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Saturday’s Modest Movie Review (with contest winners!)

by  in Comic News Comment
Saturday’s Modest Movie Review (with contest winners!)

Yes, this weekend brings you yet another comics-related movie review, but NOT the one you think! Plus the winners from last week’s contest!

*

So we just saw this great movie adapting a favorite comic series of mine and it was way better than we thought it was going to have any right to be…

…Huh? Ryan who? No, I’m talking about Modesty Blaise.

Yes, the one on the right is from DC; a graphic novel original from the early 90s. I think I was one of the eleven people that bought it. But I thought it was very cool; it's my favorite thing Dick Giordano did that wasn't Batman.

I’ve been a fan of Peter O’Donnell’s sexy super-spy for a number of years, though if you really pinned me to the wall, I’d have to admit I prefer the novels to the comics. (Though the collections from Titan Books of the original newspaper strips are very cool.)

One of my little bookscouting quests is to try to find the Modesty Blaise books in hardcover. I'm especially partial to the Mysterious Press editions from the early 80s with the naughty photo covers, though I get dirty looks from the little old ladies at Goodwill every time I come to the register with one.

Unlike most of her swingin’ super-spy colleagues from the 1960s, though, Modesty’s never really done well at the movies. There was the one with Monica Vitti as Modesty and Terence Stamp as her partner Willie Garvin in 1966.

Lots of people think this movie is a 'camp classic.' I am not one of them.

Honestly, I’ve tried to watch it several times over the years and can never manage to get through more than the first few minutes. It’s just Not Good.

Then there was the one-hour TV pilot from 1982, this time with Ann Turkel as Modesty and Lewis Van Bergen as Willie.

This one tried harder than the Vitti version and was much more in the spirit of the originals. I did get all the way through it... but in the end it was just Not Good either.

The story was on the low side of okay, and none of the actors had the chops to raise it even to the level of being fun. In fact, I think this was one of Ann Turkel’s very few efforts at trying to be an actress at all before she fled back to modeling.

So when I heard about the straight-to-DVD film from 2004 “presented by” Quentin Tarantino, I was frankly skeptical.

After getting burned twice, I wasn't very optimistic. On the other hand, it was only two dollars.

The more I read about it, the more skeptical I became. My Name is Modesty was rushed into production in order for the studio to hang on to the rights, much like Roger Corman’s aborted Fantastic Four movie a decade and a half ago. This straight-to-DVD, potboiler version of Modesty was simply a placeholder while the studio got on with making the real Modesty Blaise movie. It was shot with a cast of mostly-unknowns in Romania in 18 days, for not very much money at all. As such, it was not expected to do any business to speak of. And I gather it didn’t. (I found it in a discount bin for a couple of dollars.)

But, to my delighted surprise, I found this to be a really cool little movie with a lot of great extras. (One of those is an hour-long interview with Modesty’s creator, Peter O’Donnell himself, to give you an idea.)

The movie itself was so much better than it had any right to be, what with all that baggage to carry, that I was awestruck that they’d done such a good job within all those limitations.

It’s sort of “Modesty Blaise: The Early Years.” As such, there’s no Willie Garvin or Sir Gerald Tarrant or any real espionage stuff at all. Which might disappoint purists, but you know, this is the little movie that could. By the time it was done we were completely won over.

The story is this. A crew of villains takes over a crimelord’s casino as it closes, holding the entire staff hostage. As it happens, young Modesty Blaise is working there.

I had my doubts about Alexandra Staden at first but in the end she sold me that she really was Modesty Blaise.

It’s her first real job, after having knocked around Europe and Africa being tutored in all sorts of things ranging from literature to the martial arts by her aged mentor, Professor Lob. When the Professor is killed, Modesty is on her own again, until she is recruited by the sinister Mr. Louche to join him in running his casino that fronts for the Network.

This is all backstory, though. The movie opens with a horde of crooks moving in on the casino and shooting up the place. The lead crook, Miklos, takes a shine to Modesty — she has such courage!– and he wheedles the story of her origins out of her. She agrees, but really Modesty is just trying to string him along until she figures out a way to free the hostages and take out Miklos and his hoods.

This keeps the story moving as we go back and forth between the flashbacks of Modesty’s beginnings and the escalating tension in the casino.

It was a little hard for me to get into at first because Alexandra Staden seems a bit slender and fragile to be as tough as Modesty Blaise needs to be, but in the end she made me believe it.

It takes some pretty fair acting chops to make me believe that she could take a mobster down with arms that skinny, but I have to admit Miss Staden managed it.

