Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Coffy (USA, 1973)

(Spoilers, eventually.) Trailer. Per say, the history of black film is almost as old as that of American film in general film. While the first example of what was to eventually become the genre of Western Films—Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903/full film)—generally gathers the most attention when it comes to early cinematic entertainment (as Philip Strick puts it in Movies of the Silent Years (ed. By Ann Lloyd, London, 1984), the film “has long been established as a primitive example of parallel storytelling”), another film Porter made that year gets less attention: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Porter’s version of the novel is the first American film to feature a black character, and the title character at that. But as groundbreaking as the film was in doing this, it does still have one small flaw that detracts considerably from its historic position: Uncle Tom is played by a white man (James B. Lowe) in blackface.

As insulting as the then-common practice might seem now, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was at least a well-intended and (arguably) non-derogatory presentation of the African American, which is not the case of the shorts featuring "black" characters films that followed—titles such as Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905) and The Dancing Nig (1907) are typical of the time—or of D. W. Griffith’s legendary A Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith's film may indeed hold the honor of being the first true masterpiece of US American feature-length narrative film, but it is also an unbridled tirade of anti-black sentiment in which Black Americans are divided between (black-faced) loyal fetch-its or uppity renegades out to rape white virgins (with only the Klan there to save civilization).

Partially as a response to this, according to the book A Separate Cinema (John Kisch & Edward Mapp, 1992), towards the end of the 'teens a variety of film companies (some "black-owned, others white-controlled") began appearing up and down the East Coast which specialized in films intended for screening at "big-city ghetto movie houses of the North, at segregated theaters in the South, and, on occasion, at black churches, schools and social gatherings." Oscar Micheaux’s The Homesteader (1919) is commonly accepted as the first true Afro-American feature film, and it inaugurated a long and fertile period of "a separate cinema" that still remains largely ignored when the history of American Film is discussed. Theoretically, it could be argued that the day and age of the "separate cinema" is over with, for the modern Afro-American film (like those directed by Spike Lee, Bill Duke, the Hughes Brothers or even John Singleton, for example) now tends to enjoy and are even often aimed at mainstream acceptance (and, often, a mixed audience) and, furthermore, the Afro-American actor (Denzel Washington and (cringe) Halle Berry, for example) has finally been given (an almost) equal positioning (if still in lesser numbers) within the world of Hollywood.

But this was definitely not the case in the 60s when a moving film like One Potato, Two Potato (1964) could be still be rejected at a film festival on the grounds that it featured an interracial kiss (don’t forget, Obama aside, interracial marriage in the US was still illegal in 14 states up until 1967, until the Supreme Court decided otherwise). And although a talented man like Sidney Poitier could indeed make a solid and respectable career as Hollywood’s token Afro-American big name, the mainstream film industry was still enough of a white world that even an actress as beautiful and talented as Dorothy Dandridge couldn’t maintain a viable career (at the time of her "barbiturate poisoning" in 1965, she hadn't made a film since Moment of Danger (1960). When it came to mainstream releases, whether grindhouse or first-run, the films then were meant for light-skinned faces.

But then came the 1970s and a genre of films that got dubbed Blaxploitation, a term that the Oxford English Dictionary claims was first used in the June 12, 1972 issue of New York magazine and was derived from the older term "sexploitation" (the usage of which started in 1942). If you are reading this Blog, than you probably don’t need to have the term explained, but just in case you are a stray Republican that has been too busy earning money to realize the changes in society around you—although I guess it’s hard to do since Nov 4th—the term describes a whole slew of films of varying levels of quality that were released specifically for Black America and which tackled all the genres common to mainstream films (e.g., horror, crime, family, etc). Indeed, often they were virtually straight remakes of past or current successful Hollywood films with a black cast (Cool Breeze (1972/trailer, for example, was a remake of Asphalt Jungle (1950/trailer), and William Girdler’s Abby (1974/trailer) simply retooled The Exorcist (1973/trailer). But, unlike the "separate cinema" of yesterday, although a few were black directed, most were white-controlled.

