March 29, 2013

LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) - the blaxploitation Bond

(1973, UK)

A different Bond  movie in many ways...

After too many wincingly awful moments in Roger Moore's James Bond movies, it's easy to write off all his films as 007. But the first can be seen as an improvement over Sean Connery's last (Diamonds Are Forever). Live and Let Die is Moore's toughest portrayal of the character.

At the time he also presented a younger action hero than Connery, looking great head-to-toe in black, and agreeing to some of his own stunts (getting too close to alligators and driving a speeding speedboat). It didn't take him long to insist on leaving the stunts to the stuntmen...

This is a different Bond in many other ways - Moore's diary of the film's production reveals that the producers avoided situations established for Connery in an effort to avoid too many close comparisons. Gone are the flirting with Moneypenny and the briefing in M's office. There's no gadget show with Q (a rare non-appearance) and few gadgets. This is a stripped down Bond, an agent with a gun... OK, and a hang glider.

Avoiding the dodgy special effects of Diamonds Are Forever's space satellite, the spectacular action scenes are staged for real. Live alligators, car stunts on the streets of Manhattan, an epic speedboat chase (over land and water), and of course the double-decker bus.

A unique aspect is that here Bond tangles with the supernatural. The tarot cards actually predict, and voodoo curses panic their victims and can even resurrect the dead... The graveyard scenes are genuinely spooky, with several shock moments, culminating in a fantastic, early stage effect from Rick Baker, who at the time was a specialist in prosthetic make-up for black actors.

The producers wanted to continue the appeal to the American market (Diamonds Are Forever had mainly been shot around Las Vegas) and needed another story in a US location, but Ian Fleming's 1954 novel of Live And Let Die was racist in its portrayal of the many black American and Caribbean characters.

Not wanting to offend any of their potential US audience, the producers hired an American scriptwriter, Tom Mankievicz. He delivered a story with realistic black characters, and humour that mostly works at Bond's expense, ("Hi Jim. What's happening baby?"). But the underlying subtext of the story is still a disaster - all black people are part of the same huge crime conspiracy!

Yaphet Kotto makes the most of this starring role to make a believable baddie, providing tension and a very real threat to Bond's invulnerability. He makes few of the stupid mistakes other villains have, with a scheme that's all too plausible (flooding New York with heroin to increase demand). At his side is the towering Tee-Hee, a largely silent role for Julius Harris, soon to play the joking, bloody, dictator Idi Amin. A typical Bond henchman, he has a metal arm. 

Geoffrey Holder pretty much plays a Joker, a grinning voodoo magician. The actor was also a dancer and did the choreography, his every move is a scene-stealer. I love the way he starts burning Solitaire's cards in the background, and his early morning greeting, "It's going to be a beautiful day", would make a great alarm clock.

David Hedison (The Fly, The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) is a great Felix Leiter (Bond's CIA connection), one of the few to play the character twice. He looks the part and gets big laughs with his fuming exasperation. I'd even say that Jane Seymour is good here, though her character is very passive compared to most other Bond 'girls'. Similarly Gloria Hendry is too clumsy to convince as a CIA operative, but shows more range than Seymour, in a fairly brief role. An earlier choice to play Solitaire was Diana Ross, with a possible American actor for Bond - they'd considered Burt Reynolds!

If James Bond had been black, this movie would be blaxploitation, but that's the genre this film is tapping into. It's like a glossy version of Shaft, one man taking on a black underworld. And Shaft is a black version of Bond. That makes these two films an interesting double-bill. 

As Mr Big has so many henchman, the production needed a large number of black stunt performers, who at the time weren't allowed into the Hollywood stunt associations! (During the making of Shaft, only two years earlier, white stuntmen had to 'black up'). This is spelt out in the behind-the-scenes featurettes for both films. By the time of Live and Let Die, they'd had to form their own separate association.

