Views & Reviews From Writer Steve Miller
Formerly Reviews and Stuff at Rotten Tomatoes, 2005 - 2009.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Samurai

Fighting Mad (aka "Death Force") (1978)
Starring: James Inglehart, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Carmen Argenziano, and Jayne Kennedy
Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Doug (Inglehart) and two other American soldiers (Kennedy and Argenziano) are returning home from Vietnam with a cache of gold earned by working with the black market when his partners-in-crime betray him and throw him into the ocean for dead. Rescued and befriended by a pair of soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army who have been living secretly on an isolated South Sea island, Doug is taught the ways of Samurai. Eventually making his way back to the States, he reunites with his wife (Jayne Kennedy) and sets about taking revenge on the men who betrayed him, by first dismantling the criminal empire they've built and then taking their lives.

"Fighting Mad" has all the making of a REALLY bad movie. When Doug was rescued by a pair of Japanese soldiers who didn't know WW2 was over, I was certain I was in for a stupid movie as well as a bad one. However, as ludicrous as the notion of him just happening to wash up on a desert island with a pair of old Japanese soldiers (one of whom just happens to be an honest-to-gosh samurai), it all worked.

Full of 1970s-ism such as pimps in big hats, Italian gangsters loving restaurants, references to Black Muslims, vengeful martial artists, and corrupt, twisted Vietnam veterans, this film turns out to be a rather engaging revenge flick. The Japanese soldiers turn out to be more charming than laughable, and the training period that Doug goes through is one that starts to feel believable. The same is true of the rise to power of the Vietnam vets turned Los Angeles crimelords in an age when gangsters still had a veneer of businessmen about them. The movie overall is a rather engaging, old-fashioned crime/martial arts fantasy with the villains who are such nasty pieces of work that it's a delight to watch our hero--reformed by the tutalage of an honorable warrior and the love he has for his wife and child--take them apart.

If the editing of the film had been just a tiny bit less abrupt--it seemed like there were only two establishing shots in the whole movie--this could have easily have rated a Seven or perhaps even an Eight on the Tomato-scale. The script was well done, tne acting good, and the action well-staged.

"Fighting Mad" is a movie that anyone who enjoyed "Kill Bill" or movies like it. It's also a movie that carries with it a curiously modern message of racial harmony, something that wasn't exactly common in "drive-in" type movies like this one back then. The man villains are a white and a black man working together with hired muscle that's mostly Italian or Hispanic, while the hero is trained by Japanese on the desert island, teams with a Japanese cabbie Stateside, and is helped along in his quest for revenge by one of the few white cops not bought off by the villains.

(Oh.. if someone out there reading this knows Brian De Palma, point this movie out to him. It's got those corrupt, murderous United States soldiers he's so fond of telling the world about. Maybe "Fighting Mad" will become a favorite and he'll be inspired to make a movie that's entertaining.)

"Fighting Mad" is included in several different low-priced DVD multipacks. It can also occasionally be found under its original title "Death Force."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Werewolf Hunter

The Beast Must Die (aka "Black Werewolf") (1974)
Starring: Calvin Lockhart, Anton Diffring, Peter Cushing, Marlene Clark, Michael Gambon, Tom Chadbon, Ciaran Madden, and Charles Gray
Director: Paul Annett
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Arrogant big game hunter and self-made millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Lockhart) has invited six guests to his isolated estate to spend the weekend with himself and his wife (Clark). Once they are present, he reveals that his land and house has been transformed into a high-tech prison, and that he believes one of his guests is a werewolf... and that he intends to hunt and kill that person once he or she transforms. Together with his security expert (Diffring) and a scholar who specializes in the illness of lycanthropy (Cushing), Newcliffe watches and waits to hunt the most dangerous game of all.

"The Beast Must Die" is a nicely executed merge of the thriller, horror, and mystery genres. (Some even like to throw in "blaxploitation" as an included genre, but, frankly, I don't think it fits that category. The lead character happens to be black, but that's as far as it goes.)

The script is fast-paced, the dialogue witty, and usual game of "spot the werebeast" that is so common in werewolf movies is heightened here by the Christie-esque "Ten Little Indians" aspect of the story. The only really questionable part of the script is some faulty logic on the part of Newcliffe: He's invited these guests, and he's convinced that one of them is a werewolf. Given the mysterious violence that's followed at least three of them around the world, why is he certain that just one who is a werewolf? Why not two, or even all three?

The big-name cast all do an excellent job in their parts, although Lockhart delivers an over-the-top performance that should earn him a place in the Ham Hall of Fame, and Cushing's supposedly Swedish accent is very dodgey on more than one occassion. The camerawork and direction are also very well done... they even manage to make the made-up dog that serves as the werewolf pretty scary at times.