The first Blaxploitation film to show up on the scene is generally accepted as Ossie Davis's entertaining Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970/trailer), while the first one to cross the racial boundaries to become a true mixed-audience hit was Gordon Parks Sr.'s Shaft (1971/trailer)—both are early classics of the genre, although neither carries the force and anger of the first truly undisputed masterpiece of modern, political black filmmaking Mario Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971/trailer). Still, they are amongst the classic Blaxploitation films that every true fan of the genre (or of film history in general) should see at least once. Other classics of the genre also include (but are not limited to) Gordon Parks Jr.'s Super Fly (1972/trailer), William Crain's decidedly trashier movie Blacula (1971/trailer)—although his undervalued and forgotten Dr Black and Mr Hyde (1976/trailer) is actually more fun—and the film that this blog entry is actually about: Jack Hill's exploitation masterpiece (among many), Coffy (1973).

Coffy is the product of white boy Jack Hill, who was a 40-year-old low-budget sleaze specialist by the time he got pulled in to write and direct Coffy, which is only one of many excellent films he put his fingers to. An undeservedly forgotten filmmaker, Hill pretty much dropped out of filmmaking by the end of the polyester decade to go New Age. But prior to his discovery of meditation, he directed an interesting array of exploitation films, the most notable being Spider Baby (1968/trailer), The Big Doll House (1971/trailer), The Big Bird Cage (1972/trailer), Foxy Brown (1973/trailer) and Switchblade Sisters (1975/trailer). A specialist in trash movies, even his worst films generally serve up a decent portion of everything slime-film lovers want: violence and tits. But Coffy is in no way his worst film; in fact, alongside Spider Baby, it is surely his best. Coffy is a groundbreaking and true Blacksploitation classic that, until the DVD revolution, one tended to read about more often than to see. But, once Tarentino rehabilitated the film’s director by claiming Jack Hill as one of his biggest influences, Coffy suddenly became rather easy to find. And that’s how it should be, for Coffy is some fine trash that definitely is worth renting. Sleaze? Sure it is—but top notch sleaze, to say the least.

A vigilante film, Coffy not only beat Death Wish (trailer) to the theaters by a full year, but it also almost makes Charles Bronson's legendary film seem like a television movie in comparison. Beautiful Pam "Mammary" Grier does a true star-making turn as the movie’s title character. Her eye-sizzling attributes of an Afro-American Venus, combined with a solid script that barrels along at full speed and Jack Hill’s equally competent direction, combine to make Coffy a Blaxploiation masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed. The original posters and newspaper adverts for Pam Grier's first lead role say Coffy is "the baddest one chick hit-squad that ever hit town," and she spends most of the film justifying the description, when she isn't baring her bodacious boobs. Within the first ten minutes, we don't just get to see some teasing cleavage followed by a delicious nipple peeking when she appears as (seemingly) a strung-out but hot-looking babe willing to spread her legs for a couple of sleazebags in exchange for a fix, but we're graphically treated to her blowing a drug dealer's head off with a double barreled shot gun and then forcing a junkie to shoot up bad drugs. (An audacious introduction to a movie hero if there ever was one—she does all that before we even know the driving force behind her actions.)

A pretty innocuous sounding title song from jazz man Roy Ayers pops in for the credits, and then it's on with some prime sleaze, liberally peppered with pathos and more tits than normally seen in a non-porn film from the 70s. Coffy is an ER nurse out for some revenge after some tainted shit sent her 11-yearold sister catatonic. Between working, committing homicide and giving her wanna-be congressman boyfriend Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw) blowjobs, Coffy spends her time brooding whether her actions are morally justifiable or not, hanging out at the rehab clinic where her sister stares at the walls or chilling with her childhood (ex) sweetheart Carter Brown (William Elliott). Carter is an honest cop who later unwittingly plants the seed in Coffy's head that the only real way to stop the drugs is not at the bottom with the pushers but at the top with drug lords. Carter gets a baseball bat to his head (and Coffy gets her love pillows manhandled) when he refuses to be bought by the Las Vegas mob moving into town, so Coffy's doesn't need est to get motivated or lose the last of her qualms. In a bikini and to the sound of someone singing "He's a pimp, he's a pusher" she hooks up with King George (Robert Do Qui, remembered by most people—if at all—as Sergeant Reed in the RoboCop films), becomes part of his stable of hot hussies and manages to switch all his heroin for sugar. One catfight later in which Grier manages to pull down the tops of every attacking hooker in the room she has a date with the woman-beating top man of the operation, and soon she is crawling across the floor gun in hand to blow away his balls. Unluckily for her, she gets stopped by his men, who recognize her from the night they fondled her boobs and made Carter a vegetable. Thinking King George set them up, they promptly take care of King George for Coffy and, after revealing to her that even her man Howard is on everything, take her out to be eliminated. After shooting her up with King George's "heroin," bad boy Omar (cult character actor Sid Haig) decides to bonk the babe in the dirt under an overpass and gets a sharpened hair pin through his jugular as a reward. Within twenty minutes, everyone but Coffy meets their maker, our avenging angle walking off into the sunrise to the sound of someone singing "It's not the end it's the beginning."

