Saturday, December 27, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #67: Picket Fences, Season One (1992-1993)

Somehow, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. Must be Rome. Wisconsin...

At this time of year (around the holidays), I can't help but to be reminded of David E. Kelly's neo-classic Picket Fences (1992-1996), a beloved and award-winning CBS drama from the mid-1990s.

The association is natural, I suppose. This quirky and at times, revolutionary series concerns the ways in which a "typical" American family (the Brocks) -- and by extension, an entire community (Rome, Wisconsin) -- deals with the concept of tradition, and perhaps more significantly, with the concept of change.

That change invariably involves new (and therefore controversial...) thinking about medicine (assisted suicide, abortion, human growth hormone...), about sexuality (pre-marital sex, gay and lesbian issues, transsexualism, AIDS), about religion (in school, in the home, in the heart), about politics (particularly mayoral politics...), about the name it.

And as the holidays represent a time in which families universally come together around the dinner table to set aside petty differences, share tradition, and discuss, debate, argue and laugh at the vicissitudes of this modern American life (and the blistering pace of progress in medical science, technology and the like...), Picket Fences is a perfect fit.

Not coincidentally, I'm sure, several episodes of Picket Fences' first season (now available on DVD in its entirety) explicitly involve the holidays. "Thanksgiving" (which aired November 13, 1992), concerns a tumultuous family Turkey Day, with generations of Brock family members coming together to reckon with grandpa's (Richard Kiley's) new 26 year-old girlfriend. "High Tidings" concerns a Santa Claus with Alzheimer's. And "Pageantry" represents a most unusual twist on the old Christmas story; one that concerns a post-op transsexual elementary school teacher playing the role of the Virgin Mary in the upcoming Christmas pageant.

Move over, South Park...Picket Fences did the "apolitical" Christmas pageant satire about five years...and frankly, it did it better.

Picket Fences boasts a perfect format by which to consider America and American values at the dawn of the Clinton Age (and the end of the first Bush recession). At the heart of the drama is the blended Brock family, led by the rock-solid town sheriff, Jimmy (Tom Skerritt) and his wife, the town doctor, Jill Brock (Kathy Baker). Jimmy and Jill have three children: teenager Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs) from Jimmy's first marriage, and pre-adolescents Matthew (Justin Shenkarow) and Zack (Adam Wylie).

The stories of Picket Fences take us from the intimacy of the Brock household into Jill's private practice, and -- invariably -- into the public forum by way of the local police department. There, Jimmy's deputies, the gung-ho Maxine (Lauren Holly) and the macho Kenny Lachos (Costas Mandylor) assist in solving many a bizarre local cases (including ones involving perpetrators such as The Green Bay Chopper, Frank the Potato Man, Cupid, and The Frog Man.) In the first season alone, Maxine and Kenny square off against a number of serious and not so serious serial killers. Remember -- this was the post-Silence of the Lambs (1991) nineties.

From the busy police station, Picket Fences invariably escorts us into the court room of Judge Henry Bone (the late, great Ray Walston), an arena where questions of innocence and guilt, right and wrong, fair and unfair, moral and immoral, are rendered impartially. Bone is a paragon of virtue: an elder statesman and oracle who is able to put aside the passions of the moment and consider the questions of the law. His judgments are rendered in logical, intellectual fashion, and universally written with flair.

Bone is perpetually vexed, however by my favorite character on this series, Jewish attorney Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel), a real "character" who seems to defend absolutely every litigant in Rome. Wambaugh harbors a brilliant and entirely politically-incorrect sense of humor, and also nurses a deep-seated inferiority syndrome. The entire cast of Picket Fences deserves kudos for great, consistent performances, but the interplay between Bone (Walston) and Wambaugh (Finkel) is an absolute delight; a high point of humor and wit. Every time we land in the court room with these two characters, the writing seems to ratchet up from the level of smart to genius; and the humor goes from being simply amusing to laugh-out-loud funny. When you hear the words "Wambaugh for the Defense," or some blunt variation thereof, hold onto your hats. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

In an important sense, Wambaugh deflates any tendency David E. Kelley might have to become self-important or self-indulgent. Just when you fear the series might become pedantic or lapse into a stultifying lecture on diversity, for instance, Wambaugh strides in and punctures that pompous balloon with an absolutely impolitic remark, rejoinder or joke.