The obvious stereotype in the movie is a white Florida sheriff (Clifton James) who insists on addressing black suspects as 'boy'. But he's played for laughs and dominates several scenes, proving so popular he briefly appeared in the next Bond film. His racist comments pervade several comedy moments, inviting the audience to laugh with him and not at his attitudes.

The premise shares the paranoia of, for instance, the Fu Manchu movies still being made in Britain throughout the 1960s, where a powerful, non-caucasian villain has managed to unite his race in a common cause. Every Chinese person in Fu Manchu stories works for Fu Manchu's evil organisation. Similarly, every black person that Bond meets is a suspect. Taxi drivers, shop assistants, waiters... they all work for Mr Big. Even the shoeshine guy has a secret transmitter! From Harlem to Florida to (a little island that's a bit like...) Haiti.

More startling is the powerful title sequence cut, using Wings' theme song. There are repeated jumpcuts from a close-up of a black actress match-cut to a burning death's head. I mean, it foreshadows the story and all, but the symbolism is a little heavy-handed...

As well as a case study in changing attitudes, it's also fast-paced entertainment. The impressive and frequent stuntwork are from a time when it was hard to fake. You either crash the car in the right place, or you get hurt and they have to wheel out a replica car.

The speedboat jump is ridiculously dangerous (the second jump goes slightly wrong and ends up running into the bank, out of control), but I'm more impressed by the way they skim across the road, narrowly avoid cars and slide back into the water, all in a single take. The superb speedboat sequence was filmed around New Orleans' canals and levees. All this time I'd thought it was shot in the Florida Everglades, associating it with the alligator farm (which was actually a crocodile farm filmed in Jamaica). Shooting with large, live crocs was extremely dangerous (again I'd assumed that they filmed Roger Moore in a safe, empty replica set, but they didn't). 

I love how organic the Bond films are and were. The action scenes are suggested by the best of what the locations have to offer. The producers travel the world with the scriptwriter in search of scenes! They went to New Orleans specifically to scout for the funeral scene and then looked around, found the levees, and invented the boat chase!

Mr Big's underground lair feels a little cramped for a Bond villain (compared to the hollow volcano and the oil rig) and this film very much misses Ken Adam's production design (he was up to his eyeballs in Kubrick's midnight phonecalls for Barry Lyndon at the time).

Another change of formula is George Martin composing the soundtrack. While any Bond film without John Barry is at a disadvantage, I think this is a terrific score, suitable for the film and as standalone music. Barry's return for the next Bond, The Man With The Golden Gun even felt lacklustre and cliched in comparison. I'm sorry that Martin didn't compose many more soundtracks, but of course he's always been extremely in demand.

There aren't many films where I look forward to every scene, every stunt, the soundtrack, the cast, the locations. It's certainly the only Roger Moore where I don't need to skip scenes out of sheer embarrassment. Well, apart from the redneck sheriff...

I watched the UK blu-ray release, which like all the Bond films is packed with extras old and new. The most astonishing are the sequence of five takes where Ross Kananga, the crocodile farm owner, tries to walk across the backs of the crocs without them biting his feet off...

Lastly, some merchandise and publicity material from the film's initial release...

There'd be a cinema brochure on sale when you went to see the film. Full of trivia and colour photos...

This soundtrack album contained only one record, but still had a foldout sleeve revealing this great photo-spread...

I found this tarot card 'game' in a magic shop Disneyworld, a facsimile of the deck used by Solitaire, specially designed by Fergus Hall for the film. My only complaint was that the design on the back of the cards was red in the film (why was she using '007' tarot cards anyway?). The deck came with a book about tarot and a foldout sheet showing the traditional ten-spread for fortune-telling!

Besides the usual articles in Photoplay and Film Review, the Sunday supplements had to add their own angles. The following were reprinted in the Sunday Times Magazine (I think), sketches by Syd Cain, the production designer.

Design for the purpose-built, fake bridge for the bus stunt

These cuttings have been in one of my scrapbook for forty years!

March 28, 2013

GORGO (1961) - new restoration on DVD and Blu-ray

This excellent restoration, from newly-discovered 35mm film elements in an MGM vault, finally gives us a home video release of Gorgo that surpasses my experience of it on TV! Up until now, I've been tracking the DVD releases and been repeatedly disappointed by the muted colours of this wildly colourful film.

I've written at length about this very British giant monster movie, both for G-Fan magazine, and again in this blog (a review of the film and a look at the earlier DVDs), so here I'll just concentrate on the new VCI restoration.

It's been a long, long wait to see the Technicolor wonder of Gorgo decently represented on home video. This giant monster movie was one of the first in colour (the two earlier Godzilla movies were black-and-white) and may have been boasting the fact by using too much colour! As Gorgo tramples London, setting it on fire, red smoke becomes a vivid backdrop to the dinosaur's night-time raid. The volcano, the lights of the fairground and Gorgo's red eyes all thrive on properly saturated colours now. Not only has the colour been restored, but it hasn't been noticeably digitally tweaked - it's still as I remember, not a revised interpretation.

Film damage and tears has been dealt with, without too much digital enhancement. Of course, this sixty year-old film is still grainy and certainly isn't pin-sharp, but I'd only expect that of big budget, carefully-archived movies. The aspect ratio is 1.85, apparently how the US first saw it. This masks a little visual information off the top and bottom, notably cropping the action in the wonderful shot of Gorgo trampling Piccadilly Circus, but that's the only annoying moment. A good visual guide is how well the opening credits are framed, and here they look perfect at 1.85. I'd have prefered a 1.66 aspect, but for me it's a minor fault.

Regular murmurs from message boards and Twitter always assume Criterion is the best hope for a definitive home video release of their favourite films. But while it's true that Criterion spend a lot on their restorations, they barely represent sci-fi, horror or monster movies. They're into classic film, arthouse and world cinema. It's pointless holding out for a Criterion release of obscure horror movies, when so many smaller labels are totally dedicated to these genres. Here, VCI have restored Gorgo far better than I'd hoped, and I seriously doubt that Criterion could do a better job, mainly because better film elements may not exist. Let's also remember that Criterion releases are far more expensive.

The last word is with DVD Beaver, who have posted high-res screengrabs from the blu-ray, some of which are included here, proving that this transfer bests the DVD and laserdisc releases by a mile.

The extras, included on both the DVD and blu-ray releases, are headed by a new documentary from Daniel Griffith (who put together the amazing feature-length making-of Twins of Evil), with additional looks at as many lobby cards, posters and press material as could be tracked down. You can also 'watch' the entire 'photo-novel', a French comic book entirely made up of screengrabs and speech balloons.

Some amazing photos have been unearthed - I was particularly pleased to see the behind-the-scenes shots of the Gorgo suit and it's workings. It seems every living lead has been followed up in search of material. The trailer is presented widescreen, and also looks in great shape. A selection of photos of Gorgo toys, model kits and resin sculpts are included. Another jewel is the music-and-effects track (the dialogue stripped away) enabling a better appreciation of Angelo Lavagnino's music and Gorgo's scary noises.

The blu-ray is not region-coded, making it playable in UK blu-rays as well.

DVD Beaver blu-ray review with blu-ray screengrabs.

My earlier, extensive, illustrated review of Gorgo.

The new documentary mentions that Gorgo lived on with her own Charlton comic series for a while. Marvel Comics legend Steve Ditko is the reason that these have just been reprinted in a single volume. Further volumes include Black Hole favourite Konga, who also had a Charlton comic!

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) - the first from the Coen brothers

(1984, USA)

Dark debut for the Coen brothers...

Before I even knew who Joel and Ethan Coen were, Blood Simple was an immediately impressive first film, with visual storytelling, brutality and wry humour. While their later Fargo (1996) was celebrated widely, I didn't enjoy it as much. It felt similar to Blood Simple, funnier, but not as strong.

A small town love triangle turns murderous. But these are ordinary folk, not clear-headed professional killers. They get careless. It's even necessary to go back to the scene of the crime and mop up the loose ends...

The twisty plot requires your attention. Though this time around, I was picking up on some of the characters mistakes as they happened. Don't trust him, check it now! Check inside! And C.S.I. fans will be appalled at the criminal sloppiness at the crime scenes.

What has always impressed me is the suspense wrung out from simple situations. Brutal, will-they-be-caught-dragging-a-body-around suspense. The kind of tension when you find yourself worried for the murderer. The Coens' strong storytelling techniques depend just as much on the visual, rather than over-explaining everything in dialogue. 

At the time, I didn't know who Frances McDormand was, but here she is, already starring in a Coen film. I knew M. Emmett Walsh from Blade Runner, here playing a slimy private detective, hired by a similarly slimy Dan Hedaya (the lead baddie from Commando). Fourth corner of this triangle is John Getz, who's just as good, but the only lead I've not noticed in anything since.

I was looking for Sam Raimi's name in the credits, because there are several signature camera moves lifted from The Evil Dead by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (before he nervously moved into directing with The Addams Family). Here the athletic tracking shots are confusing because of their misplaced motivations - the characters aren't being stalked by spirits of the forest, these are just cool-looking dynamic shots. However, Blood Simple is bloody, with a Day of the Dead-strength shock in the mix...

This obvious borrowing from Raimi, who occasionally collaborated with the Coens, overshadows Sonnenfeld's own considerable work with stark compositions, maximising the use of darkness and low-key lighting.

I watched it on this Universal DVD, though it's now also out on blu-ray in the US.

Blood Simple has rarely been out-of print on DVD, though it was pointed out to me on Twitter that we've been watching a director's cut for many years. The original cinema version is now locked away in the VHS era. The changes are subtle, slight scene trims, little more than an overall retrospective tidy up, which I wouldn't have noticed, not having seen it in years. Here's the breakdown of differences (with spoilers)...

Some filmmakers get better with practice. The Coen brothers started off good. So don't be afraid how far back you explore their filmography. 

March 24, 2013

SUMMER WARS (2009) - an anime internet disaster movie!

(2009, Japan)

Mind-expanding, family-friendly anime movie

I've been away from anime for too long, after taking a break when Satoshi Kon passed away suddenly, who I regarded as the most consistently interesting director of feature-length anime.

While Summer Wars isn't as completely sci-fi as Satoshi's Paprika (2006), it regularly hits similar heights, providing moments when it feels like your eyes are directly expanding your brain.

It opens with a brilliant, simplified, beautifully-designed, visual summation of the entire internet. In a parallel universe, if the whole world used a single unified browser. Anyone who logs on is represented by one identity, one icon, a little stylised animation of their online self. With this premise, it's easier to follow the story between the real world and the online world.

Summer Wars might have surpassed Paprika in my estimation if it had stayed in cyberspace for the whole movie - which I initially hoped it would. But this is still a hugely impressive.

It isn't a dark and addictive 'loss of identity on the web', as portrayed in the brilliant but downbeat Serial Experiments Lain (1998) (that's now out in the US on blu-ray), but an updated look at how dependent society has now become on the net in so many spheres and by all ages. The setting of an entire Japanese family having their annual get-together pitches the escalating story on TV news, with most family members also connecting online in some way. Importantly, this enables all ages to relate to it.

While this may seem to be a similar pitch for a family audience as a Studio Ghibli film, this is more technical and modern day than a Miyazaki fairy tale. The cyber fighting action (which doesn't dominate the film) might also appeal more directly to teenagers.

