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!

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Incredible Hulk


Edward Norton

Ol' green eyes is back!

(2008) Superhero (Universal) Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, Christina Cabot, Peter Mensah, Lou Ferrigno, Greg Bryk, Paul Soles, Debora Nascimento, Robert Downey Jr., Bill Bixby, Brandon Cruz. Directed by Louis Letterier

 

All of us have some sort of demon inside of us. They are of varying size and ferocity, with varying holds on us but we all have one. Some, however, have demons that are far more evident than others.

Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) is living as inconspicuously as possible in a suburb of Rio de Janiero, working in a soft drink factory. When he is at home, he is doing complex research trying to reverse his condition – when his heart rate goes over 200, his physiology changes, turning him into a green behemoth of enormous strength and agility. Banner had accidentally irradiated himself with gamma radiation in an effort to find ways to regenerate cells but which now the U.S. Army in the person of General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt) wants to create an army of behemoths. Complicating matters is that Banner’s girl is Betty Ross (Tyler), the general’s daughter. Yikes.

Banner runs afoul of some toughs working in the factory and when they attack him and set his heart rate above 200, Banner hulks out just as the army arrives to capture him. Let’s just say it doesn’t go well for the army.

Banner returns to Culver University in Virginia where Betty now works and where she is dating psychologist Dr. Leonard Samson (Burrell). Betty is reluctant to reunite although she clearly still has feelings for Bruce but the suspicious Dr. Samson turns Bruce in and he is captured. But Emil Blonsky (Roth), a British Special Forces agent charged by General Ross to capture Bruce, has taken a super soldier formula and forces Dr. Samuel Sterns (Nelson), a genetecist who has been secretly working with Banner, to inject Banner’s blood into his veins, turning him into an abomination. Only Banner as the Hulk can save the city now.

This movie is inevitably going to be compared to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk starring Eric Bana in the Banner role; the earlier version is a much more cerebral turn which was excoriated by fans and critics alike, but which I found to be much better than it was given credit for. This new Letterier-directed version is much more action packed, which is what fans wanted. Consequently it got better marks from fans although that didn’t translate into astounding box office.

Norton makes a terrific Banner; thoughtful, haunted and a little bit short on the fuse, temper-wise. There was a fall out between Norton and Marvel over the editing of the movie, causing the actor to distance himself from the film and Marvel to hire Mark Ruffalo for the upcoming The Avengers movie in the Bruce Banner role. One can only wonder what Eric Bana thinks of all this.

The action sequences are spectacular as you might expect although the CGI Hulk is still not quite as effective as he might be. There is more a connection to the Marvel universe here, with Doc Samson and the Abomination both in the mix and Hurt makes am mighty nice villain. This isn’t the perfect Hulk movie, but it’s a very good one and with homages to previous Hulk incarnations (including the Ang Lee version) in various ways, this is a fanboy dream.

WHY RENT THIS: Action-packed and a compelling story to underline it. Norton does a good job with the Banner side.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sci-fi/comic book violence and a few frightening images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paul Soles, who played Stanley the pizza parlor owner, provided the voice of Dr. Bruce Banner in the animated “Hulk” TV series in the 60s.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In the Blu-Ray edition, there’s an animated comic book feature that is also a part of the U-Control feature that allows viewers to access behind-the-scenes content while watching the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $263.4M on a $150M production budget; the movie was just shy of being profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Please Give

Fast Five


Fast Five

If you don't go see Vin Diesel's new movie, Paul Walker will shoot you.

(2011) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Joaquin de Almeida, Gal Gadot, Matt Schulze, Tego Calderon, Don Omar. Elsa Pataky, Michael Irby. Directed by Justin Lin

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Fast and Furious series. Street car racing doesn’t appeal to me much and the scene behind it really doesn’t do anything for me either. While I’ve always liked Vinnie D, Walker is a bit on the wooden side for my tastes.

So I really didn’t expect to want to go see Fast Five – I waited until the previous entries in the series were on home video in most cases before seeing them (Tokyo Drift I never saw at all). So when I found out that Dwayne Johnson was in the new one, my curiosity was piqued – Johnson is to my way of thinking the future of the action hero.

