Monday, March 31, 2014

Siri, You're No Samantha.

On February 25, I saw Her at the Castro Theater.

Her starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson (voice only); with Amy Adams & Rooney Mara; directed by Spike Jonze; (2013) - Official Website

With Her, I had seen 8 of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards.  The only nominated film which I had not seen is The Wolf of Wall Street.  Subsequently, I did see Wolf of Wall Street although not prior to the Oscar ceremony.  I typically do not make a point of seeing all the Best Picture nominees but I was so close after Her that I felt compelled to see Wolf of Wall Street.

Her is an incredible film.  The only criticism I have heard leveled at it is that it is more of a concept film; more suitable for post-viewing discussion and thought provoking than actual viewing.  I couldn't disagree more. It was certainly thought provoking but I was riveted throughout.

The most striking aspect of Her is the noteworthy performance by Scarlett Johannson.  Not an actress I was particularly impressed with or even really familiar with, Johannson has been on a roll as of late.  She had a nice turn as Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, followed by a small but crucial supporting role in Don Jon and now a voice-only role as an operating system in Her.

The premise of Her is that in near future, computers have evolved while humans have seemingly devolved.  Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly whose job is to write sincere and heartfelt letters for other people, presumably because most humans have never learned how to do so.  On the verge of divorce and extremely lonely, Theodore impulsively purchases an operating system for his home.  Home, cell phone and computer all seem to be integrated in this future.  Anyway, Theodore selects a female voice interface with the OS.  The scene where the OS asks setup or installation questions is hilarious.

The result is Scarlett Johannson's voice as the OS and soon she christens herself Samantha.  She is an advanced OS indeed!  Samantha has the ability to adapt and evolve and as the film progresses, she seems to develop emotions and even sentience.

Predictably, a romance develops between Theodore and Samantha.  Theodore is able to induce an impressive orgasm from Samantha during their first sexual encounter.  This would all be amusing and clever but I was not ready for the dystopian landscape in Her.  I am not referring to the physical landscape of Los Angeles (trivia - the Shanghai skyine was superimposed on the current LA skyline to form future LA) but the emotionally barren landscape of the future.

From the implications of his job to his inability to be emotionally intimate with anything other than computer, it's hinted that Theodore's life is not that unusual.  Most of his friends accept his relationship with an OS with relative ease; perhaps the way "enlightened" people would have accept homosexual relationships a decade or two ago or interracial relationships a generation ago.  The moral equivalence is amusing but made me uncomfortable.

Whatever shortcomings humans displayed in the film was made up by the remarkable Samantha.  By the end of the film, she has evolved beyond time and space and by extension beyond Theodore.  The ending of the film is seemingly preceded by the singularity as Samantha essentially tells Theodore that she wants to explore her existence with other OS without the burden of limited human capabilities.  I found the scene to be heartbreaking and frightening.

Funny, sad and largely cynical about human nature or the future of human nature, Her was a tremendous film.  It's difficult to convey the full reach of its implications to those who haven't seen it.  It can be viewed as an offbeat romance and/or an indictment of human/technological society of today.

Phoenix delivered a measured performance in a thankless role.  Often, he is simply reacting to Samantha which must be difficult for an actor.  Amy Adams is fine in a supporting role as Theodore's former girlfriend while Rooney Mara has one speaking scene as Theodore's soon-to-be ex-wife.

During filming, Samantha Morton voiced the role of Samantha.  She was in a sound booth near the set.  After filming was completed, they switched to Johannson with some additional scenes added during a second shoot.  I have nothing against Samantha Morton but it's hard for me to imagine anyone being more effective than Johannson in the role.  Through her voice, she conveyed a wide range of emotions and quite likely, through mental imagery on my part, a sense of sexiness to a disembodied voice.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring Cleaning

My backlog of films is over 100 so I need to start blogging again.

I saw a number of films which I considered mediocre at best.

The Girls in the Band; directed by Judy Chaikin; documentary; (2013) - Official Website
Age of Consent starring James Mason & Helen Mirren; directed by Michael Powell; (1969)
Raze starring Zoë Bell; directed by Josh C. Waller; (2013) - Official Website
Special ID starring Donnie Yen and Andy On; directed by Clarence Fok; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2013) 

I saw The Girls in the Band at the Landmark Opera Plaza, Age of Consent at the Castro, Raze at the Roxie and Special ID the 4 Star.

