Thursday, December 31, 2009

DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975)

It's always exciting to see what emerges when a group of people are set free from an oppressive environment or allowed to flourish in a fresh setting. It's hard to be unaffected by the amount of accomplished art that the Harlem Renaissance produced. A historical antecedent exists in the de-ghettoization of European Jews and the attendant flowering of Jewish innovation in the arts and sciences. Building under pressure in slumlands, genius explodes upon release.

That is probably the worst-ever introduction to a blog post about an exploitation film, but stick with me for one more paragraph. The Harlem Renaissance was done by the thirties. Later on, The Sixties happened and some people shook off some chains and did some innovative (and some very annoying) things. But blacks didn't get a pass into cinema until the seventies and the advent of blaxploitation. Because "African-Americansploitation" wouldn't fit on the posters. Films like SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASSSSS SONG (1971) and GORDON'S WAR (1973) put chiefly black casts and black communities on screen for the first time, not as a diversion, but as the main attraction. Most of these films were riled and acidulous, too, finally exploring racism and economic disparity, the prevalence of drugs in black communities, etc., from the sufferers' side.

DARKTOWN STRUTTERS showed up in 1975, after the initial cascade of blaxploitation had begun to abate a bit. Like its predecessors, this film was concerned with social issues and stuff or whatever, but (unlike its predecessors) it traded serious critique for dada insanity.

Syreena (Trina Parks of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER fame) and her gang of psychedelic lady bikeys investigate the disappearance of Syreena's abortion-loving mom Cinderella, eventually linking said disappearance to the machinations of Commander Cross, a Colonel Sanders knock-off intent on cloning black leaders and capturing the black bloc vote for his political future. Along the way, the cycle queens must evade fat white cops, learn to coexist with a rival male gang, and avoid capture by the bike-riding, net-wielding Klan.

Whereas SUPERFLY was a probing examination of why urban blacks get sucked into dope slinging and THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR catalyzed black paranoia about the CIA and black militancy...

Ah, hell, let me just copy from my notes:

"Syreena's brother is into kung-fu. No. 'Way beyond kung-fu! Ancient African art practiced by the imperial guards in the Zambezi River basin!' He learned from a guy who was selling Life magazine."

"Maid's opinion: 'You're some kind of motorcycle tramp!'"

"Mrs. PARASOL! Grandpa says, 'She's my welfare case worker.' !!!"

"Arrest anybody who ain't Irish."

"Baby Crips! Speedcicles! Acid/peyote 50/50 bars! This movie was not created in our universe. Growing pot in an igloo. Jesus Christ. I was born too late."

And, hey, guess who owns this now?

That means that you'll probably never see an official DVD release of this in the States. It also means that, given Disney's holding of this and SONG OF THE SOUTH, they're especially susceptible to public pressure to dump these works. Whereupon some less reputable DVD company could release them in the special editions that they deserve. Alternately, Disney could erect a DARKTOWN STRUTTERS ride next to the Teacups and inure multiple small children for a bright, multicult. future.

Back to the blast-off paragraphs. DARKTOWN STRUTTERS is blaxploitation after the pure resentment had simmered off. It is, in the best way, a product of its time. It would be impossible to make this film now. Racism and such are IMPORTANT TOPICS in the 2000s and not to treated lightly with absurd touches and comical business. No fun, my baby. You have to hire screenwriters to screenwrite a screenplay like CRASH (the race one, not the car crash fetish one) and hire a string quartet for the soundtrack. And the Oscars. And yet DS captures something of its producers and audience and community that's lacking and missed in nowadays cinema...a sense of outrageousness, a will to shake things up and take chances...to laugh off the worst things...

But it's a new year and new decade and time will tell what will unfold. Maybe some bored god will answer prayers and Iran will be free, free to film the MEDINA STRUTTERS screenplay that's been languishing in some file folder since Windows 95. Time will tell.

Capsule review: like a black John Waters, so entertainingly damaged. Highest recommendation.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

TROOP BEVERLY HILLS (1989)

I know, right? In my defense, this was a Christmas present from someone to whom I gave dental floss, pralines, and a postapocalyptic film about library science. She is lucky that I really like her because wars have begun over less serious matters. Plus this avers that it is now a cult film of some stripe. And it would be funny if a young TROOP BEVERLY HILLS fan stumbled upon this blog and began a lifelong love of THE WICKER MAN. OMG they both have SINGING!

You can probably guess from the title what the plot is like, so I won't go into details. I'm not going to make fun of it, either, because (like TWILIGHT) it was obviously not made with the hope of pleasing me. Instead, I will isolate some elements that will make this worth your reading.

