Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"So Frigid a Fiction to Frosted Birth..."

I'm fighting my way back to this blog and resuming the reviews.

In the meantime, perhaps you'd like to enjoy some of my fiction work.  I've recently endeavored to construct my own miniature epic in verse: a semi-epic of sorts. And now, I'd like to invite you, the reader, to experience another side of my wordsmithing. I certainly hope you enjoy it.

A Boread

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Yeah, Yeah, Liars Always Start That Way..."

One of the most interesting aspect of the digital age is being able to see how people found their way to whatever you are posting. Of course, this is also how advertisers and marketers try to figure out how to shill more products to you whether you want them or not. That aside, every now and again, I like to sift through and see what it is about what I put up that brings in my audience. The one that keeps popping out to me is that my coverage of the strange tone of gang rape v. comedy in Hannie Caulder starring Raquel Welch has been a frequent tag that brings in the public. That's not so good.

A nicely laid out poster...with unfortunate whiffs of Hannie Caulder to come...
On the lighter side, people looking for stuff on Dean Martin movies also find their searches directed my way. And now, I've been provided an opportunity to bring both those tastes together (...although, I'm not sure how to feel about this...) as well as close the book on Raquel's trilogy of western films with a look at Bandolero! (1968).

The posters for Bandolero! promise a new fangled look at the old fashioned oater, which makes perfect sense as Sergio Leone had breathed new life into the Western in the U.S. following the release of A Fistful of Dollars in 1967. Try as they may, Hollywood never quite figured out the spaghetti western formula, and they shouldn't have: spaghetti's reflect an outsider's view of the media version of the Wild West, and Hollywood's spaghetti imitators were trying to reflect that reflection while being unable to escape the ties to the culture they themselves came from. Make sense?

Dino does not buy my convoluted explanations...
Casting Dean Martin and Jimmy Stewart seems to me a stab at trying to bring in an older audience to this new, grittier version of the West. Casting Raquel...well...I think we all know that was a stab at bringing anything with a Y chromosome to the theater. In the movie, Martin plays Dee Bishop, an outlaw gunslinger formerly of the Confederacy, who ends up caught with his gang after a bank robbery goes south by Sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy). During the skirmish, Dee's gang shoots the husband of Maria Stoner (Welch), which opens a relationship door for the amorous sheriff. Former Union soldier turned drifter Mace Bishop (Stewart), discovering that his brother's misdeeds will be leading him to the gallows, launches a plan that will free his brother and end up in kidnapping the young widow. This leads to the Sheriff going on a long chase after the gang into bandit country in Mexico where Mace will try and convince Dee to leave his life of crime.

This is the Jimmy that was sent after bad Jimmy impersonations...which is most of them...
The opening third of the movie, from the bank robbery to the eventual escape, is pure, thrilling movie adventure, but unfortunately the middle third sags from too much time in the saddle and a few too many heart-to-hearts between the brothers in between brush-ups between Mace and Dee's surly gang. The final third picks up the pace but is unfortunately a little too predictable from the moment we see, or rather, don't really see the bloodthirsty arrival of the Mexican bandits who slaughter the Sheriff's posse. And while Welch and Martin have the makings of some fun onscreen chemistry, the "falling for the bad boy" angle isn't quite enough to sell her falling so soon for the man who was responsible for her husband's death. Without getting into the details, there wasn't necessarily a lot of love lost in Mr. Stoner's death for Mrs. Stoner, but for a girl who worked her way up from nothing, to prostitution, to some creature comfort, doesn't quite add up to her going for the guy who murdered her meal ticket.

Having said all that, the movie works more than well enough, and I had a fine time watching it. While Raquel doesn't get a whole lot of screen time, Maria was definitely one of her better dramatic roles, and certainly of greater depth than the beautiful harpy she would play the following year in 100 Rifles. Martin and Stewart are, of course, old hands at this sort of thing. While they don't look anything like brothers, their natural ease of delivery sells it well enough, and they are a joy to watch together even when the riffs of their dialogue grows a little tired. The standout in many ways is Kennedy as July Johnson, an intriguing figure for a movie sheriff, who seems more interested in giving chase to these outlaws due to his love or lust for Mrs. Stoner than the sense of justice he keeps touting. In fact, it must've made an impression on Larry McMurtry who also named a sheriff in Lonesome Dove, July Johnson.

And this is the George Kennedy that could put Cool Hand Luke's George Kennedy in jail...
So if early Westerns are a little too white hat v. black hat for you, and spaghettis are a little too operatic v. nihilistic for you, then Bandolero! might provide a nice middle ground between the two: it's matured from the former, and doesn't strain itself trying to be the latter. For comparison, I would also recommend The Professionals (1966) starring Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, and Claudia Cardinale, which also featured a long chase into Mexico that involves a woman. It too features a cast of familiar and enjoyable old hands, but also has a few more twists to the plotting.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"What about Junior?"

Inspired by the ilovedinomartin blog's wonderful reception to my past looks at the Dean Martin filmography, I decided to rewind the tape even further back to Dean's early forays into cinema as half of the comedy team Martin & Lewis. I knew Martin & Lewis as one of comedy's most famous duos and perhaps as comedy's most infamous feud.  What started as a nightclub act, pairing Dean Martin's music with Jerry Lewis comedy, soon led to television appearances and then onto the silver screen with My Friend Irma (1949).  I sat down with That's My Boy (1951),  their fourth film together, and I can't  help but wonder if the couple of "Best of..." lists I looked at hadn't led me wrong.

Unfortunately NOT the exploitation movie about Siamese twin graduates...
The story concerns an overbearing tycoon and former college football star who lords over his son, Junior (Jerry Lewis) to the extent that he saddles him with all manner of psychosomatic illnesses and allergies. In a mutually beneficial deal, the tycoon pays for Bill Baker (Martin), a poor but rising football star, to pal up with Junior at his alma mater and help him to be a success on the field. Unfortunately, though Junior's got heart, he's no great athlete, and matters are further complicated by the formation of a love triangle between Bill, Junior and the lovely Terry Howard (Marion Marshall).

Jerry does a spot on imitation of me watching this movie...
The plot's essentially sitcom nature would be forgivable if not for the fact that it seems like the comedy duo has little to do. Lewis fares better than Martin in that he gets a bigger character and more face-time, but the movie suffers from long unfunny jags where neither performer is to be seen. Following the opening credits, twenty minutes pass before Jerry shows up for the first time, and almost that much more before we see Dino. The relationship between Junior and his father has more to do with Sissy Spacek's relationship with Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976) than it does with comedy. I realize that a good part of this is the difference in attitude between then and now, but Junior's dad is so loud, brutish, and relentlessly domineering that there's no surprise that any kid would turn out as nebbish as Junior. In comedy, even the bad guy still has to have some kind of relatable soft spot.

