Films and TV of the month: July






In July, my viewing went in three vastly different directions, blaxploitation, the Planet of the Apes series, and Twin Peaks. I also found time for a few other random films, as well as a documentary about photographer Jacob Holdt. Below my thoughts on each.

Later in August, I'll share music in reply to Alyson's soft rock appreciation post.
If there's time, I will reveal my top 25 films of the 21st Century so far, in response to the New York Times' list in June. Lots of interesting top 25s have been doing the rounds this summer.


Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) (Melvin Van Peebles)
(1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)
Influential for starting the wave of blaxploitation in the early 1970s, which served as an alternative to the Hollywood mainstream. Stylistically bold, psychedelic hallucinations, changing colors, half screens and editing tricks, which apparently illustrate main character Sweetback's alienation. He gets into trouble while also having frequent sex. Still relevant in regards to Black Lives Matter and the police confrontations of recent times. Difficult to care about the characters and difficult to get involved in the meandering story. Probably my least liked so far from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Compared to entertaining and well-paced Across 110th Street (see below), this 1971 effort was a tedious chore and I almost gave up. Fortunately the other films of this subgenre I liked more.
4/10


Super Fly (1972) (Gordon Parks Jr.)
(1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)
A blaxploitation crime drama with an authentic feel, about the underworld drug culture in 70s New York. The story of ”one last job” is familiar, what makes it different is the black cast and promotion of black empowerment.
The film’s strength is the classic soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield and also a memorable performance by Youngblood Priest (Ron O'Neal), snorting coke from the cross on his necklace. Proof that you don’t need a big budget to create a suspenseful climax, the phone call/ elevator sequence has plenty of tension. Some of the acting is a bit dodgy, and several scenes don't really go anywhere, but worth a look. Even though "Priest" is attempting to get out, the film still glamorizes drug-taking, which some viewers may take offense to. While the story isn't as great as its reputation, it is somewhat saved by the great ending.
Favorite quote: “Look, I know it's a rotten game, but it's the only one The Man left us to play”
7/10


Across 110th Street (1972) (Barry Shear)
Opens with a messy robbery and the remainder is about the consequences and police investigation. A step up from Superfly. Again, set in New York, a bigger budget, less reliant on music to fill the gaps.
Full of powerful scenes: the robbery, the mobster visiting Harlem and getting laughed at, the criminal breaking down in front of his girlfriend due to their dead-end future without the loot, etc, etc.
Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn play the good cop/bad cop, working towards finding the criminals. The thieves are not particularly smart, the last 30 minutes is the film’s weakest section.
The critically praised title song Across 110th Street from the opening credits, written by Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson, was a No. 19 hit on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart in 1973, and was later featured in Tarantino's 1997 blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown.
8/10


The Harder They Come (1972) (Perry Henzell)
(1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)
Like Superfly, the soundtrack is iconic and a character in itself. The Harder They Come and You Can Get It If You Really Want are reggae classics of the 1970s.
The main character is someone I liked and disliked. I felt pity for him when he can’t find work, then disgust when a confrontation happens involving a bike. He seemed like a nice guy who lost his way and got corrupted by the big city and a false idea of what is important.
I don’t know much about singer/actor Jimmy Cliff who played the lead. The soundtrack was a nice introduction to his reggae. The film was a sensation in Jamaica due to its naturalistic portrayal of black Jamaicans in real locations and its use of local dialect. The latter was often hard to decipher, though I did get the gist of the story, about a talented musician (Cliff) trying to make it and the difficulties he encounters.
Not a true Blaxploitation, but fits in that category quite well . Does seem to glorify crime, but you sense the supporting characters are critical of his behaviour.
There’s a harsh critique of the record industry and also the newspapers, in how they take people’s dreams and problems and turn it into profit. Yet he wanted to live on the edge so he knowingly created his own trouble and headlines. The real “villain” and “hero” is open to interpretation, as there’s also a nod to the violent spaghetti western the character may have been inspired by.
8/10


