Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Bond Verdict: And my personal favorite James Bond film ever is…

Recently I had some brief but unexpected additional free time, so among many other things I decided to catch up on my movie library (there were quite a few films I hadn’t watched since I got them long ago). 
Among these was my 2012 issued 50th Anniversary James Bond BluRay collectors’ edition. It includes all official Bond Films (with the exception of Skyfall and Spectre, which I bought at a later date, and the unofficial Never Say Never Again -a Thunderball remake starring Sean Connery).
Before I write down my choice, here are some caveats for anyone who decides to do the same exercise:
You have to watch these taking into consideration the time period when they were made: Dr. No, for example, was the granddaddy of the modern era spy action films, so there are a lot of elements that now might seem clichéd, but were quite revolutionary for its time (so much so that it did launch one of the longest-running movie franchises).
Technical issues should not be considered. There was a lot of green screen and very evident stunt-double work on the first films which were standard moviemaking at the time. Also, each film represents a time period and reflects that period’s sensibilities.
Taking all that into consideration, my very personal opinion comes from the level of enjoyment each film gave as a movie (interesting characters, engaging acting, humor, drama, provocative scenes, exciting action, interesting gadgets, eye catching locations…)
So, drumroll please… my favorite all-time Bond film is:
Yup. Skyfall: it has everything you want from a Bond film: great acting, a spectacular opening sequence, a truly engaging story (it feels very personal for the characters, and the stakes are high in many levels), a memorable villain (Javier Bardem’s sinister baddie is one of, if not the, best), exciting action, surprising twists, eye popping locations (the neon lit scenes in Shanghai and the Casino in Macau really stand out, but the more quiet scenes with the Scottish landscapes as backdrop near the end are breathtaking), the iconic Aston Martin, beautiful women, one of the best Bond theme songs ever –performed by Adele-… it truly is a tight piece, not only as a Bond vehicle, but as a film in general. Also, it’s the first one where the classic Bond elements come together after Daniel Craig took over and the franchise was rebooted.

Everyone knows I’m a huge Sean Connery fan and I thoroughly enjoyed all his Bond films (Goldfinger is my second favorite in the series and probably the most iconic spy genre film ever), but I liked him even better in his later, post-Bond performances.

Just a quick note to mention that it’s impressive how they managed to sustain this franchise for so many years… watching the behind-the-scenes featurettes it’s evident they were aware they needed to keep revamping the character very early on (this, and the promise of how the new Bond girl would be an equal match to Bond, were staples of most of these interviews). Also, the painstaking process of choosing every actor for each time period is evident. Connery, Lazenby (yeah, even him), Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig were all inspired casting decisions. They are all effective and did an adequate job in the vehicles they were given.
But yes, Connery and Daniel Craig stand out from the pack as the most accomplished and believable (if such a thing is possible) Bonds.

So there you go. To each his own. And for me Skyfall is the best Bond movie ever.

Bond will surely be back (and hopefully, so will I).

Friday, October 13, 2017

The character sex-change, white washing issue

Maybe it’s because I was born and raised in Mexico, but there’s been an interesting phenomenon in the media (mostly in the US) that I can’t but marvel at, due to the apparent complexities and cultural ramifications.

I’ll try to make my case without being insensitive or offensive, however I believe I need to give a bit of background information on my upbringing just to clarify where this is all coming from:

I’m a gen-Xer through and through. I was born and raised in the seventies, while my teens took place through the 80’s.

I grew up watching, among many other things, Warner Bros cartoons with abundant racial stereotypes that would seem unthinkable under today’s political correctness’ standards: there were slow-talking black skinned manservants and cannibals, bucktoothed and spectacled oriental characters, and Mexicans (yeah, that’s us) portrayed as lazy zarape-wearing, sombreroed smartasses who spent the day sitting next to a cactus in the company of a donkey.
I was also blessed growing up right after the worst part of the human rights movements, which made it possible to enjoy a wide variety of shows that made it a point to be inclusive, without forcing themselves into being so: Star Trek, Sesame Street, Fat Albert, The Jeffersons, Different Strokes, Ultraman, Cometo-san, The Cosby Show (yeah, that one's made a horrible turn recently), A Different World, Arsenio Hall...
Last night I re-watched the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die, and was amazed at the black and redneck stereotypes portrayed, but back in the day we didn’t give a second thought about it; it was, like all James Bond films of the time, a caricature of their era.

