Archive for April, 2013

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Arthur Marks has certainly been getting a lot of love around these parts lately, hasn’t he? Recently I more or less politely begged for a long-overdue reappraisal of his fine Pam Grier flick Friday Foster, and today I’m here to spread the good word about what is undoubtedly his absolute masterwork (a term regular readers of this site will know I don’t toss around loosely), 1973’s Detroit 9000.

Honestly, this is one of those movies I probably should have reviewed ages ago, but now’s as good a  time as any seeing as how Lionsgate has recently re-released it on DVD alongside The Mighty Peking Man and Jack Hill’s Swtichblade Sisters in a nifty little package called “Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures Triple Feature,” Tarantino having acquired the rights to all three titles back in the 1990s for the midnight screening/revival circuit. None of the films contain any extra features to speak of, but they do feature nicely remastered widescreen transfers and perfectly serviceable mono sound, and seeing as how the disc retails for under ten bucks from most online outlets — well, how many ways can you say “essential purchase?”

But enough with the free plug for Lionsgate product. What sets Detroit 9000 apart from much of the other blaxploitation fare of the time (a category which this flick may or may not actually fall into — it’s certainly debatable) is the intelligence and extra level of humanity and characterization that Marks, his fine cast, and screenwriter Orville H. Hampton inject into the proceedings. Sure, this is a pretty goddamn violent pressure-cooker of a flick, with uneasy police partners Lt. Danny Bassett (the legendary-in-my-book Alex Rocco) and Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) tasked with tracking down the armed masked men who ripped off $400,000 from a black-tie fundraiser for ethically-questionable African-American congressman Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challenger), and okay, Scatman Crothers pops up along the way as — gosh, what a shocker — a crooked preacher-man, and fair enough, some bits of dialogue are “borrowed” directly from Dirty Harry, as is a heavy dose of atmosphere,  but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a slice of B-movie bad-ass-ness worth taking seriously.

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For one thing, nobody here is a saint. Both leads are deeply flawed, all-too-human individuals, and Rocco and Rhodes turn in superb performances that bring out all the nuances in the script. This is an intelligent story delivered by intelligent performers with a firm grasp on the surprising subtlety inherent in the material. sure, the old “this is a conspiracy that reaches all the way to the top” angle was predictable even by 1973, but come on — would you honestly have it any other way? Some things become formulaic simply because — well, they work. And Detroit 9000 doesn’t just work, it works overtime, providing a very real sense of the intense political weight being brought to bear on these guys to crack this case open, and crack it open quickly. As long as they find an “acceptable” solution, of course —

And that means, of course, even more stress for our fallible-yet-intrepid twosome, since it’s a lead-pipe cinch that the answers they find aren’t going to be what the higher-ups want to hear. Rest assured, though — in a world where the good guy aren’t so great, the presumed bad guys aren’t necessarily so bad, either (even when they are, if you get my meaning), so definitely expect a few surprises along the way.

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Marks, absolute master of pacing that he is, keeps things moving along at a very nice clip here, and there’s never a dull moment — the action scenes are explosive and fraught with drama and tension, but even the quieter moments aren’t so quiet as every word in every off-handed exchange does at least something to propel the main narrative forward. This is a very economical film (both metaphorically and, I’m sure, literally), and the always-resourceful Arthur doesn’t waste a frame. Run to the kitchen or bathroom and you’re guaranteed to miss something — good thing for that “pause” button.

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Detroit’s a simmering powder keg of barely-subsumed racial tensions here, as well, and that only adds to the brooding-bordering-on-oppressive vibe that this film captures. Anything could happen at any moment — look at a guy the wrong way and things are gonna blow sky high. Any alliances formed are temporary, purely for the sake of expediency, and susceptible to fracture without a moment’s notice. Buckle up, folks — the road start out bumpy and it only gets bumpier. All of which is fun, of course, but it means you’ve gotta keep your wits about you, as well — and trust me, when the shit hits the fan at the end, you’ll be glad you did.

