Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 11: Five from the Fifties


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The 1950’s were a time of change in movies. Television was providing stiff competition, and studios were willing to do anything to fend it off. The bigger budgeted movies tried 3D, Cinerama, wide-screen, and other optical tricks, while smaller films chose to cover unusual subject matter. The following five films represent a cross-section of nifty 50’s cinema:

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BORDERLINE (Universal-International 1950; D: William A. Seiter)

BORDERLINE is a strange film, straddling the borderline (sorry) between romantic comedy and crime drama, resulting in a rather mediocre movie. Claire Trevor plays an LAPD cop assigned to Customs who’s sent to Mexico to get the goods on drug smuggler Pete Ritchey (Raymond Burr , being his usual malevolent self). She’s tripped up by Ritchey’s rival Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray , channeling his inner Walter Neff), and taken along as he tries to get the dope over the border. What she doesn’t know is he’s also…

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Kitty Litter: SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (Allied Artists 1960)


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Let’s get it out of the way right now- SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE is bad. Real bad. Like mind-numbingly bad. Despite the presence of sex kittens Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld, this movie is a smelly litter box in desperate need of cleaning. It’s an Albert Zugsmith extravaganza, so you know right off the bat it’s gonna be a stinker. Zugsmith had once been a producer at Universal, overseeing prestige films like WRITTEN ON THE WIND and TOUCH OF EVIL. But when he went into independent productions, Zugsmith chose to go the low-budget exploitation route and even though he managed to attract some well-known names, his little epics usually stunk to high heaven.

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The movie revolves around the talents of Mamie Van Doren, a beautiful creature whose best assets weren’t her acting. She plays Dr. Mathilda West, a genius hired to take over the science department at Collins College. Thinko, a supercomputer/robot type thing…

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Back To School Part II #3: Lord Love A Duck (dir by George Axelrod)


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For my third Back to School review, I watched the 1966 satire, Lord Love A Duck!

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I have to admit that, because I’m writing this review in a hurry and because the D and the F key are located right next to each other, I keep accidentally calling this film Lord Love A Fuck.  Somehow, that seems appropriate because Lord Love A Duck is a very odd and subversive little movie that deals with people who are largely motivated by lust and I’m pretty sure that, at one point, Roddy McDowall is seen saying, “Fuck off!” but, of course, we don’t actually hear him say it.  But seriously, Lord Love A Duck is a weird movie.

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Roddy McDowall plays Alan Musgrave, a student at a “progressive” high school in California.  Roddy was about 37 years old when he played a high school senior and he doesn’t look like a teenager at all but somehow, it’s appropriate.  After all, Alan is no ordinary teenager!  He’s smarter than everyone else.  He’s wittier than everyone else.  He’s more clever than everyone else.  He’s also totally obsessive and willing to do just about anything to get what he wants.  And you can be sure of one thing: whenever Alan does something borderline insane, you’ll hear a group of singers harmonizing, “Hey hey hey!” in the background.

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See, it’s happening already.  It doesn’t matter what Alan’s doing.  He could be kicking a skateboard in the way of a romantic rival.  He could be interrupting the graduation ceremony with a tractor.  He could be going to prison for life.  No matter what it is, it will always be accompanied by:

Hey hey hey!

Anyway, Alan is in love with the innocent, sweet, and constantly flirtatious Barbara Anne Greene (Tuesday Weld).  In fact, almost everyone in the film is in love with (or, at the very least, turned on by) Barbara.  The only person who doesn’t seem to be in love with Barbara is her mother (Lola Albright), a former-beauty-turned-cocktail-waitress whose world-weary cynicism seems to offer a depressing hint of what’s in store for Barbara once she gets older.

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But everyone else loves Barbara.  Especially Alan!  In fact, Alan is so in love with her that he swears that he’s going to make sure that she gets everything that she wants.  When she needs 12 cashmere sweaters so that she can join an exclusive girl’s club, Alan helps her to convince her father (Max Showalter) to pay for them.  When Barbara needs a job after dropping out of school, Alan helps her get one as a secretary for the high school’s progressive principal (Harvey Korman).  When Barbara decides she wants to marry the boring but respectable Christian youth leader, Bob (Martin West), Alan keeps Bob’s mother (Ruth Gordon) so drunk that she doesn’t get a chance to reprimand her son for falling in love with a girl from a divorced family.  (As Bob’s mother explains it, she doesn’t believe in divorce.  “We don’t leave our husbands.  We bury them.”)  Eventually, a movie producer decides that he wants Barbara to star in his beach films but Bob says no.  No wife of his is going to be a movie star!  So, of course, Alan decides to murder Bob so that Barbara can again have what she wants…

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Lord Love A Duck is a manic comedy that satirizes everything that mainstream audiences in 1966 would have held sacred.  Teenagers, conservatives, liberals, love, hate, murder, justice, marriage, divorce, morality, sex, religion, television, movies — it’s all thoroughly ridiculed in this film.  (It’s not surprising that the film’s director also wrote the script for The Manchurian Candidate, a satire disguised as a thriller.)  To be honest, it’s probably a little bit too manic for its own good.  At times, the film run the risk of becoming exhausting.  But then there’s even more times when the film is absolutely brilliant.

