Friday, January 31, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I saw The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire at the Century at Tanforan Shopping Center in January.

The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire starring Jennifer Lawrence; with Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman & Donald Sutherland; directed by Francis Lawrence; (2013) - Official Website

I first saw Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival.  Ms. Lawrence attended the screening and took Q&A on stage afterwards.  I sat in the back of the big auditorium at the Kabuki for the screening.  Towards the end of the film, the director (Debra Granik) and Ms. Lawrence stood near me as they waited to take the stage after the film ended.  Lawrence was 19 years old that day.  I remember she seemed a little awkward and shy.  Granik fielded most of the audience's questions as I recall.  Since then, Ms. Lawrence has released nine films including big budget blockbusters like The Hunger Games, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and the X-Men reboot.  She has won an Oscar and two Golden Globes.  I've seen her poised and playful in interviews and Saturday Night Live.  She even challenged Joan Rivers.  Maybe I am reading a lot into glimpsed body language in the dark from 3.5 years ago but she seems much more comfortable in herself now. 

All that was simply a prelude into saying that Jennifer Lawrence strikes me as a composed, self-confident young woman.  That's good for her but not so good for The Hunger Games franchise.  Having read the books, I thought that Katniss Everdeen was an adaptable survivor with a streak of self-doubt and fear.  I have a hard time sensing self-doubt and fear in Lawrence's performance in Catching Fire.  The fear was there but it wasn't very convincing to me.  I'm not sure if I'm projecting my own preconceived about Lawrence onto her performance or if Lawrence isn't conveying that in her portrayal. 

Regardless, the major stumbling block for me was that I could never quite suspend disbelief.  I always felt like I'm watching Jennifer Lawrence rather than Katniss Everdeen.  Having just seen her in American Hustle, I know Lawrence has quite an acting range.  Perhaps another factor working against Lawrence is that she looks like a woman whereas Katniss is a 17 year old girl.  Lawrence seems much matured from her appearance The Hunger Games (2012).

I won't bother to recap the plot since the film stays mostly faithful to the novel and the novel was on the bestsellers list for months.  Amanda Plummer shows up looking much different than she did in Pulp Fiction.  Jeffrey Wright, who I enjoyed in Basquiat, also makes an appearance.  Both actors acquit themselves well as the meek duo from one of the Districts.

Maybe I'm a little burnt out on big action films (not that I see that many) but Catching Fire just didn't seem to have the energy and appeal that The Hunger Games had.  It was certainly above average for an action film but I was bored for long stretches of the film.  In fact, another problem I had with the film was that it as 2.5 hours long...about 30 minutes too long in my opinion.

If I have to leave a critical bon mot, I would say "Catching Fire only made me luke warm."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's February 2014 Calendar

The Castro Theater is only closed one day in February - on the 18th.  It is having a private event on February 4 and the program for February 25 is still to be announced.  That left only three photos on the calendar for the month.

After several days of on-line and paper copy perusal, I drew a blank.  The most promising lead was the man pictured in February 4.  I identified the statuette he is holding as an Emmy Award.  That sent me off in the wrong direction as I assumed the person had won the Emmy in the 1950s or 1960s based on the vintage of the photo.  That proved to be incorrect.  My co-worker also thought he was on the verge of recognizing the man.  After scouring the list of Emmy winners from the era, I switched tactics.

I next turned my attention to the month of February and guessed the puzzle had something to do with Presidents Day, Valentine's Day or perhaps the Winter Olympics.  I searched photos of actors sharing the same surname as presidents and Winter Olympians or actors named Valentine or Valentin.  I discovered I don't know the names of very many Winter Olympians.

At this point, I gave up and I cheated by using Google Image Search on the February 4 photo.  I discovered to my chagrin that the photo is of Bob Newhart, a comedian I have enjoyed for years.  I discovered the highlight of his early stand-up comedy routine was to portray a phone conversation with someone or even God.  The photo is likely a routine Newhart did on an Emmy Awards telecast.

Armed with Newhart's identity, I immediately suspected the February 25 photo was of William S. Hart and I quickly confirmed this.  The Valentine's Day theme was confirmed - Newhart and then Hart.  I made a guess (which was proven correct) that the woman pictured on February 18 was not named Newhart or Hart or had "heart" in her surname.  I quickly zeroed in on the names Hartley and Hartman.

I searched through IMDB listings of Hartley first.  I first eliminated Mariette Hartley and eventually a number of other actresses named Hartley whom I didn't know about.  The highlight was scanning Nina Hartley's credits; the most recent of which is Lesbian Adventures: Strap-On Specialists Vol. 5...Volume 5 is, of course, the seminal entry in the series.   Hartley, a porn star with over 600 "acting credits" to her name, has been making porn for 30 years.  Her sole "legitimate" role was in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights.  I remember her performance well; she played William S. Macy's wife.  After diligently looking through Ms. Hartley's photos (my favorites were Splendor in the Ass and Pussyman 15: Bone Voyage), I decided it was not her and I gave up on Hartleys altogether.

I moved on to Hartman and hoped it was photo of a young Lisa Hartman.  It was not but I will say that Ms. Lisa Hartman posed for several bikini photos that would have made Ms. Nina Hartley proud.

The next name on the list was the late Elizabeth Hartman.  She passed away in 1987 at the age of 43.  I have not seen any of her films except for the original Walking Tall where she portrayed Mrs. Buford Pusser.  I don't recall her performance in that film.  Her IMDB photos were promising and I searched on-line and immediately found the exact photo used on February 18. Nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in A Patch of Blue (1965), "Hartman [eventually] succumbed to her lifelong depression and jumped from the fifth floor window of her apartment in an apparent suicide" in 1987.  I have not seen A Patch of Blue but am now interested in seeing it.

February 4 - Bob Newhart

February 18 - Elizabeth Hartman

February 25 - William S. Hart

I can only assume the clues are referencing Valentine's Day and its common symbol:  the heart.


Looking at the Castro calendar for the month, Age of Consent (1969) on February 13 looks promising.  "James Mason is a painter on the wane who retreats to a remote island off the Great Barrier Reef, unexpectedly finding inspiration in the form of nubile free spirit Helen Mirren. This sublime restoration of Michael Powell’s last feature includes the infamous censored nude scenes and the original score."

The Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing (February 19) is one of my all-time favorite films although it's been many years since I last watched it.  Unfortunately, IndieFest and Mostly British are playing that night.

Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (February 21) is one of my favorites by him.  It screening as part of a Midnites for Maniacs program.

I haven't seen Star 80 (February 27) for many years and have never watched it on the big screen.  I recall the film favorably although it has been 20+ years since I last saw it.


Castro Theater Calendar - February 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Our Mutual Friend: Charlie Chaplin Shorts

On January 11, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrated the 100th Anniversary of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character.  The event was held at the Castro Theater.

The program consisted of three film screenings.  I skipped the screenings of The Kid and Gold Rush...both of which I had recently seen on the big screen.  I watched the program titled Our Mutual Friend: Charlie Chaplin Shorts which consisted of three two-reelers Chaplin made while working at Mutual Film Corporation.

The Vagabond starring Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance & Eric Campbell; directed by Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1916)
The Cure starring Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell & Henry Bergman; directed by Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1917)
Easy Street starring Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance & Eric Campbell; directed by Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1917)

All three films were accompanied by Jon Mirsalis on piano.  Mr. Mirsalis runs a fansite honoring Lon Chaney, Sr.

I misplaced the program for the event so I wasn't able to read about the films or Chaplin.  Those programs are typically very informative (although there is a tendency to digress) so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in writing this entry.  Typically, I watch the film, read the program article on the film, let my memory of the film filter through the words written in the program and write my thoughts days/weeks/months later.

If one had no idea about the chronology of Chaplin's filmography, one would still suspect these Mutual films predated his most memorable film appearances as the Little Tramp.  First, they were shorter films - approximately 30 minutes each.  The costuming was off a little from the Tramp's later, more familiar look (see photo below).  Most importantly, the three films lacked the pathos which is so inextricably linked to the Tramp.  He even gets the girl in two of the films!

The three films did not feature The Little Tramp character but some prototype which was interesting to see but vaguely disconcerting for anyone who is familiar with and admires Chaplin's most celebrated works.

