Head (1968) While the Beatles delighted fans with A Hard Day''s Night, the Monkees confounded theirs with Head. Bob Rafelson, who cocreated the prefab four''s hit television series, penned this psychedelic showbiz satire with Jack Nicholson, star of the director''s acclaimed follow-up Five Easy Pieces. In an accompanying interview, Rafelson acknowledges, "Quite frankly, there was a bit of acid involved." That''s clear from the start as drummer Micky Dolenz jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge to the lilting, lysergic strains of Carole King and Gerry Goffin''s "The Porpoise Song." Unharmed, Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork proceed to play pop stars, soldiers, and cowboys at war with the public, actor Victor Mature ("The Big Victor"), and the star-making machinery (Rafelson and Nicholson break the fourth wall with their brief cameos). Jones also boxes Sonny Liston, woos Annette Funicello, chats with Frank Zappa ("The Critic"), and dances with choreographer-turned-singer Toni Basil of "Hey Mickey" fame. It''s rambling and discursive, but the musical sequences, which anticipate the video era to come, are great. This Criterion edition comes with a swell selection of extras, including commentary from the band, trailers and promo spots, a snazzy slide show, an awkward TV interview, screen tests in which the quartet''s innate charm shines through, and an informative documentary about BBS (the production company of Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner) with historian Douglas Brinkley and critic David Thomson, who describes Rafelson and associates as "hippies, dopers, party animals to the max." --Kathleen C. Fennessy
Easy Rider (1969) This box-office hit from 1969 is an important pioneer of the American independent cinema movement, and a generational touchstone to boot. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper play hippie motorcyclists crossing the Southwest and encountering a crazy quilt of good and bad people. Jack Nicholson turns up in a significant role as an attorney who joins their quest for awhile and articulates society''s problem with freedom as Fonda''s and Hopper''s characters embody it. Hopper directed, essentially bringing the no-frills filmmaking methods of legendary, drive-in movie producer Roger Corman (The Little Shop of Horrors) to a serious feature for the mainstream. The film can''t help but look a bit dated now (a psychedelic sequence toward the end particularly doesn''t hold up well), but it retains its original power, sense of daring, and epochal impact. --Tom Keogh
Five Easy Pieces (1970) This subtle, existential character study of an emotionally distant outcast (Nicholson) forced to confront his past failures remains an intimate cornerstone of American ''70s cinema. Written and directed with remarkable restraint by Bob Rafelson, the film is the result of a short-lived partnership between the filmmaker and Nicholson--the first was the zany formalist exercise, Head, while the equally impressive King of Marvin Gardens followed Five Easy Pieces. Quiet and full of long, controlled takes, this film draws its strength from the acutely detailed, nonjudgmental observations of its complex protagonist, Robert Dupea--an extremely crass and frustrated oil worker, and failed child pianist hiding from his past in Texas. Dupea spends his life drinking beer and sleeping with (and cheating on) his annoying but adoring Tammy Wynette-wannabe girlfriend, but when he learns that his father is dying in Washington State, he leaves. After the film transforms into a spirited road movie, and arrives at the eccentric upper-class Dupea family mansion, it becomes apparent that leaving is what Dupea does best--from his problems, fears, and those who love him. Nicholson gives a difficult yet masterful performance in an unlikable role, one that''s full of ambiguity and requires violent shifts in acting style. Several sequences--such as his stopping traffic to play piano, or his famous verbal duels with a cranky waitress over a chicken-salad sandwich--are Nicholson landmarks. Yet, it''s the quieter moments, when Dupea tries miserably to communicate and reconcile with his dying father, where the actor shows his real talent--and by extension, shows us the wounded little boy that lurks in the shell of the man Dupea has become. --Dave McCoy
Drive, He Said (1971) Jack Nicholson''s first directing effort is a sports movie as it might have been conceived by Jean-Luc Godard, rife with kinetic editing and easy eroticism (as well as the casual sexism of the time). Hector (William Tepper, who later played Tom Hanks''s father in Bachelor Party) is a rising college basketball star in a troubled relationship with dance student Olive (Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces), while his roommate, guerrilla theater student/political activist Gabriel (Michael Margotta, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?), keeps himself awake so long to avoid the draft that he slips into madness. There is no plot per se, though the ebb and flow of Hector''s relationship with his bullying coach (Bruce Dern, Silent Running) runs throughout the movie. Drive, He Said is mostly a state-of-consciousness film, striving to capture the mood of student unrest of the late 1960s/early ''70s, a mix of manic frustration and existential dislocation (some scenes were shot during an actual student riot). The opening sequence, in which the guerrilla theater troupe disrupts a basketball game, is stunning, and the raw immediacy of how Nicholson, a notorious basketball fan, shot the playing was hugely influential. Contemporary audiences may grow impatient with the loose narrative, but visually intriguing moments and empathetic turns of character abound--if you surrender to the movie''s idiosyncratic flow, Drive, He Said is a rewarding experience. --Bret Fetzer
