Contamination (1980)

Contamination (1980) movie poster

director Luigi Cozzi
viewed: 11/23/2015

The first 20 minutes of this lowly budgeted Alien (1979) knock-off are moderately promising.  A large ship heads into New York, appearing suddenly abandoned.  But when investigated with local cops and public health workers, several gruesomely destroyed bodies are found and these boxes of what is supposed to be coffee are filled with weird egg-like things.  And when the egg-like things get hot — watch out!  They explode acidic goo that in turns makes humans explode from the inside out!

And the final 20 minutes.  The final 20 minutes are pretty good too.

But by the time you’ve gotten to the final 20 minutes, you’ve also endured the interval of 50 minutes where the story is expanded and expounded, revealing that these eggs came back from Mars and are part of an insidious plot to overtake the world, led by a bizarre cyclopian octopus from outer space, by way of a trip to the South American coffee plant and some very dull spy adventure stuff.

Okay, the final 20 minutes are more good in a comic and ironic way.  The monster is a somewhat animatronic thing straight out of a 1950’s Roger Corman flick.  The resultant whole of the film sags somewhere below mediocrity, though is indeed infused with some charms.  One of which, some might cite the Goblin score.

This was Luigi Cozzi’s follow up to his notorious Star Wars (1977) knock-off Starcrash (1979).  I still gotta get around to seeing that!

Slow West (2015)

Slow West (2015) movie poster

director John Maclean
viewed: 11/21/2015

An English/Kiwi Western starring Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Slow West is the worst worst worst movie that I’ve seen in some time.

Smit-McPhee is a young Scotsman who follows the love of his life when she immigrates to America with her father.  He winds up employing Fassbender, a bounty hunter, to help track her down.  Only it turns out that the girl and her father are wanted criminals and Fassbender, as well as others, seek to track them for alternative reasons.

It’s not that this had to be terrible.  In fact, it’s a pretty-looking picture.  Who knows, it might be one of the better-looking awful movies ever made.  It’s meant to be artsy and somewhat ironic or humorous at times, as well as romantic.  For some reason, the film has gotten good reviews.  I’d mind-boggling as to why.  It’s dunderheaded.  Shockingly bad.  Absolutely, positively terrible.

The Far Country (1954)

The Far Country (1954) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 11/21/2015

1896, the Alaskan Gold Rush, the “far country”, the Westernmost range of the Western.  This is the setting for Anthony Mann’s 1954 Western, The Far Country, his fourth of five Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart.

Aspects of the film echo of Bend of the River (1952), Mann and Stewart’s 2nd Western together.  In Bend of the River, Stewart played a driver who helped a family drive to their homestead in Western Oregon, navigating the ruthless markets and opportunists who try to rip them off when gold is discovered nearby.  The Far Country begins in another Pacific Northwest frontier town, this time Seattle, and Stewart’s character, Jeff Webster, isn’t aiding a family unit, but shepherding his own team of cattle to Alaska for a big score.  And while he manages to dodge the shysters and thieves in Seattle, he runs afoul of the even more ruthless kingpin in Skagway, Judge Gannon (John McIntire).  The judge, having all authority, just takes his cattle without any chance of recompense.

As Jeff, Stewart isn’t as kind-hearted as his character in Bend of the River.  He’s looking out for #1, and to some extent, his #2, Ben Tatum (the always enjoyable Walter Brennan).  When he manages to free himself (and his cows) to hit the far country, he finds the same villains of Skagway have invaded Dawson City.  But his moral compass only looks to his own profit and he winds up selling to the villains, just to make a buck.

It’s an interesting contrast, these two characters.  Under the sway of a pretty young thing, Renee (Corinne Calvet), and through further ruthlessness by the local villains, Jeff comes around to learning to protect the town and the budding American society laying its seeds in the icy, isolated soil.  He’s forced to do right, to protect and support the good people from the bad, rather than disinterestedly looking only out for himself.  Some vague critique of isolationism or something?

Shot in parts in Canada, like other Anthony Mann Westerns, the natural landscapes are used to significant effect.  The Far Country is an interesting and well-made picture.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing Saddles (1974) movie poster

director Mel Brooks
viewed: 11/21/2015

Between Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (1974), Mel Brooks stumbled onto his preferred form of movie comedy: the genre parody or send-up.  He’d tackle silent movies, Hitchcock, and even Star Wars (1977) through this methodology.  But 1974 was probably his best year as both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were landmarks in 1970’s comedy.

While I think that Young Frankenstein is a better and funnier movie, Blazing Saddles is perhaps a more radical attempt at sending up genre, poking hard at racism in America, in the American West, and ultimately in the American Western.  With Richard Pryor as one of the four credited screenwriters, the gags playing on the black sheriff in the rigorously racist West turn on clichés of the genre and truths in American history and life.

The humor is broad and schticky.  And edgy for the 1970’s.  So oft-quoted at the time, popularly referenced, watching it now seems to see it in a different context, perhaps more of a film of its time more than anything.  More than its own relevance today.