At least for me, race has never been an issue: in Mexico our prejudice problems are rooted in cultural, education and economic differences. So, when I saw all those stereotypes mentioned above back then, I took them as non-offensive caricatures that helped us understand our cultural differences and historical roles. I never judged a person of a certain background based on these, as I didn’t expect myself to be judged based on Speedy Gonzalez (a character I love and don’t really feel offended by... but then, I’ve always been good at taking a joke).

As for sex… I was raised in a family that developed through the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s (I’m the youngest of seven brothers and sisters). Even when my dad was what might be considered a “Mexican macho”, someone who believed women were supposed to get married and raise their children, my sisters rebelled and were very much pro-women’s lib.

So, my view is very inclusive regarding sex, race and religion (I’m agnostic). So, these recent explosive reactions (disguised as “liberal” stands) towards people expressing their personal points of view seem radical, and sometimes even fascist, to me.

The point is: yeah, we are different, and that’s what makes us interesting. Having good fun with these differences doesn’t make us bigots or racists; making fun helps us understand and celebrate our cultural backgrounds.

The problem, of course, is that there’s a fine line between “laughing with” and “laughing at” someone. I honestly believe that if we are all on the same page we can have fun at each other’s expense without being offensive (take a look at this video of Don Rickles making fun of a roomful of entertainment people from various ethnic backgrounds… I don’t think it was ever meant to be offensive, it’s totally the opposite, and it’s hilarious). Thanks to my nephew Ricardo Llera for sharing it.

Nowadays they’ve gone to the opposite extreme of political correctness in the US: everyone must be extra careful not to say anything that might be taken as offensive to other races, sex or religion. It’s hard to define what is and what isn’t correct (especially for someone who lives out of the States) but, honestly, I think this has been taken to ridiculous extremes.

Now it’s commonplace to have celebrities and politicians publicly excusing themselves for something they said or tweeted, and for various social groups to scream bloody murder at anything that might remotely offend them (and granted, there are the extremist groups and individuals that do say things to openly offend, making matters worse).  Recently actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan was digitally lynched through social networks for wearing a Blue Lives Matter T-shirt (which supports the Police). He had to go on explaining where that T-shirt had come from and that wearing it didn’t mean he was against the Black Lives Matter movement… everyone matters, was his final thought. People are so eager to jump into the hate band-wagon these days.
These are sad and dangerous times for freedom of speech.

Which brings me to the shallow, superficial main subject I want to address today: the sex/race change of well-known fictional characters… Why?

As a pop culture fan, I couldn’t understand why Josh Trank suddenly decided to make up a whole different character background story for Fox’s terrible Fant4stic Four reboot, making Johnny Storm African-American and Susan an adopted child… and now we have a female Doctor Who, and some people vying to have James Bond portrayed by a black man or even a woman, just to make the character more “inclusive”. I wonder what those same people would think if they made Luke Cage Japanese, the Falcon German and have Black Panther portrayed by Charlize Theron.

Characters, be it in books, comicbooks, films or TV series, are created in the writer’s mind with a specific background. There they garner a fan base and, after some time, become embraced by a wider mainstream audience and fans. The character becomes theirs, like an adopted friend they’ve known for years.

In my very humble opinion, out of respect to that audience, they should be portrayed by actors who approach what the character’s essence is. If a change is made, it should make sense and not tamper with the character’s inherent nature: the DNA that makes it what it is. When they decided to portray Nick Fury in the comics as a black character, its essence was kept more or less intact and, after all, it was not a “top tier” Marvel character; and then, when readers accepted the change, it made total sense to have Samuel Jackson portray it in the movies. I totally agree when, for example, people object to an oriental character portrayed by a Caucasian actor, now that there are many talented oriental actors available that could play it.

But changing the basic nature of a character just to “see what happens” and “make it more interesting”, “inclusive” and “in synch with the times”? That’s totally ridiculous and frankly, lazy. If you want a female Doctor Who, then CREATE that character (when they wanted an American James Bond they created the Man from U.N.C.L.E.; then came a Girl from U.N.C.L.E. when they decided it would be fun to have a female agent; they didn’t turn Steve Austin into Stephanie Austin, they CREATED Jamie Sommers, and when Marvel wanted a female Hulk, they CREATED Jennifer Walters!
They didn’t have a problem creating Shaft, Supergirl, Spider Woman, Superfly or Blade. All great characters on their own terms. Why, then, change a beloved character’s nature? Again, I believe this is lazy character development.

My 5 cents are: the media should keep our beloved characters’ essence, portray characters in different media respecting their ethnic and cultural background, and create new inclusive, compelling multi-cultural characters that reflect our current global reality. You want a character to portray the LGBT community? Create a viable one! Don’t expect writers and producers who don’t understand that background to come up with one, or switch an established character’s nature, just to be “inclusive”.

