Film Review: Fingers (dir by James Toback)


Welcome to method actor Hell!

The 1978 film, Fingers, tell the story of Jimmy “Fingers” Angelilli (Harvey Keitel).  Jimmy is a creep who works as a debt collector for his father, a small-time loan shark named Ben (Michael V. Gazzo).  Jimmy is violent and brutal and often wanders around with a disturbingly blank-look on his face but we’re supposed to like him because he’s a talented pianist and he’s got a recital interview coming up at Carnegie Hall.  Jimmy carries a radio with him wherever he goes and he’s obsessed with the song Summertime.  He’s the type who will sit in a crowded restaurant and play the song and then get upset when someone tells him to turn off his radio.  By the end of the movie, I was really hoping that someone would take Jimmy’s radio and smash into a hundred pieces.

Jimmy is in love with Carol (Tisa Farrow, who was a far better actress than her sister Mia and who would later appear in Lucio Fulci’s classic, Zombi 2), who doesn’t really seem to all that into him.  Despite being in love with Carol, Jimmy still hits on every woman that he meets and, because this is a 70s films, he’s constantly getting laid despite being kind of a charmless putz.

Jimmy meets a former boxer named Dreems (Jim Brown).  Carol is apparently one of Dreems’s mistresses.  Jimmy silently watched while Dreems knocks two women’s heads together.  Jimmy stands there with his little radio and a blank expression on his face.  Is anything going on inside of Jimmy’s head?  It’s hard to say.

Eventually, Jimmy finds out that a gangster (Tony Sirico) owes his father money but is refusing to pay.  It all leads to violence.

As a film, Fingers is pretty much full of shit but that shouldn’t come as a surprise because it was the directorial debut of James Toback and there’s no American filmmaker who has been as consistently full of shit as James Toback.  Fingers has all of Toback’s trademarks — gambling, crime, guilt, classical music, and a juvenile view of sexuality that suggests that James Toback’s personal development came to a halt when he was 16 years old.  It’s a pretentious film that really doesn’t add up too much.  Again, you know what you’re getting into when James Toback directs a film.  Don’t forget, this is the same director who made a documentary where he was apparently shocked to discover that no one wanted to finance a politically-charged remake of Last Tango in Paris starring Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell.

Fingers is a bit of an annoying film and yet it’s not a total loss.  For one thing, if you’re a history nerd like I am, there’s no way that you can’t appreciate the fact that the film was shot on location in some of New York’s grimiest neighborhoods in the 70s.  While I imagine it was more of a happy accident than anything intentional on Toback’s part (because, trust me, I’ve seen Harvard Man), Fingers does do a good job of creating an off-center, dream-like atmosphere where the world constantly seems to be closing in on its lead character.  Jimmy is trying to balance his life as violent mobster with being a sensitive artist and the world around him is saying, “No, don’t count on it, you schmuck.”

As well, Harvey Keitel gives a …. well, I don’t know if I would necessarily say that it’s a good performance.  In fact, it’s a fairly annoying performance and that’s a problem when a film is trying to make you feel sympathy for a character who is pretty unsympathetic.  That said, there’s never a moment in the film where Keitel is boring.  In Fingers, Keitel takes the method to its logical end point and, as a result, you actually get anxious just watching him simply look out of a window or sit in a corner.  Even though Jimmy eyes rarely shows a hint of emotion, his fingers are always moving and, just watching the way that he’s constantly twitching and fidgeting, you get the feeling that Jimmy’s always on the verge of giving out a howl of pain and fury.  It doesn’t really make Jimmy someone who you would want to hang out with.  In fact, I spent the entire movie hoping someone would just totally kick his ass and put him in the hospital for a few weeks.  But it’s still a performance that you simply cannot look away from.  Watching Keitel’s performance, you come to realize that Fingers is essentially a personal invitation to visit a Hell that is exclusively populated by method actors who have gone too far.

Anyway, my feelings about Fingers were mixed.  Can you tell?  It’s an interesting movie.  I’ll probably never watch it again.

