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Archive for May, 2021

Easy Rider (1969) didn’t chronicle the end of the decade/era, and the death of hope and optimism that the 1960’s promised, but it certainly symbolised it. It could be argued that the loss of hope wasn’t followed by despair, but by a new more measured hope with less lofty ambitions, a more weary even cynical hope, but hope none the less. And this is what we saw on the big screen, the cinema of new Hollywood. In truth, a child of the 70s, I saw it on late night TV, and VHS in the 80s and 90s. The Watergate scandal of 1972 may have ground zero for the political and conspiracy thrillers of the time, films like The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation (1974), but the spirit, or lack thereof found a place on screen before that, it found it on the road!  There has always been a link between cars and movies, the two were invented around the same time, and both found popularity in the United States, a country built out of exploration, and a country built on a dream; and as Mark Cousins reminded us The Story of Film: An Odyssey is a (2011) “movies look live our dreams”.


While there had been movies about cars and drivers before, the road movie as we know it was born in the 70s, buit on a foundation from the Golden Age of Cinema. We are not talking the capers of Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), or the various Gumball/Cannonball movies (various movies from mid 70’s to mid 80s), I am referring to the existential road movies like Two Lane Blacktop (1971), and Vanishing point (1971). Existential movies, where to drive is to live, to stop is to die. Kowalski (Barry Newman), the hero of vanishing point is just driving, we never understand why. He drives for the sake of driving the way we live for the sake of living.  If you don’t know the film, the plot of the film revolves around a man delivering a car 1,200 miles from Denver Colorado, To San Francisco.  He has a week to get there but for reasons never explained is compelled to do it in a couple of days.  There is little plot, and almost no explanation, but flashbacks give us an idea of what is going on.  The Driver (James Taylor) and Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) in Two Lane Blacktop may not have names but they have more of  purpose, or do they.  They cruise around looking for action in the shape of drag races like the subjects of a Bruce Springsteen song, but when we look a little deeper, they have no purpose, they are racing for money to fund their lifestyle, so they can continue racing.  They are not the unwilling or repentant criminal looking for one last job so they can go clean, they are living day to day, a modern take on the hunter gathers of our past.  But does that make them any different to anybody working a day job, as Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt from Fight Club ((1999) said nearly 30 years later “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”.  Are they closer to the breadline than the average wage earner, or do they have a fallback? Both films have an other-worldly character enhanced by uncertainty and ambiguity,  this was lost in the 90s, made for TV remake of Vanishing Point, everything they gave Kowalski by way of motivation, stripped away a layer of meaning from the subtext of the movie. 

Although most associated with America, the genre isn’t exclusive to the nation. By the end of the 70’s the angst and desire had been forgotten, swallowed up by “blockbusters”.  Australian filmmaker George Miller fussed the road ideas of the road, if not the road movie itself with a dystopian future.  For a more recent generation, their knowledge of the Mad Max franchise may not stretch beyond the fourth, and most recent instalment: Fury Road (2015), but it started long before that in 1979. Inspired by the fuel crisis and economic crash of a few years earlier the first film depicted the beginning of society crumbling. Max, the movies “hero” first hits the road for revenge, but by the end of the first movie, he disappears down the road.  Not with the glory of a cowboy riding into the sunset, but a long and dark road, as a man with nothing, and nothing to live for.  Max’s only option for survival it to live, to exist, and he can find this simplicity, only after he has lost himself on the road.  A generation later, the characters of Fury Road think they can find hope, redemption, or even eternity on the road, for most none of this is true. 

Both as surreal and mainly masculine genre, director Chloe Zhao gave her a new take, and grounded and more real take.  Nomadland is loosely based on Jessica Bruder none fiction book of the same name we see real life people living a nomadic existence.  This, like many other road movies was exist in the traditional heartland of the western genre, but this isn’t a pioneering story of A to B, of someone with a destination. It is the story of a person not looking where to live, but how to live.  As the world gets smaller, and cars have begun to lose importance in the world, we may think the days of the road movie are numbered.  I don’t think they are, we may see a day were they become nostalgic chronicling relatively recent past rather than telling their own contemporarily stories, but in the hands of talented filmmakers, this artifice will not prevent the real story, one that is lingering beneath the surface. 

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Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the third (final with original star Mel Gibson), and weakest in the Mad Max franchise.  It is actually better than it is given credit for, but the best thing about it remains the title song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” by Tina Turner.  The words to the song suggest the people it is speaking for don’t need a hero, they just want a better life.  The film then explores the myth of the hero.  Max the hero of the film has become a shell of a man following the events of the previous two films, he isn’t looking to be anybodies hero, but as things tend to go in movies like this he finds redemption by offering hope to the kids in the film, not too far removed from the most recent, and superior instalment, Mad Max: Fury Road.  But max is a grittier hero, not the type that you see wearing spandex in a comic book.  Comic book hero’s, and villains are distilled to their purest form, of good and bad.  For many the line that a comic book her cannot cross is killing the bad guy, and this the core theme of the new TV show Jupiter’s Legacy.  As we reach saturation of the genre in movies and on TV, is there does the show offer anything new or interesting to say to justify its existence. 