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Speaking of absolutely brilliant, Lord Love A Duck makes brilliant use of Roddy McDowall’s eccentric screen presence but, even better, it features one of Tuesday Weld’s best performances.  Weld was a talented actress whose performances often revealed that a fragile soul is often the price that is payed for great beauty.  (There’s no greater insecurity than wondering whether people are responding to who you are or to how you look.  Would you still care if I was ugly is not a question we’re supposed to ask but it’s one that we’ve all wondered.)  It would have been far too easy to make Barbara either totally innocent or totally manipulative.  Wisely, the film does neither.  Barbara may occasionally be manipulative but she always means well.  It’s not her fault that everyone around her is either idiotic or insane.

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Though Lord Love A Duck is obviously a time capsule of the culture of mid-60s, it’s also a film that remains relevant even today.  Culturally, we’re still obsessed with fame, youth, and beauty.  In many ways, the satire of Lord Love A Duck still feels more extreme that anything that any contemporary filmmaker would dare to attempt.  I can only imagine what audiences in 1966 thought as they watched this subversive teen film.

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Lisa Marie Does The Wrong Man (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


Since today is Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, I figured why not take a few minutes to recommend one of his films that you may not have seen.  First released in 1956 but still painfully relevant today, The Wrong Man is one of Hitchcock’s best but it’s also one of his most underrated.

The Wrong Man deals with a common Hitchcock theme — i.e., an innocent man has been accused of a crime and, despite all of his efforts, cannot seem to convince anyone of his innocence.  The difference between The Wrong Man and something like Saboteur or Frenzy is that The Wrong Man is based on a true story.

Manny Ballestro (Henry Fonda) is a struggling musician.  He makes $85 a week, playing in a small jazz club.  But even though he may not be rich, he’s happy.  He loves his job.  He loves making music.  Even more importantly, he loves his wife, Rose (Vera Miles).  But Rose needs to have her wisdom teeth removed and it’s going to cost $300.  (As a sign of how much things have changed, I would have been relieved if it had only cost me $300 to get my wisdom teeth taken out.)  Desperate for money, Manny tries to borrow money on his wife’s life insurance plan.  What Manny doesn’t know is that the insurance office has been held up twice by a man who bears a vague resemblance to him.  A clerk calls the police and Manny soon finds himself being taken down to the police station.

Two detectives say that they need Manny’s help but they don’t tell him why.  But Manny knows he’s innocent of any crime and he believes that the police are on his side and he agrees to help.  When they tell him to walk into a liquor store, he does so.  When they take him to a deli, he goes in there as well.  When they demand to know why he was trying to borrow money on his wife’s life insurance, he tells them.  When they ask him about his financial difficulties, he tells them about that as well.  Why shouldn’t he?  He’s innocent and the police are just doing their job, right?  And when the cops finally ask him to copy down a few words that were used in the note that the robber slipped the clerk at the insurance company, Manny does so.  And when they then ask him to take part in a line-up, he does that as well…

And when Manny is arrested and charged with a crime … well, that’s when he finally understands that the system is not on his side.  His wife manages to hire a reputable attorney, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), to defend him but it quickly becomes obvious that the world has already decided that Manny is guilty.  When Manny and his wife try to track down some people who could provide Manny with an alibi, they discover that two of them are dead and one of them cannot be found.  For once, in a Hitchcock film, it’s not a case of conspiracy.  Instead, it’s just bad luck.

And, through it all, Rose continues to blame herself.  In fact, she is so wracked with guilt that she has a nervous breakdown.