It’s interesting that 1974 was also the year that Fred Williamson/Jack Arnold’s Boss Nigger came out because that blacksploitation styled revisionist Western also featured an African American sheriff in a town that didn’t cotton to him.  Brooks’ film is far more playful, obviously, but it’s interesting to see how this concept was playing out in pop culture at the time, in the face of a genre deeply dyed in the wool of racist depiction and cultural omissions.

Blazing Saddles has a terrific cast.  Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, and Brooks himself, plus Slim Pickens, Liam Dunn, John Hillerman, and David Huddleston all get some laughs in with hilarious delivery.

But I don’t know.  Though I hadn’t seen it in decades, this is one of those films that played so much in my childhood that it feels somewhat embedded in my consciousness.  And revisiting it bears a familiarity quite profound.  But I didn’t find it terrifically funny.  Enjoyable, sure.  But as classic as it is considered?

I watched it with my 14 year old son, who I think enjoyed it reasonably well.  Still, I think it’s a film that made much more of an impact in its day than it could today.  And its impact shouldn’t be overlooked because in a sense this is a post-Blazing Saddles world.  Not that the impact has the profundity of a before and after but because there has been a Blazing Saddles, there hasn’t really been a need for another.

We Are the Best! (2013)

We Are the Best! (2013) movie poster

director Lukas Moodysson
viewed: 11/20/2015

I haven’t seen all of Lukas Moodysson’s films, in fact, I guess I’ve only seen Show Me Love (1998) and Lilya 4-ever (2002).  But I’ve come to think of him in particular in his interest in teenage girls.  Okay, that sounds bad.  But his work is focused on the world of teenage girls, from self-discovery or even total emotional isolation as in Lilya 4-ever.

We Are the Best! was adapted from a graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife Coco and tells the story of three teenage girls coming of age in Stockholm in 1982, yearning for a punk rock that has seemingly died out too early for its time.  Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin play Bobo and Klara, respectively, rebellious, out-spoken, brash, silly, self-conscious yet adventurous best pals, who recruit the alternately Christian outcast Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) because she’s actually very talented at the guitar.

Like Moodysson’s other films, this is a naturalistic portrayal, one that resonates and moves, in no small part due to the characters and their performances.  It’s sweet-natured and doesn’t once shift into darkened corners, while still giving a sensibility of time and place and personality.

It’s girl power.  A great girl power movie, sweet and fun and punk.

I watched it with Clara, my 11 year old daughter, who enjoyed it very much as well.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) movie poster

director Lucio Fulci
viewed: 11/18/2015

Doused in LSD and awash in surreal psychedelia, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a 1971 giallo from Lucio Fulci. Featuring a score by Ennio Morricone and perhaps most notably fine cinematography by Luigi Kuveiller heighten this swinging Sixties London decadence spiraling into the 1970’s.

Like any giallo worth its salt, it’s a mystery murder and convoluted beyond any concise recounting.  A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a good-looking film, with Kuveiller’s stylish eye and some rather lush sets.  Dream sequences, psychological hypnotism, psychedelic drugs lend some trippy sequences to this extremely period picture.

I’m no Fulci expert, but this film felt quite different from other films of his, even Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), another better giallo of his only a year later.  Because as nice as Lizard looks at times, it’s not overly compelling or interesting, even with its titillating materials.

The Decline of Western Civilization III (1998)

The Decline of Western Civilization III (1998) movie poster

director Penelope Spheeris
viewed: 11/16/2015

I was thrilled when it was announced earlier this year that director Penelope Spheeris was finally releasing her Deline of Western Civilization trilogy on DVD.  Though in the past you could have hunted down VHS versions of the first two films, the 3rd movie in the series ran very briefly in theaters and then disappeared altogether.  I was also very pleased when the trilogy came to Fandor very recently.

The theme of the films, following a music scene in Los Angeles, focusing on the kids and their culture continues here, though the music becomes less and less the story.  Only 4 bands appear: Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression and The Resistance, none of whom would be considered major influences on the music world.  But the music is telling, in contrast with what she captured in 1988 in The Metal Years. From the vapidity of that film’s would-be rock stars, these bands are very politicized and sing about social critique and change, very close to the kids who are at the film’s true heart.

Spheeris is taken with the gutterpunks, and the bulk of the film is interviews with the disaffected homeless youth.  They share a lot more in common with the punks of her original The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), those living the lives of squatters, scavengers, echoing the words of X’s “We’re Desperate”.  The gutterpunks come across as even more outside of the mainstream world, further outcast, and Spheeris seems to take them more seriously and care for them more than the subjects of her prior two documentaries.

It’s a significant turn from the LA and subjects of 1988.  The obscurity of the subjects here and the obscurity of this film for the past 18 years makes one wonder about the whereabouts and well-beings of the subjects here.  It’s telling that even before the film was completed, one of the kids had killed another.

