Posts Tagged ‘pam grier’

friday_foster_01

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?

grierrasulala-friday-foster

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.

167832_512x288_generated

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.

Friday-Foster-Comic-Strip

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.

27616857866_p0_v1_s260x420

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

Not so long ago we took a look at Pam Grier’s finest hour, Coffy, and I thought it would be fun to follow it up quickly with a re-watch, and subsequent review, of a flick that’s generally considered to be one of her more uninspired starring turns, namely late exploitation king William Girdler’s 1975 offering Sheba, Baby.

A lot of the criticism this flick comes in for is frankly pretty well-founded — far from being “Hotter’n Coffy” and “Meaner’n Foxy Brown” as the tag line on the poster claims, this is a pretty tame and formulaic affair, with Pam pretty much just running through the motions. Here she portrays one of her fairly standard characters, a tough-as-nails Chicago P.I. named Sheba Shayne who comes home to Louisville, Kentucky (where Girdler shot most of his early work) when her dad’s neighborhood loan operation is vandalized and the old man himself attacked by some vicious hoods trying to run him out of business  who work for a mid-level loan shark/all-around operator named Pilot (the always-reliable D’Urville Martin) who in turn works for a higher authority who goes by the name of Shark (Dick Merrifield) and is busily consolidating control of all the various rackets in the black neighborhoods around town. Honest businessmen like Sheba’s pop and his partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker, with whom Sheba subsequently rekindles an on-again/off-again relationship) hasn’t got a chance when the crime lords decide that legit loan operations are standing in the way of the 20-30% vig they can charge desperate people who have no legit alternatives to take their custom to.

Along the way Pam goes undercover and tries to lure the crime bosses in with her always-alluring feminine wiles, kicks a lot of ass, takes a bunch f names, tussles with lazy, crooked cops who are in for a piece of the action — you know the drill. It’s not like she’s gonna lose in the end or anything, and even though there’s a twist of pathos added when her dad gets killed about halfway through the flick, you know that sooner or later (in fact, in just about 90 minutes’ time), our gal Sheba is bound to bring down the whole operation.

Sadly, Sheba, Baby is pretty light on the mayhem and violence front, with what few killings there are being relatively bloodless affairs, and Pam’s ample — uhhhhmmm — assets are more or less obscured throughout with only some almost-but-not-quite nudity in a couple of spots, but I still don’t think this thing would garner the PG rating it got at the time if it were released in this day and age (to those who say that you can get away with more in the movies these days I humbly beg to differ — plenty of PG-rated flicks in the 1970s had more sex and violence that many contemporary R-rated features).

On the technical front, Girdler, who would go on to give us such notable exploitation classics as Grizzly and Day Of The Animals before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for an upcoming film project at the tragically young age of 30, and who co-wrote the script for this feature, struggles a bit. He doesn’t seem to have mastered anything beyond basic point-and-shoot filming techniques at this point in his all-too-brief career, and the editing is uniformly amateurish throughout, which especially detracts from some key action sequences.

All in all, though, I can’t be too hard on Sheba, Baby. Even in a by-the-numbers effort like this one, Grier still oozes charisma and bad-ass sex appeal and can carry a film on attitude and poise alone. She shines more brightly when she’s got better material to work with, of course, but even her substandard fare usually gives her enough (even if it’s only just enough) to sink her acting chops into, and her natural dynamism has a way of carrying even the most hackneyed scripts further than they deserve to go. Simply put, she’s essentially the only reason to see this movie, but she’s more than enough.

I guess I can’t really recommend Sheba, Baby to anyone but the most diehard Pam fans or blaxploitation completists, but it’s still got more going for it than most of what comes out of the Hollywood meat grinder these days and certainly isn’t any more formulaic than, say, the latest Michael Bay blockbuster. It hasn’t got the soul of a Coffy or even a Foxy Brown, but it’s still not a bad way to spend an hour and a half of your life by any means.

Sheba, Baby is available on DVD from MGM, who see to have acquired nearly all of the old American International Pictures catalog,  as part of its Soul Cinema line. It’s pretty much a bare-bones release, but the widescreen anamorphic transfer and mono sound are perfectly serviceable. It’s also playing all this month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite TV systems, and is certainly worth a look if there’s nothing else on TV — which, let’s be honest, there pretty much never is.

When people ask me what my all-time favorite blaxploitation flick is, the question is a serious a serious no-brainer. Oh, sure, there are plenty of great ones to choose from —Black Caesar, Across 110th Street, Shaft, Foxy Brown — the list of classics is nearly endless. But the one flick that stands out above all the others, the one that holds the title of not only the greatest of all blaxploitationers, but also one of the very best revenge movies ever made, is Jack Hill’s incomparable 1973 Pam Grier starring vehicle Coffy. This is the one that set the standard, folks, and frankly it has yet to be matched.

