Tuesday 28 January 2020

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Blu-Ray review

The Man with the Golden Gun was released in 1974 and it’s not one of the more admired Bond movies. Following a discussion on a recent post here (my review of A View to a Kill) I’ve decided it’s time to revisit this one. The fact that I now own the Blu-Ray release was another reason to do so.

This is the fourth and last of director Guy Hamilton’s four Bond movies, which include Goldfinger, the somewhat underrated Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die.

Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) is a legendary assassin who charges a cool million dollars a hit. His trademark (apart from the fact that he’s the very best in his business) is that he always uses golden bullets. Now it appears that his next target is to be James Bond. He admires Bond and killing him will be the ultimate challenge.

Trying to avoid Scaramanga would be futile. He’s simply too good. Bond’s only hope is to find Scaramanga before Scaramanga finds him. He has almost nothing to go on. No photograph of Scaramanga exists. His present whereabouts are unknown. There is no way of knowing the identity of the client who has hired him to kill Bond.

The one hope is a belly dancer in Beirut. She was with 002 when he was killed by Scaramanga. At least it is assumed that Scaramanga was the assassin. Since the bullet was not recovered this supposition was never confirmed. Perhaps that belly dancer knows what happened to the bullet.

Bond’s search takes him to Macau and Hong Kong, then to Thailand and eventually to Scaramanga’s island. With of course plenty of action on the way - a boat chase, a car chase and a pretty decent fight scene pitting Bond against some martial arts experts who are very good, but not quite good enough.

This time Bond has two assistants, a Hong Kong police detective named Hip (Soon-Tek Oh) and a Miss Mary Goodnight, a charming young lady from the British Secret Service. Miss Goodnight manages to get herself captured but she also manages to plant a homing device that will lead Bond to her, and she manages to get hold of the device that is the key to the whole adventure so on the whole she’s not wholly incompetent.

My first impression of this movie is that it’s trying to be a bit more risqué and a little bit more harder-edged than previous Bond movies. There’s an early nude scene with Maud Adams, obscured by a shower door but she’s clearly naked. And Bond then proceeds to slap her around. Interestingly enough this is getting much closer to the Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels than you normally expect in a Bond movie. There are definite touches of sadomasochism in Fleming’s novels (which may have reflected the author’s own sexual tastes). What’s even more interesting is that Roger Moore (a much better actor than he was ever given credit for) is quite convincing as this tougher crueler Bond.

Of course there’s more than a hint of sadism in Scaramanga’s character, especially in the scene where he uses his gun in some sex play with Maud Adams.

While there are of course many comic moments (some provided by the return of Sheriff J.W. Popper from Live and Let Die) this is overall a darker Bond film, with Roger Moore mostly playing things pretty straight. And Scaramanga is not just a Bond villain, he is a brutal and ruthless killer who enjoys killing very much indeed.

One weakness is the lame solar energy plot. You want a Bond villain to be aiming at world domination, not cornering the market on better solar hot water heaters. In fact that’s the major flaw to the movie - it’s just not ambitious enough or outrageous enough or on a big enough scale for a Bond movie. The final duel between 007 and Scaramanga also seems rather abbreviated (although it is a nice echo of the pre-credits sequence).

There are some gadgets (there’s a flying car and there’s the solar energy gun) but mostly the focus is on the duel between Bond and Scaramanga and that’s going to be settled by their respective skills as killers. This is is a movie in which 007’s skills in that department are absolutely central.

Scaramanga’s island hideaway is pretty cool but it’s the only really spectacular set and it’s not on the scale of some of the more outlandish sets in previous movies in the cycle. On the other hand the tilted sets in the capsized Queen Elizabeth (where M has his Hong Kong headquarters) and Scaramanga’s funhouse are clever and imaginative.

There’s certainly no shortage of glamourous ladies in this movie. We get both Maud Adams (as Scaramanga’s girlfriend) and Britt Ekland as British agent Mary Goodnight. Miss Ekland is actually very good, she shows a flair for light comedy and it’s amusing to have a Bond girl who just never seems to actually end up in Bond’s bed. Her generally light-hearted personality contrasts well with Maud Adams’ very serious approach.

If you judge it simply as a spy thriller it’s quite decent, but The Man with the Golden Gun is a bit low-key for a Bond film. This probably explains its relatively poor box office and certainly explains why the producers decided that the next Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, was going to be a much bigger film. It also undoubtedly explains why Roger Moore’s performances in the next couple of films were more extravagant and light-hearted.

What is noticeable about the Roger Moore Bond films is that they’re not only variable in quality but also quite varied in tone and approach. They seem to veer between delirious comic-book extravagance and camp outrageousness on the one hand and attempts to capture the more realistic and slightly dark spy thriller feel of the novels.

