Thursday, February 22, 2007

Film Review: DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Volume 15

DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975 New World) Starring Trina Parks, Roger E. Mosley, Norman Bartold, Raymond Allen, Bettye Sweet, Shirley Washington, Dick Miller and Alvin Childress. Directed by William Witney. Screenplay by George Armitage.

Trina Parks' mother has turned up missing after being involved with an abortion clinic. It is clear to her that the racist cops (who harass her titular, all-female motorcycle gang) won't help her, so she turns vigilante and searches Los Angeles for her mother while donning more disguises than Pam Grier in COFFY and FOXY BROWN combined.  Meanwhile several prominent African-American males have also disappeared and Parks finds evidence that points toward fast food magnate and Colonel Sanders lookalike Norman Bartold.  The politically ambitious Bartold is publicly very supportive of the black community. In private, he is a Ku Klux Klan benefactor who stages minstrel shows in his home, runs a literal southern plantation (in L.A.!), and plans to perform cloning experiments on the abductees. It is up to Parks to rescue her mother and to stop Bartold’s scheme.

Your typical blaxploitation revenge flick with a badass heroine, only starring Parks (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) instead of Grier or Tamara Dobson, right?

Well, not exactly. Actually, I just spent more time on the plot than the screenwriter did. The kidnappings are performed using giant nets, the climactic showdown is fought with giant pancakes, and the film opens with the Strutters defending themselves against several U. S. Marines with lemon meringue pies. The cops bumble like their Keystone counterparts and spend much of their time getting their plus-sized partner unstuck from doorways. Their police car has a ridiculously oversized flashing light taking up the entire roof and a siren that sounds just like a flying saucer in a 1950’s sci-fi flick. Various devices at the police station and in Bartold’s underground lair are meticulously labeled, just like everything on TV’s BATMAN. The Strutters have large, outlandishly glittering helmets and outfits from that moment in time when psychedelia was about to meet disco. The local ice cream man sells “Potsickles” (6 years before Cheech and Chong’s NICE DREAMS), Bartold's subordinates wear satin costumes with pig heads, and the movie screeches to a halt frequently so that various cast members can break into song….whether they’re in a club, on the street, or in a cell in the aforementioned underground lair.

It’s I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA 13 years early. Or it’s HELLZAPOPPIN’ 35 years late. Or it’s….oh, to Hell with it, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS defies any simple description. “You’ve never seen anything like it” is an overused and often inaccurate phrase. But not in this case.

Accomplished dancer and singer Trina Parks is in nearly every scene in her only starring role to date. She has to be wonderful in order for this unpredictable hodgepodge to work and fortunately, she is. She is especially funny while disguised as a nun and a police officer, and trying out some kung fu moves with her brother (they end up destroying his house). Parks is inspired and uninhibited, and she gets great support from a truly eclectic cast of familiar and not so familiar faces. There's a terrific energy and vibe to the film and while viewing DARKTOWN STRUTTERS you’ll get the feeling that the cast and crew members had a genuinely great time making it.

Director Witney, a B-movie veteran in his 60's at the time, uses silly sound effects (i.e. the slide whistle), the typically funky blaxploitation soundtrack, sped up film and unconventional transitions. While the film is hit and miss, the overall result makes you want to watch it again to catch jokes you missed the first (and second) time. Special mention must also go to set designer Jack Fisk for his part in bringing this outlandish live action cartoon to fruition.

Uneven, yes. But never uninteresting. DARKTOWN STRUTTERS is the type of film that you have to show to people to prove it actually exists after you describe it…..or make your best effort to.

So….why isn’t this on DVD?

The slapstick is way too silly for some, and there might well be more politically incorrect humor in this film than in any other film of the 1970’s. Which says a lot when you remember it was the decade of BLAZING SADDLES and THE BAD NEWS BEARS.

While there are a lot of familiar faces here, there’s no one with the star power of Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, or Jim Brown.

Why it should be on DVD:

This seems a must for MGM’s Soul Cinema DVD series. It’s downright puzzling to me that it hasn’t been released as part of that series yet when several other lesser known films have (AMAZING GRACE, for example).

Fans of I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA and UNDERCOVER BROTHER would love this film, which is more over the top than either.

In addition to Parks’ winning performance, there’s opportunities to see a lot of familiar TV faces on the big screen, including Raymond Allen (Woody on SANFORD AND SON and Ned the Wino on GOOD TIMES), Zara Cully (THE JEFFERSONS), Alvin Childress (AMOS N’ ANDY) and Roger E. Mosley (MAGNUM P.I.).

How many 1975 films addressed police brutality (by L.A. cops no less), cloning, abortion and the exploitation of minority voters? Clearly ahead of its time underneath the surrealism.

To sum it up: this film is too unique not to be on DVD. And a great litmus test for anyone's sense of humor.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Film Review: NEIGHBORS (1981)

"Why the HELL isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Volume 14

NEIGHBORS (1981 Columbia) Starring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, Kathryn Walker, Lauren-Marie Taylor, Tim Kazurinsky. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Screenplay by Larry Gelbart from the novel by Thomas Berger.

