March 19, 2013

The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond #10) [Bond 50 BluRay Set]

Although I had seen 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me before, it had been a while.

For whatever reason, I was expecting that the movie - the 10th "official" Bond - would be a little cheesy and campy ala the less dignified moments of the previous one, 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun. I was really surprised, however, that while this movie does have a few silly moments, much of it is actually pretty exciting, and at times quite intense and scary… all making for one of the best Bond movies of this era and many another.

A key difference between this picture and Golden Gun is that the threat level is set pretty high in the very first sequence: Atomic submarines from both Britain and Russia mysteriously disappear, and so naturally MI6 and the KGB send their best agents into action to find out what happened. The best British spy is, of course, James Bond, played by Moore for the third time. The best the KGB has to offer is Major Anya Amasova (aka Agent XXX) played by the stunning American-born actress Barbara Bach. Just a few years later, Bach would marry Ringo Starr, meaning that she must have really really really wanted to be married to a Beatle, no matter what.

Anyway, the two independently track some stolen microfilm (Yay! Microfilm!) to Egypt where they compete with each other to get it first. Upon completing that phase of the mission, their two agencies decide that they should work together for, oh, say the rest of the movie in the name of ushering in a new era of Anglo / Soviet cooperation.

After nine movies full of hot women who basically just hang around until Bond decides to sleep with them, it's a relief and a pleasure to finally have a strong female character who can stand up to Bond and at least be his foil, if not his equal. Anya does have her "damsel in distress" moments in the picture, particularly in the last part of the film, but she never devolves into quivering jelly the way TIffany Case did in Diamonds Are Forever nor is she just there to stand around in a bikini like Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun.

The other surprising thing to me that Moore's Bond has continued to have some really cold, steely moments in his three movies that always shatter my previously-held impression that his version of Bond was primarily silly. A neat moment is the scene where Bond and Anya first meet at a bar in Cairo… each rattles off vital statistics about the other to show how well-versed in the opposition they are. When Anya mentions that Bond had been married, but his wife was killed (at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Bond gets testy and cuts her off. It's a really interesting character moment for him the likes of which make his portrayal 1000 times more interesting to me.

Another striking moment is when Bond mentions he was in Switzerland a few weeks back on a mission (as seen in the pre-credit ski chase). Anya was in love with another KGB agent who was killed there around that same time. "Did you kill him?," she asks. Moore takes this revelation in, and then his face becomes cold and emotionless: "When someone's behind you on skis at 40 miles per hour trying to put a bullet in your back, you don't always have time to remember a face. In our business, Anya, people get killed. We both know that. So did he. It was either him or me." And then the finisher: "The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him."

It's a much darker sub-layer to the film than I remembered or expected... and I really loved it.

I also didn't expect to really dig the film's heavy: The ocean-obsessed Karl Stromberg, excellently played by Bavarian actor Curd Jürgens. Stromberg believes mankind is corrupt and in decay, and he means to trigger atomic armageddon by nuking both New York City and Moscow with his stolen subs. Humanity will then rebuild itself in Stromberg's proposed cities on the ocean floor. Jürgens is so chilling in the part that it somewhat transcends the usual Bond villain malaise, although I'm hard pressed to describe what about him exactly is making me feel that way. I think part of it is that he's not after some kind of ransom, as many of the other Bond baddies have been: He's destroying the world for ideology, which is far more unsettling.

The show-stealer, however, is Richard Kiel making his first appearance as the steel-toothed henchman Jaws. Moore is a pretty big guy, but the 7'2" Kiel easily dwarfs him. He positively looks like a giant during a train fight with Anya mid-way through the movie (that seems to pay homage to a similar train fight way back in 1963's From Russia With Love, I think).

Anyway, Jaws is one of the aspects of the movie is that truly scary, and I again I was surprised by how effective a baddie he was in this flick: When he popped out of nowhere to ambush a character, I jumped… when he does that slow, malevolent lean-in to kill someone with his teeth, I squirmed. A certain aspect of Jaws is played for laughs too, of course (such as the scene where he rips a service van to pieces with his bare hands while Anya and Bond attempt to drive away), but somehow the semi-comic aspects of him never diminish the fact that he's huge and terrifying.

