Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chilean Domestics, Minnesota Jews, Crescent City Cops and Italian Bicycle Thieves

I caught a few films here and there in December.

At the Balboa (which has a new URL and redesigned website), I watched a fabulous double feature consisting of The Maid (2009) and A Serious Man (2009).

I first became aware of The Maid at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival. The Chilean film, directed by Sebastian Silva, was screened with subtitles. I previouly mentioned my desire to see it.

I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Catalina Saavedra in the title role gives a complex performance for a simple character. Raquel, the maid, is insecure with her position in the family (both formally and emotionally). She is envious of her employers and at times, quite cruel. Her headaches and dizzy spells are likely the result of self-induced stress. She has imposed herself on the family, particularly the matriarch, to the point that she is neither fish nor fowl. She is not fully embraced by the family as an equal but yet she is much more than an employee. At times, she exhibits maternal, sibling, romantic and childish tendencies. She is largely estranged from her own mother so Raquel has nothing but her employers. The film is bittersweet even with the heartwarming ending. I can't help but feel this woman has spent the best years of her life caring for someone else's family to her own emotional detriment.

A Serious Man is a Coen Brothers film.

Imaginatively exploring questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, academia, mortality, and Judaism – and intersections thereof – A Serious Man is the new film from Academy Award-winning writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen.

A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.

While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person – a mensch – a serious man?

I am a Coen Brothers fan. The first film I saw on VHS at my parents' house was Miller's Crossing (1990). They were late adaptapters to VHS. The first (and to date only) film I watched on an ipod was No Country for Old Men (2007). I also greatly enjoyed The Big Lebowski (1998) and Fargo (1996).

A Serious Man has been well reviewed and mentioned as a possible Oscar Best Picture nominee. I was not familiar with many of the actors in the cast so their performances were all the more effective. I enjoyed it from start to finish - the dybbuk, the Korean exchange student, the mentaculus, Sy Ableman, the goy's teeth, Jefferson Airplane, et al.

One aspect of the film that I have not seen any comments about are the striking (even frightening) eyes of Amy Landecker who plays Mrs. Samsky, the next door neighbor that likes to sunbathe nude. Her eyes are steel blue and with black eye shadow, the effect of her stare is quite discomforting. I could not hold up to her stare for more than a few seconds.

Amy Landecker in A Serious Man

At the Roxie, I saw Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009) starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer and directed by Werner Herzog. Peter Hartlaub of the SF Chonicle wrote "you'll need to be a little bit screwed up in the head yourself to enjoy director Werner Herzog's drug-fueled journey in the abyss of the human condition." I'll give you one guess whether or not I enjoyed the film.

I can't say it any better than Hartlaub. I would say that I don't know if Cage overacts per se. It seems to me like he only has one mode - wooden, slow to react, alternating between feeble minded and psychotic. Sometimes it works such as Raising Arizona (1987) which was a Coen Brothers film, Moonstruck (1987) where ironically he has a wooden arm, Wild at Heart (1990), Red Rock West (1993), Face/Off (1997), Leaving Las Vegas (1999) and...well, the rest of the time it doesn't work. So it's been 10 years since I saw Nicholas Cage film I enjoyed.

The supporting characters in Bad Lieutenant add quite a bit of color - Val Kilmer was mentioned in the article. Shea Whigham, as politically john who beats up Mendes, stole every scene he was in. Herzog had to coach him to act that badly because no actor would dare interpret his character in such a manner.

Bad Lieutenant...New Orleans was much more enjoyable than the Abel Ferrara/Harvey Keitel film. No nuns are raped, you don't see full frontal male nudity and Keitel was bad in an ugly way. Cage is just as bad but he has more weird panache. Keitel jerked off to two teenage girls in a car; Cage screws a woman and makes her boyfriend watch at gunpoint. Keitel didn't hallucinate iguanas.


Also at the Roxie, I saw The Bicycle Thief (1948; Italian with subtitles) directed by Vittorio De Sica. I first saw this film in January 2003 at the Roxie. It is one of the most celebrated films in Italian cinema. It is considered the preeminent example of Italian Neorealism and ranks among the top films of all time.

Having appreciated the film in 2003 but not fully recognizing its greatness, I decided to see it again. I'm glad I did.

The plot centers on Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), an unemployed man in post WWII Italy. He lands a job hanging street posters or playbills. The only requirement is that he needs a bicycle. He's hocked his bike but his supportive hocks the bed linens so they can have money to get his bike out of the pawnshop. All is looking up for Ricci until a thief steals his bike. This starts Ricci and his son Bruno (7 year old Enzo Staiola) on a quest around the city to find his stolen bike. The search is ultimately fruitless but Ricci loses more than his bike. He loses his dignity and son's respect when he is caught stealing a bike.