One of the first and the few Blaxploitation films that features a strong female main character, for all its exploitative elements—and there are a lot—the film still portrays Coffy as one strong, intelligent woman that knows how to get what she wants. And if some women decry how Coffy uses her curves and physical desirability to do so—and is thus just another male fantasy as a result—they simply fail to take into account that she uses the same weapons that such fantasy film figures as James Bond or Shaft use to get what they want: their natural sexual attractiveness. She is far less an easy lay than a powerful woman who knows just how idiotically one-track a man's mind is, and she merely uses the simplest of weapons to take advantage of their weakest spot. That her fabulous love pillows billow so much in the process simply adds "realism". (The realism might have been heightened—and a greater level of equality achieved—had a pickle shot or two been included in the film, but back then—like now—the general masses of the USA were deadly frightened by penises.) True, her natural, 100% non-silicon curves are displayed in this film to an extent that such beauty is seldom shown in a whitebread mainstream release, but hell, as a result it is only all the more easier to understand why the men in Coffy do dumb things when she jiggles in their direction... something that cannot be said of all the women that get wet and swoon in desire whenever Roger Moore (the James Bond of the time) merely glances at them.

Regrettably, in all truth, as strong as Coffy is throughout the film, the last scene in the movie undermines every woman-empowering aspect of her personality. Whereas her previous actions were driven by anger and desperation resulting from the drugs and violence around her, the last person she blows away she kills not out of moral rage but due to the anger of a spurred woman: while she almost caves in to Howard’s smooth justifications of his involvement in the mafia, when the half-naked white chick strolls out of his bedroom cooing his name, she blows him away out of simple jealousy.

Nonetheless, Coffy is a film that has to be seen. Do so, now. And now that we have Obama as our president, isn’t it about time Pam Grier got a star on Hollywood Boulevard?

The Mummy Theme Park (Italy, 2000)

The Mummy Theme Park is without a doubt a unique film. Were Tim Burton a talentless hack lacking both vision and irony (and money) but still enamored with the use of miniatures, set pieces and matte backdrops, he might possibly have made movies like this one. But luckily, Mr Burton is not only talented but is also gifted with both a filmic vision and a supreme sense of irony, so it is doubtful he shall ever sink to the level of this filmic atrocity (although, in truth, he did misplace all his creative assets once, when he made Planet of the Apes (2001/trailer)).
Massimiliano Cerchi (aka Al Passeri), the Italian behind The Mummy Theme Park, however, is obviously not a talented individual, for although it could be argued that the film does evidence some sort of individual vision, the film nonetheless displays absolutely no irony or directorial or narrative aptitude. It is a cinematic travesty that almost defies description, a film so dilettantish and idiotic that it is painful to watch. Worse, The Mummy Theme Park doesn't even work on a “so bad its good” level because it was obviously made to be bad by design. A bad mistake, for one of the key secret ingredients behind almost all enjoyable bad films is that they were not made to be bad on purpose. A key aspect to such classic flotsam like that made by Ed Wood, Lee Frost, Ted V. Mykels or Al Adamson or to such anti-masterpieces of yesteryear like the original Reefer Madness (1936/trailer) or The Beginning of the End (1956/trailer), Showgirls (1995/trailer) or even Striptease (1996/trailer) is that the films were serious cinematic attempts, the best possible product that those involved were able to make. The otherworldliness that such classics of bad film exude is something that actually requires great talent to be recreated consciously — but, as was mentioned before, Mr. Cerchi is not particularly talented.
An earthquake in Egypt opens a rift in the desert and reveals a long-lost, underground city of Necropolis. Sheik El Sahid (Cyrus Elias, whose career of small parts defies his thespian talents) decides to convert the city of the dead into an underground Mummy Theme Park, despite the curse on the entranceway that promises death to all those that disturb the peace of the dead. To publicize his venture, the Sheik brings two obnoxiously dislikable photographers, Dan (Adam O'Neil) and Julie (Holly Laningham), over from the US. The sheik has made the mummies bionic, controlled by chips implanted in their heads. But when Dan starts snapping his photographs, the flash of his camera has the unexpected effect of causing the mummies to go out of control. After way too many un-funny and overly extended scenes, the shit hits the fan and the rift closes and more-or-less everyone but Dan and Julie die...
As a whole, The Mummy Theme Park comes across like some sort of unwatchable kiddy film interspaced with some of the worst CGI beheadings and slicings ever done, an effective man-pukes-out-his-insides scene, a single scene of limited nudity (a photo shoot meant to exemplify the photographic talent of the film's hero), and one scene of a sliming mummy. The use of miniatures is mildly interesting at first, but they quickly lose all effectiveness because Cerchi not only reuses the same shots too often but also continually (and consciously) draws attention to his cost-saving activities. The acting is as equally ghastly as the direction, which could explain why most of the "actors" involved in this eyesore have yet to make another film.
Definitely not an undiscovered “bad” classic, The Mummy Theme Park is a direct-to-dvd Z-film that is best left on the shelf.

