James Bond: The Roger Moore Era – Moonraker

If I had to pick one word to use to best describe Moonraker, it would be: incoherent.

For Your Eyes Only was originally intended to be the follow-up to The Spy Who Loved Me, but in 1977 a movie came out that turned everything upside-down. That movie was called Star Wars and in the wake of its massive success, sci-fi was all the rage. The Bond producers took note of this and decided to send Bond to space.

Images: MGM

To achieve this, they very loosely adapted Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name. The book was Fleming’s third Bond novel, and in stark contrast to the movie, had nothing to do with outer space and took place entirely in Britain. Compare this to the film, which jumps from California to Venice to Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon rainforest to SPACE. In the book, the villain Hugo Drax is an ex-Nazi now working for the Soviets. He’s building an experimental missile called Moonraker that purportedly is to be used to defend England, but secretly Drax is planning to launch it at London.

The book draws from a lot of Cold War fears and is a Bond novel that feels very relevant to the era in which it was written. The movie, on the other hand, is a jumbled mishmash that jumps around wildly, never establishing a consistent tone (a recurring problem in Moore’s Bond films) and featuring one of the most outlandish and far-fetched scenarios that the Bond series has ever presented, which is saying something when you consider that an earlier Bond villain had a secret lair hidden inside a volcano.

The movie has a great opening sequence, involving Bond jumping out of a plane without a parachute and fighting a henchman with a parachute on the way down. It’s impressive that such a dangerous sequence was filmed all the way back in 1979 (it took 88 skydives to complete), and still holds up today. It also involves everyone’s favorite Bond henchman, the legendary JAWS, played once again by Richard Kiel, whose character was so popular in The Spy Who Loved Me that he was brought back for another round.

Bond’s mission is to investigate the hijacking of a Moonraker space shuttle. The Moonraker was made Drax Industries, the headquarters of which are located in California. He promptly seduces Corinne, Drax’s sexy helicopter pilot, and she helps Bond steal some of Drax’s blueprints for a mysterious kind of glass vial that is being made in Venice. When Drax learns of Corinne’s betrayal, he, er, sends his hunting dogs after her and they, um, eat her. Corinne’s death is one of the most unpleasant in the entire Bond series, it seems exceptionally cruel. I understand that this kind of thing shows how nasty the villain is, but Corinne’s death comes off as unnecessarily brutal.

Bond then heads to Venice, where he again encounters an astronaut he met at Drax’s California headquarters. This astronaut’s name, sigh, is Holly Goodhead, and she is of course an undercover CIA agent who is also investigating Drax. Has there ever been a person in history who was both a CIA agent and an astronaut? I mean, that’s a pretty impressive resume right there. It turns out that the mysterious glass vials are meant to hold a nerve gas that is deadly to humans but harmless to animals.

The section of the film that takes place in Venice also has one of the dumbest action sequences in the entire Bond franchise, in which Drax’s henchmen chase Bond through the canals and Bond’s gondola turns out to be outfitted with a bunch of gadgets and like grows wheels or something and he drives it around and a pigeon does a double take and it’s just monumentally stupid. I didn’t make up that part about the pigeon by the way, that’s in the movie. They actually edited footage of a pigeon to make it look like it was doing a double take and PUT IT IN THE MOVIE. I shit you not.

Bond ends up in Rio de Janeiro where a bunch of other dumb stuff happens, and eventually finds Drax’s hidden base in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Bond and Goodhead hitch a ride on one of Drax’s Moonraker rockets and are blasted off INTO SPACE, where the rocket docks with Drax’s space station and Bond and Goodhead learn the details of Drax’s evil plan. He intends to use his nerve gas to wipe out all human life on Earth, then repopulate it with a few dozen genetically perfect young men and women he has brought to his space station, and therefore create a new master race.

It’s an audacious evil scheme but it’s also, frankly, kind of generic. It’s just so hard to come up with an original plot for world domination, you know? The movie climaxes with a massive laser gun battle waged both inside and outside Drax’s space station. It’s a pretty fun sequence and the effects are impressive by 70’s standards, even if they are undeniably cheesy. The laser guns literally make a PEW! PEW! sound. It’s goofy as all get out, but undeniably entertaining. As a very special bonus, here’s my photo-realistic artistic interpretation of the climactic laser battle, made with MS Paint. I know, I know, I’m a brilliant artist. You’re welcome.

