Thursday, July 7, 2011

The View From Home‭ ‬28:‭ ‬New releases and notable screenings,‭ ‬July‭ ‬12-31

By John Thomason

For years,‭ ‬I assumed I would simply never have the opportunity to see‭ ‬Skidoo,‭ ‬Otto Preminger’s critically and commercially maligned acid trip from‭ ‬1968.‭ ‬The film was never even released on VHS and was therefore reduced to a distribution cycle as small as its perceived audience‭; ‬you could see it at the occasional‭ ‬35mm revival in New York or Los Angeles,‭ ‬or on a once-in-a-blue-moon screening on TCM.‭

In other words,‭ ‬Skidoo is a film whose reputation as an exasperatingly dated grasp at the counterculture youth market has,‭ ‬for almost every cinephile,‭ ‬preceded it in an awfully negative context.

Leave it to Olive Films,‭ ‬today’s top purveyor of marginal‭ ‘‬70s movies,‭ ‬to finally grant the movie a DVD release‭ (‬July‭ ‬19,‭ ‬$22.49‭)‬.‭ ‬A self-parodic Jackie Gleason stars as‭ “‬Tough‭” ‬Tony Banks,‭ ‬a retired gangster unmoored in‭ ‘‬60s suburbia,‭ ‬chained to a‭ ‘‬50s wife named Flo‭ (‬Carol Channing‭) ‬and daughter Darlene‭ (‬Alexandra Hay‭)‬,‭ ‬who’s joined a throng of hippies wearing body paint and traveling in psychedelic buses‭ (‬cue the copious sitar music‭)‬.‭

Tony is soon visited by a couple of his old mob ties,‭ ‬who force him out of retirement on the orders of their boss,‭ ‬a lecherous don named God‭ (‬Groucho Marx,‭ ‬in his final screen appearance‭)‬.‭ ‬He is to be sent to prison,‭ ‬where he is assigned to whack a stoolie named Blue Chips‭ (‬Mickey Rooney‭)‬,‭ ‬who runs a stock-market racket in luxurious solitary confinement.

While in prison,‭ ‬Tony accidentally imbibes some LSD from his draft-dodging cellmate,‭ ‬and hallucinatory insanity ensues.‭ ‬Outside the hoosegow,‭ ‬Darlene and Flo do whatever they can to track down the missing Tony,‭ ‬even if it means sleeping with the enemy.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬and did I mention the film is sort of a musical‭? ‬Harry Nilsson,‭ ‬who cameos as a prison guard,‭ ‬wrote the film’s catchy,‭ ‬of-the-moment songs‭ (‬one tune about food is probably a metaphor for socialism‭)‬,‭ ‬often set to ludicrous song-and-dance numbers that must be seen to be believed.

After watching‭ ‬Skidoo in Olive’s crisp Cinemascope transfer,‭ ‬I found that the initial response makes some sense:‭ ‬It’s obvious Preminger was giving us an instant period piece,‭ ‬destined to feel like yesterday’s film the moment it was unceremoniously ousted from cinemas.‭ ‬Its scenes of LSD consumption shot through the filter of classic slapstick comedy epitomize exactly what‭ ‬Skidoo was,‭ ‬in the eyes of its critics:‭ ‬A prospective youth movie shot by,‭ ‬and starring,‭ ‬a bunch of unhip old guys who never took drugs.‭

Though an uncredited Rob Reiner was brought in to authenticate the dialogue in the hippie scenes,‭ ‬the characters come off not as real flower children but as every right-winger’s mental image of the perpetually stoned,‭ ‬politically juvenile counterculture.

But to completely dismiss‭ ‬Skidoo would be an injustice to a thoroughly,‭ ‬if uniquely enjoyable,‭ ‬mess that is rife with visual ingenuity and occasionally potent as a satire on American culture.‭
The opening shot is a classic:‭ ‬Before we see any character,‭ ‬Preminger lingers on a boxy old television,‭ ‬whose channels change every couple of seconds with the impatience of the living room’s ADD-addled viewers.‭ ‬One minute,‭ ‬it’s a John Wayne picture‭; ‬the next,‭ ‬a Senate hearing‭; ‬the next,‭ ‬a quack doctor peddling a miracle drug.‭ ‬In one commercial,‭ ‬a dog smokes a cigarette with his human owners‭; ‬in another ad,‭ ‬an entire family wields guns as a way to bring them closer.‭ ‬It’s not as consistently brilliant as Bob Rafelson’s‭ ‬Head,‭ ‬but in moments like these,‭ ‬it comes close.

For Preminger,‭ ‬who staked his reputation on classic,‭ ‬prestigious studio films‭ – ‬Laura,‭ ‬Anatomy of Murder,‭ ‬The Man With the Golden Arm‭ –‬ Skidoo is more than the‭ “‬odd film out‭” ‬in his prolific oeuvre.‭ ‬It represents one of several identity-crisis films that confound auteur critics looking for any shred of directorial distinction.‭ ‬Though it has nothing in common with the films that made Preminger a name,‭ ‬it’s not without technical flourishes that reveal a modernist inspiration.‭ ‬An early split screen that divides the image between a black-and-white flashback and a present-day Technicolor conversation,‭ ‬is especially creative,‭ ‬and kudos to Preminger for going whole hog on Gleason’s first acid trip‭ – ‬a fantasia of hallucinogenic light and sound that culminates in the head of a cigar-chomping Groucho spinning atop a screw base.‭

This goes beyond where anybody else had gone or would go‭ – ‬J.‭ ‬Hoberman called‭ ‬Skidoo‭ “‬the most LSD-tolerant movie ever produced in Hollywood‭” – ‬and it deserves another look,‭ ‬if only for its batty commitment to its own uniqueness.

