Thursday, May 30, 2013

License to Kill (2010) from SPECTRA*Paris

Elena Alice Fossi, SPECTRA*Paris -- Agent Jane

The sound of footsteps that at first have a laissez-faire pace soon quicken with a sense of urgency before melting into the opening notes of “License to Kill” as Elena Alice Fossi takes aim and hits the mark with a popping noir electro-rock number. With lyrics, Drowning in red water / I must speak to agent Bond! / Creeping the dark path, Fossi thus begins a spy filled journey on the second album by SPECTRA*Paris. Of course Fossi is no stranger to taking lead vocals: many listeners of electronic darkwave will likely recognize her name associated with the Italian band, Kirlian Camera, founded in 1980 by Angelo Bergamini. Fossi joined Kirlian Camera in 1999 as lead singer, and in the intervening years since, she has focused on a variety of side projects.

In 2006 while Fossi was working on a third album for her side project Siderartica, she found that the direction she was exploring didn’t fit with the project. At that point, she founded SPECTRA*Paris as a “rock band filled with love for aesthetics, fun and drama! Crime, spy stories, fashion and sex at the Opera house!!!” (Original Sin Fanzine Blog Interview, May 2010). In addition, Fossi outfitted S*P with all female musicians, a rarity in the sea of all male bands that populate the industry at large. And in the following year, “Dead Models Society (Young Ladies Homicide Club)” was released through the Trisol label. In her first album, she referenced Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Carol Reed’s The Third Man, and Fossi did a cover of Tears for Fear “Mad World” from the cult film Donnie Darko. References to and blending popular culture would be a recurring theme for Fossi on her second album.

“License to Kill” started taking shape in 2009. Again, Fossi turned to cinema for inspiration and continued to explore the themes of her first album. This time she crossed Brian De Palma’s musical Phantom of the Paradise, released in 1974, with the spy genre, and who else better represents the genre than James Bond. “In a few words, charming agent 007 will have to investigate on a disquieting facts having Swann – unquestioned boss of the Death Records – as a main and surely weird character” (SPECTRA*Paris MySpace exclusive interview, July 1, 2009). She used the combination of genres, in this case opera house musical and spy, to convey the injustice and difficulties facing bands today in the music industry (Black Magazine Interview, December 2010). Fossi incorporates Swan, the villain from De Palma’s movie, and makes several references to James Bond, by name and nods to some of the Bond movies. Fossi professes to taking all of what she watches, making “a massacre of all that useless trash I’ve seen, going to select just a few frames from several movies” (PeekaBoo Interview, April 15, 2011) in order to create her own movie via her albums. 

Taking a look at the various glamour photos of the S*P band, one can readily see their homage to the spy genre. Lean, beautiful lethal bodies in high heeled leather boots and black trench coats, or much less, toting “hand” guns, these ladies represent the sexy equivalent of James Bond. Fossi admits that music isn’t her muse as much as the written and visual forms of popular culture around her (PeekaBoo Interview, April 15, 2011). However, along with the visual iconography, lyrics play an important part to the visual representation that Fossi creates. She describes her “store of thoughts and ideas is a like a TV screen whereas characters, colours and settings are taking place. That’s just the reason why I’m used to attaching great importance to lyrics, even though I couldn’t be under the illusion that I’m succeeding in expressing all that I would like in 5 minute music per song.” (Frank Bentert from Bodystyler Magazine, May 2011).

“License to Kill” is comprised of ten tracks, two of which are instrumentals, which describes the story of the conniving Death Records owner by the name of Swan. Will Swan’s empire be toppled?

Track 01 License to Kill
This track could be seen as the prelude to the entire album, setting the stage of the lies and deceit that exist. Fossi sings about looking for salvation from drowning and believes that death of another will cleanse her. She seeks out Agent Bond for help. Many references are made to murder and various weapons – gun, knife, hands, stinging needles – in this electro-rock song. The strength of the music and Fossi’s vocals lends itself to being in the company of many of the more recent Bond theme songs by contemporary pop/rock artists. Whereas Bond has his iconic gun barrel sequence, S*P has the theatre stage. As the song fades, one can almost hear the sweep of the heavy velvet curtain swooshing back as a spotlight begins to illuminate center stage.