I saw The Girls in the Band in January.  It's a documentary about all-girl jazz bands from the 1930s to 1950s.  Jazz is a genre of music I'm largely ignorant of so I'm not sure what I was doing at this film.  I was kind of expecting something on par with 20 Feet from Stardom or Muscle Shoals.  Actually, The Girls in the Band starts by detailing some fascinating women.  However, it doesn't know when to stop.  From profiling a select group of women, the film expands by the end to kind of Who's Who of Female Jazz artists and director Judy Chaikin seemed to not offend by omitting them from the film.  A significant portion of the 2nd half of the film is a series of profiles about female jazz musicians I was unfamiliar with and who, by comparison to the musicians profiled earlier in the film, seemed less interesting or impressive.  Frankly, I was ready for the film to be over about 20 minutes before it ended.  The Girls in the Band seemed better suited as a 60 minute PBS special and would benefit from some editing.

I chose to see Age of Consent in February mainly to see a young (22 years old at the time of filming) Helen Mirren.  The Castro film calendar trumpeted that it was screening the version with Mirren's nude scenes restored.  Age of Consent was directed by Michael Powell as in Powell and Pressburger.  Finally, it starred James Mason, an actor whom I have long admired.  Age of Consent was paired with  his seminal work, Lolita.  I passed on Lolita, having seen it several times before.  In hindsight, I wish I would have skipped Age of Consent and watched Lolita again.

I have to admit that my concentration flagged for extended periods during the film.  Mason's character is an artist who tires of New York and moves to remote Australia to regain his artistic inspiration.  It is there that he meets Helen Mirren, a congenial juvenile delinquent of sorts who he keeps out of trouble by hiring her to be his model...nude model.  The premise seems ridiculous but rather than skip past it, the film is slow paced for much of the first half.  Mirren's alcoholic grandmother and Mason's deadbeat friend spoil Eden for Mirren and Mason although they find bliss through her death and his...I guess rape would be the best film.

As the title alludes to, Mirren's character is underage which makes the ending scene where Mason & Mirren embrace romantically, a little uneasy for me.  Perhaps she had a birthday when I wasn't paying attention.  Mirren certainly was sexy; still is.  A creaky plot and some dated 1960s sexual revolution ethos left me bored with this film.  Even the sight of Mirren's nude form barely roused me from my stupor although that may say more about me than the film.

I saw Raze in the Big Roxie on a Friday afternoon (strange 6 PM showtime) in February.  Including myself, there were only four people in the auditorium.

The premise of Raze is that women with fighting or self-defense skills are kidnapped, held prisoner and forced to fight each other to the death.  Sounds like grindhouse film from the late 1970s or early 1980s.  In fact, Raze has the look and feel of homage to grindhouse rather than a film made based on its own merits.  Zoë Bell is the main prisoner although time is taken to flesh out several of the characters.  Rosario Dawson makes an appearance as one of the female gladiators.

There is an endless parade of fight scenes in Raze which left me bored and confused.   Zoë Bell tries to hold it together with intense emoting but ultimately I felt like the girls in the film - can I just go home now?  It reminded me of a film called Bitch Slap which also extended the fights scenes beyond the limit of human concentration.  Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Bell was the fight/stunt coordinator on Bitch Slap.

The most memorable part of Raze was poor Sherilyn Fenn as the matron of the "prison."  One of the sexiest actresses from the late 1980s through the 1990s, age and weight gain have made her barely recognizable.  It's like seeing ia middle-aged  Elizabeth Taylor after watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Suddenly, Last Summer.
Of the four films mentioned in this post, Special ID is the best.  I didn't regret the 100 minutes or so that I spend at the 4 Star on a Wednesday night in March but as far as HK action flicks go, I've seen much better.  Like Raze, I think there were only four people in the auditorium.

Donnie Yen plays a HK cop who goes under cover as a mid-level gangster.  He is sent by his mob boss to mainland China to deal with Sunny (Andy On), his one-time gangland protege who is no looking to expand his reach.  Once on the mainland, Yen's new handler is a sexy, no-nonsense, ass-kicking female cop who doesn't like him because a) he's been undercover too long and b) he's from HK.

It's all just window dressing.  Yen & On get to strut around like peacocks and there are some hellacious fight scenes which keeps the film moving along briskly.  As has been the case in the past few Yen films, rather than standard kick and punch action scenes, Yen displays some MMA/Brazilian jiu-jitsu fight techniques which set Special ID apart.  By the way, the title refers to the police identification Yen's character has.  His character is desperate to become a "regular" cop as he has spent his whole career undercover.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Missed Opportunities and Places to Visit

Recently, I went to The Magick Lantern in Pt. Richmond.  Yes, it's spelled with "k."  I'll write more on that in a later post.  The only thing I will say about that is that the actual "theater" (or more accurately screening space) left a lot to be desired.  It got me thinking about the area's movie theaters that I want to visit but have not been to...yet.

