December 21, 2010

American beauties

Progressive production company BBS' late 1960s/early ’70s output marked a turning point for both Hollywood and the country at large

Also this week: The Town, True Grit '69

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (Criterion) Towards the end of the ’60s, at the height of Hollywood’s lack of cool, came three hippies to shake things up. Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner (first initials = BBS) introduced audiences to the liberated likes of acid-dropping bikers, disenchanted drifters and uninhibited youths—not to mention allowing then-struggling actor Jack Nicholson (who had his hand in all but one of these films) to play the anti-heroic lead in major studio films.   

This set kicks off with one of BBS' most maligned titles, 1968’s Head, the Monkees’ superbly psychedelic answer to A Hard Day’s Night. Easily the least coherent item in the collection, it’s no surprise that Rafelson and Nicholson wrote it while they were high as hell. Those who are turned off by Head’s playful lack of narrative discipline might dig BBS’ most familiar flick, Easy Rider. Dennis Hopper’s trippy road trip was an immediate box-office smash and further verified costar Nicholson’s acting chops—which is why he starred in the set’s next entry, Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. More downbeat than anything released up until then, it still stands as one of the most resonant films of that period. 

Next up, Nicholson made his directorial debut with Drive, He Said, an underrated drama about a mixed-up college basketball star wedged between sports and politics. Things take a minor nosedive with A Safe Place, a sloppy nod to Godard that features Orson Welles as a Central Park magician. Getting back on track, Peter Bogdanovich’s Oscar-winning The Last Picture Show is a sombre, literally black-and-white depiction of small-town America that was the most universally praised of them all. However, the studio’s penultimate release would come several months later. Closing the set is 1972’s The King of Marvin Gardens, another winning collaboration between Nicholson and Rafelson. (BBS’ final film, 1974’s Hearts and Minds, is already available on Criterion, so its omission can be remedied.)

As if having these features in one package isn’t swell enough, Criterion has given each of them a nice assortment of extras. There are commentaries for nearly every film, new and old documentaries, interviews with key players, outtakes, vintage trailers and a 100-page booklet of essays. Looks-wise, the set can be had on DVD or Blu-ray. And if you think these pretty and gritty films wouldn’t benefit from a high-def facelift, you’d be very wrong. 

Also Available 
For his sophomore effort behind the lens, Ben Affleck returns to the nouveau-noir streets of Beantown to deliver a wicked-smaht heist thriller. The Town (Warner) is not exactly Shakespeare (or Heat, for that matter) but Jeremy Renner and Affleck impress as quarreling partners in crime, and several wonderfully executed action sequences showcase the director’s potential to one day give us something truly groundbreaking. Those who’ve already seen and enjoyed it might also want to check out Affleck’s insightful interviews and commentary. 

Before checking out El Duderino in the Coen brothers’ rendition of Charles Portis’ great American novel, feast your eyes on 1969's True Grit (Paramount), starring John Wayne as the drunk and cranky Rooster Cogburn. The original may feel tame by today’s standard, but it was the only role that earned Wayne an Oscar. It also features a young Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, who made Easy Rider that same year.