Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Lady Cocoa (1975)

Poster for Lady Cocoa (1975)Lady Cocoa (1975) by #MattCimber
w/#LolaFalana #MilliePerkins #MeanJoeGreene #JamesAWatsonJr

Released from prison to testify against a mobster, Lady C. must fight to stay alive.

Lady Coco, Miss Lady Luck, took a gamble and got stuck ’cause “Mean” Joe Greene ain’t playin’ when he goes slayin’.”

Music by #LuchiDeJesus
#Blaxploitation #Crime
#NotQuiteClassicCinema
#FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn

Last week, I re-watched one of the most famous and popular female-led Blaxsploitation movies of all time, Coffy (1973). It put me in the mood to check out one of the more obscure entires into the genre; one of the many films that was probably influenced by Coffy and Cleopatra Jones (1973). I have a few in my permanent collection, and it was hard to pick which one to watch. In the end, I chose the one that I could remember the least about – and that was Lady Cocoa (1975).

Lady Cocoa stars Lola Falana as a prisoner who is released (under protective custody) so she can testify against her former boyfriend, who is a Las Vegas gangster. She’s still in love with him, and may not actually be planning to testify, but she’s using the opportunity to spend 24 hours outside of the prison, having a good time. Someone, however, is trying to kill her. Could it be her gangster boyfriend? 

Lola Falana is a dancer, singer, model and actress who has appeared on television many times – including 52 episodes of The Tonight Show. She was once considered the Queen, or First Lady, of Las Vegas.

She only made a handful of movies, and Lady Cocoa was the last one until she appeared in Mad About You (1989) – not to be confused with the TV show of the same name.

Falana is great in Lady Cocoa, and it seems like it should have led to more starring roles for her, but perhaps that isn’t what she really wanted. In any case…

It seems fitting that Lady Cocoa takes place in King’s Castle Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She stays in the hotel, plays blackjack, shops in the hotel clothing boutique and attends dinner and a show. It almost feels like advertising for the hotel/casino – and in some ways, it probably was. The movie starts with a big thank you card that includes King’s Castle.

Thank you card from Lady Cocoa (1975)

Lady Cocoa was produced and directed by Matt Cimber, who made over 20 movies in his career, including The Black 6 (1972) and The Candy Tangerine Man (1975). As a successful low budget film producer, one can imagine that he might resort to all kinds of favour trading to get his movie made – and offering publicity to a casino, hotel, and an entire town, doesn’t seem impossible.

Casting the First Lady of Las Vegas in the movie probably didn’t hurt, either.

Lady Cocoa (1975) is not the best of the female-led Blacksploitation films, but thanks to the extremely likeable Lola Falana, it’s pretty fun to watch. One thing that I like about it, is that it feels like a very accurate representation of a time and place. I doubt that the filmmakers did much to decorate the hotel – I suspect it looks pretty much exactly as it did in 1975, and I love that. 

The film feels kind of like a play for a while, as almost everything takes place in Cocoa’s hotel room. But gradually it opens up a little and we get to see more and more of the world around it. Eventually we witness a pretty crazy chase scene that may have been an attempt to give Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971) a run for their money. It doesn’t quite, but it’s pretty entertaining.

If you’re looking for top-drawer Blacksploitation action, check out one of the other films I talked about lately… Coffy (1973), Truck Turner (1974), Trouble Man (1972)…

But if you’re in the mood to sit back, relax and enjoy some mid 1970s nostalgia, then Lady Cocoa (1975) could be just the kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that you are looking for. It’s perfect for a laid back, later than late #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Coffy (1973)

Poster for Coffy (1973)Coffy (1973) by #JackHill

w/ #PamGrier #BookerBradshaw #RobertDoQui #AllanArbus #SidHaig

“She had a body men would die for – and a lot of them did!”

“Coffy’ll cream ya!”

Music by #RoyAyers

#Action #Blaxploitation #Crime
#NotQuiteClassicCinema

#FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn

What can one say about Coffy (1973) that hasn’t been said before? It’s the movie that launched Pam Grier to stardom. It inspired other filmmakers. It’s been ripped off and spoofed. Depending on your point of view, it could either be the greatest Pam Grier movie (and possibly the greatest female-led Blacksploitation movie ever made), or it could be the worst. 

Yes, surprisingly enough, the movie is a bit divisive. I have friends who hated, hated, hated it. I also have friends who love it more than life itself. How can this be?

Coffy was, in fact, the first of the Big Four Pam Grier Blacksploitation Pictures that I ever saw. I talked about this a bit in my discussion of Sheba Baby (1975). Just to refresh your memory, the Big Four are:

Coffy, Foxy Brown (1974), Friday Foster (1975) and Sheba, Baby (1975). All four of the movies were named after the character that Grier played in the movie, and all four were available to rent in matching VHS boxes. I don’t think I realized that Coffy was the first one in the series. Somehow it just found its way into my hand on that day and I took it home. 

As I said back then, I enjoyed Coffy, so I started renting (and buying) all of the other films (including other movies Pam Grier was in, like The Big Doll House (1971), Women in Cages (1972) etc).

In some ways, Coffy is the grittiest of all the Pam Grier movies. It feels ultra low budget, and it feels edgy and sleazy. Depending on your point of view, this is either a good thing, or a bad thing. I tend to lean more toward the “good thing” side of the argument. Coffy is raw, and it is nasty. The opening sequence of the film lays it all out for the viewer. We get some graphic sleaze, and then we get a really graphic shotgun blast to the head. And if you didn’t know what kind of movie you were watching before that moment, you surely do now. 

