Videophiled: ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Psych-Out’

WildAngels
Olive

Before Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”

The empty eulogy becomes an epigraph for a defiant anti-establishment rebellion fallen into decadence and anarchy and Heavenly Blues proceeds to preside over the desecration of a church and the systematic trampling of every boundary of decency that Corman could push past censors in 1966. The Wild Angels became a portrait of emptiness and hostility, a social revolution spiraling into narcissism and self-destruction. The film was released before the ratings system was in effect but later given an R-rating for drug use and the HD master looks very good, especially considering its production history. Corman shot quick and dirty when necessary and a few shots stick out as soft or out-of-focus, quite likely a matter Corman making due and moving on to the next set-up.

PsychOut
Olive

Psych-Out (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) from 1968 belongs to another genre of youth exploitation cinema, one that put hippies and flower-power and counterculture imagery on the screen with a cautionary warning about the dangers of drugs and the hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle. This one, however, came from music mogul Dick Clark, and for all the drug culture stereotypes and free love displays, it’s at least more open to the positive aspects of San Francisco hippie culture than most counterculture portraits. Part of that is surely due to director Richard Rush, who explored counterculture protest movement with greater insight and intelligence in the underrated Getting Straight and direct the Oscar-nominated The Stunt Man, as well as a cast of ambitious youth movie veterans, many of them on the cusp of becoming major stars.

Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg) is a deaf girl who arrives in San Francisco from a straight suburban home in search of her brother (Bruce Dern), an artist who tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Jack Nicholson is Stoney, the callous hippie leader of a jam band who helps her dodge the cops and invites her to stay in his communal home (where there’s always a party going on) and his bed, and Dean Stockwell is band drop-out turned self-styled guru Dave, who lends his connections to her search and his patience to her pain.

This is the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power scene of hippie communes, free love, bad trips (future filmmaker Henry Jaglom sees dead people), and rock happenings, and while it tends to confirm the clichés of the era it’s more critical of the mainstream culture that dismisses and even persecutes the hippies. I’m not really sure why there’s a blue collar gang of tough guys out to get Jenny’s blissed-out, freaked-out brother, who lives in the city dump and is known as “the Seeker”—is there some Jesus allegory that got lost in the rewrites?—but it sure paints the straights as an intolerant, bigoted bunch. And Rush appreciates the energy and the idealism of the culture at its best while acknowledging contradictions in the individuals within. Nicholson’s Stoney can be a groovy guy but he’s also a little self-absorbed and certainly ambitious, trying to get his band out of the one-night-stands and into big venues and a recording contract. There’s something calculating about his embrace of the culture and insincere in his relationship with Jenny, who is more of a curiosity than a commitment. When he’s bored of the novelty his attentions wander to the blond groupie turned band tambourine player (Linda Gaye Scott) and Jenny loses her moorings in the unfamiliar party scene.

Susan Strasberg and Jack Nicholson

The music from Nicholson’s band is shamelessly derivative (their signature tune is reversal of a familiar Hendrix riff) but the film also features The Strawberry Alarm Clock performing their hit “Incense and Peppermint” in front of the liquid lightshow and Sky Saxon (of The Seeds) leading a funky funeral march. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who went on to shoot Easy Rider) brings a vivid, psychedelic look to the film that are nicely preserved on this disc. And watch for future TV producer and film director Garry Marshall as a plainclothes cop searching for Jenny in the first scene, sticking out of the coffeehouse scene like he’s Sgt. Joe Friday at a peace rally. Unfortunately this disc does not include the featurette from the DVD release.

More Blu-ray and DVD releases from Olive at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Twilight Time’s bloody ‘Valentine’

StValentines
Twilight Time

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.

Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.

Corman gets a good cast of venerable characters, among them Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, Richard Bakalyan, Harold J. Stone, Joe Turkel, John Agar, Reed Hadley, Alex Rocco, and Leo Gordon, and adds in a few of his favorites, including Bruce Dern in a sympathetic role as an earnest mechanic just trying to support his family and unbilled appearances by Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson. Corman is adept at creating human moments between the plot points, reminding us of the little guys caught up in the war and the human cost of the violence, while the narration provides the death dates of each character in their respective introductions. Nobody gets out of this life alive. Some just survive it a little longer.

