Saturday, October 25, 2014

2014 Cinequest (Part 2 of 2)

Although I wrote "I remain convinced that the film programming at Cinequest best matches my tastes," I did think the 2014 programming was off a skosh compared to the past few years.  There were still plenty of films I was mightily impressed with but a large number fell in the "above average category."  Some were below average too.  Never missing an opportunity to accentuate the negative, I'll list my least favorites films from the 2014 Cinequest Film Festival.

At the bottom of the list were two biopic documentaries:  Masterpiece:  Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and The Man Behind the Mask.  At a crisp 79 minutes, Masterpiece didn't have enough time to make much of an impression.  Not being particularly familiar with Frank Miller or his comics, I was anxious to learn more about him.  The film was enthusiastic in its praise of Miller.  It could have been titled Hagiography:  Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  I left the film without much of a change in impression about Miller or The Dark Knight Returns.  

The Man Behind the Mask is the story of Mexican wrestler El Hijo del Santo son of El Santo.  The film was directed by El Hijo del Santo's wife and it showed.  Much like Masterpiece, Man Behind the Mask was far from objective and worse it was kind of boring because chronicling his wresting tours and matches just didn't hold my interest.  El Hijo del Santo kept his mask on for the entire film; even during interview and when he was with his family.  That indicated that the film was more PR than honest exploration of the man.

Actually, my recollection was that there were more films which I disliked or regretted seeing but now that I look down the list, I see there were only the aforementioned two.

The next category would be films which had enough moments to be enjoyable if not disappointing overall.

Lawrence and Holloman - an over-the-top comedy about two co-workers.  One's positive outlook seems to compensate for his lack of competence and ethics.  The other is morose and even suicidal...that is until he sabotages the other's life.  The film is a bit mean spirited even for my tastes.

Parallel Maze -  an indecipherable film with homage to Hitchcock's Psycho.  Several people walked out of the screening I attended.  This probably had to do with the mind-bending plot structure which made use of alternate or parallel realities.  A Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics should have been a pre-requisite for viewing this film.

A is for Alex - a comedy which I didn't find too funny.  One good thing about procrastinating in writing these entries is that I have topics which I would not have had if I had written it immediately after the viewing.  One of the major plot points in A is for Alex is that Alex's mother accidentally uploads a video to the internet.  Unfortunately for Alex, the video is of him having sex as a teenager.  This bears a similarity to the Cameron Diaz film Sex Tape.  How many people record themselves having sex?  Apparently it is not uncommon.

Sex(ed):  The Movie - a documentary consisting of clips of Sex Education videos throughout the years.  I didn't find the film that interesting or the clips of old movies that funny although much of the audience seemed to appreciate the film.

Funny Money -  an overly contrived Vietnamese comedy about a guy whose shady business is making counterfeit money to be burned during funeral ceremonies.  He accidentally passes one off to a salesgirl and both their lives get turned upside down.  In addition to a plot I couldn't relate to, the actors were over the top in their performances which was annoying for me.

Sold - a tale of child sex trafficking in Nepal and India.  Everyone down to the street people speaks English though.  There were a few tense moments in the film but I felt the filmmakers were more interested making a statement than telling a story.

The Divorce Party - a couple decides to divorce; the husband is reluctant but agrees.  The wife decides to throw a party to celebrate the divorce which everyone else finds odd (including me).  This film continues a trend I have noticed of young men being ineffectual and unable to land decent jobs.  In this case, the wife had an illness or car accident which required medical attention.  Their lack of health insurance coverage creates a financial strain which in turn leads to a marital strain.  I particularly disliked the ending where the solution is for the husband to rely on his mother-in-law for financial support.

Unforgiven -  who knew cowboys roamed Northern Japan during the 1800s?  A very faithful retelling of Clint Eastwood's award winning film of the same title...maybe a little too faithful.  This film seemed, at times, to be Japanese actors playing cowboys akin to watching a Japanese stage production of Oklahoma!.

App -  I don't have a smart phone so I couldn't download the app.  There was an app for App which was timed with the action in the film to do certain things.  The film literally involved a killer app with overtones of HAL from Space Odyssey 2001.  Maybe I would have enjoyed this Dutch film more if I had the app but it seemed silly to me; not very frightening at all.

§§§

That leaves 26 interesting to fabulous films.  In the interest of time and given the tardiness of this post, I'll summarize on most of the films.

Hunting Elephants - Patrick Stewart plays a ne'er-do-well British actor who travels to Israel when his sister dies.  He gets mixed up in a bank robbery with his brother-in-law and great-nephew.  This is a comedy and good one.  Hunting Elephants is playing at this year's Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.

