“Man, I’d rather be dead than not have any bread”: Black Belt Jones

Since the 1970’s, African-American culture has developed a very strong interest in the world of martial arts. The reasons behind the connection are numerous and complex but for the purpose of this review, let’s focus on the impact of martial arts cinema on the black American community. After his breakout role in the classic Enter the Dragon, martial artist Jim Kelly was offered a three-film contract with Warner Brothers, the studio that was responsible for Dragon‘s international distribution. The first of these projects is 1974’s Black Belt Jones, a blaxploitation action film helmed by Dragon director Robert Clouse. Jones is the first starring role for Kelly, who plays the title character. This film may have helped to make Kelly a notable action star during the 70’s but let’s see if it holds up on its own merits.

The threadbare plot of Black Belt Jones, written by the team of Oscar Williams, Alexander Rose and Dragon producer Fred Weintraub, deals with the title character’s efforts to protect a martial arts dojo from an alliance of criminals who seek to control it. The story revolving around a black-owned karate school is a admirable nod to the connection between black culture and Asian martial arts, which adds some thematic texture to this standard heroic tale. Of course, the fight scenes are as intense as they need to be and are creatively shot, with the highlight being a brawl in a room where the lights flicker on and off. As I mentioned, this is Kelly’s first lead role and, in some spots, it shows. He’s still charming in the comedic scenes and thrilling in the action sequences but he seems limited in more dramatic scenes. It doesn’t help that the chemistry that he has with his castmates here is not as vibrant as it would be with his co-leads in Three the Hard Way, which was released a few months after Jones. The Shining’s Scatman Crothers, a debuting Malik Carter (Cobra) and Gloria Hendry (Live and Let Die) are the bright spots of the cast, fully embodying their characters. Crothers’s fight scene in the dojo is easily the coolest non-Kelly fight in the movie with Hendry’s pool hall scuffle coming in second. If the film has a flaw, it’s the strange performance of Andre Philippe (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) as the main villain. Philippe seems to fluctuate between a generic portrayal of a mobster and a parody of that same portrayal. On the other hand, Carter’s humorous yet threatening performance as an egotistical drug dealer is a lot of fun to watch.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Black Belt Jones. It provides a highly entertaining look into an overlooked segment of African-American culture, as well as a demonstration of Jim Kelly’s amazing talents. I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of old-school action cinema.

Credit: Trailer Chan

“A Tauntaun is for life”: Christmas Tauntauns

The 2020 holiday season is drawing to a close, capping off a year that was, for lack of a better word, chaotic. With everything that’s been happening in these past months, it’s always important to have some fun to keep your mind at ease, whether it’s hanging with friends online or just watching something on TV. A couple of weeks ago, the season finale of The Mandalorian (working title: Growing Up Grogu) aired on Disney Plus and received mostly positive reviews. In honor of the occasion and in celebration of the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, let’s take a look at Christmas Tauntauns, a strange yet sweet music video from 2001 directed by animator Matt Bagshaw that holds the distinction of receiving the first ever George Lucas Selects Award at the 2002 Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards. If the creator of Star Wars digs it, maybe you can enjoy it too.

Have a happy and healthy new year!

Credit: mattbag3d

“Lightsaber battle royale”: Ryan vs. Dorkman 1 and 2

How ’bout them Mandos, eh? The latest season of Disney Plus’s hit series The Life and Times of Baby Yoda (also known as The Mandalorian) is halfway done and there’s a great deal of worthwhile social media discussion and discourse that follows each new weekly installment. Today’s post won’t deal with any of that. Once again, this will be another dive into the world of Star Wars fan projects. The subject of this post is the Ryan vs. Dorkman duology, a pair of videos that distill the average Star Wars fan film into its most basic elements.

Created by visual effects artists Ryan Wieber (Heroes) and Michael “Dorkman” Scott (Supergirl), the films give you all the intense action, visual creativity and humor that you expect out of most fan films but condensed into a form that fulfills the biggest power fantasy the Star Wars franchise has ever given to legions of fans: “what if I had the Force and a lightsaber?” The most appealing thing about the RvD shorts is the no-frills, DIY setup. Even in RvD2, which is much more technically complex than its predecessor and features a bombastic score composed by Kyle Newmaster and Gordy Haab (Star Wars: Battlefront), the lack of fancy costumes and green-screen composited backgrounds allows you to concentrate on the impressive duel.

Hope you enjoy them!

