Sunday, July 29, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Octopussy

“You know what I like about you Brits? ‘Octopussy’! I must have seen that movie … twice!” – Homer Simpson

I’m probably one up on the redoubtable Mr Simpson. I’ve seen ‘Octopussy’ three times. Once at the cinema when I was eleven. It made the kind of impression on me that anything in ‘Scope and with a notable quotient of buxom women would have made on me at that age. Second time, it was on TV when I was probably in my late teens or early twenties. I thought that Roger Moore looked kinda old and the back projection was dodgy. Sliding the DVD into the player a few nights ago, I wasn’t holding out much hope. “It’s the clown one,” I remember saying desultorily to Mrs F; “see you in a couple of hours.”

Turns out third time was the charm. With only a couple of minor quibbles, I really enjoyed ‘Octopussy’: it strikes a decent balance between the globe-trotting élan audiences had come to expect of Bond movies and a (for the early-to-mid 80s) timely Cold War narrative. John Glen, helming the second of his five consecutive 007 opuses, retains much of the grittiness of ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and again keeps the gadgets to a minimum (though he does throw in a painfully laddish scene where Bond uses some of Q’s surveillance equipment to check out a nubile young woman’s décolletage).

Like its predecessor, ‘Octopussy’ takes an Ian Fleming short story as its starting point; well, two actually. Bond’s attendance at a Sotheby’s auction, attempting to sniff out the buyer of a fake Faberge egg is a fairly faithful rendition of ‘The Property of a Lady’, while the short story ‘Octopussy’ provides the backstory that connects Bond and the mysterious jewel smuggler and circus owner of the title. Fleshing out these disparate elements, the script – ‘Flashman’ legend George Macdonald Fraser throwing in his talents with Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson – divides its time between India and Berlin as Bond unravels the connections between rogue communist General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), playboy millionaire Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and Octopussy (Maud Adams) herself.

Anyone who’s read my review of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ will be aware of my issues with the casting of Charles Grey, just two films after he appeared as an ally of Bond’s in ‘You Only Live Twice’, as the agent’s arch-nemesis Blofeld. I will have a similar thing to say about Joe Don Baker’s transition from baddie to goodie between the Dalton and the Brosnan episodes. For now, let’s just say that I find Maud Adams’s reappearance in the franchise, after being killed off in the earlier ‘Man with the Golden Gun’, equally as distracting.

Other niggles: the horrible “Tarzan” moment; the stunt casting of tennis champion Vijay Amritraj (necessitating a visual pun that you can see coming like the QE2 on a duck pond); a slight slackening of the pace during the India sequence; and the overplotting that links the jewel smuggling, the faked objets d’art and Orlov’s plot to detonate a nuclear device on an American air force base in Germany, make it look like an accident and thus force Europe’s hand over unilateral disarmament, thereby leaving the borders open for Russian invasion.

If I were being über-critical, I’d also mention the film’s inability, at least for its first half, to settle on a villain. Is Khan the puppet of Orlov while Octopussy is the eminence grise behind the whole operation? Or is Khan allowing Octopussy to believe she’s the prime mover and equally manipulating Orlov? Or is Orlov one step ahead of both Khan and Octopussy? And likewise which is the fake or the real Faberge egg at any given point in the movie? And why do Orlov and his forgers go to so much trouble creating fakes of incredibly famous jewels that would surely be pegged as ersatz, or at the very least have their provenance subjected to the most exacting scrutiny, the moment they came up for auction, when their must be infinitely similar ways of raising capital for black ops? And if the knife-throwing twins (David and Tony Meyer) who are one of the acts in Octopussy’s circus are already working for Orlov, why does he need to involve Khan and Octopussy in his nefarious scheme?

