AMERICA LOST AND FOUND: THE BBS STORY (1968-1972). Despite — or perhaps enhanced by — the inclusion of two hotly debated duds, this nine-disc, seven-film set from Criterion is an invaluable addition to any cineast's permanent library. It covers that brief period when Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner combined their first initials to create BBS Productions, an outfit devoted to producing artful films primarily for youthful audiences tired of Hollywood's conventional offerings. And the primary glue holding the canon together is Jack Nicholson — he appears as actor, director and/or screenwriter on six of the seven films, and his efforts turned him into a star.
Davy Jones gets beaten to a pulp by Sonny Liston, Micky Dolenz wages war in the desert against a Coca-Cola machine, Frank Zappa shows up with a talking cow, and Victor Mature towers over the proceedings — literally — as "The Big Victor." And so it goes in Head (1968), a showcase for The Monkees that was co-written by Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson. The pop group's answer to The Beatles' classic A Hard Day's Night, this insane outing purportedly looks at a day in the life of Jones, Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith but is really just an excuse to mesh together musical numbers, Vietnam War footage, and a dizzying amount of non sequiturs.
BBS's next movie, Easy Rider (1969), joined the likes of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde as one of the most influential movies of the decade; it also proved to be a gargantuan hit with young moviegoers. Peter Fonda (also producing and scripting) and Dennis Hopper (director as well as co-writer with Fonda and Terry Southern) headline as the hippie bikers whose ride across the country exposes them to good old-fashioned American bigotry, yet it's Nicholson who steals the show (and earned the first of his countless Oscar nominations) as a hip lawyer who joins them on their journey.
A new kind of film when released in 1970, Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces dared to make its protagonist, Bobby Dupea (Nicholson), often unlikable. Yet in his inability to get a grasp on his own values and self worth, it also made him an easily relatable character for its turbulent time. Nicholson's performance as an oil-rigger who's soon revealed to be a pianist escaping from his upper-class roots stands as one of his finest (who can't help but love the classic "chicken salad sandwich" scene?), while Karen Black, as his simple, doting girlfriend, is equally excellent.
Nicholson made his directorial debut with (and co-wrote the script for) Drive, He Said (1971), a dour work that hasn't held up as well as its celluloid soulmates. The story focuses on two college roommates — a basketball player (William Tepper) and a campus radical (Michael Margotta) — but Bruce Dern provides the only juice as a tough-yet-tender coach.
So-called "talky filmmakers" are generally love-'em-or-leave-'em propositions, and while I'm a fan of both Eric Rohmer and John Cassavetes, Henry Jaglom can leave me cold. He made his writing-directing debut with A Safe Place (1971), a pretentious, confusing drama about a schizophrenic free spirit (Tuesday Weld) juggling two suitors (Nicholson and Phil Proctor). It's fun to see Orson Welles in the magician stage of his career, but your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your tolerance for Jaglom's often cringe-worthy dialogue.
The Last Picture Show (1971), an American classic by writer-director Peter Bogdanovich and co-writer Larry McMurtry (adapting his own novel), takes a leisurely, loving look at the residents — both young (Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd) and seasoned (Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, the latter two winning Oscars) — of a tiny Texas town in the 1950s. Filmed in black and white, the picture mixes its sense of nostalgia for a bygone era with its clear-eyed depiction of the sheer boredom that can penetrate the lives of small-town folks with few options available to them.
The final BBS title, The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), is best described as an interesting misfire that gets by on its unique approach and fine performances. Nicholson contributes an interesting turn as a perpetually pessimistic radio commentator who gets roped into a shady real-estate scheme by his motormouth brother (Dern) and the latter's eccentric girlfriend (Burstyn). This offbeat picture doesn't seem like much upon initial viewing but has a way of sticking with you.
Extras in this DVD box set include a 112-page booklet; audio commentary on five of the seven pictures (including The Monkees on Head, Hopper and Fonda on Easy Rider, and Bogdanovich on The Last Picture Show); two documentaries on BBS; new interviews with Nicholson, Rafelson, Bogdanovich and others; making-of pieces; and screen tests for Head, A Safe Place and The Last Picture Show.
Easy Rider: ***1/2
Five Easy Pieces: ***1/2
Drive, He Said: **
A Safe Place: *1/2
The Last Picture Show: ****
The King of Marvin Gardens: ***
THE AMERICAN (2010). The title would suggest that here's a film reminiscent of Mom and apple pie; in truth, it has more in common with Padre and panna cotta. Deliberately paced and artfully rendered, this frequently feels like an Antonioni knockoff whose prints originally ended up at the multiplexes instead of the art-houses. George Clooney stars as Jack, an assassin who hides out in a small Italian town to avoid other hitmen gunning for him. Having recently killed an innocent lover in order to cover his own tracks, Jack knows better than to get involved with others, but he nevertheless befriends an elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and becomes romantically entangled with a prostitute (Violante Placido). The one exception to the film's low-volume level is a vehicular chase that punctuates the proceedings like a pin to a balloon; the rest is moody and mannered, an approach certain to divide viewers. For me, the thoughtful pace was appreciated; what wasn't appreciated was that it's wrapped around a tale that could have used a little more inspiration in branching out its characters. A weary hitman, a hooker with a heart of gold and a jovial priest might be the basis for a great joke were they all to enter a bar, but as the central ingredients of a story meant to compel, this assemblage predates even the U.S. Constitution.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Anton Corbijn; six minutes of deleted scenes; and an 11-minute making-of featurette.
DESPICABLE ME (2010). When James Stewart offers to lasso the moon for Donna Reed in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life, it's purely a romantic gesture. When Gru (Steve Carell), the star of this animated opus, plots to shrink the moon to a size small enough so that he can make off with it, it's clearly to show that he's the baddest dude around. After all, if a supervillain isn't feared and respected, then what good is he? This box office smash is a witty, congenial lark that obviously won't have the staying power of Toy Story 3 but served quite nicely as a pleasing placeholder in the cinematic summer of 2010. Sweet-natured yet also avoiding the cloying sentiment that tarnishes any great number of toon tales, this finds Gru enlisting the aid of three oblivious orphan girls to help him one-up his biggest competitor in the supervillain sweepstakes, a self-satisfied nebbish (Jason Segel) who calls himself Vector. Naturally, Gru knows nothing about children, and just as naturally, the girls will teach him about family and responsibility. But that comes later. First, the movie has to let loose with a volley of inspired sight gags, a smattering of adult-oriented humor (note the homage to The Godfather), and sound story elements superior to the similar ones employed in Megamind.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin (and featuring the Minions); the interactive "Gru-Control" feature; three new mini-movies starring the Minions; three interactive games; and a 17-minute featurette on the film's voice talent.
DEVIL (2010). Agatha Christie meets M. Night Shyamalan in Devil, and damn if the mystery author's inspiration doesn't put the hack auteur's career back on the right path. Make no mistake: There's nothing special about Devil, but after a string of notorious critical and/or commercial duds, it's surprising to see Shyamalan involved with a film that's at least watchable. Still, any praise should be followed by an asterisk, since his contributions are relegated to co-producing the picture and coming up with the storyline (John Erick Dowdle and Brian Nelson get credit for the direction and screenplay, respectively). But regardless of how the muted kudos is parceled out, the end result is a moderately entertaining tale that borrows Christie's Ten Little Indians template of putting a group of strangers together and having them get picked off one by one. Here, we find five people trapped together on a stuck elevator, with the added element of having the killer among the quintet being the devil in disguise. The supernatural angle occasionally lapses into silliness (the pontificating by a superstitious security guard grows overbearing), but Dowdle comes up with some interesting visuals, and the atmospheric score by Fernando Velazquez (The Orphanage) is, uh, heaven-sent.
DVD extras include three deleted scenes; and two shorts (totaling five minutes) centered on discussions of the movie's plot and themes.
NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS (2010). Perhaps Universal Pictures would have been wise to keep the film's original British moniker, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, in the hopes that a few ill-informed folks stateside would mistake it for a softcore romp and hand over their hard-earned dollars. Certainly, this sequel to 2005's Nanny McPhee could use more bang for the viewer's buck, relating an occasionally clever but often daft yarn about the efforts of the title character (again played by Emma Thompson) to help a struggling mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal, affecting a decent English accent) with her brood while her husband's off fighting in World War II. The children are all well-cast, but this overdoses on the saccharine: Watching CGI critters do supposedly cute things (a bird constantly belching, pigs engaging in synchronized swimming) isn't exactly my cup of tea — English Breakfast, English Afternoon, or otherwise.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Susanna White; a dozen deleted scenes; and a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.