Thursday, 29 June 2023

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Director: Pete Hewitt
Writer: Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler, Joss Ackland, Pam Grier and George Carlin

Index: The First Thirty.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of my favourite movies. It holds an underlying truth even though it’s utterly ridiculous throughout and it’s pure unadulterated fun. I’ve gone back to it often since the eighties and it always hits the spot for me.

When I put together the list of Pam Grier’s First Thirty, I was surprised to find that a) she was even in that film’s sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, as I had zero recollection of her in it and b) that I haven’t gone back to it once since it came out. I was suddenly very worried about how it would hold up, not least because the much delayed third film in the series, Bill & Ted Face the Music, is truly awful, however amazing Brigette Lundy-Paine was as Ted’s daughter.

What I found was that it’s very much stuck between the two, not a patch on the original but much better than the third. It’s a triumph of the imagination, with most praise going to the writers, Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon, as they deconstruct and reconstruct not just the Bill & Ted mythos but cinematic history with The Seventh Seal a particularly key template.

They ratchet up the silliness even further and most of the best bits work simply because they went there, wherever there is from a list of “wouldn’t it be cool if” moments that I’d be shocked weren’t generated using recreational drugs. Eventually, however, the sheer weight of its cleverness prompts it to collapse in on itself, so I’m unlikely to go back to it again any time soon, but I’m happy to have acquired fresh memories of this bit and that one and especially the other bit over there.

For anyone who doesn’t know this trilogy, the idea is that the music of a pair of slacker nobodies in San Dimas, California, namely Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, is destined to turn the world into a utopia. The catch is that their band, Wyld Stallyns, sucks, because neither of them know how to play and they can’t be bothered to learn. So how does a band save the world with that attitude?

Monday, 26 June 2023

Class of 1999 (1990)

Director: Mark L. Lester
Writer: C. Courtney Joyner
Stars: Bradley Gregg, Traci Lin, John P. Ryan, Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, Joshua Miller, Stacy Keach and Malcolm McDowell

Index: The First Thirty.

There are a lot of cult movies to be found in Pam Grier’s filmography, especially during the seventies when her forte was women in prison flicks and blaxploitation. I’d seen most of them before, but I hadn’t seen her later cult films, 1981’s Fort Apache, the Bronx and this 1990 gem.

I see the names on lists and I’m very happy that this project allowed me to catch up with them. Of all the films in the second half of her First Thirty, it’s these, and The Vindicator, that I enjoyed most and am most likely to revisit.

This is the second in a trilogy of Class films that are only loosely connected. The original was 1982’s Class of 1984, a cult film in its own right, then this and finally Class of 1999 II: The Substitute, which featured a few flashbacks to this film but was otherwise unrelated.

The common factor is that they’re all set in a dystopian near future. Mass shootings didn’t prompt police forces to emulate the military as they did in our world; instead they led to an abdication of effort. The Constitution has been abolished, private businesses are banned and control of cities has fallen to street gangs. Free fire zones now exist where the police have no jurisdiction and what little law enforcement happens is by the Department of Educational Defense, which is part of the C.I.A.

Kennedy High School in Seattle is located in the middle of a free fire zone and the D.E.D. is taking an innovative approach to martial law there. They’re partnering with Dr. Bob Forrest of MegaTech, who looks and sounds utterly off his rocker but clearly has the clout to make a heck of a difference with his secret program, XT6, to deal with disciplinary problems.

What’s XT6? Why, thank you for asking. It’s where MegaTech repurposes humanoid robots previously used by the military into teachers. What could possibly go wrong, as they say?

Friday, 23 June 2023

The Package (1989)

Director: Andrew Davis
Writer: John Bishop
Stars: Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Franz, Reni Santoni, Pam Grier, Chelcie Ross, Ron Dean, Kevin Crowley, Thalmus Rasulala, Marco St. John and John Heard

Index: The First Thirty.

While Steven Seagal would star in a second movie for director Andrew Davis, Under Siege in 1992, a host of other actors did that a little quicker, returning for his very next film, The Package. Pam Grier’s back. Chelcie Ross is back. Joe Greco’s back. Thalmus Rasulala is back. We soon recognise bit part actors so half the cast must be back.

This is a very different film to Above the Law though, starting out as a late Cold War thriller and growing into a sort of precursor to Davis’s best film, The Fugitive. And when I say late Cold War I do mean about as late as it gets. This is August 1989 and Americans and Russians are talking peace in East Berlin.

For something that sounds talky, it starts as pure testosterone. Lots of soldiers. Lots of VIPs with grey hair sitting around big tables. An agreement is reached, which will be signed at the United Nations ten days later. But there’s a group of rogue generals, from both sides, with zero interest in losing their nuclear shields, so they have a week and a half to do something to throw a spanner into the peace works.

Gene Hackman is there in East Berlin and he knows even more people than we do, but he’s merely a sergeant, Johnny Gallagher. He seems capable but he becomes an easy fall guy for an assassination, by a couple of fake hikers, of an American general who chooses not to be part of whatever nefarious plot is unfolding.

That lands him what seems to be a nothing job as punishment, that of escorting another Army sergeant back home for a court martial, as he’s acquired quite a habit of punching his superior officers. He’s the Package of the title.

