Spy In Rome (1968)

Here’s a lazy posting for the day. It’s a link to Die Danger Die Die Kill and the Bollywood Spy film, Spy In Rome.

Over at Die Danger Die Die Kill, for those you want to venture further into the strange and neglected world of Indian, Thai and Mexican movies, allow Todd Stadtman. to be your guide. Todd’s worldly and witty reviews take you to the far flung corners of the world, and if you’re lucky, will then safely guide you out again.

To read Todd’s review of Spy In Rome Click here.

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Top Secret! (1984)

Country: United States
Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Val Kilmer, Lucy Gutteridge, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Kemp, Christopher Villiers, Warren Clarke, Omar Sharif
Music by Maurice Jarre

Top Secret! is a Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker production (the team behind the Kentucky Fried Theatre), and as such anyone who has seen Flying High (that’s Airplane to most of you) or the Naked gun films will know the type of humour to expect – although this film falls short of their standard. The film takes a scattershot approach to comedy, thickly layering on the sight gags, word plays and silly plot contrivances. Some jokes work, and others miss their mark by a long shot, but due to the shear quantity, you’ll find yourself laughing, or at least grinning broadly at regular intervals.

The film is a parody of all the wartime spy thrillers that appeared in the forties and fifties – basically the spy films that pre-date Bond, James Bond. This provides a nice springboard for some old-fashioned trench coat action – and let’s face it, is there anything funnier than a man in a trench coat? Well yes – but let’s go with it. The film starts with a Western secret agent, Cedric played by Omar Sharif being accosted by an East German soldier on the roof of a moving train. As they come to a low bridge over the tracks, Omar ducks down under, while the soldier keeps standing. We expect to see the soldier chopped off at the knees as he collides with the bridge, but instead we see the bridge shatter like polystyrene, and the soldier continues to stand. This is the first sight gag in a film that is littered with them. Some are truly inspired – this is a good start – but others barely raise a groan. Omar, realising that his attacker is pretty strong – he shattered a bridge, dammit – decides to leap off the train.

The bad guys are pretty upset that Omar has escaped because he knows that they are up to no good. They have a plan to destroy the British submarine fleet with an advanced new weapon. Omar intends to pass this information onto the French resistance.

Meanwhile, to divert the world’s attention from their wicked scheme, the East Germans are holding a music festival. Among their guest is Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer). Rivers is a decadent Rock ‘n’ Roller. Incidentally, Elvis Presley played a character called Deke Rivers in Loving You. To go off a tangent for a moment, I find it strange that Elvis never made a spy film. After all he was a sixties icon, and at that time Bondmania was sweeping the world. I am sure the King was a fan of spy films and if he had made one, he would have made one that was right up there with the standard of his other films – actually maybe it’s better that he didn’t, after all his attempt at a Spaghetti Western, Charro, was pretty lame. But let’s return to Top Secret! and Val Kilmer. Nick Rivers, as a performer, provides plenty of opportunities for musical interludes, which parody the Beach Boys, Elvis and a few 50’s crooners.

This is a relatively early starring role for Kilmer, and although it seems to say this so many years down the track, his youthful boyish charm shines through. Despite cameos be a few big name stars, like Omar and Peter Cushing, Kilmer still has to carry the bulk of this film, which he does. The shortcomings of the film can be attributed to some poor material rather than his performance.

The comedy spy film is a difficult proposition at best, because so many of the ‘straight’ films have many comedy elements in them to begin with. So to make a comedy spy film, you really have to go ‘way out’, and Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker are just the men to do it. Even then though, Top Secret! isn’t as successful as other ZAZ productions, but it still is worth a look. Whatever your taste in comedy, there’s bound to be at least one joke that tickles your funnybone.

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Sleepers (1991)


Mini-Series 4 Episodes
Country: United Kingdom
Created by John Flanagan, Andrew McCulloch Nigel Havers, Warren Clarke, Michael Gough, David Calder, Joanna Kanska, Richard Huw, Christopher Rozycki Music by David Dundas and Rick Wentworth

Sleepers is a comedic BBC mini-series made after the fall of communism in Russia. At the time of it’s initial showing, the idea of presenting the culture clash as the agents on both sides come to terms with the new dynamic would have been fresh and at times, quite funny. But here we are, closing in on twenty years later, and the themes contained in this series just don’t hold as much water as they used to. That’s not to say that this series is bad. No, no – far from it – but some of its more biting observations have been dimmed by time and repetition in other shows.
The series opens in a mental hospital in Russia. A patient, Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough) is wandering around at night, ranting and raving. This will not be tolerated and two male nurses contain him and then strap him to a table. What has sent this man over the edge?

The titles then roll, and we are shown a montage of images from the sixties, including scenes of the weapons build up in Russia intercut with scenes of The Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
After the titles, we are in Moscow. We are told it is ‘Now’ – so around 1991. A secret room, that has been bricked in since the 1960’s is found in the Kremlin. A Russian Officer, Oleg Petrovski (Christopher Rozycki) walks into the dusty darkened room with a flashlight. As the light flickers around the room he discovers an artificial street with shopfronts, footpaths, cars, crossings, mailboxes and even mannequins standing in for the people. Albeit covered in dust and spiderwebs, it looks like a 3-D snapshot of swinging’ sixties Piccadilly Circus. At first the Russians surmise that the elaborate setup may have been for an Anti-British propaganda film, but this is soon dismissed. Why would they seal up a film set?

The room was in fact set up as a training ground for two KGB sleeper agents, Vladimir Zemenski and Sergei Rublev. In the room, they were to familiarise themselves with every aspect of swinging sixties British culture. But that was twenty-five years ago. What happened to the sleepers? Well now, one is Albert Robinson (Warren Clarke). He has a job at Braithwaite Brewery, and at home he has a wife and three kids. He is living your average working class life, but he is happy with his lot. The other sleeper is Jeremy Coward (Nigel Havers). Coward is a hotshot financier who pulls in 300,000 a year, drives a sportscar and is part owner in a race horse. Needless to say he is very happy with his adopted life.

