Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)



With the “Dolemite” duo, Ruby Ray Moore had successfully transitions from a weirdo stand-up comic with a cult following to a weirdo movie star with a cult following. So why stop there? After a slightly more above-ground credit in “The Monkey Hustle,” Moore continued to make his own weird movies with his gathering of co-conspirators. “Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law” – officially the movie skips the subtitle but that's what on the title screen, so I'm going with it – sees the comedian doing the crazy stuff he always does while trying something slightly new. The result would be another oddball grindhouse experience, destined to garner a fan following years down the line.

From the moment he was born, Petey Wheatstraw was destined for greatness. As a kid, he was trained in martial arts by a kindly old man in his neighborhood. Going into adulthood, he successfully pursued his dream of becoming a stand-up comic. However, Wheatstraw incurs the wrath of a rival club owner. A gang of mob hit-men murders the little brother of one of Petey's friend, before gunning Wheatstraw down at the boy's funeral. In death, Petey is greeted by the devil. Satan cuts Wheatstraw a deal. If he marries the devil's hideous daughter, Petey can return to life with magical powers, able to reap vengeance on those who wronged him. Petey agrees, with no intention of fulfilling his end of the agreement.

As the title indicates, Ruby Ray Moore is playing a new character in this movie. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that Petey is essentially the same character as Dolemite. Which means he's mostly an exaggerated version of Ruby Ray Moore. So, like Moore and Dolemite, Wheatstraw is a stand-up comic who playfully jabs at his audience. The character performs the rhyming raps and utilizes the same bizarre profanity Moore did in the “Dolemite” features. As in those films, rivalries between night clubs and mob connections motivate the plot. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Moore's distinctive shtick remains as entertaining as ever. Moore even indulges in some self-mythologizing here, when we see Wheatstraw's – and, by extension, Ruby's – birth. First, his mother birthed a watermelon. An adolescent Petey popped out next and beat up the priest for slapping his behind, talking smack all along.

In “The Human Tornado,” Moore included a hokey, gothic torture dungeon and an old witch in his goofball crime epic. In “Petey Wheatstraw,” this passing interest in cliched horror elements becomes an important part of the plot. The demonic bargain Petey makes grants him access to a magical pimp cane. It also gives us a peak at Moore's low budget interpretation of hell. The underworld is mostly shown as a dark room with a couch and crystal ball, bathed in red. Later, after Satan feels screwed over, a series of demons are sent after Wheatstraw. Actors in caped leotards, with chalky face paint and rubber horns on their heads, appear to attack Petey and his friends. When a particular demon is defeated, he leaves a burning outline in the asphalt. This stuff is way too goofy for “The Devil's Son-in-Law” to classify as horror. But it's enough to make the movie a deliberate horror homage.

These zero budget attempts at devilish horror are fun but it's not the most amusing thing about “Petey Wheatstraw.” The typically bizarre bits of Dolemite-ian absurdity prove more memorable.  At least twice, Moore gets into sped-up kung-fu fights. My favorite has a gang of dudes attacking Petey as he's about to have sex with his girlfriend. Thus, Moore has to leap from a building in his underwear, beating fools into submission with his leaden footwork. Another suitably nutty moments has Lucifer introducing Petey to a brothel populated with demonic ladies. He bangs each one in absolute glee, a scene also shot in fast motion. At one point, the film even utilizes reverse fast motion footage, when a murder scene plays backwards, the dead bodies leaping back to life.

For all its gonzo excesses, “The Devil's Son-in-Law” is ultimately not as entertaining as either of Moore's previous features. The movie drags a lot. The subplot involving the gangsters goes nowhere. Petey dispels them with his devil-powered pimp stick early on and they don't appear again until the very last scene. While the ramshackle scripts were charming in the “Dolemite” films, the obvious sloppiness wares on the viewer in this one. The last act drags on, eventually becoming a long series of fight scenes between Petey and the demonic minions. A montage devoted to Petey using his powers to help people in the ghetto out – saving a kid playing in traffic, making a fat woman skinny – is funny but also goes on far too long. That could be said of the whole movie, which is a bit bloateda t 98 minutes long.

“Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law” is not a demented masterpiece on the level of “The Human Tornado.” It does have its moments, many of them being utterly brilliant bits of insanity. As always, Moore's kooky antics can't help but entertain. Still, this is a lesser effort. Even the theme song, which just repeats the movie's title over a funky beat, isn't as good as the others. Naturally, the movie has a cult following, like all of Moore's features, but I'm not likely to return to this one as often as I do the gloriously off-kilter “Dolemite” flicks. [6/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 10 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


 

Friday, March 24, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Car Wash (1976)



Music played such an important role in seventies black cinema that it wasn't uncommon for a film's soundtrack to overshadow the actual movie. When “Car Wash” hit theaters in 1976, the box office receipts were nothing to be impressed by. Meanwhile, the title song went on to become one of the most iconic songs of the decade. That hit single made the soundtrack album a best seller. “Car Wash: The Song” is still a well known cultural touchstone, frequently referenced in other movies and shows. Eventually, the movie the song spawned from would develop a cult following, even if never had a chance of reaching the theme song's level of success.

The film takes place over the course of one day at the DeLuxe Car Wash, a fairly busy business nestled in the middle of Los Angeles. As the day goes by, the employees attempt to pass the time. Dwayne has recently become Abdullah, a Black Muslim all too aware of the racial constraints all around him. T.C hopes to win concert tickets from a radio call-in contest and convince the pretty waitress who works across the street to go on a date with him. Lonnie, who recently got out of prison, is trying to get a pay raise from his thrifty boss, in order to help take care of his wife and kids. These are just some of the scenes that play out inside the tiny location.

Coming from the pen of Joel Schumacher, years before “Batman and Robin” made him a target for nerd scorn, “Car Wash” is a slice of life story. There's no overreaching narrative or serious drive to the plot. The story is rooted to one location, so the script doesn't leap around any. Instead, we watch ordinary people simply go about their day. A handful of moments rise to the top as especially successful at this. Early on, a weary street walker abandons her cab fare. She spends the rest of the day hiding out in the car wash's bathroom, washing up, changing her clothes, and mostly avoiding her unpleasant profession. T.C.'s attempt to woo the waitress, who is mostly uninterested in him, play out as the kid singing songs from the juke box and showing up in a tux. T.C is also an artist and hopes to launch a comic book starring a black superhero he's created, called the Fly. Little moments like this, observing the character's failures and hopes, are when “Car Wash” is at its best.

“Car Wash” frequently veers towards the comedic. Two iconic comics stop by for broad cameos. George Carlin appears as the cab driver, who rambles in an amusingly Carlin-esque manner. He pops into the movie from time to time to irritate the other characters. Richard Pryor gets a big spot on the DVD case but only appears in one scene. He plays Papa Rich, a phony celebrity preacher, who stops by the car wash and delivers some goofy dialogue. The car wash patrons are frequent sources of comedy in the film. One man is in a full body cast, wrapped up like a mummy. Another is a rich woman whose sick son just vomited on the outside of the car. Yet another is an eccentric European man, suspected of being a mad bomber threatening the city. How that sequence plays out is especially broad. Yet the smaller moments emerge as my favorite bits of comedy. Like one co-worker playing a prank on another, involving hot sauce. Or Hippo, a rotund worker, awkwardly hitting on the off-the-clock prostitute.

While primarily functioning as a good natured comedy, “Car Wash” also captures its time and place. The characters are often misfits, working for small paychecks, struggling to live in a big city. Lonnie desperately wants to put his criminal past behind him but the world isn't eager to give him a second chance. Even the car wash's owner has his concerns, fearful a rival car wash down the street might put him out of business. One of the workers, Lindy, is a flamboyant homosexual. The character is defined by stereotypical behavior but is still well written, a gay man who doesn't apologize for who he is. The main source of drama is Abdullah's attempt to reinvent himself as a black revolutionary. His serious mindset annoys his co-workers, which just makes Abdullah more angry. Bill Duke was still young when he played this part but is just as intense as you'd expect him to be.

