Thursday 30 December 2010

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

I’m now determined to work my way through all of the Roger Moore James Bond movies, And they’re proving to be considerably more enjoyable than I’d expected! Last night it was The Man with the Golden Gun.

With Christopher Lee as the villain you’d think you couldn’t go wrong. And you’d be right. He’s a splendid villain, striking just the right balance between scenery-chewing and genuine menace. And this movie boasts not one but two Bond girls! There’s a serious glamorous Bond girl (Maud Adams) and an equally glamorous comic-relief Bond girl (Britt Ekland). But let’s face it you can’t have too much feminine pulchritude in a Bond movie.

Christopher Lee is Scaramanga, the world’s most expensive hitman. Nobody knows what he looks like, but his signature is that he always kills with a golden bullet. In fact he fires the golden bullet from a golden gun. He can afford such indulgences, since his price is a cool one million dollars per hit. And it now appears that his latest target is Agent 007.

Bond is naturally keen to find Scaramamaga before the mysterious assassin finds him. His search takes him to the usual array of exotic locations, and eventually to Scaramanga’s lover, the beautiful Andrea Anders (Maud Adams). Of course it turns out that this was no simple hit and that much more is at stake, and that Scaramanga has his own agenda.

Bond has two assistants this time, a tough Thai cop and a beautiful but not overly efficient British secret agent named Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland). Miss Goodnight is however keen to help. She also seems rather keen on getting Bond into bed.

Scaramanga has an assistant of his own, the pocket-sized Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize, best known as Ricardo Montalban's midget assistant in the Fantasy Island TV series.

This movie doesn’t have as much spectacular gadgetry as the typical Bond movie but it still has plenty of impressive action sequences. And Scaramanga’s solar cannon is fun. Mention should also be made of the British secret service headquarters in Hong Kong Harbour - I won’t spoil it by revealing the location but it’s a nice touch, and wonderfully British.

It also departs from the usual style in that the chief bad guy isn’t just pulling the strings behind the scenes. He’s an action hero as well, and while Bond is stalking him he’s also stalking Bond. And he’s a villain with a lot more overt physical menace than the typical Bond diabolical criminal mastermind. It’s a variation that works pretty well.

Maud Adams has the looks but her performance is perhaps just a little less than riveting. It’s fortunate that Britt Ekland is on hand. At this point I have to make a confession. I rather like Britt Ekland. OK, she was never going to pay Lady Macbeth, but to be fair she was never daft enough to think she could. She knew her limitations and worked within them. And for this kind of light comedy role combined with a rather charming dolly-bird style of glamour she’s just right.

Moore is in fine form. In only his second outing in the role he already seems quite at home. There’s quite an emphasis on comedy in this film, with Clifton James providing additional comic relief in the role of Sheriff J. W. Pepper (which he also played in the previous film, Live and Let Die).

The sets aren’t as elaborate as in some of the other Bond movies, but they are cleverly done. Scaramanga’s fun-house is very effective.

There’s action, there’s fun, there’s glamour. There’s not really much to complain about here. It’s a pretty worthy addition to the Bond canon.

Sunday 26 December 2010

moving this blog, or possibly shutting it down

I'm thinking of moving this blog, or possibly shutting it down. I'm just so exasperated with the awfulness of the Blogger interface. Even fairly simple things like positioning images are a huge drama. And the Blogger Help Centre is monumentally useless.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Sorority Girl (1957)

Sorority Girl is a slightly odd entry in Roger Corman’s filmography. It’s one of his early efforts as a producer/director and was certainly marketed as an exploitation feature for the drive-in crowd.

What it actually is is a combination of teen flick and 1940s-style women’s melodrama. In some ways it reminds me of the American exploitation movies of the 30s which were often essentially women’s melodramas spiced up with exploitation elements. And like those movies Sorority Girl seems to promise more luridness than we actually get. The poster would lead us to expect a certain amount of sexual kinkiness plus lots of spanking. Well I guess it isn’t all empty promises - we do indeed get a spanking scene. Yes, with the paddle depicted on the poster.

Most movies of that era dealing with juvenile delinquents or related subjects focused either on nice clean-cut small-town kids gone bad, or tough kids from the wrong side of town who were always bad. But in Sorority Girl the bad kids are wealthy kids attending an Ivy League college. It’s an anticipation of much later movies that would explore this kind of Spoilt Rich Kid territory.

