A Time To Die (1991, directed by Charles T. Kanganis)


Jackie (Traci Lords) is a single mom and a photographer who loses custody of her son when she’s framed for cocaine possession by a corrupt cop named Eddie Martin (Robert Miano).  Jackie is released from jail early, on the condition that she do 400 hours of community service.  Specifically, she is ordered to take pictures of the LAPD doing a good job and not killing people.  Captain Ralph Phibbs (Richard Roundtree) makes it very clear that she is to take only positive pictures of the LAPD or she could go back to jail and end up never seeing her son again.

However, even while doing community service, Jackie’s a rebel.  She decides to follow around Eddie and get pictures of him engaged in the same type of corruption that got her sent to prison.  Jackie manages to get Eddie on film murdering a pimp but, instead of going to the authorities, she wants to use the picture to blackmail Eddie into clearing her name.  Eddie, who has a cocaine problem, doesn’t respond well to being blackmailed and he decides to get the negatives and kill Jackie, not necessarily in that order.

While Eddie’s trying to kill Jackie, Frank (Jeff Conaway), another cop, is trying to maneuver his way into Jackie’s bed.  At first, Jackie doesn’t trust Frank because he’s a cop but then Frank takes her on a date to a domestic disturbance call and soon, she’s falling for him.  Frank, though, might not be as trustworthy as he seems.

This is one of the many direct-to-video thrillers in which Traci Lords appeared in the years immediately following her forced retirement from the adult film industry.  As was often the case with her 90s films, Lords is the best thing about A Time To Die.  In this film, Traci Lords again shows that she was a good actress.  Unfortunately, because of her past, she never got the type of roles that she really deserved.  In A Time To Die, she is believably tough and she makes the clunkiest dialogue credible.  Unfortunately, the other members of the cast don’t try anywhere near as hard as Lords does to bring some sort of reality to their stereotypical roles.  Conaway and Miano both sleepwalk through their roles while Richard Roundtree is reduced to getting mad and doing a lot of shouting.  Though the plot is sometimes predictable and it doesn’t take a psychic to know that Eddie is eventually going to go after Jackie’s son, the story is still interesting enough to hold your attention while your watching the movie.

A Time To Die is an occasionally interesting B-thriller that is elevated by the efforts of Traci Lords.

The Baron and the Kid (1984, directed by Gary Nelson)


Ever wonder what The Color of Money would have been like if it starred Johnny Cash and featured less Eric Clapton but more country and western on the soundtrack?  The Baron and the Kid is here to satisfy your curiosity.

Johnny Cash is Will Addington, better known as The Baron.  Back in the day, The Baron was the meanest and the most ruthless pool hustler around.  He’d cheat people out of their money without even giving it a second thought.  He drank.  He doped.  He womanized.  He abused his wife, Dee Dee (June Carter Cash).  After the Baron became the 9-ball world champion, Dee Dee left him and the Baron changed his ways.  Now, years later, he only plays exhibition games for charity and the strongest thing that he drinks is grapefruit juice.

When a young hustler who calls himself the Cajun Kid (Greg Webb) challenges the Baron to a game, the Baron wins easily but he still recognizes that the Kid has a natural talent.  When the Cajun Kid attempts to put up his mother’s wedding ring as stakes for another game, the Baron recognizes the ring as the one that Dee Dee used to wear on her finger.  After talking to Dee Dee, the Baron discovers that the Kid is actually his son.

The Baron takes the Kid under his wing, hoping to train him to become a champion while, at the same time, getting to know his son.  The Kid proves to be a difficult student.  He’s cocky and, like the Baron did in his youth, he has a temper.  He also has a manager, a good-for-nothing con artist named Jack Steamer (Darren McGavin).  Steamer doesn’t want to lose the money that the Kid brings in and he plots to to keep him away from his father.  The Baron, though, is determined to prevent the Kid from making the same mistakes that he made.  However, when the Baron and the Kid both find themselves competing in the same championship, the Baron finds himself being tempted by his old demons.

The Baron and the Kid is okay for a made-for-tv movie.  It’s predictable but Johnny Cash has such a formidable screen presence that it doesn’t matter that he was sometimes a stiff actor.  The Baron’s past of booze and drugs mirrors Cash’s own past and when Cash, as the Baron, talks about how he’s trying to keep the Kid from making the sames mistakes, there’s little doubt that he knows what he’s talking about.  Some of the pool sequences are creatively shot and Richard Roundtree has a great cameo as a cocaine dealer named Frosty.  There’s nothing surprising about The Baron and the Kid but fans of Cash and the game of pool should enjoy it.

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.

Film Review: Firehouse (1973, directed by Alex March)


Firefighter Shelly Forsythe (Richard Roundtree) has just been assigned to a new firehouse and, from the minute he shows up, it’s trouble.  Not only is he resented for taking the place of a popular (if now dead) firefighter but he’s also the first black to have ever been assigned to that firehouse.  Led by angry racist Skip Ryerson (Vince Edwards), the other firemen immediately distrust Forsythe and subject him to a grueling hazing.  However, Forsythe is determined to prove that he’s just as good as any white firefighter and refuses to be driven out.  While the firehouse simmers with racial tensions, a gang of arsonists is setting buildings on fire.

Firehouse does not have much of a plot but what little it does have, it deals with in a brisk 72 minutes.  Forsythe shows up for his first day.  Everyone hazes him.  Forsythe gets mad.  There’s a big fire.  And then the movie ends, without resolving much.  Ryerson is still a racist and Forsythe is still mad at almost everyone in the firehouse.  The characters are all paper thin and most of the fire fighting scenes are made up of grainy stock footage.  What does make the film interesting is the way that it handles the causal racism of almost every white character.  Ryerson, for instance, comes across as being an unrepentant racist but the film suggests that this is mostly due to him being too stubborn to change his ways and that Ryerson’s not that bad once you get to know him.  When Andrew Duggan’s fire chief instructs Forsythe not to take any of the constant racial remarks personally, Firehouse portrays it as if Duggan is giving good and reasonable advice.  The mentality was typical for 1973 but wouldn’t fly today.

One reason why Firehouse ends so abruptly is because it was a pilot for a television series.  At the time Firehouse aired, it had been only two years since Roundtree starred as John Shaft and NBC hoped that to recapture that magic on a weekly basis.  However, it would take another year before the Firehouse television series went into production and, by that time, Roundtree had left the project.  In fact, with the exception of Richard Jaeckel, no one who appeared in the pilot went on to appear in the short-lived TV series.

The DVD of Firehouse is infamous for featuring a picture of Fred Williamson on the cover, in which Williamson is smoking a cigar and wearing a fireman’s helmet.  Williamson does not appear anywhere in Firehouse and I can only imagine how many people have sat through Firehouse expecting to see a Fred Williamson blaxploitation film, just to discover that it was actually a Richard Roundtree television pilot.  Firehouse probably would have been better if it had starred Fred Williamson.  Roundtree’s good but sometimes, you just need The Hammer.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Q (dir by Larry Cohen)


This 1982 film from Larry Cohen is a strange one.

Q stands for Quetzalcoatl, a winged-serpent that was once worshiped by the Aztecs.  In New York someone has been performing ritual sacrifices, flaying victims of their skin.  As a result, Q has flown all the way to New York City and has taken residence in the Chrysler Building.  She’s also laid an egg, from which a baby Q will soon emerge.

Now, I’ve always heard that it’s next to impossible to surprise a New Yorker.  Apparently, living in New York City means that you’ve seen it all.  And that certainly seems to be the case with this film because no one in New York seems to notice that there’s a winged serpent flying over the city.  Somehow, Q manages to snatch up all sorts of people without anyone noticing.  When Q beheads a window washer, Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) aren’t particularly concerned by the fact that they can’t find the man’s head.  Shepard just shrugs and says the head will turn up eventually.

Q is really two films in one.  One of the films deals with a winged serpent flying over New York and killing people.  This film is a throwback to the old monster movies of the 50s and 60s, complete with some charmingly cheesy stop motion animation.  The film is silly but undeniably fun.  Director Cohen is both paying homage to and poking fun at the classic monster movies of the past and both Carradine and Roundtree gamely go through the motions as the two cops determined to take down a flying monster.

But then there’s also an entirely different film going on, a film that feels like it belongs in a totally different universe from the stop-motion monster and David Carradine.  This second film stars Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn, a cowardly but charming criminal who would rather be a jazz pianist.  Quinn may be a habitual lawbreaker but he always makes the point that he’s never carried a gun.  He does what he has to do to survive but he’s never intentionally hurt anyone.  In Quinn’s eyes, he’s a victim of a society that has no room for a free-thinker like him.

However, when Quinn stumbles across Q’s nest, he suddenly has an opportunity to make his mark.  As he explains it to the police, he’ll tell them where to find the serpent and her eggs.  But they’re going to have to pay him first….

In the role of Quinn, Michael Moriarty is a jittery marvel.  Whenever Moriarty is on screen, he literally grabs the film away from not only his co-stars but even his director and makes it his own.  Suddenly, Q is no longer a film about a monster flying over New York City.  Instead, Q becomes a portrait of an outsider determined to make the world acknowledge not only his existence but also his importance.  After spending his entire life on the fringes, Jimmy Quinn is suddenly the most important man in New York and he’s not going to let the moment pass without getting what he wants.  Thanks to Moriarty’s bravura, method-tinged performance, Jimmy Quinn becomes a fascinating character and Q becomes far more than just another monster movie.

It makes for a somewhat disjointed viewing experience but the film still works.  With its charmingly dated special effects and it’s surprisingly great central performance, Q is definitely a film that deserves to be better-known.

That’s Blaxpolitation! 12: SHAFT (MGM 1971)


cracked rear viewer

“That Shaft is a bad mother…”

“Shut your mouth!”

“But I’m talkin’ about Shaft”

“We can dig it!”

  • – lyrics from Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from SHAFT

1971’s SHAFT, starring Richard Roundtree as “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”, is the movie that kicked off the whole 70’s Blaxploitation phenomenon.  Sure, Mario Van Pebbles’ indie SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG was released three months earlier, but it’s X-rating kept younger audiences out of the theaters. SHAFT reached more people with it’s R rating, and the publicity machine of MGM behind it. In fact, John Shaft not only saved the day in the film, but helped save the financially strapped MGM from bankruptcy!

The opening sequence alone makes it worth watching, as the camera pans down the gritty mean streets of New York City (42nd Street, to be exact!) and that iconic funky theme song by Isaac…

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A Movie A Day #334: Charley One-Eye (1973, directed by Don Chaffey)


Welcome to the old west, where life is brutal and unpredictable.  Ben (Richard Roundtree) joined the Union Army so he could kill white men.  When his commanding officer caught Ben in bed with his wife, Ben was forced to commit murder and go on the run.  When Ben stumbles across an unnamed Indian (Roy Thinnes) with a bad leg, Ben forces the Indian to accompany him.  Despite Ben being loud, cruel, and mentally unstable, an unlikely friendship develops between Ben and the Indian, cemented by their mutual hatred of the white man.  When they find a deserted church, Ben and the Indian settle in and start to raise chickens.  The Indian’s favorite chicken is a one-eyed bird that he has named Charley.  Meanwhile, the Bounty Hunter (Nigel Davenport), a British racist, retraces their every step.

Richard Roundtree made Charley One-Eye after shooting to fame as John Shaft.  This film was his attempt to show that he was capable of playing more than just the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the ladies.  Ben is a world away from Shaft.  There’s nothing smooth or charming about Ben, who never stop laughing or talking about how much he wants to kill a white man.  (Though the character introduces himself as being named “Ben,” the end credits simply read, “The Black Man … Richard Roundtree.”) The Indian is also half-crazy and given to fits of laughter.  The Bounty Hunter never laughs.  Whenever these three aren’t talking, the sound of buzzing flies is heard.  Death and decay are all around.

Don Chaffey was a British director who best known for films like Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C.  Charley One-Eye was a strange departure for him and he would never make another film like it.  It has elements of the Blaxploitation genre and Spaghetti western fans will recognize Aldo Sambrell in the tiny role of a Mexican bandit.  But it is really neither blaxploitation nor a western.  It’s a slowly paced, sometimes boring character study of two outsiders.  Both Roundtree and Thinnes give good performances, though their characters are sometimes hard-to-take.  The only thing that makes Ben and the Indian tolerable is that their enemies, like the Bounty Hunter, are a hundred times worse.  There is a weird religious subtext running through the entire movie and the ending will leave you wondering whether the director of Jason and the Argonauts was actually calling for armed revolution.  Charley One-Eye is uneven and it goes on for at least thirty minutes too long but it is still an intriguingly strange movie.

One final note: Charley One-Eye was produced by none other than David Frost, the British media personality whose post-presidency interview with Richard Nixon was recreated in Frost/Nixon.

A Movie A Day #330: The Banker (1989, directed by William Webb)


It’s hard out here for a pimp and even worse for a banker.

Spaulding Osborne (Duncan Regehr) is a successful banker at the height of the 80s but handling all that money can be stressful.  Everyone needs a way to relax.  Osborne unwinds by painting his face like a tiger and murdering prostitutes with a laser sighted crossbow.  A worshipper of the ancient Gods, Osborne believes himself to be immortal and sees his murder spree as a way to collect souls.  Two pimps (Leif Garrett and Jeff Conaway) keep Osborne supplied with victims.  When Osborne suspects that one of the pimps has betrayed him, he demands that the pimp name all of the seven dwarves if he wants to live.  It pays to know your Disney.

What Osborne didn’t count on was that the chief of police (Richard Roundtree) would assign one of his weariest detectives, Dan (Robert Forster), to the case or that the detective’s TV reporter ex-wife (Shanna Reed) would get promoted to the anchor desk and start a crusade to have him captured.  Can Detective Dan capture Osborne before Osborne kills every prostitute in the city?  Will Dan be able to protect his ex-wife from the banker?

A film about a greedy banker who kills poor people on the side?  The Banker was released twenty years too early.  If it had been released in 2009, it probably would have an Oscar.  Instead, it was released straight-to-video in 1989 and exiled to late night Cinemax.  Unfortunately, the idea behind The Banker is more interesting than the execution, with most of the kills happening offscreen and any social commentary being rushed through so that the movie can get to the next nude scene.  Not surprisingly, the best thing about The Banker is Robert Forster, who is at his world-weary best.  Forster went through some tough times before Quentin Tarantino resurrected his career with Jackie Brown but movies like The Banker show that Forster never stopped giving good performances.

 

A Movie A Day #289: Night Visitor (1989, directed by Rupert Hitzig)


Billy Colton (Derek Rydall) is a teenager who has a reputation for exaggeration.  Lisa Grace (Shannon Tweed) is his next door neighbor, a high-priced prostitute who does not mind if Billy spies on her.  When Billy tries to tell everyone about his wild new neighbor, no one believes him.  Billy decides to prove his story by grabbing his camera and sneaking next door.  Instead of getting proof that she’s a prostitute, Billy witnesses his neighbor being murdered by a robed Satanist, who just happens to be Zachary Willard (Allen Garfield), Billy’s hated science teacher!  Billy goes to the police with his camera but Captain Crane (Richard Roundtree) points out that Billy forgot to take off the lens cap.

What can Billy do?  He knows that Zachary and his strange brother, Stanley (Michael J. Pollard), are sacrificing prostitutes to Satan but he can’t get anyone to believe him.  Working with his best friend (Teresa Van der Woude) and a burned out ex-cop (Elliott Gould), Billy sets out to stop the Willard Brothers.

Combine Rear Window with late 80s Satanic conspiracy theories and this is the result.  Not as bad as it sounds, Night Visitor is an unfairly obscure movie about Satanism in suburbia. While it has its share of dumb moments (like when Billy uses a watermelon to end a car chase), it also has enough good moments that suggest that Night Visitor is deliberately satirizing the excesses of the Satanic panic that, at the time of filming, was sweeping across the nation.  It also has a once in a lifetime cast.  Along with those already mentioned, keep an eye out for character actor extraordinaire Henry Gibson and future adult film star Teri Weigel.  Allen Garfield is especially good as the evil Mr. Willard.  Any actor can say, “I sacrifice you in the name of Satan.”  It takes a good actor like Allen Garfield to say it without making anyone laugh.

One final note: this movie was originally called Never Cry Devil, which is a much better title than Night Visitor.

A Movie A Day #125: Diamonds (1975, directed by Menahem Golan)


Originally, for today’s entry in Movie A Day, I was hoping to follow up my review of Mad Dog Coll by reviewing Hit The Dutchman.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a review-worthy copy of Hit The Dutchman so, instead, I am going to review another film that was directed by Menahem Golan, Diamonds.

Filmed and set in Golan’s home country of Israel, Diamonds is a heist film.  Richard Roundtree is Archie, an experienced thief who has just been released from prison.  Sally (Barbara Hershey, though she was known as Barbara Seagull when she made this movie) is Archie’s girlfriend.  Robert Shaw plays  Charles Hodgman, the businessman who recruits Roundtree to help him break into a vault located in the Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange Center.  The twist is that the vault was designed by Charles’s twin brother, Earl.  Earl is also played by Robert Shaw and the two of them have an intense sibling rivalry.  If you have ever wanted to see Robert Shaw fight himself in a karate match, Diamonds is the film to see!

(In true Golan fashion, Shaw wears a puffy wig whenever he is supposed to be Earl.)

If he had not died, in 1978, at the tragically young age of 51, Robert Shaw would probably be known as one of our greatest actors.  As it is, he will always be remembered for playing Quint in Jaws and Red Grant in From Russia With Love.  (I am also a fan of his performance in the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.)  Diamonds is typical of the many films in which Shaw was better than what he had to work with.  He gives two good performances but even he is occasionally overshadowed by the swaggering cool and floppy hats of Richard Roundtree.  As for Barbara Seagull/Hershey, she was, as always, beautiful but she had little to do (which was a common problem for her until she rebooted her career with her performance in The Stunt Man).  Shelley Winters is also in this movie, providing tepid comic relief as an American tourist.  (It’s typical of the type of roles in which, following her performance in The Poseidon Adventure, Winters got typecast.)

Barbara Hershey’s beautiful.  Richard Roundtree’s cool.  Robert Shaw is Robert Shaw.  The Israeli location distinguishes it from similar heist films.  The plot may be implausible and the dialogue may be weak but, just as he did with Get Carter, Roy Budd offers up a great score.  Diamonds is typical of many Golan films.  It’s not good but it is damn entertaining.