The Intruder (USA, 1961)


(A.k.a. The Stranger, Shame, I Hate Your Guts.) A forgotten and completely unexpected minor masterpiece of social realism from the king of teenage exploitation, Roger Corman, who, after almost a decade of directing exploitation and trash decided to make a message film. Taking place in the Deep South, but actually filmed Missouri (which nitpickers refer to as the Mid-South), and starring an at that time young, unknown William Shatner, this Corman film is a far cry from the commercially successful exploitation films he had made up until that point, even if the film's budget of $100,000.00 placed the film squarely into Corman's realm of low budget filmmaking. Written by Charles Beaumont, who was not only a regular Twilight Zone contributor and script writer of a variety of Corman’s Poe films, but also played the school's principal in the film, the story itself had originally been inspired by a 1957 article in Look magazine narrating the actions of one John Casper, who had tried to subvert the integration of schools in Clinton, Tennessee. An angry, unsettling film that leaves a nasty, embarrassed aftertaste in one's mouth, The Intruder ended up being one of Corman's first box office failures, despite having both won an award at the Venice Film Festival and receiving positive critical attention. 
Filmed in black and white, the film opens with William Shatner, as the sleazily charming racist Adam Cramer, arriving in a small southern town still angry at being forced to desegregate the local school. Proud of being "free, white and American," Cramer begins a virtual game of chess using the town's people's emotions and racist hatred to stir up an hornet's nest of malevolence which results in, amongst other things, the revival of the KKK, the half-blinding of the town's mildly liberal newspaper editor, the bombing of a black church and the near-lynching of a young, innocent black student. From the moment the sweet little old lady who runs the local hotel starts talking about "niggas," one knows that The Intruder isn't a feel good film. By the end of The Intruder, the viewer can't help but be sickened by the innate stupidity of the ass-backwards attitude of the town's population (and racists in general). Shatner, who loses his accent occasionally, does nonetheless a convincing job as an amoral, power hungry and smooth-operating manipulator unable to control the very forces and power he instigates and so craves. The townspeople themselves, played by the actual inhabitants of Charleston, are also convincing, if only because, in all likelihood, they only were expressing what they actually believed. (Beaumont, for example, instigated unintentional problems and got labeled a "blonde nigger lover" for sharing a cup of coffee with his black co-star, while Shatner himself recollects that in general during the filming, "(Their) lives were threatened.")
The film is
slightly flawed by an unconvincing "happy" ending, but by the unnerving last 10 minutes, when Shatner loses control of the mob/monster that he has created and they begin to beat and emotionally torture the young black man they obviously plan to lynch, the overall accumulative effect of The Intruder is so disturbingly sickening that the inconsistency remains virtually unnoticed. (I, for one, find it unconvincing that the crowd would feel ashamed about their original intentions of lynching the student when it is revealed that Shatner had set the young man up for something he didn't do, especially when one considers that some townspeople had already bombed the local black community's church, killing the minister.)
All said, The Intruder is a brutal, sickening and powerful film that deserves rediscovery. Watch it, now.

