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.
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 Scoot) and Jenny loses her moorings in the unfamiliar party scene.
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.
Eat Drink Man Woman (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), Ang Lee’s delightful 1994 take on family, food, and love, watches the uneasy relationships of three independent minded sisters to their widowed father (Sihung Lung, from Lee’s previous film The Wedding Banquet), an aging, old-fashioned master chef known as Old Chu who is losing touch with his daughters and slowly losing his sense of taste. The eldest (Kuei-Mei Yang), a teacher, gave up a personal life to take over the maternal responsibilities since the death of their mother, the middle sister (Chien-lien Wu), a fast-rising executive with a modern approach to love and sex, is taking an apartment in the city. And the youngest (Yu-Wen Wang), a student, works part time as a fast food clerk. It’s not a statement of rebellion, merely a reflection of the changing urban culture.
The film is anchored on the ritual of the Sunday dinner, an elaborate meal that Old Chu spends all day preparing. He’s most at home in the kitchen, preparing and cooking and readying for presentation, but like a painter going blind or a musician losing his hearing, he’s an artist losing command of the sense that defines him. He’s less sure of himself presiding over the social ritual of the family dinner, which plays out with strained politeness.
The stories and emotional crises are familiar, the stuff of melodrama and romantic comedies. It’s the perspective Lee gives this portrait of repressed desires and hidden lives played out in the rituals of meals and family gatherings that makes the film so engaging and appealing. Full of warmth and surprises, this deftly told tale of the sensual pleasures in life has a great affection for its characters, but more importantly it has an appreciation for their desires, their individuality, and their decisions. And it’s not a film to watch on an empty stomach: The mouthwatering scenes of food preparation are so tactile you can almost taste the meals. It was a 1995 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film (it is in Mandarin with English subtitles) and the study of social manners and suppressed feelings became Lee’s specialty. His next film was an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.
Kiss Me Stupid (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a perversely cynical sex comedy with a brass heart and a thoroughly modern twist of a happy ending, was so maligned on release it almost sunk Billy Wilder’s career. Dean Martin plays a parody of himself simply named Dino, a boozing, womanizing Vegas singer who is stranded in the town of Climax, Nevada, at the machinations of two amateur songwriters (Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond) who will do anything to sell him their songs, even if means plying him with Walston’s wife. Since he’s pathologically jealous, he picks a fight with his real wife (Felicia Farr) and then hires a local prostitute (Kim Novak) to play house with him for Dino’s benefit. Because what’s more attractive than someone else’s girl?
Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, adapting a European sex farce, revel in the smutty garishness of the whole situation. Walston, a terrific character actor who was a last-minute replacement for Peter Sellers, plays his part big and goofy while Osmond is so enthusiastically opportunistic he’s practically a smiling, overeager sociopath. Novak both plays up and against her bombshell image as Polly the Pistol, a workaday hooker with cheap makeup who works through a headcold that muffles her every line. And Martin is pure cartoon wolf as Dino, sizing up Polly like a piece of meat and practically smacking his lips as she’s dangled in front of him. It was condemned by almost everyone when it came out but it’s weirdly, grotesquely funny, a cartoon of a sex farce with a script full of double-entendres that aren’t subtle but are often quite inventive.
Olive’s release is mastered from a recently restored transfer that is a much improved from its original MGM DVD release. DVD Savant Glenn Erickson has done his research and discovered that this release also presents the slightly longer International cut of the film. The differences are minor, in some cases a matter of seconds clipped to appease American censors, but it makes the Blu-ray debut even more attractive.
Pork Chop Hill (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), Lewis Milestone’s gritty, grim 1959 Korean War drama, adds another anti-war classic to a resume that includes the original All Quiet on the Western Front and the World War II classic A Walk in the Sun. Gregory Peck stars as tough but compassionate commander ordered to take a hill of no military value during the final days of the war. While diplomats and generals argue over peace negotiations (in an appropriately wordless montage under the opening credits), Peck leads a unit of 135 men into the grueling ordeal of charging a well-guarded hill while miscommunication (and at times no communication) cuts them off from reinforcements and regimental command.
Shot against a bleak, battle scarred mountain of white dust honeycombed in black trenches, Milestone presents the devastating battle as a meaningless sacrifice of hundreds of lives spent in a political game of chicken. Peck leads a strong cast of young talents and character actors, many of them just starting their respective careers: Rip Torn, Harry Guardino, Martin Landau, Norman Fell, George Peppard, Gavin MacLeod, Bert Remsen, Harry Dean Stanton, plus veteran stalwarts Woody Strode, James Edwards, and Robert Blake. The films ends with a hollow patriotic voice-over (reportedly added by Peck) but it doesn’t overcome Milestone’s anti-war message or his disgust at the sacrifice of soldier’s lives for a symbolic victory.