The action sequences are quite excellent and varied in this picture: The pre-credit ski chase (an homage to On Her Majesty's Secret Service?) complete with the brilliant finisher of Bond skiing off the side of a mountain, falling through the air for what feels like an eternity, then releasing a parachute that has the Union Jack on it…. The eerie sequence at the pyramids where Jaws chases and kills a key informant… The thrilling high-speed helicopter chase in Italy that ends with Bond driving his car into the water and turning it into a submarine…. Even the sequence in the last part of the film where Bond is desperate to get into the control room of the supertanker so he can stop the stolen submarines from firing their missiles. Bond is forced to use his head and take the warhead out of a nuclear missile to blow through the security door… a fantastically tense sequence that is all the more urgent in the film because it is only small component of the much bigger problem that Bond has to solve.

It's worth mentioning that the director is Lewis Gilbert who had also directed You Only Live Twice 10 years earlier. The two films oddly share a number of similarities… In Twice, Blofeld steals American and Russian spaceships to try to get the two countries to go to war with each other… in Spy, Stromberg has a supertanker that swallows atomic submarines for very much the same purpose. The interior of the volcano in Twice is cavernous and contains a monorail system… so does the interior of the supertanker in Spy, and so on…

Other thoughts….

-Unlike the previous movie, the plot actually feels big and consequential right away. It's amazing what a difference that makes.

-The martini returns! Anya orders one for Bond at the bar when they first meet to demonstrate how much she knows about him. Bond's shaken (not stirred) signature drink had been absent from the previous Moore movies.

-They really ramp up the double entendre in this picture. In the opening, after M has been informed of the missing atomic submarines, he asks Moneypenny where Commander Bond is. "He's on a mission sir. In Austria," she replies. M says, "Well, tell him to pull out! Immediately!" and then we cut to Bond making love to a woman. In another scene, an MI6 agent stationed in Egypt persuades Bond to stay the night in his camp by introducing him to a particularly gorgeous local there. A cheeky look crosses Bond's face, who wryly reasons, "Well, when one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures!" Classy.

-"Nobody Does It Better," performed by Carly Simon might be my favorite Bond song. It's in my top two or three, at least.

-2 of the 3 Roger Moore Bond movies have NOT been scored by the series' regular composer, John Barry, thus far. I actually kind of prefer what George Martin did on Live And Let Die and what the late Marvin Hamlisch did on this picture to what Barry did on Golden Gun and what he would do on Moonraker. I wasn't expecting to feel that way.

-Director Lewis Gilbert started to have fun with some of the Bond conventions. The one I thought was really clever was when Q introduces Bond to this amazing new car in Italy (before the helicopter chase). It's done from Anya's point of view… she sees Q pointing to parts of the car and explaining things, but she's too far away to hear any of the words. Later, when the car can fire missiles and go underwater, it's as much a surprise to us as it is to her.

-Again, not sure why I found Stromberg to be such a refreshing bad guy… Blofeld dominated three movies in a row: You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever. Then it was Dr. Kanaga in the next movie, and then the ridiculously three-nippled Scaramanga in the one prior to this... both had more modest goals. I guess it's just fun to have an evil heavy around hell-bent on world destruction again who gets you to believe that he really means it. It's not even that clear what exactly Stomberg's plot is until 90 minutes into the movie, which was kind of cool as well.

In conclusion, I was expecting a campier movie, and was surprised and delighted to find that that's not really what this picture is. Certain camp elements do start to work their way in during the 2nd half, however. This movie feels just about pitch perfect, though, with very few missteps, if any.

I'm told that the next movie, 1979's Moonraker, doesn't stir all the elements together into quite as pleasant a cocktail. I guess there's only one way to find out if I agree with that...

March 18, 2013

The Man With The Golden Gun (Bond #09) [Bond 50 BluRay Set]

1974's The Man With The Golden Gun is the ninth "official" James Bond movie produced by EON productions, and the 2nd one starring Roger Moore as Bond.