But this really is me being picky. That a Bond movie – moreover, a Roger Moore Bond movie – can be this bothered with plot, character interaction and the tangled-web machinations of its villains is something to be applauded. The fact that it can do this whilst retaining the arch and slightly camp humour that best suited Moore, as well as permitting him a genuinely badass moment comparable to the Mercedes/cliff face moment in ‘For Your Eyes Only’, just adds to the enjoyment. In this regard, the pre-credits sequence sets the tone nicely: it starts low-key with 007 disguising himself in order to infiltrate a military base, ups the stakes with his capture before he can complete his mission, develops into an audience-pleasing large scale action-fest, all duelling planes and big explosions, and concludes with an archetype Roger Moore nod to the gallery and a one-liner that manages not to be as groan-inducing of most of humour in a Bond movie of this era.

This balance is well maintained throughout. The action scenes are solid enough, with only the back projection during Bond’s fight with Kahn’s hencemen on the roof of a speeding train letting the side down. Chases – on foot, by car or in motorised rickshaws – predominate, and a last-reel attack on a fortress by Octopussy’s army of women provides action and eye-candy in roughly equal measure. It’s nice to see M back, even through Robert Brown’s characterisation doesn’t quite have the curmudgeonly gravitas of Bernard Lee, and it’s refreshing to have a Bond movie which doesn’t conclude with quarter of an hour of things blowing up in a secret hi-tech base. 

And yes, Moore is a bit long in the tooth for all this; and yes, the cynicism of Orlov’s plot is sugar-coated somewhat by the (quite literal) three-ring circus that goes on around it; but ‘Octopussy’ is never less than entertaining. It was Moore’s penultimate appearance, and it’s a shame really that he didn’t bow out on it. Then we’d have either had ‘A View to a Kill’ configured around a younger actor or been spared it altogether.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Leonor Watling

Happy 37th birthday to Leonor Watling, the kind of actress who puts the first "va", the second "va" and indeed the "voom" in "va-va-voom!"

Why does that first picture make me think that being a wooden crate is highest state of being to which I could possibly aspire?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Rumour has it Danny Trejo is also in the movie ...

In no way, shape or form am I a fan of Lady Gaga's music, but holy freakin' Christ, this character poster has just boosted my already priapic excitement for 'Machete Kills' by about five thousand percent.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I'm Not There

The biopic is a very easy genre to get wrong. Compressing someone’s lifetime into a two and a quarter hour film forces some uneven narrative choices. Focus on one period of the subject’s life? Before they were famous? The subject on the cusp of fame? At the height of their fame? The aftermath of fame? Or try to encompass the entire timeline, building individual scenes or sequences around the more dramatic and/or controversial moments, thereby running the risk of reducing the film to a “greatest hits” package rather than engaging aesthetically with the subject’s life and legacy.

Point of comparison: one of my favourite biopics of the last decade, Stephen Hopkins’s ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers’ is based on Roger Lewis’s biography of the same title. Hopkins’s film runs a shade over two hours. Lewis’s book is an epic 1,100 pages.

So: to Todd Haynes’s ‘I’m Not There’. And I must admit, off the bat, that I have only the most superficial knowledge of Bob Dylan’s life. I’m still debating whether this proved advantageous or onerous to my appreciation of it.

What Haynes does, essentially, is reimagine the biopic as fantasia, not so much examining Bob Dylan’s life as exploring various facets of him – his influences, his alter ego(s), his obfuscations and his contemporaries. In order to isolate each of these, while still incorporating them into a patchwork quilt of a whole, Haynes casts a different actor – and often employs a different aesthetic approach – to each facet. Hence we have Ben Wishaw as Arthur Rimbaud, facing interrogation and beguiling his questioners with evasive cant; Christian Bale as both Jack Rollins, the earnest and almost cripplingly shy folk singer and Pastor John, his post-conversion alter ego; Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark, the charismatic but arrogant actor playing Rollins in a Hollywood biopic; Richard Gere as an aged, in-hiding Billy the Kid about to find himself back in conflict with an equally decrepit Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood); Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a folk singer who angers fans and critics alike by adopting the electric guitar and enters into a war of words with TV interviewer Keenan Jones (Greenwood again); and Marcus Carl Franklin as a prepubescent black kid calling himself Woody Guthrie and spinning tales, with an ornery pragmatism beyond his years, of a life spent riding the rails.