A Hole in the Head (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the penultimate feature from Frank Capra, was made after an eight year hiatus from feature filmmaking. Frank Sinatra stars as a widower and hustling entrepreneur in Miami trying to make his fortune while raising a young son. He has a failing hotel, a sexy wild child of a bongo-playing girlfriend (Carolyn Jones) who is half his age, and a stuffy skinflint of a big brother (Edward G. Robinson) who dismisses his ambitions as unrealistic dreams.
It’s familiar territory for Sinatra, who played charming heels and hustlers in such films as Guys and Dolls, Pal Joey, and Some Came Running, but Capra sentimentalizes the character, focusing on his playful relationship with his sharp, adoring son (Eddie Hodges, who starred in the Broadway production of “The Music Man”) and making him a well-meaning dreamer desperate for the big break he’s convinced is coming his way. It features a good cast (Eleanor Parker, Thelma Ritter, and Keenan Wynn co-star) and the hit song “High Hopes,” which won an Oscar, but there’s none of the emotional power or the lively sense of community that defines Capra’s best films. The contradictions of Sinatra’s character are glossed over for happy ending that rings hollow and feels unearned. This is second-rate Capra but a very well-mastered disc with sharp, clear image and bright colors.
American International Pictures, the king of the drive-in circuit, hit on a winning formula when the teamed up pop singer Frankie Avalon and Mickey Mouse Club sweetheart Annette Funicello in the 1963 summer release Beach Party, a celebration of surf, sand, rock and roll music, and, of course, sex (in a chaste, G-rated form).
A genre was born and they returned to the surf the very next summer with Muscle Beach Party (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), which pit the surfers against the bodybuilders. While Frankie and Annette and a gaggle of clean cut kids in swim trunks and bikinis live to surf, dance, and canoodle with the opposite sex, the virtually sexless specimens of muscular perfection take the beach cabana next door and spend the movie lifting weights and flexing their well-defined frames. While these guys are clearly modeling their ideal of body beautiful on Steve Reeves and the Mr. Universe competition, Don Rickles lampoons the bodyscuplting culture as a doughy fitness guru named Jack Fanny (a parody of gym entrepreneur Vic Tanny) who spouts doubletalk lectures in lieu of inspiration speeches. Rock Stevens, who plays towering bodybuilder and reigning “Mr. Galaxy” Flex Martian, is actually Peter Lupus, who went on to star in a handful of Italian muscleman films before becoming the muscle on Mission: Impossible. Beach movie regulars John Ashley, Jody McCrea, and Candy Johnson are joined by guest stars Morey Amsterdam and Buddy Hackett and musical guests Dick Dale and Little Stevie Wonder.
Beach Blanket Bingo (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the fourth entry in the series, adds sky-diving to the spectacle and a couple of subplots that could have been lifted from the sitcoms that director William Asher made between Beach Party movies. Sky dive instructors Deborah Walley (fresh from the second Gidget movie) and John Ashley make each other jealous by going after wholesome sweethearts Frankie and Annette, who just have to try this new high-flying fad after they watch fledgling pop star Sugar Kane (Linda Evans, lip-synching her songs) free fall into their stretch of ocean. Actually it’s all a publicity gimmick cooked up by conniving publicist (Paul Lynde), who engineers headlines with his manufactured news events. While Sugar flirts with the boys on the beach, the group’s lovable hillbilly beach bum Bonehead (Jody McCrea) falls in love with a mermaid (Marta Kristen) and the equally boneheaded cycle bum and pool hall clown Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) falls for Sugar.
Don Rickles is back and he performs his stand-up act, lobbing insults at the teenagers in a scene shoehorned in for no discernable reason (do they think that teen drive-in crowds were into that sort of Rat Pack humor?). There’s even a scene right out of The Perils of Pauline (which is name-checked twice for the audience) involving a sawmill, a girl tied to a log, and a villain (cult actor Timothy Carey in bizarre form) blabbering on in beat lingo while she inches toward the spinning blade. It makes for a film so busy that you wonder if the filmmakers thought that audiences wouldn’t notice there isn’t actually a story holding it all together. In fact, it’s all pretty tired by now, with routine sight gags and slapstick bits that were old when vaudeville was still novel, a forgettable collection of songs, and Buster Keaton gamely doing Harpo Marx duty chasing bikini babes through the film. Even as beach movies go, this one feels cobbled together and rushed to the screen.
