Film Review: Live and Let Die (1973)

Release Date: June 27th, 1973 (US release)
Directed by: Guy Hamilton
Written by: Tom Mankiewicz
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: George Martin, Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney
Cast: Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour, Julius Harris, David Hedison, Gloria Hendry, Clifton James, Geoffrey Holder, Madeline Smith, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell

Eon Productions, United Artists, 121 Minutes

Review:

“Tee-Hee, on the first wrong answer from Miss Solitaire, you will snip the little finger of Mr. Bond’s right hand. Starting with the second wrong answer, you will proceed to the more… vital… areas.” – Kananga

I’ve worked my way through most of the James Bond movies and only have a few left after this one. Granted, I’ve seen them all before but I didn’t review any of them until last year. And since I’ve been doing these out of order, I should note that this is not my first Roger Moore Bond film but it is his first outing as the iconic character.

I know that this one gets a pretty bad rap but it’s one of my favorites. But I’ll explain why.

To start, it came out at the height of the blaxploitation era in American filmmaking and it utilizes that to great advantage. The film has a lot of blaxploitation actors in this from Julius Harris to Gloria Hendry. And while it taps into that vibe well, this isn’t Bond trying to be blaxploitation, it just meshes well with that genre’s style where it needs to.

Additionally, I love the voodoo and magical elements to the film. They may feel out of place and hokey but by the 1970s, Bond movies had started to drive towards cheese. Honestly, this is the most ’70s-esque of all the Bond films and while it feels dated because of that, it still works really well for me. I love the voodoo stuff, especially Baron Samedi, who was brought to life by the always awesome Geoffrey Holder. No lie, Samedi is one of my all-time favorite Bond villains.

The setting of this film was also great. It went from New York City to New Orleans to the Caribbean and in doing that, married the urban blaxploitation vibe with the Caribbean beauty of Dr. No, the first Bond film. In a way this brings things full circle, as Roger Moore’s first outing as Bond had a strong geographic similarity to Sean Connery’s first outing as the character. And both filmed those sequences on location in Jamaica.

I also enjoyed Yaphet Koto in this as the evil Kananga. He was a new kind of Bond villain for a new era where the franchise couldn’t keep relying on SPECTRE as its premier threat. Koto’s work here, really set the stage for some of the other solid villains from the Moore era.

We also get the debut of Sheriff Pepper of Louisiana, who is probably more iconic than the size of his actual role in the series. He’s synonymous with the Moore era but he was actually only in two of Moore’s Bond pictures and fairly briefly. Still, he is a fan favorite and it’s been argued that he was a template for the cops in The Dukes of Hazzard, as well as Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice from Smokey and the Bandit.

Now there are some cringe moments in this like when Kananga blows up like a balloon, floats and explodes. However, those moments are balanced out by the hokey stuff that worked better like the scene where Samedi gets a chunk blown out of his head and he just looks up at it before he shatters like a broken pot.

I love this movie. I get that it is frowned upon by more serious Bond fans but they miss the point. This series should be about fun escapism. This is exactly that.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: The other Roger Moore James Bond movies.

Film Review: Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1994)

Release Date: October 19th, 1994
Directed by: Jeff Burr
Written by: Constantine Chachornia, Ivan Chachornia
Music by: Jim Manzie
Cast: Andrew Robinson, Ami Dolenz, Soleil Moon Frye, J. Trevor Edmond, Hill Harper, Alexander Polinsky, Linnea Quigley, Mark McCracken, Steve Kanaly, Roger Clinton Jr., Kane Hodder, Gloria Hendry, Joe Unger

Motion Picture Corporation of America, Live Entertainment, 88 Minutes

Review:

“You will die! You all will die! Miss Osie curses every one of you to the vengeance of Pumpkinhead!” – Miss Osie

Pumpkinhead is a solid late 80s horror flick. Its straight-to-video 1994 sequel is not solid. Well, at the very least, the monster still looks damn cool and he still rips people to shreds.

Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings does stay afloat but that is mainly due to its interesting ensemble cast. You have Andrew Robinson, who was damn good in Hellraiser, as the police chief. You also have Ami Dolenz, who I really just like to look at because she is mesmerizing. Then there are a couple 80s sitcom stars, Soliel Moon Frye (Punky Brewster) and Alexander Polinsky (Charles In Charge). You even have small parts given to Kane Hodder (the best Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th film franchise) and Gloria Hendry, who kicked ass in several 1970s blaxploitation movies. I also can’t forget scream queen Linnea Quigley and her famous boobs.