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There’s no two ways about it, friends — Detroit 9000 (the title refers to a distress code on the police radio band, if you were wondering) is the real deal. There’s no slack in its act. It’s not afraid to get its hands dirty because they were never clean to begin with. Good times are fun and all, but they’re transitory, fleeting; the best times come with a price and force you to remember them, even when it’s inconvenient. This flick is a terrific piece of crime drama from start to finish, but it demands — and takes — its pound of flesh along the way. Get your ass off my blog and watch it right now.

My newest review for Through The Shattered Lens website, 1975 Crown International oddity “Pick-Up.”

Through the Shattered Lens

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One word that doesn’t usually (if ever) come to mind when you’re talking about the drive-in fare churned out by Crown International Pictures in the 1970s is weird.

Yeah, okay, fair enough — I suppose just about any CIP flick looks a little bit “weird” to a contemporary audience, given that they’re all very much  products of their time, but honestly, pretty much everything released under their banner boils down, story-wise,  to a simple morality play with a generous helping of sex (always) and violence (sometimes) thrown in — and more often than not, as with most exploitation fare, the most common themes in the Crown back catalog are “don’t set your sights above your station in life” and “don’t talk to strangers.”

At first glance, 1975’s Pick-Up, directed (and produced, and shot, and edited) by Bernard Hirschenson, would appear to fit comfortably into the “don;t talk to…

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So, this is it — the end of the line for both Before Watchmen, and for my reviews of same. I guess that means you’re doubly lucky today! Seriously, though — to those of you who have stuck this out (assuming there are any of you — frankly, I have no idea), I offer my sincere thanks, while to DC, I offer my sincere middle finger for taking up a lot of my time and money on a project that, ultimately, was of even less worth than it appeared to be going in.

Yeah, I know — I was the one stupid enough to keep buying these things, so to myself, I offer a swift kick in the ass.

Anyway, after numerous delays, the sixth and final issue of Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones’ Comedian mini-series finally hit the stands earlier today, and while I can say it’s probably the best-written issue of this book since the first, that’s really not saying much. At best, this is merely an average “mature” superhero comic, with an ending that, let’s face it, those of us still left reading this thing have been able to see coming for quite some time now (and even if you didn’t, the cover pretty much telegraphs it  from the outset). I’ve been saying for quite some time that the whole BW debacle was ending with a whimper, but I had no idea how literally true that would be — this issue wraps up with Eddie Blake crying after he does what he feels, I guess, he has to do (again, see cover), and there ain’t no grand finale; no shocked, rapturous awe; no stunned silence — nothin’. DC’s promo tagline for this issue (the story title for which, incidentally, is “Eighties” — something I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t understand in the least , and given that Azzarello isn’t exactly known for his subtlety, I’m feeling doubly stupid for my slowness on the uptake. Perhaps one of you good people could explain it for me?) is “Do you remember how Before Watchmen began? Because you’re never going to forget how it ends,” and if there’s any better proof that they need some more competent PR folks down there at 1700 West Broadway, I’m hard-pressed to think of it. They’re essentially admitting that the whole experience has been a pretty forgettable one right from the outset, but promising that, 37 comics (in total) later, they’re gonna do their best to make up for lost time and missed opportunities.

Talk about too little too late. Truth be told, I probably will   forget Before Wathcmen‘s ending as surely as I have its beginning, since it’s about as pre-formulated and predictable as, say,  the breakfast special at Denny’s. And probably about as good for you, too.

Still, the issue itself’s not a total waste — there’s a nifty little scene where The Comedian has a strictly-off-the-record meeting with G. Gordon Liddy that’s enjoyable enough and also hints at the fact that Blake may end up setting Liddy up vis a vis Watergate — but then you remember that Watergate never happened in the “Watchmen Universe” since it was made clear that it was Blake himself who killed Woodward and Bernstein, so Azzarello’s supposed “cleverness” with this sequence is, alas, ultimately wasted. Rather like the talents of everyone who participated in this project and the money of everyone who supported it.

