Live and Let Rank: The Official and Correct Ranking of the James Bond Movies, part 2

Continuing my Official And Correct Ranking of the James Bond films! This time we will go from Number 20 to Number 16. Our first entry contained the one Bond film I outright dislike, followed by several that just don’t do a whole lot for me and which are almost never my flick of choice when I decide I want to watch a Bond movie. With this list, we start getting into “Not my favorite, but watchable and sometimes I’ll turn it on for fun” territory.

Here’s the ranking thus far:

  1. 26. LIVE AND LET DIE
  2. 25. DIE ANOTHER DAY
  3. 24. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
  4. 23. GOLDFINGER
  5. 22. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
  6. 21. A VIEW TO A KILL

And now, we move on!

20. TOMORROW NEVER DIES

Some years ago a blogger named Snell had a James Bond blog that he updated for major Bond events (new films, news of new films, that sort of thing). Sadly Snell died about a year ago, so he never got to see No Time To Die, but he did cite me in his review of Tomorrow Never Dies, when I had previously referred to that movie as “a film I like as an action movie, but not so much as a Bond movie.” I stand by this assessment to this day. Tomorrow Never Dies would, I think, be frankly better if it was simply redone for some other action hero. It took me a long time to really figure out why I always have such a weird relationship with this movie, and I finally figured it out: TND is the least subtle Bond movie ever. This movie doesn’t have a single ounce of subtlety in it. And that’s my problem with it.

You may be thinking, “Bond? Subtle?” Well, yes! The Bond series won’t ever be in the Subtlety Hall of Fame, but these movies do tend to deploy subtlety in enough doses to be effective. TND, though, is just blunt-force trauma from start to finish. The precredit sequence is a thrilling mini-action movie on its own, yes–and it ends with Bond apparently being able to include “flying a modern jet fighter with more skill than trained pilots” in his skill set. Bond can apparently use the touch-screen controls on his 90s-era phone to drive his new car with as much precision as he’s ever driven anything else. This gives us another very nice action sequence (the action in this movie is some of the best-filmed action in any Bond movie), but again, a disconnect: He can drive like this with a remote control he’s never touched? And he’s laughing with delight as he does so, minutes after he saw a former lover murdered?

On that last point: my general take on the Brosnan films is that they are full of great ideas that are executed poorly, for one reason or another. This is why a lot of ideas from Brosnan’s films showed up again in the Daniel Craig run: it’s as if Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, writers of Brosnan’s last two movies, were set free by the jettisoning of the Bond Formula that came with the series reboot, and thus were able to put their ideas to better use. Note that Purvis and Wade did not write TND, so they’re blameless here, but TND has two great ideas, and only one is done well. The one they nail is the media mogul villain who is manipulating events for his own profit. Yes, we’ve seen this in You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and A View To A Kill, but Jonathan Pryce’s Elliot Carver is a particularly nasty and believable piece of work, coming as he does in the late 90s, when we were just starting to become aware of giant media conglomerates starting to consolidate their power.

The other great idea in TND, though? The one handled badly? That’s Paris Carver, the Teri Hatcher character.

Think about James Bond, and all the ex-girlfriends he has all over the world! Think how many times he’s had the break-up speech. Yes, some of those were undoubtedly mutual; I’m sure Octopussy was fine with it, because she was a mature woman with her own doings in life. Others, though, were probably less thrilled to get dumped by Bond. And here comes TND, which puts Bond in the position of having to contact one of his former lovers from an old adventure of his! That is a great idea! I loved this idea. The previous Brosnan flick, GoldenEye, had Bond squaring off against a former Double-O, and now this one has him with a former lover. But the character is wasted, just becoming another in the long line of Bond Girls Who Die At The End Of Act One. Bond and Paris have a conversation (“Tell me, James, do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?”) that is immediately eavesdropped on by our boy Elliot, who is instantly aware of his wife’s possible faulty loyalty. So we know her fate barely a minute after she’s introduced onscreen.

Lack of subtlety? How about the film’s briefing scene? It takes place not in M’s office but in a car speeding to the airport, and it serves less as a briefing and more as a series of sexual puns using the word “pump” (“Contact Mrs. Carver, your former lover, and pump her for information. You may have to do a lot of pumping. Pump away, 007.”) And the Michelle Yeoh character? Yeoh is terrific! I totally believe that she’s pretty much Bond’s equal, though once again we get a Female Bond who ends up in a pickle while Bond does the world-saving all by himself. We don’t get much about her as a character, unfortunately–the movie has to spend its first act on Paris Carver, so that we feel bad when she’s killed, and by this time the plot is whisking along so there’s no more time for any character stuff, so Wai Lin is shorted in the character department. She and Brosnan do have chemistry, but so did Brosnan and Hatcher, so this movie wastes two potentially good female characters.

Joe Don Baker’s not-Felix Leiter character? I liked him a lot and I wish he’d been around for more of these. Alas.

Oh, and TND saw the arrival of new Bond composer David Arnold, who did terrific work here, weaving in snatches of references to older themes and alluding to John Barry’s style while doing his own thing. The title song by Sheryl Crow isn’t a favorite of mine, while the kd lang song that closes out the film is a terrific ballad in Bond tradition. Arnold’s score actually incorporates the kd lang song’s tune, so I assume that was meant to be the title song before someone higher up the food chain at Eon Productions or MGM mandated using Crow. Anyway….

19. QUANTUM OF SOLACE

OK, after the big word-dump on TND, I’ll try to rein it in a bit on Quantum. We’ll start with the Rule of Bondian Time, a law I’m just now positing: Beware a Bond film that ends in under two hours.

I’m serious. I’ve just looked it up, and there are, to this writing, five Bond movies with run times less than two hours, and four of those are in the bottom half of my rankings. (One of them does make it into my Top Five, but every rule has an exception, no?) Bond stories need time to unfold. They tend to be fairly complex, plot-wise, and each one needs to establish a new set of characters. When these movies get short, it’s almost always to the detriment of story, character, or both. Can Bond movies be too long? I suppose, though I tend to default to Roger Ebert’s formulation: “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough.”

As of this writing, Quantum of Solace is the shortest Bond movie ever made, at 1 hour, 46 minutes. This comes after Casino Royale‘s 2 hours, 24 minutes, so Quantum feels like a bit of whiplash, especially when Quantum does a first for a Bond movie: it starts literally minutes after the last one ended. I’ve come to think that this may have been a mistaken choice in terms of narrative, because Quantum asks us to (a) follow Bond’s relentless quest for the nefarious organization behind the scheme that ended up costing Bond the first great love of his life, Vesper Lynd, and (b) acknowledge Bond’s grief at the disastrous end of his first true love affair. Quantum ends up being slightly more convincing on the former score and less so on the latter, partly because it compresses all of this into basically a few days of story time, and because it passes by so relentlessly quickly that none of the story elements really come together. Shame, that.

Quantum was partially hampered by a writer’s strike that sent the movie into production before the script was really ready, and stories abound of Daniel Craig spending his time not in front of the camera hastily scrawling script pages off to the side. Also, the movie looks strange for a Bond movie: washed out and even garish at times, and the action sequences are famously terrible, with quick-cut speed substituting for establishing shots so at times we’re not even sure what the hell even happened. Quantum is worth watching, but it’s ultimately a frustrating misfire.

