Tuesday, November 18, 2008


A few weeks back, the public got their first taste of Lowry Digital’s restoration work on the Bond franchise, and aside from a too-widespread for comfort compatibility issue with many Blu-ray players, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. As our PS3 enjoys a sterling reputation for firmware updates, we had no problems with the first batch of six releases (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Thunderball, Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, and Die Another Day) and tremendously enjoyed the digital restoration, in spite of some issues with certain “fixes” like the removal of guide wires from a miniature helicopter in Russia. The 1080p Blu-ray transfers both invite and reward close inspection, revealing a level of detail that had been hidden under decades of poor care and inferior video mastering.

That’s the big news, but buried amidst the prerelease ballyhoo for the newest entry, Quantum of Solace, is the release of the entire Bond series – in 720p high definition – on the Xbox Live video marketplace, and we’re pleased to report that these aren’t hastily dumped up-converts; they’re all wearing their new Lowry Digital suits, and it has given us a chance to revisit our very favorite film in the series, Moonraker.

Yes, Moonraker.

Let me assure you, dear reader, that this is no attempt at irony or a reach to be different just for its own sake. For most people, their favorite Bond films (and Bond actor for that matter) depend largely on where in a person’s life they happen to fall. Moonraker, released in 1979, was our first Bond film seen in a theater – an experience that burned both the film and its star, Roger Moore, into the mind as a perennial, albeit sentimental, favorite. At the conclusion of the previous Bond installment, 1977’s The Spy who Loved Me, the end credits announced that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only, but that same year, a little thing called Star Wars changed the business forever and even James Bond would have to find his way in this new climate. Eyes was postponed until 1981, and work quickly began shaping Ian Fleming’s 3rd Bond novel into an outer space adventure. The novel “Moonraker” was a decidedly Earth-bound tale about a former Nazi posing as a wealthy industrialist, Hugo Drax, who attempts to begin the Blitz anew by obliterating London with a nuclear missile. As with most adaptations of Fleming’s books, the producers retained the major character names, a handful of incidents, and little else for the film version. In the film, Hugo Drax was still a wealthy industrialist, but the jewel in his crown was a space shuttle manufacturing plant in California, where Drax himself resides in a rebuilt French chateau, and personally funds and trains his own suspiciously young and attractive group of astronauts. Bond is placed on his trail after the Drax-built Moonraker shuttle is hijacked in mid-air off the back of a 747, and soon uncovers a plot to exterminate all human life while Drax waits with his Noah’s Ark of perfect physical specimens on a space station orbiting secretly above the Earth.

In the 30 years since its original release, Moonraker has found itself in the ignominious position of representing ground that even the most fervent Bond apologist is willing to surrender. The earliest films (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger) had fanciful moments, but were rooted in a very traditional (read – conventional) espionage film format. Thunderball was the first Bond on a truly epic scale; it was the first to be filmed in widescreen, the first to have a running time over 2hrs, and the first to emphasize spectacle over more mundane concerns like plot mechanics with a lengthy underwater finale that slows the 1965 film down to a deadly crawl. From that point onward, each successive film in the series was then tasked with outdoing what came before. Live and Let Die was an inauspicious debut for Roger Moore, as he was force-marched through a clumsy effort to contemporize the series with an “urban” edge, and fared little better with The Man with the Golden Gun, a cheap looking affair enlivened only by the casting of Christopher Lee as his nemesis. Not helping the cause was the producer’s decision to abandon scope photography and return to a more TV-safe aspect ratio, resulting, not surprisingly, in two films which appeared to be made for television. That all changed with the next outing, The Spy Who Loved Me, which featured much more than just a return to widescreen photography. Unlike the prior efforts, the picture plays like as though it were tailored specifically to Moore – looser and more comfortable now – allowing the actor’s estimable charm to shine through. Say what you will about Connery and Craig, only Roger Moore could retain his dignity while converting a Lotus Esprit into a submarine and flinging a fish from the driver’s seat as it rides up out of the surf. No less important was the addition of Curt Jurgens as baddie Karl Stromberg (a last minute stand-in for Blofeld, as the rights to both the character and SPECTRE itself were involved in a lawsuit) in a welcome return to the heady days of global conquest seeking super-villains. Everything about Spy seamed big, from the famous opening ski-fall stunt to Stromberg’s undersea lair, and Moore perfectly inhabited this larger than life world. Now he owned the role.

