Sunday, October 29, 2006

Maui's Kahekili Hwy

The Road to Hana. The pre-dawn trek up to Haleakala's summit. They are on many visitors' itinerary for a very good reason-- they are fantastic drives. But if you want a change of pace and don't want to get stuck in a traffic jam behind camera-wielding tourists from (insert your rival state/region here) in Chevy/Pontiac/Buick rentals, then I recommend two alternative drives: the Kahekili and the Piilani Highways.

Describing either road as a "highway" is a misnomer. Much of Piilani is unpaved and Kahekili is oftentimes not wide enough for two cars. This post will cover Kahekili, my favorite drive on all of Maui.

The Kahekili curves around the northwest side of the West Maui mountains. On most maps, it is a 22 mile long dotted line that connects Kapalua in West Maui with Wailuku in Central Maui. For the neophyte, I recommend going clockwise (from Kapalua to Wailuku) for the simple reason that you will, for the most part, be hugging the mountain side of the road rather than the ocean side with the sheer drops.

Before you leave the hustle and bustle of overdeveloped West Maui, I recommend grabbing a bite at Honolua General Store, situated right next to the Ritz Carlton. The store is a relic of a bygone era. It is a rustic, old fashioned store surrounded by one of the most famous golf courses in America. It is always busy inside. You'll first notice that 95% of the customers are upper middle class vacationers who are either ordering some fancy sandwich at the deli counter or stocking up on souvenirs. Upon closer inspection, you'll notice that they are steering clear of the cafeteria style counter serving local fares such as chicken adobo, chili mac and cheese, et al.

If you are observant, you'll notice the locals-- the hotel staff, the contractors, the gardeners, etc.-- buying these lunch plates with the obligatory two scoops of rice and scoop of macaroni salad. I highly recommend getting these heart attacks on a (styrofoam) plate and ignoring the disgusted looks of the hoity-toity set. The food is that gooood.

With your belly full, you are ready to start the journey. The drive is windy. Take your time. Tap your horn ever-so-slightly before entering blind curves. It is so quiet here, the slightest sound will get people's attention. Open all your windows, or better yet, get a convertible and take the top down. Besides enjoying the scenery, the driver should keep her eye ahead for oncoming traffic. If you are in one of the many sections where only one car will fit, you may have to stop and back up to allow the car approaching you to pass.

If the drive gets a little too intense and you need a break, stop off at the Kaukini Gallery & Gift Shop. It is at the top of a hill (how about that for vague directions?!). You can't miss it. Although I'm not one to buy stuff at galleries, there is a lot of cool stuff inside to just look at.

A little bit further is the little sleepy village of Kahakuloa. It is at the end of a valley abutting the sea. Taro is still grown here. To say the place is slow faced and tranquil is an understatement. I oftentimes imagine this is what Hawaii would be like if there was no such thing as tourism.

The highlight in town for me is Julia's banana bread stand. This green wooden stand with benches cannot be missed. Every time I go to Maui, I stop by here to pick up two orders of banana bread. They are always warm and they are without a doubt the best in the world. Even if you decide to drive by the stand without stopping, Julia will still smile and wave at you.

As you approach Wailuku, near the 7 mile marker, you will find a paved one lane road going inland. Drive up about a mile and you'll be at the Waihe'e Ridge trail's trailhead. This 2.5 mile trail takes you through a pasture, a cool forest, and ends at a 2,500 foot peak with a picnic table and bench. There, through the fog, you'll see sightseeing helicopters flying BELOW you, through the chasms of the West Maui mountains. Afar, you can see Wailuku and Kahului. It is an exhilarating and quick (2 hours total) hike. Be forewarned that the steep, paved portion near the trailhead is very hard on the knees, especially when you are walking downhill.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Bond Movie Rankings

After nearly two months, I have watched every Bond movie, in reverse chronological order. By the end, I felt like I had run a marathon. I am exhausted. But here are my rankings. I've reviewed some of these movies already. Eventually, I'll have posted my full thoughts on every one of them. So chew on the following while we wait for Casino Royale's premiere.

