Tuesday, June 30, 2009

James Bond Grows Up – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (novel)

Continuing in the same vein that I covered in my blog on the novel version of “Thunderball”, I was a bit surprised in revisiting this novel how much different the James Bond here is, from the one presented in the movies. The novels are much more realistic (as realistic as Bond can get), and the character of James Bond actually drives the stories. In the movies, Bond is more of a cipher, a stock heroic character with very little character arc. This has changed a bit with the Daniel Craig films, but for the first 20 movies, Bond was pretty much Bond. Nothing new to report.

In the novels things took a different turn, especially in the final series of books. Starting with “Thunderball”, James Bond is a man who’s starting to feel the wear and tear of his job. When “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (called OHMSS from now on) starts this weariness has doubled. He’s searching for the criminal mastermind Bloefeld and has had no luck at all dragging the villain up. The main espionage arc of the story follows Bond as he discovers a clue, goes under cover, discovers Bloefeld’s hideout and some clues, is exposed, barely escapes, and then with the help of M and other government officials pieces together the plot. The final act is to stage an all out attack on Bloefeld’s lair and stop the plot from coming to fruition. Sounds like typical James Bond.

But linked with this is another story line. James Bond meets a woman named Tracy. She’s on a self destructive terror across France when she passes him speeding along the narrow and winding streets of a provincial town. After a series of encounters with Tracy, Bond begins to find himself protective of her, dangerously so. He begins to actually think about a life beyond the secret service and one that would be spent with Tracy. Of course his quest for Blofeld intervenes and Bond puts things on hold with Tracy until he can sort the whole mess out.

Yes, we actually have James Bond in love. This love actually ends up coloring some of his experiences during his mission. He does his best to focus on his task, but he can’t help but think about Tracy and their lives together when this is done. Does this cause Bond to make a critical mistake? Well you’ll have to read the book to find out (or see the movie, which is actually pretty close to the book in story structure).

The character of James Bond really drives OHMSS, even more so than it did with “Thunderball”. We get to see more about this man, and how his job affects his life. This sets things up for the conclusion that is one of the most memorable in the entire franchise. The next book, “You Only Live Twice” takes James Bond into the very blackest of pits. Death looms large in that next book and it’s a direct reflection of the events of OHMSS. For me, this is probably my favorite James Bond novel, and most of that is due to the intriguing character of Tracy, and the actual change that takes place for Bond. The adventure parts aren’t bad either, and together it makes OHMSS a solid read.

Do you think a character like James Bond can be more than a cipher in the movies? Or is this something that only works in the novels? What did you think of the story of OHMSS (the movie or the novel)? Do you have a favorite Bond novel?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Simply the Worst - Monster A Go-Go

How do you define the term, "a bad movie"? Is it something that doesn't entertain or enlighten you? Is it a movie that failed in it's objective (a comedy that wasn't funny, a thriller that was dull)? Is it a movie with bad acting? A movie that had a story that was told poorly? A movie with grand objectives but without the power to pull it off (usually because of budget)? Or was it a movie that did a combination of all these?

I've always enjoyed movies that just didn't quite measure up. The more ridiculous the result the better. When I was a kid I would often rent "Yor - The Hunter from the Future" or "Ator the Fighting Eagle". I have a place in my heart for "Tron" and "The Black Hole" as well as some of those overblown historical epics from the 60's, especially the goofy Italian sword and sandal ones. Sure most of my favorites were the fantasy and sci-fi movies, but that just feeds into love of genre story telling.

Then I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000 and my perception of bad movies changed. Sure they did movies like "Pod People" a goofy Spanish/French co-production that tried to rip off E.T. and a slasher movie (yeah it makes about as much sense here as it does to see it). It was 80's and extremely odd and I loved it. There was "Cave Dwellers" the sequel to "Ator - the Fighting Eagle, with an even smaller budget and worse acting. Loved it! But then I started to see other things. Movies so poorly made that I was in awe of their power. The most famous of the bad is "Manos - The Hands of Fate". Yes it's pretty horrible but there are worse.