In the annals of TV history, Wambaugh is one of the most remarkable characters ever brought to life, and Finkel is an absolute dynamo of perfect comedic timing and delivery. And on those occasions when Wambaugh does wax serious (discussing the death of his parents during the Holocaust), it practically takes your breath away...because you're not prepared for Wambaugh's perpetual shield of self-mockery and humor to drop so suddenly. It's not too difficult to discern that Wambaugh is the spiritual father of William Shatner's beloved but wacky Denny Crane on Boston Legal. In later seasons of Picket Fences, Wambaugh is pitted against an attorney general that is his equal, played by Don Cheadle, but in Season One of Picket Fences, Wambaugh almost steals the whole show.

I remember watching Picket Fences when it originally aired, and I especially remember the night that it was pre-empted so that the national news could cover the O.J. Simpson freeway chase. What I didn't realize, however, is how many "signature" Picket Fences episodes occur in this remarkable first season. These episodes all ring a bell, but I just didn't remember they came so fast in the series' early history. In this collection, you'll find the episode about a woman whose "killer menopause" is the legal excuse when she runs over her husband with a steam roller ("Bad Moons Rising.") Here is the episode with the Catholic nun/angel of death practicing euthanasia in Rome's hospital ("Sacred Hearts.") Here is the episode "High Tidings" in which -- the day before Christmas, Jimmy and Jill find Kimberly having sex with her boyfriend. Here is "Nuclear Meltdowns," in which Kenny dates identical twins (one spontaneously orgasms while he's having intercourse with the other..).

All I can say is that these episodes are as outrageous, as entertaining, as wicked, and as impolitic as they were sixteen years ago, at the time of original broadcast. Whether the Brocks are reckoning with an Indian tribe that has unexpectedly declared war on Rome ("Rights of Passage") or dealing with Kimberly's unexpected lesbian kiss ("Sugar and Spice,") this series is ribald, witty and wholly endearing. It's also a perfect snapshot of America as it was in the early 1990s. The Red/Blue State Divide was not as pronounced then as it is now, but here you see the seeds of it: good, intelligent Americans countenancing difficult issues and falling on opposite sides due to personal judgment.

What I love so dearly about Picket Fences is that the ideological divide, once always repaired. Jimmy and Jill fall on different sides of several critical issues (patient-doctor confidentiality, for one), but the center always seems to hold. A country - or a family - divided against itself cannot stand, and Picket Fence understands that well. Characters yell at each other here and passionately argue their points of view. But underneath those differences is a common bond of community and caring, of family and love. And that bond, the series understands, is one that should never be shattered.

I loved Picket Fences when it aired back in the 1990s, and I purchased the first season on a sort of whim, wondering if the series would hold up after so many years. I watched the pilot and had my doubts (it is easily the worst, most-stilted, most-"off" episode of Picket Fences in the first season...), but by the third or fourth episode, I realized that the series remains as imaginative, as informed, as infuriating, as intelligent and as laugh-out-loud funny as I recollected.

So where the hell is the second season collection, 20th Century Fox? Rome isn't just a nice place to visit. One trip there, and you'll want to move in....

Theme Song of the Week # 39: The Flash (1990)

Friday, December 26, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: And Soon The Darkness (1970)

I first saw it over ten years ago, but Robert Fuest's And Soon The Darkness (1970) remains one of my all-time favorite horror films.

This nearly-forty-year old genre thriller written by Terry Nation and Brian Clemens holds up remarkably well on repeat viewings, is unbearably tense in all the right places (and in all the best ways), and is so icily, so glacially precise in the clever application of horror movie techniques, that it deserves some pretty serious admiration.

