Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Transformers: Age of Extinction


Never mess with Mark Wahlberg's car.

Never mess with Mark Wahlberg’s car.

(2014) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, T.J. Miller, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon, Charles Parnell, Erika Fong, Mike Collins, Geng Han, Zou Shiming, Richard Riehle, Peter Cullen (voice), Patrick Bristow, Cleo King, Jessica Gomes, Melanie Specht, Abigail Klein. Directed by Michael Bay

After the Transformers trilogy had come to an end, the thought was that the series would continue with an all-new cast and a new director. Well, only half of that equation turned out to come true – but could Bay sustain the same popcorn momentum he had delivered with the first trilogy?

Five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon devastated Chicago, the CIA has a special task force led by the overly macho James Savoy (Welliver) hunting down what Decepticons are left. Except there are none left and now he is hunting Autobots, with the full blessing of his CIA liaison Harold Attinger (Grammer). Seems a pretty harsh way to treat the guys who basically saved our bacon in Chicago.

Meanwhile, out in Texas, would-be inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is basically at the end of his financial rope. Eking out a living repairing electronic devices, most of his inventions are a circuit shy of a load. With his hottie daughter Tessa (Peltz) ready to go to college and in need of pants that aren’t Daisy Dukes (who wears short shorts? Tessa do!) not to mention in a date-free state until she graduates from high school, Cade is fending off real estate agents who are ready to sell his home out from under him and pretty much behind on every bill he can be behind in. Oddly enough for a Texan, he doesn’t seem to be blaming Obama for his situation.

While a movie theater owner has him repairing some vintage projectors, he discovers an old beat-up truck – not a pick-up but a semi – he gleefully figures he can scrap the thing for parts and make enough to get his daughter a down payment on her college tuition, but as he and his buddy Lucas (Miller) find out, this is not an ordinary truck. Being that this is a Transformers movie, you know what it is. In fact, it’s not even just any Autobot – it’s Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself.

Once the government figures out that this is Optimus himself, Attinger sends out Savoy with his strike team’s secret weapon – a mechanical creature named Lockdown who is a bounty hunter with a particular yen to capture Optimus Prime and bring him back to the Creators of the Autobots and Decepticons to become slave labor for them once again. And the rest of the Autobots will be broken down and melted, their metal – called Transformium – some of which remains on Earth in small amounts – used to create a new mechanical race that is under human control, specifically under the control of billionaire industrialist Joshua Joyce (Tucci).

This pits the few remaining Autobots – including Bumblebee, Hound, Drift and Ratchet – against the might of the American government, the new automaton named Galvatron who turns out to have the mechanical DNA of a familiar foe, and the might of Lockdown with his advanced weapons and his space ship. However, they will find new allies from the distant past in an ancient place.

The movie rips across Texas, Chicago, Beijing and Hong Kong and levels a lot of real estate in the process which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to this franchise. As the second half of the movie ensues, the human actors are less participants than dodgers of falling masonry and their dialogue is mostly cries of “OPTIMUS!” and “Look out!” or things along those lines. Other than the voices of Optimus and Galvatron, not one actor returns from the previous trilogy. This has been characterized as a reboot but it isn’t really but a continuation along the same road with different actors.

Wahlberg is the movie’s secret weapon; he makes a much better hero than Shia LaBeouf did as the neurotic Sam Witwicky. My complaint is that they make Wahlberg something of a clownish inventor and then once they get out of Texas, there’s almost none of his skills utilized as an inventor. He may as well have been a car mechanic or an X-ray technician or a data entry clerk. We spend a good deal of time in the first third of the movie establishing Cade as a hapless inventor whose inventions generally don’t work and then they do nothing with it the rest of the way. It’s a waste of the filmmakers time as well as the audience. I call it “wasted exposition.”

The action sequences, particularly the robot CGI are the best yet. We see much more detail on the Autobots and their foes, and they look banged up like ‘bots that have been in a good deal of battle. Those, like my son, who are all about robots battling will be very happy because there is a lot of that here. And yes, there are Dinobots as well – which is bound to put old fans of the original series in a happy place.

The movie is nearly three hours long and feels it. Some movies go that long and you barely notice and are sad when the movie finally ends; this one has you checking your watch at the two hour mark. Easily a good 45 minutes of the movie could have been trimmed without hurting the movie overly much. Plus there is a kind of sameness here – if you’ve seen the first three movies, nothing here should be overly surprising to you. Nothing really surpasses the battle of Chicago from Dark of the Moon either.

So while this still remains a summer popcorn movie, it isn’t as good as the last one in the series to my mind. I was pretty numb by the end of the movie rather than exhilarated. This is said to be the first of a new trilogy with Wahlberg in the lead but frankly, I’d be just as happy if the franchise called it a day after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty nifty action sequences. Wahlberg an improvement over Shia LaBeouf.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long – like waaaaay overly long. Lacks energy. Story not particularly much of a change from other installments in the series.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, occasionally foul language (but not too foul) and some sexual innuendo,

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bay was originally planning to pass on the franchise to another director and remain on in only a producer’s capacity. After visiting the Transformers attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood however, after seeing the enthusiastic long lines for the attraction he came to the realization that he wasn’t quite done with the series yet and elected to remain on for the fourth film with an entirely new cast.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: How to Train Your Dragon 2