The TSL’s Grindhouse: Death Journey (dir by Fred Williamson)


Imagine being caught up in the following situation.

You’re the district attorney of Manhattan.  You’ve got a chance to convict the city’s most powerful mob boss on some pretty serious charges.  In fact, you’ve got three eye witnesses who are willing to testify against him.  Sounds pretty good so far, right?

But wait a minute!  One of your eyewitnesses just died.  Oh well.  You’ve still got two left and surely, the police can protect two… oh wait.  Hold on.  Okay, you know that second witness that you had?  Well, he just got blown up or something.  Now, you’ve only got one witness left.  He’s a weaselly little mob accountant named Finley (Bernard Kirby).  He’s really not a bad guy, once you get past all of the Hawaiian shirts and his obsession with candy.  The only problem is that Finley is in California and you’re in New York.  How are you going to get Finley across the country without him getting blown up by the mob?

Well, let’s see.  You could ask the government for help but when was the last time government managed to do anything without screwing it up.  You could reach out to the FBI or something like that.  Maybe Finley could go into witness protection.  I mean, it’s worked for a countless number of other mob associates…

But no.  There’s no way Finley could survive in witness protection.  He’d probably give himself away as soon as someone offered him a candy bar.  Seriously, Finley is really obsessed with chocolate.

No, what you’re going to do is you’re going to call up Jesse Crowder (Fred Williamson).  Crowder used to be a cop but now he’s a private eye.  He’s a lot like Shaft, except he doesn’t ever get political.  There’s really nothing that Jesse Crowder can’t do.  He’s a marksman.  He’s a fighter.  He’s a lover.  When we first see him, he’s doing kung fu in slow motion.  If you really needed proof that Jesse Crowder is the ultimate badass, consider this: he smokes cigars.  You read that correctly.

Now, you may be asking yourself: why would the Manhattan district attorney know a Los Angeles private eye?  Because everyone knows Jesse Crowder, that’s why.

Anyway, Jesse agrees to take the case.  He’ll escort Finley to New York, on the condition that he get paid $25,000 upon arrival.  Of course, if he has to kill a lot of people, Jesse expects to be paid $50,000.

Needless to say, Jesse does end up having to kill a lot of people.  It’s not really his fault, of course.  They just keep popping up and getting in his way.  Jesse tries all sorts of ways to get Finley to New York.  He tries to drive him.  He tries to take the train.  No matter what he does, the mob shows up.  Is it possible that the mob had someone inside the district attorney’s office?

Fred Williamson not only starred in 1976’s Death Journey but he directed it as well.  Though it’s obvious that Williamson didn’t have much of a budget to work with, he still did a fairly good job with Death Journey.  Certainly, his direction here feels stronger than it did in Mean Johnny Barrows.  In its own undeniably dumb way, Death Journey‘s a fun action movie.  Williamson may not have been a great actor but he had a strong screen presence and it’s impossible not to be amused by the fact that, no matter what he does or where he goes, somewhat inevitably pops out of the shadows and tries to kill him.  With the exception of that opening kung fu sequence that goes on forever, Death Journey is a fast-paced action film.  The film only last 74 minutes so, right when you start to wonder if Williamson’s ever going to show any personality beyond being a cocky badass, the movie ends.

If you’re a fan of low-budget 70s action films, you’ll probably enjoy Death Journey.  If you don’t enjoy it, just make sure Jesse Crowder doesn’t find out.  After all, he knows karate.

An Olympic Film Review: Goldengirl (dir by Joseph Sargent)


The 1979 film Goldengirl is a film that I had wanted to see ever since I first came across this trailer on one of the 42nd Street Forever compilation DVDs:

Wow, I wondered.  What was Goldengirl’s secret and why was she ordering James Coburn to kiss her feet?  For that matter, why did James Coburn have a haircut that made him look exactly like this old lady who used to live next door to my grandma in Fort Smith?  What did it all have to do with the villain from The Spy Who Loved Me and just how drunk was Robert Culp when he shot his scenes?  Even more importantly, why did Goldengirl keep running into that wall?  That looked painful!

I did some research.  (That’s a fancy way of saying that I looked the movie up on Wikipedia.)  I discovered that Goldengirl was made in 1979.  It was originally meant to be a television miniseries that would not only air during the 1980 Summer Olympics but which would feature Goldengirl competing at those Olympics!  However, during production, it was decided to just use the material for a feature film instead. (Hmmmm, I thought, behind-the-scenes drama!  Intriguing!)  The film was released in June of ’79 and, despite one rave review from Vincent Canby in the New York Times, the film failed at the box office.  Add to that, the U.S. ultimately boycotted the 1980 summer games, which made Goldengirl‘s Olympic-set climax a bit awkward.

