The Muthers

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“Jolly rogered.”

This is a strange cross-breed between a blaxploitation flick, a pirate movie and a women-in-prison film. Then again, a lot of the seventies films coming out of the Philippines tended to be at least somewhat bizarre, and this is likely no exception. The titular gang are pirates, led by Kelly (Bell) and Anggie (Katon), who roam what appears to be the Caribbean, going by the mention of Santo Domingo, but is actually in the Eastern hemisphere, boarding and robbing unsuspecting vessels, and fighting with a rival band of brigands using their kung-fu skills. However, Kelly’s sister goes missing, and is tracked down to a coffee farm belonging to the evil Monteiro (Carreon), which he runs in the manner of a pre-Civil War Southern plantation. Our heroines go undercover, only to discover getting out will be tougher than getting in.

It starts off in fine form, coming over as a modern, urban version of a sixties swashbuckler, and it’s a shame it didn’t stick to this premise, which would have offered something rather innovative. Instead, from the time Kelly and Anggie – yes, there is apparently an extra “g” in there – show up on the farm, it goes down too well-worn a path, with sadistic guards, fellow inmates who cozy up to their captors, and showers. Lots of showers. After the expected breakout attempts, recaptures and punishments, things eventually end in an equally expected riot, enlivened somewhat by the unexpected return appearance of the rival pirates, as allies of Monteiro,

muthersBoth Bell and Katon had worked with Santiago before, in T.N.T. Jackson and Ebony, Ivory & Jade respectively, and make a decent impression here. I’ve read a few other reviews that rip into this for poor-quality action, yet I can’t say I hated that aspect too much. Sure, there are times, particularly for any acrobatic moments, where the doubling is not exactly well-concealed. But there are other times where they’re putting in their fair share of effort, and should be appreciated for that. It is, if not quite tame, rather less sleazy than some on Santiago’s offerings. At first, I thought this was because I was watching it on Turner Classic Movies (yes, a refreshingly broad definition of “classic”!), but turns out to be fairly mild. Mind you, Bell’s ultra skin-tight top doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination there!

On the whole though, I’d have preferred if it had stuck with the pirate theme present at the beginning, which was a good deal fresher than the rote WiP fodder served up in the middle. Maybe I’m just grumpy because I did lose a bet with the wife: on seeing a guard tower overlooking the workers’ huts, I predicted it would later explode in a giant fireball, as a guard falls from it. I am disappointed to report that this simple pleasure was with-held from me. Sheesh, what is the world coming to, when a film from the golden age of Phillsploitation can’t even deliver on this expectation?

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon, Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy

Friday Foster

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“Thank God It’s Not Friday…”

Friday_Foster_PosterI was quite surprised to realize this was actually adapted from a nationally-syndicated comic strip, the first to have a black woman – indeed, a black character of any kind – as its focus. However, by the time the film came out, in 1975, the strip had already come to an end, running from 1970-74; despite it’s groundbreaking heroine, it’s now largely forgotten. The film is too, with a title that is so bland, I nearly skipped over it entirely on Netflix. If it wasn’t for the completist in me, I’d probably have been better off doing so, for this is a very minor Grier entry, despite what is almost an all-star cast. Besides Grier and Kotto, as the poster mentions, there’s also Eartha Kitt, Carl Weathers, Jim Backus, Scatman Crothers and Rosalind Miles (the last who was in the surprisingly-decent Al Adamson flick, I Spit on your Corpse!).

Shame the storyline doesn’t really know what to do with them, meandering instead through a muddy plot that tries to make up, in whizzing from Los Angeles to Washington, what it makes up for in genuine coherence. Friday (Grier) is a photographer who is sent on New Year’s Eve to get the scoop on the unexpected return of Blake Tarr (Rasulala), the “black Howard Hughes,” she instead witnesses an assassination attempt. [I note, this is one of the few genre entries which depicts black citizens at all tiers of society, including the top of the power elite.] Shortly after, her best friend is stabbed to death at a fashion show, after intimating to Foster that something is up. You will not be surprised to hear that these things are connected, and finding the truth takes the help of a friendly private-eye (Kotto), and Friday crossing the country, before a massive shoot-out erupts on a preacher’s country estate.