It’s a superb-looking transfer of the CinemaScope production and shows Corman’s talent for repurposing standing sets and stretching resources to make a low-budget look far more expensive. The colors are bright and vibrant and the image is so sharp and detailed that you can just make out the tips of California palm trees behind the Chicago backlot set in one scene. The new interview featurette “Roger Corman Remembers” is brief, barely three minutes, but Corman is always a good interview and he packs in a lot of information (all of it also found in earlier interviews and Corman bios), and the archival Fox Movietone News section includes clips from three newsreel reports on Capone, including a raid on one of his distilleries.

More Twilight Time Blu-rays at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Monte Hellman’s existential west

Shooting Whirlwind
Criterion

The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Director Monte Hellman and actor Jack Nicholson met while making a pair of war films for Roger Corman in the Philippines. Nicholson was interested in all aspects of filmmaking, not just acting, and he and Hellman teamed up to produce a pair of low-budget westerns, one of them written by Nicholson and both of them directed by Hellman and starring Nicholson.

I used to call The Shooting (1967) the most existential western ever made. Seeing it again, I find it more haunting and elemental and savage, an almost abstract odyssey through a harsh, desolate desert landscape that wears its enigma proudly. Warren Oates takes the lead as a former bounty hunter hired to track a man by the mysterious Millie Perkins, who toys with Oates’ childlike partner (Will Hutchins), and Jack Nicholson co-stars as a sadistic, black-clad killer. It was written by Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce), who later earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, which also starred Nicholson. The spare cinematography burns bright and harsh in southwest sunlight that simmers the already edgy relations and Hellman directs the ambiguous script with always surprising flourishes, keeping the audience in the dark about the true nature of the odyssey as the characters talk around the conflicts as they warily eye one another. Nicholson is appropriately vicious in a preening sort of way and Oates is magnetic and commanding as a man driven by some fate beyond his comprehension. The film ends with more questions than answers, but it is never less than compelling.

'The Shooting'
Warren Oates

Ride in the Whirlwind (1967), written by Nicholson, is only slightly more conventional, the story of a couple of cowboys (Cameron Mitchell and Nicholson) who run from a posse that mistakes them for bank robbers. In contrast to the harsh desert and heightened tension of The Shooting, this takes place in wooded hills and advances at a leisurely pace (much of the film is their nervous waiting in a farmhouse) in an easy, naturalistic style that belies the urgency and danger. Mitchell has an unforced authority as the older cowboy and Nicholson is excellent as the jumpy younger partner just trying to wrap his mind around their predicament.

The films, financed by Roger Corman (who had also produced Hellman’s Los Angeles stage production of “Waiting For Godot”), were well received at European film festivals but tossed into legal limbo when its European distributor went bankrupt and ended up being sold directly to American TV. If I’m not mistaken, they’ve never really had an official theatrical release in the U.S., but they were rediscovered in the 1970s, in part thanks to Nicholson’s success, and have screened in festivals, retrospectives, and repertory programs. They have also never had a high quality disc release (the DVD release a decade ago from VCI was respectable if unspectacular) until this Criterion double feature. This is the first time the films have looked this good for decades, either on home video or on film.

Hellman oversaw the new HD digital transfer, mastered in 4k from the original camera negatives, and produced new supplements for the disc. He provides commentary for the two films with film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas and personally interviews producer Roger Corman and stars Millie Perkins and Harry Dean Stanton in new featurettes that play like conversations. Also includes interviews with Gary Kurtz and actor Will Hutchins and a visual essay on Warren Oates by Kim Morgan, plus a fold-out leaflet with an essay.

