Tag Archives: American film



Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 20 April 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Jack Hill

Writer: Jack Hill

Cast: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert DoQui

USA 1973

91 mins

**** out of *****

‘I killed them all,’ says the beautiful, coffee-with-cream-coloured beauty sitting on a comfy couch, cradling a mega-pump-action shotgun. ‘I don’t know how I did it. It seems like I’m in a dream and I’m still in this dream.’

Coffy (Pam Grier) is a lean, mean, killing machine with a soul that’s all woman. By day, she’s a caring, highly skilled inner-city nurse, but by night, she transforms into a show-no-mercy vigilante who takes on the underworld, pusher by pusher, pimp by pimp and gangster by gangster. Vengeance drives her, and with every explosive killing she thinks of her teenage sister, lying in a vegetative state in a rest home, the child’s mind and body decimated by drugs, forced sex and all manner of exploitation at the grubby paws of vile men from the lowest orders of their gender.

When her handsome, corrupt boyfriend, an African-American politician, seduces her with his words of hard truth tempered with racial caring (‘Our people want dope to make themselves feel better, but we’re gonna take that money and put it back in the hands of our people.’) and tenderness laced with a let-Daddy-put-it-all-right-again (‘All ya have to know, baby, is that I am your Man and I’m gonna take care of you.’), her gelato-smooth dream becomes not unlike that of fairy tale princesses and Prince Charmings. But when the silly dream of Barbie Doll acquiescence is shattered by the real truth, the dream reverts to the nightmare it’s always been. It’s the suffering necessary to put things right in the world.

Such is the blood-soaked reverie that is Jack Hill’s ground-breaking 1973 action picture Coffy, which is so thrilling, politically charged and exquisitely crafted one hesitates to slap the Blaxploitation monicker upon it to simply categorize the picture with a convenient label. There’s nothing ‘convenient’ about Hill’s picture. His smart, nasty screenplay betrays all expectations whilst kneading in the tropes of the genre when needed, but doing so in a manner that twists the necessary machinations like a pretzel-maker gone mad.

The legendary Pam Grier was already a fixture in the world of Blaxploitation when she played the title role, but this is the film that put her on the map to drive-in movie superstardom and into the hearts and minds of eager, slavering 13-year-old boys (like me, when I first saw it) of all ages (as I have been and am now over 40 years later and with well over 20 viewings of this film behind me).

And never mind just the lads, Grier was a hero to women all over the world. Not only was she a classic screen beauty, but her lithe form was inextricably linked to her prowess as an actress. Nobody moved on screen like Grier; she embodied her character here (and subsequent roles) with the kind of skill that most actresses can only dream about. In Coffy she represented a heroic figure to women of all ages and races because she brought grace, intelligence and humanity to her ass-kicking. Grier embodied the ultimate feminist femme fatales she played with Dirty Harry cool and Veronica Lake sex appeal, all with the soul of Cicely Tyson. There’s never been anyone like her, and her performance in Coffy is perfectly matched to the great Jack Hill’s inspired writing and stunning directorial aplomb.

Watching the film again on the Arrow Blu-Ray, so soon after suffering through the loathsomely directed contemporary smash hit Furious 7, I was again reminded how genuinely talented filmmakers like Jack Hill were. God knows, Quentin Tarantino recognizes this, but we’re stuck in a horrible rut of critics, studios and ADHD-afflicted audiences responding positively to herky-jerky movies that have no sense of spatial geography because they employ a jumble of edits driven, not by story or even character-related emotion, but by sound – screeches, thuds and overwrought scores. Coffy has one terrific action set-piece after another that puts most current pictures to shame. (It’s also got the cool musical styling of soul-funk-jazz composer Roy Ayers working with the film’s visuals instead of noisily, annoyingly driving them.)

There’s an astonishing chase scene involving Pam Grier on foot as corrupt cops in their black and white cruisers pursue her on, across and through a crazy-ass Los Angeles freeway and eventually into a wide-open rail-line storage field, which is so edge-of-the-seat thrilling because Hill uses superbly composed wide master shots, spare mediums and close-ups only when necessary. We see real choreography and real danger. There isn’t a single frame of Furious 7 and most other modern pictures of its ilk that can match the sheer virtuosity of Jack Hill’s meagerly budgeted Coffy.