However, Friday is not very much involved in this – indeed, despite the obvious flaunting of a gun in the poster, she’s disappointingly pacifist. I mean, when an assassin (Weathers) breaks into her apartment while she’s showering, she runs away. That is not the Pam Grier for which I signed up, I signed up for the one that would have kicked the assailant’s arse, strangled him with her towel, then calmly returned to her shower. I was kinda amused by the way she steals cars at will – first a hearse, then (of all things!) a milk-float. But as a plucky investigative heroine who steps aside and lets the men do just about all actual fighting necessary, she’s more like Brenda Starr than Foxy Brown. Aside from Grier’s shower and the occasional N-word, this romp could just about play on TV without anyone getting too upset. And that just ain’t right.

Dir: Arthur Marks
Star: Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, Godfrey Cambridge, Thalmus Rasulala

T.N.T. Jackson

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“More of a damp squib than dynamite.”

tntjacksonDescribed in 1975 by no less than Roger Ebert as, “easily the worst movie I’ve seen this year,” Jackson concerns the investigation of the titular T.N.T. (Bell) into the disappearance of her brother in Hong Kong. It seems to have something to do with the drug-smuggling ring run by Sid (Metcalf), whose minions include Elaine (Anderson), who might not be quite what she seems, and Charlie (Shaw), the only person in Hong Kong whose Afro can rival TNT’s for size, firmness or general Afro-tastic quality.  Someone keeps hijacking Sid’s shipments, so Charlie puts together a team of the colony’s finest fighters to protect it: seeing her chance to get into the organization, T.N.T. auditions and gets a job. However, no everyone is as convinced of her innocence as Sid.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as the late Mr. Ebert (though the cover on the right likely ranks up there with the very worst visualizations of all time!), but this comes over as a lame imitation of Pam Grier’s genre entries, with a greater emphasis on martial-arts, rather than gunplay or other forms of violence. Which is kinda weird, considering that Bell was previously most famous for being the first African-American woman to be seen on the cover of Playboy. The other oddness here is that it was co-written by cult actor Dick Miller, who had a long career working for Roger Corman, in the likes of Bucket of Blood, and The Little Shop of Horrors. This was the last of his three writing credits; I guess, he figured that after this, things could only go downhill.

There are a couple of scenes of striking brutality – an early arm-breaking and the finale, where she punches her opponent’s heart out – and one, which I’m still trying to figure out if it’s empowering or racist, where T.N.T., keeps turning the lights out because she’s almost invisible in the dark. Well, as long as she doesn’t smile, I guess. The fights are pretty unimpressive, with some painfully obvious stunt doubling for Bell. Truth be told, Anderson probably fares better than the heroine in this category, and the best fight might be between the two of them in a graveyard. However, much of this has not stood the test of time well, and the film desperately needs someone like Grier, to elevate proceedings through sheer force of personality.

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Stan Shaw, Pat Anderson, Ken Metcalf
Previously capsule reviewed in the Women Who Kick Butt box-set.

Foxy Brown

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“…and I’ve got a black belt in bar-stools!”

foxyBrown (Grier) has a drug-dealing brother Link (Fargas), who works for a mob run by Steve Elias (Brown) and Katherine Wall (Loder). He tells them where to find Foxy’s boyfriend, a former undercover cop, a betrayal which leads to the latter’s death. Understandably peeved, Foxy works her way in to the gang responsible through their modelling agency, a prostitution front used to keep happy the judges and politicians who protect them. But when her presence is discovered, she’s shot up with heroin and sent off to the ranch where they package the smack. Does that stop her? Hell, no.

Following on from the success of Coffy, director Hill teamed up again with Grier – this was originally intended to be a sequel, under the original title Burn, Coffee, Burn! but AIP decided to make a new character instead, albeit with more or less the same script. There’s no shortage of grindhouse material, with neither the nudity nor the violence being soft-pedalled: interestingly, given this, the heroine doesn’t actually kill either villain, though you could certainly argue Elias, in particular, suffers a fate worse than death. The plot and characters have stood the test of time well, even the scummy Link, who has a pretty compelling explanation for his life of crime: “I’m a black man, and I don’t know how to sing, and I don’t know how to dance, and I don’t know how to preach to no congregation. I’m too small to be a football hero, and too ugly to be elected mayor.”

It’s an improvement on Coffy in a number of ways, with Grier more self-assured, and Hill apparently having a better handle on things as well. While it has been criticized for race-baiting – there are literally no good Caucasians – I’m as white as they come and it feels more like an attack on established power. The supporting cast also deserve credit, with Brown and Loder appropriately sleazy, Sid Haig being Sid Haig, and Juanita Brown deserving mention as another prostitute. Lots of moments here to treasure, including a spectacular death by propeller, Foxy hiding a gun in her afro (!), and a lesbian barroom brawl that’s glorious, which leads to the line at the top of the review. Among the dykes there, are Stephanie and Jeannie, stuntwomen from the famous Epper clan. with the latter a mentor to Zoë Bell.

But this is Grier’s show, and she carries it magnificently, even if at times it feels more like she is modelling the Foxy Brown fall collection, rather than engaging on a roaring rampage of revenge. [Some things about the seventies are likely best left there: the fashions would be one of them!] That’s a minor complaint, as what we have here is an iconic heroine, who has rarely been matched in the 40 years since, for her combination of heart and brain, courage and empathy, all wrapped up in one seriously kick-ass package.

Dir: Jack Hill
Star: Pam Grier, Peter Brown, Antonio Fargas, Kathryn Loder

Velvet Smooth

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“That’s Ms. Smooth to you…though that’s the last word to describe this atrocity!”

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: at least one, possibly more, of the points awarded to this movie only apply if you, like us, are connoisseurs of the trash aesthetic. If you delight in bad acting, poor action and technical ineptness, this is for you. Otherwise…consider yourself warned. Not to be confused with Jeannie TNT Jackson Bell, this was Johnnie Hill’s only film – and when you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why. She plays Velvet, a private investigator brought in, along with her two female sidekicks (also adept in martial arts, even if we are redefining the word “adept” here), when someone starts encroaching on a crime lord’s territory. Who is behind this? And who is behind them?

From a story point of view, it’s actually not too bad, with a bunch of twists that keep things interesting. In every other way, however, it plunges into the Marianas trench of quality; witness, in particular, the boom-mike, beginning at 27:47 minutes in, which gets screen time that most actresses would kill for. The fight sequences are woeful; half are shot from such long range, you can barely see what’s going on, and the rest…well, when you see them, you’ll know why the makers opted for the long-range technique. The foley work is especially inadequate, in particular, the sound of a drum that accompanies every punch to flesh. On at least two occasions, we had to rewind the DVD repeatedly, because we literally didn’t believe what we were seeing – and not in a “Michelle Yeoh, train, bike, Supercop” way.

I guess it’s inevitable that even such a shallow genre as blaxploitation would be a target for cheap knock-offs, made by the talentless. About the only point of vague interest is a guest slot for the wonderfully-named Emerson Boozer, 2-time Pro Bowl running back for the Jets. It’s clear why his acting career didn’t take off, and in general, you wonder how such shoddy work could ever have been considered adequate. The old saw – this movie wasn’t released, it escaped – comes to mind. I think it’d have been better if Velvet Smooth had been held in Alcatraz.

Dir: Michael Fink
Star: Johnnie Hill, Owen Watson, Frank Ruiz, Emerson Boozer

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

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“Do not confuse with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

In the 70’s, Shaw Brothers hooked up with Western studios, to various effect, e.g. the inept Dracula and the Seven Golden Vampires, made in conjunction with Hammer. Co-production works rather better here, lending genuine exotic locations, and an endless array of stuntmen, prepared to hurl themselves off things. Jones heads to HK after a couple of her minions are captured by the evil, lesbian, sword-wielding Dragon Lady (Stevens), intent on bringing down the operation, with a little local assistance.