That plot is deceptively simple. Ricci represent an entire society trying to navigate its way through the ruins of a city in a nation that lost the war. Ricci is a good and decent man but he is poor and can't get a job. When he finally gets a job, it is literally stolen from him. As he wanders the city, he sees that there are a lot of people worse off than him and that he is not equipped to deal with the rampant corruption and deceit that others will resort. Ricci finds the bicycle thief but he can't prove it's him and the thief's lack of morals preclude him from admitting his crime. Left with the impossible choice of remaining unemployed and not being able to provide for his family or stealing a bike, he chooses the latter. However, Ricci is not a thief and is quickly caught. Instead of admitting his desperation, he accepts his fate at the mob. It is only the compassion of the victim that saves him from serious trouble. In that sense, society is redeemed by the forgiveness of that man but surely Ricci is lost.

On second viewing, I am impressed with the performance turned in by Enzo Staiola as the son. In his debut role, Staiola imbues his character with more than any 7 year old (actor or character) could imagine or at least that I could imagine. I have read that Staiola is more like a small man acting opposite Maggiorani. Lamberto Maggiorani also debuted in The Bicycle Thief which makes his performance and the film all the more amazing. Both Staiola and Maggiorani had modest film careers and never acheived similar critical acclaim again. In both cases, their performances must not have been much different from their actual lives. That may impune their acting skills but it certainly says alot about their courage to basically play themselves on screen. I have to wonder if Maggiorani had faced a similar dilemma in his life. As for Staiola, Bruno has innocence that seems tempered by the reality of his situation but not conquered by it. Bruno wants to believe in his father and society but seems to know that he cannot. Still, he somehow suspends disbelief until it impossible to continue. His face seemed unusually mature for a 7 year old.

Several scenes stand out. Ricci & his son splurge by going to a restaurant for a meal. There is a boy at another table (from a wealthy family) who makes eye contact with Bruno and twirls his spaghetti in a manner to flaunt his good fortune while Bruno looks on hungrily and enviously. At the end, when Ricci is contemplating his crime, he sees hundred of bikes parked outside a soccer stadium and it drive him mad. Then he sits on a curb, head in hands, and a peloton cruises right in front of him further enticing him. When Ricci finds the thief and confronts him, the entire neighborhood come out to oppose him. The thief fakes a seizure and Ricci has a look of utter futility as he realizes that he can't do anything, the police won't do anything and the crowd (complicit in the crime or unsympathetic to his plight) won't do anything.

The proper translation of the film title, Ladri di biciclette, is The Bicycle Thieves. The second thief being Ricci. The mistranslated title has endured.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Otto Preminger at PFA

I also caught a very enjoyable Otto Preminger series called Anatomy of a Movie at the PFA in December. I watched 10 of the 14 films in the series. The series is one of my favorites since I have started frequenting PFA on a habitual basis.

Anatomy of a Murder starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott; (1959)
Whirlpool starring Gene Tierney, Richard Conte and Jose Ferrer; (1950)
Advise and Consent starring Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Franchot Tone, Gene Tierney and Peter Lawford; (1962)
The Moon Is Blue starring William Holden, David Niven and Maggie McNamara; (1953)
Saint Joan starring Jean Seberg, Richard Widmark and John Gielgud; (1957)
The Man with the Golden Arm starring Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak and Darren McGavin; (1955)
Exodus starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint & Sal Mineo; (1960)
Carmen Jones starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein; music by Georges Bizet; (1955)
Bonjour Tristesse starring Jean Seberg, David Niven and Deborah Kerr; (1958)
Skidoo starring Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Groucho Marx, Frank Gorshin and George Raft; (1968)

In addition, Film on Film Foundation sponsored a screening at the PFA of Preminger's The Cardinal starring Tom Tryon, John Huston and Ossie Davis (1963).


With the exception of Anatomy of a Murder, I had not previously seen any of the films in their entirety. I had watched portions of Advise and Consent and Exodus on television. Somehow, Carmen Jones and The Man with the Golden Arm had completely escaped my viewing history. The rest were completely new to me.

They were a mixed bag to be sure but Preminger clearly seemed more of a master craftsman than inspired artists. His films were eminently watchable with the exception of Skidoo.


In my opinion, Anatomy of a Murder is his best film. The professor who introduced it said it was perhaps the best courtroom drama ever. 12 Angry Men also gets frequent mention. Anatomy of a Murder benefits greatly from a ferocious courtroom rivalry between Jimmy Stewart & George C. Scott as the defense lawyer and prosecutor, respectively. Scott plays his character like an aggressive animal looking to tear into anything that moves. Stewart is all corn pone as a small town lawyer whose country bumpkin acts hide a sharp legal mind and highly competitive personality. Lee Remick is as slutty as a 1959 film would allow and Ben Gazzara plays Remick's husband and the accused murderer with a mean, deceitful streak. Actually, the whole plot must have been groundbreaking in 2009. Remick is raped and Gazzara kills the alleged rapist but is charged with murder. Joseph Welch of Army-McCarthy Hearing fame (Have you no sense of decency, sir?), played the judge as an experience judge who has seen every trick in the book but yet not completely jaded on the process. I can't really add anything to the many reviews of this film except to say this is one of my favorite films of all time. Did I mention Duke Ellington provided the soundtrack?