Moonraker is one of those movies that manages to be entertaining almost in spite of itself. It’s undeniably dumb as shit but at least it’s fun. The plot barely hangs together, but there’s so much going on that you can’t really help but get swept up in the sheer giddy silliness of it all. It succeeds as a piece of entertainment even as it fails to tell a coherent story.

It has plenty of other problems too. The tone veers drastically from deadly seriousness to slapstick buffoonery. The fact that this movie has one of the Bond series’ most brutal deaths (Corinne killed by Drax’s dogs) and one of the dumbest sight gags (a pigeon doing a double take) should serve as ample evidence of the movie’s tonal inconsistency.

The acting is also not great. Holly Goodhead was played by an American actress named Lois Chiles who was plenty easy on the eyes, but had no chemistry at all with Roger Moore. She’s tough and capable, sure, but also kinda boring. She doesn’t have much personality and her relationship with Bond ends up feeling inconsequential. This is particularly disappointing when you remember the nuanced and complex relationship between Bond and Anya in the previous Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Holly Goodhead isn’t an offensively bad character, she’s just bland. And she has an awful last name.

Similarly underwhelming is French actor Michael Lonsdale as the villain, Hugo Drax. Lonsdale delivers his lines in a weird monotone that makes Drax sound perpetually bored. For crying out loud, you’re playing a guy who wants to wipe out mankind and you have your own space station! Chew some scenery! Don’t act like you’re always wondering if you left the oven on! Much like the Bond Girl, Moonraker’s Bond Villain is bland and forgettable.

Much as he did in The Spy Who Loved Me, Jaws upstages the movie’s main villain. Richard Kiel remained an imposing physical presence and I continue to enjoy the running gag where he survives various seemingly-deadly incidents and emerges calmly from the wreckage, brushing the debris off his jacket and straightening his tie. But in another example of Moonraker’s wild tonal shifts, for some incomprehensible reason the makers of this movie saw fit to give him a girlfriend and make him a good guy who helps Bond during the battle on Drax’s space station. It’s dumb, and not in a good way. It feels like an attempt to neuter an iconic villain, and as a connoisseur of cinematic villainy I take great umbrage at that.

But you have to give the filmmakers some credit. The sheer scale of the production is impressive and the variety of locations gives the film a lot of visual flair. Moonraker is a movie that totally goes for broke, and even though the story is a mess the ride itself is quite enjoyable. And if the producers wanted to cash in on the success of Star Wars they succeeded, since Moonraker was a huge hit that made $210 million and was the highest-grossing Bond movie until GoldenEye in 1995.

I love this poster for so many reasons. It has not one, but two awesome taglines. Bond is wearing a tux under the spacesuit. There’s a Union Jack on the shoulder of the spacesuit. Above Bond’s left hand, there’s a name tag which reads “J BOND 007.” And the piece de resistance, which is that Bond is not wearing a helmet in outer space, and would therefore be dead in moments. A gloriously cheesy poster for a gloriously cheesy movie.

Moonraker ultimately feels like a movie that was made to capitalize on the success of Star Wars without understanding why people liked Star Wars in the first place. It’s not just the space ships and laser guns, it’s the complex lore and elegant world building and appealing characters. Moonraker doesn’t have any of that, but it does deliver considerable entertainment value. It’s good, pulpy fun that would make for a great night of popcorn-fueled weekend movie watching with friends.

Moonraker was so far over the top that for Bond’s next adventure, the filmmakers brought Bond back down to earth and took a more grounded approach. For Your Eyes Only is one of my favorite Bond films, and easily one of Roger Moore’s best. I can’t wait to talk about it.

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Hellboy 2019 is a Bloody Mess

I need a shower after that. The new reboot of Hellboy is one of the goriest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to even put into words just how gruesome this movie is. This ain’t your grandpa’s Hellboy, that’s for sure.