Tuesday, 20 June 2023

Above the Law (1988)

Director: Andrew Davis
Writers: Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett and Andrew Davis, from a story by Andrew Davis and Steven Seagal
Stars: Steven Seagal, Pam Grier, Sharon Stone, Daniel Faraldo, Ron Dean, Jack Wallace, Chelcie Ross, Joe V. Grieco and Henry Silva

Index: The First Thirty.

One of the influences for these First Thirty runthroughs was a set of three books edited by David C. Hayes, which covered everything that a trio of action legends did on screen (and, in a few instances, off it too). They’re anthologies, with many hands writing chapters, and three in Hard to Watch: The Films of Steven Seagal are mine, though not this one, which marked his debut as an actor rather than a stuntman.

In Hard to Watch, Joshua Knode treated it as a sort of introduction, highlighting something that became very obvious as that book ran on: that, at this point in his career, Seagal brought something new but it quickly got old. Here, he was a wish fulfilment action hero: handsome, incredibly fluid in his movements and able to solve any problem, however complex, with a mere punch to the face. Before long, however, he bloated up substantially, lost the ability to move and complicated his film’s issues with dubious morals and off screen baggage.

This isn’t his best film but it’s from his best period, when he was working with director Andrew Davis, also responsible for Under Siege, and actors of the calibre of Pam Grier (as his partner), Sharon Stone (as his wife) and Henry Silva (as the villain of the piece, just in case you were in any doubt there).

It’s a simple story and an ironic one, given the core theme that’s summed up in the quote abbreviated into the movie’s title: “No man is above the law and no man is below the law.”

Saturday, 17 June 2023

The Allnighter (1987)

Director: Tamar Simon Hoffs
Writers: M. L. Kessler and Tamar S. Hoffs
Stars: Susanna Hoffs, Dedee Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack, James Anthony Shanta, John Terlesky, Pam Grier, Phil Brock, Kaaren Lee and Michael Ontkean

Index: The First Thirty.

From The Vindicator, far more fun than it has any right to be, to The Allnighter which, well, isn’t. That said, it has a certain charm to it that got me on board by the end. It’s not as bad as its 0% on the tomatometer might suggest.

For one thing, it feels like a Hollywood film that was just shot a little freer than usual, but it was an indie film that only cost a million to make. By comparison, Predator the same year allocated three and half just for Arnie’s salary.

Then again, the star here was Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, who isn’t awful but does show why she’s known as a musician not an actor. Her character, Molly Morrison, is uncertain. How did she get through four years of college without a grand romance? What will she say in her valedictorian speech? Hoffs is uncertain about acting, so actor and character merge.

Molly rooms with Val, in the form of Dedee Pfeiffer, in the biggest role I’ve seen her have. However, this is an ensemble piece and there are a bunch of others ready to attempt to steal the movie, starting with Joan Cusack as Gina, their other roommate, who’s shooting a documentary about her last days at Pacifica.

She starts out with an observation—if you see this in twenty years, you’ll remember us this way—that works for The Allnighter too. It feels nostalgic and, as it was inspired by (not based on) co-writer/producer/director Tamar Simon Hoffs and her friends at Yale, it could be seen as a somewhat belated documentary that the real Gina never shot.

Wednesday, 14 June 2023

On the Edge (1986)

Director: Rob Nilsson Writer: Rob Nilsson Stars: Bruce Dern, Pam Grier, Bill Bailey, Jim Haynie and John Marley

Index: The First Thirty.

This is a fantastic film for star Bruce Dern, a passion project that he worked for a deferred salary. It gave him opportunity to showcase what he can do as an actor and as a runner, as it takes a fictionalised look at a real race, the Dipsea Race in California, translated here into the Cielo-Sea race that’s about twice as long.

The Dipsea is a crosscountry trail race that’s been held almost every year since 1905, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. It’s seven and a half miles but they include a mountain, Mount Tamalpais, which means 2,200 feet up, in one section via 688 steps called Dipsea Trail Stairs, and 2,200 feet back down again. That’s tough.

And Bruce Dern, as a runner, ran the Dipsea in 1974. In fact, he apparently ran so regularly that he put in between 2,500 and 4,000 miles a year from the ages of 28 to 70. Clearly he was well cast for this movie, because most of the best parts are him running.

There is a story here that’s wrapped around the running, which ties to his character, Wes Holman, having been suspended from the race a couple of decades earlier. Apparently he tried to organise to legalise payments, in the form of airline tickets, to amateur athletes. It seems to be a detail of immense importance to the runners themselves, but not to the viewers who either don’t understand the importance of it or really don’t care. It’s a MacGuffin.

Sunday, 11 June 2023

The Vindicator (1986)

Director: Jean-Claude Lord
Writers: Edith Rey and David Preston
Stars: Teri Austin, Richard Cox, Pam Grier, Maury Chaykin, Lynda Mason Green, Denis Simpson, Stephen Mendel, Larry Aubrey, Micki Moore, Catherine Disher and David McIlwraith

Index: The First Thirty.

The Vindicator is not a good movie. Let me get that out of the way right from the start. It deserves most of the jabs and criticisms hurled at it over the years. There are plenty of things objectively wrong with it. But, goddamn, it’s a heck of a lot of fun!

It’s as quintessentially eighties sci-fi schlock as the typeface used its the opening credits. I couldn’t remember its name so I googled “’80s computer font” and it was the first result. And, of course, it rolls onto the screen to the sound of a dot matrix printer but in the mainframe shade of green. Oh, and there’s a score that’s a clear knockoff of John Carpenter’s style.

