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David F. Walker
Category: BAMF Film Review Archive

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – Kinji Fukasaku’s STREET MOBSTER

It wasn’t until near the end of his life and career that Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku really came to the attention of most American film fans. In 2000, his final movie, Battle Royale exploded on the screen, serving notice to audiences in the states that a bold, innovative director had arrived. The only problem was that by the time Battle Royale had come out, Fukasaku’s career already spanned five decades and spawned over sixty films, including Graveyard of Honor, the classic Battles Without Honor series, and the sci-fi classic The Green Slime (one of his better known film among American audiences). He is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest directors, and if his work were better known outside of his native country, he would easily be considered one of the greatest directors in the world. Best known for his yakuza films, Fukasaku reinvented the Japanese gangster genre with a series of gritty films in the 1970s.

Street Mobster was the first film to open my eyes to the work of Kinji Fukasaku. Moving at a hyper pace that seldom slows down, Street Mobster is a raw, depraved and brutally relentless bloodbath. The incomparable Bunta Sugawara stars as Isamu Okita, psychotic street thug born on the day Japan surrendered World War II. After getting out of prison, Isamu forms his own gang of punks, and goes to battle against the yakuza, who he despises. But when Isamu and his boys take things too far, he is forced to become allies with one yakuza clan, in order to keep from being killed by another. Yakuza boss Yato (Noboru Ando) hopes that by having Isamu and his gang under his command, he can control and harness their violent outbursts. The problem is, Isamu is a nihilistic madman who cannot and will not be controlled. The result is one of the most violent gangster films of all time, which makes Scarface look like Disney fare.

Street Mobster is actually the sixth and final installment in the popular Gendai Yakuz (a.k.a. Modern Yakuza) series that starred Sugawara. It was the only film in the series to be directed by Fukasaku, and marked the first real collaboration between the director and Sugawara. More important, Street Mobster helped to usher in a new era in yakuza films. Before this film, Japanese gangster movies were more often than not about glamorized, chivalrous anti-heroes. But Fukasaku changed all of that, opening the door for a new, ultra-violent breed of yakuza films, of which he is considered one of the best directors.

Revered in Japan – and deservedly so – as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Kinji Fukasaku has demonstrated over the years an incredible versatility as a filmmaker, from the quiet beauty of Geisha House to the depraved violence of Battle Royale. His unique vision can be traced all the way back to his early films of the 1960s, but 1972’s Street Mobster is easily one of his best films. Shot primarily hand-held, with tons of zooming in and out, and often break-neck editing, this is Fukasaku’s signature piece in terms of kinetic energy and nihilistic theme.

Released in the United States on DVD in 2004 (when many of Kukasaku’s better known films were also released), Street Mobster is currently out of print. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to find it, as it is one of Fukasaku’s best yakuza films.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – Peter Watkins’s PRIVILEGE

It was quite by accident that I first “discovered” filmmaker Peter Watkins several years ago, when his 1971 film Punishment Park was released on DVD. Punishment Park was an amazing film, the likes of which I had never quite seen, and served as a wonderful introduction to the work of Watkins. As a lover of film, Watkins’ work inspired me. As a critic of film, however, Watkins’ work intimidated me. He is one of those rare directors whose work is so finely crafted, deftly layered and intellectually profound that it is difficult to do the films justice. It would be easy to proclaim, “the films of Peter Watkins are cinematic genius,” but without elaboration such a statement seems hollow and hyperbolic.

The key to understanding the genius of Watkins as a filmmaker is understanding the nature of his films and then placing them within the context of the time in which they were made. Thought provoking and often incendiary, Watkins’s films were more often than not scathing commentaries on the media and politics. Part of what makes his work so incredible is how much ahead of his time Watkins was in the message he was crafting with his work. The other part of what makes Watkins films so incredible is how relevant they are decades later—often more so than when they were initially released. This is especially true of Privilege, Watkins’s controversial film from 1967, which is as profound and relevant now as it was when it was released over fifty years ago—perhaps even more so.

Set in the very near future, pop singer Paul Jones (of Manfred Mann) stars as Steven Shorter, the most popular celebrity in all of England. But Steven’s popularity is more than just a case the adoration and devotion from mobs of screaming fans. His popularity is the mark of something far more sinister, as Steven has become a tool used by powers that rule England to keep the youth in check. Through Steven’s music and his actions, the restless masses have found a vicarious means to express themselves, and no longer feel the need for individuality. As the film opens, Steven is performing a live concert that is equal parts rock show and performance art, in which he is beaten and caged by police officers, all of which leads to a riot. But this is what his corporate handlers and the controlling forces of the government want—something that placates and ultimately pacifies the masses into total conformity.

Things begin to change when artist Vanessa Ritchie (Jean Shrimpton) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Steven. Vanessa sees in Steven what is left of the humanity that has been drained after years of being used as an agenda of propaganda, and she reaches out to what is left of the real man buried deep inside of him. This only makes the confused Steven even more torn, as he is used by more and more parties to drive home whatever message is being delivered to the public. When it is decided that the public needs to eat more apples, it is Steven who is called upon to make a ridiculous commercial telling all good citizens to consume six apples a day. But things take a more sinister turn when the church employs Steven as a recruiting tool, leading to a concert that bares an uncanny resemblance to a Nazi rally.