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Jones’ art is, us usual, perfectly nice in its own standard-superhero-book sorta way, as is his cover (shown at top) and the variant by Rafael Albuquerque (shown immediately above), but again, nothing terribly memorable, just competent. And maybe that’s the saddest, and most telling  indictment when it comes to Before Watchmen : Comedian —  it got so damn bad so damn fast that here, at the end, even a mildly competent effort seems like an improvement. Seriously, you don’t even need to compare this with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series for it to fall up short —- just compare it to any other books out there on the racks. After an absolute  barn-burner of a fist issue, this series quickly settled into a parade of dull, pointless, hopelessly lazy and unambitious flashback stories that were lifeless and unimaginative when set in Viet Nam, and even worse when the “action” returned Stateside (remember the flat-out atrocious third issue, set during the Watts riots?) — all presented with little to no plot escalation or dramatic tension. It all reads as if Azzarello knew that he wanted to bookend things with the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, but didn’t much care what happened in between. That would be bad enough with a four-part series, but in a six-parter it’s absolutely inexcusable.

Still — it’s over, right? Before Watchmen has come and gone, and we’ve all somehow survived. The universe didn’t implode in on itself, and if you’re one of those people whose fondest wish was to see the characters from what remains, to this day, the best superhero comic ever conceived of (and how said is it that in over a quarter-century this particular genre still hasn’t offered up anything better?) put into bog-standard, go-nowhere, typical-at-best stories, then hey — you’re probably pretty happy right now, and I’m happy for you. For the rest of us, the best thing that Before Watchmen did was to finally end.

And speaking of endings — the BW books might be over with, but my dissection of them isn’t. Well, okay, it is here, but it isn’t in a more general sense — if you want to read more of my dripping-with-disenchantment thoughts on the whole fiasco, I’m in the midst of a series of weekly postings over at http://www.geekyuniverse.com that takes a post-mortem look at each of the Before Watchmen mini-series in turn, so if you found my issue-by-issue ramblings either enlightening or annoying, my more generalized wrap-ups/analyses over there may be to your liking, as well. Other than that, I’m all written-out on this subject, and I honestly don’t see myself giving any of these books a secondary reading anytime in the near — or even distant — future. The end feels like a relief.

My latest piece for Through The Shattered Lens takes a look at another SOV zero-budgeter found hiding in the depth of a Pendulum Pictures DVD boxed set —

Through the Shattered Lens

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Don’t get me wrong, folks — by and large I kinda like Bates Motel, and I certainly enjoy reading Lisa Marie’s write-ups on each episode here on TSSL, but let’s not kid ourselves —- that show is a soap opera less- than- cleverly-concealed beneath some standard horror genre trappings. You can, of course, say the same for The Walking Dead, another show which I also dig for the most part, but it’s high time we stopped pretending either of these were anything but — well, crap. Enjoyable crap, sure, but crap nonetheless. And I’m certainly not above enjoyin’ me some crap.

Writer/director Karl Kempter’s 2001 shot-on-video offering Mayhem Motel, for instance. This is most definitely crap — hell, it’s even weird crap, disgusting crap, nauseating crap (less than five minutes into the proceedings a character billed in the credits as “Pukey” throws up in a bathtub —…

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There’s a question that’s been tugging at the back of my mind lately (and, I hope, yours too) — just who the hell are they, anyway?

You know who I’m talking about — the shadowy, faceless, nameless cabal who issue pronouncements from on high intended to influence the average person’s view of, well, just about everything : they say this is a good place to eat; they feel that so-and-so’s last book was better than his new one ; they don’t care much for some artist’s latest exhibit or installation; they can’t stop talking about Mad Men (even though nobody you talk to actually seems to watch it).

Yessir, whoever they are, they  seem to have an opinion on everything. As if that weren’t bad enough, though, they also seem to have obtained a pretty solid hold on the levers of political and economic decision-making : they say that tax cuts for the rich will stimulate the economy; they believe that throwing Wall Street crooks in jail where they belong will dampen our so-called “recovery”; they tell us that we need to compromise our civil liberties in order to fight the so-called “war on terrorism” ; they have decided that the “high” salaries of teachers, cops, firefighters, and public works employees are the cause of state budget shortfalls.

