Friday, November 24, 2006

Casino Royale

Ever since I first saw Dr. No on TV, I have been a Bond fan. I have seen all of them, usually multiple times (even the bad ones like Moonraker and Licence to Kill). Unfortunately, while I loved Pierce Brosnan as 007, I have thought for some time that the Bond franchise was going stale. The World is Not Enough in particular seemed like a compilation of stunts and set pieces from other Bond movies. It seemed as if EON Productions had run out of anything original to do with regards to the Bond films. Fortunately, this is not the case with Casino Royale.

This is not your father's James Bond movie. Gone are the numerous explosions, outlandish gadgets and the villain's secret fortresses. There are a few explosions in this film, but they number far fewer than those in past Bond movies (especially those from the Roger Moore era). And while there are gadgets to be had in this movie, they are much more realistic than gondolas that can transform into hovercraft or invisible cars. At the same time, however, this is very much your father's James Bond movie (or your grandfather's James Bond movie, if you're very young). James bond is not simply a charming rogue with an over active libido. He is a brutal killer, the assassin for Queen and country of the original novels and the earliest Sean Connery films. Indeed, the chases and explosions of many past Bond films have been replaced with some of the most visceral fight scenes in any 007 movie. To a large degree Casino Royale reminds me of both Dr. No and From Russia with Love, where the action often consisted of Bond's physical confrontations with deadly opponents. Even the opening credits seem to belong to the era of Connery; they reminded me of the opening credits of any number of spy films from the Sixties.

Indeed, Casino Royale is not only the first Bond movie in some time to have been based on one of Ian Fleming's novels (namely, the first Bond novel ever written), but it is also the first in a long time to be somewhat loyal to the novel upon which it is based. The basic plot of the novel, in which Bond must bankrupt the villain Le Chiffre in a card game, survives in the movie. Some scenes (including a particularly brutal one between Bond and Le Chiffre) and even lines from the book made it into the movie. I don't know how Ian Fleming would have felt about many of the Bond movies, but I have a feeling he would have liked Casino Royale.

Of course, the big question on many people's minds is how Daniel Craig actually played Bond. My answer to this question is that he does very, very well. Craig has a more difficult job than many of the actors who have stepped in the role, playing Bond at the beginning of his career as a 00 agent. Craig must not only show us why Bond came to treat women as ultimately disposable, why he prefers his martinis shaken and not stirred, and, to sum it up, how he became "Bond, James Bond," but retain enough of the personality of Bond in his later years that we can realistically believe this is 007. Personally, I think he succeeds admirably. In fact, Craig adds some depth and even a touch of sensitivity to his portrayal of Bond, something that was sometimes lacking even in the Sean Connery Bond movies.

Craig's task of portraying Bond realistically at the start of his career is aided a good deal by his fellow cast members. As Vesper Lynd, Eva Green is no mere bit of scenery, but creates a character who is intelligent and has a mind of her own. Mads Mikkelson is suitably villainous as Le Chiffre, who is definitely not the interchangeable power mad megalomaniac of many Bond movies. Le Chiffre has a life of his own, complete with his own goals and motivations. He is certainly not a straw man created for Bond to knock down. It is because the characters in Casino Royale are so well developed that director Martin Campbell gives us one of the best set pieces in any Bond film--the card game in which Bond faces off against Le Chiffre. Between the performances of Craig and Mikkelson and Campbell's direction, it is easily one of the most taut, most suspenseful set pieces in the franchise's history.

As I said earlier, the past few years I could not help but think the Bond franchise was going stale. Casino Royale is then precisely what it needed--a fresh start by going back to Ian's Fleming's novels and the early Connery movies, while at the same time giving us something new as well. I can only hope that EON Productions can follow up Casino Royale with a series of Bond films that are as good--and as different--as it is.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robert Altman Passes On

Legendary director and fellow Missourian Robert Altman died last night at the age of 81. His cause of death has not yet been disclosed.

Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri on February 20 1925. He attended Rockhurst High School and Southwest High School there in Kansas City before being sent to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri. During World War II Altman enlisted in the United States Army Air Force at 18 years of age. His training was in Los Angeles, and brought him in contact with Hollywood and filmmaking for the first time. After the war he settled in Los Angeles to try to break into the film business.

