Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Born Losers (1967)

One of my favourite biker movies of all times is a typical product of the golden period that opened right after Roger Corman kicked the door out with "The Wild Angels" provoking a maniacal craze of wacky B-flicks featuring rebellious, leather-clad, chopper riding brutes in every titillating scenario known to a man. Although from today's perspective biker genre was a rather mixed bag with only few off-beat productions entertaining enough to become classics and a lot of crap I wouldn't even use in a private, toilet screening, it gave a lot of water to 70's gangsploitation, passed primitivist, scruffy esethetics to post-apocalyptic movies like "Mad Max" and last but not least became a direct inspiration for "Easy Rider" (the ultimate biker movie in a way).

"The Born Losers" was supposed to be a genuine Billy Jack workout initially, but as Tom Laughlin coudn't find financing for his first draft, he decided to take AIP alley and amp it up with a bunch of nasty biker characters. As Samuel Zarkoff and Jim Nicholson were rolling high at that time, flush with cash from Corman's international success of "The Wild Angels", they wanted to see some more golden eggs – biker movie was the word of the day! The same year "Rebel Rousers" with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern was made (icky shit released in 1970!) and also "Devil's Angels", both for AIP. There would be at least 20 or 30 other takes on the genre, produced till the end of the 60's by all independent American film companies. Most of them as dull as it gets with joke of a script, cheapish backdrop and waiters-to-actors cast over night. However, even these dumb chunks of schlock get hugged by a bunch of biker movie aficionados.

While later films with Billy Jack are better remebered for their saucy, martial arts action, "The Born Losers" carries a real story or even two stories, roughly mingled together as it's hard to figure out which one is the main plot. Half-indian, ex green beret and survival specialist, Billy Jack just came back from Vietnam and he treks through the wilderness eating raw fish, but soon he'll have to hit L.A. to wire some dear cash... in the end he's forced to sell his jeep for a cup of piss, but that's the way it is, man! Unfortunately enough Born To Lose MC are rumbling through the hood ("getting their kicks from torture and violence" again) and they accidentally cross their dicks with Billy Jack, who takes the fuckers, but is fined by the court afterwards for using the rifle to shoot one of the brutes. Hence the message is coined: "Doing good will get you nothing, but trouble".

But the bikers will have a new challenge soon when they pull a biker girl in white bikini off two-lane blacktop by fixing the road sign and trapping her in dead end (some slapstick humour here). As they find out, she's a proper child of the social revolution and seeing a brutal rape going down any minute, she chooses to be nice and enter their pad for the official initiation. When a proposition of making it out on acid and speed cannot be met as boys are tapped out, she flees knocking out one of the bikers first. They will go after, catch and pork her, as well as three other city girls the same day. From that point it's clear, that these bikers do not obey, they piss gasoline & shit nails in your face, hijack police cars and also terrorize victims when a case is filed against them in court. They are bad motherfuckers with guns, rifles and nazi helmets flashing with lastest, fashionable outfits like black turtlenecks, native ponchos, denim cuts and badges glorifying happy life on drugs.

Stoners, dropouts, drunks and scumbags is how bikers are drawn here and their prez is played by Jeremy Slate. They have everybody by the pubes and only Billy Jack is not gonna shit his pants – that's basically the main line. The rest is a usual mixture of AIP's exploitative salt & pepper. Some social references to late 60's psychedelic culture, ridiculous, over the top acting, eclectic style of directing, which blends para-documentary realism with 300 cuts in one day Corman's quickie, mild nudity (always edited in with violence scenes) and proto-punk (or post-beatnik?) costumes. Honestly, this is a long and "elaborate" film, which calls for a good bong. Genre fans will have definitely plenty of fun checking out Born To Lose MC vs. Billy Jack and The Girl In White Bikini plot. I'm not sure if it's laid-back vibe or its salacious, roguish musings – kind of exploitation surrealism – but every new twist helps you pull through it till the end. Davie Allan & The Arrows biker sound themes are nice touch as well. You're not gonna go further up from here in the genre, at least not very often.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Getting Straight (1970)

Without any hesitation my favourite film by Richard Rush, preferred even to highly acclaimed "The Stuntman", shot ten years later. Scored after hippiesploitation classic "Psych-Out" it gets a grip on the 60's counterculture in transition... when days of love & protest suddenly exploded in wild rage and resistance never witnessed before. Stepping down the duct of intoxicating, artistic power – freshly reclaimed by New Hollywood brats like Dennis Hopper, Bert Rafelson, Mike Nichols or Peter Bogdanovich – Richard Rush finally broke away from exploitation flicks and reached to his rebellious homeground, coming up with a modern tale of love and identity crisis in a cracking American society. Apart of a vivid story "Getting Straight" is also significant for Rush joining his forces with great Laszlo Kovacs for the last time – this duo could have pulled it off like no one else in my opinion – making you raise your eyebrows when all that well-balanced, technical mastery starts popping out.

But it would have never been such a great picture if not Elliott Gould with his vibrant, absolutely brilliant performance as Harry Bailey – impoverished, ex left wing activist, who wants to drop back into straight society (that's where the title comes from) by finishing his M.D. and starting new life as a school teacher. But as Harry is to gather soon: in this life it's not what you do decides about your destiny, but who you really are. He might not want to live a life of political radical anymore, but his past can be hardly shaken off in the midst of student riots on the campus, which get more nasty and brutal every day. On the top of that his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) has just had enough of his intellectual, arrogant temper and starts a fling with a rich gynecologist... to decide if her middle class dreams are still there to be followed.

As Harry's final oral exam is closing in with all the odds staked against him, he slowly begins to lose his new conviction in shitstorm around. Although an excellent student for few university good ole' boys, he seems a danger for many other professors, who demand to keep rabid revolutionaries at bay. In the same time young activists cannot get over him going full front square, expecially his dropout friend Nick, who never seems off LSD or hash brownies. Hanging now between two worlds, Harry needs to choose what values he wants to stay committed to. But sometimes the most important decisions are taken as if we weren't in driver's seat at all. Zonked out or straight, you need to move forward sooner or later. But as our main character discovers in the end, we're all entangled pretty deeply in a web of emotional and spiritual relations, which determine our steps.

With countercultural vibe a la "Easy Rider" or "The Graduate", dashing photography by Kovacs and spirited script by Bob Kaufman (based on a contemporary novel by Ken Kolb), Elliott Gould shows his horns in a classic, theatrical manner, rarely seen in American cinema. His acting energy waves high as he utters charged, badass bits on the screen involved in verbal duels with either his girlfriend or stodgy professors. Although not without a certain comedy edge, the movie is more of an artistic commentary on the late 60's with a hearty layer of anti-establishment musings and rather intellectual, slow-pacing action. It's not one of those later silly comedies screwing around with cliches of hippie naivete to pass revolutionary stance as a drug fueled fad, which in the end turns economy into making more money on alternative lifestyle and products... it stays true to it's time and it watches today as good as it did 42 years ago.

Constructed around two weeks of real time, narration of Rush's film might seem truly obsessed with details and monologues, but it sneaks away from a trap of barely scratching a surface of the topic on the other hand. "Getting Straight" should be treated as an obligatory viewing for auteur cinema aficionados and also a precious jewel for those having a soft spot for counterculture related works. I'd say it's main value lays in smart perspective of 60's revolution as that one of profound social, cultural and individual change with interesting take on the evolution of main character and looking down on both sides of the baricade... as a curiosity Harrison Ford plays here an episodic role. Followers of Richard Rush's film career should definitely give it a go as well. They won't be disappointed, I promise.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke (1978)

Wherever you are in terms of weed smoking, this cult flick was a huge box office blast in 1978, which seems like ages ago now. Can you imagine it done nowadays? No way! Defnitely could have only happened in the 70's as at the time it was as close to legalizing weed in USA as it gets. In fact Jimmy Carter won the ticket to the White House two years before officially backing it up and even Hunter S. Thompson swallowed the bug. It's a real pity it never happened as Carter's aide was busted with a big load of snowflake and his progressive, liberal agenda was promptly flushed in the toilet when media caught wind of the scandal. In a way late 70's – although driven by everlasting, cocaine high – were the highest mark of countercultural dreams gone big – if we measure them purely in media and entertainment pitch. Cheech Martin & Tommy Chong could have never found a better time to pop up with their homegrown comedy style.

For many people "Up In Smoke" is the best one in whole Cheech & Chong's series and although it worked for me I have to say I personally found "Nice Dreams" to be much more of an inventive oddball, just dripping with this peculiar, stoner aura. Still, we cannot really go through Cheech & Chong's astonishing film career without bumping on their first, groundbreaking picture. It's cool, it's hilarious and it's definitely baked! How many times it's been ripped off afterwards it's hard to count and that includes recent lame, stoner shit. What makes "Up In Smoke" a wild card and prevents it from aging though is a genuine vocation behind it... this feel of auteur's loco so much buried in the 80's by the big studios cashing on countless clones of "Star Wars", "Jaws" and "The Exorcist". Even if decade under influence was almost over by the time Cheech & Chong caught up, few great movies have been made even as late as 1980-1981.