Like the majority of Watkins’s best work, Privilege is a faux-documentary. This cinematic style has become a trademark of the director’s films, but more importantly serves as one of the recurring aspects of his work, which is an exploration of the media itself. In films such as Punishment Park, The War Game, The Gladiators and Privilege, the media is an integral character, and part of the story that Watkins is telling is how the media itself interprets what is going on and its level of complicity. As a filmmaker, Watkins does not simply tell a story, he interprets it through the “impartial” eyes of the media. The result is a filter that creates another layer of meaning within many of Watkins’s films. In the case of Privilege, the film is not only a scathing portrait of Steven Shorter as a mass media tool of corporate, government and religious forces looking to control the population, it is also an interpretation of that portrait as seen through the lens of a documentary film.

Audiences and critics didn’t know what to make of Privilege when it was first released. The first and only starring role for Jean Shrimpton—one of the first super models—and the debut acting role of Paul Jones, who was already popular as a rock star, it’s likely people were expecting something much different from this unique pairing of iconic celebrities. Whatever it was that audiences and critics were expecting, it was almost certainly not something as unglamorous as the tortured performance of Jones, who plays Steven Shorter as if he were a man who has lost his soul, and can feel the physical aftereffects. Jones gives an incredible, largely non-verbal performance, bringing a sense of raw emotion that doesn’t so much bring a sense of humanity to Privilege as it warns of its impending loss.

As a filmmaker, Watkins has never been one to pull his punches. Some of his films have moments of razor-sharp humor, but for the most part his work can be unsettling and even at times brutal—and everything is a metaphor. Many of his film, which take place in alternate realities that closely mirror our own—made all the more real by Watkins’s mockumentary approach—are clever cautionary tales. And while some of the evils Watkins warned of in his work have come to pass, none of his films have been more revelatory than Privilege; which was condemned in 1967 by critics for its presentation of organized religion as a neo-fascist movement taking control of the government, and the mass media as a tool used to numb the minds of the masses. In 1967, Privilege was a warning of how bad things could get, but in 2018 it is an I-told-you-so.

Some of Watkins’s films are fairly easy to find, but Privilege, which was released on DVD in 2008, has become one of those that are not-so-easy to find. All of his films are profound and worth watching, but none seem to ring as true as Privilege.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN

 

The Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong was responsible for producing some of the greatest Wushu (martial arts) films of all time. In the 1970s kung fu flicks flooded American drive-in theaters and grindhouses, and some of the most memorable films came courtesy of Shaw Brothers. But the style and genre of film most Americans associate with Shaw Brothers was relatively new to the studio, part of a new generation Wushu films that was ushered in during the 1960s with titles like the seminal classic One-Armed Swordsman.

Before the 1960s, most martial arts films were more theatrical, drawing influence from the legendary Peking Opera. The action sequences were somewhat unsophisticated, and Hong Kong audiences had grown tired of what was being offered. What was proving to be popular were the gritty Japanese samurai films, which had started to influence Hong Kong filmmaking in the 1960s. Believing that the aesthetic of the samurai films could be merged with the conventions of martial arts films, Shaw Brothers set out to reinvent Hong Kong Cinema.

One of Shaw Brothers’ first forays into what would become the new wave of kung fu flick was King Hu’s tremendously influential 1966 film Come Drink with Me. The following year saw the release of Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman, which is widely considered by many historians to be the film most responsible for setting the tone and style of the modern martial arts film.

The action begins when evil assassins come to kill the headmaster of a powerful and prestigious school of kung fu. Faithful servant Fang Cheng (Feng Ku) defends the life of his master, and is killed in the process, but not before pleading with his master to look after his son, Fang Gang. Years later, Fang Gang has grown up—played by Jimmy Wang Yu, a former professional swimmer who made the transition to acting in the early 1960s—and is a brooding young man with a chip on his shoulder. Raised amongst the other students, all of whom come from wealthy and affluent families, Gang can’t change the fact that he is little more than a working class charity case, who owes his position in life to the sacrifice his father made. This sense of alienation separates Fang from the other students, including Qi Pei Er (Yin Tze Pan), the daughter of the school’s master, who is a spoiled young woman who lusts after Gang, even though she is simultaneously repulsed by his status as a commoner. During a confrontation between Gang and some other students, including Qi Pei, things get ugly, and she chops Gang’s arm off. Taking the severing of his arm as a cue that he needs to get as far away from the world of martial arts as he can, Gang flees into the countryside, where he is discovered by Hsiao (Chiao Chiao), a beautiful woman who nurses him back to health. Gang wants nothing to do with the world he has left behind, but when the gang of assassins that killed his father years earlier returns to wreak more havoc, our hero is forced to retrain himself and learn to fight with his other arm.

One-Armed Swordsman was a huge hit in Hong Kong as well as the rest of Asia, launching an entire series of films about one-armed fighters—man of them starring Jimmy Wang Yu—as well as a whole subgenre of martial arts flicks about disabled asskickers. But on a much larger scale, the gritty aesthetic and graphic violence that was lifted from Japenese samurai films was so well received that it became part of the new standard of filmmaking at Shaw Brothers.