But hey — maybe I’m being too hard on them. After all, maybe they deserve all this power and authority, because, as it turns out, they also have a direct pipeline into the very mysteries of creation and the universe itself, from the most momentous to the most mundane : they tell us there’s an invisible God who loves us (as long as we do what he says); they say he created everything in just six short days (of course, they don’t tell us which kind of “days” they’re talking about here — a day on Mars is different to a day on Mercury is different to a day on Neptune is different to a day on Earth); they promise us that we’ll live forever — after we’re dead (go figure that one out); they say it’s going to rain on Thursday.

No doubt about it, whoever they  are they’ve done their homework. Maybe we don’t really have much reason to be suspicious of them, even if we have no idea who they are.

The thing is, though — what if they’re wrong?

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Case in point : writer/director Wallace Potts’ 1989 straight-to-video efforts Psycho Cop. Whoever they are, they don’t seem to like this one very much. They  say it’s a low-rent Maniac Cop rip-off with hammy acting, a predictable, story, no intelligence, and that it’s loaded with obvious, sophomoric humor.

Okay, so they’re right about all that. But then they go and tell us that means it’s a bad film. And that, my friends, is the point at which we need to tell them to fuck right off, because Psycho Cop is some seriously awesome shit.

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Bobby Ray Shafer (or Robert R. Shafer, as he bills himself in his more recent, supposedly “respectable” work) plays Office Joe Vickers, a Satan-worshipping, homicidal nutjob who just so happens to be a duly-sworn officer of the law in some po-dunk country town. Six supposed teenagers, played by “actors” you’ve never heard of, are heading out to the sticks to booze it up and get laid. The kids cross paths with Vickers and he proceeds to torture, humiliate, and kill them all in turn, often snapping groaningly-bad one-liners along the way, such as when he rips one of the youthful good-timers’ hearts out and says “have a heart.”

This may not sound like much — and they will certainly concur with that — but I’m here to tell you that it’s a blast, and it’s all down to Shafer quite obviously having the time of his life from word “go” to word “stop.” Sometimes a movie doesn’t really need much more than a star giving it his or her all to elevate it far beyond what its means would suggest are possible — and yeah, okay, maybe that’s all Psycho Cop really has going for it — but trust me, if you think that Z-grade films come any better than this, well — maybe you’re one of them. The rest of us? We’re  just out for a good time, kinda like Shafer probably was here, and his infectious performance pretty much guarantees that our simple desires will be fulfilled.

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Just to spite us, though, they have seen to it that Psycho Cop has yet to receive even a bare-bones DVD release, so if you want to see it, you’ve either gotta hunt down a tattered old VHS copy, or find it online somewhere.Fortunately, a good number of anti-authoritarian souls have, indeed, posted it for public consumption on various locales around the web, but hey —  had better leave it to you to find out exactly where, since  don’t want to get into trouble with them. Just rest assured that finding it takes a very minimal amount of effort, and you’ll be glad you did.

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Still, for all the trouble they’ve  gone to in terms of bad-mouthing this flick, maybe they’re finally coming around to our way of thinking, at least after a fashion : a few days ago,   a bunch of real-life Psycho Cops in the Boston area were kicking in doors, holding innocent people at gunpoint, rifling through homes, and destroying people’s property — all to find some 19-year-old kid they think might be the same one seen in some half-assed, grainy surveillance video footage.  Once the police (“supported” by a military that’s not supposed to be operating on domestic soil) found him, slowly bleeding to death in some boat in a family’s backyard, it was decided that it would be too much effort to even bother to take five seconds to read him his rights — and they  are telling us these cops are heroes.

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When director Christopher Lewis ventured behind the camera again in 1985 to make his second feature,  hot on the heels of the previous year’s Blood Cult, he had a pretty tough act to follow. After all, “sophomore slumps” are a notoriously common fact of life in fields of human endeavor, and —

Oh, wait a minute. What the hell am I talking about here? Blood Cult sucked. And I say that as a guy who really does appreciate its place in history, given that it was the first-ever shot-on-video, direct- to-VHS horror movie ever made, and I generally love ’80s SOV/DTV  stuff — still, much as I really am thankful that Blood Cult opened the floodgates for what was, by and large, a fairly fun sub-genre, the fact is that it’s an almost preposterously lousy flick in and of itself.