Still, you can’t dislike a movie in which Britt Ekland’s bottom plays a crucial part in the plot (almost getting her killed and Bond along with her). The Man with the Golden Gun is enjoyable enough. Recommended.

Monday 20 January 2020

Babette (Return of the Secret Society, 1968)

Babette (the actual title of the film is Return of the Secret Society) is a 1968 sexploitation feature directed by Peter Woodcock and it’s a kind of vague sequel to his Daughters of Lesbos. But Peter Woodcock is of course a painfully obvious pseudonym and no-one knows who actually directed this movie.

Babette (Linda Boyce) has thrown herself into New York’s underground sex scene, a world in which there is money be made (and Babette likes money) and thrills to be had (and Babette likes thrills). You gain entry to this world by answering contact ads in certain magazines. Pretty soon Babette is doing nude modelling for photographer Ramon, indulging in lesbian romps with one of his other models and offering herself as the entertainment for private sex parties and of course orgies.

Eventually Babette encounters the Daughters of Lesbos and some lesbian hijinks ensue. There’s also an orgy which is a kind of campy precursor to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

Babette is a movie that is not all that highly regarded even by fans of the genre. It doesn’t have the outrageousness and stylistic weirdness of the best 60s sexploitation films. This is pretty much sexploitation at its most basic and straightforward. It’s about getting the actresses naked.

Having said all that it does have a few things going for it. The soundtrack is surprisingly kind of good. And while it might not have much more going for it beyond wall-to-wall nude women the nude women here are rather luscious. The biggest plus though is that it stars sexploitation legend Linda Boyce. She certainly looks very fetching without her clothes on but she also has a genuine and very definite screen presence and when given the chance (which isn’t really the case here) she could act.

A nice touch is the giant stuffed toy bunny rabbit on the bed on which the girls do their nude posing. There’s also the scene with the girl pleasuring herself whilst clutching a toy puppy dog.

This was 1968 and sexploitation movies like Babette were starting to up the ante as far as nudity goes. There is a stupendous amount of female nudity and a fair amount of it is full frontal nudity. This is however still very much a sexploitation movie and it’s still quite a long way from the full-blown softcore porn that would soon dominate the industry. In Babette couples and even threesomes do an awful lot of naked writhing about on couches and whatever it is that they’re doing they are very clearly not having sex. This is not the simulated sex of softcore. It’s more like a kind of simulated nude heavy petting. This is one of the things that makes these movies so appealing - this is a movie that tries desperately hard to achieve shocking levels of decadence but in fact it’s amusingly and even charmingly innocent.

It’s perhaps amusing that there’s only one scene that could truly be described as a simulated sex scene and the male partner is a stuffed toy donkey.

There are attempts to be shocking and perverse and mostly they come across as strange and amusing. The innocent young girl being initiated into the secret society doesn’t seem like she’s being brutalised. She’s relaxed and cheerful and obviously thinks it’s all a great lark.

Go-go dancing enhances any movie. Nude go-go dancing is even more of an enhancement. This movie not only has nude go-go dancing, it has fully frontally nude go-go dancing. Whatever its other faults might be no movie that can make that boast could ever be considered a failure.

I guess when one watches a movie like this one does have to ask oneself what exactly is it that can make a person a devoted fan of 1960s American sexploitation movies? I’m told that some fans are so dedicated they’ll even watch such a movie and then sit down and write a review. I really can’t imagine that too many people today would actually watch these movies to get their rocks off. We live in an age in which porn is not merely ubiquitous but almost inescapable. There are countless thousands of videos and millions of images available at the click of a button so if it’s naked women you‘re after you don’t really have to seek out 50-year-old black-and-white movies on DVD.

Of course this odd genre offers much more. Stylistic eccentricity in abundance. Not just cinematic weirdness, but multiple variations on cinematic weirdness. The chance to see movies made by people who either knew nothing or cared nothing about any of the established conventions of film-making. The chance to see movies made by people who often had a very distinctive vision. There’s the decadence, often combined in an unsettling way with innocence. There’s the whole retro thing. 1960s furnishings. 1960s fashions. 1960s hairdos. When the cameras venture outside, 1960s cars and 1960s streetscapes. And of course there’s the fascinatingly different erotic aesthetics of the 60s. There are more than sufficient reasons, apart from the naked chicks, to enjoy these strangely entrancing movies.

But then you must face the slightly unsettling question - would you watch these movies without the naked chicks? I think the answer has to be no. It has to be admitted that the mild titillation induced by the nudity is a part of the appeal.