The movie's soundtrack is also the soundtrack to the character's day, as their radio plays out throughout the movie. Yeah, the songs are pretty great, especially a surprise appearance from the Pointer Sisters. “Car Wash” is a textbook definition of a hang-out movie, the audience spending time with a cast of eccentrics as they go about their day. The cast is solid but not all the characters are well developed, making some of the car wash employees thinner sketches than others. The movie is never quite as funny or poignant as it sets out to be, though its generally more successful at the latter than the former. However, “Car Wash” is still an interesting film. And, if nothing else, it features one of the best afros in the history of cinema. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 6 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[] Sticking It to the Man
[] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


Thursday, March 23, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: The Human Tornado (1976)



“Dolemite” concluded with Ruby Ray Moore assuring the audience that his superheroic, pimping alter ego would return. He wasn't lying. The very next year, “The Human Tornado” would roll onto theater screen. The film would have slightly higher production values then its predecessor, taking Dolemite across the country and giving viewers a considerably more competent final product. The boom mic puts in fewer appearances but Ruby Ray Moore's excessively wacky sense of humor is no less restrained. In fact, “The Human Tornado” gives us even more of a peek into its eccentric creator's mind. The sequel tops the original by being completely fucking nuts.

Since banishing his pimping rival in New York City, Dolemite has set out on a country wide stand-up comedy tour. A celebratory party in Alabama is interrupted when the incredibly racist local police storm in. He discovers Dolemite sleeping with his wife, a white woman that can't resist Dolemite's sexual charisma. The scene explodes into violence, forcing Dolemite and his friends to flee to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Queen Bee's L.A night club is threatened with violence by a mafia-backed rival club. The mobsters kidnap two of Dolemite's girls, forcing the Human Tornado to put his feet up some honky asses.

“The Human Tornado” blurs the line between Ruby Ray Moore and his cinematic persona. As far as the previous film was concerned, Dolemite was not a stand-up comedian. Yet “The Human Tornado” opens with Dolemite successfully performing a comedy club, telling a series of ribald jokes and playfully insulting people in the crowd. The film also downplays Dolemite's pimping past, making it seem more and more like Moore is mostly just playing himself. To further confirm this, Moore rhymes his dialogue in practically every scene. As expected, the script is peppered with colorfully profane language. Yes, somebody is called a “rat soup eatin' motherfucker” and accused of being born insecure, among other epitaphs that probably only made sense to Moore. If your on Moore's nonsensically vulgar wavelength, it's likely you'll laugh a whole lot.

In my previous two reviews, I mentioned how blaxploitation movies made later in the seventies seem to downplay the revolutionary aspects of the genre. The later a film is made, the less likely you are to see a black hero battling racist, white villains. But Ruby Ray Moore does his own thing. “The Human Tornado” maybe the most directly confrontational blaxploitation film since “Sweetback.” After a pair of hicks spot Dolemite's party in an early scene, they immediately start tossing around N-bombs. The Alabama police are virulently racist. So are the mobsters. Even minor characters, like the L.A police chief investigating Dolemite's case, are full of hate. Dolemite directly disposes of most of the villains himself, when he isn't making love to white women overwhelmed by his masculine charms. “The Human Tornado” is a refreshingly retaliatory fantasy, about a black hero dismantling a racist system single-handedly.

This might've come off as heavy handed if “The Human Tornado” wasn't hilarious. Luckily, it is an amazingly bonkers comedy. The humor often veers towards the absurd or the surreal. After making a nude leap down a hillside, Moore pauses and rewinds the film to assure the audience he performed the fall himself. Moore's voice-over often plays in a loose manner, giving us odd peaks into the mind of the film's creator. In an especially goofy turn, the villains torture Dolemite's girls in a hokey, monster movie style dungeon. Dolemite's approach to sex often pushes the movie towards its strangest digressions. He visits an old lady friend and takes her to bed... Where they perform literal exercises. In my favorite scene, Dolemtie hypnotizes the wife of a gangster with a painting of interracial loving. This leads to an elaborate sex scene, where the movie imagines herself on giant children's blocks, ravaged by black bodybuilders who emerge from a toy box. It's a bizarre sequence mostly disconnected from the rest of the movie but I'm so glad it's in there.

In its last act, “The Human Tornado” shifts towards utter insanity. While Queen Bee's ladies distracts the villain, Dolemite sneaks into his mansion to save the girls. Last time, I noted Ruby Ray Moore's obvious lack of martial arts skills. He hasn't gotten any better. In hopes of covering this up, “The Human Tornado” plays the fight scenes in fast motion. What follows are a bunch of scenes of Dolemite clobbering his opponents in an exaggerated, ridiculous manner. This turns the movie into even more of a live action cartoon. Before too long, Dolemite's army of kung-fu girls enter the fray, the film exploding into a series of goofily choreographed, intentionally silly fight scenes. It certainly takes the film out on a memorably wacky note.

