Archive | March, 2011

“Take me ‘round the Earth one more time, James…”, The James Bond blogs: ‘Moonraker’ (1979)

19 Mar

 

Moonraker is a film of welcome disbelief. Just when you think that James Bond can’t get into a more fantastic situation or that the spectacle can’t get anymore audacious- it does.

The film owes only a nod of recognition to Ian Fleming’s third Bond novel, and owes much of its inspiration from the success of 1977’s Star Wars. Interestingly whereas The spy who loved me (which also didn‘t resemble Fleming’s novel) was credited as ‘Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 in The spy…’ this is credited as “Ian Fleming’s Moonraker”. Despite this literary nod, the film bears very little resemblance to the novel.

Because The spy who loved me was seen as a return to form (not least commercially) Cubby Broccoli wanted the best of both worlds- more of what made Spy a success and some of what was making films like Star Wars a success. Although the end of Spy had promised that James Bond would return in For your eyes only, the decision was made to jump on the space sci-fi bandwagon.

Moonraker, then, is basically The Spy who loved me in space. If you go with the idea that Spy was essentially trying to top the scale of earlier Bonds like You only live twice, you might think Moonraker could have been taking things too far. It’s all very well making Bond’s adventures as fantastical as possible, but what if there’s little sense of the plausible? What ultimate effect will that have on the series? By taking Bond into Outer Space and introducing an astronaut battle with laser weapons, Moonraker comes close to taking the series too far into the ludicrous. Fortunately, it just about gets away with it.

Suspicions are growing that Moore never knew a hard day's work.

Taking the bear elements of the third Bond novel, Moonraker sees rich industrialist Hugo Drax plotting a plan of genocidal proportions. His chosen few will be taken to a giant space station while the millions left behind are made infertile due to the pollen from a certain orchid being showered over the Earth. Utterly ridiculous, but its Bond’s adventures that lead up to his showdown in space that make it worthwhile, taking in such glamorous locations as Rio and Venice.  The cast are also good with Michael Lonsdale putting in a deliciously evil performance as Drax. He gets some wonderful lines, such as “Take care of Mr. Bond, make sure some harm comes to him” and “Mr. Bond, you appear with all the inevitability of an unloved season”. Roger gets some great lines too. “Heartbroken, Mr. Drax,” says Bond as he shoots him with a poison dart, before opening the airlock for him. “Where’s Drax?” asks Bond girl Holly Goodhead. “He had to fly”, explains Bond. Lois Chiles is CIA agent Goodhead, and is a little more action orientated than most Bond girls as well as having some intelligence. There is also the welcome return of Richard Kiel as steel toothed henchman Jaws. “Do you know him?” asks Goodhead. “Not socially”, explains Bond, “His name’s Jaws. He kills people”. What great lines! Sadly, Moonraker also features the final performance of Bernard Lee as ‘M’, who gives a great droll performance as usual. Bernard had been with the series since it started with Dr. No. He passed away in 1981, and is much missed.

As a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, if you didn't have a toy Lotus Espirit, you probably had a toy of one of these.

Bernard’s final look of disbelief at Bond’s unwitting broadcast message is classic ‘M’. “007!” he says in shock, as Roger gets to grips with Holly Goodhead in zero gravity. “I think Bond is attempting re-entry!”, exclaims Q, who has his back turned to the spectacle. Oh, how we still laugh. The film is as innuendo ridden as your average “Carry on” film, but it still makes me chuckle.

John Barry’s music returns as well, giving Moonraker that aural touch of class that was missing from The spy who loved me. There’s also the return of “007”, Bond’s ‘second theme’ a sweeping orchestral canvas on which the screen action gets painted. It got its first airing in From Russia with love and was a staple of the Connery years, and hadn’t been used since Diamonds are forever. In Moonraker it is heard in a Bond film for the last time to date, and it’s as good as ever.

Hugo Drax- uses the same tailor as Blofeld by the looks of it.

Elsewhere the stunt work (especially in the boat chase) is astounding. Also the miniature effects work and the FX in the space scenes are really impressive. The time and talent that went into them is exceptional. Of course, it is in all the Bond pictures, but it’s especially evident here. Look at those space shuttle launches for one thing. In the days before computer generated effects, what is achieved here is remarkable. They look like genuine shuttle launches. Compare them to the unconvincing rocket launch in You only live twice, for example and you know they’re something special. Derek Meddings received an Oscar nomination for his effects work.

Ken Adams' production design. In an ideal world, Manchester Arndale Centre would look like this.

There obviously isn’t space to praise all the people involved, but they all deserve credit. Moonraker may be hokum, but it looks fantastic. One other man who should be mentioned is the production genius that is Ken Adam. Moonraker was his last Bond film, and his vast cavernous sets suit an epic like this. Peter Lamont would carry on his legacy, and became the ‘official’ Bond designer, right up until his retirement following Casino Royale in 2006. Ken will probably never return to Bond, but as with John Barry he has left a blueprint for future artists.

Moonraker was the end of an era in some ways. Eon would never do a Bond quite as epic as this again. The Pierce Brosnan outings have come close, but the series tends to avoid the blatantly fantastic these days. Die another day was fairly over the top, but it lends the character some grounding in reality (or at least pretends to). Moonraker is a fun rollercoaster with no intention to dwell too much on genuine espionage practice. The film looks like the final visual evidence of what started with Goldfinger, and this makes sense when you consider Ken Adam’s involvement in both pictures. They are what we think Bond films look like.

Yep, why not add an audacious laser gun battle. In space! Kitchen sink seen floating in the background.

Moonraker is in the final analysis, a stylish piece of action adventure on a grand scale. Filmed in 4 studios, 7 countries, 3 continents and costing more than the first 6 Bond films put together- Moonraker is a big film. It was also the highest grossing Bond picture (unless you adjust for inflation) until Goldeneye, 16 years later. I suppose Moonraker really is the film that Thunderball boasted of being in 1965. We could argue that Thunderball is a far better film (for all sorts of reasons), but Moonraker is still an impressive spectacle, and it’s always fun to watch.

“Take me ‘round the Earth one more time, James…”

Attempting re-entry.