A step below Anatomy of a Murder is Carmen Jones which benefits greatly from Bizet's canonical opera and Hammerstein inventive lyrics. Carmen Jones takes the Carmen story and sets it during WWII in the Deep South with an all African American cast. The plot lends itself well to the film; the major revision being the substitution of a prize fighter for the bull fighter. If you are not familiar with the plot...well, it's like a lot of operas - boy loves good girl, boy meets bad girl, bad girl leads boy to ruin, boy kills bad girl. That summarizes at least 30% of all operas. Another frequent variation is the good girl selflessly hides a secret to protect the boy's feelings or social standing. Frequently, the girl is deathly ill too but I digress.

Carmen Jones shines because Dorothy Dandridge sings and shimmies her way into Belafonte's heart and other body parts. Preminger was rumored to have an affair with Dandridge during the film and I can't say I don't envy him. How wonderfully scandalous it must have been for an Austrian Jew to be cavorting with an African American woman in 1955. Pearl Bailey contributes the blues influenced “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” and Joe Adams sings “Stan’ Up and Fight” to the Toreador Song.

Dat's love
You go for me
And I'm taboo
But if you're
hard to get
I go for you


Another film I enjoyed was the flawed and dated Bonjour Tristesse. Jean Seberg and David Niven liven up the film about a spoiled, rich girl (the delicious Jean Seberg) and her randy and immoral father. Niven flouts his mistresses in front of his 17 year old daughter (Seberg) to the point where she doesn't blink an eye. In fact, father & daughter have formed a symbiotic relationship that crosses the line into perverse. The film did not suggest incest but rather a lax attitude towards sexuality but other people's feelings. This attitude eventually drives Deborah Kerr to suicide although she is generous enough to not leave a note and make it look like a car accident. Daughter & father are equally complicit. French actress Mylène Demongeot stands out as Niven's ditzy paramour while Kerr plays a more mature and serious love interest. Seberg & Niven are decadent Eurotrash with expensive tastes and exquisite late 1950's fashion. PFA curator Steve Seid said that Jean-Luc Godard greatly admired this film and cast Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960) on the basis of her this performance. Godard envisioned Seberg character in Breathless as an extension of her character in Bonjour Tristesse - hollowed out by three years of immorality, apathy and alcohol; washed up and prematurely jaded by age 20.

The film looks rather quaint 50 years after the fact but Niven's cavalier attitudes regarding his paternal duties still is disquieting and Seberg youthful exuberance is still intoxicating.

An aside - when my mother passed away, I looked through her belongings and she had a small magazine photo cutout of a blonde woman with a pixie haircut that looked a lot like Jean Seberg. My mother never mentioned Jean Seberg to me and I'm not even aware if she knew who Seberg was. I believe she liked the haircut and wore her hair in a similar style for many years. It lends a vaguely oedipal color to my attraction to Seberg. Seberg seemed to live up to her Bonjour Tristesse role - an affair with Clint Eastwood while married to another man (the husband challenged Clint to a duel), under surveillance by the FBI, suicidal, addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs, married to an Arab playboy and finally a questionable death in Paris which was ultimately ruled a suicide.

Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse


Advise and Consent and The Cardinal were two films that explored the inner workings of two powerful and august organizations - the US Senate and the Catholic Church. They both had their moments but of the two, I slightly preferred Advise and Consent.

The Cardinal told the story of Stephen Fermoyle from the time of his ordination to his elevation to cardinal about 20 years later. The film is set 1920's and 30's so Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) has encounters with Jim Crow attitudes in the Deep South and Nazis in Austria. In addition, viewers get a glimpse of the inner workings, politics and rivalries at the Vatican. The film never drags (it is 175 minutes) but it feels like an epic film which it was intended to be. It seemed overly melodramatic with Fermoyle's sister dying during childbirth, his parish priest suffering a slow but brave death, his crisis of faith and subsequent romance in Austria, his being whipped by the Ku Klux Klan and finally confronting a Nazi enabling priest as well as the Nazis themselves. I didn't really get a feel for what drove Fermoyle. He was intelligent, brave and devout but he overcame every crisis and indeed seemed to be stronger for it. Fermoyle received the short end of the stick when it came to character development. Instead, it was the events of the first half of the 20th century and internal politics of the Catholic Church that were the true stars of the film.