What’s more, everything looks familiar and I don’t mean the movie. I think I recognise the car park and the glass architecture of the desk the receptionist sits behind. It’s that generic. It didn’t bode well but it picked up quickly.

We find ourselves in a clearly unethical lab with long suffering scientist types figuring out how to turn a mild mannered chimp into some sort of raging monster. Like you do. Of course, then the amoral lead scientist wanders in and promptly takes it too far so the chimp dies and he provides absolutely no emotional response.

He’s Alex Whyte, played to icy perfection by Richard Cox. Carl Lehman works for Alex and is wildly pissed at him for stealing his budget, his computer chips and his research. I wonder what might happen next, especially given that David McIlwraith got an “introducing” credit as Carl Lehman/Frankenstein. Take a wild stab in the dark. You’ll be on the right lines.

Thursday, 8 June 2023

Badge of the Assassin (1985)

Director: Mel Damski
Writer: Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tanenbaum and Philip Rosenberg
Stars: James Woods, Yaphet Kotto, Alex Rocco, David Harris, Steven Keats, Larry Riley, Pam Grier, Rae Dawn Chong and Richard Bradford

Index: The First Thirty.

Pam Grier’s career began with the seventies, with 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and it kept her busy until 1977 with women in prison movies and blaxploitation flicks bringing her a level of exploitation stardom. Transitioning to respectable cinema, though, was a struggle.

She made eighteen features in a mere eight years from 1970 to 1977, many as the lead. In the next eight years, she made only five, none as the star and only one with a sizeable role. It isn’t this one, because she’s firmly kept in the background, as support for a supporting actor.

This was a TV movie and, if I hadn’t told you that, you’d figure it out within a few minutes, because it looks and feels like a TV movie and it only gets more like a TV movie as it goes. It’s unmistakably a TV movie, for all the good and bad that might suggest.

It starts out rather like Fort Apache, the Bronx with a couple of cops being murdered by black folk, this time in Harlem, but this is different. It’s not a strung out hooker, it’s a black power terrorist group making a statement: the B.L.A., or Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panthers. And so this isn’t framed like a mystery; it’s another story about race and, as you might imagine, given that it’s a TV movie, it’s also based on a true story.

Even though this was 1985, the real events took place in 1971 and were written up in the 1979 true crime book by Robert K. Tanenbaum and Philip Rosenberg. Tanenbaum’s the name we should focus on there, because he was the A.D.A. who prosecuted the case and he’s the lead character, in the form of James Woods.

Monday, 5 June 2023

Stand Alone (1985)

Director: Alan Beattie
Writer: Roy Carlson
Stars: Charles Durning, Pam Grier, James Keach, Bert Remsen, Barbara Sammeth, Lu Leonard, Luis Contreras, Willard Pugh and Bob Tzudiker

Index: The First Thirty.

That’s such an eighties font on the opening credits and such eighties music behind them that we’re almost expecting Charles Durning to star in his very own eighties Arnie movie. That music has a patriotic bent to it and that matches the huge American flag on the poster. However, all these things are misleading.

This is a drama before it’s an action movie and the patriotic angle is never overplayed. It goes for character over setpiece and the hero is as scared as he is brave. Of course, if we’re true to definition, he’s a hero because he does what he needs to do even though he’s scared, not because he happens to be a U.S. army vet who killed five enemies in a cave back in 1943 with the bayonet they stabbed him with.

Also, while Arnie is doing some interesting action work now he’s in his seventies, Durning was never the muscleman and doesn’t try to be here, at the age of 62. He’s Louis Thibadeau, who merely wants to live a quiet life with his grandson, Gordie, and Gordie’s mum, Meg, so Louis’s daughter-in-law rather than daughter. That says something about his character right there and it’s an excellent way to start.

He lives in a small town, which initially feels like a nice place. He hangs out at the Virginia Cafe, which is run by an old army buddy called Paddie who constantly talks about the hero in their midst. There’s a parade every year and Gordie’s going to march with his trumpet this time out. Louie’s going to join him.

Of course, there’s a dark side, as there tends to be in small towns. You don’t need to listen to Jason Aldean songs to know that. One day, with Paddie in the back, a young man comes in and steals a couple of doughnuts. Louie tries to get him to do the right thing but a couple of others show up and shoot up the place, taking the thief down with extreme prejudice.

They’re memorable villains: sunglasses, gold teeth, tattoos on their hands. And very large weapons. Maybe this isn’t such a decent small town after all. This is gang territory and Louis escapes that skirmish with some shrapnel in his arm after diving into one of the booths.

Friday, 2 June 2023

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Director: Jack Clayton
Writer: Ray Bradbury, based on his novel
Stars: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Royal Dano and introducing Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s been a long time since I watched this, a Disney feature made when I was a kid young enough to be under their spell and not yet old enough to know what damage they’d done to the public domain.

I was twelve when it was released so I may well have seen it on TV a few years later as a mid-teen. I don’t think it was the right time, because I was old enough to have graduated to bona fide horror movies and would have been disappointed that the something wicked didn’t come with more gratuitous gore.