But hey, it did turn a tidy profit for Lewis and his business partners, so less 12 months later, they did exactly what (probably) you and (certainly) I would have done in their situation — hustled up 75 grand and gave the whole thing another go . And this time, they even had a bankable horror icon on board with them.

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Notice I said “icon” there, not “star,” because, let’s face it, much as I absolutely love Tom Savini, it’s always gonna be his work behind the camera that he’s most renowned for, rather than his work in front  of it. Which isn’t to say that he’s a “bad” actor by any stretch of the imagination, just that he’s — how can I put this kindly? — rather limited. Still, in 1985 he was getting restless in his role as top horror special effects guy in the world, wanted to give the thespian life a go, and Lewis, canny businessman that he was (and probably still is), figured that just even having the Savini name attached to his project would guarantee, at the very least, a modest return on his (admittedly minimal) investment.

I guess it all worked out as far as that goes, since the finished result of their collaboration, The Ripper, did indeed turn a tidy little profit. So that’s at least one thing they can hang their hats on, at any rate. Beyond that, though, well —

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Our “story” here, such as it is, revolves around one rather asshole-ish college professor, played by Tom Schreier, who happens upon an ancient ring that was apparently once worn by Jack The Ripper himself. Whenever he puts it on, he turns into Tom Savini and kills somebody — usually a young woman, and usually via throat-slitting. Then when he takes the ring off, he can’t remember what the hell happened, and reads about his crimes in the paper the next morning. Now, you or I, we might simply stop wearing the ring,  just to be on the safe side and all — but he keeps putting the damn thing for reasons that, I guess, are known only to him. Maybe blacking out and reading about grisly crimes on the front pages the following morning is just his idea of a good time, or maybe he really is just too damn thick to put two and two together — I dunno. What I do know is, that’s about all the “plot” recap that’s necessary to sufficiently clue you in as to what’s going on here.

Incidentally, if all of this sounds somewhat similar to Rowdy (Road House) Herrington’s 1988 film Jack’s Back, starring James Spader, maybe it is a little bit, albeit with a couple of key differences : if I remember correctly (and it’s been awhile, so I can’t rightfully claim that I do) in Jack’s Back, Spader’s character was a  then-modern-day serial killer inspired by Jolly Jack’s crimes, rather than his outright reincarnation ; and, more importantly, Jack’s Back was actually a halfway decent little movie, while The Ripper frankly, is anything but.

Shit — who are we kidding? I’m being too generous. Fact of the matter is, The Ripper is downright painful to watch. The acting is uniformly deplorable, the soundtrack “music” is among the most grating in cinematic (or videomatic, or whatever) history, the production values are shit (in particular the laughable “flashback” sequences where Lewis and Co. try, without success, to recreate Victorian London on the streets on Tulsa, Oklahoma), and, perhaps most surprisingly, the makeup effects are beyond lousy. Seriously — I know Savini was otherwise occupied on this production, but you’d think that when he saw what the crew were trying to pass off as blood and gore here, he’d have at least stepped in and offered a few pointers. Apparently — and obviously — he didn’t.

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Anyway, all these years later, The Ripper is, if you absolutely must ignore me, available on DVD from VCI, the company Lewis founded with the cash he netted from even-less-than-half-assed “efforts” such as this. It’s presented full frame with mono sound, neither of which is anything to write home about, and includes both a dry “making-of” featurette on the flick’s production and an even drier feature-length commentary where Lewis drones on at length about how much “work” went into this production. I can’t imagine much of it being of any interest to anyone other than die-hard Ripper fans — assuming such an animal even exists in the wild — but I did get a kick out of checking out this movie’s comments section on the IMDB where the author of its screenplay, one Bill Groves, states that, if Lewis loved the script even half as much as he claims he did on the commentary, “then how come he treated it like one of The Ripper’s victims?” Ouch. Gotta love that.