Not only was director Chang Cheh influenced by Japanese films, he was also a big fan of James Dean and Marlon Brando and the new generation of brooding anti-hero they portrayed in films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One, respectively. Cheh clearly infuses some of the Dean and Brando characteristics in Fang Gang, as Jimmy Wang Yu—not exactly the greatest of Hong Kong actors—does his best to play a tortured working class hero at odds with the upper crust of society. And while Wang Yu is not the greatest actor, he was successful in realizing Fang Gang as an alienated (not to mention broken) member of the working class, which is what led to the film and the character’s enduring popularity.

It is important to realize that One-Armed Swordsman does not look or feel like many of the martial arts films of the 1970s and 80s. This is the film that set standard and laid the ground work for what was to come. This is to martial arts films what The Searchers and Ride the High Country were to morally ambiguous westerns like The Wild Bunch and High Plains Drifter that came along in later years. Some people may be put off by the film’s slower pace, but that is not enough a reason to not watch this film. One-Armed Swordsman is visually beautiful, with a tone and style that is so dynamic you can see within it the decades of other films that followed in its wake, drawing deep from its well of influence.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – ACE IN THE HOLE

By the time he made 1951’s Ace in the Hole director Billy Wilder had already earned his reputation as a cynical filmmaker. Three of Wilder’s earlier films—Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard—had already firmly established the director as someone who was interested in showing the darker side of humanity. And while those films certainly were dark explorations of desire, greed and excess, all were merely test-runs for what was to be considered Wilder’s most cynical film, as well as one of the most pessimistic motion pictures of all time.

Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter whose problems with alcohol have sent him on a downward spiral of working for major publications in Boston and New York to hustling a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tatum views his new gig in Albuquerque as an opportunity to reestablish his reputation, but after a year at the small paper, he holds everything and everyone around him with contempt. Things take a dramatic turn when Tatum lucks into the story of a lifetime. It seems that a cave-in at an ancient Indian burial ground has left local treasure hunter Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped and fighting for his life. Tatum sees the potential for a great story in Leo’s plight. As word of Leo’s predicament begins to spread, other reporters and curious onlookers descend on the scene, as the rescue operation quickly transforms into a crass media circus, complete with carnival rides and souvenirs. But Tatum is the one calling the shots, manipulating everyone around him so that he gets the biggest story possible—he even manages to convince rescue workers to take an alternate, longer route, which will allow his story to drag on longer. Tatum, however, is not alone in his opportunism. He is joined by Leo’s uncaring wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who hopes to cash in on the tragedy, and the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) eager for re-election. But as the rescue operation drags on for days and days, it soon becomes clear that Leo is not likely to survive, and that realization begins to tear Tatum apart, as he wrestles with the fact that he will be responsible for the man’s death.

Billy Wilder has long been considered one of the best filmmakers of all time, with a long list of credits that includes such classic films as Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Spirit of St. Louis and Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole solidifies that already well-deserved reputation if for no other reason than it may actually be the director’s best work. Everything that makes Wilder’s films so memorable—an incredible sense of visual storytelling married with superb writing—is found here. And while there are many that would argue over where Ace in the Hole stands with Wilder’s other films, there is no denying the overall purity of the work. Simply put: Ace in the Hole is uncompromising in both its cinematic vision and its condemnation of the media.

Like all of Wilder’s films, Ace in the Hole is brimming with symbolism. Part of the magic of Wilder’s filmmaking was the way he would layer a scene with information and ideas, some subtle and some incredibly obvious. Either way, everything has a purpose and meaning, from the way a shadow falls across a face to the eye movement of an actor. As Tatum first descends into the cave, Wilder is offering a symbolic foreshadowing of the fate that awaits his morally ambiguous anti-hero.

Prior to its initial release, and without Wilder’s consent, Paramount changed the title of the film to  The Big Carnival. At the time of its original release, it was not well-received by critics, who saw it as being too cynical and too bitter. The film did poorly in the United States, making it the first of Wilder’s films to be a commercial and critical failure, and eventually becoming something of a forgotten entry in Wilder’s filmography. With no initial release on home video, and only the occasional broadcast on channels like American Movie Classics, Ace in the Hole became more of a cult film, finding an audience primarily among diehard film fans, students, and filmmakers who were lucky enough to see it. It wasn’t until 2007, when the film was released as part of the Criterion Collection, that Ace in the Hole began to grow beyond its status as something of an obscure cult film.

Though it was considered cynical and an unfair depiction of the media when it was released in 1951, Ace in the Hole proved to be prophetic, with many of the film’s concepts and themes later going on to inform such films as Network. The world in which the line between journalism and entertainment blurs to the point they become one and the same has arrived. And while a character like Chuck Tatum may have seemed outrageous in 1951, he is what many contemporary “journalists”have become. To go one step further, Ace in the Hole offers an eerie glimpse at how the media and the public would react to the real-life tragic such as the events of September 11, fifty years after Wilder’s movie was released.

Ace in the Hole is nothing short of brilliant. It deserves its place as one of the best films by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – WHITE DOG

If there was ever a film I thought would never see the light of day on home video, it would have to be director Sam Fuller’s White Dog. Regarded by many as one of the most controversial films of all time—unwarranted hyperbolic exaggeration if there ever was any—White Dog languished, practically unreleased since its production in 1982. Since that time it had a relatively insignificant theatrical release overseas, while never enjoying a legitimate home video release in the United States until 2008, when it was released as part of the Criterion Collection. For more than two decades it had become something of an urban myth, creating around it a sense of cinematic taboo usually reserved for films like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or Michael and Roberta Findlay’s Snuff.

