because the end-- where Fitzpiers resolves to stick to Grace this time-- is not entirely satisfying either.

    05 June 2019

    Review: The Hornblower Companion by C. S. Forester

    Trade paperback, 140 pages
    Published 1998 (originally 1964)

    Acquired June 2008
    Read March 2019
    The Hornblower Companion by C. S. Forester
    With Maps and Drawings by Samuel H. Bryant

    I finished off my Hornblower journey with this, an official "companion" to the series written by C. S. Forester himself. I was a little surprised, to be honest, to realize that the term "companion" book, which I primarily associate with big media franchises (e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi Companion, Doctor Who: The Television Companion), goes back to the 1960s and to literature.

    The first half of the book is a series of maps, covering Hornblower's career in chronological order. Some are big picture, such as one of the entire western coast of Central America, chronicling the events of Beat to Quarters. Others zoom in on specific battles, just showing a few nautical miles. These were neat, but I ultimately flipped through them pretty quickly. Instead of reading them all at once after finishing the novels, I'd've been better off keeping them by my side while reading the novels, to better help me visualize what was going on. Oh well; if I ever read the series through a third time, I will do that.

    The second half is much more meaty, though, a lengthy personal essay by Forester about his history with the Hornblower character, about how he came to write one book, then three, then ten. Very rarely did he set out to do it, so you get a good glimpse into his creative process, how things bubble out of the subconscious and ultimately demand to be written. I tore through it very quickly because I enjoyed it so much. A nice way to tie up my (re)read of these books.