The movie takes a sharp left turn from the previous entries in the series. As it begins, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is broken out of the prison he was being sent to at the end of the last movie. The escape is a daring one and involves his sister Mia (Brewster) and her boyfriend (and Dom’s best friend) Brian O’Conner  (Walker) – the former federal agent from the first movie – driving muscle cars recklessly to the sound of pulsating rock/rap music going to extravagant lengths to get the bus carrying Dom to crash.

Mia and Brian flee to Rio de Janeiro to meet up with Vince (Schulze), one of Dom’s crew from the first movie. Wait – ‘scuse me, he’s more than that. He’s family (as everyone who works with Dom apparently is). They’re running low on funds and on the run from the law. Vince has a job for them – stealing some cars from a moving train. Child’s play, right?

Wrong. The cars were apparently impounded by the DEA and one of them has a chip in it that contains all the secrets of the operation of Reyes (de Almeida), the drug kingpin of Rio and he’s kinda anxious to get it back – so much so that he sends out head thug Zizi (Irby) to kill everyone who gets in the way. That includes the federal agents on the train, who are murdered by Zizi and his men, although Reyes – through his control of the police and the media – makes sure that Dom, Mia and Brian are blamed.

The death of the agents is enough to make the U.S. Government sit up and take notice, so they send their most ruthless, dedicated manhunter, Hobbs (Johnson) after the trio. Hobbs is like a pit bull; he doesn’t care about guilt or innocence, he just cares about getting his man. He enlists the help of patrol officer Elena (Pataky) whose husband was gunned down in front of her doorstep (slum), prompting her to enlist in the police force. She is at least for the moment non-corrupted, her motivations to carry on in her husband’s memory. At least, I kinda think so.

Being chased from every direction makes Dom realize that in order to get out of this he’s going to need to attack the corrupt Reyes directly – and the best way to hurt him was to take his money. Thankfully, the chip tells him where it all is – sitting in a vault at Rio’s main police station. They realize they’re going to need a team in order to pull it off.

They pull friends they’ve worked with from the previous films, including Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese), Han (Kang) – who died in one of the earlier films if memory serves – Gisele (Gadot), Leo (Calderon) and Santos (Omar). They will need to be at their best to take on the corrupt Rio cops as well as Reyes’ thugs and the best protection money can buy to get at the cash – not to mention having a very angry Hobbs, whose team was killed off by Reyes, on their tail.

Those who loved the street racing element to the first four movies are going to be very disappointed with this installment. There’s only brief mention of street racing and only one scene essentially set at one. No, this is more of a heist flick, all about the car chases, the beat downs and Vin Diesel in a wifebeater.

The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and executed. There’s a chase sequence on the rooftops of Rio’s favelas (slums) that is kind of nifty, not to mention a car sequence involving two cars working in tandem dragging a bank vault through the streets of Rio. The movie has a fluid tempo that only rarely lets up. While the other F&F films were equally action-packed, they were mostly with car racing scenes but quite frankly, you can only do so many of them before they start to look the same to the untrained eye, which is what most of us have.

Diesel is solid as ever as Toretto, a role that seems perfect for Diesel’s skill sets; lots of glowering, a strong moral core and a good deal of swagger. Adding Johnson – the Rock – to the mix is a masterstroke. He and Diesel have a good deal of chemistry even in adversarial roles. The two have a big fight scene in third real that just frankly rocks; I wonder if Diesel was hoping he might get a people’s elbow at some point.

Walker is an actor who has never resonated with me, at least to this point. I’ve always found him wooden, although there’s a certain charisma that he displays from time to time. Here, I didn’t see it at all to be honest; he didn’t really add anything to a role that was pretty much has no color to it as written anyway.

While having all these extra characters from the previous films might have some nostalgia value, it rapidly becomes a “too many cooks spoil the broth” with too many characters taking too much screen time. Still, many of them (particularly Kang and Ludacris) make the most of their time onscreen.