Dino thinks romance, movies...and whether he should start drinking...
The romance angle seems wedged in just to give Dino something to do, and it was this kind of thinly developed romantic lead that would eventually sour Dino on doing these pictures.  So when Dino puts in his best turn in a scene where he drunkenly expresses his regret at having taken this deal for his future, the acting is spot on and shows where Dino would eventually get dramatically, but is robbed of any resonance by the weak storytelling.  Luckily, early on, Dino gets a fun song-and-dance number with co-star Polly Bergen at a graduation dance while Jerry hams it up by himself in the corner.  (Full marks to Jerry managing to kick his own shoe into his face, which was probably my only laugh out loud moment during this viewing.) The film's initial football training sequence was also quite enjoyable, but has been done and redone in far too many sports comedy films since.

Jerry demonstrates a 50's craze: Chin Woogies...
If anything, from what I've learned of Martin & Lewis's time on-screen, it's that few things have changed in the past 50-60 years when Hollywood tries to figure out how to turn showbiz success offscreen into even bigger success onscreen. The formula's pretty simple: cook up a simple if inane plot idea, plug in hot commodity, let the chips fall where they may quality-wise, and rely on an adoring public to pay to see whatever comes out. I'm at a loss to think of one where this actually generated true movie gold, and am instead reminded of the spectacularly goofy nonsense that was KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978).

In the end, I can't really recommend That's My Boy, which is sad since I can certainly admire the talents of both performers, both together and apart. What I can instead recommend was the Marx Brothers' collegiate football romp Horse Feathers (1932).  I kept thinking of it all during the runtime of this movie. It too had a story thinner than a sheet of tracing paper, but that was more because it gave the Marx's free reign to do their brand of comedic insanity.  That's exactly what I feel like was missing here: the room to let Martin & Lewis do what Martin & Lewis could do.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One...Two...Three...Four...Five...Deadly Venoms

(This entry is another flashback that originally appeared on my other blog in 2004. It's been modified to make me look like less of a jackass. Enjoy!)
I'd like to take this moment to suggest a change to the Chinese Zodiac...
How many of you remember when they used to have things like Saturday/Sunday morning/afternoon Kung Fu/Martial Arts theater? How many of you watched no matter how bad the dubbing or how incomprehensible the storyline? For the life of me, I can't remember many of the titles for nearly any of these movies. I remember them because of weird fight scenes. I remember them because of wacky weapons. I remember them for being the early times or heyday of an actor who showed up in some action movie more recently. I'm not sure what it is, but there's a certain charm to that.

"First a tune from our favorite Beijing Opera...then to the ass-kicking..."
It's easy to remember Chang Cheh's Five Deadly Venoms ( 五毒, 1978) because of the characters and their fighting styles: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Toad, and The Lizard. The story is a sort of martial arts whodunit, wherein an aging martial arts master sends his final pupil, Yan Tieh, to search out his five former venomous pupils who he fears may using their skills to diabolical ends. And, of course, some of them are. After, all this isn't the Five Friendly Venoms (though that's a wonderfully oxymoronic title).  There's one weensy-teensy catch: the master doesn't know their names or faces. So Yan heads off to the nearest town in order to uncover the Venoms one by one in a plot of treachery, greed and intrigue.  And, a whole lot of fighting in really weird ways.

The fall of my favorite Venom, the Toad (?!?)
Director Chang Cheh was one of the Shaws' most successful and prolific directors, and would go on to make a variety of films with some or all of the stars, who became popularly known as the Five Venoms or Venom Mob. Why am I prefacing this paragraph this way?  Well, like most first efforts or trendsetters, the formula obviously hadn't hit yet. Five Deadly Venoms, overall, is fun and colorful, and while everyone seems to be having a good time, it's a little slow and stilted in places compared to the Venom films that followed.  At the same time, as a first, it certainly deserves its spot on many martial arts movies favorites lists. However, if you enjoy this film, may I suggest popping in another Venoms picture, The Crippled Avengers (1978) for perhaps one of the most over-the-top, bizarre kung fu movies ever committed to celluloid (I may have to return to review that one.). But, back to my original premise with this entry...

Before dancing on ceilings was a glimmer in Lionel Richie's mind...
There's a funny loss with these movies following the restoration of the original language tracks. On the plus side, the lips match the words, and more importantly, for once you appreciate that a lot of these guys can actually act. On the other hand, those of us who grew up with these movies can't help but feel a certain nostalgia for the overdone, hammy, mismatched English dialogue track. It will always be a part of the experience, as that's how we first saw them. The same goes double for Godzilla movies, which, in pop culture consciousness, became synonymous with bad lip synch. For many of the bottom of the barrel kung fu movies, the laughs generated by the dialogue are the only things that make them worth watching. (I'd like to reiterate that Five Deadly Venoms is by no means one of these.)

My first DVD copy of the first Venoms looked as though it was from a 1986 video dub. To be fair, it was released when the movie was still public domain, but it still looked dreadful. For years after digital transfers became the norm, I often wondered - Why if they have a pristine restored digital transfer of something like Carpenter's Escape from New York do they still show the video copy that was made in '86 on TV?  Celestial pictures has re-released many the Shaw Brothers' films cleaned up and unedited on DVD (Though many an on-line forum has seen complaints about changed or missing music amongst other tiffs). The only problem is that they're region coded for Asia.  Miramax eventually made some deal with them, and began releasing many of the bigger hits on DVD under the Dragon Dynasty label for North America; however, many of the more rare titles have never become available in the States...at least, not through conventional means.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"I hate you so much, I think I'm going to die from it."

In the past few years, I've noticed that every cinephile, including myself, has a number of omissions, often embarrassing to the rabid movie goer in question, of films they'd always meant to see or should've seen, but, for whatever reason, had just never gotten around to. In a recent casual movie trivia contest, one friend admitted that he'd never seen The Blues Brothers (1980), so to help him cover his shame I replied that I'd only recent gotten around to seeing The Sting (1973).  So every now and again, when I think about it, I try to make a conscious effort to try and fill in some of these gaps.

You can never see them all, but you can always try to tick one or two more off the never ending checklist.