Now I’m a grandfather who’s very aware of just how much Ray Bradbury did for fantasy, I can see this from a couple of angles. After all, it’s a story about kids, like so many others, and about the magic that they can still see in the world, but it’s also a story about a father (old enough to be a grandfather) who’s allowed his life to slip by unfulfilled and who finally finds his purpose and reason to truly live.

I’m surprised at how well it stands up today, but Ray Bradbury did adapt his own novel for the script and, while I didn’t know who he was when I first saw this, I certainly do now. Most of the best aspects of the film come from him and the way director Jack Clayton, a couple of decades on from The Innocents, brought power to his fictional small town.

It’s a town where everyone knows everyone and they all have eccentricities. Mr. Halloway never takes risks, he says, smoking a cigar; he has a bad heart and feels old. Mr. Tetley sells cigars and only cares for money, playing the numbers in search of riches. Mr. Crosetti, the barber, sells youth and dreams of women. Ed the bartender only has one leg and remembers his glory days on the football field.

Tuesday, 30 May 2023

Tough Enough (1983)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: John Leone
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Carlene Watkins, Stan Shaw, Pam Grier and Warren Oates

Index: The First Thirty.

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this quite so much. Sure, it’s a Pam Grier film, but she’s hardly in it, despite her fourth billing. It’s also a Dennis Quaid film and a Warren Oates film, a bizarre pairing I’m very happy to see. Wilfred Brimley and Bruce McGill help too, as does the director being Richard Fleischer.

Those are all plus points but the genre isn’t. If there’s anything I’m less likely to enjoy than a sports movie, it’s a romcom and this film is a sports romcom. If that wasn’t enough, it’s also a sports romcom about a country and western singer. In 1983. Well past the Every Which Way But Loose sell-by date.

Both the blurb and the torso on the poster opposite belong to Dennis Quaid’s character, Art Long, who is certainly not having the best time of it as the movie begins. He has a good crowd at the Pickin’ Parlour, where he sings country and plays guitar, but he also follows a wet T-shirt competition, so that crowd doesn’t want Art Long. One table starts to throw stuff at him, so he clambers off stage mid-song and punches all three of them out.

That actually plays out in his favour because his wife is fed up with him not making money with his music and that prompts him to enter a toughman competition, hence the title, for a potential $5,000 prize. And that competition is run by the same folk who were offering prizes for the wet T-shirt competition. They saw him throw those punches and they were impressed enough to want him on their roster. Suddenly, he’s the Country Western Warrior.

Saturday, 27 May 2023

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

Director: Daniel Petri
Writer: Heywood Gould, suggested by the experiences of Thomas Mulhearn and Pete Tessitore
Stars: Paul Newman, Edward Asner, Ken Wahl, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier, Rachel Ticotin and Kathleen Beller

Index: The First Thirty.

I’d heard good things about Fort Apache, the Bronx, which has become a cult film for a star as huge as Paul Newman, but I’d never seen it and I didn’t really know what it was.

Well, it’s a crime film that’s set in New York City, which aims not to tell a single coherent story but to give us a taste of a whole bunch of them, using a style we’re familiar with from Hill Street Blues and so many shows following in its wake. Fred Silverman, a network executive who developed Hill Street Blues, has said that his chief inspiration for it was this film, so it’s the beginning of that genre, something clearly not grasped at the time. You can’t measure the amount of influences something will generate from its opening weekend.

The leads are Paul Newman and Ken Wahl, as a pair of NYPD officers working at the 41st Precinct, nicknamed Fort Apache because it’s an ill-equipped and rundown outpost isolated in enemy territory, 70,000 of those enemies across four square blocks of city.

To add to their concerns, a single act at the start of the film, the cold blooded murder of a pair of rookie cops, grows out of proportion. A new captain, in the capable form of Ed Asner, has been shipped in and his responses inflame the situation, leading to rioting in the streets and an outright siege of the station.

Pam Grier doesn’t have a lot of screen time in this one, as was the case in Greased Lightning, but, boy, does she make it count this time! She plays a drug addicted hooker named Charlotte, who we might initially take for a party girl or a calculating murderess, given that she’s who shoots those two cops. She sets them up, takes them down and walks away. The locals fleece the corpses clean as effectively as Jawas.

Thursday, 25 May 2023

Greased Lightning (1977)

Director: Michael Schultz
Writers: Kenneth Vose & Lawrence DuKore and Melvin Van Peebles and Leon Capetanos
Stars: Richard Pryor, Beau Bridges, Pam Grier, Cleavon Little, Vincent Gardenia, Richie Havens and Julian Bond

Index: The First Thirty.

Continuing her shift away from exploitation pictures, here’s something that’s a biopic just a little before it’s an action movie, albeit still with a focus on African Americans in America.

The subject is Wendell Scott, who became a stock car driver at a time when NASCAR was whites only. He drove in the Dixie Circuit, as the token black driver to draw black fans, with prejudiced drivers deliberately wrecking him as often as they could. He went on to become the first black driver to race and win at every level in NASCAR, eventually doing the same as a team owner.

He had a fascinating and action-filled life, a description that’s both accurate and too happy to gloss over the fact that much of that action was due to systematic racial discrimination. It was an obvious candidate to adapt to the big screen and the studio that did so was Warner Bros., who cast comedian Richard Pryor as the lead and tellingly gifted the project to a black director, Michael Schultz, and a set of writers who included Melvin van Peebles, who had set the blaxploitation genre into motion with his indie film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song six years earlier.