Credit: maniacmike, DorkmanScott

“Not when you’re hungry”: Conquest

To say the least, Halloween 2020 is going to be very strange…and maybe not in the good way. In case you’ve been living under a rock clad in a blindfold and earplugs, you’ll notice that the world’s been going through a lot of stuff lately. This Halloween season, browsing streaming sites and watching horror movies of varying levels of quality is a great way to unwind during these stressful times. I found the subject of today’s review while I was perusing the free streaming service Tubi. Within this collection of cinematic odds and ends, I discovered 1983’s Conquest, a weird fantasy adventure helmed by the renowned Italian giallo director Lucio Fulci. Although Fulci made films in a multitude of genres, he is best known for his stylish and ultraviolent horror movies like The Beyond and Zombi 2. With Conquest, he puts a bloody and brutal spin on the typical sword and sorcery tale.

Oliver Queen experiments with a Green Lantern ring.

Produced and written by two-time David di Donatello Award winner Giovanni Di Clemente, Conquest is the story of a young, magic bow-wielding hero named Ilias, played by Andrea Occhipinti (who worked with Fulci in 1982’s The New York Ripper). The evil spirit Zora, portrayed by Conrado San Martin of The Colossus of Rhodes fame, and a gratuitously nude sorceress known as Ocron (Sabrina Siani) plot against him after Ocron receives a vision of her own demise at the hands of an archer armed with the magic bow. Along the way, Ilias befriends Mace, a charismatic nomad played by Jorge Rivero, and the duo embark on a mission to stop Ocron’s evil forces from conquering the land. Barring the exception of an interesting twist near the end, the plot is pretty standard for the genre and the performances are typical as well. Conquest‘s main hooks are its trippy visual storytelling and the copious amounts of barbaric violence. The various creatures and costumes may look like rejected designs from the set of Quest for Fire but at least Alejandro Ulloa’s cinematography tries to make them look majestic, otherworldly and frightening. The synthesizer-intensive score by Dawn of the Dead composer Claudio Simonetti also sets the appropriate level of mystery and intensity, especially during the gory battle scenes.

You might not think of Conquest as a typical Lucio Fulci film but his distinctive style and directorial chops elevate this otherwise bland sword and sorcery adventure. If you’re looking for an unconventional Halloween movie marathon entry this year, give Conquest a try. Did I mention it’s free on Tubi?

Credit: CampMovieCamp

Carcharodon Copycats: A Tornado to Move the Boat

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, Italy seemed to be the low-budget knockoff capital of the world. Whenever a Hollywood genre movie becomes a huge hit, you can bet that there would be at least one Italian film made to exploit the popularity of the global blockbuster. Jaws was an easy target for exploitation compared to most big movies because its simple premise allowed for a stronger focus on suspense and character drama. If Steven Spielberg can extract cinematic gold from the modest idea of a great white shark threatening a resort town, then making a hit movie should be simple. All you need is a ferocious sea-dwelling animal and enough money to afford boats, scuba gear and a trip to a peaceful seaside town. Unfortunately, most Italian knockoffs of Jaws put a lot of effort into the aquatic creature to the detriment of every other element of the film. A textbook example of this is the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Tentacles.

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Family Circus took a weird turn in the 70’s.

Known as Tentacoli in Italy, the concept of Tentacles is more intriguing than the film itself. The film’s direction, provided by former Cannon Pictures CEO and Pirahna II producer Ovidio Assonitis, is very rudimentary, especially when the film’s antagonist, a deadly giant octopus, is offscreen. The only real suspense in the film comes from any scene involving the savage cephalopod, who feels like a terrifying presence thanks to some decent model work, clever editing by Angelo Curi and the skilled cinematography of Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli, who would work on another infamous knockoff of a famous blockbuster, Starcrash, sometime after this picture. The standouts of the oddly star-studded cast are the legendary John Huston (director and screenwriter of The Maltese Falcon) and Oscar winner Henry Fonda, who do the very best they can with the stilted direction and a hackneyed and inconsistent script written by Jerome Max, Escape from the Bronx scribe Tito Carpi and former Star Trek script editor Steven Carabatsos. Another Academy Award-winning star, Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank), shows up to waste her time in a cloying subplot that desperately attempts to evoke the sense of dread that surrounded Alex Kintner’s death scene in Jaws. The overall tone of Tentacles lacks any semblance of harmony between its horror elements and its playful humor which isn’t helped by Stelvio Cipriani’s bizarre, synth-heavy score and some weird scenes like Bo Hopkins (American Graffiti) giving a pep talk to a pair of killer whales that are sent to fight the octopus.

If you’re looking for a cheesy horror film that’s good fodder for a bad movie night with friends, I highly recommend Tentacles. It’s always fun to see a group of top-tier actors slumming it in a schlocky B-movie and this Jaws knockoff is no exception.