Following 71's Diamonds Are Forever and 73's Live And Let Die, it's the last of three movies in a row that were directed by Guy Hamilton (who had also made Goldfinger earlier) and which had at least been co-written by Tom Mankiewicz. Neither would be credited on a Bond movie again (although Mankiewicz would do uncredited work), nor would long-time Bond producer Harry Saltzman, whose financial trouble ultimately forced him to sell his stake in the franchise to United Artists. This cemented Saltzman's status as the "Art Garfunkel" of James Bond producers, and left his old partner Albert "Cubby" Broccoli to continue producing the franchise solo.

My judgement is unclear when it comes this movie, honestly... It's the Bond picture I've probably seen the most, and my sister Lis and I have spent many an hour laughing about how cheesy it is.

Before I started watching all the Bond movies in a row like this (many of which I'm seeing for the first time, actually), I might have cited Golden Gun as one of the ones I got the most pleasure out of watching. In sequence, however, it's clear to me that it marks something of a step-down for the series in that the plotting feels a little slapped together, some of the story devices begin to feel routine and recycled, and the increased presence of all the campy humor that would define the Moore era already starts to feel like it is undercutting the "spy / thriller" stuff a bit.

That said, it will probably stay high up on my "guilty pleasure" list. One of foremost reasons is the always-awesome Christopher Lee as the film's title character, the devilishly hammy Francisco Scaramanga aka The Man With The Golden Gun. The hokey main title song performed by Lulu succinctly tells us all we need to know:

He's got a powerful weapon...
He charges a million a SHOT!
An assassin who's second to none:
The Man With The Golden Gu-huuuuuuun!

The other cast member that needs to be mentioned is future "Fantasy Island" superstar Hervé Villechaize as the diminutively named Nick-Nack. Even when I was a kid in the 80s, I remember being told that "midget" is a pretty derogatory term, and a much more polite thing to say is "little person." I guess that memo hadn't really circulated in 1974 as the "m-word" is fired off 8 or 9 times throughout the film, most memorably when Bond issues the steely threat, "You know I've never shot a midget before… but there's a first time for everything!" Classy.

Moore's performance as Bond is more cold-hearted and icy this time in addition to feeling a little cheesier as well... And of course, Bond's sex addiction continues to rage on. An early scene demonstrating all of these traits is the one where he slaps around the fetching Maud Adams, playing Scaramanga's errand girl / lover Andrea, in an attempt to get information from her… and then he turns on a dime and lures her into a quick roll in the hay before she has to get back to her boss.

Similarly, Britt Ekland plays an MI6 agent named Mary Goodnight, stationed in Hong Kong, who partners with Bond for much of the film. She's desperate to make sweet love to the famous 007, but he sadistically alternates between making suggestive comments about the tawdry things he's about to do to her and then treating her with cruel contempt, as if she's the dumbest character in the movie (which, to be fair, she kind of is). In other scenes, Bond punches a Thai kid knocking him into the water during a boat chase, and toward the end of the picture, he locks Villechaize up in a suitcase and threatens to throw him into the ocean.

Anyway, there's a lot of bullshit in the middle about this amazing solar energy device that can also be used to create a powerful laser. Scaramanga seems to think he can get really rich off it somehow, and then retire from killing people, I guess, even though he has a big speech earlier about how much he loves killing. They don't really do much with the "laser" part of this, except that Scaramanga uses it to blow up Bond's sea plane before the big showdown at the end. Maybe his plan is to somehow get important people from the rest of the world to come to his secret Chinese island and stand in the extremely limited pathway of his solar powered laser (that needs to be connected to a massive processing facility in order to function) and then somehow get them to give him a lot of money? Bond kills him before any of those details can be worked out, so I guess it doesn't matter.

The story is quite slim beyond that. I remember thinking that Live And Let Die felt a bit streamlined relative to its predecessors, but at least that film had levels and stakes that were raised throughout. I can't say the same for Golden Gun. So little is invested in the solar energy plot that it's tough to care about it. At the beginning of the movie, Bond is looking for a missing solar energy scientist before M reassigns him to track down Scaramanga, but when those two story points intersect much later, it's not much of an "ah-ha!" moment, nor is it especially intriguing… Certainly, it's not as much of a shock as finding out in the 2nd half of Diamonds Are Forever that Blofeld is still alive and behind everything. The trivia section of the IMDB tells me that indeed there was an energy crisis in the UK at the time, so I guess the solar energy plot was semi-topical, at least.

