Joe’s Blog

Archive for May, 2012

Die Another Day (2002)

May 25, 2012 7:02 am

Die Another Day poster

With all the 2012 shenanigans going on this year and Britain being the focus of the world for everyone (except us miserable Brits who are refusing to get caught up in the swirl of Union Jack clad mayhem we are being subjected to) it seems only fitting that the greatest living fictional Brit is also celebrating a jubilee this year. Yes, it’s 50 years since everyone’s favourite right-wing, gun-toting psychopath killed his first bad guy on screen, for Queen and country. And probably cos he quite enjoys killing people a bit too much.

The release this week of the first Skyfall trailer seems to have made everyone forget how dreadful Quantum of Solace was and focus instead on how the series has been rejuvenated by the casting of Daniel Craig, and the darker, more sombre tone. Sadly, ten years ago, for the 40th anniversary of Bond’s first on-screen shag, things were a little different.

Pierce Brosnan was being wildly credited with reviving the sexist, misogynist dinosaur for a new audience. Out were Roger Moore’s raised eyebrow, Timothy Dalton’s obvious disdain for a role beneath his abilities, and Sean Connery’s wigs. In came a confident swagger, better supporting actors and bigger action. And after three hugely successful films of variable quality it was decided for the big 4-0, they would go for broke on a thoroughly schizophrenic adventure which would combine a tough revenge thriller, of a kind hard core Fleming fans wanted, and high octane thrills for the mass audience.

What we got was Moonraker 2.

It’s been a long time since I last saw Die Another Day. I caught some of it on ITV a few months back and turned it off as soon as the first ad break appeared (I think it was before the opening titles), so I came back to it having largely forgotten huge chunks of it. But it was just as dreadful as I remembered it being.

If you can’t remember Die Another Day, you’re very lucky. So I’ll refresh your brain. It’s the one with the invisible car. Yes, that got through the committee script process: an invisible car. That pretty much sets the tone for everything else in the film.

Halle Berry plays another ‘female Bond’ who is as talented, resourceful and dangerous as him, but still needs to be rescued four times throughout the film. Toby Stephens is the sneering villain (and a wonderful sneer it is too) called Gustav despite the fact he’s supposed to be from Argentina (but isn’t really). Rosamund Pike is the far more attractive, and more interesting secondary female, and is consequently given little to do. She may be a spy, or she may be working for Gustav. She changes her mind everytime the plot starts to sag.

Bond is banged up in North Korea after killing a General. He’s busted within seconds of landing his helicopter despite pretending to be someone else. This is not the last time you’ll think “Actually, Bond is a bit of shit spy”.

14 months of torture later (over which plays Madonna’s entry for the ‘Worst Bond Theme Ever’ competition. It’s not clear if that’s part of the torture.), he’s still wisecracking with the father of the general he killed, but finds himself traded for the henchman Zao, a character so dull they have to imbed diamonds in his face to make him appear more interesting. MI6 think Bond has cracked and is leaking secrets, so naturally, they let him escape from a high security boat in Hong Kong harbour, so he can find out what’s really going on.

Much tedium ensues as Bond goes to Cuba, shags Halle Berry, blows some stuff up, has a sword fight with Gustav (one of the better scenes in the film, despite Madonna’s contractually obligated pointless cameo) before the villain invites him to Iceland for the demonstration of his diamond encrusted space laser. You know, just like the one Blofeld had in Diamonds are Forever.

Cyril Sneer

Once we get to Iceland things go from bad to worse. We meet ANOTHER henchman called… dear, lord… Mr Kil (sic).  There’s also a weasley electronics nerd who talks like Peter Lorre, who’s designing a Robocop style suit for Gustav to control his space laser.

The villain’s lair will here be played by a palace made entirely of ice (nice idea, based on a real hotel in Scandeweigia somewhere), which of course will have to be destroyed. Nice twist is that the villain blows it up himself in an attempt to drown Halle Berry. Odd this, as she’s trapped in a room made of ice that’s melting. Surely, it can’t be that hard to escape from? And why not just blast her directly with your space laser, instead of s-l-o-w-l-y melting the building?

Meanwhile Bond is trying to escape bad guys (by running away, like a girl) by stealing Gustav’s ice riding thing (it looks like a canoe with skis), and ends up ice surfing into the worst CGI ever seen in a $150 million movie.

Horace Goes Skiing

Bond then remembers he hasn’t driven his new car yet, so goes back to the ice palace and takes on Zao, who himself has a souped-up, gadget-laden motor. Nice, if pointless, idea, but it results in one of the dullest car chases in the series since they just keep blowing each other’s missiles up. It’s a shame, as the logistics for staging the sequence of a car chase on a frozen lake, were huge. Sadly, most of the good work is lost thanks to Tony Scott and Michael Bay editor, Christian Wagner. Ooh, sped up then slowed down car chases… exciting. The sequence does feature one of the series best ever moments though, when Bond uses the ejector seat to flip his car the right way up after being hit by a rocket.

