Thursday, November 30, 2017

Roger Moore as 007: An Appreciation

This past May cinema lost one of its most iconic actors with the passing of Roger Moore. Over the past month I went back and revisited all seven James Bond films he starred in as 007, a run that began with Live and Let Die in 1973 and ended with A View To a Kill in 1985. Many of these I had not watched in years so it was like discovering them all over again. 

For the most part they have aged well. For years, I considered Connery films to be better since they were more realistic and avoided the camp so often associated with the Moore films. And while there were some moments that were a bridge too far, for example the ridiculous space battle in Moonraker, he brought a knowing sense of fun and intelligence to all the films.

Unfortunately, I am unfamiliar with most of Moore's work outside of the Bond franchise. He was steady performer on television during the 1960s and 1970s, most famously as The Saint. I also need to see some of his films outside of the Bond franchise such as Gold and Shout at the Devil. After leaving the Bond franchise, he went into semi retirement. He also devoted much of his time to being an ambassador at large for UNICEF and other philanthropic causes.

The Films

Producers had had been eyeing Moore since the early 1960s as a contender for the role, finally at age 45 he got the part after Connery did not return after finishing Diamonds Are Forever. 

Live and Let Die (1973) ***1/2

Live and Let Die gave Bond a new look and sound, with Paul McCartney writing the soundtrack. The story also took some creative risks, this time 007 takes on the global drug trade. After three fellow agents are killed, Bond is sent to the Caribbean to investigate. The film took inspiration from the popular Blaxploitation genre of the mid 1970s. A young Yaphet Kotto plays the main villain Mr. Big, a drug kingpin out to build an empire. The best sequence takes place in Harlem where Bond is hilariously out of his comfort zone. Jane Seymour made her big screen debut as Solitare. 

The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) ***

Bond must prevent an international assassin from endangering England's energy supply. Moore goes mano to mano with a devilish Christopher Lee. Most of the action takes place in Asia - Macau, Thailand, and Hong Kong also makes The Man With the Golden Gun an enticing travelogue. The best of the Lo-Fi Bond films.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) ***

Moore's first "big" Bond film pits him against a mad man out to destroy the world. Bond teams up with a beautiful KGB agent XXX (Barbara Bach) to prevent world destruction. Many consider this a remake of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, so it does go back to the well up to a certain point. Richard Kiel leaves a lasting impression as the steel toothed henchman Jaws. The opening sequence is stunning and the theme by Marvin Hamlisch with vocals by Carly Simon is one of the best in the series.

Moonraker (1979) ***

Of all the films I revisited, Moonraker was the most surprising. It's well paced and builds up to a wonderfully ridiculous conclusion. Moore lets the puns fly as he tracks the strange doings of Hugo Drax (Elon Musk type character) as the most chill villain in 007 history. Jaws even returns and is given something of a character arc. 

For Your Eyes Only (1981) **1/2

Maybe the most divisive Bond film ever made. After the over the top Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only features a more realistic plot with less of an emphasis on stunts and gadgets. Moore gives another fine performance, but I find the film itself to be a slog. The bad guys are forgettable and the stakes are almost too low for a Bond film, if 30 minutes were cut out the film would be leaner and perhaps more memorable. Best moment: Moore coldly dispatches of a bad guy by kicking his car down a cliff! 

Octopussy (1983) ***

Moore's most underrated Bond film. More engaging than its predecessor, the plot reverts back to Cold War intrigue of the early films. The action stretches from India to East Berlin and leads to a nail biting conclusion. Well plotted and acted, Octopussy marked the high point of Moore's tenure.

A View To A Kill (1985) **

Unfortunately, a failure on all counts. Christopher Walken is underwhelming as the generic bad guy, a product of Nazi eugenics. Moore seemed exhausted with the role. Old enough to be the father of his love interest, he decided it was time to move on. He deserved a better exit from the franchise, why not an adaptation of Casino Royale? There's a great film to yet to be made about an aging Bond (I don't consider Never Say Never Again to be canon). 

Taking Stock

Following Sean Connery would tough act for any actor to follow, yet Moore managed to pull it off. While his films have a different tone than Connery's, they are entertaining and never dreary. Moore kept the series alive in the 1970s and 1980s, keeping the 1960s icon relevant. 

What made Moore different than Connery? Certainly his movies had a lighter touch, an eye more towards comedy, romance, and adventure. Not as physically threatening as his predecessor, he made up for it with his innate charm and intelligence. Although there were times when Moore could be a ruthless Bond, those moments were few and far between.

All the Moore films have aged well. The "camp" approach of some of these films, especially The Man With the Golden Gun and Moonraker, may be out of step with what modern audiences expect in a James Bond movie, yet they make a nice contrast to the cold tone of the Daniel Craig films. Thankfully, Moore made his movies their own thing, distinct and separate from the rest.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Suburbicon *** (2017)

In George Clooney's sixth directorial effort he revisits the Cold War culture he portrayed in his previous films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck. Matt Damon stars in one of his darker performances as a devious man in the gray flannel suit. Suburbicon was a bold dark comedy written by the Coen brothers over 30 years ago, and one can see the DNA of movies like Fargo and Blood Simple. Clooney and producer Grant Heslov reworked the script into not a perfect movie, an enjoyable and prescient one.

The movie opens with a parody of 1950s documentaries that championed the bright new suburban neighborhoods as new utopias. Then we follow a mailman cheerfully delivering letters until he comes upon a house with an African-American family moving in and his mood quickly changes. At the house next door a boy sits with his mother and aunt and they entice him to play baseball with the "colored boy."

Matt Damon is an overweight schemer, channeling John Belushi in Neighbors. Julianne Moore plays two roles: wife and sister. Oscar Isaac appears all too briefly as an insurance investigator. Damon shows a good timing for dark comedy and has fun playing against his persona. Noah Jupe, a child actor, gives the best performance and a provides a human element to the film.

Suburbicon sat on the shelf for a few years. Although it has taken a drubbing from critics, I've seen few films that better suit the current political mood. The sight of angry white people raging over accepting diversity hits a little too close to home, much as Kathryn Bigelow's film Detroit did a few months ago. The moral rot that Clooney identifies in 1950s values is a direct slam on the MAGA crowd who consider the era a golden age. 

Suburbicon is a bizarro Spielberg world by way of Rod Serling with dashes of Hitchcock at his devilish best. Some of the uncanny imagery channels the absurdity of the Coens. Suburbicon has potential for attaining cult classic status.