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: 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: Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993)

Release Date: July 7th, 1993
Directed by: William Lustig
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: Joel Goldsmith
Cast: Robert Z’Dar, Robert Davi, Caitlin Dulany, Gretchen Becker, Paul Gleason, Doug Savant, Jackie Earle Haley, Robert Forster, Julius Harris

First Look Studios, NEO Motion Pictures, HBO, Academy Home Entertainment, 85 Minutes

Review:

Well, despite Manic Cop II being better than the first film, the trend of improving through the sequels ended there. Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence is mostly, pretty damn awful.

So Roberet Z’Dar is still the Maniac Cop. Robert Davi also returns and is cool and bad ass. You also have Jackie Earle Haley as Drug Addicted Douchebag, Paul Gleason as Secret Murder Douchebag, Robert Forster as Dr. Douchebag and Doug Savant as Horn Dog Douchebag.

In this chapter, the Maniac Cop gets a crush on a female cop who was shot in the line of duty and is possibly going to die in the hospital. The city bureaucrats and crooked cops, who didn’t learn anything from the Maniac Cop’s quest for revenge over the first two films, decide to kill the lady cop to avoid bad press or something. Maniac Cop doesn’t like this and he sets out to murder all those evil douchebags that have hurt his crush. Of course, other people aren’t safe, either.

Overall, this film in the series is pretty boring when compared to the two pictures before it. It is really just drab in almost every way. It also employs a voodoo story line which was being done to death in this era of horror. We already saw it in the Child’s Play series, Candyman and The Serpent and the Rainbow but it was in a ton of movies in the mid-80s through mid-90s.

There is one really cool and memorable sequence, and that is when our heroes are in an ambulance and Maniac Cop, body on fire, pulls up alongside them driving a cop car. This sequence goes on for far too long but seeing a man on fire, driving a squad car in a lengthy car chase was really impressive.

Before that scene, Maniac Cop caught on fire in a church and it felt like a poor rehash of the “Maniac Cop on fire” scene from the prison in Manic Cop 2. However, carrying it over into a car chase redeemed its recycling and upped the ante quite a bit.

Ultimately, this film stinks. It was the first in the series to be almost universally disliked by critics and fans of the series. It is the only one to sit at below 5.0 on IMDb, putting it in the negative half of their rating spectrum. Granted it is currently at 4.9. Regardless, there was never another Maniac Cop after this one. Although there is a remake being developed by Nicholas Winding Refn of Drive fame.

Film Review: King Kong (1976)

Release Date: December 17th, 1976
Directed by: John Guillermin
Written by: Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Based on: King Kong by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange, John Randolph, René Auberjonois, Ed Lauter, Peter Cullen, Julius Harris, Jack O’Halloran

Dino De Laurentiis Corporation, Paramount Pictures, 134 Minutes

king_kong_1976Review:

This was the King Kong film I grew up with. When I was a young kid in the early 1980s, this thing was on television almost daily. I also haven’t seen it since I was a young kid. But I have been watching through all the King Kong films in an effort to review them before the newest one, Kong: Skull Island comes out in March.

This was the first of a duo of films, kind of like the two previous King Kong series before it – the original 1930s RKO Radio Pictures films and the 1960s Toho kaiju movies. For the record, the Peter Jackson King Kong film that came out in 2005 was the first not to spawn a sequel.

1976’s King Kong is a better film than its bad reviews and low scores dictate. It stars a young Jeff Bridges, who looks like a twenty-something version of the Dude. He is likable and the highlight of the film, from an acting standpoint.

The film also stars Jessica Lange, who has always been beautiful but this is her at her stunningly best. She wasn’t a great actress here, although she would be in later projects. Lange was still passable, however. Her emotion, towards the end of the movie, once she grew to love Kong, was a much better version of the beauty and the beast tale than the original 1933 film.

Charles Grodin played the slimy stand-in for Denham of the 1933 version. Instead of being a showman and promoter, Grodin’s character was a sort of greedy oil baron. Like Denham, his desires for money, fame and power turn against him, as he is brutally stepped on by a rampaging King Kong when the film reaches its big climax.

King Kong also has René Auberjonois in it. He’s a guy that I have loved from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to Benson to Where the Buffalo Roam to Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach to all his television and voice work.

This film, like the original, spends most of its time on the island. It only goes to New York City at the very end of the picture, to show Kong on display and then breaking free, only to rampage until his death at the hands of man.

The special effects of the movie are a mixed bag.

Kong looks great. The ape suit and the animatronics work really well and they have aged fairly nicely. Also, the miniatures, most notably, the elevated train scene, don’t look half bad for 1976. Some of the other effects aren’t great, however.

The green screen work looks too obvious and is distracting. One scene in particular, you can tell that something is about to happen with a window in the shot because it is highlighted and stands out like a wall about to break in an old cartoon. Also, any scene of a character falling to their death, whether humans or Kong himself, looks really bad.

The finale of the film is brutal. It takes place atop the World Trade Center and Kong meets his most violent death to date. This violence became a pattern over the two De Laurentiis Kong films. He is shot by three helicopters with miniguns. Bloody chunks literally fly off of Kong as he screams in horror. At least he takes out two of the helicopters in the process. Kong then falls off of the World Trade Center in dramatic fashion.

This is a better than decent film for its day. I find it to be more entertaining than the slew of disaster pictures from the 1970s. Also, I really liked the dynamic between Bridges, Lange and Kong. It isn’t as epic as the 1933 original and despite being more modern, feels much smaller and confined. Regardless, I did enjoy the film.