Altman tried his hand at acting, appearing in one scene in 1947's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. While he was no success at acting, he did have some small success in writing. He wrote a story outline for the movie Christmas Eve for United Artists and the script to The Bodyguard to RKO. He moved to New York to try his hand at writing and failed to make a go at it. He then returned to Hollywood, but saw little success. He returned to Kansas City bankrupt.

It was in Kansas City that Altman joined the Calvin Company, then the largest maker of industrial films in the nation. For six years Altman worked as a director for them, directing such films as Modern Football and The Sound of Bells. In 1953 he created and directed the anthology series Pulse in the City. The series was filmed on the cheap around Kansas City and actually ran for one season on the DuMont Network. Tiring of industrial films, Altman left the Calvin Company and directed his first feature film. The Deliquents was a low budget exploitation film produced by Kansas City theatre owner Elmer Rhoden Jr. Following The Deliquents, Altman would co-direct The James Dean Story, a documentary on the recently deceased star, with George W. George.

Although The Deliquents was no great success, it did attract the attention of Alfred Hitchcock. Impressed with Altman's work, Hitchcock hired him to direct several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For the next several years Altman found himself in demand as a television director. Among the many series for which he directed episodes were Peter Gunn, The Millionaire, Maverick, Bonanza, and Route 66. Perhaps his most notorious piece of work for television was an episode of Bus Stop entitled "A Lion Walks Among Us". The episode featured pop star Fabian as a psychotic killer. Although it might be considered tame by today's standards, the episode caused an uproar when it first aired--it was even mentioned on the floors of Congress as an example of television's depravity. Regardless, Altman's career in television continued unabated. Perhaps his most remarkable work would be on the TV series Combat! Altman is credited by many with giving the show's look and feel. The series would prove to have a lasting influence on future Hollywood directors.

By 1965 Altman returned to making feature films. Such movies as Countdown and The Cold Day in the Park met with little success. It was in 1969 that Altman's luck changed. He was offered the script to a movie called M*A*S*H, which had been rejected by over 15 other directors. Altman directed the movie in his own peculiar style, which concentrated on the characters and sometimes contained a strong defiance of authority. And while M*A*S*H was a comedy, Altman did not shy away from the blood and guts of war. Indeed, M*A*S*H was so revolutionary that it was the first major studio movie to drop the F-bomb. M*A*S*H proved to be a smash hit and one of the top grossing films of the Seventies.

For much of the Seventies Altman would direct nearly a film a year. Some were more successful than others, although all of them were certainly far from the typical studio fare. Brewster McCloud centred on a youth who lived in a fallout shelter at the Houston Astrodome and spent his days fashioning wings so he could fly. McCabe and Mrs. Miller was a very revisionist Western. The Long Goodbye turned Raymond Chandler's novel on the head. Perhaps his best film of the decade was the one which best characterised his work. Nashville followed a political convention unfolded in the capital of country music. It was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (twice for Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley).

During this era Altman did have his share failures. He directed a big budget musical adaptation based on the comic strip character Popeye. Although for many years it was his second highest grossing film, there were those who saw it as an artistic flop. It could well be for that reason that Altman's career was not nearly as fruitful in the Eighties as it was in the Seventies. He worked in television again, most notably on the mini-series Tanner 88. He also directed the well recieved Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. While the Eighties may not have been Altman's decade, it seemed that the Nineties would be.

Indeed, his movie The Player, released in 1992, nearly revitalised his career over night. The film lampooned Hollywood and received a good deal of critical acclaim. It was even nominated for three Oscars (Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Altman's films in the wake of The Player, such as Short Cuts and Cookie's Fortune, might not always do well at the box office, but they were usually well done and well received. Gosford Park would become Altman's second highest grossing film and would be nominated for several Oscars (it won Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen). Altman's last film was his adaptation of the popular radio show, A Prarie Home Companion.

