Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Four Days in the Castro

A couple weekends ago, I believe I set a personal record. I went to the same theater four days in a row without a film festival or retrospective running at the theater. The theater was the Castro.

The films were:

Picnic at Hanging Rock with John Jarratt; directed by Peter Weir; (1975)
The Passenger starring Jack Nicholson & Maria Schneider; directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; (1975)
Bullitt starring Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn; directed by Peter Yates; (1968)
Freebie and the Bean starring James Caan & Alan Arkin; directed by Richard Rush; (1974)
Heavy Metal; animated; (1981)
Trick or Treat starring Marc Price; directed by Charles Martin Smith; (1986)
The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter & Edward G. Robinson; directed by Cecil B. DeMille; (1956)

Heavy Metal and Trick or Treat were part of a Midnites for Maniacs quintuple bill which also featured This is Spinal Tap and The Monster Squad.


I was vaguely aware of Picnic at Hanging Rock mostly by name and reference to the famous Australian landmark. I was expecting upscale Ozploitation and instead I got Australian Gothic. That's not a complaint because director Peter Weir's film is fascinating to look at with its 1970's aesthetics and languid pace. It was the exact opposite of what I was expecting. The plot involved some boarding school girls who go missing at Hanging Rock. Even though one of the girls is found, she is unable to explain their disappearance. I won't detail the script too much because the film is about the mood surrounding the repressed sexuality enforced by the alcoholic headmistress. Is Picnic at Hanging Rock the classic it is made out to be? It wasn't quite to my liking but I have to admit it never lost my interest and Rachel Roberts was outstanding as the headmistress.

If I was misinformed about Picnic at Hanging Rock, I was completely ignorant of The Passenger, an Antonioni film from the 1970s. Looking very much of its time, the film features Jack Nicholson as a British-born, American-raised reporter who fakes his own death in Africa to exchange places with a naturally-deceased stranger at his hotel. It turns out that the stranger is an arms dealer and Nicholson gets in over his head. If the film was made now, you'd get an action thriller with lots of explosions. In 1975, Antonioni was able to make a very different film. Antonioni and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli lovingly film the sand dunes of Africa, the grungy "hotel" in a backwater, Third World town and Barcelona as I've never seen it on film. Without a doubt, the centerpiece is the final silent sequence where the camera pans out of a hotel window, swivels around and returns to the room where a man has just been murdered. I'm not sure if that scene could even be made today. First, it would be done in CG and then some idiot would layer on a pretentious soundtrack to let us know what to think.

Putting aside Antonioni and Tovoli's mastery of the camera lens, Antonioni story is more existential than thriller. It's hard for me to remember that Jack Nicholson was once a serious actor. When did he jump the shark? Batman? The Shining? A Few Good Men? I don't know but in The Passenger, he's not Jack as I have come to regard him but a capable actor who has subtlety in his repertoire. Coming into the film cold and seeing Nicholson's performance made The Passenger a revelation to me. It validates Antonioni and Nicholson's reputations but to a certain extent, validates the reputation of 1970's cinema which is much acclaimed by serious film critics but not much appreciated by me.


There is not much new to be said about Bullitt. I've seen it several times on television. There is the car chase and Steve McQueen is way cool. McQueen/Bullitt (do we even know his first name?) is cooler than 99.9% of the actors/characters to ever be on the silver screen. He makes eating a white bread sandwich with a glass of milk look cool. The more I see the film, the more I appreciate Robert Vaughn's slimy politician. Bullitt couldn't be the legend if he didn't have Vaughn's Chalmers to play off of. Even Norman Fell delivers a performance notable for how much he conveys with silence and a look. Also, the two killers who die in the crash convey more without a word of dialog than any hitman in movie history. Those two actors, the white haired John Aprea and Bill Hickman (who looks vaguely like Karl Malden) were incredible - professional, detached, stone cold killers. They'd kick Jules and Vincent's asses without breaking a sweat.

Freebie and the Bean was a rambunctious film featuring James Caan and Alan Arkin as wild cops tracking down hitmen sent to town (in this case San Francisco as well). Wacky comedies and over-the-top chase scenes may have been all the rage in the 70s but Freebie and the Bean felt like a mean-spirited It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with racial overtones thrown in for good measure. Valerie Harper plays Arkin's wife with Puerto Rican accent so thick you'd think she be wearing fruit on her head and dancing the samba. The most amazing part is that she is able to deliver a humorous performance while talking like an outcast from West Side Story. Even more impressive is a scene where Arkin and Harper express their love while discussing her douche bag and Arkin continually saying she is not as stupid as he thought. Harper deserved a better career than what she had. Caan & Arkin quickly bored me and the car chases became tedious. There was a transvestite killer that added some surprise at the end. It was interesting to see the Financial District of SF in 1974 but otherwise, Freebie and the Bean left me unenthused.


On April 30, Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is hosting a special Maniacs event at the Red Vic. I have previously discussed the Red Vic's financial troubles. Ficks put the odds of the Red Vic survival at the unusually precise figure of 11%. One in nine? That's not much of an encouragement to go to the event. Why contribute money to a dying cause? Another issue is that they scheduled the fundraiser opposite the most prestigious film festival in the City. I still urge you to support the Red Vic but I'll be at the SFIFF.

Heavy Metal is a film I remember from my adolescence and it proves that the forces of nostalgia can be quite strong. I believe I have seen the film twice in the past 25 years and each time I see it, it appeals to me less. Juvenile, sexist, silly and borderline pornographic, the film was obviously designed to target 13 year old boys (or men who think like 13 year olds) which was when it hooked me. Set in the future where all young women are beautiful, nymphomaniacs and have 38DD breast implants, watching Heavy Metal gets old pretty fast. I'm not sure how much of that is the film and how much is the cynical outlook of a fortysomething year old.

There were only two vignettes that kept my interest - Harry Canyon, a noirish tale about a hardscrabble cabbie who hooks up with a beautiful woman with killers on her tail and Taarna, a story about a beautiful female warrior (dressed like a S&M dominatrix) and her loyal pterodactyl who single-handedly battle the forces of evil. Even those two stories were mediocre at best. The only thing that really saves Heavy Metal is a soundtrack that kicks ass and takes name, as we used to say back in the day.

After taking a few hours to finish my income tax returns and go to the gym, I returned to see Trick or Treat. When I read the synopsis, I recognized director Charles Martin Smith's name. He was memorable as the tax accountant on Kevin Costner's team in The Untouchables. The name Marc Price (wasn't there an NBA player by that name?) didn't ring any bells but as soon as I started watching Trick or Treat, I immediately recognized him as Skippy Handleman from Family Ties. Another embarrassing pleasure of my youth revealed. During my high school years, I was a big fan of Family Ties. I identified with Skippy, I aspired to be Alex and I lusted after Mallory. I even remember one of my favorite scenes even though it's been 20 years since I've seen the show. Alex was dating Tracy Pollan's character. He would eventually break up with her on the show but marry her in real life. Alex was out of his environment because the two of them were so different. Spying a poster of the Beatles in her dorm room, he asks if they are her brothers. I don't know why that stuck with me for over 20 years.

Back to Trick or Treat, Skippy is sporting a mullet and he's an unpopular kid at school who calls himself Ragman. I can't remember why. He's into heavy metal music and idolizes Sammi Curr, a heavy metal musician who went to the same high school as he attends. A DJ (Gene Simmons) gives him a pre-release version of Sammi's final album. Sammi has just died (suicide?) and Ragman is depressed about it. Unfortunately, the album is backward masked. For those too young to remember, allegedly several albums in the 1980's had hidden messages that were audible if you played the record or tape in reverse. Some of these hidden messages were satanic and, allegedly, drove teenagers to murder and/or suicide. The gist of Trick or Treat is that Sammi has backmasked his final album and like he's Freddy Kruger's cousin, his spirit can run the record in reverse and conjure him back to life to wreak vengeance and havoc on unsuspecting teens. Ragman has discovered the secret and is the only one who can save his school's prom from becoming another Carrie.

The film was fairly silly but it was fun to see Skippy Handleman with a 1980's mullet. At times, Price portrayed Ragman as if he were channeling Skippy. Tony Fields (a Solid Gold dancer) was suitably over-the-top as Sammi. Doug Savant has a nice role as the school bully. Ozzy Osbourne makes a cameo. Beyond that, it was pure 80s fluff which isn't a bad thing. In fact, Ficks has built a decade long film exhibition series around celebrating 80s fluff. Would someone not familiar with the 80s enjoy it? I think so but it definitely helps to have grown up in the period in which the film was set. I went to high school with guys like Ragman and no, I'm not referring to myself.


Finally, on a Sunday evening, I settled in for the four hour version of The Ten Commandments. The film has looked out of place for decades but I was intrigued by the chance to see it on the big screen and in one sitting. Everything that was ridiculous about the film on television is amplified on the Castro's huge screen. Charlton Heston's diction and ridiculous beards, Anne Baxter's vulgar arousal, Yul Brynner's dialog, Edward G. Robinson's miscasting and the patently staged look of the crowd scenes. It's pure Cecil B. DeMille and despite everything I could criticize, I loved it.

They don't make movies like The Ten Commandments anymore but that's probably because they don't make movie stars like Heston and Brynner anymore. A line Brynner has to say sums up the film. When speaking to a reluctant Anne Baxter who will be his future but alway reluctant wife (didn't the Egyptian pharaohs marry their sisters?), Brynner utters this all-time classic, "You will be mine, like my dog, or my horse, or my falcon, except that I shall love you more - and trust you less." Give Brynner credit, he plays it straight and comes within a hair (pun intended) of pulling off that line.

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