David Arnold returned to score, but I have no real opinion of his work here. I should give the album another listen at some point. The song is not my cup of tea. I’ll leave it there.

18. THUNDERBALL

After talking about two movies that whip along and give their stories too little breathing room, here’s one that gives its story too much breathing room. There’s a lot of good stuff in Thunderball, but it all comes in the second act; the first act is 40 minutes or so of plot set-up, and the last act feels like 40 minutes of slow-motion underwater ballet “action”.

Thunderball is that odd duck of a film, the one that made the James Bond films a legal mess for decades, owing to some literary partnership between Ian Fleming and Kevin McCrory. I won’t go into that here, but there are legal reasons why Blofeld and SPECTRE disappeared completely from the James Bond mythos after Diamonds are Forever, and why McCrory was able to make his very own Bond movie 18 years later, called Never Say Never Again and starring Sean Connery, featuring the exact same story as this one.

The villain’s plot is very straightforward here, and there’s something kind of refreshing about the Bond films where you get the villain’s scheme in the first act. SPECTRE steals two atomic bombs and threatens to detonate them someplace unless they get paid a pile of money. That’s it. Again, it’s refreshing! It sets the movie up as a race against time. How odd, then, that a movie whose plot is a race against time has some of the worst pacing of any Bond movie.

The first act, as noted, is all set-up: Bond is at a health clinic, where some other guy is recovering from surgery to be made to look like an RAF officer. Bond notices weird shit going on but isn’t sure what to make of any of it, but he somehow angers some dude to the point of tit-for-tat injurious pranks, and there’s a very uncomfortable “seduction” scene that is frankly rape. Meanwhile the surgery guy turns out to be a SPECTRE guy who is standing in for an RAF guy on a plane that’s carrying two atomic bombs. He takes over, poisons, the crew, and crashes the plane in a specific spot in the Bahamas so the main villain, a SPECTRE guy named Largo, can steal the bombs. And he kills the RAF officer body double, who has already been killed, and who is the brother of Largo’s girlfriend.

Yes, Thunderball gives us all that convolution in the first act, before we ever get to Bond getting briefed by M.

Once we finally get Bond to the Bahamas (sent there instead of Canada because Bond just happened to find the RAF guy’s dead body at the health clinic even though the RAF guy was seen boarding–that’s our body double!), Thunderball gets more interesting, though it remains pretty convoluted. Bond pisses off Largo by beating him at cards, and then Bond seduces Largo’s assassin, and then Bond seduces Domino once he figures out that Largo has the bombs. Finally we get to our climax, which as noted, is a really long underwater chase-and-battle sequence, followed by ships, followed finally by a fight on the bridge of an out-of-control speedboat.

Thunderball is a gorgeous film to look at, and there are some iconic moments in it. But it just feels slow and bloated every time I watch it, and I also think this is when Sean Connery started seeing a bit less invested in the part. John Barry’s score is outstanding, and of course there’s that gonzo song crooned by Tom Jones, with its ridiculous lyrics (“And he strikes…like Thunderball!”) and his apparent death from self-inflicted asphyxiation on that last high note.

17. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE

I loved You Only Live Twice as a kid, but I’ve liked it less and less as time has gone on. Another simple villain plot, this time involving outer space: SPECTRE is swiping American, and later Russian, space capsules right out of the sky, hoping to trigger a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, apparently at the behest of China. The British, seeing some weak indication that maybe the kidnapped ships came down somewhere near Japan, send James Bond to check it out.

YOLT is another example of an under-two-hour Bond film not being as good as it should be, but in this case, I don’t think the issue is pacing. The issue here is that the 1960s-era sexism and racism is just impossible to ignore. This movie has so many moments of pure cringe that it casts a pall over the entire thing (“In Japan, men always come first and women come second!” Bond is told, to which he responds, “I just may retire here!”). Also this movie makes a very odd narrative choice regarding the “Bond girl”: it keeps the first one around almost to Act Three, and then she’s killed off. So we actually have some investment in her character, and the one that’s brought in minutes later to finish out the movie is almost literally a stand-in. Her name is “Kissy Suzuki”, which we only know because the credits tell us this.

Donald Pleasance is on board as Blofeld, and this time we finally get to see his face, which has an odd scar on his right eye. I’ve never been able to decide if I like Pleasance’s take on Blofeld or if I hate it. He does seem creepy and evil at times, but at others he seems almost whiny. He’s weird. There’s a beautiful woman assassin who is way less interesting than Thunderball‘s Fiona (one of the series’s best femme fatales), and there are many moments that just defy disbelief (how are they watching video footage of the helicopter seizing the car of goons? And is dropping cars full of goons into the ocean to drown really a thing?).

YOLT is another of the “Under Two Hours” Bond films that I tend to rank lowly, but of it’s one of those that I don’t think really suffers much for its relatively short running time. All the story is there. I just find the movie more and more uncomfortable to watch as the years go by. (This is also not surprising given that the film was scripted by Roald Dahl, who in addition to being a wonderful writer, was a wildly problematic guy.)

On the plus side, YOLT is quite beautiful to look at! There are a lot of very nice Japanese vistas, and there’s a distinctive early shot where some American and Russian officials are meeting to discuss the alarming events the kick the movie into motion. I particularly love a particular fight scene on the Kobe docks, when Bond is running across the roof of a warehouse, evading goons as he goes. This is actually an aerial shot, which is unique even for this series. There are some painful special effects along the way (artifacts of the time, but still, yeesh–did they have to do rear projection with Connery in a boat? Could they really not get that shot for real?), and for a short movie, the pacing isn’t what damages it. I even like the song, sung by Nancy Sinatra, with its lyrical hook.

16. SPECTRE

Ohhh, poor Spectre. This movie has taken quite a beating since it came out, and not all of it has been undeserved. It really is a wildly convoluted movie, story-wise, and it probably does go too far in trying to suddenly tie the previous three Craig films into a single story entity. Personally, I would have been fine with bringing Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace into the “single narrative” fold, but Skyfall was a bit too much for me, as that movie really stands on its own in a singular way. But other aspects of Spectre that have led most fans to pushing this one farther down than I do? I’m fine with them. Once again, we see how wildly divergent opinions among die-hard Bond fans can be!

So, what of Spectre? Well…I really do like it quite a bit. In fact, writing this I’m wondering if I should bump it up even higher on my rankings…but maybe not. It feels a bit like an attempt to recreate the magic and mood of Skyfall, likely because the same director returned for it (despite his previously having said that he was a “one and done” Bond director). A lot of the mood, the film’s visual look, the framing of shots–a whole lot of Spectre is obviously reflective of Skyfall, which is OK for the most part. And some of what happens in this movie is downright amazing! Of course, the opening tracking shot in Mexico City; and I love the Alps setting and the train through the desert.

Storywise is where things get a bit dicier for Spectre, though again, I like this movie more than most. After Skyfall, the legal quagmire that had dogged the Bond franchise for decades finally got resolved, so at long last, Eon Productions was once again allowed to use Blofeld and SPECTRE. I’ve always wondered if they had a script in progress when this legal gift came in the mail, and rather than wait a movie or two to get back to Bond’s version of Moriarty, they grafted Blofeld and SPECTRE (renamed in the new film to no longer be an acronym) onto their existing story. There’s a feeling of disjoint here between the schemes of Blofeld and those of C (Andrew Scott), the new head of MI6 who is developing a super-duper rights-violating surveillance system. Blofeld is behind all of it, but we don’t really get that much of a sense of it, do we?