Kristy McNichol co-stars as Julie Sawyer, a struggling actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd with her car. Rather than leaving the dog to die on the side of the road, Julie takes him to a veterinarian, who gives the dog a clean bill of health and sends him home with the actress. Julie posts signs all over, hoping it will help her locate the dog’s owner, but the more time she spends with the dog, the more attached she becomes. By the time a rapist breaks into her apartment and the dog saves her life, it’s pretty much a given that he is there to stay. But when the dog viciously attacks Julie’s actress friend (Lynne Moody), who happens to be black, she suspects that there may be something wrong with the animal. Unbeknownst to her is that the dog has already attacked (and killed) a black person. Roland (Jameson Parker), Julie’s boyfriend, convinces her that the dog must be some sort of attack animal, and therefore dangerous. But rather than send the dog to the pound, Julie decides to try and have him retrained, so he won’t have the killer instinct.

Julie believes that there’s nothing wrong with the dog that can’t be fixed, and takes him to trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), who warns her that an attack dog is a four-legged time bomb waiting to explode. But when the dog viciously attacks fellow trainer Joe (Bob Minor), who happens to be black, Caruthers realizes there is more to this dog than meets the eyes. This dog is a white dog—a dog trained by a white person to attack and kill black people. Enter Carruthers’ business partner, Keys (Paul Winfield), a super badass animal trainer who wrestles lions like it ain’t no thing. Keys becomes obsessed with the white dog, and is determined to break it of its racism, diligently training it to see past its deadly hatred for people with black skin. But when the dog manages to escape from its cage, and kills another black person, it is up in the air if he can be rehabilitated. With the guilt of the death hanging over him, Keys becomes even more determined to cure the dog.

At the time of its release, because of the nature of the film, White Dog was mistaken by some for being a pro-racism story, and as a result people reacted to the film as if it were preaching hate. The very notion that White Dog is a racist film is, however, completely ridiculous, especially given Fuller’s earlier films like Shock Corridor and Crimson Kimono, which aggressively attacked racist thinking. White Dog is as much of a condemnation of racism as anything else Fuller has done, but it suffered from being misunderstood during its initial release, and as a result languished in obscurity.

An accomplished journalist and outspoken director whose films often sparked controversy and debate, Fuller was never afraid to push the envelope with his movies. Already an established writer, Fuller’s directorial debut with 1949’s I Shot Jesse James established him as a talented force to reckoned with, a reputation that continued through to 1964’s The Naked Kiss. Fuller’s direction became more sporadic and less frequent between the mid 1960s through the 1970s, with 1980’s The Big Red One marking an artistic return to form. Fuller followed up with White Dog, based on a nonfiction book by Romain Gary.

As originally envisioned by Paramount, White Dog was to be little more than an exploitation horror film—a sort of canine version of Jaws. Fuller was brought on to the film after several other directors had already been attached, most notably, Roman Polanski. Under the direction of Fuller, however, with a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, White Dog evolved into something more than a cheap exploitation film. True to the style of his past work, Fuller used the film as a vehicle to explore subject matter other filmmakers were often afraid to approach, in a way that was as hard hitting as it was unflinching. In doing so, Fuller created a film that was a bold examination of racism, and the brutality that it manifests.

White Dog is not Fuller’s best work, and it is uneven at times. Jameson Parker as Julie’s boyfriend disappears at one point in the movie, never to return, and even Julie goes from being a central character to a throwaway supporting personality that has little to offer the second and third acts of the film. The central flaw of the film’s shifting main characters is not as problematic as it could be in any other movie, simply because Paul Winfield’s animal trainer is far more compelling than McNichol’s struggling actress. Winfield is cast as a strange mix of mad scientist and Captain Ahab, out to destroy a terrible monster. But what makes the character interesting, is that Keys views the dog as more of a victim, with the racist training that turned it into a killer as the monster. Although handled at times with ham-fisted dialog and direction, this train of thought is what makes White Dog brilliant. Under the subversive guidance of Fuller, the movie becomes less about a dog trained to kill black people, and instead becomes an exploration of the societal ill of racism; which is a disease that infects everything, even something as innocent as a dog.

There are other problems that surface throughout White Dog, including a script that at times is just plain silly and overwrought. And Fuller’s direction at times makes it difficult to tell exactly what he’s going for. There are sequences that have the feel of the sort of horror thriller Paramount originally wanted, and these scenes throw a bit of a wrench into the rest of Fuller’s artistic vision. And while all of the problems to be found in White Dog are enough to diminish any other film, they can’t hold back Fuller or keep the film from being a great bit of cinema. With the exception of maybe Larry Cohen, there is probably no other director other than Sam Fuller with the balls, talent or ability to infuse profound social commentary where you least expect it, making this film work in the way that it works. Had the movie been made six or seven years earlier, during the blaxploitation era, it would have fit in perfectly with the seemingly radical race politics that was found in many films. But coming in the 1980s, when Hollywood had retreated back into a more conservative approach to dealing with race, it was pretty much doomed.

