Sean Connery as James Bond, Part 1

Preface
or: how I learned to stop worrying and post these damn reviews

(jump to Introduction)

My recent Week of the Living Dead has been the cause of a bit of personal reflection here at 100 Films Towers (I don’t know where I acquired a tower, but let’s just go with it). While I enjoyed all the films individually, I found the actual experience of watching one every night, reviewing it the next day, posting it that evening (you’d be surprised how much time I put into those photos), then repeat — times six — to be quite wearing. I know I didn’t have to do it — I could have delayed or spread out the viewing, and the same with the reviews, because it’s not as if anyone was depending or even anticipating them — but there’s an element of personal pride in setting out to do something and then doing it well… or if not well, then at least doing it right.

It’s a personal thing, too — I’m not one of those people who merrily watches a film every single day (or more, some people). I can barely stomach a double bill, unless it’s a not-very-long or single-story duology/trilogy watched back-to-back for good reason. That’s why watching 100 films in a year is a challenge to me. The fact I’ve not even managed it a third of the time attests to that. When I first started I got a few comments along the lines of, “but that’s only two a week? Not hard!” Well, clearly it is, so ner.

Anyway, one thing this means is I’m unlikely to attempt another Week of the Living Dead-style week of viewing and reviewing. I’ve managed them before (Silent Lubitsch; David Fincher), and part of the key is variety — for all that Romero pumps into his films, they’re still one zombie film after another; and I actually got a bit sick of silent films by the end of that Lubitsch week, so it’s not unprecedented. Watching one type of thing so intensively makes you want a change.

And that’s how we arrive at Bond. When the Bond 50 Blu-ray set came out, I set about watching them all from the start. The aim was one or two a week, then post reviews in decade-long clumps, in part to see the Bond films in a different way than sorted by actor (in reality, that’s not that great an idea: it’s the change of leading man that sparks changes in the series, not the change of decade; and actually, when you do cut it up by decade, you more or less get Connery in the ’60s, Moore in the ’70s and ’80s, Brosnan in the ’90s, and Craig in the ’00s, with only the odd scrap crossing over or other guy jumping in). This isn’t the first time I’ve tried it, but I always run out of steam at some point. I love Bond, but they get samey if you pack them too close together… and also, as we’ve seen, I’m just not cut out for that kind of scheduled viewing (I don’t even watch TV on schedule anymore — yay PVRs and iPlayer and box sets and piracy!)

But what I did manage during the viewing I did do was to write reviews; and because I happened to falter just before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (no fault of that film, it’s one of my favourites), I have a neat Connery-shaped load to share. And because they’ve been sat on my hard drive for (in some cases) over a year now, I thought I’d share them. They were meant to be very short pieces that I’d share in one big long post (like, say, my Batman one), but they’re actually quite a bit longer and the whole thing seemed massively unwieldily (I think the Batman one’s awkward, and these reviews total about 1,000 words more), so I’ve separated them off.

With all that waffled through, let’s begin:


Introduction

Sean Connery was, of course, the first actor to play James Bond. Except he wasn’t: there was Barry Nelson on the telly (technically playing American agent Jimmy Bond), Bob Holness on the radio (in a live South African production), and stuntman Bob Simmons in the gun barrel opening sequence of the first Bond movie (the one pictured above is Connery, though). But Connery was the first to be noticed — and he really was noticed. With him as the star, what were a couple of relatively low-budget British spy movies somehow transformed into a global-box-office-dominating, decades-spanning, culture-influencing, mega-franchise. (It used to be the highest-grossing film series of all time. It’s been surpassed by the likes of Harry Potter now, but that will change: other series end, Bond keeps on going, probably forever.)

Connery starred in a total of five Bond films before he’d had enough… well, he starred in four before he’d had enough, but then he had to do a fifth anyway. He was recast, but when the new guy got too big for his boots, Connery was lured back… for one more film. Twelve years after that, he was lured back again, this time for an ‘unofficial’ rival Bond movie series… which managed one film.