Yet the movie only rarely garners the devotion of horror movie aficionados, perhaps because there are so many other great, landmark horror films of the 1970s.

Or perhaps because this production is short on gore and -- even in its wildest moments -- And Soon The Darkness maintains a high-degree of cold-blooded restraint.

And Soon The Darkness is a film of the "road-trip gone wrong" variety, but with some unique twists on that sturdy template. Specifically, the film concerns two British nurses, Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice), on vacation, taking a bicycle tour of rural France. Before long, the beautiful young women find themselves on an isolated country road "miles from anywhere."

Although this was part of their plan -- to "keep off the main see the real France" -- Jane and Cathy soon regret their selection of routes. They happen across a wooded patch of lonely road, one where three years earlier a brutal murder occurred "about this time of year."

Worse, according to a British ex-patriot, a teacher of French literature (and perhaps a lesbian?), who has moved to these parts, "it was more than murder...if you know what I mean." What she suggests ever so subtly, actually, is that the homicide was preceded by violent sexual assault...

Before long, Cathy and Jane are separated (they have a row about a man), and Jane heads on down the road by herself. She thinks better of it after a while, and returns for her friend. But Cathy...has disappeared. Jane finds only a wrecked bicycle -- and Cathy's under garments -- scattered across the woods.

At first, a desperate Jane is in denial ("she's hiding from me...just trying to scare me."), but before long, she realizes that something sinister has occurred to her friend and riding partner. But Jane is forever a stranger in a strange land; she knows neither the local language nor the local terrain. And Jane clearly doesn't know whom to trust.

The local gendarme, who lives in the station house with his senile old father?

The lady at the cafe who warns that this is "a bad road" and seems to be locked in a strange feud with a neighbor?

The mysterious, sun-glasses-wearing man on the moped who playfully follows Jane and Cathy down the road and claims to be a government investigator?

The Gendarme's senile father, who stands in the nearby field -- watching everything like an immobile scarecrow -- and, who, at a critical moment, wields a scythe?
For easy shorthand, just think of And Soon The Darkness as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) set in rural France. Only without the delirium.

Some important visual touches distinguish And Soon The Darkness. The first is that the film's harrowing events occur entirely in daylight, so the movie can't rely on the impenetrable blackness of night either to scare you or to successfully obscure what you see. Rather, quite inventively, the filmmakers erect a constant but entirely unspoken tension: Jane is racing against sundown too; not just the locals. Soon night will fall, and then there will be real terror on that lonely country road.

Secondly, And Soon The Darkness is set almost entirely outdoors, with only a few forays to interiors (most notably to the gendarme's house; and to the interior of an old RV in a French trailer park...).

Director Fuest generates considerable suspense by maintaining near-obsessive focus on that damnable country road, which stretches endlessly behind and ahead of the tourists, and which features no safe harbors...only mysterious woods, distant fields, and inscrutable strangers. Before the film is over, Jane navigates this section of road perhaps a dozen times (ever more hysterical...) yet every turn and every double-back represents a dead end of sorts...and night is still pending. The road, which seemed so wide open at first, soon becomes suffocating in its smallness.

Given the focus on the landscape, And Soon The Darkness features many beautiful long shots, which successfully highlight the isolation of the British nurses as they stray into dangerous foreign territory. A number of shots also find the camera perched relatively low to the ground (with the road and the woods taking up a significant percentage of the frame), so that when an "alien" object -- like the front wheel of an unknown vehicle -- looms suddenly into the foreground, it has an ominous, frightening effect.

A masterpiece of understated horror -- and one which makes do with very little dialogue -- And Soon The Darkness puts us in Jane's place on that country road of the damned, heightening a powerful sense of identification. Fuest occasionally deploys P.O.V. shots from the bicycle to land us there right beside his imperiled protagonist, but more trenchantly, he utilizes obstacles such as the language barrier to build our frustration and anxiety. Much of the film's hair-raising third act involves Jane's absolute inability to distinguish friend from foe, as her world grows smaller and smaller.