The Russians first try to make contact by using old radios that the sleepers had been originally given when they were planted. Coward tossed his radio years ago. But Robinson still keeps his in the attic. He is quite dismayed; when after all these years the radio suddenly comes to life. He does not answer but decides to contact Coward.

Vladimir Zemenski and Sergei Rublev as they were once known, have not seen each other since they first arrived in the country, and when Robinson first arranges a meeting with Coward, Coward is quite annoyed to see his old comrade. His first reaction is a rather selfish one – but since he’s on a good wicket, why not? – he intends to kill Robinson and then leave the country. In the end though, Coward discovers that Robinson has no more desire to go back home than he does. After twenty-five years of the good life, why go back to a tiny concrete box in bitterly cold Russia? They decide to ignore the signals and requests and go back to their normal lives.

Unfortunately for Robinson and Coward, the Russians are adamant that they want their agents back and send Major Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanksa) to England to uncover the undercover agents and bring them back for debriefing. Instead, the two men choose to go on the run. This seems easier said than done, because not only are the men wanted by the Russians, but the attention they have received also puts them under the scrutiny of the C.I.A and M.I.6. With all sides chasing them it’s a mad and at times amusing scramble across the country.

Ah, but who is Andrei Zorin; the madman in the mental asylum? Well he’s the madman who put the sleeper plan into operation, without authorisation in the first place. And naturally, he knows more than he is telling.

In the end, Sleepers is an entertaining diversion. In it’s day, it was considered one of the better mini-series productions. Although not intentional, now it is an interesting time capsule looking back at the late eighties and early nineties. As with all things, over time attitudes and ideas change – not to mention fashion. Despite all this, the show succeeds on the strength of the performances by Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke.

Apparently Sleepers is available on DVD for those seeking it out, but apparently it has had to be modified from its original broadcast form for copyright reasons. I am guessing (I haven’t seen the new DVD) that this is because the use of some Beatles music in the opening scenes – much the same as the Beatles tunes were removed from the recent Billion Dollar Brain DVD. I don’t think the changes would diminish any viewing pleasure that this series is likely to bring.

Thanks to Mick

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Goldeneye (1995)

Country: United Kingdom
Directed by Martin Cambell
Pierce Brosnan, Isabella Scorupco, Judi Dench, Famke Jansen, Sean Bean, Robbie Coltrane, Joe Don Baker, Gottfried John
Music By Eric Serra
Title song performed by Tina Turner

Legal problems had stalled the James Bond series. There hadn’t been a film in six years, and during that time Timothy Dalton had moved on. This finally gave Pierce Brosnan the chance to claim the role of James Bond; a role he had been offered before. He was cast as Bond in The Living Daylights but had to give up the role at the last minute because he was contracted to the Remington Steele television series. You can read more about that by checking out The Living Daylights review.

New Zealand director, Martin Campbell may have seemed like an odd choice to helm the film, after all he had directed the diabolical Escape From Absolom the preceding year, but he too had worked on Reilly: Ace Of Spies and the BBC drama Edge Of Darkness. Campbell had solid espionage credentials.

Together, Brosnan and Campbell had to re-invent the franchise. It ws a make or break film, and they were successful in relaunching the series. Goldeneye, at the time of release was one of the most successful films in the series.

A lot was made of how much the world had changed since the last film. Russia was no longer a villain, and ‘political correctness’ had swept the world. Was there a place for Bond’s sexism and womanising in the modern world? Thankfully a clever script by Michael France and Jeffery Caine answered all these questions. As Russia was no longer the enemy, Bond was sent over the dismantled Iron Curtain, and took on an evil organisation called Janus (Incidentally, Janus is also the name of the villain in The Return Of The Man From UNCLE: The Fifteen Years Later Affair).

Bond’s sexism and womanising was also addressed head on. Dame Judi Dench was cast as ‘M’, replacing Robert Brown, who played the role in the previous four films. Making Bond’s superior a woman certainly stirred things up. At one point she refers to him as ’a sexist misogynist dinosaur’. To Bond, she is the ‘Evil Queen of numbers’ – a politician with no inkling of what happens out there in the field. The repartee between ‘M’ and Bond provides some of the highlights of the film.

The basic premise of the film works pretty well too. That premise is, rather than have Bond go up against another megalomaniac, this time the villain is 006, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean). That’s right, one of the Double ‘O’s has gone bad, and obviously Trevelyan has the same skill set as Bond. Adding another layer to the drama, it seems that Bond and Trevelyan were once close friends. In the pre-title sequence we see the two men carrying out a mission together. Where did it all go wrong?

The pre-title sequence in Goldeneye stirs up mixed emotions in me. Firstly I am elated because it answers the question I’d wanted to know for years – does James Bond enjoy a beer? And I am pleased to say that the answer is YES!

In the opening scene at the Archangel Chemical Facility, as a swarm of Russian troops storm Bond and Alec Trevalyn’s position, Alec yell’s out “Closing time, James…last call!” Bond’s response is simple, but to the point: “Buy me a pint!” But I have leapt ahead of myself again. Let’s go back to the start. In Russia, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) bungee jumps off the top of a dam, down the wall to the Archangel Chemical Facility. Inside the facility, Bond meets Alec Trevelyan, Agent 006 (Sean Bean). Together they intend to destroy the chemical weapon stockpiles that the Soviets have been hording away. As they enter the store room, troops under the orders of General Ouromov (Gottfried John) surround Bond and Trevelyan’s position. Ouromov captures Trevelyan and shoots him. Bond is left on his own to complete the mission and escape – which he does.

But this brings me to my gripe with Goldeneye’s pre-title sequence. It is one of the silliest and piss-poor stunts ever envisaged for a Bond film. In the scene, a pilotless plane, with the engine running drives (not flies) off the edge of a cliff. The plane starts plummeting down towards the valley below. To make his escape, Bond, on a motorcycle, chases the plane. He drives off the edge of the cliff, leaps off the bike and in free-fall catches up with the plane. As both man and machine head towards certain doom on the rocks below, Bond climbs into the cockpit, pulls back on the controls, and, and, and at the last second the plane begins to climb. Death is averted once again. The scene is bullshit!

