About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

James Bond vs Silliness

Roger Moore as Ian Fleming's James Bond in 1979's Moonraker. Bond got pretty out there during the Moore years.

The James Bond movie franchise is older than I am.

October 5, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. No, the first in a series of 23 Bond films. April 13 of this year will mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of the novel Casino Royale by British author Ian Fleming. The book was the first in a series of James Bond novels on which the movies were originally based.

Over all those the years, 007 has faced down a wide array of innumerable different threats from an almost equally uncountable number of megalomaniac villains and their highly skilled assassins. Of all those threats, assassins and villains, few of Bond's movie enemies have been as persistent, determined and pervasive as the one nemesis that Bond, throughout his extremely successful cinematic career, has never been able to fully vanquish. What I'm referring to is the greatest nemesis borne out of 007's blockbuster movie franchise; one that has outlasted all others in a series of movies that has seen as many radical stylistic shifts as it has years. It is the one enemy that, no matter what the era, no matter who the actor portraying Bond is, relentlessly returns to challenge James Bond time and again.

The enemy is silliness.

In the now five and a bit decades of James Bond's celluloid career, many aspects of the super spy's adventures have been discussed, debated and analyzed. Much has been said about Bond, his gadgets, his cars, his women, his lifestyle, his missions and his villains. Yet relatively little has been said about the vary degrees of unrelenting silliness the big screen Bond has been forced to contend with over the years.

Anyone who has followed the history of the Bond franchise from the early days of Sean Connery's James Bond through to the current reign of Daniel Craig's 007 knows what I'm talking about. In almost every era, there is at least one moment in at least one movie when Bond's over the top escapist action set pieces take the basic premise of the Bond's larger than life world of escapism just a notch or two too far.

There have been scenes that have seen 007 engaged in a chase involving a ludicrously land adapted gondola, spectacular car stunts scored with comedy music, tanks smashing their way through city streets,  speed boats crashing through wedding cakes, Bond attempting to drive a car after it has been cut in half...and...well, the list of Bond silliness is too long to fit into this post. Suffice it to say that there are an alarmingly large number of occasions when the action scenes in a Bond movie transcend the thriller genre, or even the camp thriller genre for that matter, and start to look like something you might see in a Road Runner cartoon.

There are many people who see these slapstick comedy moments as an (if not the) element that defines the James Bond movies. While for others, myself included, even the faintest implication of any potential ensuing slapstick in any given Bond movie makes them cringe with dread.  The two widely varying perceptions of the movies speak to the point that Mr.Bond's exploits have been so all over the map in his half a century of blockbusters that the character has been plagued by an identity crisis almost since his inception.

Ian Fleming's James Bond 007
Bond's creator in his younger days
To understand Bond's ongoing shifting identity, it helps go go back to the character's roots. James Bond was first created by British intelligence officer turned journalist turned author, Ian Fleming, in the aforementioned 1953 novel, Casino Royale.

During World War II, Fleming served with British naval intelligence. Some of his experiences from that time loosely inspired many of Bond's literary adventures. Fleming wrote 12 Bond novels and a number of short stories before his untimely death at the age of 56 in 1964, mere months before James Bond truly became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon.

Fleming's Bond books were, for the most part, well crafted pulp thrillers. In spite of some far fetched premises, Fleming certainly knew how to engage readers. The initial sales of the books in the UK alone were a testament to the appeal of Fleming's writing.

"He was good-looking in a dark rather cruel way
and a scar showed whitely down his left cheek"
- from The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming
The literary Bond bears only a passing resemblance to the cinematic Bond. Fleming's Bond, by comparison to his multiple motion picture incarnations, was a dark, tough and humourless character. Whenever he had to kill in the performance of his duties, he did not take it lightly. He certainly never cracked pithy one-liners about his kills or anything else in his line of work, for that matter. The literary 007 was often quick to temper and had a mean-looking scar across his right cheek. Like his celluloid doppelganger, he was still very much a suave, sophisticated and cultured man of the world. However, his suave sophistication was never pushed to the point of satirical exaggeration, as was often the case in many of the films. While fond of the finer things in life, Fleming's Bond was also a hard as nails SOB when the job called for it. His world of espionage was a colder and grimmer one than that of the movies. The Bond of the books was closer to antihero than hero. In the words of his creator, Bond was not a hero at all but rather "a blunt instrument".

Fleming's Bond also did not have the seemingly endless array of skill sets that the various movie Bonds have had at their disposal. For instance, the literary Bond spoke English, French and German. The movie Bonds, on the other hand, could (as the many of the films suggest) speak every single language in the world fluently.

Marksmanship was the Fleming Bond's only real specialty.  The literary 007 was a really good shot and often his assignments involved assassination; hence the term"License to Kill".  He was not an amazing stunt driver or acrobat or master of any and all types of fighting skills. This is a Bond who ould have never been able to just simply hop into the cockpit of any plane, helicopter or jet and suddenly somehow have not only the ability of fly the aircraft but the ability to do so with impressive skill. He also had little or no gadgets like those so closely linked with the movies.

To be fair, some of the Bond films' more outlandish ideas were supplied by the books. Oddjob, Goldfinger's lethal steel-rimmed bowler hat wielding henchman, the underwater commando battles of Thunderball and the high octane ski chases first seen in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, for example, were all originally the products of Ian Fleming's fertile imagination. The original novel of Doctor No even contains a scene where Bond battles a giant squid (and, frankly, I am amazed that the movies have not yet gotten around to lifting that one). To his credit, Fleming was able to ground even such borderline fantastical elements in a very real sense of intrigue and suspense through the use of his concise, almost journalistic prose.

Attempting to put such arch Bond elements on the big screen with a straight face back in the early 60's would certainly have been a challenge; one that may well have required creating a new type of stylized movie making. Such a movie would have to walk a fine line between thrills and camp humour in order to coax a contemporary mainstream movie-going audience raised on traditional Hollywood genres like westerns and musical comedies into that world. Without doing so, audiences of the day may not have been able to take, say, a villain with steel hands named Dr. No who lives in an atomic powered underground complex on his own island all that seriously.

From Dr. No With Love
Ian Fleming and Sean Connery on the set of Dr.No
Nonetheless, the early Bond films still tried to stay fairly close to their source material. The Bond books were, most especially in the UK, huge bestsellers, after all. Much like the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games movies based on the best sellers of today, nobody wanted to alienate an established fanbase created by the books. However, Bond movie producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman along with director Terence (no relation) Young  did decide on a slightly less serious take on the character for the first big screen Bond. They set that process in motion by casting the then unknown Sean Connery,  an actor whose baseline charm tends to play towards a lighter tone, as James Bond.

Any light tones of humour remain extremely subtle in Dr.No, the first James Bond movie, released in 1962 . The understated humour can only be seen fleetingly in Bond's cinematic introduction. There is a wry sense of almost invisible self mockery as Connery, in the now iconic tuxedo, sitting at the baccarat table of an exclusive London casino, utters the words that would become part of the pop culture lexicon for the next 50 years: "Bond. James Bond". As we cut to Bond and see the man for the first time, a subtle creeping smirk begins to cross Connery's face, as a now highly un-PC cigarette dangles casually out to the side of his mouth. Bond's signature big band jazz theme, a new and unheard of piece of music at the time, plays on quietly in the background.

Yet, at the same time, Dr. No also features some scenes that are as close to Fleming as has ever been seen on the big screen.

Those two scenes set the tone for Dr. No, as well as the second film of the series, From Russia With Love. Basically a heist film centered around a Russian decoding machine, From Russia With Love is one of the rare Bond films that can comfortably be referred to as a thriller. The bedroom scenes have a classic film noire look to them and then there is the Hitchcock inspired action sequence where Bond is chased across a field by helicopters.

By Goldfinger, though, the earliest shift towards films that are a little less serious begins rear its silly head. Despite what the Bond DVD documentaries like to tell you, the first two 007 movies, not unlike Fleming's books, fared much better internationally than they did in the U.S. Dr. No and From Russia With Love did fairly well but were certainly not blockbuster hits in the USA.  Goldfinger was  the franchise's big play to make a much bigger dent in the lucrative American box office.

To that end, the Bond producers and Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton were willing to push the humour envelope further than that of the first two films. The movie opens with Connery's Bond emerging from a lake with a decoy bird strapped to the top of his head.  A little later on, Bond removes his still wet black commando outfit to reveal that he was wearing a perfectly dry tuxedo,complete with a white dinner jacket, underneath his stealth gear the whole time.

That scene pretty much says it all right there. Those opening moments of Goldfinger, and the rest of the film that followed, established a new image of James Bond in the popular consciousness that would endure for decades to come. Bond had now moved yet another modicum away not only from Fleming's literary creation but also away from the earlier, more stylistically subdued worlds of Dr. No and From Russia With Love.

 Goldfinger saw Bond's first baby steps into the world of all out camp.