Also on this island, Scaramanga has built some kind of funhouse complete with a mirrored hallway and western saloon street for no clear reason. The picture opens with a scene where Nick-Nack lures a stereotypical American gangster who is still dressed like it's the 1940s into the funhouse so Scaramanga can kill him for sport. Naturally, the big finale at the end takes place in the same spot. But why is any of that there in the first place? It's a remote island in the north China sea, for Christsake. I can accept that all these bad guys have secret underground layers in many of these movies, but at least there was an aspect of practicality before... If you're building a doomsday device to threaten the world, say in a volcano or something, it goes to follow that you'll be spending many months there, so you might as well have all the contractors make a nice bedroom or maybe a lounge for you while they're at it. The inclusion of something so purposeless as a saloon facade in this movie kinda helps exaggerate everything into farce.

Yet another benefit of watching all these movies in order, though, is that I recognized the gangster from the beginning of the movie as also having been one of the mafia thugs from Diamonds Are Forever two movies earlier. Not sure if he's supposed to be the same character or not, but he's wearing the same costume. This isn't an earth shattering revelation or anything, but it's a kind of cool bit of connective tissue, much like how the character who drives the boat for Bond in the previous movie, Live And Let Die, is Quarrel Jr. - son of the character who drove the boat for Bond in Dr. No 11 years before.

Oh, and redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper from the last movie is implausibly back, now on vacation with his wife in Thailand. He seems to despise both the country and its people, referring to the locals as "pointy-heads" frequently. Not sure what that means, but let's just assume that it's incredibly racist. He's given a couple scenes, really… one where he sees Bond driving a river boat, and another where he's test-driving a car (wait - is Pepper really going to buy a car in Thailand?), only to have Bond commandeer it and take him on a wild chase. Again, I thought his scenes in the previous movie brought the film's momentum to a screeching halt… he doesn't cripple this film like he did the last one, but it really feels like shameless pandering, and it's yet another example of this movie doing things that make no sense at all, which accordingly hurt the overall credibility.

Other random observations:

-The movie's signature stunt, where Bond and sheriff Pepper corkscrew their AMC over a river using a broken bridge, is so damn cool. In this age of digital effects, you really forget how thrilling it might have been to see something like that in a movie, knowing that there was no possible way it could be faked.

-Lots of martial arts in this one, in part to capitalize on the Bruce Lee craze of the time. Moore really looks stiff, awkward and unconvincing when using "judo" to take out baddies.

-Scaramanga has a third nipple, complete with a big John Barry musical sting when you first see it. Ridiculous.

-Scaramanga also has a scene where he and Nick-Nack drive into a barn and convert their 70s car into something that has wings and can fly, presumably back to their island in the north China sea. It seems to take them 10-15 minutes to convert everything and they clearly had additional hardware hidden in the barn that needed to be bolted onto the car before it could take off, all of which makes me seriously question the usefulness of having a car that can do that at all. Why not take a small plane into Thailand, then rent a car when you get there?

-Moneypenny is really starting to look old, and her flirting with Bond is already a bit creepy. Both she and Moore would stick around for 11 more years and five more movies… I'm starting to regret watching the movies in high definition. Moore's face is leathery enough in this, his second outing.

-At the beginning of the movie, when Bond is asked what he knows about Scaramanga, he has a preposterously long speech where he rattles off his entire biography from memory. Previous films have used these equivalent scenes for comic effect as well, but The Man With The Golden Gun really took it into cartoon territory. A sign of things to come...

March 13, 2013

Live And Let Die (Bond #08) [Bond 50 BluRay Set]

1973's aggressively 70s Live And Let Die is the 8th "official" James Bond movie produced by EON Productions.

The big news in this one is, of course, Roger Moore's debut as Bond, and it's surprising to me how easily he appears to slide right into the character. Perhaps it could have something to do with the fact that I'm used to him seeing him in the role from basically growing up with him as Bond, but nevertheless he successfully avoids the awkward adjustment period that George Lazenby had when he assumed the role in On Her Majesty's Secret Service in this, his maiden voyage.