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“Keeping the British end up, Sir”, The James Bond blogs: ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977)

12 Mar

In the 1990s there became a ‘tradition’ of the British ITV network screening Bond films on a Bank holiday. However, as a child, my first memories of James Bond films are from seeing them on a Sunday night, starting around 7:45pm. Even though school was imminent the next morning, 007 let you escape into a world of glamour and excitement. For 2 hours you could forget. And how long those 2 hours felt! And with an epic like The spy who loved me it felt (and still feels) like a much longer film. But I loved every minute of it, and still do.

The gunbarrel sequence- wider and in a dinner suit for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The spy who loved me is a pivotal film in the James Bond franchise. Without its success, the series may have stalled in circumstances of financial and legal complication. Few Bond films have had as troubled a production as The spy who loved me. Aside from Cubby Broccoli’s split with Harry Saltzman and the company almost going into liquidation, Eon had released one of the lowest grossing James Bond films in 1974. The series was in trouble and nothing less than a true return to form would save it. The series didn’t just need a really good crowd pleaser. To be honest Broccoli needed a blockbuster.

The trouble got worse in 1975 when Kevin McClory’s ten-year ‘ban’ on producing a rival Bond picture ended. As you might know, he had a lot to do with the screen treatment of Thunderball, and had teamed up with Saltzman and Broccoli in 1965 on the understanding that he wouldn’t launch a rival production. His film would have to be a re-make of Thunderball, as it was the only Fleming book he had the rights to, having been involved with the creation of what became Fleming’s original novel.

Still trying it on with Moneypenny.

Broccoli and director Guy Hamilton had been in talks with novelist Anthony Burgess, famous for A clockwork orange. Burgess had been a great fan of Fleming’s work, and had cited Goldfinger as a particularly great novel. He set about creating a screenplay for the next Bond film, but ultimately his treatment proved unpopular with both Broccoli and Hamilton. So Richard Maibaum, as reliable as ever, started to work on the project. He planned to bring back Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who hadn’t appeared in the series since Diamonds are forever in 1971. The problem there was that McClory held the rights to the Blofeld character and his SPECTRE organisation, and had started flexing his legal arm. Blofeld and SPECTRE had first appeared in the novel Thunderball, based on a screenplay Fleming wrote with McClory. The situation becomes a bit ridiculous when you consider that Fleming himself was almost in breach of copyright, as he included Blofeld in three other novels- all without McClory’s permission! Plus, to make the situation even sillier, Blofeld had appeared in five of the nine Bond films made up to that point- he was arguably James Bond’s arch-enemy and the main protagonist of the franchise. So due to McClory’s legal claims, all references to Blofeld and SPECTRE were ultimately exorcised from the new script and a new character- Stromberg- was eventually created. There were some similarities between the presentation of the characters, but they were relatively superficial. It was a pity, though. The spy who loved me would have been a nice showcase for Blofeld’s return, and who better to relaunch Bond than the man with the white cat? But everything had to change. In the end Maibaum bowed out, and Christopher Wood took over writing duties.

Don't try this on your next skiing holiday.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Roger's acting is really good in this scene. Worth mentioning I think!

 

The stress of pre-production also led to the departure of Guy Hamilton and the appointment of Lewis Gilbert in the director’s chair (Hamilton had also been given the opportunity to direct the upcoming Superman: The Movie, although that job eventually went to Richard Donner). Lewis Gilbert had directed a Bond before, of course, ten years earlier. Looking at both You only live twice in 1967 and The spy who loved me in 1977, there are definite similarities. This time around they couldn’t get John Barry for the music, which was a shame, but Marvin Hamlisch gives the film a whole new identity of its own. It’s hard to imagine Spy without that electronic disco styled score, as Roger Moore skies away from his gun-toting enemies. Add to that Ken Adams’ return to the series after six years, and The Spy loved loved me had some inspired new production design to go with the funky music. Bond had finally found a ‘70s answer to the success of its lavish ‘60s style. It may have been a bit less refined and the furniture a bit more plastic, but it was vast improvement on the previous three outings. One reviewer once commented that The spy who loved me sometimes resembles a ‘70s soft porn film. I couldn’t possibly comment of course. Perhaps it’s all that lipgloss or maybe it’s just the fashions?? I think it does have a decadent ’70s ‘international jetsetter’ thing going on there. You can imagine Caroline Munro’s character being a disco dancing coke fiend and villain Stromberg being…no, let’s not go there. Also there does seem to be a lot more cheeky innuendo than previously and Caroline Munro does look like she’s wandered in from a far seedier production. How she got a job on Ted Rogers’ family show 3-2-1 after this is anybody’s guess, although I recall her wearing clothes in that so I suppose it’s a bit different.

But I digress!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The spy who loved me was a glossy, futuristic kind of Bond. What You only live twice did for the ‘60s and Connery, I suppose Spy did for the ‘70s and Roger Moore. They are undeniably similar, more so that most Bond films might resemble each other. The final story wasn’t all too original either, being a re-hash of the megalomaniac threatens the world type yarn. If you’ve seen Thunderball or You only live twice, we’re in similar territory. The spy who loved me is a kind of ‘James Bond’s greatest hits’. A lot of elements here had appeared in previous films, but not always together. There’s a souped up car, a gargantuan base for the villain, a fight with a henchman on a train, Bond in his naval uniform, references to his late wife and an energetic ski chase to name but a few. But Spy does these all so well, that we’re happy to see them again. Plus the fact that Spy does all that and manages to feel new and fresh is probably down to the panache of the presentation. It’s a fun film, and you can see the enthusiasm and talent behind the production. Perhaps because it took nearly three years of hard work to get it to the screen, it shows. One thing for sure- somewhere along the way the Bond series re-discovered its confidence and sparkle. Even if some of  The spy who loved me had been done before, Spy does it better, or tries it’s hardest to. So on its own merits; Spy is a fantastic escapist adventure film.

Ullaaaaa!!!...(Jeff Wayne/HG Wells connected joke).