Finally, from that deceptively wide-open road, Jane's universe shrinks down to the size of a claustrophobic trailer closet...where a deadly, macabre surprise awaits. We're symbolically beside her in that shrinking domain the entire time, watching with anxiety as Jane's options narrow further and further, one at a time. By film's denouement Fuest has successfully limited our view (and experience) to extreme close-ups of Jane's crazy, furtive, desperate eyes (a technique Tobe Hooper would also use to great effect with Marilyn Burns in the third act of Chainsaw.)

By the climax of And Soon The Darkness, you'll feel as though you've endured an agorophobic's nightmare too, because the film so powerfully engenders a fear of wide-open spaces and a fear of foreign travel. The movie triggers palpable terror by depositing our heroine (Jane) and viewers far outside our comfort zones. In And Soon The Darkness, the world is an indecipherable nightmare, we have no allies, and that road is a setting from which there is no easy escape.

When the film ends, and the worst fate is avoided, Fuest makes a final, devastating artistic choice. Instead of providing us the darkness we expected in the form of the coming nightfall, he shows us something poetic and unexpected: a brief catharsis. A cleansing rain falls across the road, washing the horror -- the blood -- away.

But even there, Fuest isn't done throttling us. A high-angle shot tracks away from a weeping Jane and another bloodied survivor, and we unexpectedly find ourselves looking down through a trailer's transparent sun roof, down upon a corpse. Then, we cut away to that ubiquitous road once more, as two "new" girls ride by on bicycles.

Perhaps the horror isn't over after all...perhaps that stretch of rural road is actually a Mobius Strip, a strange, monstrous loop, taking us right back to the point where the terror originated.

The curtain falls. And soon the darkness comes. Again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Hey everybody, Happy Holidays from the Muirs!

I hope all you fine readers have a safe and happy holiday filled with laughter, love, good food, good fellowship...and good horror movies. (I recommend Eyes Wide Shut for holiday themed horror viewing by the way: just the thing to mitigate all the joy of the season; a meditation on marital alienation, fantasies of infidelity and creepy orgies, starring Tom Cruise, no less).

No, but seriously -- however you decide to spend it -- enjoy the season!

This is two-year old Joel's first "real" Christmas, the first one in which he understands what the heck is happening and can tell us what he thinks of it.

Yesterday, he helped one of our cats, Lila, pull the golden garland off the Christmas tree so she could eat it. There are now chunks of regurgitated garland all over the carpets...

When we ask Joel what Santa Claus is bringing him for Christmas, he replies "everything."

I hope Santa doesn't let him down. It's hard to fit "everything" under a tree...

Hope Santa doesn't let any of you down, either.

Now Kathryn says I have to stop blogging and be with the family. :)

Happy Holidays,

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

RETRO TOY UPDATE: More Colorforms

Way back in 2005, the first year I began writing this blog, I displayed some of my prized colorform sets (including Flash Gordon, Star Trek and Space:1999). I've been going through various closets, attic and crawlspace storages lately and weeding through old (and forgotten...) collectibles, and I discovered this: my Batman Cartoon Kit/"colorforms toy" from the year 1966.

Produced in Norwood N.J. and licensed by National Periodicals Publications, Inc., this Batman colorform set allows you to put the Dynamic Duo through their paces while battling the Joker and the Penguin (with a backdrop of Gotham City and the batmobile by moonlit night).

"Now! Your favorite hero in colorforms plastic!" reads the box. "Colorforms plastic pieces stick like magic. Easily lifted to put away, ready to play over and over again. No scissors, no paste, no muss."

Monday, December 22, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Quantum of Solace (2008)

So...this is the new normal.

By that I mean that Quantum of Solace (2008) -- the 22nd big screen adventure of James Bond, 007 -- cements the aesthetic direction of the Daniel Craig Era.