Leaving those later returns to (possible) future reviews, here are the five initial Connery Bonds…





James Bond will return.

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Thunderball (1965)

2012 #87a
Terence Young | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

ThunderballThere is, I think, a degree of consensus amongst Bond fans (both serious and casual) about a great number of things. Everyone has their personal favourites and dislikes that go against the norm, of course, but there are few things that are genuinely divisive on a large scale. It’s largely accepted that Goldfinger is the distillation of The Bond Formula, for instance; or that any new Bond is judged against the yardstick of Connery; that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the better films, but long-maligned for its re-cast/miscast lead; that Moore was too old by the end; that GoldenEye was a great re-invention of the franchise; that Casino Royale was the same for a decade later; that Moonraker and Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace are rubbish; and so on. But nonetheless, a couple of things do generate a split of opinion — how good (or not) were Timothy Dalton and his films, for example. This is where I’d place Thunderball.

Adjusted for inflation, Thunderball is still the highest grossing Bond film of all time. It’s where the Bond phenomenon really kicked in. Popularity and success had built across the previous three films, reaching an unexpected fervour during the release of Goldfinger (just look at some of the footage of crowds at premieres on the DVD/Blu-ray), but Thunderball was something else again. Here the series gets big in every way, and obviously so: on screen, it’s in luscious 2.35:1, as opposed to the more TV-ish 1.66:1 of the previous films; Everything's better down where it's wetterthere’s an awful lot of grand, expensive-looking underwater stunt work; and it’s relatively long too, the first Bond to pass two hours (and, even in the nicest possible way, it feels it). Accompanying it was an array of merchandising that, at least as I understand it, wouldn’t be seen again for years (these days it’s par for the course, kicked off by Star Wars, but could Lucas’ insistence on retaining and exploiting those rights have been inspired by earlier stuff such as this? I’ve no idea; some Star Wars fan might). The legacy of this is that some people absolutely adore Thunderball, especially if they’re of the generation who saw it on release.

Over time, this reputation has dwindled. This is all anecdotal, but it seems to appear less often at the top of lists, retrospective review scores seem to be lower, and so on. Personally, I’ve never liked it. My draft review from last time I watched it (around 2006) notes the “numerous faults: Bond ridiculously stumbles upon the plot while on holiday, the sped-up fight sequences, a fair bit of pointless running around, villains not nearly as menacing as those encountered before… There’s also something slightly undefinable that’s suddenly missing — it doesn’t have that same (for want of a better word) magic that the films before and after it do.” There’s also the never-ending climactic underwater battle, which I can’t believe I didn’t mention.

Well, to cut to the chase, and much to my surprise, this time I actually enjoyed Thunderball rather a lot. I still think it’s the weakest Bond to date, and I could add even more flaws to the above list — its bloated running time, partly the fault of a meandering story in need of tightening and streamlining, and so on — Domino's costumebut if you just accept a few of those, allow them to wash over you as it were, then it’s quite good fun. For all its flaws, it’s also packed with brilliant moments: the scene at the Kiss Kiss Club is arguably the best-directed bit in the series to date, and remains one of my favourite moments from any Bond; then there’s the jet pack, indeed the whole opening titles; almost any scene between Bond and one of the numerous females; “I think he got the point”; Domino’s (first) swimming costume… Um, where was I?

Thunderball is never going to be my favourite Bond, or even my favourite of the Connerys; but rather than battling with Diamonds are Forever for which is his worst, it’s now contending with Dr. No for which is highest in the middle. That is, from my point of view, a pretty big shift.

4 out of 5

Reviewed as part of an overview of the Bond movies. For more, see here.

Goldfinger (1964)

2012 #85a
Guy Hamilton | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

GoldfingerIt’s long been held as a truism that, though it’s the third film, Goldfinger really defined ‘the Bond formula’; and I’ve long argued against that, pointing to the elements that were ready-to-go in Dr. No and added by From Russia with Love. While that’s not untrue, it’s fair to say that Goldfinger is the Bond formula distilled: the previous two films may have debuted many key ingredients, but it’s Goldfinger that adds the finishing touches and perfects the recipe.