The problem with Pumpkinhead II is that it disregards the first film completely and just does its own thing. However, apparently the mutant kid that becomes the new Pumpkinhead in this movie was the illegitimate bastard son of the first Pumpkinhead and some insane girl that had sex with him. She was probably raped though, honestly. Then again, I knew this Craigslist hooker that lived in my complex and she probably would have given up the ass to Pumpkinhead for a drive to K-Mart and a big bag of Skittles.

Anyway, this movie doesn’t totally suck, it’s just lame that it didn’t continue on from the first one. The sequels after this are more direct sequels to the original but I haven’t seen those yet.

Pumpkinhead II sees the monster brought up from the grave of a dead mutant looking kid. He is summoned by a witch that wants revenge for the people who wronged the boy in the 1950s and for the kids who let her house burn down.

I have to give props to the creature effects. Even though Stan Winston wasn’t involved in this, as he was very involved with the first, the new team did a better than decent job at keeping the monster awesome. He looked the same and even got to move around a bit more. This version of Pumpkinhead was just more mobile and not as limited as the original. This made for better action and more versatile shots, where in the first film, they had to shoot it in a way that hid the monster’s limitations.

While the story and the action aren’t bad, this chapter in the series just doesn’t measure up to the first one. It’s not a waste of time and it is enjoyable if these kind of movies are your cup of tea. It is better than most pointless horror sequels and it had a decent cast. Although, I really just want to check out the third and fourth film to see if they right the ship.

Film Review: Hell Up In Harlem (1973)

Also known as: Black Caesar Part II, Black Caesar’s Sweet Revenge (working titles)
Release Date: December 16th, 1973
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: Edwin Starr
Cast: Fred Williamson, Margaret Avery, Gloria Hendry, D’Urville Martin, Julius Harris

American International Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

Hell Up In Harlem is the sequel to Black Caesar. In fact, it came out in the same calendar year, as they wasted no time pumping it out. Unfortunately, it suffers from being rushed. Although it isn’t a bad picture, it just doesn’t measure up to its predecessor.

The film picks up at the end of the first movie. It keeps the plot going, as the shot and injured Tommy Gibbs is wobbling around the streets carrying the ledgers from the first picture. Due to his injury and need to recover, Gibbs puts his father in charge of the gang. While he and his father have had their issues, Gibbs trusts him with the ledgers and his entire life. Tommy Gibbs and Papa Gibbs have a falling out when Tommy is told that the elder had his ex-wife murdered. Tommy, having fallen in love with Margaret, leaves Harlem in his father’s hands and moves to Los Angeles. It is discovered that Zach, the gang member that tipped Tommy off about his ex-wife’s murder was trying to undermine Papa Gibbs rule and take control of the gang away from him. Then, all hell breaks loose.

While Larry Cohen does a decent job of keeping the vibe and tone consistent with his first picture, the lack of James Brown’s music sticks out like a sore thumb. Musically, this film isn’t bad but it doesn’t have the iconic tunes of Black Caesar and the less dynamic score hurts the film. Brown sort of legitimized the first film and not having him do the second one, has the opposite effect. But this was probably a product of the movie being rushed.

Fred Williamson is still great as Tommy Gibbs and the rest of the returning cast hold down their parts as well. It was nice seeing Julius Harris’ role expand and go in an unforeseen direction. The film does have a lot of surprises and isn’t just a retread of the first one.

In the end though, Hell Up In Harlem is not the film that Black Caesar is. Had they taken their time with it, it could have been something as exceptional as the first one. It had some things that showed promise but it just doesn’t deliver in the right way.

Film Review: Black Caesar (1973)

Also known as: Godfather of Harlem (UK)
Release Date: February 7th, 1973
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: James Brown
Cast: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, D’Urville Martin, Julius Harris

American International Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Pray for him, Rufus… you were always a good boy, pray for him.” – Mama Gibbs

Fred Williamson is one of the coolest actors of all-time. Black Caesar is also one of the coolest films of all-time, even if Williamson plays an incredibly deplorable character within the picture.

Teaming up with director Larry Cohen was a perfect fit for Williamson, as well as his co-stars Gloria Hendry and D’Urville Martin. These three actors would go on to have a presence in blaxploitation pictures for a couple years while leaving their respectable marks on the genre. Cohen would go on to direct and write for decades, making other explitation films as well as some memorable monster and sci-fi movies.