I Escaped From Devil’s Island (1973, directed by William Whitney)


The year is 1918 and the French penal colony, Devil’s Island, is renowned as the world’s most brutal prison.  Hidden away from mainland Europe, it is populated by the worst of the worst.  The prisoners have been sentenced to either spend their life on the island or to die at the blade of guillotine and the guards are all sadists.  Le Bras (Jim Brown) has been sentenced to die but he impresses his fellow inmates by putting up a fight on his way to have his head chopped off.  He doesn’t succeed in escaping but, fortunately for him, the death penalty is abolished mere moments before the blade falls.

Le Bras is alive but he’s still been condemned to spend the rest of his life on Devil’s Island, under the sadistic eye of the head guard, Maj. Marteau (Paul Richards).  However, Le Bras has no intention of being anyone’s prisoner.  He teams up with two other prisoners, a pacifist named Davert (Christopher George) and Jo-Jo (Richard Ely), who, because he is gay, is abused by both the guards and the other prisoners.  The three of them manage to escape from the prison but they still have to make their way through the jungle.  Along the way, they visit a leper colony and Le Bras takes some time to get busy with a native woman.  Meanwhile, Marteau remains hot behind them, determined to capture them and send them back to the prison.

If I Escaped From Devil’s Island sounds familiar, that may be because you’ve seen Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon.  Papillon was a major studio production with big stars, a huge budget, and an epic running time.  I Escaped From Devil’s Island was a low-budget film starring B-movie stars and with a 90-minute running time that was the exact opposite of epic.  Roger Corman produced I Escaped From Devil’s Island to capitalize on the expected success of Papillon and he started production early enough that I Escaped From Devil’s Island actually beat Papillon to theaters by a matter of weeks.  Corman originally tried to hire Martin Scorsese to direct I Escaped From Devil’s Island.  When Scorsese decided to follow John Cassavetes’s advice and do a personal film instead, Corman ended up hiring William Whitney to direct.  (Scorsese’s personal film turned out to be Mean Streets, so he probably made the right decision.)

I Escaped From Devil’s Island is an entertaining B-movie.  It doesn’t have the epic sweep of Papillon but it does have a fun cast and all the action that you would expect from a 70s Corman production.  Jim Brown was never a great actor but he never claimed to be.  What Brown had was a tremendous physical presence and a confident movie star charisma and both of those are put to good use in I Escaped From Devil’s Island.  Whether he was playing football or beating up bad guys, Jim Brown was always the epitome of cool and that’s especially true in this film.  Christopher George has some good scenes as a pacifist who believes in non-violent resistance and Paul Richards is a great villain but this is a movie that you watch for Jim Brown and he doesn’t disappoint.

As of today, Jim Brown is 84 years old.  As anyone who has seen him interviewed recently can tell you, Jim Brown is still the epitome of cool.  When Jim Brown speaks, whether people agree with him or not, they still shut up and listen.  Happy birthday, Jim Brown!

Black Gunn (1972, directed by Robert Hartford-Davis)


A war has broken out in Los Angeles.

The Black Action Group (B.A.G.) has robbed a Mafia bookmaking operation.  The Mafia, led by used car dealer Russ Capelli (Martin Landau, in his slumming it years), is less concerned with the money as they are with the fact that one of the militants, a Vietnam vet named Scott Gunn (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.), has also stolen a set of ledgers that could reveal every detail of their organization.  Capelli sends the psychotic Ray Kriley (Bruce Glover, father of Crispin) on a mission to track down Scott and kill him.

What the Mafia didn’t count on is that Scott’s older brother, Gunn (Jim Brown), is the owner of Los Angeles’s hottest nightclub.  When Scott approaches his brother, Gun tells him that he doesn’t care about the B.A.G. or any of their politics.  Still, Gunn allows Scott to stash the ledgers at his club and to hide out at his place.  When Scott still ends up getting murdered by Kriley, Gunn sets out to get revenge.

