Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's February 2015 Theater Calendar

The title of this post is a misnomer because there isn't a puzzle this month.  The Castro Theater is open everyday in February although it is holding a private event on February 9.

Among the calendar highlights are:

February 10 & 11 - Interstellar in 70 mm.  I have read & heard mixed reviews about Interstellar but if my schedule allows, I'll probably see it and if I'm going to see it, I'd just as soon see in in 70 mm.

February 12 & 13 - a four film Michael Keaton series with Night Shift being the highlight for me.

February 14 - I have never seen one of Marc Huestis Presents events.  I don't know if I will get to this screening of Romeo & Juliet on Valentine's Day but I want to see one of his shows one of these days.  I cannot remember the last time I saw a West Side Story screening advertised which was not a sing-along.  The Castro is screening West Side Story as a matinee on February 14.  No word yet as to whether it is a sing-along.  I want to see it without the crowd "singing" in unison.

February 16 & 17 - the Castro just screened Blade Runner The Final Cut in December.  I assume the version screening in February is one of the other half dozen or so versions of the film.

February 25 - I don't believe I have seen The Exorcist in a movie theater.  As I have gotten older and rewatched the film on multiple occasions, it's not as scary as the first time I saw it.  However, I have come to appreciate William Friedkin's directorial flourishes and the interaction between the two priests, Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge's voice.

Given that SF Indiefest and the Mostly British Film Festival are being held in February, I don't know how many films I'll be able to attend at the Castro.

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Castro Theater Calendar - February 2015


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Search for General Tso

On January 21, I took a partial break from Noir City to see a film at the 4 Star.

The Search for General Tso; documentary; directed by Ian Cheney; English & Mandarin with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

The Search for General Tso traces the history of the ubiquitous dish called General Tso's Chicken.  The film can be broken down into three parts - Who was General Tso?  Who created General Tso's Chicken?  How did General Tso's Chicken come to be on just about every Chinese  restaurant menu in America?

Before I forget, I should note that I was the only person in the theater.  I believe that is only the third time that I have been the sole attendee for an entire film.  Maybe I should also note that I don't like General Tso's Chicken.  The taste is not to my liking.  I cannot recall the last time I had it.  I much Kung Pao Chicken or Sesame Chicken.

It turns out there was a General Tso.  He was a 19th century general, "the hero of Hunan Province."  The filmmakers visited Hunan and were shown statues, museums and other memorials to General Tso.  Interestingly, none of the mainland Chinese interviewed had tasted or even heard of General Tso's Chicken.  When shown a photo, one lady thought the dish was frog meat.  Alas, General Tso never tasted the dish which bears his name.

Rather than venture into the origins of the dish, the film next explores the history of Chinese in America.  After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese were effectively limited in the jobs they could obtain.  One common job was restaurant worker.  In order to survive, Chinese restaurants would adapt to the tastes of local (i.e. Caucasian) customers.  The dish called chop suey (which I have never seen offered in a Chinese restaurant I have been to) became popular around this time.  The filmmakers were assisted by a gentlemen who had the Guinness World Record for largest menu collection.  Searching through his collection, we see that General Tso's Chicken did not appear on any menus until the 1970s whereas as Chop Suey's prevalence declined after the 1950s.  This corresponds with a culinary movement to bring more authentic flavors and dishes to Chinese restaurants in the US.

Michael Tong, owner of New York's Shun Lee Palace, claims his restaurant was the first to serve the dish in the US (in 1972).  This claims goes largely undisputed by the filmmakers.  Implicit in the filmmakers' narrative is that Tong or one of his kitchen chefs learned of the dish from a trip to Taiwan where Chef Peng Chang-kuei invented it.  Chef Peng was a native of Hunan who fled to Taiwan with Chang Kai-shek's Nationalist government for whom he was the official banquet chef.  Chef Peng & his son recall American visitors sampling his creation in the 1960s.  Not a traditional dish, Chef Peng's chicken recipe blended classic Hunan flavors in new ways and Peng named it after the well known general from his province.  Peng even moved to New York to open a restaurant.  Although the restaurant soon closed and Peng returned to Taiwan, the popularity of his chicken item is undisputed.

Whether Peng was first or Tong was first in the US is not really important.  The important point is that in the early 1970s, General Tso's Chicken was haute cuisine in NYC.  How did it find it's way to so many Chinese restaurants in the US?  According to the film, the Chinese family associations provided restaurant training to immigrants and had territorial agreements with each other.  When a Chinese immigrant would come to New York (or SF), they would be trained on how to run a restaurant and given some stake money to set up a Chinese restaurant in the hinterlands.  That is how it came to be that small towns with no significant Chinese population came to have at least one Chinese restaurant.  Since General Tso's Chicken was modified to suit American tastes (it's sweeter than the original recipe), it was taught to the would-be restaurateurs who, like Chinese Johnny Appleseeds, spread the dish to all parts of America.

The Search for General Tso was entertaining enough.  For better or worse, it had the look and feel of a PBS documentary.  At 71 minutes, it seems to have been constructed to be easily edited into a 60 minute television spot.  The filmmakers keep a light touch on a minor subject while touching briefly on the racism and other difficulties encountered by Chinese immigrants.  The film is a solid effort by an experienced documentary film director.  Ian Cheney directed King Corn (2007) which made a big splash on film festival and indie theater circuit.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Silver Screen Fiend

While visiting my father over New Year's week, I was watching television.  I flipped to The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.  I watched Nicole Kidman tease Jimmy Fallon about an awkward encounter they had years before.  The next guest was Patton Oswalt.  I don't know much about Patton Oswalt.  I recall seeing him occasionally on King of Queens,  a television show I've watched infrequently.  My awareness of him starts and ends with a film called Big Fan (2009),  I read a review of it in the Wall Street Journal which praised his performance.  Years later I enjoyed the film on a television premium channel during one of those windows where they make everything free on demand.

Oswalt was on The Tonight Show to promote his new book - Silver Screen Fiend:  Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film.  During the interview, Oswalt mentioned that he saw approximately 250 films in the theaters one calendar year.  This CNN article states "Between 1995 and 1999, Oswalt consumed nearly 700 films."  This gave me quite a bit of pause.  Last year, I saw 388 films.  Oswalt saw 700 films between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999 - exactly four years.  For the four years ending December 31, 2014, I saw 1,627 films.  If Oswalt characterizes himself as an addict, what am I?

For some time, I have been wondering why I am so compulsive in many areas of my life.  Seeing so many film and spending so many hours seeing so many films is not normal.  My main guess is that I'm dissatisfied with my job and am coping by seeing so many films.  This blog tells a different story.  I started this blog one month before starting the job I currently have.  In addition, I can recall times over the past 8 years when I was very satisfied with my job.  If anything, my film attendance has dropped over the past two years which is the time frame when my career frustrations have become acute.  In fact, the dip in my film attendance since 2012 is very confusing.  During that period, in addition to the issues related to my job, I've witnessed my father's deterioration due to aging.  This is extremely depressing.

In a nutshell, I don't know what is driving this compulsion of mine (which is 10% less compulsive over the past two years).  I bought Oswalt's book to see if i could gleam any insights.  I'm surprised at some of the similarities between us.  Oswalt is six months younger than me.  He moved to San Francisco on May 5, 1992.  I rolled into town in June of that year.  It's strange to think Oswalt and I could have encountered each other back then.  Oswalt moved to SF to perform standup comedy which was quite popular back then.  His homebase was the Holy City Zoo in the 400 block of Clement.  I never went there but I prowled Green Apple Books (500 block of Clement) for many hours back then.  Much life movie theaters today, I could lose myself within the stacks of books in Green Apple.  Oswalt lists the films he saw during this period.  By then he was living in LA (the New Beverly Cinema was to him what the Castro is to me now).  He came to San Francisco periodically and he seemed to prefer the Castro, Roxie and now defunct Red Vic and Royal Theaters.  My records don't go back that far but it is quite possible that Oswalt & I were in the same audience for screenings at the Castro or Roxie.