Black Caesar is a remake of the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar. Except this version switches out the main character of an Italian mobster with an African-American who grew up in Harlem, a victim of an evil cop, that wanted to exact revenge while rising to power in his neighborhood despite the odds against him.

The film also features an amazing score created by James Brown. His famous songs Down and Out in New York CityThe Boss and Mama’s Dead were created for this film.

Oddly, the film was originally developed to star Sammy Davis Jr. He wanted a project to make him more than a lackey behind Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and wanted to provide all the original music. Davis ran into trouble with the IRS and couldn’t pay what was his share of the production costs. Ultimately, the film was given to Fred Williamson and James Brown and we probably got a better film due to the alteration. I can’t imagine a Sammy Davis Jr. version would have been as gritty or his character, as menacing and intimidating as Williamson’s Tommy Gibbs.

The film is action packed, violent and has a certain amount of gravitas that puts it above a lot of the other blaxploitation films of the time. Williamson is just a guy that owns the screen and commands respect. Even as an unlikable murderous rapist in Black Caesar, it is hard not to have a sense of admiration for how he handles his shit: defying the man, the system and the seemingly powerful mobsters that rule New York City.

Gloria Hendry, who I have always enjoyed, has never been better. She played her darkest and most serious role out of the blaxploitation films she was in and she did a fine job. You really felt for her character and wanted her to be okay, as she was continually bullied, abused and raped by Williamson’s Gibbs. And when she found love, you wanted it to work out for her.

D’Urville Martin is typical D’Urville Martin, except he is a crooked preacher in this, which just makes him more hilarious and entertaining.

Overall, Black Caesar is one of the best blaxploitation films ever made. It also spawned a sequel that reunited the cast and director. That one is called Hell Up In Harlem, which I will have to re-watch and review in the very near future.

Film Review: Black Belt Jones (1974)

Release Date: January 28th, 1974
Directed by: Robert Clouse
Written by: Alexandra Rose, Fred Weintraub, Oscar Williams
Music by: Dennis Coffey
Cast: Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry, Scatman Crothers

Warner Bros., 87 Minutes

Review:

Black Belt Jones is one of my favorite films in the 1970s blaxploitation genre. It mixes two things really well, blaxploitation and kung fu; two big staples of urban filmgoers’ diets in the 1970s.

While other films utilized this combination, Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite immediately coming to mind, it was the films starring Jim Kelly that had a real martial arts authenticity to them, as he was a legitimate world karate champion with a multitude of major tournament wins. He also starred alongside Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon, which gave him immense credibility. In any event, the proof is in the pudding, as Kelly executed the most impressive fight moves in the history of blaxploitation film.

The film also features Gloria Hendry, who came off as one of the most bad ass female characters in the genre, if not in the entire history of cinema. Her character of Sydney was a martial arts expert who could hold her own alongside Jim Kelly’s Black Belt Jones. She also brought a certain level of street cred to the picture, as she starred alongside Fred Williamson in Black Caesar and its sequel Hell Up In Harlem, a year earlier. She was also a Bond Girl in 1973’s Live and Let Die.

Scatman Crothers, a longtime favorite of mine, plays a small role but he has a major impact on the story and he takes over every time you see him on the screen during the first act of the film. Crothers always had a strong presence in everything he did, which is probably why filmmaking auteur Stanley Kubrick hired him to play Dick Halloran in his horror masterpiece The Shining.

The plot of Black Belt Jones is a pretty simple one that hits all the blaxploitation notes and utilizes the tropes that come along with it. It’s not necessarily well written but its strengths come with its execution. Creatively, this was something new in the genre because of the talent and credibility of its two stars.

There are a few highlights in the film.

The first is the sequence where Sydney kicks her heels off and, to the surprise of everyone in the room and the audience watching, whips the shit out of a gang of thugs. She is like a kung fu pixie versus a band of evil heavies that dwarf her.

The second highlight is the final battle where Black Belt Jones and Sydney take on the big crime bosses in a parking lot that is covered in suds and bubbles. It is a bizarre scene but it is visually stunning and a neat sequence. They both throw kicks and punches, annihilating their enemies with ease, as suds fly with every strike. Ultimately, it is really a memorable scene because of its oddness but somewhat cute nature.

Black Belt Jones is not a tour de force of filmmaking skill but it is a hell of a good time and cashes in at just under 90 minutes. It marries the blaxploitation and kung fu genres perfectly and it has a great sense of humor. It wasn’t intended to be serious and it doesn’t act as if it is. It is playful, exciting and most importantly, bad ass.