A Safe Place (1971) A Safe Place, Henry Jaglom''s first feature film, succeeds on so many levels it is difficult to name a mere few. In attitude, one could call it kin to Easy Rider, the film Jaglom assistant edited with Dennis Hopper, and which led to Jaglom''s affiliation with Jack Nicholson, who plays Mitch, Susan''s unscrupulous ex-boyfriend in A Safe Place. While the film technically tells the story of Susan, a.k.a. Noah (Tuesday Weld), and her tenuous relationship with the more conservative Fred (Phil Proctor), A Safe Place operates more like a poetic, colorful dip into the consciousness of the characters who star in the film. Editing goes chronologically awry, flashing back and forth, repeating and skipping scenes; settings and conversations tie loosely together according to Susan''s skewed logic; and a few key plot digressions create a melancholy, psychedelic mood more than they fortify Susan''s tale in any straightforward way. These traits make the film. While time slips away under the spells of a homemade Ouija board that Susan and her friends play with, and is marked by her preoccupations with a mysterious Magician (Orson Welles) pulling rainbows out of boxes and trying to make zoo animals disappear, A Safe Place evokes the mystical, idealistic climate of the 1960s. In its intimate portrayal of Susan/Noah, constantly staring into the camera and revealing her thoughts through breathy dialogue, the film also lays the groundwork for Jaglom''s desire to make women''s films, as he did with Eating: A Very Serious Comedy About Women and Food and Babyfever. Somehow, through Jaglom''s abstract, theatrical storytelling method, which is further explained in some informative director interviews in the extras, themes reveal themselves elegantly. On one level a simple love story, A Safe Place invites viewers to dig deeply into the universal fears inherent to most relationships: fears of repeating the same mistakes, fears of inability to love, fears of the future, fears of becoming too attached. All these fears, collaged into a patchwork of scenic moments and clips, miraculously express levels of human awareness that far exceed those in the average romantic comedy. --Trinie Dalton
The Last Picture Show (1971) Like Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and The Graduate, The Last Picture Show is one of the signature films of the "New Hollywood" that emerged in the late 1960s and early ''70s. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry and lovingly directed by Peter Bogdanovich (who cowrote the script with McMurtry), this 1971 drama has been interpreted as an affectionate tribute to classic Hollywood filmmaking and the great directors (such as John Ford) that Bogdanovich so deeply admired. It''s also a eulogy for lost innocence and small-town life, so accurately rendered that critic Roger Ebert called it "the best film of 1951," referring to the movie''s one-year time frame, its black-and-white cinematography (by Robert Surtees), and its sparse but evocative visual style. The story is set in the tiny, dying town of Anarene, Texas, where the main-street movie house is about to close for good, and where a pair of high-school football players are coming of age and struggling to define their uncertain futures. There''s little to do in Anarene, and while Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) engages in a passionless fling with his football coach''s wife (Cloris Leachman), his best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) enlists for service in the Korean War. Both boys fall for a manipulative high-school beauty (Cybill Shepherd) who''s well aware of her sexual allure. But it''s not so much what happens in The Last Picture show as how it happens--and how Bogdanovich and his excellent cast so effectively capture the melancholy mood of a ghost town in the making. As Hank Williams sings on the film''s evocative soundtrack, The Last Picture Show looks, feels, and sounds like a sad but unforgettably precious moment out of time. --Jeff Shannon
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) In The King of Marvin Gardens, Jack Nicholson plays against type; he''s a depressive, introspective radio host, while Bruce Dern costars as his wild, dreamy brother always at work on his next scheme. When Dern invites Nicholson to get involved in a plot to buy a tropical island with someone else''s money, Nicholson goes along for the ride. Everything about the film is surreal, from Ellen Burstyn as Dern''s girlfriend, who begins to realize she''s aging out of the games Dern plays, to the way the film is shot, with conversations on horseback and a private reenactment of the Miss America pageant with Nicholson in the Bert Parks role, singing "Here she comes, Miss America…." While the movie is not satisfying on every level, what director Bob Rafelson does best is to keep the audience off kilter, wondering who, if anyone, is the sane one. Extras include interviews with Burstyn, Dern, and Rafelson in which Rafelson admits Nicholson''s opening monologue comes from a college essay that got him kicked out of class. --Paige Newman
Like the rest of America, Hollywood was ripe for revolution in the late sixties. Cinema attendance was down; what had once worked seemed broken. Enter Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, who knew that what Hollywood needed was new audiences—namely, young people—and that meant cultivating new talent and new ideas. Fueled by money made from their invention of the superstar TV pop group the Monkees, they set off on a film-industry journey that would lead them to form BBS Productions, a company that was also a community.