Given some of the topics Oswalt covers (tangentially to his film addiction), I think we could have had a few interesting conversations if we had met.  For Oswalt, his addiction was simple to trace to its roots.  He wanted to direct a film.  By watching films, he could learn the craft - like going to film school.  I have no desire to direct films.  The most I can say is that great films provide an insight into the human condition - kind of like a philosophy or sociology class.  I am frequently amazed at the imagination of some directors or their ability to draw me into their film so completely.

I guess I forgot to mention that I finished reading Silver Screen Fiend last week.  I found it compelling but I wonder how many people in the general population could relate to his memoir.  The Roxie and Booksmith is hosting "a night of comedy, books, and film at the Roxie Theater" on Tuesday, January 27 (7:30 PM).  The only tickets left are "one seat + one book" for $37.22 including service fee.  I don't think I'm going to go.  I already have the book and doubt I could actually have a conversation with Oswalt to compare our addictions but I recommend the event nonetheless.


Monday, January 19, 2015

10 Films I Saw at the Stanford Theater in 2014

I saw the following 10 films from August 8 to November 1, 2014 at the Stanford Theater.

From August 1 to October 12, the Stanford had a grab bag series:  Mickey Rooney films on Mondays & Tuesdays, Silent films on Wednesday, Charlie Chan, Superman & Sherlock Holmes films on Thursdays and Fridays.  The Stanford's website and program guide stated they would play Superman serials on Thursday & Fridays but I only went once to a Thursday/Friday screening & I saw two Superman serials.  There must have been screening on other nights of the week.

Lauren Bacall passed away on August 12, 2014.  In memoriam, the Stanford screened 10 films starring Bacall from October 17 to November 2.

Charlie Chan at the Opera starring Warner Oland, Boris Karloff & Keye Luke; directed by H. Bruce Humberstone; (1936)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce & Ida Lupino; directed by Alfred L. Werker; (1939)
Love Finds Andy Hardy starring Mickey Rourke, Judy Garland, Ann Rutherford & Lana Turner; directed by George B. Seitz; (1938)
Flying Hostess starring William Gargan; directed by Murray Roth; (1936)
Gigi starring Leslie Caron & Louis Jourdan; directed by Vincente Minneli; (1958)
The Reluctant Debutante starring Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, John Saxon & Sandra Dee; directed by Vincente Minneli; (1958)
Dodsworth starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Mary Astor & David Niven; directed by William Wyler; (1936)
The Devil and Daniel Webster starring Edward Arnold & Walter Huston; directed by William Dieterle; (1941)
Written on the Wind starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack & Dorothy Malone; directed by Douglas Sirk; (1956)
The Cobweb starring Richard Widmark & Lauren Bacall; with Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, Lilian Gish, Oscar Levant, Fay Wray & Susan Strasberg; directed by Vincente Minneli; (1955)
Designing Woman starring Lauren Bacall & Gregory Peck; directed by Vincente Minneli; (1957)

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The Stanford screened the 1948 Superman serial which consisted of 15 episodes.  Looking at the episode list, I realize that I saw chapters 1 & 14 at the Stanford.  Kirk Alyn played Superman & Noel Neill played Lois Lane.  I was familiar with Neill from Adventures of Superman, the George Reeves television series.  She played Lane for 5 of the 6 years the series was on the air.  I didn't see enough episodes to form an opinion except it seems odd without the George Reeves' led cast in the roles of Superman, Jimmy Olson & Perry White.

Charlie Chan at the Opera was on a double bill with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  Since first seeing the films on television as a boy, I have found the Charlie Chan films to be silly.  It could be that I was subconsciously aware of the racist depiction of Chan.  I didn't realize Warner Oland and Peter Toler were white until a few years after seeing my first Charlie Chan film.  However, it was more likely that the outlandish power of deduction that Chan exhibits struck me as ridiculous even at a young age.  It didn't help that he said things like "Confucius say man who..."  Even with Boris Karloff in the cast, Charlie Chan at the Opera couldn't keep my attention.  Boris Karloff played an escaped insane asylum patient who goes to the opera house to kill his wife.  Several people end up murdered and several more have motive to murder the deceased.  Chan sees clues no one else does, lays a trap for the killer and Chan's #1 son helps by getting his Chinese American college buddies from UCLA or USC to be supernumeraries in the opera.  I can't remember too many scenes.  This was the first Chan/Sherlock double feature of the series.  After seeing it, I wasn't inclined to go to any more.

Whereas I was never a fan of the Charlie Chan films, I watched the Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce repeatedly if not necessarily enthusiastically.  I can't articulate why I liked Holmes better than Chan.  Even today, I'll watch the Cumberbatch or Miller versions of Holmes on television.  The plot to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is that Moriarity is distracting Holmes by encouraging a man to take revenge on the family of the man who killed his father.  His weapon of choice is bolas!  This all done so that Moriarty can steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.  A young Ida Lupino plays the damsel in distress.  I didn't dislike The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes but I wasn't engaged with it like I was at an earlier age or with the numerous other Sherlock Holmes projects.  I had considered making a few trips to the Stanford on Fridays to see Chan & Holmes but after this experience, I didn't go back.

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Love Finds Andy Hardy & Flying Hostess was a double feature.

Unlike Charlie Chan & Sherlock Holmes, I don't remember seeing an Andy Hardy film growing up.  Somewhere along the line, I either saw portions of a film or read enough about the series to understand the set up.  I chose Love Finds Andy Hardy because a 17 year old Lana Turner was in it.  That last sentence must sound borderline criminal.

In Love Finds Andy Hardy, Andy (Mickey Rooney) is juggling three girls.  As Xmas approaches, Andy has two goals - buy a new car and get a date for the Christmas Eve Dance.  His regular gal Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford)  is going to be out of town for the dance.  Andy's pal will be out of town for a few weeks so to keep the wolves at bay, he pays Andy to take his girlfriend Cynthia (Lana Turner) out in his absence.  That works out fine because Andy needs the money for the car he bought without his father's permission.  One thing leads to another & Andy doesn't get a date for the dance...until next door neighbor Betsy Booth (Judy Garland) comes to the rescue.

Considering the country was still in the Great Depression & WWII was three years later, Andy Hardy's problems seem petty.  That's with the benefit of hindsight though.  My main complaint with the film is Mickey Rooney's frequent mugging for the camera.  He must have been encouraged to do so by the director.  Love Finds Andy Hardy portrays a simpler time that never existed in a manner that seems ridiculous today.  A young Judy Garland really had a winning screen presence.  She could convey vulnerability very well.  She was so young & fresh scrubbed.

Flying Hostess was an obscure Universal film about the rigorous training flight stewardess undergo.  If the film is accurate, in the 1930s stewardesses needed to first be RNs.  Flying Hostess follows three young ladies as they make their way through training.  One of them drops out to marry a shady character.  Another gets involved with an airline pilot and head of the flight stewardess training program.  If I recall correctly, the third one was the funny but homely one.  Foreshadowing Airplane! by 45 years, the finale involves one of the stewardesses having to land the plane because the pilot & co-pilot were incapacitated.  Flying Hostess was an enjoyable if not entirely memorable film.  Andy Devine was the most recognizable actor in the cast although I also recognized William Gargan's name from some of Elliot Lavine's film noir programs at the Roxie.

