Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 31, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Black Dynamite (2009)



I can't remember when or how I first heard of “Black Dynamite.” I just know that, as soon as I found out about the movie, I had to see it. When I finally did watching the film, I laughed my ass off. Buying it shortly afterwards, I would watch the film over and over again, laughing my ass off even more every time. “Black Dynamite” became an absolute favorite of mine, the kind of film you show new girlfriends to see if they really “get” you. Sitting down to watch “Black Dynamite” again, probably for the one hundredth time, was somehow a new experience. After watching a month of blaxploitation classics, the spoof's homages and references became even more apparent. Let me tell you the truth: This movie gets funnier every time I watch it.

Black Dynamite is a former Vietnam commando and CIA special agent. He's a kung-fu master, a legendary lover, a brilliant tactician, and all-around the biggest bad ass in the world. Maybe the universe. When his nephew Bucky is killed in a drug deal gone bad, he's enraged. After seeing the orphanage overrun with smack, he's stymied. Black Dynamite declares war on anyone who sells drugs to the community. With his team of sidekicks and black militants, he quickly obliterates the local mafia. Yet the evil scheme goes deeper than that. It goes all the way to the top. As Black Dynamite attempts to destroy this evil empire, he'll go from the L.A. slums, to Kung Fu Island, to the White House.

“Black Dynamite” was the baby of star Michael Jai White, director Scott Sanders, and screenwriter Byron Minns. All three are big fans of blaxploitation flicks. Together, they perfectly replicated the look and feel of seventies soul cinema. The film is grainy, the colors slightly exaggerated. The camera movements are sloppy, scenes lingering just a little longer than they should. The editing is harsh, the acting stiff. Continuity gaffs, reoccurring stuntmen, obvious stock footage, and the boom mic all make guest appearances. Classically trained actors are called upon to speak street jive. Moreover, “Black Dynamite” brilliantly weaves in references and homages to real blaxploitation flicks. The villain's master plan recalls “Three the Hard Way.” A fight in a pool hall is a direct quote from “Black Belt Jones.” A character named Cream Corn is an Antonio Farqus-inspired dandy. Black Dynamite's pal Bullhorn raps his dialogue and incompetently karate fights, like Ruby Ray Moore. In fact, Moore's films were an obvious inspiration to “Black Dynamite” and are referenced throughout.

Yet “Black Dynamite” isn't just a series of perfectly recreated homages to blaxploitation films of years past. It's also full of uproarious absurdity. Some of these are related to the faux-shoddy production values. A stuntman stumbles out of a still moving car. An incompetent actor speaks the script's stage direction in his dialogue. What's even funnier than that is Black Dynamite's confused, irritated reaction to this. Other gags are just brilliantly silly. Like the Captain Kangaroo Pimp. Or a man in a doughnut suit meeting a suitably circular fate. Black Dynamite fools his enemies by putting a bear in a chair and pretending to take a shot. Via animation, Black Dynamite's loving making skills reach a cosmic level. One hilarious scene has the heroes making a series of increasingly unlikely leaps of logic, figuring out the evil scheme via obscure factoids. (When an old lady joins in, I officially couldn't breath anymore.) Even little gags – Black Dynamite's laughter carrying over from a montage or the hero casually shooting two evil goons – get huge reactions. Practically every joke is a home run.

At the center of the film is maybe my favorite comedic performance of the last decade. As a character, Black Dynamite is the ultimate masculine power fantasy, the logical extremity of every blaxploitation protagonist. Michael Jai White's portrayal spins between two deliriously humorous poles. White beautifully captures the stoic heroism of Jim Brown, his smile hidden under a mustache. His romantic frolicking is beautifully awkward. His reaction to a multiple children claiming he's their father is sidesplitting. For all his unfeeling toughness, Black Dynamite is also prone to bizarre, emotional outburst. When recalling his childhood as an orphan, he freaks out. When seeing a room full of doped up orphans, he freaks out. When one of his hos gets lippy, he freaks out even more. When fighting a group of evil kung-fu villains with White's genuinely impressive abilities, he freaks way the fuck out. The other cast members' reaction to this – usually bafflement, sometimes stunned silence – is unforgettable.

“Black Dynamite's” strength as a parody extends beyond a pitch perfect recreation of the source material and a bunch of brilliant silliness. The script exaggerates the already apparent stereotypes and cliches of the genre. The meta joke of “Black Dynamite” is that the actors are playing actors in a bizarre blaxploitation flick. And that movie only grows more bizarre as it goes on. Soon, poisoned malt liquor is revealed as the linchpin of the evil plan. “Black Dynamite” goes from being a crime movie to being a war movie. It then becomes a kung-fu movie, the hero utterly wrecking a hilariously nonchalant evil Asian warlord. The script still isn't done upping the odds. Next, black Dynamite takes the fight to Richard Nixon, who is secretly a master of martial arts. Luckily, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln appears to help. In any other movie, wackiness of this degree might be too self aware. In “Black Dynamite,” whose balance of tone is unimpeachable, it just causes more choruses of laughter.

In a time when the majority of parody movies are grueling experiments in beyond lazy writing and barely there jokes, “Black Dynamite” comes along to remind you that parodies can be good. Not just good but brilliant. It's very apparent that the makers of “Black Dynamite” have nothing but affection for their chosen target. They're students of it, using their knowledge to craft a spoof that is as much faithful homage as goofball riff. Naturally, such dedication of hilarity would grant the film an instant cult following. A pretty good animated series has followed but that often promised, actual sequel has yet to emerge. But it has to appear eventually, because Black Dynamite has far more rights to wrong, many more suckas to own, hundreds of jive turkeys to stick it to. [9/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 11 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

 

Thus concludes Blaxploitation Month. It was a blast, thirty-one days of funky films, many of which I had never seen before. I am now better read in this paticuliar genre, even if there's way more movies out there to watch. Will there be another Blaxploitation Month in the future? You can count on it.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: BAADASSSSS! (2003)



I began 2017's Blaxploitation Month with “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.” So it's only fitting that the month would wrap up with “BAADASSSSS!” The story behind the production of Melvin Van Peebles' landmark film is legendary, full of strife and struggle. This makes it a natural choice for the biopic treatment. What makes “BAADASSSSS!” really special is that it was directed by Mario Van Peebles. As in, Melvin's own son. This gives the film a more personal feeling than you'd expect from most other biopics. The director actually lived through some of the events depicted in “BAADASSSSS!” The film wouldn't get too much attention upon release in 2003 but those who saw it gave rave reviews.