We all know from Spider-Man that “With great power comes great responsibility”, although when you look a little deeper the idea goes back before that.  A variation of it was used by Superman’s farther in the 1940’s.  Similar things have been said by British MP’s and American Presidents, and it is known to be in popular use during the French Revolution.  The earliest written example probably goes back to the bible “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required”.  With this in mind, it probably isn’t a stretch to call it an overused theme! Not that would be a totally bad thing if it has anything else to say, and I would certainly expect it to have something to say, and come with a certain edge, after all it is based on a comic book series by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely.  Miller’s past credits certainly have fulfilled these criteria before; his DC work includes Superman: Red Son.  For Marvel he was responsible for Civil War, and Wolverine: Old Man Logan.  But possibly most significantly, he deconstructed the idea of the super hero in Kick-Ass. 

The bar has been raised by recent TV shows.  Having disavowed the many Marvel TV show’s we now have the MCU on TV.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has the production values of a movie, and is a timely exploration of race and how we treat the disenfranchised.  WandaVision may not have anything new to say that we haven’t already seen in the MCU, but really pushes the boundaries of storytelling.  But then there are two hugely significant TV shows Watchmen, and The Boys.  Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen follow on from the story of Watchmen that we all know, but goes beyond anything we saw in the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel and Zack Snyder’s movie.  The Boys is based on the premise of another famous saying, this time from English historian Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Based a comic book by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, it is set in a universe where superheroes are essentially assholes!  Super-powered individuals work for a shady corporation whose sole aim is to monetizes them. Most of the “heroes” are arrogant and corrupt, many are much worse!  This show works on so many levels. 

This brings us back to Jupiter’s Legacy, are we oversaturated with superhero movies and TV shows, and the only way to depict them is to deconstruct them? This may be the case, but unlike shows like The Umbrella Academy, and the aforementioned The Boys,   Jupiter’s Legacy does not commit to this.  Telling its story in two time periods, one depicting the origin of the heroes in depression era Chicago.  The second timeline in the present day explores their “legacy”.  The period part of the  show works well but the modern section is hampered by terrible wigs and makeup. But more significantly it doesn’t have anything new to say.  Ultimately, I can’t help thinking that unlike the people in the song, we don’t need another hero.   

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We have been waiting a long time for a new James Bond movie.  Development began on No Time To Die all the way back in 2016, a few months after Spectre’s October 2015 release (itself delayed a couple of times).  Danny Boyle was originally attached to direct but left the project in 2018 due to creative differences.  Cary Joji Fukunaga was then hired.  Fukunaga worked with script writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade on a new story, the third script/story as Purvis and Wade’s (who had scripted all of Daniel Craig’s previous Bond movies) original idea had been scrapped when Boyle signed on to direct.  This caused the first significant delay with principal photography commencing in  late April 2019, four to five months after it was originally scheduled.  They wrapped around six months later with final pick-up shots taking place in December.  A month after the originally scheduled release date in November 2019.  The release date was immediately pushed to February 2020 when they announced Boyle’s departure, and then to April 2020 during production.  By February it was clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going away anytime soon, and On 4 March 2020, MGM and Eon Productions announced that the release was to be postponed again, this time until 12 November 2020.  Two further delays have been announced, first to  2 April 2021 and then to 8 October 2021, nearly two years after Danny Boyle’s film was scheduled for release. 

Over the past year I have read numerous stories and tweets from Bond Fans who are undertaking marathon re-watches of the whole Bond film series.  But what do you do when you have watched the movies so many times you can remember every Roger Moore quip,  or know just what time to go and put the kettle on t avoid having to watch Sheriff J.W. Pepper?  What are the other spy films to keep Bond fans entertained while they wait for No Time To Die?  Here are a few suggestions, some obvious, others less so:

North By Northwest (1959): Ian Fleming didn’t intend Dr. No to be the first Bond movie, it wasn’t even going to be based on one of his novels, it was going to be an original idea, that eventually became the basis for his eighth novel  Thunderball (yes you guessed it this was where the infamous Legal disputes started). Fleming wanted the Alfred Hitchcock to direct, but he declined as he had only just made a spy thriller and wanted to do something different.  The spy movie he had just made was North by Northwest, the something different turned out to be Psycho, and Thunderball is a great book so it didn’t turn out too bad, but just imagine a Hitchcock Bond movie! For those who don’t know, North By Northwest is my favourite Hitchcock, and one of my favourite movies.  Taken one of the directors well used tropes of “the wrong man” on the run, the film is absolute perfection.  It zips along with such ease and pace I am always staggered how long it is, the time flies by when you watch it. 