It all leads to an amazingly disheartening courtroom scene.  As quickly becomes obvious, the judge has little interest in what’s happening in his court.  Even worse, the jury is unconcerned with the evidence.  Most of them are just annoyed at the inconvenience and punishing Manny seems like the perfect way to release their own frustrations…

It’s a bleak picture of the American justice system.  Watching The Wrong Man today, it’s tempting to say that the film is just a reflection of society in the 1950s and that things have changed today.  But really, have they?  True, the police may now be required to read someone their rights when they’re arrested.  A suspect can now ask for a lawyer.  We’ve got laws against entrapment and all the rest.  But that doesn’t matter.  We still live in a society where people are still widely presumed to be guilty, even after they’ve been found innocent in a court of law.  We still live in a society where the wrong man can have his life ruined because of one mistake.

The Wrong Man doesn’t get as much attention as some of Hitchcock’s other films.  In many ways, it’s an atypical example of his work.  Hitchcock was notorious for his dark sense of humor and his habit of waving away most plot points as just being mere “macguffins.”  With the exception of two scenes, both of which are meant to depict Manny’s mental state, The Wrong Man is filmed in a documentary style, one that occasionally seems more like Sidney Lumet than Alfred Hitchcock.  There’s next to no humor, nor are there any big or flamboyant twists.  In short, The Wrong Man finds the director of Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window at his most sincere.  It takes some getting used to.

But, once you do get used to it, The Wrong Man emerges as a powerful and bleak portrait of two innocent people at the mercy of a soulless system.  It’s a must see so be sure to see it!

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #29: Pretty Poison (dir by Noel Black)


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“I don’t care if critics like it; I hated it.  I can’t like or be objective about films I had a terrible time doing.”

— Tuesday Weld on Pretty Poison (1968)

It’s actually rather depressing to read that Tuesday Weld hates Pretty Poison because it really is an underrated gem, a nifty little thriller that acts as sly satire on youth, conformity, and small town life.  The main reason that the film works is because of the performances delivered by both Weld and her co-star, Anthony Perkins.

But then again, when we the viewers think back on a movie, we remember what we saw as a member of the audience and sometimes, we forget that just because a film is fun to watch, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was enjoyable to make.  When actors and other technicians think back on a film they were involved with, they remember the experience of actually making it.  Reportedly, Weld did not get along with the director of Pretty Poison and couldn’t wait to get away from him.

Interestingly enough, in Pretty Poison, Tuesday Weld plays a teenage girl who doesn’t get along with her mother and who can’t wait to get away from her.  Perhaps being miserable while making Pretty Poison helped Weld to bring a miserable character to life.

Pretty Poison opens with a nervous-looking man named Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) watching a group of high school cheerleaders practicing on a field.  His attention is focused on one cheerleader in particular, the blonde Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld).  Even before the opening credits have ended, the film has established a familiar dynamic.  Sue Ann is the fresh-faced example of small town American innocence.  Dennis is the type of creepy older guy that every girl has had to deal with at some point in her life.  (When I was in high school, there were always guys like Dennis hanging out around the mall.  When I was in college, the Dennis Pitts of the world were the guy who still hung out around the dorms even though they hadn’t been a student in a decade.)

Having established this dynamic early on, Pretty Poison spends the rest of its running time turning that dynamic upside down.

Dennis has recently been released from a mental hospital.  Under the watchful eye of his parole officer (John Randolph), Dennis gets a mind-numbingly dull job at a local mill and tries to live a normal life.  When Dennis finally does get a chance to talk to Sue Anne, he lies to her and tells her that he’s a secret agent and that he’s in town on a mission.  Sue Anne responds to Dennis’s awkward flirting and soon, she’s accompanying him on his “missions.”  During one such mission near the mill, they’re spotted by a security guard.  Sue Anne responds by enthusiastically murdering him.

Yes, the cheerleader’s a sociopath.

Sue Anne’s tyrannical mother (Beverly Garland) does not approve of her relationship with Dennis.  Sue Anne wants her mother out of the way and she expects her secret agent boyfriend to help her out…

Pretty Poison is a sharp mix of dark comedy and heightened drama, one that gets progressively darker as it progresses.  From the minute the film first shows Sue Anne intensely practicing on that field while Dennis watches her, it’s pretty obvious that the film was meant to be an allegory for American society in 1968.  Sue Anne is the perfect, all-American cheerleader who kills people because she can.  Dennis is the neurotic outsider who knows that he’ll never be able to get anyone to believe the truth.

And it all works, largely because both Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld are so well-cast.  It is, of course, impossible to watch Perkins without first thinking about Psycho but he actually manages to make Dennis into a very different character from Norman Bates.  If Norman was a psycho who, at first sight, looked like an innocent, Dennis is an innocent who, at first sight, looks like a psycho.  Tuesday Weld, meanwhile, turns Sue Anne into a disturbingly plausible killer, the type who, within minutes, can alternate between moodiness and giddiness, all the while squealing with orgasmic joy while bashing in someone’s head.

Tuesday Weld may hate Pretty Poison but it’s still a pretty good movie.

Shattered Politics #50: Once Upon A Time In America (dir by Sergio Leone)


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Before I start this review of Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic, Once Upon A Time In America, I want to issue two warnings.

First off, this review is going to have spoilers.  I’ve thought long and hard about it.  Usually, I try to avoid giving out spoilers but, in this case, there’s no way I can write about this movie without giving away a few very important plot points.  So, for those of you who don’t want to deal with spoilers, I’ll just say now that Once Upon A Time In America is a great film and it’s one that anyone who is serious about film must see.

Secondly, I’m not going to be able to do justice to this film.  There’s too much to praise and too much going on in the film for one simple blog post to tell you everything that you need to know.  Once Upon A Time In America is the type of film that books should be written about, not just mere blog posts.  Any words that I type are not going to be able to match the experience of watching this film.

For instance, I can tell you that, much as he did with his classic Spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone uses the conventions of a familiar genre to tell an epic story about what it means to be poor and to be rich in America.  But you’ll never truly understand just how good a job Leone does until you actually see the film, with its haunting images of the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in 1920s New York and it’s surreal climax outside the mansion of a very rich and very corrupt man.

I can tell you that Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his best but you won’t truly know that until you hear it while gazing at Robert De Niro’s blissfully stoned face while the final credits roll up the screen.

I can tell you that the film’s cast is amazing but you probably already guessed that when you saw that it featured Robert De Niro, James Woods, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jennifer Connelly.  But, again, it’s only after you’ve seen the film that you truly understand just how perfectly cast it actually is.  Given the politics of Hollywood and the fact that he’s unapologetically critical of Barack Obama, it’s entirely possible that James Woods might never appear in another major motion picture.  A film like Once Upon A Time in America makes you realize what a loss that truly is.

So, if you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to see it.  Order it off of Amazon.  Do the one day shipping thing.  Pay the extra money, the film is worth it.

Much like The Godfather, Part II (and Cloud Atlas, for that matter), Once Upon A Time In America tells several different stories at once, jumping back and forth from the past to the present and onto to the future.

The film’s “past” is 1920.  Noodles (Scott Tiler) is a street kid who lives in New York’s ghetto.  He makes a living by doing small jobs for a local gangster and occasionally mugging a drunk.  He’s also the head of his own gang, made up of Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curry), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi).  Despite his rough edges, Noodles has a crush on Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), a refined girl who practices ballet in the back of her family’s store.  When Nooldes meets Max (Rusty Jacobs), the two of them become quick friends.  However, their criminal activities are noticed by the demonic Bugsy (James Russo), who demands any money that they make.

The film’s “present” is 1932.  Noodles (Robert De Niro) has spent twelve years in prison and, when he’s released, he discovers that some things have changed but some have remained the same.  Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) are still criminals but they’ve prospered as bootleggers.  Occasionally, they do jobs for a local gangster named Frankie (Joe Pesci) and sometimes, they just rob banks on their own.  During one such robbery, they meet a sado-masochistic woman named Carol (Tuesday Weld), who quickly becomes Max’s girlfriend.

As for Noodles, he continues to love Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). But, when he discovers that she’s leaving New York to pursue a career as an actress, he reveals his true nature and rapes her.  It’s a devastating scene — both because all rape scenes are (or, at the very least, should be) devastating but also because it forces us to ask why we expected Noodles to somehow be better than the men who surround him.  After spending nearly two hours telling ourselves that Noodles is somehow better than his friends and his activities, the movie shows us that he’s even worse.  And, when we look back, we see that there was no reason for us to believe that Noodles was a good man.  It’s just what we, as an audience, wanted to believe.  After all, we all love the idea of the romanticized gangster, the dangerous man with a good heart who has been forced into a life of crime by his circumstances and who can be saved by love.  In that scene, Once Upon A Time In America asks us why audiences continue to romanticize men like Noodles and Max.

As for the gang, they’re hired to serve as unofficial bodyguards for labor leader Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams) and, in their way, help to found the modern American labor movement.  (“I shed some blood for the cause,” Patsy says while showing off a huge bandage on his neck.) When fascistic police chief Aiello (Danny Aiello) needs to be taken down a notch, they kidnap his newborn son and hold him for ransom.  (While pulling off this crime, they also manages to switch around all the babies and, as a result, poor babies go home with rich families and vice versa, neatly highlighting both the power of class and the randomness of fate.)  However, the good times can’t last forever and, when prohibition is repealed, the increasingly unstable Max has to find a new way to make some money.