In 1970, Melvin Van Peebles is a success. His comedy, “Watermelon Man,” is a hit. Columbia Pictures has just offered him a three picture deal. The studio is encouraging him to make another comedy. Van Peebles, meanwhile, wants to make a serious film, about a black man fighting against white oppression. About “a street brother gettin' the man's foot outta his ass,” as Melvin puts it. And he wants the black guy to get away at the end. Everyone hates the idea. The studio refuses to produce the script. Van Peebles decides to make the movie totally independently. The producers are sketchy, forcing Melvin to bankroll most of the movie with his own cash. The shooting is guerrilla style. Money is constantly running out. Even after Van Peebles finishes shooting, there's no way for him to know if his confrontational, experimental movie will be a success.

A son making a movie about his own father is a double edged sword. It allows for a personal perspective on the material, presumably resulting in a closer-to-life film. Yet that same connection also could've easily resulted in a hagiography, a glorified ode afraid to treat its subject fairly. Luckily, Mario Van Peebles doesn't approach his dad with kid's glove. In “BAADASSSSS!,” Melvin Van Peebles can be kind of an asshole. He's not always great to his kids, sometimes being too hard on him. His decision to have Mario perform in one of “Sweetback's” sex scenes is controversial. The sex-and-drugs atmosphere of the seventies is shown as not always the best atmosphere to raise a kid in. Melvin's determination to complete his film at all costs, endangering himself, his family, and his crew, borders on fanatical. When an editor threatens to quit, Melvin punches him repeatedly in the face. The younger Van Peebles is impressed with his father's achievements but doesn't let the old man off the hook either.

Mario Van Peebles is probably best known as a leading man in B-rated fare like “Rappin'” and “Solo.” Yet he has some solid credits as a director, such as “New Jack City” and “Panther.” In “BAADASSSSS!,” he makes some interesting creative decisions. The movie sometimes functions as an interesting hybrid between documentary and bio film. The narrative frequently cuts away to interviews with the participants in the “Sweetback's” production. What's odd is that these interviews aren't with the actual people but with the actors playing them. This isn't the only potentially meta choice Van Peebles makes. Often, Melvin's self-doubts appear as a version of himself, dressed in dark clothing. This is an interesting way to illustrate the creative mind's relationship with doubt and ambition. Occasionally, the film is peppered with other surreal touches. Such as Melvin seeing a singing child floating above him on the ceiling.

Mostly, “BAADASSSSS!” is about the struggles of an independent filmmaker, trying to make a real movie on his own terms. Van Peebles has trouble getting the money necessary to make the movie. One producer demands a sexual favor in exchange for funding. Another is a blasted out hippy who gets thrown in jail the day production starts. It's not the last run-in with the law the production has. His interracial crew is arrested by cops, convinced the Latino and black men stole the equipment. Van Peebles has to blow up a car without a permit. A stuttering actor brings a real gun to the set, which is later thrown in with the prop guns. The boom operator, a black militant played by a young Terry Crews, challenges Van Peebles' authority at one point. That's aside from people leaving the set or money running out. Even after the film is made, Melvin still goes through the struggles of trying to sell a deeply non-commercial film.

Of course, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” would become a commercial success, reaching the black audiences Van Peebles knew mainstream Hollywood ignored, and birthing a cinematic movement in the process. This does remove some suspense from the final act. Despite some flaws, “BAADASSSSS!” is a pretty great movie about making movies. The cast is extremely good, with Mario doing a great job of playing his own father. The loaded supporting cast includes Crews, David Alan Grier, and Rainn Wilson. (Then again, Bill Cosby shows up at the very end, like some sort of in-retrospect boogeyman.) Van Peebles not only pays homage to what his father accomplished but also makes an interesting artistic statement of his own, showing the internal and external conflicts the creative mind endures. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 7 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Shaft (2000)



I suppose it says a lot about the brand recognition of “Shaft” that, even as a clueless suburban 12 year old in 2000, I knew who John Shaft was. Isaac Hayes' theme song really had saturated the pop culture to that large a degree. At the time, I had never seen any of the original film but knew that Shaft was the coolest cat around. So rebooting the series for then-modern audiences made a lot of sense. As a new millennium dawned, a new “Shaft” would strut onto theater screens. The reboot starring Samuel L. Jackson, the biggest black star this side of Will Smith, just seemed natural. John Singleton being behind the camera also made a lot of sense. Despite having so much in its favor, 2000's “Shaft” came and went without making much of an impact. Yet is it possible that this “Shaft” was actually ahead of its time?

Though it was sold as a remake, 2000's “Shaft” is actually a stealth sequel to the original series. Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft the Second, nephew to Richard Roundtree's original Shaft, who has a bit part in the film. (This is despite Roundtree only being six years older than Jackson.) This Shaft is a police officer, frustrated by the limitations of his job. When Walter Wade Jr., a racist son of a white millionaire, casually murders a black man and gets away with it, Shaft nearly leaves the force. The rich psycho skips bail and leaves America. Two years later, he returns. John Shaft is committed in pursuing the case, determined to get the one witness to the crime to speak out against Wade. The situation is made even more dangerous when Wade forms an alliance with a gang of drug dealers.

Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft is quite different from Roundtree's original. He's not as smooth or cool. This Shaft is more of a raw nerve, wearing his volatile emotions on his sleeve. When he's pissed off, his eyes bulge in the kind of glorious rage that Jackson specializes in. He's much less of a lady's man. Women are interested in him, and he reciprocates, but he's far more preoccupied with serving justice. Mostly, Jackson's sense of humor is really different from Roundtree's. Shaft '71 spun sarcastic lines into full blown belly laughs. Shaft '00 is funny when casually intimidating crooks and thugs, in a way that inevitably recalls “Pulp Fiction's” Jules. In fact, Singleton's “Shaft” repeatedly references Jackson's popular collaborations with Tarantino. None of these are criticisms, exactly. This is a different character, a different Shaft, and Jackson is always entertaining. But it certainly leads to a much more tonally different film.

At the time, the main villain in 2000's “Shaft” didn't seem very intimidating. Test audience's found Jeffrey Wright more compelling than Christian Bale's Walter Wade, causing re-edits that emphasized the former over the latter. In 2017, this element seems frighteningly prescient. A white man murders a black man in cold blood and uses his wealth to escape justice. Who would've thought that the real life version of this story would've been more terrifying, because he wouldn't need to flee the country? Because the attacker probably would be a cop and the victim probably would be a child? Bale's Wade is startlingly close to life as an entitled, racist piece of garbage. The murder was spurned because he ruthlessly bullied a black man for no reason and got called on his bullshit. In a time when white supremacists have reinvented themselves as a mainstream political party, populated by people who make shit eating grins and bait racial violence, this plot element hits almost too close to the heart.