This isn’t particularly smart filmmaking but it is solid and quite frankly, in a very disappointing first quarter of the year this is a glimmer of hope that Hollywood was looking for. The box office was the biggest so far this year, the biggest ever in the month of April and the biggest opening weekend in Universal history.  The American public seems to be waiting desperately for a movie that just blows stuff up and in that respect Fast Five delivers. It’s not a great movie but it’s a solid movie and the box office seems to be more of a commentary on the desire of the moviegoing public to see a decent action movie than an endorsement on what is an above average – but not great – movie.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences and Diesel vs. the Rock makes a great battle. This is by far the best movie of the series to date.

REASONS TO STAY: More of the same; muscle cars, cliché dialogue and barely-clothed women with nice butts.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some fairly big action sequences, a bit of sexuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, each of the main actors is shown with footage from their previous appearances in the series.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, definitely the theater. It’s big, it’s brainless and it needs to be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saw IV

Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)


Elite Squad (Tropa De Elite)

Just another day at the office for the Elite Squad.

(IFC) Wagner Moura, Caio Junqueira, Andre Ramiro, Milhem Cortaz, Fernando Machado, Maria Ribeiro, Paulo Vilela, Fernanda de Freitas, Fabio Lago. Directed by Jose Padilha

As mean streets go, there are few meaner than the streets of Rio de Janeiro. That might come as a surprise to those whose image of the city are beautiful beaches, half-naked women in the skimpiest bikinis imaginable, endless carnivals and Sugarloaf Mountain, but the slums of Rio are some of the most vicious in the world. Those who have seen Fernando Meirelles’ masterwork City of God already have an idea of that.

In order to combat the crime and drug trafficking, the Brazilian government created a Special Forces unit called BOPE that literally has carte blanche to do whatever is necessary to keep the problem in check. They are the team that goes where even the Brazilian military thinks twice about treading. The druglords in the slums are often better armed, certainly than the police.

That kind of power can lead to corruption, however and often the actions of the BOPE are indistinguishable from those of the gangs that they are sworn to combat. Revenge often takes the place of justice with summary executions commonplace and woe betide any community in which a BOPE member is killed, for the innocent get swept up with the guilty.

Captain Nascimento (Moura) has been one of the field leaders of the BOPE for more than a decade and he is burned out and worn out. He yearns to leave the force and take a job that allows him to spend more time with his wife and baby, but the BOPE is so undermanned that they can’t afford to lose a seasoned leader such as him.

Therefore he must find his own replacement and the first place he looks is in a couple of raw recruits, Neto (Junqueira) and Matias (Ramiro). Matias is studying in the university where he often comes into conflict with the more liberal-minded students who come from privileged backgrounds and have no idea what really goes on in the slums, where he comes from. Neto is his childhood friend, quick on the trigger finger and possessed of a moral certainty of the rightness of what he does. Matias is a bit more idealistic, but the more he sees in the field the more his ideals get compromised.

The two wind up caught in enemy territory, leading to a major BOPE incursion into the slums for a rescue operation. The murder of two of Matias’ student friends further intensifies a tense situation which has been rendered even tenser by an upcoming visit to Rio by the Pope. With corruption rampant and the threat of violence at an all time high, will the stress change the young rookies?

The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Rodrigo Pimentel, who himself served in the Elite Squad for 18 years and one can assume that the action here is based on his experiences. The viewpoint can be characterized as right wing, although those who say “fascist” might be a little bit harsh (and some critics have made those accusations).

Director Padilha previously made the documentary Bus 174 which depicted a real life bus hijacking; it is one of the most amazing documentaries of its kind. He clearly has the skills necessary to make a tense action thriller, and there are moments when he does just that. Unfortunately, for some odd reason he decided to insert an extensive narration by Moura as Nascimento that as the movie goes on becomes maddening and intrusive. While I don’t mind voiceover narration in and of itself, it is a tool that needs to be wielded as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

The action sequences are well-done and occasionally brutal, but necessarily so. The violence in the favelas (the slums of Rio) requires it. Some may find it excessive, but the subject matter should be warning enough that those who are of a sensitive nature should probably be wary of seeing it.