In The Vagabond, Chaplin is a street musician who wanders into a gypsy encampment.  She falls for the gypsy girl (Purviance) who is abused by the gypsy chief (Eric Campbell).  Actually, I believe Purviance's character was kidnapped by gypsies which explains why a wealthy family is looking for her.  One of men searching for her is clearly attracted to her.  When they find her, she jumps at opportunity to leave the gypsy life behind and rides off in the limousine...only to have the car be turned so they can go back and pick up the Tramp.  Presumably, she is choosing the Tramp over the wealthier, more attractive man although it could be interpreted that she is simply lifting him out of poverty.  Regardless, the Tramp shouldn't be riding off in the limousine with the girl under any circumstances.

In Easy Street, the Tramp spends most of the film dressed in a police uniform.  He is duly appointed police officer!  The Tramp can never be The Man!  Anyway, Chaplin is assigned to the titular Easy Street which is anything but.  It's a rough and tumble block ruled over by Eric Campbell as a quick-fisted criminal.  Campbell & Chaplin mix it up a few times with the Tramp's ingenuity and dexterity saving his bacon.  Eventually, Purviance is kidnapped by a rapist opium addict and is rescued by Chaplin.  The depiction of the opium den and rapist's intentions were darker than usual for a Chaplin film.  Of the three films on the program, this was my favorite although I was mild about all three.

The Cure is set at an alcohol detox spa.  The Tramp is a drunkard (?)  in need of "the cure" which in this case involves drinking the therapeutic water from a spring near the spa. The Tramp arrives with a suitcase full of alcohol which promptly gets thrown out the window and its contents inadvertently contaminate the spring water.  As you can imagine, much of the humor comes from the unwitting intoxication of all who partake of the spring water.  Henry Bergman plays a burly masseur who has the funniest scenes in the film.  As I learned from Chaplin, one of his earliest characters was the unsteady, stumbling drunk which seems more prevalent in The Cure than The Tramp.

All in all, the program was not the most memorable of screenings from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival but I was still entertained.

Charlie Chaplin & Edna Purviance in The Cure


Speaking of silent films...the Stanford Theater is screening two silent films this week.  Today, That Certain Thing (1928) is screening at 4:30 and 7:30.  On Wednesday & Thursday (January 29 & 30), The Power of the Press (1928) is screening at 7:30 nightly.  That Certain Thing is paired up with It Happened One Night (1934) and The Power of the Press is on a double bill with Platinum Blonde (1931).  All four films were directed by Frank Capra.  Dennis James is accompanying the silent films on the Stanford Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer.

I believe I saw James in the audience at the Castro Theater last night.  He was watching Noir City's screening of The Hitch-Hiker.  The film was scheduled to start at 9:30 PM but was at least 30 minutes late.  That Certain Thing screened last night at the Stanford at 7:30 with James accompanying it.  It would have been tight for him to get from Palo Alto to San Francisco (door-to-door) in the time between screenings so maybe it wasn't him.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nebraska and Out of the Furnace

The first two films I saw in 2014 were in Las Vegas while visiting my father over the New Year's week.

Nebraska starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte; directed by Alexander Payne; (2013) - Official Website
Out of the Furnace starring Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson & Casey Afflect; directed by Scott Cooper; (2013) - Official Facebook

My father is a big fan of Alexander Payne.  He has cited Sideways and The Descendants as two of his favorite films.  I don't disagree with his assessment but I wasn't sure how my father would react to Bruce Dern's performance in Nebraska.  As it turned out, I should have been concerned about how I would react.

Nebraska is the story of Woody Grant, an elderly Montana resident (Billings I believe).  He believes he has won $1,000,000 from a sweepstakes (à la Publishers Clearing House).  In fact, all he has is the "You Are a Finalist" letter.  While watching the film, I realized I don't get those PCH mailers anymore.  Woody has lost his driver's license and has had a longtime drinking problem.  However, he is determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize money.

Concerned about his health (he appears to be exhibiting signs of dementia), Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) and sons David & Ross (Will Forte & Bob Odenkirk) discuss what to do with him.  Before the matter can be resolved, Woody's determination in going to Lincoln (by foot if necessary) prompts David to offer to drive him there.  David is coming off a break-up with his girlfriend and stuck in a dead-end job as a stereo salesman.  Looking to bond with his father, David sets off for Lincoln with Woody.

They stop off in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska.  Woody informs his old acquaintances that he has won $1 million which makes him the toast of the town.  David is unable to convince the townspeople that Woody's claim is bogus and before long, Woody's family and former acquaintances are demanding money.  This gives David a glimpse into his father's past life during the period before he was born.  Kate & Ross eventually show up for the reunion and Kate reveals further glimpses into Woody's life which David was unaware of.

Eventually, David & Woody make to PCH in Lincoln.  Woody is crushed to learn that his $1 million claim will not be honored.  On the drive back home, David asks his father why the money was so important since he had never expressed much interest in money before.  Woody explains his dreams of owning new pickup truck and air compressor as well as leaving something for his sons.  Understanding his father's motivations, David stops at a car dealership and buys a new truck and later a tool shop for a new air compressor.  When they arrive back at Hawthorne, David allows Woody to drive the new truck (with air compressor in the truck bed) down the main thoroughfare while he crouches down in the front seat.

Like Sideways and The Descendants is a road movie with two mismatched individuals.  In Sideways, it was Paul Giamatti & Thomas Haden Church searching for love and in The Descendants it was George Clooney & Shailene Woodley searching for their wife/mother's lover.  In Nebraska, it's unclear what Dern & Forte are searching for.  Frequently, it seems as though Payne is filming a travelogue and critique of the Midwest or small-town America.

Woody's friends and family come off very badly in the film.  Stacey Keach is particularly detestable as Woody's former business partner.  Woody is far from sympathetic though.  You could say Woody's best days are behind him but as his backstory is told, it's clear he didn't have far to fall.  He's lived his entire life in a shell-shocked, alcohol induced stupor which now matches the expected behavior of befuddled old man.  In other words, the sad part isn't how far he has fallen but how little he rose in life.  Dern's performance is spot on and completely lacking any type of weird Dernsian affectations.

Also memorable is June Squibb as Woody's long put-upon wife.  When she returns to her hometown, her sass and spunk become evident to David and viewers.  One wonders what their earlier life was like.  Kate's unfiltered comments provide much of the comedy in the film.

As for myself, I found that Woody's shuffling gait and bewildered obtuseness hit a little too close to home.  My father, an octogenarian, walks the same way as Woody and unexpected deviations from his routine can cause him confusion.  My father has never believed he has won a million dollars but while watching the film with him, I wondered what skeletons from his youth I was blissfully unaware of.  In general, I believe it best a child not know all the misdeeds and missteps their parents committed in their youth.  David is not saved that fate.

Nebraska also makes clear that marriages evolve.  The marriage the parents have when a child is old enough to understand is likely very different than the marriage the parents had in the past.  Kate is openly derisive of her husband but when she returns to their hometown and sees the vultures circling, she becomes protective and it clear that there is still love between them as well as familiar roles that they fall back into.


Out of the Furnace is a mediocre film.  Casey Affleck plays Rodney Baze, an Army reservist or Guardsman who is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder due to repeated deployments to Iraq & Afghanistan.  He has gambling debts to the local bookie (Willem Dafoe) which he pays off by fighting in unsanctioned bouts (think Fight Club).  Christian Bale plays Rodney's older brother Russell Baze, a steel mill worker who is always bailing out his younger brother.

I won't belabor the overly complicated plot but Rodney gets mixed up with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a meth dealer who runs his own underground fight club.  Dafoe owes DeGroat money so to clear the books Rodney agrees to fight in DeGroat's ring.  Technically, he agrees to take a dive but Rodney's pride makes the fix look sketchy.  In addition, DeGroat isn't willing to erase Dafoe's debt.  Long story short, Rodney & Dafoe's character are killed by DeGroat.

This motivates Russell to find his brother's killer.  He lures DeGroat out of rural Appalachia and they have their deadly confrontation.

The plot was both predictable and stuffed with too many characters and subplots.  I haven't mentioned Zoe Saldana as Russell's ex-wife, Forest Whitaker as the town sheriff, Sam Shepard as Russell's uncle or Russell's prison sentence for DUI.  In the end, the film is memorable for Woody Harrelson's performance as the tweaked out DeGroat and to a lesser extent, Casey Affleck as the troubled war vet.  The film certainly paints a vividly disturbing picture of the Meth Nation though.