With all this in mind, 2000's “Shaft” could've been an intense thriller about fighting against a disgustingly resistant form of racism. Instead, it quickly dissolves into a typical story of a renegade cop fighting drug dealing bad guys. Jeffrey Wright's Peoples, a small time dealer who hopes to build an empire, is played as partially sympathetic. He nurtures his infant son. When his brother is killed in a shoot-out, he launches into a grief-filled, suicidal rage. These are interesting touches but Wright plays the part so broadly, that Peoples becomes a standard bad guy. His ruthlessness, which includes shoving screwdrivers into snitches' hearts, drains him of any humanity he might've earned. His gang provides an endless horde of goons for Shaft to blast. The dirty cops in his employ – itself something of a cliché – just exist to add more twists and turns to the plot. Too often, the film barely feels like a “Shaft” movie. It could've been any police-based action flick.

By the way, that action is pretty cool. The shoot-outs are compelling and bloody. The bullets hit with a powerful impact, people thrown backwards by the shots. The sound design is excellent, the audience feeling like the projectiles are whizzing by our ears. The violence has weight and meaning. The tight spaces of front porches or city alleyways are utilized to up the intensity of the shoot-outs. A car nearly runs over Shaft in one scene. In another, a vehicle is used to toss an attacker back. As Shaft closes in on Peoples, the film bursts into an especially tense car chase. Singleton's direction sometimes overdoes it with the slow motion but usually he knows what he's doing. 2000's “Shaft” makes a lot of mistakes but its action sequences aren't one of them.

As you'd expect, this “Shaft” was made with eyes towards a franchise. With a big name star playing an iconic character, that should've been a sealed deal. Yet production was hectic. The studio wanted to downplay the racial and sexual elements of the script. In other words, the stuff that made the original special. Jackson and Singleton didn't get along and both were frustrated by the meddling executives. The movie went out to mediocre box office, despite an advertising push that included music videos and action figures. This fraught production is clear in the finished product, a sporadically interesting film pulled down by routine elements. There's been rumbling recently of a new reboot. Maybe in 2017, a new “Shaft” could acknowledge the racial tension this version hinted at but couldn't commit to while still maintaining the trademark sense of cool. That would be a remake worthy of the name. [6/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 8 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns*
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'**
[X] Use of Street Slang

*Sideburns, no afros.
**Clips from a deleted love scene play during the opening credits. Which just barely counts.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)



By 1988, a little over a decade had passed since the heydays of the blaxploitation genre. That was just enough time for the once-upon-a-time hip style to become a source of nostalgia. And when a legitimate film movement becomes something people can say “Hey, remember that?” about, it becomes ripe for parody. Years before the “Scary Movie” series he launched helped destroy the parody movie, and even before "In Living Color," Keneen Ivory Wayans wrote, directed, and starred in an affectionately silly homage to seventies black cinema. “I'm Gonna Git You Sucka” would be well received by black audiences and generally ignored by everyone else, making the film an almost instant cult classic. For better or worst, it would launch the Wayan Brothers' career, helping make the family a household name.

Kids are dying on the streets. They are falling victim to the latest addictive substance: Gold chains, piling so many on their bodies that it kills them. When Jack Spades returns to his home town from the military, he discovers that his little brother has fallen victim to the same condition. He's determined to stop the man responsible for flooding neighborhoods with gold chains, a crime lord named Mr. Big. To achieve this gold, Spade teams up with a trio of retired black heroes. Slade, Hammer, and Slammer are experienced tough guys. But they haven't been very busy since the seventies, making the mission a little harder then it ordinarily would've been.

“I'm Gonna Git You Sucka” isn't exactly a pitch perfect spoof of blaxploitation. It's steeped in the very different culture of the eighties, its urban characters being decorated with boomboxes, bandanas, and wallet chains. Despite this, it's clear that Wayans is familiar with the troupes of the genre. There are several direct homages. Slade is followed around by a band, who play his theme song. Antonio Fargas, of course, plays a former pimp. He recalls an absurd pimping pageant, a direct parody of “The Mack.” Slade's motivation – avenging the death of a younger sibling – could've been pulled from any number of films. One of the best jokes involves a character named Kung-Fu Joe. An obvious riff on Black Belt Jones, he announces his attacks, flips racist cops over his shoulders, and brings his bare fists to a gun fight. For that matter, a trio of black heroes fighting a racist villain recalls “Three the Hard Way.” My favorite line in the film has Spade justifying his status as a black action hero by pointing out that he used to be a football player.

The callbacks to classic soul cinema are good for a laugh. Having said that, the best gags in “I'm Gonna Git You Sucka” tend to be original bits of absurd silliness. In contrast to the hyper macho heroes of the seventies, Jack Spade is a nerd. His military service was as a secretary. He used to get beat up by dwarfs, which is displayed in a bar populated by guys with giant hats. His mother is a hyper-capable bad-ass, even if she sometimes turns into a male stunt double. Spade isn't much for seducing ladies, though he eventually gets laid. After picking up an attractive lady in the bar, she begins to remove her body parts! There's a number of meta gags, involving the director's sister and which actors have appeared in exploitation films. Yet absolutely my favorite gag in the movie features a young Chris Rock. He enters Hammer and Slammer's restaurant and attempts to purchase a single rib and a sip of Coke. If the rest of the movie was as funny as this one scene, “I'm Gonna Git You Sucka” would be non-stop hilarity.

Honestly, the best attribute of “I'm Gonna Git You Sucka” is its cast. It's pretty easy to guess that Wayans didn't get every actor he wanted. There's a character named “Hammer” who somehow isn't played by Fred Williamson. Instead, Isaac Hayes steps into the part. Kung-Fu Joe was clearly written with Jim Kelly in mind. Steve James, a martial arts star in his own right, got the part instead. If the use of the “Shaft” theme is any indication, Bernie Casey's part of Slade was originally intended for Richard Roundtree. Only Jim Brown, as Slammer, is playing the part clearly written for him. Luckily, all these guys are really funny. Hayes has a blast spitting absurd dialogue, most of which is about murder. James has fun clowning it up. Casey generates several good laughs about his sexual conquests. Brown, meanwhile, is perfectly straight-faced. A bit involving a broken window or a sore foot makes great use of Brown's serious demeanor. I wish he would do more comedy.