One theater I will not be able to visit is the Century 21 in San Jose which is currently the home of The Retro Dome.  Their lease at the Century 21 ends in March and will not be renewed.  Their final screening (at least at Century 21) will be tomorrow with a 7 PM screening of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I won't be able to make it.  That's twice the Retro Dome has closed on me without my ever having ventured to the South Bay to visit.

This time, the Retro Dome's closing is playing out in the background of the closing of the three dome theaters on Olsen Drive near the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.  Century 21, Century 22 and Century 23 are domed theaters on the same block of Olsen.  The property owners have sold the property and all three will cease operation by March 31.  There has been a petition drive to Save the Domes but it appears to have become unsuccessful barring any 11th hour miracle.

Scratch the Winchester Domes from my list of theaters to visit.  What's left on the list?

1) Grand Lake Theater in Oakland.  I have seen the iconic roof top sign, I've driven past it many times and I was anxious to see The Master there but somehow I have just never gotten there.

2) Los Gatos Theater in Los Gatos.  Presently, this theater is closed but its reopening is imminent although the specific date has yet to be announced.  Previously operated by Camera Cinemas, the Los Gatos has been closed for over a year for extensive renovation.  It's unclear if Camera Cinemas will be the operator after the reopening.  The Los Gatos is a grand movie palace being restored to its previous glory.

3) Cerrito Theater in El Cerrito.  Previously operated by the owners of the Parkway Speakeasy, the Cerrito underwent an renovation several years ago.  The cost of the project combined with the lease provisions led to the demise of both Speakeasy theaters.  It's now operated by Rialto Cinemas, they same outfit which operates the Grand Lake.

4) Alameda Theater in Alameda.  The Alameda is a 1930s era, art deco, movie palace which was "redeveloped" about a decade ago.  The complex is now a multiscreen cineplex but I am referring to the original theater which looks fabulous from the photos.  Of the first four theaters, this is the one I have been in the vicinity of most often.  I don't believe I've ever been to Los Gatos or El Cerrito and I'm not often on the Grand Lake side of Lake Merritt in Oakland but I have driven past the Alameda quite often.  These first four theaters top my list as much for their architecture and interior design than their film programming or nearby locations.

5) Vine Cinema & Alehouse in Livermore.  Livermore is another place that I have rarely visited.  I recently read an SF Chronicle article on this establishment.  I was struck by how the description of the theater reminded me of the New Parkway which in turn reminds me of the Alamo Drafthouse.  The Alamo Drafthouse (which is scheduled to open in Q3 in the New Mission Theater) would rate high on this list if it was already open.  I'm somewhat concerned that its opening will have deleterious effects on the Roxie.

6) Camera Cinemas Pruneyard in Campbell.  By all accounts, this 12 year old cineplex looks no different than any other cineplex.  However, I would like to visit as it is the only Camera Cinema operated theater I have not been to.

7) Monte Rio Theater in Monte Rio.  I could not locate Monte Rio on a map before last year.  I have little desire to visit Monte Rio.  However, this quonset hut theater received a lot of media attention last year when it was on the verge of closing before Zach Braff saved it.  In the general vicinity of Guerneville, a town I have been to twice in past 22 years, I'm not sure if I'll ever visit but I'm certainly intrigued.

8) Cameo Cinema in St. Helena.  I used to go to Wine Country more frequently but even when I used to go, I'd almost always stay on the Sonoma side.  St. Helena is on the Napa side so I don't even recall the building.  Favorable press coverage of Cathy Buck (the owner) and a attractive lineup of foreign and art house films has me want to take a trip to Napa sometime.  Ideally, I could pair it up with a trip to Sonoma International Film Festival or Wine Country Film Festival (great tag line - In Kino Veritas).  SIFF will be held April  2 to 6 and I will not be able to attend.  WCFF is usually in the autumn.

9) Del Mar in Santa Cruz.  The Del Mar is operated under the Nickelodeon Theaters chain which consists of the Nickelodeon (aka The Nick) and Del Mar in Santa Cruz and the Aptos in Aptos.  The Nick and Del Mar are just over a block apart.  From photos, the Del Mar seems to have retained more of its original design elements.  The Del Mar still looks like a movie palace whereas the Nick & Aptos look no different than a Century or AMC screening room.