Despite its noticeable flaws, White Dog is a solid film that serves as a great showcase for a director who was not afraid to take chances. Fuller was 70 years-old when he made White Dog, and could hardly be considered in his prime. Yet he still made a film better and more provocative than most filmmakers before or since could have gotten away with. And for that reason alone, White Dog is worth watching and studying.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN

If you are a true fan of martial arts flicks, then you no-doubt have seen this film in at least one of its several incarnations, which includes the alternate titles Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer. If, however, for some strange reason you have never seen this movie, then you can’t, in any way, shape or form, consider yourself to be a true die-hard fan of kung fu films. As harsh as that may sound, the reality is that for every genre and sub-genre of film you can imagine, there are only a very small handful of films that are essential viewing within that particular group. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of those films.

With the popularity of Bruce Lee and films like Five Fingers of Death (a.k.a. King Boxer) in the early 1970s, there was a flood of chop sockey cinema that was dumped in inner-city and Chinatown movies theaters all the way into the 80s. Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of these countless films. It had been a huge hit in Hong Kong, before it was edited, dubbed and released in the United States under the title Master Killer. At the same time films like Master Killer were being played in double and triple and quadruple features at rundown theaters and drive-ins, local television stations were still airing feature films during the day on Saturdays. Many stations, including Channel 5 in New York, and Channel 12 in Portland, where I moved when I was in junior high, began showing kung fu films, including Master Killer.

Like so many others who had become fascinated with kung fu films in the 1970s, I watched Master Killer simply because it appeared, at least as first glance, to be more of the silly, asskicking entertainment that made up many of my Saturday afternoons. But the reality is that the film was very different from all the others I had seen, and was really the only one to make any sort of lasting impression. Years later, when I went back and started rewatching martial arts films, this was the film I wanted to see again. When I finally saw it as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, probably a decade or more later, it was totally familiar, while at the same time a completely new experience.

The plot of 36th Chamber comes from the standard template of Hong Kong’s cinema of vengeance. Gordon Liu stars as San Te (although his name at the beginning is Liu Yu-te), an unassuming student who witnesses the brutality of the Manchus as nefarious General Tien (Lo Lieh) kills a rival. This prompts Liu to become involved in the rebellion to overthrow, but the cost of his involvement is the massacre of his family. With nowhere else to go, Liu flees to the Shaolin Temple, hoping that the monks there will teach him the kung fu skills he needs to avenge his family. At the temple Liu is renamed San Te by the monks, and he eventually begins the difficult training that involves mastering all 35 chambers used to teach the Shaolin kung fu.

A standard element in many martial arts films was the obligatory “training” sequence where a student of questionable skills eventually learns to become a master. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin took this standard convention, and turned it into the foundation of the film’s second act. Where a training sequence may have lasted somewhere around 10 minutes in another film, 36th Chamber uses the concept and turns it into a way of charting the growth of San Te’s character. In scene after scene of some of the most memorable moments to grace Hong Kong cinema, San Te masters one chamber after another, quickly moving toward his goal of becoming a fighter who can take revenge for his family. But as he masters each skill involved with the individual chambers, San Te begins to grow as a person, profoundly influenced by the Buddhist teachings of the Shaolin monks. When he finally has moved through all the chambers, and passed his final test, San Te is given the opportunity to oversee the instruction at any of the 35 chambers. Instead, he asks to create a 36th chamber, one that can be used to teach kung fu outside the temple to everyday people, so that they may protect themselves from the tyrants who rule the land.

What is profound about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is that while it follows many of the conventions established in other martial arts films, it moves beyond those standard trappings. In countless other movies San Te would have simply learned to fight and gotten his revenge. But director Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a. Lau Kar-Leung) takes the genre to another level by developing San Te’s consciousness along with his fighting skills. This is evidenced by the protagonist’s journey from wanting to merely exact vengeance for the death of his family to his desire to teach others, so that they may protect themselves and fight against oppression.

The most popular heroes of martial arts films were always the flawed and the oppressed that grew into greatness through much trial and tribulation, despite their weakness. But at the same time, it was always difficult to find much depth or dimension within a majority of the martial arts heroes of Hong Kong films, especially as they played in the U.S., heavily edited and poorly dubbed. In making the journey to America, many films lost whatever heart and soul they may have had—if they had any in the first place. But no editing or poor dubbing was able to remove the heart and soul from 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and even as Master Killer, it emerged as a classic with the genre.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

Over four decades ago, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers was considered one of the most provocative, politically incendiary movies of its time. The Black Panther Party used it as a training film, the French government banned it, and lovers of cinema revered it as a masterpiece. In 2003, the Pentagon hosted a special screening of the film, in hopes it would shed valuable light on how to deal with rebel forces in Iraq. The following year The Battle of Algiers was released in a beautifully packaged addition to the Criterion Collection, where it could be studied, appreciated and, no doubt, argued about.

Chronicling the 1954-1962 revolution that would eventually lead to the end of French colonial rule in Algeria, The Battle of Algiers is a bleak, uncompromising portrait of terrorist warfare and a war on terror.The film starts with French soldiers interrogating a captured Algerian prisoner. The man’s will has been broken, and his weary, tear-streaked face alludes to the torture he has endured. The French soldiers, led by the charismatic Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), assure their prisoner he has done the right thing. But the emotionally dead gaze in the man’s eyes says something to the contrary. As Mathieu leads his men on a raid to find rebel leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the magnitude of the betrayal that occurred moments before the camera entered the interrogation room becomes painfully clear.

