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!

Taken 3


Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

(2015) Action (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell, Don Harvey, Dylan Bruno, Leland Orser, David Warshofsky, Jon Gries, Jonny Weston, Andrew Borba, Judi Beecher, Andrew Howard, Cedric Cirotteau, Catherine Dyer, Jimmy Palumbo, Nazareth Dairian, Stefanie Kleine. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Sequels essentially come in two varieties; cash grabs made to capitalize on the popularity of the original film, or story extensions which continue the story from the first. Often the second kind can be an effective money maker for the studios, while the first kind can occasionally be surprisingly resonant with audiences. Generally speaking, however, all sequels are made – without exception – because the studios or the producers believe that there is a market demand for them.

The first two Taken films were very successful. In them Bryan Mills (Neeson), a former special ops military sort, sees his daughter Kim (Grace) kidnapped in the first film by sex traffickers and goes to Paris to kill everyone who looks at him cross-eyed and rescue his daughter; the second film has the ex-wife (Janssen) kidnapped in a revenge scenario by the dad of the kidnappers in the first film which leads to much of Istanbul being depopulated.

In this one nobody gets kidnapped. Ex-wifey is murdered and Bryan framed for it. No exotic locations, no family vacations, just Bryan tearing through Los Angeles looking to find out who done it and who is going to get his ass kicked all over Southern California. With a persistent detective (Whitaker) chasing him, ex-wifey’s husband (Scott, taking over for Xander Berkeley) trying to assist him, Russian mobsters led by the sadistic Oleg Malenkov (Spruill) slithering about, his buddies Garcia (Harvey), Smith (Bruno) and Sam (Orser) lending their own particular sets of skills when needed and Kim generally getting in the way, it’s going to be a very bad day in SoCal until Bryan gets to the person responsible for all his woes.

Now, before you wonder about the size of the rating I gave this, keep in mind that you don’t go and see an action movie for deep personal insights, innovative storytelling techniques or snappy dialogue; while sometimes any or all of those occur in an action film, it’s icing on the cake when they do. Mainly what we go to see action films for is to turn off our brains, sit back with our ice cold soda and buttered popcorn and bliss out to car crashes, flying bullets and villainous asses being properly kicked. We want to cheer for the hero, boo the villain and leave the theater feeling that all is right with the world.

It’s a fairly low bar to set from a certain perspective but there is absolutely nothing wrong with forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours in the multiplex and this is the kind of tonic you’re looking for if that’s what you’re after. Neeson is the most personable action star working at the moment with perhaps the sole exception of Dwayne Johnson and he certainly gives us everything we’re looking for in an action hero in all three of the Taken movies, this one included. Bryan is kind of a sweetheart most of the time, showing up at his college-aged daughters apartment a few days before her birthday with a gigantic teddy bear in an effort to be unpredictable. His effort fails miserably but throughout the movie he seems like a genuinely affable guy you’d want to shoot pool with.

You’d also want him at your back cracking skulls with the pool cue if necessary and while Neeson is in his 60s and moves like he’s in his 60s during a foot chase early on in the movie, he gets all the other stuff dialed in perfectly. He doesn’t have the physique of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the fighting techniques of a Jet Li or even the hangdog smartass attitude of a Bruce Willis but he sort of fits in the mold of a nice guy with skills who has been pushed where you should never push him.

The supporting cast, for the most part, is all right. Whitaker, a fine actor in his own right, is full of idiosyncrasies and tics and business that occasionally distracts from the matters at hand but he is a very smart performer who knows that he is supposed to be the Sherlock Holmes here and Whitaker would make a crackin’ Sherlock in my opinion.

What every action film has to nail are the action sequences – the car chases, the fights, the gun battles. Even if everything else doesn’t work a movie of this genre can be redeemed by its action sequences. For the most part, the sequences here are well put together, particularly the assault on the Russian mobster’s fortress-like apartment near the end of the movie. However, it also must be said that there’s nothing in the action sequences that particularly stands out.

While I admire producer/writer Luc Besson for leaving the mold of the first two movies and going in another direction, the one he took was a path too well-traveled by Hollywood. We’ve seen the hero framed for a murder he didn’t commit and then have to battle bad guys and cops alike to clear his name how many thousands of times, and frankly this doesn’t add anything to that tired old genre. However, it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

This is the weakest of the trilogy if only by a little bit but it still has enough going for it to be worth seeing if you’re into action movies and particularly the sort that Neeson tends to do. While so many of the twists here are horribly telegraphed and if you are unable to figure out who’s behind all this you really need a year or two of remedial movie watching, it still bears a bit of attention although chances are you won’t remember much of it twenty minutes after the credits start rolling.