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Gigi The Reluctant Debutante was a double bill.

While a teenager, they restored Gigi and HBO showed it.  As a teenage boy, musicals were not high on my list film genres but I liked Gigi.  A Lerner & Loewe musical directed by Vincente Minneli, great things were expected of Gigi and it delivered.  Gigi is the story of a young woman (Leslie Caron who was the second choice after Audrey Hepburn), who comes from a family of courtesan in the turn-of-the-century Paris.  Gaston (Louis Jourdan) is an old family friend and the most notorious playboy among the boulevardiers.  Still rambunctious, Gigi is quickly coming into her own and has a youthful joie de vivre that Gaston cannot resist.  Initially reluctant to live the negotiated life of a high-end mistress, Gigi eventually consents to be Gaston's mistress...until he realizes he loves her.

It's rather a sordid situation.  I couldn't help but think of the scene in Pretty Baby where Brooke Shields' virginity is auctioned off.  Essentially, Gigi's relatives are training her to be a courtesan and are prepared to engage in negotiations to get the best deal for her.  I recall this arrangement from a tour of New Orleans once.  Whenever Gigi objects to this life choice being made for her, she is upbraided for her obstinacy.  First she agrees to Gaston's terms and then he backs out & decides he wants to marry her instead.  I'm sure that made for a strong marital foundation.

By modern standards, the situation sounds barbaric.  That's overthinking the film.  Gigi is first & foremost a musical and has many memorable songs.  Maurice Chevalier as Gaston's uncle croons "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and later sings a famous duet with Gigi's grandmother (Hermione Gingold) called "I Remember It Well."   "The Night They Invented Champagne" is also a very memorable number.  Like a young Judy Garland, Leslie Caron is vivacious and irresistible in the title role.  Chevalier steals the film with his comical scenes.

The Reluctant Debutante is a formulaic film which had its moments but I never really got into.  Sandra Dee is an American teenager who visits her father (divorced from her mother) in England.  Her father (Rex Harrison) complies with his 2nd wife's (Kay Kendall) desire to introduce the young woman to London society via debutante balls and the "coming out" season.  These events and stiff British boys bore Sandra Dee because she is really interested in John Saxon, a drummer in a band that plays at these society events.  Kendall & Angela Lansbury, on behalf of their daughters, compete for party dates and guests.  Rex Harrison was amusing as the bewildered father.  The Reluctant Debutante served to fill out the evening after Gigi but otherwise it was nothing particularly memorable.

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Dodsworth & The Devil and Daniel Webster was a double feature.

William Wyler is the most nominated director in Oscar history with 12 Best Director nominations.  I have made it goal to see all 12 films.  Counting Dodsworth (1936), I have seen four since starting this blog:  The Letter (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) & Roman Holiday (1953).  I've seen Ben-Hur (1959) several times and I seem to recall seeing it at the Castro but apparently not since 2007.  I remember seeing Wuthering Heights on TV as a teeanger.  That leaves half the films to be seen:  The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Heiress (1949). Detective Story (1952), Friendly Persuasion (1957) & The Collector (1965).

Dodsworth is an excellent film.  Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, Dodsworth is the story of Sam (Walter Huston) & Fran (Ruth Chatterton) Dodsworth.  Sam is the founder and CEO of an automobile company.  Urged by his wife Fran, Sam sells his company and takes her on a European vacation.  Fran is the doyenne of high society in their small Midwestern town but Fran sees herself as a worldly sophisticate thwarted by lifelong circumstances (chiefly her dullard husband).  On their vacation, she flirts with men, pretends to be younger than she is and ultimately dispatches Sam back home so she can have a proper extramarital affair without her pesky husband getting in the way.  Bored by the European social scene his wife finds fascinating, Sam returns home to his daughter & son-in-law.

Upon his return, Sam feels out of sorts.  For the first time in his life, he has no job, no wife and no plans.  He becomes irritable and rightly begins to suspect his wife of having an affair in Europe.  Using his business contacts to confirm the affair, Sam sets out for Europe again to put a stop to it.  When confronted, Fran initially denies the affair but when she sees it is futile, she admits to it and begs for forgiveness.  Sam takes her back but she quickly changes her mind and ask for a divorce; partly because she discovers she is a new grandmother and she feels a woman as vibrant as her is too young to be a grandmother.  Fran quickly takes up with a younger German or Austrian Baron who proposes marriage which satisfies two needs - a younger man to reflect her own self-view and the aristocratic title of Baroness.

Sam wanders Europe waiting for the divorce to become final.  He bumps into an American divorcee (Mary Astor) whom he met on the ocean liner over from America.  Sam quickly finds his bearings with his new companion who much better suited than Fran ever was.  When the Baron's mother object to the marriage based on Fran's age, Fran desperately telephones Sam to call of the divorce.  Sam initially agrees out of a sense of loyalty & self-sacrifice but as their ocean liner is about to set sail for America, he gets off the ship to be with Astor to screams of Fran.

Ruth Chatterton is tremendous in her role as the fickle & self-conscious Fran Dodsworth.  Her insecurities and misguided ambitions tear apart her marriage which is likely a better outcome for her husband.  Walter delivers the kind of performance I've seen from his in American Madness & The Shanghai Gesture.

The Devil and Daniel Webster featured strong performances by Huston & Edward Albert in the title roles, respectively.  Interestingly, Thomas Mitchell was originally cast as Daniel Webster & several scenes were filmed with him in the role before he was injured during the filming and replaced by Albert.  Simone Simon is also memorable in a small role as the beautiful associate of Mr. Scratch who helps to keep Jabez Stone on the path to damnation.  I thought Huston was a little too hammy as the devil and Albert a little too stolid as Webster but that is quibbling.  My viewing of The Devil and Daniel Webster suffered because it followed Dodsworth.

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Written on the Wind and The Cobweb were on a Lauren Bacall double feature.

Written on the Wind is the quintessential Douglas Sirk melodrama.  I have long wanted to see it.  I didn't even realize that Lauren Bacall was in the cast.  Robert Stack is Kyle Hadley, the scion of a wealthy oil family.  He is also an alcoholic...and suffers from low sperm count.  He falls in love with his level headed secretary, Lucy Moore (Bacall).  He quickly marries her despite the subtle objections of his best friend Mitch (Rock Hudson).  Lucy doesn't know what she is getting into when she arrives at the Hadley residence:  the senior Hadley provides some stability but clearly his parenting skills are lacking.  His son is an alcoholic and his daughter (Dorothy Malone) an self-destructive and loose woman who harbors not-so-secret desires towards Mitch.  The senior Hadley (Robert Keith) all but begs Mitch to marry his daughter but Mitch wisely declines; partly out of wariness of Marylee but also because he recognizes his attraction to Lucy.  In this cloistered environment the passions simmer and the jealousies come to the forefront.  Kyle suspects Mitch's true feelings; Marylee is jealous of Lucy's hold on her brother & Mitch.  Lucy increasingly aware of and reciprocating Mitch's feelings.  There is an accidental death and false accusation which ratchet up the melodrama.

Written on the Wind very much has the look & feel of a 1950 melodrama.  It seems overblown by 2014 standards but I have to admit I was entertained.

The Cobweb is an ensemble piece set in a mental institution.  Widmark is the psychiatrist who is experimenting with a kind of self-governing form of group therapy.  Bacall is the art instructor at the institution who hasn't recovered from her huband's death.  Gloria Grahame is Widmark's frustrated wife who flirts with infidelity.  Lilian Gish is the tight-fisted administrator of the facility.  Charles Boyer is the medical director of the facility who is having an affair with his secretary.  As you can imagine, there were all sorts of subplots...the most entertaining being a power struggle between Bacall, Grahame & Gish over the new curtains in the library.

Like Written on the Wind, The Cobweb uses small gestures to make melodrama out of the trivial although I suppose the plight of mental patients and state of mental healthcare is anything but trivial.  Both films remind me that entertaining films need not be major artistic statements.

Designing Woman was paired with How to Marry a Millionaire but I skipped that film.  Designing Woman is a lightweight but fun romance of opposites.  Sophisticated fashion designer Lauren Bacall falls in love with the working class newspaperman Gregory Peck.  There is some subplot about a crooked boxing promoter that puts Peck in danger but frankly, I can't remember that too well.  The most memorable part of the film was the easy screen chemistry between Bacall & Peck.  They should have made more films together.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

25 Films I Saw at the Castro Theater in 2014

From February 27 to November 20, I saw the following 25 films at the Castro Theater.

Star 80 starring Eric Roberts & Muriel Hemingway; directed by Bob Fosse; (1983)
Je t’aime, je t’aime starring Claude Rich; directed by Alain Resnais; French with subtitles; (1968)
Sorcerer starring Roy Scheider; directed by William Friedkin; English, Spanish, French & German with subtitles; (1977)
The Getaway starring Steve McQueen & Ali MacGraw; directed by Sam Peckinpah; (1972)
Drugstore Cowboy starring Matt Dillon & Kelly Lynch; directed by Gus Van Sant; (1989)
Trainspotting starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller & Robert Carlyle; directed by Danny Boyle; (1996)
Othello starring & directed by Orson Welles; (1952)
The Servant starring James Fox & Dirk Bogarde; directed by Joseph Losey; (1963)
Accident starring Dirk Bogarde & Stanley Baker; with Jacqueline Sassard & Michael York; directed by Joseph Losey; (1967)
The Addiction starring Lili Taylor; with Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra & Edie Falco; directed by Abel Ferrara; (1995)
Swimming Pool starring Charlotte Rampling & Ludivine Sagnier; directed by François Ozon; French & English with subtitles; (2003)
Pennies From Heaven starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters & Christopher Walken; directed by Herbert Ross; (1981)
A Hard Day's Night starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison & Ringo Starr; directed by Richard Lester; (1964)
The Knack…and How To Get It starring Rita Tushingham, Ray Brooks, Michael Crawford & Donal Donnelly; directed by Richard Lester; (1965)
The Rover starring Guy Pearce & Robert Pattinson; directed by David Michôd; (2014) - Official Website
A Boy and His Dog starring Don Johnson; directed by L.Q. Jones; (1975)
Streets of Fire starring Michael Paré, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis & Willem Dafoe; directed by Walter Hill; (1984)
The Warriors starring Michael Beck & James Remar; directed by Walter Hill; (1975)
Sweet Charity starring Shirley MacLaine; directed by Bob Fosse; (1969)
All That Jazz starring Roy Scheider; directed by Bob Fosse; (1979)
Magic in the Moonlight starring Colin Firth & Emma Stone; directed by Woody Allen; (2014) - Official Website
Guardians of the Galaxy starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel & Bradley Cooper (voice only); directed by James Gunn; (2014) - Official Website
Rushmore starring Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams & Bill Murray; directed by Wes Anderson; (1998)
Don't Look Now starring Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie; directed by Nicolas Roeg; (1973)
Daughters of Darkness starring Delphine Seyrig, Danielle Ouimet, John Karlen & Andrea Rau; directed by Harry Kümel; (1972)

Drugstore Cowboy & Trainspotting was a double feature.  The Castro also screened Thanksgiving Prayer (directed by Gus Van Sant, 1991), a 3 minute short film of William S. Burroughs reciting his poem of the same title.  I think it played before Drugstore Cowboy in which Burroughs has a supporting role.  

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2014 will go down as the year I didn't have enough time to write about the movies I saw.  I could list a few reasons why but it would sound pathetic.  Most of these films deserve much more than one paragraph from me but that is all I can spare.

Star 80 - I saw this as a teenager and it's still a powerful film 30+ years later.  It's the story of the life and death of Dorothy Stratten (Muriel Hemingway), a Playboy centerfold who was killed by her insecure husband (Eric Roberts).  The final murder/suicide scene is painful to watch.  Sidenote:  at the time of her death, Stratten was dating Peter Bogdanovich (Roger Rees played a fictionalized version of him in the film).  A few years later, Bogdanovich married Stratten's younger sister.

Je t’aime, je t’aime - I saw this Alain Resnais film to cross it off my list.  The film is a frustratingly fragmented story about a man (Claude Rich) who undergoes a time travel experiment.  Having just been released from a mental hospital due to a failed suicide attempt, the man's "time travel" is non-linear and could easily be the jumbled reconstruction of memories by a mental by a mentally ill person.

Sorcerer - the William Friedkin remake of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear.  It is a faithful remake although Friedkin tacked on a prologue which told the backstory of how the four protagonists ended up in South America.  Sorcerer is tremendous thriller highlighted by an incredible scene where a truck full of nitroglycerin drives over a rickety suspension bridge while a flooding river rages below.  I enjoyed The Wages of Fear but I think I prefer Friedkin's remake.

The Getaway - Steve McQueen (the actor not the director) was a cool customer.  McQueen was one of my mother's favorite actors and I have to admit, I have a serious man-crush on the King of Cool.  The Getaway is a confluence of legends:  Walter Hill wrote screenplay, Jim Thompson wrote the source novel, Sam Peckinpah directed, Steve McQueen starred and Bob Evan encouraged his wife (Ali MacGraw) to take a role in the film.  This is the film where McQueen met MacGraw who would divorce Evans and marry McQueen.  McQueen is in fine form as "Doc" McCoy (Star Trek reference?), a recent Texas parolee whose release was secretly predicated on two things.  First, he agreed to rob a bank and second, his wife (MacGraw) slept with a corrupt businessman who is bankrolling the bank robbery.  There is the obligatory double-cross which puts the McCoys on the run.  One thing I liked about The Getaway is that I recognize many of the locations.  The finale is in El Paso where I grew up about a decade after The Getaway was filmed there.  McQueen is the epitome of cool while working a pump-action shotgun in The Getaway.

Drugstore Cowboy - I cannot recall this Gus Van Sant film very well.  Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch are two drug addicts who happened to be married to each other.  They drift along in Pacific Northwest with a younger couple (James Le Gros and a very young Heather Graham).  They steal from drugstores and their life is sliding into oblivion until Graham ODs.  Dillon tries to kick the habit and ends up in a fleabag hotel next door to a defrocked priest (William S. Burroughs).  I had the read the summary of the film to recall these plot points.  I now recall the interactions between Dillon & Burroughs.  From some reason, this well regarded film had not stayed in my conscious memory.  I recall Thanksgiving Prayer more than Drugstore Cowboy.

Trainspotting - this is the like the The Outsiders of Scotland; a cast who would go on to bigger and better things.  Obi-wan before he was Obi-wan (Ewan McGregor), Sherlock before he was Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller), Robert Carlyle one year before The Full Monty and three years before he became a Bond villain.  Drugstore CowboyTrainspotting was a double feature about heroin addicts.  I would say that a full third of the dialogue in Trainspotting was unintelligible due to my inability to decipher the thick Scottish accents of the actors.  The film was still memorable.  There is a scene where McGregor had to reach down and retrieve his drugs out of the most horrific public toilet I can image.  This turns into a memorable hallucinogenic sequence.  There was also a powerful scene where the group our strung out in a shooting gallery and discover a dead infant killed by neglect.  The depiction of drug addiction and drug addicts was very sobering.  It had a great soundtrack which announces itself with Iggy Pop's Lust for Life.

Othello was shot over three years due to financing problems.  If I recall correctly, the Castro screened the "restored" version of Othello (supervised by Orson Welles' daughter).  Orson Welles looked a little strange in his make-up.  He reminded me of the Klingons from the original Star Trek.  Welles was fine as Othello but I detected a certain self-awareness in his performance.  Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago was stupendous.  I can't quite find the film adaptation of a Shakespeare which overcomes the issues related to listening to the dialogue in iambic pentameter but Othello was one of the best so far.

The Servant was half of a Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter double bill.  Losey directed this Harold Pinter screenplay.  The Servant stars James Fox & Dirk Bogarde in a psychological thriller about class issues.  Fox plays the wealthy young man who hires Bogarde to be his servant.  As the film progresses, the power shifts from the master to the servant (who has some secrets in his past).  There is a noticeable homoerotic undertone at work throughout the film.  Both men actively push away the females from the household.

Accident was the other half of  the Losey/Pinter double bill (paired with The Servant).  Same setup as The Servant:  Losey directed, Pinter wrote the screenplay.  Losey & Pinter collaborated a third time in 1970 with The Go-Between.  Dirk Bogarde & Stanley Baker are two Oxford professors who are attracted to a student (Jacqueline Sassard).  Michael York plays her boyfriend.  Again, Losey/Pinter explore social issues.  This time, their focus is on academia, relationship between students and their professors, the way men cope with aging.

The Addiction - a vampire film with heavy philosophical overtones; most of which went over my head.  Lili Taylor plays a NYC philosophy grad student who is turned into a vampire by Annabella Sciorra.  I was once told that everyone in France takes a philosophy class in order to graduate high school.  That seems to play to a stereotype but maybe it is true.  I never took a philosophy class and at times, I feel self-conscious about my lack of knowledge in that subject.  The title would make it seem obvious as what vampirism is being compared to but there seemed to be a lot discussion about the nature of evil.  I recall images of Pol Pot's victims being displayed.  By placing the vampire story in a university, Abel Ferrara was able to bring up several philosophical matters.  The Addiction was not one of my favorite Ferrara films.

Swimming Pool - Charlotte Rampling is an uptight English novelist with writer's block.  Her publisher offers his French villa to her for extended working vacation.  Unannounced, the publisher's daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) shows up and is a disruption.  She drinks, plays loud music and has one night stands.  The two women clash bu Rampling is not above listening & watching her housemate's conquests.  Eventually, there is a murder and a conspiracy to cover it up...or is there?   The final scene calls into question the events of the entire film but whether "real" or "imagined" Swimming Pool is a very good thriller with Rampling and the sexy Sagnier giving strong performances.

Pennies From Heaven - set during the Great Depression, Steve Martin plays a traveling salesman.  Bored in his marriage, he seduces a shy schoolteacher (Bernadette Peters).  He promises to leave his wife for her but Marin returns home and when his wife unexpectedly agrees to finance his dream of owning a record store, he freezes Peters out of his life.  Discovering she is pregnant, fired from her job and unable to contact Martin, Peters falls in with a flashy pimp (Christopher Walken).  After an abortion, she has transformed into a streetwalker when she meets Marin for the second time.  Resuming their affair and mutually unsatisfied with their lives, the couple run off together.  Before they can depart, Martin is picked up the murder of blind girl.  He is convicted on mistaken memories and circumstantial evidence.  The film ends with him going to the gallows but with a peppy dance number to insure a "happy ending."   I was only vaguely aware of the plot so the film was a surprise to me.  Although a musical reminiscent of the Busby Berkeley ones which kept the nation's collective mind of its troubles, Pennies From Heaven doesn't white wash anything.  Steve Martin's character is a selfish liar.  Peter's character is forced into prostitution and Walken's pimp is as hard as any mac daddy that graced the silver screen.  But because they are playing these roles in a musical, the contrast between the music and the plot take on added significance and the poignancy of the actor's performances is enhanced.  The song & dance numbers are top notch.  Once (possibly twice), Martin is watching a film and he steps into the dance scene without missing a beat.  The showstopper is Walken's striptease while singing "Let's Misbehave."  Pennies From Heaven was one of my best film experiences of 2014.

A Hard Day's Night - not much of a plot.  It's The Beatles going from one location to another; they crack jokes and then sing.  The Beatles on the train, Beatles at a casino, Paul's "grandfather" causing some trouble, etc.  Interestingly, Ringo seems to have the most screen time.  It's a fun movie; more so if you like the early Beatles' songs.

The Knack…and How To Get It - this film was the 2nd half of a double bill (with A Hard Day's Night).  The titular "knack" refers to having "a knack with women" which one of the characters (Ray Brooks) does.  Actually, the opening scene features these women lined up to sleep with him.  Allegedly, Charlotte Rampling & Jacqueline Bisset are two of the women.  Three men, a womanizer, a shy lad and "neutral" artist compete for the affections of Rita Tushingham.  I cannot recall which one "won."  The artist painted the interior completely white and Ray Brooks was super cool with his Ray-Bans.  They pushed a bed on casters down the street also.  I recall being mildly entertained after the film but four months after the viewing, I cannot recall too many specifics.

The Rover - post-apocalyptic action film from Australia except the apocalypse is a financial meltdown.  Guy Pearce plays a loner who gets his car stolen.  With single-minded determination, Pearce and the wounded Robert Pattinson track down the culprits.  It's a film filled with tense moments.  Not quite gonzo enough for me.

A Boy and His Dog - Don Johnson is in a more traditional post-apocalyptic world with his dog who can communicate with him telepathically; I guess the nuclear fallout turned the dog intelligence up to 11.  At some Johnson goes into an underworld and then I fell asleep.  I was bored silly with this film.  This film was double billed with The Rover which gives you a hint about one of the plot points of that film.

Streets of Fire - one of my favorite films from my teenage years.  I was worried I wouldn't like this film in my 40s but I really enjoyed this screening; great music, sexy Diane Lane, Rick Moranis playing a jerk named Billy Fish & Willem Dafoe with a Flock of Seagulls haircut dueling with Michael Paré in the streets with sledgehammers.  Dafoe is really memorable as the villain.

The Warriors Streets of Fire was double featured with this film.  I don't think I can write anything about The Warriors that hasn't already been written.  I've seen this film several times so I almost left after Streets of Fire but I felt so good after that film that I decided to stick around.  This film has achieved a cult following.  I'm not part of that cult but enjoy it as much as anyone with a penchant for genre films.  I know the plot better than I thought as I could predict which gangs the Warriors would encounter next.  Deborah Van Valkenburgh had small roles in both films.  Whatever happened to her?

Sweet Charity - perhaps my favorite musical of all-time.  I wrote more about it in 2009.  I loved this film when I saw it in 2009 and I loved it when I saw it in 2014.  I seem to recall that the Rich Man's Frug was cut short in the version which screened at the Castro in 2014.

All That Jazz - 2014 was the 35th anniversary of All That Jazz.  It was screened at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival.  Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical musical about his manic efforts to finish editing Lenny while getting Chicago ready for Broadway.  Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) runs at breakneck speed until he has a heart attack during a table read of his new Broadway production.  His morning ritual is to play Vivaldi's Concerto alla Rustica, take some eye drops, drop some Alka-Seltzer tablets and pop some Dexedrine.  When he is ready to go for the day, he looks in the mirror and announces "It's showtime."  We hear and see this over and over again.  Like Pennies From Heaven, All That Jazz is a very dark film.  For the first half of the film, we see that Gideon is a workaholic and a jerk.  After his heart attack, he stays in the hospital but he begins to have hallucinations.  This film is one of many tremendous performances that Roy Scheider provided in the 1970s.

Magic in the Moonlight - many critics disparaged this Woody Allen film but I found it mildly amusing.  Colin Firth is a magician and cynic who is asked by a friend to expose a clairvoyant (Emma Stone) as a fraud.  She is vacationing on the French Rivera with a wealthy family whose son is considering proposing marriage.  Not only can he not debunk her methods but he begins believe in her abilities and even fall in love with her.  Firth is in fine form as the depressed magician looking for something to believe in while Stone (whom I am a big fan of) gives him something.  Stone's performance has been criticized as too modern for a film set in the Age of the Flapper Girl but she brings flippant & insouciant charm which wins Firth (and me).  You know she is a scammer but can't help liking her (see The Music Man).  Magic in the Moonlight is not a masterpiece but I like it when Woody goes for the laughs.

Guardians of the Galaxy - adaptation of a Marvel Comics series which I had not read, Guardians' main character is Peter Quill  (Chris Pratt).  He is kidnapped from earth by aliens and taken to an unspecified time & location.  He works as an intergalactic thief and his theft of an orb but him in contact with the other "guardians" - Zoe Saldana as green skinned warrior, pro wrestler Dave Bautista as "man" seeking to avenge his family's murders, Vin Diesel as a talking tree who sole vocabulary is "groot" and the voice of Bradley Cooper as genetically engineered talking raccoon.  They are sent to galactic prison for stealing the orb...action & hijinks ensue.  The soundtrack was the highlight of the film for me.  The plot device is that Quill's only possession from his late mother is a great mix tape that he values above all else.

Rushmore - Wes Anderson's second film as a director and 18 year old Jason Schwartzman's screen debut.  Schwartzman plays an eccentric prep school student with an unending list of extracurricular activities but little academic performance.  He has a crush on a new teacher at his school (Olivia Williams).  The title of the film is taken from the fictional school's name:  Rushmore Academy.  The teenager has competition for her affections from Bill Murray who plays a wealthy parent and alumni of Rushmore.  The film operates in the stylized reality that Anderson is known for but not quite a stylized as many of his later works.  Anderson adroitly sidesteps issues which could derail the film but in his hands are presented with comic deftness - a teenage boy's crush on a teacher, claims of having sex with a friends' mother and Schwartzman & Murray's increasingly violent acts of revenge.  Rushmore is quirky and one of my favorite films by Anderson.  Actually, I've only seen four of Anderson's ten feature length films.

Don't Look Now - Donald Sutherland plays an architect who accepts a job in Venice to restore a church.  Julie Christie plays his wife.  Their daughter has recently died in a drowning accident.  Christie meets two sisters in Venice, one of whom claims to be a psychic and warns her that her husband is in danger in Venice.  Sutherland is skeptical even after nearly falling of a scaffold in the church.  Christie leaves for England after their son has had an accident at school  Sutherland thinks he sees his wife (and dead daughter) several times in Venice.  Don't Look Now deals with issues of precognition and mistaken identities.  Director Nicolas Roeg uses flashbacks and flashforwards to play with the audience's sense of reality vs. foreshadowing.  This was a very stylish film with a solid performance by Sutherland.  The ending was a bit of a surprise as Roeg has been placing false clues throughout the film.

Daughters of Darkness - surprisingly good vampire film.  Delphine Seyrig (looking and acting like Marlene Dietrich) is a countess and vampire .  Andrea Rau (with a Louise Brooks bob) is her secretary.  They are staying a beachside resort during off season.  The only other guests in the hotel are newlyweds (John Karlen & Valerie (Danielle Ouimet).  The countess eyes the couple as her next victims but the film delves into other issues.  The husband has anger issues and seems like rough sex.  There is strong element of lesbianism in the characters' interactions.  Also, the power dynamics shift between the newlyweds as they become caught the vampire orbit.  This must have been the height of Euro Gothic chic in the 1970s and it is still impressively stylish.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

All About Eve, The Women & The Music Man

I went to the Castro twice during the last week in December.  On December 27, I saw All About Eve and The Women.  On December 29, I saw The Music Man.  I considered seeing the 2nd half of The Music Man double bill but at three hours with an intermission, I decided My Fair Lady was too long for that evening.  When I exited the theater, I was amazed at how many people were in line waiting to see My Fair Lady.  It was an 8 PM screening on a Monday night and the line went up Castro Street and turned around the corner at the Twin Peaks Tavern.

All About Eve starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter; with Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe & Thelma Ritter; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; (1950)
The Women starring Norma Shearer & Joan Crawford; with Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard & Joan Fontaine; directed by George Cukor; (1939)
The Music Man starring Robert Preston & Shirley Jones; with Buddy Hackett; directed by Morton DaCosta; (1962)

These are three all-time classics but I've only seen All About Eve previously.  In fact, I recall seeing at the Castro several years ago.

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I don't think there is much need to recount the plot of All About Eve.  Bette Davis is great in the role of Broadway star Margo Channing.  George Sanders (as the theater critic Addison DeWitt) is the center of attention in every scene he is in.

I've long known that All About Eve has a large following among gay men.  I assumed that George Sanders portraying Addison DeWitt as a bitter queen who uses Marilyn Monroe as a beard and Davis in full Queen Bitch mode were the attractions.  This was the first time I watched All About Eve looking for the hidden clues that Eve Harrington was a lesbian.

Toward the beginning of the film there is a party at Margo's apartment.  This is the party where Davis delivers her famous "Fasten your seat belts..." line.  As the party winds down & Margo erupts, she turns her drunken anger towards Eve who has yet to fully reveal her true intentions.  In front of the remaining guests, Margo announces she is going to bed.  Her boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill) asks if she needs any help.  Margo responds "To put me to bed? Take my clothes off, hold my head, tuck me in, turn off the lights, tiptoe out?  Eve would. Wouldn't you, Eve?"  Eve softly says "If you'd like."  Margo responds emphatically "I wouldn't like."

I'm not sure if the preceding exchange implies that Margo is aware of Eve's sexual orientation.  It could be implied that Margo's assistant Birdie (Thelma Ritter) has picked up on it but I thought the inference is ambiguous.  The exchange is definitely odd but the audience must remember that Margo is three sheets to the wind by this point of the party.

There is a later scene which I found more convincing.  When Eve wins the lead role in Lloyd's play and Karen's misgivings become more pronounced, Eve makes a preemptive strike.  She has her "neighbor" call up Lloyd late at night and claim that Eve is hysterical.  Lloyd agree to come over immediately,  As the camera pans out, we see that Eve is standing beside the woman and she is anything but hysterical.  They share a knowing smile with each other and then walk back up the stairs with their arms around each other.  By this point, Eve has designs on Lloyd and the phone call is intended to get Lloyd over to Eve's place and drive a wedge between Lloyd and Karen.  However, the look between the two women and the way their arms are draped over each other imply they are more than just friendly neighbors.

The final scene also has some lesbian overtones.  Phoebe (who admits to DeWitt that that is not her real name) is a young fan of Eve.  She sneaks into Eve's apartment and falls asleep.  When Eve arrives home, she is upset to find a stranger in her home.  As the scene progresses, Eve seems more at ease.  The key aspect of this scene is to show Phoebe is to Eve and Eve was to Margo.  The cycle repeats with one manipulative actress displacing another.  Lost in that message is the decidedly sexual tone of Eve towards Phoebe.  Her pose on the couch and her leading questions are meant to invite Phoebe to spend the night without explicitly asking.

It's far from obvious that Eve is a lesbian.  I'm on the fence.  She makes a pass at Bill on screen and references are made to her enticing Lloyd from Karen and marrying Lloyd so her sexuality would appear to be a tool in achieving whatever her goals are..."gay or straight for pay" I guess.  Why couldn't she have been making overtures to Margo & the girl making the phone call to further her career?  The final scene does hint that her proclivity is towards same sex since she doesn't have much to gain by taking in Phoebe but perhaps like Margo, at some level she wants the audiences' adoration to be personal.  It is interesting watching the film from this perspective although it would be distracting for a film I had not previously seen.

I've seen All About Eve at least three time all the way through and I've caught portions of it on television probably another dozen or more times.  The film holds up exceedingly well to multiple viewings.  I think it is likely due to Joseph L. Mankiewicz's memorable dialogue.

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I've seen portions of The Women on television.  The Women was screened at the Castro on a beat up 35 mm print.  The ends of the reels were particularly damaged.  At times it was difficult for me to make out the dialogue.

Based on a play by Clare Booth Luce, a screenplay by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald (uncredited), directed by George Cukor and with an all-star cast, The Women has a high pedigree.  The opening credit indicate what kind of film this will be.  The actresses images are preceded by images of animals:  Norma Shearer is a doe, Joan Crawford is a cheetah, Rosalind Russell is a black cat, Joan Fontaine is a sheep, Paulette Goddard is a fox, etc.

The Women is a farce that centers around Mary Haines (Norma Shearer).  Mary is upbeat and quite satisfied in her marriage when the film starts.  Her friend and cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) deliberately upsets her wedded bliss by sharing with Mary's friends some gossip she has heard at the spa.  Mary's husband Stephen is having an affair with department store perfume saleswoman named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).  To goose the situation, Sylvia sends Mary to the spa and recommends the manicurist who shared the gossip with her.

Crushed when she hears the rumor, Mary begins to suspect her husband of infidelity.  She is counseled by her mother (Lucile Watson) to ignore the gossip and take an extended trip to Bermuda with her.  The hope is that the rumor will die by the time she returns.

Rather than fade, it appears that Stephen & Crystal's affair has deepened.  Attending a fashion show with her friends, Mary spots Crystal in attendance.  Goaded by Sylvia, Mary confronts Crystal.  Rather than being contrite or embarrassed, Crystal is defiant and even suggests that she is comfortable with the status quo and threatens to steal Stephen outright unless Mary behaves herself.

Once again, Sylvia stirs up the scandal even more by indirectly getting Mary's confrontation with Crystal in the newspapers.  Humiliated, Mary decides to go to Reno to get a divorce.  She stays at a kind of dude ranch for married women fulfilling Nevada's residency requirements for divorce.

It was around this point that I realized I had seen a single male in the film.  Stephen is never seen and even his voice is never heard.  Not only was there not a single male speaking part, I didn't even see a single male extra.  The Women is about women whose identities are closely tied to their husbands (they all refer to themselves as "Mrs. Stephen Haines" or such) but the film never shows them interacting with men.  Like ellipsis in an Ozu film, we only see the effects of male-female interaction and we have to infer the actual interaction.

En route to Reno, Mary meets a whole slew of soon-to-be-divorcees including the oft married Countess De Lave (Mary Boland) and Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard) who is married but having an affair with Sylvia's husband.  When in Reno, Mary meets up with two of her "friends" from New York:  the shy Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine) and eventually Sylvia herself shows up.

Mary gets her divorce although she has second thoughts about it.  Stephen marries Crystal and couple of years pass.  Crystal is having an affair with the Countess' husband, Stephen is miserable, Mary & Sylvia are estranged while Crystal & Sylvia are best friends.  Eventually Mary learns of Stephen's unhappiness with Crystal and schemes to get him back.  Mary tricks Sylvia in to revealing Crystal's affair.  Mary then informs the Countess of the affair prompting her to plan another trip to Reno.  Crystal is ready to trade up from Stephen to Buck (the Countess' husband) but when informed that the divorce will leave Buck penniless, Crystal is resigned to the fact that she'll have to return to the perfume counter.  Crawford has the last word in the film; leaving the assembled women with this bon mot "By the way, there's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society...outside of a kennel."

Although The Women is a comedy, I found it horribly depressing.  These women are incredibly cruel to each other.  Mary, the one woman who refuses to get down and dirty with the crowd, triumphs in the end by using the same tactics have have waylayed her marriage.  Although their behavior was exaggerated for comic effect, The Women seemed to have just enough truth in it to be uncomfortable for me.  I'm not an expert on feminist issues in the 1930s but these characters were wealthy educated women who spent their time finding their next husband and undermining their so called frineds' marriages.  Even as satire, The Women is a sad commentary on what passed for the leisure activities of the wealthy.  That's not to say that I didn't laugh at the absurdity of some of the situations.

In my opinion, Rosalind Russell & Paulette Goddard had the most memorable roles.

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The Music Man features Robert Preston as Harry Hill, a con man/travelling salesman who pulls into River City, Iowa with the goal of conning the townspeople with the marching band scam.  Although he has no musical knowledge, he convinces the town to get behind his scheme to create a boys marching band.  Among his chief obstacles are the level-headed Marian the librarian (Shirley Jones), the susceptible to flattery mayor (Paul Ford) and his indescribable wife (Hermione Gingold who was also memorable as the grandmother in Gigi).  Gingold and Maurice Chevalier sang my favorite song from Gigi, "I Remember it Well."

The plot was predictable and at 2.5 hours, some of the songs fell a little flat.  I think the film version of The Music Man is faithful to the stage version but may have benefited from 30 minute of edits.  Among the my favorite musical numbers were "Rock Island", "Ya Got Trouble", "Shipoopi" (given a renewed interest due to an episode of The Family Guy) and of course "76 Trombones".

The difference between a good musical and a great musical is that there must be some pathos and empathy/sympathy with the characters.  Because they break into song & dance, a musical cannot achieve the same level of emotional investment from me as a drama or dramedy but the plot and acting have to carry some of the load.  I didn't get that feeling with The Music Man.  Preston was ok but it was the romance between Preston & Jones that never hooked me.  I just didn't believe that Marian would fall for him or that Hill wouldn't skip town with the money.

Buddy Hackett has a role as a former con man who helps Preston in River City.  "Shipoopi" is his big number.  A very young Ron Howard plays Marian's sullen younger brother.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler was a late addition to the line-up at the Mill Valley Film Festival.  I was not able to see it there but it stayed on my radar.  It didn't seem to get much press and Box Office Mojo confirms that it did modestly well in ticket sales.

I'll digress for a moment.  Of the top 100 grossing films in 2014, I saw ten:

#1 Guardians of the Galaxy
#2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
#17 Gone Girl
#19 Neighbors 
#33 Fury
#52 The Grand Budapest Hotel
#82 Nightcrawler
#83 Chef
#94 Birdman
#95 Boyhood

My movie going tastes are obviously not in sync with mainstream audiences.  Of the top 100 grossing films in 2014, it's not until #15 (Interstellar) that I see a film that I'm even remotely interested in and it is not until #73 (St. Vincent) until I see a film that I would regret missing.

According to Box Office Mojo, the top 10 films of 2014 are:

#1  Guardians of the Galaxy - I saw this film based on a co-worker's recommendation and was slightly disappointed; great soundtrack.

#2  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 - I saw this film to support the Balboa Theater and was greatly disappointed.

#3  Captain America: The Winter Soldier - I remember this film coming out but had no desire to see it.

#4  The LEGO Movie - I do not remember this film coming out.

#5  Transformers: Age of Extinction - I get all the Transformers films confused.  I haven't seen any of the films in this series.

#6  Maleficent - Snow White tale with Angelina Jolie sporting some massive horns

#7  X-Men: Days of Future Past - I get all the X-Men films confused.  I stopped watching after the second film in the series.

#8  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - I get all the PotA films confused (except the original).  I stopped watching after the one with James Franco & Freida Pinto.

#9  Big Hero 6 - I have no idea what this film is about and I don't even remember seeing commercials for it.

#10 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - who plays Spider-Man now?  Emma Stone is the love interest.  I've never seen one of these films in a movie theater.  I remember Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin and Alfred Molina as Doc Oct but that was with Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker.

What I find amazing about the top 10 list is that is that four of the films are based on characters developed by Marvel Comics in the 1960s or as they say part of the MCU.  Six of the films are part of a franchise; maybe seven if Guardians of the Galaxy is the first in a series.

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On the last Sunday in December 2014, I went to the New Parkway to see Nightcrawler.  I briefly considered sticking around for The Interview but it was 45 minute until showtime so I decided to go home.

Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo & Riz Ahmed; directed by Dan Gilroy; (2014) - Official Website

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Like most people in the Bay Area, I am aware that there have been a lot of protests in Oakland lately.  Many of the protests have devolved into mini-riots and vandalism.  I noticed a lot of boarded up windows on Broadway as I walked from 19th St. BART to 24th St. where the New Parkway is located.  Twice in December, I've been on BART trains when service was halted or delayed due to protesters storming BART stations.  That was definitely on my mind as I went to Oakland.  As I walked back to BART around 7 PM, I noticed a lot of the restaurants in the area were open which is good sign.

When going to that part of Oakland, I try to get a sandwich at Ike's or a bite at Sweet Bar.  I've been meaning to stop at Umami Burger and Luka's Tap Room.  I recall getting an email from the New Parkway announcing that they had revamped their menu so I decided to have an early dinner at the theater.  I ordered the pasta of the day which was orecchiette with chicken & mushrooms.  It was very good.  The New Parkway has also revamped their food delivery system.  Instead of a punchcard type reader on each table, you now receive a more traditional pager type device which you lay on the table.  It flashes green when the food is ready so that the servers can see you.

I noticed they have a new facade and signage at the New Parkway since my last visit this summer.  Also, there was a large parking lot across the street from the New Parkway which is now well on its way to becoming multi-family housing.

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Nightcrawler is the story of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal).  As the film starts, he is stealing some copper wiring from a construction site.  It's clear that Bloom's entire subsistence is based on illegal activities.  What he lacks in ethics & formal education, Bloom makes up for with intelligence, ambition, hard work & emotional detachment.  He finds that these qualities serve him well as a freelance news photographer or stringer.  Bloom is the type of man who has no qualms about filming a person dying from an car accident.  Not only can he film that person dying but he is impervious to pleas of assistance from the injured...like those paparazzi who filmed Princess Diana as died in Paris.

Bloom moves from filming car accidents to staging the scenes to tampering with crime scenes to finally, manipulating the police into dangerous confrontations while he waits with camera in hand.  As distasteful as his actions are, the truly disturbing part of Bloom is his behavior when not filming crime scenes.  He essentially exploits a homeless man (Riz Ahmed) to be his "protégé."

The most fascinating parts of the film is his relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the morning news director of a local television station whom Bloom sells to exclusively.  At the beginning, Bloom is neophyte and lacks bargaining power.  As Bloom learns the ropes and eliminates his competition, he comes to realize that his video clips are improving the station's ratings.  In a super creepy scene, Bloom extorts Romina into a sexual relationship.  As the scene progresses, we see the power shift from Romina to Bloom as Romina & the audience realize they have underestimated Bloom's intelligence and his lack of scruples.

There are two lines of dialogue that stand out from the film.  At one point, Rick (Ahmed) has had enough of Bloom's abuse and legally dubious behavior.  He tells Bloom that Bloom doesn't understand people and doesn't know how to talk to people.  Bloom allows the comment to pass but a few minutes returns to the topic by saying "What if my problem wasn't that I don't understand people but that I don't like them? What if I was the kind of person who was obliged to hurt you for this? I mean physically."

Towards the end of the film, Bloom removes all doubt as to who is the dominant one in his relationship with Romina.  Out of the blue for Romina and the audience, Bloom unleashes this withering takedown in a monotone voice.  "Now I like you, Nina. And I look forward to our time together. But you have to understand, fifteen thousand isn't all that I want. From here on, starting now, I want my work to be credited by the anchors and on a burn. The name of my company is Video Production News, a professional news-gathering service. That's how it should be read and that's how it should be said. I also want to go to the next rung and meet your team, and the station manager, and the director, and the anchors, and start developing my own personal relationships. I'd like to start meeting them this morning. You'll take me around, you'll introduce me as the owner and president of Video Production News, and remind them of some of my many other stories. I'm not done. I also want to stop our discussion over prices. This will save time. So when I say that a particular number is my lowest price, that's my lowest price and you can be assured that I arrived at whatever that number is very carefully. Now, when I say that I want these things, I mean that I want them and I don't want to have to ask again. And the last thing that I want, Nina, is for you to do the things that I ask you to do when we're alone together in your apartment, not like the last time."  Only at the end when he makes reference to the Nina's sexual resistance do we here the slightest bit of irritation in Bloom's voice.

Gyllenhaal is absolutely incredible in the role of Lou Bloom.  It's as if Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver read some self-improvement books and tried to become an entrepreneur.  Indeed, Bloom operates strictly at night like Bickle which makes the mood more eerie.  Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds for the role so he has a gaunt look which makes him look more menacing.  Gyllenhaal's greatest accomplishment is that he can deliver the line with barely an inflection but convey a very menacing tone.  He uses his hollowed face and piercing eyes to great effect.

Rene Russo shows quite a bit of range as a hardened news veteran barely concealing her desperation.  She thinks she has gotten a break by meeting Bloom but in hindsight, it seems Bloom had targeted her - the news director on the vampire shift at the end of her contract with the lowest rated TV station in LA.  Bloom is like a drug dealer.  He pushes his videos on her until she is hooked and then he shows no mercy.  Money is not enough; he has to drain her of every last drop of her dignity.

Finally, the scenes where Gyllenhaal & Riz Ahmed are in the car; waiting for a story to break or on their way to a story have a understated metaphysical quality to them. The simplistic Rick is concerned with existential matters while Bloom exhibits solipsism to the extreme with his egocentrism and lack of empathy.  The contrast between the two bring their flaws more into focus.

Nightcrawler is a tremendous film.  It's one of the best films I saw in 2014.