Monday, June 19, 2023

Junesploitation 2023 Day 19: Blaxploitation!



    THE BLACKENING (2023, theater).

    "The Flash" and "Elemental" are getting all the box office press/media attention this weekend (mostly negative for underperforming), but the real headline is that some way, somehow... Tim Story made a good movie??!! STOP THE PRESSES! :-O Yep, "The Blackening" is an honest-to-goodness entertaining and laugh-out loud horror comedy that's not a "Scary Movie"-type spoof (no out-of-thin-air parodies of "The Matrix" or random shit like The Wayans or Zucker/Proft) but a character-driven, social commentary-laden and proud-to-be-woke modern blaxploitation slasher. Simple premise too: seven young black friends from college who haven't seen each other in a decade get together at a married couple's isolated-in-the-mountains home, unaware by the time they get there their friends have already gone the way of Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps at the start of "Scream 2." ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ We get to spend time and get to know these guys, who are each likable and entertaining in their own ways (Jay Pharoah's Shawn and Dewayne Perkins are my boys) before the inevitable stalker-with-a-mask routine begins.

    From the moment King (Melvin Gregg) wants to go to the basement alone to investigate some noises and the rest of the group collectively say 'Eff that, we're all going down together' I knew this was my type of comedy. Early on Clifton (Jermaine Fowler, "Sorry To Bother You") steals scenes as the odd duck of the group, the socially awkward outcast that had no business being invited to the reunion. Halfway through the story Clifton outright steals the movie (his split-second straightening of King's crooked gun brought my packed screening into hysterics), but by the final act I was loving every character that was still around and dreading the prospect of losing anybody. The trailer (which I didn't see until after returning from my local AMC) gives away some of "The Blackening's" best jokes, so see it ASAP without spoilers. It's theatrical Junesploitation! heaven of the rarest kind, the smart-and-entertaining-with-a-social-message-that-doesn't-preach HIlarious type. ;-) 4.5 ZEBRA PICTURES ON THE WALL (out of 5).

    Robert Hartford-Davis' BLACK GUNN (1972, AMAZON PRIME).

    Columbia Pictures produced this helmed-by-British-filmmakers pic, so this one has production values (big explosion, stuntmen, buckets of the reddest 70's paint ever seen on squibs, no mics or boom shadows, etc.) missing from most blaxploitation flicks from this era. A group of black militants led by Vietnam Veteran Scott Gunn (Herbert Jefferson Jr.) scores some valuable info on local L.A. mobsters' bookie operations. Scott's brother (Jim Brown, R.I.P.), a prominent nightclub owner, is dragged into a mafia war both to protect his baby brother from a hired assassin ("Diamonds Are Forever's" Bruce Glover) and local capo-masquerading-as-a-used-car-dealer Capelli (Martin Landau, so good at being a racist a-hole you'd swear he's a real-life Trump supporter :-P). If you can stay awake through the many endless driving-to-places-and-talking scenes "Black Gunn" has a handful of standout scenes (mano-a-mano between Jim Brown and Bruce Glover in the latter's mom's apartment, an epic warehouse shoot-out, etc.), but it's mostly what you expect from an early 70's 'R' studio pic: meh. 'It's [barely] fine. 3 BERNIE CASEYS WEARING OUT-OF-CONTROL AFROS (out of 5).

  2. Sheba, Baby (1975)

    Private detective Sheba Shayne (Pam Grier) has come back home to Louisville from the big city of Chicago and she’s fighting back against the criminals out to ruin her father’s insurance business. Teaming up with her father’s partner — and her former lover — Brick Williams (Austin Stoker), she does exactly what she set out to do, even if the local cops warn her off and the thugs blow up her car.

    They can kill her dad, they can drag her in a speedboat but they can’t make her give in. This is the kind of movie where Pam Grier effortlessly chases bad guys on a jet ski and dispenses them with a spear gun. In short, everything you want, including Pam kicking at least one of the bad guys directly in the balls.

    David Sheldon and William Girdler sold this movie to Samuel Arkoff by telling him they already had a script done. Well, they didn’t. A day later, after selling the movie, they did.

    This was also the last movie that Girdler would make in Kentucky, now ready to move onward.

    As much as I like Girdler’s films, Jack Hill knew how to make Pam Grier movies. The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy and Foxy Brown really are a high bar to achieve, if you think about it.

