Old Power, New Power

We’re watching bits of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy on TNT today (right now it’s Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep, as J.D. calls it), and I’m reminded of something that always seems a little odd to me about fantasy stories.

A basic element of fantasy seems to be a tendency to look to the past: In the past, there were great wonders (and great terrors), creatures with fantastic powers, but over time those creatures and powers have gone away or fallen by the wayside, and the remnants of those powers are known only to a select few. Often there’s a tacit understanding that even these, too, shall pass.

The Lord of the Rings (both the novel and the films) is rooted in this notion, the passing of the ages of greatness and the rise of mortal men. Tim Powers’ terrific novel The Anubis Gates also uses this as a fundamental principle of the plot. And a panoply of fantasy stories in between are full of quests for lost powers, or filled with characters who know of forgotten lore. But how often does fantasy depict the creation of great powers in what is presented as “the modern day”? Surely there are some, but they’re the exception, aren’t they?

What I find interesting about this is that this is very much at odds with our observation of how the world works: Technology and power increases over time, not decreases. While the ancients built pyramids and great walls, what’s remarkable about their accomplishments is not that they achieved them, but that they achieved them given the tools they had at hand.

Science fiction embraces the notion of improving technology, of course: Charles Stross’ Accelerando is merely an extreme example of this philosophy, but science fiction assumes that we, humans, are the creators of great wonders, and not that we’re simply trying to rediscover or recapture glories of ages past. Where science fiction does portray great dead powers, it’s more with an air of those powers having simply had a head start on humanity, not that we won’t get there eventually (or that we’re going backwards).

I suppose fantasy is rooted in myth and religion, which were shaped in days when humanity was trying to figure out how things came to be that not only it couldn’t understand, but it has precious few frameworks for trying to understand them. So it seemed like the world was shaped by great old powers which had faded into history. Whereas science fiction developed in the industrial age, when our frameworks for understanding the world had developed to the point that we could shape it and use it.

I think this is a fundamental difference between the two genres. I don’t know if it’s a major slice of why I prefer SF to fantasy, but I do read fantasy stories and think things like, “Why can’t humans figure out how to live as long as elves? Or create magical wonders like those that once existed? Why must magic fade into the past?”

Does this bother other readers of fantasy, I wonder?

Rating the Bond Films

Here’s how I’d rank the James Bond films, from best to worst:

Here’s how I’d rank the James Bond films, from best to worst:

  1. Goldfinger (1964)
  2. From Russia With Love (1963)
  3. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
  4. Dr. No (1962)
  5. GoldenEye (1995)
  6. Live And Let Die (1973)
  7. Casino Royale (2006)
  8. Octopussy (1983)
  9. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
  10. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
  11. You Only Live Twice (1967)
  12. Thunderball (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983), which are basically the same movie
  13. The World is Not Enough (1999)
  14. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
  15. Die Another Day (2002)
  16. The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
  17. The Living Daylights (1987)
  18. Moonraker (1979)
  19. A View to a Kill (1985)

I haven’t seen enough of License to Kill (1989) or Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) to have an opinion of them. (Honestly, I barely remember The Living Daylights, either.)

Specific rankings might change depending on my mood. I would say that Dr. No and above are the great Bond films, The World is Not Enough and above are the good Bond films, and the rest are the bad Bond films.

The high ranking of the Connery films and low ranking of the Brosnan films are more a reflection of the scripts than the actors.

I admit it: I like The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s an incredibly cheesy, campy film, but that’s actually part of its appeal. Somehow it’s so ludicrous that it’s actually entertaining because of, rather than in spite of, its failings.

A lot of people really seem to hate Octopussy. I think it’s a decent run-of-the-mill Bond film. It’s really not much worse than – or much different from – Live and Let Die. But for my money, the best Moore film is For Your Eyes Only, which not only has the best opening sequence of the whole series, but is the one Moore film which is basically played as a straight adventure, rather than a silly piece of camp or with a completely ridiculous plot.

Casino Royale

Review of the film Casino Royale.

Movie night last night was to go see Casino Royale, the new James Bond film with Daniel Craig as the new Bond, the producers having ousted Pierce Brosnan, the Bond of the 90s.