It helps that for most of the movie it’s a tense standoff between Modesty and Miklos, as they try to psyche each other out. It builds and builds until when finally Modesty can act, Alexandra Staden had me completely believing in her, so I didn’t mind at all when she unleashes her martial-arts whupass on the bad guys at last. It works.

As does the whole movie, really. They get the most out of their tiny budget, using the Romanian locations to great effect. Despite the limitations, director Scott Spiegel gives everything a proper sense of scope– wide-open, brightly-lit shots of Modesty’s youth nicely contrasted with the dark, tight confines of the hostage situation in the casino– and it’s often a very pretty film just to look at, especially the scenes of Modesty and her mentor wandering around northern Africa.

So. If this had been presented to me as the big-screen Modesty Blaise movie (as far as I know still not being made as I write this, by the way, seven years after this hail-Mary, rights-preserving DVD was released) I might have been disappointed, but as a discounted home video product that cost two dollars, it was terrific and worth every penny– and that’s not even counting the nifty extras. Worth Netflixing if you get a chance.

Here’s a trailer. Enjoy.

*

And now — contest winners!

This is for the best solution to my boneheaded gaffe in last week’s Wold Newton-centric, unbelievably geeky column speculating about the genealogy of Matt Helm. My notion that he was the son of the Queen of Swords and Methos the Immortal was completely undone when many Highlander devotees (including my bride) scornfully informed me that Immortals could not father children. Oops.

I’d had too much fun writing the damn thing to give up on the idea without a fight, though, and I decided to let you, the readers, figure out how it could work by having a contest with first, second, and third-place prizes for the winners. This is what we columnists call laziness AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION!

And, well, naked bribery. But anyway….here are the winners!

Third place goes to Tony Collett, who suggested:

I think I’ll go Occam’s Razor for this, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one:

It just happened.

How many times in nature has something happened that can’t happen? The tabloids and nature reality shows would all be out of business if things went as they were supposed to. As they say in Jurassic Park, nature finds a way. And in this case, love. The odds were defied, the gods looked the other way, it was a once in forever chance…but it happened. There are a lot of couples (especially teenagers) who’ll back that up.

And how many times in fiction are we asked tor accept implausible occurrences?

I liked this one because it’s clear Mr. Collett is as much of a romantic as I am, and the simplicity of it tickles me.

Second place goes to Perry Holley, who gave us this:

Clearly, Dr. Helm was a friend of Matt’s father, who changed his last name to ‘Helm’ after escaping some unknown trouble from his past; Dr. Helm helped to create the fiction that Matt’s father was actually his long-lost cousin. Dr. Helm was quite fond of the young Matt, and when the boy was seriously injured in a hunting accident, Dr. Helm helped to save the boy’s life via a blood transfusion. The special qualities of Dr. Helm’s blood from being an immortal had an effect on the young Matt; his aging would eventually slow down, and his physical capabilities would become truly remarkable, but he would not be able to sense other immortals, nor would they be able to sense him.

Simple, and has the added advantage of solving other Highlander-related problems I was not aware of. Worked for me.

But first place, I think, has to go to Nick, who posits this solution:

Matt Helm is Elena’s son, though not by Methos of course. However, Matt’s unknown father died well before the child was ever born and Methos adopted him as his own. When Methos own life started to catch up with him and he had to move on before being beheaded by one of the Four Horsemen, he couldn’t bear to see the young man he helped raise from childhood grow old. So he contacted several of the foremost scientists of the time (people like Professor George Challenger, Dr. Moreau, or even Moriarty) to develop a serum that will allow his adopted son to live for some time to come. Helm continued to use the formula for the rest of his life, greatly retarding his aging process. While Helm served in the service in World War II this same serum came in to the hands of the United States government and distilled in to a weaker version that became known as the Infinity Formula, which is used to slow the ages of select government agents included one Nick Fury.

I like this one best because it’s, well… the most Wold Newton-y. This is the one that struck me as being the one that was the most in the spirit of Philip Jose Farmer’s original exercise. It brings in other members of the Wold Newton family tree, AND also gives us the secret origin of the Infinity Formula. That’s exactly the sort of approach they take over on the Wold Newton site.

Plus, Nick was the guy who first pointed out the original problem, so I thought it was very nice of him to step in and solve it. That’s the old No-Prize spirit! Well done!

So there you have it. Drop me a line at hatcher (at) monkeyspit.com with a shipping address, gentlemen, and I’ll get your loot out to you. Thanks to everyone for playing!

And with that, I’ll see you all next week.

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