And then there’s the whole business of Blofeld being “the author of Bond’s pain”. Most fans seem to take this as meaning Blofeld has been specifically plotting against James Bond for his entire life, inserting himself into every single bad thing that’s ever happened to him, but I don’t take it that way. I think he’s rather run his own life and his own schemes, and when things have happened in such a way that James Bond has been on his radar, he’s acted to screw Bond as hard as he can. That I can see, and that I have no problem with, in all honesty.

People also hate the idea that Blofeld was actually Bond’s foster-brother way back when, and honestly, I don’t hate this, either. Not in this context. There’s a theme running through all of Daniel Craig’s Bond films, distinct from any other actor’s run, of Bond confronting the sins of the past, whether it be Vesper Lynd’s past, M’s past, or, eventually, his own. Throughout these movies Bond is constantly having to deal with the fallout from other peoples’ various bargains with the devil, so I honestly have no problem at all with all of this eventually boiling down to what his parents did, or what happened in his youth.

What does bother me in Spectre is that a lot of this whips past, sometimes in the middle of actual action sequences or very quick conversations, so the film can’t actually set any of this stuff in the context where I think it makes sense. Bond calls Q at one point and says something like, “Look up Franz Oberhauser!” The moment is gone too quickly, so the script doesn’t really give us any reason why Bond is asking about some guy with a German-sounding name. Likewise, the opening Mexico City scene: Great scene, but apparently it was Bond acting on his own. When we find out why he went there to kill that one guy, it turns out that it’s M, the old M, Judi Dench’s M, telling Bond via posthumous video: “Find this guy, kill him, and then attend his funeral.” Why? She doesn’t say. How did she have this information, and what was she doing with it? She doesn’t say. This is what bothers me about Spectre: not the what of what happens, but the fact that an awful lot of it doesn’t seem to rise naturally in story terms. Things happen in this movie because…this is where something happens in this movie.

Take the fight on the train. That’s a hell of a fight! One of the best fight sequences in Bond movie history, if I’m being honest! But…it happens hours after they board, so what was Hinx waiting for? And don’t all those other people on the train notice something like a couple of secret-agent types destroying almost three entire train cars’ worth of stuff? How did Bond win that fight and then get allowed to stay on the train until their stop? That whole sequence is strange…but it’s there because “this is where something happens in this movie.”

Spectre has a nice score by Thomas Newman (following up his work on Skyfall), and while the song–“Writing’s On the Wall” by Sam Smith–seems to be fairly unpopular with fans, I actually quite liked it.

Next time: Numbers 15 through 11! We enter the top half of my ranking! Huzzah!! Taking stock, here’s how many films we have left, by Bond actor:

  • Connery: 3
  • Lazenby: 1
  • Moore: 4
  • Dalton: 2
  • Brosnan: 2
  • Craig: 3

Tune in!

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From the Books: “This Will All Be Over Soon” by Cecily Strong

Cover art, THIS WILL ALL BE OVER SOON, by Cecily Strong

Cecily Strong is one of my favorite performers on what is a very strong present cast on Saturday Night Live. In fact, this particular season she is getting featured a lot more than usual, possibly because Kate McKinnon has been on a leave from the show while she makes a movie. Strong is brilliantly versatile and funny, most notably for the shrill bombast she evinces when she is impersonating FOX News “personality” Jeanine Pirro. Strong also did a recent bit during an installment of SNL’s “Weekend Update” where, while dressed as a clown, she discussed the fact that she had an abortion in her early 20s. Strong is the kind of performer who is willing to leave however much of herself on the stage she needs to, and it’s often amazing to behold.

Like most of us, Cecily Strong had a very bad year in 2020. Unlike most of us, she wrote a book to document and process what happened to her and her family that year. For her it wasn’t just a year lost to COVID and the turmoil and uncertainty COVID brought; for Strong, 2020 was a year of profound loss and deep grief. Strong’s 2020 started with the death of her beloved cousin Owen from brain cancer. This was followed by the onset of the pandemic that for a time seemed to put the whole world on hiatus. It was during this time that Strong wrote this book.

Actress, comedian, and author Cecily Strong.

This Will All Be Over Soon is structured as a diary, chronicling Strong’s experiences and thoughts and feelings as the year unfolds, starting with her beloved cousin’s death and progressing into the pandemic. As such, she has to grieve not just his passing but others, and the loss of her home and her certainty. Strong meditates throughout the book about her relationships, her upbringing, and her previous struggles–if you want more insight into the abortion she recently discussed on SNL, it’s here–as she, like many of us, was forced to grapple with the uncertainty of life on an almost daily basis for an entire year…and more.

Cecily Strong is, it turns out, a gifted writer in addition to her skills as a performer. This book was on my To Read list as soon as I found out she was writing a book, and it stayed there even when I learned that it was not a comedy book but a memoir of grief and struggle. As such, I am even gladder to have read it. It’s not just a journal of a personal grief, but a primary document of a time that already feels somewhat distant. There’s a definite sense of Did it all really happen? Was it like that? Was all that fear real?

It was, and we need books like this to remember.

From This Will All Be Over Soon by Cecily Strong:

Maybe I can offer up one answer to my dad’s question: why Owen?

Owen fell madly in love after being diagnosed. He released two of my favorite songs with his band. One amazingly right before his last week in the hospital. He helped arrange the strings on that song, without even being able to play any of the strings. He went to basketball games. He covered scars with hats and became the fun guy who collected hats. He came to SNL. He danced. he smiled. He laughed. He read. He ate ice cream. He told my uncle he’d had the best year of his life.

The entire world will be affected in some way by coronavirus. We don’t know how. We don’t know if we will be sick or someone we love will be sick. Could the unthinkable happen and could we actually lose someone? And why can’t we control this fucking thing? I watch Cuomo speak to try to understand the science. We try to wrap out minds around the language of COVID-19 and Ebola drugs and malaria drugs and what it does to your body, and we can only watch, helpless.

I hear and feel the fear and pain and grief and sadness in people and how it manifests in lashing out and hoarding and turning on one another, and it’s dangerous and it’s sad and every day I have started to feel it more and more: the world needs Owen Strong.

This sound hyperbolic and, quite frankly, impossible, I realize. I don’t mind the hyperbole, since I still see him as a bit of a superhero figure. But I guess what I really mean is this: I was afraid to talk too much or share too much of this loss for many reasons. It would mean acknowledging something as real when I wasn’t ready to, I wasn’t sure it was my loss to share, and I was afraid of never being a good enough writer to properly honor him, just to list off a few.

Now I’m ready. Leda is ready. I want to write about him. I want to talk about him. I want you to know him. I want you to feel a little better after knowing a bit of his story. Maybe, just maybe, somebody will feel less afraid about the uncertainty that lies ahead. Maybe we can find moments during a very scary and difficult time to feel lucky.

Because who knows: as Owen proved, the worst year of your life could turn out to be the best year of your life.

Maybe that’s why, Dad.

And yes, there’s a reason why I’m posting about this book, this day. Grief isn’t a thing that ends, after all.

Sixteen years gone, today….

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Speaking of made-up “holidays”….