After introducing us to the vast, stylised, online world, three teenagers who are still at school kick off the story, as a young man is enticed by his favourite young woman to an important family meal in their countryside mansion. However, he's being deceived and lured into a social trap, also unaware that his online character is about face a mysterious global threat, as the entire internet starts to go wrong.

Director Mamoru Hosoda previously had a big hit with the animated version of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), which I didn't enjoy nearly as much. Summer Wars is more complex and grander in scale, while at times proving just as fanciful. It's funny, occasionally violent, scary... everything. All while centring on a very traditional Japanese holiday, a view of modern life that we rarely see in the west.

Perfectly designed and directed, there's some beautiful but simple (virtual) camerawork, counterbalancing the dynamic, gravity-light cyberworld.

The story may have a few too many coincidences, but the representation of a whole country as a single extended family makes for a marvellous parable.

Summer Wars is out on DVD and blu-ray in the US and UK.

March 23, 2013

THE POSSESSED (1977) - TV movie takes on The Exorcist

How to make The Exorcist safe for TV

TV movies in the seventies often tried to spin trending movie ideas into TV series. Even The Exorcist! To make it TV-friendly, The Possessed obviously has to water down the thrills considerably, but this is still a very watchable, creepy mystery with an excellent cast.

Before home video, when movies could still be re-run more profitably in cinemas than on TV, new movies on TV were almost rationed. They were either very old, or a treat for holiday weekends. Many current trends (disaster movies, animal attacks...) would be delivered first as TV movies before the 'real deal', the movie that inspired them all, actually arrived on the small screen.

A series of mysterious, spontaneous fires breakout around a girls boarding school. Investigating detective (Eugene Roche) can explain it all but a mysterious stranger (James Farentino) thinks something evil is at work...

Like many TV movies of the time, this was presumably also pitching a format to be picked up as a series, with the building blocks in place for a 'weekly possession' to be investigated.

James Farentino (Dead and Buried, The Final Countdown) plays a lapsed religious minister who's risen from the dead! At the time Farentino, who passed away last year, was between two of his own TV series, Cool Million and Blue Thunder (with co-pilot Dana Carvey!).

Joan Hackett (The Terminal Man, Will Penny) sensitively plays the headmistress, and is wonderful to watch. Sadly she'd pass away too soon only six years later. Claudette Nevins plays a teached whose daughter is at the school. This actress' first movie credit is the romantic lead in 3D Canadian horror oddity The Mask!

Among the schoolgirls are the underused Ann Dusenberry, about to star in Jaws 2, and P.J. Soles (in a huge wig) in between filming Carrie and, ahem, Halloween! Diana Scarwid (Psycho III, Rumble Fish, Mommie Dearest) comes in to look brave and cry, which she always does so well.

Plus, and it's a big plus, there's Harrison Ford in between filming the first Star Wars and discovering that he's world famous. (This blog adds that he also shot his brief scene for Apocalypse Now at this time). Always been fun to see him in this, as a cheeky, easy-going, bespectacled teacher, before Indiana Jones.

Short, sharp, creepy, it might still deliver some minor shocks. Not at all bad for TV. I remember catching it twice on TV, late 70s and again early 80s. Several scenes really stuck enough to make it a must-see when it rolled around again.

Too few, early TV movies have been released on DVD, despite being far higher quality than, say, modern made-for-cable TV movies. Maybe part of the problem is that they're so short - a TV '90 minutes' without ads boils down to around 72 minutes! More and more are resurfacing on YouTube and I'm surprised by how many I still remember, after only one viewing thirty years ago. Point is, I was able to enjoy this all over again because it landed on YouTube, apparently sourced off VHS (see top image). 

While researching this I discovered, to my shame, that The Possessed has actually been released on DVD recently, by Warner Archive. They've shown admirable restraint by not using a photo of Harrison Ford on the cover. So now I own it!

Here's my first round-up of sci-fi and horror TV movies. Looks like I'll have to follow it up now that my memory has been jogged.

Awesome classic VHS artwork for The Possessed was found here.