And, retaking the other subject of this blog, we should be wary of extreme liberals (if there is such a thing) that jump at the slightest provocation to condemn anyone’s point of view that’s not their own. They are just as dangerous (if not more so) than a right-wing radical. We should definitely raise our voices against those who ACT against any one group (the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal comes to mind). But we should allow for people to express their opinions and points of view, even when they are different from our own.

As Evelyn Beatrice Hall elegantly stated (trying to convey Voltaire's thoughts on a certin issue):
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it..."

Let’s find a common ground where we can be open to learn from, and celebrate, our differences.

That’s my take on that. So now excuse me while I put on my sombrero and ride away on my burro.

¡Adiós, señor!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Action Figure Conundrum

Clearly I need to dedicate more time to writing. I started out this blog before Christmas 2016, and I am finishing it just now, April 2017... note to self: be more constant on my writing habits!

Ok, so, back then, as Christmas was rapidly approaching, I started thinking more and more about the subject of Action Figures.

I used to love them. As a matter of fact I still do.

When I was a kid I spent long hours playing with my Big Jims, GI Joes, Mego’s Planet of the Apes and Star Trek action figures, Mattel’s Space 1999 figures and of course, Kenner’s Six Million Dollar Man. 
When Kenner launched the Star Wars 3 ¾ figures… well, that was a turning point that revolutionized the industry and the way we played. A lot of movie properties were released on that format (and are still being released for collectors).
However I’ve noticed today's kids outgrow action figures at a very early age. As they get older, they buy them mostly as collectibles, not toys to play with.

This got me to thinking about how we used to consume entertainment years ago.

If you wanted to see a film you had to catch it while it was playing at the movie theaters, otherwise you would have to wait literally for years until they were shown on TV (or sometimes re-released theatrically).

If you were lucky, rich or both, your family had cable or a satellite dish and you could catch them a bit sooner (these just became popular during the late 70's and early 80's). Or maybe you had a super 8 movie projector to show them in your own living room, but these were expensive and not very common (you usually had to settle for a silent, cut print that reduced a 2 hour film to a 20 minute short). Remember, I’m talking about the time before home video systems (laser discs or VCR’s) became popular.

The same was true for TV shows and TV movies: you had to be home at the precise hour of the show, otherwise you missed it (if you were lucky you could catch it on a re-run -if there was one- months later). I remember sitting by the TV waiting impatiently for the showing of the first episode of the Planet of the Apes TV series fearing that, if I missed it, I wouldn't be able to watch it for months, if ever (as I write this, the complete series is sitting comfortably on a DVD box set in our family room).

So if you really liked and were excited about a movie or TV series, the only option to relieve it was to use the available tools: comic books, soundtracks, the infamous Ben Cooper costumes in Halloween, board games, model kits, Mad Magazine parodies and, yes, action figures among many other licensed products.

As a side note, comic books were published based on almost every imaginable TV show and movie (most of the time they also did the continuing stories based on your favorite characters as they still sometimes do, but... ¿A Jack Kirby drawn 2001 Space Oddisey comic book continuing the story where the film left off? That was just plain weird).

You could also get the soundtrack for most films very easily (I remember listening repeatedly to James Bond’s Live and Let Die LP record over a decade before I was actually able to watch the film).

You had your view-masters and your toy “animated” entertainment varying from simple opaque object projectors and slides mounted on cardboard strips, to actual film running on very basic plastic contraptions with a crank that you had to operate by hand.You also had a lot of fanzines that told you what the film was about, and even movie photo magazines that used stills from the actual film to tell the story. Oh, and movie books, of course; almost every film had to have a tie-in book.

The merchandising opportunities surrounding a property were endless while the actual entertainment experience –i.e. watching a film or a particular TV show- was perceived as unique and precious.

Nowadays if you want to "re-live" a film or TV show you can simply stream it through your favorite platform or, in the worst of cases, if the film or TV show is too obscure, buy it online through a specialized store. That’s that.

Even when this is wonderful, I have to admit I miss some aspects from the good old days: I loved listening to my late sister colorfully narrating Twilight Zone episodes (watching them on YouTube is just not the same) and discussing ad-nauseam with friends the minutiae of a show that we barely remembered, leaving a lot of interestng, unanswered questions.

I also miss the excitement of reenacting favorite scenes with recently acquired action figures or reading a movie comic book while listening to a cool movie soundtrack. Yes, entertainment is easily attainable today, but I think the whole multimedia experience has devaluated itself a little bit.