1. The Spy Who Loved Me: Moore at his best, Jaws, and the Lotus sub.
2. For Your Eyes Only: Melina Havelock is the best Bond girl and the 2CV chase rocked.
3. On Her Majesty's Secret Service: The last scene showed the Bond we will never see again.
4. The Living Daylights: Insight into post 9/11 geopolitics, from 1987.
5. Goldfinger: Formulaic in all the right ways.
6. From Russia with Love: Classic spy thriller, with a dash of Gypsy.
7. Octopussy: The title says it all.
8. Thunderball: The DB5 and the jet pack stole the show.
9. Diamonds Are Forever: Messrs. Kidd and Wint upped the "creep" factor.
10. Dr. No: Imagine if Jack Lord was James Bond.
11. Live and Let Die: 007 goes to Harlem.
12. A View to a Kill: Best Bond theme song, by Duran Duran.
13. Goldeneye: Brosnan was a great Bond, but Goldeneye, at #13, was as good as it got.
14. You Only Live Twice: Connery blends into a Japanese village, right.
15. Tomorrow Never Dies: Pryce (Carver) ruined Infiniti, and this movie.
16. The Man with the Golden Gun: Third nipples and midgets are not ingredients of a winner.
17. Never Say Never Again: Never again, Mr. Connery, please!
18. The World Is Not Enough: Amazing how a movie with Marceau and Richards as Bond girls can be so dull.
19. Die Another Day: All flash, no substance.
20. License to Kill: License to Ill.
21. Moonraker: Just plain bad.

Conclusions: After watching all of these movies, I have come to realize what a genius Mike Myers is. He incorporated elements from virtually every Bond movie, brilliantly.
I've also picked up on 007's influence in shows as varied as Inspector Gadget (Dr. Claw) to Magnum P.I. (Higgins as Q). More later.

Update 1: I would place Casino Royale in 3rd place, just behind For Your Eyes Only and displacing OHMSS. The movie was better shot than any other. The role of 007 was much darker, complicated, and incomplete (in a good way). It does not place higher because the car chases were lame and the casino card tournament was a complete waste of time and celluloid.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Heading South (3): To the isles of Chiloe

After a brief detour to Easter Island, our journey south continues. A six hour bus ride from Santiago brings us to Chillan, in the frontier region. Until the late 19th century, Spain (and Chile) never had solid control of Chillan and points south. Just like their North American brethren the Apaches and Navajos, the Mapuche Indians were not subdued until very recently.

In Chillan, the center of attention is the colorful market. It is at its Technicolor best on Saturdays. Another must see is the Escuela Mexicana. When the 1939 earthquake destroyed the city, Mexico donated a schoolhouse. Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros decorated its walls with pre- and post-Columbian images, such as Death to the Invader (left). With all of this bold, masterful art, it is hard to imagine that it is still a functioning school.

Continuing south, we enter La Araucania, the land of conical volcanoes, glaciers, and deep blue lakes. A number of German towns dot the landscape. Valdivia, Frutillar, Puerto Varas, and Puerto Montt all have their share of Teutonic architecture, cuisine, and white page listings. We will return to Puerto Montt shortly, but the Chiloe archipelago, just to Puerto Montt's south, must be visited first.

Chiloe town

Rumor has it that the common potato originated from this area. Life is slow paced here. Fishing is not only the primary source of income, it's a way of life. Most of the population live within a brief walk from the sea. The mix of indigenous and European cultures is evidenced with the dish curanto. This Chiloe stand-by is cooked in a hole in the ground (an indigenous method). But the ingredients show the European influence: a melange of spicy sausage, bacon, beans, cheese, white wine, mussels, onions, and potatoes. The portions will even put fear into the eyes of competitive eaters like Nathan's Hot Dog champion Takeru Kobayashi.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Top 6 Bonds

Ever since Roger Moore's debut in Live and Let Die, Bond fans have debated furiously. The topic: Who is the best Bond? With Daniel Craig's Casino Royale premiering next month, the debate is sure to get more heated.

