Sunday, January 22, 2012

2012 German Gems

2012 marked the end for Ingrid Eggers' German Gems Film Festival. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Eggers said "I gave it long, deep thought...The Bay Guardian gave me a lifetime achievement award. Once you get that, it's time to quit." Apparently, whatever animus existed between Eggers and the managers of her former festival, Berlin and Beyond, has dissipated to the point that she can claim, B&B is "is back on track."

I thank and congratulate Ms. Eggers for her many, fine years of programming excellent German language cinema in San Francisco. I'll miss her programming.

Unfortunately, the 2012 German Gems ran up against a Henri-Georges Clouzot series at the PFA. I was only able to see one film at the day long event at the Castro Theater.

Under Control; documentary; directed by Volker Sattel; German with subtitles; (2011)

The Castro runs previews before some its screenings. In December, I saw a funky, 1970s looking festival trailer for the 2012 German Gems. I'm still not sure what it was all about but if I had to guess, I think it was referencing Under Control which was filmed at various operating and abandoned nuclear power plants in Germany. I think the outfits in the trailer where riffing on the hazmat/radiation protection suits worn by workers at nuclear power plants.

Let me start by stating (or admitting given your viewpoint) that I am an electrical engineer. More accurately I have degrees in electrical engineering; I don't do engineering work anymore. My specialty was power engineering. Although I didn't specialize in nuclear power, my understanding of how a nuclear power plant works is better than the layman or man-on-the-street. With that out of the way, I was fascinated by the imagery in Under Control. Shot on 35 mm and at times, looking like an outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey , the film beautifully captured the design of nuclear power plants. The effect was similar to what I read about Manufactured Landscapes which I haven't seen.

As the camera panned across control panels, fuel rod storage pools, the interior of containment buildings, etc., I recalled why I became an engineer. I think it is beautiful to see scale models and pipes and cable trays forming geometric patterns. However, I wondered how many in the audience understood what they were looking at. The dialog was minimal at times.

More problematic was the lack of a narrative. The film seemed to take place at several power plants. Some were still in operation, others were shuttered, still another was converted into an amusement park. I wasn't sure which power plant I was looking at. At one point, it seems like there is an emergency like a stuck valve which would lead to a containment breach or nuclear meltdown. The plant is evacuated. I think that would have made the news but I don't recall anything like that. Was it an exercise? Was it staged for the film? I don't know, it was never mentioned again. The fact that they were using 1960s & 70s looking switches and panels (like the original Star Trek) made me scratch my head. Why hadn't they upgraded that equipment and controls?

In essence, the filmmakers go to nuclear power plants and beautifully film the routine processes and tasks the employees must do as well as the equipment and facilities. Then it hops around to employees of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the crumbling ruins of an abandoned plant(s), etc. The overarching theme seems to be that we (or at least Germany) built these plants to control nature - harnessing the energy of the atom for our increasingly energy-intensive lifestyle. Now, 40 or 50 years later, the people are under control of the nuclear plants - operational safeguards and procedures dealing with the nuclear waste control the lives of those who work at or live near these power plants. I found the premise to dubious. Let's not forget the status quo when these plants were built. In Germany, they were burning coal to generate electricity. Who knows how much air pollution was avoided due to these nuclear power plants? Would they be any less "under control" if there was coal plant spewing NOX and SOX emissions and asthma rates were doubled? Society is all about controls which are more restrictive than anything shown in Under Control.

Avoiding a debate on nuclear power, the film seems to wants decry of the constraints imposed by generating nuclear power. The land use, the storage issues, etc. I just didn't find the arguments compelling. Instead, I found the images compelling.

If anything, I was saddened by the demise of nuclear power in Germany. The images in Under Control hearkened back to the days when society confidently "conquered" the environment. Engineers used to design and build big, ambitious projects like dams to tame rivers, long tunnels to defeat mountains, bridges to span the impassable and nuclear power plants to power a nation. Now, lawyers and environmentalists subvert those ambitions. Is it better for society? Perhaps; solar or wind generation brings a host of problems that most people don't consider. Most of these issues are because we can't "control" the output but for me, it's sad too. The enlightened societies won't allow a nuclear power plant to be built or in Germany, even remain in operation because the risk are too high. Society wants renewable power on demand without any risks and at low costs. It makes me recall why I stopped being an engineer...

As you can see, my take Under Control is intensely personal and unique. I liked the film despite its flaws but I can't really recommend it...except to some of my classmates from engineering school.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

King of Devil's Island

I remember when the Landmark Clay announced it was closing and the San Francisco Film Society entered into negotiations with Landmark and the owner of the building. The SFFS Executive Director at the time (the late Graham Leggat) mentioned in an interview or perhaps KQED panel discussion that SFFS was in a different position than Landmark Theaters. Being a non-profit, SFFS could count on alternate sources of revenue which Landmark cannot. At the time, it sounded to me like Leggat was essentially saying that even if SFFS lost money while operating the Clay, it would be ok because SFFS doesn't have a profit motive and could subsidize the operation of the Clay through charitable donations, government grants and tax write-offs. I remembered thinking it sounded as if they needed gimmickry to keep the single screen theater open.

Whatever happened to the planned closing of the Clay? Regardless, that formula of non-profit operation of single screen and/or small movie theaters has essentially been used or replicated at the Vogue, the Roxie and most recently, the Balboa. That reminds me of something else. When Gary Meyer announced he was stepping away from the Balboa, he mentioned his desire to spend more time working on the Telluride Film Festival which he described as his "paying gig." Since the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation announced it is taking over the Balboa, Meyer has seemed re-energized and doesn't seem eager to step away anymore.

The reason I bring any of this up is that whenever I go to the New People/Viz Theater for "regular programming," the audience is just as sparse as when it was operated by New People and programmed with primarily Japanese films. I define "regular programming" as the programming not associated with the SFFS fall festivals (Hong Kong Cinema, Taiwan Film Days, etc.). I keep thinking back to Leggat's comments (albeit he was speaking of the Clay) that SFFS's non-profit status gave it advantages in operating a single screen theater. I think his claim will be put to the test.


My last venture to New People was to see King of Devil's Island.

King of Devil's Island starring Stellan Skarsgård, Benjamin Helstad & Trond Nilssen; directed by Marius Holst; Norwegian with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

King of Devil's Island is a mediocre film elevated by strong performances and nice outdoor locations. It's essentially a prison film or more specifically a juvenile delinquency prison film. As such, there must be a child molester. Every film about a boy's reformatory has to have a pedophile, typically a guard. Based on true events and set in the early 1900s, King of Devil's Island is set on Bastoy Island, kind of an Norwegian Alcatraz for boys.

The ever reliable Stellan Skarsgård plays the warden - a no nonsense disciplinarian whose probity is compromised when he diverts funds to be used for the upkeep of the facility and its charges. The warden uses it to make life more comfortable for his new and younger bride who is terribly bored on the island and at other times, alarmed by the behavior and treatment of the boys.

