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.

Under Siege (1986, directed by Roger Young)


Let’s say that you are the governor of Arkansas and, once again, your state is running out of money and will soon not be able to afford to pay its bills.  What do you do?

That was the problem facing Governor Bill Clinton in 1986.  His solution was to allow a big Hollywood production to come down to Little Rock and film someone throwing explosive devices at the state capitol.  The capitol building at Little Rock looks like a smaller version of the capitol building in Washington D.C.  The producers of Under Siege needed to shoot a scene where terrorists attempt to blow up Congress.  Even though the state capitol wasn’t actually blown up in the film, the dome did end up with extensive burn marks that were visible for years afterwards.  Many people in Arkansas were not amused that they had to allow a film crew to set their capitol on fire just to pay the bills.  Still, if Bill Clinton hadn’t agreed to blow up the state capitol building, Arkansas could have gone bankrupt and then he probably would have lost his reelection bid in 1986.  If Bill Clinton wasn’t reelected, he never would have been elected to the presidency in 1992, Hillary Clinton would never have been elected to the Senate in 2000 and, in 2016, the Democrats wouldn’t have been stuck with the only possible nominee who could have actually lost to Donald Trump.  When you look at it that way, Under Siege is one of the most significant films ever made.

As for the film, it’s a 3-hour, made-for-TV movie about what happens when Islamic extremism hits home.  Notorious terrorist Abu Ladeen (Thaao Penghlis) has managed to sneak into the United States and is hiding out in Detroit.  He directs a series of attacks on beloved American institutions.  Not only is the Capitol Building bombed but a mall is also attacked.  While President Maxwell Monroe (Hal Holbrook, who was born to play presidents) tries to keep America from falling apart, his hawkish advisers tell him that now is the time to launch a strike against Iran, despite Iran claiming to have nothing to do with the attacks.  Only the director of the FBI, John Garry (Peter Strauss), and the Secretary of Defense, Andrew Simon (Paul Winfield), argue that the president should exercise caution.  Garry is convinced that the attacks are the result of homegrown, domestic extremism and not an international conspiracy.  Garry is a very hands-on FBI director.  He’s the type of FBI director who will chase a terrorist down a street in Washington D.C.  Let’s see James Comey do that shit.

Under Siege probably seemed outlandish in 1986 but it seems prophetic today.  The film’s depiction of both terrorism and the government’s shady response to it turned out to be accurate.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a very good movie.  It was co-written by Bob Woodward of Watergate and Washington Post fame, so of course John Garry is righteous beyond belief and the solution to all of America’s problem begin with contacting a newspaper editor and blowing the whistle.  America may be under siege but a strongly-worded editorial is here to save the day.

Under Siege used to regularly show up on late night television and the DVD was popular overseas.  (In France, it was called Au Revoir, America.)  Not surprisingly, after 9-11, it vanished from circulation.  If you can find a copy, watch it and ask yourself, “Would I blow up my state capitol just to pay the bills?”

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sounder (dir by Martin Ritt)


The 1972 film Sounder follows the Morgans, a family of black sharecroppers living in 1930s Louisiana.

When we first see Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) and his young son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), they’re hunting.  Accompanying them is their loyal dog, Sounder.  As they hunt, two things become very obvious.  Number one, David Lee is a good father who is doing his best to provide for his family under the most difficult circumstances possible.  Number two, the family is desperately poor.  When Nathan finally gives in to temptation and steals a ham to feed his family, the local Sheriff (James Best) shows up at the farmhouse the next day and arrests him.  Nathan is taken away to prison and one of the deputies even shoots Sounder.

Fortunately, Sounder survives and so do the Morgans.  Under the stern but loving leadership of their mother, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), the Morgan children manage to bring in the season’s crops.  Unfortunately, having to work out in the fields doesn’t leave much time for David Lee to get an education.  When he does go to school, he and the other students listen as a middle-aged, white teacher reads to them from Huckleberry FInn.

After the wounded Sounder finally returns to the Morgan family and recovers from his wounds, David Lee decides that he wants to go to the prison and see his father.  Unfortunately, the sheriff refuses to even tell the family where Nathan has been incarcerated.  None of the white authority figures in town care that the Morgans are struggling or that they’ve managed to bring in the crops themselves.  None of them cares or seems to even understand that David Lee is missing his father.  The sheriff presents himself as being a reasonable man and is never heard to the use the n-word.  Instead, he and every other white person in town refers to David Lee as being “boy,” diminishing everything that he’s done since his father was arrested.

David Lee finally figures out the location of a prison that might (or might not) currently be housing his father.  It’s several miles away.  Accompanied by Sounder, David Lee sets out to make the long journey to the prison.  Along the way, he discovers another school and a far more empathetic teacher named Camille (Janet MacLachlan).  David Lee is forced to make a decision that will effect not only his future but also the future of his family.

Sounder is a heartfelt film.  It’s a film that’s less interested in telling a story with a traditional beginning and end as opposed to just sharing scenes of everyday life.  In this case, it’s the life of family that manages to survive despite it often seeming as if the entire world is arrayed against them.  The film was based on a book that pretty much centered around the dog.  The movie, on the other hand, is more about the family and, despite the fact that the film is still named after him, the dog is pretty much superfluous to the plot.  That said, Sounder still plays an important role because, just as Sounder survives being shot at and remains loyal to the people that he loves, the Morgans survive whatever adversity is tossed at them.  Watching the film, the viewer is very much aware that life is never going to be easy for the Morgans but, at the same time, it’s impossible not take some comfort in the fact that they have each other.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson both give strong performances as the resilient Nathan Lee and Rebecca and the entire film is the type of movie that’ll inspire tears even as it inspires happiness.

At the Oscars, Sounder was nominated for Best Picture, where it provided a gentle contrast to the other nominees, Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and The Godfather.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, making 1972 the first year in which black performers were nominated in both of the lead categories.  (It was also the first year in which more than one black actress was nominated for Best Actress as Tyson ended up competing with Lady Sings The Blues‘s Diana Ross.)  In the end, Tyson lost to Cabaret‘s Liza Minnelli while Winfield lost to The Godfather‘s Marlon Brando.  And, of course, The Godfather also went on to deservedly win the award for Best Picture.

A Movie A Day #325: Damnation Alley (1977, directed by Jack Smight)


Anyone who has seen Damnation Alley knows that the only thing that matters is the Landmaster.

Damnation Alley has a slight plot.  A nuclear war has knocked the Earth off of its axis.  The skies are green and purple.  The scorpions are huge and the cockroaches eat humans.  Crazed survivors are living like savages, attacking anyone that they come across.  When a radio signal seems to indicate that there might still be civilization in Albany, four military men (George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, and Kip Niven) decide to drive across the country to check it out.  To reach Albany, they will have to cross an inhospitable stretch of land called Damnation Alley.  They will be making the journey in two Landmasters, amphibious vehicles that provide RV comfort with the extra advantage of a rocket launcher.  Along the way, they fight scorpions, roaches, and pick up some extra passengers (Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley).

The radioactive sky looks cool but otherwise, the scorpions and the cockroaches are all obviously fake and no one in the cast makes any effort to do more than recite their lines.  But no one who has watched Damnation Alley cares about any of that.  We just want to drive a Landmaster.

There is nothing that the Landmaster cannot do.  It  can speed across desert sand.  It can tear up city streets.  It can break through walls.  It can turn into a boat.  It can fire missiles.  It also appears to be bigger on the inside than the outside, just like the TARDIS.  Either that or whoever did the set design for Damnation Alley was not detail-oriented.

Despite the awe-inspiring Landmaster, Damnation Alley was neither a critical nor a box office hit.  It was one of two science fiction films released by 20th Century Fox in 1977.  The other one was Star Wars, which was a good movie but didn’t have a Landmaster.

As for the Landmaster itself, it currently resides in California and has appeared in a handful of other movies.  Sadly, it missed out on the opportunity to appear in any of the Smoky and the Bandit movies.  Burt Reynolds driving a Landmaster?  That would have been box office gold.

Right, Burt?

A Movie A Day #300: Death Before Dishonor (1987, directed by Terry Leonard)


In a fictional Middle Eastern country, tough-as-nails Col. Halloran (Brian Keith) has been kidnapped by terrorists.  The leader of the terrorists is named Jihad and he is played by the No Mercy Man himself, Rockne Tarkington.  The American ambassador (Paul Winfield) is a weak-willed Carter appointee who says, “We have to go through proper channels.”  Gunnery Sgt. Burns (Fred Dryer) ain’t got no time for the proper channels.  All of his men have been killed.  His mentor has been kidnapped and is being tortured with a power drill.  Even if it means breaking all the rules, Sgt. Burns is going to rescue Halloran, defeat Jihad, and kill anyone who has ever chanted “Death to the U.S.A.”

Totally a product of the 80s and about as politically incorrect as they come, Death Before Dishoner was an attempt to turn former football player-turned-TV star Fred Dryer into a movie star.  It did not work, though Fred does his best Clint Eastwood impersonation, chugging beer and speaking exclusively in tough one-liners.  Death Before Dishonor is dumb but entertaining.  (It may have been made for New World Pictures but it’s a Cannon Film at heart.)  The movie’s highlight if Fred Dryer chasing the bad guys in a jeep, keeping one hand on the steering wheel while using the other hand to fire a bazooka.  A close second is Brian Keith barely flinching while taking a power drill to the back of the hand.  No one’s tougher than an 80s action hero!

A Movie A Day #235: Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977, directed by Robert Aldrich)


In Montana, four men have infiltrated and taken over a top-secret ICBM complex.  Three of the men, Hoxey (William Smith), Garvas (Burt Young), and Powell (Paul Winfield) are considered to be common criminals but their leader is something much different.  Until he was court-martialed and sentenced to a military prison, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) was a respected Air Force general.  He even designed the complex that he has now taken over.  Dell calls the White House and makes his demands known: he wants ten million dollars and for the President (Charles Durning) to go on television and read the contents of top secret dossier, one that reveals the real reason behind the war in Vietnam.  Dell also demands that the President surrender himself so that he can be used as a human shield while Dell and his men make their escape.

Until Dell made his demands known, the President did not even know of the dossier’s existence.  His cabinet (made up of distinguished and venerable character actors like Joseph Cotten and Melvyn Douglas) did and some of them are willing to sacrifice the President to keep that information from getting out.

Robert Aldrich specialized in insightful genre films and Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a typical example: aggressive, violent, sometimes crass, and unexpectedly intelligent.  At two hours and 30 minutes, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is overlong and Aldrich’s frequent use of split screens is sometimes distracting but Twilight’s Last Gleaming is still a thought-provoking film.  The large cast does a good job, with Lancaster and Durning as clear stand-outs.  I also liked Richard Widmark as a general with his own agenda and, of course, any movie that features Joseph Cotten is good in my book!  Best of all, Twilight’s Last Gleaming‘s theory about the reason why America stayed in Vietnam is entirely credible.

The Vietnam angle may be one of the reasons why Twilight’s Last Gleaming was one of the biggest flops of Aldrich’s career.  In 1977, audiences had a choice of thrilling to Star Wars, falling in love with Annie Hall, or watching a two and a half hour history lesson about Vietnam.  Not surprisingly, a nation that yearned for escape did just that and Twilight’s Last Gleaming flopped in America but found success in Europe.  Box office success or not, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is an intelligent political thriller that is ripe for rediscovery.

A Movie A Day #232: Tyson (1995, directed by Uli Edel)


If any heavyweight champion from the post-Ali era of boxing has lived a life that seems like it should be ready-made for the biopic treatment, it is “Iron Mike” Tyson.  In 1995, HBO stepped up to provide just such a film.

In an episodic fashion, Tyson tells the story of Mike Tyson’s rise and fall.  At the start of the movie, Tyson is a child trying to survive on the tough streets of Brooklyn.  The events that unfold should be familiar to any fight fan: Mike (played by Spawn himself, Michael Jai White) gets sent to reform school. Mike is taken under the wing of the legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato (George C. Scott). Mike becomes the youngest heavyweight champion, marries and divorces Robin Givens (Kristen Wilson), and eventually falls under the corrupting influence of the flamboyant Don King (Paul Winfield).  After failing to train properly for what should have been a routine fight, Tyson loses his title and subsequently, he is convicted of rape and sent to prison.

Tyson aired shortly after the real Mike was released from prison and announced his return to boxing.  Unfortunately, much of what Mike Tyson is best known for occurred after he was released from prison.  As a result, don’t watch Tyson to see Mike bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear.  Don’t watch it expecting to see Mike get his famous facial tattoo.  All of that happened after Tyson aired.  Instead, Tyson tells the story of the first half of Mike’s life in conventional biopic style.  There is even a montage of newspaper headlines.

The best thing about Tyson is the cast.  Even though the film does not delve too deeply into any aspect of Tyson’s life, all of the actors are well-chosen.  In some ways, Michael Jai White has an impossible role.  Tyson has such a famous persona that it had to be difficult to play him without slipping into mere impersonation but White does a good job of suggesting that there is more to Tyson than just his voice and his anger.  Scott and Winfield are both ideally cast as Tyson’s contrasting father figures, with Winfield especially digging into the Don King role.

HBO’s Tyson is a good starter if you do not know anything about Mike’s early career but the definitive Mike Tyson film remains James Toback’s documentary, which also happens to be titled Tyson.

A Movie A Day #191: Blue City (1986, directed by Michelle Manning)


Billy Turner (Judd Nelson) has always been the bad boy but now he just wants to return to his Florida hometown and reconnect with his estranged father.  As soon as he rolls into town, Billy gets into a bar brawl and is arrested.  The chief of police (Paul Winfield) informs Billy that his father has been murdered and that his stepmother has since married the local gangster, Perry Kerch (Scott Wilson).  Everyone knows that Perry murdered Billy’s father but no one can prove it.  He is told to get out-of-town but Billy’s not going out like that.  Instead, he gets together with his childhood friends, gimpy legged Joey (David Caruso) and Annie (Ally Sheedy), and seeks his revenge.

No, it’s not a picture of Judd Nelson hanging out with the a member of the Heaven’s Gate cult.  It’s the DVD cover for Blue City.

An infamous flop, Blue City was meant to show that the members of the infamous Brat Pack could play serious, adult roles.  Unfortunately, Blue City was released right at a time when everyone was starting to get sick of the Brat Pack.  (Even John Hughes had moved on, casting Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, instead of Anthony Michael Hall.)  After countless magazine covers and the monster success of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, a backlash was brewing and Blue City walked (or, in Joey’s case, limped) straight into it.

It also did not help the film’s prospects that it matched up the least interesting Brat Packer, Judd Nelson, with the member of the Brat Pack most likely to take herself too seriously, Ally Sheedy.  Playing roles that would have been played by Alan Ladd an Veronica Lake in the 40s, both Nelson and Sheedy are miscast and, strangely considering this was their third film together, have no chemistry.  Nelson, in particular, gives one of the most annoying performances in film history.  He never stops smirking, even when there is no reason for Billy Turner to be smirking.  With his wide-eyed stare and his attempts to speak like a tough guy, Nelson comes across like John Bender auditioning for West Side Story.  The scene where he manages to floor Tiny Lister with one punch is simply beyond belief.

When Judd Nelson can beat you up, there is only one thing left to do:

Thanks, Duke.

On a more positive note, David Caruso, long before he could usher in the Who by simply putting on his sunglasses, is better cast as Joey but there is nothing surprising about what eventually happens to him.  The best performance is from Scott Wilson, showing why he used to always play villains before reinventing himself as Herschel on The Walking Dead.  Wilson was so good that I realized, halfway through Blue City, that I actually would not have minded if he succeeded in killing Billy.

The most disappointing thing about Blue City is that it is a Florida noir from the 80s that somehow does not feature even a cameo appearance by Burt Reynolds.  Couldn’t Judd have taken just a few seconds during the filming of Shattered: If Your Kid’s On Drugs to convince Burt to drop by Blue City?

They could have used the help.

That’s Blaxploitation! 7: TROUBLE MAN (20th Century-Fox 1972)


cracked rear viewer

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One of the earliest Blaxploitaion films is TROUBLE MAN, a 1972 entry about Mr T…

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…no, not THAT Mr. T! THIS Mr. T…

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Thank you! This Mr. T is played by Robert Hooks, a tough talking private eye who drives a big-ass Lincoln Continental and “fixes troubles” on the mean streets of L.A. T gets hired by gangsters Chalky Price and Pete Cockrell to protect their crap games, which are getting ripped off by masked gunmen. Things go awry when Chalky shoots one of the heisters, a dude named Abby who works for rival gangster “Big”. Abby’s body is dumped and word is on the streets T did the killing. Police Capt. Joe Marx puts the heat on T, as does “Big”, so T arranges a late night summit between “Big”, Chalky, and Pete at Jimmy’s Pool Hall .  “Big” arrives, but before Chalky and Pete do, some cops raid the joint. These…

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4 Shots From 4 Films: Wes Craven Edition


Today is the birthday of one of the masters of horror. So, here’s wishing Wes Craven a happy birthday.

Now, go out there and check out his films. Here’s a four to try out. It’s got voodoo, a thing from the swamp, a street full of nightmares and, the one that started him off, the very last house on the left.

4 SHOTS FROM 4 FILMS

Swamp Thing (dir. by Wes Craven)

Swamp Thing (dir. by Wes Craven)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (dir. by Wes Craven)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (dir. by Wes Craven)

The Last House on the Left (dir. by Wes Craven)

The Last House on the Left (dir. by Wes Craven)