Sunday, December 26, 2010

Film Review: BLOOD FEUD (1983)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 51                                                

BLOOD FEUD (1983 20th CENTURY FOX/ Operation Prime Time) Starring Robert Blake, Cotter Smith, Ernest Borgnine, Jose Ferrer, Seymour Cassel, Michael Lerner, Danny Aiello, Brian Dennehy, Forrest Tucker, Sam Groom, Edward Albert. Directed by Mike Newell.

Robert Blake is James Riddle Hoffa, Cotter Smith is Robert Kennedy, and BLOOD FEUD begins in 1956 when both are on the rise: Kennedy the new chief counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and Hoffa aspiring to usurp the presidency of the Teamsters from Dave Beck. Hoffa initially thinks RFK will be an ally.  After all, he’s going after the corrupt Beck too, and Kennedy's father knows that "eventually everyone does business with everyone". But once Hoffa takes over the union, he finds himself in RFK’s crosshairs and in a tricky situation regarding the many favors he owes to organized crime.

Jimmy Hoffa has proven to be fascinating, if infrequent, film subject. Jack Nicholson’s mannered 1992 take on Hoffa was praised by critics, and Sylvester Stallone made a thinly veiled Hoffa his first project post-ROCKY (1978’s F.I.S.T). Both big-budget features pale in comparison to the much lesser known, made for television BLOOD FEUD, which is anchored by the best performance of Robert Blake’s career.

The perpetually troubled Blake was forced to put his BLOOD FEUD salary in escrow, collectible only if he stayed drug-free for the duration of the production. He responded with a performance that perfectly captured all sides of Hoffa: loyalty (to a fault), stubbornness, obnoxiousness in and out of court (count the times he refers to himself in third person) and competitiveness that hinted at a Napoleon complex. As the heat increases, so does Hoffa’s paranoia, and Blake is positively chilling after deciding that his office is bugged or that the Kennedys have planted female spies at the Teamsters convention. Evoking defiance, desperation and ultimately realization, Blake presents the most well-rounded and formidable screen Hoffa to date.

Blake is center stage but the acting is uniformly solid, with then-unknown Cotter Smith’s RFK matching the star in all areas except experience and charisma. Smith presents the less likable aspects of Kennedy’s crusading, including an obsessive competitiveness that matches Hoffa’s--at least, until the assassination of his brother. Ernest Borgnine is an inspired choice to play J. Edgar Hoover. Like Hoffa, he combats RFK’s antagonism, and, also like Hoffa, underestimates Kennedy considerably. Borgnine is good enough to make you wish he’d had the opportunity to play Hoover as the central subject of a film. Also particularly deserving of kudos: Brian Dennehy (as informer Ed Partin) and Danny Aiello (as a character clearly based on Hoffa loyalist and successor Frank Fitzsimmons).

Despite being talky and clocking in at 3 hours 15 minutes, BLOOD FEUD remains compelling throughout its runtime. Sure, there’s some dramatic license taken, but not in intrusive fashion. Probably the biggest stretch is Hoffa’s Hail Mary of a phone call to RFK from a phone booth, but the scene is more than saved by Blake’s intensity. Contrary to one reviewer’s comment, the print I saw recently did not include a scene of Hoffa’s lieutenants celebrating Oswald’s murder as covering up their involvement in...well, you know. And yes, RFK’s reaction to Hoffa’s "burning the midnight oil" has a factual basis.  The opening half hour is a little slow, but BLOOD FEUD rewards the patient viewer.

So…..why isn’t this on DVD yet?

I have no earthly idea. Honestly. Given subject matter that was considered worthy of feature films in both 1978 and 1992, and the ongoing fascination with Hoffa’s fate and all things Kennedy, this one is a head scratcher that I have no explanation for. 

Why it should be on DVD:

This made for television miniseries surpasses both F.I.S.T. and HOFFA in all aspects: better scripted (by DOCTOR DETROIT‘s Robert Boris!), directed and acted. BLOOD FEUD might not have a Nicholson or Stallone at the top of the bill but arguably has the best overall cast.

Best of all is Robert Blake and BLOOD FEUD is a reminder of just how good he could be, IMO surpassing his Oscar nominated performance in 1967’s IN COLD BLOOD. Fox Movie Channel occasionally airs this one, which was originally shown as a two parter in syndication, presented by Operation Prime Time. It’s well worth 3 ½ hours of your time.