For the most part, Black Gunn is a standard blaxploitation movie with all of the usual elements, a cool nightclub, the mob, black militants,an anti-drug scene and a speech about why it’s important to not sell out to the man, and a hero played by an actor who may not have been able to show much emotion but who still radiated coolness.  Not surprisingly, Jim Brown is the main attraction here and he delivers everything that his fans have come to expect from him.  Blaxploitation regulars Bernie Case and Brenda Sykes also appear in the film.  Casey plays the head of B.A.G. while Sykes is wasted in a one-note role as Gunn’s girlfriend.  Among the villains, it’s fun to watch the glamorous Luciana Paluzzi plays a gangster’s niece and Bruce Glover is just weird enough to make Kriley interesting.  Though Martin Landau would end his career with a deserved reputation for being one of America’s greatest character actors, he spent most of the 70s sleepwalking through roles in low-budget action and horror films and his performance in Black Gunn is no different.  Having Capelli be both a car salesman and a gangster is a nice touch but otherwise, he’s just not that interesting of a character and Landau is only present to get a paycheck.

Black Gunn has some slow spots but the final shoot-out between the militants and the gangsters is exciting and so brutal that it will be probably take even the most jaded blaxploitation fan by surprise.  Black Gunn is hardly a classic but, like its hero, it gets the job done.

Original Gangstas (1996, directed by Larry Cohen)


Original Gangstas opens with shots of the deserted streets and burned-out store fronts of Gary, Indiana and narration telling us how a once great American city came to be in such disrepair.  The steel plant closed and put much of the city out of work.  While the politicians and the police looked the other way, violent street gangs rose up and took over entire neighborhoods.  Now, Gary is a shell of its former self.  Even the local movie theater has closed down.  The narrators tells us that the last movie to play at the theater was Star Wars.

Led by Spyro (Christoper B. Duncan) and Damien (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.), the Rebels are the most feared and powerful gang in Gary.  They rule through violence and intimidation.  Talk to the police and your business is liable to get torched and you’re likely to get shot.  However, Spyro and Damien have finally gone too far and now, two men who previously escaped from Gary are returning to town to dish out some justice.

John Bookman (Fred Williamson) is a former football player who wants to avenge the shooting of his father.  Jake Trevor (Jim Brown) is a boxer who once killed a man in the ring and who wants revenge for the death of his son.  When they were young men, John and Jake were the original Rebels and now they’re getting the old gang back together again.  With the help of Laurie (Pam Grier), Rev. Dorsey (Paul Winfield), Bubba (Ron O’Neal), and Slick (Richard Roundtree), the original gangstas are going to take back the streets of Gary.

Original Gangstas was released at a time when, largely thanks to the influence of Quentin Tarantino, people were just starting to feel nostalgic for the old blaxploitation movies.  The main appeal of the film, not surprisingly, is that it brings together so many of the great blaxploitation stars and sets them loose in what was then the modern era.  (Jim Kelly is missed.)  When John and Jake talk about how they’re responsible for the Rebels, they could just as easily be talking about how they’re responsible for both all of the independent crime films that came out in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Original Gangstas is a tribute to both the Blaxploitation genre and the oversized personalities that made that era so memorable.  Neither Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, nor Richard Roundtree were particularly good actors but they all had so much screen presence and such an innate sense of cool that it didn’t matter whether they could convincingly show emotion or not.  (Original Gangstas gives all of the big dramatic scenes to Pam Grier, who was not only naturally cool but a damn good actress to boot.)  The minute Fred Williamson lights his cigar, he control the entire movie.  He and Jim Brown make a good team and Original Gangstas is an entertaining and violent trip down memory lane.

Any Given Sunday (1999, directed by Oliver Stone)


With Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone set out to make the ultimate football movie and he succeeded.

Any Given Sunday is not just the story of aging coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino).  It’s also the story of how third-string quarterback Willie Beamon (Jamie Foxx) allows celebrity to go to his head while the injured starter, Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid), deals with his own mortality and how, at 38, he is now over-the-hill.  It’s also about how the team doctors (represented by James Woods and Matthew Modine) are complicit in pushing the players beyond their limits and how the owners (Cameron Diaz) view those players as a commodity to be traded and toyed with.  It’s about how the Sharks represent their home city of Miami and how cynical columnists (John C. McGinley plays a character that is obviously meant to be Jim Rome) deliberately set out to inflame the anger of the team’s fans.  It’s about how politicians (Clifton Davis plays Miami’s mayor and asks everyone to “give me some love”) use professional sports to further their own corrupt careers while the often immature men who play the game are elevated into role models by the press.  It’s a film that compares football players to ancient gladiators while also showing how the game has become big business.  In typical Oliver Stone fashion, it tries to take on every aspect of football while also saying something about America as well.