The cast give it their all, with Bale and Ledger in particular delivering, if not career bests, then performances that deserve comparison to their absolute best. Blanchett is revelatory – the gimmick of casting a woman as one of the six aspects of Dylan ceases to be a gimmick within seconds. Blanchett’s drawn and haunted face is the perfect counterpoint to Quinn’s long dark night of the soul as he drifts down into 60s netherworld of Warhol acolytes. Kudos, too, to Michelle Williams as the Edie Sedgwick inspired Coco – although not playing Sedgwick directly, Williams channels her waif-like enigmatic allure far more effectively than Sienna Miller in ‘Factory Girl’.

Haynes’s appropriation of the avant garde aesthetic during this sequence is a spot-on pastiche, arguably the most perfect fusion of time, place and music in a work that sometimes wavers dangerously in its fine-line walk between artistic extrapolation and pretentious wankery. The oddest exegesis of his approach is in the Billy the Kid scenes, which play out like Peckinpah b-roll spliced with some Jodorowsky outtakes.

It’s frustrating, fascinating, flawed and fanciful to greater or lesser degrees. It thumbs its nose at the reviewer, challenging to be met on any terms other than its own. It ends with some brief footage of Bob Dylan onstage, a reminder that the film has, at one and the same time, brought us no closer to the real Dylan and vastly broadened our perspective of him.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Angharad Rees

i.m. Angharad Rees, 16 July 1949 – 21 July 2012

Friday, July 20, 2012

BOND-A-THON: For Your Eyes Only

With the proviso that you turn off the DVD at 1:58:22, thereby saving yourself an excruciating scene in which Margaret Thatcher (Janet Brown) conducts a flirtatious telephone conversation with a parrot she believes to be agent 007, ‘For Your Eyes Only’ is the high point of the Roger Moore years with a back-to-basics aesthetic that atones in a most welcome fashion for the excesses and idiocies of ‘Moonraker’. (Parenthetically, John Gardner’s turgid 1989 continuation novel ‘Win, Lose or Die’ has Bond in the role of counter-terrorist, safeguarding Thatcher and George Bush at a summit conference. Which is strange because he usually finds himself pitted against crackpot megalomaniacs hellbent on world domination.)

‘For Your Eyes Only’ marks two notable firsts in the franchise: it’s the first Bond to feature a writing credit for Michael G. Wilson, and the first to be directed by former editor John Glen. Both men would continue in these roles for the next four movies. At what point in pre-production and who banged the drum for it the loudest I can’t say, but the decision was made to back away from the outlandish spectacle of ‘Moonraker’ and take the character (and, to a greater or lesser degree, the series) back to basics. Less gadgetry, tighter action sequences, more focus on narrative. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ strikes the right balance, delivering what is basically a thriller while remembering that Roger Moore is the punster Bond and allowing him to toss off the requisite amount of audience-friendly quips.

The plot is a magnificent piece of MacGuffin deployment, cheekily revisiting the race to recover a gizmo that threatens the safety of British nuclear submarines scenario of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. Here, the device is still within the wreck of a British naval vessel; a spy-boat of sorts operating in foreign waters and therefore unable to benefit from an official salvage operation. When Sir Timothy Havelock (Jack Hedley), an oceanologist with ties to the government, is murdered in front of his daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet) by a hitman identified as Hector Gonzales (Stefan Kalipha), Bond is sent to intercept Gonzales and find out who he’s working for.

Bond’s briefing is given by MI6 Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (James Villiers) and the Minister of Defence (Geoffrey Keen), during which it’s mentioned the M is “on leave”. It’s a subtle and graceful acknowledgement of Bernard Lee’s passing and I’m glad that they didn’t replace him immediately. Robert Brown would take up the mantle for the rest of the Moore years and during Timothy Dalton’s short-lived tenure, before Dame Judi Dench made the character her own in ‘Goldeneye’.