It’s not a franchise, it’s a film.

Greg Klymkiw

Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)

Falstaff 1
Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 May 2015

Distributor: Mr Bongo Films

Director: Orson Welles

Writers: William Shakespeare (adapted by Orson Welles)

Cast: Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau

Spain 1965

121 mins

Falstaff (aka Chimes at Midnight, as it also known) is an amalgam of two Shakespeare plays (Henry IV Parts One and Two) edited by Welles to bring the character of Sir John Falstaff to the fore. Sir John is one of Prince Hal’s ‘dissolute crew’, a witty but amoral figure of fun who keeps the young wastrel Prince of Wales from the serious business of helping his father rule.
Orson Welles’s obsession with Shakespeare went back a long way. He made film versions of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952); staged plays many times, including his famous voodoo Macbeth in Harlem in 1936 and Chimes at Midnight, first staged in 1960. Welles even claimed to have played Falstaff in a high school production.

Falstaff was a labour of love. Unsurprisingly Welles felt a great affinity for the character whose ‘means are very slender and waist is great’. A man who lies, embellishes and cheats his way through life. He is a corpulent braggart living on credit or hare-brained money-making schemes, and yet he is well-loved and always entertaining – a great storyteller, exaggerator, witty raconteur and self-delusional optimist. It is as if Welles had been preparing for this role his whole life. If films can really be judged on how personal an expression of their author they are, then Falstaff stands supreme in the Welles canon.

Even the story of how Welles obtained the funding for his project seems like a scheme for a modern day Falstaff. Welles had claimed he could shoot two films at the same time using the same cast, crew, and sets whenever possible. For this BOGOF bargain his Spanish investors would get an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (with Welles as Long John Silver) and Falstaff. However, Welles’s focus was clearly on the Shakespeare film. He went as far as building a set for the Treasure Island tavern with the hope of placating the financiers and even spent a day filming sailing ships. But in the end Welles struggled to complete the one film, partly through illness (Welles was hospitalised with a gall bladder infection) and partly through the difficulties in scheduling the cast. Scenes were shot according to availability with actors playing alongside stand-ins. The film’s slightly odd montage sequences of close-ups and reaction shots are due to the fact that the cast were rarely on set together.

The finished film is a messy affair with many technical flaws that can be rather disconcerting. There are continuity errors throughout and the post-synced dialogue never quite matches the movement of the lips. Much, if not all, of the dialogue seems to have been recorded this way. Welles, in typical fashion, overdubbed some of non-English speaking actors himself. Another flaw is Welles’s trademark sonorous voice that here renders Shakespeare’s lines somewhat unclear. Fortunately Keith Baxter (Hal) and especially John Gielgud (King Henry) give the lines the clarity and rhythm they deserve.

Despite all this there is much to admire in Falstaff. The Welles style developed in Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil is still much in evidence. Chiaroscuro lighting is again used to great effect as is composition in depth and those dramatic low camera angles. The Battle of Shrewsbury is a wonderful set-piece and perhaps the film’s highlight. It is a fast moving montage sequence with the camera in close with the swinging swords, the falling bodies and the mud. The camera seems more involved in the fight than the cowardly Falstaff, who hides among the bushes or plays dead.

In Shakespeare’s plays, Falstaff largely provides comic relief although with greater depth of character than a Bottom or Malvolio. However, Welles’s performance is somewhat lacking in humour (he was never known for his ability as a comedian) and his rumbling voice adds gravitas to the role. With the focus away from Prince Hal’s growth towards kingship and skewed towards Falstaff, the narrative is one of decline and fall. Welles has created for Shakespeare another tragedy, ending in heartbreak and death.