As tended to be the case with Hollywood, it turns out to be a loose adaptation of the truth, but not to play down the racial aspects, only to simplify them a little. And, while this is tame for Pryor, whose comedy routines were highly adult, it starts out as it means to go on with a boy who’s born to race. The first thing we see is a bunch of white kids challenging him to a bicycle race in the street. He wins and he does it by jumping some sort of roadwork that the rest don’t dare try. “You’re one crazy nigger,” says the leader of the white kids. I think it’s a form of respect.

Sunday, 21 May 2023

Twilight of Love (1977)

Director: Luigi Scattini
Writers: Luigi Scattini, Vittorio Schiraldi, Giacomo Rossi Stuart and Claude Fournier, from a story by Luigi Scattini, freely based on the novel Il Corpo by Alfredo Todisco
Stars: Anthony Steel, Annie Belle, Pamela Grier, Hugo Pratt, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Alain Montpetit and Gerardo Amato

Index: The First Thirty.

Completely unrelated to the Filipino horror movie, The Twilight People, released five years earlier, this Italian production is unrelated to anything else in Pam Grier’s filmography too.

In fact, that seems to be much of the point, as the first half of her First Thirty movies was taken up by variations on a theme, a bunch of exploitation movies, especially the women in prison and blaxploitation flicks that made her famous; but the second half is a constant flow of fresh changes, every film being completely unlike the next.

And this one, as far as I can tell, is different from all of them, because it’s a very European “affair” movie. IMDb suggests that it’s drama and romance but the drama is forced and the romance is, well, not very romantic.

At least, as far as I can tell, which is a caveat I have to throw out here because the one and only copy of this film I could find is in Italian, which I don’t speak, and there are no subtitles to be found, even in the fan communities that exist for this sort of thing.

Thus I have little idea of what’s truly going on and everything I say here is shaped by my assumptions, which could well be faulty. Then again, this is an Italian film so it’s highly visual in outlook and, if it’s doing its job, it ought to be universally understandable, even to those of us who don’t know the language.

Thursday, 18 May 2023

Drum (1976)

Director: Steve Carver
Writer: Norman Wexler, based on the novel by Kyle Onstott
Stars: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Ken Norton, Pamela Grier, Yaphet Kotto, John Colicos and Brenda Sykes

Index: The First Thirty.

Friday Foster was Pam Grier’s fifteenth film, so I’m halfway into her First Thirty. It was also the end of her traditional exploitation output, the women in prison and blaxploitation flicks that made her such a cult figure. Drum is still an exploitation movie, even though it was a major studio film, and it’s still black focused, but it’s a very different picture.

It’s the lesser known sequel to Mandingo, an immensely successful novel written by Kyle Onstott in 1957 that became a play and then a film, with James Mason and Susan George. The book sold five million copies in the U.S. alone and spawned fourteen sequels, starting with Drum. The movie only spawned this one.

These are stories of the antebellum south, if we want to bowdlerise things. We should call them stories of sadistic slaveowners, because Onstott was inspired not only by the stories he grew up hearing, “bizarre legends” about slave breeding and abuse, but by research done by his adopted anthropologist son in Africa.

While we end up in the central location for the series, the Falconhurst plantation owned by Hammond Maxwell, it’s not where we start and he’s actually the nicest of the slaveowners we meet. Then again, there wasn’t much of a bar to top. He’s still a slaveowner with a crude nature, a bedwench and a willingness to whip and castrate and more.

But we start out in Havana, the heart of the slave trade, and quickly shift to New Orleans. Dona Marianna lived in the former but fell in love with a slave, Tempura, a king in his own land back in Africa. That got him strung up but she was pregnant and left for the latter to run a brothel in which her son, Drum, who’s unaware that she’s his mother, becomes the bartender. It’s fifteen years on from Mandingo and Drum is twenty years old.

Monday, 15 May 2023

Friday Foster (1975)

Director: Arthur Marks
Writer: Orville H. Hampton, based on a story by Arthur Marks, based in turn on the comic strip character created by Jim Lawrence
Stars: Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, Godfrey Cambridge, Thalmus Rasulula, Eartha Kitt and Jim Backups

Index: The First Thirty.

This might look like yet another Pam Grier-led kick ass blaxploitation flick, but it’s a little different from Coffy and Foxy Brown and all the copycats that sprang up in their wake. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a black movie at all, even if most of its cast happen to be black. If casting had gone for white actors instead, it wouldn’t feel fundamentally different and that couldn’t be said for any of Grier’s earlier blaxploitation pictures. They all felt black, not colourblind.

Initially, this one feels like it’s a newspaper story with a plucky young photographer (who used to be a model) taking on a big story. It’s a throwback to Torchy Blane in the thirties, but with a black actress in the lead.

She’s Friday Foster, of course, and she works for Glance, “the picture magazine”. Her boss, Monk Riley, in the form of Julius Harris from Live and Let Die, calls her on New Year’s Eve to handle a big job because he can’t reach his star reporter, Shawn North, and Blake Tarr is back in town and that’s a big deal because he’s the “black Howard Hughes”.