Class Enemy - A Slovenian film about a high school German language teacher who alienates his class to the extreme.  I thought interesting that the rigid disciplinarian is German and the characters are a tad too familiar but I definitely recall the teenage angst and can relate to way the kids focused their anger and frustration on their teacher.

Just a Sigh - Gabriel Byrne & Emmanuelle Devos are strangers who meet on a train. They share a very intense afternoon in Paris involving a funeral, sex and long-standing family feuds.  This film has a dreamlike quality when Byrne & Devos are together which is interrupted periodically with absurd situations and the reality of their lives.  This is a tremendous film which deserves more publicity than it has received.

The Verdict - a Belgian film about a man whose wife is murdered.  The killer gets off on a technicality and the widower turns vigilante by killing his wife's killer.  The film compelling focuses on the man's trial.

A Squared - (aka Asquared) a modern day love story about two teenagers in Italy.  The title refers to the names of the two lead characters - Amanda and Alberto.  Alberto has an on-line sex addiction.  Deeply in love, Amanda stands by him.  Actually standing is not her most interesting position.  Their first time having sex (in a classroom during lunch!) is recorded by Alberto and then posted on-line causing shame & other disciplinary actions against them.  For my middle-aged sensibilities, the plot seemed to defy belief but it was still fun ride.

White Rabbit - set in Oakland, this is the story of an ex-Army communications specialist who gets pulled into a shady plot by a crooked OPD detective.  The ex-GI is a female although that doesn't really figure into the story.  In fact, it felt as though the role was originally written for a male actor.  It's also set against the time period when there were Occupy protest in Oakland although again that wasn't integral to the story.  White Rabbit has elements of film noir which I enjoyed.

East Side Sushi - also set in Oakland.  In fact, I think I've been to the Japanese restaurant where much of the film is set.  A Latina looks for a better life than selling shaved ice from a pushcart.  She applies for and gets a job in the kitchen of a Japanese restaurant where she quickly falls in love with the cuisine as well as the head chef.  She aspires to be a sushi chef but is the victim of racial and gender discrimination by the restaurant owner who feels only Japanese males are qualified.  He hides this sentiment by saying that the customers expect authentic Japanese food made by authentic Japanese men.  Her opportunity comes in the form of a food competition television show.  It was fun to see Oakland locations I recognized and the clash of Latino & Japanese cultures.

Eternity: The Movie - the story of Eternity, a faux musical duo from the 1980s who bear a casual resemblance to Hall & Oates.  Eternity skewers 1980s music, fashions and the latent homoeroticism which I was largely unaware of at the time.  Eternity is a lightweight comedy which is its strength in that its reach doesn't exceed its grasp but also its weakness in that the film feels like a glorified SNL sketch.

Breathe In - a very engaging story about a foreign exchange student who comes to live with a family of three in upstate New York.  The father of the family (Guy Pearce who is racking up an impressive filmography) is a frustrated high school music teacher and part-time symphony musician.  It turns out the exchange student (Felicity Jones) is musically gifted.  Although, that is something they share, their attraction is slow burning and most of the film is restrained.  They don't take action until the last third and the impact is devastating on his family.  Amy Ryan and Mackenzie Davis as Pearce's wife and daughter round out a strong cast.  The plot drags at times and the examination of these characters is largely superficial but Pearce & Jones capture something ineffable in their characters.  Interestingly, I didn't think they had great chemistry together.

A Thief A Kid And A Killer - a dark, Filipino comedy about a jewel heist gone sideways in which the thieves hide out in an upscale apartment.  However, a young boy is in the apartment and forms a friendship with one of the thieves.  I really enjoyed this film.

Victoriana - this was my second favorite film of the festival.  A young couple buy a fixer-upper in New York.  The wife accidentally kills a tenant and the ensuing cover-up changes their lives.  This film touches on gentrification and a perversion of the American Dream.  It also nicely explores the shifting power dynamics between the couple.

A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide - a Scottish comedy about a suicidal man, his budding romance and his relationship with his outrageous psychoanalyst.  The film was amusing but at times I had a hard time understanding their Scottish brogues.

Confessions of a Womanizer - an outrageous comedy about the dating misadventures of the titular protagonist.  The film has many over-the-top performances but is punctuated by Gary Busey's unabashed portrayal as the mentor to the womanize.  I can still remember one of the quotes - "You punched the starfish without wearing a Hazmat suit."

The Illiterate - Paulina Garcia (Gloria) stars as the eponymous character in this Chilean.  When her "reader" is unavailabe, a young woman offers to substitute which then becomes an effort to teach the older woman to read.  The younger woman's professional and sexual frustrations play against Garcia's insecurities.