The story’s simple enough — when the younger sister of hard-working inner-city nurse Coffy (we never get her first name), better known as “Coffy,” is sent into comatose shock after shooting up some bad smack, our intrepid (and deadly sexy) heroine is determined to bring down the whole fucking criminal underworld all by herself. That’s bravado, people. She’s got no skills, no training, just a bad attitude and a body to die for.  The chain leads way higher than even she could have guessed, though — all the way from street dealers to big-time pimps to Italian mobsters out of Vegas to crooked cops right to the would-be congressman she’s sleeping with!

Simple story? Hell yeah. All the best are. But if you’ve got the right the woman for the job, even the simplest set-ups can leave you gripped to the screen. And Grier was definitely more than up to the task. Hill (one of the great unsung heroes of exploitation moviemaking) had worked with Grier on a couple of Roger Corman women-in-prison productions shot on the cheap in the Philippines (The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, to be precise) and figured she was ready to graduate from being a supporting player as the stereotypical bad-ass-butch-black-woman-in-stir to her own starring turn, and damn was he right.  Pam’s not only a total sexual dynamo here (she gets naked three separate times in the first 15 minutes alone), she’s a supernatural force of pure fucking vengeance. Her conscience troubles her a bit more than you’d expect in a film like this (check out her “the past few days seem like a dream” monologue early on to her cop friend Carter), but she can put that in a locked drawer when she needs to and just plain kick ass. You always get the feeling revenge is gonna be bittersweet for Coffy, though, because Grier gives such a tellingly multi-dimensional performance (and the long slow fadeaway of her walking, battered and bruised after killing all the bad guys (come on, did you ever doubt she would?), along a lonely,  early-morning beach at the end as the credits roll provides a surprisingly downbeat ending that the genre would later airbrush out of things as these films became more formulaic) that’s always grounded in reality (and yes, reality itself would become another casualty of this genre’s success as time wore on). In short, Grier’s  Coffy is not some cartoonish superhero, but a real woman dealing with an extraordinary set of circumstances and trapped in a situation beyond her control that she’d rather not be a part of. Sure, she hams it up a bit when going undercover as a Jamaican prostitute to grab the attention of mega-pimp King George (who’s even got his own theme song!), but even in the midst of the most over-the-top scenes here, like the notorious cat fight (you knew there had to be one) at George’s pad, there’s always something lurking under the surface in Pam’s extraordinary performance. She’s a bad-ass mama out for revenge with soul, a real life flesh-and-blood heroine rather than a cardboard cut-out. She’s not a super-woman here (although she’s got a super-woman body — damn, I’ll quit obsessing over it now), but if conscripted into a situation where that’s what she’s gotta be, then goddamn if she isn’t gonna be it, and worry about the consequences later.

There are some damn fine supporting turns here as well, to be sure — Booker Bradshaw as sleazy Councilman-Soon-To-Be-Congressman  Brunswick, Sid Haig as — well, the kind of hired-muscle-with-a-perv-streak he always did so well at the time — but really this is Pam’s show all the way. From the minute she blows that pusher’s head off with a shotgun  (and this is also surprisingly violent for a film of this type — another element that would be toned down as the blaxploitation formula took hold) in the film’s opening scene (which would later be aped by effects legend Tom Savini in the legendary head-shot scene in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), she absolutely owns this motherfucker from start to finish. Honestly, if Grier’s Coffy said “you can fuck me, but I might kill you afterwards if I feel like it”, you’d be up for taking the risk. That’s how undeniable she is here.  I can’t think of higher praise than that.

Hill and Grier would be back less than a year later with Foxy Brown, which essentially tells the same story with a bigger budget, less graphic violence, less nudity, and frankly less heart and realism. It’s still a damn fine flick, but it’s a sanitized, de-fanged version of what you see here. This is the pure, grade-A, 100-proof stuff.

Coffy is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line. It features a nicely-done full-frame transfer, a solid stereo audio track, the original theatrical trailer, and a feature-length commentary from Jack Hill that’s absolutely gripping listening. It’s also playing free this month on Impact Action On Demand, available on most cable and satellite systems. I’m assuming most readers of this blog will have seen this before, probably numerous times, but if it’s been awhile, give it a go again — you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at what a bass-knuckled punch it still packs even after all these years. They just plain don’t make ’em like this anymore — and truth be told, even though Coffy was a solid box-office success, they never made ’em quite like this again even back in the day. This isn’t just “soul cinema,” it’s heart, soul, blood, and guts cinema. It’s everything you love exploitation films for, combined with everything that a lot of it (and everything else on celluloid, be it from Hollywood or the independents) is missing. It’s uncompromising, multi-faceted, honest and arresting art, folks. It’s complex in spite of  its simplicity and provides no easy answers or feel-good moments. It’s a genre movie for grown-ups that doesn’t insult your intelligence and for once provides more steak than sizzle (although there’s plenty of that, too). It’s the straight dope and it’ll hook you forever.