It's a cinematic epoch which follows, in sequence, The Sean Connery Era (1962-1968; 1970), The George Lazenby Moment (1969), The Roger Moore Era (1971 - 1985), The Timothy Dalton Era (1987 - 1989) and The Pierce Brosnan Era (1995 - 2002).

Described in a different way, we've had -- more or less -- a signature Bond for each of the previous four decades; for the mod/swinging Sixties, the malaise/disco days of the Seventies, the conservative Eighties, and the roaring Nineties.

Contemplated in a larger context, Daniel Craig's still-unfolding span plainly represents The New Millennium 007, a James Bond who straddles the confusing, contradictory world as it exists today.

It's a world in which international alliances are strained; in which the ends justify the means; in which the West is facing a crisis of principles; and in which dwindling natural resources (whether oil, water or food...) represent the ultimate prize. Trust in government is at an all-time low, and fear (of terrorism, of environmental apocalypse, and of economic meltdown...) is at an...all-time high (with apologies to Rita Coolidge...).

The narrative and stylistic direction for the Daniel Craig Era was established brilliantly in Casino Royale (2006) , a ground-up re-boot of the sturdy action-film franchise. And it is embellished upon succinctly here, in this all-business book-end. For Quantum of Solace is a direct successor that resumes the story of Bond scarcely minutes after the last film ended.

My most significant complaint about Casino Royale was that it seemed to end with so much of the storyline still up in the air, without a real or satisfying (or even particularly spectacular...) climax. By contrast, Quantum of Solace plays virtually as continual climax (a description James Bond would no doubt appreciate...).

The best way to experience the Craig Era right now? Watch these two films back-to-back, because they are connected in intricate, complementary fashion. That's what I did. I watched Casino Royale the night before going out to see Quantum of Solace in theaters, and these two films fit hand in glove. They are dramatically of a piece.

Thus far, and given this background as context, the Craig Era seems to consist of equal part tradition and innovation; continuing the things that have always worked beautifully about James Bond's universe, and adjusting or discarding those elements that don't play so well today.

So yes, this is the new normal.

I must admit -- as much as I enjoy this new approach -- the post 9/11 Bond aesthetic takes some adjusting to; especially for old-timers like me who grew up in the daffy Roger Moore era. Yet in some very important senses, Daniel Craig's spell as Agent 007 is plainly emerging as a new golden age for the legendary, long-lived character, especially if these two installments are an indication of the series' continued energy level, commitment to consistency, and quality of imagination. Not since Sean Connery's apex (in my opinion, Dr. No through Thunderball...) have we had two such engrossing, involving, consistent Bond films in a row.

Some specifics: Quantum of Solace concerns a dogged James Bond (Craig), who -- following the tragic death of his lover, Vesper -- relentlessly pursues the agents of Quantum, a shadowy international organization boasting clandestine operatives literally everywhere (as one explosive sequence aptly demonstrates).

Bond's investigation takes him to Haiti, Italy, Bolivia and ultimately Russia to track down elements of the secretive, multi-headed hydra known as Quantum. James is committed to destroying the organization, perhaps over-committed to it. But whether his dedication arises purely from personal reasons or rather for professional ones is a source of the film's ongoing (but underlying...) tension.

After years now of watching needlessly angsty, vengeful heroes on the big screen (credit Batman for that one...), we're inclined to ascribe to this Bond some deep internal emotional strife (read: EMO), when what he actually displays in Quantum of Solace is something different entirely; a mask. A suppression of his emotions and pain with drink and violence. This is very, very near to the Ian Fleming Bond of classic literature: Bond as (in the words of Fleming to Sean Connery): "a simple, straightforward, blunt instrument of the police force who would carry out his job rather doggedly."