I have always thought of Moore as the best and the rest as not good enough. However, I have never sat down and considered each actor's flaws and attributes. So here, after much pondering, and after watching a lot of Bond films (16 in 45 days), is my list.

Not ranked. George Lazenby
5. Daniel Craig
4. Sean Connery
3. Pierce Brosnan
2. Timothy Dalton
1. Roger Moore

The unrankable. George Lazenby. Just as you can't judge a batter with one at-bat, you can't judge Lazenby based on just one movie. After all, would it be fair to judge Connery based on just Never Say Never Again, or Moore based on just Moonraker? Because Lazenby, the Australian model extraordinaire, starred in only one movie and was quickly replaced by his predecessor, a stigma, no, a stench, was attached to OHMSS and its star. This snowballed into basic cable networks benching OHMSS during (insert your holiday) Bond movie marathons as if it were Pee Wee Herman in the Yankee's line-up. This in turn led Bond-philes to conclude that Lazenby was a shitty Bond.

But if one set aside biases and preconceived notions, sat down, and tried to enjoy OHMSS, the inevitable conclusion is that Lazenby was pretty darn good. He had a sense of humor ("This never happened to the other guy", after a woman ran away from him). He had a playful penchant for beautiful girls (he swiped a Playboy magazine page from a Swiss lawyer's office). He had heart (the last scene when Mrs. Bond died). Lazenby had the potential to be a great Bond. Too bad we'll never know.

The ass. Daniel Craig. I must admit that I've never heard of Craig before he was cast as Bond. But he's got two things going against him. One. He's blond. Two. He does not know how to drive a stick shift. I will go into Casino Royale with an open mind, but it does not look good for Mr. Craig.

The classic Bond. Sean Connery. Purists are already gathering at the town square, torches and pitchforks in hand. How dare he rate THE quintessential and ONLY TRUE Bond, fourth? Well, I like the guy. But it's a generation thing. I was born in the 70s. Connery is the baby boomers' Bond. He's suave and never takes himself too seriously. He's macho, yet sophisticated. He's a pretty good actor. But he's just too old fashioned. My apologies.

The pretty boy Bond. Pierce Brosnan. Upon reflection, none of Brosnan's movies are on my top ten list. So what makes him so fun to watch? It's his enthusiasm. His joy de vivre. One brief scene captures this. In Tomorrow Never Dies, Brosnan is controlling his BMW 750iL in the back seat with an Erickson mobile phone. The childlike joy on his face says it all. He loves being James Bond.

The much maligned Bond. Timothy Dalton. Like Lazenby, Dalton is unfairly disliked due to the handicap of not starring in enough films. His performance in The Living Daylights, on its own, should catapult him to the top (or close to the top) of the list. He is a serious and extremely skilled actor. He captured 007's id, ego, and superego fully and flawlessly. Even in License to Kill, he was able to make the best out of the situation, given the contemporary AIDS epidemic, Priscilla Barnes (of Three's Company fame) as Mrs. Leiter, a shitty script, an uninspired villain, and a Lincoln Continental Mark VII as his vehicle.

The Bond of my childhood. Roger Moore. His character is cartoonish. He is not a great actor. He's older than Connery. But he's still the best, in my eyes. Most Bond fans saw their first film in the theater. Growing up, I had little adult supervision and access to pay cable. In addition to watching psychosis- inducing thrillers such as Poltergeist, I also got to see many of Moore's works at home after elementary school. The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only are at or near the top of my list of all time greatest Bond films not only because they are entertaining, but also because those were the first movies I saw.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Live and Let Die, Bandit!

At first glance, Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore debuted as Bond, shares nothing with Burt Reynold's car chase flick, Smokey and the Bandit. Upon closer examination, one discovers that the two movies are as intertwined as Siamese twins.

