Sunday, May 15, 2011

Candid Tamara!

In celebration of Tamara Dobson's birthday (May 14th):

Cleopatra Jones  (Warner Bros., 1973)

Before the Camera:

Tamara Dobson  (Chained Heat)
Bernie Casey  (Never Say Never Again)
Shelley Winters  (The Poseidon Adventure)
Brenda Sykes  (Mandingo)
Antonio Fargas  (TV's Starsky and Hutch)
Paul Koslo  (The Omega Man)
Dan Frazer  (Lord Love a Duck)
Bill McKinney  (Deliverance)
Stafford Morgan  (Zebra Force)
Michael Warren  (TV's Hill Street Blues)
Albert Popwell  (Every Dirty Harry movie)
Caro Kenyatta  (The Young Nurses)
Esther Rolle  (TV's Good Times)
Jay Montgomery  (Black Gunn)
Angela Elayne Gibbs  (Number One with a Bullet)
John Alderman  (Malibu Express)
Eugene Jackson  (Coffy)
Lee Weaver  (TVs G.I. Joe - he's the voice of Alpine!)
George Reynolds  (Dahmer vs Gacy)
Joe Tornatore  (Sweet Jesus, Preacherman)
Christopher Joy  (Seven)
Teddy Wilson  (Cotton Comes to Harlem)
Don Cornelius ... Himself

Behind the Camera:

Directed by Jack Starrett

Produced by Max Julien and Bill Tennant

Written by Max Julien and Sheldon Keller from a story by Max Julien

Warner Bros jumped on the blaxploitation Bandwagon in the early 70's with this ripsnorting and funky comic book pitting African American Amazon Tamara Dobson against Whiny WASP Whackjob Shelley Winters. The story jumps right in as US Special Agent Cleopatra Jones (Dobson) arrives on foreign soil and takes over an operation to blow up some poppy fields - thus allowing this film to thumb its nose at James Bond - who had to blow up poppy fields as his climax in his concurrent release Live and Let Die - but Cleopatra Jones is just getting started, baby! We then pop back to the States to discover this legally sanctioned pyromania has not gone down well with the Crime Queen known as "Mommy" (!) (Winters). This hit to Mommy's pocketbook has torked her off royally - and now she wants Cleopatra Jones DEAD. Mommy scores first blood by somehow causing a local community center Cleo watches over to be hit by a surprise drug raid. Center honcho Reuben (Casey) knows there are no drugs to be found - but then some are. This brings Cleo running back to the U.S. and we get to sit back and watch as the lithe Ms. Jones cleans the clocks of several of Mommy's henchmen, mainly through the use of a not-particularly-fast style of kung fu that is nonetheless devastating to those it is used on. And while the two ladies circle each other at a distance, Doodlebug Simkins (Fargas), an enterprising lieutenant in Mommy's army begins to cut the apron strings and stakes out his own territory, starting with some of the film's running time as this becomes the major subplot in the picture. And although this puts Mommy at the disadvantage of battling on two fronts, she is more than up to the task, sending her minions out to do the dirty work while she lays back, scheming her dark schemes and periodically bellowing orders that sometimes only dogs can hear. Will even so formidable a woman as Cleopatra Jones be able to topple Mommy and her crime empire?

Spare the rod and spoil the child: Cleo shows Mommy a very different meaning to
the word smack than she's used to.