It was clear what audiences Bond was picking up now
The new lighter approach to Bond paid off big time. Goldfinger launched the global phenomenon that became known as Bondmania. It went way beyond just movies.

In addition to Goldfinger's huge box office numbers, 1964-5 saw an outburst of 007 toys, aftershave, clothes, games, gadgets, you name it.  It was a merchandising marketing bonanza matched only by that of Beatlemania which gripped the world around the same time. Among other things, Goldfinger, for the first time, gave the franchise a major foothold with an entirely new and lucrative audience: kids.

The other byproduct of Goldfiner and the subsequent Bond craze was that it cemented into the popular landscape an impression of James Bond as an inventive yet frivolous diversion that was never to be taken too seriously.

The next film, Thunderball, blurred the line between thriller and camp further still. In the opening of the 4th 007 movie, Bond escapes from the bad guys by utilizing his most preposterous gadget to date, a jet pack. It's an image of Bond so strongly connected to the character that, Sean Connery, when appearing on the David Letterman show 30 odd years later, was lowered onto the stage strapped into, you guessed it, a jet pack.

Thunderball was a hit that even outdid Goldfinger. By today's box office standards, we're talking about Goldfinger and Thunderball box office numbers that would be on a level with Star Wars, Titanic, Toy Story, Avatar, ET and Lord of the Rings.

Returning Dr. No and From Russia With Love director Young manages, for the most part, to successfully navigate the borders of camp humour and genuine thrills. However, with its jet pack escape, evil look-a-like imposters, highjacked nukes and underwater commando battles, Thunderball does firmly broaden the extravagant nature of Bond's increasingly outlandish and gimmicky world.  

I remember this one.
In the next film, You Only Live Twice (1967), Bond's world would, for the first time, cross the line into from camp and light humour into outright silliness.

By the 5th 007 movie, Bond producers Broccoli and Saltzman were entering into an era where they felt they had to top themselves with each successive movie in order to retain their ongoing titles as reigning box office champs.

You Only Live Twice sure does go there too. The movie features many of what are now seen as the quintessential Bond elements: an evil genius with a secret technological complex (inside a hollowed out inactive volcano, in this case, no less) filled with guys in jumpsuits driving golf carts around. From his secret lair, said evil genius (Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a recurring Bond nemesis) launches a master plan for world domination. The movie has even got the now classic climatic ninja commando raid set amidst a seemingly endless array of gunfire and explosions. You Only Live Twice is also the movie where Bond for the first (but not the last) time transgress its own genre.

"A Drop in the Ocean"

Early on in You Only Live Twice, there is a scene where Bond and his Japanese spy companion are being chased through Toyko by a car full of bad guys. The Japanese agent radios to her superiors to "arrange usual reception".  A helicopter soon appears in the sky. The helicopter hovers over the bad guys' car and lowers a giant magnet on a cable. The magnet then attaches itself to the roof of the car. The helicopter flies off carrying the magnet with the car stuck to it below. The slapstick coup-De-gras is delivered when the bad guys, in a gag worthy of The Three Stooges,  futilely attempt to turn the steering wheel of their floating car as they look out the windows in panic. The car is soon carried over a river. The magnet is then released and the car plummets into the water below. The entire sequence is straight out of the Wile E. Coyote playbook.

It is at that moment that the Bond movies made that first irreversible move towards total all out silliness. The trend would continue with exponential velocity in the movies to come. It would take the Bond franchise decades to undo the process.

The preceding Bond movies kept increasingly broadening the scope of their extravagant action set pieces. However, once those movies set a tone, they tended stay true to that tone. This scene, even within the context of the over the top Bond action, sticks out like a sore thumb. It is a scene that belongs in a movie like an over the top madcap comedy romp like It's a Mad Mad Mad World and certainly not in James Bond's world.

The first time I saw You Only Live Twice, I remember that scene left me asking myself, "What kind of a movie am I watching now?".  It also had me wondering if the Bond producers and first time Bond director Lewis Gilbert had given any thought at all to that question.

These types of shifts in Bond tone would continue in the films to come  and, ultimately, the James Bond movies would would be cursed to live out a stylistically schizophrenic existence for many years.

Bond in a kilt? That's the least of it.
The next film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, actually took a brief small step back away from total silliness. I guess the Bond producers and longtime Bond editor turned director Peter Hunt felt that they just couldn't top rockets, volcanoes, ninja commandos and cars plunging into water from great heights, nor should they even try. Sadly, the new approach didn't quite pan out.

In addition to introducing George Lazenby, Connery's ill conceived and ill received replacement, the film strayed significantly from the Bond formula. For one thing (SPOILER ALERT) James Bond got married. For another, his wife had the distinction of being the only Bond girl to be killed off at the end of the movie. The end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service still remains the most downer ending of any Bond movie and is also, ironically, one of the most dramatic scenes in the whole franchise. It is perhaps for this reason that the film, over time, became a cult fave among fans. In 1969, though, the smaller scale and less silly approach, along with Connery's absence made the movie, by Bond box office standards, a total bomb. With the future of a stunningly lucrative franchise on the line, it was time to pull out all the stops.

Moore Silly Business
Sean Connery in Diamond Are Forever: d'oh boy.
Desperate to get the franchise back on its feet again, the Bond producers backed up a truck load of money into Sean Connery's driveway. Landing a record breaking payday that he donated entirely to charity, Connery agreed to play Bond one more time. The movie was Diamonds Are Forever and it would be, hands down, the silliest Bond to date.

Many people associate  Roger Moore, who took over the role after Connery's delayed departure, with the ushering in of a new much lighter approach to 007. Not so. That shift firmly took root while Connery still carried the Bond mantle. With Diamonds Are Forever, the Bond producers and returning Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton took the first little steps towards outright comedy taken in You Only Live Twice to a whole new level of silliness.

For lack of a better definition, it's hard to categorize Diamonds Are Forever as anything but a comedy. The movie features Bond driving a car tipped over on two wheels during a Las Vegas chase scene that also features many police cars crashing into each other like something out of an episode of The Dukes of Hazard,  Bond racing a wacky "moon buggy" across the desert, a bunch of incredibly dated wink-wink "look, the these two henchmen are actually gay" jokes, Dick Tracy-like gangster caricatures and a scene in which Bond says to a sunbathing woman "There something I'd like you to get off your chest" and then proceeds to pull off her bikini top and choke her with it in order to extract information.

Hold on, hold on. I need to catch my breath from all the laughter.

It is the few and far between serious fight scenes and not the outright slapstick comedy, that stand out like a sore thumb in Diamond Are Forever. The 6th Bond movie bears more in common with other 60's era spy comedy movies like In Like Flint and Dean Martin's quintessentially Mad Men era Matt Helm comedies than it does with any previous Bond movies. You know you've got a problem when a series of movies starts imitating its own parodies.

All that aside, Diamonds Are Forever was the highest grossing movie of 1971. You know that kind of thing is only going to encourage them.

After Diamonds Are Forever, Roger Moore, former British TV star of such shows as The Saint and The Persuaders, took over the role of Bond, James Bond. The Moore era would produce what are certainly the silliest and most erratic Bond movies of the bunch.

Moore debuted as Bond in Live and Let Die in 1973, a movie that also went on to be the number one at the box office in its year.

It's hard to know what to make of Live and Let Die. The movie is stylistically chaotic, to put it mildly. There is a speed boat chase where boats careen over land  then crash into a wedding and smash right through the cake. There is another chase scene involving a Double Decker bus in which Bond runs the bus through a tunnel that the bus' height cannot clear. The bus is cut in half as Bond continues to race down the road.

Yes, James Bond has now devolved into the Keystone Cops.

At one point, Bond is pursued by a Louisiana Sheriff named J.W. Pepper, a clownish caricature broadly played by character actor Clifton Webb. Webb's Pepper character appears to have walked directly off the set of just about any 70's era Burt Reynolds movie.

The movies are now very far away from Fleming's Bond. The darkness of the character has been long left in the dust. The movies now share only the title, a random plot element or two and some character names in common with the increasingly obscure and forgotten British pulp thrillers. Bond is now even miles removed from Goldfinger. It is quite clear, now more than ever, that a major part of Bond's target audience is kids; highly nondiscriminatory kids.

The early 70's was a time when  spy thriller movies were right out. In the post-Vietnam Watergate era, the only thing even close to serious Hollywood spy movies at the time were low key films like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, in which espionage was depicted in a decidedly non-romanticized light.

So whatever, right? Things change: most especially things like majorly lucrative blockbuster franchise movies like James Bond. Fair enough. And, well, yes, Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die might be okay comedy movies, if they were actually in any way funny.

I have never found any of this era of Bond remotely humourous. That just makes the whole process all the more painful. I should point out that are Bond fans out there who strongly disagree with me on this count and are quite fond of movies from the era of Moore Bond silliness. Many of them no doubt first came to these movies at young age. Nonetheless, even as a kid, I never saw the humour in many cars smashing into each other over and over again, whether it be in a Bond movie, the Blues Brothers or even in Disney's The Love Bug.