But let’s back up a bit. This new version of Hellboy is the latest incarnation of the comic book character created by Mike Mignola in 1993. You probably saw the commercials for the new movie and thought to yourself, wait, didn’t they already do that? The short answer is yes. Hellboy previously appeared in two films directed by monster aficionado Guillermo del Toro: Hellboy in 2004 and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, released in 2008. Del Toro’s films starred Ron Perlman as the title character and are movies that are fondly remembered today.

Del Toro and Perlman tried for years to get a third Hellboy made but for whatever reason it never got off the ground. You know what that means: reboot time. So here comes a new version directed by Neil Marshall and starring David Harbour in the title role, with no involvement from either del Toro or Perlman. And it’s…not great. It currently has an abysmal 15% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (as opposed to 81% and 86% for the del Toro movies) and made an equally-abysmal $12 million over its opening weekend. It seems poised to become one of the biggest bombs of 2019.

Images: Lionsgate

So…what happened?

There’s no easy answer, of course. But I had two takeaways from this movie: number one is that it’s really weird, and number two is that it’s really, really violent. Combine these two and you don’t exactly have a recipe for box-office gold.

So let’s talk about these two things, shall we?

This movie is weird as hell, no pun intended. Let’s chronicle some of that weirdness. The movie involves King Arthur, Merlin and Excalibur, and (spoiler) Hellboy himself turns out to be a descendant of King Arthur (!). There’s a group of upper-crust English gentlemen who dress up as knights and use electric-powered spears to hunt giants. There’s a Mexican luchador wrestler who turns into a winged vampire monster. Thomas Haden Church briefly appears as a guy named Lobster Johnson. One of the main characters turns into what must have been a were-leopard, or perhaps it was a were-jaguar. The main villain is named Nimue the Blood Queen and her main henchman is basically a sentient, bipedal warthog with a cockney accent. And have you ever heard of Baba Yaga? She’s in this movie too, complete with house that walks on chicken legs.

And covering all this weirdness are several squishy layers of blood, guts and gore. While del Toro’s Hellboy movies were rated PG-13, this reboot is a very hard R. Heads and limbs are severed, bodies melt, explode and dissolve, people are stomped, slashed, chopped, mutilated and maimed in every way imaginable, all of which is accompanied by soaring geysers of blood. During one particularly audacious sequence, an army of giant demons (demon giants?) are released from hell and unleash gruesome mayhem on the citizens of London, leading to people being skinned, impaled, incinerated and even ripped in half vertically like a wishbone.

The architect of all this grisly carnage is Neil Marshall. I last mentioned Marshall when I wrote about his 2002 werewolf movie Dog Soldiers, which was also extremely gory. But Hellboy had a much higher budget than Dog Soldiers, which allowed Marshall to indulge in his favorite pastime, which is of course painting the screen with blood and viscera. Seriously, this guy’s movies are GORY. Does Neil Marshall need a hug? I think he needs a hug.

But is there a story buried beneath all the blood and body parts? Yes, although it’s nothing particularly special. During the age of King Arthur, Nimue (pronounced Nim-way) the Blood Queen had some evil plan to unleash a plague or something, only to be defeated and dismembered by King Arthur and Merlin. Arthur sent her body parts to different corners of the kingdom so that no one could reassemble her. But in the modern day, there is that bipedal warthog creature who’s trying to reassemble Nimue so that she can turn him back into…a fairy, I think? The warthog-man also has a beef with Hellboy for reasons that didn’t really make any sense.

That was probably the most incomprehensible plot summary you’ve ever read, but trust me, watching the actual movie doesn’t make things any clearer. The movie’s plot is a complete mess, confusing at best and utterly baffling at worst. Guillermo del Toro is known for making movies that are full of bizarre creatures and monsters, and getting the viewer to sympathize with the creatures. With his Hellboy movies, he took a lot of care in establishing the world and the backstory of Hellboy and his supporting cast, and spent a lot of time developing their relationships so that you really cared about them.

Neil Marshall is a talented filmmaker, but with this movie it seems like he didn’t care about little things like plot or character and instead decided to throw everything at the wall to see what would stick. And the things he threw at the wall were severed heads and body parts. He tries to get the viewer to sympathize with Hellboy and attempts to add a bit of nuance to the thin plot by having Nimue try to recruit him to join her cause, since he’s a monster and everyone hates and fears him anyway, so why should he bother to help humanity? It’s a decent idea but it’s been done to death in the previous Hellboy movies, not to mention about a dozen X-Men movies.