Advise and Consent is a similar film that centers on the confirmation hearings of Robert A. Leffingwell, theS ecretary of State-Designate (Henry Fonda). The proceedings are rife with intrigue and personal rivalries. A Dixiecrat (Charles Laughton in his last role) opposes the nomination due to personal animosity with the nominee. The Senate Majority leader (Walter Pidgeon) tries to shepherd the nomination along even though he was blindsided by the President (Franchot Tone). Leffingwell has Communist ties in his past which ratchet up the tension. Don Murray plays Brig Anderson, the committee chair who opposes the nomination on principle despite the President and Majority Leader's urgings to the contrary. Evenetually, an unscrupulous senator (George Grizzard in a memorable performance) blackmails Anderson by threatening to expose his past homosexual behavior. Lew Ayres plays the affable but ineffectual, Gene Tierney (in her comeback role after a 7 year absence due to mental healt problems) plays the premier Washington socialite and Burgess Meredith, Peter Lawford and Betty White have small roles as well.

This film must have been one of the most anticipated films of the period with its all star cast and sensational subject matter. I recall seeing a documentary on PBS (perhaps The Celluloid Closet) that featured the scene where Murray goes to gay bar in Greenwich Village to confront his former lover. The scene draws guffaws now but I can only imagine how it was received in 1962. Imagine this - a bunch of men, dressed like preppies, crowded around a bar, with a Frank Sinatra song playing while closeted Murray has to make his way past a couple of queens guarding the doorway. The entrance is elevated so when the bartender sees Murray, he yells and waves for him to come in. This is too much for Murray so he runs away as fast as he can with his ex in pursuit, calling out his name. Murray flags a taxi just in a nick of time while his ex lunges for the taxi door, apologizing profusely and eventually stumbling into a puddle. This encounter was enough to drive Murray to suicide. Actually, this plot line was based on the real events involvings Senators Lester Hunt and Styles Bridges.

Several scenes stood out for me in Advise and Consent. In particular, I enjoyed the scenes as Don Muuray's mounting angst become apparent as he becomes more desperate to avoid having his secret exposed. Another memorable scene involves Larry Tucker as an obese, effeminate (swishy is the term they used) gay man that treats Murray like an anxious gay man looking to find a lover. The final roll call vote was also tense. Any scene with the horn rimmed Gizzard playing the manipulative senator with his gaggle of sycophants in tow was a treat. Franchot Tone gave a strong performance as the supremely skilled President who bullies, cajoles and guilts others into doing what he wants.

The performances all around were strong and after writing these paragraphs, I can't recall why I didn't think more highly of the film when I saw it. I definitely recall thinking the film had missed the mark slightly when the credits rolled but now I can't recall why I felt that way. Instead, I recall enjoyable performances from the entire cast.


Several of the film from the series were less than enjoyable. Two stage adaptations failed badly - The Moon Is Blue and Saint Joan.

The Moon Is Blue was quite risque at the time and Preminger had to fight censors to get it released. A rather forward woman (Maggie McNamara channeling Audrey Hepburn) encounters Wiliam Holden at the Empire State Building. After some surprisingly frank dialogue about their love lives, the woman stops at Holden's apartment (so he change I believe). Holden has recently broken up with his girlfriend (the beautiful Dawn Addams) who lives upstairs with her father (David Niven). Niven's performance is essentially the same as he will give in Bonjour Tristesse five years later. Anyway, the whole plot is unbelievable even by modern standards. I guess this was some playwright's vision of sophisticated urbanites' liberated sexuality was in the middle of the 20th century. I can't believe many people behaved this way in 1953. I also began to tire of Maggie McNamara's character and eventually found her irritating.

Saint Joan was Jean Seberg film debut. With a haircut like Falconetti
in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Seberg looked like Joan of Arc but was never believable as the Maid of Orleans. Perhaps she didn't have the gravitas but it didn't help that the dialogue was weak and she had to act opposite the silly, milquetoast portrayal of Charles VII by Richard Widmark. The film was based on a play by George Bernard Shaw and screenwriting credit was given to Graham Greene so talent was clearly present. I have read that Greene's treatment differs signficantly from Shaw's play by trying to absolve the Catholic Church of blame in Joan's death. This may explain some of the problems but to me it seemed like Preminger didn't reign in the actors or encouraged them to ham it up just enough to dilute the drama of the story.


Skidoo takes bad filmmaking to new heights. PFA curator Steve Seid stated that the Preminger estate owned the rights to Skidoo and had pulled it from distribution due to embarrassment. Seid had convinced them to allow the film to be screened as part of the series. I wish he had been unsuccessful. Preminger is alleged to have to taken LSD in researching the film. From what I saw, it seems like he was dropping acid the filming as well. I fell asleep twice but that could only have improved matters. The plot involved a retired hitman (Jackie Gleason) coming out of retirement on the orders of the head mobster, referred to as God and played by Groucho Marx. Somehow hippies are involved and Frankie Avalon has a swinging bachelor pad with a secret bed that descends into the floor. The audience was treated to Carol Channing doing a striptease as she attempts to seduce Avalon. Groucho also smokes dope with an Indian Yogi. The grand finale has Channing singing and dancing to the eponymous song. Actually, the final credits were sung in their entirety and I think that was the highpoint of the film. Avoid Skidoo at all costs unless you are high on marijuana or some stronger narcotic.


