Film Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Release Date: May 25th, 1969 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Written by: Waldo Salt
Based on: Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, Brenda Vaccaro, Jennifer Salt, Bob Balaban

Jerome Hellman Productions, United Artists, 113 Minutes

Review:

“I like the way I look. Makes me feel good, it does. And women like me, goddammit. Hell, the only one thing I ever been good for is lovin’. Women go crazy for me, that’s a really true fact! Ratso, hell! Crazy Annie they had to send her away!” – Joe Buck, “Then, how come you ain’t scored once the whole time you been in New York?” – Ratso Rizzo

I’ve seen this movie three times now and I’ve always loved it. But it’s that type of film that drains on the soul and frankly, I can only watch it about once per decade, as it just weighs on me for days after seeing it.

It’s absolutely depressing and its hard to peg what it is about the film that makes it so endearing but I have to give all the credit to the two leads: Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. In fact, the men are great actors and both have done several great motion pictures but this may be the best performances that both men have ever given.

What’s amazing about the film is that both characters are pretty despicable people but you end up caring for them, pretty deeply. The film does humanize them and gives you their backstories, which show you why they are the way they are. However, by the end, Voight’s Joe Buck has probably killed a man and is on the run, even if he planned to leave New York City anyway. But you still feel for him because even though he’s done dark shit, he’s a stupid person that pretty much has the mind of a child. He tries to take life head on but continually gets his ass kicked by his own ignorance and inability to comprehend the depth of the water he keeps diving into.

As for Hoffman’s Rizzo, he’s a conman, he takes advantage of people but when you see into his world and into his past, you hurt for him. The fact that he’s sick and degenerates over the course of the story becomes a hard pill to swallow and you want him, despite all of his flaws, to find the peace he needs. The scene where he falls down the stairs and then has to walk himself home, alone and in the cold, is pretty damn heart-wrenching.

I think that the direction and cinematography greatly enhance the film. This is a fluid movie with a lot of motion, matching the quick moving world of New York City. But it doesn’t shy away from the gritty reality of New York and the dark lives these men lead. Frankly, the film doesn’t sell you a Hollywood fantasy about New York City, it shoves its harshness down your throat and force feeds it to you from the moment Joe Buck arrives in town until the moment where he and Rizzo get on the bus to Miami.

Interestingly, this motion picture was rated X. That’s not a rating that really has any meaning in modern times but for the late ’60s, this was controversial for its harshness but also because it examined sexuality in ways that were pretty taboo and uncomfortable for the general public. It’s one of the earliest films that specifically deals with a protagonist trying to figure out whether he’s gay or not. I can’t think of anything that is this open about it that came out earlier but if such a film exists, please let me know in the comments.

The sexual exploration and Joe’s uncertainty over who he is, is the driving force behind his development throughout the movie. He’s lost, confused, wants to know himself and find his place in the world but the reality of his emotions and what does or doesn’t arouse him is a hard pill for him to swallow. And this just shows how difficult these things were for people in 1969. It’s clear that Joe hates himself but the possibility that he may be gay just compounds his self-hatred. And the tragic thing, is that he’s too dumb to make sense out of his emotions and his situation.

Midnight Cowboy is a pretty important motion picture in the history of film. It’s especially important in how it addresses and looks at LGBT issues. For a lot of filmgoers who saw this when it was current, it had to be their first experience in understanding the struggle of gay or sexually unsure people.

It’s a superbly acted and produced movie; certainly one of the top social films of its time. I feel like it also sort of set the stage for what became the cinematic view of New York City in the 1970s, as seen in the films of Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and others.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: other films of the era: Easy Rider, The Graduate and The American Friend.

Film Review: Space Travelers (1969)

Also known as: Marooned (original title), Abandonados en el espacio (Argentina)
Release Date: November 10th, 1969 (Washington D.C. premiere)
Directed by: John Sturges
Written by: Mayo Simon
Based on: Marooned by Martin Caidin
Cast: Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus, Gene Hackman, George Gaynes

Columbia Pictures, 134 Minutes

Review:

“Okay Buzz you’re right. To hell with waiting for a bunch of slide-rule jockeys. We used to fix the airplanes we flew with paperclips. Lets get into our hard suits and fix this bird.” – Jim Pruett

This is probably the most critically acclaimed film ever to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, as it is the only picture out of the 200-plus that won an Academy Award. In the case of this movie, it won for visual effects.

That being said, this is still a movie worth riffing, as it is dreadfully boring, slow and despite being full of some good actors, none of the performances really hit their mark.