Two big strikes against the film, though, are its score--which mostly consists of annoying, inapproriate, very 1970s jazz music--and the gimmicky "werewolf break" toward the end of the film where the film stops for 30 seconds to allow the audience to "be the detective and guess the werewolf." (According to an interview with the director on the most recent DVD release, this gimmick was added during post-production. Frankly, it shows... there really aren't enough clues provided to effectively guess who the werewolf is before the film itself reveals the beast's identity.)

Despite its warts, this film is an excellent little movie that should entertain lovers of horror films and detective thrillers alike. (Heck, you might even be smarter than me, and you might be able to successfully pick up on clues and guess the werewolf!)

For more reviews of films featuring Peter Cushing, visit The Peter Cushing Collection by clicking here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Too late to apologize....

Pop meets the Declaration of Independence...

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Non-Racist War Movie
(or so Spike Lee would have us believe)

Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Starring: Laz Alonso, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller, Mateo Sciabordi, Valentina Cervi, Omero Antonutti and Pierfrancesco Favino
Director: Spike Lee
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Four African American soldiers (Alonso, Ealy, Luke and Miller), trapped deep behind
enemy lines in WW II Italy struggle to find their way back to safety, along with a traumatized boy (Sciabordi) one of them has adopted. Their efforts are complicated by German commanders attempting to cover up a war atrocity, a band of Italian partisans and even racism on the part of their commanding officer.

"Miracle at St. Anna" is a very, very long movie. At almost three hours, I went in fearing it might be too long. However, it kept me engaged for its entire running time and only once was a I concerned the film might be getting ready to stall. (And the scene in question is also the only one I think should have been cut. Everything else in the film was spot-on, and I think the reviews I've read that say the film feels like a rough cut have come from people who don't know what they're talking about.)

Spike Lee creates a very effective war movie, a film far more effective and nowhere near the racist screed I feared it would be based on Lee's idiotic comments during his efforts to promote the film.

Instead, what we have is a very evenhanded picture that shows there were some evil racist bastards in the American command hierarchy but there were also professional white officers who viewed the Buffalo Soldiers as comrade-in-arms deserving of every bit of respect and consideration and support as anyone else fighting on the American side in the war. Heck, one of the most unprofessional officers in the film is a black 2nd Lieutenant; he may not get people killed the way the racist, incompetent company commander does, but is one of the most cowardly and dishonest characters portrayed on the American side in the entire movie. (Perhaps this is what upset some critics... Lee had a Bad Black Man in the film?)

Speaking of bad men and being upset, just before the film opened, there was a minor to-do among old Italian men who felt the film unfairly portrayed the Italian Partisans. I think they should lay off the lattes or perhaps take some anti-psychotic medication, because there is nothing in the film that's unfair to the Italian Partisans. Like the American soldiers in the film, like the German soldiers in the film, like the innocent Italian civilians caught in the middle of the war, like every other group of characters in the movie Lee shows that there are good people and bad people in all groups and he does this by drawing very believable portraits of his characters. There is one rotten--a VERY rotten Partisan--in the film but the is one of them who turns out to be a traitor. (And even this traitor comes across as realistic, because if you actually pay attention to the movie, you learn that he has what some might describe as valid reasons for his treachery.) Lee was absolutely right when he told the Italian press he had nothing to apologize for with this movie; it's a shame screenwriter James McBride didn't take a similar stance.

The film isn't perfect--there's a discussion of religion between two characters that could and should have been cut at one point and there's ongoing talk of a local legend about The Sleeping Man that never properly pays off--but overall "Miracle at St. Anna" is an excellent war drama that's populated with engaging characters that you will come to care deeply about. The three-hour running time is well worth it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Sidekick Smarter Than Hero

King of the Zombies (1941)

Starring: Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland, John Archer, Joan Woodbury and Henry Victor
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Mac (Purcell), Bill (Archer), and Jeff (Moreland) are forced to land on a mysterious island after their plane runs low on fuel. Here, they find a mysterious family who aren't at all what they seem... and who are the center of a Nazi cult of undeath.

"King of the Zombies" is one of those movies that you should not show to your ultra-liberal, hyper-PC friends. Their heads will explode when Moreland (as Jeff, friend and loyal servant to adventuresome pilot, Mac) starts in on his stereotypical, subserviant negro comedy routine--a character that was typical in this sort of film through the mid-1940s.

There's a difference here, however. Unlike most films where the black comic relief character is a cowardly goof who needs the guidance and protection of the dashing, capable white hero to get safely through the night, it's actually Jeff who recognizes the danger faced by the heroes. If Mac and Bill weren't a pair of racist jackasses, who dismiss everything that Jeff has to say without even the slightest bit of consideration, there would have been fewer lives lost as the trio struggles against the Nazi zombie master.