This is a hard R revenge movie. No PG tastefulness here. And I guess this could be why some people find it distasteful. Others may simply be thrown by the very low budget feel of it.

Foxy Brown was apparently conceived of as a sequel to Coffy. They changed their minds at the last minute and made her a different character. But if you watch closely, you can tell she’s basically the same woman. There’s even a hospital scene. Coffy, as you may recall, is a nurse. Foxy Brown isn’t, but you can still almost see her being one. But I digress…

Jack Hill has claimed that the budget of Foxy Brown was the same as the budget for Coffy. I find this hard to believe, as Foxy Brown looks so much slicker. Just watch the credit sequence of each movie and ask your self which one looks more expensive. 

The point is, Coffy really feels rawer than all of the other movies. It feels like a quick and dirty production. And I like ’em that way. Just tell me a good story. Don’t waste my time making it look pretty.

But speaking of looking pretty… as someone on twitter remarked to me, Pam Grier looks amazing in this movie. She really does. It’s easy to see why she became a movie star and a cultural icon. Of course, it’s more than her looks. It’s her no nonsense, in your face, badass attitude. You really believe that she is physically, and mentally, able to do the things that she does to get revenge. She easily earns her place in the vigilante action hero hall of fame.

The only thing that I don’t understand is how Pam Grier didn’t make more than four of these movies. Sure, she made a lot of other movies – and some of those are among her best. But whey weren’t there five sequels to Foxy Brown or Coffy? Or a least a few more, similar movies? I think we could have used them. 

But, ultimately, I guess we have to simply be grateful for the movies we have. And Coffy is the one that got the ball rolling. And for that reason alone, it is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic. I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched it over the years, but I am confident when I say that I will certainly be watching it again, on some future #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Truck Turner (1974)

Poster for Truck Turner (1974)Truck Turner (1974) by #JonathanKaplan

w/ #IsaacHayes #YaphetKotto #AlanWeeks #AnnazetteChase #NichelleNichols #ScatmanCrothers

“Skip tracer – but not the fuzz; he’s tougher”

“If you jump bail, you’re his meat.

Music by Isaac Hayes

#Action #Blaxploitation
#NotQuiteClassicCinema
#FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn

Truck Turner (1974), like last week’s Trouble Man (1972), is another movie that I did not see until AFTER I knew the soundtrack music. My first encounter with Truck Turner was via a two part CD compilation called MGM Soul Cinema (Volumes 1 and 2).

MGM SOul Cinema CD featuring Truck Turner (1974) vol 1MGM SOul Cinema CD featuring Truck Turner (1974) vol 2

Volume 2 featured the Main Title from Truck Turner and I loved it. it was like the theme from Shaft (1971), but more intense. No surprise, I suppose, because both soundtracks were written and performed by Isaac Hayes. Volume 1 of MGM Soul Cinema featured another song from Truck Turner called Give It To Me, which was also a highlight. 

Truth be told, the entire compilation is pretty top notch, but still…

A couple of years later I actually found the complete soundtrack to Truck Turner on CD and I bought it. I played the hell out of that thing, but still I hadn’t seen the movie. 

Finally, I tracked down a copy on DVD and bought it. And even though I had probably built the thing up in my head over the years that I’d been listening to the soundtrack, I still loved the movie the first time I watched it.

Isaac Hayes plays the titular character, and he is great in this. There’s a really solid cast all around. Yaphet Kotto, whom I’ve admired since I first saw him in Alien (1979) when I was 10 or 11, is fabulous as one of the main bad guys. But I suppose the real highlight for a lot of people is Nichelle Nichols, of Star Trek fame, playing a foul-mouthed madam (and another one of the principal baddies). She is spectacular in this movie, and is probably the most unlike her iconic image as she ever was in any of her roles. Fans of Star Trek should proceed with caution so as not to have a heart attack…

Truck Turner is about a former football player who becomes a bounty hunter. He unwittingly gets himself into a situation where a lot of people want him dead. But his old football moniker still applies; he’s Mack Truck Turner, and if you get in his way, you just might get crushed.

As the song says:

There’s some dudes in a bar,
With busted heads and broken jaws,
What hit ’em?
Truck Turner!

And yes that IS a scene in the movie. I was not disappointed to confirm that the first time I watched it. And I was thrilled to re-visit it again last week.

Truck Turner (1974) is a somewhat lesser known entry in the blaxploitation genre. It may not be iconic like Shaft or Superfly (1972). It may not be highly rated like Across 110th Street (1972).  But it’s a masterpiece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema and a personal favourite of mine. I’ve watched it three or four times over the years, and listened to the soundtrack countless times. There is no doubt in my mind that it can make any night feel like a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Trouble Man (1972)

Poster for Trouble Man (1972)Trouble Man (1972) by #IvanDixon

w/ #RobertHooks #PaulWinfield #PaulaKelly #JuliusHarris #JeannieBell

One cat… who plays like an army!”
His friends call him Mr. T. His enemies call for mercy!”
Mr. T is Cold Hard Steel! He’ll Give You Peace of Mind… Piece by Piece!

Soundtrack by #MarvinGaye

#Action #Blaxploitation #Crime
#NotQuiteClassicCinema
#FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn

I’ve talked about a few Blaxploitation movies in this blog. I’ve also talked about Blaxploitation soundtracks in this blog. To sum up, I like them both. In some cases I’ve watched movies because I knew the music first. And Trouble Man (1972) is one of the those movies. 