Track 02 A Clockwork London
Fossi continues the electro-rock tempo as she dips into a darker driven beat with help of electric guitars. The theme shifts from murder to the concept of death and the disposition of one’s soul. Our singer could be dying but who would know when the stage façade is an illusion: Here no one knows me, my bloody hands / I could look as a pretty girl! Fossi says she is living for her dreams however the consequences are high. There are no references to Bond or spies in general; instead, the musical aspect, in this case the stage performance is central. It sets up the conflict that needs to be resolved.

Track 03 007 Gold
Movie samplings of a conversation between police dispatch and a patrol unit that cuts off abruptly with the line “She’s got a gun!” introduces another electro-rock song with synthpop elements that give way to more industrial sounding electric guitars. This song returns to the spy aspect of the story, setting up a relationship between spy and musical references that alternate back and forth between the tracks. Bond is referred to by film titles such as “GoldenEye” and “License to Kill” as well as the truncated title “From Russia”. The spy seems to be on a stake out while Fossi finds strength to fight: My shiva golden eye / Got fever like a fire / See people throwing dice / My shiva golden eye / And now I’m about to [shoot] him dead.

Track 04 Movie Ghouls
Returning to the theatre, the pace slows to a synthpop ballad. The lyrics become more emotional and personally symbolic for Fossi. Here tale seems to have the power to turn people to stone, or from the keys of undisclosed spells she now possesses. She has the power; our spy is nowhere to be found in this track.

Track 05 Aston Martin DBS
This is the first of two instrumentals offered by Fossi. It revs the beat back up like the passing seconds of a clock. Just as the song hits its groove, it is over. It’s only 72 seconds long, which is unfortunate since it is a sporty rhythm that is very catchy. The Bond reference is of course in the title.

Track 06 Carrie Satan
The ticking beat carries over into this darkish synthpop song. The lyrics reveal bad things are closing in on Fossi yet she believes she will prevail in spite of the hardships and criticisms that surround her.

Track 07 Death Records
Here’s where Fossi gets to the heart of the problem: Swan, as owner of Death Records, masterminds the exploitation of her musical talents and profitability. She plays with her vocals, twisting and sharpening her voice with the accompaniment of harsh determined electric guitars. At moments, her voice becomes sorrowful and soul searching in its mood. Bond appears and faces Swan as Fossi’s anger swells against Swan and his lies. On stage, the fame and fortune (for Swan anyway) is touted. There is fear in Bond’s presence but he doesn’t seem to exact justice or resolution: No suspect comes out / Just lights on the stage … Their eyes full of fear.

Track 08 Lost Highway Voices
Fossi returns to a ballad’s pace, her voice wavering and breathlessly whispering the lyrics as she realizes there is no going back, only forward. Perhaps to a better place: And words to light the creepy skies / And rain to clean sweet cheering lies / Across the beauty that remains. All her barriers have been broken, but Fossi is hopeful. Our agent appears for the last time.

Track 09 S.I.S. Soundtrack
The second instrumental accompanied by some supporting metallic sounding vocals compliment the 95 second track. It is reminiscent of Kraftwerk returning to the more electro-rock tone. The song incorporates a guitar drilling out the melody with a synthpop wailing that drives the beat along to an all too short song that seems to tease the listener towards the finale.

Track 10 Phantom Theme (Beauty and the Beast)
Fossi covers the 1974 Paul Williams song (same title) that was featured in De Palma’s movie. It is the climatic moment in which both sides – good and evil – assemble and are reconciled within Fossi herself, a new self. Resolution is unclear: Like a circus on parade / Seldom close enough to see / I wander through an angry crowd / And wonder what became of me. The original Williams song was over eight minutes long (Paul William's Phantom of the Paradise Original Soundtrack, Youtube) but Fossi chose to cover the last half of the song. The track and lyrics compliment Fossi’s vocal range and style. This may be the best song on the album to showcase her vocal prowess, and I would say, it rivals her cover of “Mad World” (a track from S*P’s first album).

“License to Kill” is a fascinating melting pot of cultural references to De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, James Bond and the spy genre while critcizing the nefarious dealings that plague the music business industry. The songs are edgy, chaotic and dark. The Bond references, particularly in the first track, are easily comparable with our famous British agent, while many of the other tracks limit to flirting with spy references. Visually, Fossi and her band don the secret agent persona of black trench coats or skimpy outfits of Bond girls. They even are seen poising with a red sports car in some photos. A third album was released by the group – a Christmas album in 2010 and features some of the same tracks from the second. Fossi has not indicated what’s next for the group, but hopefully, she’ll consider a fourth outing with our intrepid spy at some point in the near future.