Additionally, the seemingly non-stop barrage of one-liners and quips are forced. It does not help that Moore tends to play Bond as a comedian, and not a very subtle one at that. In the rare moments that call for Moore's Bond to be tough, I simply can not believe him. It's like watching Don Knotts trying to be Chuck Norris.

Live and Let Die, unlike most of Diamonds Are Forever, still attempts to take some of the Bond thrills and spills seriously. When it comes to the serious action scenes in Live and Let Die, it's hard to get engaged in any tension or excitement when you've just spent twenty minutes watching boats smashing into cars accompanied by a stereotypical redneck sheriff engaging in exclamations that even Foghorn Leghorn would consider a bit much.

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against a campy larger than life Bond adventure when it's well done. Goldfinger, Thunderball and even You Only Live Twice (minus the car dropping scene, of course) make for thrilling and entertaining escapism. For the most part these movies respect the boundaries between camp and total silliness. Not everything has to have the darker more serious tone of Ian Fleming (though it's nice when they hit that too).

There are fine lines between thrills, camp, farce, parody and slapstick. Live and Let Die runs roughshot over all of them. Not only can the Bond series often not settle on a consistent tone from movie to movie but, in the Moore era most especially, it's like they can't even decide on a consistent tone within the same movie. The sum total is a big mess that is frustrating to watch.  To call Live and Let Die even self parody dignifies the movie with a sense of purpose that it just does not appear to have.

In the next Moore Bond, The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), is even worse than Live and Let Die. The Bond producers and returning director Guy Hamilton now push the comedy past its breaking point. One of the great tragedies of Live and Let Die are the spectacular stunts, including a world record breaking speed boat jump, that were simply lost in the movie's stylistic shuffle.

Not to be outdone, the second Moore Bond movie features one of the greatest car stunts ever presented in the silliest light possible.

During a chase, Bond has to jump an AMC Hornet (the cars were all about product placement by this point) across a broken bridge. The bridge has been smashed in two is such a way that the two sides of the bridge that remain on either side of the river are slightly curved. Bond, accompanied by Sheriff Pepper from Live and Let Die (who is somehow on vacation in Thailand -let's not even get into it), makes the jump anyway. During the jump, the car spectacularly spins completely around in the air before landing on the other side of the bridge. This is before the age of CGI so that means that somebody actually did that incredible stunt for real. Bond ramps up the "comedy" as he makes a clearly post dubbed "Have you ever heard of Evel Knieval?" quip just before the jump. Then, for reasons that escape me to this day, somebody decided that very best possible way to showcase this amazing record breaking stunt was by scoring it with a slide whistle.

If there was any doubt that the Moore Bonds had degenerated into live action cartoons, there could be none after viewing that scene.

Such WTF moments are rampant throughout Moore's 007 tenure. Moonraker contains a chase where Bond pilots a motorized gondola  out of the canals of Venice and, as it turns out to have wheels, races it through streets full of tourists. The scene is complete with a drunk guy watching the gondola as he does a take and then stares quizzically at the bottle of wine he's been drinking from.

In Octopussy (1983),  Bond is chased through the jungle and escapes by swinging from a from a vine. As he swings, somebody got the hilarious idea to dub in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yell. What is this? The Carol Burnett Show?

In A View to a Kill (1985), Bond snow boards away from heavily armed Russian soldiers as California Girls by The Beach Boys plays. Later, a car Bond is driving is cut in half during a chase and then Bond -get this- drives the half car anyway.

Wait, wait. Once again, I need to catch my breath from all the laughter.

The only two Moore era Bonds that sorta kinda break the silliness pattern are The Spy Who Loved (1977) Me and For Your Eyes Only(1981).

The Man With The Golden Gun, as it turns out, was the lowest grossing Bond movie to date, including On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The Bond franchise, now run solely by producer Broccoli brought back You Only Live Twice director Lewis Gilbert. Gilbert, to his credit, attempted to steer the series back to at least the standards of his previous Bond movie. The Spy Who Loved Me is still quite over the top and much more campy than even You Only Live Twice.  What it does accomplish, though, is that for the first time in almost a decade, it is a James Bond movie that at least maintains a consistent tone within itself.

The opening ski chase, like the pre-title sequence from Goldfinger, sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The chase has only the smallest amounts of restrained humour that does not detract from the excitement. The final gag of  the chase comes when Bond's Union Jack parachute that opens after he literally skis off the side of a mountain. Even so big a joke comes off as an understated deadpan Steven Wright one-liner  when measured against the standards set by Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun.

For Your Eyes Only attempted to get Bond back to basics after the literally out there space battle spectacles of 1979's Moonraker. It takes a more serious tone....more or less. It's climatic mountain climbing scene is most one of the most intensely low key action sequences ever filmed, Bond or otherwise.

Moore comes the closest he ever gets to Fleming's Bond in a scene where he kills a particularly vicious henchman. As the henchman's car is is precipitously perched on the side of a cliff, Bond kicks the car off the side of the cliff and sends the man crashing to his death. It is, without a doubt, Moore's best acting as James Bond and the first time we have seen so cold and dark a Bond since the "You've had your six" scene in Dr. No. That moment, though, is almost completely undone as the writers could not resist giving Moore's Bond one of his standard quippy one liners after killing the man. In context, it makes Bond look not like a cold professional assassin, but rather, like kind of a dick, really.

The basic problem with For Your Eyes Only is that Bond producer Broccoli and stunt coordinator turned first time director John Glen, still seem to reluctant to abandon silliness completely. The movie contains sequences like the ski chase scene that sends Bond careening across the tables of the terrace of a ski hill restaurant, complete with comic takes from onlookers. 

The penchant for consistently going back to the silly thrives throughout the next and last two Moore Bond movies, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. Octopussy, in particular, has some scenes that are almost genuinely thrilling. Yet the movie still annoyingly keeps shifting back to gags like the previously discussed Tarzan yell.

As late as A View to a Kill, Moore's last Bond outing, Broccoli and now regular Bond director Glen were still routinely pursuing the silly.  Doing so at a time when more serious action movies like The Terminator, Rambo and the first two Indiana Jones movies were doing boffo box office business is a perplexing choice at best.

"The Worst James Bond Ever"
Timothy Dalton as 007: the closest thing to Fleming's Bond that the big screen has ever seen
By the time new Bond Timothy Dalton took the reigns in 1987, the Bond production team had finally got the memo on that non-silly action movies were back in a big way. The resulting movie was The Living Daylights, the first of only two Bonds that would feature the classically trained Dalton as 007.

In The Living Daylights, Dalton's portrayal of Bond comes closer than any other actor, before or since, has to faithfully portraying Fleming's Bond on screen. Like the Bond of the novels, Dalton's Bond is cold, brooding, tough and quick to temper. There is a scene in the film just after a successful enemy raid on a British intelligence base where Dalton's Bond is dressed down by M, his superior. Bond merely sits there, quietly fuming. Just looking at Dalton's intense stare during the scene, it's as if one can almost hear the Fleming style prose precisely describing Bond's contained rage.

Unfortunately,  it seems that Broccoli, now partnered with production assistant turned producer Michael G. Wilson, and ongoing Bond director Glen were still quite reluctant to change the character all that radically. As a result, Dalton seems to have made an amazingly strong acting choice whitin a creative vacuum. While toned down from much of the Moore silliness, the character of James Bond does not appear to have been written with a return to the character's literally roots in mind. It's kind of bizarre, really, to see a Fleming style 007 darkly underplaying an assortment of  typically tongue in cheek James Bond movie one liners.

Nevertheless, The Living Daylights was the most gritty and realistic looking film the series had seen to date. A Bond film had not taken itself quite so seriously since From Russia With Love. Yet, again, though, the Bond producers still could not resist the urge to work just a smidgen of  ol' slapstick silliness here and there. Watching Dalton's genre-busting Bond as he escapes from the bad guys by sliding down the side of a snow covered hill riding a cello case is an almost surreal experience.

Such a lack of coordination between Dalton's acting choices and the writing and direction of the film did not serve the actor well. Combine that with a public impression of Bond defined by 12 years of Roger Moore cartoons and, well, Dalton's performance was misunderstood at best. Even today, Timothy Datlton's 007 is often still unfairly maligned.

To quote the 12 year old sitting behind me at the movie theatre on opening weekend, many felt that Dalton was the "worst James Bond ever!".

In License to Kill (1989), the actor's second and final appearance in the role, Dalton was clearly directed to lighten things up. That direction is ironic in light of the fact that License to Kill's war on drugs story line is one Bond's more "real world" adventures. Nonetheless, the new direction diluted Dalton's take on Bond and only served to confirm Dalton's poor reputation with both critics and audiences.

