Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rob the Mob

I saw Rob the Mob last week at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas.

Rob the Mob starring Michael Pitt & Nina Arianda; with Andy Garcia & Ray Romano; directed by Raymond De Felitta; (2014) - Official Website

Rob the Mob is based on the true story of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva, a Queens couple who robbed Mafia social clubs in the early 1990s.  That's a great hook - who is crazy enough to rob the Mob?  As portrayed in the film, Tommy (Michael Pitt) and Rosemarie (Nina Arianda) are more stupid and ignorant than crazy.  Set in the early 1990s, Tommy attends the trial of John Gotti.  He hears the testimony Sammy "The Bull" Gravano testify that guns are verboten at Mafia social clubs.  Tommy, previously convicted of armed robbery, gets the idea to rob the social clubs since they won't have guns.  As an added incentive, Tommy's father was killed by mobsters when he was a boy.

The predictable plot works its way to its conclusion with little to distinguish it.  Pitt & Arianda have some chemistry and are energetic enough but their dim-witted escapades never quite rise to the level of empathy.  In fact, the dialogue is stilted at times and the most common sentiment elicited from me was contempt for these two idiots.

Ray Romano plays a newspaper columnist who convinces the couple (dubbed Bonnie & Clyde) to give an interview.  Andy Garcia, with a bushy beard, plays the mob boss whose clubs are being robbed.  Garcia tries to show the quiet fury beneath the surface but once again, the dialogue fails the characters.

Burt Young &  Michael Rispoli have smaller roles as mobsters.  Cathy Moriarty has one scene as Tommy's embittered mother (best scene in the film).  Griffin Dunne has a few scenes as the owner of the debt collection agency where Tommy & Rosemarie work.

Rob the Mob is like a sport car not firing on all cylinders.  You know something is off, you're not quite sure what it is and you spend more time trying to figure out what is off than enjoying the ride. 

As I was watching Garcia trying to gain traction in his role, I was reminded of one of his films called City Island which I saw at the 2010 San Francisco Independent Film Festival.  Garcia was similarly hamstrung by mediocre dialogue and a plot which featured his prison guard character's embarrassment at trying to be an actor.  I was so lukewarm about the film that I didn't write anything about it in my postCity Island was far from horrible but not particularly memorable although I will admit that I am able to recall a surprisingly large part of the plot.  I don't doubt that I'll be able to write the same sentence for Rob the Mob in a few years. 

I have digressed - City Island and Rob the Mob were both directed by Raymond De Felitta which means it's probably not coincidence that I feel tepid about both films.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Child's Pose and It Felt Like Love

I saw two very good films at the Roxie earlier this week.

Technically, I saw both films at the Little Roxie.  I have noticed that their film screenings do not always match their website.  Their website lists whether a film will screen in the Big Roxie or Little Roxie for a particular showtime.  As I have stated before, I try to avoid the Little Roxie for various reasons.  I can't remember which but one of the two films was scheduled to be in the Big Roxie on the website but I was sorely disappointed to see it was screening at the Little Roxie when I arrived at the box office.  This is not the first time this has happened.


Before I forget, the Roxie has posted the schedule for Elliot Lavine's 2014 edition of I Wake Up Dreaming.  I notice he has combined some pre-Code films into the mix.  For the past two or three years, Lavine has programmed a one week pre-Code film series in March as well as the two week I Wake Up Dreaming series in May.  Unless it slipped past me, there was no pre-Code series this year.  I suppose Elliot is merging the two.

The lineup looks interesting because there are so many titles I'm unfamiliar with.  Giving it the once over, I only recognize eight films I have seen before:  The Locket, Fall Guy, When Strangers Marry, The Window, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Al Capone, While the City Sleeps and Brainstorm.  With 30 films in the lineup, that means 75% of the films are new to me.


Child's Pose starring Luminița Gheorghiu; directed by Călin Peter Netzer; Romanian with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
It Felt Like Love starring Gina Piersant; directed by Eliza Hittman; (2013) - Official Website

Child's Pose won the Golden Bear (highest prize) at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival.