“I'm Gonna Git You Sucka”  isn't the gut buster it wants to be. Even during its funniest moments, Wayans' film isn't up to the best work of Mel Brooks or the Zucker Brothers. Instead, it mostly generates good-natured chuckles. But that's okay. The film's goofy streak is charming enough to entertain, keeping the viewer smiling for enough of its 88 minutes. It is certainly clear that the Wayans Brothers were genuine fans of the blaxploitation genre. The film would spawn a TV pilot, “Slammer, Hammer, and Slade,” but the show never went to series. In his future films, Wayans would take a similar approach to other genres, to varying degrees of success. Even with its modest quality, “I'm Gonna Git You Sucka” might be its director's best movie. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 11 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


Monday, March 27, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: The Last Dragon (1985)



When I was in middle school, my good friend and future podcast co-host JD mentioned a movie he saw once. He said it was about a black martial artist named Bruce Leeroy who eventually gets so good at kung-fu, he starts to glow. I thought for sure he was just making shit up. In time, I would discover that this was, in fact, a real movie. “The Last Dragon” is a fan favorite with an odd pedigree. It was one of Motown executive Berry Gordy's few forays into movie making. Gordy had such faith in the film that he put his name above the title. It starred two actors with one word names, non-actor martial artist Taimak and Price protegee Vanity. Directed by “Cooley High” and “Car Wash's” Michael Schultz, the film would attempt to fuse several different genres. The result did okay at the box office in 1985 but wouldn't really get its dues until becoming a cult classic years later.

Harlem youth and Bruce Lee devotee Leroy Green is training with a martial artist master. After learning everything the master offers, the old man sends a still eager-to-learn Leroy in search of a new master. Instead, Leroy stumbles upon two very different people. The first of which is Sho'Nuff, a gang leader and kung-fu master who proclaims himself the Shogun of Harlem. The second of which is Laura Charles, the host of a local musical variety show. When Laura refuses to play the music videos of a would-be music producer/amateur crime boss, she incurs his criminal wrath. Through a series of coincidence, Leroy Green becomes Laura's bodyguard. He soon discovers that the master he seeks is within.

What kind of movie is “The Last Dragon” trying to be? The film is a homage to seventies kung-fu films. Kung-fu fighting appears constantly throughout the film. The hero seeks self-discipline and enlightenment through mastery of the martial arts. Many of the cliches of the genre – the wise sensai, the arrogant rival, ninja outfits and nun-chucks – put in appearance. And this is excluding the obvious Bruce Lee worship on display. Yet “The Last Dragon” is also an eighties New Wave pseudo-musical. The synth-driven funk/soul music appears in nearly every scene. Laura's role as a music host makes room for several full length music videos, including El Debarge's “Rhythm of the Night.” These two ideas don't have much in common and yet “The Last Dragon” slings them together.

This weirdo fusion is also an attempt to create a new kind of blaxploitation movie for the eighties. In what is one of many likely intentional homages to “Black Belt Jones,” “The Last Dragon” features a gang of mob enforcers attempting to intimate an inner city kung-fu dojo. Yet the film was made too early into the eighties to be a throwback to a genre that was only a decade old. Instead, “The Last Dragon” has more in common with “Breakin'” than “Dolemite.” There's kids break dancing in a movie theater. One lengthy sequence is devoted to a group of Chinese guys rapping and hip-hopping. I'm not sure if this was intentional on the filmmaker's behalf but the way “The Last Dragon” freely mixes ethnic backgrounds, the film was seemingly made for a more multicultural era.

In addition to everything else it's trying to be, “The Last Dragon” is also a romance. The singularly named leads have the strangest sort of chemistry. Taimak's performance is charming in the most awkward way possible. His delivery is stiff. He approaches every scene with a fresh-faced sense of childlike innocence, no matter the context. It's an odd performance, technically unsound but nevertheless endearing. As Laura, Vanity is more comfortable on-screen. She plays the part as savvy and cynical. This makes her an ideal counterpart to the naif-like Leroy. The scene where the two first kiss, after Vanity shows Takma a musical montage of Bruce Lee, is strangely disarming. The whole movie is kind of like that.

Then again, “The Last Dragon” is essentially a live action cartoon. The villains are all varying degrees of ridiculous. Eddie Arkadian is the most exaggerated version of an unhinged mob boss that I've ever seen. His much younger girlfriend starts in a series of music videos that are too goofy and gaudy, even by eighties MTV standards. Among the hired goons Arkadian employs is a man with a chain around his neck that acts like a dog. These are colorful characters but Sho'Nuff is by far the most outrageous, memorable bad guy in the film. Maybe the most memorable character in the film period. Julius Carry III – who seemingly took some pointers from Ruby Ray Moore in “Disco Godfather” – yells and mugs, tearing up the screen. Dressed in a series of bizarre costumes, he's as fabulous and nutty as possible. If nothing else, he's a worthy adversary to Bruce Leroy.

The kung-fu in “The Last Dragon” is also pretty good. Say what you will about Takma's acting ability but the kid knew how to kick some ass. The scene where he drops in on Arkadian goons, rescuing Laura, he displays an impressively smooth, almost dance-like technique. The final fight between Sho'Nuff and Leroy is also nicely choreographed. The hero gets tossed through walls, kicked repeatedly, head shoved in water. Yes, Leroy suddenly realizing the secret to the Glow just when he needs it most is pretty lazy writing. Then again, that's the kind of thing that happens in kung-fu movies.

The soundtrack in “The Last Dragon” is not as awesome as it wants to be. The title theme and “The Glow” are catchy enough but both suffer from super corny melodies. Maybe that's fitting, considering “The Last Dragon” is kind of corny too. To call the film a blaxploitation flick isn't entirely accurate. That actual genre was entirely extinct by 1985. There's very little exploitative about this one. Yet “The Last Dragon” is too oddball a combination of divergent influences not to be at least a little lovable. The script herks and jerks according to its own weird whims. Like Takma's odd lead performance, the film is deeply flawed and shouldn't work. Despite this, the final product ends up being rather charming. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 8 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act*
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

*The music video show is essentially a filmed night club act.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Disco Godfather (1979)



By 1979, blaxploitation was dead. Cool flicks about soul brothers fighting the Man had been replaced with sanitized TV shows like “What's Happening!!” and “The Jeffersons.” Other fad films had appeared to fill the grindhouses and drive-ins of America. Such as the disco movie. Ruby Ray Moore obviously still wanted to make his weird-ass movies. The once and future Dolemite pursued the disco fad as an excuse to gift the world with maybe his most gonzo production yet. “Disco Godfather” is one of Moore's most celebrated motion pictures. Not because it's actually, you know, good. People still talk about this one because it's completely fucking insane.

