That’s Blaxploitation! 12: COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (United Artists 1970)


cracked rear viewer


I’m not really sure if COTTON COMES TO HARLEM qualifies as a Blaxploitation film. Most genre experts point to Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG and/or Gordon Parks’s SHAFT , both released in 1971, as the films that kicked off the Blaxploitation Era. Yet this movie contains many of the Blaxploitation tropes to follow, and is based on the works of African-American writer Chester Himes.

Hardboiled author Chester Himes

Himes (1909-1984) began his writing career while doing a prison stretch for armed robbery. After his short stories started being published in Esquire, he was paroled in 1936, and soon met poet Langston Hughes, who helped him get established in the literary world. Reportedly, Himes worked for a time as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers in the 40’s, but was let go when a racist Jack Warner declared he “don’t want no n*ggers on this lot” (1). His first …

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Catching-Up With Two Courtroom Dramas: Suspect and 12 Angry Men


As a part of my continuing effort to get caught up with reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen this year, here’s two courtroom dramas that I recently caught on This TV.

  • Suspect
  • Released in 1987
  • Directed by Peter Yates
  • Starring Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, Fred Melamed, Bernie McInerney, Bill Cobbs, Richard Gant, Jim Walton, Michael Beach, Ralph Cosham, Djanet Sears 

Suspect is a hilariously dumb movie.  How dumb is it?  Let me count the ways.

First off, Cher plays a highly successful if rather stressed public defender.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that Cher is a bad actress or anything.  She’s actually pretty good when she’s playing Cher.  But, in this movie, she’s playing someone who managed to graduate from law school and pass the DC bar.

Secondly, Cher is assigned to defend a homeless man when he’s accused of murdering a clerk who works for the Justice Department.  The homeless man is deaf and mute, which isn’t funny.  What is funny is when he gets a shave and a shower and he’s magically revealed to be a rather handsome and fresh-faced Liam Neeson.  Liam doesn’t give a bad performance in the role.  In fact, he probably gives the best performance in the film.  But still, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s Liam Neeson and he basically looks like he just arrived for a weekend at Cannes.

Third, during the trial, one of the jurors (Dennis Quaid) decides to investigate the case on his own.  Cher even helps him do it, which is the type of thing that would get a real-life attorney disbarred.  However, I guess Cher thinks that it’s worth the risk.  I guess that’s the power of Dennis Quaid’s smile.

Fourth, the prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna and he gives such a good performance that you find yourself hoping that he wins the case.

Fifth, while it’s true that real-life attorneys are rarely as slick or well-dressed as they are portrayed in the movies, one would think that Cher would at least take off her leather jacket before cross-examining a witness.

Sixth, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the homeless man is innocent.  We know he’s innocent from the minute that we see he’s Liam Neeson.  Liam only kills who people deserve it.  The real murderer is revealed at the end of the film and it turns out to be the last person you would suspect, mostly because we haven’t been given any reason to suspect him.  The ending is less of a twist and more an extended middle finger to any viewer actually trying to solve the damn mystery.

I usually enjoy a good courtroom drama but bad courtroom dramas put me to sleep.  Guess which one Suspect was.

 

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Released 1997
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Mary McDonnell, Tyrees Allen, Douglas Spain

The 12 Angry Men are back!

Well, no, not actually.  This is a remake of the classic 1957 film and it was produced for Showtime.  It’s updated in that not all of the jurors are white and bigoted Juror #10 (Mykelti Williamson) is now a member of the Nation of Islam.  Otherwise, it’s the same script, with Juror #8 (Jack Lemmon) trying to convince the other jurors not to send a young man to Death Row while Juror #3 (George C. Scott) deals with his family issues.

I really wanted to like this production, as it had a strong cast and a strong director and it was a remake of one of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, the remake just didn’t work for me.  As good an actor as Jack Lemmon was, he just didn’t project the same moral authority as Henry Fonda did the original.  If Fonda seemed to be the voice of truth and integrity, Lemmon just came across like an old man who had too much time on his hands.  Without Fonda’s moral certitude, 12 Angry Men simply becomes a story about how 12 men acquitted a boy of murder because they assumed that a woman would be too vain to wear her glasses to court.  The brilliance of the original is that it keeps you from dwelling on the fact that the accused was probably guilty.  The remake, however, feels like almost an argument for abandoning the jury system.

