Kino Lorber gives us Peckinpah tough-guy cinema, Kubrick’s trusted page, and the earliest jazz concert film ‘JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY’

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

Rated R, 112 minutes
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Warren Oates and Isela Vega

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA has to be one of the coolest film titles of all time. It’s declarative and to the point and would definitely catch your attention had you been looking to see a flick on a Friday night in 1974.

Sam Peckinpah, a stalwart auteur of tough-guy cinema – with a string of titles in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s dispersing like bullets from a Smith & Wesson – delivers one of his thorniest outings here. To some, it is incomprehensible, while others give the director and its star Warren Oates high praise. 

The opening sequence sort of lulls, taking its time before getting to the meat of the story. It’s like Peckinpah moving Sergio Leone’s Italian westerns to Mexico and replacing the spaghetti with tortillas and Cerveza. A young girl is summoned before her father, a notorious Mexican mob boss nicknamed “El Jefe.” She is pregnant out of wedlock. Alfred Garcia is the father of the child, and El Jefe wants his head. He offers a one million dollar bounty, a tidy sum for a not-so-tidy solution.

A couple of bounty hunters field the offer then outsource the search for Garcia to Bennie (Oates), a piano player at some dingy Mexico City cantina/bordello. But Bennie does more than tickle ivories for tips. Like a State Farm agent, he’s seen a thing or two. He knew the game before the two gentlemen sauntered over to his piano and started asking questions. A reward for services rendered is on the table and, looking at his tip jar, it’s evident Bennie’s not one to turn down money. 

With the help of girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), a prostitute with carnal knowledge of Garcia, Bennie quickly learns that the wanted man is already dead. The chance for some easy money is there for the taking, and Bennie wants it. They set out to find the body only for their best-laid plains to be disrupted by random acts of violence. The violence leads to quite the character transformation as Bennie’s motivation at the onset gravitates to a sort of post-traumatic stress which is, metaphorically, Peckinpah being free of studio constraints but a little too euphoric in how to handle himself. 

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is such a divisive piece of pulp art. Warren Oates owns in his performance as Bennie, the hero of a meandering quest that sometimes wavers but holds your attention nonetheless. 

Considering the previous printing of ALFRED GARCIA (from Twilight Time) was limited to 3000 copies and released in 2014, Kino Lorber’s new release is worth it if only for the fact it uses a 2017 HD Master from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. 

– Audio Commentary by Co-Writer/Associate Producer Gordon Dawson, Moderated by Nick Redman
– Audio Commentary by Film Historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Nick Redman
– TRAILERS FROM HELL with Josh Olson
– TV Spot
– Image Gallery
– Theatrical Trailer

Grade: A-

For those who want a tough-guy cinema double feature, another recent Kino release worth considering is John Frankenheimer’s THE TRAIN starring Burt Lancaster. You don’t need the Monuments Men when you have Lancaster leading as Labiche, the reluctant leader of a resistance up against a German colonel with a trainload full of valuable art on its way to Germany. He’s tasked with stopping the train without damaging the cargo. Lancaster’s gymnastics background and work as a circus performer help elevate the film in certain scenes, particularly those involving tracking shots where the actor performs his own stunts. 

FILMWORKER

Not Rated, 94 minutes
Director: Tony Zierra
Cast: Leon Vitali

Stanley Kubrick was an enigma; this much is true. A filmmaker whose meticulousness was paramount to such a degree it bordered on madness, Kubrick’s works would come to influence the directors that today’s film students would want to emulate. Kubrick continues to inspire, from Steadicam photography in THE SHINING and his use of music throughout his oeuvre. But it’s one thing to influence the “younger generation” (what Kubrick referred to filmmakers coming after him), it’s another to make a conscious decision to remain obscure in the shadows of a creative visionary. 

Leon Vitali was a young British television actor when he got the plum opportunity to play Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON. Vitali was already in awe of the director, having seen his previous films, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. His experience working for the auteur on the period-piece drama was so magnificent that Vitali made a decision most – maybe all – would not: forgo fame in favor of working for the obsessive director. 