The Mack (1973) (Michael Campus)
Great performance by Max Julien as Goldie. The message is a bit murky, and the glorification of pimping is unsettling despite the rich giving back to the poor angle. That said, it's a strong, ambitious story, and among the best blaxploitation movies I've seen so far. Quite a few memorable characters, especially the lead and the two supporting actors who play white cops stayed with me. A minor weakness is Richard Pryor, his character is quite amusing but he sadly doesn't have much to do. As with Across 110th Street and other blaxploitation, it's a gangster/crime drama. The dialogue is quotable and above average, with lines such as: "You breathe too deep, you blink once too often, I’m gonna make you look like an ad for swiss cheese, ok?".
9/10


Black Caesar (1973) (Larry Cohen)
A response to the success of The Godfather (1972). Enjoyed the James Brown soundtrack, and moments of action are memorable, especially in the first 20 minutes; the shoe shine scene, the barber shop, and the black kid delivering the envelope. Later on the chase in the yellow cab is thrilling. But the story is quite cold and the sound design is amateurish. Goes from one violent scene to the next, and becomes a bit numbing and uninvolving. Fred Williamson's lead performance is good, though his character is off-putting and there’s nobody to root for. The film indicates an absent father is a factor in his behavior. There’s a moving scene with his dad outside a church at the halfway mark which works well with the JB song, and the final scene is haunting for different reasons. But overall, Black Caesar isn’t as emotionally satisfying as other blaxploitations.
6/10


Coffy (1973) (Jack Hill)
Don’t agree with her revenge mission, as there will always be another drug lord to take their place. Coffy (Pam Grier) isn’t a good role model by stealing a car and letting a man burn alive in his car. But her bravery, cunning and determination is commendable. Running over the busy road was insane. Other stand out action scenes were the cat fight at the party, and the abduction of George.
7/10


Foxy Brown (1974) (Jack Hill)
Compared to the other Pam Grier film Coffy, Foxy Brown’s storytelling is harder to follow. It’s not a carbon copy of Coffy, even though there are likenesses such as the feisty female protagonist and cat fight sequence. Foxy Brown is considered a sequel of sorts.
After roughly 30 minutes I still didn’t quite know where things were going. Something about a black man who can witness against a drug dealer and they are trying to get rid of him before he talks. Also a story about the pitfalls of prostitution, and a brother and sister relationship. Pam Grier’s wardrobe is eye-catching. The violent ending is unforgettable. Probably the most sadistic blaxploitation I’ve seen.
Love Theme from Foxy Brown by Willie Hutch which opens and closes the movie.
Not sure I agree with the majority of whites portrayed as wicked, it seems racist, intended or not. In that regard the film is dated. Today, there would be a sympathetic white character. Standing up for yourself and your rights is positive, but there's an implied distrust of whites, and for me the latter is the wrong message to send out, endorsing an "Us versus Them" mentality. Appears to be a returning issue in the blaxploitation genre, and you may find this unsettling as a viewer. A step in the right direction that African-Americans are getting lead roles in movies though.
7/10





Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) (Rupert Wyatt)
Impressive, believable special effects, and an engaging story. If I had seen 'Rise' first, I may have liked it more. You see, I had already watched 'Dawn' (part 2) and 'War' (part 3), which both did a better job of bringing out the personalities of the apes.
The Golden Gate Bridge as the setting of a big action sequence has been done before, though I did gasp during the helicopter scene. Probably the most kids-friendly of the reboot trilogy. There's an important message about caging animals is wrong, and that they need to be with their own kind.
6.5/10


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) (Matt Reeves)
Enjoyable action/science fiction with CGI apes you can root for, although I was frustrated that many scenes are dimly lit, which may have been deliberate to make the special effects team's job easier. The mix of sign language and speaking apes worked, despite not fully explaining why both was included.
Caesar's revelation about humans and apes is a powerful scene with its racial connotations, but the film (except the image from the poster) is not as visually distinctive as 2017's War of the Planet of the Apes.
7/10