Babette tries to be sexy and wicked and decadent and actually manages to be sexy and goofy. It’s very much a lesser entry in the genre but it has very attractive unclothed ladies and one of the unclothed ladies is Linda Boyce.

Something Weird have paired Babette with Monique My Love and of course a large selection of extras. The vintage bra and girdle ads are a hoot. Not sure I’d recommend buying this one unless you’re intending to amass a collection of every single one of the Something Weird-Image Entertainment special edition sexploitation DVDs (and I can think of worse ambitions to have).

Monday 13 January 2020

Cherry 2000 (1987), Blu-Ray review

Cherry 2000 is a movie that I am, perhaps oddly, inordinately fond of. Buying the Blu-Ray release provides the perfect opportunity to revisit this very underrated little 1987 sci-fi flick.

Sam Treadwill (David Andrews) is a recycling executive in Anaheim and he’s had a hard day at work but that’s OK because Cherry (Pamela Gidley) is waiting for him at home. Cherry is not only gorgeous, she’s the sweetest girl in the world. Sam can’t believe how lucky he is to have a woman like Cherry. She is the perfect girlfriend. Tonight she’s made his favourite dinner, and the wine is ready as well. Sam and Cherry start getting romantic (as they always do). Making love on the kitchen floor seems like a really good idea - exciting but still kind of romantic (Sam and Cherry are both romantics). And it would have been a great idea, if only the dishwasher hadn’t chosen that moment to overflow. The water all over the kitchen floor doesn’t slow Sam and Cherry down (it just makes it more exciting) but then the water gets inside Cherry’s circuitry and blows her electronics completely. You see Cherry is a sex robot.

Cherry is however more than just a sex robot. She’s a Cherry 2000. You can’t get them any more. They don’t even make the parts for them now. Among connoisseurs they’re recognised as classics. The newer models just aren’t as responsive. Cherry belongs to the age when pride in workmanship was still a thing. But Cherry is now just a useless collection of electronic junk. Well, not quite. Her chip is still intact. That means her own distinctive personality (like women, every Cherry 2000 is slightly different) is still there. And her memories are still there. The memories of all the wonderful times they had together. All Sam needs to do is to find a replacement body for her.

That’s where things get tricky. Cherry 2000s are very very hard to find. There is a rumour that there’s a warehouse in Zone 7 that has some, still in mint condition. But that means travelling to the Zones. That’s something to think twice about. This is a future world that owes a good deal to Mad Max. The Zones are beyond the reach of the law. They’re seriously bad places. They’re like a nightmare cyberpunk version of the Wild West. No sane person would go there. But that’s the only place there’s a chance of finding a Cherry 2000. And Sam misses Cherry terribly. He wants her back.

To get to the Zone he will need to find a tracker. There’s one named E. Johnson in the town of Glory Hole that sounds like just the man for the job. Except it turns out that E. Johnson (Melanie Griffith) is a young woman. And she wants Sam to come along when she goes to Zone 7 (she needs someone to ride shotgun). The movie now becomes more of an 80s action movie, but a good 80s action movie with some original and clever set-pieces (the magnetic claw, the enormous drain thing).

In between the action sequences Sam gets to know Johnson. She’s seriously tough and very dangerous but also oddly feminine. Melanie Griffith does not play Johnson as a typical action heroine. We never forget that for all her weirdness Johnson is still very much a woman. And she never forgets it. In her own way she’s a romantic, but like Sam she’s never figured out how to do the emotional relationship with the opposite sex thing, although she’d clearly like to. She’s slightly bewildered by men (in this future world the men are as damaged and deranged as the women) but she really would like to find one of her own. She’s not like any girl Sam has known before. She’s strange but somehow more like a real woman than any of the women you meet in singles bars in Anaheim. And she is a real woman. There’s no need to worry about her circuitry burning out. Of course Sam is still in love with Cherry.

This is a very 80s movie, but it’s 80s in a good way. It has actual style. This vision of the future obviously owes a lot to the Mad Max movies and to the emerging cyberpunk genre but it has a flavour of its own. This is a slowly collapsing society. It’s collapsing economically and it’s collapsing socially. We get a glimpse of what dating is like in this future world, and we can easily understand why Sam is happier with Cherry. In this world a one-night stand requires complex legal negotiations that specify exactly what sex acts are and are not included in the package. We can only imagine how nightmarish an actual relationship would be, if people still had actual emotional relationships. With Cherry Sam does have an emotional relationship and it’s delightfully uncomplicated - he loves her and she loves him. He loves having sex with her and she loves having sex with him. They do sweet romantic things for each other. And they don’t need a lawyer to negotiate a contract for them when they want to make love.