  3. Bucktown (1975, dir. Arthur Marks)

    Duke (Fred Williamson) arrives in Buchanan, Georgia (a.k.a. Bucktown) to bury his brother, a club owner who was killed by corrupt cops. Duke falls for his brother's old flame Aretha (Pam Grier) and decides to stay in town and run the club he inherited, at least for a while. When the crooked redneck cops come calling, Duke asks his old friend Roy (Thalmus Rasulala) and his gang for help, but turns out Roy's gang have more ambitious plans for Bucktown.

    This was pretty great! The actors are the highlight here: Williamson, Grier, Rasulala, Tony King, and a young Carl Weathers (as a character called Hambone!) are all great. Plus the story contains a few pretty fun surprises, and the explosive finale is excellent.

  4. Coffy (1973, dir. Jack Hill)

    What can I say that hasn't already been said? Pam Grier is the GOAT.

    1. She really is, and I shouldn't have strayed away from her today.

  5. Cleopatra Jones (1973)

    Cleopatra Jones (Tamara Dobson) is a James Bond-style supermodel/international secret agent who fights drug dealers whenever she can find them. I really didn’t connect with this movie at all. There is no grit and no underdog attitude that I find so appealing in the genre’s best (and less than great) examples. The main character is stoic and perfect to the point of being boring, and it is left to the villains to lend the story any semblance of verve. Even though production values are high, the plot is so tired, the tone so bland, and fight scenes so lifeless that I found it hard to stay engaged. Like its eponymous heroine, the movie is slick and good-looking, but has very little personality.

    1. Definitely a slicker, more light-hearted version of blaxploitation. Part of the fun of the film for me is watching Shelley Winters put her all into an outrageous role.

    2. She's a standout, to be sure.

  6. TRANSFORMER 7 (2023, d. Steven Caple Jr.)
    First-time watch on the big screen, 6/10.
    I'm forcing this into today's category because of the soundtrack.
    Perhaps it's the five writers on this one, but it felt like too many signifiers & not enough substance. I'm an unapologetic fan of the series thus far. Giant robots from space? Sure! Clumsily injected social narratives take up individual character development time, & while I was glad this thing didn't hit 130 minutes, it felt like it could've gone longer considering the story on deck.
    The nostalgia cues felt like they couldn't have come from anyone who was poor in New York in the '90s. I certainly wasn't, but we weren't affluent & certain things were not so easy to have. While we have smartphones & gadgets present across the income spectrum these days, the discrepancy between medical bills & a Gameboy felt like one more "remember this" gimmick.
    For no valid reason, the tie-in at the end was one of my favorite parts.
    In any event, giant robots & animal robots fought over a glowing space rock so a big robot wouldn't eat the planet.

  7. New-to-me: COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970)
    Two black detectives fight corruption up and down Harlem. This movie is... great! I knew I was in good hands during the opening gunfight/car chase, which is genuinely exciting. The movie expertly mixes genres, jumping from action to comedy to romance, making it look easy. Also great to see Redd Foxx bringing it as the comic relief. This is a full evening's entertainment, as the saying goes.

    Old fave: THE TOY (1982)
    Directed by Richard Donner??? If you say so. I haven't seen this since I was a kid and it was on TV all the time. It's a whole other movie from today's eyes. Jackie Gleason plays a millionaire who hires a down-on-his-luck Richard Pryor to be a friend to his young son. Except there's all this talk about him "buying" Pryor as "a toy" for the kid. If this was biting satire about race and class, I can see this working. But no, this is a whimsical children's film full of Nickelodeon-style slapstick, and that just makes things weird. Pryor is always a likable presence on screen, even if no movie ever matched the energy of his standup work.

  8. HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973, dir. Larry Cohen)

    My initial plan was to watch something in my collection, but circumstances have forced me to stream. Of the first-time watch options that I do not already own, Hell Up In Harlem was the obvious choice. It has been on my watch list for a long time. It is an entertaining and lively gangster film, the sequel to Black Caesar, that alters the downbeat conclusion of the first film. The amount of action in this is one is much higher than the original. Larry “who needs a permit?” Cohen was as brazen in the sequel for shot stealing around New York City as the first one. There are plenty of gawking onlookers to be noticed in the shots.

  9. THE EDUCATION OF SONNY CARSON (1974, d. Michael Campus)
    First-time watch on VCI DVD, 8/10.
    Campus follows up THE MACK with this dark, sweaty autobiography of Carson. Three months in juvie introduced him to gang life & he follows it through. No fly clothes or groovy tunes, SONNY meshes more with the NEW JACK CITY wave of "urban" pictures. Rony Clayton is great in the lead & Steve James appears in the background a couple times. Some of the great dialogue in this flick is sampled at the beginning of Ghostface Killah's "Iron Maiden".