The Ghost of Mae Nak (Thailand, 2005)

(Trailer.) The latest version of the tragic ghost story of Mae Nak Phra Khanong—or simply Mae Nak—one of Thailand’s most popular and well-known ghost stories. Supposedly based on true events, there is even a shrine to Mae Nak to be found in Bangkok. According to the story, while her husband Mak is away at war, Mae Nak dies in childbirth (as does the child). But when the unknowing Mak returns home, he finds his loving wife and new child waiting for him. Neighbors that try to tell of the truth meet terrible ends at the hands of Mae Nak, who is so in love with her husband that she cannot leave him even in death. Once he does indeed finally learn the truth, he takes refuge in a temple, where the ghost cannot enter, and then a bunch of other stuff happens before things end. But before it ends, a monk cuts an oval from her skull to make a brooch for his belt (somehow this is to ensure that she never rises again), but over the centuries since then the brooch has gone lost...

As of yet, the most internationally and artistically successful film version of the story—of which there is said to be 20 versions to date—is Nonzee Nimibutr's 1997 film entitled Nang Nak. A hit both in Thailand and abroad, somewhere along the line the British cinematographer Mark Duffield caught the film and decided that the story would be the good basis of a teenager-oriented, Thai body-count film. He did some research on the story and wrote the script, had it translated into Thai, and in 2005 The Ghost of Mae Nak, his directorial debut, hit the screens of Thailand. And now it is available on DVD.

The updated version that Duffield serves up is set in modern-day Bangkok and tells the story of Nak (Pataratida Pacharawirapong) and Mak (Siwat Chotchaicharin), a young couple in love that are in search of a house of their own where they can move to once married. Luck comes their way in the form of an old fixer-upper proffered by a fat and sleazy real-estate man named Angel (Meesak Nakarat). Little do they know that it is the very house that Mae Nak (Thai model Porntip Papanai) once lived, and that their own great love has seemingly awoken her. (Or, perhaps, the new Mak is a reincarnation of the old Mak—the what and why of Mae Nak’s awakening is never truly satisfactorily explained—in the opening teaser scene, she is even the protagonist horror of new Mak's nightmare, although the couple have yet to come into contact with the house. In any event, something awakens the ghost of Mak.) Along the way, Mak decides to buy an old bone brooch for Nak, which just happens to turn out to be the very one made from Mae Nak's forehead. (What a coincidence, huh?) Once married, criminals break into the house and steal everything they own. Mak stumbles upon one of the crooks as he tries to sell some of the stolen goods; Mak promptly gets run over by the crook and for the rest of the film lies in a coma in the hospital. The ghost, in the meantime, first kills everyone that in anyway threatens the life of Nak and Mak and then possesses Mak, obviously with the intention of taking him with her as her new love. It is up to Nak to save her beloved husband by finding Mae Nak's buried remains—which she actually does with the first hole she has a helpful friend dig for her—and save his life my returning the oval bone brooch to the skull.

The Ghost of Mae Nak is actually influenced by films like Final Destination II (2003/trailer) as much as it is by the original Thai legend, for it enjoys some truly hilarious gore sequences as the body count grows. The film is in no way an earthshaking cinematic experience, and has some obvious budgetary deficits, but as a teenager-oriented horror film it functions well enough. The differences in the Thai culture from that of the West is continually obvious in the film, and this actually is a great asset, for it gives what is in the end a relatively derivative but mildly entertaining gore film an added flavour. The acting is nicely subdued for a Thai film, and Duffield keeps a sure hand on the direction, even if some of the horror bits are hilariously over the top—the roomful of medical staff that is frozen aloft by some sort of magical electrical storm coming from the possessed Mak's mouth is absolutely guffaw-inducing, for example. There are a few proper scares, usually in the form of the sudden appearance of the long-haired, pale ghost of Mak in the typical fashion of contemporary Japanese ghost flicks, and some fabulous splatter set pieces that are as funny as they are disgusting. The ending is groan-enduringly happy—the dead Mak saved and revived—and a typically ambiguous final scene infers that more might follow. In general, were it not a Thai flick, The Ghost of Mae Nak would be a bomb, but it is exactly because it is a Thai flick and so many cultural differences keep popping up that the film’s derivativeness becomes more palatable. Still, in the end, it is hardly imperative viewing.

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