So, she’ll have to do the job. Get down to the airport, shoot your pictures, get out. He’s very careful with instructions. Don’t. Get. Involved. What he doesn’t expect is for Carl Weathers and his buddies to attempt an assassination as Tarr gets off his private plane and Friday to be right in the middle of it, snapping pictures like there’s no tomorrow. What she doesn’t expect is to recognise Weathers when the photos are developed. This is journalistic gold.

Friday, 12 May 2023

Bucktown (1975)

Director: Arthur Marks
Writer: Bob Ellison
Stars: Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Thalmus Rasulala, Tony King, Bernie Hamilton, Art Lund, Morgan Upton, Carl Weathers, Robert Burton, Jim Bohan, Gene Simms, Bruce Watson and Tierre Turner

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s an interesting one and I’m watching for two reasons, not just because it’s the next in Pam Grier’s First Thirty but because it was one of Fred Williamson’s two Make It a Double picks, so I’ll be covering it soon from his angle.

It’s a better pick for him than it is for her, a film that gives him a good introduction then builds him far more than I expected.

It initially feels like an episode of a TV show. Everything kicks right in: the opening credits, the funky music and the action. The very first scene is cops lusting after a hooker, but they rush off to beat up a black guy at the station as a train pulls in.

Getting off that train is Duke Johnson, in Bucktown to bury his brother. And that’s the Hammer, who sees the cops but does nothing, just gets a cab to the Club Alabama. “Do you believe in God?” the cabbie asks him. “Then you’re in the wrong place.”

The club’s been closed since Ben died. Duke just wants to sell it and get out of there, but he has sixty days for the estate to close, so others start feeding him ideas. Stay. Reopen the club. What he wasn’t expecting to do was stand up to the cops, who are all white and working the local protection racket. But, because he’s the Hammer, that’s exactly what he does and we settle back for a traditional blaxploitation flick with a good cast.

Tuesday, 9 May 2023

Sheba, Baby (1975)

Director: William Girdler
Writers: William Girdler and David Sheldon
Stars: Pam Grier, Austin Stroker and D’Urville Martin

Index: The First Thirty.

“She’s kicking ass and taking names,” sings Barbara Mason in the movie’s opening theme song. It shouldn’t take much to figure out who. “Sheba, baby,” that’s who. And Sheba, baby is Pam Grier, of course, Sheba Shayne of Racker & Shayne, Private Investigators.

Now, this firm is in Chicago, but she’s called quickly back to her home town of Louisville, Kentucky, because her father, Andy Shayne of Shayne Loan Co., is being hassled there. He gives fair deals to customers but his partner Brick isn’t confident that they can continue to do that with the mob piling on the pressure.

“They’ll kill you,” he tells him and wanders off into the night on his own, the exact point we realise that either he’s in the mob’s pocket or the script needed a lot more work. Given that it’s Brick who promptly calls Sheba to fly back to help save the business and keep Andy alive, it should be clear that the script is going to hold this one back.

And, boy does it, with a whole slew of plot conveniences, continuity errors and good old fashioned goofs. Even the sound isn’t good and the whole film plays like a cheap knock-off of a bunch of Pam Grier’s earlier blaxploitation flicks but with worse dialogue. Even Pam feels a little awkward early on, but she finds herself soon enough and brings some serious power to scenes that show what this could have been in the right hands.

She’s needed, even though her dad thinks he can take care of things on his own. He lends her a car and it blows up. So she quits listening to him and starts helping. After all, the police won’t provide any protection. So she asks her questions with a gun and gets somewhere.

Saturday, 6 May 2023

Foxy Brown (1974)

Director: Jack Hill
Writers: Jack Hill and David Sheldon
Stars: Pam Grier, Peter Brown, Terry Carter, Kathryn Loder and Harry Holcombe

Index: The First Thirty.

In some ways, Foxy Brown, which started life as a sequel to Coffy titled Burn, Coffy, Burn!, had a bigger impact on film than its predecessor. It’s not a better movie and there are a slew of problems if you think even a little about the details, but it kept the things that worked for its target audience and focused them better to provide a film that would resonate with them even more deeply.

The most obvious detail it kept is the kick-ass female lead played by Pam Grier. This was her twelfth film and it feels like she had been building to these movies all the way through. Just as importantly, it kept the fact that she’s a good girl, even if we aren’t let in on her choice of day job. Coffy was a nurse, a saver of people. Foxy is a little less clear, but she does right by her brother, who doesn’t deserve it, and quite a few others, who do. She does what she does to help people, even if it’s vigilante justice.

What it firmly ditched was any semblance of guilt about doing those things. Coffy did what she felt she must because of her sister, but she agonised over it afterwards. Foxy’s trigger is a boyfriend, who’s murdered by drug dealers on her doorstep, but she never looks back. What she does apparently fails to phase her at all. It simplifies the question. And she does it all in a stylish wardrobe, courtesy of Ruthie West, her personal costumer on the film.

Grier, of course, is excellent, because she’s believable as the sister, girlfriend, community member who cares, but she’s also believable as a lady who will do anything it takes to take the bad guys down. Oddly, it takes a while for her to actually kill anyone in this film, but she gets there, of course, and she’s even colder blooded than that, as we find in a gruesome late scene that presages the finalĂ© of Se7en. What’s in the box, right?

Thursday, 4 May 2023

One Way Pendulum (1965)

Director: Peter Yates
Writer: N. F. Simpson, based on his stage play
Stars: Eric Sykes, George Cole, Julia Foster, Jonathan Miller and Peggy Mount

Index: 2023 Centennials.

