Saturday, June 9, 2018

Captain Milkshake (1970)

          While the meaning of the film’s title is a mystery, Captain Milkshake is in many other respects a fine time capsule, capturing the mellow textures of the hippie lifestyle, the difficult interpersonal dynamics between Establishment and counterculture types during the Vietnam War, and the confusing experience of a young man who finds himself caught between these worlds. On a stylistic level, the movie brims with hot tunes by Quicksilver Messenger Service and other significant acts of the period, while also beguiling viewers with psychedelic visuals. Some scenes are in black and white, others are in color, many involve trippy superimpositions, and the much of the film unfurls like an extended music video, with rapid-fire edits timed to the beat of energetic rock songs. Sometimes the immersive approach works, creating a vibe almost as intoxicating as the weed that characters often smoke, and sometimes the approach seems enervated and repetitive.
          The problem is that for all of its slick photography and hip gimmicks, Captain Milkshake doesn’t have much of a script.
          Paul (Geoff Gage) is a Marine home from Vietnam on a two-day leave. Living in the shadow of his late father, who was also a Marine, Paul has an attitude that’s partly pacifistic and partly patriotic, so he’s conflicted about his role in the military. Listening to a racist uncle rant about how cool it is that Paul gets to kill Asians doesn’t help matters. Gradually, Paul becomes more and more involved with two hippies he meets by happenstance, fast-talking agitator Thesp (David Korn) and Thesp’s sorta-girlfriend, Melissa (Andrea Cagan). Over the course of his leave, Paul becomes sexually involved with Melissa and, without realizing it, criminally involved with Thesp—Paul tags along for a trip to Mexico, only discovering after the fact that Thesp smuggled dope across the border. Yet not much really happens in Captain Milkshake. There’s a lot of talk about planning a demonstration, for instance, but the demonstration doesn’t amount to much. Accordingly, the “shock” ending feels contrived and inconsequential.
          Still, Captain Milkshake gets lots of points for vibe. Excellent black-and-white photography grounds the picture in cinematic professionalism, providing a strong baseline for freakier visual elements. Some of the editing (credited to costar Korn) is also impressive, especially an exciting montage set to an acid-rock cover of “Who Do You Love?” That one scene, which has enough editorial whiz-bang for an entire episode of The Monkees, encompasses everything from lava lamps to motorcycles to sex. And even if the film’s acting is mostly quite tentative, some scenes land simply because the hippie ethos is conveyed so effectively. In one choice bit, Thesp imitates John Wayne’s voice during a speech while hippie chicks play “America the Beautiful” on kazoos.

Captain Milkshake: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Northern Lights (1978)

          Earnest, humane, and political, indie drama Northern Lights tells the story of how Norwegian-immigrant farmers organized in North Dakota circa 1916 as a means of fighting back against abuse by politically connected businessmen. Codirected by first-timers John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, the picture has a miniscule budget, simplistic black-and-white cinematography, and a general paucity of visual spectacle beyond panoramic shots of wintry North Dakota skylines. Yet as is true of many respectable indies, the limitations of Northern Lights are also virtues. This is a story about small people living on the fringes of civilization, so the rudimentary presentation suits the material. Moreover, Hanson and Nilsson focus on performance, letting the faces of their actors carry the muted emotions of the storyline—another suitable choice, given the stoicism of the population being portrayed. In every important way, the filmmakers strive to put viewers inside the day-to-day grind of a specific population.
          Ray (Robert Behling) is a struggling young farmer eager to marry his sweetheart, Inga (Susan Lynch), but life has a nasty way of interrupting. Work, the death of Inga’s father, bad weather, and the rising conflict between farmers and businessmen all force delays of the couple’s nuptials. Meanwhile, life in general becomes more and more difficult with each passing month for the members of Ray’s community. Ray’s partner, John (Joe Spano), withholds an entire year’s crop of wheat after businessmen artificially depress prices, thereby creating privation on a point of professional pride. Not coincidentally, Ray gets drawn deeper and deeper into labor organization, especially after he watches a bank mercilessly foreclose on a friend’s farm. Northern Lights is partly a catalog of suffering, partly a hero’s journey in which Ray evolves from follower to leader, and partly a tribute to the tenacity of immigrants pulling a living out of rugged terrain. Northern Lights is also a memory piece of sorts, since the movie is framed by sequences of a 94-year-old man discovering Ray’s decades-old journal and transforming that journal into a book (which, ostensibly, provides the story of the movie).
          If all of this makes Northern Lights sound ambitious, that’s not precisely accurate. Although the movie dramatizes a large span of time, its scope is intimate—and that’s the beauty and frustration of the picture. Viewed favorably, Northern Lights wedges an epic story into a manageable shape. Viewed critically, Northern Lights is like a sketch for a never-completed painting. For every single thing the film accomplishes, some other thing is merely implied. This is not to say the movie feels incomplete, because it does not—but rather to say that Northern Lights epitomizes both the strengths and weaknesses of DIY filmmaking. A bigger version of this story wouldn’t feel as personal, but a bigger version would provide a more holistic examination of the historical events depicted onscreen.

Northern Lights: FUNKY

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Jerusalem File (1972)

          Filmed on location in Israel, terrorism-themed thriller The Jerusalem File has enough local color for two movies, familiar professionals in major roles, and a respectable number of action scenes. Accordingly, The Jerusalem File has all the right ingredients for a solid dose of international intrigue. Unfortunately, the filmmakers failed to construct a compelling screenplay populated by dimensional characters. The premise of The Jerusalem File makes sense, but scene-to-scene logic is murky. During several passages, it’s hard to discern what’s happening to whom and why, leaving the viewer with no recourse but to groove on actors glowering menacingly or to passively thrill at scenes of gunplay. Hardly the stuff of a memorable viewing experience.
          David (Bruce Davison) is an American student working on an archaeological dig supervised by Professor Lang (Nicol Williamson). One day, David has coffee with Raschid (Zeev Revah), an Arab militant with whom he is friendly, and representatives of a rival Arab faction commit a drive-by shooting, killing several people but missing their main target, Raschid. This event puts David on the radar of dogged local cop Chief Samuels (Donald Pleasance), who uses David to draw Raschid out of hiding. Before long, David finds himself in the crossfire of various political agendas, so lots of people chase him and shoot at him. Also figuring into the story is Nurit (Daria Halprin), a young Israeli involved in a romantic triangle with David and Lang, and mystery man Barak (Koya Yair Rubin), another participant in the archeological dig.
          Given the lack of depth on the characters, it’s impossible to care much about what happens to them, even though Davison’s mixture of intensity and sincerity creates the illusion that his character has real emotions, if not a fully rounded personality. Williamson is also highly watchable, though it’s never clear where his character’s allegiances lie, and Pleasance sleepwalks through his paper-thin role. (One more note on the cast: This was the last movie role for Halprin, previously seen in just two other movies, 1968’s Revolution and 1970’s Zabriskie Point.) Among this movie’s many wasted opportunities, perhaps none is more glaring than the failure of the filmmakers to meaningfully engage with the fraught politics of the Middle East—seeing as how it’s difficult to understand most of what’s happening onscreen, decoding any messages hidden inside those events is impossible.

The Jerusalem File: FUNKY