Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The View From Home 18: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

America Lost and Found:‭ ‬The BBS Story‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬14
Standard list price:‭ ‬$88.99

Released just‭ ‬11‭ ‬days before Christmas,‭ ‬Criterion’s‭ ‬America Lost and Found:‭ ‬The BBS Story box set is the holiday season’s ultimate gift to cinephiles.‭ ‬The six films contained in this collection encompass one of American cinema’s most rambunctious,‭ ‬mavericky collectives,‭ ‬which,‭ ‬like the period icons it brought to the screen,‭ ‬burned out in a brazen blaze rather than fade quietly away.

The company in question is BBS Productions,‭ ‬founded at the dawn of‭ ‬1968‭ – ‬still early in counterculture revolution that we now refer to as‭ “‬The Sixties‭” – ‬by producers Bob Rafelson,‭ ‬Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner.‭ ‬Inspired by drugs,‭ ‬radical politics,‭ ‬art-house movies and John Cassavetes,‭ ‬they sought to remake modern American movies in the image of the changing country they inhabited.‭ ‬They took the stories out of the studios and the moralistic messages out of the stories,‭ ‬cultivating the ambivalent antihero as its stock in trade.‭ ‬And they turned a B-movie writer named Jack Nicholson into an unkempt,‭ ‬unhinged reboot of the matinee idol.

BBS‭’ ‬proclivity for a different kind of American cinema began with its most zonked-out feature:‭ ‬Head,‭ ‬a self-aware genre mash-up that began as a movie vehicle for television sensations The Monkees and ended up an absurdist comedy and visceral antiwar commentary complete with exploding vending machines,‭ ‬a cameo by a giant-sized sexual Victor Mature and plenty of sexual‭ ‬double-entendre‭ ‬(the movie’s name draws from the creators‭’ ‬desire to proclaim,‭ ‬on the poster for their next project,‭ “‬From the studio that gave you‭ ‬Head‭…‬”).‭ ‬A drug movie if ever there was one,‭ ‬its G rating remains mystifying.

The BBS team gnawed away at the burgeoning countercultural American psyche for another seven films in a prolific five years,‭ ‬culminating with the great Vietnam documentary‭ ‬Hearts and Minds‭ (‬not included in this set,‭ ‬but available in a prior Criterion release‭)‬.‭ ‬The King of Marvin Gardens,‭ ‬the final film in this collection,‭ ‬is a more fitting death knell for BBS anyway.‭ ‬The communist freedom espoused in‭ ‬Easy Rider,‭ ‬BBS‭’ ‬biggest money-maker,‭ ‬had given way,‭ ‬per the downbeat‭ ‬Marvin Gardens,‭ ‬into a cinema of desperation and constriction,‭ ‬where the failed quest for easy money in the newly developing Atlantic City real estate market made for a sound corollary to the shattered American dreams of a country still mired in its bloodiest conflict.

For the purposes of this article,‭ ‬I’m most interested in the two movies in‭ ‬America Lost and Found that are making their debuts on DVD.‭ ‬It seems almost redundant at this point to wax poetically about‭ ‬Easy Rider and‭ ‬The Last Picture Show‭; ‬it’s the release of‭ ‬Drive,‭ ‬He Said and‭ ‬A Safe Place that make this box set an event worth celebrating.

The first of just three features ever directed by Jack Nicholson,‭ ‬Drive,‭ ‬He Said is the most underappreciated film in the bunch and also its most inevitably dated.‭ ‬Nicholson was attracted to this adaptation of a successful book,‭ ‬published six years prior to the film’s production,‭ ‬so that he could explore his love of basketball.‭ ‬The story is divided between dual protagonists,‭ ‬both of whom are suffering breakdowns of varying degrees:‭ ‬Hector‭ (‬William Tepper‭) ‬is a jaded college basketball star with a hot-headed demeanor whose idyllic affair with a faculty wife‭ (‬Karen Black‭) ‬is beginning to crumble.‭ ‬Meanwhile,‭ ‬his activist roommate Gabriel‭ (‬Michael Margotta‭) ‬is coming apart to a more disturbing extreme,‭ ‬killing not only his television but shelves full of trinkets,‭ ‬his toilet,‭ ‬his personal relationships and gradually his own mind,‭ ‬which is fine so long is it’ll keep him away from the draft.

