Author Archives: Michael Mand

Blogalongabond – For Your Eyes Only: This Time it’s Personal

Before setting out for revenge, you first dig two graves” – Chinese proverb.

Thus speaks Roger Moore’s James Bond to the beautiful and bereaved Melina Havelock as she prepares to avenge the murder of her parents by mysterious henchmen. As with the latest instalment in the franchise Quantum of Solace, revenge is a major theme of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, a film which consciously sets out to reject the extravagance of its predecessor (Moonraker) while providing its hero with something approaching a back story.

We begin, as ever, with a short but key pre-title sequence, in which we find 007 standing beside the grave of his late wife. This may come as something of a surprise to non-Bond aficionados, who might understandably hold an image of Bond as the ultimate bachelor boy (Cliff Richard notwithstanding). However, we were introduced to Teresa “Tracy” Bond in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, who was murdered on the orders of arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld within hours of her nuptials. Just as the demise of Vesper Lynd at the end of 2006’s Casino Royale provided context for Bond’s driven, misogynistic coldness, this early reminder of his dark past offers an explanation for the revenge thriller to come in FYEO.

Our first taste of that which is best served cold comes immediately afterwards, as Bond is entrapped in a remote control helicopter at the mercy of the very same Blofeld (or so we assume – legal complications left the producers unable to use that character’s name and we never see his face; however, his bald head, wheelchair and clear affection for cats give the game away). Sitting atop a tall London building, which we can only assume has outstanding wheelchair access, “Blofeld” produces his usual over-egging of the assassination pudding, allowing 007 to regain control of the situation and dump the villain down a Beckton chimney stack.

John Glen, making his directorial debut, clearly realised that attempting to top the unparalleled absurdity of Moonraker (see PPH passim) would be a fool’s errand, and the plot of FYEO is infinitely more low-key, concentrating on character development and several very impressive stunt sequences, literally bringing the series back down to earth. A British spy ship is sunk, allowing a top secret system which controls the Royal Navy’s entire fleet of Polaris submarines to fall into unscrupulous hands. Bond is sent to investigate, at which point he crosses paths with Melinda (Carole Bouquet) who has already begun her campaign of revenge, taking out a suspect with a crossbow (apparently the weapon of choice for both female assassins and teenage psychopaths).

One signal of the shift in emphasis from previous films is the sheer lack of sex in FYEO. Far from bedding every skirt that moves, Bond is gently affectionate and almost fatherly towards Melina. At one point, faced with a young, naked blonde in his hotel bed, he insists she dresses and leaves the room. The blonde is sexually-terrifying Olympic ice-skating hopeful Bibi Dahl, played with perfect annoyance by real-life skater Lynn-Holly Johnson (not to be confused with the singer from Frankie Goes To Hollywood); her relationship with Bond is fairly absurd, but thankfully brief. The only woman with whom 007 actually becomes ‘intimate’ is fake-Countess Lisl von Schlaf (Casandra Harris), who amusingly transpires to hail from Liverpool. Even in this case, we are spared the gory details, though the Countess soon falls foul of the Bond curse as the victim of a beach buggy hit-and-run (Bond fact: at the time of filming, Harris was married to future 007, Pierce Brosnan).

Also mercifully missing from the film are Moonraker’s raised-eyebrow ‘humour’ and punning asides, along with that film’s globe-trotting location switches and over-reliance on gadgetry. Proof of this comes when Bond’s Lotus explodes, leaving him and Melina to flee armed pursuers in a battered 2CV – a car usually favoured by 1970s schoolteachers – during an enjoyable chase through the Spanish countryside. Indeed, the less over-the-top nature of the stunt set pieces is a strength of FYEO, with a lengthy pursuit through the Alps particularly impressive. The sequence sees Bond pack at least five Winter Olympic events into the space of ten minutes and should perhaps have seen the film re-titled The Spy Who Went Out in the Cold. Throughout the scene, 007 is pursued by lackeys on motorcycles, surely not the ideal mode of transport when going off-piste.

The major weakness of FYEO is the villains themselves who are fairly underwhelming. Bond’s main nemesis is Greek businessman Aris Kristatos, played by Julian Glover (earlier pipped by Moore for the role of Bond himself). Though a fine actor, Glover doesn’t bring the necessary maniacal oddness that we have come to expect of a super-villain, while the fact that his character is looking to make a quick buck from the cold war arms race, rather than achieve galactic domination, is another example of the film’s reigned-in ambition. This makes the arrival of the reliably larger than life Topol, as Kristatos’s pistachio-obsessed former colleague Milos Columbo, extremely welcome.

