Friday 27 December 2019

A View to a Kill (1985)

A View to a Kill is the Bond movie everybody hates. There are plenty of people who will tell you it’s the worst of all the Bond films. It does have its problems but actually it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest.

It’s true that Roger Moore was, in his own words, about 400 years too old to be playing the part once again, for the seventh and last time. But he’s still Roger Moore. He still has the charm.

The plot is a stock standard Bond plot. MI6 have discovered that there’s this super-villain planning something really big but they’re not sure exactly what it is. Bond has to find out. To do that he has to get close to the villain by insinuating himself into the villain’s inner circle. Then Bond will conduct a low-level psychological guerrilla war against the villain, getting him angry enough to make a few mistake. Then Bond destroys him and saves the world.

In this case the super villain is (as in so many Bond movies) a crazed industrialist. Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) is obsessed with horse racing, oil wells, computer chips and world domination. He’s the result of a Nazi science experiment intended to produce geniuses. He is a genius but he’s totally unhinged and psychopathic. Bond gets close to him by posing as a possible purchaser of one of Zorin’s super horses (also the result of an experiment by a crazy Nazi scientist).

On this case, unusually, Bond is given a sidekick. The fun part is that the sidekick is played by Patrick Macnee, posing as Bond’s chauffeur/valet. Macnee was even older than Moore but they make an amusing and effective team.

The biggest problem with this movie is that at 131 minutes it’s much too long. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first half of the movie except that there’s too much of it and it’s too slow. At about the halfway point the pacing picks up dramatically, the plot starts to become more interesting and we get some pretty decent action sequences. The fire engine chase is particularly good and the action climax with the blimp is justly famous. The taxi chase early on is also terrific.

Peter Lamont was art director or production designer on most of the Bond movies from the early 70s up to the first decade of the 21st century. He could always be relied upon and does his usual fine job here. So A View to a Kill looks good.

Christopher Walken is an interesting Bond villain. He’s definitely creepy although perhaps he needed to make Zorin a bit more larger-than-life. Tanya Roberts as the Bond girl has been much criticised. I don’t know why. She’s not much of an actress but she does what she needs to do, which mainly consists of looking terrific (which she does extremely well) and getting rescued by Bond. As far as the cast is concerned the standout is Grace Jones as May Day, Zorin’s girlfriend and chief henchwoman. She looks bizarre, crazy and scary which is obviously why she was picked for the rôle. She’s actually much scarier and more sinister than Zorin.

The pre-credits action scene with the infamous snowboarding to the sounds of a cover version of California Girls has been accused of excessive silliness. It is silly, but silliness and campiness were things that you just have to accept in Bond films of this era. What’s interesting (and very pleasing) is that once that sequence is out of the way the silliness and campiness disappear and the rest of the movie has a slightly serious if mildly tongue-in-cheek tone that is closer to classic Bond.

Mention should be made of Duran Duran’s pretty good title song which also hits the right tone for a proper Bond movie.

If you compare it to another much-disliked Bond movie, the lamentable Die Another Day, which I reviewed here recently then A View to a Kill doesn’t seem too bad. At least, unlike Die Another Day, it feels like a proper Bond movie.

With a bit of tightening up in the first half and with a bit more energy and enthusiasm from Moore and Walken this could have been a very good Bond movie.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Henry’s Night In (1969)

Henry’s Night In is a 1969 American sexploitation movie that falls into a fairly select genre - sex comedies that actually work.

Henry is an inoffensive rather nerdy sort of guy with a passion for building model ships. His marriage is not going well. His wife would prefer it if he took a bit more interest in her body and a bit less interest in his model ships. To say that she is sexually dissatisfied would be putting it mildly.

She regards Henry as a weakling. In fact she despises him. Of course this might be part of the reason for the lack of bedroom action in their marriage. Her shrewish behaviour is not exactly calculated to kindle the fires of passion in a man.

Then Henry goes to an auction and finds that he’s bought a mysterious trunk. He’s not sure exactly how he managed to buy it since he didn’t want it. The trunk contains one item, a diary. It’s the diary of an invisible man, and it contains instructions for achieving temporary invisibility. Surprisingly enough it works. All you have to do is to swallow the chemical formula and then sneeze and you become invisible. If you sneeze again you become visible again.

The erotic possibilities are obvious and they’re not lost on Henry. Maybe in ordinary life he’s no stud but that’s because he’s nervous and awkward and repressed. Possibly an invisible Henry would not have those problems. His inhibitions might disappear. And that’s exactly what happens.

Of course the first thing that occurs to Henry is that he could sneak into the house of Sandy, the attractive brunette who’s just moved into the neighbourhood. It’s just a few doors from his own house. Since his invisible the brunette has no idea there’s a man in her house and Henry gets to watch her parading about the house naked. This is something she spends a good deal of time doing. As we’ll soon find out, all the women in this neighbourhood seem to spend most of their time naked when they’re home alone. Of course an invisible man can also do more than just look. All he has to do is wait until they turn the lights out, then hop into bed with them and have sex with them. Since all the local women are having love affairs they’re not the least bit surprised by a man slipping into bed with them. They just assume it’s one of their lovers.