A Short History of Decay - a failed, thirtysomething NYC writer decamps at his parents' Florida home.  When his father's health problems force him to extend his stay, family dynamics and budding romances come to the forefront.  Nice performances by Linda Lavin & Harris Yulin as the parents.  The film is a bit scattered but comes together nicely by the end.

Zoran, My Idiot Nephew - this seemed to be the darling of the festival goers I chatted with but I found the film not as funny as it was made out to be.  A shady Italian slob learns his Slovenian aunt has died.  Looking to collect an inheritance, the man is instead saddled with his teenage nephew - an functioning autistic who is a natural at darts.  A scheme is hatched and hijinks ensue.

The Hands of Orlac - Orlac (the always exceptional Conrad Veidt) is a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident.  He receives a hand transplant but is disheartened to learn the hands belonged to a murderer.  Orlac loses the ability to play the piano and begins to have strange thoughts about a knife which appears in his house.  I am finding that my enjoyment of silent films is hit or miss.  I am alarmed that there seems to be more misses than hits lately.  I was mild about Orlac; I can't quite put my finger on the reason (no pun intended).

Heavenly Shift -  this Hungarian film was my favorite film of the festival. Set in Budapest during the Bosnia Civil War, a Serb finds work as an ambulance EMT.  Together with the ambulance driver and attending physician, the three men form a close friendship.  They need to be close because they are also running a scam.  A shady undertaker needs bodies and sometimes the trio decide an accident victim can't be helped or doesn't deserve to be helped.  The film mixes absurdist humor with political commentary and Tarantinoesque flourishes with darker tones.

Blood Punch - a horror-comedy about a three people - a dirty cop, the girl and the mark who are forced to live the same day over and over again.  Even death doesn't stop the repetition.  It just so happens that the day they repeat is the one in which they all double-cross each other.  This film was a lot of fun.

Dom Hemingway - a showcase for Jude Law to chew up the scenery as a ex-con looking to collect a payday for keeping his mouth shut.  His hot temper and a beautiful woman gets him more trouble than he can handle.

Finsterworld - a German ensemble cast of odd people.  I recall the man who likes to dress up like a horse, a pedicurist who makes baked goods from the dead skin shavings from his clients' feet and high-schoolers who visit a concentration camp.  With the passage of six months, I find this film to be less interesting than when I viewed it.

Friended to Death - a comedic commentary on modern social media, the film is about LA parking meter cop who is addicted to his Facebook page.  Fired from his job and by extension severed from his on-line identity, he decides to fake his own death to see what happens.  Manic and ambitious, the film doesn't come close to the level of satire it aspires to be.  However, for a smaller budget film, it is adequate.

The Rugby Player - a bio-doc about Mark Bingham, one of the passengers of United Flight 93 on 9/11.  Bingham happened to be gay which is the subject of much attention in the film.  In fact, his bravery on 9/11 seems to be overshadowed by his bravery in coming out.  Far from objective, the film intends to be uplifting but I have a hard time believing anyone is 1/5 as great as Bingham was made out to be in the film.  Perhaps my commentary is more of a statement about my own cynicism than Mr. Bingham's life.

It's Only Make Believe - a tense Norwegian film about a woman who gets out of a prison and attempts to reclaim her daughter from foster care.  However, she is quickly pulled back into her drug-dealing past by the thugs who killed her boyfriend.

Tempo Girl - the quirky story (with an out-of-place epilogue inspired by Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction) of a female writer who travels to remote Swiss Alps village to find inspiration but instead finds odd and oddly menacing characters.

§§§

Of these films, which I sadly do not have enough time to write more about, I strongly recommend Heavenly Shift, Victoriana, Class Enemy, Just a Sigh, The Verdict, Breathe In, A Short History of Decay, Tempo Girl, Blood Punch and A Thief A Kid And A Killer.  With less enthusiasm, I recommend Hunting Elephants, East Side Sushi and It's Only Make Believe.

§§§

I have been receiving emails from Cinequest about their next film festival.  2015 will mark their 25th anniversary.  The festival will from from February 24 to March 8, 2015 which is week earlier in the year than this year's March 4-16 dates.  Maybe it won't conflict with CAAMFest next year.

With the SJ Rep closed, I wonder if they are going to screen films there or in an additional Camera 12 auditorium in 2015.  The SJ Rep building (aka The Susan and Phil Hammer Theatre Center) appeared to be vacant the last time I was in the area (a few months ago).

