Tales from the Hood

(USA 1995)

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Rusty Cundieff’s anthology Tales from the Hood is a good idea: four vignettes of black life presented as horror stories — so, a horror flick with a message, more commentary than a “scary movie.” I see why Spike Lee attached his name to it (as executive producer).

Cundieff and cowriter Darin Scott pick material topics that still resonate more than 20 years later: racism, police brutality, domestic abuse, drugs, and black-on-black violence. The messages are strong, but unfortunately the writing always isn’t.

The best segment is “Hard Core Convert,” which is also the closer. Jerome a.k.a. Crazy K (Lamont Bentley) is a drug dealer shot in a gang hit. He wakes up in a Kafkaesue prison, where a stern nurse (Lira Angel) subjects him to rehabilitation methods straight from A Clockwork Orange. This particular piece and the way it’s executed are both powerful and memorable.

The second segment, “Boys Do Get Bruised,” takes on domestic abuse. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. The other two segments, “Rogue Cop Revelation” and “KKK Comeuppance,” fall flat.

Tales from the Hood targets the right notes, but it misses many of them. For one thing, the approach here is really heavy-handed. Plus, the impact is diluted by the silly bit that frames the stories: a funeral home in South Central Los Angeles run by weirdo Mr. Simms (Clarence Williams III). He tells the four stories to three “gangstas,” Ball (De’aundre Bonds), Bulldog (Samuel Monroe Jr.), and Stack (Joe Torry), who stumble into the home looking for drugs. I could have done without this device — it served as a distraction more than anything.

With Wings Hauser, Tom Wright, Anthony Griffith, Michael Massee, Duane Whitaker, David Alan Grier, Brandon Hammond, Rusty Cundieff, Paula Jai Parker, Corbin Bernsen, Roger Guenveur Smith, Art Evans, Rosalind Cash, Chris Edwards , Troy Cartwright, Brenden Jefferson, Tim Hutchinson, John A. Cundieff, Bobby McGee, Christina Cundieff, Ricky Harris, Darin Scott, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Scotty Brulee, Ryan Williams, Kamau Holloway, Tasha Johnson

Production: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks

Distribution: Savoy Pictures Entertainment

98 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) C-

Music Box of Horrors

Foxy Brown

(USA 1974)

“That’s my sister, baby. And she’s a whole lot of woman.”

— Link

 

“Death is too easy for you, bitch. I want you to suffer.”

— Foxy

To use a term straight from Willie Hutch’s theme song, director/screenwriter Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown is superbad. It’s definitely not something to see for technical or artistic excellence, but it’s cool nonetheless. A sort of reworking of Coffey, it’s a sexy vigilante revenge tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Pam Grier is Foxy Brown, a bodacious woman on a mission to track down the goons who shot and killed her boyfriend (Terry Carter), a government agent who just had plastic surgery to change his identity, right outside her door. Obviously, this is the work of a Los Angeles drug ring.

Foxy quickly figures out who the rat is: her own brother, Link (Antonio Fargas). He identifies her boyfriend’s killers as affiliates of a “modeling agency.” The agency is run by fixers Miss Kathryn Wall (Kathryn Loder) and Steve Elias (Peter Brown). Their clients are crooked high profile men of the law like judges and politicians who trade favors for girls.

Posing as a prostitute, Foxy gets inside the operation and does some major damage. It gets her in serious hot water when she’s exposed, bringing her into the center of a lesbian bar brawl and then onto a coke ranch as a junky sex slave. Fortunately, she’s tough and resourceful. No one gets the best of Foxy.

Built on sex parties, chase scenes, shoot outs, and boobs, the plot is structured like a sitcom, and it’s about as complicated and predictable. Naturally, Foxy gets what she wants in the end. Except for the very cool opening titles, there are no effects to speak of. The acting is average at best. However, the action is surprisingly steady, leaving very few dull spots. Plus, there’s real sas here, mostly from Grier, that keeps the whole thing interesting.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Foxy Brown a feminist work, but Foxy is a badass heroine with her heart — and her head — in the right place. It’s a thrill watching her take control, especially in heels and those fabulous frocks. I wouldn’t want to piss her off.

With Harry Holcombe, Sid Haig, Juanita Brown, Sally Ann Stroud, Bob Minor, Tony Giorgio, Fred Lerner, Judy Cassmore, H.B. Haggerty, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, Jack Bernardi, Brenda Venus, Kimberly Hyde, Jon Cedar, Ed Knight, Esther Sutherland, Mary Foran, Jeannie Epper, Stephanie Epper, Peaches Jones, Helen Boll, Conrad Bachmann, Russ Grieve, Rodney Grier, Roydon E. Clark, Don Gazzaniga, Jay Fletcher, Gary Wright, Fred Murphy, Edward Cross, Larry Kinley Jr.