There’s very little to the plot. Sabra (Susan Cabot) comes from a very wealthy family indeed, but for some reason she doesn’t seem to be accepted by the other girls in her sorority. The boys seem to steer clear of her as well, even though she’s quite pretty (and rich). As the movie unfolds we discover that Sabra has some major psychological and emotional issues, and we’re less and less surprised that nobody likes her.

Sabra’s mother is rich and selfish and has always regarded Sabra as an annoyance. She has never felt accepted anywhere, and her resentment causes her to lash out. She has a compulsion to be nasty to people, to the point of ensuring that they won’t like her. Her pledge, Ellie, is the one exception, displaying a rather pathetic devotion although she’s a little less devoted after Sabra loses her temper and gives her a good spanking with the afore-mentioned paddle.

When her hated mother cuts off her allowance she becomes desperate, and her behaviour becomes increasingly unstable until events spiral out of her control.

With a barebones plot the movie is forced to rely on characterisation, and Sabra is an undeniably fascinating character, and much more complex than you expect in a 50s teen movie. Here again the movie bears more resemblance to the classic women’s melodramas of the 40s with their focus on troubled, complicated and not always easily likeable women. This demands quite a lot of Susan Cabot who has to do a lot more acting than she was called upon to do in later Corman films like Wasp Woman. And she does a pretty fair job. The tale of Susan Cabot’s own life and death is actually as bizarre as the plot of a Roger Corman film, but that’s another story.

The teen pregnancy sub-plot adds to the exploitation elements but the main focus is always on Sabra’s descent into her own private emotional hell. Corman takes his material quite seriously, and most of the cast members do so as well, and the end result is a movie that is more intelligent and more emotionally charged than your average 50s drive-in movie.

The fact that this was 1957 and there was therefore no way to deliver the kind of luridness that this kind of movie would certainly have featured had it been made a decade later works in its favour. It has no choice but to take itself seriously and to capture and keep our attention by making us care about the characters. And it explores the subject of mental illness with surprising subtlety.

The Region 4 DVD release is acceptable as far as sound and image quality are concerned, although the picture is perhaps a little washed out. There are no extras at all.

A surprisingly decent if odd little movie.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Red Sonja (1985)

Conan the Barbarian inspired a short-lived boom in sword & sorcery movies in the 80s. None of the official or unofficial sequels (or just plain rip-offs) of that movie have a good reputation, and Red Sonja is a movie that very few people seem to have a good word for.

Maybe its because my expectations were very low, or maybe it’s because I was comparing it to Deathstalker which I saw (and hated) recently, but I found myself enjoying Red Sonja more than I’d anticipated.

For copyright reasons the producers weren’t able to make another Conan movie, but they still wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger. So this time Schwarzenegger’s character is renamed Kalidor, and (more surprisingly) he’s not the hero. He’s the sidekick. The hero, or in this case heroine, is Red Sonja, played by Danish model Brigitte Nielsen. Although a character named Red Sonya had played a minor role in one of Robert E. Howard’s stories the Red Sonja of the movie is based on a character invented by some of the many writers who have continued to churn out mostly second-rate imitations of Howard’s work since his death.

The plot is nothing more than a collection of clichés but in a movie of this type that doesn’t matter too much. What you want is a mix of action and humour, with larger-than-life heroes and villains. In any case the plot, such as it is, begins with Red Sonja’s family being largely wiped out by the villain of the piece, the wicked lesbian Queen Gedren. Gedren’s soldiers rape Sonja, and worse is to come. Sonja’s sister Varna dies at the hands of Queen Gedren, trying to prevent Gedren from capturing a magic talisman known as The Talisman.

The gods have compensated Sonja somewhat for her misfortunes. They have given her the strength to become a mighty warrior. Sonja has spent years training and perfecting her fighting skills. Now she must find and destroy The Talisman. She intends to do this alone, but instead accumulates no less than three sidekicks. One is a boy prince named Tam whose city was destroyed by Queen Gedren. He’s accompanied by his chief courtier and general dogsbody, Falkon. The third is Kalidor. Sonja isn’t the kind of girl who needs rescuing by muscle-bound barbarian heroes like Kalidor but she has to admit that he does come in handy at times. And although she has sworn not to have sex with men it’s clear that she thinks he’s pretty hunky.