It Felt Like Love is Eliza Hittman's first feature length film.


Child's Pose is notable for the tremendous performance by Luminița Gheorghiu.  Gheorghiu plays Cornelia Keneres, a sixtysomething woman who is something to behold.  As the film starts, we see that Cornelia is part of the well-to-do set in Bucharest with important people attending her party.  She complains to her sister that her son never calls which would seem like a familiar refrain except she speaks as if she is in competition with her son's live-in girlfriend.  Cornelia's maid is also her son's maid and she bullies and bribes her into providing information about her son's life.

The film veers into more dramatic territory when we learn that Cornelia's son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) has killed a boy with his car.  Cornelia quickly springs into action.  She races to the police station where she ignores the victim's family, uses her contacts to influence the police investigation, browbeats the police detectives taking his son's statements and even instructs her son to change his initial statement.

Although Cornelia clearly loves her son, she also is one ballsy bitch that needs to control every situation.  For his part, Barbu is tired of his mother and the possibility of prison times seems less frightening than having to deal with his mother.

Over the course of the film, we learn the depth of dysfunction in the mother-son relationship although we are never told the exact cause.  Cornelia's manipulative manner is implied to have been the root cause of many of Barbu's problems - which includes a failing relationship with his girlfriend, drug abuse and other problems.

Two scenes stand out for me.  In the first, Cornelia and Barbu's girlfriend Carmen (Ilinca Goia) have as close to a heart-to-heart as Cornelia can have.  Eventually, Cornelia elicits detailed information about Carmen and Barbu's sex life.  First, it seemed peculiar for a woman and her boyfriend's mother to have such a conversation.  Second, the revelations imply that Barbu's problems with his mother have spilled over into his relationship with Carmen.  For her part, Cornelia desperate need to be close to her son has left him frustrated, emotionally stunted and angry at the world.  Still Cornelia cannot let her son go.  It is hinted, ever so slightly during a scene where Cornelia rubs ointment on her son's back, that incest is either in their history or on Cornelia's mind.

The pièce de résistance is the extended scene at the end of the film where Cornelia visits the parents of the dead boy and reveals her feelings while pleading for her son's freedom.  Cornelia has fixed things enough that if the parents will withdraw their complaint, her son will likely receive little to no punishment.  Having seen her manipulations throughout the film, the audience wonders how much of what she is saying is true.  Gheorghiu plays the scene without giving any indication of Cornelia's veracity - reinforcing how good a liar Cornelia is.

Gheorghiu's Cornelia is the type of woman you'll always be weary of but can never put your finger on exactly why she makes you feel uncomfortable.  It's a great role and a great performance and by extension a great film. 


The plot for It Felt Like Love is a little thin.  Gina Piersanti is Lila, 14 year old Brooklyn girl who spends her summer vacation hanging out with her best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) and her boyfriend Patrick (Jesse Cordasco).  Chiara & Patrick are quite affectionate and Chiara is very willing to speak with Lila about her sexual experiences.  With her mother dead and a strained relationship with her father, Lila is left to wonder if her lack of sexual experience is normal.

Uncomfortable at being a third wheel, Lila fixates on Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), an older acquaintance of Chiara whom she refers to as a "total douche."  Pursuing him by stopping by his workplace and leaving behind her sunglasses as a pretext so they can meet again, Lila is more intrigued with the idea of sex than actually having sex.  Taking advantage of Sammy's drunken state, Lila claims to have had sex with Sammy although the audience knows this to be false.

Sammy is doubtful that this occurred and put off by the lie; not to mention he could be prosecuted for statutory rape if the authorities believe Lila's claim.  Lila is still not dissuaded and goes to Sammy's house to seduce or relent to him.  In a disturbing scene, Lila offers to give Sammy and his two friends fellatio.  At first, the three young men are dubious but one by one, each man pulls down his pants while Sammy kneels on the floor.  The scene cuts away so we don't know what transpired although it is implied she left without performing the act. Eventually, Lila "falls out of love" with Sammy but is left confused and frustrated by her own lack of sexual exploits.