After the titles, we are back in the present and on the Cote d’ Azure. Secret agent 007, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is being evaluated by Caroline (Serena Gordon). She has been sent by the new ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to see if he measures up. This evaluation is being done in the field, and she is settled beside him as he races his Aston Martin along the coast road. As he drives, rather recklessly, a red Ferrari flies past him. Behind the wheel is Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen). Bond’s first reaction is to pursue this woman, but his assessor soon dissuades him.

Later that evening, Bond alone now, spies Onatopp seated at the baccarat table at the casino where he is staying. He attempts one of his usual pick up lines, but it fails. Onatopp already has a partner for the evening – an Admiral in the British Navy.

The next day, with much pomp and ceremony, the French are unveiling their latest hi-tech weapon, the Tigre helicopter. What makes this chopper so special is that it has been built to withstand an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP). During the ceremony, before the demonstration flight, the two pilots are distracted and then replaced by members of a Russian criminal organization called Janus. Janus, in plain sight, steal the Tigre helicopter and fly off.

The helicopter was stolen with a direct purpose in mind, and the two Janus pilots happen to be Xenia Onatopp and Bond’s sparring partner from Arch Angel, General Ouromov. These two fly the chopper to a Russian satellite tracking station in Sevrenaya. In this facility they control the ‘Goldeneye’ satellite which circles the globe armed with EMP weapons. The staff at the facility don’t realise that Ouromov is selling out his country, and now working for Janus, and obey his every command. They in turn hand over the controls for the Goldeneye satellite to him. Once he has control, he orders Onatopp to kill everyone in the complex, which she does with relish – and, of course, a machine gun. While Onatopp is quite thorough in her murderous rampage, she does miss one employee, Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco).

To cover his tracks, Ouromov fires Goldeneye at the facility. The EMP blacks out everything in the surrounding area, except the Tigre, which Ouromov and Onatopp use to escape.

Firing a weapon of this kind from space does not go un-noticed, and M wants answers. She sends her best man, James Bond to Russia to find out who has stolen the Goldeneye satellite and what they intend to do with it.

For Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as Bond, he is partnered with some beautiful Bond girls. The first is Serena Gordon, who plays the agent who is sent out to evaluate Bond in the field. Bond’s boyish charm and a bottle of chilled champagne win her over. Next we have Dutch actress Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp. Janssen portrays one of the best villainesses in the series. Not only is she lethal but she is lovely. The good girl, Natalya Simonova, is played by gorgeous Polish born Izabella Scorupco. Simonova is an interesting character because she is bright, but not a genius. As the Bond fans reading this would know, with the release of each Bond film, there is a publicity blurb that says ‘this Bond girl is different to the bimbos of the past. She is intelligent and every bit Bond’s equal’. Well Simonova isn’t an agent. She is simply a computer programmer – and not even a high level one at that. In essence, she plays an every-woman, who gets caught up in the tangled adventure. How often in a Bond film do we encounter a normal person?

Eric Serra’s score is the weak link in the film. At the time he was riding high on the popularity of his soundtrack to The Fifth Element, and may have seemed like a progressive choice. But his score for Goldeneye does not follow the story. He simply finds an empty space to go ‘bip’ into. Another shortcoming is Serra’s reluctance to use Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme. I can understand why a composer would want to create something uniquely all their own, but when you are working on a franchise film, and that franchise just happens to have one of the most recognisable signature tunes in all cinema history, it makes sense to use that theme. It’s what the fans and I want, and have come to expect.

The film features a few gadgets but overall the film isn’t too reliant on ‘dirty tricks’ to get Bond out of a jam. I guess with a villain who used to be in M.I.6, he’d be prepared and familiar with all of Q’s gadgets. On display there is belt-buckle that can fire out a piton and a line, and an explosive pen.

After such a long wait, Goldeneye had to be a hit or the Bond franchise would have gone down the drain. Thankfully, on the whole, the film-makers have presented us with a film that is pretty good. It does have its flaws – I have already singled out the music – but there are a few lazy plot points too – those who have read John Gardner’s novelisation, where the story is a little more fleshed out at the beginning will know exactly what I mean. But quibbles aside, Goldeneye is a great addition to the Bond legacy and a particularly enjoyable film.

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Sebastian (1968)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: David Greene
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, Lilli Palmer, John Gielgud, Ronald Fraser, Nigel Davenport, Donald Sutherland
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

Sebastian is a wildly uneven British spy film, but oh so very enjoyable. At times it doesn’t seem to know if it is a romantic comedy, a character study, or a hard edged spy film. Thankfully, the film almost works during all its various tone shifts.

The film opens with a small pre-title sequence where we see Mr. Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) running through the streets in Oxford. He is running late for a ceremony where the Prime Minister is to be presented with an honorary degree. Dressed in red ceremonial robes, as he makes his way to the ceremony, he almost collides with a jeep driven by Rebecca Howard (Susannah York). Howard is a quick witted and smart mouthed, modern liberated woman, whereas Sebastian is of a slightly older vintage. He comes from a more rigid background. As you can imagine, these two don’t take an instant shining to each other. Howard abuses him for running in the street. He pays her no mind, and quickly moves on.

But there is something about Sebastian’s aloof manner that intrigues Howard, so she spins the jeep around and follows him through the streets. As he jogs to his appointment, she asks him some questions, to which he makes cryptic replies. Then quizzically he asks her name – but rather than getting her to say it, he gets her to rattle off the letters backwards, which she does. Then he asks her how many words can she make from the letters that make up the word ‘thorough’. She quickly rattles of a dictionary full of word variations. Sebastian is impressed. He gives her his card and says ‘if you’re looking for a job come and see me’.

We then launch into the title sequence, which was put together by Richard Williams, who also created the titles for the Boysie Oakes adventure, The Liquidator. Underneath the titles we see Mr. Sebastian interviewing a whole swag of girls. He asks them all a series of cryptic questions and most respond in a miserable fashion. You see Sebastian is the head of the code breaking section in British Intelligence and he continually has to hire new talent to break enemy codes. Why he chooses to employ only women is never fully explained, but as this is a swinging sixties, Carnaby Street type of scene, man, let’s just go with it.