As with Connery, you get the sense that Moore's Bond is shrewdly considering all the angles and is ready to snap into action at any given moment. One key difference in Moore's performance, however, is that his reactions are much more broad and muggy. When a suspicious bit of information was passed to Connery, a subtle flit in his eyes would tell you that he smelled a rat. Moore makes a much bigger deal out of similar moments, letting his eyes shift wildly and taking big William Shatner style pauses before proceeding. Same deal whenever sexual innuendo is thrown his way… much more goofier reactions: Moore goes right up to the fourth wall without quite breaking it.

In this one, Bond investigates the mysterious murders of three agents in New York City, New Orleans, and the fictional island nation of San Monique, and eventually uncovers a nonsensical plot by the evil Dr. Kananga (aka "Mr. Big") to put all the United States' heroin dealers out of business by distributing 2 tons of it to the public for free. Once he's the only player left (and there will be so many more addicts around), he'll have the monopoly. The movie and its plot feels a little more streamlined than Diamonds Are Forever did, but was still a fairly entertaining ride for me… much more interesting than some of the earlier, more complicated pictures like Thunderball, to be sure.

Although as my friend JC pointed out in my observations on Diamonds, the book of Live And Let Die (written in the 1955) had the same setting and featured several heavies of African descent, I can't help but see this picture as a take-off on the very popular blaxploitation sub-genera that was highly profitable at the time. The original Shaft hit in 1971 and Across 110th Street in 1972 (the latter of which starred Dr. Kananga himself, Yaphett Koto). The early scenes in particular where Bond is in Harlem especially reek of this influence, with George Martin's funk'd up recordings of the Bond theme playing, and multiple references to Bond as a "honkey" by the flamboyantly dressed denizens of the neighborhood.

The movie spends a good chunk of time on San Monique, where Bond successfully nails a clairvoyant Tarot Card reader named "Solitaire," (played by Jane Seymour, future Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) thus robbing her of her power. Both Connery's and Moore's (and Lazenby's) Bonds are hopeless sex addicts, but Moore's seems to bang more women per movie than his predecessors did. This may not be accurate.

And then there's the debut appearance of Clifton James' racist southern sheriff character, J.W. Pepper. I was enjoying the movie just fine, but when Pepper shows up around the 85 minute mark, the movie grinds to a screeching halt, turning into what is essentially a dry run for Smokey And The Bandit, which would come 4 years later. I'm talking about the big-ass speed-boat chase. I didn't like the sequence, and my main problem with it is the fact that Bond is virtually absent from the whole thing. We go back to a close up of him every once in a while to show that he's still driving the boat to some unclear destination, but most of the main action follows Sheriff Pepper and the bad guys, and it's all weirdly not engaging.

Memorable sequences, however, include Bond's escape from the crocodile farm (just before the boat chase), and a chase around a small private airport that results in mucho property damage. I also really liked the two scenes in New Orleans where a traveling funeral procession winds up being an exceptionally large assassination squad. The scene at the end where Bond interrupts the ritual would-be sacrifice of Solitaire is strange, not only because Bond kills 5 or 6 people completely unprovoked, but also because it's the only scene in the Bond franchise that I'm aware of where something supernatural appears to happen.

Felix Leiter is back and has been recast for the fifth time, this time with David Hedison. He gets a lot to do in this one… The character would sit the next six movies out before appearing again in 1987, in Timothy Dalton's first Bond The Living Daylights. But THEN in 1989's License To Kill, Hedison is back in the part again! WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!?!?!?

I guess the producers were really trying to distinguish Moore's Bond from Connery's, so he mostly orders bourbon whenever there's a drink to be had (never a Martini or champaign, although he would again in future installments), and he smokes ridiculous cigars ala Hannibal Smith from "The A-Team."

Kananga has what I believe is the most preposterous death scene of all the Bond villains. And this is the third picture in a row where after the main climax has happened, Bond is off with a girl only to have one of the secondary baddies show up and make one last bit of trouble before the end credits roll. In OHMSS, it's Blofeld and Nurse Bunt who drive by and assassinate Bond's new wife. In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond is enjoying a cruise with Tiffany Case when Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd show up again for one last attempt to kill him, only to have Bond savagely murder them both. In this one, the bionic-armed thug known as "Tee-Hee" shows up on the train where Bond plans to pork Solitaire for "sixteen hours," and starts some shit.

