Something Wild (1986)

Something Wild (1986) movie poster

director Jonathan Demme
viewed: 05/10/2017

A girl calls out a guy who she caught sneaking out of a restaurant without paying. She’s super quirky, he’s super straight-laced and she cajoles him into her car and into an impromptu adventure.

It’s Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels as the respective girl and guy in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 road comedy Something Wild. It’s kind of a flimsy plot that doesn’t seem to add up at first but as the characters reveal themselves through the film, the logic starts to play out. The only thing really impromptu was the guy-selection, Griffith’s Audry/Lulu was always planning on hitting her 10 year high school reunion. She didn’t necessarily count on Ray Liotta, her estranged husband fresh out of prison, to show up and make things difficult.

As much comedy as there is, it’s also quite a somber affair, not fully darkened, but troubled at heart. Ultimately, it’s about the characters. Griffith and Daniels and Liotta give the movie emotional depth and weight, and the soundtrack of cool 1980’s music gives it cult hepness. The backroad byways they travel down offer a glimpse of a lost America.

Radio On (1979)

Radio On (1979) movie poster

director Christopher Petit
viewed: 07/22/2016

I discovered Christopher Petit’s 1979 British road movie, Radio On, from Time Out’s list of The 100 Best British Films.  Before that, I’d never heard of it, but there were a number of films on the list with which I was unfamiliar.  The soundtrack has more stars than the movie itself, featuring David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich and Devo, a coolness factor for 1979 still hep today.

Petit borrowed more than the “road movie” idea from Wim Wenders, he borrowed his cameraman, Martin Schäfer, who brings to the picture its other real highlight, a crafty black-and-white aesthetic interpretation of London and the byways out toward Bristol in the dumps on the edge of Thatcher era of Britain.

Petit, though, locates a cipher in his lead, Robert (David Beames), a radio DJ, seeking a mystery of his brother’s suicide.  Story is more of a red herring than a plot, and one could say the same for characters in the film as well.  The most interesting is a German woman looking for her babydaddy and baby, or maybe Sting who shows up as an Eddie Cochran nut at the location of his deadly taxi crash (no, not interesting, but notable.)

Really, it fits in nicely with the films that Jim Jarmusch would go on to produce, or even those that Bruce McDonald would make in Canada, or however many other indie-like road movies featuring music and musicians, seeking the soul of their country in black and white.  Petit doesn’t have the flair for humor or character that Jarmusch or McDonald do, nor the deeper sensibilities that Wenders could tease out.

The result is a somewhat disappointing thing.  Kind of interesting.  Kind of not.  Maybe more interesting in context with other films of the genre.

My son didn’t care for it at all.


Bound for Glory (1976)

Bound for Glory (1976) movie poster

director Hal Ashby
viewed: 06/07/2016

Bound for Glory is a fine film, an epic-length adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography of his time as Dust Bowl migrant, musician, and his political awakening.  Most remarkable is Haskell Wexler’s Oscar-winning cinematography and Michael Haller’s production design.  From the opening in the small North Texas town, the air shrouded in dust at the clearest of times, overwhelmed by massive storms at others, to the open roads and trains westward to California, to the 1930’s Los Angeles and migrant labor camps, it’s as if the images of Dorothea Lange have been brought to full color life.  Beautifully, gorgeously rendered.

David Carradine delivers an affable performance as Guthrie, the multi-talented humanist musician and activist, who evoked the soul of America at one of its bleakest times.  The film is so beautifully shot, it’s almost easy to forgive some of its lesser qualities.  The one that I found the most stringent was the consistent use of slow fades from scene to scene in the editing.

The Great Depression has been interesting me a lot lately, in particular, its context of how it came about, the impact it had on the country and the world, and the reforms and programs that were crafted to draw America out of it and protect against it recurring.  There is a blindness to the history so often here.  And the significance that union organizing had in protecting workers and the poor.

Guthrie is a noble figure here, though this version of his story is a highly fictionalized one. He’s all folk hero here, and it’s easy to figure him as such.  He was indeed a spokesman and poet of his time, one who continues to resonate, and has value to us today, if we’d care to listen.

I’ve decided to try to work through more of Hal Ashby’s films.  This was the first I’ve seen besides Harold and Maude (1971).  More to come.

Roadkill (1989)

Roadkill (1989) movie poster

director Bruce McDonald
viewed: 01/03/2015

“a rock’n’roll road movie about a girl who learns to drive”

Bruce McDonald’s 1989 feature, Roadkill, is an odd mishmash of things and ideas, strung to the comic story of music label intern Ramona (Valerie Buhagiar) on the trail of a rock band gone astray on tour in Ontario.  She doesn’t know how to drive at the outset, first riding with a pot-smoking cabby, then hooking up with an oddball documentary film crew, and eventually with a wannabe serial killer (Don McKellar), as she strives to get the band Children of Paradise to at least their final gig of the tour in Thunder Bay.

The comedy/road movie, like Ramona’s journey, is kind of all over the place, segueing here, fishtailing there, sometimes funny, sometimes remarkably amateurish, but somehow maintaining a likability perhaps uniquely Canadian.  Perhaps uniquely Ontarian?

I queued this up after watching McDonald’s zombie apocalypse mood piece Pontypool (2008), which surprised and impressed me.  I’d had a bad experience with his film Hard Core Logo (1996) at some time in the past, something I’ll have to reconsider, possibly.  Maybe if I’d seen Roadkill back around that time I might have been more dismissive, too.  I don’t know.  But around now, I kind of liked it.

Kingpin (1996)

Kingpin (1996) movie poster

director Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
viewed: 11/29/2015

There was a time when the Farrelly brothers seemed like they might be the next great thing for comedy films.  It was right around the time of Kingpin in 1996 or even more specifically with their best film, the follow-up to Kingpin, 1998’s There’s Something About Mary.  I couldn’t tell you why exactly their careers went from strikes to gutterballs, but they’ve ceased to be real players in the world of hit comedies.

I’d recalled liking Kingpin but I probably could have lived my life without watching it again.  But my son selected comedies for our month genre theme and him having a liking for Bill Murray and Kingpin‘s presence on Netflix streaming all lined us up for a re-visit (or first visit) to the comedy of bowling, Amish jokes, hook hands, and smatterings of crassness that make Kingpin what it is.

Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid are fun.  Bill Murray is always great.  Kind of nice to see him as a charmingly bad guy sleazeball.  Vanessa Angel is actually pretty good as the sexy gal pal (not that the role is particularly good).  It’s also kind of funny the way the film plays the “sports movie” genre.

1996.  Wow.  That is almost 20 years ago now.  And those 20 years Randy Quaid has gone from affable comic actor to super-crazy freakshow with his lunatic wife.

The kids liked the film.  There are a few good gags that hold up.  I’ve always thought that the crassness aspect of the Farrellys’ humor was not their strength.  But maybe they never figured out what their strengths were in the end.

Interestingly, I’d forgotten that Jonathan Richman also showed up in this one as well.

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.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) movie poster

directors Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 06/14/2015

As my kids are getting older (currently 11 and 13), I’ve been introducing them to a broader variety of films.  I’ve been delving into my cinematic mind, pressing for things that I think will appeal to them.  And interestingly, there is a lot from the past fifteen years or so that interests them, which hasn’t been the top of my list of things to share.  Maybe it’s all too recent, or I still have it pretty well in mind.  I’m more prone to the things more traditionally considered “classics”.  Whatever the case, it’s given me a different perspective on the movies of the more recent past.

I always liked the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?.  I was an avowed Coen Brothers fan by the time it came out and it seemed like one of their most enjoyable.  Starring a George Clooney still out to prove himself as real leading man material despite his inherent leading man looks, this film was from his ripest period, I think, probably one of the films that convinced me to like Clooney.

Of course, the other big star of the film is the soundtrack.  Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack was a phenomenon in 2000 and afterwards, leading to a huge growth in interest in the “old timey” music of the film, roots country and blues and gospel and all the many things that comprise the soundtrack.  In fact, I probably listened to the music many times over more than ever seeing the movie.  The movie, did I even see it more than once?

The movie is a hoot.  In materials shot at the time of production, the Coens referred to it as a Ma and Pa Kettle meets the Three Stooges epic.  And it’s hard to do it better simplification than that.  It also has it’s weird Odyssey parallels (though with the Coen brothers it’s always hard to know exactly where the truth starts and stops in reference to such things).  And the name of the film, borrowed from and inspired by Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) (which would actually make a great double feature with this film.)

Really, what makes this movie work and shine is the total amalgamation of all of its elements.  Tim Blake Nelson is so good as Delmar, John Turturro as Pete Hogwallop.