And as an added bonus, BLOOD FEUD is your one chance to see the President of the United States played by our patron saint: Forrest Tucker!

The legend as LBJ

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Film Review: BLACK EYE (1974)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD Yet?" -- Number 50

BLACK EYE (1974 Warner Brothers) Starring Fred Williamson, Teresa Graves, Rosemary Forsyth, Cyril Delevanti, Teddy Wilson, Richard X. Slattery, Richard Anderson, Floy Dean, Joanne Bruno, Nancy Fisher, Bret Morrison. Directed by Jack Arnold.

As the titular P.I., The Hammer is former cop Shep Stone, suspended from the force for strangling a pusher after his sister’s overdose. When his prostitute neighbor Fisher is murdered, presumably over the theft of an antique walking cane, Williamson’s investigation leads him to a porn studio and a drug ring. The situation is complicated further when Anderson hires him to find his runaway daughter who has joined a religious cult.. Meanwhile, Williamson faces unexpected competition for his sexy girlfriend Graves in the person of rich, powerful lesbian Forsyth.

The always in control Williamson of BLACK CAESAR, BUCKTOWN and THAT MAN BOLT is only occasionally in evidence here. BLACK EYE is a change of pace for the star, who is self-depreciating while dealing with his personal and professional struggles. He’s perpetually in debt but affable, not unlike Jim Rockford. Actually Rockford was better off financially. working out of his trailer---Williamson’s “office” here is a neighborhood bar.  This Hammer is also less than assured in his love life: Williamson is geniunely confused by Graves' bisexuality, which he treats as something to cope with rather than an opportunity for a threeway (as say, Tommy Gibbs would have).

In addition to the atypical role for its star, BLACK EYE is also notable for a rare feature film appearance by the beautiful and talented Teresa Graves.  The Houston-born star got her start with a self-titled LP and a regular gig on LAUGH-IN after Goldie Hawn's departure, rapidly moving up to her own series (GET CHRISTIE LOVE!) and three supporting roles in features.  As Williamson's liberated lady, she's given insufficient screen time and saddled with some stilted lines to explain her preferences, but still exhibits undeniable charm and screen presence.  Sort of a Dolores Hart for the 1970's, Graves retired from show business at age 27 to devote her life to her religion just a year after BLACK EYE's release.  She'll likely get her own salute here at some point: suffice to say she was definitely headed for bigger things if she'd continued her Hollywood career.

Old pro Arnold (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) was primarily a TV director by this time, save for the two features he did with Williamson (the other was BOSS NIGGER, also rarely seen, for more obvious reasons). He does a credible job staging the action, including a car chase (complete with Mustang) that borrows more than a little from BULLITT and several solid scenes of fisticuffs.


BLACK EYE will disappoint fans reading the story elements and anticipating copious amounts of nudity and violence.  For example, when Williamson visits the set of an adult film, the action stays off-screen.  As a result of its well-deserved PG rating and California locations, BLACK EYE doesn't look that much different from the Barettas and Rockfords populating network TV at the time.  Still, with a solid story, interesting cast, and the star's willingness to tweak his screen image, it's a rarely seen changeup that is worth searching for.

So.....why isn't this on DVD yet?

Wasn't a hit when released, in part due to misleading marketing by Warners.  It was originally titled SHEP STONE but changed in an effort to capitalize on a Blaxploitation trend that was already fading when the film was released.

Why it should be on DVD:

The rare opportunity to see Teresa Graves, whose only other big screen appearances were in the aforementioned THAT MAN BOLT and VAMPIRA (aka OLD DRACULA).  The latter is also not on DVD, albeit for good reason (see review).

Also a chance to see Williamson in a slightly different light.  The ball is in Warners' court on this one, and since the long overlooked CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD recently saw DVD via the Archive, there's hope for the similarly unsung but deserving BLACK EYE.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Film Review: MALIBU BIKINI SHOP (1986)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 49

THE BIKINI SHOP (a.k.a. MALIBU BIKINI SHOP) (1986 International Cinema/Wescom) Starring Michael David Wright, Bruce Greenwood, Barbara Horan, Debra Blee, Galyn Gorg, Ami Julius, Frank Nelson, Jon Rashad Kamal, Kathleen Freeman, Rita Jenrette, Harvey J. Goldenberg, Jay Robinson. Directed and Written by David Wechter.