First, the role of Bond. After Diamonds Are Forever, the 007 franchise was looking for Connery's replacement. Burt Reynolds was on the very short list of candidates. Rumor has it he turned down the part because he did not believe an American should play the role. Consequently, Roger Moore took over as James Bond from Live and Let Die (1973) to A View to A Kill (1985). Reynolds could have very well starred alongside Jane Seymour in the tarot/voodoo caper.

The other commonality is the Southern cop as comic relief. There is no doubt in my mind that J.W. Pepper was the prototype for Jackie Gleason's Buford T. Justice.

So how do these characters match up against each other? Let's see. An (x) denotes the winner in each category.

Moore v. Reynolds
Roger Moore
Occupation: British secret agent (x)
Leading lady : Jane Seymour (x)
Vehicle of choice : Double decker bus
Drink of choice : Bourbon and water (x)
Co-worker/buddy : Felix Leiter
Goal: Break int'l heroin ring (x)
Anthem : Wing's Live and Let Die
Derogatory nickname: Honkie

Burt Reynolds
Occupation: Truck driver?
Leading lady: Sally Field
Vehicle of choice: Black Trans Am (x)
Drink of choice: Coors
Co-worker/buddy: Cledus Snow (x)
Goal: Transport beer
Anthem: Reed's Eastbound and Down (x)
Derogatory nickname: Sumbitch (x)

Score: 4-4 tie. Both characters are formidable and can hold their own.

Pepper v. Justice
J.W. Pepper
Occupation : Portly Louisiana sheriff (x)
Exclamation: "What the fu...?!"
Favorite food: Chaw
Roof damage : Roof crushed in
Door damage : Falls off upon opening
Face when mad : Pinkish hue

Buford T. Justice
Occupation: Portly Texas sheriff (x)
Exclamation: "Oof...." (x)
Favorite food: Diablo sandwich (x)
Roof damage : Roof lopped off (x)
Door damage : Taken out by Asian trucker (x)
Face when mad: Beet red (x)
Score: 6-1. Pepper was the first, but Justice was an icon.


Heading South (2): Chile's Norte Grande

The northern third of rail thin Chile is about three things, and three things only: desert, mining, and mining.

45km east of Iquique is the ghost town of Humberstone. This company town, based on nitrate mining, was abandoned in 1960. Due to the dry climate and lack of human intervention, it is now exactly as it was decades ago, with the exception of more dust. It has even been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. To describe the place as surreal is an understatement. A large cast iron swimming pool idly sits, empty. Classrooms are filled with neatly aligned desks and chairs, pupil-less. It is a manifestation of the boom-and-bust economies of Latin America, addictively reliant on just one or two volatile commodities.

Further down the Pan-Americana Highway, near the town of Calama, is the Chuquicamata copper pit. For almost a century, it has made money for the likes of the Guggenheims, and now, for Codelco, a state-owned concern. Until recently, it was the world's largest open mining pit. In 2000, it produced 650,000 tons of copper a year, about 5% of the total world's output. It measures approximately 4 km x 3 km and almost 1 km deep. From a distance, ant-like trucks can be seen lazily climbing up from the bottom of the pit, carrying hundreds of tons dirt and ore at a time.

Che Guevara stopped by the pit on his famous motorcycle trek through South America. Back then, he witnessed the exploitation of workers by large multi-national behemoths. Today, the exploitation continues. Despite the skyrocketing value of copper in the world market and record profits, workers' wages have barely kept up with inflation.

Continuing south, towards Santiago, the Valle de la Luna is a destination for those seeking inner peace. The grandeur, the alien environment, and the desolation combine to make an experience that will be forever seered into one's mind and soul. With each deep breath, the valley's mana (to borrow a Hawaiian term) enters the body, courses through the veins, and revitalizes.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Heading South (1): Arica, Chile

Unless you have lots of time and an ass of steel, the 3 1/2 hour flight from Santiago to Arica is more preferable than the 28 hour bus ride. Besides the savings in time, you are also treated to one of the best views of any flight in the world--with mountains, desert, and ocean galore.