FYEO reaches its climax with another stunt sequence; having tracked Kristatos down to a mountain-top monastery, Bond and his companions proceed to scale an enormous cliff face in order to reach him. One is tempted to suggest that, with national security at stake, MI6 could have sent a fleet of SAS helicopters in to reclaim their hardware, rather than four Greeks in a basket, but that would be churlish. Perhaps we should just put it down to cuts in defence spending (though evidence suggests that this could be solved by simply sending 007 to a casino with what remains in the Treasury’s coffers)?

Despite the relatively straight tone of the film, perhaps the most bizarre scene in the entire series comes at the conclusion of FYEO, as our hero is patched through to the Prime Minister. Rather than portray a fictional character, impressionist Janet Brown is employed to impersonate Margaret Thatcher in a comic vignette involving husband Dennis, some biscuits and a talking parrot, which seems more suited to Not the Nine O’Clock News than a spy drama. Limited space prevents me from making any comments about Maggie proving the most convincing villain in the film.

Overall, this is mid-table Bond, never touching the heights of the Connery years, but avoiding the self-parody of Moonraker. The action is returned to sea and slopes and is all the better for it while Moore, despite advancing age, gives one of his better performances. The impressive stunt sequences aside, perhaps the most interesting things about For Your Eyes Only are the themes of revenge and the attempt to present Bond as a more rounded character, something which would anticipate the wounded, human secret agent that Daniel Craig has brought to our screens in recent episodes.

Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit.

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Blogalongabond – Moonraker: When Powers met Skywalker

Mocking a Bond film for its absurdity is like taking Picasso to task for being abstract; that’s the essence of their art. Albert R Broccoli’s spy series has provided plenty of guffaw-provoking moments down the years, however, 1979’s Moonraker remains the epitome of Bond silliness, throwing in a dash of cynicism and plenty of comic cheese to boot.

Moonraker’s predecessor, The Spy Who Loved Me, had promised us that Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only. By the time filming commenced, however, the world was in the grip of sci-fi fever in the wake of 1977’s Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Bond camp spotted a lucrative bandwagon. In Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel, Moonraker’s villain was a Nazi with a nuclear missile trained on London, but the film dispenses with all but his name (Hugo Drax), instead cramming in space shuttles, laser guns and Wookies (not really).

The cynicism of this alteration is apparent in the somewhat incoherent plot’s occasional similarities to the aforementioned sci-fi blockbusters; at one point we witness Bond turn his spaceship’s laser gun to manual in order to hit his target (presumably using “The Force”), while a laboratory’s entry keypad actually plays the chimes from Close Encounters’ alien craft.

We open with the usual pre-title sequence in which, apropos of nothing, Bond is turned upon by a gun-toting stewardess and thrown from his private plane without a parachute, an issue which causes our hero only mild inconvenience. We also discover that a space shuttle, loaned to Britain by the US, has been stolen. Quite why Britain would wish to borrow a space shuttle is unclear; perhaps the recently elected Thatcher government had plans for galactic conquest?

Drax himself is rendered instantly villainous by way of his ostentatious wealth, beard and German accent, which make his plan to commit genocide to pave the way for a master race seem somewhat like national stereotyping (the master race themselves look worryingly like the cast of the musical Hair). He instantly launches several extravagant attempts to kill 007, as ever passing up a number of perfectly decent opportunities to simply shoot him in the head. Instead, a series of loyal henchmen are quickly mopped up by Bond, turning one’s thoughts towards the brilliant Austin Powers skit about the effect on such henchmen’s families (not the only moment in the film that summons the ghost of Powers).

Among the henchmen is Jaws (another Spielberg reference?) who turns up to work for Drax, presumably recruited from the ‘intimidating heavy’ equivalent of Office Angels. Richard Kiel’s character had previously appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me, proving so inexplicably popular with children (perhaps this film’s true target demographic) that he was recalled for Moonraker and even rewarded with a girlfriend and Road to Damascus-style conversion. His sudden switch from the dark side is particularly hard to swallow and adds to the impression that this is more kiddie flick than spy thriller.

Roger Moore in Moonraker - "eyebrow-arching irony at its zenith"

One of the major criticisms of the film is its supposedly ‘comic’ approach, with Moore’s eyebrow-arching irony at its zenith. Certainly there is fun to be had, particularly as Bond is stalked by yet more potential assassins while cruising the canals of Venice; one scene involves a knife-throwing killer rising from a floating coffin, before Bond quickly returns him from whence he came. However, this is followed by a scene in which 007 outruns a speedboat in a motorised gondola, before taking it onto dry land for a drive through the Piazza San Marco. It’s more Benny Hill than Bond, and even features a ridiculous double-taking pigeon. Similarly, the use of music from other films to soundtrack key set pieces, such as The Magnificent Seven during a bizarre scene when Bond dresses as a cowboy, simply adds to the feeling that this is self-parody of the silliest kind.