After several months, Rebecca Howard finally calls Sebastian looking for a job. She is called in for an interview and is one of the lucky few who pass all the tests. She is put through security training, and when ready sent off for her first day on the job. She heads to a high-rise office block and catches the elevator to the top floor. The office is a huge open space populated exclusively by women – well almost. Upstairs in his office, overseeing the room, Mr. Sebastian presides over all the girls in the room. He has all the girls breaking top-secret Russian codes. Howard’s first assignment is to crack a code relating to a prisoner who has just escaped from Wormwoods Scrubs.

Pardon my sexism – because this is what the film wants me to say (and say in a cockney accent) – this films pulls the dastardly trick of having one hundred pieces of love-er-ley English crumpet, all made up and all that, in a room all together – but rather than depicting them as sex objects, it shows them as quick witted, super-smart assets for the intelligence community – and Mr. Sebastian treats them as such. Well that is until he falls in love with Rebecca Howard. The couple have a tenuously balanced relationship where he represented the old school tie boy’s club, and she represents the modern free-spirited liberated woman. Like they say – opposites attract.

Of course the romance is doomed to failure like many office romances. But like I said at the top, this film changes tone many times and now it’s a hardened spy film, and Sebastian ends up captured by a particularly nasty chap by the name of Toby (Ronald Fraser)…Yes, Toby! I know he doesn’t sound like much of a villain but let me assure you he is quite evil.

This may be a silly thing to say – but that has never stopped me before – but I think Sebastian is one of the quintessential British spy films from the sixties. It may not be the best, but it has elements of all the best the genre has to offer. It has adventure like the Bond films – spying as a dirty business like a LeCarré film – it has that tried and true chestnut, ‘sex as a weapon’ which is inherent in any good spy film – it has glamorous girls – it has a fantastic soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith – it has trippy drug inspired visuals – the only thing it seems to be missing is an Aston Martin and a car chase. That aside, this film deserves to be widely seen by anyone who is interested in spy films or sixties culture in general. Do yourself a favour and track down a copy.

Thanks to Tanner at the Double O Section

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Johnny Cash – Thunderball!

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Transporter 3

While the film hasn’t hit Australian shores yet, it looks like Transporter 3 is on it’s way and one to look out for over the silly season. I can’t wait.

You can read Tanner’s review of Transporter 3 over at the Double Section.

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The Saint In The Church

Sir Roger Moore In Conversation
November 25th 2008
Baptist Church, Flinders Street, Melbourne

Tuesday evening I was lucky enough to attend a special event in Melbourne with Sir Roger Moore, arranged by the Readers Feast Bookstore. The event was held in a church, not far from the iconic Flinders Street Station. I arrived in town early, and with time to kill, stopped off at Young & Jacksons for a quick libation. Refreshed, I headed off to the event. Inside, I took a seat on one of the pews (as close to the front as I could), and then nervously awaited the arrival of the legendary actor. Needless to say, I was not alone. Four hundred other patrons packed the tiny church.

The evening consisted of an MC asking Sir Roger a series of questions about his life, and this was followed by questions from the audience. Afterward he naturally signed copies of his new book, My Word Is My Bond.

Sir Roger was, as you’d expect, charming and witty as he recounted tales from his childhood, early film roles and then his work with UNICEF. One of his more amusing tales concerned being shot in the leg with an air rifle. Then later, after describing a rather graphic tale about the plight of some children in Salvador, he then paused and then apoligised for bringing the tone of the evening down. The apology wasn’t necessary. We were all eager to hear what Sir Roger had to say, and it certainly didn’t taint the evening that it wasn’t all sweetness and light. If an apology is required, it is for his work on Fire, Ice and Dynamite, not in performing his duties as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

An interesting tidbit that was revealed is that the new Saint project is going forward – Sir Roger didn’t mention any cast members – but did say filming was to begin in January. He also alluded to having a cameo in the production! Time will tell.

Then the questions were opened up to the floor. There are two types of ‘fans’ in this world. There are those who follow the mainstream and just want to know about James Bond, and naturally Sir Roger was asked quite a few questions in relation to his most famous screen role. The other type of fan wants to show how well researched they are, and ask more obscure questions. In this instance the obscure question related to the film North Sea Hijack (or Ffolkes as it also known).

Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to ask Sir Roger a question. Sadly, I would have been one of the ones who asks the obscure questions. I would have asked him about working with hellraisers like Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Lee Marvin. I am sure his response would have raised a chuckle. After the questions, orderly queues were formed to have copies of his latest book signed.

And then it was over. All too brief. But, for me – and let’s face it, I’m a guy who writes a blog about spy films – this event was a big tick in my life box. On this side of the world, down under, not many people make the time to come out and meet the fans. Sure stars will fly out for a quick promotional tour to flog their latest movie (most premieres are in Sydney), and then they’ll be gone. Sure, Sir Roger has got his wares to sell too, but he could have spent the time in a hotel and just participated in a few television interviews. Instead, he was gracious enough to appear at multiple events around the city.

Sir Roger, sincerely, thank you.

Special thanks to Mick

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Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

Directed by Fritz Lang
Rudolph Klein Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Gertrude Welcker, Bernhard Goetzke, Paul Richter, Robert Forster-Larrinaga, Alfred Abel
Based of a novel by Norbert Jacques

Even though many silent films are regarded as classics these days, it’s worth noting that many of these films still share a lot in common with your typical B-grade and exploitation picture. Both feature sex and violence, sexism and subjugation, nipples and nudity (remember this is before the Hays Code) and most of all, a desire to put as many bums on cinema seats, and make as much filthy lucre as possible.

One of the most lauded directors of the twentieth Century was Fritz Lang, and many of his films are considered the finest examples of cinema ever created. Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis has been in the headlines quite a bit recently after a complete print of the film was found in Buenos Aires. Prior to this though, Lang directed another of his triumph’s, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. Unlike Metropolis, which was a flop, and was subsequently butchered, Dr. Mabuse was a massive hit. It could be considered The Lord Of The Rings of its day. There was a huge advertising campaign leading up to the film’s release. Norbert Jacques’ novel, on which the film was based, was serialised for magazines, and the novel was released twice in hardback and paperback. There was a great deal of public awareness about the Mabuse character.