Tucker Williams runs a wildly popular disco club, a pillar of his community. His reputation is such that he's known far and wide as the Disco Godfather. One fateful night, his beloved nephew Bucky gets dosed up with some PCP. The boy freaks out, falling into a dissociative state that lasts for weeks. Tucker is so incensed by this tragedy that he's determined to get to the bottom of the local angel dust business. Williams uncovers a drug dealing ring controlled by Stinger Ray, a sports celebrity. As the Disco Godfather draws closer and closer to Stinger's operation, his friends and loved ones are put in even more danger.

“Disco Godfather” is hilarious. Much of that hilarity comes from the utmost sincerity with which Ruby Ray Moore expresses his hatred of drugs and drug dealers. The terms “angel dust” and “whack” are spoken so much, the audience can't help but laugh. (One of the actresses clearly cracks up while giving a speech about the dangers of “whack.”) After Bucky freaks out, Moore's shouts of “What has he HAY-AD?” are hysterical. A lengthy sequence is set in a clinic of kids broken from angel dust. Such as a babysitter who cooked the baby or a kid who thinks he's a caterpillar. Moore even seems to have soften his trademark ribald content, seemingly in hopes of reaching a younger audience. Granted, there's still a moment sweet love makin' and some profanity. Yet the violence, swearing, and sex jokes have been ratcheted way back. Moore really wants the audience to know that drugs are bad. And angel dust is the worst.

Truthfully, the anti-drug message is clearly the main purpose of “Disco Godfather.” Despite the title, the disco elements are secondary to the film's point. Don't be confused though. This movie still has a shit ton of disco in it. The first half is full of long sequence of people dancing inside Tucker's club. There's even a dance number on roller skates. Ruby Ray Moore overlooks the crowded dance floor, wearing a number of totally ridiculous disco suits. For some reason, Moore was convinced that “Put your weight on it!” was a common phrase uttered in dance clubs. He must have believed this, because he says the line roughly ten thousand times. Even when characters aren't dancing, a funky, disco soundtrack echoes out of your speakers.

All of this stuff is varying degrees of amusing but that's not why “Disco Godfather” is so adored. Instead, the movie's insane PCP freak outs are its biggest source of unintentional comedy. The film takes us inside the heads of people tripping on angel dust. And what do they see? A hag in a fright wig swinging a machete, highlighted by purple lighting. The sound design goes nut.  Sometimes, the drug users imagine their limbs being chopped off or a basketball players shooting at them. As “Disco Godfather” goes on, the freak-outs become more high strung. Skeletons, people in monster masks, and glowing eyes appear on-screen. When this isn't happening, the actors just scream furiously at the camera, mugging like crazy. Ruby Ray Moore does this too, his tortured screams leading to some of the film's biggest laughs. There's also an exorcism thrown in for some reason.

An alternate title for “Disco Godfather” is “Avenging Disco Godfather.” Indeed, the disco godfather does do some avenging. Once again, Ruby Ray Moore attempts to perform kung-fu. Once again, he fails. His kicks, flips, and chops are as slow and awkward as they always were. Moore skips the sped-up footage, drawing more attention to his stiff movements. The most memorable action involves Moore stomping on the neck of a weirdo enemy who gets off on whipping his enemy. Near the end, a dosed-up Tucker squeezes a burly henchman's neck between his ankles. Amazingly, Moore actually scrounged up some actually talent martial artists for the supporting parts, leading to some competent fight scenes. Don't be too impressed, as these fights are shot in a shaky, incoherent fashion.

Moore's last three movies were funny on purpose, at least some of the time. With “Disco Godfather,” he was attempting to make a more serious motion picture. Luckily for the audience, Moore was insane and couldn't resist making a totally bug-nuts movie. The film is utterly mad up until the final scene, where we cut roughly from a serious moment to the jovial end credits. The disco stuff is a bit dry and the overall film just isn't as charming as his earlier output. Yet “Disco Godfather” must still be seen to be believed. The whole thing is worth it for those delightfully crazy drug trips. It's a film that will certainly make you put your weight on it. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 10 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


Saturday, March 25, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)



With the “Dolemite” duo, Ruby Ray Moore had successfully transitions from a weirdo stand-up comic with a cult following to a weirdo movie star with a cult following. So why stop there? After a slightly more above-ground credit in “The Monkey Hustle,” Moore continued to make his own weird movies with his gathering of co-conspirators. “Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law” – officially the movie skips the subtitle but that's what on the title screen, so I'm going with it – sees the comedian doing the crazy stuff he always does while trying something slightly new. The result would be another oddball grindhouse experience, destined to garner a fan following years down the line.

From the moment he was born, Petey Wheatstraw was destined for greatness. As a kid, he was trained in martial arts by a kindly old man in his neighborhood. Going into adulthood, he successfully pursued his dream of becoming a stand-up comic. However, Wheatstraw incurs the wrath of a rival club owner. A gang of mob hit-men murders the little brother of one of Petey's friend, before gunning Wheatstraw down at the boy's funeral. In death, Petey is greeted by the devil. Satan cuts Wheatstraw a deal. If he marries the devil's hideous daughter, Petey can return to life with magical powers, able to reap vengeance on those who wronged him. Petey agrees, with no intention of fulfilling his end of the agreement.

As the title indicates, Ruby Ray Moore is playing a new character in this movie. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that Petey is essentially the same character as Dolemite. Which means he's mostly an exaggerated version of Ruby Ray Moore. So, like Moore and Dolemite, Wheatstraw is a stand-up comic who playfully jabs at his audience. The character performs the rhyming raps and utilizes the same bizarre profanity Moore did in the “Dolemite” features. As in those films, rivalries between night clubs and mob connections motivate the plot. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Moore's distinctive shtick remains as entertaining as ever. Moore even indulges in some self-mythologizing here, when we see Wheatstraw's – and, by extension, Ruby's – birth. First, his mother birthed a watermelon. An adolescent Petey popped out next and beat up the priest for slapping his behind, talking smack all along.