I can't remember, but I think the next movie, The Man With The Golden Gun, has a scene at the end where Hervé Villechaize's diminutively named "Nick-Nack" comes back too… but I'll have to wait until next movie to find out!

March 12, 2013

Diamonds Are Forever (Bond #07) [Bond 50 BluRay Set]

After the moody On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the Bond series kinda went back to basics with 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. I kinda sense that this one doesn't get a lot of love from Bond aficionados, but I found it to be a solid (if formulaic) entry which allowed some of the campiness that would characterize the series throughout the 70s to start to creep in.

George Lazenby was offered the part of James Bond again, but he didn't want to commit to a long and restrictive contract, according to the IMDB, so he passed. The producers then flirted with the idea of hiring American actors like John Gavin (who was actually contracted at one point) and Adam West (!) before deciding to pay Sean Connery a record-breaking fee to appear as Bond one last time (at least for EON Productions... he would return to the role yet again in the unofficial Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again 12 years later). Although it's great to see Connery in the role again (he actually seems excited to be there, which wasn't always the case in You Only Live Twice), he starts to look a little old for the part at certain points of the picture.

As I said in my last update, the end of OHMSS was so strong that you kinda want to see the series continue in that direction for a bit, and it makes you curious about what Lazenby might have done with the role had he continued to play it. As a result, the pre-credit sequence in this next movie (where Bond hunts Blofeld and unknowingly kills one of his doubles) is sort of disappointing because you get the sense that the series, for the first time, is really backtracking from the interesting course it started to take in the previous movie and is veering back into tried and true territory (and it's certainly not the last time it would do so!).

Nevertheless, Connery's charisma gets you to forgive all that really quickly... I was particularly entertained during the sequence in Holland where he poses as diamond delivery man "Peter Franks." When the real Peter Franks shows up, Bond must quickly kill him and switch their wallets. When Tiffany Case looks at the dead man's wallet and exclaims that he has just killed James Bond, the look of faux surprise on Connery's face is priceless. Other standout sequences are the car chase through the streets of old Las Vegas, and the climactic fight that Bond has with Bambi and Thumper.

Another recasting for Blofeld and Felix Leiter in this one: Blofeld is now played by Charles Gray, who appeared in You Only Live Twice as a totally different character... Felix now looks like a 1940s jewish comedian who just did an extended run in the Catskills. Jill St. John plays Tiffany Case, the first American Bond girl... weirdly, she's a hard-ass mercenary in her first scene, and kind of bubbly and ditzy toward the end of the movie. Lana Wood plays the brilliantly named "Plenty O'Toole," whose character is consistently stupid throughout (even when she's dead in a pool later on). Crispin Glover's father, Bruce Glover, plays one-half of the duo of thinly-veiled gay assassins who trail Bond throughout the movie and unsuccessfully try to kill him several times.

And then there's Jimmy Dean, the once and future pork sausage king, as "Willard Whyte," an eccentric billionaire recluse unmistakably modeled after Howard Hughes. I could be wrong, but the inclusion of a character like that in this movie is the first time an aspect of a Bond picture was so clearly influenced by a real-life person or event. Many of the 70s Bond pictures would do the same (and then occasionally in more recent entries, like Jonathan Pryce's character in 97's Tomorrow Never Dies who was clearly a less evil version of Rupert Murdoch). The next movie, 1973's Live And Let Die, was made in the post-Shaft era where Blaxploitation pictures were plentiful and earning a lot of money... as a result, the movie is largely set in Louisiana and many of the villains have African heritage. 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun was made the year after Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon hit, and therefore there's kung-fu a-plenty throughout the picture. And of course 1979's Moonraker was released two years after Star Wars and contained an extended sequence where James Bond is in space firing lasers at bad guys (a sequence which caused the series to have another major "let's get back to basics" moment for it's next picture).

Director Guy Hamilton returned for this his 2nd Bond picture (the first being Goldfinger), and he would go on to direct the next two as well, both starring Roger Moore. So far I've found his two movies to be most consistently enjoyable to watch, but I haven't seen his next, Live And Let Die, in a long time, so... onward!