I was in Toronto many moons ago, attending the AGM of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, and I went into the legendary Sam The Record Man’s massive flagship store on Yonge Street. I found a lot of really cool things there, many of which I had never seen before. After selecting an armload of stuff to purchase, I carried it up to the front of the store to the cashier. And on the wall, near the cashier, was a small display of CDs. I don’t recall if there was a theme to the selection – in fact, I don’t recall what any of them were, except for one: the soundtrack of Trouble Man by Marvin Gaye.

I had see a lot of Blaxploitation movies in my life, but I had never seen Trouble Man. In fact, I had never heard of Trouble Man. But I knew immediately that I had to buy this CD.

When I got back home, I put the CD on and I was immediately transported into the world of a cool movie that I had never seen. I imagined what might be happening on screen, and I liked it. I listened to that soundtrack a lot over the next couple of years.

Of course, this made me want to see the movie. But it was many years before I was able to do so. For some reason, Trouble Man was not like Shaft (1971) or Foxy Brown (1974). It was very hard to come by. I’m not even sure if it was ever released on VHS.

Finally, a DVD of Trouble Man appeared on a shelf one day and I took it home. I had years of anticipation built up and I needed to see this movie NOW.

Truth be told, I was a little disappointed after that first viewing. It didn’t quite live up to the movie that I had imagined in my head. It also didn’t live up to Marvin Gaye’s music. It just seemed a little underwhelming to me. Not bad. Just not as good as I had hoped. So, I put it into my collection and forgot about it for a few years. I knew that one day I would have to try it again, but I did not want to rush into it.

Last Friday, I decided it was time to give it another go. Perhaps my expectations had been sufficiently lowered, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit this time. The music was just as good as ever, but this time the story was catching my interest as well. Robert Hooks, as Mr T. (was he the inspiration for was real life Mr T.?) was a revelation this time. In some ways, his character was not completely sympathetic right off the top. But in other ways, he was making me laugh with his complete unflinching confidence and lack of diplomacy. This is a man who doesn’t worry about pissing people off. He is so pathological about it that it becomes kind of endearing. And I was totally in his corner by the time the shit starts to hit the fan.

I guess the “T” stands for Trouble, and I found myself thinking that this is the character that Fred Williamson’s Mr. Mean (1977) should have been. A guy whose personality lives up to his name. Mr. T. gets into trouble without even trying too hard. And we enjoy seeing him get into it, almost as much as we enjoy watching him get out of it.

Trouble Man (1972) is #NotQuiteClassicCinema of the forgotten kind. It’s not famous like Shaft or Foxy Brown – but it kind of feels like it belongs with those movies. It’s not a cheapo campy kind of Blaxploitation film (like Mr. Mean perhaps). It feels more serious and classy. It’s got one of the best soundtracks of all time. I’m not sure why it hasn’t been remembered as well as many others. Maybe the character of Mr. T. was slightly off-putting to some viewers back in the day. But I think if you stick with him, you’ll learn to love him before the movie is done. And I for one will be looking forward to seeing that Trouble Man again on some future #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Welcome Home Brother Charles / Soul Vengeance (1975)

I was in an old video store with my friend Den looking for interesting previously viewed VHS tapes to buy. I reached into the sale bin and pulled out a movie I’d never heard of before: Soul Vengeance (1975).

“Don’t buy that one,” Den advised me.

VHS box for Soul Vengeance (1975).I looked at the tape in my hand. It appeared to be a Blaxploitation movie released by the same company (Xenon Home Video) that had released the films of Rudy Ray Moore. How could I NOT buy it?

“I’ve seen it,” Den continued. “It’s not that great.” He went on to describe the one interesting aspect of the film – at least in his opinion – and I would say that it qualifies as a spoiler. But it’s also a huge incentive to watch the film, so I’m a little torn about whether to reveal it here or not. I suppose it only strengthened my resolved to buy the tape and watch it, so….

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this paragraph if you like to surprised by mind-blowing plot twists that come out of nowhere about an hour into the movie. On the other hand, if you feel you’d like to have a little psychological preparation before having your brain and eyeballs assaulted, then read on at your own discretion… Are you ready for it?  Soul Vengeance features a penis monster. Or a monster penis. I’m not sure if I’m describing this right… The main character of the movie – our hero, Brother Charles, played by Marlo Monte – seems to have a giant, sentient penis which he uses to mesmerize and control the wives of his enemies AND to murder the men who wronged him. For the most part we don’t actually SEE it, but there is one murder during which Charles unleashes his secret weapon onscreen. It’s still a little obscured, but we see the giant monster extending to an impossible length and strangling a victim. There. I said it. I hope I haven’t ruined the movie for anyone. But I suppose that Den revealed it to me all those years ago, and I still bought the movie and was fairly impressed by what I saw.

“So, what did you think of Soul Vengeance?” Den asked me the next time I saw him.

I told him I liked it, and he seemed surprised. “But I enjoy movies like this for all kinds of reasons,” I told him. “For example, the music.”

CD cover for MGM SOul Cinema - which does not feature music from Soul Vengeance.I’d been a fan of Blaxploitation movie soundtracks since first watching Black Caesar (1973) when I was young – and it’s what made me a fan of James Brown’s music. Over the years I’ve picked up many Blaxploitation soundtracks and compilations, like the awesome MGM Soul Cinema collection.  I’ve discovered that even the most obscure, no-budget Blaxploitation films can feature some really great music – or, in some cases, music that’s so bad, it’s wonderful. Soul Vengeance features some pretty decent tunes. There’s a piece of instrumental music somewhere in the middle of the film that I would swear was a knockoff of The Guess Who‘s classic “These Eyes” – which was covered by a lot of other artists, including Junior Walker & the All-Stars. It’s always been a special song to me, party because The Guess Who are from my home town of Winnipeg. Hearing what I believe is a knockoff of “These Eyes” in Soul Vengeance somehow endears the film to me just a little bit more.

