Sunday, May 20, 2012

James Bond Weekend #2: From Diamonds Are Forever to The Spy Who Loved Me

So, I'm sitting down in the front row of the theater, writing something or other while getting ready to watch Diamonds Are Forever on Friday night, and ten or fifteen minutes before the movie, I hear "obsessed lunatic?", and Dave Kornfeld is standing above me.

Dave's the head projectionist at the Somerville Theatre, who pulled him out of retirement as they upgraded the theater from second-run to first-run and also built out the booth. I've encountered him on the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival message board and heard stories of his encyclopedic knowledge of film aspect ratios from the folks at the Million Year Picnic, and, yeah, I have called him an obsessed lunatic on occasion. He can tend to make discussions one-sided with expertise and attitude. I have called him an obsessed lunatic on occasion, though I'm not sure how it got back to him.

But, let's be honest, I say "obsessed lunatic" with appreciation. My SXSW bunkmate from a few years back, Jason Whyte, was celebrating as his local theaters went digital not because he doesn't appreciate film, but because the 35mm projection at his local theaters was so bad that this was the best chance of presentation with any sort of consistent quality. As many will tell you, including and especially Dave, digital isn't really that sort of guarantee. The weekend I saw these movies, there was another note in the paper about the projection issues at the now-all-digital AMC Boston Common. This doesn't happen so much at Somerville, because Dave has extremely high standards. He'll grudgingly admit that prints were decent after projecting them, even if he was enthused about not finding any splices on the print beforehand. It is extremely unlikely that you'll ever hear complaints about the light being too dim there - heck, when they were showing silent movies last year, he pulled out a special extra-bright bulb to replicate the carbon-arc lamps they used back when those movies were made. He's got all the equipment for 70mm in the booth and is frustrated that the technicians haven't been out to hook them up yet. I often joke that we'll know when the Somerville Theatre has installed digital projection from the news reports of an armed standoff between Dave and some guys from Sony in Davis Square.

The upshot: If quality projection is your main concern, stop complaining about how the national chains are and head a few extra stops up the Red Line to Davis. The tickets are cheap and they put real butter on the popcorn, too.

So, that covers the presentation. How about the movies themselves?

Overall, not so great. The 1970s weren't a great time for the James Bond series. It's easy to blame it all on Roger Moore, but in many ways he's just a symptom of a larger problem or two. For as much as James Bond became the standard for this sort of picture, it seems like the series became awfully reactive. Diamonds Are Forever was pushing back against On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die tried to ride the Blaxploitation wave, Moonraker would be a response to Star Wars. Imitations and parodies had started to appear in earnest by then, and the producers seemed to be doubling down on the stuff that was identifiabley Bond.

Not that this sort of reactivity is always bad; Casino Royale benefited by integrating parkour and switching Bond's game of choice from baccarat to poker. The 1970s films were just rather obvious about it.

Plus... Well, by the time you get to the tenth movie in a series, even the most wide-open setting narrows as the desire to deliver a bigger threat, and it's apparently tough to top "space laser".

Diamonds Are Forever

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 May 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

By itself, Diamonds Are Forever isn't a bad Bond movie, but it comes right after On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which is among the best. The opening, where Bond pursues Blofeld with ruthless zeal, is pretty terrific, but not long after that, it's like Bond has forgotten Tracy completely, like we can't even get a full movie of intense, angry Bond.

It's also the start of two or three consecutive James Bond movies that have big, destructive car chases that actually really suck, because they tend to just involve James Bond driving around while terrible pursuers basically drive off the road because they just are not very good at this sort of thing. It's tremendously frustrating, because there are great car chases being shot in the sixties and seventies, and this really isn't one of them.

The rest of the movie is frequently sloppy, too. Sure, Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint are a fun pair of assassins, but the story with Blofeld pretending to be a Howard Hughes analog always feels like Bond is too far behind what's going on, and the final confrontation with Blofeld leaves a little to be desired.

Live and Let Die

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 May 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

At times, it seems like the switch to Roger Moore is going to herald a real shift in the series, with supernatural elements suddenly popping up in the script and imagery, Blofeld and SPECTRE nowhere to be found, and Roger Moore just not seeming to have any idea of how to do the rough-and-ready side of Bond.

But, man, all of that pales compared to how the plot and execution of this thing is right on the border of offensive, arguably tilted toward the bad side. Look at in context, placed between two movies about space lasers, and what is it offering as a threat on the same level? Black people. There's one black CIA guy, and every other African-American character is either part of Mr. Big's conspiracy to hook the entire world on heroin or looks on as they kill any interloper. Oh, and there's Sheriff J.W. Pepper, who is inexplicably popular enough to show up in the next movie, and throws a few "boys" out there. Sure, it's not likely meant negatively - this is the blaxploitation era and the 1970s, and meant to communicate something vibrant and powerful, but given how conservative a property Bond is by nature, and how it's nearly forty years later, this does not look good at all.

It's not all bad, of course. Though the picture manages to overuse it pretty severely, Paul McCartney and Wings contribute a kick-ass theme song. And Yaphet Kotto is a fantastic antagonist, with gravitas enough to be a worthy adversary, imposing physicality, and the ability to pull off a last-act swerve that highlights just how much he enjoys being the unrepentant villain of the piece.

This is probably as bad as Bond gets, and a pretty terrible start to the Roger Moore era.

The Man with the Golden Gun

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 May 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

The Man with the Golden Gun, meanwhile, isn't quite so tone-deaf - although it does feature what is perhaps Roger Moore's most embarrassing moment, when he's bailed out by a couple of teenage girls (who, in what's sort of an annoying "hey, 'oriental' is all the same" moment, are the niece of a Chinese character but apparently Thai and experts in a Japanese martial art). It's still not exactly good, but it's got Christopher Lee, which makes up for a lot of sins.

Lee's appeal here was roughly the same as Kotto's in the previous movie - he matched up well with Moore's Bond both as bon vivant and in the action sequences, and when it came time for the gloves to come off at the end of the movie, he wasn't afraid to just go for it. The writers make a wise decision in not making his Scaramanga good at everything (he may be ruthless and a peerless assassin, but he cheerfully admits to not understanding the science involved), and both henchman Herve Villechaize and moll Maud Adams add a gleeful amorality.

It's enjoyably big, at least, and has a few fun action sequences. It makes a nice ramp up for the next one.

The Spy Who Loved Me

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 May 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

What's this, a good James Bond film with Roger Moore? So it is! Will wonders never cease?

There's a reference to On Her Majesty's Secret Service in this one, and it's related to what makes this one so good - it's one of the few James Bond movies to this point where the female lead is really an equal/complement to 007, and the story actually involves some sort of human interaction and motivation, rather than Bond just being this force of nature that the ladies are helpless against and for whom "be knocked unconscious" is a practical intelligence-gathering method. Watching Roger Moore and Barbara Bach's scenes is actually fun; there's something going on.

Richard Kiel's "Jaws" is a more memorable henchman than Curt Jurgens's Stromberg is a villain (although, man, there's the series being obviously reactive again), but Stromberg's got maybe the coolest villain lair in Atlantis of any of the movies. With the "tanker", it gives Bond and Agent XXX two big assaults to mount, and that's after a bunch of fun action scenes with Jaws. There is, I think, one of those "drive around until the other cars spontaneously crash" car chases, but otherwise, this is one of Moore's best Bonds, and one worth placing with the rest of the series.

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