The offer is simply much larger than the demand.

And now kids can also recreate a movie and explore further adventures through sophisticated video games that place you right in the middle of the action. Just look at what I had to play with when I wanted to explore the world of James Bond or escape the Alien on the starship Nostromo on my Atari 2600 (this was the early 1980’s, at the dawn of home consoles when video games began substituting action figures, which is just after the time I described above), versus the new Xbox adventures my kids are playing today.

On the positive side, I can now exchange information with my children about likes and dislikes at the swipe of a finger over a tablet, share with them a Twilight Zone episode and meet their favorite blogger on the same sitting.

Despite some drawbacks, even when action figures have become collectibles instead of toys, I honestly believe we’ve made giant leaps forward on the entertainment field, and with Augmented Reality and VR looming large on the horizon, it seems the best is yet to come!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Remembering the two First Families of Halloween

Long ago, in a decade far, far away during the monster craze period, two wonderfully creepy family shows were released through different networks and ended up competing against each other to everyone's delight.

According to Wikipedia, The Addams Family aired for two seasons on ABC from September 18, 1964 to April 8, 1966 for a total of 64 episodes; while The Munsters aired on CBS from September 24, 1964, to May 12, 1966 with a total of 70 episodes. Both shows have lived in our cultural psyche ever since through reruns in syndication and now video collections, becoming enduring franchises.

I had the chance to discover them in the early 70’s and immediately became enamored with the concept (as a child I even had my mom sew me up a black Herman Munster costume and buy me a red Herman rubber mask… yeah, red, go figure).

The Munsters had an arguably successful revival with The Munsters Today, a more traditional sitcom which (according to Wikipedia) “broadcast 72 episodes from October 8, 1988, to May 25, 1991, giving it more first-run episodes than the original series”. However, I doubt anyone under 35 remembers this iteration.
In 2012 they tried to unsuccessfully reboot the franchise with something called Mockingbird Lane (a reference to the Munsters’ home street name). Immediately since I saw the photos and read the concept, I guessed it would fail miserably -and it did (although I can’t be sure why, since I haven’t had the chance to watch it). I’m not a sightseer or the best TV concept analyst, but it obviously derived too strongly from the original’s vibe.

The Addams Family, on the other hand, has had various successful reincarnations including an animated cartoon in the 70’s, another animated series in 1992, and of course the great, classic Raul Julia / Anjelica Huston films of 1991 and 1993.

There have been other versions of both franchises (TV movies, a Munsters' theatrical release with the original cast, animated series and even an Addams Family musical play), but these are the most enduring ones.
Now, even when The Munsters have been my favorites ever since my early childhood, I have to recognize The Addams family as the best developed concept.

So now that we are in the Halloween mood, following are the basic ideas I believe are behind each original incarnation so you can be the judge if later revivals kept close to them and if that had anything to do with their success (or lack thereof):

As everyone knows, The Addams Family is based on the dark and delightfully macabre cartoons of Charles Addams, however the TV show had many more layers to it: you had a very strange but united family, a family who had a very impresssive (albeit weird) lineage that saw everyone else as “strange”, and which was ironically seen by others like eccentric nouveau rich.

Even when to everyone else they were weird, they weren’t a dysfunctional family, quite the contrary, they were a loving, supporting bunch. They saw themselves as a normal family with a strong lineage, pretty much accustomed to their wealth –which made them abhor the rich, uptight and pretentious guests that sometimes dropped into their home.

That's what made them so appealing: they made you feel your own weird, dysfunctional family was normal in comparison. They behaved weirdly and were proud of it, not trying to change to fit within the society that surrounded them.

The Munsters, on the other hand, were immigrants from Transylvania, referred most of the time as "the old Country" (this in a time when post-WWII european immigration was fairly common). They were trying their best to subdue their nature to become the typical all-american family while looking like the classic Universal Monsters. They even had visits from the Gillman (Uncle Gilbert) and the Wolfman (Lester Dracula, Lily's brother) among other creatures.

Even when the basic idea was not very strong (making fun of contemporary family oriented sitcoms with monstruous characters) the real key to their success was the wonderfully talented cast:

Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis and the glamorous Ivonne DeCarlo did an amazing job creating and portraying these characters, supported by Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster like a normal kid, and the stunning Beverly Owen and Pat Priest, who both played the part of Marilyn Munster, the awkwardly "ugly" duckling of the family. These characters were faced with typical, suburban problems, and the comedy derived from people reacting to them, even though they behaved "normally".