Soul Vengeance was made by Jamaa Fanaka, who would go on to some success with Penitentiary (1979), Penitentiary II (1982) and Penitentiary III (1987). Originally titled Welcome Home Brother Charles, Fanaka made Soul Vengeance while he was a student at UCLA film school. It’s hard to imagine a movie like this as a serious film school project, but perhaps Fanaka was attempting to say something about racism and stereotypes. I won’t try to explain it here, but I will say that I saw Penitentiary when I was twelve years old and thought it was pretty cool. So in some ways, I’ve been a fan of Fanaka’s work for most of my home drive-in watching life. I’ve collected all of his movies (except Street Wars (1992), but you can bet it’s just a matter of time). So, in retrospect, I NEEDED to buy Soul Vengeance from that video store bargain bin.

Sadly, that VHS tape snapped while I was re-watching it a few years ago. I took it apart in an attempt to repair it (which I have done successfully with other tapes), but the whole thing crumbled and I had to give up. Luckily, I picked up a DVD somewhere on my pre-pandemic travels and that is what I watched last week.

While it may not be as good as Black Caesar (1973) or Shaft (1971), Soul Vengeance (1975) is a highly entertaining and unique entry into the Blaxploitation genre. And it was made by a serious filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to use commercial exploitation genres to get his message across. Perhaps because of this, he’s a certified master of #NotQuiteClassicCinema – and it’s too bad he didn’t make more films during his all too brief career. But at least we can continue to enjoy the ones we’ve got on any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Sheba, Baby (1975)

In all likelihood, the first place I ever saw Pam Grier was on The Love Boat (1977–1987). I watched that show every Saturday night when I was a kid. I wouldn’t have had any idea who Pam Grier was at that point, but it was probably my first glimpse of her. Flash forward a few years and I rented a movie called Women in Cages (1971). This could have been the first time I saw Pam Grier knowing that she was Pam Grier, but I’m not sure. The movie that I remember specifically renting because Pam Grier was starring in it was Coffy (1973). Coffy was the first of what could be called the Big Four Pam Grier Blacksploitation Pictures: Coffy, Foxy Brown (1974), Friday Foster (1975) and Sheba, Baby (1975). All four of the movies were named after the character that Grier played in the movie, and all four were available to rent in matching VHS boxes. I don’t think I realized that Coffy was the first one in the series. Somehow it just found its way into my hand on that day and I took it home. 

I enjoyed Coffy very much, and I eventually bought a copy on VHS that looked exactly like the one pictured to the left. I rented Foxy Brown and Friday Foster fairly quickly after watching Coffy, but I did not rent Sheba, Baby. This is because I had read reviews that suggested that Sheba, Baby was the weakest of the Big Four Pam Grier movies. In fact, I had read reviews that said Sheba, Baby was downright bad. I guess I didn’t want to tarnish the experience of the other three movies by watching this one. 

Years later, I found a copy of Sheba, Baby for sale in a bargain bin. I had already collected the other three movies, as well as The Big Doll House (1971), Women in CagesThe Big Bird Cage (1972), Scream Blacula Scream (1973) and Bucktown (1975). As a completist, I figured that I had to have Sheba, Baby in my collection as well – even if it was a disappointment – so, I bought it and took it home. 

When I finally watched it, I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe my expectations were so low that I had perfectly prepared myself for this movie. It was the weakest of the Big Four in a lot of ways, but it struck me as a darn entertaining movie. Sure, it was basically a PG film rather than the hard R-rated fare that we had come to expect from Pam Grier. Sure, the violence was majorly toned down. Sure, there was only a brief glimpse of partial nudity instead of the eye-popping exploitation on display in many of the other films. Truth be told, Sheba, Baby was actually pretty tasteful – which is why some appreciators of the other three Big Four movies dismissed it. But I watched it KNOWING all that stuff and I was prepared to hate it… but somehow I just couldn’t.

From the very first frame of the film I knew I was in for a good time. The music, by Monk Higgins & Alex Brown, instantly grabbed my ears and held on tight. By the time we got to the opening titles of the film, and Barbara Mason began to sing, I knew that I had to have this soundtrack in my collection. Since then, I have listened to it countless times as I walk around the city streets wearing my iPod – much the way Pam Grier walks around the streets of Chicago during the opening credits of Sheba, Baby. (minus the iPod, of course). It’s a simple sequence in the movie, but for some reason it really spoke to me. And now I tell anyone who’ll listen that the soundtrack of Sheba, Baby is the perfect walking music. 

I also loved the fact that Pam Grier plays a private detective in this movie. I’ve always been partial to private detective stories; movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941), of course, but also the TV shows of my youth, like Remington Steele (1982–1987). Remington Steele is about a brilliant female private detective who has to create a fake male detective boss in order to get hired. Surprisingly, Sheba Shayne also has a male detective partner/colleague, and he seems to be the less competent member of the team. We don’t learn very much about him, because Sheba almost instantly finds herself travelling to Louisville to help her father, who has run afoul of some nasty gangsters.