It Felt Like Love is the summer nothing happened to Lila although she put herself in dangerous situations and spread false rumors about her own sexual escapades. Lila is a typical teenage girl.  Still a little coltish, she's definitely not a  woman but she doesn't want to be a child anymore.  Encouraged and envious of her friend's sexual experiences, Lila is anxious to move to this phase of her life but I was relieved that she didn't.

Gina Piersant gives a strong performance as Lila.  She captured the teenage angst that I recall from that age.  Perhaps it was stretch for Miss Piersant to play the awkward Lila or perhaps not.  Regardless, she conveyed a difficult period of a woman's life very effectively in It Felt Like Love.  The film was more of a mood piece than complete story.  It was a quick peek into the summer of a young girl where something life altering could have occurred but didn't.  Rather than feel disappointed by the film that didn't deliver, I felt happy for Lila which is one indicator that the film was effective - it made me care about the protagonist.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's April 2014 Calendar

I give paper copies of the Castro Theater calendar to a co-worker.  He's partial to the sing-alongs at the Castro.  I told him about the puzzles embedded in the calendar and he has become quite adept at solving the name game portion.  He's quite good a matching faces to, if not names, then characters from movies and television shows.  My co-worker identified three of the people in the April calendar.  I left the calendar for him when I got into work.  He & I had several meetings that morning so I didn't see him until lunch.  By then he identified three out of the four.

April 7 - Adam West

April 14 - Sheree North

April 28 - Clint Eastwood

After identifying those three, I saw the pattern and correctly identified Ann Sothern.

April 21 - Ann Sothern

I guess I'm excused for not recognizing the actresses.  Looking at her filmography, I can only recall two of Sheree North's films - Charley Varrick and The Shootist. I can only recall one film with Ann Sothern - A Letter to Three Wives.

The clues are directional - North, South, East & West.  I believe the clues are pointing us to Earth Day (April 22).  By the way, the calendar states "TBA" for April 22 but the website states the Castro will be closed that day.  The films for April 15 have not been posted.

A second possible solution is the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival with emphasis on "International" as in the four corners of the globe  The festival lineup was announced on April 1 and the festival begins on April 24 at the Castro so this gives it some credence. 

Castro Theater Calendar - April 2014

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Jodorosky's Dune

I saw Jodorosky's Dune at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas earlier this week.

Jodorosky's Dune; documentary; directed by Frank Pavich; Spanish, French, German & English with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website

Jodorosky's Dune is an entertaining documentary about "The Greatest Movie Never Made."  Actually, that sobriquet was used to describe Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno which was the subject of an entertaining documentary by Serge Bromberg called Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno.

Of course, Dune was eventually made. David Lynch directed the 1984 film which Jodorosky admits on camera, in a moment of schadenfreude, was terrible.  An admirer of Lynch, Jodorosky blames the poor quality of the film on the producers.  For his part, Lynch has distanced himself from Dune.  He refuses to discuss the film in interviews and his name has been removed from the credits in some versions.

Back to Jodorosky:  after the cult success of El Topo (1970) and financial success of The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorosky was contacted by French film producer Michael Seydoux, granduncle of Léa Seydoux (Inglourious Basterds, Blues is the Warmest Color and The Grand Hotel Budapest).

Seydoux gave Jodorosky carte blanche for his next film project and Jodorosky chose Dune, a 1965 novel by Frank Herbert.  After writing the script, Jodorosky assembled his team or warriors as he calls them.  He recruited artists Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Chris Foss and H.R. Giger.  For special effects, he got Dan O'Bannon based on his work on John Carpenter's Dark Star.  Then he set out to cast the film.  Jodorosky claims to have got agreements (presumably verbal) from the likes of Sallvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and David Carradine. Jodorosky's son Brontis was to have the lead role of Paul.

Jodorosky is quite the raconteur and some of the coincidences in his stories seem a little contrived but I won't quibble.  What is undeniable is some of the eye-popping artwork.  Seydoux packaged the storyboards and sketches into a tome for marketing purposes.  Although the Hollywood studios passed on the project, much of the designs seemed to have made their way into later films.  Jodorosky suspects the pitch books were used by studios for inspiration.

