(On DVD, September 2018) Appropriately enough, The Fog is very atmospheric—the portrayal of a small coastal town being besieged by a supernatural fog carrying ghostly avengers is very well made, and count for much when the script struggles to make sense. After Halloween’s success, director John Carpenter was still trying out the breathing room allowed by slightly bigger budgets and the added scale of The Fog does count for much. It’s always a pleasure to see prime-era Adrienne Barbeau on-screen, and she does have a fascinating role here as a local radio DJ able to keep watch on the town but being unable to do much about what she sees—there’s some genuine suspense fuelled by her inability to be there to protect her son as she sees the fog engulf the town late in the film. Otherwise, the script does fall a bit apart when you look at it closely—and there’s an inevitable let-down when the mysterious fog gives way to more ordinary murderous undead pirates. (Wow, it sounds so unfair when I say it like that…) Still, The Fog is a better-than-average film for its era, exploring something slightly different and indulging in the possibilities offered by its blend of premise and location. It’s memorable for the right reasons.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) Looking at Pearl Harbour from American and Japanese perspectives (and co-directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, with script contributions by Akira Kurosawa), Tora! Tora! Tora! has aged remarkably well. There’s a credible verisimilitude to the entire film that is enhanced by the careful character development of characters on both sides of the war, with the Japanese even coming across more favourably than the Americans at times. The various tactics, strategic objectives and errors made by the characters are well identified, and we almost feel as if we’ve learned something from the entire film by the end of it. 1970 was an … interesting year for war movies (with anti-war statements MASH, Catch-22 and Kelly’s Heroes being released the same year) but Tora! Tora! Tora! manages to feel distinct from the other ones by being more analytical than satirical in going beyond the jingoism of earlier eras. Seventies special effects standards mean that the film does have great battle sequences—sadly, they may feel underwhelming to those who grew up on Michael Bay’s typically bombastic Pearl Harbour. Tora! Tora! Tora! does have the edge in terms of character, though, even if Pearl Harbour does just a little bit in providing closure with the Doolittle bombings. In my mind, I have a pretty good mash-up of both movies combining the authenticity and cleverness of Tora! Tora! Tora! with the special effects and story structure of Pearl Harbour (with maybe the beach scene from From Here to Eternity thrown in). Prepare an extra-large bowl of popcorn to accommodate seven hours of movie-watching and see them both as a complementary double feature.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, September 2018) Now that’s more like it. The Spy Who Loved Me, third Roger Moore outing as James Bond, finally puts all of the elements of Moore’s sub-formula together: Good action sequences, interesting plot (even if reprised from You Only Live Twice), a strong Bond Girl and, perhaps more than everything else, Moore’s debonair charm used to good purposes. His Bond here is far funnier, much less violent (although there’s one execution-by-tie that still rankles), better behaved around women (not by much, but the pairing with an almost-equal works in favour of a more balanced relationship) and unflappable in the face of crises. The globetrotting takes us to Egypt and the Mediterranean, while the gadgets include the classic submarine car, Union-jack parachute and personal Jet Ski. The film manages to hit just the right balance between a simplistic but not completely stupid plot and the silliness that we’ve come to expect from the Moore years. It’s not fancy, but it works. The villain’s lair is truly spectacular (in fact, there are two of them) and the action sequences have some kick—the car chase is particularly enjoyable. I won’t pretend that it’s a perfect film: The Bond girl is still used as a plot device to be rescued at the end, the Bond seduction shtick has worn thin, and there are more than a few instances of villain stupidity. Still, it works surprisingly well and presents a sharp return to form for the series after a lengthy fallow period—it’s probably the best Bond since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I saw the film as a boy (I was introduced to Bond between Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only) and had forgotten much of the details—it’s fascinating to see what sticks in mind and what doesn’t, and how I was sometimes able to anticipate the gist of the next thirty seconds of the film without quite knowing exactly why.