It’s also where the Bond phenomenon began to kick in, reaching its height with Thunderball the year after, and has oft been cited as The Greatest Bond Film — meaning there have been more than enough words written about it (whole books, I’ve no doubt) down the years. What little can I add? Not much, I’m sure, but reiterate what you already know. So instead I’ll say this: Goldfinger isn’t my favourite Bond film. I didn’t even like it that much last time I watched it (the running best-of list I was compiling last time I watched all the Bond films ranks it below three other Connerys), probably due to the constant high expectation placed upon it. My draft review called it “less than the sum of its parts”. Now, I think that’s a bit harsh.

No Mr Bond, I expect you to die!However, I did also note that “those parts are mostly so excellent that its still a greatly entertaining film, and, I’m sure, not undeserving of the adulation lavished upon it by so many”, and that’s certainly true. You only have to list bits to bring back fond memories: the pre-titles (filled with multiple memorable moments, even if it’s completely unrelated to the rest of the story); the title song; the title sequence (by Robert Brownjohn, not Maurice Binder); the gold-painted girl; the gold game; Oddjob and the statue; the Q scene (despite Goldfinger’s Q-branch-tour being the archetype, it’s not repeated in a similar manner for decades); the gadget-laden car; the stunning Swiss locations; “no Mr Bond, I expect you to die”; Pussy Galore; the epic raid on Fort Knox; Oddjob and the electricity; the clock stopping at 007; Goldfinger being sucked out of the plane; hiding from rescue in the life raft… That’s quite a haul. Even the less feasible bits, like the cardboard-cut-out gangsters, have a certain charm.

I’d forgotten just how funny it is too. That’s part of ‘the Bond formula’, of course, and it is present in Connery’s first two films. There, however, it’s more akin to the Daniel Craig era: just flashes of wit and sarcasm; but Goldfinger is where it’s really defined — and in the right balance, unlike some later entries. Although Russia debuts a couple of them, this is really where the famous Bond puns make their mark (“Shocking. Positively shocking.”); but not only those, because there’s a scattering of general humour too. After Bond’s attempted escape at Auric Stud, the roomful of henchmen guarding him, revealed by Hamilton through a slow camera move, has always been one of my favourite gags in the series.

Galore-iousIf you think about it too much then the plot is like a machine-gunned windscreen — spattered with holes. But they’re mostly minor niggles rather than glaring errors, and it’s more than covered by the fun you’re having. There are several films that would contend the top spot on my list of Favourite Bond Films and Goldfinger probably isn’t one of them, but that’s a personal thing and it’s surely destined for at least the top ten.

5 out of 5

Reviewed as part of an overview of the Bond movies. For more, see here.

From Russia With Love (1963)

2012 #83a
Terence Young | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

From Russia With LoveIf Dr. No gives the impression that the cinematic James Bond was born almost fully formed, then its sequel stands in stark contrast: with hindsight, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, for great swathes of its running time, From Russia With Love doesn’t feel that much like A James Bond Film. And yet it is nonetheless one of Fleming’s best novels turned into one of the series’ absolute best movies.

Uncommonly, it’s a very faithful rendition of the book. That makes it a Cold War spy thriller, albeit one with fantastical touches — it switches the novel’s Russian villains for Blofeld’s independent SPECTRE organisation, which is duping both the Brits and Ruskies. Mostly, though, it feels remarkably plausible. Sequences like the theft of a decoding machine from the Russian consulate, or the famous confined train carriage fight with Red Grant, have real-world heft rather than typical Bond action sequence fantasticism. With the Daniel Craig era (and Timothy Dalton, if only in retrospect for many) the franchise’s later years have shown it has room for both.