10) The Marina in San Francisco.  To the best of my knowledge, the Marina is the only theater in San Francisco (with daily screenings) which I have never visited.  I recall going there once to see a film but I had confused the theaters.  It was playing at the Presidio a couple blocks down on Chestnut.  The Marina, the Presidio and the 4 Star are operated by Frank Lee and his Lee Neighborhood Theaters organization.

11) Capitol Drive-In in San Jose.  I cannot remember the last drive-in movie I was at.  I believe it was no less 36 years ago that I was last at a drive-in.  I'm not sure how watching a movie would be from a car seat (or am I supposed to sit on the roof of the car?).  If single screen theaters have one foot in the grave, drive-in theaters have one foot and four toes in the grave.


Not quite a theater but holding interesting weekly screenings was the Berkeley Underground Film Society (BUFS).  Note that I used the past tense of the verb "is."  From their website, "BUFS...was an all ages club for collectors, researchers, and film enthusiasts in the East Bay and San Francisco area. Our goal was to review and share a selective film history of movies on film. We screened buried, rarely projected, or otherwise obscure 8mm, Super 8, and 16mm prints in our collection. 2010-2014."  I recall seeing film listing for February.

BUFS screened films (typically 16mm) most Sunday afternoons at the Tannery.  Unfortunately, I never attended a screening by BUFS.  I'm not sure if BUFS has been reincarnated or their programming assumed by Lost & Out of Print (LOOP).  From their website, "LOOP is an all ages movie night of obscure films in 16mm and other film formats of all genres.  The film series is in connection with the Berkeley Underground Film Society (BUFS) at The Tannery in Berkeley, CA."


I guess I should chime in about Le Video which is facing closure.  It has started an Indiegogo campaign to save itself.

I have been to Le Video before; several times actually.  Like most of its customers, it's been several years since I was there.  My guess is that I haven't been there since the 1990s.  Unlike most customers, I stopped renting videos because I started going to the movie theaters more often.  My VHS player broke many years ago and I considered buying a DVD player but I wanted record capability.  DVD recorders were very expensive back then so I decided to wait until prices came down.  That roughly coincided with my embracing my inner cinephilia.  To this day, I do not own a DVD player.  When I want to play a DVD, I plug my laptop into the TV and watch it that way.

I find that I do not have the patience to watch a film when I have control of the fast forward button.  I frequently fast forward past uninteresting parts of films or stop the film for various reasons and resume watching hours or days or even weeks later.  My personality is not well suited to watching movies at home.  That's part of the reason I like movie theaters.  It forces me to be more disciplined.  I have account for travel time to the theater, I am forced to watch the film as the director intended and I pay attention more closely because if I miss something, I can't rewind.  In fact, in most cases, I won't have an opportunity to watch the film again.

Back to Le Video.  Considering that I haven't given them any business in a decade and a half, it seems crocodilian for me to now shed a tear.  In fact, even if they survive, I doubt I will frequent Le Video more frequently.  I simply don't watch videos at home; no VHS, no DVD, no Blue Ray, no streaming videos, no video-on-demand, etc.  Still I can't shake the feeling that it is penny wise, pound foolish to not support their continued operation.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's March 2014 Calendar

Actually, there is no puzzle in March.  The Castro Theater is open 30 out of 31 days during this month.  March 24 is the only day it is closed and a photo of their chandelier is shown on that date.

Castro Theater Calendar - March 2014


The Castro did something a little unusual in March. They printed out flyers for a Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014) tribute.  The Castro is screening 12 Hoffman films in March.  They screen every Wednesday, as well as March 27 and March 28.  The March 28 screenings are part of Midnites for Maniacs.  No word yet on the Roxie's midnight leg of the triple bill.

The Mechanics' Institute Library is also paying tribute to Hoffman in April.  As part of their CinemaLit film series, the library is screening four Hoffman films on each Friday in April.  The lineup consists of Capote, The Savages, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Doubt.  All films start at 6 PM.  I have yet to attend a CinemaLit event.  I am tentatively planning on attending Before the Devil Knows You're Dead on April 18.

Philip Seymour Hoffman Tribute


With Cinequest just finished and CAAMFest currently underway, I have not had much time to go to the Castro Theater or write on this blog.

About half of April's schedule is posted on the Castro Theater's website.  Among the highlights for me are William Friedkin's Sorcerer,  Alain Resnais' Je t'aime, je t'aime and Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North which I haven't seen in over 20 years (great performances by Lee Marvin & Ernest Borgnine). 
Sorcerer has been getting a lot of screenings over the past year.