I also discovered that Goldengirl is nearly impossible to see.  It’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray or any digital or streaming service.  So, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably never see Goldengirl and, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really didn’t care that much.

However, for the past few days, I have been absolutely obsessed with the Winter Olympics.  Even though it was a Summer Olympic movie, I decided to go on YouTube and see if anyone had uploaded Goldengirl since I last checked.

And guess what?

They had!

Now, here’s the problem.  The two guys who uploaded Goldengirl also talked over the entire movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  The movie looked about as good as a VHS copy of a movie from 1979 is ever going to look.  And I could still follow Goldengirl‘s story, even if I sometimes had to really strain to hear the dialogue over the two guys “commenting” on it.  Still, it meant that I had to put a bit more effort into watching this movie than it perhaps deserved.  It was kinda hard not to resent that.

Anyway, I have finally seen Goldengirl and I can now tell you that it’s a pretty lousy movie.  Goldengirl is Goldine (Susan Anton).  Her father is a German scientist who used to work for the Nazis.  When he came to the United States, he decided to prove that his theories of eugenics were correct by adopting a daughter and breeding her to be the world’s greatest athlete.  Working with a psychiatrist named Dr. Lee (Leslie Caron, for some reason), they have not only turned Goldine into the world’s greatest athlete but they’ve also turned her into a bright, smiling media personality.  (Dr. Lee has trained Goldine, through the use of a vibrator, to always give the right answer when she’s asked a question.)  Now, they just need Goldine to win three gold medals at the Summer Olympics and for PR agent Jack Dryden (James Coburn) to make Goldine into a star.  Dryden is the only person who really cares about Goldine as something other than an experiment or a way to make money.

Goldine spends almost the entire movie running.  There’s one running montage that seems to go on forever.  Susan Anton was a model when she was cast as Goldine.  She’s got the right look to be a celebrity but she’s never convincing as an Olympic-class athlete.  Whenever Goldine competes, we either get a close-up of Anton running in slow-motion with no other runners around her or else a long-shot that’s designed to keep us from noticing that Anton isn’t really on the track.

Really, that’s entire film.  On the basis of the trailer, I was expecting that Goldengirl would turn out to be a robot or something like that.  Instead, it just turns out that her stepfather has spent years injecting her with vitamins and hormones and now, as a result, she has diabetes.  Seriously, that’s it.  She gets pretty mad when she finds out that her handlers have put her health at risk just so she could win a race.  But then she goes ahead and runs the race anyway so I guess it was all for the best.  Seriously, that’s the entire freaking movie.  It doesn’t help that Anton’s acting is amateurish and the rest of the cast seems bored.  Only Curt Jurgens really makes much of an impression, mostly because he’s too sinister not to be memorable.

The trailer is better than the movie.  That’s the secret of Goldengirl.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: You Can’t Take It With You (dir by Frank Capra)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1938 best picture winner, You Can’t Take It With You!)

“You can’t take it with you.”

If there’s any one belief that defines the worldview of Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), it’s this.  It doesn’t matter how much money you make in your life.  It doesn’t matter how successful you are at business or anything else.  The fact of the matter is that, when your time is up, you won’t be able to take any of that stuff with you.  Instead, Grandpa Vanderhof (as he’s called by his large family) believes that the most important thing to do during your lifetime is to make friends and pursue what you’re truly interested in.

Vanderhof has another belief, one that particularly appealed to be me.  He has never paid income tax.  He doesn’t see the point of giving money to the government when he doesn’t feel that they’ll make good use of it.  When an outraged IRS agent (Charles Lane) stops by Vanderhof’s sprawling house and demands that Vanderhof pay his taxes, Vanderhof refuses.  When the IRS man argues that the income tax is necessary to pay for the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, Vanderhof offers to give him five dollars.  “Hell yeah!” I shouted at the TV.  With an attitude like that, Vanderhof should have moved down here to Texas.  We would have elected him governor.

Grandpa Vanderhof is the head of a large and cheerfully eccentric family, all of whom live together under the same roof.  Penny (Spring Byington) writes novels because, years ago, a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house.  Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), has a basement full of fireworks.  Essie (Ann Miller) loves to dance and spends almost the entire movie twirling from room to room.  Her husband, Ed (Dub Taylor), is a xylophone player.

Of course, it’s not just family living in the Vanderhof House.  There’s also Potap Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer), a Russian who is “teaching” Essie how to dance.  There’s Rheba the maid (Lillian Yarbo) and Donald (Eddie Anderson) the handyman.  Actually, the house appears to be open to just about anyone who wants to stay.