All photos are from Kirlian Camera and SPECTRA*Paris websites. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

James Bond in the Cinema by John Brosnan (1972)

1972 American version of Brosnan's book

There are few bookstores in the area that I reside in Southern California. Having lived in the Seattle area where bookstores were almost as prolific as coffee houses, it is a disappointment that from several brick and mortar choices, I now have a choice of a national chain, which carries inventory it feels will sell, and a used bookstore. However, a few months ago, my boyfriend and I met up with a good friend of ours at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. I was quite excited to be visiting a new establishment and was hoping that perhaps some treasure would be mine.

Amongst the two story bookstore, which incorporated some rather fun oddities (see accompanying photos), I found a film studies section. And, tucked between a couple of tall picture books was a squat book:  John Brosnan’s (no relation to Pierce) James Bond in the Cinema (1972). Its dust jacket was intact as well as the book itself, and the spine was tight. Very important was the fact that it was free from offensive odors, other than the scent of old paper, which is part of the charm of old books. And, it was five dollars! I felt I could not pass up such a wonderful deal!

I didn’t know anything about the author, so I’ve been doing a bit of digging. Hailing from Perth, Australia, John Raymond Brosnan was born in October, 1947 and passed away in 2005. He went by several pen names and wrote in a number of genres such as science fiction, fiction, short stories, comics, and non-fiction. James Bond in the Cinema was his first non-fiction effort and apparently, it was the first book to analyze the Bond as a cultural phenomenon ( see CommanderBond article here). Contained within are the obligatory chapters covering each of the first seven Bond films, Dr. No through Diamonds Are Forever, however my interest was piqued with an introductory chapter entitled “ Why So Popular?” and the first of two appendix, which explored “ Offshoots of Bond.” So, let’s take a look at what Brosnan had to say in 1972, which would have included Connery and Lazenby’s turns at interpreting James Bond.

The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, California

So, why are the Bond films so popular? Brosnan makes some of the expected points: plots that boil down to good versus evil, mysterious villains that seem to be fantastical modern monsters of technology gone awry or twisted by their greed for power and world domination. He says the Bond stories are not unlike the folklore of Saint George fighting the demonic dragon. For instance, he cites Dr. No’s atomic power as “his unholy source of power” (11). Brosnan also equates the Bond films to the Westerns in contemporary attire – good vs. evil, fighting with one’s fists and quick wit as well as his trusted gun.

Brosnan makes a couple of correlations that haven’t been part of mainstream analysis that I have come across in my readings thus far. First is that the Bond films are very visual forms of entertainment due to the editing process, which results in non-stop action. He states “fast cutting kept the eye dazzled and the mind reeling so that one didn’t have the time to think about it all. Instead one was swept along by the sheer speed of the film” (11). It is hard to imagine that editing of that style was new at the time, especially given the preponderance of quick editing techniques we have today. It is this quicker pacing that Brosnan says results in the international appeal of Bond in spite of language barriers. It’s kind of like watching martial arts films: you may not be able to understand the dialogue, but the action and pacing of the film compensate.

Bosnan also compares the Bond films with comic strips stating that “in both cases the characters are one-dimensional and the emphasis is on action” (11). He doesn’t think that is a bad correlation because the movies allow adults to tap into their childhoods when life was more carefree and worries virtually unknown. This model was easy to maintain in the movies because aside from Bond’s marriage in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the audience learns little of Bond’s personal life, which keeps his portrayal uncomplicated by character development.

As side note, in this chapter Brosnan mentions the criticism the first two films received from the portrayal of violence. However, with the crime vigilante and poliziotteschi films of the early 70s, Bond’s violence was considerably tamer in comparison.

The old adage is that imitation the highest form of flattery. From Dr. No to Skyfall, all aspects of James Bond has been well and truly explored and exploited. In the first appendix, Brosnan explains that the spy boom of the 1960s could be classified as one of three types of story structures: the spy thriller, the comedy spoof, and the comedic thriller (157). He provided several examples of each type. Many examples are familiar and well reviewed, such as Casino Royale as an important spoof because of its direct relation to Fleming. However, the author chose The President’s Analyst (1968) starring James Coburn as the best spoof (159). Coburn had starred in Our Man Flint (1966), as an American Bond knock-off but it did not do well at the cinema house. More serious efforts in the spy thriller arena included The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965), based on a John Le Carre novel, and Billion Dollar Brain (1968), which was an unfamiliar title based on the Led Deighton’s books. And in the comedic thriller, Brosnan mentioned the American television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. starring Robert Vaughn and the feminine version, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Brosnan. All have at one time or another been compared with Bond on some level.