Between 1989 and 1995, the Bond movies took their longest hiatus since the series began. Contrary to popular belief, this was not because of Dalton's alleged "killing" of the franchise at the box office. Each of Dalton's two Bond movies, in fact, out-grossed Roger Moore's final appearance as Bond in A View to a Kill.  Rather, it was legal wranglings over the ownership of the rights to the character between the studio and the producers that held up the production of a new Bond installment for six long years. Dalton was reportedly offered the role again when the legal wranglings were settled and franchise was finally set to return to movie theaters. Perhaps reluctant to go another round with the critics and the public, Dalton declined.

That Darn Tank!
Brosnan looking almost Flemingeque.
Once the Bond movies were back on track, the coveted role of James Bond ended up going to the guy that had almost got the role instead of Timothy Dalton back in 1987.

007 would now be brought back to life by the former star of TV's Remington Steele, Pierce Brosnan. 1995's Goldeneye revived Bond in a big way. It was such a big hit that it single-handedly saved  MGM, the studio now responsible for Bond, from bankruptcy.

 Brosnan's take on Bond was equally popular. He was one of the few actors in the role able to believably balance humour along with a hint of the dark grimness of the character. The new Bond of the 90's came off as a compromise between Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton.

While Goldeneye is certainly a not a perfect Bond film, it did at least take itself a more seriously than many of the earlier Bonds.  Well, it almost did, anyway. About mid-way through the film, Goldeneye's promise of eschewing all of Bond's previous silliness was seriously compromised. 

There is a chase scene in Goldeneye where Bond commandeers a tank. Yes, darn it, a tank. Suddenly, a previously respectable Bond revival with a decent actor in the lead reverts back unrepentantly to the dreaded slapstick silliness of the past. Bond crushes and smashes cars while steering his tank through the streets and landmarks of downtown St.Petersberg. The tank chase in Goldeneye is an action set piece that's just too big and too wacky to be forgivable.

Well, it was a nice new direction while it lasted.

Perhaps more disconcerting is that the franchise was now working with a new production team  headed by former co-producer Michael J. Wilson and Albert Broccoli's daughter Barbara (the senior Broccoli died in 1996 and was credited as a "consulting producer" on Goldeneye) and more A-list directors, like Goldeneye's Martin Campbell.

Fortunately, the tank chase would, as it turns out, be the last gasp of Roger Moore era silliness in the franchise (fingers crossed ).  The Brosnan Bonds would continue to be similarly erratic, though never quite as dumb. For every time the films did something dark and bold with Bond like the year and a half Bond spends in a North Korean prison in Die Another Die (2002), there would also be a counter balancing bit of silliness like Bond's preposterous invisible car in that same movie.  Still, while pursing ever more ramped up action and spectacle, the Bond movies would mostly downplay the outright silliness that had dogged the series for so long.

The Sky is Falling 

Daniel Craig as a James Bond I never thought I'd see.

Things got even more promising with the 2006 Bond reboot, Casino Royale. For the first time in the series' 44 year history, Bond producers Wilson and Broccoli wiped the 007 slate clean and started anew.

The hard edged Daniel Craig was cast as Bond in the first faithful adaptation of a Fleming Bond novel since On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Casino Royale, with the exception of two ramped up action set pieces early in the film, is very close to Ian Fleming's debut Bond novel. The infamous torture scene that many critics saw as an edgy new direction for Bond was, in fact, taken almost verbatim from the then 53 year old novel.

I remember reading that torture scene in Casino Royale for the first time and thinking , "Well, we'll never in a million years see that in a Bond movie".  Thankfully, I was wrong.

The character of James Bond in Casino Royale, however, is not exclusively Fleming's. There are certainly elements of the literary Bond in Craig's intense take on the character but, on the whole, the actor, the screenwriters and returning Goldeneye director Campbell are very much doing their own thing as well.

The reboot, in short, gave us a new, grittier, tougher Bond. He is driven, angry, intense and just a little bit crazy (you'd have to be, wouldn't you?). Bond is now grounded in the real world. He is not one of these speaks-every-language, knows-everything and can-do-anything type Bonds that had become de riguer in the series. James Bond now has flaws, many of them. This Bond bleeds, both literally and figuratively. Casino Royale is a tour de force blockbuster franchise reboot that takes Bond in just the right direction.

The only real problem with Casino Royale's fresh new direction is that no one seemed to know where to go next. The next movie, Quantum of Solace (2008) sets a similar tone to Casino Royale but does not have as much of a coherent direction to it. Among other problems with the film, it's like the producers and director Marc Forster had no idea where to go with the character now and, ultimately, with the series as a whole. It's quite an odd development when you consider that the movie is, uniquely to the series, a direct sequel to the previous Bond movie.

All other faults aside, Quantum of Solace's biggest slip happens towards the end of the movie. There is an aerial chase scene that, to be fair, is a well crafted action set piece. The real problem is that the chase begins with Bond jumping into the cockpit of an abandoned airplane and that he immediately seems to know how to fly it.

My silly sense is tingling.

The plane chase sequence was, of course, not at all silly in and of itself but establishing that Craig's Bond is able to  jump into a plane and suddenly be able to fly it felt like an ominous step in the wrong direction. As I mentioned earlier, Fleming's Bond, unlike the movie Bond, had limits to his extraordinary abilities. In the movies it was pretty much a given that Bond could simply do just about anything. In Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), for instance, Brosnan's Bond gets into the cockpit of a jet and flies off to partake in a spectacular dogfight. No one thinks twice about the fact that bond  can just do shit like that. So, by having Bond jump into a cockpit and fly a plane without a second thought in Quantum of Solace, the series was quietly taking a small, practically imperceptible slip down a slippery slop to the potential return Bond sillines.

The current Craig Bond movie Skyfall (2012), just released on Blu-ray, DVD and various streaming and video downloading services, while an overall solidly good Bond movie, also contains many of those same type of troubling elements.

I will try not to give too much away here but I'm gonna call SPOILER ALERT just in case.

Skyfall, directed by Oscar winning American Beauty director Sam Mendes, gives us the most in-depth look at Bond's character that we have ever seen, rivaling even that of Ian Fleming's novels.

Skyfall, at the same time, though, ultimately does represent a decisive backing off from the harder edged darker Bond of the previous Craig Bond movies.  It's got some pretty over the top action set pieces, most especially in the pre-title sequence. It's no boats crashing into cars a la Live and Let Die but, next to the two previous Bonds, the opening train chase borders on the preposterous.

Though that pre-titles sequence does end on a very dark note. And therein lies the strength of Skyfall.
Unlike many other Bonds, Skyfall is able to switch those shifts in tone on and off quite easily.

Even so, though, the movie has more Bond quips and one-liners than we've heard since Brosnan left the role. It is a testament to Daniel Craig's talents as an actor that he is able to make such light material work within the context of the darker more complex Bond that he developed in the previous films.

In Skyfall, Q, the finicky gadget supplier, is back, as are the gadgets themselves,  the flirtatious Miss Moneypenny is back and even Sean Connery's Aston Martin DB 5 from Goldfinger has somehow managed to find its way into the world of Daniel Craig's James Bond. Yes, many of the earmarks of the more traditional and lighter Bond movies are slowly finding their way back into the series.

The real kicker comes during a chase scene in the London Underground when Bond runs after a train after its doors are closed. Ordered to get on the train no matter what, Bond runs after it and jumps on to the back of the train just before it exits the station. A bystander watches this stunt and turns to his wife and says, "Well, I guess he really wants to go home".

Silliness red flag. Big time.

The line disturbingly harks back to the Roger Moore era. It confirms that whenever it comes to a Bond completely devoid of silliness, the 007 franchise simply cannot stick to its guns.

It appears that Mendes' intention in Skyfall is to deconstruct and then reconstruct the very essence of the Bond genre. The question is: what is it being reconstructed into?

As part of the process, it feels like there is a surreptitious attempt in Skyfall to insert the rebooted Daniel Craig 007 back into the continuity of the Connery through Brosnan Bond movies that Casino Royale supposedly abandoned (and, yes, if you watch the 1962-2002 Bond movies, the series is quite clear, in many different instances, that we are supposed to believe that these five different actors over a 40 year period are, in fact, the same guy).

With the siren's call of even greater box office dividends from a more "family friendly" Bond calling, the final moments of Skyfall seems to be quite clearly telling the audience, "Okay we're done with all the hard edged reboot stuff, from now on its Bond business as usual".

In the final scene, the new M, played now by Ralph Fiennes, asks if Bond is ready to return to duty. After a dramatic pause, Bond, with a great purpose that only Daniel Craig could pull off replies, "With pleasure, sir. With pleasure."

Well, such a direction may not necessarily be a problem if the series is able to strike the same delicate chord as Skyfall did in the movies to come. Given the history of the Bond movies, though, we all know that is not very likely.

Craig's Bond is grittier and then suddenly a little lighter in Skyfall

Bond's Branding Issues

The 007 identity crisis, will, just like it says at the end of every Bond movie, return.

The problem of defining who Bond is and what he means to audiences was summed up for me a couple of years ago when I was getting together with some friends to watch Goldfinger on video.