From the "Formerly Socially Acceptable" File
So I sat down with 1946's Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, and George Macready. If memory serves, this was the first Rita Hayworth vehicle I've watched.  This forces me to admit that Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai is another of these gaps on my list. Ford I had just seen in Fritz Lang's excellent noir The Big Heat, which also starred a very young, and very vicious Lee Marvin as the lead villain. In fact, I had almost forgotten that Ford played a key part in one of my childhood favorites as Pa Kent in the first Christopher Reeve Superman (1978).  The distinctly voiced and distinctly scarred Macready is one of those character actors that even if you don't know him, you know him. Much like Peter Lorre or Erich Von Stroheim, Macready's villainous portrayals have somehow transcended into pop culture consciousness. The movie's director, Charles Vidor (née Károly Vidor), a Hungarian by birth, was yet another of the long list of European filmmakers who immigrated to Hollywood as the Nazis rose to eminence before the second World War.

"Hey, I didn't get a 'hubba hubba' out of that guy!"
The film's story is narrated by Johnny Farrell (Ford), a down on his luck gambler newly arrived in Argentina, who's saved from a mugging by the erudite Bailin Mundson (Macready). Johnny finds work at Mundson's illegal casino, rising through the ranks to quickly become the floor manager, but while he rules the casino, he's kept at arm's length from Mundson's other interests which involve a tungsten mine, some patents, and a shady group of Germans. When he's introduced to Mundson's wife, Gilda (Hayworth) it's all too apparent that Johnny and Gilda share a past that is tantalizingly kept in permanent secrecy. The heat gets turned up as Johnny's forced to babysit his former flame as she lives it up with a host of handsome suitors while her husband's nefarious interests go south. The cork is truly popped once Mundson is forced to flee the authorities, faking his own death, which leaves Gilda in control of his fortune and Johnny as the his executor of both his estate and his illicit affairs.

The alluring scent of cheeks...
Gilda is frequently considered a noir, and it is in ways. I found it had more in common with a movie like Casablanca (1942), wherein a seedy cast of characters make their way through a plot of entanglements, romantic and otherwise, in an exotic locale. In any event, it's an excellent potboiler wherein the danger and the emotions get cranked up step by step, and it becomes harder to tell whether the explosion's going to come from pent up emotions or from the pistols floating about. The film's only misstep is the lengthy loss of Mundson in the film's final third. The dynamic between the film's main trio is electrifying, and when Mundson's taken out of the plot, it also robs some of the fire in the love/hate inferno between Johnny and Gilda.

And, I must confess, despite Hayworth's absolute radiance and appeal, there were a few too many lengthy musical numbers toward the end that began to grate on me just a hair. (Though not nearly as much as Dino and Ricky Nelson's last minute musical entry at the end of Rio Bravo (1959).)

...v. the irresistible pull of the pin-stripe.
Nevertheless, Gilda creates one of those excellent fictional worlds that attracted me so deeply to film in the first place. The fact that the setting is Argentina is inconsequential. It could've been Morocco or Japan or anywhere on a globe. It's a movie world. The sets are striking. The clothing is sharp and sumptuous. And the dialogue can crack like a whip. It's an inviting and immersive world of classically styled romance and intrigue...with, yes, that old Hollywood hint of sexual aberration. It's one of those old, black & white movies that is perfect to win over people who hate old, black & white movies. Simply put, if you can't find something to enjoy about this movie, it suggests that there's more wrong with you than with this all too enjoyable film.

Stand out line: Johnny Farrel: "Statistics show that there are more women in the world than anything else...except insects."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Final Escapade

A friend recently brought up his love for Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder, which led to a discussion of its progenitor, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce. Bierce's story was the grandaddy of all "life flashing before one's eyes" stories, a sort of subset of the "it was all a dream" motif. Much like Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" and Hammett's Red Harvest, "Owl Creek Bridge" has seen its basic tenets hashed and rehashed in numberless stories since its publication.

So it was a sort of odd coincidence that I should happen to throw on Claude Chabrol's Alice ou la dernière fugue (aka. Alice or The Last Escapade, 1977). The film is the tale of Alice Carroll, played by Sylvia Kristel, the Dutch actress best known for her portrayal of the infamously sensual Emmanuelle, who leaves her husband into a torrential downpour in the French countryside. Forced to stop by a cracked windshield, she finds herself welcomed into an old chateau, wherein she has a bizarre series of encounters among the denizens of the grounds while discovering that she can't seem to leave her rest stop. There's no real way to say SPOILER ALERT at this point, but if you look back to the first paragraph, you might just be able to tell where this story goes from there.

As I mentioned, most cineastes and literary fiends are all too familiar with the Bierce plot to experience any sort of surprise at the twist to this particular tale. It makes for unfair bias when looking back to a time before the plot device had become a touch on the hackneyed side. So how does the rest of the film hold up despite that?  That's harder to say. More scholarly critics than myself saw a great depth to this film that I felt it lacked. It's definitely made by the steady, controlled hand of a master: it's beautifully shot, makes fantastic use of its location, has wonderful atmosphere, and was remarkably compelling for how little interaction there is between Kristel and the film's other characters.

However, while it makes stabs at depth, it never seems to make it past an entry level course on philosophy. For fantastic films of possible afterlives, I was instantly reminded of Cocteau's Orpheus films, which I found to have a more artful approach to the material as well a more relatable thoughtfulness about them. I could follow the progression of Chabrol's film, but never felt terribly engaged with the discussion.  Furthermore, the film is also an allusion to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which it also never quite plumbed to any real depth, so that what little tie there was to the celebrated Victorian tale seemed trite. In all, a gorgeous but unsatisfying film...but perhaps, my wondering if it's not I that's missing something says quite a bit in and of itself.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

From the Vault: The Weekend in Movies

(This is an updated and modified post from March 2004 off of my previous blog. ENJOY!)

On Friday, I half watched The Storm Riders (1998, HK), starring Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng. I say half because I was doing other things, and I've already seen the movie a dozen times or so. In the movie, two young men, Wind and Cloud, are raised by Conqueror (the great Sonny Chiba), the man who killed each of their fathers during his ongoing struggle to rule the world. Unfortunately for Conqueror, the Mud Budha has prophecied that Conqueror will be invincible for the first half of this life, but in the second half, Wind and Cloud will be his undoing. Naturally, Conqueror doesn't believe it, and fate takes care of the rest.

Believe me, despite that literally being the story and literally how they talk about it in the dialogue, it's not as silly somehow while watching it. If you've never seen it, I don't necessarily recommend rushing out to grab it now. The special effects, at the time for Hong Kong, were strong and inventive, but were still behind Hollywood and now behind for both. I can handle movies that have cheeseball effects or that look dated, but I know that a lot of folks just can't. I do, however, harbor a soft spot for it. It's a pretty strongly realized fantasy martial arts film that tells a far more developed story than most.

