Film Review: They Live (1988)

Also known as: John Carpenter’s They Live (complete title)
Release Date: November 4th, 1988
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter (as Frank Armitage)
Based on: Eight O’Clock In the Morning by Ray Nelson
Music by: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, Raymond St. Jacques, Peter Jason, Sy Richardson, Susan Blanchard, Norman Alden, Jason Robards III, Jeff Imada, John Carpenter (voice – uncredited), Al Leong (uncredited)

Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions, Universal Pictures, Carolco Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” – Nada

I remember wanting to see this in the theater so damn badly but no one would take me because I was nine years-old and my family was being really lame about it. To make up for that, I rented the hell out of this when my local video store got their copies in. In fact, I eventually dubbed a copy because that was the benefit of having two VCRs in the ’80s and ’90s. I think I still have it buried in one of my many boxes of old VHS tapes that I haven’t been able to play for fifteen years.

Anyway, They Live is a spectacular film.

While it’s not John Carpenter’s best, it’s pretty high up on the list and it is my favorite film to star wrestling legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Considering that this also has Keith David in it, there’s almost too much testosterone and gravitas that I don’t know how the celluloid didn’t melt from the masculine heat.

The story is pretty simple: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper shows up in town, tries to earn some honest money and work towards the American dream but soon finds out that the world is completely fucked because it’s been taken over by aliens hiding in plain sight. How does he discover this truth? With special sunglasses. Seriously, what the fuck is there not to like about this picture?

Also, this has, hands down, the greatest one-on-one brawl in the entire history of Western cinema. A fight so epic and so perfect that its choreography was stolen for the infamous “Cripple Fight” episode of South Park.

The film also features Meg Foster and her eyes that can melt steel, Buck Flower playing not just a hobo, Carpenter regular Peter Jason, as well as blaxploitation veteran Raymond St. Jacques, the cool Sy Richardson and an uncredited bit part for the greatest motion picture henchman of all-time, Al Leong.

As is usually the case with most Carpenter films, this one benefits greatly from his score. It’s brooding, sets the perfect tone and just has the right kind of vibe to enchant your mind and pull you into this cool and crazy film.

I also like the physical atmosphere in general and how Carpenter used daytime and nighttime as a sort of narrative tool, drawing allusions to the seen world and the unseen world in this story. I also liked how the special sunglasses displayed reality in black and white while the visible world was in full color. I’m not sure if that was decided upon in the initial draft of this story or if it was a convenience in pulling off certain effects that still worked and added another layer of duality.

They Live is just solid, all around. It’s one of those movies I can watch anytime and it’s just cool as hell.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other John Carpenter films of the ’80s.

Film Review: The Final Comedown (1972)

Also known as: Blast! (recut version)
Release Date: April, 1972 (Chicago)
Directed by: Oscar Williams
Written by: Oscar Williams
Music by: Grant Green, Wade Marcus
Cast: Billy Dee Williams, D’Urville Martin, Celia Kaye, Billy Durkin, Raymond St. Jacques

New World Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Billy Dee Williams…Badder than ever!” – tagline

The Final Comedown isn’t very good but it does approach the issue of race relations in post-Civil Rights America in an uncommon way. This isn’t just about urban blacks taking it to the man, this has a deeper philosophical subtext to it and while Billy Dee Williams expresses his character’s concerns, every chance he encounters an ear, the narrative sort of pulls the rug out from under any sort of real solution.

The white man is evil, especially with a badge or a lawmaking pen. The young white liberals in the film try to right the wrongs of their parents and ancestors but even their call for justice and equality is met with an extremely violent end.

I actually liked this film more than the average bear, based off of other reviews I’ve read. Others considered this to be too preachy and to just beat its message over your head, relentlessly. While I don’t disagree with their claims of heavy handedness, within the context of the film, it works.

I thought that Billy Dee Williams was great in this, even if he spent the last half of the film, shot up and bloody, sitting in an alley. The real superstar here was D’Urville Martin. I’ve seen Martin in just about every blaxploitation film he’s ever been a part of and this is the best he’s ever been. Usually, he is a comedic sidekick or a stylish villain type. In this film he gets dramatic and is more real than I’ve ever seen him. From a serious acting standpoint, this is the high point of his short career, as he sadly died way too young.

If you are a fan of blaxploitation pictures, this one is jam packed with action. The second half of the film is essentially a street war between youthful blacks, liberal white kids and the racist police force. It is heavy handed and unapologetic but I don’t have a problem with that. I just wish Billy Dee Williams had more to do in the second half than sitting in an alley, waiting to bleed out.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Other Billy Dee Williams pictures from the era: The Take and Hit!

Film Review: Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)

Release Date: May 26th, 1970
Directed by: Ossie Davis
Written by: Ossie Davis, Arnold Perl
Based on: Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes
Music by: Galt MacDermot
Cast: Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace, Redd Foxx, Cleavon Little, Leonardo Cimino

United Artists, 97 Minutes

Review:

“One more word, soul brother. You had it made. Black folks would have followed you anywhere. You could’ve been another Marcus Garvey or even another Malcolm X. But instead you ain’t nothin’ but a pimp with a chicken-shit backbone.” – Gravedigger Jones

Having grown up seeing and appreciating Ossie Smith as an actor, it’s cool going back and seeing his directorial work in the ’70s, which was just before my time.

Cotton Comes to Harlem is a pretty funny picture but it is also packed with gritty action and cool, badass characters, especially the two detectives that drive the film: Gravedigger Jones (Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (St. Jacques).

The story follows the two cops, as they try to expose a crooked reverend as a fraud. The reverend is taking money from his congregation with the promise that they are buying their way back to Africa. The truth is, the reverend sets forth a scheme to make sure that he gets the money, free and clear. He orchestrates a robbery and then has the money hidden in a large bale of cotton, hence the title of the film. The title is also probably a metaphor to the fact that many black slaves picked cotton and that by “cotton coming to Harlem” they are once again enslaved, this time by the promises of the crooked reverend, as well as a system and society that continues to fail them.

The movie is really carried by Cambridge and St. Jacques but Calvin Lockhart had a good bit of charisma too. Redd Foxx stole every scene that he was in, especially that great moment at the very end. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the characters of Gravedigger and Coffin and they were the most interesting and fun part in the movie. It would have been cool to see them spin this off into a buddy cop film series with these two but that never happened.

Cotton Comes to Harlem was an entertaining ride and compared to most of the films in the blaxploitation genre, it was pretty tame. It still isn’t a film fit for kids, by any means, but it puts the comedy out in front and tones back on the overall action and violence.

Rating: 7.5/10