The Blaxploitation era started out with glimmers of the genre appearing in two studio released movies: They Call Me MISTER Tibbs and Cotton Comes to Harlem, both released in 1971. And then - as these things often do - in the independent film world, a talented filmmaker built on those elements; in this case Melvin Van Peebles and his classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which is now acknowledged as the first film in the Blaxploitation cycle, released in 1971. After that everyone got in on the game, with more studio efforts - like Shaft - and more independents - such as Superfly - hitting the Big Screen on a regular basis as the 1970's continued. Most of these efforts were hard edged R rated flicks, with copious amounts of profanity, nudity, and graphic violence flying every which way onscreen. In an attempt to bring in an even bigger audience than was usual for these popular motion pictures, Warner Bros. decided to pull back on those elements a bit for their Cleopatra Jones, going with a PG rating. Sometimes this just results in a watered down product, but not here - this movie still has an edge; there's still drugs being dealt, people being shot, and plentiful action like chases and fights, and it works! Colorful and fast moving, the flick plays out like a Big Screen Comic Book, and it is a lot of fun! The film is directed by Jack Starrett, and this interesting fellow deserves a quick digression: Starrett started out as an actor, appearing in several biker movies in the 60's (like Al Adamson's Hell's Bloody Devils, reviewed in this blog here) He also played Gabby Johnson in Blazing Saddles! He moved into directing, making several low budget action flicks that are all worth a look. After that it was back to acting, with his other most recognizable role being the nasty Deputy Galt - who wants to shave Rambo...dry -  in First Blood in 1982. Wild! And digression over.

I hate digressions.
 Starrett handles his duties just fine here, making the most of the script by Max Julien - another actor! - best known as Goldie in The Mack - and Sheldon Keller. The pace never flags, and the mayhem is orchestrated well and dealt out in regular doses.
    The late great Tamara Dobson is spectacular as Cleo; tall (6'2''!), dour, sardonic, and funny. She's not the fastest martial artist I've ever seen, but no matter how fast or slow the actress is, the character is exactly fast enough to lay waste to anyone foolish enough to challenge her. That the martial arts sequences were choreographed by Master Bong Soo Han (Klan from the "Fistful of Yen" segment of Kentucky Fried Movie) just makes them all the cooler. Shelley Winters reaches her screechy peak here, allowed by Starrett to not just chew the scenery, but to consume it in great fist fulls. She's a bit shrill, perhaps, but perfect for the movie. The supporting cast, led by the always-welcome Fargas, are all up to the game, sailing through with just a hint of a wink here and there. Standouts include Albert Popwell (the baddie in the original Dirty Harry who "gots to know...", and a supporting cast member in all of the sequels) and Caro Kenyatta as the brothers Johnson - two tough guys with hearts of gold enlisted by Cleo to assist her Mommy-mashing mission; and Bill McKinney, always hissable as a baddie and the reason Ned Beatty hasn't had a prostate exam since Deliverance. You also get a cameo from Mr. Soul Train himself - Don Cornelius! And an extra shout out goes to Paul Koslo as one of Mommy's most vicious henchmen, pulling off a successful British accent and saddled with the worst hair he's ever sported cinematically.  
    Speaking of cinematic, Dobson's fashions - designed mostly by the lady herself - must also be mentioned...though this fashion challenged movie blogger is going to let another writer describe the clothing on display...I'm not saying where I got it from...but it starts with a W and ends edia...."rich reds and yellows, tailored pantsuits, clinging silk shirts, voluptuous fur jackets, turbans, silk headdresses, and hooded capes." They are amazing, and Dobson wears them all with panache. My favorite is a kind of three toned bathrobe dress, split to the bellybutton, with Dobson in red nylons and platform heels - the actress cuts quite a figure in this outfit, and it gets well nigh incredible when those long legs come flashing out in kung fu kicks.

And there it is now!

And while we're sticking in all these extra photos - here's one that shows you just what a striking and stauesque figure Ms. Dobson really was - here's she and Woody Allen on the streets of New York City in 1972:


But it's time to wrap this one up - the movie is a splendid piece of cinematic bubblegum, highly recommended to action junkies, so definitely check this one out!

Let's Get Out of Here ?

At around 58:26, Joe Tornatore realizes that the bird has flown.

Eye Candy ?

Do you even need to ask?

Hello to the newest winner, Ms. Tamara Dobson!

Buddha Man's Capsule Review

Buddha Man says "Cleopatra Jones is a really fun movie that
won't send you running to Mommy!"

Amen, BM! And til next post, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!

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