Production: American International Pictures (AIP)

Distribution: American International Pictures (AIP) (USA), Sociedade Importadora de Filmes (SIF) (Portugal), Film AB Corona (Sweden), Cinema Mondo (Finland)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) C+

Michael Jackson’s Thriller

(USA 1983)

“Now, I have something to tell you…I’m not like other guys.”

— Michael Jackson

A very young Michael Jackson on a date with…his girlfriend (Ola Ray)? Jackson playing a werewolf, a zombie, and a lizard-eyed creature? Vincent Price reading an outro? Bad ’80s hair? You know it’s thriller, thriller night!

It’s not his best song, but Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a fucking cool video. It features all the showmanship he’s known for — the dancing, the weirdness, the bigness of the whole thing, that red jacket and those white socks, oh and a setting in the midst of seedy urban decay, this time a cemetery apparently somewhere downtown. Directed by John Landis, Thriller is clever: what starts as a cheesy horror movie turns out to be…a cheesy horror movie. Loaded with references to Night of the Living Dead and An American Werewolf in London, Thriller demonstrates that Jackson actually had a sense of humor.

I don’t put a music video on my blog every day. In fact, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is (so far) the only one. Why? In my quest to see as much as possible on the Library of Congress National Film Registry, I am obligated to include the final single and title track from the legendary pop star’s massive blockbuster album Thriller (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thriller_(Michael_Jackson_album) ). The song was not written by Jackson — Rod Temperton came up with it.

This video truly was a “seismic shift” — longer, more dramatic, and reaching beyond the song, it proved that music videos could be more than promotional clips; they literally could be little movies — or as here, bona fide events — that attract a huge audience, and thus worthy of a big budget. I can cite a number of artists who followed the template that Jackson set with Thriller.

In 2009, the United States Library of Congress deemed Michael Jackson’s Thriller “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Marcea Lane, Kim Blank, Lorraine Fields, Tony Fields, Michele Simmons, Vincent Peters, Michael Peters, Vincent Paterson, Michael De Lorenzo, Ben Lokey, John Command, Richard Gaines, Mark Sellers, Suzan Stadner, Diane Geroni, Suga Pop

Production: MJJ Productions, Optimum Productions

Distribution: Epic Records, Vestron Video

14 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes) A

https://michaeljackson.com

Killer of Sheep

(USA 1977)

“Man, I ain’t poor. Look, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give away nothing to Salvation Army if you poor.”

— Stan

Killer of Sheep has an unusually twisted history that kept it out of daylight — and the spotlight — until recently. His Master’s thesis when he was a film student at UCLA, director Charles Burnett shot it part time over a year’s worth of weekends on 16mm scraps salvaged from production houses. He used equipment borrowed from the university film department. He never intended it to be shown publicly, which is why he didn’t bother to secure licenses for all the music in it (https://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/movies/25kehr.html?referer=https://www.google.com/).

Relegated to obscurity because of copyright issues surrounding the music, Killer of Sheep was impossible to see for decades — not that that stopped the Library of Congress from adding it to the National Film Registry in just its second year of existence. A grant and a donation led to a restoration that finally placed it into the stream of commerce about ten years ago.

Burnett paints a fluid portrait of the American urban ghetto through the daily life of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a poor black working class grunt at a slaughterhouse in Watts. His days, monotonous and uneventful, are loaded with small events like fixing the pipes under the kitchen sink, eating dinner at the table with his family, cashing a check at a liquor store, buying a used motor for a car, and getting a flat tire on a “trip to the country” only to find no spare in the truck.

While this is happening, different temptations like a job offer and a part in a crime are presented to Stan. His wife (Kaycee Moore), a weary beauty who waits for him with fresh makeup and a record on the turntable each evening, seems to be the reason he resists. Maybe it’s not her — maybe it’s because Stan simply doesn’t see himself as capable of doing any better.

Not a whole lot happens in Killer of Sheep, but that’s not the point. Like the Italian neorealist films it calls to mind, Burnett’s execution is beautifully simple: he uses non-professional actors (and children who aren’t acting at all), mundane settings and situations, and black and white film to depict the rhythm of poverty. His execution is also really haunting, as if we’re eavesdropping. It’s incredibly effective. For such a quiet and contained film, Burnett’s ultimate statement is pretty jarring.