Hiding behind a false wall in Algiers’ Muslim Casbah, Ali and his three companions in the Algerian National Liberation Front, or FLN, await their fate. As Mathieu and his men rampage through the apartment concealing them, Ali and his fellow rebels—which include a woman and a young boy—pray for an escape that will never come. As the moment of their impending capture—or death—comes ever closer, Ali reflects on the course of his life leading up to this point.

A communist who fought against the fascists during World War II and a student of Italian neo-realism, Pontecorvo brought both an artistic aesthetic and a political ideology to The Battle of Algiers. Shot in stark black-and-white, Pontecorvo’s film bears an uncanny resemblance to a documentary. During its initial release in 1965, the film’s distributor added a disclaimer: “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used.”

Such a statement might seem merely a hyperbolic marketing stunt, until you see the gritty reality Pontecorvo portrays. From the frenzied panic that follows a series of terrorist bombings to the throngs of Muslim dissidents who take to the streets to oppose French rule, much of The Battle of Algiers appears composed of actual riot footage captured just as the shit was hitting the fan.

Pontecorvo made a film of historical propaganda by working closely with the newly liberated Algerian government, as well as Saadi Yacef, the former leader of the FLN, who basically plays himself in the movie. But his roots in neorealism kept the director from crafting a film that paints its characters in absolutes. Instead, Pontecorvo and co-writer Franco Solinas create a world of moral ambiguity, in which the heroes are terrorists who resort to killing innocent civilians to advance their cause, and the villains are French soldiers who also resort to killing innocents to achieve their goals. No one is entirely good or bad, both sides are right and wrong. And while the film and the filmmaker clearly take the side of the FLN, Pontecorvo is careful to give the The Battle of Algiers enough sense of balance that it endures more like a historical document, and less like biased propaganda.

With the current situation in Iraq, and the Pentagon’s screening of The Battle of Algiers, much has been made of the film’s relevance to current events. Perhaps the most significant theme in that discussion is why the French refused to support military action in Iraq. What they learned during the Algerian conflict, and what is so brilliantly conveyed in this film, is that winning battles is not the same as winning a war.

To that end, The Battle of Algiers does not serve either as a great training film for political revolutionaries or as a helpful tool for understanding how to combat terrorists. Instead, it is a brilliant piece of cinema that offers a cautionary tale about the high cost of violence as a means to an end.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – NI**ER LOVER (a.k.a. The Bad Bunch,Tom, The Brothers)

NIGGER LOVER (a.k.a. The Bad Bunch,Tom, The Brothers) 1973 director: Greydon Clark; starring: Greydon Clark, Tom Johnigarn, Aldo Ray, Jock Mahoney

More than twenty years had passed since I watched director Greydon Clark’s NIGGER LOVER, and written my scathing review. This was one of the earliest reviews I wrote, and I was culling through my older work to create this archive of blaxploitation films, I thought to myself, “Maybe you should watch the movie again. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as you remember.” So…I watched it. And it was as bad as I remembered. Maybe worse.

The directorial debut of a man whose filmmaking skills could be called amusingly remedial, this is bargain basement exploitation at its most craptacular. To his credit, Clark did become a better director, but that doesn’t stop this piece of shit from being…well…a piece of shit. We are talking about the same director who would go on to make BLACK SHAMPOO, which is a really bad film, until you compare it to NIGGER LOVER, and suddenly it seems like the work of cinematic genius. But this is about NIGGER LOVER, not BLACK SHAMPOO, so let’s get down what needs getting down to.

Clark stars as Jim, a Vietnam veteran, whose best friend was killed in the war. Problems arise when Jim goes to deliver a letter to his friend’s father. Did I mention the Jim’s dead friend was black? This is a crucial plot point, because it means our hero must venture into the ghetto to deliver the message to dear old dad. Unfortunately, his dead friend’s brother, Tom – who now goes by the Makimba, because “Tom was my slave name,” has a honky-hating chip on his shoulder, and decides he needs to kill this no good whitey. There’s a bit more to Makimba’s decision to kill Jim – he thinks the evil cracker is working for a pair of racist cops (Aldo Ray and Jock Mahoney), who take pleasure in beating up on righteous soul brothers. Makimba  (Tom Johnigarn) also blames the death of his father on Jim, even though Makimba killed the old man with his own hands. But, you see, Makimba is blinded by hate, which is what Clark is really trying to explore as a filmmaker. The problem, of course, is that not only is the message lost amidst all the exploitation trappings of sex and violence, it is also lost in the mire of an abysmal script that is as racist as it is poorly written – which is to say that it is really racist, because it is also really poorly written. There’s actually a bit more to the film – something to do with Jim’s inability to commit to his girlfriend, while screwing some dope-smoking hippie chick on the side – but that’s as poorly crafted as the rest of this shit.

Released under multiple titles, there’s no getting around the fact that this film is bad on just about every level you can imagine. Everything from the writing to the direction to the acting is just plain awful. Clark tries trick you, with enough sex and nudity to keep you from noticing how bad this movie is, but honestly, there’s not enough nudity to make this film any good. Every single scene could have nudity, and you’d still be distracted by the ineptitude with which this shit has been cobbled together. The ad campaign for this garbage reads, “The movie they tried to stop!” Like that’s something they should’ve been braggin’ about.