Preminger was infamous for being a bully on the set. Tom Tryon allegedly quit acting as a result of his experience on The Cardinal but I notice that Preminger had a stock of actor he used repeatedly - Burgess Meredith, Jean Seberg, David Niven and Gene Tierney. Preminger played the POW camp commandant in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953). On that set, he worked with William Holden (The Moon is Blue) and Robert Strauss (The Man with the Golden Arm). He must have had a rapport with several of his actors.

Two of Preminger's best known films were absent from the series - The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) starring Gary Cooper and In Harm's Way (1965) starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. By the way, Tom Tryon who was mistreated on Preminger's set during the filming of The Cardinal (1963) accepted a role two year's later in In Harm's Way.


Preminger must have also had a rapport with graphic designer Saul Bass. Bass made several movie posters for the biggest hits of his era including North by Northwest, Spartacus, West Side Story, Ocean's Eleven and Goodfellas.

I noticed and admired Bass' distinctive style on several of the opening credits during the Preminger series. There is something aesthetically pleasing in Bsss' style that I cannot articulate.

Advise and Consent post by Saul Bass

Exodus poster by Saul Bass

Anatomy of a Murder poster by Saul Bass

The Man with the Golden Arm poster by Saul Bass

Carmen Jones poster by Saul Bass

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ingrid Bergman at PFA

I was able to catch six films at the Ingrid Bergman retrospective at the PFA.

The Count of the Old Town; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1935)
Walpurgis Night; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1935)
A Woman’s Face; Swedish with subtitles; (1938)
June Night; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1940)
Voyage in Italy with George Sanders; directed by Roberto Rossellini; (1953)
Autumn Sonata with Liv Ullmann; directed by Ingmar Bergman; Swedish with subtitles; (1978)

Electronic subtitling means that a person was operating a laser device that projected subtitles onto the screen. Subtitles means that the subtitles were on the film stock. I make a distinction between subtitles and electronic subtitles because the electronic subtitling frequently malfunctioned (either the device or the person) which detracted from the films.

Of the films, I was largely unimpressed by Bergman's earlier works except to say she was quite attractive as a young woman. A Woman’s Face was interesting because Bergman was wearing Lon Chaney type makeup to portray a disfigured woman; I can't recall what caused the facial scar. I chuckled at the ending which in hindsight was rather depressing. After having her scars surgically removed and assuming an alias to conceal her criminal history, Bergman emigrates to 1938. I'm sure the Japanese treated foreign nationals well when they occupied Manchukuo. An attractive, statuesque, Aryan woman must have fared well in Nanking.

The film was quite melodramatic. Bergman runs a blackmail racket but after her surgery, Bergman becomes a nanny for a wealthy family. Of course, she has agreed to kill the boy she whose care she is charged with. Over time, her inner beauty catches up to her newly restored external beauty. A tragic sleigh ride accident stunts her emotional growth and happiness. Bergman was quite interesting when she played the sneering and malevolent scarfaced blackmailer. A Woman’s Face was remade with Joan Crawford in the lead role. By comparison, Bergman portrayal was subtle genius but the film is too melodramatic to be taken seriously.


Voyage in Italy was the most influential of the film I saw. I guess I would call it post-neorealism with some foreshadowing of Godard's Contempt. Bergman is directed by her husband, Roberto Rossellini. The plot, such that it is, is about English couple visiting Italy while their marriage is disintegrating. Much of the film serves as a visual travelogue of Naples (similar to the role Capri served in Contempt).

Sanders and Bergman portray Mr. and Mrs. Joyce who bicker constantly for reasons which are unclear. Sanders has a roving eye but when confronted with an opportunity for adultery, he demures. In very British fashion, they politely agree to a divorce but they get caught in a crowded parade route and reconcile in the last 5 minutes of the film. Before that, we are treated to some nice dialogue as they trade barbs about his behavior, her relationship with a deceased friend and argue about her taking the car. It sounds trivial and in fact, the dialogue was trivial. I could never figure out what was driving them apart other than the fact their marriage had stagnated to the degree they allowed it. Cinematically, it was an opportunity of Bergman and Sanders to play off each other with detached, British sensibilities and for Rossellinni to film the scenic areas near Naples. Bergman was quite convincing as a middle-aged Brit.

Autumn Sonata united the Bergmans - Ingmar and Ingrid although rather late in the careers. The film is an exploration of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (Bergman and Liv Ullmann). There is a lot more to be said but I was mild about the film. Bergman turned in a nice performance; Ullman tended towards histrionics. Mom is selfish because she was a dedicated concert pianist; daughter doesn't have the inner passion to be a great pianist and she also hates her mother. There is a disabled sister and hints of pedophilia that give Bergman discomfort because of her tacit complicity.