"I love watching Bond movies and making fun of them", said one of my friends.

"Oh, there's no need to do that. They make fun of themselves", replied another.

"What are you guys talking about? They're action movies", chimed in a third.

It hit me then that for such a long lasting and successful brand, James Bond sure has a lot of branding issues.

James Bond, even over six decades, has still not yet completely vanquished his greatest and most powerful arch enemy of them all, silliness.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The 12 Screenings of GeekMas

'Tis the season to be geeky....well, actually, all of the seasons are, really.  There is something about the yuletide season, though, that can serve up a special brand of seasonal geekery. It's always fun this time of the year to take a break from the shopping madness, the snow, the family commitments and all of that traditional non-geeky Christmas stuff and take in something truly odd and/or wondrous that is both truly geeky and filled with the spirit of the season.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Wookie Light Day, here are my ideal 12 Screenings of Geekmas.

12. Every Doctor Who Christmas Special (2005-2102)

I can't think of another SF/Fantasy franchise with nearly as many, if any, Christmas specials. Thanks to the great British tradition of airing Christmas specials of the most popular shows on TV on the evening of December 25 (What? How are they supposed to sell mountains of toys that way?), the last of the Time Lords has now given or will give us, 7, count 'em 7 Christmas specials.
They are:
The Christmas Invasion
The Runaway Bride
Voyage of the Damned
The Next Doctor
Doctor Who's A Christmas Carol
The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe
and the upcoming (which airs, you guessed it, tomorrow, December 25, 2012)
The Snowmen

11. The Six Million Dollar Man: "A Bionic Christmas Carol" (1976)

The hit 70's TV series about the adventures of super cyborg secret agent Steve Austin went through the paces of a rather uninspired reworking of Charles Dickens' classic seasonal tale, A Christmas Carol, back in December 1976.  The episode is notable on account of a scene where Colonel Austin, sporting his one season only 70's porn star 'stash, goes into a toy store. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice in the background a shelf full of the best selling toy of that yuletide season, The Six Million Dollar Man action figure.

Meta, man, just totally meta.

10. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) 

James Bond, in the person of one time 007 George Lazenby, must stop his arch nemesis, Ernest Stavro Blofeld, from carrying a biological terrorist attack on Christmas Eve, 1969. Includes the best Yuletide downhill skiing and stock car chases ever filmed.

9. Christmas with the Joker (1992)

The second episode ever of the landmark 90's TV show Batman: The Animated Series is, you guessed it, a Christmas one. The best line in any holiday themed TV show ever comes right after Robin suggests that he and Batman watch the seasonal classic "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve. The Dark Knight replies to the Boy Wonder's suggestion with, "I've never seen that movie. I could never get past the title".

8. Black Christmas (1974)

"The call is coming from inside the house!" originated in this film too.

Released four years before John Carpenter's smash hit horror movie, Halloween, this low budget Canadian horror movie marked the veritable virgin birth of the the holiday-specific teen slasher movie. According director Bob Clark, who went on the direct the seasonal classic A Christmas Story (1983), the unmade sequel was,interestingly, to take place on Halloween. Hmmm....

7. Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Captain Jean-Luc Picard's Nexus induced family Christmas fantasy marks the most substantial evidence of Yuletide tradition in the entire Trek franchise. We also learn that Picard is a big time retro type 'cause his ideal seasonal celebrations sure have a major 20th century vibe to them.

6. Things to Come (1936)

This prescient 1936 film, based on the book by HG Wells, predicted the outbreak of a second world war during the holiday season of 1940.  The film becomes a little less prescient, though, when it shows the war lasting well into the 1970's. Plus they're pretty clear on the prediction that there will be no more Christmas celebrations by the 21st century. Looking around my house right now, I know this is not so.

5.Die Hard II (1990)

The first Die Hard movie is largely considered the classic Xmas action movie of choice. However, its sequel, with its arctic gear commandos, winter wonder snowmobile chases and implausibly lethal icicles,  delivers much more Christmas spirit.

Bruce Willis once again shows off his super human crime fighting abilities when he rides one of the aforementioned snowmobiles at top speeds on a late December evening without even wearing a pair of gloves.

4. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

The single most popular Alternate History movie ever made. It's also fun to proclaim that during a screening of the seasonal classic and then take in all the strange looks.

3. Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964) 

This baby is go-to Christmas Cult Kitsch Classic. It is a perfect film when you're in the mood for spending the holidays with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang.

2. Gremlins (1984)

Darkly comical marauding mischievous and deadly mythical creatures creatures wreak a ton of entertaining yuletide havoc in a small town.

(SPOILER ALERT) Phoebe Cates's dad-dressed-as-Santa-getting-killed-while-stuck-in-the-chimney monologue is an all time classic of the genre.

1. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

The legendarily badness of the Star Wars Holiday Special has become a staunch pillar of seasonal geekdom nonetheless. The legend goes that Carrie Fisher is leaning against Chewbacca in this shot 'cause she was a little too full of Star Wars Holiday cheer to stand on her own.

Merry Wookie Light Day Everyone! 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Star Trek: Generations Cast Reunites at Montreal Comic Con 2012

Saturday night at the 2012 Montreal Comic Con featured an unexpected on stage reunion of the cast of Star Trek: Generations.

Well, at least part of it was unexpected, anyway.

The 1994 Star Trek movie featured William Shatner, as the original series' Captain Kirk, and Patrick Stewart, as Star Trek: The Next Generation's Captain Picard, together on screen for the first time. The Saturday night Comic Con event, entitled Reunion of the Generations,  featured  Shatner and Stewart on stage together.

The two legendary Star Trek Captains took fans' questions and riffed off of each other for close to an hour,  often whipping the capacity crowd up into a frenzy of applause and laughter.

The two cultural icons regaled the crowd with, among other things, an amusing rant about constantly being asked "What's your favourite episode?" and how they would both love to be in a "J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie". Shatner also added that he, interestingly, is currently working on a documentary film about the making of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series.

About three quarters of the way through the show, a fan  asked question about about who Captains Kirk and Picard's greatest nemesis was.  Just then, a voice was heard quoting the line "Time is the fire in which we burn".

The line, of course, was uttered by the film's villain, Dr. Tollian Soran, played by none other than Malcolm McDowell (who was scheduled to appear at Comic Con the next day).

While the audience was still contemplating the fact the fan appeared to have just delivered the best McDowell impersonation they had ever heard, McDowell then quickly emerged from backstage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. 

McDowell and Stewart have,  it turns out, known each other since their days with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stewart pointed out that McDowell first appeared on stage with him as a "spear carrier" in a mid 1960's production of William Shakespeare's Henry The VIII, Part One. There was some controversy amongst the two about the actual year they met. McDowell saying it was '65 and Stewart '66 (though another online source puts their first meeting in 1964).

Messrs Shatner, Stewart and McDowell then went on to lament the death of Captain Kirk in Generations. McDowell pointed out that "[Star Trek Generations producer and co-writer] Rick Berman could have written you a better death". "They had you shot in the behind", Stewart quickly aware of much of the fan dissatisfaction with the onscreen death of Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations.

Throughout the onstage Generations cast reunion, there was no mention of some recent controversial comments McDowell made about the Trek franchise. Appearing at Hero Complex, an event hosted by the Los Angeles Times last June, McDowell said that in Star Trek Generations, he "got to be the guy who shut Shatner up.”, adding, in reference to the Star Trek movie franchise, that he "did them a favor,”.  In the same interview, McDowell continued his unabashed criticism of Trek, "...you have Patrick Stewart spouting off for another 40 minutes. If you find that exciting, hey, go watch paint dry", he said. He then went on to praise J.J. Abrams for "actually making some good [Star Trek] movies".


However, as McDowell and Stewart hugged each other on stage Saturday night, it seemed that, apparently, all had been forgiven, or at least, forgotten.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Acting With Glasses 101

This week's post is my first ever vlog. In this video post, I discuss my own unique perspective on the craft of acting while wearing glasses or sunglasses.


Hey, He Had on a Hatters, I'm off on vacation.

My post will resume once again the week of September 10, 2012. Until, then have a great rest of August and a fun Labour Day weekend.

 See you in September!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Kristen Stewart Conundrum

"She is a real force with terrific instincts." 
-Sean Penn on Kristen Stewart

"Kristen isn't interested in blurting out her emotions all in front of her, and that results in really intelligent and interesting performances."
 -Jodie Foster on Kristen Stewart

"She is unique, and I don't see-outside of maybe two or three people much older than she is- a uniqueness in actresses today. She is a one-of-a-kinder".
-Bruce Dern on Kristen Stewart

"This is a gutsy woman....young, bright, wonderful, talented, observant…"
-William Hurt on Kristen Stewart

“Stewart is, quite simply, a wonderful actress."
-Roger Ebert on Kristen Stewart

There are no doubt a great many people who just had a major WTF moment while reading the above quotes. Are these people talking about the same Kristen Stewart? The really bad actor in those awful Twilight movies? The same one that is now, quite unjustifiably, the highest paid actress ever? 