Sheba’s father’s business associate is played by Austen Stoker, whom I have liked since first seeing him in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). And since he is in the opening scene of Sheba, Baby, this might be another reason that I found myself instantly enjoying the movie. We eventually learn that Stoker’s character, Brick Williams, shares a bit of a romantic history with Sheba – and the two of them wind up working together to defeat the bad guys.

There is plenty of action in Sheba, Baby. It’s just not the edgy, extremely violent kind of action that is present in films like Coffy. I suspect that the producers must have been interested in reaching a more general audience with this film. I’m not sure if it worked. Some have suggested that this movie marked the end of Pam Grier’s reign as Queen of Blaxploitation movies – even going so far as to blame this movie for ruining the winning formula (extreme violence and exploitation). I’m not sure that the filmmakers made the right choice in toning things down for Sheba, Baby, but I have found that the movie has grown on me more and more every time I watch it. In fact, I may have watched it more times than any of the other Big Four Pam Grier films. Not because I think it’s the best. Objectively, I know that it’s not the best. But somehow I find it irresistible. 

Sheba, Baby was directed by William Girdler, who is best known for making Grizzly (1976) and The Manitou (1978). He also made another not quite classic Blaxploitation film called Abby (1974) – and probably could have gone on to make many more cinematic delights –  but, sadly, he died two years after completing Sheba, Baby, at age 30. 

D’Urville Martin plays Pilot, one of the main bad guys. He was in many great Blaxploitation films, such as Black Caesar (1973), Five on the Black Hand Side (1973), and the legendary Dolemite (1975). Sadly, he died in 1984 at the age of 45.

Sheba, Baby (1975) is not the greatest Blaxploitation film; it’s not the greatest Pam Grier film. It’s probably not even the greatest William Girdler film. But for some reason, it’s one of my personal favourites. It’s the kind of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I could watch – and enjoy -on any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Last Dragon (1985)

Back in the 1980s, my friends and I would rent movies and hang out on a regular basis. There were certain types of movies that we would rent more often than others: horror films, action films, and sex comedies like Porky’s (1981) and Spring Break (1983). When it came to action films, we had a particular love for vigilantes and revenge stories. We also had a love of martial arts.

In real life, one of my friends signed up for Tae Kwon Do classes, and he eventually talked me and another friend into joining him in this pursuit. This increased our interest in martial arts infused action films. We saw Bruce Lee films, we saw fake Bruce Lee films (starring Bruce Li or Bruce Le). We also saw other, strange kung fu movies from the ’70s that I can’t even remember now (other than a few, brief images). We saw ninja movies. We even went to the theatre and saw something called Challenge Of The Ninja – but we were disappointed to discover that it wasn’t a ninja movie at all. It was another strange Hong Kong movie, which struck us as propaganda about how much better Chinese martial arts were than Japanese martial arts. It may have been Heroes of the East (1978), retitled to cash in on the popularity of ninjas in the ’80s. Looking back now, I’m kind of thrilled to know that I got to see a movie like that on the big screen. 

Of course, Chuck Norris films were also a big deal at that time. This was years before the Chuck Norris jokes became all the rage. In those days, he was just an amazing athlete and an action movie hero. He was even buddies with Bruce Lee in real life, and the two of them appeared together in a film called Return Of The Dragon (1972). At least, that’s what it was called when I saw it. It’s more often called The Way of the Dragon (1972), which answers a question that I had when I was 12. How could this movie be called Return Of The Dragon when it came out BEFORE Enter the Dragon (1973)? In any case, I thought that the final fight between Lee and Norris was one of the greatest I had ever seen. I somehow convinced my Dad to take me to see Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) when it came out, and I thought it was the greatest movie I had even seen. I quickly rented every other Chuck Norris film I could get my hands on. 

I remember seeing the newspaper ads for The Last Dragon (1985). It looked like the kind of movie that my friends and I would appreciate. I’m not sure why, but we didn’t go to see it in the theatre. I might have assumed that it wasn’t around long enough, but someone recently told me that he went to see it THREE TIMES in the theatre. That puts it in the category of a Star Wars movie back in the day. And according to the IMDb, it made quite a big profit at the time: $25,754,284 on a $10,000,000 budget. So that movie must have stuck around the theatres for at least a few weeks. How did my friends and I miss it?

All I can say for sure, is that when it came out on home video, my friends and I rented it immediately. But here’s the weird part: we didn’t like it.

That’s right. We watched the popular and successful martial arts movie The Last Dragon and we didn’t like it.  I think that we were expecting a more ordinary, straight up martial arts action movie. We expected it to be serious – and to maybe include some sort of revenge plot a la Forced Vengeance (1982) or An Eye for an Eye (1981). Instead, we got a comedy, which included a lot of gratuitous music and dancing. I’m not even sure if we realized that it as comedy at the time, or if we just thought it was weird and not serious enough. My single biggest memory of it was that it seemed to be more about music than marital arts. 

I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense when you realize the the film was executive produced by Berry Gordy, who was a record producer, songwriter, and founder of Motown Records. We wouldn’t have appreciated this as teenagers. We just knew that there was A LOT of music in this movie. And it was not the kind of music that we were into at that time. We were big fans of bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The Motown sound was not cool to us. Over the ensuing decades, my tastes have broadened and I can now appreciate the Motown sound of the ’80s much more than I could back in the day. The nostalgia levels are off the charts when I hear a song like “Rhythm Of The Night” by DeBarge (written by Diane Warren). I probably hated it in the ’80s, but it sounds surprisingly great to me now. And we actually get to see a good portion of the music video in the movie as well. This is particularly poignant for me, as I have recently discovered that one of the featured dancers in the video is Galyn Görg.