I'm sure this is a pretty typical eighties screwball comedy in lots of ways, but the visuals and cinematography especially remind me of why I'm not a huge fan of the genre. Any shot in this film features actors in the middle of the frame, shot from straight ahead. Ariel shots, verboten. Trucking shots, no. It's very sitcom-y, which makes sense given the material, but it annoys me to the max. Do you think little girls are going to get confused and cry if you zoom occasionally, director Jeff Kanew?

Shelley Long is a solid actress. If you don't believe me, watch THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE in three different states, as I have done. She has good timing and is quite personable. Betty Thomas is also quite good (and it is sad she has gone from this to directing PRIVATE PARTS to sadly directing ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS 2). Surprisingly for this kind of film, the lead actors keep things afloat even when the script starts to falter. The movie is festooned with child actors, even though it clearly would have been better to have autistic adults in these roles, but you have to expect that at the outset, so it seems unfair to complain.

The DVD cover is an even greater enemy to Shelley Long than her agent. The orange hair and deranged smile are the ingredients of nightmares. Joker-esque as it is, it offers a window into an alternative reading of the film. Her character is supposed to be the hero, yet she smokes and drinks and breaks Straight Edge pretty constantly, plus pushes kids to push trans fat cookies onto fat people. Meanwhile, Thomas's character, the heavy, is evil because she wants girl scouts to learn survival skills. Troop Backwards World is more like it!

I could have lived without the tacked-on Kmart afterlogue. The movie ends with the Troop triumphant and the evil meanie storming away, vowing to secede. In a just world, there would be a Troop Beverly Hills 2 that would depict the Civil War of the multiethnic Troop Beverly Hills versus the Germanic, rebel-yelling Veldafederacy. Hell, they just made a TRON sequel, maybe it will happen! They can even get Betty Thomas back, given how her career is going. Or just mix the two and make TRON BEVERLY HILLS. Why not?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

HANZO THE RAZOR: SWORD OF JUSTICE (1972)

You get a real sense of how foreign foreign cultures can be in the early goings of this film. Hanzo, an angsty, portly constable in the Tokugawa shogunate, has a lengthy exchange with his superior about the character of torture. "We ourselves should know the pains of the criminals we torture," he explains, in order to posit the point at which too much pain causes sensory overload and never get there. So torture and pain can be prolonged indefinitely! And he says this while kneeling on a set of spikes with weights balanced on his hamstrings. This is our hero.

The first in a jidaigeki trilogy, SWORD OF JUSTICE stars Shintaro Katsu of ZATOICHI fame as the titular officer/sadomasochist. The plot, in which Hanzo foils a cabal of corrupt officials and criminal scum, doesn't seem too removed from your garden-variety Bronson movie—this IS essentially a cop actioneer with swordplay instead of gunplay, mostly—but some elements of the cop-movie template get stretched to absurdity here. It's important to establish that the hero is tough, but...the torture scene I mentioned isn't the last time mortification puts in an appearance. There's also a jaw-dropping scene in which Hanzo bastes his little razor in hot water, tenderizes it with a stick, then makes love to a bag of raw rice. And, lest you think that this is strictly professional development, dialogue sets you straight: "it seems to erect when in pain". WOW.

Apparently, this is a winning formula for seduction, as Hanzo hauls (literally) two women back to his house for interrogation and interrogates them with his penis. They're unwilling at first, but quickly relent and say improbable things like, "You're so virile!" Again, this is an extrapolation of a standard motif in this cinema, in which the Chick hates the Hero, but comes around after a demonstration of power. But it's especially straightforward and kinda ugly here.

All of which might make you think that this is a grindhouse exercise, in which the "hero" is repellent and you're supposed to feel repulsed at the grime and gross behavior. But the only time Hanzo is chastised in the film is when he bucks authority by refusing to give up his devotion to the law. Then again, this was made in the seventies and things were much different then. Still...

All of this unfolds in beautifully composed and deliberately filmed scenes, as per usual for Japanese cinema, even at its basest. Director Kenji Misumi really knew his stuff and the striking look of the film makes its seemier sides go down more easily. It's also well-acted, with Katsu doing an especially fine job as the stern, psychotic Razor. Worth a watch, but you might wish to shower afterwards.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SEX AND ZEN (1991)

I ask the Internet, is there a genre more adorned with disappointment and failure than erotic comedy? How many years of a life could be wasted on USA Up All Night straight-to-video things with titles like Bikini Carwash Change Thief Action Squad? And yet one of the best things I've seen lately is a sex comedy with SEX right there in the title. Hello, SEX AND ZEN!