As a critic, I learned long ago to avoid superlatives. This isn’t the best, it’s the best right now. That isn’t the worst, it’s the worst that I can think of. And that over there isn’t the most outrageous, it’s the most outrageous so far. That said, I would be fascinated to find a feature film more surreal than this one, especially played straight in a humdrum setting. If you know of one, please tell me about it. What’s most surprising is that it was directed by Peter Yates, not just because he would go on to direct successful features with a complete lack of surreality like Bullitt, The Deep and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but because he’d already done that with a 1963 debut, the Cliff Richard musical, Summer Holiday. This was like nothing he’d done before or would do later and it seems that it was exactly that fact that drew him to it. It started out as a live TV play with an impressive cast—not just character actors Richard Pearson and Alison Leggatt, but John Laurie, Joan Hickson and Frank Finlay—and its author, N. F. Simpson, adapted it to the big screen himself.

It’s hard to even suggest what it’s about, because I’m still digesting how much of it, if any, has deeper meaning or whether it’s only meant to be meaningless. It revolves around the Groomkirby family, who might appear to someone who doesn’t know them to be a typically respectable bunch living in the suburbs. Arthur, whom everyone but his wife calls Mr. Groomkirby, is an accountant who works at a faceless corporate job. His wife Mabel is a housewife who juggles all the domestic duties you might expect. They’re both middle aged and they have two children: a young lady called Sylvia who’s courting a gentleman named Stan, and a son who seems to only go by Kirby. There’s also Aunt Mildred, who lives with them because she’s old enough to need help. Nothing to write home about. They seem to be ordinary in every way. Except, if we actually pay the slightest bit of attention, which we naturally do when we follow them into their semi-detached home, absolutely nothing about them is ordinary beyond their outward appearances.

Wednesday, 3 May 2023

The Arena (1974)

Director: Steve Carver
Writers: John & Joyce Corrington
Stars: Margaret Markov and Pam Grier, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller, Daniel Vargas, Marie Louise, Mary Count and Sara Bay

Index: The First Thirty.

It shouldn’t seem too surprising to find Pam Grier making a peplum flick apparently out of nowhere, given that it’s not far off the Filipino women in prison movies she was shooting.

To be fair, part of that is because New World had it re-edited, by Joe Dante, future director of The Howling, Gremlins and The ’Burbs, in order to market it as “Black Slave White Slave”, as a way to build on the chemistry of the two leads in an earlier film, Black Mama White Mama. The other star is Margaret Markov.

Originally, however, it was an Italian movie with a third lead, Lucretia Love. I’ve only seen the beginning of the movie in Italian, showing us the capture by Roman soldiers of not only Bodicia, a druid priestess from Brittany clad in the purest white (Markov), and a lively Nubian dancer called Mamawi (Grier) in a leopard skin leotard, but also Deirdre, some drunken Irish redhead played by a Texan who married a pair of Europeans and died in the Seychelles. So an Italian gladiator movie makes sense, even if her part was whittled down to comic relief.

In either version, the Romans are recruiting slaves and these three, along with Livia, some sort of Roman noblewoman sold into slavery, soon show up on the auction block in Brindisi, back when it was called Brundisium. They’re bought en masse by an effete noble who seems very keen to point out that he won’t be doing anything with them because he’s gay. It seems weird to even point that out but it’s important to him, so I guess I’ll faithfully report it here.

Initially, this is as gratuitous as we expect it to be, with the usual women in prison shower scene showing bush as well as boobs, because, hey it’s European. However, once that’s out of the way, this tones down surprisingly much.

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

Director: Bob Kelljan
Writers: Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig and Maurice Jules, based on a story by Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig
Stars: William Marshall, Don Mitchell and Pam Grier

Index: The First Thirty.

After Coffy, Pam Grier was the kick ass chick in blaxploitation movies and I’m utterly sure that audiences wanted to see what she would come up with next. Well, further kick ass flicks were on the way in Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby and Friday Foster, but she had a couple of others to knock out before them.

This was the first, a sequel to 1972’s Blacula, which was exactly what you think it was. I’ve seen it before and it’s better than Blackenstein because of the presence of William Marshall as the lead actor. He was tall at 6’ 5”, elegant and very well-spoken, through his background as a Shakespearean stage actor and opera singer, and he fits very well alongside a select list of his white counterparts in classic horror, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

He’s back for this sequel, reprising his role of Prince Mamuwalde, known as Blacula. Why he could possibly be back is open to debate, as he was a sympathetic monster in the first film and ended it by deliberately walking into the morning sun. He’s just as good here, selling a script that deliberately has fun playing up his outdated manners.

“Your bread, man, all of it!” demand a pair of street hoodlums. “Or are we gonna have to become antisocial and kick your ass?”

Utterly unphased and presumably grasping only the threat in the situation, he apologises: “I’m sorry, I don’t have any ‘bread’ on me, and as for ‘kicking my ass’, I’d strongly suggest you give it careful consideration before trying.”

Then he backhands one through a window and slams the other face first into a door. And, after that, he feeds.

Thursday, 27 April 2023

Coffy (1973)

Director: Jack Hill
Writer: Jack Hill
Stars: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert Doqui, William Elliott, Allan Arbus and Sid Haig

Index: The First Thirty.