The acting is actually pretty fair here; nobody obviously overacts although Lago as a crazed druglord comes pretty close. I won’t make any bones about the violence, or the apparent worldview of the filmmakers which seems to be the end justifies the means and that those who live in slums deserve what they get. I also will give a cautionary note about the narration, which is definitely an issue. Other than that, this is a well-directed tense action film that has quite a bit going for it despite its flaws.

WHY RENT THIS: Gritty and street-wise, the movie is unstinting in the action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The voiceover narration is pervasive to the point of being annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty raw and the violence pretty pervasive. There’s also a great deal of drug use, so this is definitely for the big kids only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A pirated copy was released before the actual film made it in to theaters. It was the most-watched Brazilian film in Brazil that year with 2.4 million viewers, but there were also an estimated 11 million viewers of the pirated copy. Director Padilha recently completed a sequel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Life As We Know It

City of God (Cidade de Deus)


City of God

Talk about reaching a dead end.

(Miramax) Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga. Directed by Fernando Meirelles

When you think of Rio de Janeiro, perhaps you think of the impeccable beaches there, or the world-class nightlife, or the seductive music. Most folks don’t think of poverty and crime and yet Rio has plenty of both, also in world-class numbers.

One of the worst areas of Rio is known as Cidade de Deus or the City of God. It was created by the Brazilian government to move the very poor away from the center of the city, and then was basically abandoned by any form of authority, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. The slum, or favela became ruled by vicious gangs.

Rocket (Rodrigues) is a young man, son of a fisherman who yearns to get out of the slums and become a photographer. His brother, who runs in a gang called the Tender Trio, is later ambushed and murdered by a young boy named Lil Dice (Silva) who grows up to be called Lil Ze (Firmino). Ze’s bloodlust is nigh insatiable and he rises to the top of the gangs of Cidade de Deus by simply killing off all his rivals, or putting them to work for him. He is prone to fits of violence and when one of these rages leads to him taking out most of a family, their remaining son Knockout Ned (Jorge) declares war on Ze, aided by one of the few remaining rival gang leaders (Nachtergaele).

This is a vibrant movie in which the camera constantly moves and captures images of color and ferocity. The people of Cidade de Deus live in a warzone and accept that’s their lot in life. I’m sure that is not unlike the attitudes of the residents of Baghdad and Kabul.

Director Meirelles tells the story in a non-linear fashion, often taking tangents into the backstories of important categories, or revisiting events previously related to show them from another viewpoint and explain why characters aren’t reacting as you’d expect they would. It sounds like that would make things hard to follow, but in reality that’s not the case.

The performances of the mostly unknown cast are natural and unforced, resonating with a certain amount of realism. Their reactions may bother some viewers until you consider that these characters live with the kind of violence and degradation depicted here on a daily basis; this is nothing new for them, nothing to get worked up over. For them, it’s the equivalent of having to deal with a particularly annoying telephone solicitor.

There is a great deal of violence, but not more than you would find in a comparable Scorsese film. There are also moments of comedy that transcend the sheer misery of life in the favelas of Brazil. Some publications have called this one of the ten best movies ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but this is certainly one of the more inventive and arresting movies made in the last decade. Although the characters themselves are fictional, the events depicted here are based on things that actually happened in Cidade de Deus in the 1960s and 1970s. The author of the novel the movie is based on lived there during that period and knew many of the combatants. That makes the movie all the more sobering.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily film of a place rarely captured on film; Mereilles brings the violence and amorality to life of a gang-run slum.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too real for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The filmmakers are matter-of-fact about drug use, violence and sexuality; they are intrinsically part of the story, and while not handled in an exploitative way, I would sincerely hesitate to let anyone other than the most mature of teens view this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nearly all of the actors had no previous experience and many of them lived in the actual Cidade de Deus itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An hour-long featurette on the real drug war in Rio is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.6M on an estimated $3.3M production budget; the film was a smash hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ladron Que Roba a Ladron