Indeed, those who note Craig’s general toughness undercut with the odd sliver of wit or sarcasm would do well to take another look at films like this one. At this early stage Connery’s Bond can be cold and calculating, as in the sniper-ish assassination of a Russian agent, or the previous film’s wait for Dent. He even slaps a woman. Shadowy thrillerShe’s drugged so perhaps it’s not entirely uncalled for, especially by the era’s standards, but it still strikes the viewer. Plus he’s not throwing out puns at every opportunity, or quipping with every particularly notable dispatch of a villain, but instead tosses the odd line or even just glance. There’s a direct line between this and the Craig films, neither of which seemly hugely similar to the more comical Moore (or even Brosnan) era.

In terms of the franchise’s development, FRWL does offer us the pre-titles action scene. Not scripted as such, but moved in the edit for effect, it was producer Harry Saltzman’s idea to kill off the hero in the opening minutes. Even when you know what’s going on, it’s still an impactful sequence. It segues wonderfully into Robert Brownjohn’s title sequence, with the credits projected onto close-ups of gyrating half-naked women. They have some relevance to the film itself rather than being wholly gratuitous (see the gypsy camp scene), but between this and his similar work on Goldfinger, Brownjohn’s significance to the familiar style of the Bond title sequence is perhaps understated. These aren’t the silhouettes and complex visual choreography of Binder’s even more distinctive work, but it’s a step in that direction from the flowing dots of Dr. No.

At times in the series’ past, From Russia With Love has been overlooked as an anomaly; a serious-minded stumbling block in the series throughline of outlandishness that leads Strangers on a traindirectly from Dr. No to Goldfinger to hollowed out volcanoes in You Only Live Twice and the daftness that characterised so much of the Moore years. Recently, it’s garnered appreciation, both as not that much of a sore thumb and as an exceptional film in its own right. It’s well-deserved, because on any level this is one of the absolute best the series has to offer.

5 out of 5

Reviewed as part of an overview of the Bond movies. For more, see here.

Dr. No (1962)

2012 #81a
Terence Young | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

Dr No“Bond. James Bond.”

It’s a line we’re all over-familiar with now, almost to the point of cliché (which is why it’s largely been dropped from the Craig-era reboot), but it became that way because of the moment, precisely eight minutes in to Dr. No, when it’s uttered on screen for the very first time. (Wouldn’t it have been good if they’d managed to place it at exactly seven minutes?) Sean Connery reportedly spent a whole morning fluffing the line before, in true Scottish style, having a large stiff drink at lunch and then nailing it in one. But credit for the moment’s impact is at least as much due to director Terence Young, keeping Connery’s face off screen to the point of absurdity, delaying the reveal through a lengthy stretch of card game, until Sylvia Trench asks her simple question, and suddenly there he is, cigarette hanging from his lip, the now-famous theme bursting onto the soundtrack… It’s a moment that is built to be iconic, and my how it succeeded!

But that’s how an awful lot of Dr. No is constructed. Witness the posters — “the first James Bond film adventure!” Who would dare make such a claim today? Imagine if they tried putting that on John Carter, say — and that’s precisely why they don’t. The Bond series wouldn’t become the phenomenon we know until Goldfinger, a hit that’s also largely credited with defining the formula, and Thunderball, a genuine global mega-hit of epic proportions. Hey HoneyYet for that received wisdom about Goldfinger, ever so much of the familiar Bond recipe is here from the off: the gun barrel sequence, a dramatic pre-titles (albeit post-titles here), the music-driven silhouetted-girls-filled title sequence (even if they’re clothed here), Bond’s casual attitude towards women, his dry humour, his relationships with M and Moneypenny, his detective skills, his fighting skills, his driving skills, the megalomaniac villain, his extravagant lair, and of course the Bond girls — indeed, for all of the fame of Goldfinger’s gold-covered beauty on the bed, Honey emerging from the ocean is still the most iconic Bond girl of them all. And I imagine there’s more I’ve neglected to include.