…today is, according to someone, Pie In The Face Day!

If you Google it, several dates come up (July 1 is one), but the most common is November 27. I’ve no idea why November 27 is the date for this, unless the idea is that November 27 is usually after Thanksgiving, so there’s likely to be leftover pie left about (though pumpkin pie would never be my choice for this application). Seems to me the birthdate of one of the fine comedy film stars of a century ago: perhaps Ben Turpin’s on September 19, as Turpin is thought to be the first recipient on film of a pie in the face, or maybe Mabel Normand’s on November 9, as she is sometimes credited with throwing the first pie in a face. This era of film history is pretty hazy, since most of the films don’t even exist anymore, and surely the notion of dispatching messy food into someone’s face didn’t just come out of nowhere, never done before, sometime in the 1910s.

Of course, I grew up seeing people getting pied all the time on shows in the 70s, both on variety shows and sitcoms. Three’s Company had a memorable episode in which every cast member was on the receiving end:

From THREE’S COMPANY: “The Bakeoff”. Suzanne Sommers (left) has just hit herself in the face with a pie before Joyce DeWitt (right) could do it for her.

From THREE’S COMPANY: “The Bakeoff”. John Ritter (center) has just had two pies smashed simultaneously into his face, by Norman Fell (left) and Audra Lindley (right).

And variety shows! Remember the Mike Douglas Show? They had Moe of the Three Stooges on once to declaim on pieing, and since HEE HAW was commonly on in my household during my formative years, it’s not hard to look back at that show and see more bits of my personality locking into place:

Johnny Cash plants a pie in Archie Campbell’s face. Note the overalls!

I mean, really: Between the ages of 4 and, say, 9, I was exposed to: Star WarsStar Trek, Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, John Williams, bib overalls, and pies in the face. That’s a lot of influence to pack into a few years!

The pie in the face continues trucking right along, though it maybe isn’t quite the comedic staple it once was. You still see it showing up these days in fundraisers (“If we raise $1000 for St. Bob’s Hospital, Dr. Weisenheimer will get a pie in the face!”) and still once in a while in political protest (a scenario of which I am not a fan, to be honest). A pie in the face is the payoff in a lot of pranks nowadays (example), and again I’m not a big fan of this: the whole “unwitting victim” thing might work in a fictional comedy, but less so in real life, I think. A new odd subset of the pie in the face is sports mascots that have made pies a part of their schtick; these are kind of a middle-ground because the recipients aren’t entirely unwitting. If you see these mascots coming in your direction, you probably know a pie is ending up in someone’s face, so you can take measures to ensure it’s not yours, maybe! (And if it happens to someone you’re with, be prepared for their natural reaction to you laughing at them.)

There was a pie fad in baseball several years ago, when pies would be dispatched post-victory into the faces of players who had performed on-field heroics, but sadly, baseball’s Fun Police, fearing pie-related injury, apparently put the kibosh on that:

A pie in the face should NEVER hurt and it should NEVER cause injury! Pie safely, people!

And in pandemic times such as ours, the pie in the face doesn’t have to be forgotten! It just takes good aim, like Blake Edwards demonstrates in this production photo from The Great Race:

Director Blake Edwards (left) exhibits perfect aim with a pie he has thrown into the face of actress Natalie Wood (right).

In comedy situations, obviously the usual reaction is going to be stunned indignation:

From SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN: Jean Hagen (right) reacts to being hit with a cake (not a pie, but it counts) by Debbie Reynolds (left), which had been intended for Gene Kelly (center).

But a pie in the face can also be an occasion for happiness and cheer, as these two friends apparently demonstrate:

More recently, just the other day friend of this blog Roger Green pointed out a recent dearth of pie-related content around here. This has certainly not been for lack of trying, though it’s not a frequent thing. Last fall a friend and former coworker of mine, who is also an amateur actress and has played a part in previous pie-related shenanigans, and I attempted collaborating on a “How to Give and Receive a Pie in the Face” video. It was fun to shoot, but alas, the footage really isn’t usable, because it was a really windy day. Not only did the camera mike pick up the wind howling (it actually makes the day sound worse than it was), but the wind actually made the camera vibrate slightly! We hope to film the concept again at some point, using a better camera-and-mike set-up, but I am able to cull stills from the footage:

Splat! Yes, that’s me. I applied a Prisma filter to this screencap.

More recently, this same friend and I got together to film a short gift exchange when she got a new lucrative job. We celebrated with an exchange of gifts: I gave her a bottle of rum that she and her husband like, and she gave me a pie in the face.

That was no store-bought pie, either–I actually made that thing for the express purpose being smashed in my face. The thing had to weigh a good two pounds! I felt that pie when it landed. Didn’t hurt, though! It should never hurt!

So, Happy Pie in the Face Day, y’all! If you celebrate, pie responsibly: Don’t surprise your recipient, don’t hit them so hard it hurts, and don’t use shaving cream! And if you’re on the receiving end, well–just laugh and enjoy it. And then go get a towel.

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“She’ll probably add something unnecessary, like raisins”

A culinary note from this year’s Thanksgiving:

My favorite Thanksgiving dish has always been the stuffing. Always, always, always. My ranking goes stuffing, corn, rolls/biscuits, turkey. (I am not a mashed potatoes fan, but that’s not the point here.) My mother’s homemade stuffing, the stuff I grew up with, had a similar flavor to Stove-Top, but being homemade, it was so much better: real bread allowed to go stale for a day or two, then torn up into big chunks and seasoned with salt, pepper, sage, poultry seasoning, and maybe something else. Diced onions and celery rounded it out. I love this stuffing.

Cut to my college years, especially my last couple of years, when our Thanksgiving breaks were shortened to a single four-day weekend. This made it unfeasible for me to go home at Thanksgiving (remember, I went to college in Iowa, 800 miles away). Luckily, by junior year I was dating The Girlfriend (later The Wife), so I went with her to Thanksgiving with her relatives somewhere else in Iowa. We ended up having dinner with one set of aunts and uncles, who did the “Get up at 2am and put the 30lb turkey in the oven” thing, so dinner was served at noon. This, in itself, struck me as odd: my family always ate dinner at dinnertime, maybe on the early side, but still, it was a late-in-the-day meal.

This was my first Thanksgiving dinner not cooked by my mother in any way. There were side dishes I’d never seen before (Ambrosia? Wazzat?), and then there was the stuffing, which they called “dressing”. It was nothing at all like my mother’s, being almost more of a bread pudding than what I knew. And it had fruit in it! There were raisins in the stuffing, which they didn’t even call stuffing! What world was I in!

A week or so later I’m talking to Mom on the phone, partially about my Thanksgiving dinner, and I get to the stuffing: “There were raisins in it!” And Mom chuckles and lets out a little secret: her recipe calls for raisins, too, only she started omitting them way back when, on the basis of my father’s at-the-time distaste for raisins. She threatened to put them back in the stuffing for years, but she never did.

Until yesterday.

I finally got to taste my mother’s stuffing with the raisins, and I can report that I wish she’d put her foot down years ago. The raisins add a bit of sweetness to the dish that perfectly offsets the savory spices and the salt. I should have expected this, given how I’ve come to really love the offsetting nature of sweet and savory in the same dish over the last bunch of years, but those raisins were a revelation. So, better late than never!