We wondered if her astonishingly bad make-up – for which Dobson received a separate credit – was an attempt to distract from other aspects of the movie. In the end, however, we decided that in the 1970’s, everyone applied face-paint by dangling upside down and dipping their head in a vat of mixed cosmetics. It redefines “undercover”, though when you’re a 6’2″ black woman in Hong Kong, you might as well flaunt it. Between her make-up and her dress sense, Cleopatra Jones certainly does that.

Stevens provides a better nemesis for Jones than in the first movie, though everything takes a while to get going. Jones’ hench-girl (“Tanny”, aka Tim Lei – unlike the now-vanished Dobson, she was acting as recently as 1994) provides useful feistiness, despite opening the front-door before having a shower, letting the bad guys in. You just can’t get the sidekicks these days… The finale, however, is mad, with much destruction of property and extras. The sort of film that could only be made in Hong Kong, where stunt-men are cheap.

Interestingly, the HK Movie Database reckons one of them was Yuen Wo-Ping, of The Matrix fame, though there’s absolutely no bullet-time here. But at the start, when the boat is boarded, check out the first guy to climb on – is it Jackie Chan? It’s possible: at the time (1975), he wasn’t a big star. Against this, he was more associated with Golden Harvest than Shaw Brothers and…well, you think someone else would have noticed by now! But take a look.

Dir: Chuck Bail
Star: Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Tanny, Norman Fell

Coffy

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“The godmother of blaxploitation’s debut in the field.”

Neither star Grier nor director Hill were exactly strangers to the world of exploitation when they made this, but their combination here created a whole new subgenre, crossing action heroineism with black cinema. Following her would come Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and the rest, but let it be said, Coffy was the first of any significance.

It’s a robust tale – or at least one reused frequently since with minor changes. Nurse Coffy (Grier) goes after those she sees as responsible for leaving her kid sister a drug-addled vegetable, be they low-level pusher, high-level supplier or the politician in cahoots, who just happens to be her lover. There’s no hanging round here; almost before the credits have finished, we get someone’s head being blown off with a shotgun, and Hill brings a hugely gleeful air to the violence. This is perhaps exemplified best by a marvellous and justifiably classic catfight in which Coffy, razorblades hidden in her hair, takes apart an entire escort agency’s worth of hookers.

Dramatically, it’s less successful, with neither the supporting characters nor the plot holding your interest. It often borders on the painfully obvious; when her cop friend turns down a bribe, you just know he’s going to end up hooked to one of those hospital machines that goes “Beep”, and inside five minutes, yep, there he is. Beep. He then vanishes from the film shortly thereafter, though it’s never clear whether he dies or not. At least this does mean we don’t get the even more painfully cliched “flowers on the grave” sequence. But as a Pam Grier vehicle, it’s fine, and if little more than a vehicle for sex ‘n’ violence, with questionable morality and a hackneyed storyline, it is at least done enthusiastically enough to pull you along with it.

Dir: Jack Hill
Star: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert Doqui, William Elliott

Cleopatra Jones

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“Blaxploitation goes bigtime.”

The success of independent blaxploitation films inevitably let to the major studios trying to cash in, and this applied to both sexes. Jones was their response, with 6’2″ Tamara Dobson over-filling Pam Grier’s shoes, as the special agent taking on dyke drug queen Mama (Winters, chewing scenery atrociously) and police corruption, at home and abroad (“Turkey”, supposedly – I wasn’t convinced).

Still, they’ve clearly thrown a lot of money at this, and Dobson has presence in a Grace Jones sort of way, if not perhaps much acting talent. She can’t do kung-fu for toffee either, but when Shelley Winters is your nemesis, how well do you need to fight? She can spray automatic weaponry with the best of them, however, and her car – a midnight blue Corvette Stingray with a customised hydraulic roof (to avoid messing up the ‘fro), and a secret arsenal in the door panel – is also fabulous, perhaps the best ever owned by a female action heroine.

Fargas, later to make his mark as Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch, pimps memorably as Doodlebug, a role he’d later parody in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka, and despite its studio origins, didn’t sell out to The Man as much as I expected. Can’t help wishing they’d used Pam Grier though; she deserved the production values on show here, and they deserve a better actress than Dobson.

Dir: Jack Starrett
Star: Tamara Dobson, Shelley Winters, Antonio Fargas, Bernie Casey