Art installation at The Last Bookstore

There are gaps in Brosnan’s summary of offshoots. He briefly mentions there were Italian productions, but in actuality, Italy had a thriving production structure that exploited the demand for Bond with imitations that starred or were staffed by individuals directly involved with the Eon Production Bond films. In addition, there was a plethora of Italian films with Agent 077 tagged to the movie’s title, but the official series starred American actor Ken Clark. These, taken together with the transnational productions that often saw Italy paired with Spain, France, or Germany (or some pairing of all or some of the countries) there was a whole Eurospy genre that was born from the Bond films, finding their pinnacle of popularity in the mid 1960s.

While Brosnan relates that the spy genre seemed to dwindle as the 1960s came to a close (157), the genre has experienced a resurgence with the Bourne, Austin Powers, Johnny English, as well as James Bond himself, now a 50 year old filmic franchise. Countries beyond the UK and the US are venturing into the business of spyfi and superspies, such as India’s Agent Vinod (see my review here) and more recently revived French agent OSS 117, so it will be interesting to see how Bond continues to influence the spy/thriller genre in the coming years.

NOTE: All page references are from John Brosnan's book. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Inside The Secret Service - Part 2 of 2

Overview: A six-issue comic book series published by Icon (Marvel Comics) and released April 2012 and finished up this month. The series teams writer Mark Millar (Wanted, Kick-Ass) with Watchman artist Dave Gibbons, to tell the story of Gary, a young hoodlum headed towards a life crime until his uncle steps in and offers Gary an opportunity at a better life. Matthew Vaughn, Andy Lanning, and Angus McKie round out the creative team as co-plotter, inker, and colorist, respectively.

Note: Although every effort will be made to keep them at a minimum, any spoiler alerts will be noted ahead of time.

Go, Go Gadgets!

Whoa! Gadgets everywhere!
The Secret Service boasts many gadgets throughout the series. The gadgets, such as jet packs, cyanide spikes, poisonous gas gloves and suits, were reminiscent of 1960s Connery gadgets, while the pen lasers, neural disruptor and the video-linked spy glasses (they incorporated a webcam/microphone/earphone into black rimmed sunglasses), seemed more at home within the Brosnan era of Bond. Both Jack and Gary often resort to gadgets to help them out of particularly sticky situations. In fact, Jack resorted to a gas suit, neural disruptor, and his voice controlled car to escape from a Chinese military building. And Gary, in fighting just one henchman, had to utilize a laundry list of gadgets: the gas glove, stun grenade, dart-firing watch, cyanide spike, and laser pen-knife.  

The use of all these gadgets is not in keeping with Craig’s filmic and videogame Bond. Craig mostly used his smart phone, and there is only one instance in which it seems that Jack may have used his smart phone to hack a person’s diary (calendar). With limited use of gadgets, Craig’s Bond depends more on his ingenuity. Much of The Secret Service follows Gary’s story, so even though he depended on gadgets, there were several instances where he relied on his resourcefulness that he learned from growing up with a rough crowd. For example, when Gary wakes up to find himself in some South American country with no clothes and 24 hours to get back to English soil, he is able to commandeer a patrol car, weapons and ammunition, storm a drug lord’s home and hijacks his plane so he can get back home.

Gazelle knows a thing or two about gadgets

In the case of The Secret Service, the gadgets complimented rather than detract from developing the characters in the story. The gadgets incorporated provided a welcoming variety of potentially realistic contraptions to the most absurd, rather than falling into the limitation of one gadget, the smart phone, which happens with recent Bond videogames (such as 007: Blood Stone  and  Quantum of Solace). And, as mentioned above, the gadgets provide many nods to its original source material, James Bond and Q.

Damaged Birds

The portrayal of women in The Secret Service fair rather badly, in comparison to their Bond Girl counterparts. There are three women identified by name and are drawn with detailed features, but only two that are fleshed out. As it happens, they are both not without their issues.

Sharon and Jack fight over what money can buy
Gary’s mother, Sharon, is a single mother living with her unemployed boyfriend Darren in an estate flat in a bad part of London. Darren is the father of Gary’s young brother Ryan, however Gary’s father is never mentioned in the series. Unfortunately, all three are regularly abused by Darren through his overbearing, controlling personality. Sharon’s attire is bland; basic shirt and skirt in solid colours. Her hair is always pulled back into a ponytail. Her facial expressions are often haggard and run down. Her relationship with Darren is unhealthy and she unable to discipline Gary in the opening pages of the series. She is powerless and without any apparent control over her life. Added to that, she is apt to blame society for her woes. She is not Bond girl material, nor is she expected to be. She is dependent on the men in her life: Jack to spring Gary out of jail, Darren to put a roof over her head, and Gary to provide her a home. There is promise that perhaps she will gain a certain amount of independence and sense of responsibility for herself and Ryan, but the reader can only speculate.

Then there is Ambrosia, the other most developed female character. She is the lover of Dr. James Arnold and has been with him for some time. She knows about Arnold’s plans for the world, but she is not compelled to take any action until late in the story. Although her attire is not glamorous, she does live an affluent lifestyle provided for her by Arnold: traveling around the world and shopping for instance. Her hair is flowing and free, not pulled back and kept. She is beautiful and attractive, not tired as Sharon is portrayed.

<< SPOILER ALERT – SKIP PARAGRAPH TO AVOID STORY REVEAL >> As the villain’s girlfriend, she is a source of information. Jack pursues and charms her; they make love. Afterwards, Jack tells her he will not insult her intelligence, and she responds that she know that he is looking for information against Arnold.  Guilt arises from her reflection of what Jack must think of her (a loose woman), rather than the fact that she has cheated on Arnold (again, after promising not to). Ambrosia ultimately responds like a conquest of Bond’s, she turns against Arnold, demanding at gunpoint that he abandon his plans. Without hesitation, Arnold orders one of his henchman to kill her and he does. This is not new ground for women in this kind of story. If applying the trope that bad girls must be punished for being promiscuous then Ambrosia was punished with her life.

She knew what Jack wanted

The third named woman is Teri, the Deputy Training Officer at the spy school. She appears briefly in Issues 3 and 4 as one of the authoritative figures that vocalizes disbelief that Gary is spy material. Although a young, slender blond woman, she does not stand out and is too underdeveloped as a character. 

One aspect of the spy school that wasn’t revealed until Issue 6 and that is the existence of co-ed dorms where a couple of female spy students were present. After going back through the other five issues, there in Issue 2 was the presence of a couple of women in the school uniform, participating in maneuvers alongside their male classmates. However, when one of the school tests involves going to the local club to grade their flirting and love making abilities, it was all the male students out for the night. One has to wonder if the female students were in attendance as well, being graded on their ability to charm the opposite sex? Does seem that if they sleep and work out at school, then the women should have been amongst the crowded club scene. It would have been very difficult to tell since the female spy students in the Issues 2 and 6 were devoid of distinguishing facial characteristics: it was the clothes and the indication of breasts is what gave away that there was a female presence at all!

Attack of the 50’ Nerd and An Unemployed Bully << SPOILER ALERT – ENTIRE SECTION >>

Should the villain have a sensitive side? 
The megalomaniac behind the mysterious kidnapping of celebrities (a lot of them sci-fi, which should have been a clue right there!) is a geeky nerd. His empire, base on cellular phone technology, supported his darker vision: to transmit a certain frequency on cell phones that would cause people to kill each other. Thus, by drastically reducing the burgeoning world population, his actions would turn back population numbers to the early 1800s. His justification: he was saving the rest of the human race. Kidnapping celebrities, such as Mark Hamill and a Bond actor, resembling Pierce Brosnan, was because they were his idols and he wanted to save them from death. Saving the human race was a bit fantastical, especially since he couldn’t watch the death caused when testing of his frequency out. Playing god isn’t a new concept for the Bond villains, but usually it’s for greedy reasons.

There were a few twists to the villain. In one scene he is chastised by his henchman Gazelle for being insensitive by giving nicknames to his subordinates based on a deficiency. For instance, Gazelle was a double amputee fitted with special legs, all paid for by Arnold. One of his other henchmen wore a patch over his missing eye, so Arnold nicknamed him Cyclops. And, Arnold misplaced what was important. He worried about what to wear when meeting Ridley Scott, but he should have been more concerned about Ambrosia’s motives for cheating on him.

Darren and Sharon 
Like many of the more recent Bond films, there was a second layer of villains. These were the ones that personal to Jack and Gary. Darren’s cronies challenge Jack in Issue 2 when he is meeting with Gary in the local pub. Gary witnesses as Jack beats all of the cronies into submission. The fight is symbolic for gaining Gary’s freedom from the neighborhood, which will later be revisited in Issue 4. In this second showdown at the local pub, Gary must face Darren and his cronies on his own. Darren has been Gary’s personal nemesis, particularly with regards to how his mother has been mistreated and disrespected by Darren. The fight represents a rite of passage for Gary because although he has just transformed physically into the secret agent protégé, can he ultimately break away from what Darren represents: the old way of life? 