The protagonist of the film is a boy-sailor named Erling (Benjamin Helstad). The boys are assigned prison numbers and Erling is referred to as "C-19" for the rest of the film. Sent to Bastoy for killing someone, Erling seems more of a loner and rebel than sociopath. He quickly deals with attempted bullying and begins to test the boundaries of his confinement. This puts him into conflict with the warden and his proxy, Olav or C-1 who is the trustee for his dormitory. Assigned with showing C-19 the ropes, C-1 fails miserably as the stubborn Erling is determined to escape the island.

Over the course of the film C-1 and C-19 form a friendship. As is de rigueur, they bond over shared, forced punishment. If I recall, it was chopping down trees in freezing cold weather. As the film progresses, C-1 loses respect for the warden as he is blackmailed into covering up the acts of his pedophile guard (nice performance by Kristoffer Joner who bears a resemblance to Tom Skerritt). This leads to the final confrontation between the boys and their overseers which plays out a little like Lord of the Flies.

Helstad is quite convincing as Erling but Trond Nilssen's turn as C-1 is the lynchpin of the film. His scenes with Helstad, Skarsgård and Joner show his character's evolution which is more powerful than C-19's restless frustrations. Magnus Langlete as C-5 also shines as the victim of the pedophile.

There were recurring scenes of a whale at sea which was a story C-1 and C-19 were writing together and also served as a metaphor for Erling. I thought it was a little contrived and the CGI images of the whale looked second rate. Otherwise, King of Devil's Island is serviceable JD film elevated by a strong cast.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Benny & Bogie

The first films I saw in the Bay Area in 2012 were at the Stanford Theater.

To Be or Not To Be starring Jack Benny & Carole Lombard; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; (1942)
Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman; with Claude Rains; directed by Michael Curtiz; (1942)

I was curious about To Be or Not To Be because I had never seen Jack Benny in a role except as "himself" which he portrayed in a few films and a long-running television series which I saw in reruns. That's the character that says "Well..." and has Rochester as a chauffeur.

In To Be or Not To Be, Benny plays Joseph Tura, the star actor in a Polish theater troupe. Carole Lombard plays Maria, his wife who is also an actress but jealous and dismissive of her husband's vanity and limelight. She copes by accepting the attention of younger men. A running gag throughout gives the film its title. Maria tells her would be paramour's to come back stage when her husband begins his soliloquy in Hamlet which starts with "To be or not to be..." In each instance, Benny deadpans a look of fury as a the young men stand up (invariably in the center of the 2nd row) and make their way backstage. Benny pulls it off for laughs like a pro.

Set immediately before and during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the theater troupe deals with the Nazi blitzkrieg and occupation. Robert Stack shows up as a young Polish aviator who is enamored with Maria. After escaping to London, he returns to stop a Polish double agent from revealing the underground resistance network. That's pretty serious stuff but it's played for laughs as mistaken identities, an actor who masquerades as Hitler and Benny's vanity are all expertly mined for laughs. I guess it is the "Lubitsch Touch."

Sig Ruman, who would gain cinematic immortality as Sgt. Schultz in Stalag 17 (1953), plays a more bumbling Nazi in To Be or Not To Be. He shows a fair amount of comedic skills going head-to-head with Benny in many scenes. Lombard, looking less bombshell than usual, also gets some gags (at Benny's expense frequently).

To Be or Not To Be is clearly Benny's showcase. He gets to dress as a Nazi, Hamlet, a Freudian looking Pole and I'm sure I'm missing some of his disguises. He pulls this off with his normal nonplussed aplomb. However, Joseph Tura is not that different from "Jack Benny." Still, it's hard to dismiss To Be or Not To Be. It was Lombard's last film before dying in an airplane crash. I (and the audience) laughed repeatedly throughout which, let us not forget, is a comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland.


There's not much I can add to the volumes written about Casablanca. In fact, I've seen the film so many times that I can recite the dialog and plot intricacies by memory. This time, I did forget that my favorite song of the film until it was played. I'm not referring to "As Time Goes By." No, a few minutes before that iconic scene, Dooley Wilson perform a toe tapping rendition of "Knock on Wood" which features a call and response with the band.

Everyone was there - Peter Lorre as the unctuous Ugarte, Sydney Greenstreet as the venal Ferrari, Conrad Veidt as the odious Major Strasser and whoever the actors are that play the young Bulgarian couple trying to escape Casablanca. For all the praise heaped on Bogart and Bergman and even Paul Henreid as Lazlo which I have always thought was a thankless role, Casablanca's real star is Claude Rains as Captain Renault, the delightfully corrupt police chief of Casablanca.

Like his character, Rains steals every scene that's not nailed down. Every line coming out of his mouth is loaded with humor, cynicism, innuendo and weariness. It was a role of a lifetime for any actor. Unfortunately, Rains lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier, a film I've rarely heard of, much less seen. I'm anxious to see Coburn's performance.


I've noticed the Stanford does good business. They must pack in 100 to 200 people per screening at a minimum. All the tickets are double features and I notice a number of people leave after the organist finishes but I still think they are doing well. The Stanford is owned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation so their lease and perhaps operations are reduced or subsidized which explains their low admission prices and extremely low concessions prices.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

It's a Zoo Out There

In December, I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that Keith Arnold was named general manager of operations at the Castro Theater. The article goes on to state Mr. Arnold's bona fides in the film programming community.

However, the second paragraph caught my attention. "The announcement comes on the heels of blogosphere and social media recently erupting with dark rumors concerning the venerable movie palace's future. Arnold, however, says the truth is something altogether brighter."

Erupting? I did a little "research" into the matter. What did research consist of before Google? It turns out that, in early December, The Petrelis Files reported that the Castro was moving away from film exhibition and converting to a "live performance venue." This conversion was to take place in January 2012. The post cited a confidential source who was later revealed.

Before it was refuted by the Castro Theater, the news "erupted." The most prominent person who reported on the "news" (without verification) was Roger Ebert via Twitter. Since I don't tweet, I was unaware of the controversy until after it had been refuted.

Petrelis updated his original post three times. In Update #2, Petrelis wrote "I've conferred with my source and they stand by the changes reported last night that will eventually take place over the next year or so at the Castro. The source maintains the owner is headed in a live performance direction and stands by the information shared with me."

While the issue was still fresh in some people's mind, Petrelis posted a follow up item. In this post, Petrelis revealed that Bill Longen, "who formerly worked at [the] Castro Theatre in many capacities from programmer to technical director," was the confidential source or "Deep Throat" for the original claim.

Petrelis' post quoted from a communication by Longen to Petrelis. In the portion cited by Petrelis, which is implied to be in its entirety, Longen never states definitively that the theater will switch to "live performance" programming. Longen details meetings he had to convert the Castro to a live performance venue but never states that the owners have decided to do so. Longen closes his communication with a cryptic message which can be interpreted many ways. "I hope this blog has rattled a few heads and caused some rethinking. If it has, then my work is done."

Most of Petrelis' second post read like a political manifesto. He listed 10 ideas for enhancing "the Castro's engagement with its audience." Several of them called on the owners to have open forums or dialogs with the public to explain their plans for the theater, their movies programming plans and their civic engagement. The entire episode smacked of "have you stopped beating your wife?" rhetoric. The tone had kind of a petulant, agitprop, 99% edge.

Petrelis went on to suggest a cannabis smoking area adjacent to the parking lot! Some of his other suggestions were more mainstream. He mentioned the Roxie had a "discount card" which I don't believe exists anymore. He urged the Castro to adopt a similar program which I certainly would benefit from. However, issues ranging from the building's historic landmark status to the economic wisdom of having the audience pick a film to be screened on a slow night, rendered his suggestions both helpful and self-serving.

Given that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has already announced their 2012 festival will be from July 12 to 15 at the Castro Theater, it seems likely that any conversion will not occur before then...if ever.


The second film I saw in 2012 was We Bought a Zoo. It was not a film I wanted to see. I was still in Las Vegas visiting my father. It was the last full day I was there and my father wanted to get out of the house so we ran some errands and this film had a screening time and location which suited our schedule.

We Bought a Zoo starring Matt Damon & Scarlett Johansson; with Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones & Elle Fanning; directed by Cameron Crowe; (2011) - Official Website

I don't have much to write about the film. I immediately noticed the preview trailers included an interesting clip of The Three Stooges, the upcoming Farrelly brothers film. It was the first time I'd seen a preview for that film. Rather than a biopic, it seems the Farrelly brothers have put The Three Stooges in present times. In fact, my father surprised me by asking "Isn't that Snookie?" I didn't even think he knew that Jersey Shore existed.

Back to We Bought a Zoo, I can't find fault with the performances but the plot was predictable and formulaic, despite being based on a true story. Colin Ford, as Matt Damon's son, surprised me in a scene where he argues with Damon. Elle Fanning was interesting as a naive girl who is surprisingly forward in pursuing Ford's character. Maggie Elizabeth Jones, 6 or 7 at the time of filming, gets to call John Michael Higgins "a dick." It's always entertaining to see prepubescents using profanity. Actually, Higgins' performance as the deadly serious, uptight zoo inspector was the highlight of an otherwise cloying film. Director Cameron Crowe dialed the mawkishness factor a little too high on this film. Nice soundtrack though.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Logan's Run, Footprints and The Descendants

With this post I close the book on films seen in 2011 and start with films from 2012.

In December, I saw:

Logan's Run starring Michael York & Jenny Agutter; with Farrah Fawcett & Peter Ustinov; directed by Michael Anderson; (1976)
Footprints starring Sybil Temtchine; directed by Steven Peros; (2009) - Official Website

I saw Logan's Run at the Castro and Footprints at the Little Roxie

Logan's Run is a well known film. It's one of those films I missed as a kid which is too bad because in 2011, only a adolescent boy could be interested in the film. Surprisingly, there was no nudity that I recall. Jenny Agutter wore some skimpy outfits but surprisingly little sex for a film which had the reputation among teenage boys as being all that.

The premise is well known. Didn't they do a remake recently? Michael York seems to be playing the role for high camp which I guess it is 35 years later. The special effect have a certain 1970s shabby chic appeal which reminded of the television show Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century. The dialog is cringe worthy at time. Seeing Peter Ustinov and Roscoe Lee Browne (as a robot) perform in the film made me wonder if they were desperate or the produces were paying them boatloads of money. Things were indeed strange in the 70s.

Two questions I have - 1) When Logan 5 (York) is being brain scanned by the computer at the end, he reveals there is no sanctuary. This puts the computer into an infinite loop and eventually overloads the system resulting in the destruction of the domed city. Why? Why does the computer need the existence of sanctuary for itself to exist? 2) What the hell was that carousel stuff? When you aged out, you went on this carousel where people cheered you on as you were zapped by laser. Was there a chance you would survive which was later disproved? I couldn't make heads or tails of the carousel.

Footprints was at times equally head scratching although I had a better sense of what was going on. Extremely low budget, the film starts with a woman (Sybil Temtchine) waking up in Mann's or Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. She has no memory of her past including her own name. As the film progresses, she meets a number of Hollywood subculture characters - the homeless man, the tour guide operators, the woman who poses for photos dressed as Catwoman, etc.

I won't bother to recount the plot any further. The film has a dreamlike feel which makes it more interesting than it really is. Filmed on and around Hollywood Blvd., it feels like an indie film made for indie filmmakers and Hollywood history buffs. Ultimately, the nameless woman's story is representative of all the young actresses who came to Hollywood and we don't remember them or anything about their lives...the boulevard of broken dreams although technically refers to Sunset Blvd. not Hollywood Blvd.

The film never really captured my interest. The filmmakers seem to be ripping off Chris Rock when the homeless man rants about the less desired locations of black actors footprints in the Chinese Theater's courtyard. Actually, the seem to rip off Tarantino or Kevin Smith as well when the tour opertor goes on a rant about Nick Nolte "taking it up the ass" in The Prince of Tides. This was all in the first 10 minutes so I thought the film was going in one direction when it ended going in another.


The first film I saw in 2012 was The Descendants. Yes, I saw it second time. I usually don't see films twice in such a short period but I was visiting my father last week. He wanted to see it, it was Senior Tuesday so he got in for $3 and I liked it enough that I thought I could get a better appreciation of the film with a second viewing.

I didn't gain much from a second look. What you see is what you get the first time through. There were no details that I saw during the second viewing which enhanced the film in my estimation. I did notice that Dog The Bounty Hunter was playing with the sound off in the background when Scottie goes over to apologize to the girl for teasing her about her "pubes."

Having watched the credits the first time, I knew that Kaui Hart Hemmings played Matt King's (George Clooney) secretary. Hemmings wrote the novel The Descendants upon which the film is based. I thought she would be older.

So even though I didn't gain added appreciation for The Descendants, neither did the film lose its luster from a second viewing which many films do. My father said it was one of the best films he's seen in quite awhile. I have to agree.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

David Lean Double Feature

In December, I stopped by the Stanford Theater to see two films directed by David Lean.

Great Expectations starring John Mills & Valerie Hobson; with Alec Guinness & Jean Simmons; directed by David Lean; (1946)
Brief Encounter starring Celia Johnson & Trevor Howard; directed by David Lean; (1945)


A few years ago, I saw a stage production of Brief Encounter at ACT. The play mixed footage from the David Lean film as segues between scenes. Director Emma Rice very cleverly incorporated scenes from the film into the live production. I remember being very entertained & impressed by the play.

When I saw Brief Encounter on the calendar this December at the Stanford, I made time in my schedule to go down to Palo Alto to see it. I'm not sure if my familiarity with the film was because I've seen it before or because I saw the play two years ago. Regardless, the film stood on its own merits and provoked an emotional response.

I think as I get older, I become more sentimental. There is not much opportunity for sentimentality in real life so I am more moved by it in fiction than when I was younger and not as cynical. So it was that Brief Encounter's tale of unconsummated love moved me deeply. Bound by social more and her of sense decency, Celia Johnson's Laura is unwilling to cheat on her husband with similarly married Alec (Trevor Howard).

What makes me equally sad is that the plot of Brief Encounter is foreign and anachronistic to so many people today. By today's standards, Laura choice would be considered cowardly or a needless sacrifice. However by the standards of 1945, Laura's choice is, perhaps not brave, but necessarily selfless.

Putting aside my conservative nature in matters of propriety, Brief Encounter is an extremely well made film. I was left as conflicted as Laura - I wanted her to follow her heart but I knew it would make her miserable. Celia Johnson & Trevor Howard give outstanding performances.


Great Expectations, based on the Charles Dickens novel, left me uninterested. Like Dickens' novels, Great Expectations was full of characters & coincidences which meander at a leisurely pace. It was interesting to see a young Alec Guinness as Pip's roommate Pocket and an even younger Jean Simmons as a young Estella but otherwise I quickly grew bored with the film. Perhaps I was anxious for Brief Encounter to start.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Noir City X and Xmas

Noir City hosted a kick-off event for its 2012 Noir City which the 10th edition. Noir City will run from January 20 to 29 at the Castro Theater.

Noir City Xmas, held on December 14 at the Castro, was emceed by Czar of Noir Eddie Muller. The evening consisted primarily of two Deanna Durbin films:

Lady on a Train starring Deanna Durbin, Ralph Bellamy, David Bruce & Dan Duryea; directed by Charles David; (1945)
Christmas Holiday starring Deanna Durbin & Gene Kelly; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1944)

Other than the films, the biggest announcements were that Angie Dickinson was going to appear in person on January 21, there will be a six film Dashiell Hammett marathon on January 29 and on January 28, Noir City will take over the Swedish American Hall to create an authentic period nightclub/bar/canteen which Muller christened "Everybody Comes to Eddie's."

Muller also declared the late George Kuchar was his mentor and gave a short tribute. I assume Muller took classes under Kuchar at the San Francisco Art Institute where he taught for many years.


Lady on a Train felt more like The Thin Man than noir but it was nice thriller/comedy. Durbin plays a wealthy debutante from SF who arrives in NY by train. While looking out her window, she sees a murder being committed. Unable to identify the location or identify the victim, the police treat her like a kook so she enlists the help of the world's greatest mystery novel writer (David Bruce). Perpetually with a drink in his hand, a pithy retort on his tongue and suspicious fiancée on his tail, Bruce is an unwilling partner in solving the crime. The two of them encounter wealthy brothers Ralph Bellamy & Dan Duryea; each playing with and against their typical typecast.

More comedy than suspense, I can't find much to fault with Lady on a Train. It wasn't noir and Xmas played little role in the plot but it was a fun little film.


Christmas Holiday was definitely noir although Xmas played a small role. Told in flashback, Durbin plays a "dancer" in a New Orleans "night club." She is introduced to a soldier who received a Dear John letter just before he was going to fly back to SF to propose to his girlfriend. Bad weather diverts the plane to Las Vegas for Xmas.

Durbin and a reporter/flack (Richard Whorf) fill the GI on her sad story. She was married to a guy (Gene Kelly) who had a gambling problem, bad temper and possible incestuous relations with his mother. Kelly kills a guy over a gambling and gets sent to prison. Durbin, who goes by tow names in the film, is reduced to "dancing" with johns to make a living.

You guessed it - Kelly breaks out of jail and wants to settle the score with his wife although I don't recall exactly what she did to deserve it. I think the fact that she is working in a "night club" is reason enough for the pyschotic Kelly. No need to go beyond there because this was made during the production code.

Durbin does ok in her role, it was interesting to see Kelly play the bad guy, Richard Whorf as the boozy 2nd banana does quite a bit with his limited role and Gale Sondergaard hits a home run as Kelly domineering mother.

Christmas Holiday was a serviceable noir - well made, well acted if not somewhat lacking in flair or panache.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Jeanne Moreau

The PFA hosted a Jeanne Moreau retrospective in November & December. I saw 9 out of the 12 films in the series although I saw The Bride Wore Black at the Viz which gave it week long run after the PFA series ended.

Bay of Angels starring Moreau and Claude Mann; directed by Jacques Demy; French with subtitles; (1962)
The Lovers starring Moreau & Alain Cuny; directed by Louis Malle; directed by Jacques Demy; French with subtitles; (1958)
Jules and Jim starring Moreau, Oskar Werner & Henri Serre; directed by François Truffaut; French with subtitles; (1961)
Touchez pas au Grisbit starring Jean Gabin & Rene Dary; with Moreau & Lino Ventura; directed by Jacques Becker; French with subtitles; (1953)
The Trial starring Anthony Perkins, Moreau, Romy Schneider & Orson Welles; directed by Orson Welles; (1962)
The Fire Within starring Maurice Ronet; with Moreau; directed by Louis Malle; French with subtitles; (1964)
Mademoiselle starring Etore Manni & Moreau; directed by Tony Richardson; French with subtitles; (1966)
Chimes at Midnight starring Orson Welles; with Keith Baxter, John Gielgud & Moreau; directed by Orson Welles; (1966)
The Bride Wore Black starring Moreau; directed François Truffaut; French with subtitles; (1968)


In several of the films, Moreau had supporting roles. My favorite films of the series was one such film - Touchez pas au Grisbit which translates to "Don't touch the loot." A vehicle for Jean Gabin, Touchez is tale of honor among thieves and double cross.

Jean Gabin plays Max a 50ish gangster who wants to retire with some gold bars he stole. Unfortunately, Max has to carry his partner Riton (René Dary), the weak link and an equally aging playboy lacking the wisdom of his partner. Riton's girlfriend is a Jeanne Moreau who cuckolds him with Lino Ventura (in his film debut). Lino finds out about the gold, kidnaps Riton and offers to ransom him for the gold. The rest of the film involves Max try to rescue Riton & keep the gold.

Touchez pas au Grisbit was in the Golden Era of French crime capers which includes Rififi (1955), Bob le flambeur (1956), Elevator to the Gallows (1958), etc. Gabin's performance in Touchez pas au Grisbit gives the film most of its character. Polite, wise, weary and aware that he is aging, Gabin's Max could easily be mistaken for a corporate CEO or even a cop. Gabin was in a career slump at the time this film was made but his performance revived his career.

In addition to Gabin, the Paris neighborhood (Montmartre) where the film was shot and the sets (such as the bistro which only caters to gangsters) give Touchez pas au Grisbit much of its atmosphere.


A close second was Bay of Angels which was directed by Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Moreau dyes her hair platinum blonde and cavorts with Claude Mann in the French Riviera. Mann plays a young bank employee who becomes enamored with gambling. He falls in with Moreau's character, Jackie. Jackie is une femme d'un certain age, married but travelling alone and terribly addicted to gambling. Mann's Jean receives a painful lesson in life courtesy of Jackie but between her platinum locks, decadent lifestyle and the soaring Michel Legrand piano concertos, it almost seems worth it.

After seeing Bay of Angels, there is no doubt that Moreau is a movie star. Even when she is silent, you can't take your eyes off her. There are long stretches where Jackie is silent and expresses desire, desparation, frustration and even self-loathing with facial movements.


Mademoiselle was very compelling also. Moreau plays a small town's mysterious school teacher; I don't believe she is ever addressed by name. Prim and proper...and presumably virginous, I thought Moreau was too old for the role at 40 years of age. By the end of the film, I believe the casting decision was deliberate.

Mademoiselle lusts for a beefy Italian lumberjack whose son is one of her students. Mademoiselle secretly acts on her desires but the man's son discovers the tryst and mademoiselle knows that he knows. What follows is a complex psychological drama where mademoiselle reacts to the threat of her secrets being revealed by arson and flooding, intentionally casting blame on the Italian lumberjacks who are migrant workers. Simultaneously, she becomes resentful towards the boy and humiliates him in class. The boy though seems to want to emulate father even latently desiring mademoiselle. It was all rather fascinating and told in a measured pace.


The Bride Wore Black was François Truffaut's homage to Alfred Hitchcock with Moreau as an avenging angel seeking retribution for her husband's tragicomedic death. The film is engaging enough but Truffaut seems to be going through the motions lacking the dark humor and morbid glee that Hitchcock displayed in his best works.


The Lovers, Jules and Jim, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight are all well known films which I'll skip over due to considerations of my time and inclination. My only comment is that there is a scene in The Trial where Anthony Perkins walks among endless rows of workers at their desks which was visually stunning.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Horse is a Car, You're a Barista and Is LVMH Poking Fun at Itself?

It seems like everytime I have gone to the movies in the past several months, I see the same commercials.

I see the Hyundai Equus commercial with the familiar strains of DeBussy's "Clair de Lune," the Samsung Galaxy S II commercial which pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Apple users and the LVMH commercial which presents the LVMH brand as some sort pathway to a zen state of enlightenment. The LVMH ad always induces groans and/or giggles from the audience at the end of the spot when people realize what product is being advertised. I'm not sure whether or not to take it at face value. It would be extremely edgy if LVMH was putting the commercial out there tongue in cheek but I suspect the commercial is a serious effort to brand itself.

Love them or hate them, buy their product or not, these three commercials are exceptionally well made. I have to wonder what it says about my demographic or me that I keep seeing them over and over at the various theaters I frequent.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Southern (Dis)Comfort (Part 2 of 2)

As I mentioned before, the PFA and Roxie copresented a program called Southern Discomfort.

I was able to catch seven additional films from the series in December - four at the PFA and three at the Roxie.

Baby Doll starring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker & Eli Wallach; directed by Elia Kazan; (1956)
God's Little Acre starring Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Tina Louise, Buddy Hackett & Jack Lord; directed by Anthony Mann; (1958)
The Intruder starring William Shatner; directed by Roger Corman; (1962)
Two Thousand Maniacs!; directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis; (1964)
Wise Blood starring Brad Dourif; with John Huston, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright & Ned Beatty; directed by John Huston; (1979)
Moonrise starring Dane Clark & Gail Russell; directed by Frank Borzage; (1948)
Swamp Water starring Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews & Ward Bond; directed by Jean Renoir; (1941)


Overall, I'd have to say I was a little disappointed with the series. I'm not sure what I was expecting but some of the films never moved beyond stereotypes or sanitized versions of the plays they were based on. As a rule of thumb, I do not like films adapted from the plays of Tennessee Williams.

My favorite film of the series was The Intruder, a Roger Corman production. One of his more serious films, The Intruder has William Shatner playing a racist trouble maker who comes to a small Southern town when public school desegregation is implemented. This is the second time Shatner played the racist convincingly. At a TV Noir or Not Necessarily Noir in the past few years, the Roxie presented A Town Has Turned to Dust, a Playhouse 90 teleplay from 1958. In that work, Shatner played a rabble-rouser trying to stir a lynch mob up. In The Intruder, Shatner's character seems more like a convenient racist. His character is more interested in playing on the public's fears and African Americans in small town Missouri are just the unfortunate scapegoats.

Surprisingly realistic in its use of racial epithets and attitudes for 1962, The Intruder was quite a revelation for me. In fact, Shatner's predictable acting was almost sufficient. In the end, when he is confronted by mob he had nearly incited into a lynching, Shatner turns into a blubbering mass which I saw him do on Star Trek about a dozen times. Shatner isn't a one note actor but he only has one note for each emotion. When confident, he juts his chin and delivers crisp words with hand waving. When frightened, he shrinks his body, delivers crisps words but the pitch of his voice rises. When smug and smarmy, he wears a smirk and delivers his words not so crisply. Ever present are the odd but presumably intended to be pregnant pauses and the body movements. In The Intruder, not once but twice while delivering racially motivated speeches, Shatner goes through the motions of removing his coat, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves.

Shatner affectations should not be the focus of my post. Given that Roger Corman directed and William Shatner starred in The Intruder, the film exceeds all my expectations. PFA programmer Steve Seid shared some fascinating tidbits about the filming. The townsfolk in the Missouri town where the film was made were duped. I guess they thought they were being depicted in a positive light. In one scene, Shatner delivers his race baiting screed on the steps of a courthouse or city hall. The town square is full of white people. The scene alternates between crowd shots from behind Shatner and straight on head shots of Shatner. In the scenes where the crowd is visible, Shatner mouthed the words and the crew gave signals to the crowd as to when to cheer. Shatner later dubbed his words for those shots. Corman was worried that the crowd would find the racist words offensive.

In another scene, they burn a cross a la the KKK. Seid said that was the last scene they filmed. They burned the cross, put out the fire and then the whole cast and crew drove out of town.

I can't stress enough how amazing the film is within the context of its time. One year after the Freedom Riders and the violent reactions to it, Corman, Shatner, et al. show up in Missouri to make a film showing the ugliness and ignorance of Southern racists. They did it in an extremely authentic manner. Veteran character actor Robert Emhardt shines as a wealthy racist who bankrolls Shatner's efforts. Leo Gordon, who did time in San Quentin and usually plays the heavy, delivers nicely as a traveling salesman cuckolded by Shatner.


The Roxie had a double bill consisting of Moonrise and Swamp Water. I forgot that I had seen Moonrise at the 2008 Noir City aka Noir City 6. As soon as Lloyd Bridges came on screen playing a pompous, rich jerk, I recalled the entire plot of the film. Danny Hawkins (nice performance by Dane Clark even though he looks 10 years too old for the role) lives in a small town where everyone knows his father was a convicted and executed murderer...and they never let Danny forget that they know. He gets into a fight with the town bully (Bridges) and accidentally kills him. In typical noir fashion, Hawkins doesn't think anyone will believe the truth so he hides the body. When it is inevitably discovered, evidence and erratic behavior by Hawkins leads the sheriff (Allyn Joslyn) to consider him the prime suspect.

The beauty of Moonrise is this sense that Hawkins' has a genetic predisposition to murder. Hawkins if fully aware of his father's crime and some in the town continuously project the father's crime onto the son. Hawkins has halfway bought into the notion and the accidental death cinches the deal for him. While Hawkins is self-conflicted and paranoid, he is trying to woo the beautiful Gail Russell. Unable to confess to Gilly and unwilling to leave town because of her, Hawkins is stuck in a prototypical noir situation.

Dane Clark's performance makes the film but I was suppressed by Allyn Joslyn in the relatively small role as the sheriff. Joslyn plays the sheriff as sympathetic to Hawkins situation but nonetheless determined to carry out his duty. Bridges makes the most out of his one scene and the recently departed Harry Morgan is surprisingly effective as a deaf mute. Whenever there is a deaf mute in a noir film, you know its going to be excellent - Out of the Past, Bangkok Dangerous, etc.

Although I enjoyed Moonrise, I was a little disappointed that I had seen it before. I'm not sure I would have gone to the Roxie that night if I had been aware that I had seen Moonrise before. It ended up for the best though. My second viewing of Moonrise was enjoyable and Swamp Water turned out to be quite a discovery.

The first interesting aspect of Swamp Water is that legendary French film director Jean Renoir (son of Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir) directed the film. Swamp Water is the film Renoir directed after The Rules of the Game which has subsequently been lauded as one of the greatest films ever made. Opening to poor reviews, the film was financially ruinous. When the Nazis invaded France, Renoir fled to Hollywood. Reading the film synopsis, I wondered if Renoir's skills would translate in a film set in the fetid waters of Okefenokee Swamp. There was no need for concern as Swamp Water is a minor masterpiece as far as I am concerned.

Renoir's directorial skills are buttressed by an unusually strong cast including Walter Brennan, Walther Huston, Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter, Ward Bond & John Carradine. The story has a number of strands which run in parallel until resolving themselves at the end. Ben Ragan (Andrews) is a trapper who goes into swamp searching for his hound dog. He encounters Tom Keefer (Brennan), a fugitive hiding out in the swamp. Initially adversaries, the two men strike up an alliance. Keefer has become adept at living in the swamp so he agrees to trap beavers for their pelts. Ragan will keep his location a secret but return periodically to collect the pelts and give Keefer some supplies. In addition, Ragan will set aside some of the money from selling the pelts for Keefer's daughter Julie (Baxter) who serves as the de facto servant for the guy (Carradine) that runs the general store/bar/restaurant/etc.

There are a number of subplots which come together at the end. Ragan's father (Huston) is suspicious that his wife, Ragan's step-mother, is having an affair. At the same time, Ragan's budding relationship with the coquettish Mabel MacKenzie (Virginia Gilmore) is strained by his frequent trips into the Okefenokee. Mabel retaliates by going to the big dance with another man. Ragan reacts by Dr. Doolittling the ragamuffin Julie and taking her to the dance. Always lingering background are Dorson brothers (Ward Bond & Guinn Williams), trouble makers, hog rustlers and the reals murderers for the crime Keefer was convicted of.

I won't give away the final act (partly because it is so convoluted I don't wait to make a mistake) but I will say the ending was not quite "noir." Regardless, watching all these great old time actors on screen was quite a treat - Huston's intense performance as a man barely in control of himself, Bond's blustering and bullying, Baxter's meekness which slowly transform as the movie progresses, Gilmore's pettiness and scorn, etc.


The other films don't merit much in the way of space and time on this blog.

I thought Baby Doll was yet another failed film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play.

God's Little Acre was based on a controversial novel of the same title by Erskine Caldwell. The film tilted too far to comedy (unintended?) whereas the novel dealt with issues such Industrialization, socialism and sexual betrayal. About two thirds of the way through the film, it starts to hit its stride but the foundation (i.e. the first portion of the film) doesn't support the change in tone as the film reaches its conclusion.

Two Thousand Maniacs! was just schlock. Perhaps pushing the boundaries in 1964, I am not enough of a schlock connoisseur to appreciate the nuances or historical significance of Two Thousand Maniacs!.

Wise Blood was fairly interesting. It featured a flashy if not impenetrable performance by Brad Dourif in the lead role. Based on a Flannery O'Connor novel, Wise Blood mixed comedy with advanced theological concepts which are beyond my engineering school education and aggressively secular lifestyle.

Monday, January 2, 2012

It Was the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

For the past few years, I've had a job where there are a bunch of
month-end/quarter-end/year-end activities. As you can imagine, late December is a busy period for me. That's ok for me though. Since my mother passed, Xmas hasn't been as important to me so I visit my father over the New Year's week. One of the upsides is that work is much easier. A lot of people are out of the office for vacation and I can get my work done quicker because of less interruptions. That allows me to go to the gym and go to the movies. Not only is that better for my health but I usually feel better and more alert after working out so I can concentrate better on the films. I think they call that the endorphin rush.

So it was that for seven consecutive days from December 23 to 29, I saw nine films which may be the longest streak of thoroughly enjoyable films I have ever seen.

The Artist starring Jean Dujardin & Bérénice Bejo; directed by Michel Hazanavicius; silent with intertitles; (2011) - Official Website
Shame starring Michael Fassbender & Carey Mulligan; directed by Steve McQueen; (2011) - Official Website
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness; documentary; directed by Joseph Dorman; narrated by Alan Rosenberg; (2011) - Official Website
The Descendants starring George Clooney & Shailene Woodley; directed by Alexander Payne; (2011) - Official Website
Silent Souls; directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko; Russian with subtitles; (2010) - Official Site (Russian)
The Gold Rush starring Charlie Chaplin & Georgia Hale; silent with intertitles (1925)
On the Town starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen & Ann Miller; directed by Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen; (1949)
Singin' in the Rain starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds & Jean Hagen; with Cyd Charisse & Rita Moreno; directed by Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen; (1952)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg starring Catherine Deneuve & Nino Castelnuovo; with Anne Vernon & Marc Michel; directed by Jacques Demy; French with subtitles; (1964)


The Artist is one of the most talked about films of the season. The film trailer set to the tune of "Sing, Sing, Sing" is one of the best I've seen. I won't quibble that "Sing, Sing, Sing" came out after the semi-fictitious events depicted in the film.

I was familiar with star Jean Dujardin & director Michel Hazanavicius from their James Bond spoof OSS-117: Lost in Rio. Deliciously insensitive in the role, Dujardin's turn as the anachronistic Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Agent 117) gave no indication that he could carry a silent film as the debonair, silent film star George Valentin in The Artist.

I won't bother to rehash the plot of The Artist. It borrows somewhat from A Star is Born and Singin' in the Rain but tells the entire story without dialog (except for the final shot). It tells the story in a extremely effective manner which makes me wonder how silent films would have evolved if they hadn't been supplanted by talkies or allowed to coexist. Like Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), Hazanavicius utilizes sound effects and a soundtrack to supreme effect.

I may be getting sentimental as get older, but my eyes were moist as I watched the once proud Valentin reduced to ruins while the beautiful and kind-hearted Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) attempts to help him. The film features strong supporting performances from Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin's shrewish wife, John Goodman as the movie studio chief, James Cromwell as Valentin's loyal manservant and Missi Pyle as Valentin costar in one scene where she seems to be channeling Jean Hagen from Singin' in the Rain. Uggie, a Jack Russell Terrier, was a little unctuous for my tastes but nonetheless gets a lot of screen time as Valentin's second banana.

The Artist is a tremendous film which left me impressed with its technical mimicry of silent era films and the emotional punch it packed. Count me as one of The Artist's biggest fans.


I saw The Artist at the Landmark Theater Embarcadero Center Cinema on Friday, December 23. I returned there the next day to see Shame.

I was not too familiar with the plot for Shame. I knew that Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict & Carey Mulligan (whom I most recently saw in Drive) plays his sister. I knew it was going to be a depressing film but I wasn't sure how the plot was going unfold.

That didn't quite prepare me for Shame. The film is about Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) and his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). They must have had one hell of a childhood although it is never explicitly explained. Sullivan copes with his problem through sex addiction and viewing pornography; Sissy is a codependent and reformed cutter with scars all along her forearms. Sullivan is a functional addict but the appearance of his sister stirs up deep-seated emotions. An ill advised one-stand between Sullivan's boss and his sister creates more stress. Finally, a failed romantic encounter with an attractive coworker lays bare Sullivan's dysfunction and addiction. This leads to the dénouement which involves a beating, anonymous gay sex, a ménage à trois and attempted suicide.

The film keeps getting darker and darker as we see Sullivan lose control of his addiction. In addition to anonymous sex, use of prostitutes and on-line porn, Sullivan masturbates like fiend. It's as if each ejaculation provides relief from his demons within. It's difficult to watch. Sissy delivers a line which sums up the plight of these characters when she says "We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place." Shame is a powerful film which left me numb at the end.

Fassbender's performance has been lauded with a Golden Globe nomination. Two performances stand out for me - James Badge Dale as Sullivan's jerk boss and Nicole Beharie as his co-worker whom he has eyes for. Mulligan didn't have a lot to do in the film and her torch song version of "New York, New York" unintentionally made me laugh.

While watching the credits, I noticed the two women who were part of Sullivan's ménage à trois were credited as Calamity Chang and DeeDee Luxe...what great names. It turns out both are burlesque performers in New York and have cult followings.


On Xmas, I made a day of it in the South Bay. My first cinematic stop was at the Camera 3 in San Jose. I caught Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a documentary about the writer who created the character of Tevye the Dairyman, the protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof.

Sholem Aleichem was the pen name of Solomon Rabinovich, a Hasidic Jew born in 1859 in the Ukraine. Sholem Aleichem means "peace be upon you." The filmmakers posit that Sholem Aleichem essentially defined Jewish humor and that his perspective on life was heavily influenced by his childhood, marriage, Jewish pogroms and the Yiddish language of the region. Using talking head experts on Jewish culture, the film meanders while following Sholem Aleichem's success and failures...much like one of his stories.

Buoyed by the mellifluous but vaguely Jewish sounding narration of Alan Rosenberg and some superb comedic readings by Saturday Night Live alumni Rachel Dratch, Sholem Aleichem kept me interested in a man I had never heard of before and time & culture I had never given much thought to before. At 93 minutes, the film was a 10 to 15 minutes too long for me but otherwise it was a solid documentary.


After Sholem Aleichem, I had a bite to eat and I stopped by the Landmark Aquarius in Palo Alto to see The Descendants.

Since this film has a Golden Globe nomination and on the short list for an Oscar, I see no reason to recount the plot since there must be hundreds of reviews on-line.

I've never been a big fan of George Clooney but he pleasant enough in his roles. He seems to have a limited range as an actor - the quizzical look for comedic effect and he drops his voice to barely audible with clipped speech for dramatic effect. I will credit Clooney for not being a selfish actor. He lets other play off his relatively impassive demeanor. Although Clooney has the central role in The Descendants, it is 20 year old Shailene Woodley as his oldest daughter who does much of the heavy lifting in the film. Her character hints at some of the issues she may have had with her parents before her mother's injury and reflects a genuine love of her father. Her character is 17 years old but has been through rehab, knew her mother was cuckolding her father, learns her mother is dying and helps to confront her mother's lover...she has a lot on her plate and when you consider this, Woodley's performance is very complex.

In addition, Robert Forster shows up as Clooney's dyspeptic father-in-law and Beau Bridges has a memorable scene as Clooney's cousin. Clooney pretty much clears out and lets both actor emote and do their thing while berating Clooney's character.

Beyond Clooney's translucent performance and the strong supporting actors, The Descendants mixes tragedy and comedy in a way which becoming associated with director Alexander Payne. He has covered some of the same ground in Sideways and About Schmidt but in The Descendants it looks more natural. The scenes in Sideways and About Schmidt looked contrived and the characters too self-aware but The Descendants moves at pace that better reflect life or at least my perspective of life.

I wasn't deeply moved by The Descendants nor did laugh uncontrollably but when the film ended, I felt as though I had seen an expertly crafted film.


On Monday, December 26, I intended to see the 6:30 PM screening of The Gold Rush at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. However, I caught heavy traffic on Park Presidio Blvd. on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge so, in mid-trip, I changed my mind and decided to see Silent Souls at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema at the Viz.

Of all the regions of the world, Eastern Europe is an area whose cinema holds little appeal to me. It seems like Eastern Europe cinema is a constant stream of depressing stories with the ever present spectre of totalitarian government suppression which results in beaten down and depressed old men bundled up against the bitter cold with a dank, grey backdrop of utilitarian buildings and polluted skies. While the consensus opinion of some these films is that they masterpieces, I'm left scratching my head.

Silent Souls has some of these characteristics. Set in a drab town that I can't recall but assume is in the Russian Steppes, the film follows the peculiar customs of the Merjan, an extinct culture of Finnish origin who was swallowed up by the Slavs. Despite this, in these small towns, their customs are still observed.

Silent Souls follows two Merjan men as they bury one man's wife. I don't know about the veracity of the depicted Merjan customs but we learn among other tidbits that Merjan women tie stings around their pubic hair on their wedding day, that Merjan men "smoke" about their dead wives which means they tell explicit sexual stories and that all Merjan have an affinity for the water and desire to have their remains be consecrated in the waters near their birthplace.

Silent Souls is set apart from my stereotyped view of Eastern European films by a sense mysticism and spirituality which infuses every scene. These two Merjan men are doing something deeply personal and haunting as they accompany the corpse back to her origins. The extended scene where they methodically & ritually cleanse the woman's body is mesmerizing as are a few other scenes.

The net effect is that I felt like I was watching something profound. Perhaps it was more abstruse or abstract than profound but the film never lost my interest. Like a noir film, the story is told in flashback as the narrator refers to everything in past tense and pre-shadows certain events. This adds an elegiac layer to the film. I had to dust of some 25 cent words to describe the film so it must insightful.

Silent Souls is playing at the Roxie this week.


On Tuesday, December 27, I gave myself extra time to get across the Golden Gate Bridge although I didn't need it. Traffic was not as heavy on Tuesday as the day before.

Sadly, there were only six people in the audience for the 6:30 PM screening of The Gold Rush. The 35mm version screened at the Smith Rafael Film Center was a restored version. The prologue mentioned the version screening that night incorporated footage from the 1925 silent release and music from the 1942 re-release which Chaplin oversaw. However, the 1942 version was shorter than the 1925 version. The print that screened that night tried to marry all the frames from the silent film with the soundtrack from the 1942 version.

The Gold Rush is basically The Little Tramp in the Yukon. There are a few classic gags including the dancing dinner rolls, eating a boot and the shack on the ledge which teeters and totters depending on what side of the room the men are on. Like all Chaplin silent films, The Gold Rush had some inspired moments.

There was one plot point I found strange - the Little Tramp got the money and the girl in The Gold Rush. Also, the girl (Georgia Hale) had a capricious streak which left the ending ambiguous. Although they share a romantic kiss as the film fades out, I wondered if the girl loved him, wanted his money or was trying to atone for having previously toyed with his affections.

Apparently Chaplin felt the same. In the 1942 reissue, he ended the film before the final kiss. The Little Tramp never gets the girl, right? Chaplin also changed a scene were the girl's love note to another man is delivered to him. In the 1942 version, the girl sends the Little Tramp the love note to make clear her affection is not a byproduct of his newfound wealth.


On 28th, I went to the Castro to see a Gene Kelly double bill - On the Town and Singin' in the Rain. Both these films are classics but Singin' in the Rain is considered by some the greatest musical ever made. Being contrarian, I preferred On the Town. I think saw On the Town on television when I was a kid. I've never Singin' in the Rain except for select musical numbers. Going in, I didn't even know it was set during the silent film era.

On the Town is iconic in its own right. When I see see a trio of sailors in their crackerjacks, I think of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and...the other guy. Given 24 hour shore leave in New York, the three try to paint the town red. In quick order, two of three find girls but poor Gene Kelly is stuck on Miss Turnstiles (Vera-Ellen) who moonlights as a Coney Island cooch dancer and coincidentally comes from the same small town as Kelly's character (wouldn't they know each other or each other's family?). Like most musicals, the plot isn't important.

On the Town has a few musical numbers that I greatly enjoyed. Among my favorites were the opening number when the sailors come on shore and sing

"New York, New York, a helluva town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.
The people ride in a hole in the groun'.
New York, New York, a helluva town!!"

I also liked "Prehistoric Man" which set at the Museum of Natural History when sexy Ann Miller hooks up with the third sailor (Jule Munshin).

My favorite number from either On the Town and Singin' in the Rain is "Miss Turnstiles" where Vera-Ellen gets to dance, show off her athleticism and wear some short skorts which highlight her shapely legs.

I can't add much to what has already been written about Singin' in the Rain. Between Singin' in the Rain, The Artist and Once in a Lifetime at ACT, the 4th quarter of 2011 was all about the transition from silent films to talkies.

Having only seen the musical numbers from Singin' in the Rain, Jean Hagen's performance as nasal voiced, Brooklyn accented Lina Lamont was quite a pleasant surprise. Ms. Hagen won an Supporting Actress Oscar for the performance.

Cyd Charisse shows up for an extended dance number. Although Rita Moreno is listed fairly high in the credit, her role is so small that I cannot recall her speaking any dialog. Kelly shows a flair for comedy when he's not singing or dancing in the film.

On the Town and Singin' in the Rain are great musicals. I can't help but smile, laugh and feel better about life after watching them.


The week ended when I returned to the Castro on December 29 to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Umbrellas is a musical but definitely a horse of a different color. French language, continuous recitative "songs" and closer to sad than bittersweet.

The film is closer to a three act opera than a Hollywood musical. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are Geneviève Emery & Guy Foucher, two young people in love for the first time. Guy is drafted into the French Army and sent to Algeria during the war. On their last night together, Geneviève & Guy procreate, leaving Geneviève in a socially and financially awkward situation. Unrelated, Geneviève's mother is having financial difficulties of her own. Looking to pawn the family jewels, the women encounter Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a wealthy, single, jewelry merchant.

The 30something Cassard shows romantic interest in the 17 year old Geneviève. Rather than be alarmed by the older man's intention, Madame Emery tacitly encourages her daughter to choose the older, wealthier man. Especially when Cassard agrees to the union after discovering Geneviève's delicate condition.

Meanwhile, Guy is wounded in Algeria and his letters to Geneviève go unanswered. Upon his discharge from the Army, he returns to Cherbourg to discover Geneviève has married and moved away and Madame Emery has closed her umbrella shop and similarly moved away. Guy has one more tragedy to overcome. His beloved aunt passes away soon afterwards which sends Guy on a downward spiral. His salvation comes in the person of Madeleine (Ellen Farner), his aunt's live-in caregiver. In a classic rebound relationship, Guy and Madeline eventually marry.

The coda comes a few years later when Guy & Madeline run a gas station (Guy's dream). Around Christmastime, a fancy Mercedes pulls up for gas. Who other than Geneviève should be driving? Older, more sophisticated, clearly weatlhy, Geneviève and her daughter (Guy's child) are driving through Cherbourg. Making small talk but sharing meaningful glances, Guy declines to meet his daughter and Geneviève's drives off. Guy doesn't mention the encounter to Madeline and their son.

The vibrant colors of the sets and costumes made up for the dirge-like songs. Being a guy, I was slightly alienated by Geneviève. However, the film showed both young lovers in difficult circumstances trying to cope as best they can. Far from melodramatic, I thought Umbrellas was an exceptionally well made film. The circumstances were difficult and life itself. I suspect the story could have been told more powerfully without the musical constraints but director Jacques Demy accomplished more than I initially thought he could have within those confines.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year, New Parkway

As I wrote last year, the New Parkway Theater was having trouble finding a location. I noticed that J. Moses Ceaser stopped posting weekly updates regarding his progress in negotiating a lease at various locations. Around Xmas, he posted a batch of newsletters.

He didn't seem too optimistic. From his December 7 newsletter, Ceaser wrote "But I’m still not optimistic that we’ll get something done, just because these landlords don’t seem very motivated to get something done. At the very least, they’re aware of our urgency, so we’ll know something soon. I’m guessing that there’s a 25% chance of success, and until that dwindles to zero or 2011 ends, I’ll do everything in my power to find a home for the New Parkway." Ceaser and/or his investors had set a December 31 deadline to sign a lease or return the startup funds to the investors.

2011 ended like a bad Hollywood movie for Ceaser which is good news for supporters of his efforts to resurrect the Parkway. The East Bay Express reported that the New Parkway signed a lease at an Uptown Oakland warehouse. It's not the same location as the original Parkway but as Ceaser says of the new location, "It’s smaller. It’s got less character. Everything will be set up different. But we’ll at least be able to talk about our beloved Parkway coming back to life."

Ceaser's muted enthusiasm reflects the tone of the East Bay Express article. "The theater’s new location will be at 474 24th Street, a 7,800-square-foot former sheet-glass factory currently used for special events...From the outside, the boxy warehouse is nondescript and, as it stands now, a tad uninviting. Unlike 25th Street, 24th Street is devoid of casual foot traffic and other art institutions. Current neighbors include an adult video store five storefronts away at Telegraph Avenue and a large mid-century apartment complex one door to the east. 'I think it will create some challenges for us,' Ceaser said. 'I’m knocking down the attendance figures, knowing that it won’t have the facade some of the other places did.'"

The article goes on to say that opening day should be sometime in the summer or fall. Also, the theater will have two screening rooms seating 240 total, a cafe/bar area and a kitchen. The lease term is 21 years and the monthly payments approx. $8,000.

A Contra Costa Times article reports the admission price will be $6 and that the theater will employ 16 full-time workers.

I never attended a screening at the old Parkway Speakesy Theater, I've never met J. Moses Ceaser, did not contribute any funds to his effort and cannot say I play on attending the New Parkway on a regular basis but I was rooting for him. Everyone likes the underdog and I congratulate Mr. Ceaser on his persistence and wish him ultimate success in this endeavor...but the hard work begins now.