Tony Zierra’s FILMWORKER documentary allows Vitali, Stanley Kubrick’s unsung assistant, to explain his selfless act of exiting the limelight to take residence behind the scenes. He did every job imaginable. Some of Vitali’s key contributions include acting coach, where he helped former U.S. Marine drill sergeant Lee Ermey get the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in FULL METAL JACKET. Taking hundreds of pictures inside and around various hotels, He also scouted locations, advertising and promotions, and chief restorer of Kubrick’s films. 

Zierra profiles Vitali primarily as the “filmworker” he was in Kubrick’s life and remained after his passing. As far as Vitali’s personal history and upbringing as a possible avenue for his life-changing decision, it’s almost an afterthought. The documentary maintains focus on personal sacrifices made to help shape masterpieces. Artists have muses. Kubrick had Vitali. 

– Q&A with Leon Vitali and Director Tony Zierra
– Theatrical Trailer

Grade: B

From the man in front of the camera to behind the scenes, lovers of classic cinema should check out Dziga Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. This 1929 release from the silent era offers a dawn-to-dusk look at Soviet life. All the machinations of the urban sprawl are on display as people work and play. Vertov produces an extraordinary work of an ordinary day through dissolves, split-screens, and other filmmaking effects.

JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY

Not Rated, 82 minutes
Director: Bert Stern
Cast: Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Chuck Berry, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, and Mahalia Jackson

Opening the keepcase housing, the Blu-ray Disc for Bert Stern’s JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY reveals a pamphlet with a smiling Louis Armstrong on the cover. The insert contains Nate Chinen’s essay, a former jazz critic and author of PLAYING CHANGES: JAZZ FOR THE NEW CENTURY. Even before starting the essay, I was struck by a 2005 quote from filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson:

“The gold standard for me, of making a film out of music, is Jazz on a Summer’s Day.” The quote’s timing would come between making PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and if you watch the two, you’ll notice how PTA’s style, much like a jazz rendition, can change and evolve as it progresses.

JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY is a music time capsule that has been rightfully praised by many as the greatest jazz concert film ever made. Bert Stern documents the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and it is a stunner. Rich in color and sound – especially now, more than sixty years after its release, thanks to a 4K restoration by IndieCollect – you can easily pop this in to unwind. The concert evokes a simpler time when different races and classes came together to appreciate the same music. The sunny disposition found in a Saturday afternoon that included the Thelonious Monk Trio, and Anita O’Day singing “Tea for Two” in a black sheath dress and an ostrich-feather hat that Edith Head would covet, makes way for a cool night as Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars take the stage before Mahalia Jackson sings the crowd a lullaby with “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Beyond the music festival, Newport, Rhode Island, also hosted the America’s Cup, a boat-racing event, the same weekend. The influx of people to the bourgeois summer vacation destination should seem troubling. Still, the only trouble is Stern deciding how much time to devote to the music or the milieu. This presents some odd edit decisions, like cutting away to a boat race after Thelonious Monk begins playing “Blue Monk.” Then again, there is a moment where the cross-cutting between music and idyllic life works beautifully, and it doesn’t involve the festival or even jazz music. It’s just cellist Fred Katz (of the Chico Hamilton Quintet) sitting shirtless in a room practicing. The piece he’s playing is Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1.”   

Notable omissions like Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and Dave Brubeck, all of whom recorded an album apiece at the festival, would be noticed by the most devout cool cats. However, this spectator gladly accepted the appearance of Chuck Berry. He grew up playing blues, and while he’s not playing jazz when performing “Sweet Little Sixteen,” his inclusion affords us a little bridge moving from the jazz age to the rock ‘n’ roll era.

As someone who came to enjoy jazz from working as a disc jockey at a college radio station, JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY was like going back to school. Laid back, easy on the ears, and an inviting way to enchant outsiders to be one of the cool cats. 

– Bert Stern photo galleries
– Archival interview with Bert Stern
 Bert Stern: Original Madman (2011 documentary by Shannah Laumeister Stern)
– Audio commentary by music journalist Natalie Weiner
– Trailer
– Booklet essay by Nate Chinen

Grade: A

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