Cliff Roquemore and Jerry Jones, frequent collaborators of Moore, are credited with directing and writing “The Human Tornado.” Despite this, it is once again very apparent that this film mostly emerged from the mind of Ruby Ray Moore. He even sings the theme song, where he somehow manages to rhyme “later” and “tornado.” The script is no more coherent then the first “Dolemite” movie but that's not the reason we watch stuff like this. Films like “The Human Tornado” provide us with bizarre, absurd, goofy, and deeply personal visions that mainstream motion pictures are far too sane to attempt. The sequel isn't quite as charmingly rough as the original but it is still an amazingly entertaining, totally nuts motion picture. Watch it immediately! [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 11 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Friday Foster (1975)



Pam Grier starred in a number of films for American International Pictures, making some of her most famous films for the studio. But all good things must come to an end. With blaxploitation going out of fashion, “Friday Foster” would be the last A.I.P. movie Grier would star in. The studio itself wouldn't last much longer, being absorbed by Filmways by the start of the next decade. “Friday Foster” was based off the first comic strip to ever star a black character. The strip had already ended by 1975 and has now faded into obscurity. The movie adaptation isn't Pam's most well known film but it's still better known then the comic that it spawned from.

Originally a model, Friday Foster is now a fashion photographer for Glance Magazine. While her editor has her taking pictures of pretty dresses, Foster desires to report on more serious stories. That big story comes to her when she witnesses the attempted assassination of Blake Tarr, the wealthiest black man in America. Afterwards, Friday's best friend is murdered. A conspiracy is closing in on her, targeting her next. She teams up with a private detective and uncovers a secret plan nestled within the black power movement.

“Friday Foster” is a little different then Pam's other characters. Unlike the vigilantes and private detectives she previously played, Friday is mostly a normal person. She has a mischievous little brother, regular friends, and a boss who gives her shit. Instead of working with the criminals around her, she's at odds with them. A notable scene even has her trash-talking a local pimp. Even though Friday is more grounded, she's still a tough, capable hero. Twice, Foster steals vehicles so she can track down a potential lead. By the end, she's smashing milk jugs over people's heads and picking up guns to defend herself. Pam is great at projecting a sense of toughness. She always has been. Yet there's also something satisfying about seeing her play something closer to an ordinary person.

As the blaxploitation genre started to unwind, “Friday Foster” hearkens back to the earlier days of “Shaft.” The film features the hero uncovering and attempting to untangle a convoluted plot. As Friday uses her feminine wiles to get information, a senator tells her that Tarr planned his own assassination. Later, Tarr informs her that the senator is scheming against him. In the last act, Foster uncovers the truth. That an outside element is plotting against both men, hoping to undone the entire black political movement. The bizarre twist? The villain is also black, in the employ of a barely glimpsed white mastermind. All his henchmen are also black. Never once do the black heroes strike back against a white oppressor. It shows how much things had swung back by 1975. Directly portraying white authority as the enemy, as the Man, was becoming less prevalent.

Even though it's root are in a romance based comic strip, “Friday Foster” still features some surprisingly big action sequences. The assassination attempt on Tarr results in a tense shoot-out in the cramped confines of the plane hanger. An especially memorable sequence has Friday's detective friend chasing the hit man across rooftops. Both men are shown making running leaps in-between the buildings. That fight also concludes with a bloody shootout. In its last act, “Friday Foster” really piles on the action. A heavily armed party attacks a black community center. Pistols, machine guns, and even a grenade launcher are employed in the massive fight. It's a far bigger ending then anything previously glimpsed in AIP's other blaxploitation titles.

Another example that “Friday Foster” was, perhaps, a slightly pricier affair then usual is its supporting cast. This cast is filled with many well known black actors of the time. Yaphet Kotto plays Colt, the detective working with Foster. Kotto has fantastic chemistry with Grier, the two often trading very charming dialogue. Carl Weathers, a year before “Rocky” made him a star, plays the mostly silent hit man, a part nicely utilizing his intimidating appearance. Thalmus Rasulala plays the millionaire Tarr, who is simultaneously charming and stern. Eartha Kitt is nicely flashy as the fashion designer friend of Friday, who provides a major clue. Scatman Crothers has an amusing small role as a less then virtuous priest. For a low budget film, it's an impressive line-up of well known talent.