Jodorosky's "warriors" also had later success in Hollywood particularly with James Cameron's Alien.  O'Bannon went on to write the screenplay for Alien on which Chris Foss and Jean Giraud did artwork.  Giraud later went on to do artwork on TRON and The Abyss.  H.R. Giger won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for his work on Alien.

Jodorosky was trying to get Dune greenlit in the mid-1970s; before Star Wars.  Studios were leery of funding the $15 million budget Seydoux was estimating.  Given the outlandish enticements Jodorosky gave to Dalí and Welles, I think Jodorosky's Dune may have become Jodorosky's Heaven's Gate.  It's enticing imagine what could have been.  Jodorosky still has his copy of the storyboard book so his Dune lives on in that format.  As he mentions near the end of the film, his Dune would make a great animated film and the technology exists today to do his vision justice.

The Emperor’s Castle by H.R. Giger

Monday, April 7, 2014

Frank Capra at Stanford and David Rumsey at SFO

Before I forget, there is a great map exhibit in Terminal 2 of the San Francisco International Airport.  It's titled San Francisco Maps from the David Rumsey Map Collection.  The exhibit runs through August 3 and is post-security so you'll need an airline ticket to see it.  Most (if not all) of Virgin America's flights arrive & depart out of the Terminal 2 gates.  The David Rumsey site is quite a treasure trove for amateur and professional cartographers.  I was particularly fascinated with the map of Chinatown from 1885.  The map conveniently (or disparagingly) shows opium dens, gambling dens and houses of prostitution with a color coded legend.


The Stanford Theater had a month long Frank Capra series in January & February.  They took less than a week off between the end of their Joan Fontaine series and the start of the Capra series.

Several of the films in the series were also screened at the PFA as part of their Early Capra series in 2010.

Lost Horizon starring Ronald Colman; directed by Frank Capra; (1937)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther; directed by Frank Capra; (1933)
That Certain Thing starring Viola Dana & Ralph Graves; live accompaniment by Dennis James; silent with intertitles; (1928)
It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert; directed by Frank Capra; (1934)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur & Claude Rains; directed by Frank Capra; (1939)
American Madness starring Walter Huston & Pat O'Brien; directed by Frank Capra; (1932)

I saw American Madness at the PFA as part of the aforementioned Capra series.  In order to make the trip to Palo Alto worthwhile, I watched American Madness a second time.  It was paired with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

I saw The Bitter Tea of General Yen at the Castro in 2010.  My subsequent memories of the film led me to believe it would benefit from a second screening.

I've seen Lost Horizon, It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on television before.  Each of the screenings were the first time I saw the films on a movie screen.

I had never seen That Certain Thing.  They screened the film 3 times of four days and I caught the last screening.  That was fortunate for me because the print burned in the projector.  The projectionist did some quick work to skip to the next reel while James never missed a beat.  They would not have been able to screen the film another time without some splicing.  Technically, I didn't see the entire film.  When the resumed the film, a plot point had been resolved.

I had not intended to see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and American Madness because their screenings conflicted with the Mostly British Film Festival and the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.  However, Shirley Temple (23 April 1928 – 10 February 2014) passed away and the Stanford preempted their schedule on February 15 & 16 with six Shirley Temple films each day.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and American Madness were bumped for Miss Temple but rescheduled to March 1 & 2 which allowed me to fit it in my schedule.

I'll start with those two film.  For many years, I have found Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to be a bunch of hokum.  The premise is that Jefferson Smith (Stewart) is this naive man child.  Stewart was in his early 30s at the time of filming.  Jeff Smith is the head of the Boy Rangers which I assume is a take on the Boy Scouts.  The Boy Rangers go around doing good deeds.  How Smith makes a living at this is unexplained.  It's also kind of creepy that a thirtysomething man spends so much time around prepubescent boys although I'll attribute that to modern day cynicism.