What in the hell are these otherwise respectable people on about?  I mean, c'mon, there are Facebook pages, memes and YouTube montages that are dedicated solely to confirming that which everybody already knows: that Kristen Stewart simply can not act. 

What if, though, just for a moment, we consider the notion that maybe Penn, Foster, Dern, Hurt and Ebert are not just talking out of their asses (though I would pay good money to see that)?

For instance, let's take a look at this scene:

No, Kristen Stewart did not guest star on The Sopranos.

That is a scene from the 2010 film, Welcome to the Rileys starring Stewart, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo and directed by Jake Scott (son of director Ridley Scot). The movie is about a middle aged man (Gandolfini) who, after the death of his own teenage daughter, attempts to become a father figure to a 16 year old drug addict runaway turned sex worker (Stewart).  I see a many things in Stewart's performance in this clip but I do not see anything that suggests that she "can't act". 

Welcome to the Rileys premiered in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival to an unusually positive critical reaction to her performance:

"The discovery once again is Kristen Stewart. Who knew she had these notes? I'm discovering an important new actress."
Roger Ebert's Sundance Journal 

"But the film belongs to Kristen Stewart, raw, uncompromising, magnificent at every turn, delivering a ferocious and emotionally-charged performance." 

"She comes off like a rabid dog, completely unpredictable...See it for Stewart’s electric performance."
Laremy Legel Film.com

"Stewart's strung-out, frowzy performance is a timely reminder that the girl can act."
Robbie Collin, The Telegraph U.K.

It turns out that Stewart has got a surprisingly long list of performances in smaller independent films for which she has received an impressive number of glowing reviews from both critics and the public alike. Speak (2004), The Cake Eaters (2007), Into The Wild (2007),  The Yellow Handkerchief (2008), The Runaways (2010) and Welcome to the Rileys are amongst the films where Stewart is arguably doing her very best work. Virtually nobody has seen or even heard of these movies. On the other hand, everyone does seem to know about the Twilight movies which comprise what are arguably the weakest performances of  Stewart's career (which, BTW, comprises 31 IMDB credits since she began acting at the age of  9).

That is where the conundrum comes in. 

I remember seeing Welcome to the Rileys not too long ago. I was familiar with some of Stewart's other work, both Twilight and non-Twilight, and already thought she was a pretty solid actor. I was even more impressed with her performance in the film. What I took away from it, more than anything else, is that I barely recognized Kristen Stewart in Welcome to the Rilys as the same person from the Twilight movies.

It was around this time that the reviews for Stewart's latest film, Snow White and the Huntsman, began appearing. I was stunned when I read some of them:

"The elephant in the room, however, is Stewart...she’s dreadful."

-Tom Clift, Moviedex.com

"It doesn't help that Snow White is Kristen Stewart, an actress who seems to have just the one expression at her command..."
-Andrea Chase, killermoviereviews.com

"I believe it proves my theory that Kristen Stewart is the Keanu Reeves of her generation." 
-Annalee Newitz, i09.com

Woah! Quite the critical turnaround, huh?

I found that last one particularly surreal. I remember thinking, "Seriously? You're putting her in the same sentence with the go-to 'insert bad actor here'  punchline of the last 20 years?". Things got even more surreal when I started seeing that line turning up all over the internet and racking up the "like"'s on Facebook.

"Magnificent at Every Turn" vs "She's Dreadful"

Snow White and The Huntsman and Welcome to the Rileys are very different roles in very different movies. Nonetheless, I still found it truly bizarre that two vastly divergent opinions about the same actor of equal yet opposite force can co-exist in the same universe. When you read some of the glowing praise back to back with some of the brutal reviews, it's hard to believe that are even talking about the same person. I found the whole thing perplexing enough to motivate me to do some research and watch some more movies so I could finally get the bottom of what I call The Kristen Stewart Conundrum.

For the record,  I don't care about how much money Stewart makes, her personal life, her relationships, how she deals with the press, her looks, her weight (though, God, that whole issue in show biz could be series of posts unto themselves) or any of the other media obsessions surrounding her and celebrities in general. 

All I care about is her acting and what people think about it. 

Acting is craft that a relatively small of amount of people know the in and outs of but that everybody has an opinion about. Whether it be critics, the average movie goer or even actors, what constitutes a good performance is a highly subjective matter. 

What fascinates me about the wildly differing opinions on Stewart's work are the questions it raises about what constitutes good or bad performances in the eyes of critics and the public and how major mainstream success can influence and shape an actor's image and credibility. 

"The Twilight Nonsense"

In November 2008, the first movie of the the Twilight series was released. It and the films that followed were, and still are, by far Kristen Stewart's biggest movies ever. The films were based on the best selling books written by Stephanie Meyer.

Stewart played the female lead, Bella Swan, an "average" teenage girl who gets caught up in what can best be described as a Gothic tween soap opera involving a love triangle of vampires and werewolves. The role was both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to Kristen Stewart.

"Too bad Stewart's talents are being wasted on the Twilight nonsense"
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak (2004) 

The major difference between the Stewart fans and "haters" is that, basically, they are watching her in different movies. The fans know (but often don't like) Twilight. From what I've seen, though, the "haters" don't know and don't want to know anything about any performances in obscure movies that might change their opinion of her. Of course, there is also a small but vocal contingent that dislike her in any role, no matter what.

It reminds a bit of when Jessica Lange made her film debut in the 1976 version of King Kong. Knowing nothing about her other than that she was a model turned actress whose big screen debut was in one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, the critics were brutal. "Worst performance of the year" and "She'll never work again" were typical reviews. Six years later, Lange won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Francis. I knew people who were still incredulous about her win even then.

Reviews, good or bad, can be like political talking points. Truth, lies or distortion, it makes no difference. Once they are repeated often enough, for many people, they become true (though aside from producer Harvey Weinstein's Oscar voting campaigns, there are rarely agendas driving movie reviews). I have come across people who have not even seen a single movie of Stewart's yet are still are under the impression that she can't act.  She's not by any means in the same league as Lange but I do think that Twilight is Kristen Stewart's King Kong.

I first saw Kristen Stewart in Twilight. Yes, I have seen every Twilight movie to date. I'm a geek. That's my job.

She did not make much of an impression on me at the time, good or bad.  It was not until I started seeing Stewart in other roles like Adventureland (2009) and The Runaways that I really got a sense that there was way more to her than the role of Bella Swan might suggest. From there on in, I watched her in the Twilight movies with different eyes. 

The first thing I got a sense for with those new eyes is that Stewart seemed to be holding back. It occurred to me fairly quickly into watching the second film, Twilight: New Moon, that she seemed to be directed away from playing anything that was too strong in any direction (and I can tell you from experience that directors can indeed make a big difference in actor's performance). 

"...a series of movies that clearly constrain her acting ability and makes her seem as boring as her character, Bella Swan."
David Blaustein, ABC News

"What surprised me was how much I admired Kristen Stewart, who in Twilight was playing below her grade level."
-Roger Ebert on Adventureland

In the Twilight movies, I got the impression that Stewart was directed to play a blank slate that the target audience of tween girls could project themselves onto. I have not read any of the Twilight books (my dedication to this blog only goes so far) but I'm told this is very much what the character of Bella Swan is like in the books as well.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), is indeed passive and blank, a transparent proxy for the audience.
-Dana Stevens, slate.com 

In that sense, Stewart was doing her job. She was giving the franchise what it needed by not alienating as much of the target audience as possible. It's an accomplishment that did her no favours.


"...her plain, expressionless face and deadpan voice was almost painful to watch."
-IMDB User Review of Twilight

"Miss Stewart - however cute she may be - seemed to be only given one direction, and that was to 'stare longingly into his face with your lips slightly open'."
-IMDB user review of Twilight

Watching Stewart in the Twilight movies quickly became frustrating as hell. It felt like she was working at about 10% of her true potential. It's no coincidence that both Stewart and co-star Robert Pattinson were often criticized for their work in Twilight but then got much better responses to their roles in other films. 

The great irony of Stewart's now extremely successful career is that the one role for which she is best known is her most atypical and one that is not truly indicative of her talents.  

"A Flawless Performance" vs "Cannot Handle the Drama"

In 2004, Stewart starred in Speak, a low budget indie film originally made for the Showtime/Lifetime cable networks. The film is about a 14 year old rape victim and her struggle to tell someone, anyone, about her ordeal (and I gotta add here that I find it very troubling that it has become necessary to make movies about such an issue for so young an audience).

Just 13 when the movie was shot, Stewart's performance was well received.