As for my father, he’s come around on raisins in the last few years. Tastes change! It’s happened to me, too: when I was a kid, you couldn’t pay me to touch a mushroom or a squash, but now I love both. I doubt I’ll ever get there on broccoli, though.

Long live the raisins in the stuffing!

(But keep the ambrosia salad. That’s a hard “no” from me.)

(The title of this post comes from one of the great SNL sketches of all time. Rest in power, Chadwick Boseman!)

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Our annual Festival?

Thanksgiving is over, and now comes Christmas!

Every year I hear a lot of complaint that Thanksgiving is a thing that gets lost in the shuffle between Halloween and Christmas, and that Thanksgiving should be its very own thing with no Christmas trappings of any kind allowed until Black Friday at the earliest. But to be honest, I don’t agree, and the reason why has to do with how we structure our year, how we see time, and how we mark the passage of days.

Human culture has always structured its years around annual events, like planting time, harvest time, full moons, solstices and equinoxes, and the like. These events formed the basis of the earliest liturgical calendars of our religions, and feasts and festivals would accrue around them. Perhaps the most famous of these long festivals these days is the month-long fasting celebrated by Islam as Ramadan. These types of celebratory events used to unfold over multiple days. The Olympic Games were a festival. So too, once, was Christmas: the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” refers to Christmas not as a singular holiday but as a festival, one that took twelve days to unfold. Twelve days of celebration, of feasting, of prayer, of reflection.

Now, our American society seems on one hand to want to limit celebrations to a single unit of time, one holiday and only one at a time, but on the other hand open itself up to celebrations that take place over time. We seem to want, in other words, a singular holiday and a festival, but we don’t approach it this way, do we? No, we come to the Christmas “season” like a time for lots of demands on our time: there’s cooking and cleaning and shopping to be done, and there are parties and special church services and the Christmas play and yada yada yada. All of these could be seen as trappings of a festival, but since we try to limit our celebrations to one holiday, we more see these things as items to be checked off a to-do list, required preparatory motions to be endured before we can take our one day off to celebrate, feast, pray, and reflect before getting on with the appointed industry of our lives.

I think we need to recalibrate our approach to and expectation of Christmas. I think we need to see this entire time of year as a festival, and I think it’s fine to posit Thanksgiving as the beginning of this festival. It just doesn’t make sense to me to cordon off Thanksgiving as its very own thing, independent of and separated from Christmas. I’d rather have our great Christmas Festival begin with Thanksgiving, a great day of feasting, and then extend over the however-many-days-there-are between that at the 25th of December…and then extend it right to the 1st of January. Instead of getting upset every year that Thanksgiving is “eclipsed” by Christmas, let’s approach it in the same spirit, because really…shouldn’t we do that anyway? It seems to me the emotional fabric of both days is very similar, and the two days are close together.

So let’s have Santa and the turkey at the same table.

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Thankfulness in 2021

Cayuga Lake

Once again the time has come to take stock, however briefly, of how thankful we are in our lives. I see that a number of large retailers who in recent years have been opening their doors for business at some point on Thanksgiving Day are actually remaining closed this time around. I like to think this is because of a realization that maybe allowing capitalism’s relentless push into one of our few holidays a year devoted to stepping back from the pursuit of Profit and Stuff (and don’t get me wrong! I love stuff! Y’all have seen pictures of my library, right?) was a bridge we shouldn’t cross, but let’s be honest here: I suspect this year’s “Let’s stay closed” brigade is more a function of tight labor and lingering supply chain issues and COVID insecurity in a country that simply won’t get to ninety percent of the population vaccinated. Still, I’ll take it. Maybe we can’t stop capitalism, but it’s a good idea to trip it up, once in a while.

As for other things I’m thankful for? Well, like everybody else, we’ve had a year of ups, downs, twists, and turns. I know we’re not alone on that score, absolutely. But we’re still here, still living, with things on the horizon that we’re greatly looking forward to (an upcoming trip has us very excited), alongside other things that we eye with trepidation (future developments for American democracy don’t seem encouraging).

So anyway, yes, I’m thankful for many things. The dogs, the cats, our house. My car, my job, my phone (yes, I love my phone!). Warm blankets and the rocking chair in my library. The fact that I have my own library. A decent kitchen with tools I know how to use. My job, also with tools I know how to use. Local parks, the public library, our favorite bakery, our favorite Chinese food joint, our favorite barbecue joint, our favorite deli. Hiking trails through the forests. Lakes: the Greats, the Fingers, and everything in between. Roads: particularly US 20A. Sirius XM radio in the car, and music services that have more hours of music available than I could hear in a dozen lifetimes. Mornings like this one: my coffee at the kitchen table, with my laptop, with only the ticking of the two clocks down here. Good movies, and not-so-good ones, too. Old cookbooks and new. British comfort teevee: The Great British Baking Show and The Repair Shop. A collection of glassware, assembled one piece at a time, because a kitchen full of matching items is kind of stodgy. Talented friends whose victories I can cheer, and smart ones in whose brilliance I can bask. Every book I’ve loved and quite a few of the ones I didn’t, because even they had things to teach me. Renaissance shirts, flannel shirts, overalls vintage and new. Blue denim overalls, Hickory striped overalls, herringbone and brown duck and black canvas overalls. ALL the overalls! The occasional pie in my face, and the friends who laughingly shove or smash them there. Friends online and offline and both. The characters in my books: Oh how they surprise me! The Daughter and The Wife, both of whom should be getting up soon, I would think.

And with that, I’ll wrap this up. I think The Dee-oh-gee is begging the next door neighbors for a cookie, and I need to get him in. He’s thankful, too.

Inside view of The Dee-oh-gee, begging for a cookie from the neighbors’ house. It’s OK, the neighbors are my parents.

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Rank Another Day: The Official and Correct Ranking of the James Bond Movies, part 1

Roger Moore in the Gunbarrel Sequence

Starting my ranking of all the James Bond movies (here’s the introduction to this exercise), starting at the bottom and working our way up to my favorite Bond movie of all time! Without ado, here we go:

26: LIVE AND LET DIE

This is the only Bond movie, the only one, of which I will say: “I do not like this movie.” I do not even own a copy of Live and Let Die, and any instincts I have toward completeness are insufficient to make me even want to get a copy of this movie. I find it a slow, boring mess, with unexciting action sequences, a villain’s plot that’s just dull, and for a series that is wildly problematic at times, this one ratchets all of that to 11. The attempt to have 70s-era Blaxploitation in a Bond movie now just seems racist.

Live and Let Die is a massive creative break in the series, and not just because Sean Connery finally left the role for good, yielding to Roger Moore. The creative tone, already pushed toward jokey parody in the previous Diamonds Are Forever, is now firmly in tongue-in-cheek territory, and world-threatening villains would give way for at least a couple of movies. This film makes Bond feel smaller. SPECTRE and Blofeld are gone, and Live and Let Die unfolds in a grungy 70s New York City and a fairly stereotyped New Orleans and bayou Louisiana. Our villain, Kananga, has a plot to corner the heroin market in the United States, and there’s stuff about murdering British agents, and there’s some voodoo stuff and our heroine (Jane Seymour) is a Tarot-card reading soothsayer. There is some good stuff in this movie: Yaphet Kotto as Kananga is terrific, the alligator farm sequence is neat, and Moore himself is quite good. But the rest of the movie is dull, mostly ugly to look at, and the action sequences just go on and on, and that’s before we meet Sheriff JW Pepper. This is a movie that I really don’t need to ever watch complete again; I can find my favorite scenes on YouTube and watch them in a combined ten minutes.