Bond discovers Gonzales – who, for such an infamous and supposedly deadly hitman, is (a) crap at hiding his identity and (b) really easy to track down – hosting the kind of pool party that wouldn’t be out of place in an Akon video. Before he can brace the pistol-packer (or hit on any of the chicks), Melina pops up with a crossbow and gets some payback. An awesome moment courtesy of an awesome actress. Bouquet is never less than fabulous whatever she’s in. The scene where Melina witnesses her parents’ murder is the best bit of screening acting by anyone in any Bond film, and DoP Alan Hume is wise enough to zoom in on Bouquet’s piercing eyes. The look she projects right into the camera – an expression knife-edge between heartbroken and vengeful – is powerhouse.

Added to this, Melina is easily the best-written Bond girl in the series to date; there’s no simpering, no swooning, no floundering around waiting to be rescued by Bond (in fact she saves his ass at one point, the only Bond girl to do so since Claudine Auger’s Domino in ‘Thunderball’). Nor is she paired up with 007 for the whole movie. During the first half particularly, she drifts in and out of the narrative as Bond flits from Spain to Italy to Corfu, always a striking presence, her cold-blooded agenda giving the film a real edge.

It’s tempting to wrap the review up here and now with a simple reiteration: this movie is a rattling good unpretentious thriller and Carole Bouquet brings her A-game. But that would be to rob a few other luminaries of some well-earned words of praise. Moore delivers in this one; he hinted at it in ‘Live and Let Die’, but here he plays Bond with gravitas. Indeed, he comes as close as he ever would to the brutal Bond of Connery circa ‘From Russia with Love’, particularly when he despatches an assassin who’s garrotted a colleague. The assassin’s Mercedes, its escape route interrupted by Bond’s bullet, teeters on a cliff edge; Bond coldly walks up to it, tosses in the dove pendant (the killer’s calling card) taken from his friend’s body, and lands a hefty kick against Merc, sending it plunging. A Falstaffian Bond he may be in virtually every other film, but in this one scene Roger Moore is badass.

A raised glass to Topol. As Milos Columbo, a former freedom fighter now enjoying life as a smuggler, Topol is evidently having a blast, cracking nuts, packing heat and looking way cooler in a leather jacket than a paunchy middle-aged guy with a grey-haired comb-over has any right to. Topol’s flamboyance contrasts nicely with Julian Glover’s rigidly controlled characterisation of Aris Kristatos. And it’s a change to have a Bond villain who’s not a world domination obsessed sociopath with a penchant for monologues. Here, Kristatos is basically a businessman looking to do what all businessman do – make a fuckton of money, albeit by murderously obtaining an intelligence item which he can sell to the Russians (in the form of M’s opposite number General Gogol, played again by Walter Gotell).

Weak points? The score is pretty horrible (when Sheena Easton’s title song can be said to be the high point musically, then you know something’s wrong), any and all scenes involving Kristatos’s Olympic protégé Bibi (former skating champion Lynn-Holly Johnson) are borderline embarrassing, a snowbound chase scene that runs almost ten minutes gets fairly tedious very early, and there’s another one of those protracted underwater sequences that the Bond movies are so fond of.

But mainly, though, the problem with ‘For Your Eyes Only’ is well … the bookends. It starts with a sequence that I’ve sat through half a dozen times now and which still strikes me as odd in its tone and utterly out of place with the rest of the film. Bond is visiting a churchyard, where he places flowers on a headstone. The inscription reads “Teresa Bond, 1943 – 1969, beloved wife of James Bond. We have all the time in the world.” Thus, ‘For Your Eyes Only’ – one of the few post-‘OHMSS’ entries that acknowledges Bond as a widower – starts on a reflective, slightly melancholy note. A priest hurries over and tells 007 that his office has sent a helicopter for him; some kind of emergency. Bond clambers into the whirlybird, only to see the vicar making the sign of the cross. Soon enough, the pilot’s been electrocuted and the helicopter is being flown remote control by an individual in a wheelchair with a bald head and a white cat on his knee.