For those who don’t know, Galyn Görg was a dancer and an actress who appeared in movies like Point Break (1991) and RoboCop 2 (1990). She was also in a few episodes of Twin Peaks (1991-92), and was a regular cast member of M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-95). Several years ago, I tweeted about a movie she was in called America 3000 (1986). As I often did in those days, I tried to locate and tag anyone involved in the film. This is harder to do with older movies. Galyn was one of the few that I managed to find in this case. Much to my surprise, she not only liked my tweet (and the subsequent replies to it), but she also followed me. I’m not sure what made her do it. She followed less than two hundred people – in spite of having thousands of followers. But what was even more amazing to me, was that she continued to respond to my tweets from that day forward.

In all honestly, I was not the world’s most savvy twitter use in those days. And up to that point, my tweets would often go ignored. But for the next couple of years, there was one person who I could count on to like most of my tweets – and that was Galyn Görg. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but I was thrilled. And of course, I liked all of her tweets, too. She even followed @DBrownstoneFilm, which was an account created to promote my documentary (and subsequent feature film project) about legendary Manitoba actress Doreen Brownstone. 

Basically, Galyn Görg was one of my first twitter friends. 

Sadly, Galyn passed away in July of 2020, one day shy of her 56th birthday.

Seeing the video for “Rhythm Of The Night” in The Last Dragon somehow made the film all the more special to me. It’s almost like Galyn Görg is in the movie (although, not really). But even if that had not happened, I loved seeing all of the music and dance sequences this time around. All of the things that made me hate the movie the first time, made me love it now. Vanity, most famous as a singer and protege of Prince, stars as a D.J. (or V.J.) host of a popular TV Show / night club. This is how we get to see so many musical performances and videos. A gangster, who also seems to be some sort of video arcade mogul, wants to force Vanity to play his girlfriend’s video on her show. The girlfriend is played by Faith Prince, and her videos/performances are clearly meant to “bad” – in an entertaining way – but I found them to be absolutely delightful. They are perfect, satirical 1980s avant guard time capsules. And I think in some ways they have aged better then many “serious” pop hits of the ’80s. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the real star of The Last Dragon. Real life martial artist Taimak plays Leroy Green. There is clearly a lot of serious Bruce Lee homage going on here. Leroy loves Bruce Lee, and there is even a scene in which Vanity’s character plays video footage of Bruce Lee in her club to impress Leroy. The martial arts action in The Last Dragon is solid. Taimak is very clearly the real deal, and it seems to me that he could have been a martial arts movie star. For some reason, that didn’t quite happen (although he did go on to appear in other – often non-martial arts – movies). I’m surprised that my friends and I weren’t more impressed by the action when we watched this film back in the day. I guess it truly was overshadowed by the music and comedy.

One final thought, which comes a bit too close to SPOILER territory for my taste: Leroy is in pursuit of the final level of martial arts mastery, which is called The Glow. At the end of the movie, we see The Glow in action – and I think that this was something else that my friends and I didn’t like. It’s sort of silly, fantasy type stuff; beams of glowing light coming out of Leroy’s hands and body. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I think we thought it was dumb and not at all realistic (keep in mind that we were young and taking real martial arts classes at the time). Like every other aspect of this film that I hated back then, I found that it only enhanced my enjoyment now.

The Last Dragon (1985) is a unique masterpiece of 1980s #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I wish I had appreciated more the first time that I saw it. I’ve lost a lot of decades in which I could have been revisiting and enjoying this film. But then again, maybe that just means that I can enjoy it al the more now – and I surely will on many a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn in the not too distant future.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Willie Dynamite (1974)

I have a lot of Blaxploitation films in my collection. I discovered the genre, without even knowing it was a genre, at a fairly young age. I’m honestly not sure which movie would have been the first Blaxploitation movie that I ever saw. Some possible contenders might be Three the Hard Way (1974), Penitentiary (1979), Black Caesar (1973) and Shaft (1971),

Shaft is a funny one, because I have a distinct memory of watching it on TV when I was very young, and losing interest in it part way through. Basically, I thought it was boring. For years, I believed that this was my experience of Shaft and I avoided watching it again. Finally, when I gave it another shot, I realized that it could not have been the movie that had bored me all those years ago. For one thing, I loved it. But more to the point, I did not recognize a single moment in it. I decided that it must have been one of the sequels that I had seen all those years ago. But when I watched Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), they were even less like the movie in my memory. To this day, I don’t know how to explain it. I watched some movie that I was pretty convinced was Shaft when I was a kid. What could it have been? I hope to figure it out one day.

In a funny way, the very first Blaxploitation film I saw was actually Live and Let Die (1973). I was a huge James Bond films growing up, and I watched all of the movies, multiple times, whenever they came on TV. This was, of course, before VCRs. Had I been able to tape stuff, I’m sure I would have seen all of the Bond films many more times. As it was, I saw Live and Let Die (1973) several times growing up, and it was one of my favourites. Of course, I had never heard the term Blaxploitation, and I didn’t think of the characters in the movie as black or white. They were just characters. It wasn’t until many years later that I heard someone suggest that Live and Let Die was hugely influenced by the (at the time) very popular Blaxploitation genre. This surprised me, but I thought about it and realized that a person could almost see the movie as being part of it.