Then there’s a ridiculous climax as our heroes stowaway on a big plane, while Gustav space lasers the demilitarised zone between the Koreas, so the North can invade the South. People get sucked out of the plane, obviously and Halle Berry calls Rosamund Pike a bitch. Which isn’t very nice.

And then we get that bloody awful Madonna theme song in an even worse, bloody awful remix version.

END. Thank god.

There’s so much wrong here, it’s hard to know where to start. The Moore-isms are back with a vengeance, but Brosnan just doesn’t convince, and comes across as a sleazy old man (particularly his continual advances to the excellent Pike who was, literally, half his age). The scene where he flirts with Hale Berry on their first meeting, is frankly the worst dialogue that has ever appeared in a Bond movie (with the possible exception of Moore’s ad-libbed “That should keep you in curry for a few weeks” to his Indian contact in Octopussy).

And Berry, is no better, possibly even worse. It’s hard to imagine this is the same woman who won an Oscar for Monster’s Ball when she was making this. Every line she delivers tumbles from her gob, with her tongue visibly in her cheek. It’s like she knows it’s complete crap, but at least she’s having fun making it. I think it’s a good example of why Bond movies are normally better with lesser known, better actors, than with BIG NAME stars (with the exception Christopher Walken). Did anyone really go to see Die Another Day just because Halle Berry was in it? Come to think of it, has anyone EVER gone to see a film just because Halle Berry was in it? They certainly didn’t go and see Catwoman. Miaow.

"How do you know I'm good?", asked Halle. "You're not, love", replied the audience

Stephens has fun as Gustav.  Many criticised his rather broad performance, and sneer, but as he’s created a new personality for himself, he clearly says he based it on Bond. It justifies all the perceived awfulness, as he’s just being Brosnan as a bad guy.

Judi Dench is her usual flawless self, facing off against an angry Bond AND Mr Blond (Michael Madsen was considered for a recurring character but it never happened. Sadly, she doesn’t slap Bond down when he snaps “Let me get on with my job”, which in the earlier films she most certainly would have.

And Rosamund Pike is excellent, considering this was her first film. She desperately tries to make Miranda Frost an interesting character, despite the script. And her contempt for Bond is as marvelous as Luciana Paluzzi in Thunderball.

A gratuitous picture of Rosamund Pike

It’s just an absolute mess. It’s like one of the major studios, with big American producers, had decided to make a rival Bond movie and got everything wrong (just like Casino Royale ’67 and Never Say Never Again). Poor CGI is tossed around, unforgivable in a series which has always prided itself on real stunts, and high quality craftsmanship in its model work. Even in this day and age, for some reason, Bond movies have never been able to master back projection. Some of the shots are as bad as the legendary Jaws on a cable car from Moonraker, which did feature real stuntmen hanging off a cable car on Sugar Loaf mountain WITHOUT a safety cable. I doubt very much a stuntmen went anywhere a glacier for the ice-surfing scene.

The dialogue is so pun heavy it starts to resemble a Carry On film, or worse, a Confessions film. None of the characters are particularly interesting, they are all just archetypes: female Bond, villainous turncoat, villain, henchman, mad doctor, cannon fodder, singer who wants to be in the film…

The excuses for its overindulgence were that it was supposed to be a celebration: 40 years, obviously, but also it was the 20th (official) film. So the film is peppered with references to all the other films in the series, some obvious, some more cryptic. What this does though, is lift you out of the film, and kills any momentum or tension it may have generated. How can you stay involved with something that every 5 minutes is nudging you going “Look, did you see that? Look it’s the jetpack from Thunderball. Look it’s the Union jack parachute. look Gustav nearly said ‘Diamonds are Forever’, but then didn’t. Aren’t we so clever?”

No, you’re not clever. You’re annoying. It feels at times like one of those awful Dr Who specials for Children in Need. I expect Terry Wogan to appear throwing a metal rimmed hat, or Graham Norton to menace Brosnan with a metal arm. Actually, either of those would have been preferable to Bond fighting Mr Kil surrounded by killer lasers (still, with the fricking lasers?).

You can make a case for several Bond movies being the worst in the series, but they all have something to redeem them. Except this one.

Die Another Day was the last DVD to leave its cellophane straight jacket in my DVD box set. I suspect when the Bluray box arrives, it will remain there forever.

 

 

Ants! (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor) (1977)

May 22, 2012 2:30 am

It’s funny the things that scare kids. As a nipper growing up in the halcyon days of the video nasty I was privy to all manner of eye gouging, limb severing and demonic possession you could shake a bloody stump at. Yet I very rarely had nightmares watching the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters or the Evil Dead. My nightmares were much more mundane, caused by the faceless man in Sapphire and Steel, Julian Glover ripping his face off to reveal his true alien identity in Dr Who, and, most terrifying of all, The Incredible Hulk. Whilst kids the country over would propel themselves behind the sofa at the mere cry of “Exterminate”, I was cowering behind cushions hoping no one was going to upset that nice Dr Banner this week. At least I would get the warning of Bill Bixby’s green contact lenses.

One set of films did give me the willies, but probably because the threat seemed a tad more real and immediate than that posed by the Caribbean undead or hockey masked psychos: revenge of nature movies.