 "Kristen Stewart doesn't just shine, she burns...a flawless performance."
-Chris Parry, efilmcritic. com

 "Wow! Kristen Stewart. An impressive performance."
- IMDB User Review of Speak 

"She does things with her face that actors twice her age with twice her experience only wish they could do"
-IMDB User Review of Speak

"Kristen Stewart played the full range of emotions from debilitating despair to righteous anger and made the character completely believable."
-IMDB User Review of Speak 

 "Kristen Stewart's performance and expressions--incredible"
-IMDB User Review of Speak 

Granted Stewart is playing a character that doesn't talk all that much but it is still fascinating that, even so early in her career, the first thing many of the reviews mention is her "expressions". In this case it is as a positive, not the negative "inexpressive" and "one expression" type comments that will come up time and again later on. It is again something of a conundrum that throughout her career Stewart has been alternately praised and condemned for the exact same thing: her "expressions" or alleged lack thereof.

What I see in her performance in Speak is this 13 year old kid reacting to events going on around her with incredible instincts that are beyond her years as well as an uncanny ability to communicate those feelings to an audience. Stewart and the character she plays become one in the same. 

Meanwhile, on Rotten Tomatoes, we start to see the first evidence of the impact Twilight would have on Stewart's image and credibility as an actor. In reviews dated around late 2008 and early 2009, just after the release of the first Twilight movie, the first truly negative reviews of her work in Speak start rearing their heads on the popular movie site.

"Stewart cannot handle the drama the role brings"
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak

"I see nothing in her face or movements that betrays anything worth looking at. "
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak

"Perfect role for Kristen Stewart's expressionless face."
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak

Amazingly, Stewart is now suddenly getting criticized for having an "expressionless face" for the exact same role for which she was previously praised for her "incredible" expressions (to be fair, there were still good reviews of Speak post-Twilight). It is evident that audiences, and later critics, seeing her for the first time in Twilight were beginning to make those weaker performances their baseline opinion of Stewart's talents in general.

"Expressionless Face" vs "Incredible Expressions"

The issue of Stewart's "expressions", "face" and "look" come up negatively again and again in many reviews. To one degree or another, these types of criticisms haunt her in every role.

"Fear, uncertainty, determination and love; they all look the same on Stewart’s inexpressive face."
-Tom Clift, Moviedex.com review of Snow White and The Huntsman

"This young actress can convey more with one look than most veterans can with an entire monologue."
-IMDB User Review of Speak

So what is it about this aspect of her performance that so polarizes critical reaction?

Well, for one thing, she will often play scenes muted, at times with a seemingly neutral gaze, allowing only glimpses of emotion sparingly.

In this scene from Speak, she has just snuck into a hospital room to escape the world as she reflects on what is still her completely solitary emotional trauma:

The emotions of this scene are powerful yet understated. In t
his case, as in much of the movie, she is being helped out by her own voice over. Still, though, it showcases a common thread in her performances. The text provides the context of the story and she, with various degrees of subtly,  fills in the emotions.

In this scene from Welcome to the Rileys, Mallory's (Stewart) would be father figure  Doug (Gandolfini) is paying her $100 a day in rent to live in her home. In the process, he is fixing up her run down dwelling and attempting to instill some sense of structure and discipline into her life (in what presumably is a part of long term plan to get her off drugs and away from sex work ).

Take a look:


The way she looks at him towards the end of the scene is great. She says almost nothing in reaction to his lecturing. She doesn't have to. The look is very much alive: she is at once angry, frightened, conflicted and vulnerable. She both needs yet rebels against his guidance, authority and caring. Once again, the script creates the context, she subtly supplies the emotions.

But what about the multitude of people that seem to see nothing in her face, those who frequently use words like "inexpressive", "one expression" and "expressionless"?  Do they just not "get it"? For some, this may be the case but I don't think it's quite that easy.

Stewart's "look" or "expressions" can be very understated and subtle. So much so that people could either miss them completely or, more likely, are just plain frustrated by the lack of forthright emotion.

"Kristen Stewart is always on the verge of emoting but never quite gets there."
-Netflix User Review of Adventureland

In the case of Twilight, where the text is not providing not enough context or weak context, these "looks" and "expressions" exist in a vacuum and come off as "blank" or "inexpressive".

Snow White and the Huntsman is another case where Stewart's understated expressions were poorly received. Take a look at this scene:


That incredibly subtle look is just so very Kristen Stewart. It's a  boldly small way to play off of something so big.  Knowing her other work, I can appreciate what she is trying to do in that scene. Without that knowledge, though, it's a moment that could easily be subject to other interpretations.

"Touching Her Hair Non-Stop"

The "hair touching" criticism is right up there with "inexpressive". And it's not just that Stewart is apparently touching her hair "non-stop" in "every scene", there are also complaints about lip biting, stuttering, exhaling, and just about any other twitch or tic (or whatever you want to call them) that anyone has ever seen her have.

One movie where that where these types of comments come up a lot is Adventureland (2009). Directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad) and co-starring Jesse Eisenberg and Ryan Reynolds, the  movie is probably Stewart's most critically divisive role. From what I've seen, it is also the one with the most complaints about her contentious tics and twitches, for lack of a better term (calling them tics and twitches is a bit unfair as that implies involuntary or sub-conscious physical actions and I'm quite certain that they are deliberate acting choices on Stewart's part).

In Adventureland, Stewart plays a teen who is emotionally damaged by her father's quick remarriage after the death of her mother. She enters into an increasingly problematic relationship with Eiesnberg, who is working at the same amusement park as Stewart in his first post graduate yet minimum wage job. 

Predominately aimed at a youth audience, the film very much lives under the shadow of Twilight. For Stewart, that is not a good thing.

"Oh, and Kristen Stewart is, as always awful."
Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Adventureland

"Kristen Stewart gets too much criticism for her acting....don't judge her off of the Twilight series."
-Netflix User Review of Adventureland

"Kristen Stewart does her trade marked emotionally crippled teenager bit and despite myself I still cared about her."
Netflix User Review of Adventureland

"Kristen Stewart harbors too much teenage angst while touching her hair in what appears to be every scene"
-Netflix User Review of Adventureland

"I was getting annoyed seeing Kristen Stewart touching her hair nonstop and chewing on her lip."
Netflix User Review of Adventureland

Initially, I was perplexed that so many people were so hung up on such small details of her performances. Isn't this just her version of Jack Nicolson's smirks, Al Pacino's yelling and  Christopher Walken's quirky offbeat line readings? In terms of audience tolerance, not in the least, apparently.

I think understand where the annoyance is coming from. 

In Twilight, for instance, the character of Bella is so blank that any time she does anything remotely distinctive, like the hair touching, for instance, it stands out like a sore thumb. Nobody likes sore thumbs.

Once her tics and twitches are noticed, they can create a vicious circle: the more they are talked about, the more it creates a hyper awareness of them. And, on the internet, almost everything gets talked about a lot. 

When I went back and watched her performances, I even found myself constantly watching for them at the expense of everything else. It becomes like Bob Dylan's nasally high pitched singing or William Shatner's staggered delivery. Issues of artistic merit aside, those aspects of their performance have been commented on and joked about so much that it reaches the point that audiences fixate on them and thus can see little else. It's a byproduct of overexposure.

Yet the problem does not begin and end with Stewart's Twilight overexposure. The powerful  negative reactions to her tics and twitches are very real for a lot of people. They seem to me to have a disproportionally emotional element to them.  It is like these tics and twitches become the focal point for other less easily articulated aspects of her acting that just plain rub some people the wrong way. 

There's kind of an emotional rawness and realness to some of Stewart's performance that can, at times, be a bit unsettling to watch. One of the ways these elements manifest themselves in her performances is via the tics and twitches.

Take a look at this scene from Adventureland in which Eisenberg has just caught Stewart cheating on him with a married man, played by Ryan Reynolds.

 "Stuttering + twitching = great acting"
-YouTube comment on the above clip

I would got along with the above quote if that was the only thing she was doing in that scene. It's not. 

She is living the emotional reality of the scene. The way she is working off of Eisenberg is very real. At one point, she echoes back his "fucking idiot" line, but now directed inwards at herself with a whole new and much sharper intensity. 

The "stuttering" and the "twitching" become the physical manifestations of her emotions. She is in pain in a way that you can just feel. That kind of emotion may put some people off, quite possibly even subconsciously.

"...there's a quality about her that I find affecting, a sort of contradictory flinty fragility, like she's easily broken but also quick to temper.  And she's guarded, making those few moments where she relaxes and lights up something special."
Drew McWeeny, Hitfix.com review of Adventureland

That sense of authenticity is the key to the reason behind the twitches and tics. For me, in Twilight, for instance, when I see Stewart touch her hair in an emotional moment, it's the only time I feel like I'm watching a real person. 