Gabriel’s series of theatrical stunts grow more and more destructive,‭ ‬culminating in the liberation of campus test animals following an attempted rape of Black’s character.‭ ‬Drive,‭ ‬He Said a difficult film to watch,‭ ‬despite Nicholson’s assured direction‭ (‬in one Kubrickian touch,‭ ‬he transitions from a basketball in midair to a piece of food being thrown across the table,‭ ‬matching the previous shot’s trajectory‭)‬.‭ ‬Part of the reason the movie failed commercially is because it had no interest in offering a romanticized version of the‭ ‘‬60s.‭ ‬There are no free-lovin‭’ ‬hippies in this film‭; ‬the sex,‭ ‬in fact,‭ ‬looks ghastly and unerotic,‭ ‬and Gabriel’s actions are hardly those of the glamorous outsider.‭ ‬If this is the antiestablishment,‭ ‬then the establishment looks pretty appealing.

I was a lot more taken with Henry Jaglom’s‭ ‬A Safe Place‭ (‬1972‭)‬,‭ ‬a non-narrative experimental drama initially released to festival audiences with as many jeers as‭ ‬Drive,‭ ‬He Said.‭ ‬Tuesday Weld stars as a woman alternately known as Susan and Noah,‭ ‬who seems to be living a number of lives simultaneously as she begins a relationship with a square suitor‭ (‬Phil Proctor‭)‬,‭ ‬enjoys the company of a nondescriptly European park magician‭ (‬Orson Welles‭) ‬and rekindles an affair with a possibly psychotic man from her past‭ (‬Jack Nicholson‭)‬.‭ ‬She herself seems to be suffering from a mental disorder,‭ ‬reflected in Jaglom’s immersive,‭ ‬subjective intercutting between past,‭ ‬present and future,‭ ‬all commingling in a seemingly random but highly controlled goulash of imagery.

Open-ended and thought-provoking,‭ ‬A Safe Place is an inventive study of a woman’s insanity,‭ ‬anchored by a disquieting sense of art imitating life:‭ ‬Weld was famously unbalanced as a young woman,‭ ‬suffering from alcoholism,‭ ‬a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt by age‭ ‬12.‭ ‬Strangely,‭ ‬in his commentary on the film,‭ ‬Jaglom today seems that‭ ‬A Safe Place was an attempt to probe what was really going on inside the female mind,‭ ‬a theory that suggests all women are crazy‭ … ‬perhaps this comes from the fact that Jaglom,‭ ‬by his own admission,‭ ‬was at the time only hanging out with wackos like Weld and Karen Black‭!

BBS productions ended as unceremoniously as its characters,‭ ‬but this box set provides an essential reminder of how the drive to be different,‭ ‬especially in an industry running on homogeneity,‭ ‬can help change the language of the very form.‭ ‬In this age of apathy‭ (‬where is our generation’s SDS‭?)‬,‭ ‬we could use another BBS now more than ever.

Devil‭ (‬Universal Home Video‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬21
SLP:‭ ‬$19.49

This nifty and compact supernatural thriller holds up much better than expected,‭ ‬considering the story and production credits were handled by none other than masturbatory,‭ ‬self-parodic showman M.‭ ‬Night Shyamalan.‭ ‬Thankfully,‭ ‬he relinquished his grubby hands from the director’s chair this time,‭ ‬bequeathing that duty to‭ ‬Quarantine filmmaker John Erick Dowdle,‭ ‬who directs this minimalist material well:‭ ‬A group of five people are locked in a jammed elevator in a Philadelphia skyscraper immediately following a suicide from that very edifice.‭ ‬According to a superstitious technician in the building,‭ ‬this series of events means that one of the people in the elevator is,‭ ‬in fact,‭ ‬Satan,‭ ‬and that the other four are sundry degenerates destined to meet an unruly fate.‭ ‬Devil is not without its clichés‭; ‬it’s the kind of cheapo B-picture that used to play in ratty drive-ins.‭ ‬Only here it’s been given a slickly shot reboot and a script that handles the story with a commendable degree of realism in terms of how a jammed-elevator situation might actually be dealt with by local authorities‭ (‬presented in the form of Chris Messina’s recovering-alcoholic cop‭)‬.‭ ‬The film’s most beguiling sequence happens before the story begins:‭ ‬Dowdle opens the film with a series of mesmerizing crane views of an upside-down Philadelphia skyline,‭ ‬a disorienting prologue that suggests something just ain’t right.