Oh, and Live and Let Die has a great song by Paul McCartney and Wings, and the score by George Martin is actually pretty good, bringing some funk that the movie desperately needs (this was the first Bond film not scored by John Barry). But that’s about it.

25. DIE ANOTHER DAY

The Bond series has several times in its run hit a point where it got so out of hand that the next movie was a kind of mild reset and a dialing back on the whackiness, but Die Another Day is so out of hand that even though it was a big hit at the box office, it still made the producers slam on the brakes and literally start the whole series over again at Square One with a full reboot of the franchise. Exit Pierce Brosnan, enter Daniel Craig a few years later.

But here’s the thing with Die Another Day: like all of Brosnan’s movies after GoldenEye, this one actually starts out pretty interestingly and actually has some good ideas. In fact, when you really look at Daniel Craig’s much more highly-regarded run of films and compare them to Brosnan’s, you may see how many ideas in the Craig films are actually much better executions of ideas already tried in the Brosnan ones. It’s like the main writers (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) saw their chance when they got to the series reboot to revisit their favorite ideas without the baggage of the tried-and-true (and increasingly tired) Bond formula.

Yes, Die Another Day starts out very well indeed. But somewhere in the second act it goes completely off the rails. For me it’s when the film’s villain, whom we’ve already met as a North Korean military officer, has been changed via extensive plastic surgery into a British white guy. Or when Q presents Bond with his invisible car. Or when Bond parasails away from a collapsing glacier. Or when Bond and a bad guy have a high-speed chase through a giant building made of ice. Or…look, Die Another Day just goes off the rails entirely. Brosnan does what he can, and I love the movie’s gritty opening and its conceit of Bond being damaged goods who has to earn his way back into MI6’s good graces, but after a promising Act One, Die Another Day is an over-the-top mess.

The song by Madonna is an unpleasant listen by itself, but it actually works very well with the visuals of the title sequence, during which Bond–having been captured by the North Koreans at the end of the pre-credits sequence–is being tortured. David Arnold’s score is good, but it doesn’t really break a whole lot of new ground. One notable cue at the end, during the film’s coda, is actually a reworking of a cue from the previous film! Alas.

24. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME

Remember my method here: I ask myself, “If I’m channel-flipping and I happen across this movie, am I going to want to sit and watch the whole thing?” Many people rank The Spy Who Loved Me very highly, but for me it’s mostly slow and dull, with a villain whose demeanor is so understated as to be soporific, a terrible score, a heroine who is supposed to be Bond’s female KGB equal but who still spends the entire climax in true damsel-in-distress fashion tied to a chair.

Also, the movie’s plot is a complete retread of You Only Live Twice from ten years earlier. In YOLT, the bad guys hijack American and Russian space capsules to trigger a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. In TSWLM, the bad guys hijack American and Russian submarines to trigger a nuclear–well, you get the idea. But first we have a long sequence in Egypt (no doubt a location selected for topicality reasons, as the Treasures of King Tut were on tour at the time) involving a submarine tracking system that goes nowhere (literally: once Bond and Agent XXX recover it, they discover that it’s useless). An evil henchman named Jaws shows up and is kind of menacing, but his attacks are mostly played more for laughs than menace. And…well, again, for me TSWLM commits the sad sin of being boring. The Egypt sequence goes on and on. An underwater sequence goes on and on. The final battle drags on and on. The climax drags on and on. The final confrontation between Bond and the villain is one of the worst in the entire series.

When I watch a Bond movie, this is never the one that I reach for, except to say, once a decade or so, that maybe I owe it a rewatch. Then I invariably rediscover why I never rewatch it.

Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” is a classic, even if I don’t think it’s really all that great (Simon’s own “Let the River Run” from Working Girl is a better movie song, for my money), and the disco score by Marvin Hamlisch just grates on my nerves. I do not like it.

ASIDE: Referring to the films by the name of the person playing Bond is a useful means of differentiating one sequence of films from another, but for me this should never be interpreted as a sleight or as an endorsement of a particular Bond actor! I’ve liked every Bond thus far, and when I note that on balance I think Pierce Brosnan’s era is the most lackluster, that is no statement at all on Mr. Brosnan. I bring this up now because we’re three movies into my ranking and I’ve already singled out two Roger Moore movies. I love Roger Moore!

23. GOLDFINGER

OK, this may get me some strange looks! Goldfinger is a classic, after all! It’s beloved! It’s the one that everybody knows! Roger Ebert even cited it for his “Great Movies” series! Goldfinger set the tone! Goldfinger had that car! Goldfinger had that gloriously wonderful exchange between Bond and villain:

BOND: Do you expect me to talk?

GOLDFINGER: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

So how can I rank Goldfinger this low? Well…sorry, but setting aside some issues I have with it on location grounds (the plot is to attack Fort Knox, so obviously part of the movie has to take place in Kentucky, but do we have to see a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the background of a James Bond movie?!), I have a whole damn lot of narrative issues with Goldfinger.

Sure, the Aston Martin DB 5 is an iconic Bond car, but look at that chase through Goldfinger’s factory complex: Bond is holding his own until he sees headlights coming right at him and he pulls aside, crashing the car. It turns out that there was a mirror there! The headlights were his own! Now, does that make any sense at all? “Hey, if a foreign agent is ever driving through here at night, we’ll hang a mirror here to foil him!” It’s utterly bizarre.

Or the scene where Goldfinger brings all his hoodlum financiers in so he can use his big scale model of Fort Knox to show them his plan. Bond manages to overhear this, and he writes a note to Felix Leiter and wraps it around a homing device and slips it into the pocket of one of the gangsters who is leaving. Meanwhile, Goldfinger kills all the other gangsters! Why did he bother explaining the plot to them, then?

Bond’s note? It never makes it to Leiter because Goldfinger has that gangster killed, too! And crushed in a junkyard, so that he later has to have someone extract the gold he paid to the guy from the crushed vehicle! Why not just have Odd Job drive that guy someplace, shoot him, and dump the body?

And then later on, Leiter and friends arrive to foil Goldfinger’s plot. Why? Because Bond, in a very cringey scene, forced himself on Pussy Galore and she apparently rats out Goldfinger to the Feds. Huh?

And even the big climax, with Bond fighting Oddjob in the vault while the nuke’s timer ticks down. Bond doesn’t even defuse the bomb–some other dude shows up and does it. So if you think about it, Bond could have just sat down, done nothing whatsoever, and still ended up winning. Bond’s fight with Oddjob? This has no effect on how the movie turns out at all. Sure, it’s a cool fight, one of those Bondian chess-match fights, but in story terms it accomplishes nothing at all. If Bond had just sat down, the folks outside would have opened the vault, streamed in, shot Oddjob dead, and then defused the bomb anyway.

Ultimately, in Goldfinger, we get what I consider unforgiveable in a Bond movie: a story in which James Bond is simply irrelevant. Nothing that happens in the movie is a result of anything Bond does. So no, I don’t like Goldfinger much. Sorry!

Goldfinger‘s song, by Shirley Bassey, is a total classic. So is John Barry’s score. If nothing else, this movie is musically top-notch.

22. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

Our second Connery film. This was Connery’s last “official” Bond film; he returned to the role after George Lazenby’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, presumably because the producers backed several Brink’s trucks up to his house. Diamonds also marks the end of the unofficial “Blofeld Saga” that comprises all of the first Bond movies except for Goldfinger, though SPECTRE is never mentioned in the movie, just Blofeld.

I enjoy Diamonds for a number of reasons, but it belongs down here for others. Connery obviously has zero investment in what he’s doing here; he doesn’t seem precisely bored, the way he does in Thunderball, but he is phoning it in. Also, the movie is a terrible sequel to OHMSS, completely ignoring the emotional state of affairs at the end of that film. We see Bond hunting Blofeld, but he might as well be hunting down any old villain.

Diamonds also starts the entire series down the direction of self-parody and winking at the audience that many blame on Roger Moore. Here you have all manner of goofiness, from Blofeld in drag to old stand-up comedians to Jimmy Dean–yes, the sausage guy–playing a reclusive billionaire a la Howard Hughes. (Weirdly, Dean is actually pretty good in the role!)

Diamonds isn’t bad, I must admit! Large parts of it are fun and watchable. Jill St John’s Tiffany Case is an interesting crusty American Bond heroine for two-thirds of the movie (the final act makes her into an idiot, which frustrates), and Charles Gray provides yet another interesting take on Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The scene where Bond climbs the outside of the hotel to reach the penthouse, discovering Blofeld, is a very good scene indeed, and the henchmen murderers Wint and Kidd are two of the series’s better henchmen murderers. Too bad the movie has a lot of bumbling action sequences that go on too long, a climactic battle that is just plain bad, and it bugs me to no end that the emotional tone of this movie completely clashes with that of the film to which it is a direct sequel. Imagine if Star Trek III had been the “comedy” Trek movie, right after Spock’s death. That’s what this one feels like.

Oh, and a great song and score by John Barry! Shirley Bassey returns, becoming the first artist to do two Bond title songs.

21. A VIEW TO A KILL

I have a real soft spot for this movie, OK? I can’t hate it. But I can’t really argue against the points its detractors make. It’s overlong, Roger Moore is visibly too old for the action-star thing, the age difference between him and Tanya Roberts is way too noticeable (I’ve read that Roger Moore really started thinking he was too old for Bond when he met the mother of the current “Bond girl” on set and he was older than she was), there are way too many “sacrificial lamb” deaths (the stereotypical French detective, Sir Godfrey, Bond’s CIA contact, a Russian agent), the visual effects occasionally stand out like a sore thumb, and the plot is a rehash of Goldfinger with computer chips instead of gold.

I like the convoluted plot, though: the Brits are working on a computer chip that will resist an electromagnetic pulse from space, but they discovered that the KGB is in on their work, so they investigate the guy who owns the chip factory, Max Zorin, who just happens to be into horse racing. While investigating, Bond discovers that Zorin cheats at horseracing with the assistance of an old Nazi doctor who did experiments in genetic engineering, and that Zorin has some weird plot going in which he’s hoarding computer chips. And he’s also trying to strong-arm some young geologist named Stacy Sutton into selling her company, and so on. It turns out that he’s going to trigger an earthquake that destroys Silicon Valley, making him the richest chip maker ever.

That’s a fun Bond plot, and there’s some entertaining stuff that happens along the way. And yes, it all goes on way too long and poor Tanya Roberts just stands around screaming “James!” for much of the last third of the flick. But there’s a lot of fun 80s cheese along the way.

I don’t know, I just enjoy this one. What are you gonna do. But I also don’t expend a great deal of effort defending this one, either.

Song: Duran Duran. It’s a mixed bag for me, as the lyrics make no sense. John Barry turns in another fun score, though it’s clear that he’s increasingly on auto-pilot here.

That’s probably enough for this post. Tune in next time for numbers 20 through 15!

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The Past harmonizes: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

(Re-upping this one after a discussion of Stephen King on Twitter, and specifically this book, made me remember this post!)

 

One odd bit of Star Trek lore that I didn’t know about until I read one of William Shatner’s Star Trek Memories books is that, during the 1980s when the Trek movie series was in “another sequel every two years” mode, Gene Roddenberry had a pet idea that he kept trying to get Paramount to adopt for whatever the next movie happened to be. This notion had the Klingons taking over the galaxy by going back in time to Earth in 1963, and preventing President Kennedy’s assassination. In order to fix things, Kirk and company have to go back as well and make sure that JFK dies like he’s supposed to; according to this site, Spock himself is the shooter behind the grassy knoll. I’m not sure how that would have gone over – frankly, it sounds a bit dour and depressing. That worked in the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, when Kirk had to stand by and allow a woman with whom he’d fallen in love to die in order to preserve history, but this story, if what Roddenberry truly had in mind, somehow crosses a line. Maybe it’s by having Spock actually kill JFK. I’m glad that movie never got made.

There’s always been something compelling about the JFK assassination to alternate history types and time-travel writers. I think there’s a definite sense to JFK’s murder as one of those singular events in history that neatly separates what came before it from what came after, and as with all such moments, there’s a definite feeling that if the event could be changed, what came after would change, too – mainly for the better, I think the argument goes. Certainly the general opinion seems to hold that had JFK not died in Dallas, but gone on to reelection and a second term, the 1960s might not have been as turbulent as they turned out, with Vietnam possibly not escalating as it did, with civil rights possibly having an easier road to passage, and so on. Obviously there is no way to evaluate such beliefs, but the closest we’re able to come to doing so lies in the power of fiction.

(I wonder if 9-11-01 is going to replace the JFK assassination in the public mind as the most recent ‘focal point in time’. After all, the events of 11-22-1963 happened almost 50 years ago, well before the lifetimes of most Americans living today. I wonder if there will be time travel stories involving time travelers showing up at Logan Airport to prevent the boarding of Mohammad Atta and friends….)

This brings me to Stephen King’s latest novel, 11-22-63. This is a time-travel story, in which a man from our time travels back with the intention of preventing the Kennedy assassination.

Jake Epping is a teacher whose marriage has just ended and who is apparently emotionally damaged in some way: he tells us up front that he simply does not cry, no matter what happens. Jake never cries, he tells us (the book is in first person, from Jake’s point-of-view), and he is haunted by the various injustices of history, such as the janitor who takes his adult education course and whose term essay smacks Jake between the eyes with a first sentence that refers to when the janitor’s dad ‘murdirt my mother and two brothers and hurt me bad’. This haunts Jake, and it’s all he can think of – even as his friend Al, who owns the local diner and who is going to die very soon of cancer, tells him of his own little secret.

In the basement of the diner is a gateway through time. Walk through it, and you emerge outside a factory in Lisbon Falls, Maine, on September 9, 1958. Walk back through, and you’re back in 2011 – exactly two minutes later than when you left. And if you go back in time again, no matter how long you’ve waited to do so, you go back to that exact same moment on September 9, 1958 – which means that any changes you have made to the past are now reset.

This limiting of the time travel possibilities is one of the masterstrokes of King’s novel. There’s no ‘setting a date and then hitting 88 mph’, no ‘slingshotting your starship around the sun’. You can only go back in time to a single place, to a single time, and you can only return to a single place, to a single time. And if you are ambitious enough – as Jake soon will be – to try and change history, if you want your changes to be permanent, you can never go back again. And if, like Jake, you decide that you’re going to try and keep JFK from being killed, that means that you can go back…and then you have to spend five years living there in the past until that fateful day. November 22, 1963.

