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.

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