Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Top 5 James Bond Movies

There's not much I can say about Skyfall that hasn't already been said. As a moviegoer, I have to think back to Raiders of the Lost Ark to find another film that was so universally embraced. This has gotten me musing about the James Bond series as a whole--a series that, until recently, I thought was completely dead in the water. Yes, the 50 years since Dr. No hit theaters have contained many moments of thrilling cinema, but also an awful lot of phoned-in performances and by-the-numbers plots. Yet Skyfall has got me excited about what's coming next. It's fun, extravagant, and compelling, It feels fresh, and that's quite an accomplishment for a franchise that is a half-century old. Director Sam Mendes and the talented cast deserve a lot of credit for pulling this off.

Now, for your edification, here is my completely subjective list of the top five James Bond movies. I expect, and hope, to be hotly debated on these selections.

5. Licence to Kill (1989). This will certainly be my most controversial choice, but I stand by it. I tend to prefer Bond stories that have a more personal angle and a stronger emphasis on character. Our protagonist "goes dark" in this one--both in terms of tone and the fact that he conducts his revenge mission outside the purview of MI6. At times the movie doesn't quite know what it wants to be: the ratio of humor to drama is not always calibrated to perfection. And, unlike most of the other entries in the series, it has a shabby, low-budget feel. Still, I appreciate Timothy Dalton's brooding take on the character. He, and the movie, deserve a second look.

4. Casino Royale (2006). (Daniel Craig version). Craig comes in with a similar mandate to Dalton's, but pulls it off with greater focus and conviction. In general I'm not a fan of reboots, but this is the exception that proves the rule. Here the tired jokes and formulaic set pieces are jettisoned, replaced with realism and urgency. For the first time in a long while, we believe in the danger. We believe that any of these characters could die at any moment. I have to think that Ian Fleming would have approved of this back-to-basics, take-nothing-for-granted approach.

3. Skyfall (2012). See comments above. I will add here that Javier Bardem's Silva is one of the strongest villains in the series: menacing and flamboyant in the classic mold, but, unlike Blofeld and some of the others, motivated by legitimate grievances.

2. From Russia With Love (1963). Of the early movies, this one does the best job of balancing the absurd with the sublime. It's Connery at his finest: a definitive performance by which all of his successors continue to be judged. Additionally, the stylish direction and pacing have the feel of a classic Hitchcock film.

1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). An eccentric effort, to be sure (early on in the film, one-shot Bond George Lazenby breaks the fourth wall to exclaim, "This never happened to the other fella!") but it's also thoroughly mesmerizing. Though not on Connery's level, Lazenby is actually quite good as Bond--particularly in the action sequences. In the Craig era we've come to expect pathos in our Bond movies, but On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the first to go to the dark places. The film boasts what may be John Barry's finest cinematic score--certainly his best among the many he did for Bond--and also the best actress--Diana Rigg--ever to assume the role of a "Bond girl." It's a movie I keep going back to, which is not something I can say for most of the others. 

There you have it. I realize a lot of people would substitute Goldfinger for one of these choices, but I had the opportunity to revisit that installment recently and came away disappointed. Yes, it has flair, and is definitely groundbreaking, but it bends credulity to the breaking point in a number of key scenes. We are asked to believe, for instance, that Pussy Galore would call off a scheduled nerve gas attack after having sex with Bond. While I don't doubt his prowess in the bedroom (or, in this case, the haystack), the arbitrariness of her evil-to-good flip induces whiplash. There is also the matter of a countdown timer on a bomb that mysteriously stretches sixty seconds into something like ten minutes. Perhaps I'm getting nitpicky here, but this is sloppy filmmaking. It wouldn't matter so much in a bad move, but Goldfinger is within sight of greatness--which makes the fumbles especially vexing. Mark it as a close runner-up.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Church at the Enmore, 12/17/11

Watch The Church and other great gigs on Moshcam.

This has been a long time coming: A full, DVD-quality film of a Church concert, available to all. The folks at Mosh Cam will be rolling out the epic three-hour show in three parts. Up this week is the opening section of the set: a complete performance of the excellent Untitled #23 album. Then on Nov 27th we get to see the live rendition of my personal favorite Church LP: Priest=Aura, followed on Nov. 29th by Starfish--the album that turned many in the US onto these guys. Slap on some headphones (essential for the experience) and sink into this. You'll see why I went down the rabbit hole back in 1988 and never came out.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pazcalypse Now

Vinnie Paz is an Italian-American gangsta rapper who converted to Islam and has a fetish for assault weapons and alternative histories of ancient Egypt. Yes, he sounds like a Christopher Guest character, but he's real. "End of Days"--his magnum opus--hits all the sweet spots for the Zeitgeist crowd: the reptilian conspiracies of David Icke, 911 "Truth," chemtrails, and mind-controlling fluoride; and presents some new hypotheses I hadn't heard before: Barack Obama's genesis in a test tube and George W. Bush's ancestral connection to Aleister Crowley. It's unintentionally hilarious, yet I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't enjoy this tremendously.

But could we have found a skeleton on the moon if we never went there? I'm confused!