As stated, the United States Library of Congress deemed Killer of Sheep “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990 (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Jack Drummond, Angela Burnett, Charles Bracy,  Eugene Cherry, Delores Farley, Dorothy Stengel , Tobar Mayo, Chris Terrill, Lawrence Pierott, Russell Miles, Homer Jai, Johnny Smoke

Production: Charles Burnett

Distribution: Milestone Films

80 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A-

http://www.killerofsheep.com

Saturday Church

(USA 2017)

Ulysses (Luka Kain) is a quiet, delicate teen who lives in Queens and is just starting to figure out his sexual identity — it involves wearing panty hose under his jeans. When his father dies, he becomes the “man of the house.” Unfortunately, his mother (Margot Bingham), who works all the time, is already on edge because she caught him wearing her clothes. Ulysses shares a bedroom with his younger brother, Abe (Jaylin Fletcher), who knows that he’s still rummaging through mom’s closet on the sly and gives him shit for it. School is no respite because Ulysses’s classmates are jerks.

Enter stern Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to help at home while mom is away at work. She takes charge, usurping Ulysses and his mother as the master of the domain. She’s not about to have a dress-wearing freak around, so she pushes Ulysses toward the one cure she knows: the Lord.

Ulysses escapes to the Christopher Street Pier, where he meets a gang of “drag queens”: Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore), and Heaven (Alexia Garcia). They take him to “Saturday Church,” a space in Greenwich Village where one night a week trans mother hen Joan (Kate Bornstein) offers a meal, a shower, clothes, perhaps a spot to vogue, and companionship to homeless LGBTQ kids. This is where Ulysses finds his groove.

Too bad mean Aunt Rose is waiting for him to come home.

Damon Cardasis’s first feature length film is a winning mix of Moonlight (https://moviebloke.com/2016/11/19/moonlight/ ), La La Land (https://moviebloke.com/2016/10/13/la-la-land/ ), and Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/ ) with just the right splash of Paris is Burning (https://moviebloke.com/2016/08/26/paris-is-burning/ ). Saturday Church has some shortcomings, but the film oozes so much charm and warmth that I found it easy to forgive its flaws. Some of the songs and dance numbers are better than others — the song in the locker room and the other with Ulysses singing to his new boyfriend (Marquis Rodriguez) as they walk to the train stand out, especially when flower petals start falling. It’s really cool.

The acting is really good all around, but Kain is particularly awesome. He gives palpable tenderness and vulnerability to his character. The so called “drag queens” are not just fierce but downright touching. The way they save Ulysses is sweet. They make you long for a friend who has your back like they do. The story here totally sold me. I look forward to what’s next from Cardasis.

With Stephen Conrad Moore, Peter Y. Kim, Evander Duck Jr.

Production: Spring Pictures, Round Films

Distribution: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Damen Cardasis

82 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

http://www.samuelgoldwynfilms.com/saturday-church/

Disco Godfather [The Avenging Disco Godfather]

(USA 1979)

Dear God the Father! Some movies are so terrible, you love them for everything wrong with them—what’s bad is exactly what endears them. Other movies…well, they’re just terrible. It’s a thin line. Sadly, Disco Godfather falls into the latter category.

J. Robert Wagoner and Cliff Roquemore’s screenplay stars Rudy Ray Moore as Tucker Williams, an L.A. cop-turned-DJ at the trashy-ass Blueberry Hill Disco, which looks like a repurposed Denny’s. The plot involves Williams’s nephew, Bucky (Julius J. Carry III), who’s gotten hooked on “angel dust.”

One word: YAWN! What were they thinking? Disco Godfather is so boring, I’d rather watch reruns of 2 Broke Girls. The only thing that saves it from total failure is the wardrobe—Felice Hurtes, Jimmy Lynch, and Kimberly Sizemore deserve major kudos for finding the cool Goodwill stores. Fuck this bullshit: watch Dolemite and call it a day. They could have tried a little harder here.

With Carol Speed, Jimmy Lynch, Jerry Jones, Lady Reed, Hawthorne James, Frank Finn, Julius J. Carry III, Bishop Pat Patterson, Pucci Jhones, Howard Jackson, Yetta Collier, Pat Washington, Doc Watson, Leroy Daniels, Melvin Smith, Ronny Harris, Dolorise Parr, John Casino, Keith David

Production: Generation International

Distribution: Transvue Pictures (USA), Xenon Pictures

93 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) D-

Dolemite

(USA 1975)

Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore) is his name, and fuckin’ up mutha fuckas is his game!