One of the biggest departures from Bond is revealed as Jack explains to Gary the wall of framed newspapers. Jack collects the following day’s newspaper as a memento after each mission. While the headlines report on some celebrity event or some other inconsequential event, Jack has risked his life saving the day while the everyday person lives their lives in ignorance. While one would think that Jack might be frustrated by the lack of acknowledgement of his duty to God and Queen, Jack isn’t. He tells Gary that what he does is a service to help people from the behind the veil of secrecy – that’s his job satisfaction. It’s his driving philosophy for being a secret agent, a value that he instills in Gary.

Gary has a lot to learn about the art of love
Another observation was the limited interaction between either Jack or Gary with women. Jack has an afternoon with Ambrosia for the purpose of securing information against Arnold, but he isn’t portrayed as a bed-hopping spy. Nor does he seem to have a regular girl friend. Gary is also without a girl friend. In fact, he is inexperienced with wooing the ladies. For example, while Gary surpasses all expectations with the various trials at school, it is the night out to test and hone their flirting skills that baffle Gary. Perhaps Gary is still too young; he reacts with disgust to having watched and listened to Jack and Ambrosia have sex. Gary does focus his attention on his mother, providing her with a better living environment, because he has the means to take care of her. However, at the end of the series, Gary remains alone, having never hooked up at least with one of his female classmates.

The Secret Service pay homage to many aspects of James Bond – the suave spy, the myriad of gadgets, the sporty car with deadly extras, the villain and his henchmen, and women – but Mark Millar also explored the boundaries of being a spy, such as motivation, and gave depth to an otherwise guarded and secretive Bond inspired Jack London. The representation of women is still problematic and familiar tropes of the genre are employed. That said, Gary’s desire to help his mother in spite of her shortcomings is admirable. It reveals Gary’s sense of maturity to forgive and to help those in need without the expectation of anything in return. These values are emphasized and reiterated multiple times leading one to believe that the moral to this tale is one of compassion towards others.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

You Can Call Him Hari, You Can Call Him Agent Vinod

Agent Vinod was released by Illuminati Films and Eros Entertainment in March, 2012. This action spy thriller stars Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor and was directed by Sriram Raghavan. Khan plays the lead role and travels to Afghanistan, Russia, Morocco, Latvia, Pakistan, India, and the UK, in an effort to recover a nuclear device and its detonator before it is armed. 

Note: Although every effort will be made to keep them at a minimum, any major story spoilers will be noted ahead of time.

Sweat and blood from an open head wound mark the face of a beaten man laying on his side in a dark cell. A small glass of water is set down before him. Hands tied behind his back, he strains his neck and is forced to try to balance the glass with his teeth. He loses control and the glass falls over, spilling the precious water into a glistening puddle on the dusty dirt floor. Thus, the audience is introduced to Agent Vinod, the man known by many names, who serves his country as a secret agent for the Research and Analysis Wing (or RAW for short), the intelligence agency for the Republic of India. As Vinod makes his escape, the soundtrack breaks out into a gritty rock song, Govind Bolo Gopal Bolo, juxtaposing live action with a moving comics credit sequence emblazon with the colors black, red and white. It’s bold, catchy, and sets the pace of this James Bond inspired Indian film.

This film is not associated to the 1977 version except by name. Whereas the earlier release takes a decidedly more comedic route and even includes a character named “James Bond”, this version is squarely situated in the spy thriller genre. Filling the role of the Bond equivalent, the suave, handsome Saif Ali Khan plays Agent Vinod. He depends on his cunning assessment of each situation he finds himself in and relies on his ingenuity to utilize what’s at hand to gain control over his enemy. For example, as he is being escorted out of a Russian nightclub in St. Petersburg, he notices a woman’s upswept hair kept in place by a hair pin. He defly slips the pin from her hair and in one fluid motion lodges the pin into the neck of one of the henchmen.  He picks off each henchman and by the time the leader turns around, Vinod is right there with a pistol aimed at the man’s stomach. The way he depends on his wits and less on gadgets, means he is more apt to get battered and bruised along the way. We have seen these qualities in our most current incantation of James Bond, portrayed by Daniel Craig. It provides the audience more opportunities to focus on the agent’s cleverness to navigate out of trouble, then to be temporarily dazzled by a piece of equipment that is rather too good to be true.