In total, this is an excellent series of films.  You almost wish that Spheeris had thought to visit the music scene even more, capturing LA at its changing music heart.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) movie poster

director Penelope Spheeris
viewed: 11/16/2015

Back in 1988, I couldn’t have been less interested in The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.  What is now disdained as “Hair Metal” was just the active metal scene in those days, scoring top 40 hits and rather inescapable as pop culture.  I spent 1988 actively avoiding such.

Penelope Spheeris, whose 1981 documentary on the LA punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, actually documented bands and a scene that had something cool and great about it, here turns her camera and inspection to Hollywood and the music scene a couple years out from her first film.  Here she finds hair, teased and hairsprayed to monumental proportions, cliché-ridden tunes, and sleazy douchebags.

Interestingly, the bands she snags to perform in the film are mostly lesser ones, barely even has-beens, with the exception of Megadeth, who she plops in at the end of the film on a possible up-note.  More notable are her interviewees who don’t perform: Alice Cooper, Lemmy, Ozzy, the band Poison, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss, and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, adding more commercial notability.  And in the end, Spheeris seems more interested in the people and culture than in the music as opposed to her first film in the series.

Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, ever heard that one before?  That is virtually all this film is about, though many avoid copping to the drugs on camera (though booze does nicely).

There are several noteworthy moments.  The whole Ozzy interview is quite amusing.  Lemmy and Alice Cooper come off as pretty cool people, unlike most of these asses.  Some of them come off as inherently charming asses, but it’s interesting to think through the “where are they now?” a bit.  Obviously, the biggest and most famous are still among us.

While not exactly an exposé, The Metal Years seems amusedly disdainful.  Spheeris was in her early 40’s when she made this and you can sense from her voice and questions that she’s maybe a little over-it-all with the hedonist jackasses.  She does interview a couple of groupie girls and a little of a female-fronted metal band, but doesn’t give the latter all that much space.

Though Metallica already existed, it would only be a year or two out that Nirvana would come on the scene and the hair bands large and small would stop representing the face of “metal”.  Thank goodness for that.

An interesting time capsule.

Combat Shock (1986)


Combat Shock (1986) movie poster

director Buddy Giovinazzo
viewed: 11/15/2015

Though perhaps marketed as a type of exploitation flick, Combat Shock is an amazingly earnest portrait of the hard times in the life of a Vietnam veteran in suburban Staten Island.  It’s not often you see something of this low a budget trying to portray a gritty realism over the more exploitative aspects of genre film.  Buddy Giovinazzo managed to craft something truly unique.

The film stars Ricky Giovinazzo, the director’s brother, as the poor, beleaguered vet, stuck in poverty with a nagging wife and a mutant child (a sort of Mac and Me (1988) meets Eraserhead (1977) baby), few options on the job front, and alienated from his family.  Ricky Giovinazzo gives a good performance, grounding the character, steeped in trauma, PTSD, and shell-shock.

For as low budget as the film looks and feels, Buddy Giovinazzo really makes the most of his brother’s performance and the natural settings of the Port Richmond section of Staten Island of the time of the film’s shooting.  It’s a cold, derelict Northeastern town, on the downside of the economy, far from a rebirth.

As the film moves into its almost inevitable and yet still very powerful conclusion, Combat Shock asserts itself as something far better than one would expect from independently produced and financed films, especially one so focused on a naturalistic drama of “the war at home”.

Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (2005)

Midnight Movies (2005) movie poster

director Stuart Samuels
viewed: 11/15/2015

The 2005 documentary, Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, tackles the rise of the “Midnight Movie” culture through six of the most significant flicks that defined the experience: El Topo (1970), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Harder They Come (1973), Pink Flamingos (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Eraserhead (1977).

While the film keens in on these six films and ends up limited in scope, it benefits significantly by having on-camera interviews with the directors Alejandro Jodorowsky, George A. Romero, Perry Henzell, John Waters and David Lynch, as well as Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien.  Throw in critics Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and J. Hoberman and exhibitor, distributor and producer Ben Barenholtz and you’ve got a lot of great first-hand recollections of the creation of the movies and their lives as late night cult fodder.

While the film does detail some of the growth of “Midnight Movies” across the United States, and its focus on New York and Los Angeles seem apt, I kind of yearned for a little more info on the spread of “Midnight Movie” culture.  Because Eraserhead is the final film of the series, the documentary sees the end of “Midnight Movie” culture with the rise of home video and the coming of the 1980’s.  All these films had impacts and lifespans long-reaching and in some ways eternal, but growing up when I did, I saw my first “Midnight Movie” in the 1980’s (It was unsurprisingly The Rocky Horror Picture Show).  The culture seemed still pretty strong in my hometown of Gainesville, FL at the time and Midnight shows still exist.  I’m sure the heyday passed as the film suggests, but the underlying culture and influence pervades even now.

I watched this with my kids.  I think it was kind of eye-opening in a way.  Felix expressed interest in El Topo and Eraserhead.  I assured them that the only film of the 6 that really needed to be seen as a “Midnight Movie” was Rocky Horror.  That is the only one that really isn’t the same at all without a crazy, active, late-night crowd.  The rest really can stand on their own.