Okay, but is there anything decent about this movie? I mean yeah, there is. It’s reasonably entertaining, and I was never bored. Baffled maybe, but not bored. David Harbour is good as Hellboy, although he probably won’t be making anyone forget Ron Perlman anytime soon. It’s got to be hard to act under all that makeup, and the guy gives it his best shot. Milla Jovovich is also good as the evil Nimue, and really sinks her teeth into the role of an ancient sorceress out for revenge.

The special effects and creature designs are also solid. It must be a lot of fun to work on a movie like this and let your imagination run wild, and there are all kinds of trolls, gremlins, zombies, and demons. The action sequences are also quite a bit of fun, if you can get past the copious bloodletting. Marshall is a talented director of action sequences and there is a reason he was hired to direct some of the biggest battle episodes of Game of Thrones. The action scenes are fun and exciting, even if the gore is excessive. I haven’t read any of the Hellboy comic books so I don’t know if they’re anywhere near as gory as this movie is, but if they are you’d probably need to wash your hands after reading one.

The new version of Hellboy isn’t very good. It has decent entertainment value, but it adds nothing to the world of Hellboy that hadn’t been done better in the earlier movies, and ends up feeling like a cynical cash-grab. There’s not just one but two post-credits scenes that tease sequels that will most likely never happen given the underwhelming box-office numbers. This movie will be a footnote in the history of superhero cinema.

Pet Sematary: Sometimes Dead is Better

I’m going to do something with this post that I have never done before, which is that I’m going to start with a disclaimer. Pet Sematary deals with some very intense and sensitive topics, so if you have trouble with discussion of pets and/or children dying, or if you’ve maybe lost a loved one recently, you might not want to read this. If you do decide to read this, strap in: things are going to get dark.

I’m going to be looking at the book itself and both of its film adaptations, and there will be spoilers for all three. Dark, gruesome stuff lies ahead. You have been warned.

Pet Sematary is the book that Stephen King, the Master of Horror himself, thought was too dark and disturbing to publish. He has stated that of all the books he’s written, Pet Sematary is the one that scared him the most. King put it away in a drawer after he finished it, thinking he had gone too far with the subject matter. The only reason King published it was because he switched publishers at one point, but he still owed a book to his previous publisher and Pet Sematary was the book he had.

The plot itself is straightforward. Louis Creed is a doctor from Chicago who has accepted a job at the University of Maine as the director of campus health service. His family consists of his wife Rachel, daughter Ellie, and son Gage, along with Ellie’s cat Church. Ellie is eight or nine, Gage is around two. Upon their arrival in the small town of Ludlow, Maine, they meet their new neighbor, elderly Jud Crandall. Jud warns the Creeds to be careful around the highway that runs past their house, since it is regularly used by speeding semi-trucks.

Jud shows them a pet cemetery in the woods behind their house (the sign is misspelled because it was written by children) where the town’s children bury their deceased animals, many of whom fall victim to the semi-trucks. There is a large pile of dead and broken tree trunks and limbs nearby, which Jud is reluctant to discuss. The pet cemetery leads to an argument between Louis and Rachel on the subject of how to discuss death with their children. Louis favors a practical approach, whereas Rachel doesn’t want to acknowledge the topic of death at all. This is because she is deeply traumatized by the death of her sister Zelda, who suffered from spinal meningitis that twisted and contorted her body. When Zelda died, young Rachel was alone in the house with her, so she holds herself partly responsible for her sister’s death.

Later, Louis is by himself during Thanksgiving (Rachel and the kids are spending the holiday with Rachel’s parents, who have never liked Louis) when Jud tells Louis some bad news: Ellie’s cat Church has been hit and killed by a semi-truck. Louis knows that Ellie will be heartbroken and struggles with how to break the news to her. Since Louis and Jud have become good friends, Jud offers to accompany Lewis to the pet cemetery to bury Church. But once they get there, Jud leads Louis over the deadfall behind the cemetery, and they go to an ancient Indian burial ground, where he instructs Louis to bury Church.

