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?