All things considered, I didn't find the Bergman series so entertaining. I missed some of the better known films in the series - Stromboli and Intermezzo. I didn't really see her star power in the the early Bergman films. I saw her beauty, a few respectable performances and some forgettable films. Voyage in Italy teamed Rossellini & Bergman at their creative peaks but that was after Bergman conquered Hollywood and was driven from the US in disgrace (for her adulterous affair with Rossellini).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sam Goldwyn, W.C. Fields & Bitch Slap

I caught three films from the recent Samuel Goldwyn series at the Castro.

They Got Me Covered starring Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour; (1943)
They Shall Have Music! starring Joel McCrea, Walter Brennan and Jascha Heifetz; (1939)
The Best Years of Our Lives starring Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo; directed by William Wyler; (1946)

I have seen They Got Me Covered before (most likely on Tom Hatten's Family Film Festival in the 80's). I recall enjoying it but I must have gotten it confused with another Hope film. His jokes were flat in They Got Me Covered. He played the cowardly protagonist like most of his films (Paleface is my favorite incarnation) but I didn't laugh as much as I remembered. Dorothy Lamour was as beautiful as I remember and They Got Me Covered had the added bonus of Otto Preminger playing a Nazi but the film is one of Hope's lesser work.

I'm currently reading a book about WWII and the film made comic reference to Quisling as in Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian politician who collaborated with the Nazis. The book I'm reading devotes a fair amount of space to Quisling. At the time of the film, the reference was probably to the man or the nascent synonym of traitor that his surname came to represent. What is the word that means to make a verb or noun out of a personal pronoun?

They Shall Have Music! is a film that I was completely unaware about. The main character is portrayed by Gene Reynolds who is best known for his role as a director and producer of the television series M*A*S*H. On screen, his most famous role is probably Boys Town (1938) starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney.

They Shall Have Music! is a formula film about poor kids overcoming long odds to triumph over hard-hearted capitalists. In this case, Frankie (Reynolds) is a street punk that runs away from home but happens to hear Jascha Heifetz play the violin. He is so moved by the experience that enrolls in a music school that caters to underprivileged kids. It helps that Frankie has perfect pitch and learns the violin with admirable speed. The school (run by Walter Brennan and his fetching daughter played by the relatively unknown Andrea Leeds) is on the brink of financial ruin. The school rents the musical instruments from a store and the owner wants the rent paid in full or he'll repossess the instruments before the big concert (The Barber of Seville's overture). The only solution is to get the great Heifetz to play at the concert.

The film was mildly entertaining - Walter Brennan has to rank among the all-time character actors that steal every scene they are in (along with Strother Martin and Steve Buscemi among others). The film also gave generous time to Heifetz's performances which were amazing. Andrea Leeds was awfully beautiful too. Terry Kilburn, best known as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (1938), was a bit annoying as the cockney accented sidekick. According to IMDB, William Wyler directed the scenes of Heifetz playing.

Speaking of Wyler, his The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that I have never seen in the movie theaters. I had not seen it in one sitting on television either. I watched bits and pieces out of order from repeated screenings on television. Two scenes stood out from memory - a scene where Dana Andrews and Fredric March have a confrontation about Andrew's relationship with March's daughter and towards the end, a scene where Andrews is roaming around an airplane graveyard. Also, all the scenes with double-amputee Harold Russell stuck in my memory as it is still unusual to see actors with physical injuries on screen.

Having watched the film from start to finish and on the big screen, Myrna Loy's performance as Fredric March's patient and supportive wife stands out. In her early 40's at the time of the film, Loy's beauty still shined bright but she was perfectly cast as the tremendously endearing wife of a banker, antiquated portrayed by March. Meant to be a pseudo-comic representation of upper middle-class, I found his character to be the poster boy for functional alcoholism. Teresa Wright as Peggy, their daughter and Dana Andrew's would-be love interest, delivered a congenial performance also.

Dana Andrew was cast as Fred Derry, a man of modest stature before the war but an officer and a gentleman and a decorated bombardier during the war. Derry is forced to confront the unappealing realities of his post-war life. He has to take a demotion from his old job in a drug store. His wife (the delicious Virginia Mayo in a very good performance) fell in love with an Army captain and doesn't enjoy being married to a soda jerk. She also enjoys the nightlife and the company other men; both of which Derry cannot afford.

Rounding out the trio is Harold Russell as the ex-sailor (March's character was in the infantry and Andrews in the US Army Air Corp). In real-life, Russell lost his hands in a grenade accident; in the film, Homer Parrish lost his to a fire. Parrish was a football star before the war and now he is a freak and the object of pity. He does have a sweet girlfriend but he is pushing her away because he doesn't want to saddle her as his caregiver.