So, how will Vinod get out of this circle of iron? 

Like Bond, Vinod travels to several exotic locales that may be unfamiliar and therefore exciting to the viewer. He starts in a Taliban encampment in Afghanistan, then after receiving details from headquarters (in New Delhi) about a missing suitcase sized nuclear bomb and a mysterious reference to the number 242, Vinod heads off to St. Petersburg. The trail leads him to Marakkesh, Latvia, Karachi (Pakistan), and London. Along the way, he becomes acquainted with Dr. Ruby Mendes (Kareena Kapoor), the personal physician to one of the mafia type bosses that Vinod meets when he takes the place of a Russian mob boss’s messenger. Mendes, who has a shady past, eventually aligns her interests with Vinod’s mission and together they work their way up the chain of command. The beautiful Mendes fulfills the Bond girl role well. She’s intelligent and hesitantly helpful due to her own commitments, adding complexity to the blossoming relationship between herself and Vinod as the story progresses.

Farrah and Dr Ruby Mendes assist Vinod in getting critical information

Speaking of women, there are two other women in the film that work both ends of the spectrum. A Russian assassin who steals the nuclear bomb, throws a man into a shallow grave, fills him with several bullets before taking a photo of him. And later, she poisons a contact after he has “served his purpose.” Although beautiful, she’s a deadly mercenary, doling out her services to the highest bidder. Farrah (Maryam Zakaria), on the other hand, is rescued by Vinod while he is making his escape from the Taliban at the beginning of the movie. She reappears later in the film and is able to smuggle Vinod and Ruby into a festival where an important meeting is to take place. She does not think of the harm that may come to her; she is repaying a debt to Vinod for saving her. While they are minor characters, they balance the scale of good and evil.

Russian assassin, reminiscent of Honey Ryder's appearance in Dr. No

Interestingly, like Daniel Craig’s Bond, Vinod has no problem attracting the admiring attention of women. Although Craig does engage in a few liaisons, they are not nearly as frequent as the Connery or Moore eras. For instance, in Quantum of Solace, Craig doesn’t hook up with his Bond girl, Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), but rather they become partners, both focused on seeking revenge for lost loves. Vinod is focused on his mission. There are moments of flirtation, but there is no lovemaking and no kissing, which I thought stemmed from a respect for India’s cultural traditions. However in previews of other movies featured on the DVD, there’s kissing in other movies. Only one flirtation is acted upon on-screen: Vinod overtly flirts with the flight attendant, Freddie, who is also a mob messenger.  They are shown holding hands while they share a taxi. This is the most pointed “intimate” contact between two characters. For Vinod, this is in the line of duty – doing what’s necessary for ascertaining the crucial information he needs to complete the mission. While same sex dalliances were never shown, Craig does elude to such when facing Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) for the first time in Skyfall.

Will a truthful moment jeopardize Vinod's mission?

<SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH> As mentioned above, Vinod is chasing clues for the whereabouts of a nuclear bomb and the detonating device, so for the majority of the film, a man named the Colonel is his target. However, as with most Bond stories, the mastermind is well insulated by layers of mini bosses and henchmen. In Agent Vinod, the mini bosses have interesting character flaws: Abu who likes to shoot blanks at card players who are beating him to scare them; Kazaan, who had a questionable obsession with his dead mother; and General Huzefa, who is hell bent to exact revenge on Vinod for causing him to lose an eye. Once Vinod and Ruby have dispatched the various layers of mini bosses and their henchmen, the viewer learns that the mastermind isn’t some crazed lunatic with a deadly white cat, but a respected, intelligent man who tells Vinod that a “lowly police officer” cannot understand the cause and effect of the global political arena, and that Vinod’s interference was not for the greater good. And, it was detrimental the man’s pocketbook. Vinod did not directly cause the man’s death, but he was instrumental for sharing valuable information with people that could hand out justice. The calmness of the mastermind was reminiscent of Jonathan Price’s media mogul (except when he was crazy obsessed), Elliot Carver, from Tomorrow Never Dies. Both men sought to manipulate world events, one media the other political, ultimately for their own personal gains. Taking a further step, the Zeus Group mentioned in Agent Vinod could be compared to the clandestine organizations of SMERSH, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Quantum groups in the various Bond movies, which sought to control the world in a myriad of ways.

Hey! That number looks oddly familiar?!