Bond's primary nemesis in Quantum of Solace is the aptly named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) of Greene Planet, a would-be dedicated environmentalist who is actually a dedicated corporatist raider. Greene topples governments of Third World countries at the drop of a hat in order to procure their natural resources and thereby secure a profit. His latest bid for global domination is "Project Tiara," a Bush Doctrine-style pre-emptive first strike in the future global "water wars." Greene successfully cons everyone, from the CIA to the British Prime Minister, in order to secure the water supply of Bolivia, but he hasn't factored in the "dogged" Bond breathing down his neck. Interestingly, Greene is a diminutive little twerp -- like a self-satisfied CEO -- and as such, the perfect villain for our time..even if he doesn't possess any trademark Bond villain deformity (like Dr. No's metal hand, or Renard's bullet in the brain.)

Along the way, Bond teams up with beautiful Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), a woman on a personal quest of her own. She seeks revenge against the Bolivian General Medrano, whom Greene plans to install as the new President after the current government is toppled. Since their priorities align, Bond and Camille lay siege to a remote Bolivian headquarters/hotel -- which runs not too safely on eco-friendly fuel cells -- as Greene conducts his nefarious business with the would-be-tyrant.

While all this is occurring, M (Judi Dench) has a very tough decision to make about her most headstrong agent: Is Bond worthy of her trust? Is he a simple, straightforward blunt instrument, or a reckless loose cannon?

It's "good to have you back," she tells Bond at one point, after the dust has settled. "I never left," he replies, deadpan.

As viewers, we are thus asked to judge for ourselves the honesty and validity of Bond's response. But impressively the film doesn't push one answer or another. If Bond suffers inner turmoil, emotional distress and grief, he does so in solitude; and only inside. This is the last step of his "training" process, the final prelude to truly becoming "007."

Which is why, no doubt, the famous gun barrel opening has been shifted to the film's coda for Quantum of Solace. Because Bond's indoctrination to this shadowy world -- a world where loyalties can never really be known - is finally complete. The end of Quantum of Solace represents the beginning of Bond as a professional.

Quantum of Solace proves an engaging, exciting and rather serious entry in the James Bond film canon. I'm old enough to remember a time when Time Magazine complained bitterly about the Bond films being too light-hearted and even suggested that Bond had become such a self-parody -- so innocuous, androgynous and anonymous (by the time of Octopussy [1983]) -- that he could be played by Michael Jackson. Basically, serious Bond fans spent years, even decades deriding the silliness of the Roger Moore era (Moonraker, anybody?), wishing - hoping - for a return to the relative seriousness of the Fleming books and early Connery efforts.

That dream was half-achieved in the age of Timothy Dalton (a Bond I deeply admire). He approached the role seriously and smartly, but the scripts weren't really consistent enough to achieve the goal. The Pierce Brosnan era was even more helter skelter, opening strong with GoldenEye (1995), but descending by Die Another Day (2002) into a campy, outlandish world of ice castles, invisible cars, laser gloves and a CGI Bond ludicrously wind-surfing tidal waves.

No, it's only now, with the one-two punch of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace -- in the age of Craig -- that the long-hoped for vision of Bond as a real, flawed human being is fully realized. Given that fact, I'm experiencing a bit of whiplash from all the criticism that Quantum of Solace is somehow too serious. One critic even quipped, "Lighten up, James." My answer: the books were pretty damn serious; and one of my favorite Bond films, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is pretty damn serious too. Quantum of Solace doesn't seem out of line, at least to me. Craig is indeed serious -- and believable physically (which Moore wasn't; and which Brosnan wasn't) -- but it's not like he's mopey, down-in-the-mouth or navel gazing. At least not when there's a martini around, or someone to be killed.

Marc Forster can direct action, and he directs the action well in Quantum of Solace. His error, I believe is that he occasionally aims too high when he should have more wisely and conservatively settled just for capturing the essentials. In a few of the big action moments (in two instances, to be specific), Forster apes Coppola-style Apocalypse Now or Godfather cross-cutting. In one scene, for instance, Forster cuts a violent exterior chase between Bond and an assassin with the goings-on at a Sienna horse race. In another action sequence, Forster intercuts a fast-paced gunfight with a performance of Puccini's Tosca.