(In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) Putting the documentary Pumping Iron aside, Hercules in New York is notable for being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big-screen debut (as “Arnold Strong”). It would take a long time until he struck big with 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, but we can already see Schwarzenegger’s charisma outshining, well, nearly everything else about the film. Conceived as a cheap comedy, Hercules in New York has the hallmark of a modestly budgeted film not trying too hard to tell a coherent story. It has something to do with a Greek titan experiencing New York City, which really means another fish-out-of-water comedy with an unusually strong character. The plot is dumb, the characters are idiots, the production credentials are cheap, the love interest thing gets dropped unceremoniously well before the end, and the jokes are not refined … but there is Schwarzenegger shining through in coarse fashion. The film’s other highlight is a chariot race through Manhattan and Times Square (snapshots of which have been endlessly reprinted in just about every single illustrated biography of the actor), but no matter: The only reason to watch the film today is as an early showcase for Schwarzenegger. He’s far more memorable in Pumping Iron, but at least you get an idea of how they’d shape his persona later on for his extraordinary string of roles in the 1980s.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) Roger Moore’s second outing as James Bond isn’t particularly good, clearly showing how the producers didn’t yet understand how to best use Moore’s debonair natural charm. The Man with the Golden Gun doesn’t manage to control its comedic impulses, sometimes trying to bring back the written Bond’s violence and at other times going way too far in silliness. It starts with a disappointing theme song that can’t manage to do honour to its fantastic signature riff (à la Live and Let Die) with on-the-nose silly lyrics and a weak vocal performance. The odd thing about the film is that it does have undeniable strengths: Moore is naturally likable, Scaramanga is a fantastic idea for a villain, Christopher Lee is exceptional as the antagonist and the corkscrew jump two thirds through the film is easily one of the most spectacular shots in Bond history. Alas, each one of those aspects is undermined by filmmakers who don’t quite understand how to showcase their assets: Bond is too often unnecessarily aggressive or rough, Scaramanga’s build-up isn’t matched by the third act, Christopher Lee isn’t given much to do, and the stunt is accompanied by a stupid slide whistle sound (and wrapped in dumb dialogue between Bond and one of the worst characters in the series), deflating the impact of the shot. The entire film is like that: Bond Girl Britt Ekland makes a strong first impression as a Foreign Service agent able to verbally spar with Bond, then devolves into an idiotic damsel-in-distress throughout the movie. The film’s third act sputters through an anticlimactic duel and a butt-activated solar death ray. Even the film’s attempt to cash on the early-seventies kung fu craze (after doing its best with Blaxploitation in the previous instalment) feels like an extraneous afterthought with an incredibly dumb payoff. I still have some enduring sympathy for the Moore-era Bonds because that’s when I first encountered the series (between Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only), but my patience was sorely tested with The Man with the Golden Gun—In fact, I almost snapped at the film’s iteration of the series’ frankly insulting seduction plot device. At least there’s a bit of a bedroom farce to take the edge off, but despite the winged cars, exotic trips through Southeast Asia and the great idea of using the Queen Mary wreck as a secret base, The Man with the Golden Gun is just frustrating. Fortunately, the next instalments of the series would learn how to best use Moore’s specific take on the character.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) I often complain about excessively long movies, but even at nearly three hours, I found The Longest Day riveting throughout. A meticulously detailed overview of the Allied landing in Normandy during World War II, this film takes a maximalist approach to the event: It features dozens of speaking roles in three languages, as it tries to explain what happened from the American, British, French and German perspective. Character development gets short thrift, but that doesn’t matter as much as you’d think if you consider the event as world-sweeping history featuring four nations. An all-star ensemble cast helps propel the story forward with some sympathy, as the personas of John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery (in a very funny pre-Bond role), Sal Mineo and may others guide us through the war. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and hits anthology levels with a sweeping minutes-long uninterrupted shot of urban warfare. (There’s also a great camera movement early in the film that shows the beach landing and many of the 23,000 soldiers used during filming.) While Saving Private Ryan has eclipsed The Longest Day as the definitive portrayal of D-Day, this 1962 production remains important as a historical document in itself: Many cast and crew had been in Normandy twenty years later, to the point where some actors were portraying people close to them when it happened. (Richard Todd was offered his own role and ended up taking that of his then-superior officer, and ends up speaking “to himself” during the movie.) Visually, the movie remains spectacular even fifty-five years later, and it gets better the more early-1960s stars you can spot. (This also works for historical figures—Omar Bradley is instantly recognizable in a one-shot role.) It’s an exceptional tribute to the events of June 6, 1944, a thrilling adventure story and its relatively bloodless nature doesn’t undercut its portrayal of war as being hell where anyone can die at any time. It’s quite a rewarding film, and it’s even better when you can understand more than one of the three spoken languages.