When the US Senator from Smith's state dies in office, the governor taps Smith as the replacement; mainly on the recommendation of his sons (not coincidentally Boy Rangers).  Frankly Smith seems unqualified to be a US Senator is glossed over.  He is honest to a fault which in Capra's eyes makes Smith more than qualified.

When Smith arrives in DC, he is taken under the wing of the senior Senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains).  Paine is machine politician and is set to clean up financially.  He's bought up land near the site of a dam he is going to propose.  Unknowingly, Smith has his eyes on the same site as a camping ground for his Boy Rangers.  When Smith proposes a bill to seek funding for his bill, he sets in motion the full weight of Paine's machine.

I won't bother with more of the plot.  My "favorite" part is when Paine has his moment of amends by admitting his crime on the floor of the US Senate!  That immediately follows Paine's attempted suicide in an antechamber.

Capra lays it on too thick in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  I can stomach It's a Wonderful Life but Mr. Smith is just too much for me.  Capra is too obvious in Mr Smith; it lacks all subtlety.  Over the years, I have begun to resent Stewart's character for his ignorance and naiveté.  Maybe I resent the film's iconic status or Stewart's celebrated performance (he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar).  Even the much discussed filibuster scene lacks depth.  I found myself wanting more Harry Carey as the Vice President than Stewart as Smith.

Anyway, my curmudgeonly pronouncement is that this viewing will be the last time I watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

American Madness suffers some of the same problems as Mr. Smith.  Capra has a strong sense of right and wrong and he wants to share it in his films...even if it ruins the film.  Ambiguity and cynicism can be powerful agents of drama and humor.  They better fit our everyday lives but Capra seems oblivious to this.  To be fair, he made his name during the Great Depression where upbeat and uplifting movies were considered social benefits.  It just doesn't fit modern attitudes.

Cocksure bank president Dickson runs his bank his way which is to cater to little guy and downtrodden.  The board argues these are high risk loans but Dickson sticks with his instinct; we don't need no damn FICO scores.  One of his employees robs the vault and he is caught short on cash reserves.  Rumors spread and there is a run on the bank.  There is an endless montage scene showing how the rumor spread.

Anyway, the customers may not believe in the bank but Dickson believes in the customers.  He tries to get them to leave their deposits in place, tries to slow the outflow of cash, tries to line up short-term loans, etc.  It's all to no avail until at his darkest moment, some customers conspicuously and triumphantly enter the bank to make deposits which is enough to stem the run on the bank.

There is a subplot involving the employee who robbed the vault, Dickson's wife and another employee (Pat O'Brien) who is being framed for the crime.  It was kind of hokey and had a B picture feel to it.  Like the inner workings of the US Senate in Mr. Smith, my favorite part of American Madness was inner workings of the bank.  Opening and closing the vault door was quite possibly, my favorite part of the film.

That Certain Thing didn't make much of an impression on me.  Viola Dana plays Molly Kelly who wants to marry a millionaire.  She's kind of a gold digger.  She makes the most of her opportunity when she actually meets a millionaire - Andy B. Charles, Jr. (Ralph Graves).  Technically, Jr. is the son of a millionaire which comes into play with A.B. Charles disowns his son for marrying poorly.

Molly is back to where she started except now she has a husband with no marketable job skills.  After failing as a ditch digger, Molly & Andy come up with an idea.  A.B. Charles' chain of downscale restaurants are the source of frequent complaints from the laborers.  Molly & Andy start a box lunch company in direct competition.  In time, Sr. is forced to buy out Jr. business and thus fulfilling Molly's dream of being married to a millionaire.

There were some physical comedy scenes and Molly lives in a wild tenement building which provides some laughs.  Dennis James spoke before the film and mentioned that the box lunch used in the filming were later used to feed the cast and crew.