The innovative films produced by this team between 1968 and 1972 are collected in this box set—works created within the studio system but lifted right out of the countercultural id, and that now range from the iconic (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show) to the acclaimed (The King of Marvin Gardens) to the obscure (Head; Drive, He Said; A Safe Place).
Head (1968) Hey, hey, it’s the Monkees... being catapulted through one of American cinema’s most surreal ''60s odysseys. In it, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork become trapped in a kaleidoscopic satire that’s movie homage, media send-up, concert movie, and antiwar cry all at once. Head escaped commercial success on its release but has since been reclaimed as one of the great cult objects of its era. (85 minutes, color, monaural/surround, 1.78:1 aspect ratio)
Easy Rider (1969) This is the definitive counterculture blockbuster. The former clean-cut teen star Dennis Hopper’s down-and-dirty directorial debut, Easy Rider heralded the arrival of a new voice in film, one planted firmly, angrily against the mainstream. After Easy Rider’s cross-country journey—with its radical, New Wave-style editing, outsider-rock soundtrack, revelatory performance by a young Jack Nicholson, and explosive ending—the American road trip would never be the same. (96 minutes, color, surround, 1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Five Easy Pieces (1970) Jack Nicholson plays the now iconic cad Bobby Dupea, a shiftless thirtysomething oil rigger and former piano prodigy immune to any sense of romantic or familial responsibility, who returns to his childhood home to see his ailing estranged father, his blue-collar girlfriend (Karen Black, like Nicholson nominated for an Oscar) in tow. Moving in its simplicity and gritty in its textures, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces is a lasting example of early 1970s American alienation. (98 minutes, color, monaural, 1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Drive, He Said (1970) Based on the best-selling novel by Jeremy Larner, Drive, He Said is free-spirited and sobering by turns, a sketch of the exploits of a disaffected college basketball player and his increasingly radical roommate, a feverishly shot and edited snapshot of the early ''70s (some of it was filmed during an actual campus protest). Jack Nicholson’s audacious comedy (starring Bruce Dern and Karen Black) is a startling howl direct from the zeitgeist. (90 minutes, color, monaural, 1.85:1 aspect ratio)
A Safe Place (1971) In this delicate, introspective drama, laced with fantasy elements, Tuesday Weld stars as a fragile young woman in New York unable to reconcile her ambiguous past with her unmoored present; Orson Welles as an enchanting Central Park magician and Jack Nicholson as a mysterious ex-lover round out the cast. A Safe Place was directed by independent cinema icon Henry Jaglom. (92 minutes, color, monaural, 1.85:1 aspect ratio)
The Last Picture Show (1971) The Last Picture Show is one of the key films of the American cinema renaissance of the ''70s. Set during the early ''50s in the loneliest Texas nowheresville to ever dust up a movie screen, this aching portrait of a dying West, adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel, focuses on the daily shuffles of three futureless teens—enigmatic Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), (Jeff Bridges), and desperate-to-be-adored rich girl Jacy (Cybil Shepherd)—and the aging lost souls who bump up against them in the night like drifting tumbleweeds. This hushed depiction of crumbling American values remains the pivotal film in the career of the invaluable director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich. (126 minutes, black and white, monaural, 1.85:1 aspect ratio)
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) For his electrifying follow-up to the smash success of Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson dug even deeper into the crushed dreams of wayward America. Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern play estranged siblings David and Jason, the former a depressive late-night radio talk show host, the latter an extroverted con man; when Jason drags his younger brother to a dreary Atlantic City and into a real-estate scam, events spiral into tragedy. (104 minutes, color, monaural, 1.85:1 aspect ratio)
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