Somewhere throughout my early days of TV movie watching, I recall seeing Willie Dynamite (1974) listed in the TV Scene (our local newspaper’s TV guide). In fact, I recall noticing it being on more than once. It was a strange title, so it stuck out to me. I may have even stumbled upon an actual broadcast one night, flipping the channel and finding myself in the middle of a strange looking movie that I didn’t recognize. I opened the TV Scene to find out what I was looking at, and Willie Dynamite was the answer. I’ve never liked starting movies in the middle, so I didn’t stick around and watch it. But the brief glimpses I got made me realize that It was something that I should definitely see sometime. Unfortunately, it was usually on very late at night, and I had no way to tape it (yet). So, I didn’t wind up seeing the movie until quite a few years later, on VHS. 

The thing that remember most from that first viewing, is the theme song, “Willie D.” (written by Gilbert Moses,the film’s director, & J.J. Johnson). Like a lot of the best #Blaxploitation films, the songs on the soundtrack tend to comment on the action of the movie. “Willie D.” is what I might call a perfect character song, describing the titular character of this movie:

Seven women in the palm of his hand,
Willie D.,
Got a woman for every man,
Willie D..
It’s magic the way he runs his game,
Never treating two girls the same,
Selling fantasies,
’bout what you please,
It’s no different from any other industry…

And while Martha Reeves belts out these lyrics on the soundtrack, we see the credits play overtop images of seven beautiful women walking into a hotel lobby full of middle aged conventioneers. It doesn’t take genius to figure out that these are working women looking to connect with some lonely, out of town men with money. And those men clearly like what they see. The mini scenes that ensue are mainly played for laughs, and between the music, the lyrics, and the comedic action, the opening sequence is a pure delight. We also see images of Willie D. himself, in a fancy hat and shades, driving in his fancy car with personalized plates that say “DYNAMITE”. He pulls over and gets out of the car, revealing his whole outfit for the first time – and it is a fashion statement that must be seen to be believed. Willie D. is the epitome of the stereotypical pimp – at least how he is portrayed in 1970s pop culture. Whether or not he is a reflection of reality, past or present, is beside the point. He is a larger than life character with a larger than life theme song. And by the time the music ends, we feel that we know exactly who he is, and I, for one, felt like I’d already had my money’s worth. This movie was awesome…

Watching Willie Dynamite for what must have been the third time last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, I was struck by how much more serious-minded the movie is than many of it’s brethren. This may seem like an odd thing to say, considering that Willie Dynamite contains plenty of funny bits, both intentional and unintentional, but the movie manages to tell a rather serious story while making us laugh. It is over-the-top with its fashions and attitudes, but it is not particularly exploitative. It’s about pimps and prostitutes, but it does not contain any nudity. The main character, Willie D., is played by Roscoe Orman who most us know as Gordon on Sesame Street. He is quite convincing as Willie D., showing a completely different side of himself. Diana Sands plays Cora, a social worker (and ex-prostitute) who makes it her mission to destroy Willie – or does she? In the final act of the movie, characters make unexpected choices that resonate with real human emotion. Put simply, the movie gets better. The characters become more real, and what could have been a stereotypical, by the numbers ending becomes something so much more powerful. 

I hate spoilers, so I’ll stop there and hope that I haven’t already said too much. I should note that Diana Sands, who is excellent in this movie, died of leiomyosarcoma in 1973 – presumably before this movie was released. She was only 39.

Gilbert Moses was a theatre director, and co-founded the Free Southern Theater company which, according to Wikipedie, was “an important pioneer of African-American theatre” in 1963. Willie Dynamite was his first film. He went on to direct a lot of television. He died in 1995 at age 52.

Willie Dynamite (1974) is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic that probably gets less respect than it should. It’s too bad that Gilbert Moses didn’t give us any other films like it. The closest he came was The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979), which a friend of mine once told me was the first film his father took him to see in the theatre. Strange choice, but certainly unforgettable. I wish I had seen Willie Dynamite on TV all those years ago. It probably would have blown my mind. 

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: That Man Bolt (1973)

Back in the late ’80s (or maybe it was the early ’90s), I remember coming home from work just before midnight, making myself a late night dinner/snack of frozen pizza, and sitting down in front of the TV to watch whatever happened to be on. There were a couple of channels that showed movies at midnight, and I would often put one on, not even knowing what it was if I missed the opening credits, and get caught up. On this particular night it was That Man Bolt (1973). I knew who Fred Williamson was, and had already enjoyed movies like Vigilante (1982), Black Caesar (1973) and Three the Hard Way (1974), but I had never heard of That Man Bolt.

I knew right away that I was onto something, when Fred’s character, Jefferson Bolt, was told by a mysterious government figure that he would have to work for them if he wanted to get his valuable (perhaps incriminating) documents returned to him. This mysterious organization had kept Bolt locked up for a week while they searched his home for the important papers. In the end, they had to use a metal detector to find his safe – which, as we can all see, was hidden behind a picture on the wall.

I think I fell off my chair. laughing. They couldn’t find a safe that was hidden behind a picture on the wall?! Every safe I’d ever seen in the movies had been hidden behind a picture on the wall. But these guys were checking, where – behind the sofa? Under the kitchen sink? And if it hadn’t been for the use of that metal detector, the location of Bolt’s safe would still be a mystery to them.

I was less than ten minutes into That Man Bolt, and I knew I’d struck cinema gold – and without the use of a metal detector.