I had not seen Lost Horizon since I was a child and did not recall it so well.  Based on the best selling James Hilton novel by the same name, Capra's version of Shangri-La seemed kind of boring to me.  Ronald Colman plays British diplomat Robert Conway.  Helping Westerners escape an armed conflict in China (I cannot recall if the conflict was between Japanese & Chinese or between Chinese), Colman escapes on the last plane out of China with his younger brother George, a paleontologist, a flimflam man and a terminally ill woman (likely a prostitute).  Despite the danger, the plane flies "over the hump" as they would say in WWII.  That is it flies from China to India over the Himalayas.

The plane is hijacked, crashes in the Himalayas and the passengers are taken to Shangri-La; a term now so ubiquitous than it doesn't need an explanation but originated in Hilton's novel and perhaps more widely by this film.  People age slowly in Shangra-La but they do age.  The High Lama (Sam Jaffe) is near death and on the advice of Sondra (Jane Wyatt), arranged for Conway arrival.  Sondra is better read about the outside world than most residents of Shangra-La.  Familiar with Colman's writings, she & the Lama think Colman would make a suitable successor.

Most of the of the visitors want to leave Shangri-La but it's George's brother who is most vocal.  He has taken up with a woman (Margo) who, seemingly, is the only person who wants to leave Shangra-La.  Reluctantly agreeing to leave, Ronald sets out with Margo in tow.  However, as they leave the sphere of influence of Shangri-La's magical properties, Margo ages and dies (she is really several hundred years old).  George goes insane at the sight and leaps to his death.  Ronald eventually makes his way back to England, his memory of Shangra-La mysteriously gone as a result of his ordeal.  When he later regains his memory, he returns to Shangri-La.

Like Colman's character, I had no recollection of specific scenes from the film.  As the film progressed, I began to recall the film; particularly Sam Jaffe's performance.  Ultimately, I found Lost Horizon bad dated which is becoming a trend with Capra's films. Whatever impact Lost Horizon had on audiences in 1937 is long gone in 2014.  That could be said of any 77 year old film but whatever universal or timeless truths Lost Horizon was alluding to seem ridiculously quaint today and Capra's "let's-spell-it-out" approach only reinforces the sense that this film doesn't have much to say in 2014.

As a historical relic, it was interesting to see.  There is a fascinating backstory about production cost overruns and a 3½ hour preview version of the film.


Lest one thinks the Capra series was a complete bust, I'm glad to report that The Bitter Tea of General Yen held up well to a second screening and It Happened One Night lived up to my expectations.

I stand by what I wrote on September 2, 2010. I will add a little based on the second viewing.  First, Nils Asther's performance has a little more racism than I initially thought.  His General Yen almost yearns to be white - adopting Western manners and forsaking all for a white woman.  I guess it is a form of self-loathing but it's also a symptom of Yen's lust for Stanwyck's Megan Davis.  If the opposite had been true - a white man spouting Confucius and forsaking a white woman for an Asian woman, the reaction would have been outrage in 1930s and derisive laughter today.  Instead, the self-obvious superiority of Western ways is seamlessly interwoven into the plot.

Like Asther's performance, I detected more racism in Stanwyck's role.  Her character has this innate belief on the superiority of her culture, her religion, her beliefs, etc.  It is only at the end, when Yen has given up his Chinese empire and identity that Davis adopts the role of Chinese concubine to comfort the dying general.  In that sense, the story comes down on the side of the Chinese but the next scene shows that Davis' position in China is untenable.  She has to leave the country for her own safety, a victim of reverse discrimination and potential Chinese barbarity.

After having seen The Bitter Tea of General Yen twice, I am anxious to see it a third time.  It's amazing to me that Capra followed American Madness with The Bitter Tea of General YenGeneral Yen was a box office failure which likely played a part in Capra's future directorial efforts.

In It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert is Ellie Andrews, a wealthy heiress who runs away from her father's yacht to marry a man her father doesn't approve of.  Without money and unwilling to reveal her location to her father, Andrews is forced to accept Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a fast-talking, wise-cracking, newspaper reporter.  As they make their way from Florida to New York with little to no money, the pair slowly fall in love.  Andrews is a spoiled rich girl and Warne a cynical newsman.  Initially they dislike each other but their mutual reliance and attraction carry the day. 