Another comparison between Dr. Mabuse and The Lord Of The Rings (the book) is in the way it was originally presented. The argument still rages, is The Lord Of The Rings three books or is it in fact nine books? Similarly, people cannot decide if Dr. Mabuse (the film) is one long film, or two films. There is no doubt that the film was shown in two parts as The Great Gambler (which first screened on April 27, 1922) and Inferno (premiering on May 26, 1922). But every source I look up, seems to have differing opinions. Some poorly researched sources, even imply that they are three different films. In the end though, with the DVD age upon us, what does it really matter? If you want to watch it all in one sitting – go ahead. With a running time of between 242 and 297 minutes (depending on the version you’re watching), I feel a break is required.

With a film of this age, many reviews tend to look at the restoration of the film, or even the multitude of DVD releases available. I guess this is understandable as so much has been written about director Fritz Lang and Dr. Mabuse. Covering such a well respected director and well documented series of films almost seems like an exercise in futility. But you’ve got to go with what you love, and by now, my penchant for spy films is well documented (mostly by me). So is Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler a spy film? The short answer is no. But in the Mabuse character, a lot of the seeds for the villain in films from the great sixties spy boom were sewn. In Mabuse, we have a master of disguise, whose almost super human powers allow him to control an evil organisation, that in the confines of the universe created for the film, attempts nothing short of world domination.

Mabuse’s progeny is Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE, Tung Tse and Big O, and many of the operatives of THRUSH. Even Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers films is the bastard child of Mabuse. Naturally, I could branch off onto a tangent about the role of the Mad Doctor or Mad Scientist in cinema – but I’ll leave this for another day.

Dr. Mabuse: The Great Gambler – A Picture Of Our Time
Dr. Mabuse (Rudolph Klein Rogge – yeah, he was Rotwang in Metropolis) looks at a selection of photographs, which appear to be different men. But each of them is Mabuse in different disguises. He shuffles the photographs, as if they were a deck of cards. He chooses a photo from the deck. It is an old man. He hands the photo to his valet, Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga) It is Spoerri’s job to transform Mabuse into the old man in the photo. But Spoerri’s mind isn’t on the job. He is a cocaine addict and pretty rattled. Mabuse warns that if he catches Spoerri in such a state again, he will drive him out like a dog.

Meanwhile a steam train rattles along the tracks. Onboard, in a compartment, a man is carrying a commercial coffee contract between the Swiss and the Dutch. Also in the compartment is a scruffy looking workman who is dozing in the corner. At exactly twenty-five minutes past eight, the sleeping workmen, who happens to be one of Dr. Mabuse’s henchmen, awakens and stands to stretch his tired limbs. Then he pounces on the courier, snatches the contract and hurls it out the window, as the train crosses over a bridge. At that exact moment, another of Mabuse’s henchmen drives his car under the bridge and the contract lands in the back seat. Obviously the theft has be planned and timed to perfection.

While the robbery has been taking place, Spoerri has been completing Mabuse’s metamorphosis. Now with the countenance of an old man, Mabuse gets into his car, and is chauffeured into town. At a ‘T’ intersection, another car runs into his, rendering it useless. The other car though, is fine. The driver of that vehicle offers to drive the irate Mabuse to his destination. What seemed like an accident was actually planned too. The car that Mabuse is transferred to, is the car with the stolen contract inside. Mabuse reads the contract, and then gives orders that the briefcase is to be found intact, half an hour before the close of the stock exchange.

Next through the winding city streets and back lanes, we see the same car. It stops at a street corner and a drunkard practically falls from the vehicle. The car races off as the drunk staggers along a path, using the wall to hold himself up. The drunk though, as you may have already guessed, is Mabuse in one of his cunning disguises. He stops at a building and is abused by an old women sitting at the front. She throws a ball of knitting yarn at him. Hidden inside the ball is the key to Mabuse’s top secret counterfeiting works. Inside a forger is running off dollar notes, and a team of blindmen are counting and bundling the fake money.

Back at the stock exchange, news is breaking about the stolen coffee contract. It is feared that the Swiss will pull out of the deal if the contents of the contract are revealed. The rumours cause Dutch coffee prices to plunge. Everybody begins to panic, and tries to rid themselves of their quickly diminishing stock – all except one man, Sternberg. Once the price bottoms out – he buys!

Then with only half an hour till the stock exchange closes, a report comes in that the secret contract has been found – unbroken – by a railroad attendant. The contract is subsequently returned to the Swiss consulate. The Dutch coffee prices begin to rise again – sharply. On this day, Sternberg has made an absolute killing on the stock market. Sternberg, of course, is actually Dr. Mabuse, in another of his clever disguises.

The second act opens with Dr. Mabuse chairing a lecture about psychoanalysis. After the lecture, the story cuts to the Folies Bergeres. Here we have a sequence encompassing two themes that Lang frequently explored and revisited over his career. The first is voyeurism, and the second is surveillance. In the scene, a drunken male crowd leers at a female striptease artist as she performs. The sequence is repeated in Metropolis when mechanical Maria performs a Mata Hari style dance. In both instances, Lang really plays on the ugly voyeuristic side, showing the men viewing the show as drunk lecherous men. Mabuse is different from the other men. He doesn’t leer. He sits in a booth at the back, watching. Rather than witnessing a performance, Mabuse is watching the crowd. it’s almost like surveillance. In fact, in Lang’s last film, The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse, the eyes are not his evil minions out on the streets, but a series of cameras he has hidden in a hotel.

At this point we are introduced to Miss Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen). She is a dancer at the Folies Bergeres. Mabuse is watching her perform. But as I said, it’s more like surveillance. He is in fact watching, and sizing up his next victim, Edgar Hull (Paul Richter). Using his mind control techniques, Mabuse convinces Hull to go to the Pontoon Club and engage in a friendly game of cards. At the club, as the game progresses, Mabuse sends out telepathic signals so Hull tosses away winning hands, and keeps losing cards. Meanwhile it is revealed that Cara Carozza, the dancer, is one of Dr. Mabuse’s evil minions. In her dressing room after the show, she receives orders to go to the Excelsior Hotel and await further instructions.

