February 8th, 2008

CASINO ROYALE (1954) ** ½

Eight years before Sean Connery sipped a vodka martini “shaken, not stirred”, American Barry Nelson played the role of Ian Fleming’s immortal James Bond on an hour long television drama for Climax Theater.  While it’s far removed from the Bond we all know and love, Casino Royale will no doubt prove to be a must see for all Bond-philes out there. 


The plot is more or less what Fleming intended.  Secret Agent James Bond attends a high stakes baccarat game where he squares off against a cutthroat villain named Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) in and out of the casino.  The biggest liberty taken with the material is that Bond is an AMERICAN agent and his right hand man is named CLARENCE Leiter.   (Also Le Chiffre tortures Bond’s toes and not his balls, which I guess is acceptable since we’re talking made for 50’s TV, here.)  


The film’s primary stumbling block is in fact, Bond himself.  Dubbed “Card Sense” JIMMY Bond, the character is not anything remotely close to the Bond we all know and love, and is more of a cardboard cutout hero you’d usually see on a show like Climax.  As portrayed by Nelson, Bond seems less like a secret agent with a license to kill and more like a guy that would sell you 10W-30 motor oil at Pep Boys.  He lacks the suaveness, sex appeal and machismo that we’re so accustomed to and seems a tad uncomfortable in his own skin.  (My theory:  Nelson was just plain nervous because the show was being televised LIVE.)  Even the brief glimpses of Bond-ian humor that Nelson was given to work with, he manages to flub.  (When someone asks him, “Are you the man that was shot?”  He retorts, “I’m the man that was missed,” but you can clearly tell that Nelson was not informed that this was a JOKE.)  With so much of the show on his shoulders, and so little charisma, it’s easy to see why his interpretation of the role never caught on.  (A weekly Bond show was proposed by Fleming but it fell on deaf ears.) 


Oddly enough though almost everything else in the teleplay works; namely Lorre’s slimy performance as Le Chiffre.  He pretty much set the bar for Bond villains to come and is at his most menacing when he quietly SUGGESTS the torture he’s willing to inflict upon Bond.  The actor who plays Leiter, Michael Pate is also quite good.  For television, Bond and Leiter’s nationalities were reversed so that it is Leiter is a British agent working for the Americans.  Actually the more I think about it, their CHARACTERS were pretty much reversed as well as Pate exudes a lot of the suavity normally associated with Bond and Nelson reeks of an unassuming blandness that’s typical of all the cinematic incarnations of Leiter. 


And for a one hour LIVE television show, it never once FEELS like a TV program, which is the best compliment I think I can give.  The camera is always in motion and there are always multiple set-ups being used.  Also it moves at a lightning pace and every scene plays on the next.  The only real let down is the ending, which from the looks of things, they just plain ran out of time.  (Nelson says, “Call the cops!” and then it fades to black.) 


The casual viewer who is used to the real deal James Bond will probably scoff at Casino Royale, but true Bond fans will definitely want to see this for strictly historical purposes.  They may even find out that it’s not that bad either.  It’s a lot better than the 1967 spoof and more tightly paced than the Daniel Craig version, so that’s at least worth something in my book. 

BLACK SHEEP (2007) **


When’s the last time you saw a GOOD killer sheep film?  Show of hands.  Didn’t think so.  If anything, Black Sheep serves as a humbling reminder that the definitive Killer Sheep Movie has yet to be made. 


You know, ever since Peter Jackson forgot his splatter movie roots and went all Hollywood on us with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I’ve been waiting for another New Zealander to pick up and run with the gore movie mantle.  Writer/director Jonathan King tries his best with Black Sheep, but the results just goes to show that nobody makes Kiwi splatter like the master. 


When Henry (Nathan Meister) was a kid, his brother Angus (Peter Feeney) wore a bloody sheep carcass and scared the bejabbers out of him, so naturally he developed sheep-o-phobia.  He returns fifteen years later to the family farm to make amends with his brother, and besides it’ll be good therapy to work on that whole crippling fear of sheep thing.  Meanwhile two lamebrain PETA rejects rescue a genetically engineered sheep fetus from a lab, which also happens to be run by Angus.  Of course, the fetus gets loose and bites one of the dirty hippies and takes off for the fields where it bites a bunch of ewes.  The sheep turn into rabid flesh eaters, while anyone they bite turn into cannibalistic “Were-Sheep”. 


Basically what we got here is Night of the Living Sheep.  Just like that classic, the only way to kill them is to SHOOT ‘EM IN THE HEAD.  Unlike that flick, it isn’t very good. 


The characters are all more or less annoying, especially the hot but extremely irritating hippie named Experience (Danielle Mason) who talks a lot of nonsense about “trees”, “shakras”, “Feng Shui” and “third eyes”, but since she is a HOT hippie, it’s supposed to be okay.  Now I normally can deal with vapid, wafer thin and obnoxious female characters as long as they expose their breasts or die spectacularly, but sad to say, this Experience chick fails miserably in both departments. 


You can tell that King was going for the whole Return of the Living Dead “horror-comedy” vibe, except you know, with sheep.  The problem is that nearly all the film’s intentional “humorous” moments fail to tickle the funny bone.  (The “humping sheep” gag was directly stolen from Top Secret!)  King plays his sole trump card (HEY KILLER SHEEP ARE FUNNY) early in the film and it kinda wears thin soon after that.  You’ll probably end up laughing more at the bad effects (from WETA Workshop of all people) than anything else. 


Gore wise, we DO get some great scenes of sheep biting people’s faces off, tearing them limb from limb, munching their guts out, and yes, even gnawing off a penis.  Sadly, King makes us wait OVER AN ENTIRE HOUR to see it.  Ol’ PJ never made us wait THAT long.  There is one classic scene where a man fights off a killer sheep with his disembodied foot, but these moments of inspiration are few and far between. 


Had it not been for the gore, Black Sheep would’ve set American/New Zealand relations back a good quarter century, but since Jonathan King knows how to show a man’s most intimate organ get chomped off by a rabid sheep, we’ll give it a mulligan.