It Happened One Night is an oft-told romantic story (Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd was one of my favorite versions).  However, Gable & Colbert have undeniable screen appeal and elevate the film beyond what most other actors could have achieved.  Colbert in a particular is funny, sexy, petulant and appealing.  What constitutes "funny, sexy, petulant and appealing" in a woman changes as men age.  Colbert, 29 years old during filming, gives a performance which I would not have appreciated as a boy or younger man, but greatly appreciate in my middle age. 


San Francisco Chinatown (1885)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

RIP Joan Fontaine

The Stanford Theater had a four film tribute to the late Joan Fontaine (22 October 1917 – 15 December 2013) in January.  I was out of town the first week of the series so I missed Rebecca & Suspicion (both of which I had seen before).  I caught a double feature on January 10.

The Constant Nymph starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine & Alexis Smith; directed by Edmund Goulding; (1943)
Letter from an Unknown Woman starring Joan Fontaine & Louis Jourdan; directed by Max Ophüls; (1948)

The Constant Nymph was enjoyable.  Letter from an Unknown Woman was more significant and resonates within me three months after viewing it.


Joan Fontaine was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Constant Nymph.  She cited it as one of her favorite performances.

The Constant Nymph revolves around the Sanger daughters.  The patriarch is Albert Sanger; kind of an older, white haired Tevye the Milkman type.  He has four rambunctious daughters of which Joan Fontaine plays the youngest, Tessa.  Fontaine was 25 years old when the film was made but plays a 14 year old girl.  Wearing pigtails, pinafore and schoolgirl frocks, Fontaine almost pulls of the transformation but I could never lose sight of the fact that Fontaine was older than her character.

The famed musical composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) comes to visit Sanger, his mentor, and Sanger's daughters, his muses.  Sanger soon dies and the sisters are split apart.  One of the older sisters goes off with Peter Lorre!   Tessa and the next youngest sister are sent to live with a wealthy uncle in London.  Their cousin, Florence (Alexis Smith), arrives to accompany the girls to England.  Dodd & Florence fall in love; much to the consternation of Tessa who is not-so-secretly in love with Dodd.

It beggars belief that Dodd is largely unaware of the girl's true feelings toward him.  Indeed, as the film progresses, it becomes impossible for him to ignore the girl.  Florence is fully aware of her cousin's true feelings and is incapable of convincing Dodd.  Whatever misgivings she (and Dodd) have about their relationship, they get married.   Florence & her wealthy father are at the center of London's social scene - an environment foreign to Dodd and nonconducive to musical composition.  Florence has managed the Tessa problem by shipping her off to boarding school but her holiday return sets off a flurry of creativity within Dodd.

At some level Dodd must be cognizant of the girl's feelings but between her age and his marital status he represses that awareness as well as his own feelings.  Instead, he focuses on the creative burst of energy given to him by Tessa and the entire Sanger family.  The girl, who keenly feels Dodd's composition, reciprocates and they collaborate on his most important piece.

The Constant Nymph is treading some dangerous water.  At its heart is the more-than-platonic, less-than-sexual relationship between a grown man and 14 or 15 year old girl.  1930s and 1940s Hollywood treated this issue with less gravity than today - The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is one that comes to mind.

What saves The Constant Nymph is that Joan Fontaine doesn't look like a fourteen year old girl.  The dynamics would have been much different if Fontaine played her age.  In the conflict between Tessa and Florence (great performance by Alexis Smith), Tessa has the upper hand due to her age.  She can claim innocence with Tessa that a 25 year old woman couldn't get away with.

The Constant Nymph has some laughs and Joan Fontaine literally gets to act like a teenager.  Smith is admirable in a difficult role.  There is a confrontation scene between the two cousins which is memorable.


Procrastination can be a good thing.  I was luke warm about Letter from an Unknown Woman immediately after seeing it.  However, the tragedy of Fontaine's character has lingered in my mind for several months.  If a film can impart such a memory, there must something to it.