(On TV, September 2018) There’s nothing particularly fancy in Two Mules for Sister Sara than a by-the-numbers Western adventure featuring Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Mexican rebels and French antagonists. But the details are what matters, and especially the interplay between two actors in fine form. Peak-era Clint Eastwood more or less reprises his man-with-no-name role as a capable loner who comes across a woman being assaulted by bandits. Compelled to help her by her nun’s habit, they then both go on various adventures that end with the defeat of the invading French forces. I’m not a big fan of MacLaine, but she’s pugnacious and likable here as a two-fisted nun. The film does a nice job at pacing its adventures, and features one spectacular train derailment to keep things interesting. Most of Two Mules for Sister Sara has been seen elsewhere, but it’s executed so well that it feels fresh again.
(In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) Coming in toward the end of the Vietnam quagmire, 1970 was a strange year for war movies. On the one hand, you have the blockbuster example of Patton, with its portrayal of a grander-than-life soldier’s soldier against the noble backdrop of World War II and sweeping tank battles. Then there is the satirical trio of Kelly’s Heroes, MASH and Catch-22, all of which took a jaundiced satirical look at war, taking potshots at the very ideals that earlier movies such as The Longest Day would have promoted a few years earlier. (Even Patton isn’t immune to the critical re-evaluation, as Patton himself is portrayed as exceptionally flawed and prisoner of his own nature.) Catch-22 betrays its literary origins through elaborate dialogue sequences often taking over the cinematic qualities of its sequences—most spectacularly during a sequence in which some inane dialogue takes place over the crash landing of a plane behind the characters. This being said, there’s an admirable commitment to historical recreations in Catch-22—the film put together a bomber air base just for shooting, and the results are some impressive sequences with real military hardware and none of that fluffy CGI stuff. An all-star cast is enough to keep things interesting—from Alan Arkin’s too-sane protagonist to Orson Welles turning up as a military commander. Much of the film has a compelling twisted logic to it, pointing out the limits of military thinking in exceptional situations. While the result could have been tighter, more focused and perhaps just a bit less talky, it still amounts to a compelling anti-war statement.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, September 2018) And so the Roger Moore Bond years begin in Live and Let Die, without SPECTRE, but with tarot, voodoo and tons of Blaxploitation. The globe-threatening antics of previous films are reduced to a drug trafficking movie, albeit with a considerable amount of early-seventies flair. Moore’s performance is not quite Moore’s Bond yet: His approach is still more intense than debonair, his quips are restrained and he still feels like a holdover from the Connery era. The film around him, however, is a clear relic of its time: I happen to like Blaxploitation a lot, so it’s not as if its intrusion on Bond territory is not welcome—on the other hand, this is clearly a black-focused film written by white people, so the folkloric aspects of black culture are played up and character stereotypes abound. It’s also missing a lot of what made Blaxploitation feel fun—no funk, no going up against the man on behalf of the black man. Oh well; we couldn’t really expect much from such a combination. Elsewhere in the movie, the ludicrousness abounds: there’s an uncomfortable aura of supernatural floating around the film, even when you can explain most of it rationally through dramatic plotting, impossibly clever schemes and an impressionistic final shot. It does dovetail with the increasingly silly nature of the Bond series going into the Moore years, especially when tarot and voodoo are used as exotic window-dressing for the series’ globetrotting. Speaking of which: It does feel like an overdose to go back to America in back-to-back Bond movies, even if New Orleans isn’t the same as Las Vegas. (I saw Live and Let Die as a teenager, but I had forgotten all about Bond’s detour in New York City. I did remember the tricked-out card deck, though.) I’m not particularly impressed by the film’s action