This character – who is absolutely not Ernst Stavro Blofeld if a lawyer representing Kevin McClory happens to be present, and who patently is if you’re Albert Broccoli and you’re wanting to make a mono-figured gesture to the aforementioned Mr McClory – has great fun sending the helicopter spiralling and plunging through the sky and Bond struggles to wrest back control of the machine. He eventually does, and turns the tables on his nemesis in memorable fashion. All of which is exciting/suspenseful/attention-grabbing on paper, only it’s staged against an abandoned gasworks so grim in its architecture and emptiness that the high-flying hi-jinks just don’t gel. It’s an anodyne approach to criticise a Bond film for having a pre-credits sequence that has sweet FA to do with the actual plot, but when that selfsame sequence is also so stylistically at odds with the rest of the production, it rankles.

And then there’s the last scene. Which we mentioned earlier and will not be extrapolating any further, other than to say it’s horrible and excruciating and unfunny and makes the Bond-chases-a-midget ending of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ look like Tarkovsky.

A much more satisfying conclusion – SPOILER ALERT – is after the climactic assault on Kristatos’s mountain-top stronghold, Bond finally recovering the device only to find General Gogol and a machine-gun packing minion ready to take it off him. Bond flings the gizmo out across the precipice. It shatters (to the accompaniment of a crap sound effect) and Bond gives Gogol a sheepish grin. “Détente, comrade,” he declares, “you don’t have it and we don’t have it.” Gogol responds with diffident shrug and grins back as if to say suits me, pal; you went through all that for nothing, I enjoyed a day out of the office. (SPOILERS END) It’s a nice little moment, underplayed and without any of the smugness generally inherent in Moore’s Bond. It’s also one of the rare moments where a Bond film manages to make an actual comment on the nature of espionage, no matter how moribund.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Barbara Stanwyck

Here's to Barbara Stanwyck, born on this day in 1907 - one of the slinkiest dames ever to drive a guy to commit murder (and I mean that in a nice way!)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Excuses, excuses ...

Um. Yeah. Okay. According to the proper order of things, the Bond-a-thon should notched up another entry today with ‘For Your Eyes Only’. I should also, by now, have watched and reviewed the latest LoveFilm title (‘I’m Not There’) and penned a little something on ‘Scott Pilgrim vs the World’ (picked up dirt cheap a couple of weeks ago).

However, my film watching has plummeted in the last week or so. Several reasons: I’ve been reading a friend’s manuscript (crime novel: pretty damn good so far), my sister-in-law has got engaged, work has been doing its best to excise the proverbial pound of flesh from me, and – somehow – I’ve been on a roll with the short fiction. In less than a fortnight, I’ve completed two short stories (‘The Chamber’ and ‘The Assimilation Device’), one piece of flash fiction (‘The God Particle’, inspired by the Higgs Boson coverage and with a tip of the hat to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’; you can read it here), and made inroads to the tune of 2,000 words into something that is worryingly urging me to consider it as a novella.

So: please bear with me. I’ll be unholstering my Walther PPK and checking in with Q branch at the weekend; expect some 007 early next week. In the meantime, I’ve started a new blog with a purely pictorial aesthetic, celebrating pulp book covers (mainly sci-fi) – it’s called Seduced By Starlight (classy, no?) and you can check it out here.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Ernest Borgnine

Ain’t many of Peckinpah’s cadre of men’s men left … and today we lost Ernest Borgnine.

“Walk softly, boys.”

i.m. Ernest Borgnine, 24 January 1917 – 8 July 2012

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Robert A Heinlein

Celebrating Robert A Heinlein's birthday on The Agitation of the Moon. 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Iron Sky

The war movie. It’s a strange beast. The genre encompasses pared down character studies, ‘Boy’s Own’ action spectaculars, psychological dramas, brutally realistic accounts of actual campaigns and blisteringly ludicrous men-on-a-mission blockbusters.