It’s a vision of a future in which buying a sex robot isn’t something you do when you’re a hopeless loser (and Sam isn’t a hopeless loser). It’s something that really seems like the least worst of some very unappetising options.

One of the really appealing things about this movie is that despite the subject matter it isn’t crass or vulgar. It’s a movie about the search for love. It’s a love story. It’s a romantic triangle - a boy, a girl and a sexbot - and it’s handled with sensitivity. When we discover that Sam is having sex with a robot we might be slightly taken aback, but once we get to know him and once we come to understand why he loves Cherry we can’t help feeling that it’s romantic, in a weird sort of way. And as sex robots go Cherry is a very nice girl.

David Andrews is very good. He makes Sam slightly geeky but not too geeky and manages to avoid making him seem creepy or pathetic. Sam lives in a broken world and even if he is in love with a sex robot in a paradoxical way he’s more normal than most of the men in his world. He wants love, commitment and romance.

Melanie Griffith is one of those actresses you love or hate. I like her performance. Even that little girl voice of hers makes her an interesting action heroine. She makes Johnson eccentric and odd but still rather likeable. In her own paradoxical way she’s more normal than most of the women in this world. She seems like she wants to be fiercely independent but she also wants love, commitment and romance.

Pamela Gidney gives Cherry just that very very slight touch of disconnectedness that makes her seem like a robot that is a very realistic simulation of a woman, but just not quite right.

Some critics have fallen into the trap of seeing this as a feminist film. It’s a fine example of the way critics impose their own views on a film and ignore the film itself. This is not a gender-reversal film. While Johnson seems to be cast as the action heroine Sam is not a mere sidekick or a bumbling wimp. He’s an ex-military guy who handles himself just fine in a gun fight. He’s not a male weakling. Johnson wouldn’t be interested in him in that case. She is interested in him because she slowly learns that in his quiet unassuming way he’s reasonably masculine whilst also being caring, a combination that women have been known to fall for. And she learns that she can rely on him.

Johnson is superficially fiercely independent but in fact it’s very obvious that she’s looking for a man to love her. In this crazy future world finding a mate is extremely difficult, but she wants one. There’s a key moment, usually overlooked, when he happens to see her with her guard down and she gives him the sort of smile that lets him know she’s OK with that. Both Sam and Johnson are in the same boat - despite their surface eccentricities they’re the most normal healthy people in the movie. They both want all the things usually associated with good old-fashioned tradition marriage - love and commitment and dependability and romance. The message of the movie seems to be that these are good things and that a society that doesn’t value these things is in trouble. It’s actually a very socially conservative message.

There’s obviously plenty of satire here but Cherry 2000 doesn’t just take aim at the obvious targets such as the rampant consumerism of the 80s. It’s a movie about social collapse and about the way that the devaluing of human relationships and a society obsessed with pleasure and consumption set up a vicious feedback loop and everything falls apart.

The Signal One Region B/2 Bu-Ray looks great and there are quite a few extras including a director’s commentary track. The commentary is interesting - director Steve de Jarnatt was brought into the project very late and seems to have very little input into the film’s visual style. He was simply a hired gun working with a production team that had already been assembled. He also appears to have had no idea what Michael Almereyda’s screenplay was all about and he still doesn’t understand why the film has gained an enthusiastic cult following.

Cherry 2000 has a great deal of obvious cult appeal but it’s really an intelligent and provocative science fiction film as well as being a fine action flick. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 5 January 2020

The Sin Syndicate (1965)

With nudie-cuties obviously getting perilously close to being past their use-by date (nude volleyball could no longer be guaranteed to drag in the customers) American exploitation film-makers came up with a new genre, the roughie. Roughies were invariably shot in black-and-white and ranged from moderately sleazy to very sleazy indeed. They didn’t come much sleazier than Michael Findlay’s films. The Sin Syndicate, from 1965) is one of his earliest efforts.

The plot (and I’m stretching things to call it a plot) concerns four young women who tell us, in flashbacks that occupy almost the entire 70-minute running time, how they ended up as zero girls. Zero girls are hookers for the Syndicate. They provide sexual favours to anyone for whom the Syndicate thinks it’s in their interests to provide such favours. We’re told that being a zero girl is the end of the line.

There’s some vague gangster stuff with Syndicate big wheel Lansing testifying in front of a Senate committee. These scenes are entirely unnecessary and completely irrelevant. They pad out the running time but at the cost of extreme tedium since this subplot goes nowhere at all.