Altman has often been characterised as a maverick with regards to Hollywood. Even when he made films for the studios, he almost always insisted on doing things his way. And while he had his fair share of duds (Pret-a-Porter comes to mind), Altman had an astoundingly good track record when it came to movies. The list of classics, near classics, and simply good films he made is impressive: M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. His films were generally very naturalistic, particularly with regards to dialogue--he is the only director I can think of whose characters often talk over each other, as people do in real life. At the same time, however, Altman did have his own particular style. His films always placed more emphasis on the characters than the plot, and he was known to be more interested in his character's motivations than particular plot points. Altman was then an actor's director. This allowed him to work with many well known actors. It also allowed him to do several of a particular type of film of which he was the master--movies with several storylines, often intertwining, featuring a large number of characters. Other directors have tried their hands at these types of movies, but it seems to me that only Altman succeeded at them on a regular basis.

And while Altman was most famous for his work in movies, it must be kept in mind that he had a thriving career in television prior to his work in film. Altman was fired many times from various TV shows (indeed, he was fired by none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself), but his reputation allowed him to get even more jobs on various series. As a television director Altman insisted on doing things his own way and that made the episodes he directed different from those directed by more mainstream directors. Even today the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Combat! that he directed stand up as remarkable pieces of television.

Robert Altman is one of my favourite directors of all time. I cannot say that I like all of his films (Pret-a-Porter is an example), but I have liked most of them. Indeed, M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts rank among my favourite films of all time. And then there are the many TV episodes he directed. If Combat! is one of my favourite shows, it is largely because of Altman. Indeed, it amazes me that Altman never won an Emmy and the only Oscar he ever won was the Lifetime Achievement award he won this year. While critics and audiences recognised Altman's talent, it seems to me that the industry never did. Ultimately I guess this is not important. Film buffs, critics, and film historians have long recognised his talent and long recognised his place in film history. He might not have won many awards, but Robert Altman will be remembered long after others who won more awards have been forgotten.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Forbes Richest Fictional Characters

Every year about this time Forbes releases its list of the 15 richest fictional characters. They figure out the wealth of the various characters by looking at equivalent real world businesses and the price share movements of known commodities in real life. For many years Santa Claus, whose worth was always calculated as infinite, made the top of the list. This year he was not placed on the list because of the ongoing controversy (especially among children) as to whether Ol' St. Nick is fictional or not.

Anyhow, here is the list:
1. Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks
2. Montgomery Burns
3. Scrooge McDuck
4. Richie Rich
5. Jed Clampett
6. Mr. Monopoly
7. Bruce Wayne
8 .Tony Stark (Iron Man, to those who don't read comics)
9. Prince Abakaliki of Nigeria (the fictional billionaire of the well known scam)
10. Thurston Howell III
11. Willy Wonka
12. Lucius Malfoy
13. Tony Montana (of the 1983 film Scarface)
14. Lara Croft
15. Mario

While I am no expert at finances, I must say that I do have some problems with the list. I am not at all sure that Daddy Warbucks should have made the number one spot. The reasoning of Forbes is that his fortune would be made even greater by the conflict in Iraq. I am not so sure, however, that the war in Iraq would bring in more money, however, than oil or chocolate bars. Indeed, using that reasoning, I think Tony Stark (whose Stark Industries manufactured weapons) would rank higher on the list than he does. Too, I am not sure that Warbucks is even still alive. According to official Little Orphan Annie canon, he was born in 1894. He would have to be 112 by now. Indeed, Annie herself (who probably inherited his fortune) is probably about 90 by now...

I have to admit Jed Clampett is probably pretty old by now as well, but then hillfolk are known for extraordinary longevity (just how old was Granny?). Given that he is probably still alive and spry as ever, I honestly think he should have made the top of the list. While known to spend his fortune in ways others might consider unwisely and generous to a fault, his fortune is based in oil. Given the price of gas lately, I rather suspect Clampett is raking a good deal of money of late. Too, Clampett owns Mammoth Studios. DVD sales from its old movies, not to mention the rise of movie downloads on the Internet, have probably increased his fortune even more.

I also have to question Willy Wonka making the list. As I understand, he no longer owns his famous chocolate company. As I understand it, he handed over his company and his famous factory to a fellow named Charles Bucket years ago. Since then Wonka has only served with his company in an advisory position. I would then say that Mr. Bucket (who insists most people just call him "Charlie") should be on the list in Wonka's place.

I also have to question Tony Montana being on the list. Although one of the wealthiest drug lords of the late Seventies and early Eighties, he met an untimely end in 1983 when gunned down from behind. Since Montana has long been dead, he should have hardly made the list.

