Check out his Underrated '85 list here:
It’s a little surprising to me that Darna never got to be much of a thing in America. I’d certainly never heard of her until I stumbled upon this movie, but she’s been a big-time superhero in her native Philippines since the 1950s, complete with comic books, cartoons and a couple of long-running film franchises.
Darna vs. The Planet Women makes it easy to see why. It’s a charming, light-hearted bit of nonsense about an underwear-clad superheroine fighting off an invasion by a force of multi-colored, equally clothing-averse space women, with occasional sidebars to get her dimwitted boyfriend out of jams. Darna’s super-power skill set seems to be roughly analogous to Captain Marvel’s (or maybe Captain Marvel, Jr’s, since her alter-ego also walks with a crutch) and her battles are staged with a sloppy energy typical of low-budget ‘70s Filipino action movies. Considering that most of the primary characters are played by gorgeous, nearly naked women, this movie has a surprisingly feminist bent. Both Darna and her nemeses are consistently underestimated, objectified and patronized by men, and both use that sexism to their full advantage, to the point that women seem to be the only remotely competent denizens of the Darnaverse. Darna vs. The Planet Women is far from a perfect film - it’s longer than it ought to be, and occasionally hampered by its budgetary restrictions - but it’s fun in a way most superhero films could only hope for.
Two hippie chicks - one a giggly free spirit, the other probably a major Pentangle fan - hitch a ride with a hot young dude driving a fully furnished tour bus across Florida. If that sounds like the set-up to a porno, you’re not far off. Technically speaking, Pick-Up is a softcore skin flick pitched at the trenchcoat crowd, but it clearly aspires to something greater.
After the bus gets stranded in the Everglades, most of the movie consists of the trio wandering among the palmettos with frequent pauses for sex, traumatic childhood flashbacks and/or nightmarish hallucinations. Gorgeous scenery shots and rambling stoner conversations mingle uneasily with evil clowns, lusty sun gods, lecherous priests and other sundry horrors and delights. Infused with a vibe of hazy, tripped-out weirdness and peppered with moments of shocking violence, Pick-Up is an overachiever in a genre notorious for aiming low. Neither the director nor any of the three lead actors ever worked in that capacity again, which only adds to the film’s haunted aura. Watching it made me feel like I was seeing something that shouldn’t have existed, and when it was over I wasn’t entirely certain it ever did.
The big hook of The Candy Tangerine Man is “Street hustlers: They’re just like us!” That’s an intriguing angle, but honestly the glimpses at bad-ass pimp and crime boss Baron’s secret life as a suburban family man are the least interesting bits of this movie. The real delight comes in watching director Matt Cimber crank up the sleaze of Baron’s underworld existence for contrast. Virtually every character and situation outside Baron’s home drips with nastiness for the sake of nastiness. Cops, criminals and civilians alike engage in torture, mutilation, humiliation and murder. Everybody’s on the make and happy endings are few and far between. Cimber has the good sense to play the ugliness mostly straight, making this one of the most attractively repellent bits of blaxploitation I’ve yet seen.
1975 was kind of a watershed for intense, mentally ill white guys pushed to the breaking point. Deadly Hero would make a great first course in a double-bill with Taxi Driver - quite possibly my favorite film, so that’s not a comparison I make lightly. Don Murray’s seething New York cop serves as a less charismatic counterpart to Travis Bickle, a short-fused zealot who believes in his ideals to a terrifying extent. It’s a part that could easily slide into Bad Lieutenant-style grotesquerie but instead remains on the distressingly believable side of the scale.
Of course, director Ivan Nagy was by no means Martin Scorsese. (Although Mr. Nagy’s biography could make a heck of a Scorsese film - look him up!) For all its visceral energy and Murray’s should-be-iconic lead performance, Deadly Hero suffers from poor pacing and a disappointingly cliched finale. What truly elevates this movie is its sadly timeless relevance. This is the story of a white male cop who believes in “Justice” as religion, has no qualms about shooting an unarmed black man or terrorizing a female witness, and is quick to cast himself as the real victim when his sins come to light. If you made this movie today, you’d be accused of being too on the nose with your social commentary, but seen through the filter of four decades it comes across as a tragically realistic document of a system that’s as broken today as it was back then. After years of obscurity, this feels like a film whose time has finally come.
This movie is remembered primarily for the insane, out-of-nowhere plot twist revealed in its final act (I won’t spoil the surprise here, but if you’re interested there are plenty of reviews elsewhere online that do), and justifiably so. It’s a startling and surprisingly effective flight of fancy in what’s previously been a relatively sober film.
Thing is, Welcome Home, Brother Charles would easily qualify for this list even without that shock value. Directed by underground legend Jamaa Fanaka, it’s a grimly realistic story of a reformed pimp and pusher trying to stay on the straight and narrow after a prison stint and an attempted castration at the hands of a racist cop. Part gritty street-hustling slice-of-life, part melancholy story of redemption deferred, part gonzo revenge fantasy, the movie never quite gets its three pieces to cohere, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s a fractured, soulful, occasionally freaky portrait of truth, justice and the American way.