Of NIGGER LOVER I can say this…I looooves the opening song, written by Sheldon Lee.
“Hey honky mother, where you go?/Who you lookin’ for
We don’t want your kind ‘round here/ Knockin’ at our door
Honky mother, no soul brother/ Don’t waste your helpin’ hand
Honky mother, nigger lover/ Ripped off by the man
Don’t be askin’ questions/ This street’s a dead end
One way or another, you’re a dead honky mother/ Just like your nigger friend
Hey honky mother, jive sucker/ Black and white don’t mix
Honky mother, nigger lover/ Good deeds just for kicks”

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – MANDINGO

MANDINGO 1975 director: Richard Fleischer; starring: James Mason, Perry King, Ken Norton, Susan George, Brenda Sykes, Ji-Tu Cumbuka

There are over 200 blaxploitation movies, ranging from the classic to the completely forgotten. But few have attained the level of infamy that MANDINGO has achieved. This is one of those films with a reputation that precedes it, conjuring up all sorts of lurid images. And that’s not to say that MANDINGO’s reputation as a sweaty bit of racist sexploitation trash is not well-deserved, ‘cause it is. It’s just that of all the blaxploitation films that have lingered in the collective pop-culture consciousness, it qualifies as neither the very best, nor the very worst. In fact, in some ways – especially when compared to so many of the other films of the era and genre – MANDINGO can be a bit mediocre.

Set on an old Southern plantation in the 1840s, the film finds plantation and slave owner Warren Maxwell (Mason), fretting over his only son, Hammond (King). It seems that Pa Maxwell wants Hammond to settle down, find a wife and cultivate the fruit of his loins. The problem is that Hammond pretty much only has a hankering for the chocolate variety of poontang. Still, Hammond agrees to marry Blanche (George), who happens to be his cousin (sometimes white people do nasty shit like that). Unbeknownst to Hammond, Blanche isn’t exactly a virgin, as it turns out she was doing the tango-skin polka with her brother (I told you, white people do some nasty shit). Well, since Hammond has popped a few cherries of some of comely slave wenches, he knows what pristine hootchie is supposed to feel like. And since his new wife’s quim is fitting him more like a well-worn shoe than a tight glove, he suspects something is amiss. This drives him back into the open legs of his favorite slave girl, Ellen (the boner-riffic Sykes), which of course makes Blanche lose her mind. Now, while all of this is going on, there’s the matter of Mede (Ken Norton) the Maxwell’s prime piece of property – a 100% pure-bred Mandingo slave, complete with an ankle-slapping trouser snake. When Blanche has finally had enough of Hammond’s cold-shoulder treatment, she decides to exact revenge by fucking his prize slave. The problem is that Mandingo cock is especially addictive to white women, and before you know it, Blanche is riding Mede’s Johnson like it was rollercoaster at Disneyland. When Blanche has a baby that everyone is expecting to be Hammond’s, it comes out looking more like a Milkdud, and the shit hits the fan, leading to a massacre that culminates in Mede being boiled alive. And the moral of the story is it’s okay for a white guy to get some black pussy, but if a black guy throws a hump into some white nookie, he’ll probably get killed for it.

There’s really no way around it – MANDINGO is a downright sleazy film. The whole film is build around the salaciously taboo thrill of watching white people and black people humping. Keep in mind that this was 1975, and stuff like that was still considered really out there (not that we’ve progressed that much in the last four decades). But despite the whole sexploitation element of the film – something made all the more sleazy by the fact that the film was sold as some sort of historical epic – MANDINGO offers an interesting cinematic glimpse at the antebellum South. This is not the glamorized Dixie of Hollywood’s past, as depicted in films like GONE WITH THE WIND or THE LITTLEST REBEL. Instead, this is the nasty-ass South where human beings we bought and sold as chattel (and where Li’l John and the Eastside Boyz would rise to fame).

Over the years critics have blasted MANDINGO for being a terrible film, charges that I’m really in no position to argue (although I wouldn’t call it terrible and unwatchable). Critics have also blasted it for being a piece of racist trash, and while I would agree with the trashy part, it is no less racist than the culture and era it depicts – we’re talking about slavery for fuck’s sake, people!!! As far as I’m concerned, I appreciate a movie about slavery where things are a bit unpleasant, blacks suffer, and whites come across as racist scum. Something tells me once you strip away the some of the sexual shenanigans (but not all), MANDINGO is closer to the truth than GONE WITH THE WIND could ever hope to be. In fact, I know that’s the case, because GONE WITH THE WIND is a piece of racist propaganda of the worst kind. Yeah…I said it.

Ji-Tu Cumbuka in MANDINGO

Only in the 1970s could a film like MANDINGO get made, and it stands as a shining example of how the changing times were reflected in the blaxploitation films of the era. And I’m not just talking about the blatant sexuality of the film, but also in the militant politics that serve as one of the film’s only compelling elements. Ji-Tu Cumbuka has a co-starring roll in the film as Cicero, a rebellious slave who gives voice the popular militancy that found its way into most black-themed films of the 1970. Cicero tries to escape the Maxwell plantation, only to be captured and sentenced to death. Before he is hung, he gives a speech that makes my heart swell with pride. “I ain’t goin’ to give no lifetime of misery and sweat to these peckerwoods. I’d rather die than be a slave! You, perkerwoods, that’s right! You peckerwoods was oppressed in your own land. We was free, and you brought us here, in chains. But now, we here. And you just better know, this is much our land as it is your’n. And after you hang me, kiss my ass!”

