Movies Till Dawn: Watch It! This Weekend (Kung Fu Finger Book Edition)

Super Fly” (1972, Warner Archive Collection) Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) sees only a dead end in the Harlem cocaine trade, and conceives a retirement plan involving the sale of 30 kilos for a cool million; however, the cops, fellow dealers and even Priest’s closest friends have different ideas for all that cash. Along with “Shaft,” “Gordon’s War” and “Coffy,” Gordon Parks’ Jr.’s “Super Fly” is (arguably) the best of the so-called blaxploitation film cycle, delivering maximum grit and rueful honesty in the same package, with Curtis Mayfield’s chart-topping soundtrack underscoring the bitter dichotomy of street life with the deepest of grooves. Warner Archives’ Blu-ray offers a wealth of extras, including vintage interviews with the late O’Neal and a slew of making-of featurettes which detail the African-American community’s involvement in the film, from a largely all-black crew to financing by local businesses.

Ismael’s Ghosts” (2017, Magnolia Home Entertainment) Loose-cannon filmmaker Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) is trying to finish a spy movie based loosely on his long-absent brother, when another figure from his past– his wife (Marion Cotillard), missing for decades – resurfaces to complicate matters for him and his current spouse (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Part of the appeal of writer-director Arnaud Desplechin‘s films is their puckish refusal to make things easy for the viewer, and “Ismael” is no exception – there’s no real explanation for where Cotillard has been, the action bounces between the main story, Amalric’s film and meta-variations in between, and everyone seems to be in a constant state of agitation – which may try some viewers’ patience. Others may appreciate its assertion that life is complicated, and throws curves that can trip up and lift up in equal measure.

The Addiction” (1995, Arrow Video) Student Lili Taylor gets a fresh perspective on her thesis about evil when glamorous stranger Annabella Sciorra (“Glow”) turns her into a vampire. Director Abel Ferrara (“Bad Lieutenant”) and frequent writer Nicholas St. John offer an intriguing take on the vampire myth by refashioning it as a parable for addiction, and they spare no quarter in underscoring the physical (read: lots and lots of blood) and moral decline in both conditions. They are less successful in linking acres of philosophy to their core notion (read: lots and lots of Nietzsche) but Ferrara has often aimed for an axis of grindhouse and arthouse in his efforts, and his fans will undoubtedly appreciate that arc here. With Christopher Walken as an insightful fellow monster, and briefly, Edie Falco and Michael Imperioli; Arrow’s Blu-ray offers typically eccentric commentary by Ferrara, as well as new interviews with cast and crew, including Taylor and Walken.

While the City Sleeps” (1955, Warner Archive Collection) Newspaper scion and weapons-grade heel Vincent Price sets off a feeding frenzy among his top editors (George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell and James Craig) by offering the title of Executive Director to whoever can catch the psychopathic Lipstick Killer (based on real-life accused murderer William Heirens). Each sinks deep into the moral muck in their grab for the prize, and pulls a few outsiders, including TV critic Dana Andrews, secretary Sally Forrest and writer Ida Lupino, down with them. Penultimate Hollywood effort by Fritz Lang isn’t up to par with his best thrillers (“Hangmen Also Die“), but it’s also not as bad as some have said: the script by Casey (“Dark Victory”) Robinson gives the all-star cast some tart lines and tough choices to work on, and there’s a gripping pursuit through the New York subway (actually the Belmont Tunnel). With John Drew Barrymore (Drew’s dad) as a comics-loving creep; Warner’s Blu-ray offers a remastered print in 1080p HD.

The Misadventures of Biffle and Shuster” (2018, Kino Lorber) Five note-perfect tributes to black-and-white comedy one-reelers of the ’30s and ’40s, with Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan as the titular team. Writer-director-producer Michael Schlesinger leads the boys through classic set-ups – haunted house hijinks in “Bride of Finklestein,” a vaudeville review in mock two-strip color in “Schmo Boat” – and they slap and caper with expert timing and abandon. Your appreciation is entirely contingent upon whether you’re amused by Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Olsen & Johnson, et al, but Schlesinger gets the frantic tone and economic look right, and even invites a few names to liven up the party, including Robert Forster, Daniel Roebuck, Janet Klein and the great Dick Miller. Kino’s DVD features all five B&S shorts, each with commentary by Schlesinger, Ryan and Santa Maria, and includes some clever extras, including a clip from a faux Spanish-language short and the duo’s “outtake” from “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

Bruce’s Deadly Fingers” (1976, VCI Entertainment) Gangster Lo Lieh (“King Boxer”) sends his minions to find the Kung Fu Finger Book, a wonderfully titled (and completely fictitious) training guide penned by Bruce Lee, unaware that one of Bruce’s disciples (Bruce Le) is also in hot pursuit of the same book. Prolific director Joseph Kong wisely anchors this absurdly overplotted slab of Brucesploitation on Le, who clearly enjoys imitating Lee’s style and mannerisms (thumbing his nose appears to be a favorite) and puts considerable energy into the fight sequences, including the (literally) eye-popping finale; it’s too bad that these high points (as well as a knockout animated title sequence) are soured by some noxious treatment of the female cast. VCI’s DVD/Blu-ray set includes expert commentary by filmmaker Michael Worth, who points out the many FOB (Friends of Bruce) in the cast, like frequent co-star Nora Miao, actor Michael Chan Wai-man and trainer Wong Shun Leung, as well as trailers for other Brucesploitation titles.

 

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About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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