Pretty soon Henry has sampled the delights of most of his female neighbours.

His wife soon notices that he’s behaving strangely and disappearing at odd times. She’s determined to find out what’s going on.

There’s actually a bit more than this to the plot. There’s the question of the identity of the mysterious Jack who has been pleasuring all the women in the neighbourhood, but none of them can say what he looks like. He only makes love to them with the lights out. Is he invisible as well, or does he have some other secret?

The invisibility idea provides a neat solution for one of the problems facing sexploitation movie-makers in the mid to late 60s. Nudity was no problem, but they had to be very cautious about sex. Even mildly explicit simulated sex was a no-no. But if only the girl is visible she can be as uninhibited as she likes in simulating sex with her invisible partner and some of the girls in this movie do get very uninhibited indeed.

There’s an enormous amount of nudity, including lots of frontal female nudity (since the ladies’ sex partner is invisible there’s no need to worry about male nudity). The girls are mostly pretty attractive, and this being a 60s sexploitation movie they do look like real women rather than super-models or the products of plastic surgery.

As you may have guessed from the plot outline (invisible men ravishing unsuspecting women and the women loving every moment of it) the political incorrectness levels here are absolutely off the scale. In spite of this it’s a remarkably good-natured little flick. It should be noted that neither Henry nor Martha (his wife) has given up entirely on their marriage. Henry actually does love Martha and he would very much like to be able to satisfy her physical needs. Martha loves Henry, and if only he could perform his husbandly duties in the bedroom with a bit more energy and enthusiasm she’d be quite happy with him. She isn’t really a shrew after all, she’s just incredibly frustrated sexually and emotionally. It’s pretty upsetting for a gal if her husband doesn’t want to make love to her.

The other young ladies in the neighbourhood aren’t overly outraged about being ravished - it was all very exciting and romantic.

In tone this is really a very late nudie-cutie. It’s an excuse for copious amounts of female nudity combined with light-hearted fun. There’s zero violence, the worst thing that happens to anybody is that the girls get frightened by invisible mice. And of course they do what any woman would do in those circumstances - they immediately take all their clothes off.

Henry’s Night In was paired with The Girl from S.I.N. in a Something Weird double-header DVD. The Girl from S.I.N. is actually one of the best and most entertaining of all 60s sexploitation features and in this case the two movies make a perfect double feature, since The Girl from S.I.N. is also a fun light-hearted sex comedy dealing with invisibility. Henry’s Night In gets a pretty good transfer. The black-and-white image quality is quite acceptable. This is one of Something Weird’s best DVD releases.

Henry’s Night In is sexy and it’s amusing. It could even be described as a feelgood sexploitation movie with an offbeat love story. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Everybody’s Girl (1950)

Everybody’s Girl is a 1950 burlesque movie, which means it’s an actual burlesque stage show that was filmed. In this instance it was a show at the Follies Theater at Third and Main in Los Angeles.

Burlesque movies were filmed stage shows, but usually without an audience. That’s understandable enough. Trying to record the sound live with the added complication of an audience would have been a technical headache best avoided on the very very limited budgets these films would have had. Of course the lack of an audience does mean you miss some of the atmosphere. It’s slightly disorienting watching the comedy routines with no audience response. Whether the strip-tease routines would have benefited from hearing an audience’s appreciative response is harder to say - without the audience I guess they do seem more tasteful (and they’re pretty tasteful anyway).

This one does have a subtly different feel to Midnight Frolics. The show seems to have a bit more glamour and style, the strippers are prettier and the strip-tease routines are just a tiny bit more daring.

Which raises an interesting point. It seems quite likely that the comic routines have been cleaned up a bit for the purposes of filming. It’s also possible that the strip-tease routines have been toned down a little. In the case of a burlesque movie like Midnight Frolics it seems pretty certain that the girls have toned down their acts. The acts in Everybody’s Girl are slightly more risque but possibly still not quite going as far as they might go in a normal show.

Of course one of the interesting features of burlesque is that the risque nature of the stripping could vary quite a bit from town to town. In some towns stripping down to bra and panties was about as as the girls would dare to go, but when they played in other cities they could get away with much more and in some places they might even be tempted to risk full nudity. The problem for anyone making a burlesque movie in 1950 was deciding just how much of a risk you were going to take.

I’m quite intrigued as to what kind of an audience these movies find today. I’m inclined to think that this sort of thing would appeal more to women than men. There are some very beautiful women, they have fabulous hairstyles and wear gorgeous costumes and they dance and they project glamour and sensuality rather than overt sexuality. And there’s no actual nudity. I know that there are quite a few women these days who are fascinated by the world of burlesque.

What is particularly striking when you watch these movies today is that it’s sexiness rather than sex that they’re selling. It’s flirting and teasing and it’s good-natured and playful, which is why I’d imagine that women would enjoy them more than men. Unless of course you’re the sort of man who finds watching women indulging in flirting and teasing and playful sexiness very appealing.

