Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Postscript 226. JOSHUA (1976)

Also known as THE BLACK RIDER, this minimalist black Western -- written by and starring Fred Williamson and directed by Larry G. Spangler (A KNIFE FOR THE LADIES, THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY) -- is a minor but pleasing hommage to the Italian Western, with some giallo elements included.

The story is simplicity itself. On the day of his homecoming from the Civil War, Joshua (Williamson) arrives at the homestead where his mother (Kathryn Jackson) works as a cook, only to discover that she was shot by a band of outlaws who took a liking to her employer's mail-order bride (Brenda Venus) and rode off with her. A group of lawmen were able to track them only so far, but Joshua decides to track them down to deal out his vengeance and collect the bounty on their heads. In one of the more curious aspects of the story, the bride warms up to her rapist abductors and effectively becomes one of their gang by the time Joshua arrives to offer his assistance. As Joshua avenges himself against his mother's killers, the movie acquires the feel of a body count picture, replete with inventive, ironic death traps. Isela Vega (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) has a bit part, but despite her history of erotic screen appearances and the plunging neckline of Ms. Venus, there's nothing here to nudge the picture beyond a PG rating.

As with too much of Williamson's work, most of the presently available home video editions of this film are cropped and crummy-looking, but John Charles tells me that Code Red released a nice looking 2.35:1 DVD of JOSHUA on a double feature disc with CUT-THROATS NINE. The cinematography (uncredited!) and editing are fairly crude, and Mike Irwin's one-track score -- whistle-like noodlings on a synthesizer, showing the influence of Morricone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY theme -- is so worried to death, it borders on the unspeakable. Despite these faults, there is a sincerity and a laconic cleverness about the project that shines through. If you're at all interested in exploring Williamson's screen work, this is a modest yet key title.

Viewed on DVD-R. 


Postscript 225. MANDINGO (1975)


It had to happen. After tying a nice bow on this blog and calling it finished, I remembered two other films I saw recently, while researching my "Roots of DJANGO UNCHAINED" piece for SIGHT & SOUND, which I hadn't included here and must be attached to complete my annual viewing and reviewing.

This highly profitable Paramount release, the last important film directed by Richard Fleischer, has acquired an undeserved reputation as a camp classic, initiated by the GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS book of the Medved brothers and the nervous titters of other moviegoers who weren't able or prepared at the time to look soberly back on this not-so-distant period of American history. The same discomfort may be apparent in Paramount itself, as MANDINGO was one of the first titles they chose to sublicense to another video company, Legend Films, back in 2008.

The film, about master/slave relations at a Southern estate known as Falconhurst, was based on a 1957 novel by Kyle Onstott, a man whose prior expertise was dog breeding; it was published by a small Virginia imprint and became one of the earliest major success stories in regional publishing. Onstott went on to write a whole shelf of florid novels about life at Falconhurst, a name I suspect helped to influence the long-running nighttime family chronicle soap FALCON CREST (1981-1990), which in turn inspired the soap satire porn of Jess Franco's PHOLLASTIA (1987, credited to "Betty Carter").

Of course there is a great deal about MANDINGO's content that is uncomfortable, awkward, even downright repugnant to modern sensibilities. The 1970s, oddly enough, were more open about matters of race and sexuality, and this film goes further in either area than Tarantino's similarly rooted DJANGO UNCHAINED, though Tarantino's film is an entertainment intending to tease subject matter of lingering sensitivity rather than seriously confront it. (The photo above shows James Mason as slave master Warren Maxwell, using an African-American child to draw the rheumatism out of his bare feet into the child's body.) Mason lords unwholesomely over the film with a greasy accent, but the real crux of the story is the arranged marriage of his son Hammond (Perry King) to Blanche (Susan George), the daughter of a neighboring landowner -- a kind of parallel white enslavement, if you will. The newly-wed Hammond, outraged that his new bride is not a virgin (a gift claimed earlier by her brother, it seems), seeks comfort in the arms of Ellen (Brenda Sykes), the slave girl whom he genuinely loves. Blanche, offended by his flagrant infidelity, takes offense and refuge in alcohol, until she more pro-actively seeks revenge against Hammond and his entire family by tempting the sexual services of Mede (Ken Norton), the somewhat blank Mandingo stud whom Hammond has trained to become a successful bare-knuckled fighter. Tragedy ensues, to say the least.

Ken Norton, the boxer who won an historic 1974 bout with Muhammad Ali by breaking his opponent's jaw and went on to become the world heavyweight boxing champion of 1978, is not an expressive actor but something about his blankness adds to Mede's impression as a kind of livestock being passed and punched around. (Shortly after he's introduced on the trading block, a white widow attempts to buy him and thrusts a hand inside his boxer shorts to feel how sizeably he's endowed - just one of many moments you'd be unlikely to find in a major studio film today.) Mason gives one of his better latter-day performances but King, George and Sykes are especially good, composing a palpably tortured triangle. What is most uncanny about the film is the way it suggests that all this outward, formalized hatred and exploitation was systematized by old white men as a means of making this stolen country grow to their advantage, of making their family businesses (and family itself) flourish, while the distaff side of slavery made the marriages they calculatedly arranged more endurable, channeling their sons' sexual impulses away from interfering with other landowners' daughters. It also shows love somehow surviving, contrary to this system, deep in the shadows of its process -- a germ of truth at the heart of an obscene but constructive social lie.

Viewed via Amazon Instant Video.    

 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

And In The Beginning, The End...


Today brings an end to 2012 and to the 2012 screening diary I called Pause. Rewind. Obsess.

This idea I had, one year ago today -- to write about every film I saw this year -- was spontaneous but its demands turned out to be more rigorous than I initially considered. It seems I can't do anything by half-measures, and my original intention to write notes or comments was overruled by, in most cases, full-length reviews. In essence, this blog turned into a book I wrote on the side.

There are other books I would rather write, for fun and profit, so I won't be continuing with another screening diary for 2013. That said, I am very pleased that I was able to keep and fulfill this promise to myself and I consider this blog a complete, if gratuitous, success.

I usually fell a bit behind schedule in my reviewing -- in the home stretch, approximately 30+ movies behind schedule, which meant I was basically chained to my desk over the last few days, hammering out up to 16  reviews per day to meet my self-assigned December 31 deadline.

I undertook this project in the first place because I was curious to see how many feature films I saw in the average year. And now I know: DJANGO UNCHAINED, the last film I saw in 2012, was # 224. (On January 2, I remembered two other titles I'd forgotten to include/review and added them as postscripts, bringing the full count up to 226.) That's considerably fewer than one per day, but this was not an average year of film viewing for me. I spent a lot of additional time engrossed in series television, which was not represented here. My television viewings included:

BREAKING BAD: All five seasons, viewed at least thrice, sometimes with audio commentaries;

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: The first three seasons on Blu-ray, many viewed a second time with commentaries;

THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW: A long overdue, complete re-viewing of the entire series on Netflix.

LIE TO ME: Again Netflix, all three seasons.

ONCE AND AGAIN: All three seasons of this overlooked series from the producers of THIRTYSOMETHING, viewed via DVD-Rs obtained through IOffer;

MAD MEN: Probably my fifth overall viewing of the entire series;

Miscellaneous episodes of ROUTE 66, THE HUNGER, PERRY MASON, MAN WITH A CAMERA, and God knows what else;

THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY: Mark Cousins' engrossing and uniquely encompassing 15-episode survey of world cinema from its beginnings through the 21st century; and, last but anything but least...

more than 500 episodes of DARK SHADOWS, which I began viewing with Episode 210 on Netflix last January. I'm now well into the 700s with my coffin-shaped Complete Series box set.

Another reason I'm choosing not to continue diarizing my movie viewing: As this project went on, and as I sometimes fell behind in keeping it contemporary with my viewing, its responsibility sometimes prevented me from adding more to the pile by watching another movie. It probably encouraged me to read more than I've done in awhile, as did the acquisition of my Kindle, but who wants to feel discouraged from watching movies because you have to write about them? There is something to be said for the discipline, for keeping one's reviewing muscle taut, but I much prefer writing about movies because I want to.

Anyway, as my productivity here shows, it was helpful and healthful to me to break away from Video WatchBlog to some extent and create something new.  I intend to keep the Pause. Rewind. Obsess. title and will likely apply it to something else, something new.

Happy New Year! 

Monday, December 31, 2012

224. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)


The title of Quentin Tarantino's latest film is only the first in a series of epic teases and perversely rewarding  disappointments of expectation. It is not his twist on the Italian Western, though it makes use of music written for some of them (Luis Bacalov, Riz Ortolani and of course, Ennio Morricone); it's more specifically an American Southern, his twist on American Antebellum melodrama from Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION to Richard Fleischer's MANDINGO, with some nods to Fred Williamson's rise from slave to outlaw to folk hero in the Nigger Charley films. With Tarantino doing it, one is prepared for him to venture beyond what has been done before in this area, but DJANGO UNCHAINED is not as offensively racist, not as bluntly violent nor as frankly erotic as MANDINGO, though it is sometimes as cartoonish and hyperbolic as Tex Avery's "Uncle Tom's Cabaña." It's not even about the shackled slave Django (Jamie Foxx) being unchained, which happens in the very scene that introduces him; if anything, it's a sweet, if blood-soaked rumination on how love is like a ball and chain. Everything that happens here, happens so a man can dance his horse in front of the girl he calls his "little trouble-maker."

It's also a story about the slaving days in which the black hero's best friend is white, and the white villain's best friend is black. It gives us Klansmen who don't want to wear their hoods. It presents us, early on, with parallels to Fritz Lang's DIE NIEBELUNGEN as Dr. Kurt Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a charmingly garrulous travelling dentist-turned-bounty-hunter of German descent, informs Django (whom he's bought and freed) that the name of the enslaved wife he longs to recover, Broomhilda, is a corruption of Brunhilda, the heroine of a great German legend. Django comes closer and wants the story told to him. Shultz relates it in reasonable detail, but the story that follows doesn't offer any parallels. If you're like me, and overthinking the coincidence already, you might tell yourself that Wagner told the story in his famous "Ring Cycle" and that Sergio Leone is remembered for depicting his showdowns in circular arenas, but no, sorry, it doesn't go there. She's just named Broomhilda -- Broomhilda Von Shaft, no less, perhaps the great-great-grandmother of Gordon Parks' John Shaft.

The wily Shultz educates Django in the business of bounty hunting, gregariously taking him on as a partner in a business notorious for its murderously greedy loners, which is hilarious if you think about it. They raise a fortune together over a long Corbuccian winter in the mountains, and then he determines the whereabouts of Broomhilda and figures out that she can probably be bought from her master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio), for a stipend if they divert their real interest in her by pursuing the purchase of one of his Mandingo fighters for a more irresistible sum, like $12,000. Why not simply offer Candie the twelve grand for Broomhilda, especially since that amount looks like only half the bills Shultz is carrying in his wallet when it's finally paid out? Well, then the movie would have been much shorter, and Tarantino is all about taking it slow, pausing to smell the flowers, taking the scenic route. As you'll see when Django and Broomhilda are finally united, the whole film amounts to a elaborate, strutting dance of seduction. It may take the long way around a fairly small point on the compass, but it could be the fastest three hours you will ever spend in a movie theater.


Viewed in a theater.   

223. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

I've now seen this Quentin Tarantino picture three times and, though it unfolds at a far more leisurely pace than his earlier work, it is such rich earth and it continues to give rise to new ideas and insights each time I see it. All of Tarantino's work flaunts its verbosity, its mastery of language, like a fan of bright plumage; it validates him as a writer the way way his knowledge of film trivia confirms him as a lover of cinema; but this is a film about language and how a division of languages can inspire secrecy, deceit, conspiracy and evil. Its use of language also makes this Tarantino's most audacious movie -- for the first seven minutes, and throughout most of its action sequences, it is indistinguishable from a foreign-language film to American audiences. The heroine Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) doesn't speak a word of English, yet this became his greatest American commercial success. Making its success all the more remarkable is that it's not really about what it seems to be about: a plot to kill Hitler during World War II. We attend the story suspecting that, because of what we know about history, the heroine's plot will fail... but when it doesn't, when we see Hitler machine-gunned to death before our eyes, we realize that this is a movie about movies, about the singular ability of movies to bring us catharsis and closure; in the same stroke, it's also about the free-handed way in which movies have traditionally treated history, and -- on a deeper level -- it's about history itself and the impossibility of rendering an accurate history with so barbed and biased a tool as language. The title of the film is grossly misspelled, and the leader of the Basterds themselves -- Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine (his very name a kind of misheard form of Aldo Ray) -- is a mumbly-mouthed mountain man from Tennessee who is out there fighting the sauerkraut-sandwich-eaters, defending a native tongue he himself has never learned to wield properly, certainly not with the elan of SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), yet it's so much a part of him, he becomes completely transparent when he attempts to disguise himself as anything but an American.

Anyone who has seen this film will tell you that Christoph Waltz steals it -- in three languages, no less -- and he steals it almost right away and never once relaxes the iron grip of his charm. That said, the role was obviously written for this to happen and it is the only way it could have worked. What is doubly remarkable is that his character manages to more than hold his own amidst a veritable panorama of unforgettable characters and portrayals -- broadly sketched (Eli Roth as the Bear Jew), brazenly named (Mike Myers as "General Ed Fenech"), believably caricatured (Diane Kruger as German actress and double agent Bridget van Hammersmark), and deeply humanistic (Dénis Ménochet as the opening scene's soulful-eyed farmer, Perrier LaPedite), just to name a few. As with other Tarantino films, the film sets itself up as an adventure it has no intention of delivering; the climax is not really the strategic victory of the Basterds, but of Shosanna Dreyfus, and the deliberate disappointment of the set-up reminds me of "Mr. Agility" in the Andrea Bianchi-directed/Jess Franco-scripted WWII adventure ANGEL OF DEATH, who is hilariously wounded before he is able to perform a single stunt! Mélanie Laurent must go on record as one of the most hostile, unlikeable heroines on record -- again, the strict opposite of our silver-tongued villain -- but we never part company with her agenda, which is no less horrific than the Nazi agenda but affords us a spectacle of gratification denied us by history.  