There is some respite from the barrage of cheese, with occasional throwaway lines ranging from the Wildean (“Mr Bond. You return with all the inevitability of an unloved season”) to the Kenneth Williams-ean (“I believe he’s attempting re-entry, Sir”), but Moore’s oak-stiff delivery frequently seems more suited to the world of pantomime than international espionage.

As ever, there are babes in abundance, as our hero continues to ignore widely accepted sexual health advice. However, they are unmemorable in the extreme, with the exception of Corinne Dufour, who provides the film’s only genuinely dark moment when Drax has her pursued and eaten by a pack of dogs. Meanwhile, the name of scientist/CIA agent Holly Goodhead would provide Mike Myers with several films worth of mucky puns.

In this post-Bourne world, and in the light of Daniel Craig’s emotionally damaged, action-thug Bond, Moonraker seems camp and unbelievable. Equally ludicrous moments pop up throughout the Bond series, but this film’s attempt to stitch so many together, while self-consciously playing the ‘comedy’ card, leave it feeling retrospectively Powers-lite and very much of its moment. That it remained the highest grossing Bond film until 1995’s Goldeneye only goes to show how well Myers knew his audience when he launched his cash-cow parody on the world.

Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit.

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PPH @ LFF: The First Born and the Last of the Silent Era

I was lucky enough this week to attend the London Film Festival’s Archive Gala, which presented us with the latest in line of the BFI’s fine restorations of neglected British films, Miles Mander’s directorial debut The First Born.

The reappearance of this fascinating 1928 silent drama is timely, as the LFF audience has been treated to Michel Hazanavicius’s brilliant new homage to the dying days of silent film, The Artist. While Hazanavicius focuses on Hollywood, The First Born is a very British film which consciously reflects its era’s societal changes, while unconsciously finding itself in the midst of a vast sea change in the history of cinema itself.

Mander stars as the caddish Sir Hugo Boycott opposite a pre-blonde Madeleine Carroll, who plays his wife Maddie. With Maddie unable to produce an heir, and the couple quarrelling, Boycott leaves the country to travel to Africa. Retreating into London society, Maddie discovers a rather perilous solution to her problem, along with the attention of an admirer, and the film goes on to explore what were surely considered to be somewhat scandalous issues at the time with sensitivity and sophistication.

At the time that filming on the The First Born began, it would have been at the cutting edge of silent cinema. By the time of the film’s release, however, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, shot the previous year, had opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre and the age of the talkie had begun.  Just as The Artist covers a brief period when an established art form was about to be hit by the tidal wave of modernity, Mander’s film marks the end of an era in British cinema, while reminding us just how valuable much silent era British film was and is.

The issue of our attitudes to these films is reflected in the BFI’s excellent current campaign to “Rescue the Hitchcock 9”; the silent works of perhaps Britain’s greatest director, which have been much neglected and require substantial restoration. However, as Pamela Hutchison has observed in The Guardian (while previewing The First Born), the recent discovery of film reels by British director Graham Cutts in New Zealand was barely reported, and what coverage there was tended to concentrate on the footage’s Hitchcockian connections, rather than the reputation of Cutts himself. As Hutchison says, “by overstating [Hitchcock’s] influence we risk casting his peers into oblivion”. This new version of The First Born is certainly a step towards redressing that balance.

The shadow of Alfred the Great does fall across this film all the same. Mander appeared in films including Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden and Murder!, and his filmmaking style is clearly influenced by the director, while Carroll made perhaps her most famous appearance in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. The most important link to Hitchcock comes with Mander’s choice of co-writer, Alma Reville. Reville was married to Hitchcock, but she was also a long-established screenwriter in her own right and her work on The First Born showcases the thematic influence she would later bring to her husband’s films. Furthermore, one particularly memorable scene features a voyeuristically Hitchcockian handheld camera shot, as Sir Hugo searches for his wife through the marital bedroom; a cinematographic device which seems well ahead of its time.

The BFI’s restoration of The First Born, aided by the loan of a 16mm print of the film from George Eastham House in the United States, features expertly restored lost scenes and repaired damage, and returns the beautiful amber, pink and lavender tints which would have decorated 1920s showings. This makes for a compelling and good looking film, but one of the real stars of this new screening was not part of the original. A brand new score by composer Stephen Horne was performed for the first time as part of the Gala screening and provided a rich, unusual compliment to the film’s many moments of romance and suspense.

Performed by a three piece, including Horne himself on piano and various other instruments, Maddie’s melancholy and despair are reflected by a mournful oboe motif, while the trio manage to work up an edge-of-seat racket during moments of suspense and even segue into World Music-style percussion during the Africa sequence. The score also weaves in elements of well-known melodies, with the use of ‘Rule Britannia’ during a scene in which budding politician Sir Hugo unleashes his rhetoric on a crowd both effective and amusing.