John Belushi is a Lester Burnhamesque suburbanite, only even more “sedated”, and Kathryn Walker is his chain-smoking and equally unhappy wife. Enter the much younger, mysterious and uninhibited new neighbors Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty. Aykroyd reduces both Walker and Belushi’s teenage daughter Lauren-Marie Taylor into giggly schoolgirls within hours. Meanwhile Moriarty toys with Belushi and does more than just toy with Walker (“You should have slipped it through the mail slot while you had the chance, Earl!”). Belushi also faces gunfire in his front yard, nearly drowns in quicksand, sees his prize collectibles destroyed, and gets roughed up by 65 year old Tim Kazurinsky (among other things) over the course of a nightmarish 24 hours, but also slowly realizes (like the aforementioned Mr. Burnham) just how dull his life has become, and how dysfunctional his family life really is.

Belushi and Aykroyd played against type in their third and final film together, with Belushi playing the man in the grey flannel suit and Aykroyd (sporting a dye job, gold tooth and contact lenses) the much younger and wilder new neighbor. Belushi accurately conveys Earl Keese’s discomfort and timidity throughout but unfortunately looks at least ten years too young to play Keese (in his late forties in the Berger novel). He’s bettered by Aykroyd, who is clearly relishing the chance to really cut loose for the first time on the big screen after playing the stoic, deadpan Elwood Blues in his prior film. Best of all is Moriarty; she is every bit the seductress the role calls for, and gets some choice lines (“I was real friendly with a boy named Earl once. Well, twice, really”).

One of the common criticisms of this box office bomb is that director John G. Avildsen had no background in comedy and that his inexperience in the genre showed onscreen. In fact, Avildsen started his career a decade earlier with the uneven free love comedy GUESS WHAT WE LEARNED IN SCHOOL TODAY? (1971) and the much racier and often hilarious CRY UNCLE (also 1971) in which Avildsen dared to mine laughs from necrophilia and to show simulated fellatio and full frontal nudity from Allen Garfield (!), with frequently side-splitting results. So the notion that Avildsen did not have the comedic background to bring the Berger novel to black-comedy fruition is false.

Unfortunately, stating that by 1981 Avildsen was the wrong director for this material is entirely correct. By that time he was settling in as the go-to guy for the uplifting formula sports film (ROCKY, the KARATE KID trilogy) and had not directed an outright comedy in a decade. Whatever touch Avildsen had for dark humor a decade before is all but gone; the tone is all wrong at the outset. Rather than establish a numbing reality with two very bored people (like the book), we get ersatz “weird comedy” music, a neighborhood that looks more deserted and creepy than suburban, and Belushi and Walker looking and acting like hermits before the arrival of the neighbors. With the unsubtle approach taken, their arrival isn't anywhere near the jolt it should be; rather than shaking things up, they're just adding to the strangeness.

The music is a big hindrance. Avildsen hired Bill Conti from ROCKY who composed a cartoonish score wholly inappropriate for what is supposed to be a biting black comedy. The original idea of using stock music from old horror and science fiction films would have actually worked better IMO. Conti’s music kills more laughs than any other soundtrack I can think of.

NEIGHBORS does have its very funny moments (in particular, the spaghetti dinner and Belushi and Aykroyd bonding over a cup of coffee) and a loyal cult following today, but is ultimately an interesting failure. Avildsen has yet to try to recapture his black-comedy youth again: it’s been all dramas (FOR KEEPS, A NIGHT IN HEAVEN) and uplifting sports films (8 SECONDS) for 25 years and counting.

I’m far from the first to suggest Avildsen was the wrong director for this film. Belushi reportedly wanted John Landis to replace him, and Newsweek reviewer David Ansen suggested Roman Polanski would have been ideal (if unrealistic). I have two candidates of my own: Carl Reiner and Arthur Hiller. Reiner worked very well with Steve Martin in a number of films, and delivered the cinematic goods on WHERE’S POPPA?, a novel arguably even darker than NEIGHBORS (of note: both novels had an ending considered too strong and thus changed for the film version). Hiller got great results pairing Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (SILVER STREAK) and Peter Falk and Alan Arkin (the fantastic 1979 version of THE IN-LAWS) and did well with another comedy of nightmares in a New York setting, THE OUT OF TOWNERS.

So….why isn’t this on DVD?

The subpar box office performance, which some attribute to John Belushi’s atypical role. The theory goes that his fans prefer to see him dishing it out instead of being the human piñata that he is for much of NEIGHBORS.

Though it has its moments, the film is very disappointing given the teaming of Belushi and Aykroyd and a script from Larry Gelbart. The more optimistic ending was only the beginning of the watering down of Berger's darkly satirical novel.

That music score. I have to say it again, God, does it suck. If you had no music at all the film would work better.

Why it should be on DVD:

NEIGHBORS should certainly be available on DVD when you consider the far worse films from SNL alums (OH HEAVENLY DOG!, MODERN PROBLEMS, even UNDER THE RAINBOW is planned for late 2007!) from the same era that are available.

Though it isn’t nearly as good as it could have been, NEIGHBORS is a genuine curio. An interesting failure is a hell of a lot better than an uninteresting one (see the Chevy Chase films mentioned above).

RE: the box-office disappointment and atypical Belushi role: not really valid reasons, when you consider that CONTINENTAL DIVIDE is on DVD.

Hey, Belushi was a comedy legend, and he only made 7 films, 5 as the star. This is his final film (his death at age 33 came a mere 3 months after this film was released). Shouldn’t it be out for historical reasons alone?