Originally titled Marooned in 1969, this movie was re-released on VHS around 1990 as Space Travelers. The VHS version is the one that I saw, as it’s the version that MST3K showcased.

I’m not sure if there’s much difference between the two versions of the film but MST3K didn’t have time to fit in a 134 minute picture, so what I did see was edited down. As boring and as slow as this was, I couldn’t imagine watching a version that would be 44 minutes longer than the roughly 90 minutes I saw. But maybe that extra time made the story more interesting.

Still, this is a real dud that wasn’t saved by its good effects, even for its time.

Maybe this was fairly original in the late ’60s and being that it came out during the height of the space race era, it could’ve connected with audiences that were still dreaming about space travel and exploration. But this did come out a year after 2001: A Space Odyssey and I find it hard to believe that even in 1969, that this film would even be in conversations with that one as far as being a top notch sci-fi adventure.

Rating: 4.75/10
Pairs well with: other Space Race era movies about space travel.

Film Review: Machine Gun McCain (1969)

Also known as: Gli intoccabili (original title), Killer MacCain (Denmark), The Untouchables (European English title), For A Price (English alternate title), At Any Price (US working title)
Release Date: April 1st, 1969 (Italy)
Directed by: Giuliano Montaldo
Written by: Mino Roli, Giuliano Montaldo
Based on: Candyleg by Ovid Demaris
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: John Cassavetes, Britt Ekland, Peter Falk, Gabriele Ferzetti, Florinda Bolkan, Tony Kendall, Salvo Randone, Gena Rowlands, Luigi Pistilli

Euroatlantica, Euro International Film, 116 Minutes

Review:

“What do you do? Sell women? Sell marijuana? – what d’you do? Where’d you get the twenty-five thousand? I wouldn’t give you twenty-five cents. What d’you do? – you go out and you hustle yourself all over the street. Small time – no dignity! You don’t beg.” – Hank McCain, “That’s why, Hank – I need this chance. I got tired of being small change.” – Jack McCain, “You’re gonna be small change all your life.” – Hank McCain

If you like Italian gangster films, you should actually check one out from Italy, as opposed to American films about Italian-American criminals doing mafioso shit for the umpteenth time. The Italians weren’t just known for spaghetti westerns and sword and sandal movies back in the ’60s, they also made solid horror and badass crime pictures.

Gli Intoccabili, also known as Machine Gun McCain in the United States, is a high octane, gritty Italian crime thriller that stars a badass American, John Cassavetes. This also has a young Peter Falk in it. But the real treat is the lovely Britt Ekland, who I crushed on hard when I was a kid and saw her in The Man With the Golden Gun.

I like this movie but if I’m being honest, it is completely elevated by Cassavetes, Falk and Ekland. Without them, it would have just been a fairly mundane gangster movie.

There isn’t a lot of stylistic flourish to this film, which is surprising being that it came from Italy in a time when that country was experimenting with very colorful and vivid cinematography. I’m not saying that this needed giallo flair but it does look quite pedestrian when compared to what else was coming out of Italy in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

I really enjoyed Cassavetes’ McCain and I totally bought into his chemistry with Ekland. Falk was an absolute scene stealer though and for fans of his most famous role on Colombo, his part here is a real departure from the norm. It’s also worth noting that one of Sergio Leone’s favorites, Luigi Pistilli, has a small part in this. You may remember him as the priest brother of Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly as well as a member of Indio’s gang in For A Few Dollars More.

I should also point out that movie music maestro Ennio Morricone did the score for this. While it’s not as memorable as his work with Sergio Leone, it is still a nice score that enhances the film and gives it more life than it would have had with a less accomplished composer.

Machine Gun McCain is a film that probably sounds cooler than it is but if I’m being honest, it’s really damn hard to say something’s “uncool” if it’s got John Cassavetes in it.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: The Burglars, The Italian Connection, Robbery and Grand Slam.

Film Review: The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)

Also known as: Sax Rohmer’s The Castle of Fu Manchu (full title), Assignment Istanbul, Fu Manchu’s Castle, The Torture Chamber of Fu Manchu (alternate titles), Le château de Fu Manchu (France)
Release Date: May 30th, 1969 (Germany)
Directed by: Jess Franco
Written by: Manfred Barthel
Based on: characters by Sax Rohmer
Music by: Carlos Camilleri, Malcomb Shelby
Cast: Christopher Lee, Richard Greene, Howard Marion-Crawford, Gunther Stoll, Rosalba Neri, Maria Perschy, Jose Manuel Martin

Balcázar Producciones Cinematográficas, Terra-Filmkunst, Italian International Films, 92 Minutes

Review:

“The formula. With this I can control all things – and all men.” – Fu Manchu

I love Christopher Lee but I have never liked his Fu Manchu movies. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen all five of them and this is the only one I’ve seen more than once and that’s simply because it is featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This is the fifth and final film and it is said to be the worst one. From my experience with some of the others, none of them are good. But this one, in particular, is dreadfully boring and pretty hard to follow.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure if it’s hard to follow due to it being a clusterfuck of bad, nonsensical writing or because it was a real challenge to pay attention and not doze off to sleep or find myself daydreaming for spans of twenty minutes. I’d say that it’s all of the above.