That Man Bolt was probably made to cash in on the recent success of the so-called Blaxploitation genre. Movies like Shaft (1971) were very successful and led to sequels like Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). Apparently, Universal signed Fred Williamson to star in three movies as Jefferson Bolt, so they clearly intended That Man Bolt to be the start of a movie series (or franchise, as people now say). It probably also helped that Fred Williamson had been successful in Black Caesar (1973), which had led to its own sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973).

Universal seemed to be aiming for something a little closer to the James Bond, international intrigue kind of feel as opposed to the more typical urban crime setting of many Blaxploitation films. James Bond. Jefferson Bolt. Bond. Bolt. Coincidence? Look at one of the tag lines found on a movie poster for That Man Bolt: “He’s “Bonded”! “

Setting the film in British Hong Kong, where Bolt lives, and casting British character actor Byron Webster as Griffiths, the mysterious government man who forces Bolt into service, gives the film a more British feel. And even though Bolt asks Griffiths if he is CIA, it’s obvious that he would more likely be on her majesty’s secret service.

Another market that the movie seemed to be aiming for was the martial arts crowd. Bolt is described as a black belt, and some of the movie posters say this:

SEE these famous MARTIAL ARTS experts in action: Mike Stone–World Professional Light Heavyweight, Karate Champion, Ken Kazama–Japan Kick-boxing Champion, Emil Farkas–European Black Belt Karate Champion, and David Chow–Former California State Judo Champion.

I suppose that the success of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon (1973) may have had a hand in that.

Considering everything that it had going for it, That Man Bolt seems like it should have been a surefire success. I’m not sure how it did at the box-office, but none of the sequels were ever made, and Jefferson Bolt did not become an iconic character. As much as I enjoyed the movie on late night TV all of those years ago (and on home video several times since), the truth is that it’s not as good as it needs to be. It has moments of brilliance, and Fred Williamson is perfect as the charismatic, clever, tough and capable action hero. But it never rises up to the level of James Bond, Shaft, or Black Caesar. Perhaps if they had made the sequels, each one would have improved and Jefferson Bolt would have gone down in history. Even James Bond had an iffy start with Dr. No (1962). It’s a good movie, but most fans agree that From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964) were better. If they had simply stopped after Dr. No, would people still be talking about James Bond now? Who knows?

I have always had a soft spot for That Man Bolt (1973), and I’ve been a fan of Fred Williamson since I first saw William Lustig’s Vigilante when I was 12 or 13. So, Jefferson Bolt will always be a welcome visitor on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

And I, for one, wish that they had made the sequels. But oh well… we’ll just have to make do with one “Big, bad and beautiful” piece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Trick Baby (1972)

I did not see Trick Baby (1972) back in the 1970s or even the 1980s. It was not the first so called Blaxploitation film – or even the second or the third – that I ever saw. I had never even heard of it until I stumbled upon a VHS copy back in the early 2000s. Of course I immediately bought it, as I’d long before discovered that I had an appreciation for these somewhat forgotten pieces of 1970s cinema. And I was not disappointed with this particular example of the genre.

If you are unfamiliar with the term Blaxploitation, you can read detailed explanations on Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica. 

It is generally accepted that the two movies that started the genre proper were Shaft (1971) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), so Trick Baby (1972) was a relatively early entry in what quickly became an overcrowded competition for box office dollars. According to Wikipedia, the film cost about $600,000 to make and it grossed $11,000,000 – a considerable profit. So how is it that I’d never heard of it before?

I suppose one reason might be that it didn’t lead to sequels, like Shaft did. Nor did it spark a bunch of similar films starring the same actor(s), a la Pam Grier with Coffy (1973). But I suppose none of this really matters. The fact is that Trick Baby is an excellent crime film. It’s clever, suspenseful, and features a few twists and turns that keep you interested in finding out what’s going to happen. Most importantly, you care about the characters. 

When we first meet ‘Folks and Blue (played by Kiel Martin and Mel Stewart), they are in the midst or ripping someone off. But we are instantly sympathetic to them, because the person they are ripping off is a bad guy (racist, selfish – and in fact he believes that he is ripping off Blue). So, in a sense, the ‘victim’ of the con is getting exactly what he deserves. Not to mention that we can admire the skill, intelligence, and charisma that ‘Folks and Blue possess. They may technically be criminals, but they are kind of like Robin Hood (stealing from rich racists and giving to the poor – namely themselves).

I can think of a few modern films that feature main characters who are killing people (!), who don’t deserve to die, for incredibly selfish reasons – and the filmmakers seem to be asking us to sympathize with the killers! Or to at least to find them interesting for 90 minutes. I find many of those films hard to get through – and I certainly don’t care what happens to the main characters. In fact, I find myself rooting for their victims (and getting no satisfaction, unfortunately). John Waters knew how to make it work in Serial Mom (1994), and Larry Yust, and presumably Iceberg Slim (who wrote the novel), knew how to make it work in Trick Baby. ‘Folks and Blue aren’t even killing people, but they could have been unsympathetic in the hands of less competent writers and directors. The makers of certain modern films should have watched Trick Baby before they put pen to paper, or hit the record button on their cameras. 

I’m purposely not naming any of the offending films or filmmakers because I’m not here to trash other people’s work. And I’m sure that some people LIKE those recent films that I believe are failures. To each their own, as the saying goes. But I would watch Trick Baby a thousand times before I would re-watch any of them. 

Trick Baby (1972) is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema favourite. It has a sense of humour, but it also manages to generate suspense from its earliest moments and then slowly increase the tension over the course of the entire film. A rare feat, in my opinion. You know it’s going to be a memorable #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn when Trick Baby is on the marquee.