Whilst they had been a staple of cinema for decades, the 70s brought a whole slew of them, mainly thanks to the success of Jaws. All manner of cuddly (and not so cuddly) critters were wheeled out as the next big threat to humanity. Whilst cinema generally went big (Grizzly, Orca, the wonderful Alligator, um… The Giant Spider Invasion), US TV wanted in on the act too.

Their budgets obviously wouldn’t stretch to ocean filming, or expensive locations for exotic wild animals. So their threats were generally more mundane.

Enter Guerdon Trueblood, a TV movie veteran who managed to turn out FOUR creepy crawly based creature features in a year: The Savage Bees (and a sequel Terror Out of the Sky), Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo and Ants! (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor).

These seemed to play every week on UK TV in my youth, and I loved them all, even though they would all give me sleepless nights (and ruin sunny days, particularly the day I fell in an ants nest, convinced they were going to eat me alive).

It’s interesting how these stand up pretty well today (and compared to the mega-budgeted The Swarm, The Savage Bees is Oscar-worthy) … except Ants.

An ant yesterday

A group of TV regulars (Robert Foxworth, Barry van Dyke, Suzanne Somers) and out of work B-movie plodders (Bernie Casey, Lynda Day George) find themselves trapped in a hotel, beseiged by killer ants, driven psycho nuts by pesticides.

George runs the titular Lakewood Manor with her wheelchair bound mother (30’s screen legend, Myrna Loy). She’s also having it away with gruff Foxworth, foreman of the building site next door. He’s rather perturbed when two of his men end up in hospital, one later dying, after being buried in a hole. But they didn’t suffocate as expected. Instead they suffered severe nerve trauma, probably as the result of a venomous toxin.

(I should point out here, the film has a slapdash attitude to the difference between venom and poison, using both terms with gay abandon, even from the gob of a so-called expert who talks about poisonous ants, as opposed to venomous ants.)

This 'expert' doesn't know the difference between venom and poison

Of course the hotel is ..er… half full of soap opera characters, and mute extras. There’s the sleazy businessman, and his mistress, who want to buy the hotel and turn it into a casino; there’s the single mum and her irritating son; and there’s a teenage runaway who falls for the pool attendant/desk clerk/handyman (he basically does everything).

The first half of the film very tediously takes us through all these interweaving ‘stories’, occasionally cutting to the hotel kitchen, to show the ants very very slowly making their way up the sink, whilst a jolly fat chef endlessly mixes something in a bowl.

The kid gets in next, and to be fair, it was an accident waiting to happen, what with him scrabbling around in the bins in just his swimming trunks. It’s amazing the ants got him before he severed his achilles tendon on a broken bottle. His leap into the pool (to cries of “Help, he can’t swim!”) to try and rid himself of the ants, is of course witnessed by our hero, Foxworth, who happens to be there snogging the missus. Taking charge, and ordering around the lifeguard, even though he doesn’t actually work there, he starts to wonder what’s going on.

When Bad Movies Attack!

He and buddy Bernie Casey go to investigate the hole where his men were hospitalised. Within a few seconds, Casey is spasming and swatting imaginary ants from his trousers.

At the same time, jolly chef has been got. Serves him right really for wearing open toed sandals in a food preparation area. Strangely, the health inspector isn’t bothered by that, and instead closes the hotel on the grounds that the kitchen must be infected with a virus. Obviously.

This is kick up the arse the film needs.

The extras have all been evacuated, but before our top billed stars can leave, they find themselves trapped by now a horde of ants which are slowly… very slowly, making their way inside!

Yes, this is the half way point. So you can probably guess just how tedious the build up to this has been. Thankfully the second half is so deliriously wacky and unintentionally hilarious you can almost forgive the first turgid 45 minutes.

A real actor arrives, in the shape of Brian Dennehy as a fire chief who shouts a lot and has a magic hi vis jacket which appears and disappears at regular intervals.

Brian Dennehy calls his agent

For some reason each attempt to rescue the remaining stars is only used to rescue one of them. A fire ladder is used for one, but then the truck drives away, happily honking his horn as he goes, with no explanation of why he left. A helicopter is utilised until they realise the updraft is spreading the ants all over the crowd of gawping extras who have now surrounded the hotel.

But the true highlight comes when just three survivors are left. It’s going to take half an hour to get some protective hazmat suits to them, but the ants are closing in fast. Well, not exactly fast, but … slow. Their best bet is not to move. And not breath on the ants.

This results in… well see for yourself. Any description would not do this scene the bad movie justice it deserves.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, mainly because I’m not entirely sure what happens. It’s not entirely clear if they manage to defeat the ants or not.

At the end of the day Ants is a cheap, knock-off TV movie. Thanks mainly to the interesting low-rent cast, it’s more watchable than the dreadful Empire of the Ants, and more accommodating than the widely praised, but desperately dull, Phase 4. It’ll pass the time on a wet sunday afternoon, but really it’s only recommended if you want to see Barry van Dyke fall into a digger, a naked woman covered in Ants, or you’re a Brian Dennehy completist (hey, you never know, they could exist).