Tuesday, November 20, 2012

50 Years of Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and a review of 'Skyfall,' 2012

The release this year of the 23rd official Bond film coincides with the 50th anniversary of the release of the first film, 1962's Dr. No. Skyfall is both a triumphant Bond film that ensures at least another decade of thrills, martinis and babes, as well as a perfect celebration of this cultural icon.

Daniel Craig's tenure as 007 started off magnificently with Casino Royale, one of the best Bond pictures and a perfect reinvention of the character for modern audiences. The follow-up, Quantum of Solace , was a disappointment (in part due to chaos created by MGM's financial struggles), but Craig and Co. have recovered strongly with Skyfall.

ABOVE: Daniel Craig is the best Bond since Sean Connery.

The best Bond films have memorable, flamboyant villains. Think Auric Goldfinger, Red Grant and Rosa Klebb, Telly Savalas's rendition of Blofeld...and now add Javier Bardem's bleach-blonde maniac Raoul Silva to the pantheon. Bardem takes this role by the balls and makes Silva a wry, sadistic masterpiece of a bad guy. Honestly, Silva may be the equal to Goldfinger as far as Bond villains go. He is that good, that memorable, and absolutely chews up every scene he is in. Funny enough, he is what Christopher Walken should have been in A View To a Kill, but wasn't.

It says something about the quality of this film that the most memorable scene is not one of the very impressive action sequences or a seductive tryst with a beautiful woman, but a six minute conversation between Bond and Silva. It is safe to say that Bond had never previously been confronted by such a, shall we say, ambiguous villain who makes Bond (and the audience) so genuinely uncomfortable. The best Bond villains have a sadistic streak in them and are the less cartoonish ones, and Bardem brings all of that to the table.

ABOVE: Javier Bardem's Silva checks Bond out and (possibly) likes what he sees

In fact, this is probably the most impressive cast and production team ever brought to a Bond film. Craig has finally made the role entirely his own, Bardem steals every scene with relish, Judi Dench's M has a larger role than in any previous Bond film (she is basically a co-star with Bond she gets so much screen time), and God bless Ralph Fiennes, whose meddling beaurocrat Mallory, who in his own way is as much a threat to MI6 and Bond as Silva, is set up for a fantastic recurring role in Bond films to come.

ABOVE: Ralph Fiennes' Mallory feels that changes need to be made at MI6

Director Sam Mendes brings a higher craft here than your typical Bond flick. Bond's background is explored and revealed more than ever before, and he is confronted by an emotional blow that is rare in Bond films, only approached in the underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Mendes is a fan too. It being the 50th anniversary, Skyfall lovingly plants references to Bond's history throughout the film, from the obvious like the classic Bond theme and a fun reappearance of the beloved Auston Martin from Goldfinger (complete with machine guns and ejector seat) to more subtle references like M's padded office door. But while honoring the past, this Bond is setting up for the future, showing that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were only the precursors. Skyfall finally brings classic elements into the new Bond universe, such as a new Q and Moneypenny (I like that they waited for the third film of Craig's tenure to bring in some of the Bond familiars, as opposed to throwing them all in at once). In a great scene between Bond and the new Q (played with perfect nerdy arrogance by the youthful Ben Whishaw), Mendes reaches for his own brand of humor in the naturally antagonistic relationship between the Quartermaster who lovingly invents state-of-the-art espionage equipment, and Bond, who mistreats these wonderful gadgets in the field. When Bond expresses disappointment in his new batch of equipment ("It's hardly Christmas"), Q retorts "what did you expect, an exploding pen? We don't do those anymore."

The Craig era has done almost everything right in setting Bond up for the modern era. I think that now they can (and should) be even more bold in defying the formula in the future.