(John Scalzi wrote a nice eulogy for Brosnan’s time as Bond. One thing he doesn’t mention – but which I recall from the late 80s – is that Brosnan wanted to be the Bond to follow Roger Moore, but his contractual commitment to Remington Steele caused the producers to choose Timothy Dalton instead – to no small fan outcry.)

Honestly, the only two Bond films I’ve seen in the theater since the Roger Moore days were The Living Daylights (1987) and The World is Not Enough (1999), but I’ve enjoyed the Bondfests on SpikeTV so much the last couple of years that I was pretty enthusiastic about seeing the new one.

Bond uncovers an ongoing plot by the investor Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), who short-sells stocks whose companies he knows will be the target of terrorist attacks. Bond foils one such plot by one of Le Chiffre’s agents, forcing Le Chiffre to play at a $150M Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament at the Casino Royale to recoup his losses to pay back his investors (who are themselves not very nice men). Bond is accompanied by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a government accountant overseeing the funds used to enter Bond in the tournament.

Casino Royale is sort-of presented as Bond’s first mission: The film’s teaser shows him getting his first two kills to achieve double-0 status. The film is then broken into four parts: First, chasing a lone bomber in Madagascar, which leads him to a plot to destroy a prototype airplane in Miami. Then the casino sequence in Montenegro, and finally a concluding sequence in which Bond falls for Vesper in a big way. The running theme of the story is of Bond’s coldness towards others, and the emotional armor he employs to allow him to do his job.

Daniel Craig as Bond is not bad. Having seen previews of the film for weeks, he kept reminding me of someone. Finally, I realized who:


On the left, Daniel Craig. On the right, Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner: Similar heavy brows, similar shapes to their noses and mouths. On screen the resemblance is even more clear, I thought.

My main complaint about Craig’s performance is that he doesn’t have the sense of humor that previous actors have brought to the character. Many of my favorite Connery moments involve his expression of “oh dear, this is going reather badly for you, isn’t it?”, and while Roger Moore could admittedly be over-the-top, he still had a good comic sense when presented with good material. Craig really does come across as ruthless and humorless, and while it’s not true that he never smiles, it seems almost unconvincing when he does.

But maybe it’s the script’s fault: The story is brutal, almost unrelentingly so. Certainly with 40 years of history behind it, including some pretty ludicrous plot premises, there’s a lot to live up to, and Casino Royale almost self-consciously works to break with tradition. There are no gadgets, no Q, and very little witty banter. There’s plenty of action, though, and at times the film feels very much like From Russia With Love (one of my favorites).

But I think the film gets away from some of what makes Bond films fun: The series isn’t really about the glamour or the women; fundamentally, Bond is a consummate professional, but he also cares, because he’s not just a killer, his job is to protect his country and its citizens. He may keep people at arm’s length emotionally, but he’s more than just a “blunt instrument”, as M (Judi Dench) calls him at one point. I think the script tries to recreate Craig as a Bond who is less fun to watch than his predecessors.

All that said, the film is often a lot of fun, with some amazing action sequences: The pursuit of the bomber in Madagascar is fantastic, and the chase at the Miami airport is equally terrific, the latter feeling more like a Bond film than any other scene in the film. The Casino Royale sequence has many interesting elements, but kind of goes on too long, with too many twists and turns and diversions. And then the denouement is almost agonizing, because you know that any woman who Bond genuinely falls for is doomed (c.f. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). The final shootout is actually not as strong as some earlier fights, although it’s not bad.

(Mean Gene writes about the film from a poker standpoint. I was pretty impressed with the level of detail of the mechanics of playing poker they worked into the film.)

The plot didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why Bond was in Madagascar to start with was unclear, and the trail leading up the chain of the conspirators was pretty thin, I thought. I didn’t see the point of going through with the whole poker tournament, either, from MI6’s standpoint. There never seemed to be much of a plan, and intent to follow up after the tournament was over. But strong motivation has not always been a big concern in the Bond films.

Overall I enjoyed the film, but I agree with Debbi who said afterwards that it didn’t feel like a Bond film. It may take another film or two for me to decide what I really think of Daniel Craig. Casino Royale was fun, but it had its flaws. I’ll be curious to see if they correct them in the next film, or if they continue to take the series in a new direction.

The Prestige

After thoroughly enjoying The Illusionist, I was interested to see The Prestige, which also features turn-of-the-century magicians. I expected it to be a less-stylish film, with flashier special effects and more of a thriller than a character drama. While I was right, that understates the film’s quality considerably: It’s quite a good film.