As a film, Dr No could come off as a funny old mix. It starts off as a fairly straight spy thriller, but gradually slips in some more extreme elements until, captured on the titular villain’s island, it goes all-out ’60s pulp sci-fi — an underground base, hewn from rock, linked with huge metallic doors or Star Trek-esque sliding numbers, lit with a purple glow; vast angular rooms housing nuclear equipment and sundry other faux-scientific gadgetry… I don’t know if Ken Adams’ set defined this iconography or were born of it, but think of ’60s futurism and the design work in Dr No’s lair is what will come to mind.

The other advantage Dr. No has is its as-yet-undefined Bond. So there’s fewer puns, but instead wit and sarcasm. He’s more ruthless, too: for my money, the sequence where he sets himself up in Miss Kano’s house to wait patiently for the arrival of Dent, then dispatches him with a combination of preparation (“that’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six”) and an arguably-unnecessary second shot, just to be sure, is amongst the series’ finest depictions of the reality behind Bond’s line of work. Bond-Like ThingsPlus, freed from the need to constantly Do Bond-Like Things, we get some solid detective work from our hero, rather than just turning up and saving the day. To put it another way, there’s a mystery and a story, not just a series of set pieces.

It’s often overshadowed by the film’s that follow it, and not without reason (as we’ll see in a minute, From Russia With Love is a fine Cold War spy thriller in its own right, and Goldfinger does refine the formula to a repeatable point), but it would be wrong to ignore Dr. No. It’s not yet quite the typical Bond movie, but it’s close enough that the casual observer wouldn’t notice, and it’s an exciting, fun beginning to a franchise.

Screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz took his name off the film when he saw the dailies, fearing a huge flop; but, as history has shown, whoever came up with the poster’s tagline was closer to the mark.

4 out of 5

Reviewed as part of an overview of the Bond movies. For more, see here.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

2012 #50
manlly Wilder | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG

The Lost WeekendDirected by the inestimable Billy Wilder, winner of the Grand Prix (forerunner to the Palme d’Or) at the first Cannes, winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1946, and also Best Actor, Director, and Screenplay, it’s a wonder that The Lost Weekend isn’t better known. I don’t think I’d even heard of it until Masters of Cinema announced their Blu-ray release back in January 2012, and comments I’ve seen around the internet express a similar experience of prior unawareness. Thank goodness for MoC, then, because this isn’t a film that deserves to be forgotten.

Adapted from the novel by Charles R. Jackson, the entire film takes place across one particularly eventful weekend (well, that plus flashbacks), in which should-be-recovering alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) tries desperately to fall back off the wagon.

The plot may smack of a worthy social drama (perhaps why it’s been forgotten), but most every sequence is loaded with more tension than a thriller. This is Wilder’s skill as both co-writer and director: he gets us on Birnam’s side early on, so that we follow him through the almost-self-induced hell that follows; and he keeps us on the edge of our seat, as desperate for it to work out as Birnam himself is. But, right from the very first scene, hardly a one of his plans does work out; Birnam gets homeall of them thwarted at the last possible moment, when victory seems assured. The film isn’t preachy, but if it does teach us a lesson then this is how it does it.

Wilder’s direction is excellent throughout, with innumerable striking compositions, perfectly paced scenes, and the aforementioned tension ratcheted up to maximum. There are other very good directors who would’ve made a hash of a film like this — made one that screams “meaningful movie about An Issue” — but the way Wilder handles affairs means it’s more than that. It explores its issue, it exposes us to the facets of it so that we might learn something, but it does so under the auspices of a drama about a man we come to care about. It’s not an “alcohol is bad” sermon, it’s a “can this man survive it?” thriller.

Equally, the flashback structure could scupper the film, but instead it raises it, with two of the best sequences coming here. There’s the exceptional La Traviata scene — it’s very obviously a bit of Good Direction, but while you could call it showy, it works — and the scene where Wick tries to cover for his brother to his new girl, which lends weight and backstory to the opening scene where he seems ready to (and, indeed, does) callously abandon him.