**** out of *****

So what is it about James Bond that still keeps us coming back after 50 years? Some things are easy to figure out. Bond is the ultimate male fantasy: dangerous, boozer who never loses control, gambler, ultimate consumer of only the finest of everything, savior and of course, seducer of beautiful women. He is decisive and competent in a way we would all love to be, but he is no superhero that is completely unreachable. In fact, in many of the films, he makes mistakes, gets bested, and often gets the crap beaten out of him. But he does triumph. He is flawed, selfish, cold and hedonistic, yet has a rock hard loyalty to crown and country. (Skyfall puts that loyalty to the test, as it is sometimes not repaid to him in kind.) As world events (be it possible nuclear holocaust during the Cold War years or the terrorist threats of today) threaten us, Bond is a powerful myth to hold on to, that one man can still come in and save us from these threats and anxieties.

Bond has become a cultural icon, a touchstone as powerful as Han Solo or Batman. So we Bond fans are forgiving, because let's face it, many of these films are terrible. But that hardly matters. For Bondphiles like me and countless others, it is the character that matters, and what he represents. We forgive cringe-worthy double entrendres (especially from the Roger Moore years) and predictable plots. We accept different actors playing our Bond (six so far). For a great analysis of the Bond phenomenon, read Roger Ebert's famous write-up on Goldfinger.

Here's a quick Bond film guide, with one or two sentences only for each:

Dr. No (1962): Sean Connery bursts on the scene as the definitive Bond. Fun in that all of the formula had not been set yet.
Rating in Bond universe: **** out of *****
Real rating: ****

From Russia With Love (1963): The best Bond film, in my book. Connery absolutely owns the role here, it features one of the more interesting plots and one of Bond's most formidable foes, Robert Shaw's Soviet killer Red Grant.
Rating in Bond universe: ***** out of *****
Real rating: *****

Goldfinger (1964): For many, this is the Bond film. Goldfinger is a fantastic villain. From the brassy theme song belted by Shirley Bassey to the silent henchman with the deadly bowler hat, this is what we love about a Bond flick.
Rating in Bond universe: ***** out of *****
Real rating: *****
ABOVE: "You expect me to talk?" "No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

Thunderball (1965): A bit slow in parts, but overall it still deserves to be included in the truly classic period.
Rating in Bond universe: **** out of *****
Real rating: ***1/2

You Only Live Twice (1967): Connery is bored by now, and this is the first one that is ridiculous.
Rating in Bond universe: *** out of *****
Real rating: **

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): George Lazenby's only outing as Bond, it was much-maligned for not being Connery. But most fans and many critics have reassessed this one and now consider it one of the best.
Rating in Bond universe: ***** out of *****
Real rating: ****
ABOVE: Telly Savalas was a great Blofeld. George Lazenby did a fine job. His main sin was that he was not Sean Connery.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971): After the commercial flop of Lazenby, the Bondmakers lure long in the tooth Connery back for one more. Terrible.
Rating in Bond universe: ** out of *****
Real rating: *

Live and Let Die (1973): Roger Moore debuts in a tricky film that tries to adapt Ian Fleming's most blatantly racist Bond novel into a blacksploitation flick.
Rating in Bond universe: *** out of *****
Real rating: **

The Man With the Golden Gun (1974): Bond fans are so conflicted on this one. It is a terrible movie, but features one of the best villains in Christopher Lee's sadistic assassin Scaramanga. Note: midgets are not menacing (Herve Villechaize).
Rating in Bond universe: ** out of *****
Real rating: *
ABOVE: Too bad such a great villain (Christopher Lee's Scaramanga) was wasted in one of the worst Bond films.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): Roger Moore finally comes into his own as Bond in what many consider to be Moore's best outing.
Rating in Bond universe: **** out of *****
Real rating: ***

Moonraker (1979): Trying to cash in on Star Wars, Bond goes to space. The first half is actually pretty good. But the second half...
Rating in Bond universe: *** out of *****
Real rating: **

For Your Eyes Only (1981): Literally tries to bring Bond back down to earth and tone down the spectacular. Actually fairly gritty for a Moore-era Bond.
Rating in Bond universe: *** out of *****
Real rating: ***

Octopussy (1983): I've got a soft spot for this one since it was my first Bond film to see in a theater. While there is some silliness, as there always is with Roger Moore's Bond, I defend this one and think it holds up. Should have been Roger's swansong. But...
Rating in Bond universe: *** out of *****
Real rating: ***

