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Archive for November, 2012

Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises are amongst my favourite movies of the year, but between them they cost the best part of the unimaginable sum of half a billion dollars. What can be done with a lower budget? All of the ten films listed below were made for less than $25million and are all the better for the invention and creativity that comes with limitations of a small budget. In a B movie tradition I have discarded indie drama’s in favour of genre movies: action, gangsters, sci-fi and horror.  The other notable thing, is that despite their B credentials they all received a UK cinema release.

Haywire
Budget: $23,000,000 (estimated)
Legend has it that Steven Soderbergh was sat at home late one night channel surfing when he came across a Mixed Martial Arts contest (a cage fight). He was so enthralled with one of the contestants Gina Carano that he diced to write a movie for her. Having never acted before it was a big risk, but we are talking about the director who cast porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Taking a different approach for haywire, he filled the supporting roles with talented actors (Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton and Ewan McGregor), but it is the action that really sets the film apart. Forgoing the post Bourne trend of ultra close-ups and staccato editing in favour of long takes and mid length shots with lots of depth of field. It all helps show off Carano’s fighting talents. A love it or hate it film, it has received mixed reviews, personally I love it.

Killer Joe
Budget: $10,000,000 (estimated)
Back in 2006 William Friedkin made a criminally overlooked gem called Bug, it was based on a play by Tracy Letts who also wrote the screenplay. The pair re-teamed to adapt a play Letts wrote twenty years ago. Set around a criminally stupid dysfunctional Texas family it is a violent and repugnant tale. Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon are all brilliant but are in the shadow of the real star Matthew McConaughey. Often funny but the humour is truly jet black, this is a seriously fucked up film that many people will hate, again, I love it.

The Raid
Budget: $1,100,000 (estimated)
Welshman Gareth Evans is the unlikely director of this film that highlights Indonesian martial art, pencak silat. Set in a Jakarta tower block controlled by a crime lord a swat team have to fight for their lives as the story of why they are there gradually unfolds. A brutal and violent film that isn’t actually that originally but still manages to feel fresh and new. It isn’t as good, inventive or as memorable as Die Hard but it cost less than £1million, in other words less than the coffee budget from Lord of the Rings.

Wild Bill
Budget: no idea but its British so it won’t be much!
Dexter Fletcher has always been a decent and likeable actor, although never a great one, therefore it many come as a surprise, but his debut feature as a director is brilliant. Given his association with British gangster movies it is natural that Wild Bill would be set in London’s underworld. What’s great about the movie is that it avoids the usual storylines associated with this type of movie in recent years and concentrates on more personal story of an ex con who returns home from prison to find his two young sons abandoned my their mother. Being a farther is the last thing on his mind but something compels him to do the right thing. Fletcher also avoids the pitfall of casting himself instead opting for a whose who of British TV and genre movies.

Killing Them Softly
$18,000,000 (estimated)
This gritty tale of low level mobsters and hit men could have been a disaster. Not a great deal happens, it is filled with scenes of men talking around the issues of the movie. The social and political commentary have earned the movie its greatest praise and largest criticism. Directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt, the pair worked together on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and are both on top form again. And like all great genre movies, it clocks in at less than 100 minutes.

Lockout
$20,000,000 (estimated)
Based on an “original idea” by Luc Besson, I’m not sure there is an original idea in the whole movie and don’t think Luc Besson has actually had an original idea in a long time, but that really doesn’t matter, the movie is great. Its silly and its fun and that’s all it ever intended or indeed needed to be. The plot involves a shady but honest spy type character who is forced to rescue the president’s daughter who is held hostage on a prison in space. So basically its Die Hard meets Escape from New York, in space. The CGI is terrible and the plot is thin but none of this matters, the action is good and the dialogue is often funny. The real appeal is a surprisingly good Maggie Grace and the always brilliant Guy Pearce.

Chronicle
$12,000,000 (estimated)
The surprise low budget hit from the early part of the year. A Sci-fi movie reminiscent of Push (2009) and the TV show Misfits. I’m not a fan of the found footage genre but they get away with on the whole here. It loses its way in the final act but overall it is still an enjoyable movie. The unknown cast are good and the fact they are unknown often works in the movies favour.