Chabrol:‭ ‬Two Classic Thrillers From the Legendary Director‭ (‬First Run Features‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬14
SLP:‭ ‬$18.99

Claude Chabrol was one of two French New Wave masters to die in‭ ‬2010‭ (‬Eric Rohmer was the other‭)‬.‭ ‬Often considered,‭ ‬reductively,‭ ‬as the French Hitchcock,‭ ‬Chabrol specialized in wickedly observant thrillers,‭ ‬creating a legacy of‭ ‬50‭ ‬films in his wake‭ (‬his last and latest,‭ ‬Inspector Bellamy,‭ ‬is still playing in limited release‭)‬.‭ ‬In honor of his passing,‭ ‬First Run recently reissued a couple of his recent films.‭ ‬Not yet as‭ “‬classic‭” ‬as the collection’s subtitle makes them out to be,‭ ‬these two features are perfectly representative of Chabrol’s more recent output.‭ ‬Merci Pour le Chocolat,‭ ‬from‭ ‬2000,‭ ‬is a family saga of secrets and lies,‭ ‬adapted from an American crime novel and featuring a stirring lead performance by Isabelle Huppert as a chocolate company heiress.‭ ‬The Bridesmaid,‭ ‬completed four years later,‭ ‬is even better.‭ ‬A convincing neo-noir about a young man drawn into an attractive psycho girl’s darkest intentions,‭ ‬The Bridesmaid is sexy and disturbing‭ – ‬a much better flick than,‭ ‬say,‭ ‬Fatal Attraction.

The Films of Rita Hayworth‭ (‬Sony‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬21
SLP:‭ ‬$48.99

Rita Hayworth famously said,‭ “‬Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda‭ … ‬and woke up with me.‭” ‬Hayworth is seemingly to be defined forever by her most famous onscreen persona,‭ ‬a vision of sultriness who,‭ ‬more than anyone before or after her,‭ ‬made cigarette smoking look awfully sexy.‭ ‬If she indeed developed as an actress beyond the roles of femmes fatale,‭ ‬sexpots and showgirls,‭ ‬you can’t tell it from Columbia’s new‭ ‬Films of Rita Hayworth box set,‭ ‬but this five-disc collection certainly reminds us why so many,‭ ‬onscreen and off,‭ ‬lusted for her.‭ ‬Of the five movies,‭ ‬only two‭ – ‬Gilda and the splashy Technicolor musical‭ ‬Cover Girl‭ – ‬were previously available on DVD.‭ ‬The other,‭ ‬newly available films are the obscure wartime musical‭ ‬Tonight and Every Night,‭ ‬the W.‭ ‬Somerset Maugham adaptation‭ ‬Miss Sadie Thompson,‭ ‬and Biblical epic‭ ‬Salome.

Salt‭ ‬(Sony Pictures‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬21
SLP:‭ ‬$15.99

If my review of‭ ‬Salt isn’t as detailed as some of my others,‭ ‬it’s because I didn’t take a single note while watching it.‭ ‬For many films,‭ ‬this is a sign of being so immersed in the narrative that to divert one’s eyes in favor of the quotidian minutiae of note-taking would be to disrupt,‭ ‬and even insult,‭ ‬the spectacle unfolding before you.‭ ‬Alas,‭ ‬this is not the case with Salt.‭ ‬This time,‭ ‬my absence of mid-film rumination is representative of a film so vacuously middlebrow in its action-movie conventions that it generates nothing worth scribbling.‭ ‬It’s neither an outstanding action film nor an unwatchable hack job.‭ ‬The film,‭ ‬starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA operative who may or may not be a brainwashed Russian spy sent to infiltrate U.S.‭ ‬intelligence system,‭ ‬is this year’s‭ ‬Taken:‭ ‬a breathless,‭ ‬brainless hour-and-a-half-long adrenaline rush,‭ ‬a shot of superfluously plot-twisty cinematic muscle from a director‭ (‬Phillip Noyce‭) ‬whose best work has been of the small and suspenseful persuasion‭ (‬The Quiet American,‭ ‬Rabbit Proof Fence‭)‬.‭ ‬Roger Ebert’s four-star review of the film this past summer is certainly one of his most curious,‭ ‬to say the least.

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