Set in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Dafoe gets off the best line.  After Russell overhears DeGroat and an associate berating John Petty (Dafoe), he asks Petty who those guys were.  Petty replies (and I may have the quote slightly wrong), "Those are inbred motherfuckers from the mountains.  For them, church ain't over until they put the snakes back in the bag."

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pier Paolo Pasolini

In September and October, a series of Pier Paolo Pasolini films screened at multiple venues in the Bay Area.  Multiple films screened at the Castro and Roxie one weekend.  However, I was only able to catch one film at the PFA series.  It was my intention to see more films in the series but a BART delay, an illness, a heavy work schedule and all my other cinematic commitments kept me away.  I most regret missing The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

The only film I saw was Medea.

Medea starring Maria Callas; directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Italian with subtitles; (1969)

I have seen a few of the Pasolini films in the series before including Accattone & Mamma Roma.

Medea was based on a Greek mythology story which I had learned in school and forgot.  I can say that of many of the Greek mythology stories I once knew or at least had a passing knowledge of.

Medea was married to Jason (as in Jason and the Argonauts).  Medea helped Jason pass the tests needed to retreive the Golden Fleece on the agreement that he would marry her.  Jason held his end of the bargain long enough to father several children by Medea.  Later, he would abandon her for another woman.  In revenge for his betrayal, Medea kills their two youngest sons and later herself.

This version of the myth closely follows Pasolini's Medea.  In his version, Medea (Maria Callas) helps Jason (Giuseppe Gentile) steal the Golden Fleece from her father; going so far to kill her own brother as a diversion.  Jason & Medea escape back to his homeland (Greece) where Medea is stripped of her barbarian robes and given more modest dress as a Greek housewife.  Jason eventually opts out of the marriage with Medea which results in two versions of Medea's revenge.  At the time, I didn't quite understand what I was seeing on the screen but after reading a synopsis, I understand the sequence of events.  In one version, Medea (who is something of a shaman) curses her own robe and gives it to the new bride as a gift.  When the bride puts it on, it bursts into flames killing the bride and her father.  In the second version, when the bride puts on the robe, she begins to empathize with Medea's plight and leaps to her death and her father follows suit.

When Jason arrives to confront Medea, she has already killed their sons, refuses to turn the bodies over for proper burial and burns herself and her sons' bodies in revenge.

The plot synopsis is more verbose than I initially understood the film.  I should have reacquainted myself with the Medea story in order to better understand the film.  I left the film partially confused about what I had seen and had to piece together the plot by re-familiarizing myself with the Medea myth.

The first half of the film was like a documentary of North African tribesmen and their rituals.  I found this part of the film to be more satisfying.  It was operatic in a sense so Callas' presence was natural.  When the film shifted to Jason's homeland, the plot was harder to understand, particularly due to the multiple versions of the same events.

However, the film is light on dialogue and heavy on images of violence and stark landscapes which stamps Medea with Pasolini's spartan filmmaking techniques.  This interpretation of Medea & Pasolini's imagery is primal and abstract which can make the story frustratingly difficult to follow but also produces striking imagery and theatricality.

I didn't enjoy Medea so much when I saw it but I'd like see it again with proper preparation on my part.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Past

Since The Artist, I've been something of a Bérénice Bejo fan.  I saw her in a supporting role in Populaire last year and in December I saw her as the lead in The Past.  I saw The Past (or Le Passé) at the Landmark Aquarius in Palo Alto.

The Past starring Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim & Pauline Burlet; directed by Asghar Farhadi; French & Persian with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook

Asghar Farhadi, the director of The Past, previously directed the Iranian film A Separation, a film I was impressed with.  A Separation was structured like a mystery but The Past seemingly has no life if one is an existentialist.  Marie (Bérénice Bejo), a pharmacist with two daughters, picks up her husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport.  The two have been separated for many years and Marie now wants a divorce so she can marry her new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim).  The film is set in France so I found it odd that Marie would marry two Iranian men but this is largely left unexplained.

When Ahmad arrives at the house he & Marie shared, he reacquaints himself with Marie's daughters whose father was Marie's first husband; the husband before Ahmad.  Also in the brood is Samir's son, Fouad who has behavioral issues which Ahmad finds concerning.  It's from Fouad that Ahmad discovers that Samir & Fouad have moved into the house which makes Marie's insistence that Ahmad stay there confusing.  Finally, it is from Marie's eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) that Ahmad discovers disturbing news about Samir's wife and Fouad's mother.

Samir is married.  His wife attempted suicide several months ago.  She was unsuccessful and is now hospitalized in a coma.  Lucie claims the woman attempted suicide in front of her son but Lucie's views are suspect because she harbors clear dislike of Samir.

It is into this soap opera-like story, Ahmad and the audience are deposited.  Ahmad has completely extricated himself from Marie's life but based on her behavior and Lucie's urging, Ahmad can slowly feel himself pulled back in.  Of course, this makes no sense if Marie is about to marry Samir but how can she marry him if he has a wife albeit a comatose wife?

Eventually we discover that Samir's wife was aware of her husband's affair with Marie.  She was made aware by Lucie who hacked into Marie's email and forwarded Marie & Samir's love letters to Samir's wife.  That explains why Lucie dislikes Samir - she feels guilt which would be assuaged if Samir were to leave the relationship with her mother.

Let's summarize the characters - Marie appears in over her head with life's problems, Samir is of questionable character given his relationship with his wife, Lucie has an acute sense of teenage angst caused by her own actions and Ahmad, who previously attempted suicide and has abandoned his wife for several years, is the most stable of the bunch.

Director Farhadi has a deft touch.  The film never feels contrived or melodramatic.  The Past feels like you are looking at a family, a dysfunctional family but not to an unbelievable extent.  At the end of the film, you feel like all the characters except Ahmad are worse off for the experience but they'll have to muddle through.  Indeed, Marie seems to be the nexus of the dysfunction without consciously being aware of how her actions affect others.

The Past doesn't have the gravitas of The Separation but it is a well made film with strong performances by the ensemble cast.  The title of the film is a reference to the events within the film.  The audience is left to decipher the events of the past through the state of the present.  This is very confusing but as details of the past emerge, we get a better picture of how this set of characters came to this juncture.


The Past was Iran's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film for this year's Oscar.  I find it odd that a film mainly in French was Iran's submission.

I have seen 7 films which were submitted for that category.  The Hunt (Denmark), Two Lives (Germany), The Grandmaster (Hong Kong), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Great Passage (Japan) and Soul (Taiwan).  The Hunt and The Great Beauty were nominated for the award.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

On the Job

Way back in October, I saw On the Job.  It played for a week or two at the Metreon but I couldn't make time to see it there.  It played for a week at the Century at Tanforan which is where I saw it.

On the Job starring Piolo Pascual, Gerald Anderson & Joel Torre; directed by Erik Matti; Tagalog & English with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook

On the Job is a tremendous film which deserved more recognition than it received.  The film follows two prisoners - Tatang (Joel Torre) & Daniel (Gerald Anderson).  They are assassins who are released from prison for short periods to carry out their assignments.  Tatang is the older, experienced one while Daniel is the younger, more volatile member of the team.  Certain members of the prison staff are aware of their activities which facilitates the prisoners coming and going.  Both Tatang & Daniel have lied to their families.  They have said they are working abroad and can only come home periodically due to the travel expense.

Investigating the assassinations are Sgt. Acosta (Joey Marquez), a honest cop whose career has stalled out due to his unwillingness to let things slide and up and comer federal agent Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual) whose quick rise is in no small part due to his father-in-law, a powerful politician.

The two pairs have separate storylines and do not share the screen until a fateful convergence in a hospital.  The characters development is impressive for an action film but its the tense action scenes and gritty realism which elevates On the Job.  In particular, the scenes in the prison and the relationship between Tatang & Daniel are exceptional.

Also in the back of mind as I was watching this is that On the Job was based on a true story which makes the film even more compelling.

Joel Torre in On the Job

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Blue Is the Warmest Color

After having spent most of two weekends in November at the Landmark Clay for the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now and New Italian Cinema series, I decided to return the day before Thanksgiving to see Blue is the Warmest Color.  Prior to French Cinema Now, the Clay had screened Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine for many weeks.  Blue Jasmine, which has been in distribution for the past 25 weeks and counting, is now screening at the Opera Plaza.  Blue is the Warmest Color is also playing at the Opera Plaza.