MANDINGO was based on a novel by Kyle Onstott, which was turned into a stage play Jack Kirkland. I’ve never read the book (which was one of many slavery/sex books of the era), or seen a production of the play, but something tells me neither aren’t quite as graphically lurid as the film. Rockne Tarkington of BLACK SAMSON-fame starred in the stage version. Director Richard Fleischer was a long-time film veteran by the time he got behind the camera. His past credits included such classics as 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, and SOYLENT GREEN. By the time Fleischer directed MANDINGO, it was clear his career was in decline. His final films would include crap like CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA.

MANDINGO would spawn a pseudo-sequel, DRUM, also starring Ken Norton. It is also one of several entries into a bizarre sub-genre known as slavesploitation. Some of these were sexploitation films out of Europe, like GOODBYE, UNCLE TOM or PASSION PLANTATION, while others, like QUADROON, were homegrown flicks.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – LIVE AND LET DIE

LIVE AND LET DIE1973 director: Guy Hamilton; starring: Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour, Gloria Hendry, Geoffrey Holder, Julius Harris

For the better part of a decade the James Bond films set the standard for action and adventure films. Based on Ian Fleming’s popular books, the film franchise launched in 1962 with DR. NO, and nothing was ever the same. With each new film the Bond series grew in popularity, while spawning countless imitators. The role of James Bond turned Sean Connery into an international superstar, and after appearing in the first five films, he turned his back on playing 007 in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. He returned to the series for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER in 1971, but by that time the Bond films were a bit tired and worn out.

There was a time when the James Bond films were what other movies strived to be. But by the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, films like BONNIE & CLYDE, THE WILD BUNCH, and THE FRENCH CONNECTION had changed the way violence and action were portrayed on the screen. Suddenly, the Bond films, were a bit behind the times. It wasn’t until 1973, when Roger Moore replaced Sean Connery in LIVE AND LET DIE that it would become clear how the Bond films had gone from the trend-setters to copying whatever was popular at the time.

When LIVE AND LET DIE came out, the blaxploitation movement was in full swing. Two years earlier SHAFT helped usher in the both the genre and era of blaxploitation in a film that took many of its cues from the Bond films. Private detective John Shaft was a hardboiled asskicker who, like Bond, had a way with the ladies, a knack for getting out of the toughest scrapes unscathed, and operated by his own unique set of rules. In fact, SHAFT had been pretty much marketed as a Bond-like film. The superior sequels, SHAFT’S BIG SCORE and SHAFT IN AFRICA, with their revved up action sequences and, in the case SHAFT IN AFRICA, international locales, were even more like James Bond films.

LIVE AND LET DIE was the James Bond franchise’s official entry into the blaxploitation genre (making it arguably the biggest budgeted blaxploitation film of the time). Some people are likely to argue that the film is not a blaxploitation flick, but all you have to do is look at the rest of the cast, and it’s pretty obvious. There are more black actors in LIVE AND LET DIE than there are in SLAUGHTER and SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF combined.

The plot revolves around Bond initially tangling with Mr. Big, a deadly crime kingpin with a vast empire, as he investigates the death of another double-o agent. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Bond heads “uptown” into Harlem, where it appears every person above 110th Street is part of Big’s criminal network. In reality Mr. Big is Kananga (Kotto), the ruler of tiny island nation in the Caribbean, with a devious plot that involves heroin trafficking. Like all Bond villains, Kananga has his deadly henchmen, who include Tee Hee (Harris), who has a mechanical claw for a hand, and the supernatural Baron Samedi (Holder), a voodoo priest with a thing for snakes. Kananga has also got himself a tasty piece of pale tail, Solitaire (Seymour), who happens to be a virgin with psychic powers. But once Bond gets his hands on her, she’s a virgin no more, which only pisses off the nefarious villain even more.

Compared to all the other non-Connery Bond films, LIVE AND LET DIE isn’t all that bad, especially when you look at some of the crap Roger Moore would later star in. But the biggest problem with the film is Moore himself. Connery was a barrel-chested badass who could slug it out with Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, arguably the most formidable of all Bond villains or henchman. By comparison, Moore was nothing more than a scrawny excuse of a man who looked like he could be knocked over by a strong breeze. Watching him duke it out with Yaphet Kotto, who ranks as one of the most physically menacing of all Bond villains, it’s almost laughable.

As an entry in the blaxploitation genre, LIVE AND LET DIE ranks well above so many of the other films of that era. And while the lack of a black hero causes many to not consider the film part of the genre, those people are just plain wrong (I am, after all, the motherfuckin’ Man when it comes to all things blaxploitation, and my word is gospel). At the same time, I’m more likely to judge this film as a Bond movie than as a blaxploitation flick, although in either regard they come about the same – good, but not great.

LIVE AND LET DIE marked a new era for the Bond series, but also a sadly missed opportunity. The producers, who were so eager to cash in on the popularity of the blaxploitation genre, should have gone that extra mile and cast Calvin Lockhart (left) as 007. It would have been the perfect time for something like that to happen, and Lockhart would have been the perfect choice to play Bond. Instead we got Moore, which was so much less.

In addition to Kotto, Holder and Harris, LIVE AND LET DIE starred quite a few other black actors, most notably Gloria Hendry, who co-stars as duplicitous CIA agent Rosie Carver. The film also utilized the talents of some of the best known black stuntment of the day, including Eddie Smith and Tony Brubaker.