And then there’s Penny’s daughter, Alice (Jean Arthur).  Alice is the most “normal” member of the family.  She has just become engaged to Tony Kirby (James Stewart) and she is still trying to figure out how to introduce Tony’s stuffy parents (Edward Arnold and Mary Forbes) to her eccentric family.  What she and Tony don’t know is that Mr. Kirby is currently trying to buy up all the houses that are near a competitor’s factory.  Only one homeowner has refused to sell.  The name of that homeowner?  Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof.

It all leads, of course, to one chaotic dinner party, one lively night in jail, and a huge fireworks display.  It also leads to true love, which is nice.  Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are even more adorable here than they were in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Based on a Pulitzer-winning play by George S. Kaufman, You Can’t Take It With You was the second comedy to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  The first comedy to win was 1934’s It Happened One Night.  It’s probably not coincidence that both of these films were directed by Frank Capra.

Seen today, You Can’t Take It With You seems a bit slight for an Oscar winner.  Grandpa Vanerhof is a lovable eccentric.  Tony’s father is a stuffy businessman.  Hmmm … I wonder whose philosophy is going to be victorious at the end of the movie?  Still, predictability aside, it’s a delightfully enjoyable film.  While it never quite escape its stage origins, it features wonderful performances from all the usual members of the Capra stock company.  James Stewart and Jean Arthur are a charming couple while Lionel Barrymore gives a performance that is so warmly likable that it’s hard to imagine that, just 9 years later, he would be so perfectly cast as the heartless Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Of course, my favorite member of the member was Essie, mostly because I also like to dance from room to room.  While it’s hard to justify awarding it Best Picture over The Adventures of Robin Hood and Grand Illusion, You Can’t Take It With You is still a wonderfully fun movie.

It’ll make you smile and laugh.  Who can’t appreciate that?

 

New Orleans Film Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (dir by Werner Herzog)


“Do you think fish dream?”

— Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Happy Mardi Gras!

Since today is not only Fat Tuesday but also rapidly coming to a close, I think it’s time for me to share one final New Orleans film review.  Admittedly, though this film takes place and was filmed in New Orleans, it doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras scenes.  However, it does feature a lead performance that is perhaps as bizarre as anything that you’re likely to see in the French Quarter tonight.  Of course, I’m talking about Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.

Whenever I mention this movie to anyone, it only takes a few minutes before they get around to saying, “What was the deal with the iguanas?”  Everyone remembers the two iguanas who would randomly show up throughout the movie.  At one point, they were sitting in a coffee table while Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and Sgt. Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) were watching a house across the street.  When McDonagh demanded to know why the iguanas were on his coffee table, Pruit replied, “There ain’t no iguanas.”  McDonagh looked down at them and grinned.  This was followed by several hand-held close-ups of the iguanas, looking around inquisitively while McDonagh kept giving them the side eye.

The iguanas show up a second time, after McDonagh has tricked one gangster into killing another gangster.  “Shoot him again,” McDonagh demands, “his soul’s still dancing!”  Herzog pans over to show us that, indeed, the man’s soul is still dancing next to his corpse.  After the soul gets shot down, an iguana wanders across the floor.

What do the iguanas represent?  Some people think that they actually are meant to be hallucinations.  As the result of a back injury that he received saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh has permanent back problems and this has led to him getting hooked on drugs.  The perpetually high McDonagh sees and does a lot of bizarre things over the course of this movie.  Perhaps the iguanas are just a part of his addiction.

Myself, I think the iguanas represent the fact that, no matter what McDonagh and anyone else in New Orleans does over the course of the film, the randomness of nature is going win out in the end.  After all, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens with Katrina, which is perhaps the ultimate example of how helpless modern society is in the face of nature’s whims.  The film takes places in neighborhoods that have yet to recover from the flooding.  Every corner of the film is full of physical, emotional, and mental debris.  McDonagh pops pills and snorts cocaine in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control but ultimately, the iguanas are going to show up regardless of how much control he thinks he has.  Just as how Klaus Kinski, at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, couldn’t keep the monkeys off of his raft, Terrence McDonagh can’t keep the iguanas off of his coffee table.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans apparently started life as a reboot of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant.  The script (which was credited to William M. Finkelstein) is full of moments that mirror scenes from Ferrara’s film.  Once again, the protagonist is a corrupt police lieutenant who spends almost the entire film fucked up on drugs and whose only friend is a prostitute.  Again, there’s a disturbing scene in which the lieutenant harasses a young woman in a parking lot.  Again, the lieutenant has gambling debts and again, the lieutenant has to solve a horrifying crime.