 

The pre-title sequence is a classic. We’re introduced to one of the very best Bond girls- Major Amasova, also known as “Agent Triple X”, wonderfully portrayed by Barbara Bach. There’s a disconcerting moment where she’s in bed with a George Lazenby clone (Michael Billington, who was once considered for the 007 role himself). After you’ve convinced yourself that this isn’t 007, and that Roger will be along any minute, you get to the point of the back-story. ‘XXX’ gets called on a mission by her boss General Gogol (Walter Gotell, in a wonderfully dry role that he was to reprise over the next five films), her lover (who I think looks like Lazenby) is also sent on a top-secret mission. We meet Roger in the middle of getting to know a lovely blonde in a snow bound log cabin, before he’s off in his yellow ski suit. Anyhow, it’s not long before enemy agents are chasing James. Some time later 007 shoots down one of his pursuers, who so happens to be Amasova’s lover. You just know that’ll cause problems later. Cue Bond’s ski jump off a cliff edge and you have something that’s nothing short of amazing. A truly great stunt. This effortlessly blends into Maurice Binder’s title sequence, which is probably his best. Carly Simon’s title song Nobody does it better is a nice change from the usual bombastic themes, but it is wonderful. And all that, my friends in Bondage, is just the beginning of the film! After that it just keeps on getting better and better. This, of course, is one of the more outlandish adventures, so it’s best not to take this as seriously as Fleming’s radically original novel.

Even the usually cliched poses are a bit more iconic in this one.

But what we get is nothing short of impressive. We get an undersea city that rises up from the sea like a War of the worlds tripod. We get a white Lotus Esprit that converts to a submarine, and of course we get Caroline Munro as Naomi who gets to chase after Bond in a gun heavy helicopter. There are also some beautiful location shots of Egypt and the pyramids and Richard Kiel plays one of the best henchmen- the steel toothed Jaws. He’s silent but deadly, and Kiel plays him with nice touches of humour. Roger Moore is on good form, and adds a nice light touch, which suits the film. He’s also more than capable of handling the fight scenes and is a bit ruthless in this one. At one point he has a heavy dangling over a rooftop in Cairo. After getting the information he needs he releases the man’s tie and lets him fall to his death. “What a helpful chap”, Roger deadpans. Roger’s Bond has a twinkle in his eye in this film, although he does show hidden depths when Amasova mentions his late wife. Curt Jurgens makes for a cunning and relentless villain as the marine obsessed Stromberg. He does seem like a reinvention of Blofeld to me, and as discussed the whole film is reminiscent of the ‘60s SPECTRE epics. The regulars are as good as ever, and we actually have general Gogol refer to ‘M’ by his first name- Miles. Asamov also refers to ‘Q’ as Major Boothroyd, which was the name of the character as he appeared in From Russia with love.

Anyway, I could go on and on. There’s plenty of good stuff here. One thing that sets this film apart is undoubtedly its phenomenal production design from Ken Adam (with help from the ever reliable Peter Lamont). It’s a great looking Bond film. Adam’s friend and colleague Stanley Kubrick even gave him advice on the gigantic tanker set, agreeing to pop by and give it a look. If Kubrick was impressed, it must be good.

Few Bond films in the ‘70s and ‘80s compare to the success of The Spy who loved me, when it came to epic escapist entertainment. A lot of blood, sweat and tears had gone into its production, not to mention more money than any other film in the series to this point. But Broccoli’s gamble had paid off- the film was a huge critical and commercial hit and arguably gave Roger Moore his greatest Bond film.

Nobody did it better.

Prehistoric time team- The Pre-Cambrian…Molten! Hot! No Life! The first Life! Huge Ice age! And More!

9 Mar

Folowing our trip to the land of the giant bugs (The Carboniferous) let’s activiate the imaginary time machine again…and go back…Go on, push the lever. Let’s go back as far as we can in Earth’s history, or as far back to when we can land on it….this could be fun. Don’t push that lever back too far though!

We’re about to visit a truly alien world.

You see, it’s one thing having a moan about creepy crawlies and then seeing what giant bugs used to exist in prehistory, but it’s quite another when some people complain about the weather or the potential of global warming or even the mess that is world politics. Imagine then, if you will…a world not just without any politics (and therefore no people), but without any life.

So we’re back in the time machine again, which I’ve decided is a cosy globe like affair, with built in sofa and reinforced windows. We need the windows, as we won’t be going outside. Hell no!

I told you not to touch that lever quite so far. As it is, you’ve sent us back roughly 4 billion years. We could go back further, or sooner, but the view would be much the same. Scientists call this the ‘Hadean’ eon (and yes, it’s named after Hades from Greek mythology), and is the earliest geological eon time period. It’s very hot out there, and there’s absolutely no life. It’s a molten, meteorite bombarded hell fest out there, my friend. Incidentally, a vast measure of time such as an eon relates to geological formation, rather than life, such are the vast expanses of time.

For most of its existence Earth looked like this. HOT!

Ok, just pulling a few levers and pressing a few buttons here; you might feel a bit queasy. We’re going forward in time some considerable distance.

Look at that- active volcanoes everywhere and the sky is an uncanny orange colour (see below). We’re now somewhere in the Archean eon (Greek for “beginning”) The Archean eon is a geological time scale that lasted from about 3800 million to 2500 million years ago. I hope you’re following all this. Don’t even think about how many weeks that is, you might implode. It is split up into four eras, but we could arrive at any point in any of them and the view would be similar. It was three times hotter at the beginning of the eon than modern day Earth, which is very hot indeed, but things are cooled a bit in the time we’ve arrived. Some of the oldest visible rock on modern Earth is from the Archeon, the nearest to us Brits being in Scotland.

It's another world...lonely, orange skied and inhospitable to humans (which is an oxy-moron, as there couldn't have been any).

Anyway, we’re staying indoors for this trip, so we’ll have to just look through the windows. Yes, that is an expanse of water in the distance…The shallow seas look a bit unhealthy, but that green tinge is caused by dissolved iron.  I could tell you what the era names are, but to be honest they wouldn’t mean much to us. It’s all about the development of rocks at this point, and not much else by the looks of things, which could be a fascinating subject in itself though. Oi, what are you rolling your eyes for, you’re thousands of millions of years in the past. This is impressive! We can’t see any obvious signs of life, that’s for sure. The earliest discovered life is from the second of these eras…ooh. The cobble like structures are thromobites, and they’re formed in shallow water by micro organisms. How are they formed? Well, now you’re asking…I can tell you about the climate, which is temperate despite all the volcanic volicity.