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her

Earlier this week I saw The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby at the Landmark Embarcadero.  Technically, I saw two films.  The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him followed by The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her.  However, the two films were packaged together as a single 3 hour, 9 minute film with no intermission titled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her starring Jessica Chastain & James McAvoy; with Viola Davis, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Ciarán Hinds, Bill Hader, Jess Weixler & Nina Arianda; directed by Ned Benson; (2013) - Official Website

The premise of the films is that the audience sees a couple break apart.  First, from the perspective of the man and then from the perspective of the woman.  There is actually a third version of the film called  The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them which combines the two but frankly that seems to defeat the whole purpose of the project which is to show how the two people view the breakup so differently.

The first question is why invoke The Beatles with the title?  Having read the lyrics to the song, I don't see a direct connection and referencing the name seems to be unnecessarily distracting (not to mention the added licensing fees).  I never figured that out but it didn't matter because I quickly became engrossed with the film.

I walked in about 5 minutes late and I missed the opening which I have read involves Connor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) Ludlow (née Rigby) doing a dine and dash.  As I later discovered, the film starts with the Him version.

When I walked into the theater, Connor (a restaurateur) is depressed at the state of his relationship.  He returns to his Brooklyn walk-up apartment before the dinner service to find his wife still in bed and morose.  As the film progresses, it is made known that the Ludlow's son has died and it has put an enormous strain on their marriage.  Eleanor eventually attempts suicide and afterwards disappears without a trace.

Connor chances upon Eleanor and begins to stalk his own wife.  Eleanor is largely absent from Him.  Connor is left to deal with his seemingly irrational wife's absence.  As time passes, Connor's most pressing problem becomes his restaurant which is financially failing.  At a crucial juncture, Eleanor returns and the audience is hopeful that the couple will reconcile but Connor admits an infidelity at an inopportune moment.

Him ends at some unspecified point in the future when Connor has taken over his father's restaurant and as he takes a walk before the dinner service, his wife trails behind him...reversing their roles from earlier in the film.

In Her, we learn that after her suicide attempt, Eleanor has taken refuge with her parents in a wealthy suburb.  We learn a little more of the backstory of their relationship.  Eleanor's parents seem to have not approved of their romance initially.  In addition, Eleanor is more rational and less angry than the glimpses we see in Him. She also thinks back to the early days of their relationship more often that one would think given her behavior in Him.

Ultimately, the Her story converges with Him but Her is viewed differently than Him because the audience already knows what happens.  However, director Ned Benson does something clever.  In the scenes which overlap the two viewpoints, he occasionally changes events between the two version.  I caught a number of small discrepancies but there were three significant ones which make the story more ambiguous.

First, during an intimate encounter in an automobile Connor confesses he has slept with someone during their separation.  In the Her, Connor does not confess but rather Eleanor correctly guesses his indiscretion based on his hesitation.  The even switch physical positions:  Connor on top of Eleanor in Him and vice versa in Her.

The second discrepancy occurs when the pair are clearing out of their apartment.  In Her, Eleanor apologizes for her behavior while that does not occur in Him.  In one version she wants to apologize and in the other, he doesn't hear the apology.

Finally, the ending of the two films leave the audience with distinctly different impressions.  In Him, Eleanor follows Connor without saying a word and the film fades to black.  In Her, after following him for a period, Eleanor calls out to Connor who turns around and approaches her.

I interpreted these differences as the Rashōmon Effect which makes me wonder how they were dealt with in Them.

The cast is uniformly fantastic.  McAvoy's Connor comes across a little too passive and whiny for me while Chastain's Eleanor is too shrill at times.  Both of these characters are flawed yet also appealing.  Of the two, Chastain's part is the more meaty one; particularly when considering both films as whole.  She really gets to show some range in the role of Rigby.

The real treat in Eleanor Rigby are the supporting performances.  William Hurt & Isabelle Huppert play Eleanor's parents.  I didn't know Huppert could speak English well enough to act in English language films.  Here, she nicely plays an alcoholic mother who regrets her life choices which explicitly includes having her daughters.  Jess Weixler is Eleanor younger sister, an unmarried mother who lives at home and has some issues with her big sister.  Ciarán Hinds portrays Connor's father, a famous and successful restaurateur who is one-step removed from being estranged from his son.  Bill Hader is Connor's flaky best friend and chef.  Finally, Viola Davis commands every scene she is in as Eleanor's cynical psychology professor with whom she forms a friendship.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her was a very satisfying film for me.  It's one of the better films I have seen in 2014.  Both Chastain & Davis have had some high-profile parts in the past few years (both were in The Help a few years ago).  It's good to see them continue their histories of strong performances.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's October 2014 Calendar

The October calendar at the Castro Theater was tough.  The only person I quickly recognized was Ralph Bellamy on Halloween.  My co-worker, whose facial recognition skills I praised in my September post, drew a blank for the other three.