Credit: BisXploitationcinema

Carcharodon Copycats: A Sin Against an Animal

One of the most brazen things that a ripoff of a famous blockbuster can do is film a scene that functions as an obvious dig at the blockbuster in question. In most cases, it’s a kind of move that can easily backfire because it reminds the viewer of the more popular film. Perhaps the most notable example is a brief moment in the infamous Star Wars knockoff and subject of a fan-favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Laserblast where Kim Milford’s character blows up a Star Wars billboard for no readily discernible reason beyond the behind-the-scenes desire to mock any potential competition to Laserblast. One of the earliest scenes of the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Orca, shows the titular killer whale slaughtering a great white shark, which is a moment where the in-story justification of making the orca both threatening and appealing is outweighed by the out-of-universe purpose of taunting Jaws, its biggest influence. When you see it, you can almost hear co-producer Dino De Laurentiis, prolific producer of countless cult classics, screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m coming for you, Spielberg!” With a scene like that, you’d think that Orca would simply be a cheap, simplistic duplication of a better movie. Instead, Orca has a surprisingly thoughtful approach to its storytelling and themes that sets it apart from other, less subtle Jaws ripoffs.

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Behold, a relic of the good old days, when movie posters told you the entire story of the movie.

The biggest aspect that sets Orca apart from its competition is making the titular creature, played by Yaka and Nepo, an important and sympathetic character in his own right. The movie truly comes to life whenever the whales appear. The impressive cinematography, effective model work and Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score effectively sell the audience on the emotional plight of the chief orca and the merciless terror he creates throughout the film. The standout actor in the human cast is Richard Harris of Camelot fame, who gives a stirring performance as a ship’s captain who becomes the target of the orca’s ire but begins to understand the whale’s hunger for revenge. The rest of the cast, which includes Zardoz’s Charlotte Rampling as a whale biologist and Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as a somewhat stereotypical Native American teacher, is adequate with the weakest link being a young Bo Derek, best known for her role in 10, who looks lost in any scene that doesn’t involve a killer whale. Orca is directed by The Dam Busters helmer Michael Anderson, who tries his best to make a threadbare script, written by Sergio Donati and co-producer Luciano Vincenzoni, feel tense, believable and meaningful by focusing on both the captain’s personal conflict and the orca’s quest for retribution, as well as placing a strong emphasis on visual storytelling.

Orca is a much more intriguing film than its reputation implies. By putting a spotlight on the thoughts and feelings of the eponymous creature, the film finds a different angle that enables it to stand out in the Jawsploitation craze.

Credit: Youtube Movies

Carcharodon Copycats: Fish Don’t Eat People

This month marks the 45th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s seminal seafaring thriller, 1975’s Jaws. Widely considered to be the first modern, high-concept blockbuster, Jaws would reshape the landscape of Hollywood with its broad but intriguing characters, minimalist approach to storytelling and emphasis on exciting set pieces. As is the case with many popular blockbusters, the success of Jaws spawned many imitators of varying quality. Today, let’s take a look at 1978’s Piranha, one of the better-known copycats and a somewhat more ambitious knockoff than the others that were released at the time. One of the earliest films directed by visionary Gremlins helmer Joe Dante and produced by Dante’s collaborator Jon Davison and independent filmmaking mogul Roger Corman, Piranha was once the target of a lawsuit from Universal Studios because it was so similar to Jaws. When Spielberg praised the film after an advance screening, the lawsuit was dropped. With that kind of ringing endorsement from one of the greatest directors around, Piranha must be good, right?

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Lost River Lake: the birthplace of bikini pool float rodeo.

Surprisingly, Piranha kind of works! The script, written by Battle Beyond the Stars scribe John Sayles, is clever, the quick pace keeps the action flowing, Pino Donaggio’s score carries the right balance of suspense and strangeness and Dante’s signature comedic approach to science fiction and horror gives the film a consistently fun tone that matches the crazy premise of a bloodthirsty school of mutated piranha invading a river near a peaceful town. As far as the acting goes, the late, great Dick Miller, a frequent associate of both Dante and Corman, steals the film in his role as Buck Gardner, a crooked resort owner whose place of business is overwhelmed by the deadly fish. Miller’s character may lack the depth of his Jaws equivalent, Mayor Vaughn, but he’s still a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) gives a strong, grounded performance as a government scientist who is haunted by the fact that he led the project that created the mutant piranha and the two leads, Heather Menzies of The Sound of Music fame and King’s Crossing’s Bradford Dillman, have an interesting chemistry. The special effects are more of a mixed bag. This is the kind of movie where impressive stop motion creature animation and convincing prosthetic work share the screen with rudimentary puppetry and drab set design.

Spielberg may have been onto something. Although it’s a cheap Jawsploitation cash grab, Piranha is a unexpectedly charming movie with a clear sense of purpose and enough self-awareness to keep your interest.

Credit: sideshowcarny