He’s the baddest pimp around—well, around Los Angeles, anyway—and he looks every bit the part. Dolemite owns a nightclub and whorehouse but he’s doing time on a drug beef. Maybe it’s bogus, maybe not. Maybe some bad cops set him up, maybe it was archenemy Willie Green (D’Urville Martin), who took over the club and is running shit now. Either way, mother pimp Queen Bee (Lady Reed) and Dolemite’s army of ass-kickin’ kung fu hookers are none too happy about it.

To get out of the big house, Dolemite makes a deal with the po-po, Agent Blakeley (Jerry Jones), to, I think, help clean up his old hood. Dolemite uses this as an opportunity to exact revenge on Green and reclaim his, um, stature in the community.  Along the way, he kicks a lot of ass, takes on two crooked cokehead cops—Mitchell (John Kerry) and White—and gets laid. A lot. He even cuss raps at the end.

Dolemite is not a movie to see because it’s a work of art. On the contrary, it’s terrible. But that’s what makes it so much fun to watch—that’s why it’s a cult classic. Like a lot of things before the late ’80s, it’s not P.C. (i.e., politically correct)—as if that isn’t obvious from the movie poster. The directing by Martin, which probably explains why he has so little screen time, is sloppy. You can count the number of times boom mics pop in. The fight scenes are laughable—Dolemite knocks people out barely lifting a finger (or here,  leg) and sometimes without even touching them. Don’t even get me going on the martial arts stuff!

The plot is confusing and watered down. Jones wrote the screenplay with Moore, and the writing is just bad. I admit, I watched it drunk this time, but I’ve seen Dolemite before while sober. No difference. The events are scattered and at points seem random. The characters are colorful—shady Reverend Gibbs (West Gale), a possible parody of former Chicago leader Mayor Daley (Monte “Hy” Pike), the clearly trippin’ Hamburger Pimp (Vainus Rackstraw), and the many fox females—wander in and out, often without any reason.

Despite all that, Dolemite unquestionably has a charm of its own. Moore likes to rhyme, and he punctuates pretty much every sentence with “mutha FUCKA!” His crib is rent-to-own fabulous—check it out:

Dolemite set 2.jpg

Dolemite set 1.png

The wardrobe looks like it was borrowed from the Salvation Army. The climax at the nightclub goes on longer than it should but is still a showstopper. The soundtrack is a trip. If nothing else—and there is nothing else—Dolemite is a good time.

With Brenda DeLong, Terri Mosley, Marilyn Shaw, Lynell Smith, Vera Howard, Joy Martin, Jana Bisbing, Brenda Banks, Pat Haywood, René Van Clief, Pat Jones, Lola Mayo, Charlene Soulter, Liz Sample, Karolynn Hill, Dino Washington, Johnny J. Brown, Cardella Di Milo

Production: Comedian International Enterprise Productions (C.I.E.)

Distribution: Dimension Pictures, Xenon Pictures

90 minutes
Rated R

(DVD) C-

http://xenonpictures.com/wp/dolemite/

http://www.shockingimages.com/dolemite/films/dolemite.php

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration [Sounds of Exodus: An Ode to the Great Migration]

(USA 2016)

Chicago filmmaker Lonnie Edwards made some waves with his 2015 documentary A Ferguson Story, which delved into some of the events following Officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The subject of Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration isn’t as heavy or bleak, but it’s every bit as intriguing.

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration is a smooth, flashy short film that honors the music and dance forms that black Americans brought to other parts of the country, mostly industrialized cities, through the Great Migration from the South during the first half of the 20th Century. In just a few minutes, Edwards demonstrates how both assimilated into urban life and continue to shape modern culture. I couldn’t find credits, but the guy tap dancing in the stairwell stood out; his taps are downright melodious.

Production: 11 Dollar Bill

Distribution:

4 minutes
Not rated

(The Chop Shop/1st Ward) B

CIMMfest

https://www.soundsofexodus.com

Get Out

(USA 2017)

I caught the hype surrounding Jordan Peele’s first feature length film, Get Out, a comedy horror flick that takes on race—specifically, the dynamics of white power and black subordination. He wrote the script and directed the film. I went into Get Out with some doubt and maybe trepidation about how it might come off. The concept is one that seems too easy to go horribly sideways.

I guess if anyone can pull it off, it’s Peele—and I’m relieved to report that he succeeds. With an oddly compelling mix of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Meet the Parents, Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Stepford Wives, he takes on the cultural idiosyncrasies of Caucasian cultural dominance within the constructs of a horror flick. He’s got a lot of points to make, and he gets them across in a sharp but entertaining way. Like the best horror movies, Get Out makes you squirm—but it does so on multiple levels.