The performances were dated but Wyler deserves credit for confronting issues that I haven't seen elsewhere from movies of the time - disable veterans, the difficulty servicemen had in reintegrating into society and coping with the death of comrades.

I enjoyed The Best Years of Our Lives quite a bit.


At the YBCA, they screened It's a Gift (1934) starring W.C. Fields with Baby Leroy getting equal billing. The plot was vaguely similar to most Fields vehicles not co-starring Mae West centers around Harold Bissonette's (pronounced Bee-zon-nay) goal of owning an orange orchard. First, he must convince his shrewish wife, spoiled daughter and bratty son to go along with the idea. Then he must survive his last day at the general store he owns. This featured an extended scene with Charles Sellon as Mr. Muckle, a blind and deaf customer who nearly destroys the store. What Muckle doesn't break, Baby Leroy covers in molasses. All the while, Morgan Wallace keeps bellowing about his kumquats (although he spells it cumquats).

Next up is the cross country drive with expected mishaps to the ramshackle house on a dusty stretch of land not fit to grow a tumbleweed much less an orange grove. In the end, Fields lucks out because a land developer wants to build a horse racing track on the property; he holds out for top dollar.

The film is a series of slapstick scenes for Fields to strut his comic stuff. I liked the scene where Fields has to gyrate around a hanging mirror to shave because his vain daughter is hogging the mirror. Another standout scene was Fields sleeping on a balcony in a broken swinging bench while every conceivable noise keeps him from his slumber.

It's a Gift has supposedly been re-discovered as one of Fields' masterpieces. It was amusing but to me it seems like Fields keep going back to the same comic well in all his films. I thought it was funny but no more or less than his other films.


On January 8, Bitch Slap opens at the Landmark Theaters in San Francisco.

Bitch Slap is a post-modern, thinking man's throwback to the B movie/exploitation films of the 1950s though 1970s, as well as a loving, sly parody of them. Inspired by the likes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Kung Fu Nun and the pantheon of Blacksploitation films, Bitch Slap mixes hot girls, fast cars, big guns, nasty tongues, outrageous action and jaw-dropping eye candy with a message: Don't be naughty! At its core, the action follows three bad girls (a down-and-out stripper, a drug-running killer and a corporate powerbroker) as they arrive at a remote desert hideaway to extort massive booty from a ruthless underworld kingpin. Things quickly spin out of control as allegiances change, truths are revealed and other criminals arrive for the score. With "cult classic" written all over it, Bitch Slap is a cat-fighting, pile-driving, go-go dancing, bronco-busting, bumping & grinding, philosophy-touting, breast-augmenting, femme-tastic fight-fantasy of epic proportions!

They had me hooked when I read the name of the film.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Thrillville, Black Christmas and Silent Film Era Pornography

I caught the Thrillville show on December 3 at the 4 Star. The show featured Project Pimento and the film Black Christmas.

This was my first Thrillville show. There were 40 or 50 people in the audience. To recap the show, the hosts are Will The Thrill Viharo (trading his trademark fez for a Santa hat) and his wife, Monica the Tiki Goddess. As I entered the theater, the film The Snow Queen, a 1957 Soviet animated film based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, was screening. The version screening was the 1959 English language version. I recall seeing this film as a child on television (perhaps courtesy of Tom Hatten and KTLA).

Before The Snow Queen finished, Will & Monica started their schtick. First, they got up on the stage and danced a little to their theme music. Then they kibitzed and told a few jokes. Next they introduced Project Pimento which for the uninitiated is a lounge band featuring a theremin. The five piece band was quite entertaining. The members included Dr. Robby Virus on theremin, Lola Bombay on lead vocals, Gentleman Jack on guitar, Carolyn Curacao on bass and Aaron Wallbanger on drums. I'm not sure why they chose psuedonyms. They played smooth jazz covers. The finale was the theme to the original Star Trek televion series with the seldom heard lyrics.

Next, Will & Monica gave away some schwag. Nominally a raffle contest based on the admittance ticket numbers or a trivia question prize, they seemed to be disinterested as to whether the answer was correct or the ticket number matched. Since the film was Black Christmas, Will asked a number of questions along the lines of "Who would be best cast in the film Black Valentine's Day?" The floor show was pretty low key.

Finally, the movie started. Will joked that Black Christmas is actually a good film as opposed to most of the films he screens. I have to agree. The 1974 film starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder and John Saxon was groundbreaking on its release. It allegedly originated two staples of the slasher film genre - the sorority house massacre and the telephone call from within house.

The plot...well the plot is now cliché - unseen stalker terrorizes a house full of women. Despite being 35 years old, predictable and saddled with some questionable 1970's attire, I was able to enjoy the film. The phone calls (it's me Billy) are still disturbing. There are some humorous scenes (intentionally and unintentionally) to move the film along. My favorite is when they trace the phone call, there is a technician in a old landline switching center running around the racks looking for the one where the call is being routed through. Also, the film leaves the identity of the killer (and Hussey's fate) open ended. Hussey, with her British accent, seemed like a fish out of water in the film but gave it her all. I would imagine that the star of Romeo and Juliet (1968) must have wondered what she was doing in a schlock film like Black Christmas. In hindsight, the film was quite tame and sophisticated compared to what came after it.