Arica, population 160,000, is a border town at the intersection of Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and the Pacific. It has always been a center of trade. In pre-Columbian times, this was the southern terminus of Andean trade routes. When the Spanish dominated South America, Potosi silver streamed onto galleons here. Until the 1880s, Arica belonged to Peru. But with the War of the Pacific, Chile wrested control of the area from Peru and Bolivia. Now, it sits about 30 km south of the Chile-Peru border. With the status of a free trade zone, trade and commerce continue to dominate.

The most obvious and imposing landmark is El Morro de Arica. The city sits at the large hunk of rock's foot. A major battle during the War of the Pacific was fought on the rock. From atop, a commanding view of the desert and ocean can be appreciated.

Arica is popular among rich Bolivianos because of its beaches. For fans of the architectural obscure, two of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel's works can be explored. The first is the Aduana de Arica, a customs house built in 1874. The other is Iglesia San Marcos, built in 1875.

The region is extremely dry. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never recorded any measureable rainfall. In Arica, the average rainfall is 0.03 inch per year. The city averages two to three inches of rain, total, every century!

The extremely arid condition explains why mummified remains have survived intact for so long. At the nearby Museo Arqueologico de San Miguel de Azapa, Chinchorro mummies are on display. These mummies, some of which are 7,000 years old, are the oldest in the world. Mummification was not relegated to the rich and powerful-- everyone was mummified at death.

The Parque Nacional Lauca cannot be missed. At least several days should be spent exploring the park, not only because there is so much to enjoy and cherish, but because it takes a while to acclimate to the altitude. Vicunas abound under the rich azure sky, with tall snowy peaks in the background. The jewel of the park is Lago Chungara, one of the highest lakes in the world at 4500 meters above sea level.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Living Daylights and Our War on Terror

Dalton's The Living Daylights is one of my favorites. Dalton, a much maligned Bond, debuts in this movie and replaces the cheeky Moore with a darker, more brooding soul.

In the pre-9/11 world, I loved this movie for two reasons. First, I remember seeing this movie as a young teenager in the theater. After speaking to many Bond fans, I have come to the conclusion that a fan's favorite Bond actor and movie depend in large part on who played Bond when the fan was between the ages of ten and fifteen. Thus, the baby boomers preferred Connery, their children preferred Moore (or Dalton), and the Generation Y'ers prefer Brosnan. During these formative years of male adolescence, whichever Bond actor was on the big screen became the default "best" Bond actor. All fans have a special connection with the first Bond movie they saw in the theater, most likely while he was between ten and fifteen years of age.

(In future posts, I will explain why contrary to my theory, Moore, not Dalton, is my favorite Bond.)

The other reason I enjoyed this movie so much was because of the Aston Martin chase scene in snow covered Czechoslovakia. From the wheel-mounted laser gun that could cut a Lada police cruiser in two to the outriggers that deployed on the ice-covered lake, the V8 Vantage beat out the DB5 as THE Bond car in my eyes.

But with our liberation of the Afghans from the Taliban and the recent rise of insurgent fighting, The Living Daylights gives us another glimpse into our utter failure to study and learn from history before marching our bravest men and women into the line of fire. Not even the vast and well-equipped Soviet war machine was able to control Afghanistan in the 1980s. Back then, a rag tag, but well financed army of mujahadeen, armed and supported by wealthy Saudis and the United States government, slowly but surely, handed the dejected and humiliated Soviets a painful defeat.

The American and NATO coalitions in Afghanistan are re-living exactly what the Soviets went through. Throughout the entire war, the Soviets were unable to gain much of a foothold outside Kabul. This is eerily akin to the present situation, in which Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been mockingly described as the strongest president of Kabul. What Western powers fail to realize, despite millenia of lessons filled with misadventures in Afghanistan, is that the land and its people are impossible to control.