REASONS TO GO: Nice action sequences. Neeson is a charismatic performer.
REASONS TO STAY: Very cliche story. Neeson beginning to show his age in some of the more physical aspects of the role.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of strong language but mostly, lots of shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking and general mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Neeson uses a number of different firearms in the movie, he is a staunch advocate for gun control in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Days to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!

Penguins of Madagascar


Skipper and company, sneakin' around.

Skipper and company, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Sean Charmatz, Werner Herzog, Stephen Kearin, Nicholas Guest, Angie Wu, Ava Acres. Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith

There seems to be a trend in animated features these days to put in a group of support characters that are almost more popular than the main characters. You’ve got Skrat in the Ice Age series, the Minions in Despicable Me and the slugs in Flushed Away. In the Madagascar series, there are the Penguins.

The four feathered friends have been popular enough to spin off a successful animated TV series of their own. It has allowed further development of the characters who while funny were always a bit lacking in the personality department. Now we have a good idea of who they are. Thanks to this movie, we’ll have a better idea of where they came from.

Out in the Antarctic, the penguins are marching. A documentary film crew led by an unscrupulous director (Herzog) is filming. However, three penguins aren’t like the others. They march to their own tune. One is loquacious, one is voracious and one is sagacious. Skipper (McGrath) is their leader, who believes in a military-like precision. Kowalski (Miller) is the brains of the outfit, Rico (Vernon) the demolition expert who uses his stomach as a storage locker. The three of them chase after an egg that has gotten loose and is rolling away. The other penguins refuse to go after it because, after all, they’re marching. Skipper and cohorts chase after it and in doing so are put in a situation where they are separated from the others permanently on a floating iceberg. The egg hatches, revealing the terminally cute Private (Knights).

Years go by. The Penguins become mainstays at zoos around the world but they’re more about escaping and going on missions. However, those missions can be dangerous. As it turns out, there’s a megalomaniac out there trying to kill them – Dr. Octavius Brine (Malkovich) who has a personal axe to grind with them. The Penguins fall under the protection of the North Wind, an elite fighting force dedicated to saving defenseless animals. They are led by Classified (Cumberbatch), a wolf. The rest of his team includes Corporal (Stormare), a bear; Eva (Mahendru), an owl and Short Fuse (Jeong), a puffin.

However, Dr. Brine has some very nefarious plans for the Penguins. Skipper doesn’t tend to work well with authority figures and the North Wind in turn disdain the Penguins as rank amateurs, although to be honest Kowalski thinks the gadgets the North Wind employs are pretty cool and let’s face it, he has a bit of a crush on Eva while Corporal thinks Private is the cutest thing ever. Can the two work together to stop the maniacal Dr. Brine?

I think it’s fair to say that the Madagascar series hasn’t really impressed me much to date. However, the penguins were always a highlight of their movies. I confess I haven’t seen the TV show but then again, I’m not a big fan of modern animated kids shows. Based on the trailers and my enjoyment of the Penguins in the Madagascar movies I was hopeful that this would be that rare spin-off that improves on the original.

To a degree, it is. Spy spoofs when done right can be way fun. Kids seem to appreciate that genre given the Spy Kids movies and the Bond elements in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Kids, apparently, love spies and why not? They can be tons of fun when they’re done right.

Most animated features are intended for the entertainment of children and most critics, myself included, have a hard time getting into the right mindset. Children, after all, have a different set of standards than most adults. Therefore I tend to write my reviews for the parents who will inevitably accompany the kids to the multiplex. Kids will generally have a good time as long as the movie isn’t boring and keeps on moving at an appropriate pace because kids, as those of us who have them or have been around them for any length of time, have virtually no attention span whatsoever.

Adults require a little bit more than that and for the most part, Penguins of Madagascar delivers. There are some genuinely funny moments and a few that will fly over the heads of the wee ones in the audience. There are also a few groaners which aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. The movie does drag a little bit in a few places but for the most part maintains a pretty good pace.

Other than Malkovich and Cumberbatch (which sounds like a European law firm) there isn’t a lot of star power here which is unusual for studio animated features these days which seem to rely on celebrity voice work more and more. That can sometimes be distracting when you hear a distinctive voice coming out of a cartoon character’s mouth.

Still in all, this is solid entertainment for all ages and in a year that has been a box office disappointment for family films – and this one hasn’t been pulling particularly high numbers – it stands out somewhat amid a fairly unspectacular bunch.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places. A decent enough spy spoof.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit lackluster in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of rude humor and some mild action scenes; acceptable essentially for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In both the previous Madagascar films and in the television series John DiMaggio voiced Rico. This movie, with Conrad Vernon voicing the role, is the first appearance of Rico with a different actor voicing him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Theory of Everything