Hull loses a filthy amount of money at the card table. Under Mabuse’s power of suggestion, he plays and bets recklessly, even when he has a winning hand. Eventually he loses 170,000 marks to Mabuse. Hull does not have the cash on him, so he arranges to meet Mabuse later so he can repay his debt. Mabuse hands Hull a business card, with a fake name and an address at the Excelsior Hotel.

Later, Hull goes to the Hotel to repay his outstanding gambling debt. In the room that Mabuse said that he was staying in, there is another man with a hangover. He has no knowledge of the debt. Hull leaves, relieved that he does not have to shell out his cash, but on his way out of the building, he meets Cara Carozza. This meeting is not a co-incidence. Soon Hull and Carozza are an item – but as we know dear reader, the strings are secretly being pulled by Mabuse.

State Prosecutor von Wenk (Berhard Goetzke) is investigating illegal gambling in the city. It seems that Hull isn’t the only innocent young aristocrat to have lost an obscene amount of money in unusual and in an ‘out of character’ fashion. Von Wenk, in an attempt to catch the ‘unknown’ fiend who is behind the spate of gambling crimes, enlists the help of Cara Carozza. From her he obtains a list of all the illegal gambling dens. Another ally that von Wenk collects along the way, is Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welcker). The Countess is a bored rich housewife. Very little in life excites her, as she has everything. She attempts to add excitement to her dreary life by spending each evening out at the city’s nightclubs and gambling dens. She offers to help von Wenk – but maybe not because she has a social conscience, but because she craves drama and excitement.

On the third night of his investigation, von Wenk comes into contact with Mabuse in an illegal gambling den, but neither man recognises the other as they are both in disguise. After von Wenk pulls a huge wad of cash from his pocket and places it on the table, he becomes Mabuse’s target for the evening. Mabuse attempts to use his hypnotic powers on von Wenk, but he isn’t a weak minded fool like many other of Mabuse’s victims. Mabuse’s attempt at mind control leaves him drained and he almost collapses. He leaves the game and the table. Von Wenk chooses to follow. He trails him to the Hotel Excelsior, where Mabuse makes a quick change and escapes once more. But before leaving, Mabuse arranges for one of his minions to pose as a taxi driver and collect the State Prosecutor as he leaves the building.

In the taxi, Mabuse’s evil minion gasses von Wenk who passes out. When von Went awakens he finds himself, minus all personal possessions, in a small wooden dingy in the middle of a lake. As von Wenk awaits rescue, Mabuse goes through von Wenk’s notebooks and other personal effects. Inside the notebook, Mabuse discovers how close the State Prosecutor has come to tracking him down and stopping his operation. He orders both von Wenk and Edgar Hull assassinated. Luring both men to their doom is Cara Carozza.

Of course, as we have seen, Mabuse doesn’t do his own dirty work, and rather than participate in the assassination he is to attend a seance being held by Countess Dusy Told. The seance is another attempt to break away from the mundane life that she lives. At the seance Mabuse becomes entranced by her free spirit. Seances, and the occult appear to be another of Fritz Lang’s interests. In the films Ministry Of Fear and The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse, Lang uses seances as the setting for assassination attempts on some of the principal characters. But nothing quite so sinister here. In fact, it is the beginning of Mabuse’s infatuation with Dusy Told. And as part one comes to a close, Mabuse kidnaps Dusy Told and takes her back to his lair.

What happens to von Wenk and Hull…ahhhh, that would be telling! You don’t want me to reveal all the story do you?

The first hour of this production absolutely rattles along, but then after that the story begins to crawl. As von Wenk begins his investigation, the story becomes very ‘talky’, which is not ideal in a silent movie. Watching the characters stand still and mouth great chunks of dialogue, and then waiting for the intertitle translation does become tiresome. Sure, there still some of Lang’s fantastic trademark visuals and extraordinary set design, but they don’t compensate for the sluggish story line.

Dr. Mabuse: Inferno – Men Of Our Time
The second part opens with a few flash backs to the end of part one, and then it focuses on Count and Countess Told. The Countess, of course, in now the prisoner of Dr. Mabuse. The Count, on the other hand, has no idea what has happened to his wife. He believes she has left him because he cheated at cards one night. In a distraught state, Count Told seeks the help of a psychiatrist to assist him with his problems. He chooses to see Dr. Mabuse. Mabuse toys with the Count and insists that he does not see anyone from the outside world, which the Count agrees to. Once cut off, the Count slips deeper into depression. The manipulation continues, and once Count Told is at his lowest ebb, Mabuse suggests that he cannot live any longer. The Count takes his own life, leaving Mabuse as the only suitor for Countess Dusy Told’s affections. Unfortunately, she does not share Mabuse’s feelings, and wishes to leave.

Mabuse’s obsession with Dusy Told slowly leads to his undoing. After the Count’s death, he is one of the major suspects, and when he attempts to kill those who get too close, the net tightens. Eventually the police and the army surround his hideout and shoot it out. One by one, Mabuse’s minions fall, and the mad Doctor decides to leg it. No doubt, you will have noticed that if you look at the Doctor’s name, it contains ‘ABUSE’. I am hardly an expert on language, but it seems an interesting co-incidence to me. First the character starts by abusing those around him, and then, once he becomes involved with Dusy Told, it could be argued that his actions turn to ‘self abuse’. It is he, who gave the police the information and clues to track him down. If he’d stayed out of it, and kept committing the cold clinical crimes, like at the beginning of the film, most likely he’d still be at large. But the man in the final frames of this movie is a very different being. After Dusy Told has been freed by the police, and his criminal empire destroyed, Mabuse has quite literally gone insane…haunted by the ghosts of the people whose lives he has destroyed.