Now, on the one hand, I always laud ambition and the calculated selection not to go for a lowest-common denominator approach. As a critic, I dig this kind of thing. But on the other hand, in a Bond film this just feels rather pretentious. By the inclusion of the cross-cutting montages (and the use of Tosca) Marc Forster seems to be indicating none too subtly that for him the James Bond world is not enough; that Bond must exist on some rarefied, art-house level.

Still, I'll take this intellectual approach over close-ups of pigeons doing double-takes any day, if you get my meaning.

Some critics have also claimed that the action scenes of Quantum of Solace are incoherent. I disagree. There are a few bad choices (two very similar-looking black cars are featured in the opening chase scene, which makes identification difficult...), but for the most part the action is absolutely thrilling. The violence level is ratcheted up; the pace is extreme, and some of the shots literally assault the audience. There's one amazing moment in which a ledge topples and Bond falls into the camera. Another virtuoso shot follows Bond and a nemesis tumbling downward through a glass ceiling onto a scaffold, and the camera rides the whole way.

I don't think it's exactly fair to state that the "quick cutting" action-style used in Quantum of Solace is ripping off Bourne, either. This is simply the vernacular for action movies in our times. In the old days, Bond fights were made to look more fierce and pacey by literally speeding up the film; by fast-motion photography. Go back and look at the final battle aboard the Disco Volante in Thunderball (1965) and you'll see what I mean. We're experienced enough viewers today, in 2008, that our eyes recognize that trick; we see the film is sped up to apear more thrilling.

Quick cutting is simply the twenty-first century equivalent of speeding up the film-- a technique to enhance our sense of excitement. In forty years, we might laugh at it, see through it, or consider it quaint. But for today, this is simply how action movies are forged and to complain about its prominence in Quantum of Solace is the equivalent of complaining that the Bond films are sexist. Get over it. And remember that Bond films have always adopted the latest popular film trends anyway, from blaxploitation [Live and Let Die] to Star Wars [Moonraker] to parkour [Casino Royale]).

As far as Quantum of Solace's plot being inconsequential, I'll simply say this: in a galaxy far, far away, the Clone Wars began with a trade route dispute in some out-of-the-way solar system, didn't they? The point here isn't so much that Bolivia is imperiled; rather that Bond discovers an international organization de-stabilizing governments so as to control resources in an upcoming environmental end-game. Who's next?

Frankly, this is a highly consequential plot; and one of great, timely importance. Unfortunately, the First World is going to be battling over the Third World for the next several decades (just look at the Two Gulf Wars...), and this is the terrain the Bond Universe has settled on, which is both smart and realistic.

Another way to look at this: is this Bolivian gambit by Greene any less consequential a plot than a mad-man trying to sink Silicon Valley so he can sell more microchips (A View to a Kill?). Or an assassin selling a solar agitator (Man with the Golden Gun) to the Chinese? Or bringing down a drug lord (Licence to Kill?) Quantum of Solace is still about controlling the world; but it's about a covert operation to do so; a "phantom" piece of a much larger, more sinister puzzle.

I also enjoyed Quantum of Solace because it is a movie firmly rooted in Bond tradition, even as it gazes forward rather than back. If you think about it, in Quantum of Solace we have a possibly rogue Bond (in the spirit of Licence to Kill) teaming up with a revenge-hungry woman (For Your Eyes Only), to stop a criminal organization (like SPECTRE) from taking over the world, a piece at a time. But let's be honest, didn't the earlier films bungle the whole SPECTRE story?

Blofeld was played by a variety of actors (Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray), and each film about SPECTRE ultimately played as a sort of alternate-universe stand-alone because of it . Bond's wife was killed by Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but Bond never even mentioned his wife, Tracey, in the follow-up film, Diamonds Are Forever. The human essence of that story -- of Bond's love and Bond's loss -- was sacrificed in the Lazenby-Connery shift, in the Savalas-Gray shift, in the narrative refusal to countenance that Bond's life had changed dramatically; and in the commercial necessity to conform to "business as usual," with Bond happily seducing Tiffany Case and anti-climactically smashing Blofeld on an oil rig.