Recent college graduate Wright has decided it’s hip to be square, with a social-climbing marriage and cushy job all lined up for him by future father in law Robinson. Before he can say “I Do”, news of his Aunt’s passing takes him to Malibu, home of slacker brother Greenwood and the bikini shop Wright just inherited. With his prudish fiancee Blee wanting nothing to do with the West Coast, Wright instructs Nelson to help find a buyer, while Greenwood sees an opportunity to run his dream business. Horan takes an immediate shine to the reserved newcomer, so guess who eventually wins the struggle for Wright’s soul? You’re right---and it doesn’t sit well with the jilted Blee or her powerful father.

The “raunchy teen comedy" cycle was a good three years past its peak when MALIBU BIKINI SHOP had its limited theatrical run in the fall of 1986. This slight film follows the genre’s conventions: liberation of the repressed (not humorless Blee, surprisingly), plenty of shapely females in (and out of) bikinis and the usual surfeit of sexist humor.  For example, Greenwood‘s use of unreliable clothing stitches and a two way dressing room mirror.  And of course, the slobs beat the snobs in the end. As was the case from the earliest genre entries like H.O.T.S. and THE SENIORS, old pros like Robinson, Goldenberg and Nelson are on hand to provide the genuine laughs. Matter of fact, the funniest thing in the film is probably Nelson’s toupee (with Robinson's combover a close second).

Dude, you're in a bikini shop!  Why stick your nose in a BOOK?

There’s literally a hundred out there like BIKINI SHOP but it will satisfy your craving for old school late night T&A comedy. It certainly holds it own in the eye candy department (for guys, anyway); Jakowpck, Julius and especially Gorg all look stunning doing dance routines in their swimwear. Hairstyles and songs are solidly of the era, and director-writer Wechter provides an above average soundtrack despite the lack of hits or “name“ artists. In particular, the cover of “Girls of Rock and Roll” and Diana DeWitt‘s “You Make me Nervous” (which is way too close to Pat Benatar for comfort, especially with that title) stick in your head longer than anything else in the film will.  The latter was obviously considered to be a potential single, complete with rotation ready video featuring Gorg in a camoflage bikini.

Galyn Gorg at left.  Any excuse to show another pic of her will suffice.
The key difference between this and a PORKY'S?  The sexual embarrassment here is all on one gender.  Bikinis are designed by Greenwood to disssolve on contact with water, and everyone laughs, with nary a lady objecting to this entirely planned wardrobe malfunction (or to Greenwood's aforementioned mirror).  When Blee's dress is ripped in two by skateboarders while she's wearing it, her father's only concern is the cost of the dress(!).  The lack of equality and memorable intentional laughs means that there’s better examples of the genre and better 80's period pieces, but there‘s also far worse--GIMME AN “F“, anyone?

To sum it up, you had to be there.  And a guy.  If you were, and you are, you would probably welcome the arrival of MALIBU BIKINI SHOP to DVD.

So….why isn’t this on DVD?

As a film, largely unremarkable and came too late in the T&A cycle to be as well-remembered as a H.O.T.S., PRIVATE LESSONS or SPRING BREAK. While those films reached a wide audience on late night HBO and Skinemax in the early 1980’s, MALIBU BIKINI SHOP was most often aired edited on USA’s UP ALL NIGHT late in the decade.  Also, the humor in this one is solely for the guys; Hell, even H.O.T.S. had a jockstrap raid.

Why it should be on DVD:

Okay, so it doesn’t have the future superstars a la Tom Cruise in LOSIN’ IT, Johnny Depp in PRIVATE RESORT or Dennis Quaid in the aforementioned SENIORS. BIKINI SHOP still boasts a rather eclectic cast. Beautiful Galyn Gorg would later appear on practically every cult sci-fi series for the next 20 years. April 1981 Playboy centerfold Jenrette (the ill-fated Aunt Ida) wrote a best-seller about her married life with a congressman.  Buxom Blee (HOT DOG THE MOVIE) plays against type as Wright's shrill fiancee.  And the late great Frank Nelson was saying “Yeessss!” to his final film; he passed away the same month BIKINI SHOP was released.

In addition to being your last chance to see Nelson, it’s your only chance to see Christie Jakowpck. I’ll let you decide if she’s reason enough. MGM owns the rights, and after a long cable absence BIKINI SHOP (as retitled) has been making the rounds on Showtime recently.   They just don't make 'em like this any more.