Monday, March 31, 2014

"Coonskin" (1974) d/ Ralph Bakshi

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Nobody ever asks me who's the guy responsible for my favorite animated features of all-time, but if anyone ever did, I'd tell 'em it's obviously Ralph Bakshi, once I'd gotten over the initial shock of someone actually having asked me an interesting question. Tonight's review, Bakshi's third such feature, and second to mix his highly stylized animation with live-action sequences, is an urban update of Uncle Remus' beloved children's stories starring a pre-Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas, Scat Man Crothers, and even Barry "Can't-get-enough-of-yo'-looove-baaaybuh" White, that drew mixed reviews upon a limited initial theatrical release due to it's satire-heavy portrayal of the frustration of life in the inner city. Bakshi lays waste to racial stereotypes of all sorts here by giving them center stage, in all their absurdity (the main characters' looks are based on the black faced make up of the travelling minstrels of yesteryear), for the audience to interpret as they will, though it should be noted that any mafiosi in attendance will surely feel the sting of the piss-take herein. Just don't take it personally, Sollozzo, and may your first child be a masculine one. Here we go...

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You never see brunettes in this kinda predicament. Just sayin'...
Somewhere down south, we see Randy (Thomas) and Pappy (Crothers) in the midst of a daring midnight prison escape, and while camped out against a high wall out of the line of sight of any guards and waiting fo' the getaway whip, Pappy tells the funky story of three cats who remind him a lot of Randy and his ambitious homeboys: Brother Rabbit (Thomas), Brother Bear (White), and Preacher Fox (Gordone), who relocate north to Harlem, home to every Black man, when the bank forecloses on their southern digs, effectively turning it into a whorehouse ( you know, the kind that a racist sheriff's daughter would get caught turning comical interracial tricks at ). Upon arrival, they meet up with Black Jesus' cousin, Simple Savior, a black separatist who shoots up images of Elvis, Nixon, and John Wayne while hoisted atop a light-up cross on stage in the nude, ferchrissakes. Needless to say, Rabbit and Bear pull his card, making Rabbit the new boss of all of Harlem's underworld action, but he soon finds that with notoriety comes with a high price tag...

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Don King or Al Sharpton? You be's the judge, baybuh.
Rabbit goes head to head with Madigan (Frank DeKova), a badge-wearing palooka that's on the mafia payroll, who gets his drink dosed, gets duped into a homosexual interlude, and ultimately gets taken down by his fellow officers while on a black-faced shooting spree while coming down off acid. Meanwhile, the Godfather (Al "Grandpa" Lewis) puts a hit on Rabbit from the underbelly of the sewers, but when his only straight son, Sonny (Richard Paul), shows up to ice the hare at his nightclub, decked out in blackface, he's pumped full of lead then abruptly blown to smithereens, before his ashes are sent home to his bawlin' mama. Bear visits Fox, who's been running a brothel for the mob, is hastily married to one of the tricks, and talked into boxing professionally for the crime family. Rabbit builds an explosive-laden tar facsimile of himself and plants it at one of Bear's prizefights, where the remaining mafiosi unwittingly all get stuck while trying to off the bunny. Our heroes escape in the nick of time as the venue blows up with their cartoon enemies inside, as we switch back to the daring live-action bullet-riddled, broad daylight escape of Randy and Pappy, who are equally successful in the end. Credits...

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"C'mon, take the noose off, I promise I won't do any more James Taylor covers..."
Despite multiple title changes (Harlem Nights, Coonskin no more..., Street Fight, Bustin' Out, etc.), an undeserved demise at the box office, and much controversy along the way, you're bound to be entertained here. If you're the rare type of individual that equates racism with names like Ted Nugent or Steven Colbert, there's a good chance you'll be too highly offended by the exaggerated ethnic stereotypes on display here to ever pick up on the social commentary within. Those of us who live in the real world, on the other hand, will find a lot to love about Coonskin, a visually dazzling time capsule of the tumultuous and turbulent seventies, as edgy as it is funny. On the scale, it earns an impressive three Wop score, and comes highly recommended.

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"You mobsters feelin' some type of way up in that tar right about now."
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