In the role on Tony D, Pacino famously describes football as being “a game of inches” but you wouldn’t always know it from the way that Oliver Stone directs Any Given Sunday.  As a director, Stone has never been one to only gain an inch when he could instead grab an entire mile.  (Stone is probably the type of Madden player who attempts to have his quarterback go back and throw a hail mary on every single play.)  Tony tells his players to be methodical but Stone directs in a fashion that is sloppy, self-indulgent, and always entertaining to watch.  One minute, Al Pacino and Jim Brown are talking about how much the game has changed and the next minute, LL Cool J is doing cocaine off of a groupie’s breast while images of turn-of-the-century football players flash on the screen.  No sooner has Jamie Foxx delivered an impassioned speech about the lack of black coaches in the league then he’s suddenly starring in his own music video and singing about how “Steamin’ Willie Beamon” leaves all the ladies “creamin’.”  (It rhymes, that’s the important thing.)  When Tony invites Willie over to his house, scenes of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur are on TV.  Later in the movie, Heston shows up as the Commissioner and says, about Cameron Diaz, “she would eat her young.”

Any Given Sunday is Oliver Stone at both his best and his worst.  The script is overwritten and overstuffed with every possible sports cliché  but the football scenes are some of the most exciting that have ever been filmed.  Only Oliver Stone could get away with both opening the film with a quote from Vince Lombardi and then having a player literally lose an eye during the big game.  Stone himself appears in the commentator’s both, saying, “I think he may have hurt his eye,” while the doctor’s in the end zone scoop up the the torn out eyeball and put it into a plastic bag.  Only Stone could get away with Jamie Foxx vomiting on the field during every game and then making amazing plays while a combination of rap, heavy metal, and techno roars in the background.  Stone regulars like James Woods and John C. McGinely make valuable appearances and while Woods may be playing a villain, he’s the only person in the film willing to call out the coaches, the players, the owners, and the fans at home as being a bunch of hypocrites.  Stone’s direction is as hyper-kinetic as always but he still has no fear of stopping the action so that Foxx can see sepia-toned images of football’s past staring at him from the stands.  Stone directs like defensive lineman on steroids, barreling his way through every obstacle to take down his target.  No matter what, the game goes on.

Any Given Sunday is the ultimate football movie and more fun than the last ten super bowls combined.

Embracing the Melodrama Part III #4: The Grasshopper (dir by Jerry Paris)


“It’s very simple what I want to be: totally happy; totally different; and totally in love.”

— Christine Adams (Jacqueline Bisset) in The Grasshopper (1970)

Seriously, is Christine asking for too much?

Total happiness?  That may sound like a lot but trust me, it can be done.

Totally different?  That’s a little bit more challenging because, to be honest, you’re either different or you’re not.  If you have to make the effort to be different, then you definitely are not.

Totally in love?  Well, it depends on how you define love…

At the start of The Grasshopper, Christine thinks that she’s heading to America to find love.  While an oh-so late 60s/early 70s theme song plays in the background, Christine leaves her small hometown in Canada and she heads down to California.  She’s planning on meeting up with her boyfriend Eddie (Tim O’Kelly) and taking a job as a bank teller.

Of course, it soon turns out that working in a bank isn’t as exciting as Christine originally assumed.  Eddie expects Christine to just be a conventional girlfriend and that’s not what Christine is looking for. As well, it’s possible that Christine may have seen Targets, in which O’Kelly played an all-American boy who picks up a rifle and goes on a killing spree.