Fontaine plays Lisa, a teenager when the film begins.  Concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) moves into the Lisa's apartment building.  Lisa is immediately obsessed with Brand - stalking him, entering his apartment when he is gone, staying up late to listen to him play piano.  Brand, thankfully, pays the girl no attention.

Lisa's father has passed away.  Her mother remarries and they have to move away.  Most of the film takes place in Vienna.  Lisa impulsively runs away at the train station to...I'm not sure what she was going to do.  She ends up waiting outside Brand's apartment all night until she sees him and a young woman arrive together.  Heartbroken, she reluctantly agrees to join her mother & stepfather.

Her stepfather arranges an introduction between Lisa and a young military officer.  He eventually proposes to Lisa but she lies and says she is in love with someone in Vienna which the truth but deceives everyone (including herself) by suggesting the relationship is more mutual.

Falling out with her parents, Lisa returns to Vienna to work as a dress model.  She returns to stalking Brand by waiting outside his apartment every night, seeing a procession of women accompanying him.  Eventually, he notices her but not the fact that she used to live in the building.  They have a whirlwind courtship ending in their consummating the relationship.  Brand departs for a concert in Milan; Lisa discovers she's pregnant.  Brand never contacts Lisa and vice versa.

A decade later, Lisa has married a wealthy older man who has accepted her son, named Stefan after his father.  One evening, at the opera, Lisa runs into Stefan.  Again, he doesn't recall meeting Lisa although he feels an immediate attraction.  Despite her husband's objection, Lisa pursues Stefan again; showing up at his apartment (the guy never moves?).  During his encounter, Lisa realizes that Stefan never loved her.  I would think the lack of contact and failure to recall their acquaintance would have tipped her off earlier but better late than never...except in Max Ophüls film.

After the death of her son from typhus, Lisa falls ill herself (although her illness is not specified).  She composes a deathbed letter to Stefan detailing her strange and self-destructive obsession with him.  Still unable to remember the previous encounters, Stefan confirms her account by asking his longtime valet if he recalls her.  When he confirms the account, Stefan's sense of guilt and shame are resolute.  He agrees to a duel with Lisa's husband with the implication that he will be killed by not engaging in the duel.

No explanation is ever given as to why Lisa is so attracted to Stefan.  That adds to the mystery and tragedy and in fact, any explanation would likely seem implausible.  The premise is ridiculous to my sensibilities but Fontaine's performance & Ophüls' direction give Lisa's misguided persistence a tragic futility; Letter from an Unknown Woman is operatic.

Friday, April 4, 2014

New PFA Building Update

Recently, I received an email which updated PFA members on the status of the new BAM/PFA building.  The new building has long been set to open to the public in "Early 2016."  I assumed that meant business as usual until the Winter Break of the 2015-16 school year.  I figured they would install the art work and film equipment during the break.  At most, I thought a month on both sides of the break to account for the holiday season and contingencies.

The email informed me that "Our rich program of film screenings will continue at the PFA Theater through July 2015. "  That means the PFA will be closed for at least 5 months and maybe longer depending on the exact date of "Early 2016."   The Berkeley Art Museum "will be programs as of mid-December 2014."  They'll be closed for over a year at a minimum.

Soon after receiving the status update email, I received an email inviting me to take a survey about the new BAM/PFA building.  The survey mentioned that there was still a multi-million dollar shortfall in fundraising for the privately-funded project.  Another question asked the likelihood of my remaining a member if they raised membership dues.  That doesn't sound very promising.

It will be strange to have the PFA closed for such an extended period.  Since I last perused their website, artist's renderings of the new building have been posted.  The theater has stadium style seating; approximately 12 rows of 20 seats.  Frankly, it doesn't look much different than a theater in any new cineplex.  Undoubtedly, the seats will be more comfortable but I kind of like the student seats with flip-top desks.  It reminded me of my college days.

For me, the biggest benefit about the new building is its closer proximity to Downtown Berkeley BART.  The current PFA building is a 15 minute walk from BART.  The new building is less than 5 minutes from BART.

From the artist's rendering, it's unclear if they will project movies onto an exterior screen or if the James Stewart image is a mural.