Louis thinks that’s the end of it…until the next day, when Church comes back. Louis tries to rationalize this, thinking that Church wasn’t actually dead, but it’s apparent that Church is not the same. He’s aggressive and mean, he hunts animals more frequently and tears them apart without eating them, his fur is matted and filthy, and he stinks so badly that Ellie doesn’t want him in her room anymore.

A few months later, every parent’s nightmare happens: 2-year-old Gage is killed by one of the speeding trucks. Torn apart by grief, and despite Jud’s dire warnings that “Sometimes dead is better” (the book and film’s most famous line), Louis does the unthinkable: he exhumes the body of his dead son and buries him in the Indian burial ground.

Inevitably, Gage returns. He is demonic and vicious, and brutally murders Jud and Rachel with one of his father’s surgical scalpels. Louis puts him down for good with an injection of chemicals. Desperately thinking that the results will be different if he doesn’t wait as long to bury her, Louis buries Rachel in the cursed burial ground.

At the end of the novel, Louis sits in his home, a broken man. As he glumly plays solitaire and waits, a cold hand drops on his shoulder and his wife’s voice rasps a single word: “Darling.”

Chilling.

Reading the book is like being in a roller coaster heading into a pit full of spikes. You know something terrible is going to happen at the end, but you are powerless to do anything about it. Perhaps more than any book I’ve ever read, Pet Sematary has this incredible sense of irresistible forward momentum. You know Louis is making a terrible mistake, and you get the sense he knows it too. The rational part of you wants to start yelling at the book to make the character stop what he’s doing because it’s all going to end tragically…

…but at the same time, the emotional part of you understands.

Of course this man wants to see his son again.

Of course he wants to heal his family.

Two years old is far too early for a person to die.

This is the unanswerable dilemma posed by Pet Sematary. Does Louis do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Does he think he’s doing the right thing? Does he deserve what happens to him and his family as a result of his decision to resurrect Gage? What would be worse: losing someone you love, or losing someone you love only for them to come back and not be the same? And perhaps the most haunting question of all, what would you do in his situation? Even knowing what you’re doing is wrong, would you be able to stop yourself?

The true horror of Pet Sematary isn’t the resurrected, murderous toddler, which doesn’t even happen until the last fifty or so pages of the book. That would be horrific enough on its own, but what’s far more disturbing about Pet Sematary is its ruminations on the subject of death, and why people are so afraid of it. Losing a loved one is terrible, but having them come back and not be the same would be even worse. Pet Sematary is more about dealing with loss and tragedy and learning how to move on with your life than it is about defending yourself from a murderous toddler. Stephen King paints a compelling and deeply harrowing portrait of a family enduring a terrible loss, only to have something even worse happen as a result.

It’s easy to hate Louis Creed, but there is no real villain in this story. Or, conversely, a compelling argument could be made that everyone is a villain. Jud shows Louis the burial ground and plants the idea of resurrecting Gage in his head. Rachel’s inability to talk about death leads to Louis burying Church in the cursed burial ground. Louis exhumes his dead son and reburies him, knowing what will probably happen. And of course Gage, brought back from the dead only to brutally murder a nice old man and his own mother.

Who’s the villain here?

Everyone, and no one.

Pet Sematary was initially brought to the screen in 1989, six years after the book was first published. The movie is very faithful to the novel, which could partly be because Stephen King himself wrote the screenplay. The movie was directed by Mary Lambert and starred Dale Midkiff as Louis, Denise Crosby as Rachel, and Fred Gwynne as Jud.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Gwynne, known as Herman Munster from The Munsters, easily gives the movie’s best performance. In his books, King is (at times overly) fond of writing dialogue in regional dialects. One of his favorite expressions is “Ayuh,” and there are “Ayuh”s aplenty both in the book and in the 1989 film. I won’t lie, King’s frequent use of dialect in his books is one of my least favorite things about him as a writer, I love his books but the parts written in dialect can be tiresome.

