Monday, April 19, 2021

That Time James Bond’s Kid Brother Had His Own Adventure

In the ‘60s, the wildly successful James Bond series starring Sean Connery as the super spy became one of the most copied and parodied franchises in film history. There were the FLYNT films, the Matt Helm films, something called SUPER AGENT SUPER DRAGON, LICENSED TO KILL (decades before the Bond series used the same title), THE IPCRESS FILE (produced by Bond co-produder Harry Saltzman), DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, and the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Get Smart, for starters (much too many to keep listing).

But the most curious of these knock-offs is Alberto De Martino’s 1967 action comedy entitled OPERATION KID BROTHER, or its original title, O.K. CONNERY, or its later video release titles OPERATION DOUBLE 007, or SECRET AGENT 00 (none of these are good titles). This Italian flick’s big gimmick is that it stars Sean Connery’s younger brother, Neil. 

Neil, who had more than a passing resemblance to his famous brother, played a cosmetic surgeon whose chief skills are hypnotism and lip-reading. But what’s really comically notable is that his name is his own, Neil Connery, and his brother, whose name is never mentioned, is described as the Secret Service's top agent, is obviously 007, and whose name is likely Sean in this film’s wacky world.

So they couldn’t use the name, James Bond, and when someone mentions his code number “00…” someone interrupts then, so they apparently can’t use that either.

Then there’s the rest of the cast, which is brimming with cast members from the Bond series including Bernard Lee who played Bond’s superior M, Lois Maxwell who played secretary Moneypenny (she’s named Miss Maxwell, which is really unimaginative, but I guess is keeping with the theme), Adolfi Celi from THUNDERBALL, Yee-Wah-Yang from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, Daniela Bianchi from FROM RUSSIA FROM LOVE, and Anthony Dawson from DR. NO.

The effect here is that the filmmakers wanted to trick moviegoers into thinking that this film is part of the official Bond canon. The soundtrack, written by Ennio Morricone (!) and Bruno Nicolai, buttresses this conceit with its convincing variations on the Bond theme, and comparable incidental music.

A strange element here is that Neil’s voice is dubbed by an American actor and it doesn’t seem to fit. One of the reasons that he was cast was because along with his looks, his voice sounded like his brother’s. From what I’ve read, this was for some sort of medical reasons, but, man, was it bad timing for him to not have his voice for his film debut. There was also the matter that he refused to shave off his goatee, which is even mentioned in the movie (“I’m attached to it”).

OPERATION KID BROTHER (that’s the title I’m going with) is billed as a comedy, but it’s not very funny, nor does it try to be for most of its running time. When a character says “You read too much Fleming,” it’s obviously an attempt to be an inside joke but it’s more a groaner. The plot is a typical one about thwarting world domination (of course), which ends in a big battle at the villain’s castle base in Munich. The gray metal interiors look like half finished sets from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE – consider it Bond on a budget.

It’s hard to fault Neil for this not-so-craft cash grab. Who can blame him for attempting to step into the shoes of his international super star brother. Trouble is, he didn’t get to walk in them very far as he was only in two other movies: the 1969 schlocky sci-fi thriller THE BODY STEALERS (also known as THIN AIR, or INVASION OF THE BODY STEALERS - jeez, can’t these film stick with one title?), and the 1984 action comedy ACES GO PLACES 3, in which he had a cameo as Mr. Bond. After that it has been reported that his career as a plasterer ended in the mid ‘80s, and he went on the run a company in Glasgow, but besides that nothing much is known about Neil’s life in the decades since.

OPERATION KID BROTHER got something of a second life as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1993, though I don’t think it’s one of their better ones. The original film, under the OKB title is currently available streaming on Amazon Prime, which is where I watched it. Can’t say I’d recommend it, but those who are curious about this curio may get a kick by checking it out.

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Monday, April 12, 2021

Star Trek + The Monkees = GALAXY QUEST

Since the sci-fi comedy GALAXY QUEST was released around Christmas 1999, it has become a cult favorite loved by fans of the property it skewers, Star Trek, and satire aficionados alike. The Dean Parisot-directed parody has spawned comic books, Deluxe Edition DVD and Blu rays, a documentary, and there’s talk of a sequel or TV series resurrection.