There are six tracks that are integral to complimenting the unfolding action on the screen. The title track, Govind Bolo Gopal Bolo or Agent Vinod’s Theme, plays over the opening credits and then periodically throughout the movie, quite in keeping with the James Bond Theme. Most Westerners are familiar with Bollywood films that will “break out in song and dance” but in Agent Vinod that is not the case. While there are songs and dances, they are strictly incorporated within the mise-en-scene and do not seek to trespass beyond that framework. (Note: I'm not including the opening sequence or closing credits.) The logo “EROS” displays in the upper left hand corner when an official song starts during the movie. For example, the second song, I Will Do the Talking, is "performed" while Vinod is at Abu’s dance club in St. Petersburg. The women are on a center stage dancing to the song as Vinod scopes out the club in order to meet Abu, the club’s owner. The music is louder when Vinod is in the same area of the stage, but muffled in the background when he is in the DJ’s booth as he interrogates Abu. At no time do the songs break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. The music seems to work quite well and provide a polished soundtrack, which makes sense given all of the songs are performed by established musicians in the business.

Music incorporated into the mise-en-scene

Agent Vinod reunites Saif Ali Khan with director Sriram Raghavan. Their first film together was Ek Hasina Thi (2004), which was a crime thriller. Both men got along well and decided to work together on Agent Vinod. Although I haven’t watched Ek Hasina Thi (I have it on order), I would say that Khan provided a solid performance as the RAW secret agent. As to direction, there were two experimental scenes in which Raghavan’s vision did not come to fruition. In both instances, they were problematic stemming from inadequate setup. It took too long to figure out why the camera’s POV was upside down or that the two fights were two fights between the same two men, one in the past and one in current story time. In a third experimental scene however, Raghavan hits the mark and everything came together. It was a long take in which Vinod and Ruby evade several hitmen in a hotel, all while the pianist plays Raabta in the hotel’s lobby. It’s well executed and gives the audience a moment to pause before the next shoot out. The choreography of action was well done and while the locations were exotic, Raghavan kept landmark shots in check, so the progression of the story was not overshadowed. Since this was only his third feature length film, Raghavan will be a director worth looking out for in subsequent projects.

Not lookin' good for our secret agent! 

The move was plagued by a variety of controversies including the use of music without proper credit, questionable publicity stunts, and the portrayal of the ISI. The movie was considered a flop, which is unfortunate because the while the movie has a couple of instances that run a little long, the movie is a very proficient spy thriller inspired by the best of the Bond franchise. Thankfully, Raghavan and Khan have not been by daunted the criticisms and are planning a sequel. In fact, they listened to the complaints of length (this movie is a hefty 150 minutes!), so they plan to keep the sequel within the two-hour mark. They also plan to keep Vinod globe trotting – sounds like our kind of Bond, indeed!

Post Script: Upon further research after publishing this post, three separate internet sources collaborated that Agent Vinod 2 is not being pursued at this time. - mb

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Villain Tamed By A Cat

Max von Sydow as Blofeld, Never Say Never Again (1983)
There once was villain
in charge of a dastardly organization 
by the name of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. 
He used to be bald or near
but with Never Say Never Again
his hair defied age 
and once more sat on his crown. 

Sitting on his lap
a fine white feline with 
bright eyes
purred with each stroke
his master did give. 

While the camera rolled
and the villain commanded 
from his throne
the kitty did knead his hand 
with haste
and the master was tamed
by the feline's affection. 

Tonight, after a rather busy week at work, I really wanted to find a gif file of the scene in Never Say Never Again in which Max von Sydow, as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was holding the iconic white persian kitty while talking to his S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agents.

If viewers watch the scene closely, Blofeld sits down with the kitty tucked in his arms. As he addresses his associates, the kitty is obviously quite content in von Sydow's arms, because the kitty is very soon kneading his hand with vigor. The scene cuts to a wall video monitor across the room for a few moments, but when the camera returns to von Sydow, he is now holding the kitty's paws still, leading the viewer to wonder if the cat's affections were distracting to the actor (never!). As the scene wraps up, Blofeld gives the cat a loving squeeze as he leans down and appears to give the feline a kiss or at the very least, a nuzzle. It's a sweet moment; a softer side to von Sydow's Blofeld.

Seriously, the Persian steals the scene!
So, as I was writing and reviewing the scene in question, my technical savvy boyfriend figured out how to make a gif so thanks to him, I've got the gif above. Enjoy and have a fantastic weekend!