Blue is the Warmest Color starring Adèle Exarchopoulos & Léa Seydoux; directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website

I don't have much to say about Blue is the Warmest Color.  It was a powerful film, I enjoyed it and the much discussed lesbian sex scenes are quite explicit without being exploitative.  Léa Seydoux, whose performance I recalled & admired in Sister, has the supporting role of Emma, the older woman who influences Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos).  By influence, I mean not only introduces to sapphic love but also convinces to subsume her own needs and growth (and even sexuality)  in support of her own.  In other words, the trajectory of Adèle's life would have likely been much different if she had not met Emma as a teenager and that is completely irrespective of her sexuality although the film hints that even that her lesbianism is an aberration unique to her relationship with Emma.

Blue is the Warmest Color is about an intense love affair and the fact that the lovers are lesbians is both incidental and crucial to the story.  I could string together many sentences to explain why I enjoyed this film but others have done so better than I can. 

The lead actresses' performances are strong and the story follows the relationship over several years.  My only comment is that although many have described the film as a romance, I thought it was more a story of Adèle's journey of self-discovery...much of which she discovers through her relationship with Emma.  Blue is the Warmest Color is very much Adèle's story.  I also like that the ending was ambiguous.  Is Adèle better off for the experiences and lessons she took from her relationship with Emma?  I don't know.  It's quite possible Adèle will never have a relationship as intense as the one she had with Emma.  If for no other reason, her experience with Emma will make Adèle "once bit, twice shy."

I notice that Seydoux is appearing in Wes Anderson's next film - The Grand Budapest Hotel.  She is an actress I would like to see more of.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

RIP Peter O'Toole

Peter O'Toole died on December 14.  I can't say I'm a big fan of O'Toole.  I saw him in Lawrence of Arabia but I've missed many of his most famous film performances - BecketThe Lion in WinterGoodbye, Mr. Chips and Man of La Mancha.  The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center screened Dean Spanley in honor of O'Toole's passing.  I went to the 6:30 screening on New Year's Eve.

Dean Spanley starring Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown & Peter O'Toole; directed by Toa Fraser; (2008) - Official Website

Sam Neill plays the eponymous Dean Spanley.  Dean is Spanley's title not his first name.  Spanley is an Anglican priest in early 20th century New Zealand.

The story centers around the relationship between Fisk Sr. (O'Toole) and his sole remaining son, Fisk Jr. (Northam).  A second son was killed during the Boer Wars which Sr. has managed to seemingly forget.  The firmly entrenched tradition is for Fisk Jr. to visit Sr. on Thursdays.  Boring of the routine, Jr. drags Sr. to a lecture on the "transmigration of souls"; i.e. reincarnation.  Although the lecture is boring and Sr. thinks the idea to be poppycock, Jr. meets two important people.  First, he sees Spanley in the lecture which surprises him given Spanley's position in the church.  He also meets Wrather (Bryan Brown), a "conveyancer" which seems to be another name for purveyor.

Several chance meetings with Spanley lead Jr. to believe there is some kismet at work.  He decides to strike up a friendship with Spanley who doesn't seem to interested until Jr. tells him he has an Imperial Tokay which is a sweet wine made for the Hapsburg Royal family.  This piques Spanley's interest and he agrees to dinner.  The problem is that Jr. doesn't have an Imperial Tokay and is unable to procure one from the local wine merchant.  Stepping into the breach is Wrather who knows people who knows people.

With Imperial Tokay in hand, Jr. hosts Spanley but is surprised at the ardor of Spanley's oenophilia.  Spanley's inhalation of aroma of the wine sends him to near ecstasy.  And once he gets a few glasses of the wine into him, Spanley begins to speak as if he can recall past reincarnations.

Spanley's behavior greatly intrigues Jr. who urges Wrather to procure more Imperial Tokay.  Wrather agrees but, his curiosity whetted, stipulates that he wants to attend the next dinner with Spanley.  Agreeing to the arrangement, Jr. host the two men again the next week.  Again Spanley enters a trancelike state after a glass of the wine.  This time, he begins to speak more specifically to his previous life as a dog.  His words remind him of stories he has heard about his father as a boy.  Sr. loved a dog named Wag (which happens to be Spanley's initials and nickname - WAG Spanley) who ran away.

Convinced that Spanley is the reincarnation of Sr's dog, Jr. invites his father over the following week but doesn't tell him about Spanley's unusual stories.  Once assembled and suitably lubricated, Spanley goes on to tell of his life with "the Master" and the particulars of his disappearance.  In this seen, Neill is masterful in an extended soliloquy's where he describes the joy of being of dog and the tragic fate which befell him.  Sr. is emotionally moved by the experience and his heretofore detached demeanor is replaced in the final scene with image of Sr. playing with a new dog.

Dean Spanley is a modestly paced film which builds to its climax slowly.  The payoff is significant and the result of outstanding performances by Neill and O'Toole.  Neill has the more difficult part with his long monologues in the character of a dog.  However, O'Toole some conveys a sense of his long past youth in brief interludes with Northam as his son.  I was very impressed by Dean Spanley.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Return of Ms. 45

Almost 5 years ago (time flies!), I saw Ms. 45.  I didn't document the venue on this blog but I believe it was at the Castro Theater.  Ms. 45 returned to the Bay Area via Drafthouse Films, the film distribution arm of the Alamo Drafthouse.  Speaking of which, what is the status of the Alamo Drafthouse opening at the New Mission Theater?

Ms. 45 screened for 4 consecutive nights at the Roxie in December.  I remember it screened during HoleHead and thought it would have been a natural match for that festival.

Ms. 45 starring Zoë Tamerlis; directed by Abel Ferrara; (1981)

As I wrote in 2009, I was very impressed with this film.  A second viewing did not nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.  I stand by what I wrote previously but I will note that I was more aware of Tamerlis' make-up.  An attractive women, Tamerlis' Thana (aka Ms. 45) begins a physical transformation after being raped twice.  As her body count increases so does the amount of makeup (particularly red lipstick) she applies.  By the end, she looked grotesque.  The sad part is I have seen women wear that amount of lipstick in public before.

The final scene where she randomly shoots men while dressed as a nun is a little more disturbing than I recalled it before.

 Zoë Lund (nee Tamerlis) in Ms. 45 (1981)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Hollywood Home Movies

On December 11, I ventured to the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center to see Hollywood Home Movies, a program consisting of home movies from Hollywood stars.  Curated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the program was narrated by Randy Haberkamp, the Academy's Managing Director of Programming, Education and Preservation & Lynne Kirste, Special Collections Curator, Academy Film Archive.  In addition, Michael Mortilla accompanied the films (all of which were silent) on piano.

The program consisted of 17 home movies and the total program was about 2 hours.

The next evening, the Smith Rafael was screening A Century Ago: The Films of 1913.  I wanted to go but I gave a friend the option of seeing Hollywood Home Movies or The Films of 1913.  Technically, I asked initially her to go to both but she flat out refused so it become either/or situation.  She chose Hollywood Home Movies although (unbeknownst to her) my preference was to see The Films of 1913.

For the past several years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences commemorates the early days of cinema by highlighting the films which are celebrating their centennial.  These Century Ago programs screen exclusively and one night only in the Bay Area at the Smith Rafael.  I've wanted to go for the past few years but work or some other film screening has kept me from going.  I should have just gone by myself but trips to San Rafael on consecutive nights seemed too much of an indulgence.  In hindsight, I regret my decision.

My favorite clips from Hollywood Home Movies include Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on their European vacation in 1937, James Wong Howe's trip to San Francisco just after the Bay Bridge & Golden Gate Bridge opened, guests lounging at Hearst Castle, Esther Williams home movies and the wrap party picnic for It's a Wonderful Life.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Outer Space, Antebellum South and New Jersey in the 1970s

In December, I checked off a bunch of general release films from my To See list.

Gravity starring Sandra Bullock & George Clooney; directed by Alfonso Cuarón; (2013) - Official Website
Ender's Game starring Asa Butterfield & Harrison Ford; directed by Gavin Hood; (2013) - Official Website
American Hustle starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence; directed by David O. Russell; (2013) - Official Website
12 Years a Slave starring Chiwetel Ejiofor & Michael Fassbender; directed by Steve McQueen; (2013) - Official Website

I saw Gravity at the Century 20 Daly City.  It was the first and only film I saw at that theater in 2013.  The Century 20 is the nearest theater to where I live but one which I rarely visit.