Playing Catch-Up: Autumn in New York, Griffin & Phoenix, Harry & Son, The Life of David Gale


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Autumn in New York
  • Released: 2000
  • Directed by Joan Chen
  • Starring Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga, Sherry Stringfield, Jill Hennessy, J.K. Simmons, Sam Trammell, Mary Beth Hurt

Richard Gere is Will, a fabulously wealthy New Yorker, who has had many girlfriends but who has never been able to find the one.  He owns a restaurant and appears on the cover of New York Magazine.  He loves food because, according to him, “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.”

Winona Ryder is Charlotte, a hat designer who is always happy and cheerful and full of life.  She’s the type who dresses up like Emily Dickinson for Christmas and recites poetry to children, though you get the feeling that, if they ever somehow met in real life, Emily would probably get annoyed with Charlotte fairly quickly.  Actually, Charlotte might soon get to meet  Emily because she has one of those rare diseases that kills you in a year while still allowing you to look healthy and beautiful.

One night, Will and Charlotte meet and, together, they solve crimes!

No, actually, they fall in love.  This is one of those films where a young woman teaches an old man how to live again but then promptly dies so it’s not like he actually has to make a huge commitment or anything.  The film does, at least, acknowledge that Will is a lot older than Charlotte but it still doesn’t make it any less weird that Charlotte would want to spend her last year on Earth dealing with a self-centered, emotionally remote man who is old enough to be her father.  (To be honest, when it was revealed that Charlotte was the daughter of a woman who Will had previously dated, I was briefly worried that Autumn in New York was going to take an even stranger turn….)

On the positive side, the films features some pretty shots of New York and there is actually a pretty nice subplot, in which Will tries to connect with the daughter (Vera Farmiga) that he never knew he had.  Maybe if Farmiga and Ryder had switched roles, Autumn in New York would have worked out better.

  • Griffin & Phoenix
  • Released: 2006
  • Directed by Ed Stone
  • Starring Dermot Mulroney, Amanda Peet, Blair Brown, and Sarah Paulson

His name is Henry Griffin (Dermot Mulroney).

Her name is Sarah Phoenix (Amanda Peet).

Because they both have highly symbolic last names, we know that they’re meant to be together.

They both have cancer.  They’ve both been given a year to live.  Of course, they don’t realize that when they first meet and fall in love.  In fact, when Phoenix comes across several books that Griffin has purchased about dealing with being terminally ill, she assumes that Griffin bought them to try to fool her into falling in love with him.  Once they realize that they only have a year to be together, Griffin and Phoenix set out to make every moment count…

It’s a sweet-natured and unabashedly sentimental movie but, unfortunately, Dermot Mulroney and Amanda Peet have little romantic chemistry and the film is never quite as successful at inspiring tears as it should be.  When Mulroney finally allows himself to get mad and deals with his anger by vandalizing a bunch of cars, it’s not a cathartic moment.  Instead, you just find yourself wondering how Mulroney could so easily get away with destroying a stranger’s windshield in broad daylight.

  • Harry & Son
  • Released: 1986
  • Directed by Paul Newman
  • Starring Paul Newman, Robby Benson, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Judith Ivey, Ossie Davis, Morgan Freeman, Katherine Borowitz, Maury Chaykin, Joanne Woodward

Morgan Freeman makes an early film appearance in Harry & Son, though his role is a tiny one.  He plays a factory foreman named Siemanowski who, in quick order, gets angry with and then fires a new employee named Howard Keach (Robby Benson).  Howard is the son in Harry & Son and he’s such an annoying character that you’re happy when Freeman shows up and starts yelling at the little twit.  As I said, Freeman’s role is a small one.  Freeman’s only on screen for a few minutes.  But, in that time, he calls Howard an idiot and it’s hard not to feel that he has a point.

Of course, the problem is that we’re not supposed to view Howard as being an idiot.  Instead, we’re supposed to be on Howard’s side.  Howard has ambitions to be the next Ernest Hemingway.  However, his blue-collar father, Harry (Paul Newman, who also directed), demands that Howard get a job.  Maybe, like us, he realizes how silly Howard looks whenever he gets hunched over his typewriter.  (Robby Benson tries to pull off these “deep thought” facial expressions that simply have to be seen to be believed.)  There’s actually two problems with Howard.  First off, we never believe that he could possibly come up with anything worth reading.  Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Paul Newman could ever be the father of such an annoying little creep.

Harry, of course, has problems of his own.  He’s just lost his construction job.  He’s having to deal with the fact that he’s getting older.  Fortunately, his son introduces him to a nymphomaniac (Judith Ivey).  Eventually, it all ends with moments of triumph and tragedy, as these things often do.

As always, Newman is believable as a blue-collar guy who believes in hard work and cold beer.  The film actually gets off to a good start, with Newman using a wrecking ball to take down an old building.  But then Robby Benson shows up, hunched over that typewriter, and the film just becomes unbearable.  At least Morgan Freeman’s around to yell at the annoying little jerk.

  • The Life of David Gale
  • Released: 2003
  • Directed by Alan Parker
  • Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Matt Craven, Jim Beaver, Melissa McCarthy

For the record, while I won’t shed any tears whenever Dzhokahr Tsarnaev is finally executed, I’m against the death penalty.  I think that once we accept the idea that the state has the right to execute people, it becomes a lot easier to accept the idea that the state has the right to do a lot of other things.  Plus, there’s always the danger of innocent people being sent to die.  The Life of David Gale also claims to be against the death penalty but it’s so obnoxious and self-righteous that I doubt it changed anyone’s mind.

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) used to the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas.  He used to be a nationally renowned activist against the death penalty.  But then he was arrested for and convicted of the murder of another activist, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) and now David Gale is sitting on death row himself.  With his execution approaching, journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is convinced that Gale was framed and she finds herself racing against time to prevent Texas from executing an innocent man…

There’s a lot of things wrong with The Life of David Gale.  First off, it was made during the Bush administration, so the whole film is basically just a hate letter to the state of Texas.  Never have I heard so many inauthentic accents in one film.  Secondly, only in a truly bad movie, can someone have a name like Bitsey Bloom.  Third, the whole film ends with this big twist that makes absolutely no sense and which nearly inspired me to throw a shoe at the TV.

Of course, the main problem with the film is that we’re asked to sympathize with a character played by Kevin Spacey.  Even before Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sleazy perv, he was never a particularly sympathetic or really even that versatile of an actor.  (Both American Beauty and House of Cards tried to disguise this fact by surrounding him with cartoonish caricatures.)  Spacey’s so snarky and condescending as Gale that, even if he is innocent of murder, it’s hard not to feel that maybe David Gale should be executed for crimes against likability.

Halloween Havoc!: BUBBA HO-TEP (Vitagraph 2002)


cracked rear viewer

Don Coscarelli, the man who brought you the PHANTASM series, scores a bulls-eye with BUBBA HO-TEP, a totally unique film based on Joe R. Lansdale’s novella. Lansdale is well known to fans of horror fiction for his books and short stories in the filed as well as other genres (crime, westerns, even comic books). Coscarelli’s adaptation is a delightful blend of horror and humor, and a bittersweet reflection on aging, if not gracefully, then with courage.

Bruce Campbell (ASH VS EVIL DEAD) stars as Sebastian Haff, former Elvis impersonator who may or may not really be The King. He believes he is, and that’s what matters. He’s stuck in a Mud Creek, Texas rest home, confined to a walker and battling a weird growth on his pecker. People at the rest home are dying, as you’d expect in a place like this, but under some strange circumstances that’re causing Elvis…

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A Movie A Day #96: Gladiator (1992, directed by Rowdy Herrington)


What ever happened to James Marshall?

Whenever the subject of Twin Peaks comes up, that question gets asked a lot.  Marshall played the sensitive (and oft-ridiculed) motorcycle-riding rebel James Hurley on Twin Peaks and, after the show’s cancellation, he went on to play a key supporting role in A Few Good Men.  Marshall’s role may not have been huge but he managed to hold his own against actors like Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Kevin Bacon.

And then after A Few Good Men, nothing.

Why did James Marshall disappear?

He starred in a movie called Gladiator.

No, not the Russell Crowe movie that won all the Oscars.  This Gladiator is about Tommy Riley (played by James Marshall), a teenager who moves to Chicago from Massachusetts.  As one of the only white kids in his new neighborhood, Tommy finds himself being harassed by the local gangs.  One night, he gets into a fight in a parking lot.  (Fortunately, none of the neighborhood gangs carry guns or knives.  They settle everything with fists.)  Pappy Jack (Robert Loggia) is so impressed with Tommy’s fighting skills that he recruits Tommy to fight in illegal, underground boxing matches. Normally, Tommy would say no but he needs the money to help his father (John Heard) pay off his gambling debts.

Once recruited, Tommy is trained by the wise Noah (Ossie Davis) and works for boxing promoter, Jimmy Horn.  Horn is played by all-purpose bad guy Brian Dennehy, who gives such a villainous performance that even Lance Henriksen would say, “Dude, dial it down a notch.”  Tommy befriends two other boxers, Romano (Jon Seda) and Lincoln (Cuba Gooding, Jr.).  At the time that Gladiator was filmed, Marshall was hot off of Twin Peaks and Gooding was hot off of Boyz ‘n The Hood.  Fortunately, Gooding’s role is actually pretty small so he survived Gladiator and was able to go on to win an Oscar for Jerry Maguire and play O.J. Simpson in American Crime Story.  Marshall was less lucky.

At one time, I thought that no one could be a least convincing boxer than Damon Wayans was in The Great White Hype.  Then I watched Gladiator and saw James Marshall dancing around the ring and throwing punches.  Normally, good editing can be used to disguise a lack of athletic ability but both Marshall and Gooding are so miscast as boxers that all the editing in the world can’t help.  Jon Seda, who actually was an amateur boxer before getting into acting, is more convincing in the ring but his character is so saintly that anyone watching will know better than to get too attached to him.

A still notorious flop at the box office, Gladiator was directed by Rowdy Herrington but it’s no Roadhouse.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #55: The Tenth Level (dir by Charles S. Dubin)


10thlevelI first found out about the 1976 made-for-tv movie The Tenth Level while I was doing some research on the Milgram experiment.  The Milgram experiment was a psychological experiment that was conducted, under the direction of Prof. Stanley Milgram, in 1961.  Two test subjects were placed in two separate room.  One test subject was known as the “Learner” and he was hooked up to a machine that could deliver electric shocks.  The other subject was the “Teacher.”  His job was to ask the Lerner questions and, whenever the Learner gave an incorrect answer, the Teacher was supposed to correct the error by pushing a button and delivering the electric shock.  With each incorrect answer, the shock would get worse.

Of course, what the Teacher did not know was that the Lerner was an associate of Prof. Milgram’s and that pushing the button did not actually deliver a shock.  The Lerner would intentionally give wrong answers and, after the Teacher pushed each subsequent button, the Lerner would groan in pain and eventually beg the Teacher to stop.  The test was to see how long the Teacher would continue to push the buttons.

The study found that 65% of the Teachers, even when the Lerner stopped responding, continued to push the buttons until delivering the experiment’s final 450-volt shock.  It was a surprising result, one that is often cited as proof that ordinary people will do terrible things if they’re ordered to do so by an authority figure.

The Tenth Level is loosely based on the Milgram experiment.  Prof. Stephen Turner (William Shatner) is a psychology professor who conducts a similar experiment.  Turner claims that he’s looking for insight into the nature of blind obedience but some of his colleagues are skeptical.  His best friend (Ossie Davis) thinks that Turner is mostly trying to deal with the guilt of being a WASP who has never had to deal with discrimination.  His ex-wife, Barbara (Lynn Carlin), thinks that the experiment is cruel and could potentially traumatize anyone who takes part in it.  Turner, meanwhile, is fascinated by how random people react to being ordered to essentially murder someone.

Eventually, a good-natured carpenter/grad student, Dahlquist (Stephen Macht), volunteers.  At first, Turner refuses to allow Dahlquist to take part because he’s previously met Dahlquist and Dahlquist is a friend of one of Tuner’s assistants.  However, Dahlquist literally begs to be allowed to take part in the experiment and Turner relents.

Unfortunately, the pressure of administering shocks proves to be too much for Dahlquist and he has a 70s style freak-out, which essentially means that the screen changes colors and everything moves in slow motion as he smashes up the room.  As a result of Dalquist’s violent reaction, Turner is called before a disciplinary committee and basically put on trial.

The Tenth Level is an interesting film.  On the one hand, the subject matter is fascinating and, if nothing else, the film deserves some credit for trying to seriously explore the ethics of psychological experimentation.  On the other hand, this is a film from 1976 that features William Shatner giving numerous monologues about the nature of man.  And, let us not forget, this is William Shatner before he apparently developed a sense of humor about himself.  That means that, in this film, we get the Shatner that inspired a thousand impersonations.  We get the Shatner who speaks precisely and who enunciates every single syllable.  And let’s not forget that Shatner is paired up with Ossie Davis, an actor who was never exactly subtle himself.

The end result is a film that is both thought-provoking and undeniably silly.  This is a film that will make you think even while it inspires you to be totally snarky.

(Also of note, John Travolta supposedly makes his film debut in the Tenth Level.  Apparently, he plays a student.  I have yet to spot him.)

You can watch it below!

Review: Bubba Ho-Tep (dir. by Don Coscarelli)


Bubba Ho-Tep was one of those film projects which just screamed out “can’t lose” the moment it the people who were going to be attached to it were announced. I mean for people who grew up watching horror movies and other such fun things during the 80’s would know of the name Don Coscarelli. His Phantasm franchise scared and creeped out a large number of young kids and teenagers as they grew up during the 1980’s. Author Joe R. Landale is not as well-known for the unread but he also brings big smiles to people who also like their stories to be full of quirky humor, dry sarcastic wit in addition to pulp-style horror and thrills. But the major coup this film had which made all genre fans suddenly smile and grin like fools has to be hearing that genre-veteran and B-movie extraordinaire Bruce Campbell taking on the role of an aging Elvis Presley.

The movie was released in very limited screens in the summer of 2002. In fact, the movie really only got shown during the summer genre film festivals which dealt with genre movies like horror, sci-fi and other so-called low-brow genre projects which the more elitist film goers tend to shun. Luckily I wasn’t too elitist enough to be able to find Bubba Ho-Tep playing in the San Francisco Film Festival. To say that what I saw was pure cheesy fun would do the film a disservice. While it’s true that the film had it’s moment of horror, I mean it is a movie about a soul-sucking Egyptian Mummy let-loose in a Texas retirement home. What I was surprised to see as I watched through Bubba Ho-Tep was just how much more than a cheesy B-movie horror flick it turned out to be.

The film pretty much brings up the scenario of how it would be if the real Elvis Presley was still alive, in his 70’s and wasting away in a Texas retirement home. That the Elvis Presley who passed away sitting on a toilet at Graceland was actually an impostor who switched places with the real Elvis after the genuine article decided all the fame, groupies and excessiveness of being The King was just too much and wanted a break from it all. So, the real Elvis lost his chance to switch back with his double and thus ended up forgotten in a Texas retirement home where the employees and caregiver treat him like a child and don’t believe him when he tells them he is the real deal. To make matters worse he now has to deal with a cowboy hat and boots wearing Egyptian mummy whose sole source of nourishment are the souls of the old retirees who inhabit the retirement home. The way the mummy sucks the souls from its victims become a running joke within the film. Let’s just say it doesn’t try sucking the souls out through the old folks’ mouth or nose.

Bruce Campbell has always been a mainstay of the B-movie scene. His popularity as being “The Man” who has inhabited such iconic cult characters such as Ashley “Ash” Williams of Evil Dead fame has made him a well-known actor to genre fans everywhere. Campbell could’ve easily hammed it up in the role of the aging Elvis Presley in Bubba Ho-Tep. No one would’ve faulted him for such an over-the-top performance, but instead of going that route he instead plays the role with such an understated and subtle style which made the character more human and sympathetic. Campbell’s nuanced performance also turned a horror-comedy into something more sentimental and sad. Bubba Ho-Tep had turned into a horror-comedy which had a unique and sympathetic look at how the elderly have been treated and seen more as nuisances and less than human. It doesn’t help that their cries for help once the mummy targets them for feeding fall on deaf ears as those hired to help them consider their pleas as the senile ramblings of someone whose mental facilities have long left them.

Campbell’s performance as “The King” was supported quite well by the great, late Ossie Davis whose role as an elderly black man who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy brings new meaning to the film cliche: buddy movie. Davis’ character truly believes that he was and is President Kennedy who was turned black through some conspiracy by Lyndon B. Johnson to save his life. At first, we the audience are in on the joke but due to Davis’ wonderful performance we begin to believe that he may be right. If cowboy-attired Egyptian mummies and an aging Elvis look real why not him. The interplay between Campbell and Davis makes for some great acting and comedy. Without these two men the film would’ve been relegated to the direct-to-video level of filmmaking. Instead what we get is a wonderfully crafted film which despite its pedigree still became one of the better films of 2002.

Don Coscarelli does a fine job of balancing the scenes of comedy and horror with poignancy without ending up with a film that’s too maudlin for its own good. It’s a good sign that one of the 80’s master genre directors has found a nice project to show that he hasn’t lost the edge and skill when it comes to making genre movies. He has also shown with Bubba Ho-Tep that one can have a horror-comedy without drowning it in gore (which this movie had a surprisingly little of) and juvenile slapstick. Even joke sequences involving aging Elvis’ penis with it’s unidentifiable growth made for genuine laughs instead of laugh for laughs sake. The same goes for the double entendre from JFK involving his Ding Dong snack. I think with anyone else at the helm of this picture the movie would’ve fallen either too much into gorehound territory on one side or inane slapstick comedy on the other end.

In the end, Bubba Ho-Tep was one of those rare little genre gems which transcends its genre pedigree and beginnings without meaning to. Like I said with the convergence of Coscarelli, Lansdale, and Campbell making the project happen this was one little movie that was bound to not fail. I highly recommend this movie to anyone who hasn’t seen it. Despite it’s silly sounding title the movie is more than just the sum of its cover.