My bottom line is passively mild: Project Pimento - not bad, I'd like to see them again; Black Christmas - not bad but not good enough that I'll watch it again; Thrillville - not bad and I'll probably go to another show although I doubt I'll drive to the Camera Cinemas in San Jose or the East Bay to see them again.


I was looking at the paper copy of the November/December calendar from the Red Vic. I can't recall the dates except it's in the first half of January 2010, the Vic will present The Good Old Naughty Days - a compilation released in 2003 of "12 silent hardcore pornographic shorts." The Red Vic screened this program in January 2006.

Copying from their website which, if memory serves me, is identical to its description in the latest published calendar:

The Good Old Naughty Days is a collection of 12 silent hardcore pornographic shorts from the early 1900's. Beautifully restored by the National Cinematheque in France, these films were originally created to “entertain” brothel patrons as they awaited their turn. The exhibitionists in Naughty Days are a far cry from the pumped and greased up, silicone-injected bodies of our current porn stars. And although the set-ups are rather similar to contemporary plots (the pizza delivery guy is replaced by a monk) there is more humor and variance than by today's standards. Most scenes begin with two women (men have always liked to watch women go at it) and then in walks - surprise, a man. But if he doesn't watch out when he bends over he may also be happily surprised from behind. For adults only, no one under 18 admitted.

I usually don't watch porn but it is commonly understood that pornography transforms itself into art or erotica after 75 years. By the halfway point of this century, John Holmes will be considered a master thespian. Actually, that's not far from the truth as I recall seeing Deep Throat at the Roxie a few years ago. At the time, a documentary called Inside Deep Throat was a modest success on the art house circuit. I watched Deep Throat so I would have a point of reference but somehow I missed the documentary before it left the theaters.

Check out the Red Vic calendar for January to see dates and showtimes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

2010 Noir City Preview

Even though Noir City is two months away, they have posted their line-up. The schedule showtimes and descriptions are missing but the 24 films of the festival have been announced. The festival runs from January 22 to 31 at the Castro. They are screening a double feature everyday of the festival except Saturdays (January 23 & 30) when they are screening two double features (a different twin bill in the afternoon & at night).

Pitfall starring Dick Powell; (1948)
Larceny starring John Payne; (1948)
Fly by Night; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1942)
Deported; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1950)
Cry Danger starring Dick Powell & Rhonda Fleming; (1951)
The Mob starring Broderick Crawford; (1951)
Niagara starring Marilyn Monroe & Joseph Cotten; (1953)
The Asphalt Jungle starring Sterling Hayden; directed by John Huston; (1950)
Suspense starring Barry Sullivan; (1946)
The Gangster starring Barry Sullivan; (1947)
The Postman Always Rings Twice starring John Garfield & Lana Turner; (1946)
He Ran All the Way starring John Garfield & Shelley Winters; (1951)
One Girl's Confession; (1953)
Women's Prison starring Ida Lupino; (1955)
Red Light starring George Raft & Virginia Mayo; (1949)
Walk a Crooked Mile; (1948)
Slattery's Hurricane starring Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell & Veronica Lake; (1949)
Pickup on South Street starring Richard Widmark; directed by Sam Fuller; (1953)
Inside Job; (1946)
Human Desire starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame & Broderick Crawford; directed by Fritz Lang; (1954)
Odds Against Tomorrow starring Harry Belafonte & Robert Ryan; (1959)
Kansas City starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson & Harry Belafonte; directed by Robert Altman; (1996)
Escape in the Fog; (1945)
A Place in the Sun starring Montgomery Clift & Elizabeth Taylor; (1951)


The first thing I notice is that the Roxie stole some of Eddie Muller's thunder. Human Desire was part of Best of Columbia Noir series at the Roxie in September and Suspense screened in May as part of I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir (also at the Roxie).

A number of the films have previously been shown at Noir City (particularly in 2005). I saw Odds Against Tomorrow at the Balboa in 2005 as part of that year's Noir City. I also saw Pickup on South Street at the 2005 Noir City. He Ran All The Way and Pitfall were also on that year's program but I don't recall seeing either. I'll have to check my film list to see if I saw them that year.

Cry Danger screened at the 2007 Noir City.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic from the Golden Age of Hollywood which I have seen before although not on the big screen. The same can be said of The Asphalt Jungle (Marilyn Monroe has a supporting role in the film) although it has not acheived the iconic status of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Harry Belafonte is scheduled to be on stage on January 30 - the night they screen Odds Against Tomorrow & Kansas City.