My office closed at noon on December 24.  On the way home, I stopped by the Century San Francisco Centre 9 in the Westfield Centre to see Ender's Game.

I saw American Hustle at the 4 Star on Christmas Day.  It was one of the largest audiences I've seen at the 4 Star.

Three times within a week, I went to the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas to see 12 Years a Slave.  Each time the screening was sold out.  I ended up going down to San Jose to see it at the Camera Cinema 3.


I saw the 3D version of Gravity.  This is a film which could easily have failed.  I recall a film called Buried starring Ryan Reynolds.  The premise of the film was that a contractor in wartime Iraq is captured by terrorist and buried alive.  He has a cell phone by which he can communicate with the outside world.  The entire film is shot from the point of view of being inside the coffin.  I remember my interest waned because "Limiting the action to the box diminished the potential of the film."

Gravity has the benefit of the vastness of space and some cool 3D CGI FX.  Bullock anchors the film as an astronaut who is marooned in outer space.  She makes her way from the ruined Space Shuttle to a Russian space station to a Chinese space station.  It also benefits from George Clooney distinctive and reassuring voice as the mission commander who saves Bullock.  I also recognized Ed Harris' voice as Houston ground control.

Gravity is a good thriller and Bullock is up for the role.


I never read Ender's Game as a boy.  Early in 2013, I was given a copy of the book by a friend who was anticipating the film version.  I liked book quite a bit.  It reminded me of Starship Troopers (the book not the film).  In both stories, Earth is threatened by an insect-like alien race.

In Ender's Game, children of Earth are identified at an young ages for their military potential.  They are sent to specialized training schools in outer space.  Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one such child.  Testing high and showing great potential, Wiggin progresses at record rate through his training.  In the book but less so in the film, much of the story involves training games in a zero gravity environment.  I found these to be very enjoyable in both the book & film.

Ender has some issues to work through.  His exceptional abilities and the actions of the school commandant Colonel Graf (Harrison Ford), isolate Ender who has always felt different on account of being "a third" or the third child born to a couple when two is the typical limit (shades of China's one child policy).  The stress of the training as well as tormenting from bullies and jealous classmates pushes Ender to his limits...and that's before he has to command a fleet of starships against the insect enemies.

The film wasn't bad but as is often the case, I liked the book better.  The film was a little flat and it seemed as if some of the movie plot would be confusing if you had not read the book.  Moises Arias who was memorable as the odd kid Biaggio in The Kings of Summer is also memorable as Ender's chief tormentor, Bonzo (pronounced bone-so) Madrid.  Ender is supposed to be smaller and younger than Bonzo but Butterfield towered over Arias.  Still, Arias gave the role everything he had and was the most memorable thing about the film for me.


American Hustle sure did feel like a Scorsese film.  Robert De Niro even makes a memorable cameo appearance.  This film will likely be nominated for several Oscars.  Christian Bale and Amy Adams are incredible in their roles as grifters being squeezed by an ambitious and in the case of Adams, amorous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper).  The film has a great soundtrack, Bale's outrageous comb over and even more outrageous wardrobe worn by Adams (did they really wear that stuff in the 1970s?).    Adams and Jennifer Lawrence certainly have no qualms about plunging necklines.

Louis C.K. as Cooper's sensible FBI supervisor, Elizabeth Röhm (unrecognizable from days on Law & Order)  as Jeremy Renner's Guidette housewife and Michael Peña as a Mexican American FBI agent from Tucson who impersonates an Arab sheik stood out in small roles.  For some reason, I'm always drawn to strong performances by the supporting cast.


12 Years a Slave will also likely be nominated for several Oscars.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northrup, a free black man in New York in 1841.  A skilled violinist, Northrup is induced by two men who own a traveling circus to join their company on tour as far Washington DC.  At a farewell dinner, the men drug Northrup and sell him into slavery.  He is smuggled out of DC and identified as Platt, a runaway slave.  He is told repeatedly to keep his true identity secret - warned by slaves and beaten by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti).

"Platt" is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a relatively benevolent slave owner.  Having experience as a carpenter, Platt quickly runs afoul of Ford's carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano in a nice performance).  Nearly lynched by Tibeats and his friends, Ford sells Platt (for both their own protection) Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whom Ford describes as a "nigger-breaker."

The arrival of Epps, or more accurately Fassbender's performance, elevates 12 Years a Slave to something transcendent.  To call Epps a cruel slave owner would be a disservice.  He is certainly cruel but the man is a walking set of contradictions and his cruelty merely a symptom of deeper issues.  I won't say Epps is as much a victim as Northrup but will say that Epps is the best example I've seen about the dehumanizing effects of slavery on both the slave and the slave owner.

The only way to morally rationalize slavery is for the slave owner to believe the slave is less than human.  Whenever, the slave reminds the slave owner, through actions or provoked responses, that s/he is human, it chips away at the foundation underpinning the institution of slavery.  In Epps' case, his anti-muse is a young female slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o).  Not only can she pick more cotton than men twice her size but Epps is sexually attracted to her...and Epps wife (Sarah Paulson) knows it.  It's toxic situation which eventually results in Epps ordering Northrup to whip Patsey for some perceived disobedience.  When Northrup fails to show sufficient vigor in his lashings, Epps takes the whip and we see Patsey's skin flay in a particularly disturbing scene.  I forgot to mention that Epps wife looks one with approval bordering on enjoyment.

Eventually, Platt finds a sympathetic white man (Brad Pitt) who agrees to contact his family in New York and report on his situation.  This leads to Platt/Northrup's emancipation.

The most impressive performance was Fassbender as Epps.  Fassbender, who starred in McQueen's Shame (2011) & the recent X-Men reboot (I'm told his performance as Magneto is impressive) is building up a notable filmography.

I found the dialogue a little stilted.  The slaves spoke like they were stage actors from the Sarah Bernhardt era.  That's a minor quibble.  12 Years a Slave is a powerful film and left me emotionally spent.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Don Jon

I saw Don Jon at the 4 Star in October.

Don Jon starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt; with Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly & Brie Larson; directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt; (2013) - Official Website

This is the third film with Brie Larson which I've saw in 2013 - Spectacular Now, Short Term 12 & Don Jon.

Don Jon is about Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young man with a range of problems.  First, he has an addiction to porn & by extension masturbation.  I don't know how he finds time for a job and keep hydrated given the levels of self-gratification he engages in.   The porn and masturbation mask deeper issues.  Jon judges himself by the attractiveness of the women he beds.  I can't remember his minimum criteria but if you rate a woman's appearance on a 1 to 10 rating (as in Bo Derek in 10), Jon only goes after 8s and 9s; 10s being too rare in the working class New Jersey club he frequents.

By objectifying women through porn and a rigid classification system, Jon is unable to achieve any level of intimacy with a woman; hence is compulsion to masturbate - it's the most satisfying sex he can have.

Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) is the 10 that Jon has been waiting his whole life for.  However, she has some issues of her own, including a need to control Jon.  What bothers her the most is that Jon watches porn while their dating; even after they have sex.  She has reason to be concerned because it is a sign that Jon can't maintain a healthy romantic relationship.  However, Barbara is a bitchy JAP more concerned with controlling her man.  The film relies on stereotypes of Jews, Catholics and New Jersey.

One of Barbara's projects is for Jon to get a college degree so he dutifully attends night classes.  He can't even put porn away during class.  He watches it on his cell phone and Esther (Julianne Moore), an older classmate sees Jon watching his porn and quickly recognizes all the issues which Jon has been avoiding.  The two begin a relationship which Jon is initially embarrassed by but as it progresses he is liberated by actually making a connection a living person.

The supporting cast buoys the films.  Tony Danza is perfect as Jon's father and it's not hard to see how Jon turned out the way he is.  Brie Larson doesn't say a word until the end as Jon's younger sister.  Constantly wearing ear buds, it's not until the very end that she summarizes Barbara's shortcomings that she makes an impact on the film.  Glenne Headly is Jon's mother.

Don Jon is Gordon-Leavitt's directorial debut and I'm suitably impressed.  I appreciate the risk he took in making a film about a subject which is not likely to draw the rom-com audience.  In fact the subject material may make a lot of people uncomfortable for various reasons.  I've long thought young people today are narcissistic and overly sheltered because modern technology isolates them.  So sayeth the man who writes a blog and goeth to the movies by himself 90% of the time.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers at the Stanford Theater

The Stanford Theater ran Preston Sturges/Marx Brothers double features for seven consecutive weeks in November and December.  I was able to catch four of the double features.