Sometimes what you want of a war movie is an unflinching commitment to finding the truth of its subject matter, so you watch ‘Downfall’.

Sometimes what you want is a razor-sharp satire of the dangers of giving too much power to what Michael Moore would call stupid white men. So you watch ‘Dr Strangelove’.

And sometimes, ladies and gentlemen, sometimes the only thing that hits the spot …

… is Nazis on the moon.

Timo Vuorensola’s ‘Iron Sky’ gives you not only Nazis on the moon (as well as Nazis in fuck off big Zeppelin-shaped spaceships) but homages to ‘Downfall’ and ‘Dr Strangelove’, not to mention a conceptually brilliant inclusion of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’.

 I’d not be doing my job as a reviewer if I didn’t admit that ‘Iron Sky’ doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, doesn’t go as batshit crazy with its wonderful central conceit as you want it to, and ladles on the ironies of its Strangelovian denouement a little too heavy-handedly … but, ach mein Gott if it didn’t have me twenty minutes in with an inspired spoof of the Hitler Reacts meme.

The plot goes something like this: at the end of the war, the remnants of the Third Reich split for the far side of the moon. Fast forward to 2018 and The President (Stephanie Paul), a gung-ho Sarah Palin type (she has a lot of stuffed animals of a decidedly Alaskan genus in the Oval Office), has backed a moon landing in order to bolster her re-election campaign. Rather cynically, she’s pushed Afro-American astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby) into the spotlight just so she can use “black to the moon” as a publicity slogan. (The mission, I hardly need to add, is to the dark side of the moon. The dark side. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the film’s most subtle racist joke.) The President’s entire campaign is the work of PR guru Vivian Wagner (Peta Sergeant) … and in case you didn’t get that joke, there are motifs from ‘Der Ring Des Niebelungen’, ‘Tannhauser’ and ‘Der Fliegende Hollander’ all over the soundtrack.

When Washington is taken prisoner by the moon Nazis, he meets stereotypical blonde Aryan poster-girl Renate Richter (Julia Dietze). Renate is engaged to the arrogant and ambitious Klaus Adler (Götz Otto, who actually was in ‘Downfall’). How ambitious is Adler? Well, he only wants to execute a putsch against against incumbent Führer Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier) – a man who really fucking hates it that everyone still shouts “Heil Hitler” when they address him – and install himself as ultimate leader of the thousand year space Reich. Renate’s head is turned by Washington and she convinces him to go along with a purification programme which essentially turns him Aryan. (I told you the racist jokes got less subtle, didn’t I?)

When Renate’s scientist father Doktor Richter (Tilo Prückner) discovers that Washington’s iPhone has greater processing capability than any of the equipment in the moon base, he gets permission from Kortzfleisch to use it to reactivate the Nazi destroyer-class spaceship Götterdammerüng (I told you Wagner was all over the place) only for the experiment to fail as the battery dies after mere seconds. Adler, Renate and the newly Aryanized Washington are dispatched to earth to round up more mobile phones. It’s in New York, however, that Adler and Renate meet Vivian, who is so impressed by their chiselled good looks and propagandist spiel that she builds The President’s entire re-election campaign around Nazi ideology.

Meanwhile, Kortzfleisch – tired of waiting and suspecting Adler of treachery – decides to launch his fleet against earth without the Götterdammerüng. The President is delighted: “All presidents who start a war in their first term always get re-elected.”

‘Iron Sky’ is a movie that should have had a budget of $100,000,000 and a script by Terry Southern, Hunter S Thompson and Christopher Brookmyre, preferably on a day when they drank the Jack Daniels distillery dry and got fucked up on some seriously manky crack. As it is, it cost $7½ million and was written by Michael Kalesniko (whose biggest previous deal was the Howard Stern biopic ‘Private Parts’) from an original story by Johanna Sinisalo (who apparently won the Finlandia book award about a decade ago) from an original concept by Jarmo Puskala (who wrote Vuorensola’s previous outing ‘Star Wreck: In the Perkinning’), all of which smacks of a bunch of people sitting around going “Yeah, but, Nazis on the fucking moon, dude!” until someone actually managed to turn it into something remotely resembling a plot.