Finally, the film’s third storyline (the “future” storyline) takes place in 1967.  Noodles has spent decades living under a false identity in Buffalo.  When he gets a letter addressed to his real name, Noodles realizes that someone knows who he is.  He returns to a much changed New York.  Carol now lives in a retirement home.  Deborah is an acclaimed Broadway actress.  Jimmy O’Donnell is the most powerful union boss in America.  Fat Moe’s Speakeasy is now Fat Moe’s Restaurant.

Once Noodles is back in town, he receives a briefcase full of money and a note that tells him that it’s an advanced payment for his next job.  He also receives an invitation to a party that’s being held at the home of Christopher Bailey, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Who is Secretary Bailey?  He’s a shadowy and powerful figure and he’s also a man who is at the center of a political scandal that has turned violent.  And, when Noodles eventually arrives at the party, he also discovers that Secretary Bailey is none other than his old friend Max.

How did a very Jewish gangster named Max transform himself into being the very WASPy U.S. Secretary of Commerce?  That’s a story that the film declines to answer and it’s all the better for it.  What doesn’t matter is how Max became Bailey.  All that matters is that he did.  And now, he has one final favor to ask Noodles.

(There’s a very popular theory that all of the 1967 scenes are actually meant to be a hallucination on Noodles’s part.  And the 1967 scenes are surreal enough that they very well could be.  Though you do have to wonder how Noodles in 1932 could hallucinate the Beatles song that is heard when he returns to New York in 1967.)

Once Upon A Time In America is an amazing film, an epic look at crime, business, and politics in America.  It’s a film that left me with tears in my eyes and questions in my mind.  The greatness of the film can not necessarily be put into words.  Instead, it’s a film that everyone needs to see.

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Here’s Your Chance To Tell Lisa Marie What To Watch!


So, guess what I did this morning?  That’s right — I put on a blindfold, a stumbled over to my ever-growing Blu-ray, DVD, and even VHS collection and I randomly selected 12 films!

Why did I do this?

I did it so you, the beloved readers of Through the Shattered Lens, could once again have a chance to tell me what to do.  At the end of this post, you’ll find a poll.  Hopefully, between now and next Monday (that’s March 24th), a few of you will take the time to vote for which of these 12 films I should watch and review.  I will then watch the winner on Tuesday and post my review on Wednesday night.  In short, I’m putting the power to dominate in your hands.  Just remember: with great power comes great … well, you know how it goes.

Here are the 12 films that I randomly selected this morning:

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) — This German film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.  It tells the true life story of the left-wing German terrorist group, The RAF.

The Cat’s Meow (2001) — From director Peter Bogdonavich, this film speculates about the events that led to the shooting of silent film director Thomas H. Ince.  Starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies, Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst, and Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) — The close relationship between two teenage girls (Melanie Lynesky and Kate Winslet) leads to both a vibrant fantasy world and real-life murder.  Directed by Peter Jackson.

In A Lonely Place (1950) — In this film noir from director Nicholas Ray, Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter who may (or may not) be a murderer.

Liquid Sky (1983) — In this low-budget, independent science fiction film, an alien lands in New York and soon several members of the city’s underground art scene are vaporized.  Not surprisingly, it all has to do with heroin.

Made in Britain (1983) — A very young Tim Roth makes his debut in this British film.  Roth plays Trevor, a Neo-Nazi who — despite being intelligent and charismatic — also seems to be intent on destroying himself and everything that he sees.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013) — In between The Avengers and Agents of SHIELD, Joss Whedon found the time to direct this adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.

Peyton Place (1957) — In this Oscar-nominated film, the sordid secrets of an outwardly idyllic New England town are exposed.

Pretty Poison (1968) — Having just been released from a mental institution, Dennis (Anthony Perkins) finds himself involved with teenager Sue Anne (Tuesday Weld), who — despite her wholesome appearance — is actually psychotic.

Troll 2 (1990) — A family moves to Nilbog, a small town that is populated by vegetarian goblins.  This movie is widely considered to be one of the worst ever made.

Walkabout (1971) — In this visually stunning Nicolas Roeg film, a teenage girl and her younger brother find themselves stranded and left for dead in the Australian outback.  They try to survive with the help of an Aborigine.

Zabriskie Point (1970) — In this 1970 film, the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni takes a look at the 60s counter-culture.  Airplanes are stolen, buildings explode, and orgies magically materialize in the middle of the desert.

The poll will be open until Monday, March 24th.

Happy voting!