On Saturday night, I talked several friends into rewatching Hero (2002, China, d. Zhang Yimou). Hero concerns a county official who is brought before the emperor after vanquishing three of his most dreaded foes. Through the emperor's close cross examination of his savior's tale, the true story slowly emerges.

Like so many movies based on fragmented narratives or dissenting perspectives, Hero certainly owes a debt to Rashomon in its style of storytelling. But, Rashomon is based on three different people's understanding of the same story. Hero, however, is based on a lie, and the combing over of the story elements slowly unravels the various tendrils of fabrication. This film has a breathtaking production design and a skillful use of vibrant color and texture. At the same time, it's painterly tendencies to maintain style sometimes leaves it a little cold and distancing.

Miramax is supposed to release Hero in the U.S., but don't be surprised if it is chopped up and dubbed. In fine Hollywood form, they are apparently suing a man for supplying links to websites carrying original versions of these foreign films. There's a weird conundrum to the whole thing: The majority of people who see these movies are hardcore movie people who want the original version, but the studio butchers them for a broad audience that likely won't go see them anyway. Go figure. (ed. note: Luckily, perhaps having learned a lesson from Shaolin Soccer, Hero was released in its original form in Mandarin.)

Spread between Sunday morning and Sunday evening in two viewings was Battle Royale II (2003, Japan). (Am I pushing it with the Asian cinema?) Boy oh boy...whoa nelly...and by golly. This movie seemed like it wanted to say a hundred things at the same time, and didn't say any of them well. A modern day techno-version of Lord of the Flies, the first Battle Royale was the story of a near future law that tries to reign in rioting children by picking a random class of ninth graders and flying them to a remote spot where they are forced to eliminate one another. Battle Royale II revolves around the terrorist movement created by the survivors of the first movie in an effort to free the children of the world from adult oppression. The tie-in is a new game which sends the random class of 9th graders to the terrorist base where they must infiltrate and kill the terrorist leader.

The most basic failure was really managing to drum up sympathy for any of the characters. The first movie almost suffered from this problem, but two things almost consistently worked for it: early victims got a sympathy vote for looking like helpless children before being killed in nasty ways, while the later victims had some character defining action or backstory to flesh them out during the course of the game. The second film had little to give the new kids or the terrorist children other than a horrific death that because of their anonymity failed to drum up much emotion. This isn't to say the movie was without emotion. Depending on your political leanings, there are certain things in this film that I would hope would speak to anyone, but the whole movie keeps picking up and falling apart around them.

I can't really go through the other problems in the film without doing a point by point breakdown, which would be a lot like the second half of the film: endless.  After long jags of scattershot pacing, the film kept gearing up to end and would then keep going (I almost felt like I was watching AI again. The horror. The horror.). Most of this I ascribe to the directionlessness (that has to be a word if it isn't) of the whole thing. If you don't know where you're going, how do you know that you're there? It should be said that the director Kinji Fukasaku passed away during the film's making, and so it was passed on to his son, Kenta. From that vantage, dissection of what made it to the screen becomes a battle of what if's concerning Kenta's capabilities, or whether Kinji would have held the project together better.

The movie's in the can. It just happens to be a thoughtful mess in a can.

The final viewing which took place late Friday night, and finished early on Saturday was Sergio Corbucci's second western, Minnesota Clay (1965, Italy). Minnesota Clay is the story of gunslinger who escapes from prison in order to save his town and his daughter from rival gangs, one of which is led by the man who could prove his innoncence. Clay's primary difficulty is that his skills with a pistol are being lost to the blindness taking over his eyes.

Not bad, not bad at all. The quality of the DVD was surpisingly good. Corbucci, of course, didn't hit stride with westerns until Django, a spaghetti masterpiece. (I think Corbucci was truly the master of what is thought of as the spaghetti western. Leone's films were in a whole other bigger ball park . They just happened to be Euro-westerns.) Minnesota Clay is definitely of that early mold of spaghetti where they conformed highly to Hollywood standards and stories, but it isn't bad in terms of either. Cameron Mitchel is well cast as the aging and ailing gunslinger who's still got more than enough steely-eyed vengeance in him. My primary complaint, as with many of these films, some of the dubbed dialogue (and all of them were, whether in Italian or not) gets laughable just to make sure the character says something when his mouth is open.

Anyhow, not my favorite spaghetti, but a worthy entry into the genre.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"6 Feet 2' And All of it Dynamite!"

Though mainstream Hollywood had had its fair share of leading ladies in dramatic roles, for everything else, and for minorities, I always felt that genre cinema was one of the few places where new ground in portrayals of all kinds could first be broken. Looking back over time, of the few stand-out ladies of whoop-ass action, blaxploitation produced two of the most iconic in the form of one Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson.

Tamara Dobson had worked as a fashion model and commercial actress before being launched onto the silver screen versus an exceptionally crazy Shelley Winters in the original Cleopatra Jones (1973). Cleo, a sort of drug enforcement version of James Bond, returns to Los Angeles from ridding the world of the drug trade to zip around town in a tricked-out Corvette in order to stop local drug kingpin, Mommy, who's had the cops leaning on her boyfriend's community drug rehabilitation center to get revenge on Cleo.

Created by legendary entertainer Max Julien, Cleopatra Jones' greatest fault is that she's...well...a little too indestructible. Even Bond occasionally got hurt or captured, but never once does Cleo seem like she may not quite get out of the scrape. So most of what little emotional resonance there is in the picture falls to perpetual movie pimp/dealer/fall guy Antonio Fargas as the gangster Doodlebug. Fargas stands out as the second most memorable character in the film and delivers a monologue about his hair that was almost worth the run time of the movie. The most memorable is far and away Shelley Winters at her scenery-chewing best as the red-haired, leather clad, evil lesbian villainess, Mommy. She hams it up  to her evil best, but almost seems like a good replacement for Frankie and Annette's nemesis, Eric Von Zipper in the 60's Beach movies. In all, it's a very fun flick with plenty of action and excitement, a little intrigue, some creative movie deaths, and about as kooky as you can get in 60's fashion...until you get to...

Cleo's second outing, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975). This time the creative team moved the production to Hong Kong and partnered with martial arts movie legend Run Run Shaw of the Shaw Brothers. This time, Cleo's cohorts, the Johnson brothers, are captured while trying to bust a heroin ring, and Cleo arrives to join forces with a local Chinese detective team to complete the bust on the "Dragon Lady" Bianca Javin (Stella Stevens).