The Ipcress File (1965): Based on Len Deighton’s novel The IPCRESS File, despite sharing a producer with Bond, Harry Saltzman this is far from a Bond movie.  Like When Eight Bells Toll, it is intended to be more realistic than Bond, with its sneering look at bureaucracy  it is almost satirical at times.  But the real difference is the main character, Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine.  Bond loves his job, or more to the point he loves the trappings of his job, his fancy suits, his Swiss Watch, fast cars, fancy hotels.  Harry Palmer is a reluctant spy, British army sergeant forcibly drafted into the security services to avoid a prison sentence! He just wants to do his time, and would like a pay rise.

When Eight Bells Toll (1971): Made with Bond audiences in mind, but with the intention of being more gritty and realistic.  Based on a novel of the same name by Alistair MacLean, British Treasury secret agent Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) investigates hijacking of cargo ships in the Irish Sea.  Intended as the first in a series around the time when the Bond franchise was rumoured to be in trouble following the departure of Sean Connery.  Further films never materialised, partly due to poor boxoffice numbers in America, and possibly due to Connery returning to Bond later the same year.  Not a classic, but good fun adventure movie, at 95 minutes it won’t outstay its welcome.  I would watch it over Diamonds Are Forever!

The Russia House (1990): I have largely avoided movies based on John le Carré novels here as they are a very different beast to Bond.  More thoughtful and realistic and lacking the action and adventure associated with Ian Fleming’s creation.  I am not including this as it has any of those elements, quite the opposite,  I have chosen it, because it stars Sean Connery, and he is excellent playing a very different part Bond.  

The Rock (1996): Hands down Michael Bay’s best movie low bar, I know but this is genuinely good! The third and final Sean Connery movie on the list, here, he plays a former British SAS captain and MI6 operative.  Some fans have suggested the character is Bond in all but name, but in a lot of ways he is more badass  than his Bond ever was.  The plot is unimportant filled with McGuffin’s and contrivances but the film is great fun, Connery and co star Nicolas Cage are excellent together. 

The Bourne Identity (2002): Probably the most obvious choice on the list, but an excellent one! Based on Robert Ludlum’s novel of the same name, this first film in the franchise is the only one to take any real plot from the novel series.  Directed by Doug Liman, and often overshadowed by Paul Greengrass who made a further three movies in the series.  My favourite of the Bourne movies, it has the best story and some great performances throughout.  It is also notable for the impact it had on Bond! Released in the summer of 2002, Die Another Day would have been in the can by this time, but it the next Bond movie, Casino Royale four years later was the closest the franchise has come to a reboot, and it was all the better for it. 

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006): If you want spoof of Bond and other spy movies of the genre it isn’t Austin Powers, it has to be Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, AKA OSS 117.  Both Jean Bruce’s OSS 117 spy novels and the first film adaptations of them predate  Ian Flemings Bond novels and EON’s adaptations of them.  I know nothing of the French novels or films beyond the fact there is a lot of them! However, in 2006 the character was re-imagined  by writer director Michel Hazanavicius and starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo (Hazanavicius’s wife).  You may recognise these names, they went on to make the multi Oscar winning The Artist (2011).  A parody of the genre, OSS117 is an idiot who a little like Inspector Clouseau solves cases by either luck, or other people doing it for him.  There was a sequel  OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), and a third film is due out this year OSS 117: Alerte rouge en Afrique noire (2021).

Atomic Blonde (2017): What if John Wick was a woman, and she was a spy? That is pretty much what Atomic Blonde is.  Directed by David Leitch who was an uncredited  co-director with Chad Stahelski on the first John Wick movie.  Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City; set in Berlin in 1989 in the last days of the Berlin wall, the plot is a typical find the McGuffin story, this time a list of double agents.  What sets the film apart from anything else, is the style, and breathtaking action.  Its like a Bond or any other film on this list stripped back and boiled down to its core elements.

Red Sparrow (2018): A fictional version of the real life use of “sexpionage” by the Soviet Union, and possibly Russia in the post soviet era.  A decent film with although it does over rely on the charisma of stars Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton.  Better than the movie I would recommend the trilogy of books (the movie was based on the first) written by Jason Matthews, a former Central Intelligence Agency Officer.  Matthews sadly passed away a few weeks ago, so these three books are his only books. 

Kingsman (2014): As much as I love the Craig era Bond movies, but to quote Harry Hart when asked if he likes spy movies “Nowadays, they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones… marvellous. Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.”  A truly silly film that manages to be a great spy movie and a great spoof of a spy movie at the same time! 

And finally, a few honourable mentions: Mission Impossible (1996–present): Tom Cruise’s movie series based on the 60’s TV show. Hanna (2011): Saoirse Ronan as a teenage assassin. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015): Guy Ritchie’s movie based on the 60’s TV show had decent reviews but failed to find an audience.  Its good fun id a little lightweight.  Inception (2010) More a high concept sci-fi heist movie than a spy movie, but there are a lot of elements reminiscent of classic Bond movies.  No Way Out (1987) A crime thriller set against a backdrop of espionage. Well worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.   

As infuriating as the delays to No Time To Die are, was the right thing to do, all I really want is to watch the movie in a cinema on the biggest screen I can find.

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