While promoting his film, Herzog always said that 1) he had never seen Bad Lieutenant and 2) he didn’t even know who Abel Ferrara was.  Judging from the way Herzog directs the film, which is the complete opposite of the approach that Ferrara took to similar material, I’m inclined to believe Herzog.  Whereas Ferrara’s film was a grim and humorless plunge into the depths of Hell, Herzog takes an almost satirical approach to the story.  The running joke throughout Herzog’s film is that the bad lieutenant gets results precisely because he is so thoroughly messed up and incompetent.  The final part of Herzog’s film features so many sudden twists and turns that it’s hard not to conclude that Herzog is poking fun at how American crime films always have to wrap everything up within the final fifteen minutes, regardless of how messy or convoluted their plots may be.  Whereas Ferrara’s film featured Harvey Keitel naked and bellowing in soul-searing pain, Herzog gives us Nicolas Cage grinning, laughing, and apparently having a ball.

This has got to be one of Nicolas Cage’s wildest performances.  He yells.  He bulges his eyes.  He grins maniacally at the strangest moments.  He interrogates a suspect while taking hits off a joint.  Because his character has a bad back, Cage moves stiffly, carrying himself almost as if he were a living Golem.  McDonagh may have his demons but, at the same time, he also seems to be having a blast every time we see him.  Wisely, Herzog also allows the character some quieter moments.  When the lieutenant talks about how he used to imagine there was pirate treasure buried in his back yard or when he and an ex-con sit in front of a gigantic fish tank, Cage gets a chance to show that there actually is something going on underneath all of McDonagh’s bluster.  This not only one of Cage’s most over the top performances but also one of his best.

Herzog not only gets the best out of Cage but also the best out of New Orleans.  He may not make New Orleans look beautiful but he still captures the atmosphere that has made New Orleans one of the most legendary cities in the world.  Cage, Herzog, and New Orleans make for a great combination.

The Truth About “The Lie And How We Told It”


Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

Cartoonist Tommi Parrish comes to us from Montreal by way of an Australian upbringing, but their (as a gender non-binary individual, Parrish’s pronouns of choice are “they” and “their”) perspective seems to be a heady blend of the highly singular and the undeniably universal — and if that sounds inherently contradictory, then buckle in for a review that’s going to make your head spin, because the underlying tension between disparate polarities, both personal and artistic, forms the beating thematic heart of their new Fantagraphics-published graphic novel, The Lie And How We Told It, and how you process duality is going to go a long way toward determining your level of enjoyment of/appreciation for this work. In short, if it already sounds like it’s not going to be your cup of tea, then it probably won’t be — but if explorations of who we are vs. who we present ourselves…

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Confessions of a TV Addict #6: Justin Wilson “Guar-On-Tees” You’ll Have a Happy Mardi Gras!


cracked rear viewer

Back in the early 80’s, I lived and worked in Morgan City, Louisiana. It was there I first fell in love with Cajun cuisine, from “dirty rice” and hot boudin sausages to the mouth-watering flavors of Danny’s Fried Chicken (much more authentic than Popeye’s!) and the ginormous pork and beef ribs at Dick’s Rib Shack. It was a taste-bud opening experience!

Around this same time, I discovered Justin Wilson (1914-2001), the down-home Cajun chef whose “Louisiana Cookin'” was broadcast on PBS. Wilson’s relaxed, easy-goin’ style and humorous asides to his audience soon were picked up for broadcast nationwide, turning America on to the deliciousness of Cajun food. Wilson had first made his mark in entertainment as a Cajun storyteller in the 60’s, relating whimsical tales of life in Bayou Country with his exaggerated Cajun accent and catchphrases like “How y’all are?”. His talent as a comical Cajun raconteur landed him…

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Scenes that I Love: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper Do Mardi Gras and Drop Acid in Easy Rider!


Today, a lot of people have traveled to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras.  Here’s hoping that they have a better time in the city than Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) had in the 1969 film, Easy Rider.

The scenes below, featuring Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black, and the legendary Toni Basil were actually filmed at Mardi Gras in 1968.  These were among the first scenes that Hopper (making his directorial debut) shot for the film and reportedly, filming was so chaotic that they were also nearly the last scenes to be filmed.  As those who have seen Easy Rider know, Billy and Wyatt spend the entire movie trying to get to New Orleans so that they can visit a famous brothel.  Once they get there, they discover that absolutely nothing lives up to the legend.  The brothel is a sleazy mess.  Mardi Gras is full of bad vibes.  Wyatt has an amazingly bad LSD trip.  (Hopper convinced Fonda to really drop acid before filming the scene, which led some harrowing footage.)  After they leave New Orleans, Fonda and Hopper cross the border into Texas and promptly end up getting blown away by two rednecks in a pickup truck.

Welcome to the sixties!

In the scene below, we get actual footage of 1968’s Mardi Gras.  Just watch all the celebrants who stop to stare at the  camera.

And here is the infamous cemetery scene.  Fonda resisted doing it and the end result is not easy to watch but it’s also one of the most powerful moments in the entire film: