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Saturday, 1 August 2015

BRUCE LEE Part I: THE BIG BOSS (1971)

THE BIG BOSS (1971)

(Cantonese audio – 30th Anniversary Hong Kong Legends DVD)

On July 20th 1973, a death sent shock-waves through the worlds of cinema, martial arts and beyond. It was the tragic sudden death of Bruce Lee, who at only 32 years of age had already become the first global Asian superstar after just four completed films, only one of which had even been made by a Hollywood studio. Bruce would go on to provide an awe-inspiring legacy of influence to this day. He was a hero to an entire oriental culture who had no modern heroes. His life integrated the highbrow development of the spirit through eastern philosophy as well as popularising martial arts to the masses from western film stars such as pupils James Coburn and Steve McQueen to Miss Piggy, the Osmonds, comic books, music and more.  He has become one of the most famous and important role models in the world.

Lee Jun-Fan (his Cantonese birth name) was the son of Lee Hoi-chuen a famous Cantonese opera and film star in 1940. He was born in San Francisco but the family relocated to Hong Kong when he was a child. His name’s meaning of ‘Return again’ was given to him by his mother as she felt he would return to the States later in life. This he did, but not till the age of 18 after an eventful childhood. The circumstances of his leaving were controversial. Despite an extensive child film acting career of some note, he was by no means a pampered soft child, regularly getting into street fights which developed in him a life-long taste for such combat. In 1950s Hong Kong, thousands had fled to the island from the hideous communist oppression of the mainland. This created overcrowding, which on the streets led to territorial gang battles amongst the young. The result of one such street brawl in 1959 revealed to Bruce that he had beaten the son of a Hong Kong police officer. His father gave him $100 and suggested he lay low over in in America.

Once in Seattle, Bruce applied himself diligently both to philosophy studies (where he met his wife Linda) and martial arts, setting up his own school to teach and construct his own ‘style without style’. He believed the individual’s honest expression of the human body was what counted and so Jeet Kune Do (the Way of the intercepting Fist) was born.  In 1964, his jaw-dropping demonstrations of two-finger press-ups and stunning one-inch and six-inch punches at a public event got him noticed by William Dozier, producer of BATMAN and THE GREEN HORNET TV shows.
Soon after, Bruce found himself on U.S. TV playing Kato, sidekick of the latter character between 1966-67. Despite the western profile this accorded him, Bruce became dissatisfied with the limited portrayal it offered for his race and left the series. After a more truthful guest-starring martial arts role in the series LONGSTREET, he took a hard look at how to continue representing himself on screen. James Coburn advised him to forget TV as it would ‘eat up his talent’. He took the brave step of returning to Hong Kong.

Back in his youthful environment, Bruce soon struck up a profitable partnership with the producer Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest films. Here he would begin his ascendancy as a film actor in 1971 with THE BIG BOSS, a very low-budget (under $100,000) take with an incomplete script and a restrictive director Lo Wei.  Bruce plays Cheng Chao-An, a migrant Chinese mainlander who seeks work in Bangkok via his family. He soon uncovers a plot at the ice factory involving the trafficking of heroin within the ice blocks and despite a promise of pacificm made to his elderly mother back home, he must fight to protect the workers and revenge his cousins murdered by the gangster business owners.

On the downside, it’s a rough movie debut to be sure and has some laughable plot flaws. Why does the oily diplomat of a manager bother to successfully bribe two of the workers to forget seeing the drug packages, only to immediately have his thugs bump them off outside? Also, the scene where Cheng sees for himself what’s inside the ice is hilarious ; aside from heroin bags, he spots glaringly impossible-to-disguise corpses stored within the blocks as well. Hardly effective secret business.
The other weakness is that THE BIG BOSS is half over before we get to see Bruce in action, when Cheng is forced to take action to defend his people against the boss’s evil minions. Until then, we have to watch him play passive and sweet with an assortment of embarrassed grins and grimaces of coiled frustration. But the action is worth waiting for. Bruce’s elastic physique, kicks and punches deliver mightily in wide shots without trick effects or annoying quick cuts. The three fight scenes he has are a great introduction to his technique for fans and show utter commitment to athleticism and purpose.

In the ending, a philosophical theme is shown here that will also become familiar through his films. As he kneels by the boss’s body, drenched in blood from the carnage, the police turn up. The female cousin looks longingly on, trying to help but Bruce allows the cops to take him; he knows that all violence has consequences. A price must be paid for the taking of life, no matter how righteous it may seem (or how cool it looks).

As his character is calmly led away in a long shot, Bruce Lee’s movie career was about to explode with unprecedented consequences of a far more positive kind…

Friday, 31 July 2015

THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)

THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)

Back in 1983 I was first introduced to this film like many Brits by the Medved brothers’ TV series THE WORST OF HOLLYWOOD showcasing some of the celluloid stinkers of the past. However, they may have been unfair to this 1972 AIP release as it’s too consistently and inappropriately funny to be anything other than intentional spoofery! The dialogue alone is priceless and even when meant to be serious compounds the hilarity, so I’ll be joyously quoting it at length here (and giving them the benefit of the doubt intention-wise). Admittedly there are elements that are just plain wrong but we’ll get to those as well.
THE THING WITH TWO HEADS is a Blaxploitation companion piece to the seemingly more serious AIP horror exploiter THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT (1971) wherein Bruce Dern as the scientist grafts a murderer’s head onto a large, child-minded adult with predictably catastrophic results. 

Here, the tone initially appears straight. Re-invigorated horror genre star Ray Milland plays Dr Kershner, ‘one of the foremost transplant specialists in the world’, a paraplegic scientist with a bitter racist streak. This is clearly signposted early on as he tries to fire his new young black staff surgeon Dr Fred Williams (Don Marshall) under a pretence of budgetary cuts. His sneer of racist disgust is accentuated by condescending Fred with faint praise as a mere ‘lab man’.
Clandestinely, Dr Kershner is experimenting in the field of head transplants and has already grafted a second bonce onto an adult gorilla. The evident ‘guy in a monkey suit’ soon makes a break for it and in lieu of strangling his agent ransacks a mini-mart till he’s cornered, both heads enjoying a banana each.

Kershner’s colleague is Dr Desmond, amusingly portrayed here by Roger Perry, a man whose gift for science is rivalled only by his talent for understatement. On understanding the near immortality offered by such transplants on humans he mutters “This could revolutionise the whole profession”.
Of course the deranged Dr Kershner wants to use the technology for his own head to be given new life atop an uninjured body: ‘Perhaps someone with an inoperable brain condition’. In ‘70s exploitation cinema, that’s a broad field of opportunity. His inhuman selfishness extends to demanding the operation be carried out in secret to avoid public ‘scrutiny’. A prison is contacted and a hilarious speech by an officer over the tannoy invites a volunteer to come forward from Death Row - with the comforting thought that should the operation be fatal they would have the ‘personal satisfaction that your life has aided humanity and the scientific world’. (Maybe medical altruism is the last thing on a condemned man’s mind?)

A wrongly-convicted hulking black man Jack Moss (former pro football player Rosey Grier) is about to be given the electric chair. Another possibly unintended laugh is the officer who prefaces the juice with ‘More power to you, brother’. Jack’s reaction is understandably non-plussed. He’s about to get a very unnatural dose of said power coursing through his body. With nothing to lose, he decides to go for the experiment and before long we cut to the operating theatre.
Leaving aside the queasy unintended(?) racism of going from a gorilla to a large black human subject, the operation is a success. Curiously, in the sequence where Kershner’s severed head is moved across, it looks more convincing in close-up than in a wide shot. The one fly in the ointment is that on waking, Dr Desmond has to break the news to Kershner that he’s now sharing a body with a member of his racial enemy.  On seeing his big meaty arm raise up, Milland comically responds: ‘‘Is this some kind of a joke?’

The premise is now set for Jack to go on the run to prove his innocence of the original crime attached to the unwilling and appalled (at times crap papier-mache) head of Kershner who continually schemes to hijack the whole body for himself. This conflict echoes the serious intent of the Curtis/Poitier film The DEFIANT ONES (1958) where a bigoted white and a black prisoner are grudgingly forced into racial harmony by being shackled together through a prison break and beyond. Here though it’s played for preposterous fun, including a wild cross-country car-chase on motorcycle (with Fred on the back) versus a redneck set of Keystone Kops police cars. Amongst the carnage, the police ham-string themselves. “What kind of assistance do you require?” asks the base of one of its’ vehicles after a crash.
“Well, a tow-truck would be nice” groans the defeated driver.

Along the way, AIP also pulls off a well-used exploitation trick of theirs by inserting all-too-obvious stock footage from a desert scramble bike event into our unlikely heroes’ chase
Eventually, the three (ish) wind up using Jack’s girlfriend’s pad as a hideout. She could also use some acting classes as her underplaying is surely not meant to be so bad.  On seeing her escaped lover sharing his body with a white-man’s head for the first time: ‘You get into more shit…’, she dead-pans. Her mind swiftly computes side-benefits though. “Do you have two of anything else?” Later, in a private moment with Fred, she also demonstrates the same gift for understatement as Dr Desmond, defending Jack’s innocence: “He certainly doesn’t deserve what he’s getting”

Kershner’s lack of principles as well as his bigotry knows no bounds. He secretly attempts to persuade Fred to help him amputate Jack’s head in return for claiming all the medical credit from Desmond as the original operating surgeon.  No dice.  At one point elsewhere, unbeknownst Desmond defends his unscrupulous boss with a hugely funny throwaway mumble of back-story: ‘He’s not had an easy life…Even his childhood’.

If the evidence so far isn’t enough to convince you of the film’s deliberate parodying, listen to the car radio newscastor who plays an interview with the failed police officer from the chase; ““I’ll get ‘im. I’ll get the b-“ before being cut off.

Finally, Fred does the decent thing and removes Kershner’s head. It is left at his house awaiting Desmond plaintively: “Philip. Get me another body please.” We are left with the joyful trio of Fred, Jackie and his girlfriend driving off singing ‘Oh Happy Day’


THE THING WITH TWO HEADS is a two-headed, wrong-headed pleasure…

Thursday, 30 July 2015

ACROSS 110TH STREET (1972)

ACROSS 110TH STREET (1972)

A brutal, high-energy urban crime drama that in many ways hits the marks SHAFT failed to do. 

ACROSS 110TH STREET concerns the theft of $300,000 of mafia money by three black men and the street war that breaks out in pursuit and revenge for it in New York by the sadistically zealous Anthony Franciosa. Caught in the crossfire is the thrown-together caustic relationship between a buttoned down by-the-book policeman Yaphet Kotto and the racist, quick-tempered older officer Anthony Quinn. Both are excellent contrasts. Kotto is self-contained and under control while Quinn impulsively talks with his fists to suspects and roars with paranoid frustration at the knowledge he is on borrowed time in an ageist force. The theme of age is mentioned a number of times on both sides of the fence; characters’ ages and consequent vulnerabilities are referenced in their flinty duologues.

Paul Benjamin is also terrific as the nervy junkie of the three thieves who makes it all the way to the final rooftop stand-off with the police. Genre stalwart Antonio Fargas gives flamboyant value for money in his familiar role as a pimp with the sartorial flair to sport an impressive harlequin coat that the Pied Piper would envy. This may partly be what gets him beaten to a pulp by Franciosa later on.
Bobby Womack provides a great score, including the title song (an even better version of which is homage as the opening theme of Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN).

What impresses most about ACROSS 110TH STREET is its commitment, being full of energised, motivated performances by the whole cast who really inhabit their roles with gusto and high stakes.  Time feels like money and the leisurely cool-cat strutting of John Shaft wouldn’t last five minutes on these deadly streets. There is also no shying away from violence, no coy disguising of the visceral effects of beatings on suspects and stoolies in the film. Machine-gunned mobsters are satisfyingly peppered with garish blood-squibs rather than misleading bloodless cut-aways. Franciosa at one point dangles an informant from a skyscraper girder and even when possessed of the information still allows him to fall to his death.  

The shocking slo-mo downbeat ending, so characteristic of the early 1970s, also offers no sugar-coated typical Hollywood happy ending. Tragically, not all partnerships have time to develop in a war zone.

‘A helluva tester’ are the mean streets in the title song’s lyrics, but this hard as nails crime movie is a tough bad-ass pleasure.


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973)

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973)

Following the success of the first BLACULA film, AIP were confident in producing a sequel the next year and managed to inject some {ahem} fresh blood into the formula in a number of ways.
Keeping the continuity of the classy lead actor William Marshall as the urbane Mamuwalde, this time the same writing team of Koenig and Torres add something new to the plot and also greater humorous flavour (or flava?) to the dialogue. Firstly, the added exoticism here of voodoo mythology became almost a sub-genre itself within Blaxploitation horror, used the same year in the Blax-inspired Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE and in 1974 with ABBY and (ZOMBIES OF) SUGAR HILL.

The vampire master is resurrected by Willis (Richard Lawson, having a whale of a time) who believes he can have Blacula serve him. The poor deluded cat is soon disabused via the medium of fangs and on being sucked into vampirism himself is depressed at his inability to preen at his now-absent reflection: “I don’t mind bein’ a vampire and all dat shit, but this ain’t hip!”

Later, as Blacula elegantly prowls the city, after a dodgy bat/human optical transmutation, there is more inventive fish-out-of-water cultural comedy mined when he is perplexed by the availability of a modern hooker offering her services on the street. His old-world breeding is lost for how to respond to such a direct offer of female sexuality.  When along roll her pimps teasing: “Don’t you dig our merchandise?” they attempt to mug him. He gracefully deflects their threats of violence with “As for ‘kicking my ass’ I strongly recommend you give it some consideration before trying” – and promptly makes nourishing use of them.

Another cast member who clearly has fun with his lines is the weary but heroic Michael Conrad as Lt Dunlop (later to find fame as Sgt ‘Hey, let’s be careful out there’ Esterhas in HILL STREET BLUES). He crosses wits with ex-cop Justin Carter (Don Mitchell) before helping him to raid the Mamuwalde house in the vampire battle.  Fans of the TV series SOAP and ROOTS will also recognise the lovely Lynne Moody as Denny.

Pam Grier is another welcome sight in the movie, although as voodoo devotee Lisa Fortier she seems a little awkward, possibly finding it difficult to essay a more subservient type than the strong action heroine she plays in other Blaxploitation vehicles. Either way, she gets to perform the all-important dispatching of Blacula at the end, stabbing pins into a voodoo doll till he expires staring up at the heavens.


Overall, SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM is a fun fresh sequel – however if the franchise continued I could imagine it suffering from the same flaw as the later Christopher Lee DRACULA instalments; namely that as the supporting parts grow in interest, William Marshall may well have become increasingly marginalised to virtual guest-star status. The studio closed the coffin lid before the entertainment turned to a bloodless husk...

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

BLACULA (1972)

BLACULA (1972)

As Blaxploitation proved itself a commercial field for box-office appeal, studios looked at expanding the urban crime stories by mixing in aspects of other trendy genres. BLACULA, made by AIP, was the first of the horror cycle and despite its name is surprisingly good.

Part of its success is the casting of the debonair, urbane Shakespearian actor William Marshall whose deep cultured tones lend a welcome gravitas to the central role of African Prince Mamuwalde. In a 1780 prologue at Castle Dracula in Transylvania, the Prince attempts to persuade the Count to release his people from slavery (a brief nod to history). His insolence is rewarded by Dracula biting him into fanged immortality, cursing his people for ever and murdering his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee). These scenes are shot with care and the rich colours that fit right into the Hammer style. Already we feel that this is not a silly cash-in but a commendably straight-faced horror film.

From here we shift to the present day where a pair of cringe-inducing gay stereotyped decorators buy the property and ship Mamuwalde’s coffin to Los Angeles. The stage is set for Mamulwalde  (called ‘the black avenger’ in the trailer) to rise again, suck the blood from the modern urban world and seduce whom he believes is his lost love in the lookalike form of Tina (McGee again). These beats are well-played for their sincerity and also the romanticism of the noble reunited after centuries with his eternal love).  Along the way, he attracts a hunting nemesis in police pathologist Dr Gordon Thomas, a solidly Shaft-esque hero, Thalmus Rasalala and his partner Peters (Gordon Pinsent).  He is aided by a pleasing cameo from Elisha Cook as the morgue attendant.

