Jimmy J. Aquino spends his agonizingly long period of unemployment either writing pieces for Splitsider and the underground hip-hop blog Word Is Bond or writing for his own blog at afistfulofsoundtracks.blogspot.com. He also programs the Internet radio station AFOS (A Fistful of Soundtracks) and is on Twitter at twitter.com/JimmyJAquino.
The British make far better disaster movies than the Americans do. Their disaster movies are less about spectacle and melodrama and are more effective at building tension. I'll take 1958's A Night to Remember over James Cameron's Titanic any day, and as far as '70s disaster thrillers go, Richard Lester's gritty and masterfully directed Juggernaut, in which the British government races against time to stop a lone terrorist's bombs from blowing apart a luxury liner, is more my speed. It possesses a dark sense of humor ("Haven't I told you about death? It's nature's way of saying you're in the wrong job"), and you have to admire how the film doesn't make an issue out of the Richard Harris bomb squad leader character's method of drinking like a fish to handle the stress of the job (it's most likely one of many reportedly last-minute touches that Lester, a last-minute choice for director, added to the film to keep the protagonists from coming off as generic). Plus Juggernaut doesn't feature a sappy Maureen McGovern theme song that makes you want to stick your head in the oven.
The Crimson Kimono (1959)
When singer-turned-actor James Shigeta passed away in July at the age of 85, a lot of headlines listed him as "Die Hard actor" or "Flower Drum Song star," but there's a Shigeta role that's way more meaningful than his small part in Die Hard and even the romantic lead in Flower Drum Song, especially to Asian Americans who live, eat and breathe the crime genre. That role would be his very first one, in Sam Fuller's bold 1959 noir thriller, where he played a Japanese American homicide detective investigating with his white partner and best friend (Glenn Corbett) the murder of a stripper in the Little Tokyo section of L.A. Not only is Shigeta excellent in his screen debut, but he's also playing an Asian protagonist without an accent--and with a couple of flaws too, like a temper he loses control of in one key scene--and he has a white love interest (Victoria Shaw) whom he actually gets to kiss. That interracial love story between Shigeta and Shaw was more striking to me than either Fuller's offbeat visual touches or the Little Tokyo location shooting when I first encountered The Crimson Kimono on TCM a few years ago. After watching it, I thought to myself, "Wow, Fuller gave Shigeta a non-stereotypical role in a crime flick, at a time when the houseboys on Have Gun--Will Travel and Bonanza were the most dominant images of Asian males, and then he allowed Shigeta to make out with a white woman when all Jet Li and Aaliyah could share 41 years later in Romeo Must Die was a measly goddamn hug?" Fuller was truly ahead of his time.
One False Move (1992)
Director Carl Franklin, a Roger Corman protégé, made a pair of terrific '90s crime thrillers featuring predominantly African American casts: the indie One False Move and the Walter Mosley adaptation Devil in a Blue Dress. Then he made one of the strangest career about-faces when he helmed the 1998 Meryl Streep/Renée Zellweger tearjerker One True Thing. I've been seeing a lot of "Whatever happened to Carl Franklin?" comments on the Internet. Well, Franklin never disappeared; he's turned his talents to directing for Netflix and hour-long cable (House of Cards, The Leftovers), where the kind of grown-up material he wants to make--like One False Move--is free to survive and won't suffer from being tinkered with or overlooked by studio execs who'd rather make superhero movies and tentpole franchise reboots. One False Move, which stars Bill Paxton as a small-town Arkansas sheriff who's eager to help L.A. detectives track down a trio of wanted drug dealers (one of them's played by Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote the film), is as far from superhero movies and safe comfort food material as one can get. It's a provocative noir with some sad and grim (but not heavy-handed) observations about being black in America and a truly unsettling sociopath in the form of Michael Beach's laconic and emotionless Pluto, who ranks with Robert Prosky's crime boss character in Thief as one of the best portrayals of the banal nature of evil. Pluto orchestrates One False Move's still-most-talked-about moment, a harrowing opening massacre at a family birthday party that reportedly caused some moviegoers to walk out. Franklin once said he wanted the audience to feel the pain of a life being snuffed out, and man, he really succeeded with that.
Here's a fun way to enliven a rewatch of director Jonathan Mostow's taut actioner about a motorist named Jeff (Kurt Russell) who must outwit psychotic truckers who have kidnapped his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) for ransom: play a game of "What Would Snake Plissken (or Captain Ron) Do?" When the local sheriff (Rex Linn) refuses to listen to Jeff's warnings about the dangerous thug he's had to keep tied up with duct tape (M.C. Gainey) and the sheriff winds up getting shot down by the thug (who himself gets shot to death by the still-alive sheriff when he tries to aim at Jeff), Snake wouldn't call for an ambulance like Jeff does. So what would Snake do? (I'd say he'd put a bullet between the sheriff's eyes for not listening to him.) Or when the lead psycho (J.T. Walsh in one of his last roles) orders his scared little son to fire his rifle at a gun-wielding Jeff, how would Snake handle it? (I'd say Snake wouldn't slap the rifle away. He'd instead shoot the kid and then Walsh's wife to make Walsh suffer.) "What Would Snake Do?" would also highlight how well-constructed Breakdown is as a thriller (Mostow's deletions of both an unnecessary backstory about Jeff's PTSD from his past job as a war photographer and a closing one-liner that was written for Quinlan were wise decisions), as well as how much the film wouldn't have worked if Jeff had a quip or a calm and collected revenge-flick reaction for everything. Russell's bedraggled and believable performance as a frightened everyman who's more like Martin Short than Captain Ron--particularly during Jeff's own breakdown when he thinks he's seen his wife's murder--is a huge reason why Breakdown has amassed a bit of a cult following since its 1997 release.
Tales from the Hood (1995)
Horrorcore is a horror-themed hip-hop subgenre that never really caught on, despite the popularity of the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," the acclaim that was given to the hip-hop supergroup Gravediggaz and the fanbase that somehow keeps Insane Clown Posse alive and clowning. Chappelle's Show episode director Rusty Cundieff's 1995 horror anthology is a fascinating marriage of horrorcore and Amicus anthologies like the 1972 version of Tales from the Crypt, anchored by a crazy-eyed Clarence Williams III as a mysterious mortician who introduces each of the segments. Life in the hood is a real-life horror story, and Tales from the Hood illuminates that in sometimes annoyingly kitschy ways, but otherwise, it excels at building dread out of inner-city life during unsettling segments like "Boys Do Get Bruised," a story about child abuse and domestic violence, and the closing segment "Hard Core Convert." In that last story, an incarcerated gangbanger (the late Lamont Bentley) is subjected to an unusual punishment by a scientist named Cushing (the late Rosalind Cash, paying tribute to Amicus fixture Peter Cushing): a series of Ludovico technique-like experiments involving imagery of slave lynchings and graphic black-on-black crime scenes. The gangbanger's other punishment is that he's forced to wear goofy-looking bikini briefs straight out of John Travolta's Staying Alive.