Welsh boy done goodMilland is astounding. The film rides on him and he really carries it. It’s easy to play a comic drunk, but Milland doesn’t sink to that. Indeed he doesn’t do one type of drunk at all, swaying back and forth across various levels of inebriation as required. I often find films of this era contain performances we assess as great, but if you put them in a film today no one would buy it; they’d find it stagey and fake. Milland’s transcends that — it fits the era, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it would play just as potently today. I think it’s fair to say that Milland is not widely known today, but with every film of his I become more convinced that history has been unkind.

Also worthy of praise is Frank Faylen as Bim. In his featurette on the MoC release, Alex Cox says he’s the second best character in the film, and he’s probably right. Cox notes that at least one review at the time really laid in to Bim, painting him as an evil sadist. Today, I don’t think we have that perspective at all. Bim tells Birnam the truth, painting his illness like it really is. Whereas his other friends and relations all try to do their best for him, but wind up enabling his addiction to continue, Bim’s experience and detachedness means he can be blunt and truthful. Birnam may not realise the good it’s done him, but good it does ultimately do.

Propping up the bar, propping up the starThere’s also able support from Howard Da Silva as barman Nat and Doris Dowling as Gloria (is she a whore of some kind? Just an escort? A bar-crawler? Did I miss something?), whose slang is oddly infectious. No offence to Jane Wyman, but her lovelorn-but-strong girlfriend character only seems to really come alive in the closing minutes, when she considers abandoning Birnam to his fate.

The Oscar-nominated score by Miklós Rózsa at first seems highly unusual, a warbling horror movie score, but it quickly comes to fit very well, and not just the nightmarish daydream sequence near the film’s climax. The movie was also nominated for John F. Seitz’s cinematography and Doane Harrison’s editing. They lost to The Picture of Dorian Gray and National Velvet respectively, neither of which I’ve seen, but they must have something special to outclass the work on show here.

I think the same can be said of the whole film. Issue-focused movies from the past are often badly dated, even if we can still admire the filmmaking techniques involved. That’s not their fault — it’s the cultural climate of the time, or the shifts in understanding that have come since. I’ll admit I know next to nothing about alcoholism so can’t comment definitively on the film’s enduring accuracy, Daymarebut from what I do know of other conditions of addiction and mental health, this feels as if it’s still thoroughly relevant.

Even if you don’t care about The Issue, there’s an engrossing, thrilling drama for everyone to enjoy. If The Lost Weekend is indeed forgotten, then it merits widespread rediscovery.

5 out of 5

That concludes my reviews from 2012.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

2012 #58
Christopher Nolan | 164 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

The Dark Knight RisesAfter The Dark Knight’s runaway success, this trilogy-closer would inevitably disappoint some. It is imperfect, featuring a story so grandly complex that even the extensive running time fails to give it breathing space, and an occasional leap or fudged point requires audience thinking (which too few are capable of, apparently); but it also has its share of greatness.

It’s undeniably notable for being An Ending — superheroes don’t get endings. There’ll be a reboot, naturally, but no matter: Nolan’s Batman ends.

Whatever the flaws, there’s a rewarding experience here, albeit more comic-book-y than the real-world crime-thriller aspirations of its beloved predecessor.

5 out of 5

The Dark Knight Rises placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. In the future I may update with something longer, but if I don’t, at least here’s something for posterity.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long.

I have much more I could have said about The Dark Knight Rises, but damn I’m fed up with still having films from 2012 on my to-do list! A fuller piece may well accompany a re-watch in the future. For now, there’s always my initial thoughts.