The climactic sequence that turns Shosanna's into a velvet-curtained Aushwitz for the Nazi elite is the most operatic, imperiously chilling image in Tarantino's work, and its bloodline can be traced back to the movie theater shelter against the pending Cuban Missile Crisis holocaust in Joe Dante's MATINEE and the locked Berlin cinema mayhem of Lamberto Bava's DEMONS. Some reviewers have remarked that the film's closing line ("I think this just might be my masterpiece") is a little too self-satisfied or self-conscious, but as time passes, it's acquiring the ring of a fairly sober assessment.

You can see me discussing this film at greater length (and Quentin's other films, as well) with a group of colleagues (Elvis Mitchell, Stephanie Zacharek, Scott Foundas and Andy Klein) on the "Critic's Corner" disc in the newly released box set TARANTINO XX.   


Viewed on Weinstein Company Blu-ray.       

    

222. HELP! (1965)

For decades now, the accepted wisdom has been that A HARD DAY'S NIGHT is the great Beatles film, while the second one, HELP!, shoehorns them into a silly plot in ways not nearly so innovative. I have long sought to redirect this unfounded opinion. While it's true that, in 1964, no one had seen a youth culture film quite so energizing or liberating as A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, it was not without plot contrivances of its own -- Paul's "very clean" grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), for starters -- and it was given a black-and-white newsreel look that, combined with a set of songs written hastily and sometimes on demand, does not present the group at their best unless you consider their Beatlemania years their best. HELP!, on the other hand, opens by cocking a flagrant snoot at its predecessor, as black-and-white performance footage is suddenly interrupted by the color assault of flung darts.

It's a showcase for the ravishing color cinematography of David Watkin (THE DEVILS, OUT OF AFRICA), working in color-coded concert with art director Ray Simm and wardrobe designer Julie Harris, which more fully captures the spirit of the era -- not just the Beatles, but Carnaby Street and James Bond. The newsreel realism of HARD DAY'S NIGHT is also replaced with a more freewheeling surrealism, where the Beatles all live together in a common room behind a false row house façade, where pianos suddenly appear in the snow or rise up out of floors with JIMMY OLSEN comics where the sheet music should be, where recording studios are set up out of doors near ongoing military maneuvers, where spies in pink fire guns of matching pink, and where Paul McCartney can be shrunk to an inch-tall by a parfait-like drug in a lurid hypodermic, wielded by a scientist (Victor Spinetti) who hopes to -- dare I say it? -- rule the world. It's true and well-documented that the Beatles were much enjoying their pot by this time and their self-indulgence made the production harder to control, but their performances certainly don't suffer and the songs they bring forth are noticeably more mature and innovative than the previous batch. Much like The Monkees' HEAD (a film it particulary influenced, being about a rock group's escalating paranoia with success and recognition), HELP! is also one of the most deliciously quotable comedies of the 1960s. My favorite: "I thought she was a sandwich till she went spare on me hand." Director Richard Lester (approaching peak power here) credited screenwriter Charles Wood (working with Marc Behm, who provided the silly story about Ringo getting a sacrificial ring stuck on his finger) with the witty dialogue and kept him in harness on HOW I WON THE WAR, THE BED-SITTING ROOM and CUBA.

Two strange facts: 1) A HARD DAY'S NIGHT never verbally refers to the group as The Beatles; the group name doesn't appear onscreen until their climactic performance. And 2) in HELP!, the four stars of the film were not only identified as The Beatles throughout, but billed solely as such. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were so famous, it didn't matter that they weren't given individual screen credit for their acting.

Viewed on MPI Home Video DVD. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

221. HEAD (1968)

This was another re-viewing; my full-length review of Bob Rafelson's kaleidoscopic Monkees film -- in which I teased out some of its parallels to Roger Corman's THE TRIP, also scripted by Jack Nicholson -- can be found in VIDEO WATCHDOG #163. Watching it again, I realized that the Maharishi played by Abraham Sofaer is supposed to be Marshall (Maharashall?) McLuhan.

Viewed on Criterion Blu-ray, which has a spectacularly crisp image and one of the best 5.1 remixes I've ever heard. Now it's the only way I'll watch it.