The sets are bigger and more lavish. The action is way more over-the-top. The outfits for Cleo are more colorful and outrageous. But is it a better movie than the original? In a way, yes. I was generally more entertained, much in the way most martial arts movies' acrobatics and choreography can carry even the thinnest storylines. However, Cleo comes off just as indestructible as ever, and most of her dialogue is a series of stilted one-liners. Dobson, who was every bit a statuesque and beautiful lady, lacks the smoldering sexiness and vulnerability that made the aforementioned Pam Grier so great. In some respects, especially in this sequel, she's almost more of an animated part of the set than the leading lady of the movie. Also, this one trades one evil lesbian villainess for another, and while Stella Stevens is adequately menacing as Bianca, she's nowhere near as indelible as Winters' Mommy.  Nevertheless, Cleopatra Jones is definitely an icon of the blaxploitation era, and I genuinely had a good time watching both films.

On a trivial side note, I had a good chuckle that each film featured a staple of my youthful television watching. The first film had Esther Rolle, who I grew up watching as Florida Evans in Good Times, and the second featured Norman Fell, who I first new as Mr. Roper on Three's Company.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"You Know Much About Guns, Mr. Bond?" "No, but I Know a Little About Women."

James Bond's nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) is often cited as the prototype for the master-villain, the faceless brain behind mass conspiracies of villainy. For his first two appearances in Bond films, he was more or less depicted solely as an arm before finally being revealed in You Only Live Twice (1967) played by the bald, scarred-eye, Nehru-collared form of Donald Pleasance...an image used and reused both seriously and for parody in countless movies and TV programs since. Though he's in six of the canon Bond films, he's only in three of Fleming's original novels: Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice, otherwise known as the Blofeld trilogy. Having been given a copy of Majesty's, I found myself having to track down Thunderball to get started.

 After all, it seems strange when he's revealed if you haven't seen the movies in order...so I figured it'd be just as strange if not stranger to read the books out of order.

The book opens with James Bond in sorry shape. He's been drinking and smoking a little too much after having been beaten up a bit too much by his work. So M, on a health kick, sends him to a spa in the English countryside. There, a brusque brush-up with one of the other spa visitors ends up tying into a conspiracy that involves the theft of an RAF plane and it's payload of two nuclear weapons, which are then used to try and blackmail $100, 000, 000 ransom from the world governments.

Naturally, this is the work of Blofeld and SPECTRE. Blofeld, who came up through government bureaucracy was immersed in the world of espionage during the second World War and has since used his ability to buy and sell information to form a dangerous network of spies and criminals into a global conspiracy. No one knows where the plane went. No one knows where the bombs are. And Bond is dispatched into the field to try and stop this plot. So...on M's hunch, Bond is sent to Nassau in the Bahamas where he meets the "treasure-hunter" Emilio Largo and his kept woman, the lovely Domino. With the help of Felix Leiter, Bond begins to assemble clues that point to Largo as the man behind hi-jacking the plane and stealing the bombs.

In all, Fleming's novel moves at a pretty good clip and Blofeld is introduced in grand style with a well-built background for evil. Largo, too, is an enjoyable antagonist: the rich playboy, who is, in fact, a total scumbag who knows how to torture with a cigar and some ice. Bond is, well Bond, and benefits from the presence of the ever plucky Leiter (who is always whole in the movies, but after events in the book Live and Let Die, is missing an arm).  And Domino, for the books, is one of Bond's more remarkable conquests, although she leads Fleming into one of the most hilarious sexist rants about women-drivers I've ever read. Domino, of course, is a great driver, and the sole exception to the diatribe.

I did, however, have a couple of problems with how the book played out. For one, though the events and resutls of the time at the health spa are amusing, they meander for a bit too long, and are tied into the main plot by only the flimsiest of threads. So inevitably they end up eating up a fair bit of time, as does many of Fleming's various asides about a variety of topics from technology to a dinner menu.  Detail often brings a world to life, but in several cases in this book (and in other Bond novels I've read) it just seems like an oddly placed editorial. It's not as off-putting as some of the pages and pages of technical jargon in modern spy/military thrillers, but it does throw off the plotting. And finally, too much of the initial part of the main plot rely on hunches and coincidences (ie. With no idea who or where SPECTRE is, Bond just happens to end up in the right place at the right time for no real good reason but happenstance.)  Still and all, these aren't documentaries on spying but meant as entertainment, and on that score, Thunderball was largely successful despite these distractions.

Of course, one can't address Thunderball without addressing the controversy over the book that lead to a decades long legal dispute. Before Albert Broccoli and Sean Connery made a little movie called Dr. No (1962), Fleming and his friend Ivar Bryce teamed up with an Irish filmmaker, Kevin McClory, to form a production company to produce a Bond film, whose plot elements eventually became Thunderball. While that movie was never made, Fleming adapted certain characters and elements from what had been fleshed out for the film project into the novel which later became its own movie and so on without McClory receiving any credit. While I don't seek to settle what all transpired between these men, suffice it to say that McClory's legal pursuit of restitution from Fleming and his estate led to the loophole that allowed for a remake of Thunderball, which saw the return of Connery to the role that he made famous and that made him a star in this here...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Somebody Warn the West..."

After covering the last Fred Williamson Western Adios Amigo, I figured I'd cover two of Fred's earlier Western entries, which have become infamous if only for their titles.

It appears to be proof of just how much of a comeback the Western had had thanks to the European set that this blaxploitation flick got off the ground a year before Fred starred in perhaps his biggest hit of the era with Black Caesar, and the fact that Fred was coming off his run on the groundbreaking and tender TV series Julia (1968-1971) that The Legend of N*gger Charley (1972) made it to the big screen.  And people at the time were no more comfortable with the title than they are now. The story concerns a slave blacksmith who's given his freedom by his dying master only to have it revoked by an abusive heir. In a fit of rage-fueled revenge, Charley kills the heir and escapes to the West with his two compatriots, Tobey and Joshua. They're pursued by a fugitive-slave hunter and his posse, and after confronting them in a western town shootout, they're hired by a farmer to rid himself of a crazy outlaw preacher and his gang.

Sound like too much for one movie?  Well, simply put: it is. Any one of the three acts of the story could've been enough for a decently constructed movie, but as it is, it just kinda ends up as a structural mess. When Charley and gang have the shootout with the slave-hunter in the middle of the movie, it seems as though that would be the end except that we're given a whole new storyline that doesn't have enough time to be set up properly for their to be any kind of tension before it's all over.  As it is, it's an adequate if disjointed piece of entertainment. Fred is his usual charming self. D'urville Martin is competent comic relief.  And for being on the lower end of the genre, it's not a wholly bad looking film (although the print I saw was awful). And both villains, the slave hunter and the outlaw reverend both seemed ripe for being entertaining villains if only either of them had enjoyed adequate screen time or development.