It’s a beautiful lonely world out there.

So, we’ve just travelled unimaginable distances of time, cutting a swathe through a good two thirds of the Earth’s existence. If you think that timescale is scary, have a think about the age of the universe. Astronomical observations have cited this age to be 13.7 billion years. Scientists are also prophesying events trillions of years into the future, but let’s stick with more earthly considerations for now.

Cryogenian Earth- Global Snowball for millions of years.

Push that lever there, we’re off to the next eon- the Proterozoic (Greek for ‘earlier life’), Here the atmosphere has 100 to 1000 times the Carbon Dioxide than modern levels. It’s life (or less of it), Jim, but not as we know it. We could go out for a walk, but er…let’s not eh? Not without a special suit anyhow, otherwise it’d be an extremely short, deadly excursion.

Interestingly, about 2000 million years ago a sudden event called the “Oxygen Catastrophe” occurred, when oxygen-producing photosynthesizing single-celled organisms evolved. They used light to fuel their life cycle, like plants. The result of this huge and sudden oxygen rise was that all the exposed iron on the planet rusted, leaving behind iron bands in the geological record. What was even more shocking for the first Earth life, was your outlook if you were not used to oxygen. Extinction loomed.

Then, some (considerable) time later the Earth was hit by an ice age which makes the last one look like a gentle snowfall in comparison. You wouldn’t have put much money on anything surviving. Coming at the end of the Proterozoic eon, this is known as the Cryogenian age (Greek: “Cold birth”), such was the severity and extent of the ice. The only life that survived was secret and small and we would be hard pressed to find it. The microscopic ancestors of fungi, plants, animals and kelps all evolved during this time- so, how about that eh? It’s not all bad news! You look like you’ve seen enough though, or perhaps your pale expression is having to compute the vast timescales where a lot happened, but not much happened on a daily basis in the way we’re used to (ie: nothing resembling advanced life did anything on Planet Earth, for 4000 million years).

So that has been 4000 million years of pre-history in one blog; most of the Earth’s history! It’s a whistle stop tour!

But things are looking up for Planet Earth. Fast forward to the future, but not so fast or so far this time.

Next stop- The Cambrian…and visible, active LIFE!

Emigrating to Australia? Scared of bugs? Be very thankful you’ve never been to the Carboniferous.

5 Mar

A good friend of mine is moving to Australia, and will probably be there in eighteen months. The imigration process is quite strict and drawn out, as you can imagine, but I expect it’ll be worth it in the end. Although my friend will be going there primarally for the abundance of work (he’s a painter and decorator), he’s no doubt looking forward to the warmer, sunnier weather. However, there is a downside to this scenario, and that isn’t just the geographical aspect.

Insects get pretty big in warm countries, and Australia is no exception. It may not be the depths of the Amazon, but there are some pretty scary looking creatures down there, and my friend is wary. It won’t stop him going of course, as long as when he’s there he checks his car before driving off. Many drivers have flipped their sun visor over whilst driving to reveal a many limbed Lovecraftian horror. Car crashes are not uncommon.
I did suggest, however, that us Earth inhabitants of the Quaternary period have it easy (Oh yeah, I’m getting serious now; quoting geological time periods). I’m talking in respect of which other animals we share the planet with. If you’re bothered about the creepy crawlies on planet Earth right now, I suggest you switch to another web-site, because as I’m about to tell you- things used to be a whole lot scarier.
It fascinates me how we can look back into the Earth’s dim, distant past and it’s like we’re looking at an alien world, which in a sense we are. Also astounding that for one eigth of the Earth’s history there was no life on it at all- the timescale is mind numbing, and I’m only trying to consider one planet’s existence. So, basically, we’re talking a long time ago.

Er...I don't recognise it either. Are you sure we've got the right planet? Planet Earth, Carboniferous era. If you think the land inhabitants are scary, you haven't seen what's in the sea!

So, let’s imagine…you’ve stepped foot in my time machine (or your time machine if you like; you can do the driving) and we’ve set a course for roughly 320 or so million years ago. A LONG time ago. No, we won’t see any dinosaurs; the first dinosaurs won’t come along for well over 50 million years. Actually, to illustrate the VAST measures of time we’re talking here, imagine two famous dinosaur species- plant eating giant Stegosaurus and carnivorous Tyrannosaurus. As much time seperates those two from each other as the time between us and the last Tyrannosaur. They never shared the planet together. Now, that’s made you go “whoah” hasn’t it? Anyway, what I’m going to discuss here is scarier than any dinosaur!
Now, use your imagination. After you read this, a trip to Australia (or anywhere else) will worry you not, because you’ll be thankful you’re not in the depths of what scientists call the Carboniferous period. This is so long ago that it’s when our coal deposits originated, with the death of ancient plants (the clue is in the title of the period actually).

Carboniferous landscape. You'll need your wellies.

 

We’ve stepped out of our imaginary time machine, which might be a antique telephone box, or a flying saucer or a HG Wells-esque pseudo-bike (you decide). I think our first impression might be, “Jesus, it’s hot down here”. Yep, very humid, and misty and I’m getting a serious sweat on. I’m also finding it very difficult to find somewhere to stand. Great pilot you are, you’ve landed us in the middle of a swamp. Most of the land looked swampy, you say….I’ll let you off then. God, the trees look weird, are they actually trees? I tell you something else too, it’s a bit noisy…what is that noise? Frogs? Let’s set up camp…what do you mean, something just slid past your leg? I can’t see shit in this steam. …oh, apparently if you’re feeling a bit weird it’s because the oxygen levels are 15% higher than our modern age. Actually, I don’t know about you but I’m absolutely saturated here, and it’s not even raining. It’s like being in a sauna….Hey, look at that, what a pretty bird. It’s so colourful! Can’t see it properly because of the mist…oh look, here it comes now. I’m not sure about the buzzing drone it’s making though. Have you got the guidebook- what is it?
“There are NO birds in the Carboniferous”, you would probably wisely tell me at this point, “they haven’t evolved yet”.
“Really?!”, I might reply, sounding slightly squeaky and nervous, and less sure than a companion in time travel should be.
So, as our ill equipped footwear is sinking deeper into the mud, what the hell is flying towards us with a two and a half feet wingspan?!