The film opens in 1899 with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) witnessing the death-by-drowning of his rival magician, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) during a perfoormance gone awry, followed by Borden being jailed for Angier’s murder, likely to be executed. In prison, Borden reads Angier’s diary from the last ten years, in which Angier in turn writes about decoding one of Borden’s journals.

The film centers around the rivalry between the two men. When they were young and both employed by the same magician, Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowned during an act, for which Angier blamed Borden for tying her with the wrong knot. Borden sets himself up as a solo act after meeting his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), but loses most of two fingers when Angier sabotages his bullet-catching act. Angier starts his own career working with their mentor, Cutter (Michael Caine), and his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), but his own early career is sabotaged by Borden.

Borden’s career takes off when he unveils a fantastic crowd-pleaser called The Transported Man, in which he enters one cabinet on stage and emerges from another one across the stage just a second later. Angier is desperate to copy this trick. Cutter is certain that Borden is using a double, but Angier is sure it’s the same man. Olivia agrees with Angier, since she’s seen that Angier is missing two fingers at both ends of the trick.

Angier sends Olivia to Borden to spy on him, and she produces Borden’s coded journal. Decoding it, the journal sends Angier to America to seek out Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie) who he is convinced will yield the secret of Borden’s trick. This sets in motion the events that lead to the story’s tragic ending, which is layered with several surprises.

The Prestige was co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Nolan was also the man behind Memento – another very cool film – as well as Batman Begins, and he continues to entertain with his latest clever and engaging film.

The story of personal hatred and professional jealousy is very well done, and is mixed with Borden’s up-and-down relationship with Sarah, and his love for their daughter Jess (Samantha Mahurin). Although the film has the unavoidable sense of foreboding (given that it opens with Angier’s drowning), the feeling of watching these two men at the edge of a new scientific age, both of whom are dedicated to their professions, keeps alive the feeling that if only they’d give up their rivalry they’d both be the better for it.

The acting is first-rate. Bale and Jackman are both quite good, but they’re overshadowed by Caine’s fine performance as the man watching the drama from the wings, and especially by Bowie’s intense performance of obsession and self-control as Tesla. Johanssen is, well, not bad, but not great either; Hall’s role as Sarah has more meat to it, so she comes out with the stronger performance.

The underlying theme of the film is about tricks and secrets. One of the refrains in the dialogue is “Are you watching closely?” The film opens with this line, throwing down the gauntlet that there’s something funny going on here and challenging us to figure out what it is. The meat and potatoes of a magic act is a trick, fooling the audience into thinking they’re seeing something other than they are. But no trick is as successful as one backed by a deep secret, something the audience can’t suspect is working in the act. Both Borden and Angier are playing games with more than one level of secrets. Everything is revealed by the end, and although I figured some of it out ahead of time, some of it still managed to surprise me.

Although it has strong character elements, The Prestige is not the character drama that The Illusionist is, and I didn’t think it was quite as good a film. But it’s still very good, and if you enjoyed Nolan’s earlier films, you’ll like this one too.

Related Links:

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want the film’s secrets spoiled for you.

Continue reading “The Prestige”

Scalzi: Star Wars Not Entertainment

Not that he needs any referrals from me, but John Scalzi’s post “The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment” is both funny and insightful.

(Scalzi, for the both of my readers who don’t know, is a prince of a man and also one of the world’s elite kitten-jugglers, er, I mean, one of the most popular bloggers on the Web.)

I think he goes a little over the top in criticizing the original trilogy (Star Wars, Empire and Jedi), though he does allow that people other than George Lucas worked to make it entertaining. But my understanding is that Lucas didn’t get on his myth-making kick until after the original Star Wars came out. (I thought the original trilogy was solidly entertaining until they rescued Han Solo in Jedi, at which point it took a bizarre left turn into la-la land.)

Another point to spin out of Scalzi’s post is…

…those of you who know me can see this coming, right?…

…you can level almost identical charges against Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was primarily concerned with stroking the asinine Trek mythology about a bright, shiny, happy future for humanity, and which shoved aside (with great force) all of the conflict and character drama which made the original Star Trek good entertainment. Like Star Wars Eps 1-3, NextGen is largely bland and tedious, because it’s fundamentally unconcerned with entertaining the viewer.