I cheated and used Google Image Search to identify Ruth Gordon on October 6.  Ms. Gordon is best known for her role in Harold and Maude which doesn't get screened as much now that the Red Vic is closed.  She was also memorable in Every Which Way But Loose and Rosemary's Baby.

That knowledge broke the logjam for me.  I recalled that Ralph Bellamy & Ruth Gordon appeared together in Rosemary's Baby (1968).  Then I noticed the guy on October 20 looked a lot like the actor who portrayed Ruth Gordon's character's husband in the film.  A quick IMDB search resulted in his name - Sidney Blackmer.  That only left the woman shown on October 28.  Seeing the Rosemary's Baby association, I looked each actress in the cast up in IMDB until I found Patsy Kelly.

Summarizing:

October 6 - Ruth Gordon

October 20 - Sidney Blackmer

October 28 - Patsy Kelly

October 31 - Ralph Bellamy

The clues obviously point to Rosemary's Baby but unfortunately the film is not on the Castro Theater's October calendar.  Roman Polanski directed the film so I looked for other films by Polanski on the calendar this month. No luck.

After perusing the calendar for a few moments, I recalled what Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of Midnites for Maniacs had told the audience at the September 19 screening of Inside Llewyn Davis and Coal Miner's Daughter.  He mentioned his upcoming events.  On October 17, Ficks is screening The Dark Knight & Reign of Fire.  Although not listed on the Maniac's website nor the Castro's, I recalled that Jesse had said he was screening a double feature consisting of The Notebook (directed by Nick Cassavetes) and Minnie and Moskowitz (directed by John Cassavetes) in November.  John Cassavetes was in Rosemary's Baby but it seems a stretch for the clues in the October calendar to be pointing to a November film event.

I can't find anything with Mia Farrow on the calendar either.

I also tried looking for anyone whose mother was named Rosemary.  The following individuals' mothers were not named Rosemary - Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak (Vertigo), Bernardo Bertolucci (October 18), Nicholas Kristof (October 7), Lauren Bacall (several films on multiple dates) and Andy Warhol (Chelsea Girls).

I notice Ghostbusters on October 24.  That movie deals with a case of demonic possession which is close to the plot of Rosemary's Baby.

Halloween is the most obvious choice for the object of the calendar's clues, but I don't think that is right.  Kind of life, the puzzle on the calendar don't come with a key so I can never know with 100% certainty if I am right or wrong.

§§§

I've never been a big fan of horror films or Halloween.  Halloween always seemed silly to me and now seems like an excuse for people to get drunk.  Horror films rarely frighten me anymore.  I guess I'm just becoming a grumpy old man.  For that reason, the Castro's October calendar is not particularly appealing to me.  Also by my count, the Castro is screening 21 films in October which I have seen before.

I would have liked to have seen Gandhi on Sunday but had other plans.  Orpheus (October 21), The Pawnbroker (October 22) and Giuseppe Makes a Movie (October 27) interest me.  All three non-film events sponsored by the Bay Area Science Festival on October 25 interest me as well.

However, it is the Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective at the PFA which excites me the most in October.  With 18 films in the series, I believe the series contains all of the Taiwanese director's feature film efforts.  The series begins Friday (October 10) with The Sandwich Man and Cute Girl and continues until December 14.

At present, the Mill Valley Film Festival is occurring.  It will continue until Sunday (October 12).  I have seen several films there this past weekend and intend to see more this upcoming weekend.

November looks to be a busy month compared to October.  The San Francisco Film Society is sponsoring three mini-festival:  French Cinema Now (November 6-9), Hong Kong Cinema (November 14-16) and New Italian Cinema (November 19-23).  All three series will be at the Vogue Theater; their lineups are scheduled to be posted tomorrow.

Third I's program has already been announced.  The San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival runs in two segments.  The festival will be at the Viz and the Castro from November 6-9 and at CineArts in Palo Alto on November 15.

Finally, Elliot Lavine (and Don Macolm) returns to the Roxie from November 14-17 for a French film noir series titled "The French Had a Name For It: Classic French Noir from the 40s through the 60s."  The program for the series is not yet posted.

§§§

Castro Theater Calendar - October 2014

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Los Angeles Plays Itself, Dragnet, James Ellroy, Jack Webb and Yasujirō Ozu

I am so far behind in chronicling the films I have seen that I don't know if I can catch up.  Between work and family obligations, this blog and my exercise schedule are suffering.

On September 21 (Sunday), I saw Los Angeles Plays Itself at the Castro Theatre.