They have the usual adventures, encountering bandits and mechanical dragon monsters along the way, before the final showdown with Gedren. And in their spare time Sonja and Kalidor practise their own odd courtship rituals, which mostly involve attacking each other with swords.

Schwarzenegger gets less to do than usual, not being the chief hero, but he’s more than adequate for this type of thing. Given that Brigitte Nielsen is just over six feet tall she certainly has the physical presence her role requires. She can’t act at all, but she isn’t really called upon to do any serious acting anyway. Ernie Reyes Jr as Prince Tam and Paul L. Smith as Falkon provide the comic relief. They’re not overly annoying and they’re even quite amusing at times. Sandahl Bergman can’t act either, but as the evil mastermind
Queen Gedren she really only needs to look suitably villainous and glamorous, with more than a hint of sexual perversity, which she manages quite successfully.

This movie has the feel of an old-fashioned Italian sword & sandal epic, probably not surprisingly given that Dino de Laurentiis had assembled a mostly Italian crew and the film was shot in Italy. I think it’s that old-fashioned fun feel that I liked. Despite some of the ingredients’ having the potential to make a fairly dark movie the end result is more of a light-hearted adventure romp.

It’s not by any means a great movie, or even (to be perfectly honest) a good movie, but it’s an entertaining popcorn movie.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Fathom (1967)

Fathom is one if those movies that works extremely well for what it is. If you expect more than it’s capable of delivering you’ll be disappointed, but if you accept it as a light-hearted adventure romp you’ll have a thoroughly enjoyable time with it.

It starts out giving the impression it’s another 60s spy spoof movie, but really it’s more of a spoof of crime caper movies.

Raquel Welch is the improbably named Fathom Harvill. She’s a dental technician who spends her weekends sky-diving. She’s a little surprised to find herself recruited by the British security services for a secret mission involving the recovery of a top-secret H-bomb component. At least the two guys who recruit her tell her they’re from British Intelligence, and that the Fate of Civilisation As We Know It is at stake. Fathom isn’t a fool and she’s sceptical, but it sounds like her part in the mission is fairly minor and not overly dangerous.

All she has to do is to accidentally land her parachute in the grounds of a house in Spain that is being used as a base by a couple of Red Chinese spies (played by Greta Chi and Tony Franciosa). This is when Fathom gets double-crossed for the first time, finds herself a murder suspect, and is told yet another very convincing tale.

It eventually turns out that what everyone is after isn’t connected with H-bombs, but rather with ancient Chinese treasure. There are three groups all trying to get their hands on the fabled Fire Dragon, and all of them have very convincing stories to prove that they’re the good guys and the others are just crooks, and all of them seem to need Fathom’s help. And since she’s been framed for more than one murder she doesn’t much choice other than to become more and more involved.

Fathom throws in lots of silly fun elements, from exploding ear-rings to speedboat chases and Fathom even finds herself in a bullring facing a rather annoyed bull. This is no James Bond film, it doesn’t have that kind of budget, but it has some reasonable stunts involving scuba diving, train chases, aircraft chases and car chases. And of course sky-diving.

What’s probably most notable about this for a 1967 movie is that Raquel Welch is not the hero’s girlfriend, nor is she a helpless female who needs to be rescued constantly, nor is she there merely to provide glamour (although of course being Raquel Welch she does provide considerable glamour). She’s the action hero, and she gets to do the hero stuff herself. But she’s not an ice-cool professional lady spy/crime-fighter like Emma Peel. She’s a reluctant amateur who just happens to be smart enough and resourceful enough to deal with the situations she finds herself in. And since her hobby is sky-diving we accept that she’s athletic enough and brave enough to get away with it.

Raquel gets able support from Tony Franciosa as a smooth talker who could be anything from a private eye to a jewel thief to a spy. He’s the sort of guy who can charm himself out of most situations. Richard Briers is an unlikely action hero, but then he’s not supposed to be a competent action hero. As the offsider of the mysterious Colonel Campbell he’s probably more dangerous to himself than to anyone else. Ronald Fraser is amusing as always as the man who may be a spymaster or a common crook. Clive Revill overacts outrageously as yet another mysterious stranger who wants the Fire Dragon.