showpieces, especially the boat sequence which, while containing some spectacular moments, doesn’t seem to build to something as much as it just strings stuff along until it runs out of its budget. Jane Seymour is one of the most intriguing Bond Girls as Solitaire, but I’m not sure that she actually fits in the Bond universe. Yaphet Kotto is not bad as the villain, although one wonders how busy his agenda is in-between the ruling, the trafficking and the evil plotting. Among bit players, David Hedison is great as Felix Leiter, Geoffrey Holder is terrific as Baron Samedi, Madeline Smith is cute as the Opening Bond Girl and Gloria Hendry is welcome as the Bad Bond Girl. Alas, Sheriff Pepper is intolerable, Q is missing and the plot is a bit dull, suggesting once again that the Bond series is at its silly best when it goes bigger-than-big. Speaking of which, Paul McCartney’s title song is terrific, probably my favourite of the series. Otherwise, Live and Let Die is a formula Bond movie, perhaps more interesting as a period piece and as a transition point for the series rather than by itself.
(On Cable TV, September 2018) I sometimes do other things while watching movies, but as The Great Race went on, I had to put those other things away and restart the film. There is an astonishing density of gags to its first few minutes (from the title sequence, even) that require undivided attention. While the first act of the film does set up expectations that the second half fails to meet, it does make The Great Race far more interesting than expected. Clearly made with a generous budget, this is a comedy that relies a lot on practical gags, built on a comic foundation that harkens back to silent-movie stereotypes. Making no excuses for its white-versus-black characters, the film features Tony Curtis as an impossibly virtuous hero, facing the comically dastardly antagonist played with gusto by Jack Lemmon in one of his most madcap comic performance. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood has never looked better as the romantic interest (seeing her parade in thigh-high black stockings unarguably works in the film’s favour) and both Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn are able seconds. The film’s visual gags are strong, and so is writer/director Blake Edwards’s willingness to go all-out of his comic set pieces: The legendary pie fight is amusing, but I prefer the Saloon brawl for its sense of mayhem. There is a compelling energy to the film’s first hour, as pleasantly stereotyped characters are introduced, numerous visual gags impress and the film’s sense of fun is firmly established. Alas, that rhythm lags a bit in the last hour, with an extended parody of The Prisoner of Zenda that falls flat more than it succeeds (although it does contain that pie fight sequence). Still, it’s a fun film and the practical nature of the vehicular gags makes for a change of pace from other comedies. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected.
(Popcornflix streaming, September 2018) I grew up on Popeye cartoons (in French, mind you), but somehow hadn’t seen the live-action adaptation until now. I can’t say I missed much, because for all of director Robert Altman’s skill in recreating a cartoon-inspired seashore village, much of Popeye simply falls flat with simplistic character motivations, too-long musical numbers and an overall impression of … dullness. It’s not all bad: Robin Williams is good as Popeye, but Shelley Duvall is terrific as Olive Oyl and Paul L. Smith is remarkable as Bluto. The sets are splendid (almost too good, in fact—we don’t really want to spend any more time there) and there is some occasional good staging for the physical comedy. But otherwise, Popeye remains surprisingly boring: The film feel self-satisfied, prone to excessive sentimentalism and unwilling to make its narrative advance. Williams’ constant mumbling of malapropisms as Popeye in in-character, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less annoying. In some ways, Popeye also seems made for those who already know Popeye—I’m among those, but we’re literally a dying breed and I wonder what audiences new to the character would make of the film. I certainly had to pause and think a bit about those Saturday morning cartoons to be reminded of why the film followed a certain path, who those annoying people were and why it was so stylized. Overall, I’m disappointed at the result.
