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!