But it’s Raquel Welch’s movie. She’s very much the star, and the success of the movie depends entirely on her performance. She’s more than equal to the task. It’s actually a nicely judged performance - she’s feisty but not aggressive, smart but not annoying, competent at action hero tasks but not unconvincingly so, and she doesn’t do overdo the tongue-in-cheek approach. It’s a silly movie (and intentionally so) but she resists the temptation to be overly hammy. And she’s likeable enough and amusing enough to keep us interested when the plot gets a bit creaky. Welch has always been underrated and this sort of comic action movie was the kind of thing she did very well indeed.

This was 1967 and the movie was clearly intended for the widest possible audience so there’s no sex, no nudity and no graphic violence. Today it would probably get a G rating without too much trouble. It’s also great fun. This is a lightweight unpretentious romp that succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Deathstalker (1983)

What can you say about a movie like Deathstalker? Of course it’s trash, but the question is, is it entertaining trash? The answer to that is, well yes, sort of. If you’re in the mood.

This 1983 production from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures was part of the mini-boom in sword & sorcery movies that followed in the wake of Conan the Barbarian. Corman followed his standard operating procedure of the time, taking the basic sword & sorcery formula and adding lots of gore, lots of sex and lots of nudity.

The plot involves some wandering warrior type, known as Deathstalker, who is informed by an old witch that he has a Destiny. He has to find a magic sword, and then other magical items. He will also have to defeat a powerful and evil wizard, who is also the king. The wizard-king has arranged a contest of martial prowess for the the mightiest warriors in the region. They’re led to believe that the winner will inherit the kingdom, but the evil wizard-king simply intends to destroy them all as threats to his power.

Deathstalker accumulate a group of side-kicks, including an amazonian warrior who always fights topless. I guess it distracts her opponents fairly effectively. In fact she seems to prefer doing most things topless.

The wizard-king has figured out that Deathstalker is his biggest threat, so he sends his best assassin to eliminate him. He transforms the assassin into the likeness of the princess Codille. The princess is played by former Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton. One assumes she got the part because of her willingness to take her clothes off. It certainly wasn’t for her acting ability. But then no female member of the cast manages to keep her clothes on for more than a few minutes at a time.

There’s lots of mayhem, and the plot contains most of the elements you would expect, as far as I could make out. Plot coherence wasn’t really a priority here. And perhaps you might not have been expecting the naked mud wrestling. It certainly adds a much-needed touch of class.

The sets and costumes are passable for a low-budget movie. The fight scenes are gory but not overly inspired.

The acting is the kind of bad acting you only really get in a bad 80s straight-to-video movie (I actually have no idea if this one ever got a proper theatrical release but it’s definitely straight-to-video quality). If I tell you that Barbi Benton acquits herself quite respectably by comparison with the rest of the cast you’ll have some idea how awful the acting is. Although perhaps I’m being unfair to her - being a nude model doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of acting talent. The rest of the cast have no excuses however.

I guess what you have to ask yourself is - how much do you enjoy low-budget 80s schlock? If you can treat it as a silly but fun popcorn movie it’s entertaining enough. As much as I adore trash cinema this one this one just didn’t quite do it for me. It’s certainly not for a lack of trashiness. It was more a certain lack of fun.

Monday 6 December 2010

The Riddle of the Sands (1979)

The Riddle of the Sands was one of the first of the great espionage novels. It also has the distinction of being the only spy novel to be written by an author, Erskine Childers, who ended up being shot for treason. The most surprising thing about this novel is that it had to wait until 1979 for a movie adaptation.

The novel was written in 1903, a time when tensions were running high in Europe, particularly between Britain and Germany. The two powers were involved in a frantic naval arms race, with fears on the part of the British that the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet might soon be in a position to challenge British command of the seas. This background is essential for an understanding of the story.

A young English yachtsman has been exploring the German coastline, specifically that part of the coastline that provides Germany’s outlet to the North Sea. And he’s noticed some odd things, and he’s attracted some surprisingly hostile attentions. The large steam yacht Medusa and the gunboat Kormoran have both gone close to sinking his tiny yacht. The incidents seemed like accidents, but Arthur (Simon MacCorkindale) has had his suspicions aroused.

Arthur invites an old friend of his from his Oxford days to join him in his nautical adventures. Charles Carruthers (Michael York) speaks fluent German and works for the Foreign Office. At first he is extremely sceptical, but before too long he is forced to admit that something strange is certainly going on, and that it seems to be something that Germany wants to hide from the outside world.