For me the nadir of filmmaking is something called "Monster A Go-go". The name is great, and promises a certain type of entertainment - maybe a 60's dance comedy with some kind of stupid monster chasing kids around. That would imply that some kind of entertainment was present. But this movie actually sucks the entertainment from everything around it - kinda like The Nothing in "Neverending Story".

What makes this film worse than the others? Well there are so many things wrong with it, I find it difficult to know where to start. There is a plot. A man goes into space, comes back as a monster and kills people. Scientists and the military try to stop him. In the end the universe corrects itself, time and space warp, and the man is OK and nothing really happened. Yeah, the old "reset button" cheat. Strike one! This is about as deplorable a storytelling device as "And it was all a dream".

Next, the movie is filmed in, what can be described as, grey and lighter grey (as opposed to black and white). There is a blandness to the shooting, the angles and the execution that actually makes the film duller. Even a few scenes that provide slight moments of unintentional humor (the murdered scientist's painful mug, the pitifully small space capsule, the party scene) are nearly wiped away by surrounding scenes of endless talking about the plot and what the characters are plotting to do about the plot. It's these scenes that are the killer. A perfect storm of dullness catches you and drains the joy from anything around it.

The "a go-go" part of the film never occurs. The film never goes anywhere. Even in the exciting finale the director manages to slow everything down with endless stock footage shots of some kind of fire department exercise. There is more talking and talking and talking - dialogue that is so banal it is nearly indescribable.

Then there's the ending. Nothing really happened, the monster (what little screen time he does have) never existed. Sorry to bug you folks - our bad. Um yeah, bad is the word.

I think the major issue is that this movie has no soul, no fire to be made. Even a horrible film like "Red Zone Cuba" has some spirit behind it. There was a message there. "Pod People" tried to be entertaining with its cute alien and murdered teens. Even "Manos" tried to be frightening. "Monster a go-go" maybe started life as a monster film, but it was never finished. Then when some producers need a second feature for a drive in, they picked up this footage, filmed some more and slapped the title on. They didn't care, and I wonder if the original director cared either. The overwhelming apathy fills and coats the movie and runs off it in waves. The effect is complete boredom for the viewer and possibly a desire to slip into a world where something like this doesn't exist. My wife has never ever seen the whole movie. She falls asleep every time and when I ask her about it a week or two later - she can't remember a thing about it. And she enjoys bad movies too!

Well that's all well and good Roman, but you said Mystery Science Theater introduced you to this film. So they must be there mocking it, making it safe to view. And that is the most horrible part of all. Try as they might - it's not enough. This is one of the least funny episodes of the show I've seen. It has it's moments, but there is so little for them to work with that the quips don't seem to hit, the riffs fall limp and the energy is drained from them. I never thought any film could defeat them - they attacked "Red Zone Cuba" with relish and did a wonderful job with it. I used to consider that the worst movie I'd seen. But this "Monster a Go-go" did it. Nothing can stand in it's way to either drive you to sleep or make drain you of all desires and leave you an empty shell.

It's almost fascinating in it's badness - if you can stand to watch the whole thing.

What is your candidate for worst movie you've ever seen? Have you seen "Monster A Go-go"? What did you think of it? Do you not understand the lure of the bad movie? What makes a movie really, really bad?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Thank you Mr. Robot - Caves of Steel

Genre fusion in fiction can be like food fusion in cuisine. It can work out well, with each segment complimenting the other with their differences. Or it can be a discordant mixture causing you to feel actual pain as you experience it. At best, an interesting and inspiring discovery. At worst a mistake that should be forgotten as quickly as possible. People love murder mysteries. People love science fiction. Can these be two great tastes that taste great together? Asimov decided to find out.

In “Caves of Stell” Asimov illustrates his setting and themes while allowing the plot to move forward. His early chapters are pretty tipped toward giving the reader a detailed picture of a future of enormous cities that delve deep into the earth, where humans are afraid of the open air and are used to living like packed sardines. He establishes the strong anti-robot sentiment of the earthlings, the details of the main character's life and relationship to his wife and coworkers. So by the time Elijah meets his new partner, a robot that looks too human for comfort, we know enough about this sci-fi environment to see how the murder mystery rolls out.