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But wait, there’s more! If you’re in the mood for even more self-abuse (and not the fun kind) than watching this provides on its own, VCI has also released it as part of something called “The Ripper Blood Pack,” a three-DVD set that features not only The Ripper, but Blood Cult and its if -anything-even-worse sequel, Revenge, as well. If you’re tired of pushing saltwater-soaked safety pins through your nipples, attaching untreated heated copper wire to your scrotum or labia, stapling your eyelids open for days on end, or clamping your toes between shards of steaming dry ice, then might I humbly suggest trying to watch all three of these movies, consecutively, in one sitting — that, my friends, is some real pain.

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So, I gotta ask — how come Arthur Marks’ 1975 Pam Grier starring vehicle Friday Foster doesn’t get a little bit more respect?

Okay, I’ll grant you — it’s not Coffy or anything, but Grier plays a feisty, intelligent, liberated woman who’s just as comfortable using her brains as her body to crack the case she’s working; she thinks on her feet (and yeah, okay, sometimes on her back); she mixes it up with the likes of Carl Weathers, Ted Lange (who plays pretty much the best movie pimp ever here), Godfrey Cambridge,  Thalmus Rasulala, Scatman Crothers, Yaphet Kotto and none other than Eartha Kitt herself; and if all that ain’t enough for ya, she gets naked a lot.

And yet — -despite all this, and despite a typically solid, workmanlike job from Marks (who also gave us Bucktown and Detroit 9000, among others), it seems this film is considered one of Pam’s weaker efforts, down there with the likes of Sheba, Baby.

This, dear friends, troubles me deeply.

Well, okay — not deeply. In fact, it’s probably not even fair to say that it “troubles” me at all. Maybe “perplexed” is a better word.  Shall we go with that?

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So here’s the rundown — Grier  plays an intrepid ex-model-turned-freelance photographer named, of course, Friday Foster, who gets more than she bargained for when, one night while trying to secretly catch a few snapshots of a guy named Blake Tarr (Rasulala), the “richest black man in America,” she actually witnesses his attempted assassination! Needless to say she’s soon thrown into a web of intrigue that sees her team up with grizzled P.I. Kotto, attempt to avoid being wiped out herself by hitman Weathers, try to coax the truth out of gay suspect Cambridge, match wits with dirty (in more ways than one) preacher Crothers, fight off the employment advances of — uhhmmm — “procurer” Lange, put up with the deliciously catty egotism of fashion designer Kitt, and eventually blow the lid off a scheme to kill basically every important black person in the country! Throw in none other than Jim Backus, better knows as Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island, as a racist politician, and again, I must ask — what’s not to love?

Okay, Pam doesn’t mix it up lady-street-fighter-style with anyone here, relying more on her wits, brains, and undeniable charm rather than her fists, but there’s still plenty of action on offer , and Marks moves things along at nice, snappy pace. There ain’t a dull moment to be had and the whole thing’s pure fun from start to finish. Yet folks seem to think this was the beginning of the end for Pam. I’d ask why one more time at this point, but I really hate repeating myself (too much), and anyway, I have no desire to bore you good folks.

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Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that this is a movie with, believe it or not, a certain amount of historical significance, since it’s based on Jim Lawrence and Jorge Longeron’s  newspaper comic strip of the same name — the first syndicated strip to feature an African American lead character. Take that, Boondocks! For whatever reason, the strip’s largely forgotten these days, but I’ve included a brief sample below just to give you a little taste of what it was like.

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Friday Foster is available as a bare-bones, extras-free DVD from MGM/UA as part of their Soul Cinema collection (nicely-remastered widescreen picture, good enough mono sound) and is definitely worth another look if you haven’t seen it in some time — or worth a first look if you’ve never seen it at all. I feel quite confident you’ll walk away as — what was the word  we settled on again? — oh yeah, perplexed as I am as to why this isn’t a better-regarded example of blaxploitation cinema, since it’s got more or less everything you could possibly want and then some.

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What’s not to love? You tell me. I honestly can’t figure it out for the life of me.