Los Angeles Plays Itself; directed by Thom Andersen; documentary; narrated by Encke King; (2003)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (LAPI) is a three hour compilation of films set in Los Angeles with trenchant narration by Encke King reciting director Thom Andersen's commentary. Long enough to have an intermission, the film has countless clips of famous and not-so-famous films shot in Los Angeles.  A partial listing of films shown in LAPI includes Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Sunset Boulevard, Rebel Without a Cause, The Exiles, Chinatown, Blade Runner, Die Hard and many, many more.

LAPI touched on so many topics that it was exhausting.  The film seemed to run out of steam rather than end with a coherent conclusion.  King was talking about racism and urban blight but rather than wrap it up, the film concluded somewhat abruptly.  It's as if Andersen ran out of time, patience or money.  Far from unsatisfying, LAPI was dizzying in its scope.  Highlighting specific locations, social trends and attitudes among Angelinos, corruption within LAPD and a myriad of other topics, LAPI was exhilarating.

Part of my enjoyment stemmed from recognizing so many of the films but there was a confluence of events which culminated in my viewing of LAPI and by viewing it, I gained an understanding of something which had up-to-then been subliminal.

Although my enjoyment of his works has waned in recent years, the novelist James Ellroy has returned to form with his latest novel, Perfidia.  I came to admire Ellroy's work just over 25 years ago.  I was living in Los Angeles (Arcadia to be exact) and read about Ellroy's novel The Big Nowhere which had just been published in paperback.  I had never heard of Ellroy up until reading the LA Times review of his novel.  I picked up a copy at the Santa Anita mall; I think it was a Vroman's Bookstore.  Anyway, I read that book until 3 or 4 AM that night and had to get up to go to work the next day.

The Big Nowhere was part of Ellroy's LA Quartet consisting of The Black Dhalia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz. The four novels dealt with rampant corruption in the LAPD during the post-WWII years.  The setting of the novels roughly coincided with the classic film noir period but Ellroy's prose was more violent/racist/sexist than any film of the period.  Ellroy wrote like he was jazz musician on heroin or Hemingway on crystal meth.  The words jumped off the page and the convoluted subplots intertwined like the incestuous relationships (figuratively and literally) of his characters.

After White Jazz, Ellroy vowed to not write about Los Angeles again and published American Tabloid which is part of what has been dubbed his Underworld USA Trilogy.  Frankly, I didn't enjoy the Underworld novels as much as the LA ones.  I think Ellroy's reach exceeded his grasp when he attempted tie together all major events from the JFK assassination to the Vietnam War.

With Perfidia, Ellroy is back in LA.  The novel is the first of his Second LA Quartet or LA Quartet II.  The novel follows the LAPD investigation into the murder of a Japanese American family on December 6, 1941.  Ellroy, with his encyclopedic knowledge of mid-century Los Angeles, is back in his milieu.

What does LAPI have to do with Ellroy and Perfidia?  The film does showcase clips from L.A. Confidential and comments quite a bit on the corruption and brutality of the LAPD...a topic which Ellroy has made a career out of.  There was a particular resonance for me since I was reading Perfidia during the days before and after the screening of LAPI.  King got off a line which Ellroy should envy - "Is there any other city where the police put their motto in quotation marks? Are they trying to be ironic?"  For those unfamiliar, that motto is "to serve and to protect."

LAPI struck a second harmonic resonance with me.  I have discovered this television channel called MeTV (pronounced Me-Tee-Vee but an acronym from Memorable Entertainment Television).  MeTV programs classic television shows from the 50s through the 70s.

Among my favorites are I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, The Twilight Zone and Adam 12, but my current favorite is Dragnet. MeTV shows what is referred to Dragnet 1967.  The original television series ran in the 1950s.  As an aside, I've never seen an episode from the original run.  In 1966, Webb rebooted the franchise with TV movie called Dragnet 1966.  The next year, he started weekly episodes with Dragnet 1967.  It ran for three seasons with the title changing each year:  Dragnet 1967, Dragnet 1968, etc.  However, the second run of the show is typically referred to as Dragnet 1967.

Although I saw many of these episodes as a boy, over the past few months, I have come to appreciate them more.  Webb directed every episode of Dragnet 1967 and I have come to recognize his distinctive style.  In his portrayal of Sgt. Joe Friday, Webb is self-righteous to the point of self-parody.  However, it is the formulaic set up of the episodes which are simultaneously predictable and comforting.  Without exception, Friday will launch into a monotone lecture which is ostensibly a civics lesson but has more ominous overtones if you believe in the LAPD of James Ellroy's novels.  Friday memorably launches these with something like "Now mister you listen me..."