In “The Human Tornado,” Moore included a hokey, gothic torture dungeon and an old witch in his goofball crime epic. In “Petey Wheatstraw,” this passing interest in cliched horror elements becomes an important part of the plot. The demonic bargain Petey makes grants him access to a magical pimp cane. It also gives us a peak at Moore's low budget interpretation of hell. The underworld is mostly shown as a dark room with a couch and crystal ball, bathed in red. Later, after Satan feels screwed over, a series of demons are sent after Wheatstraw. Actors in caped leotards, with chalky face paint and rubber horns on their heads, appear to attack Petey and his friends. When a particular demon is defeated, he leaves a burning outline in the asphalt. This stuff is way too goofy for “The Devil's Son-in-Law” to classify as horror. But it's enough to make the movie a deliberate horror homage.

These zero budget attempts at devilish horror are fun but it's not the most amusing thing about “Petey Wheatstraw.” The typically bizarre bits of Dolemite-ian absurdity prove more memorable.  At least twice, Moore gets into sped-up kung-fu fights. My favorite has a gang of dudes attacking Petey as he's about to have sex with his girlfriend. Thus, Moore has to leap from a building in his underwear, beating fools into submission with his leaden footwork. Another suitably nutty moments has Lucifer introducing Petey to a brothel populated with demonic ladies. He bangs each one in absolute glee, a scene also shot in fast motion. At one point, the film even utilizes reverse fast motion footage, when a murder scene plays backwards, the dead bodies leaping back to life.

For all its gonzo excesses, “The Devil's Son-in-Law” is ultimately not as entertaining as either of Moore's previous features. The movie drags a lot. The subplot involving the gangsters goes nowhere. Petey dispels them with his devil-powered pimp stick early on and they don't appear again until the very last scene. While the ramshackle scripts were charming in the “Dolemite” films, the obvious sloppiness wares on the viewer in this one. The last act drags on, eventually becoming a long series of fight scenes between Petey and the demonic minions. A montage devoted to Petey using his powers to help people in the ghetto out – saving a kid playing in traffic, making a fat woman skinny – is funny but also goes on far too long. That could be said of the whole movie, which is a bit bloateda t 98 minutes long.

“Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law” is not a demented masterpiece on the level of “The Human Tornado.” It does have its moments, many of them being utterly brilliant bits of insanity. As always, Moore's kooky antics can't help but entertain. Still, this is a lesser effort. Even the theme song, which just repeats the movie's title over a funky beat, isn't as good as the others. Naturally, the movie has a cult following, like all of Moore's features, but I'm not likely to return to this one as often as I do the gloriously off-kilter “Dolemite” flicks. [6/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 10 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


 

Friday, March 24, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Car Wash (1976)



Music played such an important role in seventies black cinema that it wasn't uncommon for a film's soundtrack to overshadow the actual movie. When “Car Wash” hit theaters in 1976, the box office receipts were nothing to be impressed by. Meanwhile, the title song went on to become one of the most iconic songs of the decade. That hit single made the soundtrack album a best seller. “Car Wash: The Song” is still a well known cultural touchstone, frequently referenced in other movies and shows. Eventually, the movie the song spawned from would develop a cult following, even if never had a chance of reaching the theme song's level of success.

The film takes place over the course of one day at the DeLuxe Car Wash, a fairly busy business nestled in the middle of Los Angeles. As the day goes by, the employees attempt to pass the time. Dwayne has recently become Abdullah, a Black Muslim all too aware of the racial constraints all around him. T.C hopes to win concert tickets from a radio call-in contest and convince the pretty waitress who works across the street to go on a date with him. Lonnie, who recently got out of prison, is trying to get a pay raise from his thrifty boss, in order to help take care of his wife and kids. These are just some of the scenes that play out inside the tiny location.

Coming from the pen of Joel Schumacher, years before “Batman and Robin” made him a target for nerd scorn, “Car Wash” is a slice of life story. There's no overreaching narrative or serious drive to the plot. The story is rooted to one location, so the script doesn't leap around any. Instead, we watch ordinary people simply go about their day. A handful of moments rise to the top as especially successful at this. Early on, a weary street walker abandons her cab fare. She spends the rest of the day hiding out in the car wash's bathroom, washing up, changing her clothes, and mostly avoiding her unpleasant profession. T.C.'s attempt to woo the waitress, who is mostly uninterested in him, play out as the kid singing songs from the juke box and showing up in a tux. T.C is also an artist and hopes to launch a comic book starring a black superhero he's created, called the Fly. Little moments like this, observing the character's failures and hopes, are when “Car Wash” is at its best.

“Car Wash” frequently veers towards the comedic. Two iconic comics stop by for broad cameos. George Carlin appears as the cab driver, who rambles in an amusingly Carlin-esque manner. He pops into the movie from time to time to irritate the other characters. Richard Pryor gets a big spot on the DVD case but only appears in one scene. He plays Papa Rich, a phony celebrity preacher, who stops by the car wash and delivers some goofy dialogue. The car wash patrons are frequent sources of comedy in the film. One man is in a full body cast, wrapped up like a mummy. Another is a rich woman whose sick son just vomited on the outside of the car. Yet another is an eccentric European man, suspected of being a mad bomber threatening the city. How that sequence plays out is especially broad. Yet the smaller moments emerge as my favorite bits of comedy. Like one co-worker playing a prank on another, involving hot sauce. Or Hippo, a rotund worker, awkwardly hitting on the off-the-clock prostitute.

While primarily functioning as a good natured comedy, “Car Wash” also captures its time and place. The characters are often misfits, working for small paychecks, struggling to live in a big city. Lonnie desperately wants to put his criminal past behind him but the world isn't eager to give him a second chance. Even the car wash's owner has his concerns, fearful a rival car wash down the street might put him out of business. One of the workers, Lindy, is a flamboyant homosexual. The character is defined by stereotypical behavior but is still well written, a gay man who doesn't apologize for who he is. The main source of drama is Abdullah's attempt to reinvent himself as a black revolutionary. His serious mindset annoys his co-workers, which just makes Abdullah more angry. Bill Duke was still young when he played this part but is just as intense as you'd expect him to be.

The movie's soundtrack is also the soundtrack to the character's day, as their radio plays out throughout the movie. Yeah, the songs are pretty great, especially a surprise appearance from the Pointer Sisters. “Car Wash” is a textbook definition of a hang-out movie, the audience spending time with a cast of eccentrics as they go about their day. The cast is solid but not all the characters are well developed, making some of the car wash employees thinner sketches than others. The movie is never quite as funny or poignant as it sets out to be, though its generally more successful at the latter than the former. However, “Car Wash” is still an interesting film. And, if nothing else, it features one of the best afros in the history of cinema. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 6 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[] Sticking It to the Man
[] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


Thursday, March 23, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: The Human Tornado (1976)



“Dolemite” concluded with Ruby Ray Moore assuring the audience that his superheroic, pimping alter ego would return. He wasn't lying. The very next year, “The Human Tornado” would roll onto theater screen. The film would have slightly higher production values then its predecessor, taking Dolemite across the country and giving viewers a considerably more competent final product. The boom mic puts in fewer appearances but Ruby Ray Moore's excessively wacky sense of humor is no less restrained. In fact, “The Human Tornado” gives us even more of a peek into its eccentric creator's mind. The sequel tops the original by being completely fucking nuts.