Anyhow, I really don't have a problem with the rest of the list (although I think one could debate whether Bruce Wayne is richer than Richie Rich (I think he is myself...I mean, the Batmobile and all those gadgets had to cost a pretty penny...). And I must say that it is the one thing in Forbes I read each and every year. Anyway, for others interested in it, you can find it here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Long Journey of Casino Royale to the Big Screen

Friday saw the release of Casino Royale to theatres across the United States. An overly busy Saturday and my best friend's rapidly shrinking wallet prevented me from seeing it this weekend. While I can't offer you a review, then, I thought I would give you a brief rundown on the long journey Bond's first novel had to take before even a somewhat faithful adaptation would reach the big screen.

Casino Royale was first published in Britain on April 13, 1953. The novel's plot was simple. SMERSH operative Le Chiffre was running a baccarat game in the Casino Royale with the plan of raising money for SMERSH. Bond, who is an expert at baccarat is assigned to defeat Le Chiffre in a game, accomplishing two goals for MI-6. First, SMERSH would be denied the winnings to finance any further operations. Second, it was hoped that SMERSH would kill Le Chiffre for his failure, thus taking care of a troublesome Soviet operative. For its time the novel Casino Royale was very controversial. For the Fifties the novel included a good deal of sex, violence, and torture. The controversy fueled the book's sales and, although hardly a best seller, it was a modest success. It was at least successful enough for Fleming to write a second Bond novel, Moonraker, published in 1955.

It was also successful enough to attract the attention of Americans. In 1954 CBS bought the rights to adapt Casino Royale as an episode of the anthology series Climax. This adaptation did retain the central plot of Bond seeking to bankrupt Le Chiffre in a baccarat game. Played by Peter Lorre, Le Chiffre's character differed little from that in the novel. In other ways, however, the Climax adaptation of Casino Royale departed a good deal from the novel. In particular, not only was Bond played by thoroughly American actor Barry Nelson, but the character was Americanised through and through. No longer is Bond a British agent for MI-6, but an American agent for "Combined Intelligence." And the character who introduced himself in the novel with the classic words, "Bond, James Bond" was actually referred to as "Jimmy Bond!" This being American television, any sex in the novel was excluded from the teleplay and the violence toned down considerably. "Casino Royale" aired on Climax to little fanfare and was swiftly forgotten by everyone except possibly those involved in the project, Ian Fleming, and CBS executives. In the late Fifties CBS would actually approach Fleming with the idea of a 007 TV series. The deal fell through and the outlines Fleming had written for episodes would later be turned into short stories for the anthology For Your Eyes Only.

It was only a year later that Fleming sold the screen rights to the novel to Hollywood producers Michael Garrison (who would go onto create the classic TV series The Wild Wild West) and Gregory Ratoff (a one time Russian director who wold go onto act, direct, and produce in America). Ratoff tried to interest Twentieth Century Fox in the project to no avail. After Ratoff died in 1960, Garrison and Ratoff's widow sold the rights to movie producer Charles K. Feldman (he had produced such films as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Seven Year Itch). According to the Howard Hawks biography The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Feldman actually got as far as interesting the famous director and screenwriter Leigh Brackett in the project. Hawks had one man in mind to play Bond--none other than Cary Grant. Ultimately, Hawks chose not to adapt Casino Royale for the big screen.

As a result, the first Bond novel would not be the first book to be adapted for the big screen. Instead, that honour would go to Dr. No, produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman's EON Productions and released in 1962. This did not end Feldman's quest to see a serious adaptation of Casino Royale on the big screen. He went to EON Productions with the goal of a joint production of a movie based on the first 007 novel. Having experienced difficulties with Kevin McClory (the screenwriter, director, and producer who had collaborated with Fleming on various draughts for proposed Bond TV and movie projects) in the production of Thunderball, EON Productions was a bit nervous about collaborating with anyone else. For this reason, they turned Feldman down. Feldman then decided to go ahead with his own production of Casino Royale. Thinking that he could not possibly compete with EON Productions' official Bond series, he hit upon the idea of spoofing not only the Bond series, but spy drama in general (which was a very hot commodity then--this was the era of The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.).