The First Born’s denouement delivers a couple of delicious, unexpected twists regarding the fate of Sir Hugo and Maddie’s initial attempt to win back his love, and despite its vintage, it’s a surprisingly modern film, not least its refusal to cast judgement upon its female protagonist. This restored version offers a ringing endorsement of the BFI’s work, as well as confirmation that the era of British silent cinema deserves more of our attention, both as a record of a time of cultural and technological change and for the relevance and power it can still offer today.

Real Steel


Bay-dar bay·dar/ˈbādär / noun: the ability to deduce from a trailer that a film may consist of nothing more than a mindless cacophony of action and noise.

Upon first viewing the trailer for Real Steel, the latest effort from director Shawn Levy, I was surely not the only one whose Baydar tingled with the fear that this may be yet another film with nothing more to recommend it than the prospect of more large robots beating the Megatron out of one another. So, are we dealing with Rocky VII: This Time It’s Robots, or can Levy and leading man Hugh Jackman bring subtlety to the robo-blockbuster format?

In Real Steel, we find ourselves in the year 2020, a time when the primal violence of traditional boxing has been replaced in the public’s affection by the altogether more visceral thrills of huge, human-controlled machines fighting to the ‘death’ in the ring (think Robot Wars on a WWE scale). Jackman is Charlie Kenton, an ex-boxer who now cruises the highways of Texas and Nevada, fighting his rusting robot for small change and evading creditors at small town fairs.

Following the death of an ex-girlfriend, Kenton finds himself at a court hearing regarding the custody of his estranged son, leading to him strike the kind of deal which both stains his character in ways which seem impossible to overcome and sets up the father and son road trip which defines the film. The younger Kenton, Max, is a fan of the World Robot Boxing League and it is this common bond which offers Charlie’s shot at redemption.

Max is beautifully played by 12-year-old Dakota Goyo, whose previous roles include the young protagonist in Thor. His is a show-stealing, witty and wonderfully nuanced performance which avoids the brat trap that has snared so many child actors before him, and he easily overshadows Jackman’s cynical Charlie. There are echoes of the recent Super 8 in the uneasy, Spielberg-esque relationship which develops between Max, Charlie and Atom, the outdated robot, discovered by Max, which they take together into the seedy underworld of the low boxing circuit.

Whereas most of the fighting automatons resemble humanoid versions of the aforementioned Robot Wars contraptions (names such as ‘Noisy Boy’ being typical), Atom is more like Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant in a fencing mask. His glowing eyes possess a strange humanity that hint ambiguously throughout the film that he may indeed by sentient. Meanwhile, in the background, the supposedly unbeatable World Heavyweight Champion, Zeus, lurks like an end of level baddie.

There are some complaints: Zeus’ owner is a laughable Russian oligarch, whose accent and cold war frostiness recalls Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV (“If he dies, he dies”). There is also a strangely undeveloped relationship between Charlie and his ex-trainer’s daughter, played by Evangeline Lilly, who possesses a faith and trust in Kenton that his behaviour scarcely warrants. Our major villain, Ricky (another ex-prize fighter) also meets a less than satisfactory fate.

Ultimately, Real Steel lives or dies by its fight sequences, which are spectacular. As a film clearly aimed at a young demographic, the substitution of robots for humans allows a level of violence which would put Scorsese’s Raging Bull to shame. Using the legendary pugilist Sugar Ray Leonard as an adviser has ensured that many of the bouts are more realistic in terms of tactics than some traditional boxing movies, with the climactic battle bearing more than a slight resemblance to the celebrated doc Rumble In The Jungle.  The novelty of placing the warring machines within the boundaries of the ring also allows for a visual focus that the roaming brawls of Michael Bay’s dreadful Transformers series lacks.

The mystery over how aware or otherwise Atom is adds something close to pathos to the fight scenes, as Max clearly cringes at the blows his adored discovery is forced to endure. Though lacking the broadly human characteristics of previous lovable robots – WALL-E and Short Circuit‘s Johnny 5 spring to mind – Atom’s simple underdog status is enough to inspire us to root for him as he battles the odds, not to mention a ten-foot colossus.

After a fairly dull first half hour, Real Steel turns into an enjoyable and accessible film, with the outstanding Goyo and the excellent special effects (many of the sequences are improved by the use of animatronics rather than CGI) particularly successful. So, rather than simply Rocky with robots, this is a film which provides action and even a modicum of emotion in surprisingly effective measures, even offering an ending which is not quite as predictable as its story arc suggests.

Contributor Michael Mand can be followed on Twitter @grindermand. Real Steel is released in cinemas on Friday October 14.