Contrast that debacle with the rigorous continuity between Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and you begin to understand why the new approach is superior. Here, a mourning Bond doesn't just miraculously forget everything that happened to him in the last movie. There's a real and noble attempt at continuity instead. Furthermore, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace appears to be building-up to a big confrontation with Quantum, step-by-step. That's precisely the sort of thing we never got with the early SPECTRE Bond films, after From Russia with Love. Again, it seems to me that this approach is legitimately a Bond film lover's dream because it takes Bond and his world seriously, the way that Fleming did. It's a world where action have consequences; where memory is long; and in which Bond discovers -- a bit at a time -- who his enemies really are. The cost of his line of work, as he learns, are pieces of his soul.

I have to admit, there was a moment near the conclusion of Quantum of Solace in which I experienced a strange and welcome sense of deja vu. Bond (in sleek black) was creeping stealthily through an enemy headquarters, one that was designed by Dennis Gassner to specifically resemble the designs of the brilliant Ken Adam. For a fleeting instant, I had the distinct impression was watching a Bond film of the 1960s; of the Connery era. Here was an actor with an equal level of gravitas (and physical believability); countenancing a story I cared about (like From Russia with Love, Dr. No, Goldfinger or On Her Majesty's Secret Service), battling against a powerful organization of supreme evil (like You Only Live Twice).

When I recognized that feeling, I realized with sudden optimism and excitement that the Craig Era represents a new Golden Age for 007. We've had standalone visions for forty-six years now. We've had the downs of Moonraker followed up by the ups of For Your Eyes Only, followed by the mediocrity of Octopussy followed by the downs of a View to a Kill...and what did we learn about Bond as a character, as a man through all that? I could make this complaint about the Brosnan era too. GoldenEye was good, but each succeeding film grew progressively and irrevocably worse until the series nadir of Die Another Day. Now -- at long last -- we have the makers of Bond films taking the heroic character and his legacy seriously, attempting to fashion a more consistent, more intelligent, more human, serial vision of this beloved hero. And in Daniel Craig we have an actor who perfectly embodies the three critical "S" factors of any Jams Bond: Sex, Sadism and Snobbery.

I know the purists wince at such proclamations, but the new normal is damn good. Two films into the Daniel Craig Age...and nobody's done it better; makes me feel sad for the rest.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Vault of Horror Strikes Back: Presenting the Top 25 Horror Films of the Modern Era!

One of my favorite blogs, Vault of Horror, is back with a second must-see list of horror film tops.

This time, the Vault opens the "Cyber-Horror Elite's" Top 25 films of the Modern Era (1990 - 2008). It's another tally that is certain to provoke debate (always a noble cause...), and the final selections are indeed fascinating ones.

Only a handful of my personal top ten made the list: The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2002) and a real dark horse; a favorite that I'm glad to see recognized as "horror" of the deepest, most disturbing type: Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

In general, I seemed more in tune with other critics on the previous list (the top 50 of all time), which I think may indicate how little real agreement there is on "contemporary" horror. It's still, in some important ways, too soon to be definitive. But this list is not only a great viewing primer, it's a terrific source for discussion.

I won't spoil the list, but let me just state that I am surprised by the film that represents director Eli Roth's output. I prefer Hostel (2005). Also, I'm sorry to see that such noble efforts as Jacob's Ladder (1990), Pitch Black (2000) and Silent Hill (2006) apparently had no traction with the other horror lovers. On the other hand, it's hard to deny the quality of most of the films that made the top 25. It's good to see American Psycho (2000) getting some belated love.

Check out Vault of Horror's entire list here. B-Sol has not only done a great job compiling and organizing this catalogue, he has analyzed it too, and provided some intriguing statistics on the selections.