Props to Block McCloud for his earworm of a chorus.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

I Hope This Is Not How We'll Remember Clint

Like many in the nation I was deeply unnerved by Clint Eastwood's speech at the Republican National Convention, not because he endorsed Romney (Clint will always go his own way and that is one of the reasons he is so beloved) but because, even though he has looked like an old man since the age of 30, at the RNC he finally sounded like one.

For most of my life this man has seemed invincible and beholden to no one. He has also been an exemplary model of aging: most agree he has done his best work as a filmmaker in his seventies and eighties. I guess I got lulled into thinking that he would remain sharp as a tack and then, one day, just saddle up and ride off into the sunset.

This should serve as a reminder that the ravages of time spare no one. Clint Eastwood still appears to be a thoughtful man; perhaps he even has some more good movies in him. But, for the love of God, keep this man away from a speaking platform.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Who is Master Morya and Why will He/It/They be in Sacramento on Sep. 28?

In purely corporeal terms, Master Morya is a musical ensemble or, in the common parlance, a "band," whose sound has been described as  "Theosophical Crunk/Ska/Doom/Metal" deriving influence from such disparate progenitors as John Martyn, The Church, Brian Eno, Radiohead, Mogwai, Slint, Slowdive, Burt Bacharach, and Black Sabbath.

The identities of the musicians are as yet unknown, though many have speculated that they may be members of a breakaway sect of Quakers heavily influenced by the political and spiritual views of Hailie Selassie I.  In a dissenting view, one prominent blogger offered up an elaborate theory "proving" that the members of Master Morya are "tools of the military-industrial complex." Still another wag maintains that the band consists simply of "a compassionate barrister and his friend, a scrivener."

Purported photograph of the hot new rock 'n' roll act Master Morya

What is known is that the group is currently putting finishing touches on its debut album, The Dyatlov Pass Incident, and will be making a rare live appearance at The Fox and Goose in Sacramento, CA on September 28 as the supporting act for In Letter Form. If you're anywhere near the area, you would be well advised to hoof it over there as it may be your one and only chance to witness the spectacle of an Ascended Master briefly materialized on this earthly plane.

At this point you may be wondering if this is a matter of deep metaphysical significance or simply an elaborate gag. Why not both? Was not the creation of the duck-billed platypus proof that God Himself laughs?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kumare: The Borat of Spiritual Gurus

My wife and I saw a rather astonishing documentary last week called Kumaré. It follows the exploits of filmmaker/provocateur Vikram Gandhi as he adopts the guise of a bogus guru (the titular Kumaré) and attempts to acquire followers and inspire religious devotion in them. The experiement succeeds almost too well, with emotions becoming entangled and Gandhi just about losing himself in the process.

Kumaré is an enthralling movie that is also more than a little uncomfortable to watch. We the viewers get to play voyeur to some very personal moments. Spiritual intimacy is the final frontier of the "reality" genre, well beyond the surface-level drama typically on display in The Bachelor and Jersey Shore. Souls are on the line here. Fortunately, Gandhi has a light touch with his subjects. I shudder to imagine what Sacha Baron Cohen might have done in this situation.

Kumaré engenders discomfort for other reasons as well: no one can doubt the sincerity and intensity of the mystical experiences captured in the film, yet the instigator of these experiences is fake. Does that revelation negate said experiences in retrospect? The answer seems to be no, which opens a giant can of worms. The viewer is left wondering at what point religious ecstasy strays into delusion, and whether all spiritual belief is simply the projection onto an external object (the guru, Jesus, God) of our deepest conflicts and desires. The film opens this topic for discussion but does not provide resolution. Ironically, Kumaré--a self-described false prophet--may have been more authentic than many "real" gurus: during his ministry he took no money from his followers, did not engage with them sexually, and dispensed a core philosophy that he (that is, Vikram Gandhi) truly believed in: that people should trust in themselves and become their own gurus. Employing this equation renders the role of the much-vaunted Eastern guru superfluous. Interestingly, this was also the core teaching of J. Krishnamurti: another manufactured guru who ended up becoming a real one.

Of course the elephant in the room is the issue of exploitation. Each of these Borat-style films ups the ante in terms of subterfuge and gasp-factor. In the most extreme instances we get our entertainment at the expense of the unwitting victims' careers and reputations. Kumaré may be the product of a relatively benevolent, playful manipulator, but we can't always count on that being the case. What comes next?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson Takes on The Church of Scientology in "The Master"

I have mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson, mainly due to the fact that There Will Be Blood was THE WORST DATE MOVIE EVER (Okay, yes, the film's title should have clued me in on that possibility). But I am excited about his upcoming film The Master, which is quite clearly based on the bewildering saga of L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology. Frankly I'm surprised Anderson was able to get this film financed, considering the disproportionately large percentage of Scientologists within the Hollywood community. He must be a very resourceful and cunning fellow indeed. The casting is brilliant; I can think of no actor better suited to the role of the outsized Hubbard (named Lancaster Dodd in the film) than Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I was one of the lucky few who managed to find and read a copy of Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller's scathing biography of Hubbard, before the Church of Scientology essentially litigated the book out of print in the US. Filled with tales of black magic, free love, quackery, hypnotism, a Watergate-style break-in, and the, uh, Sea Org, it puts most sci-fi/fantasy novels to shame. Additionally, the story of how the Scientologists incessantly hounded and intimidated Mr. Miller in an attempt to halt the book's publication would make for a great movie in itself.