Many Muslim men around the world responded to the call for jihad against the atheist Soviets. Some were poor, uneducated, naive men seeking glory, adventure, and a respectable job. Others, who were from wealthier backgrounds, simply wanted to show their bravado and feed their blood thirsty egos. In the movie, this was the Oxford-educated Kamran Shah. In reality, this character could have easily been Osama Bin Laden.

In just a span of a decade, the U.S.' mujahadeen allies became the U.S.' enemies. No amount of troops, financial aid, or programs to eradicate poppy crops will solve the conflict. The crisis is so vast, entrenched, and complicated, not even James Bond can help.

God Save the Queen.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Time Capsule with the Golden Gun

The Man with the Golden Gun is a perfect 1974 time capsule . It was the brief moment in time between the hippies, acid rock, and the peace movement of the late '60s and Studio 54 and the Carter "malaise" of the late '70s.

Though it was not a great Bond flick, it wasn't bad either. Many fans poo-poo it based on one scene in particular-- that of Moore's red AMC Hornet doing a football spiral off of a broken bridge. Though the stunt itself was amazing, it was the sound effect, that of a slide whistle, that ruined it for almost everyone. But from the eyes of an American history buff, the movie gave a close and personal glance into 1974.

The scene with the Hornet was an homage to Evel Knievel. Just three months before the movie's release, Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon. It was a period when the Astrodome would be sold out, night after night, so that tens of thousands could watch daredevils perform mindboggling stunts in cars and motorbikes.

The oil crisis also plays a central role in the movie. The object of everyone's desire-- from oil importing states to oil sheiks who want nothing to do with alternative energy sources-- is the Solex Agitator. It converts solar energy into electricity on a grand scale. Energy was a hot button issue in 1974, and this was projected onto the big screen.

One victim of the energy crisis was the American car industry. Arguably, the Big Three has still not recovered. In the rush to create more fuel efficient cars, Detroit built some real lemons. They were ugly, unreliable, underpowered, and handled poorly. Scaramanga's AMC Matador coupe is an excellent example. The model in the movie had a shade of brown so grotesque its paint swatch card must have come from a dirty Greyhound bus station restroom floor. It even had a vinyl top, for Christ's sakes. When racing through the streets of Bangkok, it cornered like its suspension was made of sponge cake.

The movie also tried to cash in on the kung fu craze. Lt. Hip and his two nieces gave Bond a break while they beat up an entire dojo of ruffians. It was no Enter the Dragon, but it was entertaining nonetheless.

It is also clear that the movie was written before the full brunt of the women's lib and minority awareness movements came into fruition. Moore is misogynistic to the point of pathological. In order to extract information from Andrea Anders, Moore manhandles her and slaps her in the face. Not one of Bond's prouder moments, to say the least. Moreover, the portrayal of British secret agent Goodnight as a ditzy, bungling, sex-crazed, useless blonde reflected just how ass backwards 1974 society really was.

Racism was also easy to spot. "Oriental" and "pointy heads" (to denote the triangular straw hats East Asian farmers wear) are uttered ad nauseum, albeit mostly by the ridiculous Cajun good-ol'-boy, J.W. Pepper. The Asians in the movie are portrayed as the evil industrialist (Hai Fat), the sex object (the Bottoms Up waitress), the greedy street urchin, or anonymous "pajama-wearing" karate guys. It is only Lt. Hip's vaguely competent character that partially redeems the movie. But I don't necessarily blame the filmmaker; I see it as a reflection of the norms, customs, and mores of 1974 Anglo-American society. Hence, a perfect time capsule.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Spy (Roger Moore) Who Loved Me (the movie)

In a recent interview, Roger Moore confided that The Spy Who Loved Me is his personal favorite. Most Bond addicts, even those who prefer Connery, will agree that this is one of the best of the franchise. After watching Moonraker last night, I must admit watching The Spy tonight is like eating a juicy Fatburger after taking a bite out of a shit sandwich. Exuberance. Joy. Relief.