The highpoint of each episode of Dragnet 1967 is when Friday gets off a zinger at the expense of a criminal, disinterested witness or some other poor soul who runs afoul of Friday's viewpoint.  Again, the exchange usually follows a pattern.  Friday will say "Well we know one thing."  Response: "What's that?"  Then Friday will state something as fact which is really a pointed criticism of the person he is conversing with.

Again, Andersen (through King) gets off a memorable quote:  "[Dragnet's] creator and star Jack Webb directed each episode with a rigor equaled only by Ozu and Bresson, the cinema’s acknowledged masters of transcendental simplicity.  Dragnet admirably expressed the contempt the LAPD had for the law-abiding civilians it was pledged 'to protect and to serve.'"  When I heard that line, it crystallized for me why I enjoyed Dragnet 1967.  I'm not sure if the average viewer of the show picks up on Andersen's observation even 40 years after originally being aired.

The Ozu comment is spot on.  Frequently, Webb frames the scene such that he and his partner (Harry Morgan) walk into a room, they talk and then the walk out of the room.  Camera movements are kept to a minimum.  Most likely due to budgetary and time constraints, Webb's adherence to this set-up creates a zen-like awareness through its repetition.  Webb is truly inculcating the viewer to see the virtue of the LAPD and its officers.  Webb strips away anything that could distract the viewer from that message and his strict discipline in adhering to his storytelling techniques rivals Dogme 95.  There is something beautiful about Webb's exactness of direction but when viewed through a cynicism informed by Ellroy's works, Dragnet 1967 becomes absurdly grotesque which is a quality I find irresistible in films.

Circling back to Los Angeles Plays Itself, the viewing experience was something special for me because these thoughts about Ellroy's novels and Dragnet coalesced in a split second during the viewing and reminded me why I like films so much.  I don't always have these "Eureka!" moments.  In fact, I have them too seldom but I guess that results in them being more special.  I'm not sure how much of my praise of LAPI is due to the film itself or my unique viewing circumstances.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's September 2014 Calendar

As frequently happens, one person introduces another to an activity and to paraphrase Darth Vader, "the student becomes the master."

The person who sits next to me at work has become more adept at identifying the individuals in the Castro Theater calendar than I have.  I initially told him about the puzzle in the calendar and more often than not, I provide him with a hard copy of the calendar.  Now, he identifies the individuals and asks me if I have solved the puzzle.

September 8 - Peter O'Toole.  I didn't recognize O'Toole.  In the photo, he looks nothing like he did in Lawrence of Arabia.  My coworker correctly identified O'Toole in the photo and even the film (Goodbye, Mr. Chips).

September 15 - Eve Arden.  I originally thought this was Lucille Ball, but once again my coworker trumped me.  He partially identified her as "Eve something from that television show."  We quickly surmised it was Eve Arden and the photo is from Our Miss Brooks.

September 22 - Ray Walston.  I immediately recognized Walston and even recognized the photo as being taken from his portrayal of Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

September 29 - Anne Bancroft.  I didn't recognize her but my coworker misidentified her after some time.  He thought the photo was of Patty Duke from her role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.  Suspicious because Duke is a blonde, I confirmed the photo is of Anne Bancroft from her role as Anne Sullivan, Keller's teacher.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out the photos of are actors portraying teachers and that September is traditionally back-to-school month.  Actually, it doesn't appear to be that way anymore.  I recall not going back to school until after Labor Day but most school districts in the Bay Area started classroom instruction in August this year.

If the clues are pointing to specific films on the program, it is perhaps If.... and The Chocolate War on September 10.

§§§

As for the Castro's calendar, I cannot recall a month where I have previously seen more films on the schedule than this month.  I've seen at least 26 films listed on the September calendar (which includes the first four days in October).

Among the highlights for me:

September 6 - two Bob Fosse films; Sweet Charity paired with All That Jazz.  I saw the former five years ago and loved it.

September 19 - Midnites for Maniacs' double feature of Inside Llewyn Davis and Coal Miner's Daughter.  I missed Llewyn Davis when it was in the theaters earlier this year and it's been many years since I saw Coal Miner's Daughter.

September 20 - the Silent Autumn program from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

A grab bag of other films which I hope to see - If...., Petulia, Los Angeles Plays Itself and Sam Fuller's favorite among his own films, Park Row.

Castro Theater Calendar - September 2014



Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's August 2014 Calendar

August was a bust for me.  I only got one photo correct.

August 4 - Fredric March.  This is the one I guessed correctly.  I took me awhile but somehow I picked March out.  It surprises me that I got it right; I can't say I'm a big fan of March's work.  I get him confused with E.G. Marshall.