Despite being based on a family friendly comic strip, “Friday Foster” confirms to the R-rated standards of the time. The violence is bloody. Profanity is frequent. Drugs and prostitutes feature in the story. Pam has two love scenes and a gratuitous shower scene, not that anyone is complaining. The film's script is decent but not the main attraction. The soundtrack is fantastic too, a collection of amazingly funky basslines and grooving wa-wa sounds. But what really makes “Friday Foster” worth seeking out is its excellent cast. Seeing such a talented collection of performers play off each other makes for a really entertaining film. Pam didn't save the best for last but “Friday Foster” is still a good time. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 9 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)



History has decided which black actress became the icon. Even back in the seventies, Pam Grier's  trademark characters overshadowed Tamara Dobson's “Cleopatra Jones.” However, Dobson's first go-around at action stardom clearly made Warner Brothers some money. In 1975, the character would return with the fabulously entitled “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.” Even at this early a date, the blaxploitation fad was starting to wane. This is evident in the second “Cleopatra Jones” movie. Co-produced by Hong Kong's Run Run Shaw, the sequel is just as much a kung-fu film and a James Bond riff as it is a black-centric adventure.

Two black American agents are sent to Hong Kong in order to investigate a heroine smuggling ring. While attempting to befriend one drug boss, they are captured by another. Calling herself the Dragon Lady, she operates her illegal operation out of a lavish, golden casino. Cleopatra Jones is sent to locate the two agents. She quickly teams up with Mi Ling, a Hong Kong-based agent, and quickly sets out to undo the Dragon Lady's empire.

The first “Cleopatra Jones'” campy atmosphere struck me as forced, ultimately at odds with the crime story it was trying to tell. The sequel shifts the setting to the Far East, which brings with it an entirely different energy. By fitting the character into the “anything can happen” mold of a Shaw Bros. movie, Cleo's comic book style adventure suddenly go down a lot easier. You're more willing to accept a super model secret agent, who wears a series of preposterously over-designed outfits. The villain being another evil lesbian seems less offensive. As does the “Flash Gordon” style ring of swords she forces a captured rival to fight inside. The action is bigger and the production design is more extravagant, blending together with a more coherently silly tone.

It also helps that Cleopatra Jones herself is a little more human this time. In the first movie, Dobson's heroine struck me as too perfect, too ready for any situation. She's still a hyper confident fighter with the power to charm anyone. But she also needs some help. By giving Cleo a sidekick, in the form of Mi Ling, the character has someone to bounce catty dialogue off of. She actually seems to be having fun spending time with Mi Ling, proving that she's human after all. Moreover, Tamara Dobson seems more comfortable on this second mission. She shows more humor, more ease.

Perhaps more important then any of that is the sequel ramps the action way the fuck up. There's an early car chase through a Hong Kong market place, featuring plenty of collateral damage and a big explosion at the end. This follows a fight in a bar, where guys tumble through doors and get knives throw into their chests. A memorable scene has Mi Ling attacked in her apartment, kung-fu kicking and leaping her way out of trouble. Amusingly, she does this with her arms bound, as the assassins tied her up with a red ribbon. For the climax, the film features a huge attack on the Dragon Lady's  casino. A motorcycle is driven around the building, crashing through doors, ramping through the air, and eventually exploding on a craps table. An entire succession of henchmen tumble over railings. Lots of goons are machine gunned or stabbed. A grenade takes out an entire balcony. It's pretty fun stuff.

Seventies sex symbol Stella Stevens, last seen in “Slaughter,” plays the villain. The film doesn't hammer home her evil, sapphic ways as much as it did with Shelly Winters in the first one. If it wasn't for the opening lesbian love-fest, shared with her sexually submissive concubines, you'd never know Stevens' drug empress was queer. (And considering how close Cleo and Mi Ling seem, the movie almost gets a pass for it.) If nothing else, Stevens hams it up nicely in the part. Ni Tien, with her thousand watts smile, is very charming as Mi Ling. In a bizarre casting choice, Norman Fell – Mr. Roper himself – plays Jones' boss. Amazingly, Fell's character isn't casually racist. Shockingly, there's pretty much no casual racism in “Casino of Gold” at all!

“Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold” wasn't as successful as the first in the series, meaning Cleopatra Jones would have no further adventure. (Though “The Kentucky Fried Movie” would feature a direct parody of the film called “Cleopatra Schwartz.”) Today, the duo is regarded as a fairly obscure relic of the seventies, receiving only a fraction of the notoriety that its contemporaries maintain. Despite this, the sequel is a big improvement over the first one, featuring a more amusing tone and far more impressive action sequences. I would probably have been up for a third film, based on this one, but it wasn't meant to be. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 8 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


Monday, March 20, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Dolemite (1975)



The blaxploitation genre has its icons. The movies weren't always great but Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Pam Grier still have devoted fan bases to this day for a reason. Much further down the list of black performers who made indelible imprints on pop culture is Ruby Ray Moore. A stand-up comic by trade, Moore would release a successful series of party albums in the sixties and seventies. His ribald, rhyming, free form monologues are considered by many to be a precursor to rap music. These same albums introduced the character of Dolemite, a folk hero alter ego of Moore's. When Ruby decided to take “Dolemite” to the big screen, he did so with even less money than most other blaxploitation filmmakers. Moore didn't let a lack of competence or resources keep him from creating a cult classic and launching a defiantly unique film career.

Dolemite is the greatest pimp of all time. As his story begins, he's locked up in jail. After hearing that his cousin has been murdered, Dolemite is released and given a chance to prove his innocence. He comes back to his neighborhood and finds that a rival pimp, Willie Green, has taken over his night club and pushed out most of his girls. Luckily, Dolemite's brothel mother Queen Bee has taught his remaining hookers the art of kung-fu. Armed with a unique sense of rhythm and an army of deadly prostitute, Dolemite is primed to take back the territory that is his.

“Dolemite” prompts a lot of questions but the film does have one thing going for it. Ruby Ray Moore is not an actor. His delivery of dialogue is stiff. His screen presence is usually stationary. Yet the guy is having a good time. When Moore delivers his comedic monologues to the camera, one about the Titanic and the other about the Signifying Monkey, you can see his appeal. Moore has a way with profanity, creating bizarre turns of phrase - “rat soup eatin' honky!,” “born insecure motherfucker!” – and punctuating them with an unusual delivery. After being sprung from prison, Dolemite discards his prison uniform while berating those around him about cotton draws. He laughs maniacally while firing a machine gun. Spending most of the movie dressed in elaborate pimp garb, Ruby Ray Moore projects an off-center but certainly entertaining style.

It must be stressed that “Dolemite” is not a professional, Hollywood film. It's home-made production values are evident throughout. The camera often moves spasmodically during many scenes. The editing is sudden and rough. Such as the final scene, which ends on the most jarring freeze frame I've ever seen. The acting is deeply unpolished. Most performers rigidly recite their dialogue. Aside from Dolemite's colorful expressions, most of the screenplay is utter nonsense. The story jerks about, essentially wasting time until Dolemite can confront Willie Green and the dirty cops that killed his cousin. Most prominently, the boom mic appears on screen so often that it deserves a Screen Actors Guild card. The microphone doesn't merely bop into frame occasionally. It floats above the actor's heads for entire sequences.

Yet with the freedom of a non-existence budget comes a certain goofy streak. By so clearly being a DIY production, “Dolemite” captures a lot of local eccentricities. The people assembled to listen to Dolemite's raps are clearly non-actors, likely friends of the producers. One of Dolemite's street informers is a junkie named the Creeper, alternatively known as the Hamburger Pimp. The actor playing the character is either an excellent performer or a genuine drug addict, as his strange walk and slurred delivery is extremely convincing. Memorably, he declares that he's so tough he “kicks his own ass twice a day.” Later, an actor playing a corrupt politician is so sleazy and unpleasant, the sweat practically oozes off the screen. It's a matter of opinion if the people making “Dolemite” created a real movie but you can't deny how much fun they had.

The lack of resources available to Moore and his team is most apparent during the action sequences. After leaving prison, Dolemite murders some bad dudes on a country road. The timing between the fired blanks and the spurting squibs is horribly off. When Dolemite has to beat up his opponents, Moore's limitations as a performer become especially clear. The dude can't make a kick connect to save his life. His kung-fu is painfully slow. The actresses playing Dolemite's army of martial artist hookers are no more competent, flaying about in an incredibly disorganized emulation of actual fighting. A late film brawl in a night club is awkwardly choreographed, to say the least, concluding with Dolemite disemboweling Willie Green with his bare hands. Or, at least, that's what I think happens.