A View To a Kill (1985): The nadir of the series. Moore looks like the grandfather of the women he beds at this point, and almost everything about this one underwhelms, even Christopher Walken's villain. Duran Duran's title song is the only highlight, that kicks ass.
Rating in Bond universe: * out of *****
Real rating: *
ABOVE: Roger Moore was too old to be chasing Christopher Walken on top of the Golden Gate Bridge

The Living Daylights (1987): Poor Timothy Dalton, he was ill-suited to play Bond. He tried to bring back some realism and the gritty character of Fleming's novels, but that is not what the filmmakers were doing.
Rating in Bond universe: *** out of *****
Real rating: **

License To Kill (1989): Diehard Bond fans kind of like this relatively brutal and straightforward entry, but it tanked at the box office and sealed Dalton's fate.
Rating in Bond universe: *** out of *****
Real rating: **

Goldeneye (1995): Bond returns after a lengthy absence in the hands of Pierce Brosnan, who looks like he was born to be Bond. This was an excellent rebirth, and held much promise for the Brosnan era. But...
Rating in Bond universe: **** out of *****
Real rating: ***1/2

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Pierce was a great Bond, he was just saddled with crappy writing and films.
Rating in Bond universe: ** out of *****
Real rating: **

The World Is Not Enough (1999): Like I said...
Rating in Bond universe: ** out of *****
Real rating: **

Die Another Day (2002): ...And again. Sorry Pierce, it wasn't your fault. Ice castles, invisible cars and windsurfing off icebergs.
Rating in Bond universe: ** out of *****
Real rating: **
ABOVE: Pierce, you were a great Bond. It is not your fault that most of your movies sucked.

Casino Royale (2006): Daniel Craig defies the cynics and reinvents Bond in the best Bond film since Connery's heyday.
Rating in Bond universe: ***** out of *****
Real rating: *****

Quantum of Solace (2008): A disappointment after Craig's strong debut, the film was hampered by MGM's impending bankruptcy and a weak overall plot. I did like that its story was directly connected to Casino Royale, though.
Rating in Bond universe: *** out of *****
Real rating: **1/2

Skyfall (2012): This recovery bodes well for the Craig era, with Javier Bardem's villain being one of the best of the series.
Rating in Bond universe: ***** out of *****
Real rating: ****

Bond Films Tiered (listed chronologically within tiers):

1st Tier: From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Casino Royale

2nd Tier: Dr. No, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Thunderball, Goldeneye, Skyfall

3rd Tier: The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, Quantum of Solace

4th Tier: You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, The Living Daylights, License To Kill, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day

5th Tier: Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With the Golden Gun, A View To a Kill

Bond Theme Songs Ranked:

1. Goldfinger
2. Dr. No (the Bond theme)
3. A View To a Kill
4. You Only Live Twice
5. Live and Let Die
6. The Living Daylights
7. Thunderball
8. Diamonds Are Forever
9. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
10. From Russia With Love
11. The Spy Who Loved Me
12. Tie: Moonraker, License To Kill, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, Quantum of Solace, Goldeneye, Skyfall
13. The Man With the Golden Gun

ABOVE: Shirley Bassey's brassy title song for Goldfinger. Bassey holds the record for Bond title songs. She also sings Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Message From the Grave

From an obituary in the Kansas City Star:

"Loren G. "Sam" Lickteig passed away on Nov. 14, 2012 of complications from MS and heartbreaking disappointment caused by the Kansas City Chiefs football team."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Advice For Conservatives

First things first, congratulations to President Obama for a hard fought and close victory. As is often the case, the electoral college picture did not reflect the actual popular vote, which was quite close. As one talking head said before the election, whoever wins, about half of the country will be disappointed. But I do not harbor such ill will that I hope for the opposition to fail in their leadership of this country. I sincerely hope that Obama is more successful in his second term, although history is against him on that. Second terms are generally more difficult and less successful than the first. But there have been exceptions, and I hope Obama is one of them. I sincerely hope that he was being honest in his excellent victory speech, when he said that he had learned from his experiences of the first term and wants to be better in the second. He is an intelligent man, so I think he does have the capacity to learn, analyze and adjust. I would love to see a smart pivot more to the middle, such as Clinton made after his own rocky start.