And so, Christine abandons Eddie and heads to Las Vegas.  Since this movie was made in 1970 and Uber didn’t exist back then, Christine’s preferred method of traveling is hitchhiking.  This gives her a chance to meet the usual collection of late 60s weirdos who always populate movies like this.  One driver crosses herself when Christine says that she plans to have a baby before getting married.  Another is a hacky Las Vegas comic.

In Vegas, Christine applies for a job as a showgirl.  As she explains to sleazy casino owner Jack Benton (Ed Flanders), she “once did Little Women in school.”

“Did you do it nude?” Jack replies.

Yep, that’s Vegas for you!  It’s the city of Showgirls, Casino, and Saved By The Bell: Wedding in Vegas, after all!

Anyway, thing do get better once Christine meets and falls in love with Tommy Marcott (Jim Brown), a former football player who is now working as a door greeter in Jack’s casino.  Everyone tells Christine not to get involved with Tommy.  One of Jack’s men, a menacing hitman who looks just like Johnny from Night of the Living Death (he even wears glasses), warns Christine to watch herself.

Through a long series of events, Christine ends up on her own again.  The usual collection of 70s events occur: murder, drugs, prostitution, and ultimately a stint as the mistress of a rich man played by Joseph Cotten.  The important thing is that it all eventually leads to Christine and a skywriter getting stoned, stealing a plane, and deciding to write a message in the sky.

That’s when this happens:

Yes, it’s all very 1970!

Anyway, The Grasshopper is one of those films that tries to have it both ways.  Establishment audiences could watch it and think, “Wow, those kids are really messed up.”  Counterculture audiences could watch it and say, “Old people are such hypocrites.”  Oddly enough, The Grasshopper was written by future director Garry Marshall and it’s an incredibly overwrought film.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the entire film and the film’s direction is flashy but empty.  However, for those of us who love history, it’s as close to 1970 as we’re going to get without hopping into a time machine.

That’s Blaxploitation! 11: Jim Brown in SLAUGHTER (AIP 1972)


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Jim Brown  is one bad mother… no wait, that’s Richard Roundtree as Shaft! Jim Brown is one bad dude as SLAUGHTER, a 1972 Blaxploitation revenge yarn chock full of action. Brown’s imposing physical presence dominates the film, and he doesn’t have to do much in the acting department, ’cause Shakespeare this ain’t – it’s a balls to the wall, slam-bang flick courtesy of action specialist Jack Starrett (RUN ANGEL RUN, CLEOPATRA JONES , RACE WITH THE DEVIL) that doesn’t let up until the last second, resulting in one of the genre’s best.

Ex-Green Beret Slaughter (no first name given) is determined to get the bad guys who blew up his dad’s car, with dad in it! Seems dear ol’ dad was mob connected and knew too much. Slaughter’s reckless abandon in seeking revenge lands him in hot water with Treasury agents, and he’s “persuaded” to assist them in taking down…

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A Movie A Day #156: Slaughter (1972, directed by Jack Starrett)


The Mafia just pissed off the wrong ex-Green Beret.

After his father is blown up by a car bomb, Captain Slaughter (Jim Brown) single handily wipes out the Cleveland mob.  Only one gangster, Dominic Hoffo (Rip Torn), escapes to South America.  The Treasury Department (represented by Cameron Mitchell) sends Slaughter and two other agents (Don Gordon and Marlene Clark) after Hoffo.  Along with being a ruthless gangster, Hoffo is a viscous racist and is convinced that he will be able to easily take care of Slaughter.  Hoffo does not understand how much trouble he’s in.  No one stops Slaughter.

Produced by American International Pictures, Slaughter is one of the classic blaxploitation films. While it may not have the political subtext of some of the best blaxploitation films, Slaughter is a fast and mean action film, directed in a no nonsense manner by B-movie veteran Jack Starrett.  There is not a wasted moment to be found in Slaughter.  It starts and ends with cars exploding and, in between, it doesn’t even stop to catch its breath.

In the 1970s, Richard Roundtree was John Shaft, Ron O’Neal was Superfly, Jim Kelly was Black Belt Jones, Fred Williamson was Black Caesar, and Jim Brown was Slaughter.  Whatever skills Jim Brown lacked as an actor, he made up for with sheer presence.  He commanded the screen.  Whether he was playing football on television or beating down the Mafia in the movies, no one could stop Jim Brown.  Slaughter is Brown at his toughest.  Rip Torn is the perfect villain, screaming out racial slurs even when Slaughter has him trapped in an overturned car.   Jim Brown has said that, of all the films he has made, Slaughter is one of his three favorites.  (The other two were The Dirty Dozen and Mars Attacks!)

Slaughter‘s cool factor is increased by the presence of Stella Stevens, playing the role of Ann, Hoffo’s mistress.  It only takes one night with Slaughter for Ann to switch sides.  Nothing stops Slaughter.

That’s Blaxploitation! 9: THREE THE HARD WAY (Allied Artists 1974)


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An All-Star Blaxploitation cast barrels their way through THREE THE HARD WAY, director Gordon Parks Jr.’s ultra-violent classic that dives into action from jump street and rarely lets up on the gas pedal straight through til the end. It’s the quintessential 70’s action flick whose thin plot only serves to weave a tapestry of wild action set pieces and well-staged stunt work courtesy of stunt coordinator Hal Needham and his stellar stunt gang.

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We’re lured into the action right from the get-go in a pre-credits scene of a desperate young black man escaping from a concentration-camp-like compound. He makes it to L.A. and contacts his friend, the BMW-driving, hot-shot record producer Jimmy Lait, played by NFL great Jim Brown . The kid is then assassinated in his hospital bed and Jimmy’s girl Wendy (Sheila Fraser) is kidnapped. A scene change lets us in on the plot, as white supremacist Monroe Feather and evil scientist…

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Film Review: The Split (1968, directed by Gordon Flemyng)


The Split2The Split is one of the many films to be based on one of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels.  A classic antihero, Parker was a ruthless professional criminal who was only partially redeemed by being so much better at his job than all the other lowlifes around him.  In the movies, Parker has been played by everyone from Lee Marvin to Robert Duvall to Mel Gibson to Jason Statham.  In The Split, Parker is renamed McClain and he is played by Jim Brown.

McClain and his partner, Gladys (Julie Harris), have a plan to rob the Los Angeles Coliseum during a football game.  (Actual footage of the Rams playing the Falcons was used.)  McClain personally recruits a crew of criminals to help him pull off the heist.  Harry Kifka (Jack Klugman) is the getaway driver.  Bert Clinger (Ernest Borgnine) is the muscle.  Marty Gough (Warren Oates) is the electronic expert.  Dave Negli (Donald Sutherland) is the sharpshooter.

After pulling off the robbery, McClain stashes the money with his ex-girlfriend, Ellie (Diahann Carroll).  When her landlord, Herb Sutro (James Whitmore), finds out that Ellie has the money, he murders her and steals it.  When homicide detective Walter Brill (Gene Hackman) solves Ellie’s murder, he kills Herb and takes the money for himself.  Meanwhile, Gladys and the crew are convinced that McClain knows where the money is.  With everyone out to kill him, McClain tries to find the money.

The Split is mostly interesting because of its cast.  For all of his physical presence, Jim Brown was never much of an actor but the large supporting cast more than makes up for his limitations.  It’s fun to watch Sutherland, Borgnine, Harris, and Klugman compete to see who can steal the most scenes.  Meanwhile, a youngish Gene Hackman is as cantankerous as ever.  Then there’s the great Warren Oates.  Warren Oates was one of the greatest actors of all time and he spent his far too brief career stealing movies like The Split.

(The Split was released a year after Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Sutherland had all appeared in The Dirty Dozen.  A year after The Split, Warren Oates and Ernest Borgnine would both be members of The Wild Bunch while Hackman and Brown would costar in Riot.)

The Split has some historical significance as the first film to ever be given an R rating.  Though tame by today’s standards, at the time of its release, The Split was considered to be extremely violent and audiences were also shocked by a brief flash of nudity.  Seen today, The Split is a conventional heist movie but it still shows what a group of good actors can do with so-so material.

The Split