  10. The Black 6 (1973)

    After his younger brother is murdered by a biker gang, a man (with HIS biker friends) seek justice.

    After some crazy jumps in tone at the beginning (murder and then fun hijinks), we get a rather slow paced detective procedural and then an explosive ending.

  11. CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME (1975, d, Joseph Manduke)
    First-time watch on MGM DVD, 8/10.
    Another youth-oriented non-"traditional" blaxploitation flick. Little Larry Fishburne's just-graduated idol is killed accidentally & the police pressure the neighborhood out of testifying against them. Rosalind Cash is Fishburne's mom, Moses Gunn is a lawyer, Thalmus Rasulala (one of my favorite names in the biz, especially when spoken by Adolph Caesar in a trailer) wants to get some, Antonio Fargas is dressed as hoped for & Bernie Casey is a cop. Donald Byrd mixes funky with serious on the score, but that theme tune is addictive.

  12. Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975)

    Have you ever been on a train, and it wasn't the nicest train, the floors are dirty and the lights are flickering and the seat cushions are all torn, but just when you're 20 minutes from the destination, the train leaps off the tracks, does a backflip, and turns into a pterodactyl before landing at the station, have you ever been on a train like that?

    I'd heard this movie recommended here and on a few other sites/podcasts, but thankfully everyone had the generosity not to spoil anything. There's something about this movie that, even when the lack of production value is showing and the plot seems to be meandering and the performances are a little off kilter, it's somehow still very watchable. There's an underlying tension and a feeling that SOMETHING is going on behind the story that I think the movie exuded regardless of the vague allusions I'd heard about it. The movie's restraint is impressive, and the payoff is worthy of everyone's recommendations to go into it blind.

  13. Fred Williamson
    in the sequel to Black Caesar

    (1973) dir. Larry Cohen

    Raping racist murderer cops on the take. Taxis on the sidewalk. Smirking cold blooded killer maids. The special effect on the beach umbrella was awesomely bad. And the dead guy with the hot dog! Classic!

    “When’s the next flight to LA?”
    “In 5 minutes. American Airlines.
    But you’ll never make it.”

  14. Foxy Brown (1974, dir. Jack Hill).

    "That's too much chocolate for one man". Wow, I didn't realise these were made by Jack Hill. I hadn't delved into Pam Grier's filmography in past years, so I decided to do it now. Was not disappointed.

  15. Three the Hard Way - 1974, dir. Gordon Parks Jr.

    Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly all in the same movie? Hell yeah! When Brown’s main girl Wendy (Sheila Frazier) is kidnapped, he calls up his two pals to help find her and take down some fools. This might be the biggest influence on ‘Black Dynamite’ of any film in the genre, specifically the later half when we learn of an insidious plot by white supremacists to eradicate the black community with a genetically targeted chemical compound. Shit like this used to seem wild and outlandish. Considering the last several years though, I’m not convinced it is that far out from reality.

    Much like Parks’ prior masterpiece of this genre, ‘Superfly’, this film is rough around the edges but in a way that helps ground the stratospheric plot in a sense of realism. Our trio splits up to stop the goons in L.A., Detroit, and Washington D.C. before meeting back up to storm their headquarters in an explosive finale. The locations are all everyday places and the people seem average, which is a weird juxtaposition in a film where Williamson casually invites three biker gals to sexually interrogate a captive and Jim Brown flies a panel van full of weapons to the other side of the country in what seems like a smoke break. It was also interesting to see Brown actually take a bullet and then deal with it instead of just being Teflon coated through the whole picture.

    The gags are pretty fun as well. Jim Kelly refuses to use firearms, instead always opting for his trademark Kung fu skills, mop handles, chairs, etc., which sometimes bites him in the ass. The “master race” morons are consistently shown to be just that - chucklefucks who can’t tie their shoes. Also, exactly what did the topless Charlie’s Angels biker gals do to that guy that turned him into a crying mess on the floor? Guess we’ll never know but it seemed hot. Totally worth checking out if you’re a fan of the three stars and want some mindless action and shenanigans.

  16. COFFY (1973)
    This was another first time watch. I realized I was only really familiar with Pam Grier movies post-Jackie Brown, so I finally decided to remedy that. So glad I did because she and this movie kick ass! Can't wait to watch Foxy Brown next.

  17. Never saw it before, so it was the perfect time to do it.

    Shaft (1971)

    Very fun, great action scenes. And I love NY in movies, so having a whole lot of Harlem was awesome ! And that last action sequence was great, insane and gorgeous. If you havent seen it yet, looks like gonna have to watch it yourself... shitty !