Despite the hasty proclamations that demographics have heralded a new era in our politics, I still believe that this country is essentially center-right at heart. Even if many people don't really know it. I do see the growing Hispanic population as the key electorate of the future. I am fairly familiar with this demographic. I married one, have dated many, live in a city where they are the majority, and about 80% of my students over the years have been Hispanic. I have grown to appreciate and love much about this vibrant and warm culture. Which is why I think I can say this confidently: Hispanics should be a fairly easy group of voters for conservatives to appeal to, if only conservatives were smart about it. In many ways, the Hispanic voters have conservative values. The strong Roman Catholic faith, the focus on a tight family structure and certain values related to that that still run deep in the culture, a very strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. This should be prime conservative territory here!

But no. Many conservatives take untennable positions on immigration. When Rick freakin' Perry supported some generous immigration policies, even he was attacked by fellow conservatives as being "soft." I'm no fan of Perry, but it is ridiculous when even he is attacked for not being conservative enough. The bellicose Tea Party element have created a suicidal rhetorical divide of us vs. them. Gay marriage is a lost battle, drop it. You lose anyone who knows well or cares about anyone who is gay. Not to mention, you lose the gay population itself, much of which is wealthy and might otherwise be interested in a party that does more to protect personal wealth. (Abortion is a more difficult matter, because if you are sincerely pro-Life, then nothing could be more political. I don't get people who say abortion "should not be a poltiical issue." That is basically code for "accept the Pro-Choice position." Anyway, that is a different discussion.)

I feel like the Republican Party, while not dead in the water, is currently adrift in similar waters that the Democratics had to navigate in the 1980's. When a fringe element takes control and makes the most noise and grabs power, leaving more moderate elements cold. It took a Clinton to save the Dems, and a similar figure will have to emerge on the Republican side as well. I think they will. Eventually. It is hard-wired into this country's DNA to have a competitive two party system, despite some periods of dominance by one or the other.

I have been following with much interest the hand wringing, soul searching and circular firing squad of self-analysis in the aftermath of this election on the Republican side. Many Tea Partiers and talk radio types insist that the answer is to double down, that the problem was that Romney was not conservative enough. I sympathize with Romney and think he would have been a good president. He just wasn't a good candidate. He is a moderate at heart, but had to make himself a "severe conservative" to navigate the self-destructive Republican primary. There was no other way, and he paid the price.

Of all of the things that I have read or heard, I really like David Frum's column for CNN, a link is here. It is entitled "Conservatives, Don't Despair," and it has some great advice that should be followed. I would suggest reading in its entirety, but I like this quote on the ridiculous and hysterical cries from some conservatives that the Obama agenda is an insidious attempt to move America towards socialism:

"The United States did not vote for socialism. It could not do so, because neither party offers socialism. Both parties champion a free enterprise economy cushioned by a certain amount of social insurance. The Democrats (mostly) want more social insurance; the Republicans want less. National politics is a contest to move the line of scrimmage, in a game where there's no such thing as a forward pass, only a straight charge ahead at the defensive line. To gain three yards is a big play."

He goes on to point out:

"Whatever you think of the Obama record, it's worth keeping in mind that by any measure, free enterprise has been winning the game for a long, long time to this point.

Compare the United States of 2012 with the United States of 1962. Leave aside the obvious points about segregation and discrimination, and look only at the economy.

In 1962, the government regulated the price and route of every airplane, every freight train, every truck and every merchant ship in the United States. The government regulated the price of natural gas. It regulated the interest on every checking account and the commission on every purchase or sale of stock. Owning a gold bar was a serious crime that could be prosecuted under the Trading with the Enemy Act. The top rate of income tax was 91%.