But let’s set the Wayback Machine for September 1966 in which two shows premiered on NBC during the first all-color television season: Star Trek and The Monkees. Star Trek (it feels weird to describe as everyone knows the premise) was about the crew of a starship in the future on a five-year mission though the program only ran for three years; while The Monkees was about a fictional four-piece rock band trying to make it in show business in the midst of their wacky adventures.

Now while The Monkees started out as a made-for-TV group, the major popularity of their music resulted in the members learning how to play their instruments (well, two of them, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, were already musicians) so that they could perform on their records, and tour unaccompanied.

Later, the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz remarked “The Monkees really becoming a band was like the equivalent of Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan.”

Dolenz made this analogy so many times that Tork once replied, “This Vulcan line, Mickey, give it up for God’s sake!”

Another Star Trek connection is that when Walter Koenig was hired to play Anton Chekov in season three of the space opera, the character was added for two reasons: to appease criticisms from Russians that they weren’t represented in the cast, and, more importantly to cash in on Monkee-mania. It was hoped that Koenig’s youth, and reasonable resemblance to Davy Jones would attract younger fans. Koenig even wore a moptop wig to complete the effect.

Now let’s go back to the future. After a successful run of movies, Star Trek was such an established franchise that it was endlessly parodied. But the writers of GALAXY QUEST, David Howard and Robert Gordon, came up with a different angle. The movie was as much a satire of Trek as it was Trekkies, dealing with the cast of a long defunct space series depressingly attending conventions and having to exploit their characters. Tim Allen portrayed the William Shatner/Captain Kirk lead, alongside a hilarious ensemble including Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, and Daryl Mitchell.

The premise was that aliens have mistaken the show’s reruns for documentaries and have come to seek help from the crew to defeat an evil alien race. So obviously Allen and his cohorts have to actually become the Federation (or whatever they call it) heroes that they’ve been pretending to be.

Screenwriter Howard has said that he got the idea for the plot of GALAXY QUEST while watching a IMAX documentary that featured narration by Nimoy. While this may be true, it’s difficult to believe that the Monkees’ influence wasn’t part of the equation. Especially considering that Allen’s character is named Jason Nesmith. Boom!

Ignoring Tork’s “give it a rest” request, Dolenz has continued to make his analogy but has amended it somewhat replacing Star Trek with GALAXY QUEST:

“Have you seen GALAXY QUEST, the movie about fictitious sci-fi characters visited by real aliens to save their planet? That’s what happened to The Monkees! It started out with fictitious people and all of a sudden we were made into a real pop band. And we weren’t just actors playing the fool. We were cast in the same way as you would a West End musical - you had to sing, dance, move, act, improvise and play an instrument. The closest thing I could describe it as is a stage musical on television.”

Whatever the case, from Chekov’s Davy Jones-styled wig to the premise of actors morphing into their roles, Star Trek, The Monkees, and GALAXY QUEST are forever entwined. I hope they do produce more GALAXY QUEST in some form of other as long as they never give up, and never surrender (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Live long and prosper.

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Thursday, April 01, 2021

Finally! Film Babble Blog’s 2020 In Review

I know, I know – it’s April and I am only now getting around to look back at some of the most notable films of last year. Honestly, as 2020 was so compromised by the pandemic, and films were a lot fewer (many were delayed until this year); I decided against doing a ‘best of’ this time around. So I am going to do it differently as I’m not going to give the movies numbers in order to rank them. I’m going to just babble about a handful of titles, five to be exact, that stood out to me over this weird, sad year.

The last movie I saw on the big screen before the pandemic hit was Leigh Wannell’s THE INVISIBLE MAN, starring Elizabeth Moss. Sadly the theater I attended the film at, Six Forks Cinema, permanently closed not long ago. 

The film, which was originally supposed to be part of Universal’s Monsters Cinematic Universe (not to be confused with Legendary’s MonsterVerse or is it?), but after THE MUMMY flopped that franchise appears to be dead in the water. No matter, the film stands on its own largely due to the performance by Moss as a woman who is being stalked by an abusive ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) - a scientist who has discovered the formula for invisibility. This loose adaptation of H.G. Wells classic 1897 novel is a stylishly suspenseful treat that comes equipped with a number of genuine scares, and fiercely clever moments.

While under quarantine, I mostly caught up with TV series which I wrote about here, and watched older films, but I did catch some new releases like Christopher Nolan’s TENET. A new release Blu ray I should say. I almost braved the Covid 19 scare to see it at one of the few open theaters, but I chickened out and waited for home video. 