Thankfully, Miller has gotten the last laugh. Scientology's lawyers may be capable of putting publishers out of business, but so far they have proven unable to squelch the Internet. While US publishers have refused to reprint the book for fear of the inevitable avalanche of spurious lawsuits that would result, curious souls may now read the book online, for free. Needless to say, I recommend Bare-Faced Messiah unreservedly. It is a triumph of investigative journalism.

Of course, it remains to be seen how deeply Anderson's film will delve into the whole tawdry tale of L. Ron Hubbard's life, but at the very least The Master promises to be an entertaining couple of hours at the movies blissfully unsanctioned  by Xenu. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for religious freedom; in the grand scheme of things the cosmology of Scientology is not significantly weirder than what you might find in some other belief systems. But what I can't get behind is this particular organization's history of intimidating ex-members and journalists, and its demands that the current faithful pay out the nose for each successive level of spiritual attainment. That is not how a legitimate religion operates.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Long Musical Shadow of the 1960s

I've recently had the pleasure of watching Cream's 2005 reunion performance (Royal Albert Hall) on Netflix. Never mind why it took me so long, and never mind the diminished energy of these once incendiary performers; there's still no one else playing on their level. Plenty of virtuosos have followed, sure, but Cream possessed a combination of talent, innovation, and songcraft that seemed particular to their era: the 1960s.

Believe me, I don't want to be saying this. I am tired of the 1960s. For Christ's sake, I wasn't even alive then. I have no interest in the social revolution of that decade; it takes a spectacular degree of historical ignorance to enable a generation to believe that they invented free love and mind-altering drugs. Nevertheless, if such hubris contributed to the crucible that gave us The Beatles, Cream, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and so many others, then I am grateful. Most of my favorite bands came afterward but they were all, to greater or lesser degrees, derivative of what happened between 1965 and 1974 (the cut-off year, according to Robyn Hitchcock). The explosion in creativity that transpired during that period also gave rise to a disconcerting question: Where do you go from here? It's a question that has yet to be answered. And don't give me that "What about punk?" rejoinder. Punk was great, it needed to happen, it gave fresh life to the enterprise, but it wasn't seismic in the way that this stuff was. Credit must be given where credit is due.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Jack Reacher: Kicking the Crap out of People so We Don't Have To

I have drunk the Kool-Aid. Everything everyone says about Lee Child is true. He is simply the best in the biz--the Jimi Hendrix of thriller writers.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to the audiobook of Bad Luck and Trouble, the 11th novel in the Reacher series. The book begins with a man named Franz getting hurled out of a helicopter at the behest of another man who keeps compulsively tamping down his necktie so it won't blow around in the wind. What a genius way to start off; I can't imagine any reader with a pulse not wanting to see things through to the end after that. It quickly comes to light that Franz was very close with Jack Reacher, Childs' modern take on the masterless samurai archetype and one of the toughest characters to ever make his home on the printed page. We, the readers (or in my case, listeners) spend the rest of the story feverishly contemplating the nature and scope of whup-ass that is to be unleashed upon the ignorant fools who dared mess with Reacher's crew. This is pure, unadulterated revenge porn; bloodlust between two book covers; so, so wrong; so debased and unenlightened; so visceral. And so absolutely fantastic. It's a testament to Childs' considerable literary talent that, despite the fact that Reacher is described as a big, brutal giant with few redeeming social graces, the character draws as many female readers as male ones. I urge anyone and everyone to gobble these books up before the imminent Tom Cruise movie destroys this glorious world Lee Child has so brilliantly imagined for us.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Continuing Odyssey of Luke the Drifter

It seems fitting to blog on this Father's Day about my dad: the enigmatic Luke the Drifter. The man who once read The Sea Wolf to me aloud by the side of a crackling fire still walks among us and still looms large in my personal mythos. He's an intensely private man whose Christian name I dare not divulge in this public forum. But it's just as well: he requested a few years back that the world simply refer to him as "Luke." So that's what we call him now.

All my life I've been drawn to forceful, larger-than-life personalities such as Steve Kilbey and Ray Fisher. My grandfather was such a character, and I think being near people like that makes me feel alive. Yet in personal demeanor I aspire to emulate Luke: understated, grounded, attentive and serene. I've got a long way to go, but the perfect role model hovers near. God bless you, Luke. Long may you drift. You are my hero above all heroes.

For those readers jonesing for their very own Luke the Drifter fix--a portable dose of self-renewing, ever-glorious Lukeness--today's your lucky day! You can get a sample of Luke's vocal prowess on this 2007 version of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," which the three Lurie men recorded at The Grande Olde Country Pile on Bainbridge Island, WA. Luke is the one who comes in at the halfway point channeling Merle Haggard to my brother's Willie Nelson.