War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) (Matt Reeves)
Third part of the reboot trilogy. Saw this one in the cinema and the SFX and cinematography are oscar-worthy.
Not quite original enough to be a classic, characters and scenes are lifted from other movies. But among the most emotionally moving blockbusters due to realistic CGI apes. I got teary-eyed a few times, though others may find the storytelling manipulative and sentimental. Takes its time and is slower and more character-driven than 2014's Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. The animal rights and anti-war subtext is important, even if the message doesn't deviate much from 'Dawn'. The plot point about revenge made sense yet didn't totally convince, as he was too smart to abandon his friends for that. As has been said by other reviewers, Caesar is a compelling protagonist. I cared about the apes and their journey.
8/10





John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) (Chad Stahelski)
Basically Commando for the 21st Century. John Wick is a man of few words who shoots a lot of people. A weakness is the scene in Rome involving the woman he is tracking down, security are alarmingly bad at guarding her. That staircase fight was particularly memorable and looks awfully painful for the (presumed?) stunt doubles. The reunion of Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves on screen is not all it's hyped up to be. A bit long, but a fun, mindless action sequel.
7/10



Crash (2004) (Paul Haggis)
(1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)
Several interweaving stories. Works best when going for simplicity, the crash involving the police officer (Mat Dillon) and Thandie Newton trapped in the car was the most moving sequence, although only works thanks to a massive coincidence. The Iraqi wanting a lock for his store was also an involving thread. The two black men discussing differences between white and black gave the film comic relief. The Don Cheadle/Sandra Bullock/Brendan Fraser parts were less captivating, maybe because I didn’t care about those characters.
Not a great film, it's rather contrived, but held my attention. It’s unfortunate events had to be so neatly resolved. Redemption is for movie people. Wants to remind us that we are all both good and bad, prejudice can be caused by prior experience, and we have the power to change our mind set. An important message about tolerance, so I get why it was the winner of Best Picture.
6/10



Frantz (2016) (François Ozon)
Ozon previously directed 2003's Swimming Pool. Set in the aftermatch of WW1, Frantz is a historical drama in b/w. My favorite scene is at the dance when she puts her prejudiced courter in his place, defending the Frenchman by saying the war is over. We see this again with the group sitting around the table and them showing disdain for a friend expressing sympathy to the enemy. The film makes an important, somewhat heavy-handed case for post-war reconciliation between nations, which isn’t easy, as highly-strung parents have lost children in battle during WW1.
The slow-paced story isn’t as gripping or affecting as I had hoped, but is believable and well-acted. References poets Paul Verlaine and Friedrich Rückert.
6/10



Jacob Holdt - Mit liv i billeder (documentary) (2016) (Niels-Ole Rasmussen)
Jacob Holdt is one of America's significant photographers and he's not even American! Now 70, the Danish photographer of the 1977 book American Pictures is interviewed. He talks about his life, his yes-mentality paying dividends in his art, etc. He hitchhiked across the US in his youth with a camera, and tried to be accepted into the cultures he visited. It's questioned whether he exploited the women he met and photographed. Holdt's goal is to build bridges between black/white, rich/poor, foreigners/locals. Living with people who he might have prejudice against such as the Ku Klux Klan, in an attempt to understand them. For many years, he toured across the world with his slide show of American pictures, you can watch a sample of chapter 1 on YouTube. While I don't agree with everything he did such as selling his body to finance his journey, he seems to have his heart in the right place.
7/10