To be successful, both The Munsters and The Addams Family need extraordinary actors to portray them (Raul JuliaAnjelica HustonChristopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci were essential in making the 90's Addams films a success), however while The Adddams Family is a great, fully conceived concept, The Munsters needs to be visually referential to its source, otherwise it's main appeal is lost.

Thinking about the creative process, it seems like The Munsters were the result of a TV studio creative concept meeting, while The Addams were born from the imagination and sensibility of an artist and built upon by other creative minds, making it a seemingly stronger basic idea.

Anyway, Halloween is the perfect time to revisit them and, even when I love them both, the original Munsters are still my favorites!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pathway into the Stars

As someone who was born in 1970, one year after man first set foot on the Moon, I grew up believing space travel was a common thing.

As a boy, I regularly watched TV series like Space 1999, Star Trek, the British UFO and the Japanese Ultraman, so to me starfighters were as common as a Sopwith Camel or a Curtiss P-3​6 Hawk might have been to my dad (and remember, this was a few years before Star Wars!).

Some of my TV heroes such as Steve Austin (The Six Million Dollar Man), Virdon and Burke (The Planet of the Apes TV series), and even I Dream of Jeannie’s Major Anthony Nelson, were all astronauts.

One of my favorite movies was “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” starring Roy Thinnes. It was one of those slow, bleak-ending films with a weird premise about an astronaut finding a mirror-image Earth at the other side of the Sun. I don’t recall much about the story, but I remember I loved the space-travel aspects of it… and the bleak ending. Oh, how I loved those bleak endings back then (any of the first four Planet of the Apes’ films, anyone?).

Last year I had the opportunity to re-visit NASA’s Space Center in Houston with the wife and kids.

I was there many, many, MANY years ago when I was a boy myself; back when I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what I was seeing. This time I clearly remembered the small auditorium they let you in to see the original Mission Control Center.

What I didn’t remember was that this medium-sized room behind Mission Control used to hold the computer mainframe that put the first men on the moon. This room, the tour guide explained, was filled with refrigerator-sized machines with processors and memory banks that amounted to… get ready for this… 4MB!! Yes, the guide concluded, the same amount of memory taken up by 4 or 5 hi-res photographs from your cell phone was enough to send the first men to the Moon.

Then we went to see the exhibitions… there was this HUGE hangar that held the gargantuan engines that propelled the rockets into space, basically a fuel bomb waiting to explode behind their backs.

And then we visited the dark exhibition room where they have the original space capsules and space suits. Remember I mentioned I Dream of Jeannie before? There’s this scene where Major Nelson lands on a beach and finds Jeannie’s lamp. I always thought the capsule looked ridiculously small and fake, as if it was made of flimsy tinfoil. Well… turns out it was pretty accurate to the actual thing. Capsules back then really looked like large metal cans with barely enough room to hold astronauts inside with their equipment and space suits. My God… talk about feeling cramped. My car’s backseat has more leg room than those guys had… and to think they were sitting in these small tin cans on top of those gigantic rockets brimming with the most explosive, flammable fuel, hoping they would get them to the Moon and back…

We also saw a couple of films that talked about the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. I vividly remember the first one because as a fifteen year old I watched the launch live on TV and the impression of watching the ship go up in smoke burnt a lasting mark in my psyche.

I’m writing all this down because technology has made such giant leaps that we sometimes forget how far we’ve gone in such a small amount of time. We’ve become cynical and impatient, wishing the space program had gone beyond what they’ve already accomplished. Yes, I also think we should. However, it’s truly amazing that inhabited space stations and unmanned missions to mars are a reality.

Twentieth Century Fox (yup, blatant commercial time, kiddies) is releasing a film called “The Martian”, based on the book by Andy Weir and starring Matt Damon, later this year. I’m currently reading the book and, let me tell you, it pretty much nabs what a miracle -and a triumph to our ingenuity, man’s exploration of space is.

I’m also writing this to express my admiration for those first guys who had the courage to strap themselves to a tin can and explode their asses into space, and also for the men and women currently building our pathways into the stars.

I don’t think we give them enough credit.

If you are interested in learning more from NASA’s current programs, here’s a list of links they gave us at the end of our visit. Check a couple of these out, just out of curiosity. I bet you will be surprised:

NASA Homepage
Space Flight – Shuttle and ISS
Cool Sites for Kids
Ditigal Images
Mars Exploration Program
Human Space Exploration
Nasa Spin-offs
Nasa Info in Spanish