(In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) The biggest surprise about The Pink Panther is that it turns out to be an ensemble bedroom romp with a limited role for Peter Sellers’s Inspecteur Clouzot—and, in fact, he gets played like a fool for the entire film, with a conclusion that doesn’t do the character much good. Sellers did such a striking job with the role that later instalments, starting with the follow-up A Shot in the Dark, would develop the Clouzot mythology in earnest. In the meantime, what we have here is a tangled mess of characters lusting for one another, with Clouzot unaware that his wife (the lovely Capucine) is carrying an affair with the master thief (the wonderful David Niven) that he’s chasing. Meanwhile, the gentleman thief is trying to seduce a princess (Claudia Carnivale!) who own the titular diamond, while his nephew is also trying to seduce Clouzot’s wife. It takes a diagram to figure it out, but fortunately the film is much easier to absorb as it gradually introduces its character as they converge on a European ski resort. Comedy director legend Blake Edwards slowly tightens the funny screws, culminating in a bedroom sequences in which characters hide under the bed and exit through windows while Clouzot remains blissfully unaware of how many pretenders his wife has within purring distance. It takes a while to get going and does end on a less jolly note, but the ski resort sequence of the film is a small success in creating a sexy comic atmosphere. Even out-of-nowhere moments, such as Fran Jeffries crooning an Italian song around a communal fireplace, are more charming than puzzling. Niven does stellar work here as an impeccable gentleman thief, but Sellers was simply spectacular enough that the series would therefore focus on him. So it goes—plans never unfold exactly as everyone thinks they will, especially in the Pink Panther universe.
(Second Viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) There’s the end of a James Bond era and the beginning of another in Diamonds are Forever. It would be the last of the Bond movies to focus on Spectre and Blofeld (due to rights issues, no less) until the 2010s, and also the last of the EON-sanctioned productions to feature Sean Connery. It also marks the first Bond to truly lean on the craziest possibilities of the Bond franchise: Far from the relatively grounded On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, here we are with satellite laser weapons, gymnast bodyguards, a moon rover chase, body doubles, a pair of camp gay assassins, a reclusive billionaire, circus intrigue and so on. Whew. It sounds like a lot, and indeed at times we wish for the film to calm down a little bit. The result is firmly in the tongue-in-cheek Bond formula phase that would be so firmly exemplified by Roger Moore’s tenure. This being said, Connery’s return to the role is welcome even if the film isn’t as good as his other ones—he’s visibly older than in previous films, and the added touch of gray and world-weariness suits him well. Lana Wood makes for an intriguing Bond Girl, although her role becomes less and less interesting as the film advances. Indeed, there is a sense of missed opportunities in Diamonds are Forever that is made worse by the deliberately silly tone—the first minute of the film is awesome as an angry 007 travels the world and brutalizes informants in the search for Blofeld, but this soon turns to mush with an unrelated smuggling plot and a limp return to Blofeld later during the film. There are plot holes and dumb character decisions everywhere, not helping the film’s credibility or impact in the slightest. Some of the action scenes do work well, though—the chase through Las Vegas has a uniquely American flavour that sticks out (although, after being immersed in the very British atmosphere of the Bond series for a few movies, it reminds us by contrast that American culture and way of life is really, really weird) and even if the car-on-two-wheels stunt makes no sense, it’s still remarkably fun to see. While clearly the worst Connery-era Bond (I abhor Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd), I still have a bit of a fondness for Diamonds are Forever, largely because it’s closer in tone to the Moore movies through which I was introduced to Bond.