Videophiled: Mike Nichols’ ‘The Fortune’

Fortune
Twilight Time

The timing wasn’t planned but it is fortuitous. The Fortune (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), a screwball comedy directed by Mike Nichols, debuts on Blu-ray a month after Nichols passed away. The 1975 production is set in the 1920s and stars Warren Beatty as a con man trying to get his hands on the fortune of a madcap heiress (a bubbly Stockard Channing in her first major film role) and Jack Nicholson as his dim-witted stooge who slowly figures out he’s really a partner in crime. Beatty plays it like a second-rate con man’s idea of what a cool customer acts like and Nicholson is a greedy, lazy idiot with a maniacal grin who thinks he’s clever but panics at every disaster, and truly every attempt to knock her off is a disaster.

The film was major flop, quite a surprise given the talent at work here, including screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the psuednym Adrian Joyce, which she also used on The Shooting) and production designer Richard Sylbert, who gives the west coast settings a low-rent, sun-baked handsomeness. Maybe it was the odd sensibility and collision of old Hollywood screwball and contemporary sensibilities; the jazz age was all the rage apparently after the successes of Bonnie and Clyde (with Warren Beatty), Chinatown (with Jack Nicholson) and The Sting. This isn’t really a black comedy, as Channing’s dizzy dame seems all too willing to fall into every scheme and the not-so-wise guyes are too incompetent to pull any of them off, and the timing doesn’t match the screwball situations, though all three are game to play their parts with all the screwy idiosyncrasies and big character flourishes of thirties movie stars and that is a pleasure to see.

The film has never been on DVD in the U.S. and it makes its disc debut on this Blu-ray-only release. It’s a great looking film, with cinematography by John Alonzo who even makes the California hills look like they cam from another era, and the disc preserves the period colors and tone of the film along with the crisp image. It includes Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

America Lost And Found: The BBS Story – Seven Films from the Revolution

America Lost And Found: The BBS Story (Criterion)

It’s no exaggeration to call BBS—named for its partners Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner—a defining creative force in the volatile Hollywood culture that was in the midst of identity crisis between 1968 to 1972, despite producing only seven features (eight if you count financing the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, not included in this set). The partners were Hollywood insiders with aspirations to do something different, and these films, which they produced autonomously for Columbia Pictures (their contract gave them final cut), were just that. They weren’t all hits, but some of those features caught the wave of the youth market and created a model for personal filmmaking with commercial appeal. Most of the films in this collection have been previously released but this Criterion box set pulls them all together and adds its own collection of new and archival interviews and featurettes and commentary tracks along with those supplements carried over from previous releases, and puts them all on Blu-ray.

Heading down the highway

Easy Rider (1969), the only film here previously available on Blu-ray, is the quintessential counterculture blast of the late sixties it became a film of legendary proportions, from the stories of the chaotic production to its reverberations through contemporary culture. Directed by Dennis Hopper from an Oscar nominated script written by Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern (which was extensively re-written during the production), and beautifully shot on location by Laszlo Kovaks on location, the low-budget production became a countercultural shot across the bow of an out-of-touch Hollywood system. From the opening blast of the biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” to the grim disillusion of the climax, it tapped into the pulse of American youth, became a runaway hit and, for better or worse, was the defining film of a generation.

Continue reading “America Lost And Found: The BBS Story – Seven Films from the Revolution”

Head

Head, the Bob Rafelson-directed and Jack Nicholson-scripted film starring The Monkees, arrives in a new special edition Blu-ray set from Criterion, America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, this week. I only just received the set this week so my review will have to wait, but until then I offer this essay written for a screening at Seattle’s Grand Illusion in the late 1990s.

Teri Garr is fond of telling the story of how Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson came to name their Monkees feature: they hoped for a sequel so they could advertise it as “from the people who gave you Head.”

The porpoise is laughing goodbye, goodbye

Rafelson had helped create the Monkees, TV’s veritable pre-fab four, but by the time the feature came around the goofy lads had learned to play their instruments, started writing their own songs, and took themselves seriously enough to take a chance with their image. Legend has it that the script was written one weekend with the Monkees, Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, a tape recorder, and a bag of Acapulco Gold. The result was more than an extension of the TV show, it was a complete reworking of the show’s style and sensibility, and Rafelson took the opportunity to make his feature filmmaking debut.

Continue reading “Head”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on TCM

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest swept the top awards at the 1975 Academy Awards. It plays on TCM this month and I wrote about it for the website.