“Sheba, Baby's” D'urville Martin is credited with directing the film, in addition to playing Willie Green. However, it's pretty clear that this was Moore's vision from the beginning. The film most comes alive when embracing Moore's weirdly profane and poetic sense of humor. When a movie is built on such a clear do-it-yourself ethos, the shoestring production values become part of the charm. “Dolemite” is aesthetically a hot mess yet succeeds in entertaining the viewer. It's the purest definition of a camp classic, a movie with such an offbeat spirit and free-wheeling energy that you can't help but love it, even if the damn thing barely makes any sense. [7/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 11 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

Sunday, March 19, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: 'Sheba, Baby' (1975)



For years, I've been mildly fascinated with the career of Mr. William Girdler. Girdler is mostly remembered as a low budget rip-off artist. His “Grizzly” is “Jaws” but with a bear. Both “Abby” and “The Manitou” blatantly copied “The Exorcist.” Girdler's movies are bad but in an endearing way, frequently getting unintentional laughs out of the audience. There was also an occasional artistry or interesting element under Girdler's low budget shenanigans, suggesting he had some talent. If his life hadn't been prematurely ended by a helicopter crash, Girdler probably would've made a genuinely good film some day. Among the various blaxploitation flicks the director would make is the peculiarly punctuated “'Sheba, Baby.'” Pam Grier's third starring role for A.I.P., the film is frequently overshadowed by her earlier credits for the company.

Sheba Shayne is a private detective in the city of Chicago. She travels back to her childhood home town of Louisville, Kentucky after hearing her father has been brutalized by attackers. She reconnects with an old lover there while her father urges her not to investigate why he was attacked. She doesn't listen. As Sheba begins to sniff around, she discovers local gangsters desire her father's property. Digging deeper, Sheba uncovers the white businessmen behind the criminal intimidation. Shayne's going to have to employ all her skills if she hopes to get out of this one.

“'Sheba, Baby'” revolves around the same moral that “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown” featured. I repeat: Do not fuck with Pam Grier. Unlike Coffy or Foxy, who were untrained vigilantes, Sheba Shayne is a former cop and a current P.I. Her ass-kicking skills are more refined. When a group of racist enforcers step into her dad's business with shotguns, Sheba blows them away with her hand cannon. She tracks down potential leads at a train yard, leaping onto the guy's back. My favorite moment of ass-kickery has Sheba threatening to shove a thug's face into a car wash's hot wax dispenser. By this point in her career, Pam Grier can project  a sense of self-determined toughness in her sleep. She brings the same level of can-do endurance but sweet vulnerability to this part that she did to countless others.

“Sheba, Baby” is actually a PG movie, meaning it doesn't feature the nudity and sleaze that was present in Grier's films for Jack Hill. (There's a love scene, though Pam keeps her glorious body covered throughout it.) Despite the rating, the movie's violence is surprisingly graphic. Aside from the bloody gunshots, Sheba also blows up a car. An especially memorable sequence has Pam chasing the bad guys through a county fair. The scene concludes on the track of a roller coaster, Sheba's victim nearly escaping decapitation. As has become standard by this point, Pam Grier also gets into a cat fight. While aboard a yacht, she sprinkles some cigarette ash on a white woman's shoulders. Though not nearly as memorable as the throwdowns in “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” this one is still pretty entertaining.

Sadly, that cat fight proves to be the last really exciting scene in the movie. Afterwards, Pam sneaks onto the bad guy's yacht and gets captured a few times. It's at this point that “'Sheba, Baby'” hits a pacing bump that it never recovers from. There are far too many moments of Shayne talking to the villain and trying to sneak out. Or lingering shots devoted to her tensely considering her options. These scenes give us Pam Grier in a skin-tight wet suit, a jet ski chase, and an exploding speedboat. Yet these moments are easily the most boring in the whole film. How do you screw that up?

Of the quartet of crime films Pam starred in for A.I.P., “'Sheba, Baby'” is clearly the weakest. Truthfully, this one can't help but stand in the shadows of the superior films Grier previously made. Sheba ultimately isn't as memorable as Coffy or Foxy. The film doesn't function as smoothly. The plot isn't as interesting. William Girdler could make an entertaining exploitation movie but, when restrained by a PG rating, couldn't embrace a seedy side as amusing as Jack Hill's. Despite these flaws, Tarantino would specifically draw from this film when making “Jackie Brown,” so I suppose it has at least one big fan. [6/10]

[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 8 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang