The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The Palm Beach Story (1942) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 11/27/2015

I watch a ridiculous amount of movies.  Well, maybe not as ridiculous an amount as some people I follow on Letterboxd, but I have 2 kids and a full-time job and other interests as well.  And I try to write about each one that is a feature film.

This excuse is made in reference to the many types of films I enjoy and explore and how I haven’t watched a Preston Sturges film in 7 years.  Back in 2008, I watched the terrific Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and the lesser but still pretty great The Lady Eve (also 1941) and then…seven years of lots of other stuff.  Heck, the last film I just watched was the first Federico Fellini film I’d seen in the same interim.  It’s a bit of a thing in my film-watching.

The Palm Beach Story stars Joel McCrea (who was great in Sullivan’s Travels) and Claudette Colbert, one of the Screwball Comedy’s best leading comediennes.  It fits nicely into the subset of the Screwball Comedy which deal with a married man and wife whose marriage is up for inspection, playing heck with the institution while usually winding up right back in the arms of one another in the end.  In this case, Colbert and McCrea are unhappy in their nearing poverty.  He’s never made it big with his crazy innovative ideas and she is a woman who likes to live well and won’t do for living cheap and meager and openly expresses it.

In fact, the story opens as they are about to be put on the street, saved by a strange little rich guy, only giving over for Colbert to realize her best bet is a quick divorce and to land a new shiny rich husband.  She loves McCrea and wants to do well by him by getting whoever her new hubby will be to help him out with his crazy plan for a suspended airport above a major city.  She jumps a train full of rich drunks with guns for Palm Beach, Florida and the wackiness ensues.

She meets, of all people, Rudy Vallee, the squarest of squares, a nearly infinitely rich guy with seriously lacking social skills.  And while she woos him, McCrea swings down to try to win her back.  I won’t ruin it for you in going over the ins and outs of the plot or its most bizarre and hilarious ending but I will say it’s great stuff.

McCrea plays a bit of a stiff compared to Colbert who really gets the best lines and gags and moments.  Mary Astor has a small but pretty funny role as Vallee’s sister.

All I can say is it’s time to line up more Preston Sturges in my queue.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

Juliet of the Spirits (1965) movie poster

director Federico Fellini
viewed:  11/25/2015

I can’t say that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Federico Fellini, though that would sound more familiar and maybe make more sense.  What I’ve had is more of a get-don’t get relationship with him as I’ve come to his films over the past more than a decade.  But such a major figure in World Cinema, Fellini still draws me to his films, the major films I haven’t seen (but have had queued for forever.)

Juliet of the Spirits is perhaps the first of Fellini’s films that I’ve like right off the bat.  In fact, I think I liked it more than any of his other films I’ve seen, I Vitelloni (1953), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963), or The Clowns (1970).  Having seen these five films now spread out over 20 or so years, I probably haven’t come to a realization as quickly as if I’d simply watched them in quicker succession.  In fact, maybe if I’d liked even one of them better, I might have watched another shortly after watching the documentary, Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (2003), which I watched 6 years ago.

It seems that Fellini had an awakening (perhaps influenced by LSD) that led to his notable classic 8 1/2.  He pivoted styles, from the Italian neorealism from which he apprenticed, to the dreamworld surrealism of his more mature works.  It is this latter style that is most often considered when hearing the term “Fellini-esque”.  But would you find that in La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), or La Dolce Vita?  All major films by the Italian maestro?

Juliet of the Spirits bears perhaps some kinship with 8 1/2 (it was his first feature that followed that break-through) in that it deals with a break from reality and sense of self and society, life and family, all meaning perhaps, but instead of Marcello Mastriani as a stand-in for Fellini, the story belongs to Juliet, played by the then 40 something Giulietta Masina, a middle aged woman with a philandering husband, and a world about to come apart at the seams.

But instead of coming apart at the seams herself, Giulietta breaks with reality for the better, not into psychosis or depression but into a wider, wilder realm of change, of self-awareness or independence, not tied to cultural norms nor pre-ordained scripts.  The ending, while indeed wide-open, suggests the unwritten, the possible, and freedom.

Perhaps in changing the focus from a male character to a female, something also shifted.  Masina had starred in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, but I don’t know enough about their relationship as creative partners to speculate on the possible significance of this focus.  But I can say in Fellini’s other films, the classic Italian patriarchal world  feels so unchallenged, that here it felt taken afresh.

Nights of Cabiria has been at the top of my list of Fellini films to see, so maybe I will finally start to watch his movies in closer consection than I have in the past.  I can say that if asked, at present, Juliet of the Spirits would be the first Fellini film I would recommend to someone, truly the first Fellini film I have genuinely liked.

I would be utterly remiss in not saying something about the color and the costumes, the hats, of which, are absolutely amazing.

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.