Dolores had been a dance in Cuba before the Revolution. The violence of the Revolution and the coming to power of Castro meant it was time to leave Cuba. Lorna (Judy Adler) and Candy (June Roberts) had been born in wartime England while Monica (Darlene Bennett) hailed from small town USA. The flashbacks include lots of stock footage of wartime bombings and other horrors. It’s possible that Findlay was suggesting that these experiences of war left the girls damaged and facilitated their slide down the slippery slope of sexual degradation. Or maybe he just liked the war footage. Or maybe he just wanted to pad the film out. Having seen the film I would hesitate to claim that I have any real idea what Findlay thought he was doing.

The women drift in erotic dancing and then prostitution the way such things usually happen - they’re tempted by the thought of easy money. Working for the Syndicate certainly means money but easy it’s not. The Syndicate’s policy with new girls is to break their spirit. They find that a few days of non-stop rape and beatings invariably achieves this objective. They then have suitably docile employees who no longer have any sexual inhibitions because they don’t care any more.

Findlay is often thought of as being one of the more overtly misogynistic sexploitation film-makers and his infamous Flesh trilogy would seem to provide ample evidence for this. Curiously The Sin Syndicate provides plenty of evidence pointing in the opposite direction. The girls have really been guilty of nothing more than naïvete. We’re clearly expected to be sympathetic towards them, and we are. The men in the film on the other hand are total sleazebag scum. I suspect that the explanation is simple. Michael Findlay didn’t hate women at all. He regarded the entire human race with equal contempt. This is a very very dark movie.

Roughies can at times be a bit confronting, and this one is particularly so. We have four young women who are harmless and even likeable. But roughies were sexploitation movies and their primary purpose was to provide sexual titillation, which was mostly provided by scenes of women being subjected to violence and degradation. In this movie a stark illustration is provided by the rape scene on the truck. The Syndicate disciplines its girls by having them repeatedly raped and beaten. Lorna gets her dose of this discipline in the back of a moving truck. We can’t help being horrified by her terror. On the other hand the scene is clearly intended to be a thrilling blend of violence and eroticism. And it has to be said that the scene is executed in an extraordinarily effective manner. So can we enjoy the scene and be horrified at the same time?

Findlay pulls some clever surprises, one of them being the shower scene. Now when one of the girls is taking a shower and one of the other girls asks if she can join her we know we’re in for the obligatory lesbian sex scene. But it doesn’t happen. What we get is two girls who are emotionally starved displaying physical affection. It’s done in a way that makes it crystal clear that there is nothing even remotely sexual going on and that there is not a trace of sexual attraction between the two women. The lesbian sex content is zero. You’d think this would be a big mistake in a sexploitation movie, but oddly enough the scene is very erotic and quite touching at the same time. It’s the fact that there’s emotional hunger combined with affectionate playfulness rather than sexual hunger on display makes us feel immense sympathy which perhaps in a strange way makes the scene more arousing. The fact that the two girls are extremely hot doesn’t hurt.

You can’t judge the acting in movies like this by conventional standards. In a Michael Findlay film you probably can’t say anything at all about the acting one way or the other although in the rape scene mentioned earlier the actress convey’s the character’s terror and desperation well enough. The actresses include June Roberts and Darlene Bennett, familiar faces to devotees of this genre.

Of course in a Findlay film the eroticism is dulled by the relentless air of hopelessness, desolation and degradation. If you do find parts of his movies erotic you always end up feeling that perhaps you shouldn’t have. There’s eroticism on offer but it sure ain’t healthy.

Findlay does manage to pull off the occasional moments of visual near-inspiration. They are of course mixed in with much more frequent moments of out-and-out cinematic chaos and/or tedium and/or incomprehensible weirdness.

But give the guy his due, whatever his faults Michael Findlay had a style. His movies are instantly recognisable. He had a vision, even if it was a vision most people would be happy not to share. And they have a weird and unsettling fascination. The intriguing thing about The Sin Syndicate is that what you actually see on the screen is mostly incredibly tame. The violence and the sex are either offscreen or they’re shown in an indirect manner or at the very least they’re shot so you see no details. In the case of Lorna’s rape, content-wise it’s a very tame scene but the mood builds to an utterly maniacal fever pitch of intensity. But it’s the responses of the women coupled with what you know they must be feeling that  will leave most viewers feeling decidedly uneasy.

Something Weird’s release includes two other films, Sin Magazine (about which I know nothing) and She Came on the Bus (which is just as sleazy and chaotic as The Sin Syndicate). This triple-feature is not for the faint-hearted.

The Sin Syndicate is one for dedicated fans of sleaze only, but they’ll find it more than interesting.