…And Justice for All (1979) (Norman Jewison)
A watchable yet flawed courtroom drama. Al Pacino’s acting is solid, but the story has moments of implausibility, such as a judge firing a gun to quieten the room, and Fleming (John Forsyth) saying inappropriate remarks which I very much doubt an educated judge would say in real life.
The film wants to mix comedy with drama, which didn’t click for me, in the space of 10 minutes going from a comedic helicopter ride, to a serious discussion about a brutal rape, a scene with a man admitting to being beaten in jail, and then a comedic scene with Pacino’s grandpa’s false teeth.
That said, the scene when it’s revealed Arthur Kirkland (Pacino) is to defend Fleming is pretty funny, as Fleming loathes Arthur. The chopper sequence is fun, albeit a diversion. Besides that, the score is odd, disco music in the opening just isn’t what is needed.
Includes a well-known scene in which Pacino's character shouts, "You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order!"
6/10



Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) (Review of Season 3, Episodes 9-12) (David Lynch)
The revival may have “peaked” (see what I did there?) in the visually dazzling Episode 8. Not much happens in Episode 9. The most memorable scene of episodes 9-12 is Richard Horne (Ben Horne’s grandson) visiting his grandmother Sylvia in episode 10. Richard really is among the most despicable characters on the show.
Another stand out sequence (from episode 11) was the overexcited woman continuously honking her car horn due to a child firing a gun and causing traffic to stop. A commentary on gun control and road rage, the awkward humor befitting the atmosphere of the show.
I’m a bit disappointed by the female characters. Seems many are pretty faces with little personality who obey men. Or feisty females with a hostile attitude. From what we’ve seen so far, Diane and Audrey Horne are rude and unfriendly, and at this point lesser versions of abrasive Albert. Maybe these women have reasons to be angry. To me, both Diane and Audrey are neither funny or remotely likeable, but give it time, there's still a long way to go. Even Naomi Watts’ character is a bit of a tough dame in the delivery scene in E6, although she at least has other sides to her character.
Still enjoying Dougie Cooper’s child-like “Being There” behaviour, even if it is beginning to wear thin. Hoping he will wake up and become the real Dale Cooper soon.
Heartbreaking by Angelo Badalamenti is a nice piano instrumental at the end of episode 11.



What do you think? Seen any of these? As always, comments are welcome

8 comments:

  1. Great viewing here. I do love blaxploitation flicks and Sweetback's influence is undeniable. But yeah, that thing is a frenzied chore.

    I also agree that Twin Peaks will probably top out at episode 8, which is unlike anything I've ever seen on television. Still loving the series as a whole though!

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    1. @Alex: Yep, Sweetback is "a frenzied chore", well-put.

      Twin Peaks S3 I'm enjoying too, particularly Kyle MacLachlan's scenes and the visual approach. Got to admit the dialogue isn't as sharp as the original from 1990.

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  2. This is a great post! Had a lot of fun reading this.

    Sweet Sweetback's is an odd film. It stretches its minuscule plot paper thin over its runtime, often in an incoherent manner. If it wasn't (one of) the first of its kind, and filmed in total guerilla style, it probably would've been long forgotten. The movie about its making, Baadasssss, is a much better film. Melvin's son Mario directs and plays his dad.

    I really like Superfly. It makes up for its flaws by giving us an endlessly compelling protagonist. And the soundtrack is, in my mind, arguably the greatest of all-time.

    Haven't seen The Harder They Come or Across 110th Street, yet. Plan on it real soon, though.

    The Mack might be my favorite movie of the genre. Goldie is every bit as compelling as Youngblood Priest, but in a better film.

    I enjoyed Black Caesar, but you already knew that.

    Coffy is my favorite of all the Blaxploitation era Pam Grier flicks, only second overall to Jackie Brown. She is just such a force of nature she owns the screen. And that catfight! OMG, that's movie gold. Foxy Brown is the lesser film, but again, Grier makes it fun to watch. As for the "us vs. them" mentality, that's prevalent in a lot of Blaxploitation flicks. It's a symptom of being from an era when a race-based revolution in this country was as close to happening as its ever been since society was still reeling from the many assassinations of the 60s and The Black Panther party was at the height of its powers. If you notice, many of these films have some sort of stand-in for the Panthers, if not referencing them directly.