This project is reenforcing just how many fantastic exploitation pictures Pam Grier made in the seventies. It’s certainly not all of them, but Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage and Black Mama White Mama makes three winners out of eight, with Coffy a fourth, along with being the first of her classics made back home in the U.S.

I’ve seen it before, though it’s been a while, and, watching in context, it surprised me with its originality. Cool Breeze and Hit Man, a couple of films I hadn’t previously seen, are just what blaxploitation did, nothing original at all. This isn’t remotely like either of them.

For a start, Pam Grier doesn’t have a small role here, playing something stereotypical like a hooker or a porn star. She’s the lead, not just the female lead but the lead who’s female, and she’s an entirely respectable ER nurse dating a city councilman. That was unusual.

Apparently, AIP lost the rights to Cleopatra Jones, which should have pioneered this genre, to Warner Bros., so quickly threw a female-led blaxploitation of their own into production to beat the original to screens, which it did. It’s a better film too, which didn’t hurt, but it was a pioneer, just like The Big Doll House was a mere two years earlier.

For another thing, it doesn’t play into any of the usual stereotypes. Black leaders during the blaxploitation era often condemned them for doing exactly that, but it’s an anti-drug movie. Coffy spends her days saving lives, but she was unable to save her sister, Lubelle, a young girl now living in a Juvenile Rehabilitation Center attempting to recover from cocaine addiction and failing because her brain’s fried.

Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

Director: Steve Oram
Writer: Steve Oram
Stars: Lucian Barrett, Lucy Honigman, Tom Meeten, Steve Oram, Sean Reynard, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Toyah Willcox

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

In many ways, Aaaaaaaah!, actor Steve Oram’s debut feature as a director, is just a soap opera, because all the characters are defined entirely through their relationships, which change considerably over the course of the picture. Denise lives at home with her mum, Barabara, who’s currently with Ryan, even though her ex, Jupiter, is still hanging around looking forlorn. Denise clearly hates Ryan and what passes for a home life that their family has, so acts up accordingly, drinking and shoplifting with her cousin, Helen. When a stranger named Smith shows up at a party that they’re hosting at their house, she hooks up with him prompting things to change. Smith and Ryan clash repeatedly, trawling in friends and family members to their fight until everything eventually settles down to a new normal. The good times are good and folk enjoy cooking or playing console games. The bad times are bad, deteriorating into violent arguments that leave nobody happy. This could be Eastenders or Coronation Street, right? But it isn’t. Oh no!

Oram’s soap opera world has one major difference to anything you’ll see on primetime television, perhaps best highlighted with a note that the film’s title is the most coherent line of dialogue anyone utters in 79 minutes of running time. These characters might look like regular human beings and they might live lives that oddly echo our own, but they’re not regular human beings. What they are, Oram refuses to explain, so we have no easy recourse to a virus or a chemical leak or an alien experiment to explain anything. Things just are and it falls to us to figure out what Oram is trying to do in this film with all his actors communicating only through animalistic grunts. It’s like the world as we know it simply changed one day when everyone woke up with the primal urges and low (comparatively) intelligence of a chimpanzee. They carry on regardless, being British, but just through routine, because any higher functions, such as speech, have been forever lost. Civilisation has fallen, even if nobody’s apparently acknowledged it yet.

Monday, 24 April 2023

Black Mama White Mama (1973)

Director: Eddie Romero
Writer: H. R. Christian, from a story by Joseph Viola and Jonathan Demme
Stars: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov,Sid Haig, Lynn Borden, Zaldy Zschornack and Laurie Burton

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s back to the Philippines for Pam Grier yet again. However, unlike earlier Filipino movies, this wasn’t made by New World Pictures. It’s a production of Four Associates, a collaboration between Eddie Romero and John Ashley; if you recall, the former directed the latter in 1972’s The Twilight People, with Grier only growling as Ayesa, the Panther Woman. Here, she’s jointly top-billed with Margaret Markov in a take on 1958’s The Defiant Ones, with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in a similarly chained chase flick.

Oddly, it starts out like a spaghetti western, for no reason I can determine. We’re looking at a Filipino prison, after all, but it’s not only the soundtrack, which is highly reminiscent; it’s also the shots of Grier and Markov on the Women’s Rehabilitation Center bus and those in the fields. It’s a strange way to kick off and it doesn’t continue in that vein at all, but it’s there nonetheless, making little sense.

What does make sense is that we have eyes on these two, because they’re the leads from the very beginning. Grier is Lee Daniels, who arrives in a flowing red dress and tries to help another girl who falls on the steps. Markov is Karen Brent, who doesn’t care about anything except the revolution she wants to return to.

If there’s a third star at this point, it’s Lynn Borden as Matron Densmore, who plays up the lesbian angle so common to women in prison movies. She’s a butch blonde with severe hair and she sneaks between some walls to spy on the inevitable shower scene, moaning so loud that we’re shocked the inmates don’t hear her. Warden Logan knows she’s in there and waits for her to come out. “Keep it up and you’ll go blind!” she tells her.

Apparently the two are an item, but Matron likes to play around. She invites Daniels to her room first, offering her a drink and benefits of cooperation, but Grier, so happily lesbian in a couple of earlier WiP flicks, happily turns her down. Brent, who’s next on her list, plays into her ideas to make her life easier.