A plot of "Up In Smoke" is obviously as loose as high mind can be. Two amateur musicians meet casually somewhere around Los Angeles – one just crawled up from a ditch by the beach actually – and they immediately hit it by sharing a gigantic joint (packed partly with Mauie Wowie and partly with labradorian shit). Shortly they get so stoned that driving is impossible anymore and while cult line "I think we're parked, man" comes off of a screen we surely know this bender's gonna last and it does! But the adventures of two dropouts – Pedro de Pacas and Anthony, are not really addressed to any straight viewers, so beware! However, if you've reached for your dear bong or just finished a phat one, they'll leave you spaced out in no time. Among many silly scenes you'll witness a weird music rehearsal and you'll meet wasted Vietnam veteran, who unfortunately flips out while guys want to score some dope from him. You're also gonna drown in some very bizarre ideas like crossing USA-Mexico border in a car made out of liquid marijuana.

In the end you'll have to face a struggle between our anti-heroes and local police forces led by unforgettable sergeant Sedenko, always alert to bust the hipsters as key personalities of a drug-dealing network... and you'll see their gig on young talents night at The Roxy, including obscure californian New Wave and punk rock acts. A cool cat Chicano-black-street speak adds to the flavour making it one of the least pretentious picture of all times and while it contains some lightweight, countercultural agenda it should be watched mainly for these mythical 10 lbs of hysterical giggle. If you have the right attitude and give it a first try, it will definitely blow your mind with it's off-beat pacing and revised version of Marx Brothers humour. You need to know, that only few 60's/70's movies have gained such a cult following with time and while comedies among them are scarce, this is the top. A fantastic trip in glorious past of a truly entertaining cinema, which will grab every serious toker "by the boo boo".

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Cockfighter (1974)

One of the most uncommon New World Pictures projects was exclusively Roger Corman's idea, adapted from a rather obscure novel by Charles Willeford. And though it was meant to be someting of an artistic provocation – I reckon, a replay of "The Intruder" – it became an instant disaster and flopped miserably. "Cockfighter" has been given to Monte Hellman, one of the oldest Corman's pupils, who came back around after directing "Two-Lane Blacktop" for Universal (till this day his most famous film), which never scored bigtime against it's powerful vision and raving press reviews. Nestor Almendros was hired as a cinematographer for the picture (later Academy Award winner for Days Of Heaven in 1978) and was paid to fly from Paris to USA – it was his first American movie. The only problem was Monte Hellman, who he felt like passing on this project when he saw a scouted dirt pit in Georgia with smashed Southerners around, betting heavily on blood-thirsty cocks.

"Cockfighter" has irrevocably retained this split. A strange picture, expressed in quick cuts, bloody close-ups and out of blue voice-over – it didn't manage to develop characters' potential either. Although definitely an artist's alley, it got dominated by second unit shots of Lewis Teague in an editing stage – film's editor, who volunteered to fill it with rough, shocking footage, demanded by Corman. Unfortunately this move cut it's legs totally, boiling it down to a vague half-way runner between typical New World exploitation product and a possible, multi-layered tale of love and passion in a violent world, which as we might only presume was something closer to Hellman's spirit. Inside screening uncovered a sheer brutality of the rough cut and it must've been really repulsive one as even Corman turned away from releasing it with so much chicken blood and guts flying around. As an effect the final cut was something of a compromise between Corman's salesman drill and director's artistic vision, but it satisfied nobody

"Cockfighter" is a story of Frank Mansfield acted by Warren Oates. Although he's a top cockfighting coach, he loses opportunity to win MVP of the year award when shooting his mouth off and getting his favourite rooster slaughtered in a hotel room before the big day... his love for whiskey is only part of the problem as there's alsoa girl, who loves him madly and is repelled by his unconditional blood lust. Shaken by the loss he takes an oath to keep his mouth shut untill he finally takes the trophy. That makes Warren Oates' performance a mute one for most of the time (which might as well be the best thing here) and his inner dialogues externalized by mentioned, bizarre voice-over. But shaping up is not that easy and Frank needs to hit the bottom before getting a grip again. Short on cash he sells his parents' house – which gets tolled away – and comes back to the game with a new partner (Omar Baradansky - weird Polish-American countryside businessman), who provides him with fresh chickens. Together they take on the toughest competitors of this southern sport step by step and eventually get down to the beat.

Apparently cockfighting was still a country entertainment in the South when the film was made, but in the same time it was a public embarassment and the topic hadn't a slightest chance to storm the box office. Tabooed at least, but most likely totally disgusting event for drive-in crowd, hardened by exploitation roughies – if it was made today, animalists would get a heart attack – it screened for a very short time. After expected wows didn't exactly come as a wave, it got yanked off by Corman, recut and reissued as Born To Kill. Joe Dante has done another oddball trailer with famous helicopter explosion – used in almost all New World Pictures teasers – but even these desperate gimmicks couldn't save the picture and it was shelved eventually. Somehow it survived underneath the surface and became a minor cult movie afterwards, considered a second, most important work of Monte Hellman. Although pacing is kind of wonky, Corman's influence overwhelming and it doesn't reach weirdness of "Two-Lane Blacktop", it's an interesting example of digesting the southern mystique by one of the most interesting American directors of the golden era. 70's curious zone!