It’s a frickin’ dragonfly, that’s what.
We’re not in Australia, anymore, Toto….

Imagine- you're sinking into deep mud, your mosquito spray is useless and you're surrounded by the biggest concentration of giant bugs in natural history. And WHAT is that near the tree- a frog? A giant newt?! Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Yes, the beast of an insect in question has been named Meganeura and it’s the biggest flying insect that ever lived. In the Carboniferous, insects and amphibians ruled the world. This was creepy crawly central. You can imagine any passing extraterrestrials might think twice about landing for a visit, unless they are less squeamish than some humans.

Keep telling yourself that's just a model, because the real thing was three FEET long.

But giant dragonflies are the least of it. There were scorpions that were three feet long. THREE feet long!? It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. But of the hundreds of horrifying bugs the very most horrifying was Arthropleura, a huge centipede type creature that could grow up to eight and half feet long! Due to the aforementioned higher oxygen quotient in the air, the size limit for insects had been considerably raised.
So, as absolutely fascinating as the prehistoric past is, be grateful that none of these many legged shockers could live in our drier and less oxygen rich atmosphere. The biggest it gets on planet Earth these days, is actually as big as it’s going to get. I’m not overly freaked out by insects (and amphibians and reptiles don’t usually bother me at all), but as someone who grimaces at a large house spider, the Carboniferous would have been just too much! One thing is for sure though: insects are here to stay; they survive all kinds of changes and earthly calamaties. They’ll always be with us!

You'll need a bigger net.

All this won’t be much consolation for anyone emigrating to Australia (or anywhere else with huge bugs for that matter), but it might make you thankful for what we could be sharing the planet with if circumstances were different.

Arthropleura- if you found one of these in your bath, your bath would be a swimming pool, if you see what I'm sayin'...

“A duel between titans… my golden gun against your Walther PPK”, The James Bond blogs, ‘The man with the golden gun’ (1974)

3 Mar

The Man with the Golden Gun marked the end of producer Harry Saltzman’s association with the Eon films franchise. He parted company with Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, due to a financial crisis, which almost bankrupted Eon productions. I think in the long term the series missed Saltzman’s creative influence, although Broccoli was to do a great job for years to come. In a way Golden gun is the end of a certain type of Bond picture. So although the later The Spy who Loved Me and Moonraker would hark back to the epic Bonds of the ‘60s, Golden gun feels like the end of the series as an original run with no sense of retrospect. Having said that, Roger Moore’s first two outings in the role were both keen to capitalise on then current trends. Just as Live and Let Die had blaxploitation leanings, so Golden Gun gives us Kung Fu with a Bond twist. This film would also be the last Bond feature to be directed by the ever-reliable Guy Hamilton. Despite Hamilton’s involvement, or perhaps because of it, the resulting film found a lukewarm reception at the American box office, ironically the market Broccoli and Saltzman were so keen to capture.

The Man with the Golden Gun is very consistent in style and content from start to finish, and is one of the more surreal Bonds, if only for its visual presentation. Much time is given over to scenes in the villain’s ‘House of mirrors’ training ground and parts of the Orient, where the film almost resembles a Bruce Lee martial arts film (I stress, almost). The British intelligence base, in a partly sunk shipwreck near Hong Kong (“The Queen Elizabeth”) is really odd. ‘M’ has temporary offices there, but everything is at a bizarre angle. The film is also consistently silly, and is ultimately one of the weaker Bond films. It’s also extremely tacky in places and it’s obvious the Bond franchise needed a serious kick up the backside (and not a Kung-Fu one). It got one in the end, but it took nearly three years to revitalise the series and come up with a genuinely good film. By 1974 there hadn’t been a really great Bond film for nearly five years, despite the high turn over. It’s often said you can tell how good a Bond film is by it’s theme song. So although John Barry is involved, high quality isn’t a foregone conclusion. Going off the quality of Lulu’s catchy but inane theme song, you’d be right in expecting a below par Bond film. Even Maurice Binder’s often remarkable title graphics are starting to loose their edge.

Roger Moore was never going to come out of this film looking the coolest. Sorry, Rog, but look at the competition.

But a lot of people do like The Man with the Golden Gun. It is, as I said, a weaker entry to the series, yet is rescued from the bottom of the heap from having a great visual style and a lot of humour to it. But let’s be clear, even style isn’t something that The Man with the Golden Gun does particularly well. It often looks cheap and tacky, and Bond is almost made into a parody. Safari suits and cigars are bad enough, but Moore often plays Bond with an overly fatuous and smug air. I like Roger Moore, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not that great here and his opening briefing with ‘M’ is positively wooden. Saying that, he does utter one of his best lines. When aiming a rifle at a shopkeeper’s groin, he quips, “Speak now, or forever hold your piece!”

You’re going to need more than a gun to protect you from the ridicule you’ll receive for your “Golden gun” fashions.

Christopher Lee is by far the best thing about The Man with the Golden Gun. He plays the role dead straight, no matter how much farce is going on around him. And farce is the order of the day, with redneck sheriffs, blonde agents locked in car boots, flying cars, fake nipples and Kung-Fu schoolgirls being served up for us. Its all pretty ridiculous, but the central idea is pure Ian Fleming. An assassin with a golden gun has all the preposterous glamour you need. His name is Francisco Scaramanga, and he sends ‘M’ a golden bullet with ‘007’ on it, or so we are led to think. Is Bond’s number up?

Lee is as captivating as ever and actually manages to upstage Moore, which isn’t too difficult. He plays Scaramanga as a gentleman killer, and not at all like the thug in Fleming’s novel. He’s cold and calculating, but has a lot of respect for Bond, who he considers to be the other side of the same coin. That makes him a fascinating character, a “dark” version of James Bond; an idea which works far better opposite Roger’s “lighter” Bond than it perhaps would have with Sean.  His alleged sexual prowess and skill are signalled by his “superfluous papilla” (he has an extra nipple, a fact that Bond uses to his advantage. Scaramanga is notoriously elusive, but most people know of his unique feature. Cue Roger Moore wearing a fake nipple as he infiltrates the home of one of Scaramanga’s contacts).