Thanapat Saisaymar and Natthakarn Aphaiwonk
in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.


DVD Watch:‭ ‬July‭ ‬12:‭ ‬The most exciting release of this week is the audacious,‭ ‬experiential‭ ‬Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives‭ (‬Strand,‭ ‬$25.49‭ ‬BD,‭ ‬$18.99‭ ‬DVD‭)‬,‭ ‬the latest from the hard-to-pronounce Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasuthakal.‭ ‬It’s a mystifying ghost story unlike any other.‭ ‬Criterion unveils its Blu-ray release of Mike Leigh’s‭ ‬Naked‭ (‬$27.99‭)‬,‭ ‬boasting many of the same extras of the DVD release but at a surprisingly more discounted price.‭ ‬This corrosive view of a subterranean England in the mid-‭‘‬90s is one of the best British films from that or any decade.‭ ‬Brazil,‭ ‬Terry Gilliam’s prescient satire on the bureaucracy of the future,‭ ‬also gets the Blu-Ray treatment‭ (‬Universal,‭ ‬$18.99‭)‬.‭ ‬Lastly,‭ ‬check out James Wan’s‭ ‬Insidious,‭ ‬one of this year’s best horror flicks and one that’s sure to become a cult classic‭ (‬Film District,‭ ‬$19.99‭ ‬BD,‭ ‬$16.99‭ ‬DVD‭)‬.

July‭ ‬19:‭ ‬This week is all about Criterion’s release of Satyajit Ray’s‭ ‬The Music Room‭ (‬$29.99‭ ‬BD,‭ ‬$21.99‭ ‬DVD‭)‬,‭ ‬for the first time since its VHS release.‭ ‬One of the Indian director’s most acclaimed films,‭ ‬released shortly before his renowned Apu Trilogy,‭ ‬it depicts a wealthy man whose life falls apart as his aristocracy crumbles.‭ ‬This well-stocked disc includes a feature-length documentary about the director,‭ ‬functionally titled‭ ‬Satyajit Ray,‭ ‬and a French‭ ‬1981‭ ‬roundtable discussion with Ray.

July‭ ‬25:‭ ‬For this week,‭ ‬I can recommend Jean-Pierre Melville’s‭ ‬Leon Morin,‭ ‬Priest‭ (‬Criterion,‭ ‬$29.99‭ ‬BD,‭ ‬$21.99‭ ‬DVD‭)‬.‭ ‬Released in‭ ‬1961‭ ‬and portraying an altruistic priest’s attempts to‭ “‬save‭” ‬a wayward woman,‭ ‬it stands alongside a number of shattering art-house films about faith.‭ ‬Keep it on your shelf next to Robert Bresson’s‭ ‬Diary of a Country Priest,‭ ‬Roberto Rossellini’s‭ ‬The Flowers of Saint Francis and the recently issued‭ ‬Of Gods and Men,‭ ‬which Sony released July‭ ‬5.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the‭ ‬29‭ ‬films that MGM released in late June,‭ ‬to online retailers only,‭ ‬as part of its Manufacturing on Demand series.‭ ‬These stripped-down discs,‭ ‬released on DVD-Rs and without special features or fanfare,‭ ‬will remain the only way to see these obscure titles for some time.‭ ‬They include Budd Boetticher’s tough-as-nails crime film‭ ‬The Killer Is Loose‭ (‬$17.99‭)‬,‭ ‬the late-period Michael Curtiz thriller‭ ‬The Man in the Net‭ (‬$19.99‭)‬,‭ ‬Lindsay Anderson’s long-unseen‭ ‬Red,‭ ‬White and Zero‭ (‬$19.98‭)‬,‭ ‬and John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller‭ ‬The Fourth War‭ (‬$19.98‭)‬.

Simon Ward in Young Winston.

TCM Watch:‭ ‬Set your DVRs,‭ ‬because July looks like a great month for Turner Classic Movies rarities at inopportune times,‭ ‬starting at‭ ‬5‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬July‭ ‬12‭ ‬with‭ ‬Young Winston.‭ ‬Directed by Richard Attenborough in‭ ‬1972,‭ ‬the film dramatizes the early life of the British prime minister,‭ ‬culminating in his first election to Parliament.‭ ‬It has not been released on DVD,‭ ‬so this is the only chance to see it widescreen.‭

At‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬July‭ ‬15,‭ ‬I recommend checking out a prescient media satire called‭ ‬Slander,‭ ‬from‭ ‬1956.‭ ‬This one hasn’t been released on any format,‭ ‬and it stars Van Johnson as a children’s TV show host whose career is ruined by a tabloid magazine.

At‭ ‬2‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬July‭ ‬17,‭ ‬the network will screen Alain Resnais‭’ ‬Mon Oncle D’Amerique,‭ ‬a renowned drama about three characters who model their lives off of film stars.‭ ‬It was released on DVD but is out of print.‭ ‬At‭ ‬3:45‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬July‭ ‬19,‭ ‬check out the Delmar Daves Western‭ ‬The Hanging Tree,‭ ‬a Gary Cooper vehicle that has never seen a DVD release.‭

And Amazon has never even‭ ‬heard of‭ ‬The Carey Treatment,‭ ‬Blake Edwards‭’ ‬1972‭ ‬murder mystery with James Coburn,‭ ‬which screens at‭ ‬11:15‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬July‭ ‬26.‭ ‬Finally,‭ ‬at‭ ‬2:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬July‭ ‬31,‭ ‬don’t miss‭ ‬Peppermint Frappe,‭ ‬an unreleased‭ ‬1967‭ ‬drama by the Spanish auteur Carlos Suara‭ (‬Spirit of the Beehive‭)‬.

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