New York City photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is black. His girlfriend, Rose Arlington (Allison Williams), is white. She invites him on a weekend getaway to her parents’ home in upstate New York because, well, it’s time for him to meet the fam. Chris agrees, going into it nervously and not without personal baggage. His hyperactive best bud, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent who always expects the worst, is not helping.

Rose’s parents are, like the quiet town where they live, nice. Or at least welcoming. Dean (Bradley Whitford) drops silly slang, affects a bizarre accent, and praises President Obama. Missy (Catherine Keener) is more direct, asking pointed questions in a weird attempt to get to know Chris. It’s awkward and doesn’t quite break the ice, but it’s harmless. Right?

The family’s two longterm servants, maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and gardener Walter (Marcus Henderson), carry themselves like they’ve had lobotomies. Rose’s younger brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is, um, aggressively complimentary to Chris. On top of it, the Armitages’ neighbors are not quite right, obsessed with Chris and his virility.

During the first part of Get Out, Peele keeps things light but lets a sense of creepy unease simmer. The laughs are there, but like all of the characters coming and going from the house, something is off. He makes a major shift in tone once Missy insists on hypnotizing Chris, ostensibly to help him quit smoking. What was innocuous up to now becomes nefarious.

Ultimately, the evil here is not a monster hiding under the bed, but rather something more obvious that exists in broad daylight. I could have done without the bloody finale, but it works in the context of the film; Peele plays with genre, so I see why it’s here. Either way, Get Out is a bold move that pays off.

With Stephen Root, LaKeith Stanfield, Ashley LeConte Campbell, John Wilmot, Caren Larkey, Julie Ann Doan, Rutherford Cravens, Geraldine Singer, Yasuhiko Oyama, Richard Herd, Erika Alexander, Jeronimo Spinx, Ian Casselberry, Trey Burvant, Zailand Adams

Production: Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, QC Entertainment

Distribution: Universal Pictures

104 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) B

https://www.uphe.com/movies/get-out

Hidden Figures

(USA 2016)

Houston, do you read me: NASA employed black people in its infancy during the early Sixties. What’s more, NASA’s first major project, Mercury, probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without three black female “computers,” or mathematicians, whose efforts literally put John Glenn and Friendship 7 into orbit. The result was a serious boost in American morale during the race against the Soviets into space and a boon to the Space Program under President Kennedy. So, with its historically significant and truly enlightening subject matter, what most caught me off guard about Hidden Figures is its tone, which is light, upbeat, cute, and often comical. While not in itself a bad thing, it’s not what I expected.

Unfortunately, that’s about all Hidden Figures offers that I didn’t expect. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy this film; I did. It’s a great story about remarkable people who actually lived. According to one subject, their real stories are not far off from this film (http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-hidden-figures-katherine-johnson-20170109-story.html). Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a recently widowed math whiz who works for NASA in Virginia, as a bookish nerd complete with glasses that keep sliding down her nose. She and her coworkers, smart and sassy Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and fiery and coquettish Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), quietly but forcefully demonstate their worth in an environment that doesn’t treat them as equals. While Katherine lugs binders and a calculator back and forth between her desk and the “colored” rest room clear across campus to figure out arcs and other shit I sure can’t, Dorothy teaches herself how to operate the new IBM that not even IBM technicians can set up correctly and Mary pushes her way into engineering classes at night in an all white, all male school. Director Theodore Melfi does a really nice job demonstrating institutionalized racism and sexism through characters who may not have anything against black people or women—as administrator Vivian Michael (Kristen Dunst) curtly tells Dorothy in one scene and unwilling research partner, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), makes clear to Katherine in another scene by redacting her name from a joint report they both wrote—but don’t recognize the issue.

Despite its merits, I found Hidden Figures to be slightly more sophisticated than a Lifetime movie. Melfi, who with Allison Schroeder adapted the screenplay from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, takes a pretty basic approach to the material. It’s so easy—obvious, even—to gage where the story is headed. John Glenn (Glen Powell) sings Katherine’s praises while a love interest develops for her in handsome Col. Jim (Mahershala Ali). So cute. Hidden Figures gets into civil rights issues, but only on a superficial level. There are a few overdone Oscar grabs, like a scene between Katherine and her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), that ends with him smashing the sign outside the “colored” ladies’ rest room, but no true show stoppers. Frankly, though, most of the actors here have appeared in better movies. Too bad, because this could’ve been a great film instead of just an okay one. Hidden Figures doesn’t quite do its trailblazing subjects justice.

127 minutes
Rated PG

(AMC River East) C+

http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/hidden-figures