Storage 24
Budget: again no idea but its British so will be well within the $25million limit.
I have suggested in the past that Noel Clarke is the most important person in the British film industry at the moment. Actor, writer, director and producer, awarded the Orange Rising Star Award at the 2009 BAFTA’s, he is the writer and star of Storage 24. Ultimately it is an alien invasion movie but without the grandeur of Hollywood movies and scaling it back to a small intimate and personal story. It plays out like a haunted house movie with a great blend of horror, comedy and action. Remembering the golden rule the creature is kept hidden for a long time and when we see it, its pretty good for a low budget movie. Criminally overlooked and underrated.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (aka Get the Gringo)
$20,000,000 (estimated)
Sadly under seen thanks to Mel Gibson’s personal problems and the lack of a cinema release in America. First time director Adrian Gruenberg worked for Gibson as assistant director on Apocalypto, the pair give us an old fashioned story of a getaway driver who finds himself in trouble south of the border. There is a scene towards the end of the movie where Gibson impersonates Clint Eastwood but long before that the film starts to resemble A Fistful of Dollars (1964)/Yojimbo (1961) and is all the better for it. Full of both the action and the dry whit you would expect from Mel Gibson of old. Ultimately it is the story of a flawed character looking for redemption, just like Gibson himself.

The Grey
$25,000,000 (estimated)
A horrible and inaccurate portrayal of grey wolves but a haunting and entertaining movie. Liam Neeson has always walked the line between serious actor and action star, originally leaning more towards actor but more recently falling on the action side of the line. When a plane carrying oil drillers crashes in the freezing wastes of Alaska the survivors are hunted by killer wolves. A metaphor for the destruction of the environment and the power of nature or just a survival thriller. Whatever you get from the movie it is well made and largely enjoyable.

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Yet another Bond/Skyfall post, in my defence as a huge fan I write about James Bond all the time, I‘m not jumping on the bandwagon. In a variation on my recurring Drinks in Movies thread I am going to look at the drinks in Skyfall. There are films that are full of nuanced symbolism and metaphors, in other movies what you see is what you get. I could be cracking open the secrets of the film or reading too much into it you decide. Whatever your thoughts, there are lots of spoilers here so don’t read unless you have seen Skyfall.

As I have mentioned before Bond drinking a vodka martini is a bit of a cliché that is only partly true. In the Ian Fleming novels Bond invents the Vesper in Casino Royale but drinks various different things but favours Scotch Whisky, no great surprise, his farther is from Glen Coe after all. Around the half way point of the movie Silva (Javier Bardem) gives Bond (Daniel Craig) a glass of his favourite Whisky, a Macallan 1962 Fine and Rare Vintage, he describes it as being a 50 year old. Most likely a reference to the 50th anniversary of Bond rather than the drink itself. So what can we read into this? Silva knows everything about Bond, something thay he prides himself on. We also see M (Judi Dench) drinking the same Brand of whisky, something that I am sure hasn’t escaped Silva’s notice. Does it go deeper? Is it also the Writers (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan) or the director (Sam Mendes) telling us they know there character, they aren’t filmmakers for hire, paid to churn out the next Bond film, they know their character inside out.  Its one of those great little touches that fans will appreciate but many people won’t notice like giving Bond a midnight blue dinner jacket instead of a black one.  

We do see Bond drinking a martini in the Macau casino but we never hear the shaken not stirred line or the Vesper recipe. This is still the Bond we have known for 50 years (longer in the books) and we aren’t going to forget that, but he is moving on. This works in the same way as the exploding pen conversation with Q (Ben Whishaw) being a reminder of the past and a signpost to the future.

There has been a lot of fuss over Bond drinking Heineken, this is unfounded as he is no stranger to beer having drunk it many times in the books and films. As a product placement Heineken has appeared in several films including Craig’s other two outings as Bond. Product placement is certainly nothing new to Bond, in the books he has drunk more champagne than anything favouring Taittinger. In Cassino Royale he remarks that “[1943 Taittinger] is probably the finest champagne in the world” but a long standing placement deal means he has drunk little but Bollinger since Live and Let Die 1973). I wouldn’t read much into beer or the product placement, but it is worth considering when he drinks it. In the scenes where Bond is “dead” he is living away from his spying world as a broken man, an ordinary man and not the supper hero that Bond has become, beer as the great leveller of men, a memento mori.

Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) pours M (Judi Dench) a glass of cognac, Courvoisier VSOP, this is a gesture seen many times in Bond films where M gives Bond a drink. A possible hint towards Mallory being the new M as he does at the end of the film. It actually goes a stage further than that. In GoldenEye Bond (Pierce Brosnan) meets the new M (Judi Dench’s first appearance) for the first time. When she offers him a drink he tells her “Your predecessor kept some cognac in the top drawer of…” she tells him that she prefers bourbon (She actually gives him Jack Daniel’s, a Tennessee Whiskey rather than a bourbon, but a common mistake in England). Later in the movie we see Mallory as M in an office more reminiscent of the one inhabited by previous M’s Robert Brown and Bernard Lee than the modern one Dench uses, the office and the return to Brandy could just be a further reference to Bonds past in his 50th year on screen, but it could also be a suggestion of a return to classic Bond of the 60’s.

As mentioned I am probably reading too much into this, but next time you watch Skyfall take a look and see what you think. And while you are at it look out for the scrabble score mug Q (Ben Wishaw) drinks his Earl Grey in. 

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A few months ago a friend who had never seen a James Bond movie asked which Bond films she should watch in preparation for Skyfall that she intended to see on its release. I immediately suggested a few of my favourites and advised her to steer clear of some of the ones I don’t like. I was going to post a list of the movies I recommended but I have kind of already covered that in my film by film guide. So here is a slightly different take on the idea. A week of Bond movies with a double feature on Sunday. Not only do the selected films represent some of the best Bond films, but they also show different elements of the character and the way he developed over time. They also feature all the actors to play Bond.

In preparation for this post I actually watched all the films last week*

Monday: From Russia with Love (1963)
Both character and actor were finding their feet in Dr. No. its also worth considering that Bond is presented as an established character at the top of his game, so viewers can step on with any one of the early movies without missing anything. That’s why I am skipping the first film and went to my all time favourite From Russia with Love. With a great story that is faithful to the book and a selection of memorable villains, it’s a great start to the week.

Tuesday: Goldfinger (1964)
While From Russia with Love established Connery in the role, Goldfinger cemented the character in mythology. Great, villain, great henchmen, two memorable Bond girls and the greatest icon of the franchise, the Aston Martin DB5. Again it is faithful to the book.

Wednesday: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Lets begin by saying this is a flawed classic. Once again it is faithful to the book, and it’s a great book but the problem lies with the casting, George Lazenby can‘t act and has no charisma, worst of all he has no chemistry with his co-star Diana Rigg. There is however enough good to forgive the problems.

Thursday: Live and Let Die (1973)
Roger Moore became Bond version 3 and did a pretty good job (sadly it was downhill from there). For a long time Bond has jumped on the coattails of other genres, this is the first overt version of this with a Blaxploitation inspired story. The last Bond film to take the majority of its story from an Ian Fleming novel.

Friday: Licence to Kill (1989)
From the last Bond film to take the majority of its story from an Ian Fleming novel to the first film that doesn’t even take its title from a novel. The film does take a lot of its ideas from unused parts of the original Fleming novels. Timothy Dalton’s Bond is the closest to the character from Fleming’s novels and the idea of a renegade Bond is ahead of his time.

Saturday: GoldenEye (1995)
After a hiatus caused by legal disputes Bond was back in the shape Pierce Brosnan. Playing off against a great villain and two opposing Bond girls (most notably a memorable Famke Janssen) Brosnan found a happy medium between Dalton and Moore. The action is good and the story is suitably updated. Sadly Brosnan didn’t manage to follow it up with each of his movies getting progressively worse.

Sunday: Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall (2012)
Bond has been reinvented a few times but Casino Royale was the first time it was totally rebooted. Utilising the perfect source material, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, and Jason Bourne inspired action the film hit all the right notes. If Brosnan found the balance between Dalton and Moore, Daniel Craig found a similar position between Dalton and Connery. And then we come to Skyfall, you can read my full review HERE.

*having already seen it twice in two weeks I didn’t re-watch Skyfall.

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The Defence of Twilight

Today I witnessed the end of an era, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, the final installment of a movie franchise that has taken more than $2.5billion and counting. A controversial series that has acolytes and detractors in equal measure. Whether it be Transformers, Star Wars or any number of super hero movies there has always been a trend towards boys/men when it comes to big budget event movies. I’m not sure if Twilight is the first movie of its type or scale to be aimed at teenage girls (and their moms) but it is certainly the most successful and the one that everyone has an opinion on. For this reason if for no other, it has a place and a relevance in today’s cinema. As a thirty something male I should be so far out of the demographic to be able to give and balanced view on the matter, but I may not be for two reasons. Firstly there are a lot of people of a similar age to me and whose opinion I would normally trust who are happy to dismiss the movies without even seeing them. Secondly I have to confess I actually quite like the movies. Back to the people who dismiss the movies, it is reminiscent of something that happened in the late 90’s, I read and loved Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The books were not on my radar and I would not have considered reading them even if they were, until I heard that people were burning them. I took the point of view that anything that can cause such passionate hatred must be worth reading, it was. So I came to Twilight from a similar angle, the films were not being burnt but the vitriol that they were creating in people who hadn’t seen them was of near biblical proportions. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. On top of all this, Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the first film is a good director whose work I have enjoyed in the past.

It is not by chance that I mentioned Transformers at the top of this article, as that is the touchstone of the comparison. Looking at the target demographic, Twilight is a good mirror of Transformers and however you look at it, it is hard to argue with the opinion that Twilight are better and less cynical films. Michael Bay’s franchise started with a surprisingly good film but went downhill from there. I have heard people accuse the films of being, sexist, misogynist, raciest, but worse than that they have been dull. Twilight on the other hand prides itself on its morality and empowerment. From a sexual point of view it gives mixed messages, but morally, it portrays ideals of truth, justice and honesty. All this is insignificant in comparison to how enjoyable the movies are, many people refuse to give twilight a fair chance, but to be honest all but the dull first sequel New Moon are actually decent films. Things took an upturn as the franchise reached a pinnacle with its third film, Eclipse directed by David Slade who had previously made Hard Candy and the bloody vampire film 30 Days of Night.

Criticism of the cast is unfounded and unfair, both Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have proved in other roles that they can act, I would even go as for as to say they are perfectly cast here. The great thing about the cast though, is the supporting cast, the latest film features the always brilliant: Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning and Lee Pace and the delightful MyAnna Buring. All five films feature Nikki Reed who had never lived up to the promise shown in Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown but is undoubtedly talented. Anna Kendrick is always watchable but a little wasted here. Billy Burke is always dependable and often provides a great straight man for the comic moments. I struggle to defend the wooden Taylor Lautner, but you have to respect the kid, when it was suggested his character would be recast to reflect the developing and growing character he hit the gym and reportedly gained 30 pounds of muscle and was retained.

It isn’t perfect, I have a problem with the effect the movies have had on vampire movies. I have been a huge fan of vampire movies ever since I saw Christopher Lee as Dracula in Dracula: Prince of Darkness when I was ten or eleven years old. The problem with Twilight is the imitators that they have tried to cash in, diluting the genre. The films are also often slavishly loyal to the books leaving the odd flat moment that may work on the page but not the screen. Having said all that it does handle body horror quite well in Breaking Dawn: Part 1 in its depiction of a vampire pregnancy, all kept within the constraints of the target demographic and the essential 12A certificate. Writing in The Observer, Mark Kermode, a self confessed fan of the series suggests the film should have been offered it to David Cronenberg but praises the “safe pair of hands” Bill Condon as doing “his best to keep things on the right side of respectable, although I struggle to remember another 12A certificate film being quite this twisted”. it is also worth remembering that the stories are teenage romances before they are action or horror stories and as such they need a certain amount of moody and moping teens. I often hear the same people complain about this side of the movies celebrate similar ideas when framed within a real world set indie movie.

I have previously speculated on the gender politics of the movies with Bella constantly needing the protection of a man (be it vampire or wolf) but that was earlier in the series. As the plot has developed although physically week, Bella has proven to be the strongest character in the story, before metamorphosing literally the strongest. As all the questions are answered the story arc reaches its conclusion it has proved to be a solid series of films. Plot holes are minimal and the characters actions were largely within character making the story believable within the fantasy parameters it has set itself. In the same article I mentioned before Mark Kermode claims to have “had a lot more fun watching and arguing about the Twilight movies than I ever had with the Star Wars saga”, whilst as a Star Wars fan I disagree with him, it is a well thought-out and grounded opinion I respect unlike if anyone had suggested Transformers was better than Star Wars. He also makes the point that without Twilight The Hunger Games would not have been made. I don’t know how Suzanne Collins’s came to write the Hunger Games novels but wouldn’t be surprised if she is one of the legion of writers inspired by the success of Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling.

But fans of these books/movies don’t get too excited the housewives haven’t taken over Hollywood yet. The Hunger Games’ budget is estimated to be around $78million. This is a big increase on the $37million (estimated) for the first Twilight movie but a lot less than the $125million (estimated) of the first Harry Potter and the monumental $150million (estimated) spent on the first Transformers movie. Are studios scared of investing too much money in an action adventure fantasy/sci-fi film whose main character is a teenage girl? Probably, it isn’t that long ago that we had the $180million (estimated) disaster of The Golden Compass that underperformed (to use the industry euphemism) in the UK and North American markets. As a matter of interest, it was directed by Chris Weitz the man responsible for New Moon the weakest (but most profitable) twilight movie.

Ultimately most of the things that are wrong with the Twilight Saga can trace its roots back to the source novel but I find it hard to criticise Stephenie Meyer as like Harry Potter, the books have got kids reading, that can’t be a bad thing. They aren’t classics that I will revisit the way I do with Star Wars but they an important moment in the evolution of cinema and they are more fun and more entertaining than most of Michael Bay’s output for the past decade. Anyone who hasn’t seen the films take a look before you rush to judgment.  

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Following the release of The Expendables 2 earlier this there was a lot of buzz about an all female Expendables. At the time I speculated on the stars of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s who could star in it, but given the action movies from this year I thought I would look at it from a different point of view. Who are this years top female action stars?

If you remember the original Total Recall (Sharon Stone) has one good action scene before getting killed off. In the remake director Len Wiseman has extended the part and cast his wife Kate Beckinsale, she reciprocates by playing the part with relish and being the best thing in the movie totally eclipsing Jessica Biel’s Melina. Beckinsale also stars as Selene in Underworld: Awakening, back for a third time in the fourth installment of the vampire v werewolf franchise. It is possibly the weakest of the series but Beckinsale still does a great job. Resident Evil: Retribution is the latest in Another franchise that has lasted longer than anyone thought possible, the reason to keep watching, Milla Jovovich. From successful franchises to ones that can’t get off the ground; although not a financial success, Dredd is a big improvement on the previous attempt to make a Judge Dredd movie, Olivia Thirlby’s rookie judge Anderson gives the movie a new dimension and direction.