Herve Villechaize (best known from TV’s Fantasy Island) plays Scaramanga’s diminutive sidekick NikNak, who goes through the film with the smug air of someone who’s going to get what he wants. When, at the end of the film, he doesn’t, he’s not happy and does the old “henchman seeks revenge Bond after his boss is dead” finale.

Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland)- setting feminism back a few decades.

Also in the cast is super Swede Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight, a character who held a torch for Bond through several of the novels. She would have made a good reoccurring Bond girl, and her performance in The Man with the Golden Gun is a nice foil for Moore’s Bond. She’s generally scatty and inept where Bond is cool and professional. She also brings out Bond’s sexist side. “Women!” he exclaims, before radioing Goodnight to find out what she’s done with the car keys. Her response explains that she’s trapped in the boot of Scaramanga’s car, and that she has her car keys with her, giving Roger Moore a chance to do the incredulous look he does so well. The other Bond girl is Maud Adams as Andrea, Scaramanga’s ill-fated girlfriend. She doesn’t make as much of an impression as Goodnight, and has the dubious distinction of being the last woman we saw 007 slapping about. Thankfully the sight of James Bond beating up a lass to get some information out of her are long gone, although I admit it was part of Fleming’s original characterisation. There are other ways of showing Bond’s ruthless side though, and besides, Moore doesn’t entirely suit the kind of violence that Connery and Lazenby were visually comfortable with. Also returning for a second appearance (and perhaps thankfully last) is Louisiana sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James). He’s a pretty offensive character, but at least he’s funny when he finally recognises Bond and gets whisked away in a showroom car. Although what on Earth he was doing looking at buying a car while on holiday with his wife is anybody’s guess.

Not the taxi home you’d want after a few cocktails.

The stunts are as good as ever and Golden gun features its one faultless element (other than Lee’s performance). The spiral car jump across a river is jaw droppingly fantastic, even if it does have a silly sound effect to go with it. Of course Bond would have been stuffed if he was a real secret agent as the car had to be perfectly balanced and fitted with a central steering wheel, as well as launched across a spiral jetty. Best not to think too hard about these things I suppose. But understand this- stuntman Bumps Williard did the stunt in ONE take! “He could have easily died”, Christopher Lee noted drolly, but the on screen effect is great.

There are other memorable scenes in Golden Gun such as Bond’s duel with Scaramanga, which starts on Scaramanga’s island beach. The tall, forested islands themselves, near Thailand, have become tourist attractions since the ‘70s, and are beautifully photographed.

Overall though, The Man with the Golden Gun isn’t all that golden, but it does occasionally glitter.

Christopher Lee- THE Man

“Names is for tombstones, baby!”- The James Bond blogs, ‘Live and let die’ (1973)

3 Mar

The James Bond film franchise was well established by the early 1970s, but there is a feeling that perhaps for the first time it was having a minor struggle adapting to a changing world. In the long run, there would be a number of successful transitions to new social eras, but with Diamonds are forever, Live and let die and The man with the golden gun, we have three Bond films blatantly pandering to the American market as a way of keeping the franchise alive in what was a relatively uncertain time for the series. This gives director Guy Hamilton’s trilogy a distinctly irreverent flavour of its own, but it is probably just as well the series regained much of its earlier confidence by the late ‘70s. The suspense, style and glamour associated with the ’60s Bonds had been diluted with a dose of clichéd car chases, comedy situations and lazy scripting. No three Bond films look so keen to embrace the styles and fashions of the time or to capture favour as eagerly as these three are. Of this trio, Live and let die is perhaps the most distinctive and overly successful. However, just because Live and let die is a memorable entry in the James Bond series doesn’t necessarily mean its one of the best. As a Bond film, I find Live and let die to be considerably over rated, although it’s certainly enjoyable enough.

Live and let die is a film of changes and has a most obvious one in the lead actor. Some of these changes are also changes in style that had also been seen in Diamonds are forever, which had showcased a more fatuous approach to the spy’s adventures. So although Live and let die continues the light hearted style begun in Diamonds are forever, it has a bigger weight of expectation due to Sean Connery’s (apparently) final departure from the role. Despite an offer of $5 million (a phenomenal amount in 1973), Connery had turned down the offer to appear in Live and let die. So Live and let die presents us with the third big screen Bond, but more of him in a moment. In other ways, the film also seems to be attempting a fresh start, despite the continuation of the trends set in Diamonds. This is reflected in the somewhat untypical storyline and style, but there’s also a lot missing from this one. There’s no formal office scene with “M” for a start; instead his boss calls around Bond’s flat early one morning in a humorous scene where Bond makes his superior coffee and Moneypenny saves Bond from a potential embarassment (Lois Maxwell, showing good rapport with Moore). Bernard Lee is as brilliant as ever, looking utterly bemused by Bond’s ridiculous coffee maker: “Is that all it does?” If there was ever an argument for Bond being a bit of a girl’s blouse, then you could start with a look at the man’s kitchen. I mean, it’s not very masculine is it?! Also, this Bond doesn’t order a martini (a hallmark of the Moore years), there’s no gadget briefing from “Q”, Bond doesn’t appear in the pre-title sequence at all and the music isn’t by John Barry. Stepping in for the music is former Beatles producer George Martin, who does a reasonably decent job, and Paul McCartney and Wings supply the fantastic title song. In fact, it’s one of the film’s highlights.

You're facing the wrong way 007.

Live and let die and The man with the golden gun rank as two of the most surreal Bond adventures ever, even if it is only through the often unique and bizarre visuals. As discussed, the two films are close relatives, and this is especially true since Gun was rushed into production and came just a year after Live and let die. Both films share the same director and star, for starters, and are both quite dated, looking far more of their time than most old Bond films. Diamonds are forever looks positively contemporary in comparison. But like Diamonds, they can also be highly entertaining.