In the end, Legend was either successful enough or demand was still great enough, that Paramount (yup, the big movie studio paid for both of these movies) put Fred back in the saddle for The Soul of N*gger Charley (1973) the following year. This time Charley's mythos has spread through the West, and when he comes across a murderous band of former Confederates capturing former slaves to take to a new slave state in the Mexican wilds, you know damned well Charley's going to put a stop to it. This bigger and badder affair features a Quaker community, crazy Confederates, a big train robbery of $100,000 in gold, and more bandidos than you can shake a six-shooter at.

As a story, Soul is a far more cohesive affair that dumps you right into the action with an opening massacre, but occasionally stalls out with unnecessarily long riding sequences. A good twenty minutes could've been stricken from the run-time merely by cutting to the chase so to speak with many of these long vista rides. Still and all, it doesn't quite gel into a great Western as their are still a sizable number of gaps in logic and in both movies, there's a tendency to hit jags of unnecessary and out of place moments of melodrama. And again, there was a lack of development on the part of the villains. Primary villain, Colonel Blanchard is adequately crazy and creepy, if his crack squad of soldiers seem appallingly inept much of the time, but it almost feels as though it needed more of just how awful the evil new Confederacy they were building was going to be. I suppose it's like what I call "Nazi Shorthand", meaning that if you make an obvious villain/s the villain/s you don't have to waste time developing him, her, or them. And while most of us are all too familiar with the evils of the slave plantations, the movie barely answers what that would look like in the north of Mexico.  In any event, a superior effort, if lacking a bit of the vitality, to the original.

(Sorry folks, couldn't find any trailer to go with these.)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Penultimate Killers

I've been some kind of overdue for sitting down to a heapin' helpin' of the Spaghetti West...so here's a couple I took in recently.

We'll start with The Last Killer (L'ultimo Killer, 1967), a lower budget affair with Anthony Ghidra and Euro-exploitation staple George Eastman.  Now, the title of this Italian oater often has a "Django" slapped in front of it (as in Django - The Last Killer), as it was yet another cash-in on the popular name, which turned Ghidra's original character name from 'Rezza' to yet another in a long line of Django's. (Speaking of changing names, Anthony Ghidra was the stage name for  Serbian actor Dragomir 'Gidra' Bojanić.) 

The story concerns a group of local farmers being persecuted by a wealthy landowner, Barret, whose "business partner" is a deadly gunfighter, Bart (naturally), and his gang; however, Barret hires local gun-for-hire, Rezza/Django, to take out the unstable Bart while keeping his gang. After Bart's gang kills the family of one peaceful farmer, his son, Ramon (Eastman), is fatally wounded by Rezza while seeking revenge. Rezza takes the boy back to his cabin where he nurses him back to health and trains him to finish his plot for vengeance, which inevitably leads to a number of showdowns. 

It's almost 2/3's a strong spaghetti. The first half hour's logic is shaky at best (Ramon's robbed by the hired gang that work for Barret, the man he's going to pay, but this doesn't register before he goes to talk to Barret about why he doesn't have the money?), but once the training begins, Ghidra does a fine job as the wizened gunfighter whose dialogue was reminiscent of a fair few characters played by the great Lee Van Cleef. The rest plays out fairly predictably, but had it shown some of the high atmosphere and theatrics of a Leone or Corbucci, it could've been rather remarkable instead of a second or third tier effort. Also, while Eastman is passable, he lacks a certain earthy quality to be taken seriously as the gun-slinging peone...a role that Tomas Milian played to the hilt in a number of spaghetti westerns.

And by happy coincidence, the second Spaghetti feature I watched, The Ugly Ones (aka. The Bounty KillerEl precio de un hombre, 1967), did contain a strong performance by Milian. This is the only Spaghetti I can think of based on an American pulp novel (also called The Bounty Killer by Marvin H. Albert, not remotely to be confused with Marv Albert). And it contained far more of the tension and drama that The Last Killer almost utterly lacked.

The populace of a tiny town aids an escaped Mexican bandit, José Gomez (Milian), by helping him to take surly bounty hunter, Luke Chilson (Richard Wyler), hostage. The townspeople believe Gomez to be a lost soul forced into a life of crime to survive, but when Gomez's gang shows up intending to take everything they own while destroying their homes in the process, they decide to free Chilson who had been warning them all along that Gomez was not who they thought he was. Helmed by Spanish director Eugenio Martín, who also directed Requiem for a Gringo (another spaghetti I need to get around to), The Ugly Ones holds a great tension that, while it focuses on the unlikable Chilson and the (initially) charming Gomez, relies more on the shift in attitude of the townspeople. The photography of the sandy hills of Almería is strong (with many recognizable locations from other Spaghettis) while the interiors have an almost heavy gothic atmosphere. While still not Top 10 material, The Ugly Ones was an enjoyable effort that definitely fell far closer to the top of the heap than the middle or bottom. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

All They Need Is....A Better Script!

Today's quickie review is a two-fer.

We'll kick off with the bigger disappointment.  Pretend you're a filmmaker in the 1970's.  You want to make a western, which are on the fade again...BUT you want it to be funny, which thanks to Blazing Saddles (1974), should be a go. You take the handsome, charismatic hot black property, Fred Williamson, and you take the hottest black comedian of the time, Richard Pryor...and you should be able to spin gold, yes?

Of Fred Williamson's four forays into Westerns, Adios Amigo (1976) is far and away the most disappointing, especially as it was his last one.  Now Richard Pryor...well, Richard's motion picture legacy despite his stand-up genius is wildly uneven, mostly skewing to the not-so-great, unless Gene Wilder is around.  If you don't agree or don't believe me, spend the evening with Adios Amigo double-featured with Superman III and see if you still feel the same.  The story is simple, Fred gets into a fight in town, which thanks to corrupt locals gets him shipped to prison on a stagecoach that's robbed by Pryor setting Fred free.  Inexplicably, instead of going home to avenge himself on the corrupt townsfolk that ran him off, Fred chases after Pryor for his part of the loot from the robbed stagecoach. What follows is a repetitive formula of Pryor encountering people, messing with them, stealing from them, and running off, leaving the pursuing Fred to take the blame in a series of mostly flat scenes that are neither funny nor exciting.  Fred as usual seems earnest and game for the antics, but they're just not there...and neither really is Pryor who seems to mumble his way through most scenes as if half-asleep/half-crazed and/or half-drunk, which, sadly, he may have been all at the same time.  Even the dread Cactus Jack (1979) had more inspired moments than this and it too was awful.