Unfortunately, I doubt the filmmakers were aware of this irony, either while reading the script, during shooting, or while assembling the final product. If they were, it goes unnoticed by any character in the film. Given the overall lack of quality in this too-slowly-paced, mostly badly acted low-budget part horror/part wartime propaganda film, I am almost certain the juxtaposition of the very clever black character against the dull-witted white heroes is a complete accident.

I can't really recommend "King of the Zombies", but I do think Mantan Moreland's performance is an excellent one, as he has great comedic timing and a whole raft of truly hilarious lines. The fact that Jeff ultimately emerges as the brightest character in the film is also something that's noteworthy, and I think it gives the film a unique twist.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Vampire

Blacula (1972)
Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasalala and Denise Nicholas
Director: William Crain
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When an African prince (Marshall) resists Dracula's attempt to feed on him and his wife (McGee), Dracula curses him to be a vampire like himself. One hundred years later, Dracula's curse is unleashed upon an unsuspecting Los Angeles as "Blacula's" coffin is moved there from Transylvania and opened

"Blacula" is a funky (in ever sense of that word), modern Dracula tale told through the well-polished lense of 1970s blaxploitiation. Much of this must have been goofy to the audiences in 1972, and it's only gotten goofier with the passage of time.

That said, the pacing and acting featured in "Blacula" is actually better than many "straight" vampire movies from that same decade, and similarly superior to what you find in most other films of the blaxploitation genre. The script is also more interesting overall.

Classically trained Shakespearian actor William Marshall is particularly excellent as the African prince Mamuwalde who fell victim to Dracula's curse while visiting his castle, giving a performance that elevates the character above the cartoon it could have so easily become onto a level where the audience feels sympathy for him. Marshall gives us a character that is driven more by anger at his situation than bloodlust--and what culturally refined black man wouldn't be angry waking up in 1972 to find himself surrounded by giant 'fros and even larger heels, vampire or no?--but he also makes the pain felt by Mamuwalde come straight home to the viewer and makes us buy into the story of love lost that really ends up giving this movie a punch.

If you liked Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula", I think you'll probably enjoy "Blacula". Coppola's film has more in common with this than it does Bram Stoker's novel.

"Blacula" is also a film that will enliven any Bad Movie Night. With its blend of horror, blaxploitation, romance, and goofiness (both intentional and unintentional), it's a film you can't go wrong with.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Sheriff

Blazing Saddles (1974)
Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Hedley Lamar, Madeline Khan, and Mel Brooks
Director: Mel Brooks
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

A villainous political boss (Lamar) bent on ruining a small frontier town for his personal gain appoints a black sheriff (Little). Comedy and satire without bounds ensue.

"Blazing Saddles" is one of Mel Brook's greatest films. Using the framework of a traditional horse opera, the film spoofs westerns, modern societal conventions, liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites, racists, bigots, and just about about anyone else you can think of. It's so crammed with satirical bite that the western genre can't even hold it, and the final minutes of the film is one of the best fourth-wall sequences to ever be put on film.

There isn't a single misfire in this film. The casting is perfect all-around, and all actors give hilarious performances. The script is perfectly paced. The jokes all work--even if many of the skew toward the 4th-grade boy level of humor... but who can possible not laugh during the campfire scene?

The only people who don't laugh themselves sick while watching "Blazing Saddles" are those who are pathelogically obsessed with political correctness, prudes, and dead people. The rest of us will have a great time with this classic comedy.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Fusion of Hiphop and Martial Arts

The Last Dragon (1985)
Starring: Tiamak, Vanity, Christopher Murney, Julius Carry, Faith Prince, Mike Starr and Leo O'Brien
Director: Michael Schultz
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Leroy Green (Tiamak), a young martial artist hoping to reach the ultimate level of Kung Fu and spirituality is instructed by his master to seek the mysterious philosopher Sum Dum Goi in New York City's Chinatown. But between the young man and enlightenment stand the vicious Shogun of Harlem, Sho'Nuff (Carry) and a crazed would-be music producer (Murney), and romance with a gorgeous VJ (Vanity).

"The Last Dragon" is a fun fusion of music, Kung Fu and comedy. I had fond memories of watching this film as a kid and, seeing it again, I was surprised at what had remained with me. It wasn't the kooky characters, it wasn't the Chinese Wiggers, it wasn't even the big fight scenes that close out the movie... no, the thing that stuck with me was the dark secret surrounding by Sum Dum Goi.

I'm not sure why that part of the film stuck with me--it's actually a fairly minor element--but maybe I was startled and amazed by the revelation when I was kid, perhaps even as shocked and disappointed as Leroy when he discovers the truth. But, seeing the film as an adult, I immediately saw that the truth about Sum Dum Goi was telegraphed from the first mention of his name.

Although this film is very much a product of its time, I think it's a movie that kids might be able to enjoy today, as well as a film that adults who are young at heart (or who grew up in the 1980s) might be able to have lots of fun with.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Blacksploitation Flick

Febuary is Black History Month in the United States. I'm celebrating it by calling the world's attention to cinematic milestones in Black History across all my various review blogs. Look for the "Black History Month" tag and join in the celebration by checking out the movies reviews!

Ten Minutes to Live (aka "Ten Minutes to Kill") (1932)
Starring: Lawrence Chenault, Mabel Garrett, A.B. Comathiere, and Willor Lee Guilford
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Rating: Three of Ten (but see note at the end)

"Ten Minutes to Live" is a brief anthology film--perhaps the first American-made anthology film--that highlights the sort of B-list movies that were being made as films with sound oblitarated silent movies and the careers most of the actors that performed in them. In both tales in the film, it's clear that one of things director and screenwriter Micheaux is doing is simply showing off the presense of sound. Both tales also very clearly show evidence of silent movie techniques, with the second half being obviously a silent movie that has been hastily and rather badly converted a talkie.

The first tale, "The Faker" is mostly a collection of Harlem nightclub routines (several performances by a troup of dancing girls, a couple of songs--with one being performed by the very sexy and talented Mabel Garrett, and a lame comedy act that shows that even black comedians were made up in something akin to black face when doing stand-up Back in the Day) with a paper-thin and badly acted plot featuring a con-man and abuser of women (Chenault) finally getting what's coming to him as he zeroes in on two new victims, including nightclub performer Ida Morton (Garrett).

The second tale, "The Killer", starts with a woman receiving a note from a pair of thugs as she sits with her date at a table in the night club. The note announces she has ten minutes to live. A flashback then follows, relating to us how she came to be in her present, perilous situation... and what follows is a standard silent movie melodramatic crime drama that's been retooled to show off sound. For example, car sounds have been added to a street sequence, and the sound of crowds in a train station. The sound effects aren't all that well done, the looping is painfully obvious, and the silent movie is still very much a slient movie. (I did appreciate the scene with Willor Lee Guilford changing from her dress into a skimpy nightgown and robe, even if I could have done without the strip-tease music that kicked at that time.)

In 1932, I'm sure the mostly rural black audiences for whom this film was made were awed by the sounds it feeatures. In 2007, however, "Ten Minutes to Live" is of interest only to fillm historians and historians of black nightclub acts the early 1930s.

In "The Faker", the interludes with actors thrown in between nightclub acts are really just an excuse to show us the nightclub acts, The filmmaker was plainly first and foremost interested in bringing music and dancing and singing (and the sounds of all these) to the patrons of movie-houses, some of whom might never make it to the glamorous Harlem nightclubs, but who could now enjoy all the sights and sounds of being there. The best portion of it is Mabel Garrett's song and dance act... but she never should have opened her mouth in an attempt to act. With the sound down, her scene with Chenault as he convinces her he's a famous movie producer is decent enough, but she can't deliver a line if her life depended on it. Chenault isn't much better, and they demonstrate why so many silent movie actors lost their careers with the advent of sound. (I hope Garrett did well as a singer, though. She was beautiful and sexy enough, and she had a great voice.) For movie lovers, "The Faker is a complete bust, but if you want to see what routines would appear at Harlem nightclubs in the 1920s and early 1930s, it;s worth seeing.

With "The Killer", we get a muddled storyline that's decently enough performed and filmed as far as silent movies go, but it's undermined by a hackneyed attempt to add sound to it. The badly acted sequences of Guilford in the nightclub with her date aren't terribly destructive... it's the flatly delivered, badly written lines that are delivered by characters off-screen as a mad stalker lurks atop a staircase, and the obvious looping of traffic sounds and badly staged crowd "chatter" that's going to bug viewers. The upshot is that what could have been the better half of this film is dragged down by a "gee-whiz" factor that has been left behind by history. If you want to see a well-done conversion of a silent movie to a talkie, check out Alfred Hitchcock's "Blackmail."

"Ten Minutes to Live" is not a film for the average viewer anymore. Film students should check it out, because it was the product of a pioneer in the filmmaking biz--Oscar Micheaux was the first black director to make a feature length film, a dedicated fighter for independent filmmakers, and a champion for portraying blacks on film as they really were--and because this is also one of the very earliest anthology films, but the rest of us can safely skip it.

Note: The copy I viewed was severely degraded, and I suspect that there aren't any out there in much better shape. One of the benefits of the DVD and digital storage in general is that films like this one get preserved. It may be a movie that time has left behind, but I think it's a valuable historical artifact, both for its documentation of the nightclub acts, and for its place in the evolution of America's race relations and the art of filmmaking. As a historical artifact, this film gets an Eight of Ten rating, but as a movie to entertain modern audiences, it gets a Three of Ten rating.)