The one critique I had this time through was the digital coloring that Roger Deakins employed in the film to give it its sepia tone.  It’s said to be one of the first feature films that underwent a frame-by-frame digital re-tinting.  I don’t know if that is the case or not, but it’s become a more and more common stylistic trick.  And I don’t know if I’m correct in casting such a supposition, but I want to say that this sameness of tone has an artificiality that is somewhat nagging.  Would I have had the same complaint if the effects were done through non-digital modes?  Would it have been nearly as overwhelming or consistent?  Is this a fair complaint?

Overall, I think this movie is a classic of its own time.  It’s a great movie.  The kids both enjoyed it.  So at least I was right on that point.

An American Hippie in Israel (1972)

An American Hippie in Israel (1972) movie poster

director Amos Sefer
viewed: 05/21/2015

My ongoing journey through cinema has many roads, pathways, asides, spur of the moment outings, trajectories and landing spaces.  One particular trajectory that I’ve been following for about a year now has been a sojourn through the worst movies ever made.  I’ve used two primary lists as the guideposts, the original 1978 book The 50 Worst Films Ever Made by Michael and Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfuss, which was one of the first attempts at such a listing (though it’s amazingly inconsistent.)  But also, a more active and contemporary list, Wikipedia’s List of films considered to be the worst, which is a bit better, though there is such a heavy focus on films of the last 20 years that it does lack some perspective.

An American Hippie in Israel, had Medved and co. known of it in 1978 might well have been up for consideration, but it seems that this film languished in some obscurity until the internet came along and offered places for such cinematic turds to shine.

If it wasn’t for TCM Underground offering this one up, I’m not sure that I would have gotten around to trying to land it.  Considered the worst Israeli film ever made, it’s a wayward semi-political parable about hippie culture, imported from the States, though carrying with it an ideology that many of the flower children and others of that generation related with considerably.  Peace, love, sex, and drugs, man.  Vietnam is a bummer, War is a bummer, government is a bummer.  It’s freedom, man, freedom, that’s what we need.

Oddly the barefoot American traveler of the title hooks up with a rich gal and they screw and get real with one another, trek around and find other people who share their hippie vision.  Only the hippie, Mike (Asher Tzarfati) is hunted by two pale, gun-toting weirdos in oddly non-sequitur murder attempts that are apparently metaphorical as well as making no sense.

But in the film’s ultimate moments of truth, it turns out that all these visions of peace and paradise are a sham.  Once isolated by sharks on a small desolate island, Mike and hist girl and another couple devolve into warfare and chaos.

The beginning of the film is weird and slow but it builds up in the last third to some moments of utter hilarity.  I laughed out loud at the bizarre conversation between Mike and Komo (Komo, who doesn’t speak English, Mike who doesn’t speak Hebrew).  It’s very funny.  The sharks are also pretty hilarious.

It struck me as funny, too, that at a time when so many more successful counter-culture films were made (late 1960’s – early 1970’s), how tone-deaf and misguided this comic caper really is.

Definitely enjoyably bad.

The Return (2003)

The Return (2003) movie poster

director Andrey Zvyagintsev
viewed: 01/05/2014

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s debut film The Return won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival on its release and Zvyagintsev was getting compared Andrei Tarkovsky.  High praise?  I wonder how many young Russian filmmakers come on the scene hoping to be the next Tarkovsky or are compared to Tarkovsky?  Who knows?

The Return was recommended to me by a friend, in part because she thought it was good but as I started watching it, I remembered that one reason for her recommending it was because she thought I looked like Konstantin Lavronenko, the returnee of The Return.

The return of the title refers to a young father who shows up after twelve years of absence in the lives of his two young boys.  Though the boys speculate about what has kept him away, and for that matter what brought him back, it’s never fully explained.  He just shows up and takes them for a camping/fishing trip into the wilderness and shows himself a harsh and unpredictable figure, who earns his boys’ fears and distrust as well as some respect and admiration.

It’s a pretty metaphorical situation, though very naturalistic as well.  I won’t delve into a half-assed attempt at analysis for the meaning therein and I also won’t detail the happenings that unfold because the unpredictability of the situation is quite critical to its unfolding, too.  Though I will wonder aloud if there are parts of Russia so readily untrafficked by humans that such isolation is easily achieved or not.

A good film, if not a great one, in my estimation, it’s also notable that Zvyagintsev’s lates film, Leviathan (2014) made a lot of “best of” lists from last year.  So, something to keep tabs on.

And I can see the resemblance to Lavronenko.