Both discs look just fine.
Robert Aldrich doesn’t get screen credit as director of World For Ransom (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)—he’s only listed as producer—but this is his film, a production tossed together with the resources of the TV series China Smith, including star Dan Duryea and cinematographer Joseph Biroc. It was thrown together quickly and shot on 11 days and Aldrich did quite a bit with his limited resources. Duryea, so often a weaselly villain or a sardonic sidekick, gets to be the rumpled hero, an American soldier of fortune in Singapore who falls into film noir private eye mode after a former partner (Patric Knowles) is implicated in an international plot to kidnap a nuclear scientist. Betrayed and disillusioned, he is nonetheless a man with a code and he follows it through. The budget limitations show in claustrophobic interiors and generic location shooting, but Aldrich gives it atmosphere and character and world-weary sensibility.
The disc is mastered from a good-quality transfer of an unrestored print, which shows the damage and weakness of the source material. It’s doubtful you’ll ever see a pristine copy of film, and this is superior to any previous version I’ve seen.
The Woman They Almost Lynched (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a modest republic western from old pro Allan Dwan, is a more interesting film than the cover of this disc debut would suggest. One thing that it does have correct, however, is that the top-billed men in the film (John Lund and Brian Donlevy) are far less important or interesting than the woman. Donlevy plays the notorious bushwhacker Quantrill, leading a gang that includes Jesse James (Ben Cooper) and Cole Younger (Jim Davis), but the focus is on a border town in the Civil War that has elected a woman mayor and proclaimed itself officially neutral, forbidding soldiers of either side from entering. How they enforce it is not explained, but it makes the town a haven for crooks and shady businessmen like Bitterroot Bill Maris (Reed Hadley), who has apparently been thoroughly corrupted by his time running the town saloon. Joan Leslie plays his kid sister Sally, who arrives by stagecoach in hopes of a reunion and ends up watching him gunned down and inheriting his saloon, which she stays in town to run out of desperation. Noir dame Audrey Totter is Quantrill’s bitter common-law wife Kate, a volatile woman who is won over by Sally’s loyalty and courage as the complicated plot of spies, crooks, backroom deals, and a possible attack by Union and Confederate soldiers converging on the town incites a mayor-sanctioned lynch mob with Sally as the target.
I appreciate that Olive usually draws from the original advertising art for their covers. I have to say that this is one of the ugliest disc covers I’ve ever seen and it’s all in the original art from the French poster, a garish painting that looks like it’s the cover of a lurid comic book. I give them credit for embracing the original key art, an act of preservation that reminds us how exploitative movie promotions could be even in 1953.
La Belle Captive (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is the most recent release in the Alain Robbe-Grillet revival on home video, which kicked into gear last year with five releases from Kino Lorber in partnership with Redemption. This 1983 erotic drama with a surreal sensibility, about a hit man who has a passionate night with a mysterious woman who disappears in the morning, was previously available on a non-anamorphic DVD release. This new transfer is a marked improvement. I wonder if the Fifty Shades of Grey crowd will tip to Robbe-Grillet’s strain of arthouse erotica and its mix of bondage, surrealism, and narrative mind games?
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) reunites the director and star of the erotic hit Emmanuelle for an adaptation of the notorious D.H. Lawrence novel. It’s essentially an art-house skin flick with Sylvia Kristel as the frustrated wife of an impotent aristocrat and Nicholas Clay (Excalibur) as the rugged gamekeeper she takes as her lover. Just Jaeckin directs the Cannon Films production.
Wild Orchid (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) reunited 9 ½ Weeks producer / screenwriter Zalman King (now directing as well) and star Mickey Rourke for another hot-blooded erotic drama, this one starring Carré Otis as a young attorney whose passions are inflamed by bad boy Rourke. King drew more controversy than cash with this one, and Olive releases the R-rated theatrical version. Jacqueline Bisset, Assumpta Serna, and Bruce Greenwood co-star.
The Night They Raided Minsky’s (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the third feature by William Friedkin, dramatizes the birth of the striptease by a nice Amish girl (Britt Ekland). Jason Robards, Norman Wisdom, Elliot Gould, and Forrest Tucker co-star with Bert Lahr in a small role (it was his final screen appearance). It went out originally with an M rating under the first ratings system. It’s since been re-rated PG-13 for a couple of brief topless shots.
Plus these releases:
Dangerously Close (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Blood Red (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Track the Man Down (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Weapon (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fugly! (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
How to Murder Your Wife (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Caveman (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Road to Hong Kong (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
1969 (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
There are no supplements on these releases.