So, what’s so great about Moonraker?

Roger Moore was in top form here, sandwiched between Spy and Eyes and forming his perfect Bond trifecta. Moore was always a good actor, but suffered from the inability to stop being Roger Moore long enough to invest a character with real emotions. On this side of the Atlantic, Robert Wagner had the same difficulty, and a promising career quickly degenerated to the statue of professional raconteur. It was easy to see Moore’s growing disinterest with the role in subsequent installments, but here he keeps both hands on the reigns, keenly maintaining the humor of the piece without allowing it to degenerating into farce…

…which is exactly how most people regard the outer space aspect of the story. Words like ridiculous are typically applied to the film’s final act, in which a shuttle filled with American Marines engage Drax’s satellite security force in a pitched laser battle in outer space. It’s odd that people would wait nearly 20 years to be bothered by the lack of realism in a James Bond film. In truth, there’s little technology present in the film that isn’t already achievable today, where shuttles routinely dock with orbiting space stations (though our astronauts don’t have nearly the sense of style as Drax’s do). Audiences are cleverly eased into the notion of space travel by the stunning set designs of the great Ken Adams, who evokes a futuristic yet practical aesthetic for Drax’s shuttle assembly plant and the absolutely breathtaking underground mission control deep in the Brazilian jungle. One of those very designs made it onto the cover of Ken Adam Designs the Movies: James Bond and Beyond. Another behind-the-camera collaborator that must be singled out for praise is special effects artist Derek Meddings, who was charged with creating and photographing the picture’s amazingly detailed model work. The amazingly intricate model and effects work during the film’s final reels hasn’t dated the film in the way that other Sci-Fi extravaganzas of the era have (you, The Black Hole, stand up!), and give the space scenes an elegance and austerity that more than offset any “What’s Bond doing in space?” incredulity.

The Bond films enjoyed more than one good streak in the 70s, with turns from a group of terrific actors taking their Bond baddie bows; there’s Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga (a perfect example of a great villain in a pants movie) and his henchman Nick Nack (the inimitable Herve Villechaize), Curt Jurgens turn as the aforementioned Stromberg, but Moonraker offered the best of all, Hugo Drax. The bilingual Michael Lonsdale was born to a French mother and a British father, and moves freely between English and French language productions. At the time of Moonraker’s release, he was probably best known for his role as the lead detective on the trail of assassin Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal, and his services as a character actor are still in high demand today (watch him steal Munich right out from under every other actor onscreen – including future Bond Daniel Craig). His deadpan delivery of lines like “Take care of Mr. Bond – see that some harm comes to him” strike the perfect balance between sinister and camp, and only Donald Pleasence before him seemed to have as much pure fun going up against Bond. Appearing alongside Drax is Jaws, a monstrous henchman with steel teeth (Richard Keil) brought back from an uncertain death at the end of Spy after proving popular with audiences, particularly children (a fact that this reviewer can personally attest). Another sticking point with this film seems to be the overly comic handling of the character – most likely done because of his popularity with kids – as opposed to his decidedly deadlier turn in Spy. You can practically hear a muted-horn “wah-waaaaa” whenever he emerges from a pile of rubble, or rips off the steering apparatus on the vehicle that he’s in. If this really bothers you, then the final character revelation on board Drax’s space station will leave you in a fit of apoplexy.