Live and let die is, of course, Roger Moore’s debut as James Bond. An established television star, Moore was well known as Ivanhoe and The Saint. While the latter role might seem a close match to Bond, Moore struggles a little in such recently vacated shoes. And being Sean Connery’s shoes, they’re pretty big ones. Roger was to perfect a unique interpretation for Bond, a charming and sly English gentleman who would be very much a light hearted Bond. It would arguably take three films before the Moore Bond was firmly in place. In this outing, Moore can sometimes look wooden and awkward, although he handles the quips and humour very well. This is more apparent in certain parts of The man with the golden gun. I still find it difficult to dislike Moore, as he can be a charismatic presence. He may have been no Sean Connery, but some of us grew to love him because he’s Roger Moore. But I think Roger had a disadvantage with his first film anyway, as it’s a pretty weak script and the whole thing lacks the panache of the better Connery efforts. The story involves Bond in a murder investigation, which ends in a showdown with the drug baron “Mr. Big”, also known as Kananga. He doesn’t want to conquer the world, just the world heroin market. It all feels a bit small fry for a James Bond adventure, although it makes an interesting change from SPECTRE. Incidentally, SPECTRE and Blofeld would never be directly mentioned again in the Eon series (for reasons I shall come back to later). The Moore films would find 007 dealing with a multitude of wealthy lunatics, some far more preposterous than Blofeld and his friends. In some ways Kananga is the strangest of these new villains as his ambitions are relatively modest for a Bond foe.

"I see a handsome stranger who will bring death and destruction"...Really?!

But what makes Live and let die really odd, for a Bond film, is its meta-physical or paranormal content (call it what you will). This film also has the voodoo religion given prominence. On the supernatural side, the tarot reading Solitaire does appear to have some kind of mystical “gift”, but we don’t come close to explaining it. Perhaps that was the wise choice, as a Bond film isn’t perhaps the perfect forum for such things. But it is a strange area for a James Bond story to be skirting with, and I’m not sure it really makes it as macabre and as strange as it could have done. Perhaps if it had, this wouldn’t have been much of a Bond film, and perhaps therein lies the answer. It teases us with the occult and promises us some real strangeness, but it can’t see its promise through. Perhaps there’s a limit to what the world of 007 can incorporate. Still, it makes for an interesting change and does give the film a unique style.

Car chases AND boat chases. Bonus!

Aside from the voodoo leanings, Live and let die owes much of its influence to the ‘blaxploitation’ films of the early ‘70s. Once again, this was a new area for a Bond film to visit, and it hasn’t done anything quite similar since. Both Live and let die and The man with the golden gun touch upon genres popular at the time. A good proportion of the cast are black, although they do tend to play villains. To compensate we have the character of Quarrel Jr., Bond’s Jamaican ally and apparently the son of Quarrel from Dr. No. In some ways Live and let die was one of the toughest Fleming books to adapt due to the somewhat racist subtext. But thankfully, due to the trend for blaxploitation action flicks, the film’s similar style (in homage) manages to remove any negativity. There does seem to be a trend throughout the ‘70s Bond films of adopting the franchise to whatever was the movie trend of the moment; whatever was hot at the box office. After blaxploitation with Live and let die, we have kung-fu in Golden gun. Bond was a true trendsetter in the 1960s, but with the advent of the Roger Moore era the series would become more and more prone to following the trends. Bond seems oddly out of step with the times, and the cold war hero of the glossy, stylish 1960s movies seems a long way off. For the ‘70s Bond was re-invented as a lightweight character with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek (as if it hadn’t been already). His exploits were fun, and would be great action movies, but it would be a substantial change from what had been before. Ultimately the series had to curb its more outlandish tendencies, as Bond started to resemble a complete parody of Fleming’s original character. There is an argument that says this doesn’t matter, as the Bond of the films is a different entity from the start. I agree there is a stylistic difference, but you can go too far. Bond started to resemble a spoof character. Maybe more Dirk Helm than Austin Powers, but the degeneration was there.

I'd just push 'em in the shark infested pool, personally. Wouldn't be much of a finale though, I have to say...my mistake, carry on...

Fortunately, in Live and let die this hasn’t quite begun, and Moore plays Bond fairly straight, even if he can be a bit wooden and smarmy. Jane Seymour is beautiful, and adds a quiet charisma to her role of tarot reading Solitaire. Yaphet Kotto as Mr. Big (a.k.a. Kananga) is one of the cheeriest Bond villains and he often seems shockingly inept. But he certainly has more menace than Charles Grey’s Blofeld at any rate. Far more memorable is Kanaga’s henchman Tee Hee, played in a rather civilized manner by Julius W. Harris. The guy is a gentleman that is, until he gets cheesed off. He even does the obligatory “seek revenge on Bond after your boss is killed” bit at the end of the film. He’s kind of a proto-type ‘Jaws’, but his metal pincer arm is novel enough for him to be remembered. His clumsiness causes Bond to utter the great quip, “Butterhook!” David Hedison plays Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter (the character’s only appearance in a Roger Moore Bond film) and made such a good job of the role that he returned to play him again in Licence to kill (1989). There is also Geoffrey Holder as Baron Smaedi, a man with such a deep, mocking laugh he gets to end the film. A bit like a voodoo opera.

Some parts of Live and let die resemble a Smokey and the bandit type road film, with car chases and explosions the way forward. This continues the ‘Americanisation’ of the series in the early ‘70s, which had begun in Diamonds are forever. Plus the more tongue in cheek approach continues. These car chases are fun, but can tend to drag and Clifton James’ redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper could take some getting used to. He’s a bit like a cut price Jackie Gleason, but I quite liked him and he doesn’t outstay his welcome. “What are you, boy, some kinda doomsday machine?!” He is quite funny. Occasionally.

There is no shortage of stunts either, with a great double decker bus chase that ends in a low bridge and a quick top deck removal. The boat chase in the Louisiana bayous is also pretty remarkable, although it does go on too long. The best moment comes when the captured Bond is taken to Tee Hee’s crocodile farm. This was actually a real place, owned by a guy called Kananga. He even got the honour of having the Bond villain named after him. (In the novel the character is known just as “Mr. Big”). During this scene Bond is stranded on a small island with hungry crocodiles keen to come ashore. Bond’s escape is astoundingly original. There are no tricks either as the stuntman actually did run across the backs of several snapping crocodiles to get to the lakeside, and it took a fair few takes to get the desired result. I’m not joking, either…

Agent Rosie Carver- hard as nails here, but not immune to Roger Moore's raised eyebrow and promise of a nightcap.