Nolan’s latest attempt at visionary filmmaking is certainly entertaining but I had difficulty understanding what I was watching. A great, gripping John David Washington, and Robert Pattinson, whose work keeps getting better, star as undercover CIA operatives travel backwards and forwards in time in order to prevent World War III. Got it? It’s hard to outright recommend as it’s so baffling, and purposely convoluted, but Nolan fans should dig it. I’ll give TENET this – it totally deserves its Oscar nomination for Best Production Design.

If I was posting a list with numbers, I probably would pick Aaron Sorkin’s THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 for #1. This great historical drama features a well-chosen ensemble including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panther Bobby Seale, Sacha Baron Cohen as hippy (or yippie) activist Abbie Hoffman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz, Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler, and Michael Keaton as U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. That barely scratches the surface of the actors involved as it’s a big-ass cast, and I don’t want it to take up the bulk of this paragraph. Sorkin’s screenplay may be his best yet. The dialogue is devoid of his weakness for cutesy wordplay, and each character is more compellingly drawn than some of his past endeavors, and I say that as a fan. If you don’t know anything about the Chicago 7, this is a recommended place to begin. I’ll be pulling for it to get some Oscar gold, which it should since it got six nominations including Best Picture.

Another fine film I enjoyed was Darius Marder’s SOUND OF METAL, which concerns a heavy metal drummer who has to cope with losing his hearing. The rightly Oscar-nominated Riz Ahmed portrays the deaf musician, who you really feel for as his life is emotionally upended, and he suffers through a stint at a rehab for the deaf run by a Vietnam vet (Paul Raci). Ahmed does warm up to his fellow residents, but his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) disappears from his life. The authentic feeling movie is outfitted with a stirring sound mix that effectively depicts the sounds of deafness, which may seem impossible, but Marder and crew pull it off and received an Oscar nomination for their efforts (like TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, SOUND OF METAL scored six well-deserved noms). The last bit and the ending may be rushed, but this film’s gritty realness, and lack of pretension make it a major must see.

Paul Greengrass’ NEWS OF THE WORLD is maybe the most stone-cold entertaining of the five films in this round-up. Based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, this western, set in 1870 follows Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an ex-Civil War confederate soldier who makes his money by reading select newspapers to captive audiences as he travels through Texas. One day on a road through the woods, he comes across a 10-year old girl (Helena Zengell) who either goes by Johanna or Cicada hiding out in an overturned wagon. Before long the duo are saddled together as Hanks takes the girl, who identifies as a Kiowa Indian, on the long trek to her supposed home in Castroville, Texas.

They get into a rocky mountainside gun fight, encounter a massive dust storm, endure a devastating wagon accident, and have to figure out how to get away from a rag-tag army of renegades ruled by evil land baron Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy). Now these elements may sound like frontier clichés, but Director Greengrass handles the material confidently, never needing to reach into his catalogue of BOURNE-isms. Hanks’ Kidd is a familiar persona – the everyman that he’s honed for decades – but he inhabits the character with the likability we expect from the two-time Oscar winner. As Hanks’ travelling companion, Zengall is the real stand-out with her driven, naturalistic performance. I’m betting we’ll be seeing a lot of her in years to come. NEWS OF THE WORLD received four Oscar noms, but with its competition I’m thinking it might not win any of the categories. If it does score at least one Academy Award, I would bet on Dariusz Wolski for Best Cinematography as his landscape imagery is ginormously gorgeous.

As I usually have spillover on these Best of entries, Here’s some other films I enjoyed in 2020: Lee Isaac Chung’s MINARI, Regina King’s ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI…, Thomas Vinterberg’s ANOTHER ROUND, Kelly Reichardt’s FIRST COW, Kitty Green’s THE ASSISTANT (excellent Julia Garner performance), George C. Wolfe’s MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, Chloé Zhao’s NOMADLAND, and Charlie Kaufman’s weird, unwieldy I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS.

Also these documentaries: Alexander Nanau’s COLLECTIVE, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s ATHELETE A, Jeff Orlowski’s THE SOCIAL DILEMMA, Garrett Bradley’s TIME, Bryan Fogel’s THE DISSIDENT, Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III’s CLASS ACTION PARK, and the Spike Lee Joint, DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA, which is more of a concert film than a doc but they often reside in the same category.

Alright, so I finally tackled 2020 in review. With hope, I'll be back on my game next year.

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