These two amateur spies have stumbled upon something very big indeed, something beyond their wildest fears or imaginings. They need proof however, and they need to stay alive long enough to get that proof back to the British Admiralty.

It’s the gentleman amateur status of the two slightly reluctant British spies that gives the story its charm, and it also adds considerably to the tension. Arthur and Charles are entirely alone, reliant on their own wit and bravery to pull off an espionage coup of incalculable importance to their country.

Much depends upon the performances of Simon MacCorkindale and Michael York, and they do a splendid job, making their characters both sympathetic and plausible without overdoing the Boys’ Own Paper type of jingoistic heroics that might easily have made the tale merely tedious. Alan Badel as Dollmann is a suitably mysterious and menacing foe. Jenny Agutter as his daughter is mainly there to provide some love interest but she gives some unexpected depth to what could have been a very marginal character, and she manages a creditable German accent.

There’s some action, but not a huge amount. It’s not that sort of spy story. These are not James Bond-style action heroes, they’re just ordinary Englishmen caught up in extraordinary circumstances. There’s more than enough atmosphere and suspense to compensate for the relative lack of action.

This is a decidedly untypical spy film, and all the more interesting for not conforming to the clichés of the genre. It’s also a fine sea story. There’s some good period detail, and some impressive location shooting in the Netherlands and Germany. The strange sandy coastline with its shifting sandbars and its incessant mists makes an unusual but effective setting.

It’s a movie that appears to have been largely forgotten since its 1979 release. Perhaps the lack of explosions and shootouts might make it seem rather old-fashioned but if you’re a connoisseur of off-beat espionage movies it’s very much worth seeking out (as is the novel on which it’s based).

Thursday 2 December 2010

Moonraker (1979)

Moonraker seems to have a fairly mixed (although mostly negative) reputation even among aficionados of the Roger Moore James Bond films. That seemed reason enough to see it.

The movie opens with the hijacking of an American space shuttle on loan to the British government. Her Majesty’s government is understandably embarrassed, so Agent 007 is assigned to find out what happened.

His first port of call is the gigantic industrial complex where Drax Industries manufactures the Moonraker space shuttles. Almost immediately attempts are made on his life. Bond starts to wonder if perhaps the fabulously wealthy Hugo Drax isn’t all that keen on having this particular mystery solved.

Bond quickly makes contact, contact of a rather physical nature, with two glamorous women who work for Drax. One is a helicopter pilot, played by Corinne Clery (a French actress probably best known for the arty S&M epic The Story of O. The second is a NASA astronaut/scientist, Dr Holly Goodhead. This time Agent 007 gets to bed both of them. It soon becomes obvious that Drax’s business empire is not quite what it appears to be. He has an enormous number of employees who seem to be just a bit too physically perfect, and who don’t seem to have any particular duties. Bond also encounters his old enemy Jaws, and survives various additional assassination attempts.

It all leads up to a climactic space battle which could be seen as the Bond franchise’s attempt to jump on the Star Wars bandwagon.

There are some very silly gadgets. The hovercraft gondola that Bond employs in Venice may be the silliest Bond gadget of all time, but the Bond movies are all about silly gadgetry and camp fun. The space shuttles themselves suffer from the same problem that NASA’s real-life space shuttles suffer from - as spacecraft go they’re petty boring.

Despite these reservations Moonraker has most of the elements you want to see in a Bond movie - spectacular stunts, explosions, outlandish gadgets, more explosions, and glamorous women. There are exotic locations, some fairly impressive sets (although perhaps not quite as impressive as in some of the other Bond movies). The action sequences are done with the panache you expect in a Bond film. As always the violence and the sex are toned way down to ensure a PG rating, which in box-office terms was probably essential.

If it’s a little sillier than the average Bond film then that probably just reflects the difficulty the producers saddled themselves with in having to come up with more and more unlikely gadgetry.

Roger Moore is in good form and Lois Chiles makes a pretty reasonable Bond girl who turns out to be a bit of a kickass action heroine in her own right. Michael Lonsdale as Hugo Drax is a good creepy villain. Richard Kiel makes yet another appearance as Jaws, and this time he finds love!

I really didn’t have any major problems with this movie. The Bond franchise was based on campy fun and it delivers both.