Live and let die gave Roger Moore a refreshingly different film to start his era with, at least in a stylistic sense. Under the voodoo imagery Live and let die has much in common with the elements that made up Diamonds are forever. It’s certainly a watchable instalment in the life of 007 but time hasn’t been as kind to it as some of the earlier efforts, but perhaps that’s down to some of the contemporary fashions. There are a few scenes in Live and let die we’ve seen before too, such as the creepy-crawly in the hotel room and the train fight, that were done so much better first time round. It’s still a good 2 hours of escapism though, and it succeeded in bringing us a new James Bond with more longevity than George Lazenby.

Roger Moore certainly wasn’t Sean Connery, but he was James Bond.

Jane Russell and the February Wikipedia death curse!

2 Mar

Death. It comes to us all apparently. Now, I’m not about to go off on a complete downer and fill the pages of my blog with morbid fascination, but there does seem a sudden spate of famous deaths. I can’t look in the newspaper recently without seeing some new obituary! But as that may be, I’m not about to turn this site into…er…the opposite of ‘Serendipity’; what is that exactly?!

Frank Sidebottom- late local legend. Picture taken on Oldham Street, Manchester. If you have to go, go wearing a paper mache head.

However, my tribute to actor Nicolas Courtney was warranted I think, as he was an icon in a TV show I’d loved since childhood. Jane Russell was also an icon, but worry not, as sad as her recent passing is, I’m not actually going to  just sing her praises.

One thing’s for sure though, I’m going to stop checking people’s names on Wikipedia! I was reading Nick Courtney’s page just the other week, and composer John Barry’s. I had a look at Jane Russell’s as well, to see what films she had been in. This was all a coincidence, surely. Either that or there is some “Wikipedia death curse” been applied, where each name I search for meets an imminent demise! Maybe I should start looking up the names of Al Queda or whichever guys in the government are supposed to be lizard people from outer space (Allegedly!) Although, I expect I should start with some real evil names first- the members of Westlife perhaps? Haha, only joking there fellas, I’m sure you’re all lovely!

So what is alarming is the amount of celebrities that I actually think the world will miss, are the ones dropping off their proverbial perch. Alright, so Ms Russell was pushing ninety, but I only had a chat with my Mum about her last week, prior to the Wikipedia investigation! She was a current concern in my eyes; I happened upon a repeat of Gentlemen prefer blondes on the Film4 channel and thought she was far more fanciable than Marilyn Monroe. At this point, incidentally, anyone who doesn’t know who Jane Russell is…was, dammit…can hang their culture poor head in shame and go and look her up. On-line I mean, not via a spiritualist.

Anyway, one of THE sex symbols of the ‘40s and ‘50s is no more, so let’s get over it. It sounds like she had a good life. However, what lingers from these thoughts is why someone such as myself (who wasn’t even born the last time Jane Russell made a film) actually gives a shit.

Would I care as much if Megan Fox came to an untimely end? Probably not, although I’d lament her tragically young demise. What I’m saying is, she’s not shown herself to be in the same league, but perhaps that’s not Megan’s fault, it’s just the creative culture she’s working in. If we’re talking about Lindsay Lohan, I wouldn’t be so forgiving. Have you seen I know who killed me? Don’t know about that, but I think I know what killed her film career!  Anyhow, my point is, that there’s a very sexy glamour that came with Russell’s era, that is almost missing from the modern Hollywood fare of rampant shagging and horrendously destructive explosions. The new Nicolas Cage film looks like the epitome of this. The productions Russell’s contemporaries appeared in had far more class, and have survived the decades to become must see classics.

Now maybe I’m living in the past? A fair question and accusation. I’m sure some people were calling Jane Russell for not being in the same league as Clara Bow or Lillian Gish; who knows, I wasn’t there. (Although on reflection Clara Bow and Lindsay Lohan have a lot in common; both were/are pint sized, red haired, crazy ladies who seem intent on airing their dirty laundry in public. Wonder if Lohan would be interested in a remake of It?) 

Bow and Lohan- showing their knickers in public in two seperate centuries.

 So, here’s the frustration, I know who Lillian Gish is, and some of her films are nearly a hundred years old (if they survive at all)! But a fair few thirty-somethings wouldn’t have a clue, regardless of how historically important Gish is, and the guy she was most professionally associated with (director DW Griffith). But the fact is that if you can shift your mind-set to a different era, as myself and many others can, you see and hear the brilliance in the work of those creative sorts who have been and gone. An art gallery is a prime example of where such a feeling can arise. A walk through the Louvre is like a walk through a cemetery of beauty.

You could go your whole life without seeing the work of Leonardo De Vinci, for example, and you might be one of the rare few who don’t even know his name, but it’d be a huge shame. We should be thankful that art is hung there for us to marvel at, and that it exists at all. We can only imagine what the first night performances of Shakespeare’s plays were like, so we should think ourselves lucky some creative results do survive. The world is full of wonderful things, and a fair few of them are the product of our creativity. Perhaps that is why myself and others feel the pang of disappointment when another icon of the arts leaves this finite reality. There’s a good reason why we miss them.

Muammar Gaddaffi is currently claiming column inches in the press, but if his latest drama turns out to be his last, will we really miss him? Nat Lofthouse, John Barry, Gary Moore, Nicholas Courtney and Jane Russell have all passed away recently, but they are going to be missed because they brought joy and not strife. In that sense, if Gaddaffi  meets his end soon, he won’t be missed at all. Now, when the sad day comes that Nelson Mandela dies, for example, that’ll envoke a very different reaction; the difference between a dictator and a liberator. When war makers die we realise how much we miss the ones bringing joy and hope.

You see, it doesn’t matter if you make the world a more interesting place by…. scoring few goals on a football field, making sure your looks and acting skill light up a movie screen, doing jaw dropping things with a guitar, shooting fake bullets at an extra in a Cyberman suit or writing something wonderful for Shirley Bassey to sing to. Just to thine own self be true, in a way that will ensure a happier life. But don’t be causing grief, whether to your neighbour or a whole country, otherwise no one will miss you when you’re gone.

Death. It may be inevitable, but the eventual memory of your passing is entirely down to you.

And incidentally, with regard to Ms Russell, gentleman may well prefer blondes , but Gentlemen marry brunettes. It’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years. Plus, don’t even get me started on those crazy redheads. Rusty locks are like catnip.