The effects work vacillates between the fuck-awful and the holy-fuck-that’s-actually-quite-impressive; the humour vacillates between clever and cringe-worthy; the performances – I gotta be honest here – are uniformly pretty decent, with Kier’s camp Führer and Sergeant’s foul-mouthed but foxy PR bitch emerging as standouts; and the set pieces fluctuate the most drastically of all, Washington’s attempt to talk down some gangbangers pissed off at Adler and Renate proving stultifyingly unfunny, whereas a summit conference in which the Finnish and North Korean delegates are the butt of the joke hits all the right satirical notes.

It seems pissy to quibble, though. Vuorensola shoots for the moon (pardon the pun) on a prohibitive budget and gets more right than he gets wrong. The steampunk (Reichpunk?) aesthetic is brilliantly realized. Nazis on the moon is a sparsely populated subgenre (‘Iron Sky’ rubs shoulders with an early Heinlein novel ‘Rocket Ship Galileo’ and the odd episode of ‘Star Trek’, ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ and ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ and a bizarro 60s Japanese production called ‘Attack from Space’) and Vuorensola’s opus stands, for now, as its defining statement.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Ludivine Sagnier

Reviewing 'Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1' a few days ago, I said of Ludivine Sagnier that she'd be capable of making a priest kick a hole in a stained glass window. The lady celebrates her 33rd birthday today. Here's to shattered stained glass windows everywhere! 

Sunday, July 01, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Moonraker

Memory can play tricks on you. It had been a while – actually, a good decade or so – since I’d last seen ‘Moonraker’ and I recalled it as being dumb but fun. Mrs F had the same recollection and, though she’d not participated in any of the viewings for the Bond-a-thon beyond a couple of the Connery titles, sat down to watch it with me. We groaned, face-palmed and talked sarcastically over the movie for two solid hours.

The trickery of one person’s memory may be considered unfortunate, two people’s smacks of conspiracy. “Why did I waste two hours on that piece of shit?” my wife enquired as the end credits rolled. I could offer no answer. It may be of some cold comfort that at least she doesn’t have to write this fucking review; one, moreover, that forces me to reappraise my earlier opinion of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ as the series’ nadir. Although perhaps ‘TMwtGG’ is more bitterly disappointing because of the flashes of potential it displays – ‘Moonraker’ simply starts bad and stays bad.

How bad? Even allowing for the extravagancies and unsubtleties that are emblematic of the Roger Moore opuses, ‘Moonraker’ is god-awful. The pacing is leaden, the action scenes perfunctory, the humour sub-juvenile, the plot meaningless, the gadgets dull, the Bond girls duller and the villain dullest of all, Michel Lonsdale not even attempting to act but delivering a series of monotone line readings with all the conviction of an automaton.

Let’s spend a few hundred words finding out why, wrap this up as quickly as possible, and in ten days’ time we can enjoy ‘For Your Eyes Only’ which at least has Carole Bouquet, Topol, some nice scenery and no fucking idiotic space battles.

‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ ended with the promise “James Bond will return in ‘For Your Eyes Only’”, however producer Albert Broccoli – his antennae, as always, attuned to what was bringing in the biggest box office bucks at any given moment – realised that audiences were responding to sci-fi spectaculars. ‘Star Wars’, released the same year as ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, had left 007 standing in terms of ticket sales (and ‘TSWLM’ was no flop either, earning its budget back at least ten times over). ‘For Your Eyes Only’ was put on hold and ‘Moonraker’ was rushed into production.