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) After mostly holding up for three entries, the Rocky series took a serious hit with Rocky IV and became even worse in Rocky V. Within five minutes of the previous film’s conclusion, capricious plotting shows up to ruin everything: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is brain-damaged, and suddenly penniless except for a convenient boxing gym. The riches-to-rag story feels like a cheap shot this far in the series (not to mention that it makes no sense for an athlete as famous as Rocky to be suddenly penniless—even the movie itself, later on, has his name plastered on magazine covers) and the result makes for a poor follow-up to the series so far. Five movies in, it feels like a soap opera, not helped along by the nature of the film that spends far too much time around the dinner table and not enough in the ring. We cannot believe in the film’s attempt to return to the humble roots of Rocky’s character, not at this point. There’s a nice narrative fillip in having Rocky be a rather bad mentor and seeing his protégé turn evil, but whatever originality is sought is sabotaged by the execution of the film—The Rocky series has never been about subtlety, but seeing the character of Duke being presented as cartoonishly evil, and the journalists acting as plot explainers is a low for the series. Even the familiar characters behave in dumb ways, with Rocky not quite noticing his neglect of his suddenly teenage son, Adrian keeping her emotions in check until her mandatory once-a-movie shouting scene and brother-in-law Paulie is just an idiot (who also got rid of his robot). Annoyances abound—I still can’t fit rap music in the pre-Creed Rocky universe, and the ending street fight seems to step out of the series as well—and the film’s execution seems perfunctory at best. No wonder Rocky V is often left off from movie marathons of the series.
(Second viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) As far as Bond movies go, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a weird one. It has quite a bit running against it, but substantial assets as well. It’s the one that introduced snowy mountain fortresses (and subsequent downhill chase sequence) to the Bond lexicon. It’s the one that, at least until 2006’s Casino Royale, had the most character development for Bond, whether we wanted it or not. It’s the one that, even more than Thunderball, stepped up the frequency and intensity of the action sequences that became part of the Bond formula. It’s the one that stuck most closely to the original Fleming text, once again whether we wanted it or not. It’s the one with the best Blofeld, with Terry Savalas in fine form as an evil mastermind unafraid to take up guns and get down with the killing. It’s the one with the best direction of the early Bond movies (thanks to Peter R. Hunt), perhaps all the way to Skyfall—it’s sometimes visually interesting in its presentation, which is more than can be said for the unobtrusive style preferred by other Bond directors. It’s the one with the nice instrumental title tune that’s been remade so well by Propellerheads. On the other hand, it’s the one with the sucker-punch of a downer ending, the one that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the movies. It’s the only one with George Lazenby as Bond—he’s not exactly a bad Bond, but he doesn’t have the je-ne-sais quoi that the best Bonds have: the suaveness of Connery, the debonairness of Moore, or the brute force of Craig. It’s the one that compounds a decent villain plot with an over-the-top brainwashing fillip that makes the entire thing feel silly. It’s the one with the cutest early Bond Girl (Diana Riggs) but also the most mystifying, popping up at random intervals doing things solely to help move the plot forward. It’s the one that messes with the film formula, not quite going for the gadgets and not quite respecting how M and Moneypenny are best used. Some are fond of praising this film over the others and I can certainly see their point, but the truth is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is distinguished because it stands alongside the other Bond movies—I’m not sure it would have done as well as a purely standalone film. It does feel a bit long at times, and rather arbitrary in far too many respects—the opening sequence alone piles up the coincidences to an untenable height. Even though this isn’t the most popular Bond movie, you can see its influence on later films of the series and most clearly on the Craig cycle—Skyfall was just as upsetting in the way it played with the formula, and the lesson here is that you get to do these off-Bonds once every generation. My take is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is just as good a Bond as the others … but it cannot be evaluated along the same criteria as the ones immediately preceding and following it.