August 5 - Ilka Chase. With all due respect, I have never heard of Ilka Chase.  After looking at her filmography, I can count her films which I have seen on one hand and have a couple fingers left.  I have not seen any of her films within the past few years.  I see she appeared in Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife (1955) which if memory serves me correctly, I have missed not one but two screenings of this film at the PFA over the past few years.

August 18 - Charles Dance.  From the on-line calendar, I thought this was Steve McQueen.  However, upon reviewing a paper copy, I realized it was not McQueen.  This was the point I gave up on August's calendar.  Dance is best known to modern audiences as Tywin Lannister, patriarch of the House of Lannister on Game of Thrones. I recently saw Dance in François Ozon's Swimming Pool at the Castro Theater but that did not help me recognize him.

August 25 - Audrey Totter.  This drove me crazy as I recognized Totter but couldn't place her name or film(s) in which I had seen her.  I spent several days staring at the photo with her maniacal eyes.  I recall her performance in Lady in the Lake from the 2012 Noir City Xmas.

I had to use Google Image Search to identify Chase, Dance & Totter and confirm March's identity

March, dance, chase & totter could refer to many things.  My initial guess is The Wiz which screens August 29 or perhaps The Wizard of Oz which screens this weekend (August 8 to 10).  Dorothy is chased by the Wicked Witch, the flying monkeys march, there is dancing in the film and the scarecrow totters.  This is further bolstered by the fact that August 29 is Michael Jackson's birthday.  I learned that fact from reading my gym's monthly newsletter (don't ask how or why).  Jackson played the Scarecrow in The Wiz.

Castro Theater Calendar - August 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's July 2014 Calendar

I couldn't solve the July puzzle without cheating.

July 7 - my co-worker (whom I am increasingly relying on) identified Julie Andrews quickly.

July 14 - I identified Groucho Marx immediately.  I also knew that Groucho's real name was Julius Marx.  Chico's name was Leonard and Harpo's name was Arthur.  I don't know what Zeppo's birth name was.

July 21 - Neither of us knew who this was.  Armed with  knowledge of Julie Andrews, Julius Marx and the month of July, I was certain the woman pictured on July 21 was named Julie, Julia, Juliette, etc.  However, Julie was a popular name back in the day - Julie London, Julie Newmar, Juliet Prowse, Julie Christie, etc.  I eventually cheated using the Windows Snipping Tool & Google Image Search.  The actress pictured on July 21 is Julie Harris from East of Eden.

I think Groucho was called Julie by his friends.  Three Julies which looks as if it could be the plural of July.  I'm not sure what this pointing to.  July 3 when Jaws & The Towering Inferno was screening?  Do the three Julies plus July point to July 4 and Independence Day?  I also wonder if there was a Jewish connection which would point to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival which starts on July 24 at the Castro.

As it's already the second half of the month, I'm giving up.

Castro Theater Calendar - July 2014


§§§

Much of the Castro Theater's August calendar is posted.  Among the highlights for me:

On the final three Thursdays in August, they are playing double and triple features of Leo Carax and Richard Linklater films.  The Castro is screening Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy (one film each Thursday).  I haven't seen any of the films in the trilogy as I've been waiting for some theater to program them as such.  For the Carax portion, they are bringing back Mauvais Sang which I missed in April due to a conflict with the San Francisco International Film Festival.  The dates of the Carax/Linklater features are August 14, 21 & 28.

As long as I am digressing, I wish some theater would screen Cédric Klapisch's Spanish Apartment trilogy which consists of The Spanish Apartment (2002), Russian Dolls (2005) and Chinese Puzzle (2013).  I'll throw in Krzysztof Kieślowski Three Color trilogy which is celebrating its 20th anniversary:  Blue (1993), White (1994) and Red (1994).

The Knack…and How to Get It won the Palme d'Or at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.  Directed by Richard Lester & sandwiched between his collaborations with The Beatles (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), The Knack is a film I have long heard about but never had an opportunity to see.  A Hard Day's Night which screened on July 9 is on the August 6 double bill with The Knack.

I notice that the Castro is bringing back more films.  Only Lovers Left Alive screened on July 11 but is on the schedule for August 12.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a legendary cult film which has eluded me for years.  Diane Lane, Laura Dern & Marin Kanter form an all-girl punk rock band.  It plays on August 20 with We Are the Best!  The inclusion of the Japanese film Linda, Linda, Linda would have made a nice triple bill.

I didn't realize Paul Mazursky died on June 30.  In memoriam, the Castro is showing Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Tempest on August 27.  I remember seeing Tempest when it came out in 1982 but I was too young to appreciate it.   The reviews are mixed so I'm not sure if I'll go but I'm leaning towards going.

As I mentioned previously, Midnites for Maniacs is screening The Wiz (with Popeye) on August 29.