There are two kinds of villains in this world. The first looks to improve his position in the world by obtaining wealth and/or power. Fu Manchu, Diabolik and Kriminal all fit into this category. Then there’s your villain who is just plain evil. They want to destroy the world and then rule the ashes. Villains like Fantomas and Dr. Mabuse are from this school. And like Fantomas, and all great screen villains, Dr. Mabuse would rise again, again and again. The first follow-on film, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (1933) was also directed by Fritz Lang and starred Rudolph Klein Rogge. It is considered a classic. Many years later, as mentioned previously, Lang also returned to the character for the film The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse (1960). This would be Lang’s last film as director as his eyesight was failing. Harald Reinl took over the reins for The Return Of Dr. Mabuse (1961), but by now the films had been dumbed down into standard crime dramas (Krimi). Next came The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962), then a remake of The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, Scotland Yard Vs. Dr. Mabuse, and The Death Ray Mirror Of Dr. Mabuse. Each of these films has many versions and many alternate names, but these are your core films. There are a few other foreign productions which feature the Mabuse character. One film that continues to elude me, is Jess Franco’s Spanish The Vengeance Of Dr. Mabuse (1972) . Just the thought of Mabuse and Franco together makes me giddy. I know, one day when I finally do track down the film, I am going to be disappointed, but until then, in my mind it lives as a hypnotic, psychedelic ‘mind fuck’ that has the potential to be the greatest film ever made!

Even the bizarre horror film, Scream And Scream Again (1972) was released in Germany as The Living Corpses Of Dr. Mabuse – which means that Vincent Price was Dr. Mabuse – in my lopsided opinion anyway. But that is exactly as it should be – Dr. Mabuse can be anyone, and turn up anywhere. Although details are sketchy at this stage, it appears that Dr. Mabuse will plot to take over and destroy the world once more. On IMDB it lists a 2010 Dr. Mabuse film in production. And I for one, am looking forward to the madman’s return!

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Quantum Of Solace (2008)

Country: United Kingdom
Directed by Mark Forster
Daniel Craig, Mathieu Amalric , Olga Kurylenko, Gemma Arterton, Judi Dench, Jeffery Wright, Giancarlo Gianni, Jesper Christensen

Music by David Arnold

Title Song by Jack White and Alicia Keays

Based on characters created by Ian Fleming

Right off the bat, I’ll say that I really enjoyed Quantum Of Solace. Following up Casino Royale was always going to be a big ask, and the film-makers have fallen short and presented us with a very flawed film. However, the film still has some truly great new Bondian moments, as well as providing a few reminders of the films of the past.

Minor spoilers ahead:

The film opens half an hour after the close of Casino Royale and James Bond (Daniel Craig) is racing along an Italian coastal road in his Aston Martin. Hot on his trail are a few carloads of goons, who are firing their machine guns at him. Thankfully, it would appear that the same fellow who trained the Storm Troopers in Star Wars trained these goons. Even at point blank range they can’t seal the deal and kill Bond. Although it is never made clear, it is safe to assume that these villains chasing Bond work for the same group as Le Chiffre and Mr. White (the villains from Casino Royale). I don’t think I am giving too much away when I say that this outfit is the ‘Quantum’ group. It appears that Quantum is the new S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

Driving, Bond is able to out maneuver the bad guys and is free to continue his journey. He arrives safely in Sienna, although his car is a little worse for wear – all shot to pieces and missing a door. He drives under cover, pulls up and then pops open the boot (that’s ‘trunk’ for you American readers). Inside is a very visibly shaken Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), the surviving villain from Casino Royale.

After that brief cowcatcher, we have the main title sequence. This time it has been put together by a company called MK12, who director Marc Forster has called in to do the graphics on this film. I must admit that I was slightly under whelmed by the visuals, especially when compared to Daniel Kleinman’s recent work, or that of the maestro himself, Maurice Binder. In my other life, when I am not writing about spy films, I while away my hours as a low-rent graphic designer, so I am always fascinated to see how the titles are presented. I was intrigued to note that they used a Herb Lubalin inspired stencil font for the titles. Now possibly I am reading too much into this, but this font style was very popular in the mid sixties through to the early seventies. Is this the designer’s subtle love letter to the Bond films of the past? And while talking about fonts, it is interesting to see that when Bond arrives in each new location, the city’s name is displayed in a different font, which reflects the nature of the country they are in. I think this is pretty cool – after all, the seasoned spy film viewer may have burst out laughing if green phosphorescent computer type flickered across the bottom of the screen.

After the titles we are back in Sienna and Bond, M (Judi Dench) and another agent named Mitchell are interrogating Mr. White. However the interrogation is short lived as Mitchell turns out to work for Quantum. Yes, he’s a bad guy. He attempts to shoot M and then flees with 007 hot on his trail. This diversion allows Mr. White to escape.

After a chase over the rooftops, Bond catches Mitchell and rather unprofessionally kills him. It’s hard to get information from a dead man. The only lead M.I.6 has to work on, courtesy of some marked dollar bills, is a man called Slade who is currently in Haiti. Naturally Bond is sent off to interview the man, and after a meeting him (if you can call it that – yeah, he kills him) he is contacted by a girl named Camille (Olga Kurylenko). Camille leads to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), who is the head of an ecological business venture called ‘Greene Planet’. As you’ve come to expect from Bond films, Greene is not all he is painted to be.

As the adventure unfolds, Bond reacquaints himself with a few allies from the past. The first is Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini). The scenes played out between Bond and Mathis are the best in the film – and dare I say it, some of the best in the series, recalling the relationship bond had with Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love. Another returning character is Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). When Casino Royale was released, I was concerned with the new interpretation of the character. But by using Wright again, and providing a bit of continuity, which Felix has sadly missed in the past – I am happy to accept the new Felix. Let’s just hope Wright continues with the role, and the charater does not have to be reinvented once again.

The climax of the film takes place in a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert. After seeing the movie I watched The Making Of …Quantum Of Solace on television. It answered one question that I had been asking myself – what is a hotel doing in the middle of the dessert and why would anyone want to stay there? In reality, the hotel is a real place, and is next to an observatory. Visiting astronomers and scientists stay at the hotel. Now, couple that little tidbit of information with MK12’s title sequence, which uses ‘star map’ graphics, and I begin to wonder if there was an excised sub plot pertaining to astronomy or astrology?