Sullivan's Travels starring Joel McCrea & Veronica Lake; directed by Preston Sturges; (1941)
Horse Feathers starring the Four Marx Brothers & Thelma Todd; directed by Norman Z. McLeod; (1932)
Miracle at Morgan's Creek starring Eddie Bracken & Betty Hutton; directed by Preston Sturges; (1944)
Duck Soup starring the Four Marx Brothers & Margaret Dumont; directed by Leo McCarey; (1933)
The Palm Beach Story starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor & Rudy Vallee; directed by Preston Sturges; (1942)
A Night at the Opera starring the Three Marx Brothers & Margaret Dumont; directed by Sam Wood; (1935)
A Day at the Races starring the Three Marx Brothers, Maureen O'Sullivan & Margaret Dumont; directed by Sam Wood; (1937)
Hail the Conquering Hero starring Eddie Bracken & Ella Raines; directed by Preston Sturges; (1944)

I have previously stated my enjoyment of the Marx Brothers' films but haven't mentioned Preston Sturges.  I recall watching Preston Sturges films on television (the Family Film Festival) as a boy.  I don't think I've seen a Preston Sturges film since the 1980s and I'm fairly certain I have never seen a Sturges film on the big screen.

In addition to their typical calendar, the Stanford Theater published an eight page essay titled Preston Sturges & The Marx Bros. by Richard von Busack.

The Sturges film I most wanted to see again was The Great McGinty with Brian Donlevy.  However, that screened the same days as the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series.

Some of the 35 mm prints were badly worn and scenes were abridged due to splicing.


I will dispense with comments on all but one of the Marx Brothers films. I stand by my July 11, 2011 post regarding Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera and my July 4, 2012 post regarding Horse Feathers.

I showed up 15 minutes late to A Day at the Races.  I misread the showtime as 5:25 when in fact 5:35 and I didn't walk into the auditorium until 5:40.  I know I have seen A Day at the Races before but it seemed new to me.  Unlike the other three Marx Brothers films I saw in the series,  I had not seen A Day at the Race often enough to know which gags were coming up.  In fact, I thought the gags were curiously absent. from the film  At 111 minutes, A Day at the Races seemed bloated and I only caught 95 minutes of it.

There was an extended Lindy Hop musical number featuring Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, an African American dance troupe where we are treated to Groucho, Chico & Harpo in blackface.  The size & scope of the number clarified for me why I prefer the Marx Brothers' Paramount films to their later MGM films.  In the Paramount films, the songs were an extension of their comedy.  In the MGM films, the plots are more structured and musical numbers more professional.  The emphasis has shifted away from the Marxist free-for-all anarchy to a formulaic plot with high-end song & dance numbers tacked on.

Of the six Marx Brothers films I've blogged about over the past 2.5 years, A Day at the Races was my least favorite.  Notable gags were the Tutsi Fruitsy Ice Cream scene where Chico scams Groucho out of money at the race track (I didn't think it was that funny) and a scene where Groucho attempts to woo Esther Muir's character (who in real life was Busby Berkeley ex-wife) only to be continually interrupted by Chico & Harpo.


Of the Sturges films I saw, I was most anticipating Sullivan's Travels and I was not disappointed.  Joel McCrea plays John L. Sullivan.  I'm not sure why the character was named after the famous boxer.  Sullivan is a successful Hollywood film director of light comedies.  He chafes at what he perceives to be wasting his talent on trivial films.  Sullivan wants to make a serious film about the struggles of the poor.  His butler & valet  tell him he knows nothing about being poor and foolish for trying to ascribe a nobility to what is actually just survival instinct.

Sullivan hits on the idea of dressing like a hobo (with the help of his studio's wardrobe dept.) and setting out with only a dime in his pocket.  The studio dispatches a tour bus to follow him for publicity purposes.  This leads to a truly rambunctious gag as the bus attempts to follow Sullivan when he gets a ride from a kid in a hot rod.

At this point, Sullivan convinces his handlers that he needs to proceed alone on his journey.  Actually, this is the point in the film where goes from comedy to fairly serious social commentary which is strong suit for the film.  Sullivan hitchhikes to nowhere in particular except eastward (Kansas City is his destination if I recall).  Instead, Sullivan is dropped off in Los Angeles.

Discouraged, he goes to a diner where Veronica Lake (no character name given; credited as The Girl) takes pity on him.  She tells him she came to Hollywood to be a movie actress but has failed and is going back to her hometown.   Sullivan eventually reveals his identity and the reason for his appearance.  Initially disbelieving and later angry at being deceived, the Girl eventually decides that she should travel with Sullivan since he knows nothing about being poor.

Surprisingly convincing while posing as a boy (and reminding me a lot of Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life) , the Girl & Sullivan hops a freight train out of LA.  Sturges effectively uses a montage sequence to show the difficulty the homeless during the period.  After he has gathered enough background material, Sullivan ends the odyssey.  In appreciation of the lessons taught to him by the poor, Sullivan decides to handout $5 bills to the hobos near the freight yard.  I have found people can be categorized into one of two types.  Some people think that handing out money to the homeless is a kind and charitable act.  Other people (myself included) question the benefit of giving money directly to homeless people and would fear for our safety if we flashed a wad of cash in a homeless encampment.

Sullivan is robbed of his cash (by the same hobo who stole his shoes while he was sleeping) and knocked unconscious.  His assailant is killed trying to pick up the cash while a train bears down on him.  Sullivan was deposited into a boxcar and the train pulls out the yard with him out cold.   The dead hobo is wearing Sullivan's shoes which have been altered to include his identification papers in the sole.  The dead man's face is mangled by the impact of the train but his remains are identified by the ID in his shoes.  Sullivan's death is reported in the newspapers.

Meanwhile, Sullivan wakes up in a freight yard which is serious breach of hobo etiquette.  Hobos jump off the train just outside the railroad property lest the bulls hassle them.  Sullivan gets hassled by a railroad bull.  Not thinking clearly due to the head blow and unaccustomed to being treated so roughly, Sullivan lashes back and strikes the other man.  Suffering from amnesia, Sullivan is unable to assist in his subsequent trial for assaulting the railroad man.  He is sentenced to six years in prison.  Eventually, he regains his memory but the guards don't want to hear it.  It seems as though Sullivan will have to serve out his sentence until he hits upon the novel idea of confessing to a murder - the murder of John Sullivan.  Eventually, his Hollywood contacts see "the murderer's" photo in the paper and realize what has happened.  The film ends with Sullivan set free (what about assaulting the railroad guy?) and free to marry the Girl (there had been a subplot involving Sullivan sham marriage).

I thought the last part of the film was inspired screenwriting despite the contrivances.  The film is ostensibly a screwball comedy but really present a bleak view of society which must have particularly pointed at the time given that the Great Depression was so recent.  Sullivan's Travels was a great firm.  I think it would have worked equally well as a straight up drama.


There is something about Eddie Bracken's screen persona that I don't like.  In Miracle at Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, he plays a stumbling, bumbling milquetoast type of guy who allows other to manipulate him.  That's not altogether different that the characters Danny Kaye or even Bob Hope played but Bracken turns me off for some reason I can't quite identify.

In Miracle at Morgan's Creek, Betty Hutton plays Trudy Kockenlocker (you would think Hays Office would have objected to the name), a small town girl with a thing for men in uniform.  Fortunately for her, there is an Army base nearby and dance on Saturday night in honor of the soldier shipping out to the war.  Trudy's father (William Demarest) won't allow her to go to the dance so she gets a beard in the form of Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), a local 4F boy who stutters, is too nice for his own good and long had a crush on Trudy.  Jones picks up Trudy at her house and as soon as they leave, Trudy asks to borrow his car so she can go to the party.  Jones relents and catches a triple feature at the movie theater while Trudy goes to the party.

The next morning, Jones is asleep outside the theater when Trudy pulls up.  Obviously intoxicated (so much Production Code not showing DUIs), Trudy can't remember what happened the night before...except she married a soldier whose name she can't recall.  Soon enough, she discovers she is pregnant (what does that say for the unknown soldier's sexual prowess?) and her father only knows that the last guy she went out with was Jones.

I can't recall the specifics but somehow Trudy needs to marry Jones under an alias to get out of the first marriage.  In all goes sideways and Jones ends up under arrest (if I recall correctly, Trudy is a minor!).  Sturges extricates the couple from their situation by having Trudy give birth to Dionne quintuplets.

I never really got into Miracle at Morgan's Creek.  Demarest and Diana Lynn as Trudy's younger sister stood out in my memory.  Brian Donlevy & Akim Tamiroff makes cameos at the start & end of the film as their Great McGinty characters. 

In Hail the Conquering Hero, Bracken plays Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, a small town boy who has been medically discharged from the Marine Corps due to hay fever.  As his name indicates, Truesmith has special reason to hide is medical discharge.  His father was a marine who was killed in WWI.  Truesmith has been hiding his civilian status from his family and friends by having marines mail pre-written postcards from overseas.  Truesmith sees a group of Marines in a bar and buys them a round.  The sergeant in the group (Demarest) knew Truesmith's father in WWI.  When one of the marines hears about Truesmith's situation, he decides to call Truesmith's mother and tell her that he is coming home after meritorious service in the Pacific.

When Truesmith and the marines get to town, there is a rally to greet the hero.  Things spiral out of control from that point.  Truesmith is pressed into running for mayor based on his service record.  Complicating matters is that Truesmith's former girlfriends is dating the incumbent mayor's son and is the mayor's secretary.

I found Hail the Conquering Hero to be tedious although it was criticizing the mindless patriotism and hero worship which I suppose was prevalent during WWII.  My father fought in WWII and he has told me that people recognized the dissonance between what was depicted in films and what happened in real life.  In other words, was Hail the Conquering Hero decrying the mindless patriotism and hero worship that was occurring or decrying the media's promotion mindless patriotism and hero worship?


I enjoyed The Palm Beach Story more than Miracle at Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.

In The Palm Beach Story, Claudette Colbert is Geraldine Jeffers, who is surprisingly ambivalent about her marriage to Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea).  There is prologue which was kind of confusing but explained at the end.  Geraldine is an identical twin & Tom is an identical twin and each thinks they are marrying the other twin.

Anyway, Gerry is ready for a new husband.  Tom is nice enough but he isn't successful enough for Gerry.  With some help from odd, little, old, rich guy, Gerry takes off for Palm Beach to get a divorce.  Along the way, she meets a rambunctious group of hunters from the Ale & Quail Club, gets separated from her luggage and eventually accepts the kindness of John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), one of the world's wealthiest men who is travelling in a sleeper car.

The old rich guy (Robert Dudley) who helped Gerry also helps Tom by flying him down to Palm Beach so he can arrive there before Gerry and convince her not to get divorced.  Upon her arrival, she introduces him to Hackensacker as her brother because she has told Hackensacker about her pending divorce and allowed him to think the worst of her husband.  That suits Hackensacker's sister (Mary Astor) just fine.  The oft divorced heiress takes an instant liking to Tom which creates the situation where two siblings are courting two siblings, unaware that the siblings are in fact, a married couple.  A little too contrived but that's Sturges's MO.

Astor plays the man eating princess quite well and Vallee is also memorable as the lonely millionaire.  Eventually, Gerry & Tom (I just noticed this may be play on the Tom & Jerry cartoons) decide  to give their marriage another chance and confess their ruse to the Hackensackers.  This allows for the opening sequence to be explained and the possibility that the Hackensackers will pursue Gerry and Tom's identical twin siblings.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

On Halloween, I saw The Trials of Muhammad Ali at the Landmark Opera Plaza.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali; documentary; directed by Bill Siegel; (2013) - Official Website

I recall that this film had screened at the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival because the director is Jewish.

This is one of these films where too much time has passed since I watched it.  I recall feeling underwhelmed by the film but I have a hard time remembering more than a few snippets of the film.

I have an interest in history and compared to most people I meet, my interest is very keen.  I didn't really learn too much about Muhammad Ali from The Trials of Muhammad Ali.  I guess some people are surprised to learn that Ali refused induction into the US Armed Forces during the Vietnam War and was stripped of his boxing title.  He very nearly incarcerated but a Supreme Court decision spared him a prison sentence and allowed him to fight professionally after a three year layoff.  I knew all this before reading the synopsis of The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

What did I learn?  I wasn't aware of how much resistance there was to Ali when he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.  Many sports reporter continued to refer to him as Clay and Ali chafed when he was referred to as Clay.

I don't recall this from the film but Ali was functionally illiterate.  He was classified as unfit because he failed the writing and spelling portions of qualifying test.  Later, the US military lowered the standards and Ali was classified 1A.  Ali claimed to be a conscientious objector (CO) and refused induction in the military.  His draft board rejected his CO status and he was convicted.  All the state athletic commissions suspended or revoked his boxing licenses.

The film did shed some light on Ali's appeal of his conviction.  Originally, the Supreme Court voted to uphold Ali's conviction but while writing the majority, one justice changed his mind and deadlocked the court 4-4 (Thurgood Marshall recused himself).  Rather than commenting on Ali's CO claims, a loophole was found.  The Supreme Court ruled that the reason for rejecting Ali's CO status was not documented and therefore the denial was invalid.  Presumably, Ali could be re-drafted, claim to be a CO and then a draft board could fully documents its reasons for denying the claim but by then, the draft was winding down and Ali faced little chance of being drafted again.

My father has told me on several occasion how divisive Ali was by his behavior and refusal to be drafted but the film feature clips of Ali being interviewed on television and the open hostility he faced.  The film featured a great clip of Ali appearing on television show and verbally sparring with Jerry Lewis.  The film made clear how much opposition Ali faced and how the public has gone from reviling him to revering him over the course of his lifetime.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali was an ok film.  I thought it was too pro-Ali to be considered unbiased.  I'm sure many people could learn quite a bit from the film.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Last Dozen Films I've Seen at the Castro

Below is a list of the films I saw at the Castro Theater between September 19 and December 27.  It was a tremendously enjoyable run of films for me.

Umberto D. starring Carlo Battisti; directed by Vittorio De Sica; Italian with subtitles; (1952)
L'avventura starring Gabriele Ferzetti & Monica Vitti; directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; Italian with subtitles; (1960)
Out of Sight starring George Clooney & Jennifer Lopez; directed by Steven Soderbergh; (1998)
3:10 to Yuma starring Glenn Ford & Van Heflin; directed by Delmer Daves; (1957)
The Wicker Man starring Edward Woodward & Christopher Lee; directed by Robin Hardy; (1973)
Switchblade Sisters starring Joanne Nail & Robbie Lee; directed by Jack Hill; (1975)
From Here to Eternity starring Burt Lancaster & Montgomery Clift; with Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed & Ernest Borgnine; directed by Fred Zinnemann; (1953)
The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young & Randy Quaid; directed by Hal Ashby; (1973)
Buffalo '66 starring Vincent Gallo & Christina Ricci; with Anjelica Huston & Ben Gazzara; directed by Gallo; (1998)
Killer of Sheep; directed by Charles Burnett; (1979)
True Romance starring Christian Slater & Patricia Arquette; directed by Tony Scott; (1993)
Pulp Fiction starring John Travolta, Bruce Willis & Samuel L. Jackson; directed by Quentin Tarantino; (1994)

Since I'm so far behind and these are all fairly well known films, I'll only give thumbnails.

Umberto D. - classic Italian neorealist about a retiree who is being squeezed financially.  Evicted from his apartment (after his landlady rents it out by the hour during the daytime absences), Umberto (Carlo Battisti) decides to commit suicide.  His only concern is his small dog.  Unable to find a suitable home for the dog & too tenderhearted to abandon the dog, Umberto decides to kill himself & the dog by standing in front of a train.  The dog, sensing the danger, wiggles out of Umberto's grip and Umberto follows his canine's lead to safety.  Bittersweet but ultimately life affirming story.  As was his custom, De Sica (The Bicycle Thief) used non-professional actors in the film.

L'avventura - a bit of misdirection.  The movie starts out with Anna (Lea Massari) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) as a couple.  They take a sailing trip with friends in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  About a third of the way into the film, Anna disappears without any explanation.  Sandor and Anna's friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) begin to search for her.  Kidnapping and suicide are avenues the police investigate.  However, as Sandro & Claudia search for Anna, they develop mutual attraction which causes consternation.  On the surface, this film is about the search for Anna but along the way, Sandro and particularly Claudia discover more about themselves.  Great footage of the islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Out of Sight - occupies the same universe as Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (Michael Keaton appears as the same character in both films).  Both films were based on Elmore Leonard novels.  Clooney plays a prisoner who during his prison escape kidnaps a US Marshall (Jennifer Lopez).  The two show a mutual attraction despite their circumstances.  Sisco (Lopez) eventually escapes but is determined to track down Foley (Clooeny).  The action shifts from balmy Miami (Lopez knew how to rock a Dan Marino jersey) to wintry Detroit where Foley and his partner (Ving Rhames) are looking to rob an ex-con (Albert Brooks).  Soderbergh and Clooney appear to be practicing for their Ocean's Eleven series while JLo has a lot screen presence.  Very enjoyable caper film.  I had never seen it before.

3:10 to Yuma - a double bill with Out of Sight.  Both films were based on works by Elmore Leonard who passed away in August.  I've been anxious to see this film since seeing the 2007 remake.  Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) is the leader of an outlaw.  When he is captured, the owner of the stage-coach line he has been robbing offers $200 to anyone who will escort the prisoner to Contention City and where the scheduled train of the title is located.  Rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and the town drunk (Henry Jones) are the only one willing to take the dangerous assignment.  Wade & Evans immediately begin sizing each other up and Evans proves surprisingly up to the task.  The film had elements of High Noon.  Ford elevated the film with his cool as a cucumber portrayal of Wade.

The Wicker Man - another film to cross off my To Do list.  Devout Christian Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is a police sergeant investigating the disappearance of young girl on a remote island.  He is shocked by the pagan worship practiced on the island.   As the investigation progresses, he comes into contact with the primary landowner on the island, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who is quite open about the ritualistic practices on the island which involves sex and virgin sacrifice.  Howie suspects the missing girl is being held captive to be the sacrificial virgin on May Day.  Only too late, he learns that he is the sacrificial virgin in a ritual designed to appease the Sun God and bring more fruitful crops and several seasons of failed harvests.  The sacrifice involves locking Howie and some livestock in a wicker man - a large wooden structure designed to look like a man (very similar to Burning Man).  The structure and sacrificial victims are burned.  The film lived up to its didn't hurt to have Britt Ekland dancing nude and in a sexual frenzy.  It was a little hard to believe there was a 30something year old male virgin so soon after the Free Love movement.

Switchblade Sisters - I have to admit that I was confused about what film I was going to see.  I conflated Savage Streets (starring Linda Blair, 1984) with Switchblade Sisters.  Given that Jack Hill directed Switchblade Sisters, I was expecting something more exploitative.  Hill did, after all, direct The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy & Foxy Brown before Switchblade Sisters so his grindhouse credentials are impeccable.  Switchblade Sisters was a combination of bad acting and surprisingly mild violence and nudity.  At the end, there was a knife fight viewed only by the shadows of the participants which was surprisingly artistic.  Perhaps if I had come to the film without preconceived notions of what it was going to be, I would have enjoyed it more.  However, I left wondering why Jack Hill would make a movie like this in 1975.

From Here to Eternity - screened on Veteran's Day.  This is a great film and although everyone praises Lancaster, Sinatra, Clift and Deborah Kerr, I've always been partial to performances of Ernest Borgnine as the sadistic Fatso Judson and Philip Ober as weak willed Captain Holmes.  However, the scenes with Lancaster are tremendous.  When he comes over the Holmes residence in the pouring rain and engages in some banter with Deborah Kerr is memorable.  Also, his barely concealed contempt for Ober's character (while he is cuckolding him!) also stand out.  I forgot at the end that Donna Reed inflates Montgomery Clift's service record when conversing with Kerr.  Reed's character was so desperate to live the life she dreamed of  all her life.  Instead, she was a bargirl at best and most likely a whore if not for the Production Code.

The Last Detail - double featured with From Here to Eternity.  I've heard of this film for many years.  My father, a Navy veteran, has cited this as one of his favorite films.  Two Navy petty officers (Jack Nicholson & Otis Young) are given the assignment of escorting a young seaman (Randy Quaid) to prison.  Travelling at a leisurely pace from Norfolk to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the film becomes a road movie.  Quaid's character is much too naive and innocent to merit an 8 year prison sentence.  However, he pissed off the wrong naval officer when he stole $40 from a charitable donation collection box.  Taking pity on and warming up to Quaid, the older sailor decide to let him enjoy his last taste of freedom before delivering him.  Side trips include a visit to Quaid's mother which explains a lot of how Quaid's character came to be the way he is and a visit to a whorehouse where soon-to-be prisoner loses his virginity (to Carol Kane no less!).  On the day they are to deliver him to prision, Quaid attempts to escape and a Nicholson pistol whips him in frustration.  Leaving no doubt of the mistreatment he will likely receive at prison, Nicholson and Young quickly forget about Quaid as they return to Norfolk to await their next assignment.

Buffalo '66 - Vincent Gallo's feature film debut as a director is an oddball comedy about a ex-convict (Gallo) who kidnaps a girl (Christina Ricci looking cute as a button) and forces her to pretend to be his wife when he goes to meet his parents (Ben Gaazara & Anjelica Huston).  Gallo has been keeping his incarceration a secret.  The girl, Layla, is attracted to Billy (Gallo) from the start but Billy is oddly unresponsive given his five years in prison.  Long put upon by friends and family and emotionally vulnerable following his stint in prison (for a crime he did not commit), Billy has serious emotional issues to work through.  He is also obsessed with settling the score with the Buffalo Bills kicker who missed the field goal which would have won the Super Bowl and the wager Billy placed with a bookie.  Buffalo '66 felt a little like a Cassavettes film.

Killer of Sheep - one of the most celebrated independent films of all time chronicles the life of African Americans in the inner city.  Killer of Sheep was director Charles Burnett's UCLA film school thesis project.  Lacking a conventional narrative plot, the film follows Stan (Henry G. Sanders), an African American man who works at a slaughterhouse.  The scenes of the sheep being slaughtered reminded me of Le sang des bêtes, a 1949 short film I saw at the PFA as part of their French Cinema Classics series last year.  Frequently compared to Italian neorealism, Burnett used non-professional actors in Killer of Sheep.  Stan's job seems to be having impacts in his personal life.  He repeatedly reject the advances of his sexually frustrated wife.  He buys an car engine only to see it fall off the back of a pickup truck as they drive away.  He is crudely propositioned by the white convenience store owner.  Kids are always playing in abandoned lots or near railroad tracks.  It doesn't add up to anything resembling a story but the mood and grinding sense of poverty are ever present.

True Romance - I have never seen this film before.  Quentin Tarantino wrote the script.  If I recall correctly, he sold the script in order to finance Reservoir Dogs.  Tony Scott directed the film.  Scott is a capable director.  Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Man on Fire are among my favorite films directed by Scott.  However, True Romance feels like a Tarantino and Scott does not employ any of Tarantino stylistic flourishes in True Romance.  As the opening credits rolled, it seemed every star and future star of the era were in the film - Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Brad Pitt, Michael Rappaport, Gary Oldham, Val Kilmer, James Gandofini, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Samuel L. Jackson, etc.  Slater plays Clarence Worley, a grindhouse movie loving, comic book store working schlub who gets lucky with the irresistible Alabama Whitman (Arquette).  Not dissuaded by the fact that she is a "call girl" and that his boss paid her to pick him up in a movie theater, Clarence quickly proposes and Alabama accepts.  Clarence goes to the whorehouse to pick up Alabama's belongings where he encounters Bama's pimp Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman) who must have served as inspiration for James Franco in Spring Breakers.  Not only does Clarence escape with his life but somehow he kills Spivey.  Demanding Bama's clothing, he instead receives a bag full of cocaine.  The mob sets out to get the blow back and Clarence & Alabama are a half-step ahead of them.  Highlights include the famous Sicilian scene between Walken & Hooper, an extended fight sequence between Gandolfini & Arquette and a three-way standoff between the LAPD, the mob and Hollywood drug dealers.  True Romance is a fun film which portended better things from Tarantino.

Pulp Fiction - on a double bill with True Romance.  Pulp Fiction is one of the most celebrated and influential films of the past twenty years.  It's also one of my favorites.  I think this the fourth time I've seen it on the big screen but when you count the number of times I've seen portions of it on television or DVD, it must be well fifty times I've seen it.  I noticed that the version shown on cable television recently contains an extended scene with John Travolta & Uma Thurman.  Upon their acquaintance, Mia interviews Vincent while recording him with a video camera.  Pulp Fiction is one of those films I could watch over and over again.