Paul Huckerby

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Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 23 March 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Norman Jewison

Writer: William Harrison

Cast: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams

USA 1975

125 mins

Very few sports movies seem to have ever captured the reality or the spirit of their chosen discipline, lacking the spontaneity, poetry or sheer physicality of athletes in action. Perhaps it is for this reason that Norman Jewison’s 1975 classic Rollerball, a hybrid sci-fi movie, manages to stand out, as the theatricality of a sport, extreme in its violence and constructed wholly as a media spectacle, focuses the issues away from the game, to instead unravel the minutiae at the heart of corporate power and ownership.

Similarly, while so many of its sci-fi contemporaries were concerning themselves with a nihilistic vision of the future marred by genetic mutation, technological meltdown or nuclear holocaust, Rollerball’s dystopian vision seems less fantastic and closer to home, grounded in the all too real world of conglomerate hierarchies and media ratings.

In his seminal text on the Western genre, film critic André Bazin, citing Claude Lévi-Strauss, muses that myths are seldom a commentary about the time in which they are set, but always a commentary about the time in which they are told; a theme superbly underlined in Brian Henderson’s reading of John Ford’s The Searchers and which can easily be applied in an analysis of Rollerball, made in an era where the now ubiquitous relationship between sports and media began to truly establish itself.

As the 1970s saw a dip in the popularity of the Western as the all-American genre, new frontiers, buoyed by the success of the US space programme, ushered in a host of spectacular, FX-based, science-fiction movies. Journeying beyond the stars became the staple of action-packed blockbusters towards the latter part of the decade, offering American audiences, in part, a modern-day interpretation of ‘Manifest Destiny’ (an integral theme of the Western), as the nation sought to re-establish its self-esteem heading toward the onset of the Reagan (a space cowboy if ever there was one) era.

However, a decidedly more dystopian vision of the future was projected in a number of Earth-based sci-fi movies earlier on in the decade, born largely out of American disillusionment and insecurity, as the first generation of baby-boomers came of age and felt increasingly disenfranchised from the ‘silent majority’. Films set in a not too distant or unrecognisable future, such as Soylent Green (1973), Westworld (1973), Death Race 2000 (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976) all call into question the social structures we live under and the ideological institutions which govern them, yet Rollerball, under the astute guidance of Jewison, emerges as the most prophetic of these films and arguably any film of its generation.

Focusing on the game’s star player, Jonathan E (James Caan), the film can be easily read as an individual stance against capitalist power structures, as Jonathan resists the pressure heaped upon him to retire by the Energy Corporation, owners of his Houston team. Rather like Maximus in Gladiator, his accumulating status/power as an individual stem from the game’s global popularity, undermining the role of the media (along with widespread recreational drug use) as a means of providing an overpopulated planet with the circus, if not the bread, to keep things in check.

The rules of the game are simple: two teams of ten (complete with motorbike riders) compete for the possession of a metal ball, projected at high speed around the rim of a circular track. The team in possession of the ball attempt to score by placing the ball into a cone-shaped goal, while the defending team try to prevent this at all costs. Houston play three games, in a global league, throughout the course of the film, against Madrid, Tokyo and finally New York, in a world where federal ideas of nationhood have diminished altogether, as each team is representative of a corporate city-state, recalling the Olympian clashes of ancient Greece.

While the rules and aesthetics of Rollerball seem to be an amalgam of the four major US indigenous sports (baseball, basketball, gridiron and ice hockey) plus the outlandish spectacle of roller derby, the layout of the track is arguably the most telling feature of the game. With a silver ball, shot around the perimeter, ready to be taken up by any one of the numbered players, seen from above, one cannot help but make the analogy with roulette, not a sport but a game of chance, gambling, with human beings as the currency.

With each game comes a further reduction of the already scant rules, in a vain attempt to dethrone Jonathan and up the TV ratings, until in the final game no rules or time limit exist at all. Refusing to back down, Jonathan, with a rapidly diminishing cohort of friends, still manages to stand firm against the system without ever succumbing to the kill-or-be-killed mentality that seems to be his destiny.

Despite Jonathan’s radical stance in the film, he nevertheless operates within the traditional patriarchal movie framework, an archetypal Hollywood hero, rebellious and outside the rules of the system, a loner like the cowboys of old (he lives in a ranch-style house and wears a Stetson and cowboy boots). Within this framework comes the film’s one weak point, as the complete absence of any positive female roles not only reaffirms patriarchal hierarchy, but the total commodification of all the female characters is never challenged, their only currency seemingly their bodies and their deceit.

Jonathan’s enhanced status, at the end of the film, as an individual against the controlling powers of the system, is to some extent reminiscent of Tommy Smith and John Carlos, utilising their success at the 68 Olympics in Mexico to highlight the plight of African-Americans at home within the full glare of the media spotlight. Filmed partly on location in Munich, only three years after the tragedy of the 72 Olympics hostage disaster, during the height of the Cold War sporting rivalry between the US and the USSR, Rollerball is a chilling reminder that not only do sports and politics mix, they are seldom ever separated.

This review was first published in the autumn 08 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Joel Karamath



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 2 March 2015

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton

USA 2014

117 mins

Nightcrawler follows the alarming and seemingly irresistible rise of Louis (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom we first meet as a thief roaming Los Angeles at night, selling purloined metals for cash, but with his eyes open for a better career opportunity. This arrives when he witnesses an independent news cameraman (Bill Paxton) at work as a stringer, or ‘nightcrawler’, who feeds the local news media’s ‘if it bleeds it leads’ culture with footage of car crashes, calamities and crime. Inspired, Louis acquires a police radio scanner and a camera and sets up in business. He quickly establishes a useful connection with Nina (Rene Russo), a desperate TV executive on a minor network, hires homeless man Rick (Riz Ahmed) as navigator and assistant, and begins to make swift progress in his chosen field, a progress assisted immeasurably by his nature as a high-functioning sociopath who will do anything to get the right shot…

Dan Gilroy‘s film is at once a pitch-black comedy, a thriller and a character study of another of God’s lonely men, a kind of mash-up of Taxi Driver and Network, though it’s a little broader and less surprising than either of those 70s landmarks. It has car chases and shootouts, and edge-of-your-seat business, but also offers a concentrated skewering of TV news values and corporate culture. Louis is left in no doubt what constitutes ‘good’ footage to Nina: ‘a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut’, the victims should be affluent and white, the perpetrators should be urban and poor. Falling crime figures should not get in the way of the suggestion that you and your cosy world could be next. He is, of course, fully prepared to give her what she wants.

The films targets are not particularly fresh, it strains credibility at times, you can hear the gears whirring, and I found myself annoyingly ahead of the plot on occasion, but this doesn’t really matter much when Louis is in full flow, which is often. Visually, the film is impressive, offering us an LA heavy on the haze, a world of greens and oranges and flashing blue light, but its chief strengths lie in dialogue and performance. And the dialogue is extraordinary. Louis talks fluent job interview-ese, he talks like a motivational speaker, like someone who has read every ‘top 10 tips of successful businessmen’ article out there and has thoroughly ingested them into his being. Every conversation is a negotiation, a sale, He never swears or seems to blink. He is all about leverage and power. But the surface charm and slick fluency barely conceal a disturbing absence. He is a nightmare cousin to Tracey Flick from Alexander Payne’s Election, where the Horatio Alger attributes of initiative, hard work and ‘can do’ spirit, the drive to be ‘successful’, are all used in the service of an utter moral vacuum. He is a fast learner. He knows the value of research. And his time has come. There’s a devastating restaurant scene with Nina, where he cajoles and threatens his way into her life with a dizzying fluidity, culminating in his dead-eyed delivery of the line ‘a friend is a gift you give yourself,’ which must be one of the creepiest moments in modern cinema. And his interactions with Rick (the only sympathetic human in this sea of snakes), where he increasingly refers to himself with the corporate ‘we’ are a masterclass in passive aggressive bullying and one-upmanship.

It’s a superior piece of Hollywood filmmaking with something pleasingly queasy and upsetting at its core. Robert Elswit’s photography works wonders in a film that is largely about the process of filming. Gyllenhaal gives the performance of a lifetime, and Russo and Ahmed do great work. It’s smart, nasty stuff.

Mark Stafford

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