What makes this episode so good? Here is the run down.

1. The cars. After the prodigious and legendary DB5, the Lotus-cum-submarine is the most famous 007 car. It was quick, nimble, and able to outrun a Kawasaki Z900 with a sidecar/rocket, a Ford Taunus full of gun-wielding goons, and a helicopter piloted by the lovely Naomi (more on her later). The chase scene was beautifully shot through the hills of Sardinia and expertly choreographed.

A much less appreciated car in this movie is the Leyland Sherpa. To those unfamiliar with British shit cans on wheels, it was the van Jaws ripped, tore, and punched apart with his bare hands. (I promise I will only use the word shit twice, maybe thrice, in this review.) That Barbara Bach's character was able to drive this sardine can through the Egyptian desert for so long after its mutilation is quite an achievement. It's the little van that could.

2. The bad guys. Much attention in other reviews focused on Karl Stromberg (played by Curt Jurgens). But the true Thespian genius was Richard "Jaws" Kiel. He and Moore make a perfect odd couple. Before every confrontation, Moore always gives Jaws the knowing, hello-ol'-chap nod. It's always professional, never personal. Neither hates the other. Moore will always try to hurt Jaws with a quick whack with a blunt instrument. Jaws will always grab Moore by the neck and push him against the nearest wall/ceiling. It's as routine and mundane as the mill worker punching in when he arrives for the graveyard shift or the mid-level executive filling out an expense report.

3. The Bond girls. At first, I did not know what to make of Barbara Bach, Soviet secret agent Triple X. Her accent was not Russian, or anything recognizable. Her speech was stunted, almost like an automaton. She has no inflection in her voice. Not when she is tied up in an underwater lair. Not when she is seducing Bond while floating on a dhow. Not when she finds out Bond killed her most recent love. She is an oddball.

What may be even more interesting is the actress' background. Born Barbara Goldbach to parents Howard and Marjorie in Queens, New York, she later wed (and is still married to) Ringo Starr. Who knew?


Another fabulous Bond girl is Stromberg's assistant/assassin, Naomi. She is very self-confident, whether stealing Moore's attention from his "wife" Mrs. Sterling (see photo, above) or when she is shooting at Moore's Espirit while skillfully piloting a helicopter.

4. The plot. Plot? What plot? The movie/screenplay was essentially created with Mad Libs precision. Mix one extreme skiing scene with nuclear subs gone awry with a dash of madman who wants to create a utopia after destroying the world. Voila! Writing a Bond film is not rocket science.

With this creative and cheeky mix of action, women, and antagonists, no wonder The Spy Who Loved Me is loved by Roger Moore. Cheers!


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Welcome to Camp Moonraker

In The Simpsons' episode "Homer Phobia", John Waters' character explains "camp" to Homer.
John: It's camp!
Homer looks blankly
John: The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic.
Homer: Oh yeah, like when a clown dies.
John: Well sort of, but I mean more like inflatable furniture or Last Supper TV trays....

Waters would have been able to convey the concept better to Homer if he had just said: Moonraker.

An argument can be made that all James Bond films, with their unbelievable getaways (down a steep snowy slope or out of an airplane without a parachute), over-the-top gadgets, and easily seduced women, are camp. But if we are to use Waters' lofty definition, only Moonraker fits the description.

The movie starts out like any other Bond film. In one of the first scenes, Bond and evil henchman extraordinaire Jaws duke it out mid-air. Bond exited the airplane sans parachute and had to borrow one from another evil henchman. Jaws had a parachute but it malfunctioned. It looked like the beginning of any other exciting Bond adventure.

The movie then meanders its way to its destination, Camp Moonraker. A number of landmarks along the way lead the viewers to their ultimate destination. First stop, Venice. More specifically, the gondola hovercraft. We've seen incredulous forms of transport before. An AMC Matador that doubled as a plane. A Lotus Espirit that was also a sub. But a friggin' gondola that moves on land?! That director Lewis Gilbert added to the lame gag with a doctored shot of a pigeon doing a double take upon seeing the hovercraft (think Farley and Sandler's double take in the SNL spoof ad for Schlitz Gay beer, only not funny) left me speechless and shaking my head.