But being no stranger to the weird and the awful, I tried again.  So this time we're going to rewind the clock back to 1969. Now we're in the hot stretch for Westerns following Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, and Hollywood wants to cash in.  You've got young up-and-comer Burt Reynolds whose already been in one Italian oater (Navajo Joe, 1966), and you've got black football sensation Jim Brown whose was in one of the action hits of the 60's, The Dirty Dozen (1967).  Add to that the smoldering sex-pot that is Raquel Welch, and again, you should have gold, yes?

Well....100 Rifles (1969) seems to take much of its direction for the great Sergio Corbucci's The Mercenary (Il Mercenario), which also featured a cunning peone, a hard-fighting foreign outsider, and a hot girl in the midst of some Mexican revolutionizing. But while Rifles seems to have the characters and have the chemistry, it never coheres into the adventure that The Mercenary pulls off. Instead it sort of wobbles, betwixt endless chase scenes, between half-comical banter and Peckinpah-esque brutality. Still, it's not all a bad time, if you can get past the stunning gaps in character-driven logic.  All I know is, if I'm trying to escape from a pursuing Mexican general, who's a tad on the butchery side, and his well-armed troops, I don't stop for a chat or a fistfight until I'm way way way far away. Having said that, it was a generally enjoyable way to pass some time.  Burt was well on his way to being Burt. Raquel Welch has a sexy shower under a train cooling tower. And the film was cut or banned in a number of places for some smoldering horizontal monster mashing between Jim Brown and Raquel.   The movie's well-shot, the scenery gorgeous, and the action, especially the finale, exciting...it just never adds up to much.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"I Curse You With My Name! You Shall Be...Blacula!!!"

Let's jump right into this quickie review of perhaps the first Blaxploitation movie I ever saw, 1972's Blacula...and while we're at it, the follow-up, 1973's Scream Blacula Scream

The first time I saw it, I was probably around 10 years old or so and switched on the TV to some UHF station.  I remember it was sunny outside, but once I caught my first glance of William Marshall as the Black Prince of Darkness I sat it out until the end. Revisiting it the other day, I could still see the finale as clear as on that sunny afternoon of my youth when Blacula mounts the stairs...Well, I don't want to say too much.

So, the movie opens with African prince Mamuwalde (Marshall) and his lovely wife at Count Dracula's castle trying to convince the Count to join him on a campaign to get the European powers to end slavery.  The Count, more than a little dismissive of the proposition, starts a fight and gives Mamuwalde the damning bite of the vampire before sealing him with his wife into an oubliette in the castle walls. Years later, in the 1970's, two offensively flamingly gay antiques dealers buy the castle and set Blacula free. But in his quest to wed the young Tina (Vonetta McGee), the spitting image of his dead wife (could be because she played his dead wife in the opening sequence... ;-) ), he leaves a trail of newly undead shambling around which put the disbelieving cops on his trail. 

I'll just say now that summarizing Scream Blacula Scream is a spoiler alert in and of itself. So much for my effort to not give away the ending of Blacula above. When an aged voodoo priestess dies and chooses her apprentice Lisa (Pam Grier) over her son Willis (Richard Lawson) to take over their group, Willis resurrects Blacula to exact his revenge. However, Willis merely ends up a vampire himself, while Blacula tries to get Lisa to exorcise him of the evil bestowed upon him by Count Dracula while, once again, the cops are closing in due to all the non-corpse corpses running around.

Now, neither one of these movies was ever meant to be award-winners but both were quite enjoyable, thought not without considerable shortcomings. First of all, one has to get past the name Blacula, and the ludicrous way it's worked into the plot (see Drac's quote in the review title above).  From there, the first film is a fairly by the numbers vampire flick whose main difference is its urban setting and black cast. William Marshall does his damnedest to add enough gravitas to keep the proceedings from delving into purely hokey drivel, and he's fantastic at creating a sympathetic villain.  The filmmakers, however, can't seem to resist adding enough cornball to keep it from being something more akin to Shaft: The Vampire Years (which, to my mind, would've been awesome)...still, it does fair far better than Blackenstein (1973).

Scream Blacula Scream is much the same only it can't help but just get purely silly.  To set the tone: Moments after Willis performs his voodoo resurrection rites over the bones of Blacula (which must've been cow bones or some large animal because they're far too large and thick to be human bones), he leaves the room, plunks down in a chair, and drinks a cool Coors with his back to the room he just left, leaving himself wide open for resurrected vampire attack.  At least it makes sense why his mom didn't pick him to take over.  The rest of move pretty much follows suit. Sadly, the effects have gotten better since the first film, but like I said, everything else has gotten sillier. 

On a side note, both films contain fantastic graphic displays for their title sequences...if you're into that sort of thing. 

So in summary: If you're just looking for a good time and a good laugh...something to go with a cool Coors 12 oz. on a lazy afternoon or weekend evening...then, by all means, enjoy Blacula and its sequel. If, however, you want a surreal arty conceptualization of a black vampire, I recommend Bill Gunn's wild Ganja and Hess (1973).

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"Ain't No Cure For Them Jungle Blues..."

Australia is one of the few places that during it's early colonial era experienced a history not disimilar to the Wild West of the United States.  But much like I would've never expected an Aussie to write a Southern Gothic novel as Nick Cave did with And the Ass Saw the Angel, nor would I expect one to record not one but two albums of country blues mixed with hints of ragtime and calypso as C.W. Stoneking has. And he's done it well.

Stoneking's 2008 Jungle Blues is an enjoyable trip through a kaleidoscope of a rich musical past.  "Jailhouse Blues" is every bit country blues as "The Love Me or Die" is flavored with the Caribbean, while the title track, "Jungle Blues," has a heavy streak of vaudevillian carnival that a Tom Waits track might warble over.  He's obviously well-immersed in his chosen genres, and plays the music as more of a continuation rather than as merely a pale throwback. While a few tracks have some affectation, Stoneking has thankfully kept from immersing his entire album in canned scratches, hiss, and pops unlike a fair few modern revivalists, but as the sound seems to come from so genuine a place, they would hardly be necessary.

The album's only problem is that for the uninitiated to these earlier forms of music, the steam might run out for them a couple of tracks before the end. Either the album might have benefited from one or two more hookier upbeat numbers or at least a jostle to the track order, but it's hard to believe someone with a passion for this form of artistry would be trying to grab a mainstream audience.  In the end, I would think it beneficial for a first-time listener to not know or try and forget Stoneking's pedigree to keep this from merely coming off as a striking novelty record. At the right moment in the right setting (I'm thinking late in the evening, a few drinks in, maybe a smokey game of pool being played...) throw C.W. Stoneking's Jungle Blues on the old juke, and you'd be in for a treat.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Blaxploitation One-Two Punch

After revisiting Jackie Brown, it seemed appropriate to run a blaxploitation double feature. So let's cover a couple of quickies.
Note: I will not be addressing the terrible joke of this title.
Black Eye (1974) saw Fred Williamson as the former cop turned private investigator, Stone, whose investigation into a murdered friend turns into a chase for a dead movie star's cane while also searching for a missing girl. Could the two cases be connected?  Of course they are, but it takes a long, loose, and seedy trip behind the scenes of 70's Hollywood glam, through porn sets, "psychics", hippie Jesus freaks and an informant named "Worm" to get there.