Since banishing his pimping rival in New York City, Dolemite has set out on a country wide stand-up comedy tour. A celebratory party in Alabama is interrupted when the incredibly racist local police storm in. He discovers Dolemite sleeping with his wife, a white woman that can't resist Dolemite's sexual charisma. The scene explodes into violence, forcing Dolemite and his friends to flee to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Queen Bee's L.A night club is threatened with violence by a mafia-backed rival club. The mobsters kidnap two of Dolemite's girls, forcing the Human Tornado to put his feet up some honky asses.

“The Human Tornado” blurs the line between Ruby Ray Moore and his cinematic persona. As far as the previous film was concerned, Dolemite was not a stand-up comedian. Yet “The Human Tornado” opens with Dolemite successfully performing a comedy club, telling a series of ribald jokes and playfully insulting people in the crowd. The film also downplays Dolemite's pimping past, making it seem more and more like Moore is mostly just playing himself. To further confirm this, Moore rhymes his dialogue in practically every scene. As expected, the script is peppered with colorfully profane language. Yes, somebody is called a “rat soup eatin' motherfucker” and accused of being born insecure, among other epitaphs that probably only made sense to Moore. If your on Moore's nonsensically vulgar wavelength, it's likely you'll laugh a whole lot.

In my previous two reviews, I mentioned how blaxploitation movies made later in the seventies seem to downplay the revolutionary aspects of the genre. The later a film is made, the less likely you are to see a black hero battling racist, white villains. But Ruby Ray Moore does his own thing. “The Human Tornado” maybe the most directly confrontational blaxploitation film since “Sweetback.” After a pair of hicks spot Dolemite's party in an early scene, they immediately start tossing around N-bombs. The Alabama police are virulently racist. So are the mobsters. Even minor characters, like the L.A police chief investigating Dolemite's case, are full of hate. Dolemite directly disposes of most of the villains himself, when he isn't making love to white women overwhelmed by his masculine charms. “The Human Tornado” is a refreshingly retaliatory fantasy, about a black hero dismantling a racist system single-handedly.

This might've come off as heavy handed if “The Human Tornado” wasn't hilarious. Luckily, it is an amazingly bonkers comedy. The humor often veers towards the absurd or the surreal. After making a nude leap down a hillside, Moore pauses and rewinds the film to assure the audience he performed the fall himself. Moore's voice-over often plays in a loose manner, giving us odd peaks into the mind of the film's creator. In an especially goofy turn, the villains torture Dolemite's girls in a hokey, monster movie style dungeon. Dolemite's approach to sex often pushes the movie towards its strangest digressions. He visits an old lady friend and takes her to bed... Where they perform literal exercises. In my favorite scene, Dolemtie hypnotizes the wife of a gangster with a painting of interracial loving. This leads to an elaborate sex scene, where the movie imagines herself on giant children's blocks, ravaged by black bodybuilders who emerge from a toy box. It's a bizarre sequence mostly disconnected from the rest of the movie but I'm so glad it's in there.

In its last act, “The Human Tornado” shifts towards utter insanity. While Queen Bee's ladies distracts the villain, Dolemite sneaks into his mansion to save the girls. Last time, I noted Ruby Ray Moore's obvious lack of martial arts skills. He hasn't gotten any better. In hopes of covering this up, “The Human Tornado” plays the fight scenes in fast motion. What follows are a bunch of scenes of Dolemite clobbering his opponents in an exaggerated, ridiculous manner. This turns the movie into even more of a live action cartoon. Before too long, Dolemite's army of kung-fu girls enter the fray, the film exploding into a series of goofily choreographed, intentionally silly fight scenes. It certainly takes the film out on a memorably wacky note.

Cliff Roquemore and Jerry Jones, frequent collaborators of Moore, are credited with directing and writing “The Human Tornado.” Despite this, it is once again very apparent that this film mostly emerged from the mind of Ruby Ray Moore. He even sings the theme song, where he somehow manages to rhyme “later” and “tornado.” The script is no more coherent then the first “Dolemite” movie but that's not the reason we watch stuff like this. Films like “The Human Tornado” provide us with bizarre, absurd, goofy, and deeply personal visions that mainstream motion pictures are far too sane to attempt. The sequel isn't quite as charmingly rough as the original but it is still an amazingly entertaining, totally nuts motion picture. Watch it immediately! [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 11 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Friday Foster (1975)



Pam Grier starred in a number of films for American International Pictures, making some of her most famous films for the studio. But all good things must come to an end. With blaxploitation going out of fashion, “Friday Foster” would be the last A.I.P. movie Grier would star in. The studio itself wouldn't last much longer, being absorbed by Filmways by the start of the next decade. “Friday Foster” was based off the first comic strip to ever star a black character. The strip had already ended by 1975 and has now faded into obscurity. The movie adaptation isn't Pam's most well known film but it's still better known then the comic that it spawned from.

Originally a model, Friday Foster is now a fashion photographer for Glance Magazine. While her editor has her taking pictures of pretty dresses, Foster desires to report on more serious stories. That big story comes to her when she witnesses the attempted assassination of Blake Tarr, the wealthiest black man in America. Afterwards, Friday's best friend is murdered. A conspiracy is closing in on her, targeting her next. She teams up with a private detective and uncovers a secret plan nestled within the black power movement.

“Friday Foster” is a little different then Pam's other characters. Unlike the vigilantes and private detectives she previously played, Friday is mostly a normal person. She has a mischievous little brother, regular friends, and a boss who gives her shit. Instead of working with the criminals around her, she's at odds with them. A notable scene even has her trash-talking a local pimp. Even though Friday is more grounded, she's still a tough, capable hero. Twice, Foster steals vehicles so she can track down a potential lead. By the end, she's smashing milk jugs over people's heads and picking up guns to defend herself. Pam is great at projecting a sense of toughness. She always has been. Yet there's also something satisfying about seeing her play something closer to an ordinary person.