Jack Nicholson as McMurphy

A rare screen adaptation of a beloved novel that maintains the emotional and dramatic power of the original while establishing its own distinctive approach to the story, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is an underdog masterpiece. “It was a classic story: the story of an individual fighting the system,” is how producer Michael Douglas explained his attraction to Ken Kesey’s novel about a strong-willed rebel fighting a domineering head nurse in a mental hospital. “Particularly in the Sixties, people identified with this individual trying to overpower the system…” Yet it took more than a decade to come to the screen. Kirk Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel before it was even published in 1962. While the book became a bestseller and a counterculture classic of the time, Douglas produced a Broadway adaptation with himself in the lead role of Randle P. McMurphy and spent years trying to get a film version off the ground. Turned down by every Hollywood studio and most of the major American directors, it was finally made independently by a pair of first time producers—actor Michael Douglas (who bought the rights from his father) and jazz record impresario Saul Zaentz—and émigré director Milos Forman. It became a box office smash (eventually earning $200 million on a budget of less than $5 million) and the second picture in Hollywood history to sweep the top five Academy Awards.

Read the complete feature here. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest plays on TCM on Tuesday, May 18, and is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

DVDs for 10/06/09 – High School Shamus, Direct-to-DVD Horror and the original Chinatown

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown gets a new special edition release this week. It’s hard to say if the timing is good or bad, given all the acrimony stirred up by Polanski’s arrest and probable extradition to the U.S. to face sentencing for a crime he confessed to before fleeing the country (over his fear of the rampant judicial misconduct in the case) over 30 years ago. Whatever one feels about Polanski the man (and in this case it is at the very least a disgust and revulsion for a man who raped a 13-year-old girl), it shouldn’t dim the accomplishment of the artist. Simply put, Chinatown is one of the masterpieces of American cinema of the seventies and a classic of American cinema, and Chinatown: Centennial Collection (Paramount) is a duly respectful DVD with intelligent supplements that dig into the creation of the movie and the Los Angeles history that inspired the story. Jack Nicholson strolls through the role of cynical private eye J.J. Gittes with the sneering confidence of a smart cookie in a situation far more complex than he realizes and Faye Dunaway brings an echo of tragedy to potential femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray, a socialite whose private life Gittes splashes across the newspapers. Robert Towne’s labyrinthine yet tight and resonant script, inspired by classic films noir and real Los Angeles history, won the film its only Academy Award (it was nominated for eleven, including Best Picture). Roman Polanski transformed the script into a modern film noir of sleek style, milky color, and sad cynicism, putting the corruption, greed, and moral monstrosity of Los Angeles in the thirties under the crisp light of the California sun. John Huston is brilliant as the maverick robber baron Noah Cross and Polanski gives himself an unforgettable cameo: he’s the weaselly thug who slices Nicholson’s nose.

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

“So the first thing I was struck by was how much I liked how sinister the logo treatment is in black and white,” says filmmaker and unabashed fan David Fincher to screenwriter Robert Towne, jumping right into the newly-recorded commentary without even a preamble. It’s a conversation between professionals rather than a lecture and Fincher plays the impassioned fan making astute observations and asking provocative questions of Towne. It sometimes goes silent for what seems like minutes, but all in all it is thoughtful, considered and introspective and Towne seems to get more modest with age. The two-disc set also includes the original three-part, 80-minute documentary “Water and Power,” which explores the real-life history and politics of the irrigation of California at the center of the film, and the new 26-minute featurette “Chinatown: An Appreciation,” with contemporary filmmaker and film artists discussing the film. Carried over from the previous DVD edition is a collection of three retrospective featurettes with interviews with director Roman Polanski, star Jack Nicholson, screenwriter Robert Towne, and producer Robert Evans. It’s a fine edition, but my question is: when will Paramount give it the Blu-ray treatment?