Green Lantern: Extended Cut (2011)

2012 #53
Martin Campbell | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Green Lantern: Extended Cut“Hype” has to be one of the biggest factors in how we view films these days. Technically it’s defined as “extravagant or intensive publicity”, I suppose thereby meaning something to “positive expectation”, but I think it also works the other way: if you’ve heard nothing but awful things about a film, its weakness has been ‘hyped’. It’s this latter point that applies to Green Lantern, which has an almost insurmountable degree of negative expectation attached. To summarise the headline points, it’s got a woeful rating of 26% on Rotten Tomatoes and took just $220m at the international box office, which might sound a lot but barely covers its production budget. So I expected to despise Green Lantern, or at least roll my eyes or twiddle my thumbs at its constant awfulness, but I actually quite enjoyed it.

And that’s why I talk about hype, because my expectation that the film would be irredeemably awful is at least partly why I found it surprisingly enjoyable — a bit like XMO Wolverine, which I didn’t like nearly as much when I watched it again a few years later. I’m not going to try to argue Green Lantern is a great movie, or even that it doesn’t contain significant flaws, but as a comic book-y two-hour diversion, I found it passably entertaining.

For those not in the know, the plot concerns Hal Jordan (Reynolds) finding a dead alien and a ‘magic’ ring that inducts him into a sort of intergalactic police force, the Green Lanterns. Stupid name and concept, attributable to it being a genuine magic thing before being reinvented as alien tech at some point, and perhaps it was the very daft datedness of the idea that (in part) put a mass audience off. Dead alien's ringBut I digress. Cocky jocky Hal is whisked off to the other side of the galaxy to learn how to be a Hero and use his ‘magic’ ring, which can conjure stuff up, then returns to Earth to save it from some menace(s). As superhero origin stories go, at least it’s got a couple of differences.

Hal’s character arc — the cocky guy who’s actually got fears and insecurities due to the death of his father — is actually quite a good one; a neat twist on the usual hero archetypes. So many superheroes have a version of the “loved one died when I was young” thing, but for most it’s motivation to fight rather than a worry that holds them back. But that arc is underplayed almost to the point of being unnoticeable, so when Hal overcomes it in order to save the day, you barely register that he’s overcome anything. Which is a shame, because there was potential in that. You don’t necessarily expect depth of character from a blockbuster, but it does hold it back.

However, the film’s primary problem (at least for me) was a lack of threat; or, rather, a lack of urgency. There’s a great big devourer of worlds out there, but we never get the feeling it’s doing much harm to anyone. I mean, it is, but we don’t feel it. Even at the climax, when it sets course to Earth, it’s more of an understanding that our hero is going to save the planet, rather than a genuine sense of peril that Earth is under assault. Perhaps this stems back to characterisation: some of the cast are likeable enough; the others are bland enough to not be unlikeable; and that leaves us wanting for someone to root for.

It gets cleverer than thisThere are positives. The action sequences are good, which is a definite plus in this kind of film. The inventiveness with what the ring can do is fun. There’s a lack of relation to the sketchily-drawn characters that stands in the way of us truly engaging with them, and there’s a certain brevity and lack of scale that undersells the alleged threat to Earth (it’s a giant evil space-cloud that can barely cover a few city blocks, let alone the entire planet) — but, that aside, they’re entertaining enough. That said, much as the film pulls its punches with characterisation and threat, so it does with awe and spectacle. The Lanterns’ planet Oa doesn’t have the same impact as Asgard in Thor, yet we’re told several times what a spectacular place it is.

The Blu-ray’s Extended Cut adds exactly 9 minutes and 39 seconds of new content (as ever, details can be found here). This is almost entirely a prelude sequence, showing the death of Hal Jordan’s dad. The sequence serves to flesh out the relationships between Hal, love interest Carol and future-villain Hector a little, but there’s not a lot gained that isn’t learnt elsewhere. It also breaks up the flow. I only watched the extended version in full, but I imagine it’s a smoother transition in the theatrical, rather than pinging back and forth between intergalactic goings-on and bits & bobs on Earth. The only other extension comes when Hal has a chat with his 11-year-old nephew. Conversely, this scene plays much better in the extended cut, and I’m not entirely sure why they felt the need to cut it.