Lawrence Ng plays an amorous scholar who marries and schools his sex-hesitant wife (Amy Yip) in the ways of carnal business. Then he bolts, in search of new loves and a fresh penis. Meanwhile, the now wang-crazed wife gets herself into lady trouble through a series of unfortunate happenings. This all leads to a conclusion that differs starkly from the preceding, mostly-fun film.

Erotic comedy mainly sucks (harhar) because it is neither erotic nor comedic enough to satisfy. Much too much of it lazily dishes these banal situations and expects the viewer to overlook the poor effort because siliconed boobs are part of the scene. SEX AND ZEN succeeds at both of erotic comedy's reasons for being. The sex scenes are hot and the laughs are laugh-out-loud funny.

Plot-wise, it's essentially a farce with some slapstick. Of course, it's a Cat III film, so there are elements here that won't play well with Western sensitivities. The Netflix reviews seem to cite the domestic abuse as the most unacceptable thing, but it's clear that the abuser is a villain and it's likely that the unfettered presentation has much to do with viewer turnoff. No one on Netflix has even mentioned the parade of penis mutilations. Again, the double standard of Western sexism. Despite these things, the film is not really that rough and could probably be enjoyed by people who dig Farrelly Brothers stuff. Except for the subtitles. If only they could read!

The whole thing has the feel of some aged piece of literature, like Gargantua and Pantagruel or something. It's scandalous and randy as hell, but strangely old-fashioned in its storytelling and didactic-wrapup structure. Which makes sense, given that it's adapted from a seventeenth-century novel called The Carnal Prayer Mat. So, if you like things like sex or literature or flipping/flying thieves, give this one a try.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

CONTRABAND (1980)

Renowned for his gory horror and derided for his laissez-faire approach to plot and character, Lucio Fulci's oeuvre flashes a wider genre range than one might think. He dabbled in peplum (CONQUEST), spaghetti western (FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE), and crime/poliziotteschi (this one). But haters shouldn't get too excited, because the same elements that keep Fulci on your Names of Shame list—minimal characterization, leisurely pacing, and spurting intestines—show up in most of his non-horror work as well. I'm too afraid to see his version of WHITE FANG.

CONTRABAND is pretty standard-issue crime fare. Luca is a cigarette smuggler who resists the attempts of narcotics barons to take over his trade. But narcos are notoriously not understanding and begin dispatching his friends and family with a series of awful mutilations. Luca swears revenge and the film becomes an extended game of tag with bullets and bombs.

What sets the film apart are the obvious Fulci touches. For one thing, this thing oozes and drips blood and gore. Even for the generally-wet poliziotteschi genre, CONTRABAND stands out as disconcertingly violent. Flesh is torn asunder at every turn: gunshot mouths vanish, a whole stomach is shotgun-blasted out. Those who know Fulci mostly from fare like HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and NEW YORK RIPPER aren't going to feel lost. Less enjoyable to gorehounds and cineastes alike are the barely-there characters, of which there are more than a baker's dozen. We're introduced to a whole herd of gangsters during a well-staged funeral at sea and it gets a little trying to keep them separate as they are executed, one by one. Even worse, Fulci allows a child actor to not only appear in the movie, but waste multiple scenes. Child actors in genre film are always annoying or creepy and this film's example is no exception.

Other things that work and don't:

:) I love poppy dance music of this era, so I was elated during the disco scene, BUT the repeated main theme, funky as it is, overstays its welcome. :(

:) The violence is well-staged and exciting, BUT it's kind of a bummer that the boys get off lightly with shotguns to the guts an rapid facial reconstruction while the girls have to endure rape and slow, protracted acetylene damage. If you plan on sticking with movies of this stripe, you have to grow a spine that resists shock at such things, but it's still a little too obvious here. :(

:) The climax, with its introduction of old-timey Mafia dons (including Fulci) as slayers of the young narco usurpers, is amazing! So is the stuntwork! BUT the preceding film doesn't hold back on some boring scenes. Fulci was always a slow starter. :(

As with many things Fulci, this is very much a mixed bag. But I'd recommend it to folks who dig his horror work as well as fans of 70s/80s crime films. CONTRABAND has enough merits to make the flaws more bearable...any film in which our hero is a cigarette smuggler (and, even with Fulci's character handicaps, is still more likable than protags like Lenzi's LIVE LIKE A COP jerkoffs) is worth a viewing. And if you don't laugh during the cigarette raid, with its crooked nuns and Italian mamas hauling cartons of Marlboros down the street, you are beyond all help.