Christopher Lee can usually carry movies, even bad ones. While he is the brightest spot, by far, in this picture, it’s not enough to draw you in or make you care. I think that even Lee was bored with these movies by this point. I don’t want to say that he dialed it in but this was probably just a paycheck and a way to work for a few weeks between Hammer or Amicus productions.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Fu Manchu character anyway, so I don’t have the same sort of enthusiasm for these movies as I do the DraculaFrankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Mummy and other classic horror and literary characters he’s made movies about.

This film is a complete waste of time unless you are an MST3K completist and haven’t yet seen the episode with this mind numbing dud.

Rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: the other Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee but none of them are very good.

Film Review: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Release Date: May 22nd, 1969 (UK)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Bert Batt
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Thorley Walters

Hammer Film Productions, Warner Bros., Seven Arts, 98 Minutes, 101 Minutes (US version)

Review:

“I have become the victim of everything that Frankenstein and I ever advocated. My brain is in someone else’s body.” – Professor Richter

It’s been a really long time since I have seen this chapter in the Hammer Films’ Frankenstein series. This is the fifth one out of the six movies starring Peter Cushing and it’s my favorite one after the original.

Even though I really like this installment, it has its ups and downs but the film really plays out like a good drama with horror and sci-fi elements thrown in.

This has some of the best acting in the series and the inclusion of Veronica Carlson was a strong positive for me. She is one of the more talented Hammer scream queens and really takes over the screen in the scenes where she is featured. It also doesn’t hurt that she is absolutely stunning in that old school, classic beauty sort of way.

I also thought that the rest of the cast was pretty damn good for a Hammer picture that came out towards the end of their two decade run as kings of horror.

Peter Cushing is absolutely dastardly in this one and while that does a fine job of building suspense, tension and the desire to see him get his comeuppance, it did feel uncharacteristic for his version of Baron Frankenstein. We’ve come to know him over the four films before this one and he’s always operated fairly consistently. Sure, he’s done evil shit before but he just has an extra edge to him here. He isn’t driven by his science and obsession over his work. Instead, he seems to be driven by the fact that he enjoys being a complete bastard. His dive into deeper evil is punctuated by him raping Veronica Carlson’s character and frankly, that’s the most uncharacteristic thing that he does in the film. He never cared about the ladies before but that changed with this movie. For the first time, it made him truly unlikable. I guess it makes him more of a pure villain but I always liked to think that there was still some way to save his soul and that he was just a victim of his own mania.

I love that the “monster” in this maintains his intelligence and isn’t just a dumb, hulking brute. It’s about time that Baron Frankenstein’s experiments reach a higher level. And I’m glad that this ignored the absolute weirdness of the previous film that saw the mad doctor trapping souls.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed benefited most by having the series’ best director, Terence Fisher, return. This felt like a true sequel to the original more than any of the other films and in some ways, it was probably another soft reboot, as the continuity in this film series doesn’t seem to matter from film to film.

This is solid, classic Hammer. This is a prime example of why they were masters of the horror genre from the mid-’50s through the mid-’70s.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer Frankenstein films, as well as the Hammer Dracula and Mummy series.

Film Review: Easy Rider (1969)

Also known as: The Loners (working title), Sem Destino (Brazil)
Release Date: May 12th, 1969 (Cannes)
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Written by: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
Music by: The Band, The Byrds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Roger McGuinn, Steppenwolf
Cast: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Toni Basil, Bridget Fonda (uncredited)

Raybert Productions, Pando Company, Columbia Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“[giving Capt America some LSD] When you get to the right place, with the right people, quarter this. You know, this could be the right place. The time’s running out.” – Stranger on the Highway

In an effort to rectify the injustice of not seeing every American classic ever made, I watched Easy Rider. I know, I know… there are countless American classics, at this point, but there are many I haven’t seen, this being one of them. Every year since film was invented there have been at least a handful of great pictures, if not more. So I don’t think anyone, other than Roger Ebert, has seen them all.

I’m not quite sure why I haven’t seen Easy Rider until now. I’ve known about it pretty much my entire life but it’s never really been something I felt like buying and it hasn’t really streamed anywhere until it popped up on FilmStruck. But having seen other classic biker films, I wanted to check this out before it was cycled out of streaming circulation.

I’ve been a massive fan of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson for decades. Seeing the three of them come together for this motion picture, which forever altered filmmaking, was quite a treat.

However, even though this is credited as being a movie that changed everything going forward, it wasn’t the first of its kind. Peter Fonda starred in two films, which were produced by B-movie king Roger Corman. Those films were The Wild Angels and The Trip. Both dealt with the two main things that are intertwined in this film, biker culture and hallucinogenic drugs.

Now Easy Rider is superior to its two predecessors but I don’t think that this movie could have existed without Roger Corman having the foresight to make those other counterculture pictures and paving the way for Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to write, direct and star in this movie.

The film is a reflection of the time it was in. A time where America was in a state of flux: politically, socially, culturally and artistically. The film really carries a sense of aimlessness and hopelessness with it. It’s a clash of cultures, ideas and displays an American spirit that is tired, lost and without direction or any real inspiration. This is the artistic antithesis of American Exceptionalism.

Now I don’t agree with it but within the context of its time and setting, I understand the sentiment. Frankly, I don’t know where my head would be at in 1969, but I know I’d share some of the same feelings and emotions, especially in regards to the political landscape and the emotional exhaustion caused by the Vietnam War.

I really liked this movie, though. It was magnificently shot. All the scenes of these guys riding cross country were nothing less than beautiful and majestic. I can see why this made people want to sort of adopt the free spirited biker culture into their lives.

And that’s the thing, this film does a fine job romanticizing the freedom of the road but it also shows the side effects of that lifestyle with a heavy handed fist to the head.

My only real issue with the film is the ending. I understand why they did this to end the movie but ultimately, it felt pointless and a bit nonsensical. It came off as edgy just to be edgy. These guys could have met a similar fate without it being some random ass situation that was just thrown in to shock people. For me, it kind of cheapened the overall film. I felt that Hopper was leading towards some sort of larger message but the movie kind of just shits on your emotions and spirit and then just says, “Fuck you!”

Easy Rider is a depressing film. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good or worth your time. It’s a solid piece of filmmaking with a few hiccups I wasn’t too keen on but those hiccups didn’t really detract from the overall sentiment of the picture.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: A couple earlier films that lead to this one even being possible: The Wild Angels and The Trip. Both of those also star Peter Fonda.

Film Review: Lemon (1969)

Release Date: 1969
Directed by: Hollis Frampton

Janus Films, 7 Minutes

Review:

Let’s do a little quiz, shall we?

Do you hate yourself?

Do you hate yourself to the point of torturing yourself for seven long minutes of excrutiating boredom?

Do you like pretentious bullshit art?

Do you like pretentious bullshit artists that think they’re changing the world by giving it absolute dreck of the lowest and most dumbed down caliber possible?

Do you like 1950s beatnik poetry?

Do you like eating dried up pieces of cat poop?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, then you’ll probably connect with Hollis Frampton’s Lemon.

This “short film”, as some academic weirdos have called this, is very much like his other film Carrots & Peas, which I also reviewed some time ago (see here) and concluded that I would never watch anything with this guy’s name on it again. But alas, I lost a bet. So I was subjected to this seven minute train wreck that felt like seven days.

All this is, is staring at a fucking lemon for seven minutes as a light slowly moves around it. This is like some test footage an amateur trying to get into cinematography would do as a learning exercise but would never show the world because it’s just some bullshit test footage. But this motherfucker made it into fucking art and some USDA prime queef patties running museums and art exhibits let this guy play this thing on a loop.

Full disclosure, I am an artist by trade. This is the kind of art I fucking hate because it isn’t art. This is pretentious, no talent bullshit that a grade schooler would try to pass off to their teacher in art class and then get a “D” because you can’t give mentally handicapped people an “F”.

There really isn’t much else to talk about because this is just seven minutes of staring at a lemon. I can do that on my own with the right kind of drugs. You know, the kind of drugs that’ll just put me into some sort of stupor, as a I stare off into space… or at a lemon I strategically placed in front of myself before before popping the magic pill.

Below I added the entire movie sped up to seven seconds instead of seven minutes so that you don’t have to waste your time like I fucking did.

Rating: 0.25/10
Pairs well with: Carrots & Peas, which is basically just staring at produce again. Also, chewing on earthworm jerky.