As the blaxploitation genre started to unwind, “Friday Foster” hearkens back to the earlier days of “Shaft.” The film features the hero uncovering and attempting to untangle a convoluted plot. As Friday uses her feminine wiles to get information, a senator tells her that Tarr planned his own assassination. Later, Tarr informs her that the senator is scheming against him. In the last act, Foster uncovers the truth. That an outside element is plotting against both men, hoping to undone the entire black political movement. The bizarre twist? The villain is also black, in the employ of a barely glimpsed white mastermind. All his henchmen are also black. Never once do the black heroes strike back against a white oppressor. It shows how much things had swung back by 1975. Directly portraying white authority as the enemy, as the Man, was becoming less prevalent.

Even though it's root are in a romance based comic strip, “Friday Foster” still features some surprisingly big action sequences. The assassination attempt on Tarr results in a tense shoot-out in the cramped confines of the plane hanger. An especially memorable sequence has Friday's detective friend chasing the hit man across rooftops. Both men are shown making running leaps in-between the buildings. That fight also concludes with a bloody shootout. In its last act, “Friday Foster” really piles on the action. A heavily armed party attacks a black community center. Pistols, machine guns, and even a grenade launcher are employed in the massive fight. It's a far bigger ending then anything previously glimpsed in AIP's other blaxploitation titles.

Another example that “Friday Foster” was, perhaps, a slightly pricier affair then usual is its supporting cast. This cast is filled with many well known black actors of the time. Yaphet Kotto plays Colt, the detective working with Foster. Kotto has fantastic chemistry with Grier, the two often trading very charming dialogue. Carl Weathers, a year before “Rocky” made him a star, plays the mostly silent hit man, a part nicely utilizing his intimidating appearance. Thalmus Rasulala plays the millionaire Tarr, who is simultaneously charming and stern. Eartha Kitt is nicely flashy as the fashion designer friend of Friday, who provides a major clue. Scatman Crothers has an amusing small role as a less then virtuous priest. For a low budget film, it's an impressive line-up of well known talent.

Despite being based on a family friendly comic strip, “Friday Foster” confirms to the R-rated standards of the time. The violence is bloody. Profanity is frequent. Drugs and prostitutes feature in the story. Pam has two love scenes and a gratuitous shower scene, not that anyone is complaining. The film's script is decent but not the main attraction. The soundtrack is fantastic too, a collection of amazingly funky basslines and grooving wa-wa sounds. But what really makes “Friday Foster” worth seeking out is its excellent cast. Seeing such a talented collection of performers play off each other makes for a really entertaining film. Pam didn't save the best for last but “Friday Foster” is still a good time. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 9 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)



History has decided which black actress became the icon. Even back in the seventies, Pam Grier's  trademark characters overshadowed Tamara Dobson's “Cleopatra Jones.” However, Dobson's first go-around at action stardom clearly made Warner Brothers some money. In 1975, the character would return with the fabulously entitled “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.” Even at this early a date, the blaxploitation fad was starting to wane. This is evident in the second “Cleopatra Jones” movie. Co-produced by Hong Kong's Run Run Shaw, the sequel is just as much a kung-fu film and a James Bond riff as it is a black-centric adventure.

Two black American agents are sent to Hong Kong in order to investigate a heroine smuggling ring. While attempting to befriend one drug boss, they are captured by another. Calling herself the Dragon Lady, she operates her illegal operation out of a lavish, golden casino. Cleopatra Jones is sent to locate the two agents. She quickly teams up with Mi Ling, a Hong Kong-based agent, and quickly sets out to undo the Dragon Lady's empire.

The first “Cleopatra Jones'” campy atmosphere struck me as forced, ultimately at odds with the crime story it was trying to tell. The sequel shifts the setting to the Far East, which brings with it an entirely different energy. By fitting the character into the “anything can happen” mold of a Shaw Bros. movie, Cleo's comic book style adventure suddenly go down a lot easier. You're more willing to accept a super model secret agent, who wears a series of preposterously over-designed outfits. The villain being another evil lesbian seems less offensive. As does the “Flash Gordon” style ring of swords she forces a captured rival to fight inside. The action is bigger and the production design is more extravagant, blending together with a more coherently silly tone.

It also helps that Cleopatra Jones herself is a little more human this time. In the first movie, Dobson's heroine struck me as too perfect, too ready for any situation. She's still a hyper confident fighter with the power to charm anyone. But she also needs some help. By giving Cleo a sidekick, in the form of Mi Ling, the character has someone to bounce catty dialogue off of. She actually seems to be having fun spending time with Mi Ling, proving that she's human after all. Moreover, Tamara Dobson seems more comfortable on this second mission. She shows more humor, more ease.

Perhaps more important then any of that is the sequel ramps the action way the fuck up. There's an early car chase through a Hong Kong market place, featuring plenty of collateral damage and a big explosion at the end. This follows a fight in a bar, where guys tumble through doors and get knives throw into their chests. A memorable scene has Mi Ling attacked in her apartment, kung-fu kicking and leaping her way out of trouble. Amusingly, she does this with her arms bound, as the assassins tied her up with a red ribbon. For the climax, the film features a huge attack on the Dragon Lady's  casino. A motorcycle is driven around the building, crashing through doors, ramping through the air, and eventually exploding on a craps table. An entire succession of henchmen tumble over railings. Lots of goons are machine gunned or stabbed. A grenade takes out an entire balcony. It's pretty fun stuff.

Seventies sex symbol Stella Stevens, last seen in “Slaughter,” plays the villain. The film doesn't hammer home her evil, sapphic ways as much as it did with Shelly Winters in the first one. If it wasn't for the opening lesbian love-fest, shared with her sexually submissive concubines, you'd never know Stevens' drug empress was queer. (And considering how close Cleo and Mi Ling seem, the movie almost gets a pass for it.) If nothing else, Stevens hams it up nicely in the part. Ni Tien, with her thousand watts smile, is very charming as Mi Ling. In a bizarre casting choice, Norman Fell – Mr. Roper himself – plays Jones' boss. Amazingly, Fell's character isn't casually racist. Shockingly, there's pretty much no casual racism in “Casino of Gold” at all!

“Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold” wasn't as successful as the first in the series, meaning Cleopatra Jones would have no further adventure. (Though “The Kentucky Fried Movie” would feature a direct parody of the film called “Cleopatra Schwartz.”) Today, the duo is regarded as a fairly obscure relic of the seventies, receiving only a fraction of the notoriety that its contemporaries maintain. Despite this, the sequel is a big improvement over the first one, featuring a more amusing tone and far more impressive action sequences. I would probably have been up for a third film, based on this one, but it wasn't meant to be. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 8 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang