Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's October 2013 Calendar

Some luck and some knowledge helped me decode the puzzle in the October calendar of the Castro Theater.

October 29 - I immediately recognized Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

October 21 - I thought the October 31 photo was a publicity shot from The Mummy (1932) or some such film as the gown the woman is wearing looks like a mummy's wrapped cloth.  I looked up The Mummy on IMDB and discovered the female lead was Zita Johann, an actress I recall from Howard Hawks' Tiger Shark (1932).  Not finding the photo on IMDB, I googled "Zita Johann The Mummy" and quickly found the photo, but not the photo on October 31 but rather the photo on October 21.  That's Zita Moran dressed in an ancient Egyptian headdress.

October 31 - Knowing Boris Karloff was in Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy, I scoured through images of his films from the 1930s and could not find the October 31 photo.  Eventually, I gave up on the Karloff angle.

I noticed that The Monster Squad (1987) is playing at the Castro on October 19.  I remember enjoying that film when it came out and started to focus on it.  The monsters in The Monster Squad consisted of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  I started to believe that the woman in the photo on Halloween was associated with one of those films.  Since The Creature from the Black Lagoon was made in 1954 and the photo looks older, I focused on Dracula (1931) and The Wolfman (1941).  The female lead in Dracula was Helen Chandler.  The female lead in The Wolfman was Evelyn Ankers.  After looking at many internet photos of the two, I decided neither was the woman shown on October 31.

Riffing on Bride of Frankenstein, I started looking for sequels to Dracula and The Wolfman.  I found Dracula's Daughter (1936) and it's IMDB page made me hopeful.  The DVD cover drawing looks like the October 31 photo although the gown is wrinkling over the right shoulder on IMDB rather than the left shoulder in the photo.  I learned the lead actress in Dracula's Daughter was Gloria Holden (Marguerite Churchill from Raul Walsh's The Big Trail was also in the film).  I googled "Gloria Holden Dracula's Daughter" and the image was near the top of the search results.

Summarizing the photos in chronological order:

October 21 - Zita Johann from The Mummy (1932)

October 29 - Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

October 31 - Gloria Holden from Dracula's Daughter (1935)

I saw The Mummy at the Balboa several years ago during a Boris Karloff retrospective.  It's been 30 or more years since I saw Bride of Frankenstein.  I don't recall ever hearing about Dracula's Daughter much less seeing it.

I assume the clues simply point to Halloween in general or perhaps The Monster Squad.


Speaking of creature features, this Sunday (September 29) the Castro is screening Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong! at 2 PM.  This 2008 documentary by Tom Wyrsch has screened many times in San Francisco but I keep missing it.  Wyrsch also directed Remembering Playland at the Beach (2010), Sutro's: The Palace at Lands End (2011) and The Cliff House & Sutro Heights (2013) - all three of which I have seen at the Balboa.  Watch Horror Films is about the Saturday night television show Creature Features which ran on KTVU from 1971 to 1984 and was hosted by the late Bob Wilkins and later John Stanley (whom I saw at a fundraiser at the Balboa a few years ago).

Speaking of Saturday night television series showing horror films, I arrived home a couple Saturday nights ago and saw that Saturday Night Live was a rerun.  I flipped over to KOFY to catch Balrok and No Name on Creepy KOFY Movie Time.  Typically the films are so bad that I can't stand it.  The in-studio skits between the breaks are so bad they are good...sometimes.  Anyway, I was amazed that CKMT was showing Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer (1979).  I've long wanted to see that film but I came in halfway through the film and the picture quality on the TV wasn't that great and they kept interrupting the film to tell stupid jokes.

Speaking of horror, I mentioned that I wanted to see Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky at the Castro last night.  I didn't make it to the film.  Instead, I was invited to Scary Sixth Street (aka Psycho Sixth Street) to dine at the recently reopened Tu Lan.  I first went to Tu Lan over 20 years ago and I don't remember the area being so rough.  I figure one of three things have happened.  1) I was young and dumb back then, 2) I'm old and scared now and/or 3) 6th St has gotten worse.  Anyway, I'm going to try to stick to visiting Tu Lan during daylight hours and even then the area is too sketchy for my comfort.

Tu Lan was the same as it ever was.  They have new furniture and the prices are up slightly but the menu hasn't changed (same numbering for the menu items), the food is still tasty and the smoke from cooking still fills up the interior space.  I can only hope their sanitation and food preparation standards have changed for the better.

I haven't been on street level for that stretch of Mid Market for awhile.  A block and a half are completely boarded up as if the buildings were condemned.  It looks like Detroit.  It must be part of the long anticipated Mid Market Redevelopment.  They were talking about that when I first visited Tu Lan in the early 1990s and it still hasn't happened.  I also noticed the Warfield Theater is being remodeled.

Castro Theater Calendar - October 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Blue Jasmine

I saw Woody Allen's latest film at the Balboa earlier this month.

Blue Jasmine starring Cate Blanchett; with Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C. K. & Peter Sarsgaard; directed by Woody Allen; (2013) - Official Website

Well reviewed, I'll keep my comments on Blue Jasmine short.  Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a disgraced New York socialite.  Her husband (Alec Baldwin) has committed suicide after being arrested for Madoff-style financial improprieties.  Jasmine is forced to relocate to San Francisco to live with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  It's quite a step down the social ladder for Jasmine.  Honestly, I don't see how Ginger can afford the SOMA flat she has when she is working as a cashier in a small grocery store but let's not delve into the dynamics the San Francisco rental housing market or rent control laws.

Jasmine attempts to right herself by taking a job with a dentist and dating a diplomat with political aspirations.  However, she is plagued by these glass-eyed dissociative disorders.  She's popping Xanax like breath mints and is a barely functional alcoholic.  She has a lot to be anxious about.  As the film progresses, it jumps back and forth to Jasmine's life in New York to her life in San Francisco.  Baldwin is great as Jasmine's philandering husband.  Baldwin always plays those wealthy scumbag roles to the hilt and Blue Jasmine is no exception.

In addition to dealing with her husband, there is a lot of history between Jasmine and her sister.  A few years earlier, Ginger and her husband (Andrew Dice Clay) won the lottery.  Jasmine convinced them to invest the lottery winnings with her husband who promptly stole it.  Now divorced, Ginger lacks bitterness towards her sister; probably because she is easily and frequently manipulated by her.  Jasmine quickly sows discords into Ginger's relationship with her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) and Ginger takes things further by having an affair with a married audio engineer (Louis C.K.).

I'll leave the plot recap at that.  By the end of the film, we learn that Jasmine was a lot more complicit in her own misery than she commonly lets on.  With few life skills and even fewer people who care about her, her future looks bleak.

The cast is uniformly outstanding.  I've read that Clay and Cannavale portray their characters more like New Jersey Guidos than any recognizable San Francisco stereotype but fortunately they don't take up much screen time.  The scenes with Blanchett and Baldwin or Blanchett and Hawkins or Blanchett and anyone else are the ones that really grab one's attention.  Blanchett vividly portrays this pathetic woman.  I went from being annoyed with her to disliking her to pitying her to hating her to being frustrated by her to being exhausted by her which must be what it would be like to actually interact with a woman like Jasmine.  Take all of Annie Hall's idiosyncrasies and insecurities, add in copious amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs, mix with a bastard of a husband, apply to a vaguely amoral woman and you have Blue Jasmine.  A tragedy with moments of comedy, Blue Jasmine is a highwater mark for Allen's late career films.  I run hot and cold on his films but Blue Jasmine was one of the best films I've seen all year.  Cate Blanchett's performance was tremendous.

The soundtrack to Blue Jasmine was very memorable.  The song Blue Moon is repeatedly played throughout.  In addition, Allen infuses the film with his trademark love of jazz and blues which happens to roughly coincide with my taste in music.


The Balboa's Kickstarter campaign convert to digital is quickly coming to an end.  Having surpassed their $75,000 goal by more than 20%, the Balboa has set an unofficial goal of $100,000 by the end of the campaign (September 26, 2013 at 11:59 PM PDT).  I noticed they have already put metal nameplates on the armrests of the chairs to recognize donors; that's at the $500 donation level.


Despite an abundance of restaurants near the Balboa Theater, I've always considered the area a bit of a culinary wasteland.  Sometime I go to Little Henry's.  I have always assumed the Little Henry's in the Outer Richmond is affiliated with the Little Henry's in the Tenderloin but the food tastes much better at the Tenderloin location.  Occasionally, I'll go to Americana Grill which despite its name has a fair amount of Asian food on the menu.

On several of my past few trips to the Balboa, I have stopped by Shanghai Dumpling King on the 3300 block of Balboa Ave.  The name says it all.  An order of 10 Shanghai dumplings for $5.50!  I can't say I'm a connoisseur of Shanghainese cuisine but I've Shanghai dumplings elsewhere and SDK's are the best by far and twice as satisfying given their price.  The broth in the dumpling is delicious and not overpowering.  The only downside is there must be a fair amount of salt or MSG in it because I'm thirsty an hour or two after eating them.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Our Nixon

Thinking Our Nixon would provide some interesting glimpses behind the scenes at the Nixon White House, I went to the Roxie on August 17.

Our Nixon; documentary; directed by Penny Lane; (2013) - Official Website

Our Nixon had an interesting premise.  Apparently, Haldeman, Ehrlichman & Dwight Chapin were avid film camera enthusiasts.  They filmed Super 8 movies during their time working in the Nixon White House.  H.R. "Bob" Haldeman was Nixon's White House Chief of Staff for the first five years of his administration.  John Ehrlichman was Nixon's chief adviser on domestic affairs for the same period.  Chapin was Nixon's appointments secretary.  At the beginning of Our Nixon, it was stated that either 500 reels of Super 8 film was seized as part of the Watergate investigation.

Our Nixon eventually becomes a rehashing of the Watergate scandal and largely abandones its focus on the home movies.  Relying on network news broadcasts, second hand talking head interviews (Haldeman & Ehrlichman died more than 15 years ago) and audio from the Oval Office's voice-activated tape recording system (the one with the infamous 18½ minute gap), Our Nixon devolves into Watergate 101 for the final half of the film.  The home movies fade into the background or are used as filler material between newscasts and televised speeches.

The Watergate scandal is an infinitely fascinating subject for those who are interested in the topic.  Our Nixon plays an audio segment in which Nixon states only five people know about the recording system.  Nixon and Haldeman were two of the five.  Ehrlichman & Chapin were not among the five.  Later in the film, there is a segment where Haldeman and Nixon are having a conversation about the Watergate burglary.  Nixon states he doesn't recall discussing the burglary before.  Haldeman corrects him in a deferential manner.  Nixon hems and haws and is left dumbstruck by Haldeman's contradiction.  You have to wonder what is real and what is for show in that conversation.  Both men knew they were being recorded.  I would think Haldeman would want to get out in front of this and pass the buck to Nixon.  I would also think Nixon would want to refute Haldeman's assertion in clear and uncertain terms.  Instead the conversation is far from definitive.

Our Nixon doesn't really get into why Haldeman, et al. were so loyal to Nixon.  Ehrlichman mentions that the staff knew about Nixon's foibles and made fun of him.  Nixon's contradiction, insecurities and character flaws has filled volumes and is displayed repeatedly in Our's just that the home movies are not most illuminating parts of the film.

Another very intriguing episode comes when Nixon addresses the nation on Watergate scandal.  During a nationally televised speech, he announces that Haldeman and Ehrlichman were resigning.  Our Nixon shows the televised address in its entirety and when the clip is over, an audio clip is played where Nixon speaks with Haldeman after the speech.  Nixon complains that Caspar Weinberger was only cabinet member to call him in support after his speech. Despite having just announced Haldeman's resignation on national television, Nixon asks Haldeman if he could call around to get a sense of how politicians felt about the speech.  Haldeman has the good sense to decline the request and Nixon quickly backs off the idea.

The screening I went to was beset with technical problems.  Projected from a DVD, the audio and video would pause for several seconds before resuming.  The film was stopped while they restarted it but the problems persisted throughout the screening.  Our Nixon screened inside the Little Roxie which I have repeatedly called the worst venue regularly screening "films" in San Francisco.  Noise from the lobby and next door were audible in the auditorium and it's always stuffy in there.  I also have to question the choice  of Christmas lights which are strung on the inside of the auditorium.  I don't recall those lights before. They are vaguely annoying from a visual standpoint.  They turn them off during the screening but they created a halo effect during the previews.

I had never head the song accompanying closing credits.  It's called "San Clemente's Not The Same (Mr Nixon You're to Blame)" by Barbara Foster.  I liked it. I'm referring to the song; the film was a rehash of other Watergate documentaries.  I will say, it's probably good that the Watergate scandal gets a new look every few years so as not to forget it.  I recall a well made BBC produced documentary on the subject.

As for Our Nixon, I wonder if there was footage from the home movies which would have provided an insightful glimpse of Nixon which would have reinforced or contradicted his public persona.  If there was, i would have liked to have seen more of it.  If there wasn't, I wonder what the purpose of Our Nixon was.  The home movie images shown in Our Nixon were largely uninteresting to me.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Can Commercials Be Short Films?

Last year, I remember seeing a Chipotle Mexican Grill commercial before several films I attended.  It's called Back to the Start after the Willie Nelson song which it features as its soundtrack.  I can count on one hand the number of times I have been to Chipotle.  I don't believe this commercial has changed my opinion of Chipotle but I admire the artistry of the ad.

Chipotle has done it again.  This time the commercial is called The Scarecrow and the singer is Fiona Apple.  Using similar animation techniques and reinforcing their brand of "Food With Integrity," Chipotle has produced another memorable and artistically admirable commercial.  I detected references to Metropolis, Slingblade, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (where the song is from) and perhaps Modern Times and especially Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.  I particularly liked when the scarecrow's and penned cow's eyes met.

I've written before about commercials which catch my attention.  I don't think there is much difference between the skills and talent needed to make a short film and commercial.  At their best, commercials are almost self-defeating in that they focus the viewers' attention on the images and not the company being advertised.  I'm curious as to the ad agency behind these commercials.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Lone Ranger

While visiting my father in Las Vegas over the Labor Day week, we wanted to see a film.  There really wasn't much that interested us.  I was mildly interested in Iron Man 3 but procrastinated because I knew my father would be bored (perhaps me too) with that film.  It left the discount theater on the Thursday I was there.  The next day, we decided to take potluck at the dollar theater.  Based on its showtime and reviews, I selected The Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp & Armie Hammer; directed by Gore Verbinski; (2013) - Official Website

I've noticed there is a trend for major release films to clock in around the 2.5 hour mark.  I can understand for epic films but The Lone Ranger was a summer popcorn film and its runtime was listed at 149 felt longer.

This film is has some interesting things going on but at its core, it is quite pretentious.  First, Johnny Depp is the star and he plays Tonto, the role traditionally thought of as a sidekick.  In order to give Depp screen-time commensurate with his billing, the film turns the Lone Ranger story on its head.  Of course, that assumes anyone cares or knows about the Lone Ranger story which is purely fictitious.  I am a child of the 1980s I have never scene a full episode of the Clayton Moore television version from the 1950s nor any of the films.  Frankly, I wasn't much of a fan of the Lone Ranger in my youth or today.

What I do recall was that the Lone Ranger was a rather stolid and earnest man and above all quite capable.  There was even some rules by which he lived his life and that youngsters in the 1950s could recite.  It seemed silly in the 1980s much less today.  The 2013 film turns everything I ever thought I knew about the Lone Ranger upside down.  As portrayed by Armie Hammer, he is a bumbling idealist, frequently lost without Tonto and the inferior Reid brother.  John Reid (Hammer) is an attorney who arrives in Texas to become the district attorney.  It is a return of sorts since his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a widely respected Texas Ranger who lives in the town and acts as the de facto sheriff.  Tonto (Depp) and the condemned Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) are on the same train heading to Texas as John Reid.

Cavendish's gang frees him and Dan sets after him with a posse including the newly deputized John.  One of the men in the posse betrays them and Cavendish kills them all, apparently resorting to cannibalism after he kills Dan.  Tonto comes along and begins to bury them but miraculously John is still alive.  He adopts the mask because Tonto thinks it will give him an edge if Cavendish thinks he is dead.

The story goes on to incorporate a plot to capture controlling share of the first Transcontinental Railroad which is inexplicably re-routed through Texas.  I guess if the target audience didn't know who the Lone Ranger was, they didn't know about Promontory Summit.  It turned out that Butch Cavendish's brother was the President of the railroad and that Tonto had told the two brothers about silver near his tribe's land which resulted in the entire tribe being killed (except Tonto).  Dan's new widow is also the love interest for John which seems kind of unseemly to me.  Cavendish's brother also has designs on her.  Barry Pepper shows up as a US Calvary officer who is easily corrupted by the Brothers Cavendish.  I forgot to mention that the story is told in flashback from the 1930s when Tonto is an elderly man recounting his 65 year old story to a young boy.  Helena Bonham Carter showed up as a prostitute with an ivory prosthetic leg with a rifle built in.  The presence of Carter & Depp gave the film a vaguely Tim Burtonish feel.

The conventional thinking is that The Lone Ranger is a bloated, big budget action film that missed its target demographic (it's opening weekend audience had a higher ratio of over 50s than expected) and is a financial flop.  I'm not sure I would disagree.  However, throughout the film there is a criticism of "the white man's" actions and a deconstruction of the myth of the Old West.  Rather than subtle, I think it was too obvious.  There is also a fair amount of bloodshed and death which seems to get glossed over.

The Lone Ranger wants to have it both ways.  Despite this commentary on the rapaciousness of the white man and vivid depictions thereof, The Lone Ranger has several comedic scenes which I (nor anyone else in the theater) chose to laugh at.  Hammer and Depp delivered lines which fell flat.

On top of all this, many have commented about the cinematic references in the film.  Many of the exteriors were shot in Monument Valley which call to mind John Ford for anyone familiar with his films.  I also detected references to various Spaghetti Westerns, AMC's Hell on Wheels and other films.

The film was beset with budgetary and production problems.  One crew member died during the filming.  I don't know how these problems affected the final version of the film but The Lone Ranger felt muddled to me.  Perhaps not all things to all people but too many things to too many people, or as the box office indicated, too few people.

I can't say I disliked the film completely.  Given the admission price ($1.50) and alternative uses of that 2.5 hours on that specific day, I'm glad I chose The Lone Ranger but I would be hard pressed to recommend the film to anyone.  If I had seen the film in the Bay Area and without the familial obligations I have when I visit my father, I would regretted my choice.  For what it's worth, my father was largely neutral on the film; complaining mostly about its length.  Tellingly, we barely discussed the film compared to the previous films we have seen together.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Oddball Celluloid Sex

I can't stop writing on this blog.  I've been writing and writing and writing and by my count, I'm still 13 films from being caught up on this blog.

On August 16, I went to Oddball Films for the second time to see a program titled Celluloid Sex.

Among the highlights were:

Getting His Goat; silent with intertitles; (1923)
Lovemaking; directed by Scott Bartleet; (1970)
The Game; directed by George Kaczender; (1966)
Buried Treasure; animated; (1928)

I believe the programmer for the evening was Kat Shuchter.  The "official" program started late as there were a series of films screening as I entered.  The projectionist (whom I assume was Ms. Shuchter) had two projectors rolling at the same time.  One image was a nude or scantily clad woman while the other film image was a nude man, frequently exercising.  The images of the two people frequently overlapped and created interesting juxtapositions.  The films featuring the women mostly looked like strippers or burlesque dancers performing.  The films featuring the men appeared to be exercise videos.  Rather than attempting to titillate the audience like say Chippendales dancers, these young men seemed to be doing a normal calisthenics exercises...except they were nude.  Jumping jacks seemed to be the exercise of choice for the men.  I thought the dual images were fascinating; especially when the overlap of images was almost exact.  It seemed like the directors of the films had placed their cameras at the same height and distance from the subjects.

Buried Treasure is part of the vintage erotica compilation film The Good Old Naughty Days which screened annually at the Red Vic.  Buried Treasure is an animated cartoon starring Eveready Harton, a prodigiously endowed man who apparently suffers from priapism & satyriasis.  Oddball only screened a short clip but I saw the entire short film at the Red Vic.  Popeye animator Max Fleischer was rumored to have worked on the film.  The film was rumored to have been commissioned for a party honoring Winsor McCay.  By coincidence (or perhaps by design on the part of the programmer), there was a Winsor McCay presentation at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  Unfortunately, I missed that program.

Getting His Goat was purported to star Creighton Hale who appeared in D.W. Griffith's Way Down East but that claim is in dispute.  Regardless, the film is interesting for the way pornography was approached in the 1923.  In Getting His Goat, a young man comes upon three women swimming nude in the ocean.  He takes their clothes and agrees to return their clothing if they agree to have sex with him.  They agree to the act but only if the sex occurs through a hole in a tall wooden fence.  Never trust a glory hole.  As the protagonist protrudes himself through the hole (which is conveniently located at waist level), he unknowingly couples with not one of the women but rather a goat which the women have procured.  I guess the goat didn't make any noise because after the man climaxes, he proclaims it was the best sex he had ever had.  The obvious comparison is to Edward Albee's The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia, but Albee's play (which I saw at an ACT production in 2005) was a serious drama whereas Getting His Goat is clearly a comedy.  In today's world, I doubt there is such a thing as a pornographic comedy.

Lovemaking consisted of an extreme close-up of two people having sex.  I believe it was a man and a woman but it was difficult to make out which body parts were being shown or exactly what act was being performed.  The film reminded me of biology when we would increase the power of magnification on the microscope and the image would completely change going from the original to something unrecognizable.

The Game had a plot, dialog and everyone kept their clothes on so it stuck out like a sore thumb from the rest of the evening's program.  An 11th grade boy with a reputation as a ladies man bets his friends that he can score with the class virgin.  He goes with the soft sell to charm the girl who is initially hesitant.  He eventually breaks down her defenses but his conscience gets the better of him and he cannot bring himself to deflower the girl.  He reacts with depression and frustration towards his family and friends.  I thought it was a little overwrought for what it was but then by 2013 standards, it was kind of quaint the way teenagers interacted in 1966; at least the way it was portrayed in The Game.

There were a string of television commercials which were very amusing too.  I cannot recall them all except one for a detachable shower head which all but stated it's primary purpose was for women to masturbate with in the shower.

Overall, it was another enjoyable evening at Oddball.  I wish I could make time to see more of their programs.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's September Calendar

I know I wrote yesterday that I wasn't going to post for awhile but I had a "Eureka!" moment last night.

September 3 - My co-worker immediately identified Peter Falk.  I would not have been able to identify him despite having watched Columbo as a kid.  He looks a little like Dana Carvey in the photo, no?

September 30 - John Cassavetes.  No one in the office recognized him.  I racked my brain for a week and gave up.  I cheated by using an online image search.

Peter Falk & John Cassavetes - what is the connection?  Peter and John; very Catholic names.  What's happening in the Bay Area in September? New Bay Bridge, NFL season starts, America's Cup racing, SF Symphony and Opera seasons start, etc.

I gave up on this month's puzzle but I went to the Castro last night to see the Chaplin double feature.  It was the first time I had closely read the film synopses on the back of the calendar.  By the way, the trailers for the films screening at Midnites for Maniacs on September 20 looked very interesting.  The two films are Can't Hardly Wait and The Rules of Attraction; no word yet on the Roxie's portion of the triple feature.

Anyway, as I was reading the synopses while waiting for the film to start, I came across an entry on September 25 which I had previously overlooked.  Mikey and Nicky - Peter Falk and John Cassavetes ignite the screen in Elaine May's experimental drama of two childhood buddies, now low level hoods, caught up in a mob squeeze. Ned Beatty co-stars in this film of genuine power, as ragged as the Philadelphia night the characters are trapped in.

Elaine May's most famous directorial effort is the infamous Ishtar which I believe Midnites for Maniacs screened not long ago.  I was impressed by May's The Heartbreak Kid.  I saw and enjoyed most of A New Leaf on television some time ago.  Those four films represent May's entire output as a director.  The calendar clue combined with her pedigree are enticing me to attend the September 25 screening.
Castro Theater Calendar - September 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Night of the Hunter

Way back in July I saw The Night of the Hunter at the Castro.

The Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters & Lillian Gish; directed by Charles Laughton; (1955)

The Night of the Hunter was actor Charles Laughton's only directorial effort.  This highly regarded film has been on my "To Do" list for many years.  The highlight of the film is Robert Mitchum's performance as the maniacal preacher.  Mitchum is the Reverend Harry Powell, a hellraiser in Depression Era West Virginia.  With "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on his right and left hands (didn't he have that in Cape Fear too?), the preacher is always ready with a parable or a knife, whichever better suits his purposes.

When Peter Graves becomes his cellmate, Powell comes up with a plan to get the money Graves stole.   Graves won't be needing it since his character is sentenced to the gallows.  When Powell gets out, he visits Graves' widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and quickly insinuates himself into her graces.  After their marriage, Powell discovers that Willa's children, John & Pearl, know the location of the stolen money.

With Willa of little remaining use, Powell ends the marriage with a knife across her throat.  John & Pearl escape with the money in a boat and lazily float down the river.  They find shelter with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an old spinster with a tough exterior but kind heart.  Cooper runs a home for abandoned children.  When Powell comes looking for John & Pearl, Cooper defends her brood with a shotgun blast that sends Powell howling into the night.  Eventually arrested by the police, Powell escapes conviction but not the lynch mob.

There is a lot going on in The Night of the Hunter.  It's hinted that Willa is a loose woman.  I suppose she had to do what she had to do to feed her kids after becoming the widow of a killer.  The preacher doesn't like loose women and again, it is hinted that Willa & Powell never consummate their marriage.  Very strange behavior for a man just out of prison.  Powell is definitely repressing some powerful emotions whereas Willa meekly accepts what comes her way including a switchblade across her carotid artery.  Presumably, she is self-loathing for her wanton ways and the shame of her murderer/robber husband.  Sex continues to play a role in the film as Powell seduces a teenage girl (Gloria Castilo) in the care of Miss Cooper in order to get information from her.  Miss Cooper appears to have never been married and by extension never had sex which makes her the perfect foil for the abstinent preacher.

It's the lynch mob at the end that kicks the film into a frenzy.  I wasn't expecting that and the fear on the face of Cooper makes clear the fury she and Powell has unleashed.

The film isn't quite as powerful as it must have been in 1955 but Mitchum's performance is still plenty creepy.  I couldn't help but think there were some "coded" messages in the film which I couldn't decipher.  "Code" as in Hays Code.  Mitchum's & Gish's performances have been praised over the years but I thought Shelley Winters delivered the strongest performance in a character who is not as resolute as Powell & Cooper.

My mind has turned to mush from work and posting on this blog for the past 13 consecutive days.  I've cleared out most of my backlog of films but am having a difficult time articulating my thoughts.  I need to take a few days off from blogging.  This weekend will give me quite a few options - Pier Paolo Pasolini films at the Castro and Roxie or William Friedkin at the PFA.  I haven't decided which films I will see but know that I won't be posting for awhile.

Plimpton & Swanberg at the Roxie

I saw two films at the Roxie recently.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself; documentary; directed by Tom Bean & Luke Poling; (2012) - Official Website
Drinking Buddies starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick & Ron Livingston; directed by Joe Swanberg; (2013) - Official Website

I recall watching Paper Lion (1968) on television around the time I was 10 years old.  Alan Alda played George Plimpton.  I was surprised that he could play a role other than Hawkeye Pierce so well.  I'd be very interested in seeing Paper Lion again to see how it holds up to a second viewing 30 years later.

For those who are unaware, the late George Plimpton had two careers.  He was the long-time editor-in-chief of The Paris influential literary journal.  Paper Lion was based on his other job - he would compete in professional sporting events and write about his experience.  Frequently he was on assignment for Sports Illustrated but he published several novels from his experiences.  Paper Lion was about his experiences at the Detroit Lion preseason training camp.  Not a particularly gifted athlete, Plimpton wrote from the perspective of an amateur and these works were quite popular evidenced by the fact that his association with Sports Illustrated lasted several years.  He called this "participatory journalism."

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself sheds light on the man behind these stunts.  He was born to a prominent New York family.  He went to the ultra prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy before being expelled his senior year.  Despite this stain (the details weren't too clear), Plimpton was admitted to Harvard.  It was probably there that he met Robert F. Kennedy.  It turns out that Plimpton and the Kennedy family were great friends.  In fact, Plimpton's brother speculates Plimpton dated Jacqueline Kennedy (née Bouvier).  Plimpton was present at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when RFK was assassinated and is credited with helping to wrestle Sirhan Sirhan to the ground after the shooting.

It's clear that Plimpton led a fascinating life.  His parties in 1960s and 70s are famous and the photos show a Who's Who of literary greats of the era.

The film, like the man, is enjoyable and clever but seems to be superficial and a waste of talent.  Although his work at The Paris Review is discussed, most of the film focuses on his athletic endeavors and famous acquaintances.  I doubt that people unfamiliar with Plimpton would be interested in the film although I suspect that if forced, tricked or wandered into watching the film, most people would say they enjoyed it.

Earlier this year, I saw four films directed by Joe Swanberg at the Roxie.  Swanberg was in attendance.  I enjoyed those films and at the time, he mentioned his latest film starred Olivia Wilde.  Roxie programmer Mike Keegan chimed in that the film would play at the Roxie.  That film was Drinking Buddies and it opened at the Roxie the Friday before Labor Day.

Filmed in Swanberg's homebase of Chicago, Drinking Buddies follows two couples.  Olivia Wilde & Ron Livingston are Kate & Chris and the other couple is Jake Johnson & Anna Kendrick as Luke & Jill.  Kate & Luke are co-workers at a microbrewery.  They are close friends; actually they are closer than "close" they are comfortable and intimate (in a non-sexual way) with each other.  I'd be suspicious of them if I were Chris or Jill.

The two couples spend a weekend together and tensions develop.  Chris is attracted to Jill and the attraction between Kate & Luke has been established since the opening scene.  I thought they would switch partners but Swanberg takes the film in a different direction.    After the weekend getaway, Chris immediately breaks up with Kate.  It is alluded to that he makes tentative moves towards Jill but she isn't ready to move on.  Jill wants to get married and Luke is dragging his feet.  Trying to force a decision, Jill decides to take a trip to Costa Rica or somewhere.

This leave Kate & Luke alone for a week.  Kate doesn't seem to mourn her relationship with Chris.  The next day, she sleeps with one of her coworkers and this bother Luke.  Ostensibly it is because of various other reasons but you must suspect it bothers him that Kate slept with a co-worker not named Luke.

Ever the loyal & dependable friend, Luke helps Kate move from her apartment.  She hasn't even cleaned up her apartment much less prepared for a move.  If Luke was the irresponsible one in his relationship with Jill, he is the responsible one in his relationship with Kate.  I think this is very telling about him.

Anyway, Kate seems offended that Luke has not taken any opportunities to sleep with her while Jill is away and they have a fight.  When Jake returns home, he finds Jill has returned early from her trip.  It is deliberately left vague as to the reason for her return.  One interpretation is that she was actually meeting Chris and it didn't work out.  Regardless, the events during their separation seem to have renewed their relationship.  The film ends ambiguously with Jake and Kate at work, sharing food and seemingly poised to renew their oddly intimate friendship.

This film reminded me of my youth.  It explores the boundaries between various types of relationships young people of opposite genders have.  Kate & Jake have been cheating on their significant others but rather than sexual betrayal, they have engaged in emotional betrayal.  In some sense, they got from each other what they couldn't get from their respective partners.  Looked at rationally and politely, the two are simply friends but given a glimpse their partners are not afforded, it is clear Kate and Luke are more than friends.

You see these kinds of intergender relationships frequently in school.  At least, I did in college and high school.  As one ages, this kind of behavior seems juvenile and unhealthy.  It usually evolves into something else where the sexual act is consummated or banished or the two parties stop having contact with each other for various reason.  As the film ends, my first thought was that Kate should get a new job; preferably far from Chicago.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are tremendous in their roles.  Childish and at times selfish, you get the sense both will turn out to be great spouses in five years time (Luke more than Kate).

Drinking Buddies rang true to life which I'm sure was Swanberg's goal.  Another spot-on detail which I recognized was the copious amounts of beer they drank.  Out of school, most young people can drink amazing amounts of beer...amazing to someone my age.  Older and allegedly wiser, I have to wonder how much of their relationship troubles would be solved by not being in a constant beer induced haze.

Olivia Wilde's fiancé Jason Sudekis (Saturday Night Live) has a small role in the film as Luke and Kate's boss.

Drinking Buddies has enhanced my opinion of Swanberg's work.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Almodovar & To at the 4 Star

I forgot to mention in this post that the screening of The Way, Way Back was my first visit to the Landmark Guild in Menlo Park.  In fact, I believe that was the first time I have ever stopped at an establishment in Menlo Park.  I've driven through a few times but never visited a business or residence in Menlo Park.  The Guild is an older, worn-down, no-frills theater which reminds me most of the recently departed Bridge Theater on Geary in the City.  The Bridge had an elevated mezzanine above the entrance to the auditorium.  The Guild is not split level.  It only has one level which was not very raked.  I remember thinking the slope of the cement floor was unusually flat for a movie theater.


I'm So Excited! starring Javier Cámara, Cecilia Roth, Lola Dueñas & Raúl Arévalo; directed by Pedro Almodovar; Spanish with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Drug War starring Louis Koo & Sun Honglei; directed by Johnny To; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012) - Official Facebook

The Spanish title of I'm So Excited! is Los amantes pasajeros.

I saw both I'm So Excited! and Drug War at the 4 Star.

Many, many years ago (in the 1990s I'm certain), the Roxie had a Pedro Almodovar series.  I remember seeing Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón.  I went for many years without seeing an Almodovar film after that.  In 2011, the Castro ran a  multi-day series of his films.   Since seeing six of his film in that series, I consider myself a fan of his work.

It is with considerable disappointment that I say that I didn't enjoy I'm So Excited!.  The reason I appreciate and enjoy Almodovar's films is that he expertly mixes complicated narratives with melodrama and absurdist humor.  He is like a master chef making some complicated sauce with many ingredients.  Watching his artistry and skill as a director is part of the enjoyment of an Almodovar film.

I'm So Excited! is a lightweight sex comedy about an airplane whose landing gear is stuck while in flight.  The first class stewards are all gay men; one of the pilots is gay and the lover of the chief steward.  The co-pilot is bisexual.  Everyone in coach class is gassed unconscious so the only people aware of the impending crash landing are the stewards, pilots and first class passengers.

One by one, we learn their life stories - the high end prostitute, the disgraced banker, the assassin, the virgin, etc.  Almodovar throws all the balls in the air and I waited for him to juggle them but instead they just fell to the ground and rolled away.  I'm So Excited! is weighted too heavily towards the farcical and not enough towards the melodramatic.  It suffers in comparison to my favorite Almodovar films and that may be unfair to I'm So Excited!.  As the business phrase goes, "It is what it is."  How can it be anything other than what it is?  The film is what it is and as Popeye said, "I yam what I yam."  I'm a little loopy from to many consecutive days of posting.  I can only evaluate the film from what is becoming my embarrassingly large catalog of films seen.  By those standards, I'm So Excited! just doesn't make the cut.  I wonder how objective my standards are in this case.

Similar to Almodovar, it was a Johnny To series (at the PFA) which cemented my love of his films.  Since that 2008 series, I have seen several films directed and/or produced by To.  Also like Almodovar, To has a distinctive style such that a To film is immediately recognizable to the initiated.

Drug War is a slight departure in style to To's earlier works but I'm glad to say it is quite satisfying.  Sun Honglei is Zhang Lei, a police captain.  He arrest Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a drug kingpin who wholesales crystal meth.  Facing a death sentence, Choi agrees to turn snitch for Zhang.  Choi is the middleman for a drug deal involving a crime syndicate and a smuggler with a fleet of ships.  Zhang pretends to be one when meeting the other and vice versa.  As the movie progresses, Zhang becomes suspicious that Choi may renege on his deal.

In typical To fashion, he introduces some colorful characters.  Zhang is a no-nonsense cop and Choi plays his cards close to his vest but there is a whole panopoly of memorable criminals.  Choi has two deaf mutes who work for him who are pretty handy with a gun and they have a stockpile of them.  HaHa's (the smuggler) name is indicative of his frequent and loud laughing with Zhang doing a spot on impersonation of Hao Ping who plays HaHa.  Choi's Uncle Bill is the front man for a crime syndicate including the always memorable Suet Lam.

The violence crescendos twice from what I can recall.  First, the two deaf and dumb guys shoot their way out of a warehouse while a SWAT team is raiding it.  The finale consists of an extended running gun battle which involves a school bus full of schoolchildren.  These two scenes leave no doubt that To has not forgotten which side his bread is buttered on.

As I mentioned Drug War is a slight departure from To's earlier action films.  Drug War tones down the stylized violence and invests more time in the details of the plot to the point that it feels like a procedural for the first hour.  The two scenes where Zhang assumes false identities and mannerism are quite a showcase for the actor's skills.  Rather than visibly emotional, Zhang and Koo play their characters as cool, close to the vest and in control of themselves despite the tremendous pressure they are under.  This makes Drug War more of a thriller than an action film.

Whereas I'm So Excited! seemed like a misfire or step backward for Almodovar, Drug War seemed to signal a slight change in direction for To (at least in his action films) which has barely slowed him down.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh

The PFA screened a Raoul Walsh retrospective in July and August.  I saw five of the films.

The Big Trail starring John Wayne & Marguerite Churchill; (1930)
They Died with Their Boots On starring Errol Flynn & Olivia de Havilland; (1942)
What Price Glory starring Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe & Dolores Del Rio; silent with intertiles; live accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg; (1926)
Wild Girl starring Joan Bennett; (1932)
Pursued starring Robert Mitchum; (1947)

All the films were directed by Walsh.

Prior to Wild Girl, Michael Fox interviewed film critic Dave Kehr.  Fox programs the Mechanics' Institute CinemaLit film series.  Dave Kehr writes a weekly column for the New York Times on recent DVD releases.  Kehr was autographing his latest book, When Movies Mattered.  He drew a large audience.  Former Balboa Theater operator and current Telluride Film Festival director Gary Meyer was present.  The audience had several comments and questions for him.

The previous paragraph reminds me of two items.  I've been a member of the Mechanics' Institute for several years and have yet to attend a CinemaLit screening.  Second, the Balboa's Kickstarter campaign for a digital projector in one of its auditoriums was successful...quite impressively too.  They met their goal with at least two weeks to go.  Other Kickstarter campaigns I follow reach their goals in the last days or hours of the their funding period.

Getting back to the films in the series - I'm not a big fan of Raoul Walsh's work.  He was extremely prolific so if you like films from Hollywood's Golden Age, you can likely find a Walsh film to like.  I've always had a soft spot for Gentleman Jim (1942) with Errol Flynn about heavyweight champion James J. Corbett.  Ward Bond is particularly memorable as John L. Sullivan.

At the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival in January 2009, I attended a lecture at the Castro Theater entitled Hollywood Speaks German by Stefan Droessler.  In a nutshell, at the dawn of the talkie era of films, technology hadn't advanced to allow dubbing or subtitling.  Knowing that their silent stars had built a worldwide fanbase, Hollywood decided to have their stars speak foreign languages in their films.  A film would have both an English language version and a foreign language version(s) with the actors speaking multiple languages.

For the biggest stars (such as Laurel and Hardy), you could not get by with different actors so the audience was treated to Laurel & Hardy speaking Spanish.  The less popular actors could be substituted with native language actors.  The Big Trail was one of these films.  Five versions were simultaneously filmed in English, Italian Spanish, German & French.  Walsh co-directed the German & Spanish versions.  The principal cast was completely different in each version.

I recalled that The Big Trail was a film with multiple casts although Kehr didn't mention this in his introduction.  He highlighted another production aspect which I was unaware of - two different film formats were used simultaneously.  35 mm and 70 mm cameras were used; frequently on the same take.  Since most movie theaters in 1930 did not have 70 mm projectors (same could be said every year since then), the 35 mm print was used for most screenings.  The two edits varied considerably.  The 35 mm edit was 108 minutes while the 70 mm edit was 122 minutes.  The PFA screened the 70 mm version although it was projected from a 35 mm print.

The Big Trail, typically referred to as a Western, does not comport with my image of a Western, particularly a John Wayne Western.  Likely set in the 1840s, Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a buckskinned clad trapper who agrees to lead a wagon train from Missouri to Oregon along the Oregon Trail.  He only agrees because he suspects the murderers of his friend are part of the wagon train.  He suspects Red (Tyrone Power, Sr.) and Lopez (Charles Stevens) of the murder.  Tyrone Power (the father of the actor most associated with that name) is quite memorable as the blustery Red Flack.  There is a riverboat gambler and girl who likes Breck but can't admit it due proprieties of the era.  There a multiple attempts on Breck's life before a slightly anti-climactic showdown filmed in the Giant Sequoias of Northern California.

As mentioned, there was a 70 mm camera which Walsh used extensively for exterior shots.  There are Conestoga wagons, a cattle herd and a great variety of landscapes as one would expect between Missouri and Oregon.  In the 70 mm version, Walsh clearly wanted to show the landscapes, dangers and difficulties encountered by the settlers.  I thought that got in the way of the story.  Of course, in 1930 the images must have been impressive.  In fact, in 2013 they are still impressive because you know they are CGI but I generally don't like films that allow the background to become the foreground no matter how impressive the background is.

John Wayne's performance was pretty wooden and awkward.  For those who criticize the Duke's acting ability, I would only that if you compare this film vs. his films from the 1950s, you see that his acting skills improved.

The Big Trail was an extremely expensive film to make due to the multiple cameras, multiple casts and multiple locations in five different states.  Considered a financial flop, the film nearly derailed Wayne's career.  It would be nine years of B films for him between The Big Trail and Stagecoach.

There is one rumor surrounding the filming of The Big Trail which I have long heard about and wished Kehr would have touched on (or that I had the courage to ask).  It's very scandalous.  The leading lady, Marguerite Churchill, was rumored to have been raped by Tyrone Power, Sr.  In a case of frontier justice, Walsh allegedly had Power beaten for the transgression.  Power would die about a year after The Big Trail was released.

From left to right:  Gaston Glass (La Piste des géants), Theo Shall (Die Große Fahrt), John Wayne (The Big Trail), Franco Corsaro (Il grande sentiero) and Jorge Lewis (La Gran jornada).

They Died With Their Boots On is a historically dubious biopic of George Armstrong Custer with Errol Flynn, a frequent leading man in Walsh's films.  Following Custer's army career from West Point to the Civil War to The Battle of Little Big Horn, TDWTBO is entertaining enough.  If it were a baseball game, it would be a 2-1 game with a bunch of singles but most men stranded on base.  Maybe that baseball analogy is too tortured but the sentiment I am trying to express is that I was underwhelmed by the film.  The most memorable part is the repeated use of the hard to dislike Garry Owen which according to the film, Custer adopted as the 7th Cavalry's regimental song.

What Price Glory (frequently listed as What Price Glory?) follows Sgts. Quirt (Edmund Lowe) and Flagg (Victor MacLagen), two US Marines.  They have a rivalry which stretches over many years and many continents (not to mention many films).  Frequently assigned to the same unit, they lock horns repeatedly over the same women.  As I recall, Lowe is the tough Marine while Flagg is more congenial, eventually getting a commission as an officer.

In WWI France, Quirt is assigned as the senior NCO in Flagg company.  Despite their differences in rank, they resume their hostilities over the control of the company and the affections of the innkeeper's daughter (Dolores del Rio).

The film is a standard issue "rivalry" comedy although there are some impressive battle scenes for 1926.  Like They Died With Their Boots On, What Price Glory was entertaining enough but leave a lasting impression on me.  Lowe & MacLagen would reprise their roles as Quirt and Flagg three more times in film (twice more directed by Walsh).  John Ford would remake What Price Glory with James Cagney and Dan Dailey in the lead roles.

Wild Girl was my favorite of the five Walsh films I saw.  Wild Girl was the first non-silent film adaptation of Bret Harte's Salomy Jane.  I think I recognized exterior locations in the woods which were used in The Big Trail.  Joan Bennett is the titular Wild Girl, a denim pant wearing tomboy whose beauty and curves are hard to overlook.  The audience knows it is in pre-Code territory due to Bennett swimming nude in a lake.  There are a lot of guys sniffing around Jane (including Ralph Bellamy) but frankly I can't remember the plot.  Jane rides around on a stage coach with a guy prone to bragging and making animal noise.  After a distasteful encounter, Jane enlists a stranger to town to kill the offender.  He almost gets lynched for his troubles.  Wild Girl is a showcase of Bennett's talent and beauty which is enough said.

In Pursued, Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is a young man who was orphaned at young age.  His parents' murder was so traumatic that he cannot remember witnessing it.  In fact, he cannot remember his life before coming into contact with his adoptive mother or foster parent.  Jeb has two step-siblings, brother Adam and sister Thor from whom more than sisterly affection is directed.  Eventually Jeb learns the truth about his past and those nightmares which have been dogging him.  Pursued is a film noir masquerading as a western - murder extramarital affairs, vaguely incestuous relationships, hot-heated men and women, etc.  Pursued has the atmosphere and psychological underpinnings of classic noir but the plot was too muddled for me enjoy this film.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Un Flic and Max et les Ferrailleurs

I saw two French crime capers from the 1970 at the Castro in August.

Un Flic starring Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve & Richard Crenna; directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; French with subtitles; (1972)
Max et les Ferrailleurs starring Michel Piccoli, Romy Schneider & Bernard Fresson; directed by Claude Sautet; French with subtitles; (1971)

Un flic translates to A Cop (flic is French slang for a policeman).  Un Flic also had an English title of Dirty Money.  Max et les ferrailleurs translates to Max and the junkmen.

I was surprised to see Richard Crenna speaking French in Un Flic.  I didn't realize who it was until close to the end.  I didn't pay attention to whether he was speaking it himself or it was dubbed.

Un Flic was director Jean-Pierre Melville's final film.  There are two periods of long silence in the film; each corresponding to a crime.  At the beginning, in a wind swept Normandy beach town, four men wait in a car.  They are down the street from a bank (BNP actually).  Patiently they watch and eventually one-by-one enter the bank.  The pull off a meticulously planned bank robbery except one of the bank workers has a gun.  The worker shoots one of the robbers before being shot to death himself.

The shooting of the robber throws a monkey wrench in the robbers carefully laid escape plan.  The robbers include Richard Crenna as the brains and Michael Conrad (Hill St. Blues).  Crenna decides they must split up and leave the wounded man because to be caught with him would lead to their arrest.

When the wounded man shows up at a hospital, it's the break that police detective Alain Delon has been waiting for.  He methodically closes in on the robbers with the help of a transvestite informant who I believe was played by a female actress.  Anyone Coleman (Delon) and Simon (Crenna) share the same girlfriend/mistress, Catherine Deneuve.  Coleman is a dedicated cop and is beginning to suspect Coleman and Simon suspects that Coleman is suspecting him of the crimes.

With the help of his informant, Coleman is aware that Simon is planning to steal some drugs from during a train ride.  The plan is overly elaborate and employ patently obvious miniatures.  A helicopter matches speed with the train, Crenna descends via a cable and winch, boards the train, spends a lot of time grooming himself, steals the drugs, changes back into his jumpsuit and is hoisted back up to the helicopter.  Between the original bank robbery and the train robbery, approximately one-third of the film elapses and with very little dialogue.

You would think this signals a minimalist approach and the plot is pretty flimsy.  However, Melville's attention to detail (even if the detail is a model helicopter) makes it seem that Un Flic was directed by someone with OCD.  The plot revolves around the love triangle formed by Delon, Deneuve and Crenna.  They seem to communicate their suspicions and feelings through eye movements and Coleman should be concerned at how cozy he is with a robbery suspect but the implied relationship between Coleman and Simon is the strongest in the film.  With the trannie informant and a separate case involving an man and an underage gay hustler, there is a noticeable homoerotic undertone throughout the film.  Coleman and Simon knowingly share the same woman so it is not a stretch to think of the triangle as a convenient proxy for a relationship between Coleman and Simon.

Melville only hints at this aspect of the film which was the most provocative.  Much of the film plays out like a procedural and motivation of the character is never truly examined.  They do what they do because that's what they do.  Criminals commit crimes and cops arrest criminals.  The icy blonde Deneuve remains detached and aloof throughout.  In fact, the most emotional scene in the film involves Coleman and his trannie informant whom he suspects of betraying him.  His anger seems out of character.  Methinks le flic doth protest too much.

Max et les Ferrailleurs also features a love triangle but the cop is tightly wound in this film.  Michel Piccoli is Max, a police detective stinging from a bust gone bad.  Hearing the ridicule and pity from other cops, Max needs to redeem himself.  A chance encounter with Abel Maresco (Bernard Fresson), an old army buddy gives Max the opportunity he is looking for.  Unaware that Max is a cop, Abel hints he may be involved in shady dealings.  Some investigation by Max reveals that Abel is part of a penny ante gang who steals scrap metal and construction supplies.  Their big score is a spool of cable.  They use the junkyard as cover for their criminal activities hence the title of the film.

Abel and his gang are very content.  They make enough to keep themselves in drink at the neighborhood bar.  They have low aspirations and have met them.  Abel also has smoking hot girlfriend is Lily (Romy Schneider).  The only downside from a boyfriend perspective is that Lily is a prostitute but that doesn't bother Abel.  He doesn't take any of her money nor does he judge her.

After doing some intelligence, Max decides the gang needs some higher goals then scavenging construction sites.  He poses as a small bank president and picks up Lily at a bar.  Uninterested in sex (at least outwardly towards Lily), he makes an ostentatious display of his money and ennui.  Eventually, he manipulates Lily into considering robbing his bank.  He plays upon Lily's ambitions for Abel and sows discontent between them.  After spoon feeding Lily all the information Abel will need to know to rob the bank, he waits with police backup near the bank on the appointed hour.

The robbers are arrested but Max's superiors decide to prosecute Lily as well.  Despite his reserved exterior, Max has fallen for Lily and his feeling towards her.  Those feelings and perhaps his sense guilty over the entrapment, lead to a very shocking ending.  Max shoots his fellow police officer rather than allow him to arrest Lily.

The best thing about Max et les Ferrailleurs is Romy Schneider.  Incredibly sexy, Schneider's Lily is a memorable character.  Intelligent enough to pick up the clues but not intelligent enough to sense the trap, her ambitions lead to her downfall.  Picolli's Max must drop the clues without being to obvious about his intentions and his true feelings.  The scenes between Schneider and Picolli are great.

Un Flic and Max et les Ferrailleur looked dated by their appearances and settings but that didn't distract me.  In fact, the two films have that 1970s aesthetics which is retro-cool in some circles.  Although Jean-Pierre Melville is the widely acknowledged auteur of these French policiers in the 1970s, Claude Sautet's Max et les Ferrailleur was the more satisfying film for me.  The two films were a tremendous double feature; one of the best I've seen at the Castro in recent memory.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Nun's Story

In the program for the Summer 2013 series at the Stanford, they state that Audrey Hepburn films are the most popular in the history of the theater.  As I've grown older, I've come to appreciate her beauty and talent.  I remember reading once that Marilyn Monroe was a young man's sex symbol and Audrey Hepburn was an older man's sex symbol.  That's certainly true in my case.  At some point, I've aged out of Marilyn and find myself a huge Audrey Hepburn fan.

With that introduction, I should mention that Hepburn played a Catholic nun in last film I saw her in.

The Nun's Story starring Audrey Hepburn; with Peter Finch; directed by Fred Zinnemann; (1958)

Fred Zinnemann is a director whom I frequently overlook.  He helmed High NoonFrom Here to Eternity and Oklahoma!.  His work in The Nun's Story is equally impressive.   Zinnemann was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, The Nun's Story was nominated for Best Picture and Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress.

Gabby Van Der Mal (Hepburn) is a young woman in Belgium during the late 1920s.  At the beginning of the film, she is engaged to be married but she calls off the engagement to join a convent of nursing nuns.  Gabby's father is a well-respected surgeon and she has learned medicine under his tutelage.  It's not made clear why Gabby joins the nunnery; even her father is a little perplexed by her choice.  She clearly appears self-conflicted.

The film shows quite a few details of life in the convent.  The first hour of the film (total runtime is 2.5 hours) shows the minutiae and trials during Sister Luke's (Gabby's religious order name) postulancy and novitiate (I had to look those words up).  Pride and disobedience are two her biggest problems.  Frankly, the film did not make clear why she joined the sisterhood.  Perhaps she could not have become a nurse without being a nun but given her qualifications and connections, I find that hard to believe.

Sister Luke's desire is to be assigned to the Belgian Congo to treat the natives.  Sister Luke must first learn patience.  After passing her class on tropical maladies (despite her Mother Superior's direct order to purposely fail the class), Sister Luke is assigned to treat patients in a mental asylum.  Little more than a jailer, she again disobeys orders by entering the cell one of the most dangerous patients by herself.  Despite this action, she is allowed to become to take final vows and is eventually assigned to the Congo.

Once again, she is disappointed.  Rather than be assigned to the hospital which treats natives, she is assigned to the hospital which treats white Europeans.  It is here where she meet Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch, an Englishman with an Italian surname).  She has a love-hate relationship with Fortunati who takes a juvenile pleasure in pointing when she not living up to her vows.  Working as his surgical nurse, Sister Luke and Dr. Fortunati develop a strong bond.  When she is diagnosed with tuberculosis, the standard procedure would be to send the patient back to Europe for treatment.  Fortunati is unwilling to part with his extremely qualified nurse so he treats her on site.  She makes a full recovery but is later forced to return to Europe to accompany a patient.

Upon arrival, she is reassigned to a hospital in Belgium.  In part, it is because the storm clouds of WWII are visible but also to test her devotion.  She moves back in to the convent where she did her postulancy and novitiate.  Her primary responsibilities are at a local hospital where she becomes a favorite of the patients.

The Nazis invade and occupy Belgium but her superiors make clear that she must remain neutral as a nun.  At the hospital is a local nurse who is a member of the resistance.  When Sister Luke becomes aware of her activities, she has a hard time remaining neutral.  This leads to another crisis of faith within Sister Luke.  Having struggled with her faith for entire career as a nun and informed of her father and brother's deaths at the hands of the Nazis, Sister Luke makes the decision to leave the order and return to life as a layperson.  It is strongly implied she will join the resistance but the film ends with Sister Luke leaving the convent in the same civilian clothes she entered.

This must have been a difficult role to act and direct because much of the conflict occurs within Sister Luke.  She's not an emotional person to so for long stretches we have to infer the inner conflict.  I thought Hepburn did a nice job in this regard.  As portrayed in the film, every minute as a nun was filled with self-doubt and inner conflict for Sister Luke.  Even her friendship with Dr. Fortunati seems fraught with sexual tension.   We see that those around her are amazed by her strength but nothing can calm Sister Luke's restlessness.  It was clear to me that she was ill suited to being a nun.  Perhaps she wanted to do the work of a nun but she didn't have the inner qualities necessary to be a devoted nun.  This is clear from the beginning but the essence of the film is showing Sister Luke's realization of this inevitability.

Zinnemann paces the story in a very measured fashion much like a nun's patience.  It never drags but reveals itself in accretive manner.  Scene-by-scene we learn about Sister Luke as a person and question whether or not she has the makeup to be a nun.  Ironically, it is when she decides she cannot remain neutral against the Nazi occupiers that she realizes the sisterhood is not her calling in life.  That would seem the most morally defensible disobedience but it is the one that convinces that she cannot remain a nun.

I was profoundly affected by Hepburn's performance and the film.  I felt emotionally drained at the end when she walks out of the nunnery.

The scenes in the Congo were filmed on location.  Sister Luke foreshadowed Hepburn's extensive work with UNICEF in final decades of her life.

Typically, the Stanford screens double features but given the 2.5 hour length of The Nun's Story and the fact that it was a weeknight, they screen the film solo.  Despite this disincentive, the screening was well attended...true to the program guide's proclamation about Hepburn's popularity among the patrons.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Surfers, Psychopaths & Sexy Cyborgs

I spent most of a weekend at the Castro Theater in August watching three films.

Big Wednesday starring Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt & Gary Busey; directed by John Milius; (1978)
M starring Peter Lorre; directed by Fritz Lang; German with subtitles; (1931)
Metropolis starring Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm & Gustav Fröhlich; directed by Fritz Lang; silent with intertitles; (1927)

Big Wednesday played on a Saturday night double bill with Apocalypse Now but I couldn't spare the time for both.  I saw M on Sunday afternoon with the intention of not seeing Metropolis again but once I was in the theater, I was hooked.  I was hoping for the Alloy Orchestra soundtrack but it was not.  I cannot recall the composer or performers of the soundtrack.


The director of Big Wednesday, John Milius, was a prolific screenwriter in the 1970s.  Notable credits include Jeremiah JohnsonThe Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean & Apocalypse Now. He also wrote the screenplay to Big Wednesday, a semi-autobiographical film for Milius.  Milius famously traded "points" or a percent of box office with his friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Milius' film was Big Wednesday, Lucas' film was Star Wars and Spielberg's film was Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  If you haven't heard of Big Wednesday, you aren't alone as the film was a flop although it has become a cult classic among surfers.

Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt & Gary Busey are Matt, Jack & LeRoy "The Masochist," respectively.  They are three surfers in Southern California in early 1960s when the film starts.  Matt is the troubled one, Jack is the responsible one and LeRoy is the crazy one.

Although the characters go through life changes, the film seems more about societal changes that occurred between the JFK administration to the winding down of the Vietnam war in 1974.   The title refers to The Great Swell of 1974 during which legendary waves created ideal surfing conditions off the coast of Southern California.

Milius was an avid surfer so you would have expected the film to have a deeply personal feel.  The opposite seems true.  Milius seems to have set out to make an epic film and forgot to create characters we could care about.  There is one scene towards the end where Matt is invited to a screening of a surfing documentary in which footage of him appears.  Matt, Jack & LeRoy are longboard surfers.  By this point in the film, shortboard surfers like Gerry Lopez are popular.  Matt's footage is greeted by silence by the audience in the film.  This is set up as a minor tragedy but I couldn't tell the difference between them.

The film reminded me of Point Break except none of the three spouted Zen like aphorisms like Patrick Swayze's character.  However, all three characters in Big Wednesday took pleasure and maybe therapeutic value from surfing.  Surfing was a form of meditation to them.

The plot seemed formulaic but I don't know if that is because of all the films that have come after Big Wednesday or because Milius wrote & directed so many films.  There is the big fight scene where the house gets trashed, there is the fight scene in a Tijuana bar, there is an impressive scene where the protagonists try to get out of the draft by faking illnesses both mental and physical, etc.  The most memorable scenes are the surfing scenes which leads me to believe Vincent, Katt & Busey were actually quite accomplished surfers.

Milius, who would go on to direct Conan the Barbarian and the original Red Dawn, appears to have been too personally invested (emotionally not financially) in Big Wednesday for his own good.  A little more objectivity would have served the film better.  I cannot recommend this film and will not see it a second time but there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night than watching Big Wednesday at the Castro.


I've long wanted to see Fritz Lang's M.  I'm quite certain I saw Joseph Losey's 1951 remake of M at the PFA in March 2010.  I cannot find the corresponding entry on this blog.

M is the story of a child murderer.  Interestingly, the killing is specified but the sexual abuse is only hinted at.  Losey's remake move the action to Los Angeles but Lang's original is set in Berlin with Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, the killer.  Not just a killer but a serial killer and not just a serial killer but one who taunts the public with letters to the newspaper about his crimes.  This sends the city into a panic and the cops respond by pressuring organized crime.

Tired of being harassed by the police, the crime bosses react by setting up their own manhunt.  Beckert's downfall is caused by his incessant whistling of  Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King.  A blind beggar recalls someone whistling that song around the time one of the girls was murdered.  Beckert seems to whistle the tune when he is stalking young girls.  The beggar tips off a friend who organizes a posse to follow Beckert who is on foot.  One of them marks him with a chalk letter "M" on the back of his shoulder.

When Beckert realizes he is being followed, he takes refuge in an office building as work is letting off.  With their suspect trapped in the building, the crime bosses send an army of criminal to break into the building and methodically search for Beckert.  When they find him cowering in the attic, they drag him to an abandoned building to face a trial with the crime bosses as his judge, jury and likely executioners.  He is assigned a "defense council" and the questioning begins.

It's in the 2nd half of the film that Lorre begins to shine.  He is squared animal in the storage room of the building when the criminals close in on him.  Under trial for his life, he is still frightened but recognizing his situation he attempts to deflect blame and rationalize his actions.  It's only when the inevitability of the guilt becomes clear that Lorre breaks down and you see what a miserable person he is - tormented by his compulsion, grotesque by his actions and unpardonable by society's standards.  It's like that the final breakdown of Beckert launched Lorre's storied acting career.

Lorre is what makes M a classic film.  It is a career defining role for him.  Beckert is such a pathetic human being and Lorre shows all his shortcomings, perverted thoughts and cunning.

Watching the film, I recognized that Lang was filming in Germany in 1931, a few years before Hitler would become Chancellor and the Nazis would come to full power.  These characters and actors would confront even greater monster than Beckert in a few years.

The ending of M is very powerful.  The police bust up the proceedings before the verdict is announced.  The screen goes dark and the mother of one of the murdered girls says that nothing can bring her dead child back and that we need to protect our children.  M is still an excellent film to watch.  It was more powerful than Losey's 1951 remake.


I believe this is the fourth time (if you count Moroder's version) I've seen Metropolis in the movie theater since I started this blog.  I can't add much to what I've said before.  Brigette Helm is more sexy each time and her performance more wanton.

In my opinion, the Alloy Orchestra soundtrack is still the gold standard for Metropolis.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Angel & Vice Squad

Cinefamily "is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization of movie lovers devoted to finding and presenting interesting and unusual programs of exceptional, distinctive, weird and wonderful films."  Located in Los Angeles, Cinefamily screens programs in the old Silent Movie Theater.

In August, they brought up two 35mm prints of classic films from the 1980s.  Both films screened at the Roxie as a double feature.

Angel starring Donna Wilkes; with Cliff Gorman, Rory Calhoun & John Diehl; directed by Robert Vincent O'Neill; (1984)
Vice Squad starring Season Hubley, Wings Hauser & Gary Swanson; directed by Gary Sherman; (1982)

I've seen both of these films many times but I've never seen either in a movie theater.

The premise of Angel is that Molly (Donna Wilkes) is an honors student and "good girl" at the elite, private high school she attends.  At night, Molly becomes Angel, a streetwalker on Hollywood Blvd.  Her parents have abandoned her and she tells everyone her mother is an invalid who cannot be disturbed.  She pays the bills by hooking.  Molly/Angel has nicely compartmentalized her life and does not exhibit the emotional damage one would think from a 15 year old girl who has been streetwalking since age 12.

There is a serial killer on the loose.  John Diehl plays the killer with gusto.  He's not just a serial killer but a necrophiliac.  LAPD Lt. Andrews (Cliff Gorman) is investigating the killings and takes an interest in Angel who doesn't seem to belong out on the street.  When examined objectively, his interest and actions are suspect.  He follows Angel to her school.  When he confronts her at home, he discovers that she is minor living alone and supporting herself through streetwalking.  Rather than contacting Child Services and taking her off the street, he warns her to stay off the street despite her not having another means of income or a legal guardian.

Angel is one tough cookie though and she has her friends - Kit Carson, a silent film cowboy who does tricks & signs autographs, Mae, a tranny streetwalker who bears a resemblance to Rip Torn and Solly, her bull dyke lesbian landlady.

Angel's life comes crashing down when some schoolmates see her streetwalking.  They pick her up and are ready to gang rape her but she is packing heat due to the serial killer.  They piss their pants and run off but the damage is done.  They tell the whole school that Molly is a streetwalker.  Why the rest of the school is so quick to believe these jerks is an open question.  Humiliated and distraught, Molly returns home to discover Mae has been murdered in her apartment.  Angel ID'd the killer in a police lineup.  He escaped and no is stalking Angel and knows where she lives.

Molly becomes an avenging Angel at this point.  Taking a long-barreled handgun and hitting the streets, she stalks the killer.   A running gun battle ensues with Angel chasing the killer and Kit and Lt. Andrews chasing Angel.  In the end, Kit has exchanged his cap revolvers for the real thing and shoots the killer dead.

Angel wasn't quite a sleazy as I remember.  Considering she is an underage prostitute, I would have expected more of a pedophile angle.  Maybe that is because Donna Wilkes was 24 at the time of filming and made up like a streetwalker she looked well over 15.  John Diehl as the serial killer is very creepy.  Seeing the film 29 years after its release, I was most surprised at the portrayal of Angel.  She is a child prostitute, living a double life and has knowledge that both her parents abandoned her.  Today, that character would have to exhibit psychological damage from her circumstances.  Angel is resilient as all get-out and never seems to have down moment until her secret is revealed.  Friend and fellow streetwalker is murdered; no problem.  She discovers the mutilated body of another fellow streetwalker; no problem.  The killer she just identified in a police lineup grabs a gun, sees her and shoots his way out of a police station; no problem.  It's only when her secret is revealed that she begins to lose her composure.

No one performance really stood out except Diehl.  Susan Tyrell as Solly and Dick Shawn as Mae seemed designed to provide comedic relief.

Whatever is lost in hindsight review of the execution is made up for by the outrageousness of the plot.  In other words, it's impossible to make a film about a 15 year old streetwalker and necrophiliac serial killer that isn't exploitation.  My complaint is that from the viewpoint of 2013, this 1984 film wasn't exploitative enough.

After seeing Angel, I wondered if my memory was playing tricks with me.  Then I wondered how much I've changed from my teenage years that a film about an underage whore and corpse molesting killer isn't debased enough for my tastes.  I'm glad I stayed because Vice Squad reaffirmed my faith in 1980s exploitation films.

In Vice Squad, Season Hubley is Princess, a failed businesswoman with a daughter who has to walk the streets to make ends meet.  She doesn't dress like a streetwalker and she doesn't act like a streetwalker but that's not important.  When her friend (Nina Blackwood who become the original MTV VJs) is murdered by the pimp named Ramrod (Wings Hauser), Princess is caught up in a squeeze.  She is picked up by a vice squad cop and forced to wear a wire or be prosecuted for prostitution and risk losing custody of her daughter.

Princess gets Ramrod to incriminate himself on tape and he is arrested but unbeknownst to her, Ramrod escapes police custody and is hunting her down.  Most of the film takes place in this situation.  Princess is off seeing stranger and stranger clients while Ramrod is tracking her down and the cops are one step behind Ramrod.

Wings Hauser elevates Vice Squad to something sublime.  Ramrod (great name) is the most violent and maniacal street pimp I can recall seeing in the movies.  He's like a tornado tearing through the sleazy parts of LA.  He kills Nina Blackwood with a pimp stick (a bent wire hanger).  When Rerun from What's Happening! shows up as a fey sugar pimp, Ramrod kills him too. He drives off with an Asian hooker named Coco hanging halfway out of the passenger window and then dumps her in the garbage.  When he finally captures Princess, he doesn't kill her on the spot but takes her to an abandoned warehouse and starts in with pimp stick again until the cops bust in.  Vice Squad could be subtitled Ramrod on the Rampage.

There is a scene at the beginning of the film where two vice squad cops are on stakeout.  The less experienced partner recites the sex acts available on the streets and their slang names.  The fact that I knew all the words despite not having engaged in several of the acts leads me to believe that society is raunchier today than 30 years ago.  I also wonder if Vice Squad was an appropriate film for a teenage boy.  Everything I need to know about sex I learned from 1980s exploitation films...

I can imagine what Joe Bob Briggs said in his movie review of Vice Squad - four dead bodies, pimp stick fu, Drive-In Academy Award for Wings Hauser, Joe Bob says check it out.

I hope Cinefamily comes back to the Roxie again.

Speaking of exploitation films, I received an email from the Film on Film Foundation.  On October 1 and at the Roxie, they are presenting a double feature of Matt Cimber films:  The Witch Who Came From the Sea and Lady Cocoa.   I missed The Witch Who Came From the Sea earlier this year at the Roxie.  Unfortunately the FOFF double feature conflicts with an Elmore Leonard double feature at the Castro which includes 3:10 to Yuma (the Glenn Ford version), a film I am anxious to see.