The Bond works have always been known for their attention to detail, especially with the electronic gadgets. In Moonraker, the code for the alarm keypad to a lab coincidentally played the tune from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. With that, the movie lost all originality and creativity. It became, to me, an overhyped, overbudgeted sham.

This lack of vision continued with the space sequence. If I were a 15 year old Bond fan sitting at the 1979 premier of Moonraker and saw the spacewalk fight scene involving Drax' goons and the U.S. Space Force soldiers with their Star Wars/G.I. Joe-esque laser guns, I would have stormed out of the theater and immediately started a one-man jihad to stop the production of all future Bond films. My fatwa would have declared the movie sad, pathetic, and blasphemous in the eyes of all true believers of Bond.

I started this post with the goal of writing a semi-humorous critique about the campy qualities of Moonraker. Now, near the end of this post, I am irate. This is the worst Bond film ever (and yes, I have seen License to Kill). It is a travesty.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Road to Karakul Lake, Part 2

We are heading south. A surprisingly well-paved, two lane road connects us from Kashgar all the way to our final destination. Ever since 9/11, China has made a point of making sure its border with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, all within a few hours' drive, is secure. To that end, the road to the border has been paved and regularly cleared of falling rocks. On the way to Karakul, I see about a half dozen army trucks filled to the brim with stone faced, young PLA soldiers, all heading to the border.

A few minutes out of Kashgar, the landscape opens up. Near the horizon stands the Pamir range, my destination. The road is lined with pencil thin poplar trees on either side. Parallel to the southbound lane is a small canal used for irrigation. It runs for miles.

We make a stop in the small Uyghur town of Upal, about an hour from Kashgar. It is a small town with one main street. Our van is the only passenger vehicle in town with an internal combustion engine. We park next to the taxi stand, which consists of three donkey carts.

It is a poor community. I step out of the van in my blue and gold rugby shirt, shorts, and REI hiking boots. I stick out like a sore thumb. The drivers disappear to buy provisions. I stand in the middle of the street and take in everything around me. Two competing bread vendors set up shop 30 feet away from each other. I buy three baked seasoned flatbreads. The baker made beautiful and exotic geometric patterns on the breads by poking holes with a pin. Bagels, which are rumored to have been "invented" here, are also sold. Behind the vendors, about 20 men and boys sit, watching a television set. They had to pay an admission fee to watch it.

For about 25 minutes, I stand in the same spot in the middle of the street, watching. I was not in danger of errant cars running me down. No kid tried to sell me worthless trickets. Everyone in town knows I am there, but I feel invisible.

We head toward the Ghez River canyon. As we approach, we see a dramatic sight. In one scene, there are three dramatically divergent climates: desert, a Mediterranean-like oasis , and alpine. I am speechless.

We stop at the Ghez checkpoint. Because we are entering a special border zone, I am technically supposed to have a special visa. I do not have one. In order to get through the checkpoint, I must get out of the van, enter a checkpoint shack reminescent of Checkpoint Charlie, show my passport with my face expressionless, and continue to the exit. As I enter the shack, silent panic hits me. What if the guards realize that my grandfather was in the KMT? His brother, after all, died in a re-education camp in Xinjiang. His only crime was being my grandfather's brother. I start freaking. Of course, the guard looks at my passport, checks my picture in it, and gestures me toward the exit. I'm free to go. I say good-bye to the bactrian camels loitering in the distance.

As the elevation rises, I start feeling lightheaded. My breaths become short and halting. I gasp. If it were not for the utter beauty of it all, I would have asked the drivers to turn around.

We enter a high, wet plateau surrounded by sand dunes. Yaks are strewn everywhere. The scene is so foreign and outer space like, I think I am dreaming.