Music Video Of The Day: Coming Into Los Angeles by Arlo Guthrie (1970, dir by Michael Wadleigh)


“Lot of freaks!”

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first day of the famous (or infamous, depending on how you feel about hippies, nudity, mud, and Crosby Stills Nash) 1969 musical festival, Woodstock.  Today’s music video of the day is taken from Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary about that event.

Arlo Guthrie was the son of folk singer, Woody Guthrie.  He’s best known for the Thanksgiving anthem, Alice’s Restaurant.  I enjoy his performance here because Arlo is both playing up to the crowd while, at the same time, remaining rather detached from them as well.  He understands the audience and allows them to think that he’s one of them while remaining a bit above it all.  (And if you have any doubt, just look at him flying over Woodstock in a helicopter.)  It’s the same feeling that one gets from watching Arlo in the film version of Alice’s Restaurant and it makes him a more intriguing figure than the artists who unambiguously embraced the counter culture.

Wadleigh, of course, uses Guthrie’s song as a way to acknowledge that, believe it or not, a lot of weed was smoked at Woodstock.

Finally, it’s a pretty good song.  Rhyming “Los Angeles” with “a couple of keys” guarantees that.

Enjoy!

Film Review: Woodstock (dir by Michael Wadleigh)


A few nights ago, as I watched the 1970 documentary Woodstock, I thought to myself, “Goddamn, this is a long movie…”

Just how long Woodstock is depends on which version that you watch.  The original version, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary and which was also nominated for Best Editing (the first nomination ever for the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker), had a running time of little over three hours.  The version that I watched was the “director’s cut,” which clocks in at close to four hours.  Of course, since Woodstock was shot over the course of a three-day music festival, it could have been even longer.  32 acts performed at Woodstock but only 14 of them appeared in the original version of the film.  (By including footage of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Canned Heat, the director’s cut increases that number to 17.)

As for the music that does appear in the film, your reaction is going to depend on how much you like the music of the late 60s.  Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Ten Years After are all brilliant but, at the same time, you also have to deal with Joan Baez rambling about her imprisoned husband and singing perhaps the smuggest version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot ever recorded.  Watching Crosby Stills & Nash perform, I was reminded of every boring grad student that I’ve ever known while John Sebastian’s stage patter sounded almost like a parody of hippie shallowness.  I would say that Woodstock was a perfect example of why the rockers are better remembered than the folk singers, except for the fact that my favorite musical performance in the film comes from Arlo Guthrie:

That said, Woodstock really isn’t about the music.  That may sound like a strange thing to say, considering that almost every concert film made since owes a debt to Woodstock but really, the most interesting parts of the film aren’t the performances.  Instead, it’s the interviews with the people involved, not only the concertgoers themselves but also the citizens of the nearby town of Bethel, New York.  Some of the people interviewed as very positive about the sudden hippie invasion.  Quite a few others are not.  One older man seems to be more concerned with working on his car than anything else.  Like any good documentary, Woodstock provides a record of the time when it was made.  As much as I like music, I absolutely love history and, to me, that’s the main appeal of Woodstock.  Watching the film is like getting a chance to step into a time machine and experience an age that I would otherwise never get a chance to know.

Whenever I watch Woodstock, I’m always struck by the fact that I probably would not have enjoyed it as much as some of the people who attended.  I have a feeling that I’d be like that poor girl who is spotted about halfway through the film, crying about how it’s too muddy and crowded.  I always cringe a little when I see everyone bathing in the same dirty pond.  (A young Martin Scorsese worked on the film and reportedly spent the entire festival wearing an immaculate white suit.  That’s something that I would have liked to have seen.)  And yet, at the same time, I just find the documentary fascinating to watch.  I always find myself wondering what became of the people who were interviewed in the film.  How many of the hippies are still hippies and how many of them eventually ended up working on Wall Street?  Did the cranky guy working on his car even bother to see the film?  (It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t.  Movies, especially movies about a bunch of stoned hippies, really didn’t seem to be his thing.)  To me, questions like those are what makes a movie like this fascinating.

As an event, the original Woodstock is often cited as being the best moment of the 60s counterculture.  (30 years later, the 1999 Woodstock would be remembered as one of the worst moments in the history of both music and American popular culture.)  As a film, Woodstock is undeniably optimistic that the people who braved the rain and the mud so that they could see Joan Baez would somehow manage to build a new society.  Still, sharp-eyed viewers will note a hint of what was to come.  One of the first people interviewed in the documentary is a local shopkeeper.  As he speaks, a newspaper can be seen over his shoulder.

The headline reads: “Sharon’s Pals Balk At Probe,” a reference to the investigation into the murder of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson and his followers.  Seen today, that headline serves as a reminder that, even at the time it was occurring, the peaceful promise of the original Woodstock would be short lived.

 

Guilty Pleasure No. 30: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


Wolfen_1981A guilty pleasure is a film that we might enjoy, but isn’t as loved by others overall. It’s the kind of film that you can watch on any given day, but to speak of it may cause raised eyebrows among your peers. Everyone has at least one film or two that they treasure in this way.

My Guilty Pleasure pick is 1981’s Wolfen, directed by Michael Wadleigh. Loosely based off the novel by Whitley Strieber, the film focuses on two homicide investigators who learn that the case they’re working may actually be caused by animal attacks. Often mistaken as a werewolf film, I really wouldn’t group Wolfen into that category. It’s supernatural in some ways, yes, but you won’t find any serious werewolf activity in it. Surprisingly enough, Wolfen was released in the theatre just a few months after Joe Dante’s The Howling. This makes me wonder how audiences took to Wolfen after seeing all of the make-up effects in Dante’s work. From an effects standpoint, Wolfen’s big claim to fame is the negative photography used to showcase the animals’ point of view. I can’t imagine it was incredibly amazing when comparing the two, but on it’s own, it’s not bad. It’s one of the few movies I’d like to see get a remake, if only to have the story match Strieber’s book better.

When a millionaire land developer and his wife are found brutally murdered in Battery Park, Detective Dewey Wilson is brought on to investigate. Albert Finney (Miller’s Crossing, The Bourne Ultimatum, Skyfall) easily carries the film as Wilson, feeling a lot like the owner of your favorite corner deli. Wilson’s detective work is subtle in the film, and Finney plays to that with a relaxed alertness. He comes across as calm, questioning, but you get the sense that if it came to blows, he’d be ready to react. I suppose most detectives are that way. When the murder is believed to be a possible terrorist attack, a Security Agency brings in a psychological expert named Rebecca Neff, played by Diane Venora (Heat, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). Wolfen was Venora’s first film and she’s good in this, though the screenplay is written in a way where it’s more Dewey’s tale to tell. The book did Neff’s character more justice than the movie, overall. Rounding out the casting is Gregory Hines (Running Scared, The Cotton Club – also with Venora) as a forensics expert, Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica) as a Native American worker who may know more than he says and Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Last Action Hero, F/X – once again, with Diane Venora) as a Zoo Worker who’s just a little to into wolves in general. That’s just my opinion, though Noonan’s been known to play creepy very well. The performances here are all pretty good. No one is really out of place here, as far as I could tell.

If Wolfen suffers from any major problem, it’s in the writing. In adapting the novel, they had the chance to really bring the terror from the novel on screen. In the book, we’re given an understanding of what the Wolfen are – creatures older, faster and more terrifying than your typical canine. They came complete with their own way of communicating with one another, and Strieber’s novel even referenced his other story about Vampires, The Hunger. The final standoff of the book was a fight similar to From Dusk Till Dawn, with the hope that our heroes could maybe hold off what was coming. The movie decided to go a different route. Not terrible in any way, but it could have been really good if they stayed on track.

I could be off here, but I believe the film elected to try to make the story more relevant for its time by circling the murder around terrorism and using the Security Agency. The Security Agency has so little to do with the film outside of bringing Neff on the case, it’s incredible. About every 20 minutes, the film cuts back to this crew of personnel at their computers, watching footage of attacks (that have little to do with the original victim) in an attempt to piece together why this death happened. Meanwhile, Wilson walks into bar and gets the whole solution handed to him in a short story over a beer. I wonder if Wadleigh (who co-wrote the script) was trying to say that with all the technology at their disposal, all it really took to solve a crime was just regular legwork. To quote Olmos’ character “It’s the 20th Century. We got it all figured out.” That’s just my speculation on that.

From a Cinematography viewpoint, Wolfen has some impressive scenes, particularly those of the Manhattan landscape. For a city that doesn’t sleep, the streets as they’re filmed here are barren, with lots of shadows. One scene in particular has Finney and Olmos’ characters talking on top of a bridge, and I have to wonder not only how they were able to get that shot, but how the actors maintained their composure. One wrong slip and either of them could have fell. I also love seeing New York City in the early 80’s, where most of the Bronx and Brooklyn looked like warzones. Both Wolfen and Nighthawks (also released in the same year) are great examples of how bad the city really was during that time.

Wolfen was also one of James Horner’s first scores. Listening to it, you can hear elements of what you’d find in Aliens, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and his other pieces.

Overall, Wolfen is a good film if you find yourself running into it late at night and there’s nothing else to catch. I watch it on purpose, but that’s just me. We all have our tastes. If at all possible, consider reading the novel as well.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line

Quick Horror Review: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (1981) remains one of my favorite stories with wolves, though there are no actual werewolves in the movie. It’s a great and underrated film, though I’m not quite sure if it really can be considered Horror. There’s bloodshed, yes, but not a lot when compared to the more superior The Howling, which came out in the same year.

The film in a nutshell is that you have the Bronx. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the Bronx was a warzone, and there were a number of films showcasing the decay of the area (Nighthawks and Fort Apache: The Bronx are two good ones). When a real estate mogul who’s developing buildings in the area and his wife are brutally murdered, Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is partnered with a terrorism expert (Diane Venora) to solve the crime.

Through the film, Dewey discovers that the murders are being done not by people, but the spirits of ancient indians in the form of Wolves – or better to say that they were hunters from an older time. The Wolfen, as they’re called, are scavengers of the city’s decay, feeding off of those who won’t be missed – derelicts and the like.

While Finney and Venora carry the film, Gregory Hines has some fun lines as the local NYPD mortician and Tom Noonan’s Wolf Expert was interesting, though a little strange. The best person in the supporting cast (who doesn’t have as much time to work with) is Edward James Olmos, in a surprising turn as Eddie, who is believed to have something to do with the murders, but later helps put Dewey in the right direction.

Supposedly, the movie was a little heavy handed with all of the anti-terror angle they tried to use. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a major part of Whitley Streiber’s novel of the same name and it tends to steer the audience away from the actual problem. I mean, the audience is seeing wolves do this (or at least are seeing something animalistic do it), so to bring in the notion that there’s a terrorist plot involved kind of went over my head. The movie would have been tighter without it, I believe anyway.

One of the cooler elements of the movie is that you are able to see things through the eyes of the Wolfen themselves in an infrared vision style. While this was done with movies after it like Predator, and films before it like Westworld, Wolfen was my first experience with the effect. That, coupled with James Horner’s score (a mixture of themes you’d later find in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens), lend to some of the style. Unfortunately, Wolfen is a somewhat difficult film to find in terms of obtaining the DVD for it, but the film has been on Netflix. If you have a chance to catch it, it’s an interesting watch.

Quickie Review: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


1981 was a great year for wolf movies. There was the excellent An American Werewolf in London by John Landis and Joe Dante’s equally creepy The Howling. To finish off the trifecta of werewolf films for the year there’s Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen. Wadleigh’s film was a very good werewolf tale that added a bit of Native American folklore to the typical lycanthrope story, but it’s slightly overlong running time keeps it from being as great as Landis’ and Dante’ contributions.

Wolfen takes place in the city of New York and its growing urban jungle of decaying and condemned buildings in the city’s ghettos. One has to remember that the late 70’s and through on the mid-80’s the inner-cities of most of the major metropolitan cities in the US have turned into rundown ghettos rife with drug problems, high-crime rates and unemployment. It is in this setting that Wolfen takes place in. The film used the screenplay co-written by horror veteran novelist Whitley Strieber and his quirky style heavily influences this werewolf story. Strieber’s screenplay mixes together a police procedural, political intrigue, business corruption, race and class relations, Native American lycanthrope folklore and horror. Wolfen tries to combine all these different elements together as well as possible and it mostly succeeds, but there’s times when the film gets dragged down a bit trying to accomplish this.

The cast was made up of mostly new actors (well young and new at that time) with a few veteran actors holding things together. Albert Finney gets the choice role of NYPD Detective Dewey Wilson who begins investigating a series of brutal murders of three individuals whose race, class and personal status brings no discernible clues that ties them together. Joining him in his investigation — which Wilson gradually suspects has some sort of supernatural angle to it — were the very young Diane Venora and Gregory Hines. Edward James Olmos plays a Native American whose knowledge ties to who or what was involved in the killings might be closer than everyone thinks. The performances from all involved were pretty good though Hines comic relief performance was a bit too blackface in its tone and execution. 1981 Hollywood was still not ready to discount such racial stereotypes and it gives Wolfen a certain sense of creepiness and insensitivity. Maybe the screenplay was written just that way to highlight one of the film’s themes of racial and class inequality. If it was then Strieber sure did an excellent job of hammering home the point.

There’s a point in the film where we find out the nature of these wolfen and it does stretch the usual definition of the typical werewolf story. But looking back on it now this version told by Strieber and Wadleigh does lend credence to native folklore about wolves who were cunning as men and who preyed not just on the animals in their territory but hunted men as well. Whether they’re wolves or men in the shape of wolves really is left to the audience’s imagination even after the brief explanation of the wolfen and it’s role in the legends and myths of Native Americans.

The film had very creepy moments whenever the story switches over to be told through the viewpoint of the wolfen. The skewed perspective the camera takes on to signify that we were seeing things through the eyes of the wolfen was disorienting and creepily well-done. Wolfen never really has pure horror moments in the film though in the hands of a director like Carpenter these sequences definitely would’ve raised the level of dread and horror. Wadleigh does a good enough job, but it seemed like he was treating the horror aspect of the story with less attention than it was its due.

Wolfen marks the weakest of the werewolf trilogy of 1981, but thats not to say that it was a bad film. The finished product was a well-done film and its attempt to be very ambitious in its storytelling has to be commended. The fact that the filmmakers and all involved were able to keep all the different themes and genres together without having the film spiral into utter confusion makes it a worthwhile werewolf film. It may have been the weakest of the three films mentioned but it wasn’t by much.