The star of the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace has made the jump to Hollywood. Elizabeth Shaw is the central character at the heart of Prometheus, she is no Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) but still makes a compelling star. I first saw Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later… 10 years ago, she has had a few decent roles in the decade that followed she has had the odd good role, its great to see her get one Eve in Skyfall. Anyone who has seen Winter’s Bone would probably agree that Jennifer Lawrence was the only person who could have played Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. A reluctant hero, she may not have the ass kicking credentials of Gina Carano or Kate Beckinsale but she has more grit and determination than any actress/character on this list. Lawrence also appeared as Raven / Mystique in X-Men: First Class, with The Hunger Games first sequel Catching Fire due out next year and X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014 expect to see a lot more of her. Its also worth remembering Rebecca Romijn’s all action take on the part to give an insight on where the character is going.

Given the amount of hits this site has received in the last few years from people searching for “Anne Hathaway Catwoman” its fair to say Anne Hathaway’s Selina aka Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises has been the most anticipated female action role of year. I’m not sure she has replaced Michelle Pfeiffer as the ultimate Catwoman but she certainly didn’t disappoint. The other highly anticipated, big budget franchise movie of the summer was The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble here in the UK). As a regular human I was concerned at what Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) would have to do in The Avengers surrounded by gods, monsters and super solders not to mention a billionaire playboy with a powered suit of armour. As it turns out her and Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton / Hawkeye are at the heart of the story and are both brilliant.

The biggest action star of the year (male or female) came out of nowhere, former mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in Haywire. There is something old-fashioned about Steven Soderbergh’s action revenge thriller Haywire, using long takes, still cameras and short lenses that give lots of depth of field. This is the perfect showcase for Gina Carano to show of her fighting ability. It takes the movie back to a pre Bourne time for action movies and has resulted in a love it or hate it reaction. Whatever your thoughts it looks like we have seen the birth of a new action star. An honourable mention for Melissa George who impressed again in last years A Lonely Place to Die, she doesn’t have any movies coming out this year but is currently starring on BBC1 in Hunted. The show is formulaic in the style of Spooks but she is really good in it.

Other performances that didn’t make the grade but are worth a quick mention are: Although there was nothing wrong with her performance Nan Yu’s Maggie in The Expendables 2 was a caricature rather than a character. Kristen Stewart was actually quite good as Snow White but the film wasn’t up to much and she was totally overshadowed by Charlize Theron. Rihanna looked good in Battleship but the film was pretty crap and the girl can’t act. Wrath of the Titans was marginally better than Clash of the Titans and Rosamund Pike is reasonably good as Andromeda having been given a much larger role than Alexa Davalos in the first film. Maggie Grace managed to avoid getting Taken in Taken 2 but she more than makes up for this by being held hostage in Lockout. In both movies she does have a few action scenes. Combining this with a part as a vampire in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 she may be moving more towards action roles.

Did I miss anyone out. Can anybody recommend any movies or performances I have missed from the past year?

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WARNING CONTAINS SKYFALL PLOT SPOILERS

Okay so the title of this article isn’t true but there are certain elements of Skyfall that are similar to an idea I wrote about three and a half years ago. Following Quantum of Solace and given the state the studio was in the direction and future of the franchise was less than certain, it didn’t stop me giving an idea of a film I would like to see. My basic idea revolved around the un-filmed The Spy Who Loved, the 1977 film only used the title. For those who don’t know, Ian Fleming’s novel The Spy Who Loved Me was like no other Bond book in that Bond isn’t in it very much. Instead, concentrating of the female lead Vivian, a young woman who gets caught up in an arson plot.

The three key ideas I had that feature in Skfall (the middle one is vague at best!) that I wrote about are:

  • A pre credit sequence involving Bond chasing killer on a motorbike to retrieve a stolen McGuffin.
  • A wholly new act designed to get Bond to the final act:
  • A Die Hard style conclusion with Bond taking on a group of bad guys in a remote isolated location.

As a huge fan of James Bond who has not always been happy with the direction the film series has taken, it is fantastic to see the filmmakers so in tune with audiences, well with this audience member at least. I believe the success of the film lies in a perfect blend of the original Bond from Ian Fleming’s novels and a new 21st century character shaped by the modern world and cinema of the last 50 years. You can see my original post HERE.  The other novel that was largely discarded in favour of a new story was Moonraker. You can read about my idea for a film based on the original novel HERE.

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