From the moment the Union Jack popped out of Bond’s parachute pack in the opening of Spy, the bar for the pre-credit gag has been set immeasurably high – and Moonraker doesn’t disappoint. Following the thrilling (again, thanks to Derek Meddings’ model work) mid-air shuttle theft, we’re treated to Bond being pushed out of a plane in midair by Jaws, and having to propel himself toward the pilot and his parachute. After wrestling it off the pilot’s back, Bond is attacked by Jaws, moving towards him in freefall with arms outstretched like a bird of prey. It’s a crackerjack opening; a genuine adrenalin rush with the feeling of real danger that’s capped by a terrific theme by Shirley Bassey. Bassey returned to perform a Bond theme song for the third and final time after Diamonds are Forever and Goldfinger with Moonraker’s eponymous title tune. It’s a return to the dreamy pop stylings of the 60s era pictures that tends to get lost among the more FM-friendly themes by Carly Simon (“Nobody Does it Better”) or Paul McCartney (“Live and Let Die”). There may be catchier themes, but Bassey’s vocals represent the class and elegance of the era in which the series began like no others.

Having just seen Quantum of Solace, we’re happy to report a different experience than the majority of the UK critics that thought the picture was all over the shop. We had no problem following the plot, though we couldn’t help but wonder why the super secret criminal organization couldn’t have been called SPECTRE? Surely that lawsuit must have been settled by now? Our only misgivings with the picture is the heavy leanings of the action scenes against the Jason Bourne franchise. As Quantum is designed like a 107min chase scene, it’s a shame that much of the chase feels like it belongs in another movie. it also feels somewhat rushed, and its scant running time (Quantum is the shortest Bond in history) feels much longer than Casino Royale – even though it runs almost a half hour less! it’s impossible to imagine the producers returning to the heady days of 70s excess with Daniel Craig; he’s too grounded, too real. In the short term, this was necessary to make the nearly half-century old character vital again, but in the long run we worry that much of what makes Bond special is being diluted.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Buon Compleanno, Ennio!

It would be virtually impossible to measure his contributions to the very language of European thrillers and westerns from the early 60s onward, imagine the films of Sergio Leone or Dario Argento without him (and without him, we’d also be without the myriad imitators, both acknowledged and otherwise). But his more mainstream work has been no less important. Would they even have bothered making The Mission without him?

Ennio turns 80 today, and I think we all ought to take some time today to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have him around. If you’ve the means today, try writing Arch Stanton on the bottom of a stone and start backing up, or shuffle your way gleefully over the cobblestone streets just under the Brooklyn Bridge, or slip on a fetching pair of black gloves and thumb through the pictures of your soon-to-be victim – your memory will do the rest.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

1942 - 2008

It should have been some rare tropical disease, or an unknown germ brought back from space to finally silence Michael Crichton. Instead, the author, director, producer, and doctor passed away on Tuesday at the age of 66 after a battle with cancer – an all too Earth-bound disease. Many folks had gotten pretty sniffy about Crichton in the last decades of his life; more famous as an entertainment commodity than as an actual creative force. And while it’s true that his novels of the last few years had personified many of the worse aspects of beach/airport reading – with the profoundly silly Timeline reads like a discarded outline – many early works hold up astoundingly well. "The Andromeda Strain" and "The Terminal Man" are two of the most intelligent and thought provoking science thrillers ever written, and it takes nothing away from the achievement to note that this particular genre didn’t really exist until Crichton invented it. it will probably take a decade or two before behavior modification via brain implants becomes a reality, but once it’s suggested that it be tested on prisoners – remember who thought of it first.

Equally impressive is his resume as a director. After a TV warm-up with the bio-terror thriller, Pursuit, in 1972, he directed his own original screenplay about two businessmen whose high priced holiday at a android-infused amusement park turns lethal. In spite of the always quickly-dated technology on display, Westworld is still an incredibly lean and exciting thriller where Crichton shows an amazingly assured hand behind the camera. The stylish medical thriller Coma (1978) came next, though it’s often mistaken for an original work, it was actually based on a book by another doctor-turned-author, Robin Cook. His best work, however, proved to be next year’s The Great Train Robbery, a loose, humorous take on the traditional heist film. It gave Sean Connery a chance to show off his comic timing and Crichton a chance to tackle material in a decidedly non-techno territory.

Oh yeah, and the guy was a doctor. The real kind, with medical school and everything.