King seems less interested in the various paradoxes of time travel stories, many of which have become clichees, than he seems to be in history as a force in itself. As he makes his life in the past, Jake – now going by the alias ‘George Amberson’ – frequently discovers ways that the past seems to be trying to right itself even as he messes with things. “The past harmonizes”, he tells us, again and again, and as the book goes on, the level of uncertainty involved in Jake’s self-appointed mission grows and grows and grows. Jake has to try and figure out if Lee Harvey Oswald was part of some kind of conspiracy, or if he acted alone; he has to try and decide if he should intercede earlier or later. He takes a ‘dry run’ early on, interceding on his janitor friend’s behalf when his father shows up to kill his family, and in such ways Jake discovers things about killing – even justified killing – that are troubling.

This is not a scary novel, but it is a haunting one. King masterfully keeps us aware of the onward march of time, so that the date of the title never really fades from memory, even as Jake is living out the five years he has to live out in the past, making a life for himself in a small town in Texas where he makes friends with local teachers and, in the ultimate complication, falls in love. Still, through all this there is a constant sense of growing doom, the constant ticking of King’s time bomb growing ever more and more insistent. Will he stop Oswald? If so, how? And will it matter in the end?

The time travel aspects of the story are, initially, pretty benign in nature, and we learn that Al is using the time portal to buy ground beef at 1958 prices, which enables him to sell his burgers in his diner for significantly cheaper than anyone else can manage. Jake discovers, though, that the past has ways of resisting change, and although King never really spells out much of the mechanism behind that sort of thing, it soon becomes clear that the bigger the change one is trying to make in history, the harsher the resistance one will meet.

11/22/63 is a thrilling King page-turner, loaded with emotional resonance, King’s keen eye for detail, and a bittersweet ending that is satisfying but not in an expected way. Parts of the book read as if Stephen King had written a mash-up of Back to the Future and Oliver Stone’s JFK. In other parts, though, the feel is pure King – especially in one section, taking place in Derry, Maine, where events bring Jake Epping into contact with two of the kids from IT. King is best at suggesting dark forces at work that we cannot understand – or perhaps I should say, forces that we cannot understand whose goals and priorities do not align with ours. Is history something we influence, or is it a force all to its own? 11/22/63 explores that question, even if it may not have a definitive answer.

(One final note: Throughout the book, Jake notes that ‘the past harmonizes’ – which means, history has a way of making things even out, of settling the books. A lot of times, what we call coincidence is this ‘harmonizing of the past’. Well, maybe fiction harmonizes, too; there’s a point in the book that actually features a pie fight. I read that just a day or two before my own pieing last week. How’s that for synchronicity!)

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Tone Poem Tuesday

Some weeks I expend effort to engage my curiosity and find a work that I’ve never heard before and try to craft a good essay about a piece that’s new to me.

Other weeks, I figure that old favorites exist for a reason and sometimes that reason is to just throw an old favorite up here and say, “Here, listen to this. Enjoy!”

It’s one of the latter weeks. Lots going on! Much to do! But still…make room for music, would you?

Here’s the Overture to Prince Igor, by Alexander Borodin.

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You Only Get Ranked Once: The Official and Correct Ranking of the James Bond Movies, introduction

You can just HEAR the music, can’t you?

It’s only natural that with the arrival of a new James Bond movie, the eternal cottage industry of ranking all of the movies up to that point revs up production again. I’ve seen a whole lot of these articles popping up the last month or two, and as I start writing this I’m listening to a podcast that is generating a ranked list of the Bond films via a “draft” like a sports draft. That particular podcast is taking its sweet time: two episodes, each of which is more than four hours long! So we have a group of people taking around three or four entire Bond movies’ worth of time to rank all the Bond movies. This is serious stuff, folks!

Now, every ranking out there is going to feel deeply, deeply wrong to most other Bond fans, so it’s never worth ripping them too much…but there was one that I ran across that I’m not going to link here, but I did link it on Facebook with a “Wow, get a load of how awful this Bond ranking is!” comment, because if there’s one thing Facebook is good for, it’s ranting to a small pre-selected audience about the stuff that you, and only you, care about. But of course in the comments there, someone asked me the very obvious question:

“Well, Kelly, where’s YOUR official ranking of the Bond movies, for comparison?”

And wouldn’t you know it, I had no response. I wrote about all of the Bond movies way back in the early days of Byzantium’s Shores (it was one of the first things I did that got me any traffic), but I don’t recall ever actually generating a full ranking of all the movies. If I did, it was a while ago, and anyway, such rankings are sure to change as new movies arrive and as old ones either rise or fall depending on evolving tastes. So if there IS an old ranking that I did someplace, ignore it. This is the one.

For now.

The thing with James Bond is that he’s been around forever. They’ve been making these movies for nearly sixty years now, and the character predates the movies by a full decade. Bond has shifted with the times, many times over, and in this series of 25 movies (plus one–more on that later), we’ve seen vastly different styles of story, of storytelling, and even of genre, when the stories have not just veered close to the line of science fiction but actually crossed over it. This also explains why the rankings are always so wildly different: That many movies made over that many years are going to hit individual tastes in individual ways.

Nevertheless, my ranking is Right and Correct and will stand for all time. Until I revise it. And if you disagree, well…I’m sure you’ve been wrong before!

So, thus we begin with a full ranking of all of the official James Bond movies, plus the one unofficial film, 1983’s Never Say Never Again. I include this one because its existence is interesting to me. I do not include the 1967 Casino Royale spoof/parody/pastiche film, because I haven’t seen it and I don’t really plan to do so any time soon. This will probably span a number of posts, because this will get long-winded. I mean, we’re THIS far in and I haven’t actually ranked a single movie yet!

Also, some movies will get a longer capsule review in this series than others, because of factors like how I feel about certain films, what time of day I write these posts, and so on. 

Before we get going, if anyone wants to know my personal history with James Bond, I wrote about that a bit here. Short version: I first encountered James Bond via Moonraker when it came out in 1979; I was 7 going on 8 and I have been a fan ever since. While I missed For Your Eyes Only in the theaters, starting with Octopussy I have seen every single Bond film since in the original theatrical run. Anyone passingly familiar with opinions I’ve shared online many times over the years won’t find my final destination in this series a surprise; I will basically corner strangers on the street to wax poetic about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But I hope there are a few surprises in getting to that point!

And one more proviso: with exactly one exception, I really do like each James Bond movie ever, on some level. Every one of them is watchable, I’ve seen every one of them multiple times (some of them dozens of times), and I’m likely to watch them all a few times more as the years continue marching by. Movies ranked toward the bottom are movies that I am unlikely to choose when I say “I’m in the mood for a James Bond movie”, or they’re movies I’m as likely as not to skip if I happen across them while clicking the remote. If it sounds like I’m ripping on some particular films, well…

Every Bond movie is almost certainly someone’s favorite, and every Bond movie is someone’s virginal Bond, the one they saw that made them a fan. So if I cast aspersions on your particular First Bond, well…I’m sure you’ll have things to say about mine.

With that, let’s get going…next time out!

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