The biggest rush job was arguably the script. If Christopher Wood took more than a weekend over it, I’d be amazed. Wood was the chap Lewis Gilbert brought on board to add a dash of humour to Richard Maibaum’s script for ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. Earning himself a solo writing credit for ‘Moonraker’, Wood basically rewrote ‘TSWLM’ substituting “up in space” for “under the sea”. Hence we have reclusive billionaire Stromberg who wants to destroy earth and rule a new master race under the sea reimagined as reclusive billionaire Sir Hugo Drax who wants to destroy earth and rule a new master race in the stars; sexy helicopter pilot Naomi replaced by sexy helicopter pilot Corinne; the plot kickstarter of a stolen submarine rehashed as a stolen spacecraft (deepening levels of self-plagiarism here, with ‘Moonraker’ essentially ripping off ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ which essentially ripped off ‘You Only Live Twice’); Bond’s emergence from the sea in a car/submarine occasioning a nearby drinker to glance at the bottle and shake his head in disbelief restaged as Bond’s transition from canal to piazza in gondola/hovercraft occasioning a nearby drinker to … well, you get the picture.

A musical gag is also repeated: a snatch of Maurice Jarre’s score to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as Bond crosses a desert in ‘TSWLM’; a bit of Elmer Bernstein’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ theme as Bond rides a horse dressed in western gear. Elsewhere, a security keypad plays the famous motif from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (Spielberg repaid the homage by featuring the Bond theme in ‘The Goonies’, which he produced), and a hunt is opened by horn players sounding the opening notes of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, the Richard Strauss tone poem forever associated with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Just one of these would have maybe provided a cute little touch; stuffing them all into the film, along with its plentiful self-borrowings, turns it into a tedious plod through a decaying mulch of unoriginal material.

Jaws (Richard Kiel) returns, ostensibly in Drax’s employ but helping Bond during the mind-numbingly horrible space station battle at the end. His reversal of sympathies was due to Broccoli receiving tons of mail from kids whose imagination had been captured by the steel-toothed giant in the previous and had written to ask, in so many words, “Please mister, we think Jaws is dead cool, can’t he be a goodie this time and help Bond?” And so their requests were fulfilled; ergo a little more kerr-chinggg at the box office. Also, the big dude gets a girlfriend [insert “Jaws scores” pun here] and is allowed to deliver his only line of dialogue (“Here’s to us”).

By this point in the franchise, putting the words “Some Actor isJames Bond 007 in ‘Totally Interchangable Title’” over a big ballad and some naked women gyrating in silhouette was a guarantee in and of itself of at least $150million in box office returns, and for me it’s this foregone conclusion of profitability that makes ‘Moonraker’ such a depressing thing to watch. Every bit of it is a cynical calculation with a dollar bottom line that’s so unabashedly obvious it swamps even the faintest smidgin of technical ingenuity or entertainment value. More depressing is the fact that it worked; for all that ‘Moonraker’ took a deserved kicking from the critics, it made $210million from a $34million investment (double the budget of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’).

Still, columns of figures are not the yardstick for this Bond-a-thon; these are tentpole movies whose mainstream appeal should be based on how entertaining they are; how much fun to watch. And ‘Moonraker’ delivers very little in the entertainment stakes. Everyone involved seems to be going through the motions: Gilbert’s direction is pedestrian, Moore’s performance is perhaps his most wooden turn in the franchise, Corine Cleary and Lois Chiles – saddled with underwritten characters – just phone in it, Lonsdale as mentioned earlier merely reads his lines and leaves it at that; the action scenes lack any frisson, with a potentially exciting speed boat chase reduced to a yawn-inducing a few minutes of padding and the explosive finale managing by some weird reverse alchemy to be as OTT as it is boring.

There’s not much else to say about the whole fiasco – at least not without getting into an overlong diatribe on how little sense the plot makes, even by the logic-starved standards of your average Bond movie, and I really don’t want to waste any more time or words on ‘Moonraker’ – except that it marks Bernard Lee’s final appearance as M. Which is a bloody shame. He deserved a better swansong.