It was illegal to own a telephone. Phones had to be rented from the giant government-regulated monopoly that controlled all telecommunications in the United States. All young men were subject to the military draft and could escape only if they entered a government-approved graduate course of study. The great concern of students of American society -- of liberals such as David Riesman, of conservatives such as Russell Kirk and of radicals such as Dwight Macdonald -- was the country's stultifying, crushing conformity."

Frum is a conservative himself, but a reasonable one. I suggest reading the whole article. As he says at the end:

"We need more sensible conservatives. As for the feeble conservatives, they should take a couple of aspirin and then stay quietly indoors until the temper has subsided and they are ready to say and do something useful again."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dez Reviews Neil Young & Crazy Horse's 'Psychedelic Pill,' 2012

Neil's had a busy year. Two albums released (the second one a double) and a stream of conciousness/autobiography published. Psychedelic Pill came out a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to let it stew a little bit before reviewing it, to see if my initial reaction turned out to be off. It wasn't.

As loyal readers well know, Neil Young is my favorite musical artist. And the reviews for his latest venture with his garage band stalwarts Crazy Horse have been generally glowing, but I'm not feeling it on this one. These sprawling tunes came from the same marathon sessions that produced Americana earlier this year, but whereas that was a wonderful ramshackle romp through the American folk canon, these are all originals.

The spirit here was to capture the raw Crazy Horse at its best, but as hard as they try, there is no "Down By the River" here. And oh do they try. I find it funny how the critics fawn over the 27-minute (!) opener, "Driftin' Back" (or, as I would retitle it, "Driftin' Through Neil's Random Thoughts (For 30 Minutes)"). It's got a decent groove and I like the sharp effect of starting it off acoustically and then fading in the Horse. But the song is basically 6 minute spurts of Neil jamming with Crazy Horse separated by random, half-baked verses about, well, anything. It sounds like, and I bet this is what it was, a preliminary jam that instead of honing it and editing it into a real song, Neil just said "use that one, let's move on." A jam that is fun to play if you are one of the musicians, but a bit tedious to listen to. Would've made a fine 15 minutes or so, but not 27. One verse is about how he used to enjoy Picasso paintings until they were used as wallpaper prints, and then another about his well-known war against the sound quality in MP3's ("When you hear my song now / You only get 8% / You used to get it all now / You used to feel it all"). Then another verse about writing his book this year. Then something about "Gonna get a hip hop haircut." I doubt he even wrote anything down before singing this one. I would like to ask these critics, honestly, how many of them are going to return to "Driftin' Back" and ever listen to all 27 minutes again?

There are a couple of worthy keepers here. I really like the melancholy groove of the 17 minute "Ramada Inn," but whereas many critics point to this one as a lyrical highlight detailing the dying flame of a once passionate relationship, I find the lyrics a bit obvious and nothing remarkable. The groove and Neil's soloing, however, are quite hypnotic. The 16 minute "Walk Like a Giant," with its "My My, Hey Hey" bassline, is a bit inspired. Neil often revisits the 60's in his work, but mostly, as he does here, it is with regret and bitterness that the ideals were not fulfilled. And he also, significantly, usually blames himself and his comrades for the failures, not outside forces. (By far the best treatment of this theme is his acerbic 1986 shot at Crosby and Co. in "Hippie Dream," one of his best overlooked gems).

I also really enjoy the short title track, a blatant but fun retread of his classic "Cinnamon Girl." I especially like the over the top effects on the song, making it sound like it is swirling around in a jet turbine (there is also a "clean" version tacked on the end).

The bottom line with Neil Young for me is that even in failure, I still love the guy's spirit and cajones. The only time he can do wrong is when he's boring and safe, which fortunately is very rare (late 90's and early 2000's). In triumph or failure, he is pushing himself and taking risks. I view Psychedelic Pill as a sprawling miss, but an adventurous one. Another weird transmission from your crazy Uncle Neil.

** out of *****.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

I Voted

I voted Thursday night with early voting. I saw that this year broke the record for early voting, between 30-40% of all ballots cast this election will have already been cast by election day. I kind of enjoy the excitement of voting on election day, but I waited in line 45 minutes Thursday night as it was, so next Tuesday would be much worse.