Damp squibIndeed, I’d say the Extended Cut doesn’t go far enough, with some of the disc’s deleted scenes meriting inclusion. However, the main one occurs on Oa, meaning an effects-heavy scene that hasn’t had CG work done or all the voices recorded, so couldn’t just be dropped back into the finished film as-is. I imagine that’s why it wasn’t. That said, even if they’d done such work, those scenes are minor points, not game-changers.

What an extended cut of Green Lantern should really have done is build character and emotional impact. The plot is decent enough, but the film rattles along and sticks purely to story — we never feel it. It is nice to have a blockbuster effects movie that comes in closer to two hours than three, but they used to be able to make those and have us care. Where’s that ability gone? The only relationship that gets any real screen time is the romantic one, and that’s a damp squib.

I quite enjoyed Green Lantern while watching it. I felt quite positive afterwards. But the more you think about it, the more you spot the lack of depth. Maybe that’s OK — maybe it’s fine for a film to just give passing pleasure while it’s on. It wouldn’t be good if every film operated at that level, but it’s a painless experience now and then. Bye bye Green LanternStill, I think there’s a better film lurking in Green Lantern, and it’s a shame it didn’t get the screenwriter(s) or director(s) required to bring it out. It’s even more of a shame that worse films than this have received a kinder critical consensus or huge box office. That leaves some suit feeling vindicated and churning out the same rubbish again, whereas with a bit more effort Green Lantern 2 could’ve been worthwhile.

3 out of 5

Ip Man 2 (2010)

aka Yip Man 2 / Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster

2012 #79
Wilson Yip | 104 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | China & Hong Kong / Cantonese, Mandarin & English | 15 / R

Ip Man 2Picking up more or less where the first film left off, this sequel sees Ip and his family settled in Hong Kong, struggling to get by as he attempts to set up a Wing Chun school against opposition from the existing establishments.

The main thing to note about Ip Man 2 is that it has stunning fight sequences, especially a large sequence in the fish market and a one-on-one tabletop challenge. The latter sees star Donnie Yen take on legend Sammo Hung, which I imagine was a treat for genre fans (though it’s not their first encounter). For those of us less well versed in this world, it’s still a bloody good fight scene.

The first Ip Man was about considerably more than just action, but that’s where its sequel sets its focus. Human drama remains, but it doesn’t ring quite as true and perhaps isn’t trying to be as much of a feature as before. Ip Man’s relationships with his wife and with his students are hinted, told with plenty of shorthand — she’s pregnant, goes into labour just before his big fight (not that he knows), that kind of thing. They’re quickly tucked away as something for those really interested, rather than playing an essential part.

The only major downside comes when the Brits turn up for the final act. Stereotyped and poorly acted, presented with palpable jingoism and xenophobia, A game of Hung Mantheir presence and storyline drag the film down.

Still, at least it’s all wonderfully shot. Dismissing the clichéd desaturated look of the last film, here we get something a little more colourful, though never close to garish, with well chosen angles and superlative editing.

Ip Man 2 doesn’t have the same majesty as the first, but there’s an enjoyably pulpish sensibility in its place. Fast-moving and literally action-packed, on that level it entertains.

4 out of 5

Stiff Upper Lips (1998)

2012 #96
Gary Sinyor | 91 mins | TV | 4:3 | UK & India / English | 15 / R

Stiff Upper LipsSpoof of British ‘Heritage’ films and TV series, particularly the work of Merchant Ivory. It was probably a bit belated: released in 1998, you’ll note most targets are from the ’80s. It only even made it to TV recently (I watched on Radio Times’ recommendation). Specific targets include Brideshead Revisited and A Room with a View, with individual sequences riffing off the likes of Chariots of Fire and Orlando.

A mite sex obsessed — though, arguably, that’s only highlighting the original works’ undertones, so in that respect makes fair mockery. At worst, however, it feels like American Pie in period dress.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog of reviews, I decided to post some ‘drabble reviews’ of a few films. In the future I may update with something longer, but if I don’t, at least there’s something here for posterity.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long.