This is a movie that offers us a glimpse into an erotic world that seems like a foreign country, albeit an oddly appealing one.

If you have an enthusiasm for the lost art of the strip-tease there’s plenty here to enjoy.

Everybody’s Girl is one of the six (count 'em, six) feature-length burlesque movies in Something Weird's two-disc Strip Strip Hooray set. They have found a very good print. In fact it’s good enough to suggest they may have found the original negative. Obviously filming a stage show imposes severe limitations but Everybody’s Girl is photographed rather well, and obviously with more than one camera. Overall it looks very good. Recommended, if it’s a subject that interests you.

Monday 2 December 2019

Appleseed (1988)

Appleseed is a 1988 anime OVA based on a manga by Masamune Shirow (who was also responsible for the original Ghost in the Shell manga).

Appleseed is set in the aftermath of the Third World War. As part of the rebuilding of society the model city of Olympus has been constructed. It’s an attempt at utopia and is strictly policed. It is inhabited partly by humans and partly by bioroids (artificial humans). The city is controlled by a central super-computer, Gaia.

All is not well in Olympus. Terrorism is a major problem. The terrorists claim to want freedom (of course being terrorists they would say that) and seem to be opposed to the bioroids.

We get straight into high-voltage action with a hostage situation that ends with several ESWAT team members dead. Deunan, a young female ESWAT cop, wants revenge and so she applies for a transfer to Special Investigations. She is tired of just responding to terrorists - she wants to track them down and destroy them. Her cyborg friend and partner Briareos will naturally go with her.

Now you have to concentrate a bit on this one because the background to the story isn’t explained in detail. The bioroids are not cyborgs. They’re not machines in any way. They seem to be artificial people, created by genetic engineering. They look completely human. There are also actual cyborgs, like Briareos.

In fact this is an anime that you’ll probably appreciate more on a second viewing. Early on there’s a woman committing suicide which serves to provide the motivation for her husband’s actions but is otherwise inexplicable. Later on it starts to appear that the suicide is quite important in its own right - it’s a symbol of what’s wrong with Olympus, of the city’s lack of humanness.

One of things that’s interesting is that despite the obvious cyberpunk influence this is not a dystopian film in a conventional sense. Olympus is not utopia, but it’s not a dystopian nightmare. Most people there are happy. Of course that might well be the point that is being made - they’re happy because they have everything anyone could want in terms of material prosperity but they don’t have freedom. It’s closer to Brave New World than to your average cyberpunk future. In Huxley’s classic novel most people are happy because they have unlimited consumer goods and they have drugs. They don’t even want freedom. And in Olympus a large proportion of the population is not even exactly human, being bioroids who are programmed to like living in Olympus. Which is presumably what the terrorists don’t like - it’s an artificial utopia in which ordinary emotions like frustration and unhappiness are entirely suppressed.

The relationship between Deunan and Briareos is ambiguous. They’re partners on the force. They’re friends. They live together. But are they lovers? We can’t be sure. Two unmarried cops sharing an apartment is presumably not wildly unusual. They’re obviously fond of one another but they don’t display the kind of affection you’d expect if they were a couple. This is another of the things that I’m not quite sure about, like whether Olympus is supposed to be a flawed utopia or a not-too-terrible dystopia - are these ambiguities deliberate or not?

The most dangerous of the terrorists is A.J. Sebastian. He really is pretty sinister and he’s a more memorable character than either Deunan or Briareos.

There’s a lot of action, some of it fairly graphic. The action sequences are generally fast-moving and pretty impressive.

The comparisons to Ghost in the Shell are obvious. The main difference is that Ghost in the Shell had a lot more money to play with and is thus obviously considerably more ambitious visually. It’s also worth pointing out that Appleseed was one of Masamune Shirow’s earlier mangas which is possibly another reason that the Ghost in the Shell movie is more complex and more ambitious. Both the manga and anime versions of Appleseed can be seen as dry runs for Ghost in the Shell.

In judging Appleseed you always have to remember this was 1988. Anime for grown-up audiences was still a very new thing. Over the next few years budgets would get bigger, techniques would improve and anime would become more thematically ambitious. Appleseed was a step, and a moderately important one, on the road to much bigger and better things for anime.

The DVD release offers a good transfer (it’s full frame which was how this movie was shot) with negligible extras. Both the English dubbed soundtrack and the Japanese version (with subtitles) are provided. I watched the subtitled Japanese version because I find that American accents in anime diminish the flavour.

A lot of people don’t like Appleseed. I think they may be missing the point. The plot and the characters’ motivations are a little confusing at times but I’m inclined to think that this is deliberate, that the intention is to avoid spelling things out for us. We have to decide for ourselves whether we approve of Olympus or not, and whether we think the terrorists are mostly wrong or whether they may have a point. Appleseed may not be a complete success and it’s certainly not in the same league as Ghost in the Shell but it’s entertaining and in its own way it’s provocative. Recommended.