This actually translates well to the screen. I didn’t mind it so much because it felt more natural coming from an actual person than it did reading it on the page. Gwynne was in his 50’s when the movie was released, but he looks much older. I was surprised to discover that he was only 66 when he died in 1993. He gives a tremendously convincing performance as Jud, and his grisly death at the hands of the undead Gage is, for me, the movie’s most horrific scene.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie’s acting isn’t as good. Dale Midkiff as Louis gives one of the flattest performances I’ve ever seen in a movie, he has no charisma at all. His portrayal of Louis is as flat as a pancake. You know it’s not a great sign when a movie’s lead actor gets out-acted by a three-year-old, as Midkiff does here. Gage was played by Miko Hughes, who was pretty much the cutest kid you’ve ever seen, making his murder spree all the more disturbing.

The problem is that, while the idea of someone’s dead child coming back to murderous life is a horrifically disturbing idea that is chilling to read in a book, its translation to the screen is…a mixed bag. Watching a man battle his murderous undead offspring is horrifying, but it’s also a bit silly. Reading it may be scary but actually seeing it is equal parts scary and ridiculous. Reading the book makes it easier to suspend your disbelief.

Which brings us to the new version of the movie. The 2019 movie stars Jason Clarke as Louis, Amy Seimetz as Rachel, and John Lithgow as Jud. The new movie follows the same general plot structure with one key difference, sadly given away by the film’s trailers: in this version, it’s not Gage but Ellie who is hit by a truck and brought back to murderous life. This is a change that angered some fans of the original, but I like it. It puts a fresh spin on the material and keeps it from feeling like the exact same story. And since Ellie is older than Gage, it gives the viewer a chance to get to know her more as a person, which gives her death and resurrection more emotional weight.

Ellie is played by a young actress named Jete Laurence, and she deserves a lot of credit for what is probably the best performance in the movie. She makes Ellie inquisitive and likable, without ever being shrill or annoying. And when she later goes full psycho and begins her murder spree, Laurence’s performance is chilling and believable. Watching a 9-year-old girl repeatedly stab her mother with a kitchen knife is one of the nastier things I’ve seen on a movie screen in quite some time. An evil 9-year-old is also more plausible onscreen than an evil 3-year-old.

The movie also gets a lot of mileage out of the body horror aspects of Rachel’s sister Zelda. The Zelda scenes in the original movie were unsettling, but the Zelda scenes in the new movie are far more horrific, and provide some of the most effective scares. Old-school fans of the original movie will probably disagree, but I think the new movie is better than the original in almost every way: the acting is (mostly) better, it’s more atmospheric, it ramps up the gore, and most importantly it’s much scarier.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t have flaws. The relationship between Jud and Louis could have used a bit more detail, and there are a few intriguing ideas that don’t go anywhere. One of the scenes that featured prominently in the movie’s trailers was of a procession of children, wearing animal masks and slowly beating a drum, pushing a dead dog in a wheelbarrow in the woods towards the pet cemetery.

It’s a creepy image that presents all sorts of intriguing possibilities: do the kids know about the burial ground that will bring things back to life? How much does the rest of the town know? Could the kids themselves have been resurrected there? Unfortunately, the image is there and then gone, and ultimately only serves to provide Ellie with a creepy animal mask she wears during her murderous rampage. It’s a spooky early scene that doesn’t end up serving the plot in a meaningful way, and feels like a missed opportunity.

One thing both movies really nail is the ending. The original movie’s ending is much closer to the book’s ending, with Louis embracing his grotesquely reanimated wife before she picks up a knife off the table and the screen cuts to black as Louis screams. The new movie ends with Ellie, Rachel and Louis all being killed and resurrected as murderous versions of their former selves, with the strong implication that cute little Gage will be next. Both versions are chilling.

Pet Sematary is one of Stephen King’s darkest stories. It’s also one of my favorites of his books that I’ve read. I don’t know if I could ever read it or watch either movie again, since the experience took me to some very dark places. Pet Sematary is a story about death. It’s a story about a very nice family who has unspeakable things happen to them. It lets the reader/viewer decide for themselves who they think the villain is. It’s a story with a lot of ambiguity, it doesn’t offer any easy answers and the ending of every version of the story offers no encouragement.

It’s a difficult and astonishingly dark piece of fiction, and it’s not hard to see why Stephen King himself is a little scared of it. Pet Sematary is a story that forces you to come to the inevitable conclusion that no matter how painful it is, sometimes dead is indeed better.