Unfortunately, Feldman's production of Casino Royale would be troubled from the outset. Apparently, one source of trouble was legendary actor Peter Sellers, who was cast as Evelyn Tremble (the poor schmuck who was assigned to impersonate Bond). Sellers wanted the movie to have a more serious tone and for the role of Tremble to be more in the mould of Cary Grant. Sellers pressured for rewrites of the script. Already written by three men (John Law, Wolf Mankowitz, and Michael Sayers), bits and pieces would eventually be contributed by Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Tery Southern, and Billy Wilder. The movie would also wind up being directed by five different directors: Val Guest, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish. The film also goes down in history as the movie in which more actors played Bond than any other (David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Terence Cooper, among others).

As a spoof, the only element retained from the original novel is Bond's card game against Le Chiffre in the Casino Royale, although in the movie it is actually Evelyn Tremble who plays against him and not Bond (the genuine article being played by David Niven). As product of several directors and writers, it is also a bit uneven. Upon its release Casino Royale was panned and many Bond purists hate the movie this day. This having been said, taken on its own merits, the 1967 version of Casino Royale is not a bad film. Indeed, in some ways its humour is fairly sophisticated and acts as a comment on the whole spy craze of the time. In the mid-Sixties the success of both the TV series The Avengers, Danger Man, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Bond movies had fueled an absolute fad towards spies on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1967 Bond clones filled both American and British airwaves, as well as American and British theatres. In the 1967 adaptation of Casino Royale, this was represented by featuring multiple Bonds, only one of which was the original. Furthermore, the performances of many of the actors are actually quite good. In fact, it is this film in which Woody Allen demonstrates his potential as a comedic actor. Cast as "Dr. Noah"/"Jimmy Bond," Allen is not a mere parody of the villains typical to the official Bond franchise, but a demonstration that ultimately such megalomaniacs are merely psychologically and sexually frustrated losers. While not a great film by any means, the 1967 version of Casino Royale is not a bad movie by any means. While uneven, it does have its merits.

Fortunately, the 1967 version of Casino Royale was not the last. In fact, the most recent adaptation is the result of various corporate takeovers. The 1967 Casino Royale was produced by Columbia Pictures. In 1989 Columbia was taken over by Japanese electronics conglomerate Sony. The studio was rechristened Sony Pictures Entertainment, a division of Sony which would not include Columbia, but eventually Merv Griffith Entertainment, Chuck Barris Productions, Filmways Inc., American International Pictures, and several other companies. It was in the Nineties that Sony Pictures Entertainment expressed a desire to not only make a serious version of Casino Royale, but a third version of Kevin McClory's Thunderball (the first two being Thunderball and the 1983 film Never Say Never Again). Sony's plans were thwarted when MGM/UA took legal action, the end result of which is that MGM/UA won the sole rights to the character of James Bond. Sony then traded MGM/UA its rights to Casino Royale for the rights MGM/UA had in part to Spider-Man. Oddly enough, even though nothing now kept EON Productions from making an official version of Casino Royale, one would not materialise for some time. As it was, Sony would have their revenge. Sony and a consortium made up of Comcast, the Texas Pacific Group, and Providence Equity Partners acquired MGM/UA on April 8, 2005. The end result of this is that Sony would ultimately be the power behind the latest adaptation of Casino Royale. It was in 2005 that it was announced that the first Bond novel would finally be adapted as part of EON Productions' official Bond franchise.

I have not seen the latest version of Casino Royale yet, but from what little I have heard it is more loyal to the novel than previous versions. At the very least the card game between 007 and Le Chiffre occupies centre stage. That having been said, I also know that the movie does take some liberties. In the novel the Casino Royale is set in France. In the latest movie it is located in Montenegro. And while in the novel it is a baccarat game in which Bond faces Le Chiffre, in the newest movie, it is poker (which always seemed more Bondian to me than baccarat than anyhow...). All of this having been said, it has been years since a Bond movie has been based on one of Ian Fleming's novels or stories and even longer since a Bond movie has been even vaguely loyal to one of Ian Fleming's novels or stories (by way of example, Moonraker....). For me, then, it will suffice that the latest film adaptation of Casino Royale is loyal to the spirit of the novel, if not the letter of it. After all, no TV or film version of the novel has yet been loyal to the spirit of the book yet.