"She’s been criticized for being very twitchy and there’s some negative things said about her in regards to her acting affectations, but they’re not affectations, they’re who she is and that’s how she is. And she’s very open and honest and authentic in herself and it really comes down to authenticity. "
-Jake Scott, director of Welcome to the Rileys

Take, for instance, this scene from the 2008 film The Yellow Handkerchief, starring William Hurt, Eddie Redmayne and Stewart. In the film, ex-con Hurt and troubled teens Redmayne and Stewart are thrown together into one car by circumstance in what is essentially your basic emotional road trip movie . In this scene, the three complete strangers are forced to share  a motel room for the nightTake a look at the scene from The Yellow Handkerchief by clicking here (it's a lengthy clip, you can stop watching around 6:20 or so)

Again in this scene, the often dreaded hair touching is, to me, very real. It's the way Stewart is living through the scene, rather than just acting in it. It's the kind of behavior I've seen from real people in real life. I think, though, that you need to get be able to get get past the fixation on the twitches and tics to see it. 

"Stewart largely disavows the tics and tells her best-known role entailed—the gnawed-on lip, the downcast eyes—in favor of a more forthright relationship with the camera." 
Christopher Orr, The Atlantic  review of Snow White  and the Hunstman

"An Amazingly Real Sad Girl"

"I am now really convinced that Kristen Stewart does not have a happy bone in her body."
Netflix User Review of Adventureland

If I were playing Stewart's part in Adventureland and somebody wrote that about my performance I would consider that the highest compliment anyone could ever pay me. That is very much what her character is: she really is that fucked up.

"Kristen Stewart plays an amazingly real sad girl."
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak

That is another description that comes up a lot when discussing Stewart's work, "real". In the 2010 movie, The Runaways, she got a new and different opportunity to play more of that "realness".

Music video director Floria Sigismondi had, for some time, been planning a film about the first major all girl punk band, The Runaways. Breaking onto the scene in the mid to late 70's,  The Runaways would be become an underground sensation that would ultimately launch the career of rock legend Joan Jett. 

Kristen Stewart was cast in the role of Joan Jett. Dakota Fanning was cast as The Runaways lead singer, Cherry Currie. Fanning was also trying to break the mold of public perception by distancing herself from her career as a child actor.

Stewart immersed herself in the character. She changed her look, her hair and took on the attitude and mannerisms of a young Jett. She added to her musical talents (see Into The Wild) by singing and playing guitar just like Jett, coached by Joan herself.

"Stewart's vocal impersonation of Jett is uncanny. She can be a compelling performer when allowed to do something other than mope around a Twilight movie. Stewart is something of a revelation, full of fire and attitude..."
Grek Maki- Maki at the Movies

"Stewart just plain nails the role -- she's tough, she's hungry and she loves playing rock star as much as she loves playing guitar. Stewart makes you want to watch the movie."
Tom Long, The Detroit News

"Stewart is very spot on as Jett...The slouch, the snarl, the open-legged sitting position, and the raw, powerful voice..."
-Netflix User Review of The Runaways

"I now recognize Kristen Stewart as a serious actress."
-Netflix User Review of The Runaways

-"I am such an un-fan of Kristen Stewart that I was skeptical about her as Joan. I loved it though"
Netflix User Review of The Runaways

-"She actually managed a smile and a semi angry look for this film. There may yet be hope."
Netflix User Review of The Runaways

My respect for Stewart as an actor was upped a notch watching her in The Runaways. I also remember thinking "God, she must hate those Twilight movies more than anybody else does".

Kristen Stewart's performance as Joan Jett is the kind of role they like to hand out Oscar nominations for; the chameleon like portrayal of a real person or "pulling a Meryl Streep" as some call it. However, Jett is just a bit too obscure a figure for the Academy and The Runaways features underage girls in a great many sex, drugs and rock and roll scenes. Not to mention that Stewart was not yet on the industry's radar in that way and that practically nobody saw the movie in the first place. 

"Audiences tend to avoid Kristen Stewart's non-'Twilight' movies like vampires fleeing daylight. Believe me, it's their loss."
Lou Lemick, New York Post

Nonetheless, The Runaways does showcase one the cornerstones of Stewart's best performances: the understated realness of many of her roles.

Take a look at this scene where Jett is composing while taking a bath.

I really like this scene but it also makes me think that this kind of thing can easily register to some audiences as "nothing".

Jett's unique blend of allure and threat, apathy and determination, gets a mumbling hyper-naturalized take from Stewart—more Brando than Bella Swan. Her performance is largely internal."
-Karina Longworth, The Village Voice

Wow. Kristen Stewart has now been compared to both Marlon Brando and Keanu Reeves. That is one divisive actor!

There are times when Stewart has emotional explosions and then there times that she just lets little bits of her inner turmoil out in more low key scenes. Take, for instance, this scene in Welcome to the Rileys where Mallory has just met Doug''s wife Lois (played by Melissa Leo) for the first time.

This is scene is where, as Jodie Foster points out, Stewart is not "blurting out her emotions all in front of her". There is a lot of pain beneath the surface. She plays it close to the bone, remaining guarded yet not completely invulnerable. That, and she's holding her own in a scene with Melissa freakin' Leo.

"Some accuse her of being flat and emotionless in her films but the more I watch her work, I see that what makes her work stand out is that she is real. Never overacting or trying to play the heavily emotional scenes...it's like your viewing a real person in life"
IMDB User Review of Welcome to the Rileys

"It Doesn't Help That Snow White is Played by Kristen Stewart"

However, "a real person in life" does not always work for her. Take, for instance some of the reviews for Snow White and The Huntsman, ie: "dreadful", "one expression at her command" and the infamous "Keanu Reeves of her generation". Stewart
 is again having same problem that she has always had with both the influence of Twilight and, perhaps more significantly,  the way that audiences sometimes react to and/or interpret Stewart's acting. 

"As Snow White, Kristen Stewart is terrific. I have not seen any of the Twilight films, but on the basis of Panic Room, Runaways, and now this, I have to say she’s among my very favourite younger actors."
-CJ Johnson, FilmMafia.com

I have not seen Snow White and The Hunstman but, going off of the short clips posted on YouTube,  what I see is that Stewart is approaching the material with her usual understated, internalized and naturalistic performance.  I think the reason why she keeps getting negatively singled out in reviews is that she's playing a different game than the other actors. It's almost as if  her co-stars, Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth, are playing Shakespeare and Stewart is in a documentary. It is certainly an esoteric and ballsy choice to make in a big mainstream blockbuster.

"Stewart, with her contemporary edge, seems to be acting in the wrong era."
Peter Rainer, The Christian Science Monitor

"Snow White is meant to be "the fairest of them all" when Kristin Stewart is one doggy lookin bitch."
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review 

That last comment is a bit harsh but it is an otherwise astute, insightful and completely reasonable critique of  Stewart's performance in the film.

"An Actress Who Isn't Horrible"

Once seen in the broader context of Stewart's career, the assertion that she "can't act", in my opinion, does not hold up to scrutiny. Other criticisms such as "one expression", "blank" and "touching her hair non-stop" are, at the very least, open to debate. 

Having learnt more about Stewart and her work than any 48 year-old man should, I find the divergent critical opinions of her work to be much less of a conundrum now.

"All in all, my all time favorite movie, starring an actress who isn't horrible, as most of the world apparently believes"
-Netflix User Review of Advdentureland

While not nearly as inept and untalented as some would have you believe, Kristen Stewart does have a certain raw and unrefined quality to her performances. That rawness can, depending on the role, work for or against her.  

"I can’t think about it as logic. I can’t put too much sense on to it like that. If I ever think about something too hard I will leave the scene after we are done shooting and it’s like: ‘I didn’t go through that. That’s not real. I didn’t just go through that and I faked it.’ I used like these tools that I learned over the years that I’ve been able to fake it. And that feels horrible." 
-Kristen Stewart on her own acting

Clearly, Stewart can rise to great heights in smaller indie movies where the writing and directing are there to back her up. She also has a special talent for quite effectively bringing to life some very emotionally damaged characters. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that her transition to mainstream blockbusters has been, well, somewhat problematic. 

“She’s very vulpine—very wolfish—and wily, kind of twitchy. Directing her is kind of like wrangling a herd of cats.”
-Jake Scott

As I said earlier, she's not in the same league, as say Jessica Lange (there is rarely any debate surrounding actors of that caliber), but Stewart certainly has the potential to get there.

Despite the major critical backlash, the box office success of the Twilight series, and now Snow White and The Hunstman as well, has put Stewart in a position where she can afford to play more interesting roles in smaller movies.

The early buzz on Stewart's role as Marylou in the upcoming film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On The Road is predominantly good (shot right here in my hometown...though I am not in it...hmmm) .

"Kristen Stewart, fine and untwitchy"
 Manohla Dargis, The New York Times review of On The Road

The film got a reported 11 minute standing ovation at Cannes. Like Welcome to the Rileys, there is already Oscar buzz for Kristen Stewart.  Yes, I just put the words "Kristen Stewart" and "Oscar" in the same sentence for the second time.

Should such a thing as an Oscar for Kristen Stewart ever come to pass, given everything I've seen about her on the internet, I sure as hell want to be online when that envelope is ripped open.