One strange part about the ending is the lack of people at the hotel. There only seems to be one staff member servicing the entire building – hopefully she made it to safety. Also, earlier in the movie, Mr. White says about the mysterious Quantum group, ‘the first thing you should know about us, is that we have people everywhere’. It appears that ‘everywhere’ does not include in the middle of the Bolivian dessert, because Greene only has one odious, pudding bowl haircutted minion on hand to protect him (there may be another fellow who hands over a suitcase of money, but he just seems to dissappear). There may be plenty of explosions and flame – as you’d expect at the climax of a Bond film – but Bond really only has to contend with Greene. There is no evil army of Quantum soldiers on hand to provide a modicum of resistance.

Some media outlets have reported that Dominic Greene, compared to Bond villains of the past, is pretty lightweight. And to that I say, they are absolutely right. But I believe this perceived weakness is due to the lack of a good henchman at his side. Auric Goldfinger, Hugo Drax and Karl Stromberg were never really a physical threat to Bond, but each of them had a cruel and strong henchman at their side (Oddjob, Jaws et al.) But poor old Dominic Greene is lumped with Mr. Puddingbowl Haircut, and Mr. Puddingbowl doesn’t seem to be of much use in a scrap. Mathieu Amalric ’s performance as Greene is quite good. He spits out his lines with the right amount of vitriol and never overacts to the point of parody – which has been an issue with Bond villains in recent years (Toby Stephens and Jonathan Pryce, I am looking at you!)

The main Bond girl is Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko, who we all fondly remember from The Hitman – don’t we? Camille is an interesting character with a back-story that could have been lifted from a Spaghetti Western. Her father was killed, and her mother and sister raped before her eyes. She, herself was left to die in a burning house. She now has scars, a fear of fire – understandable really – and a burning (sorry) desire for revenge.

The other girl in Bond’s life at this time, is agent Fields (Gemma Arterton). Fields is a M.I.6 operative stationed in South America. After a rocky start, she becomes Bond’s ally when he arrives in Bolivia to continue his investigation into the business dealing of Dominic Greene.

Those of you who are regular readers here, may have noticed that my reviews are rather formulaic. Generally when describing the plot, I write up to the point where the mission is declared. That is to say that I describe the story up until the point where the secret agent/hero has his mission outlined by his superior. This has worked well for the Bond films because this is usually the ‘M’ scene. The Bond formula consisted of a heinous act being committed and then M sending his or her – depending on your favourite M – best agent out to round up the perpetrators. But the last two films in the series have altered that formula. M and Bond no longer seem to know what’s going on. In Quantum Of Solace, although M and Bond meet early on, the mission isn’t really declared. There are a few hazy leads, and ‘people of interest’, but no actual crime or mission to investigate. Look at the films of the past – in Dr. No, Bond is sent to investigate the death of Strangways – in Goldfinger he investigates Auric Goldfinger, who M suspects is a gold smuggler – in Diamonds Are Forever, it diamond smuggling – I’m sure you get the idea. But nothing is defined in Quantum of Solace. M and Bond then keep in continuous contact throughout the mission (of course, ignoring the political and trust issues inherent in the story). Now, not that this is necessarily a problem, but this new relationship between M and Bond poses a dilemma for future installments in the series. As I have already alluded to, in the past Bond was called into M’s office and given his mission briefing. As we all fondly remember, Bond would also flirt with Miss Moneypenny on his way in and out of M’s office. And also quite often, Bond would also receive the latest hi-tech gadgets from Q. But with this new dynamic, there is no briefing scene, and therefore, very little room for Q or Moneypenny. I am sad to say, we may have seen the last of these much loved characters.

All of the above are simply my observations and ramblings – not really intended as criticism, more of an analysis of how the Bond series is changing. But I do have a criticism, and that is the Bourne inspired rapid cut editing that takes place during the action scenes. The technique is so abrasive it ruins the flow of the movie. I have heard it said, that this style of editing draws the viewer into the scene. The viewer is supposed to feel like they are right beside the hero in the fight or chase scene. I actually believe that the rapid editing diminishes the power of the sequence. It is often used when an actor doesn’t have the skill set required to sell the action scene he (or she) is participating in. If you look back to the first Lethal Weapon film (how long ago was that?), you may remember that the film ended with a horrendous, heavily edited fight scene between Mad Mel Gibson and Gary Bussey (who is only a little bit mad). Both men were not trained fighters – skilled in whatever martial art was supposed to be on display – and the fight was heavily edited to hide the actors shortcomings. Now applying that school of thought to the new Bond film, were the action scenes edited that way to hide Daniel Craig’s inability to perform an action scene? Of course not! We have all seen Casino Royale and know that Craig can handle fight and chase scenes. So begs the question, why would you dilute Craig’s performance by using this technique? The answer is Bourne, Jason Bourne. Once upon a time, Bond was the trailblazer and other spy films would follow and blindly imitate Bond. But now Bond has become a follower. I would have thought that the film-makers would have learnt their lesson with Die Another Day, where they adopted a style of editing that mimicked that of the hi-tech films of Tony Scott (Scott’s editor on Spy Game, Christian Wagner, also edited Die Another Day). The editing ruined Die Another Day, and while not as destructive here, it certainly reduces the impact of Quantum Of Solace.

As I said at the top, Quantum Of Solace is a flawed film, and many commentators are sticking the boots in. I choose not to do that. It is different, and it must be a tough tightrope to walk when you add another piece to a franchise that has been going over 45 years. You have to keep the old fans happy, but also win over a new generation of filmgoers who will (hopefully) continue to support the franchise. I, as one of the old school fans, gladly accept and embrace Quantum Of Solace as the latest Bond film. I enjoyed myself for the full 105 minutes of it’s running time and on future viewings I am sure I will do so again. But I hope for future installments in the series, please Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli (or the director that you entrust to carry on the legacy), do not slavishly follow filmic fads. You know better than that.

To read Tanner’s review at the Double O Section click here.

To read Paul’s review at Bish’s Beat click here.

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