As the book goes along, the mystery takes over the plot more and more, but Asimov is very good about using his themes as a basis for presenting solutions to the murder or as red herrings to throw the reader and Elijah off the scent. He throws in his laws of robotics of course, but there are other ideas about overpopulation, efficiency, resistance to change and human kind's need to push past boundaries. The thing is, he doesn't really bash the reader over the head with it, these are just presented as the clues are pieced together.

For example, Elijah attempts to pin the murder on a robot. This forces him to explore the laws of robotics as well as the differences in behavior between humans living on earth and those who come from space colonies. These conflicting views show different approaches to his themes. And they offer the reader a nice trip though Elijah's logic in putting together a motive and a suspect. So you get character building too!

The only things I wasn't too fond of was the dated language and some of the clunky dialogue. Does anyone exclaim "Jehoshaphat" and do it more than once?

I've tried my hand at a thriller/sci-fi short story and found it to be a bit of a challenge. Really my story was primarily a thriller in a sci-fi setting, but what Asimov does here is create an excellent balance of presenting sci-fi themes and ideas along with a good murder mystery.

Have you read "Caves of Steel"? What did you think of it? What other combination of genre's have you seen attempted successfully or not so successful? Have you tried your own mixed genre story?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Cool Devices - His Dark Materials

When the movie "The Golden Compass" was released into theaters there was a nice big stink about the movie being a gateway leading children onto the doorstep of atheism. All the fervor got my attention, and caused me to pick up the book. I didn't get around to actually reading it until recently, and found the book to be a very good adventure tale with an interesting setting and an intriguing set of fantasy ideas. It was good enough for me to pick up the second novel "The Subtle Knife" and the final book "The Amber Spyglass" and read them back to back. I'm not going to delve too much into a full blown book review here, but I will say three things. I enjoyed the series. I don't know how or why the studio thought this would make a good mainstream movie series. The books actually promote spiritual thinking but not blind following of religious doctrine.

What if found very interesting was the actual device of the golden compass, or to use it's real name, the alethiometer. According to the all powerful Wiki, alethia is the Greek word for truth. Meter means, to measure, so it follows that the alethiometer is an object that measures the truth. As a pure story telling element this becomes something that can provide not only solutions to story telling problems but can be used to create problems as well.

For example, the main character, Lyra, can now be guided by the alethiometer, by asking it what she needs to do next - instant motivation! Need to find out where something is located, ask the alethiometer. Wanna find out if someone is lying to you, no problem. Suddenly this becomes more than just a device in the story but an actual storytelling device - easy to use and easy to abuse.

Pullman avoids abusing the alethiometer, instead focusing on having the main characters figure their own way out of problems. Many times the characters are in so much peril that they forget they even have the alethiometer with them, and only have time to react to situations instinctually. In fact Pullman actually uses the alethiometer to create problems. There are a number of times when the device tells Lyra to follow a path that she is hesitant to take, or are contradicting her gut instinct. This obviously creates tension, especially when she reveals the truth according to the alethiometer to other characters. They urge her to follow its lead, instead of her own feelings. On top of that, the alethiometer is stolen or lost, and this creates instant conflict and motivation.

Finally, Pullman has another reason to include the alethiometer in his story. He manages to use the device to tie into his over arching themes. There is a reason the alethiometer tells the truth ( I won't reveal it here), and part of that has to do with the themes dealing with guidance and rules. It allows the reader to ask tough questions like - what is truth? How blindly should you follow anything (or anyone)? What are the benefits of intuition over accumulated knowledge? Pretty heady stuff for a fun fantasy novel, and that's the thing - the "His Dark Materials" trilogy attempts to speak to an audience who wants to ask questions and find out answers on their own, while weaving an exciting adventure tale at the same time.

Have you ever read a book that used actual devices in a good or bad way to move the story? Have you read "His Dark Materials"? What did you think of it? Do you think Pullman cheated by using the alethiometer?