After converting a bevy of victims to vampiric servitude, Mamuwalde is tracked down to a warehouse. Here the nest of vampires descend on the police in a satisfying Fulci-style zombie attack-wave. Tina is shot by the police in the melee and Mamuwalde has no choice but to tragically save her by turning her to a vampire. When she is staked by Peters, the Prince of Darkness is so consumed by loss that he commits suicide by fatally baring his body to the searing sunlight on the roof .  I can’t think of another vampire film where the central ‘Dracula’ figure takes his own life in the climax, so this ranks for me as another gratifying surprise to add to the movie being the first depiction of a black vampire on screen. 

BLACULA is played as a straight-forward horror movie avoiding almost all of the camp absurdity or spoofery you might expect from the premise and proved successful enough (grossing over $1m) for the sequel SCREAM, BLACULA SCREAM the next year.  It’s lively, nicely paced and has the bonus of funky live club performances by The Hues Corporation amidst the refreshing soul score rather than traditional classical horror orchestration. Undead and uncommon fun.


Monday, 27 July 2015

SHAFT (1971)

SHAFT (1971)
‘Who’s the black private eye who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?’
‘SHAFT!’

Once Hollywood studios understood the box-office potential for films depicting the African-American experience, due in part to SWEET SWEETBACK’s huge earnings, they began to make movies specifically for a black audience. SHAFT was originally developed for a white cast and was quickly adapted to tap into this exciting new market. The studio desperately needed a hit after a string of almost crippling failures. Enter Richard Rowntree as the personable cool-cat private dick John Shaft.

From the opening, with Scientology’s Mr Cool Isaac Hayes’ emblematic theme pulsing, we are shown Shaft rolling through New York City like he own the streets. He gives the finger to a reckless motorist and effortlessly deflects the quizzing from the local precinct cops who he’s all too familiar with.

Soon though, the anticipation of the sassy trouble we could thrill to turns into a disengaged restlessness. SHAFT is a plodding procedural that drags like a gimp leg. His aggressive attitude towards ‘the man’ and the strong-arm criminal black brothers promises fireworks but the action is way too sparse and the plot is unengaging. A threatened turf war between black gangsters and the mafia for control of the city sounds like cool exploitation – except that it’s limited to exposition dialogue. Shaft’s police pal Vic warns him: “Could be we’d have tanks and troops on Broadway if this thing breaks out!” If only. Hell, I’d settle for at least one good shootout to keep me going. Instead, we are treated to slow gradual unfolding of the usual clich├ęs. Shaft pays for information from an informant (Antonio ‘Huggy Bear’ Fargas) and a bar pick-up of a female companion.

This leads to another of the problems with the movie. Progressive as it may be for black male actors, SHAFT does ‘jack shit’ for female representation. After a brief moment of social commentary when our hero tosses off a cool throw-away about his problems to his girlfriend (“Yeah, I got a couple of ‘em. I was born black and I was born poor”), you realise that’s probably the only moment of disarming non-sexual engagement he has with a female character. He’s irresistible to the ladies - ebony and ivory alike, but it ain’t so clear why. In the theme lyrics he’s described as ‘a complicated man’ to give him a sexy mystique yet he’s anything but complex. The women in his life are treated like hi-fi systems; convenient one-dimensional sources of pleasure to be turned on, enjoyed and then discarded when he leaves without any interest in them. Surely the writer Ernest Tidyman and director Gordon Parks had the screen time to given them some personality without eclipsing the all-important ‘love machine’ at the story’s centre? Even the waitress he doesn’t shag who serves him in a restaurant is dismissed as a vacant disengaged airhead. Bring on Pam Grier and the other personable women in the genre. Their energy is sorely missing here.

At last, the pace picks up fleetingly at the end with the iconic sequence where Shaft smashes Tarzan-style through a window and blasts the hood who’s holding a mobster’s innocent daughter hostage – but it’s all too late. By then, you’re longing for more of that ultra-cool theme tune and some pep to the proceedings that dribbled away.

Ultimately SHAFT is an important film for what it represents rather than how it’s executed.  The studio deserves credit for belatedly building a commercial film around a strong, nobody’s-fool black hero (and a soundtrack gig for Hayes that won him the first Oscar for a non-acting black artist). A new generation of exploitation film-makers would pick up the baton and run with it faster and better...


Richard Rowntree has the insouciant badass charm as pioneer poster-boy of Blaxploitation in (Sam) spades but - disappointing? You’re damn right.