Continue reading “DVDs for 10/06/09 – High School Shamus, Direct-to-DVD Horror and the original Chinatown”

‘Carnal Knowledge’ on TCM

As dispiriting a portrait of masculinity and male sexuality as I’ve ever seen, Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge, starring Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel as college buddies who spend the next twenty years fumbling through failed relationships and directed from a script by Jules Feiffer, made a lot of waves in 1971. But only received a single Oscar nomination, for Ann-Margret’s career-redefining role as a ferociously sexual single woman whose independence gives way to passivity and emotional neediness. I wrote about the film and its production for Turner Classic Movies.

Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret
Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret

Jack Nicholson had yet to break as a major American star – his most notable role to date was in Easy Rider (1969) and his breakthrough film, Five Easy Pieces (1970), was not yet released – when Nichols cast him as Jonathan. Writer Jules Feiffer, who was often on set, was dubious that Nicholson was right for the role of a ferociously womanizing Jew from the Bronx but was won over by his intensity and attention. “I remember watching the shacking-up scene,” recalled Feiffer. “I couldn’t believe Jack’s directness and simplicity and intelligence. He got everything.” Nicholson, a director in his own right (he was busy editing his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, on weekends), was reportedly very attentive to the other actors and remained the on set to feed lines off-camera.

This was Art Garfunkel’s second film as an actor (he had made his acting debut in Nichols’ Catch-22, 1970) and his first as a lead. He’s dominated by powerhouse Nicholson but it works for their onscreen dynamic: Sandy seems forever to be explaining and justifying himself to Jonathan, who from the beginning acts the role of the wiser, more experienced one. Ann-Margret, still best known as an entertainer, was desperate to break out of her image as a sex-kitten and made the most of this challenging and complex adult role. “I’m not a technical actress,” she writes in My Story. “I can’t turn it on and off. I’m all raw emotion and nerves. I literally become the person I’m playing.” The transformation took its toll. “I spent hours at night pacing the bathroom, depressed, teetering on the brink of a breakdown, and hoping I made it through the movie.” She earned rave reviews, an Oscar nomination and recognition as a serious actress, but at a personal cost: “Carnal Knowledge left me in a depressive stupor fueled by pills and alcohol.”

The film plays on TCM on Thursday, February 5. Read the complete article on the TCM website here.

Love and Bullets: ‘Prizzi’s Honor’

prizzis_honor_poster.jpgKathleen Turner shoots cool and true in Prizzi’s Honor.

The movies are full of girls with guns: sexy slingers who can strike a pose with a firearm in hand and blow away the bad guys with all the lethal intent of a sex kitten vogueing for a pinup. Kathleen Turner’s Irene Walker, the “talent from out of town” in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, is anything but a kitten. She’s a jungle cat who prowls the underbelly of society. A cool and cagey pro, Irene wields a gun like a precision tool and never leaves an assignment unfinished.

A blackly comic and insidiously sly love story in the unforgiving underworld of mob families and freelance criminals, Prizzi’s Honor plays like The Godfather stripped of its Shakespearean dimensions of underworld royalty and tragedy. Adapted by Richard Condon from his own novel and directed by John Huston with a bemused cynicism and clear-eyed acknowledgment of human nature in matters of greed, love and loyalty, it stars Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, devoted hit man to Brooklyn’s Prizzi crime family and adopted grandson of the wizened old Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey, in a career-defining performance).

Nicholson may look a bit dopey, with his pursed lips and brows permanently furrowed in puzzled intent, but he’s a sharp cookie when it comes to handling the family business. It’s only women who confuse him.

Irene is a hothouse flower Charley finds blooming in a garden-variety greenhouse. He falls head over heels for this poised, confident beauty long before he finds out she’s in the same business.

Turner, who reincarnated the classic film noir femme fatale in a sleek, modern edition of “Body Heat,” couldn’t have been better cast as Irene, a woman just as fatale but far more earthy and, in a strange way, authentic. She may be a hustler at heart, but her lies are just what Charley wants to hear. Irene’s love may be the only genuine thing about her — apart from her skill as a freelance assassin, that is.

When we finally watch Irene in action, she’s a model of cool homicidal efficiency: no wasted motion, no hesitation, no regrets, at least not until the unforgiving rules of blood and honor demand a hard sacrifice. When you’re in the human disposal business, you always hurt the one you love.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.