Despite the giallo-esque elements of the poster up there, Black Eye is an enjoyable if by-the-numbers 70's mystery that probably could've benefited from some of that gothic atmosphere. In many ways, it reminded me of a 70's version of The Big Sleep, though Stone is no Philip Marlowe.  Having said that, however, Fred's just as handsome and charming as ever, and his general charisma carries the picture through the slow or rough patches.  I've seen Fred do better, but I've also seen Fred do far worse.  The most entertaining aspect was to spot various familiar locations around Los Angeles starting with the main entrance to the Venice Boardwalk.

There was a fair share more of this tour of LA's past to be found in Rudy Ray Moore's return as Dolemite, The Human Tornado (1976).  Successful stand-up act, Dolemite, is donating his money and his home as a children's shelter when the small town sheriff performs a raid on the benefit party. Dolemite and his buddies skip town for Los Angles where they find nightclub owner Queen Bee embroiled in a war with rival nightclub gangsters. Naturally, it's time for Dolemite to bust a lot of kung fu ass-whoopin's to settle the score.

The plot of dueling nightclubs in many ways has a mighty resemblance to Moore's Petey Wheatstraw  only without the supernatural angle (although there is a witch woman that reminded me of the PCP hallucinations from Disco Godfather (1979)). It's the usual fast, loose, and often disconnected Rudy Ray Moore effort (whatever happened to the kids' shelter?) with stand-up, musical numbers, the world's funniest kung fu noises, and occasionally some plot.  Off the top of my head, there are two moments that will decide whether you can enjoy this movie: 1) The lead character displaying his name on a large flowing cape in the opening credits, and 2) a climatic shoot-out which results in the lead character's being shot only to invoke the name of the movie and walk away. Now, can you dig it?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"My @ss May be Dumb, But I Ain't no Dumb@$$."

In light of Quentin Tarantino's return to blaxploitation with Django Unchained, I thought I would go back and rewatch Jackie Brown. I hadn't seen the movie since 1997 when I originally watched it in the theater.  While I thought it a solid effort back then, it wasn't my favorite, especially following the stellar Pulp Fiction.  Two factors had me curious about revisiting it: a) I've seen even more movies (and B-movies) since then which might help me plumb the depths with QT a bit more, and I was no longer on the high of QT's sophomore effort.

Based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown concerns an aging down-on-her-luck stewardess' effort to escape a smuggling conviction while also getting out from under the thumb of her gun-running benefactor. With the help of a lonely bail bondsman, Jackie cooks up a plot to rob Ordell, the arms dealer, while selling him out to the ATF. It's a dangerous game to play with the volatile Ordell that's only further complicated by the scheming of Ordell's surfer girlfriend and his ex-con buddy who may be a little iffy on his loyalties.

That's as simple as I can think to put it. The movie is far more novel-like than your average script, a trait that QT would definitely carry over into the films that followed. True, Pulp Fiction certainly played around with narrative structure, but was essentially a series of overlapping shorter tales. Jackie Brown, on the other hand, is a lengthy single narrative that's willing to spend some time swimming in side stories before moving things along. And that's the movie's biggest problem.

I recall when I first saw the movie I described it to others as feeling like the down time in the average blaxploitation movie. It's a common trait of low-budget features: Talk is cheap. When you've got to save money for your action sequences, you can burn time and film just having your actors talk and talk and talk for much less. In most of those old movies this is a liability, as the actors were often either subpar or the extensive talk began to reveal just how thin the story was...or just how painfully stiff that exposition could be. That's not the problem with Jackie Brown. The story is very well layered and the performances are exceptional, but we'll get back to that.

No, the problem is that it often feels like the movie's just not getting on with it. It's taking its sweet time.  On the page, with a likable enough cast of characters, that often works. On screen, while a strongly deliberate slow pace can work, a casual slow pace can start to have you checking your watch. Now, QT had this worked out by the time Kill Bill rolled around. The narrative was a little more inventively sliced up. The action sequences were served up regularly. And overall, even when there was down time, there was a greater sense of deliberate menace and build. Jackie Brown was never leading up to a big shoot out or major surprise twist, but was merely leading to a will it/won't it work and it showed.

It reminds me of an old maxim Christopher Frayling mentioned in his extensive study of spaghetti westerns: The Italian directors knew that to keep provincial audiences entertained, someone had to get punched or shot every ten minutes. You can practically time some of these films for an upcoming shootout at the ten minute mark from the last one.

I don't, however, wanna give the impression that I was let down by the cast or the characters they portrayed. In fact, revisiting it, I feel like everyone in the movie should've won something for their performances. Pam Grier as Jackie may have mellowed since her Foxy Brown days, but she was still a stone cold customer with a smoldering seductiveness. Robert Forster turns in a stellar performance as the bail bondsman on the verge of retirement, a sympathetic character without a hint of sap. This one was  still earlier on the road for Samuel L. Jackson's become SAMUEL L. JACKSON, but he puts in one of the best three-dimensional villains I've ever seen: a deliberate and calculating character, but with a streak of insecurity that's looking for affirmation. And Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda are the perfect grimy crime story Cheech & Chong...veritable staples of fringe folks in Los Angeles.  They're all great characters, and I enjoyed their banter (particularly scenes between Jackson and DeNiro) and was wowed by their performances.

The cinematography looks great and manages to communicate the different senses of many of the lesser known sections of Los Angeles. And naturally, QT serves up a fantastic soundtrack with frequent use of blaxploitation era favorites. I sometimes wonder if his popularity is tied to feeding the burgeoning love for nostalgia in audiences or that the nostalgia plucked him up and made him the synthesizer king of all things rare and cool. Anyone who regularly reads my posts knows that I too am a sucker for the cinematic arcane, but QT's films, Jackie Brown included, always rise far above the level of the pale imitation or the in-joke.

In all, I was glad I sat back down and spent some time with Jackie Brown. Now that Quentin is a fair few films down the road from it, it was interesting to go back and figure out how and where this film now sits in the mix. If anything, it was a solid and enjoyable adaption while also providing the diving board for both greater experimentation as well as a greater plunge into the depths of genre storytelling.