    I really like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I agree, you probably would have benefitted from seeing it before Dawn as it sets up the trilogy. Dawn is the better film, one of my faves of 2014. I haven't seen War, yet. I hope to see it this week(end).

    John Wick: Chapter 2 is just a blast to watch. It's made for "turning your brain off" and letting the mayhem just wash over you.

    Crash...sigh. I really liked it back when it first came out. When I watched it again a couple years ago...just no. I found it ham-fisted, hokey, and way too reliant on coincidences to connect all these people. It wants to be a profound statement on race relations in support of tolerance, but really just parades a bunch of stereotypes onto the screen and tries to force them to coexist.

    Never heard of Frantz or Jacob Holdt. Both sound interesting, but I'm especially curious about the latter.

    It's been a while since I've seen ...And Justice for All. I remember the iconic courtroom scene, but not much else. Time for a revisit.

    Twin Peaks...I'll pass. There's only so much David Lynch I can take.

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    1. Wendell: Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed the post

      I just watched BaadAsssss Cinema (2002), which talks about the empowerment of Sweetback and key blaxpolitation films. I made a choice in only watching 70s blaxploitation in July which meant I passed on Original Gangstas (1996) Baadasssss! (2003), and the parodies I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Black Dynamite (2009). I have watched Tarantino’s homages though.

      Agree The Mack has a better story than Superfly. Pam Grier kicks ass for sure.

      I hear you on the "us vs. them" mentality. It was part of that era, and today a film like Foxy Brown can feel racist. The documentary BaadAsssss Cinema touched on the negative reactions to blaxploitation.
      You’re right, a black panther gets beat up by the white police in Sweetback… (1971) and panthers feature in Foxy Brown.

      War of the Planet of the Apes is a strong third part, will look out for your thoughts.
      Do check out The Harder They Come or Across 110th Street, both excellent.

      Doubtful you can find Jacob Holdt doc with English subtitles. Do yourself a favor and check out Holdt’s American Pictures. There’s an official free website so you can look at the pics specifically from the US (he subsequently travelled to other places). As it says on Wikipedia, the book gained international fame in 1977 for its effective photographic revelations about the hardships of America's lower classes.

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  3. I enjoyed Foxy Brown a bit more then Coffy, but I liked Pam Grier's character more in Friday Foster and later Jackie Brown. The whole racist angle your going with for white characters being portrayed as evil I don't agree with. You gotta understand at this time there were not a lot of movies for a black audience and there was a lot of racial prejudiced towards them from mostly white filmmakers. So in a few movies It's no big deal seeing white people be portrayed as the bad guy.

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  4. @TheVern: Thanks for your views. I put Foxy Brown and Coffy about equal.
    I get that blaxploitation were made with a black audience in mind and it's good to change it up a bit so whites are evil. I just think the films create a sense of two rival sides in society. On a subliminal level almost brainwashing a black audience into distrusting whites. I like these films as entertainment, but the more I think about them, the less I like what I'm seeing.

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  5. You're doing so well with Twin Peaks! I'm so beeeehinnndd...haven't even seen that famous episode 8 yet. I loved what I've seen so far, particularly the music I really need to choose one weekend and just sit down and watch all of it, no matter what

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    1. @Sati: Hope you like the rest of the show. Besides Johnny Jewel score, my other favorites so far are Heartbreaking (piano instrumental at end of ep 11) and Shadow by Chromatics (end of ep 1).
      I read two new Twin Peaks albums will be released September 8, to coincide with season 3:
      https://rateyourmusic.com/release/album/angelo-badalamenti/twin-peaks-limited-event-series-original-soundtrack/
      https://rateyourmusic.com/release/comp/various-artists/twin-peaks-music-from-the-limited-event-series/

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