No surprise, I voted for Romney in the presidential election. Why? Go review the great 121 comment debate over at ANCIANT's site for one of the most intelligent political debates that I have ever had the privilege to participate in. It is here.

I did not vote straight ticket, though. Never do. In fact, the majority of my other votes on the 23 page ballot, especially locally, were for Democrats. Working in education, I have seen first hand the damage done by the Texas brand of Republican. I am a conservative in many ways, obviously from my comments in the above referenced debate. And in the abstract, I do not have a problem with a standardized testing system. Students and teachers should be held accountable for at least a minimum competence before graduating.

But the beyond absurd version that has been created here in the Lone Star State, while at the same time cutting billions (yes, that's a "b") from the education budget...well, it will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of years. If you think Republicans nationally hate taxation in any form, you should see Texas Republicans. Being a moderate at heart, I dislike extremist views all around, and that includes on taxation. The problem in Texas is rooted in our property tax and business tax system. We were doing really well, but a few years back they decided to alter the property tax system, and it cost the state billions. (We famously have no state income tax, so property taxes were the primary source of taxation revenue). To make up for the lost revenue, they claimed that changes in the business taxes here would make up for it, making it a revenue-neutral change. Didn't work out that way, and now we have a structure that mathematically cannot be balanced. Most intelligent observers on both sides understand this, but it is politically very difficult to change the property tax system now that it has been done. It would, in essence, be seen as an increase in property taxation, which is against Texas religion.

So Texas will continually need to cut heavily in different places to make up the difference. In the past couple of years, the target has been education. At the same time they have hoisted this amazingly complex standardized system on the schools (where students used to have to take 4 state tests in high school to meet graduation requirements, now there are 16 of them, with the scores on one effecting what you need to score on the others, and then the scores on the tests are now 15% of their average in that particular class...there is much more). And this year it appears that a school voucher system is in the works. Again, I do not object to a standardized testing system. But this one is ridiculous, and needs resources to help the students be successful, instead the school budgets are being slashed. I'm not sure that I even object to a voucher system, philosophically. But the voucher system also takes money out of the public school system at a time when they are broke.

So for these reasons, locally and statewide, mostly, I voted Democrat. In the school board race locally, the Republican candidate apparently feels that 16 standardized tests throughout high school is not enough and we need more.

Although, for the judges that will be hearing criminal cases, I went Republican on all of those.

I had promised earlier a post on Benghazi. I'll just tack a few thoughts on here. It is a very disturbing situation, and one that the national media has not really pushed for answers on. The Obama administration was caught with its pants down. Much evidence indicates that they knew very early on that it was a coordinated terrorist attack having nothing to do with some ridiculous YouTube video. Yet that was the story they pushed for days and days and days afterward. This is bad for several reasons. First, it is dishonest. Secondly, they unnecessarily brought attention to this stupid video and basically apologized for it, giving an already hostile region more fodder to use as fuel to dislike us. And it was unnecessary. Several talk radio commentators that so many people deride were saying, the very next day after the attack, that it had nothing to do with the YouTube video and it was a terrorist attack. Does Mike Gallagher and some local San Antonio radio jocks have better intel than our government? I doubt it. They were just immediately telling the truth, and it took the Obama administration two weeks to get around to the truth. Obama said the "intelligence was still coming in."

Secondly, it appears that there were real time requests for assistance from our military and special forces. They were held back, because according to one administration official, you don't send forces in harm's way without proper information. I'm not sure we would have ever fought a significant battle in our military history if we went by that standard. When do you ever have enough information to feel comfortable before entering the fray? By its very nature, warfare is chaotic, constantly changing, and you do not have enough information about what the enemy is doing.

But Obama goes further and states that "as soon as he knew" what was happening, he ordered aid. So, either he is not being honest about that because we know no aid was sent, or his orders were ignored. Not good either way. There is also evidence that ambassador Stevens had repeatedly requested more security. Yet Biden, in his debate, claimed that the administration knew nothing of these requests.

Anyway, Benghazi pisses me off. It should piss you off too. And not just because four brave Americans who were representing us abroad lost their lives.