"Original Gangstas" Movie Poster

Hey, what the hell, you know?

In the late 90s and around the turn of the millennium, blaxploitation cinema started to earn a long-overdue critical reappraisal, due in large part to the success of films like Jackie Brown and the “updated” (and lame) Shaft — suddenly the opinion-dictators out there, who had written off the entire genre as racist, contemptible crap realized a lot of those old flicks were pretty damn good. And after being wrong for about twenty years, said self-appointed trendsetters were finally right about this terrific, much-maligned genre. And since a lot of the folks who starred in those great old 70s action yarns were looking for work, it was only a matter of time, I suppose, before a “greatest hits” reunion came to pass.

Enter director Larry Cohen, the ultimate B-movie survivor (he helmed blaxploitationers like Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem in addition to tons of awesome B-grade horrors), who in the year 1996  reassembled all the blaxploitation heavy hitters (well, okay, almost all), sprinkled in a few more awesome cult stars, got ahold of a semi-decent script that gave ’em all something to do, and the result its Original Gangstas.

Okay, he might be like 60, but I still wouldn't fuck with Fred Williamson

Just look at this cast, people — Fred Williamson. Pam Grier. Jim Brown. Ron O’Neal. Richard Roundtree. Paul Winfield. Isabel Sanford. Robert Forster. Wings Hauser. Charles Napier. Paul Winfield. There’s just no way any flick with that cast, and Cohen behind the camera, is going to suck too badly.

Is Original Gangstas predictable? Dear God yes. Fred “The Hammer” plays an ex-football player who comes home to Gary, Indiana when his father is brutally attacked in the shop he owns by members of a street gang known as The Rebels, and from the minute his private plane (probably rented for all of ten minutes by the production crew) touches down, you know everything’s gonna work out okay. Any supposed “twists and turns” the plot takes along the way cam be seen from a mile off — at least.

But so what? You’re not in this for anything new. You’re here for the comforts of the familiar, to see the old pros show the young punks how it’s done.

For the most part, the fight scenes are well-enough staged, and you believe the likes of Williamson, Brown, Grier, and Roundtree can still kick a little ass — and that they’ll feel it in the morning. The aura of invincibility around all of them has been brought down a couple notches, and they’re portrayed not as super-heroes, but as people who can hold their own in a fight despite their advanced years. Yeah, it might be a totally unrealistic premise, but at least it’s presented —- uhhhhmmm — semi-realistically.

"Eat lead, muthafuckas!!!!!!!!!!"

It’s essentially the soul music generation vs. the hip-hop generation here, and there’s never any doubt about who’s gonna come out on top in the end. Contemporary elements like drive-by shootings, automatic weapons, ultraviolent gangbangers, and a “gangsta rap” soundtrack all combine to produce an atmosphere where it’s pretty clear the old-timers are, sure, a little out of their element, but they work hard and know how to adjust on the fly. They’re survivors, after all, and they’ll make it out of this scrape okay.

Sure, it gets a little preachy in spots — what’s happening to our neighborhoods?, what’s happening to our youth?, why are the cops so incompetent?, what’s happened to economic opportunities in the black community?, yadda yadda yadda etc. etc. etc.

So what? There was an element of preachiness in all the 70s blaxploitation flicks, usually about these exact same subjects. Give Original Gangstas a break — it’s pretty clear from the outset that the only “original” thing in the movie is the first word in the title.

Real love never dies, baby

It’s all here — the gangland slaying of their son rekindles an old romance between Brown and Grier, hard-working flatfoot detective Forster tries but can’t get anywhere, Napier as the Mayor and Hauser as his assistant don’t actually give a shit, Williamson’s gotta get the old gang back together (he and Brown and Roundtree and O’Neal actually founded The Rebels), and the little kid who everybody loves gets killed. Again, don’t expect anything new under the soggy Gary skies here, just enjoy the ride.

And if you can do that, then goddamnit, Original Gangstas is a  lot of fun. Way more than any flick with a geriatric cast going after one last crack at glory should be. Cohen moves things along at a steady little pace and with consummate professionalism, and not one of the stars seems to be mailing it in, even though all of them could. I won’t recommend it without reservation, but if you know exactly what you’re getting into here — and it’s never any secret — then there’s no reason you can’t just kick back and dig it for what it is — one last shot at the big-time for a bunch of actors who certainly deserve it.

"Original Gangstas" DVD from MGM

Original Gangstas is available as a bare-bones DVD release from MGM, and it’s also playing all month on Impact Action-on-Demand, in HD, on most major cable systems. It’s well worth a look, and even if one viewing will probably do it for you, it’ll be one enjoyable viewing.

The advertising tagline for Original Gangstas is “It’s Time for Some Respect.” The film itself earns just that.