Sunday, December 7, 2014

He's a Maniac

Of all the film programmers at the various festivals and rep houses in the Bay Area that I am familiar with, the one I see most often in the audience is Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of Midnites for Maniacs.  I'm not referring to his watching the films he programs but rather the films at other film series.  I see him at the YBCA, the PFA, the Roxie, the Vogue, I see him on BART going to the films...I even see him while I'm grabbing a bite at the Grove catercorner from the YBCA (allow me to recommend the Eggs Benedict "Dave's Way" which is served all day long).

Such a cinephile deserves all the support I can give him.  Besides, he occasionally calls me out on my absences from his screenings.  I've seen four films at three of his recent events at the Castro.  On Labor Day Weekend, I went to see The Wiz.  In September, I watched Inside Llewyn Davis & Coal Miner's Daughter on a double bill.  In October, I saw Reign of Fire.  In August, I was going to see a William Lustig film at the YBCA which Jesse sponsored but it was sold out.  I missed his November Cassavetes & Son pairing so I could go to French Cinema Now.

On December 12, the Maniac has programmed two films allegedly inspired by his viewing of Los Angeles Plays Itself:  Who Framed Roger Rabbit & Ed Wood.  On January 2, he is pairing Snowpiercer & Runaway Train.  Both films will screen at the Castro.


The Wiz starring Diana Ross; with Michael Jackson, Ted Ross, Nipsey Russell & Richard Pryor;  directed by Sidney Lumet; (1978)
Inside Llewyn Davis starring Oscar Issac; with Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund & Justin Timberlake; directed by Joel & Ethan Coen; (2013) - Official Website
Coal Miner's Daughter starring Sissy Spacek & Tommy Lee Jones; with Beverly D'Angelo; directed by Michael Apted; (1980)
Reign of Fire starring Christian Bale & Matthew McConaughey; with Gerald Butler; directed by Rob Bowman; (2002)


I had never seen The Wiz before.  I was expecting blaxploitation; instead it was closer to Stephen Sondheim.  The Wiz is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz.  Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Ted Ross, Nipsey Russell & Richard Pryor play the Dorothy, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Tin Man & Wizard, respectively.

At times, the plot was ghettoized such as when Dorothy & her cohorts encounter some prostitutes or when the Flying Monkey are a motorcycle gang.  All in all, the film was more tame than my expectations.  Once I settled into the film, I couldn't help but compare the scenes in The Wiz with the corresponding scenes in The Wizard of Oz.  Maybe it's just my musical tastes but the deciding factor was the music.

In addition, I think Diana Ross was too old for the role.  Judy Garland's Dorothy was a teenage girl & a feisty one at that.  Diana Ross played Dorothy as a shy, 30something school teacher.

It was ominous that the Emerald City is set in the World Trade Center Plaza.

Beyond the curiosity and bucket list values, seeing The Wiz was a dud for me.


I missed Inside Llewyn Davis during its original theatrical release.  I jumped at the opportunity to see it at the Castro.  Oscar Issac plays the eponymous character.  Set in the early 1960, Davis is a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village.  He doesn't have a place to live so he sleeps on friends' couches.  While leaving the one such flat, the owners' cat escapes and Davis chases after it.  For much of the film, Davis is holding a cat and that is the explanation.

Davis is friends with Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), a married couple.  That doesn't stop Davis from having an affair with Jean who informs him that she is pregnant and that he is the father.  She demands he pay for the abortion and he takes a job singing backup for a novelty song Jim is recording (Jim is unaware of the affair or his wife's pregnancy) to get the money.

At the abortion clinic, Davis discovers he has a credit with them because his previous ended up not getting an abortion.  She has subsequently moved to Akron.  Partly to find his ex and child and partly to audition for a record producer (F. Murray Abraham), Davis hitchhikes out of NYC.  He is picked up by jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver, beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).  The trio share an awkward car trip until Turner ODs on heroin in a restaurant bathroom & Johnny Five gets arrested for arguing with the police.

Recounting the plot up to this point makes me realize that the plot isn't really necessary to understand & appreciate the film.  Llewyn Davis is a schmuck.  However, he is also an uncompromising musician which may be good for his music but is for his life.  He goes through life trying to hurt his friends but is largely unsuccessful.  It's also the story of Greenwich Village during a specific, pre-Dylan era.  There wasn't much money in singing folk songs so people did it for other reasons.  In the film, Davis does it for "the right reasons."

Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't bop you on the head with its message.  It's message is more like "life happens, deal with it."  Davis deals with it in a sad and funny way.  His plight contrasts with his acquaintances who have compromised and enjoying the benefits and suffering the costs of their compromise.

After the screening, Jesse shared two hypotheses.  First, Davis had been part of a successful duo before his partner committed suicide before the events of the film.  His life has been in a downward spiral since.  Jesse posited that Davis and his songwriting partner were gay lovers which explains why his life has gone in the dumper and why he gets so upset when a friend attempts to sing harmony to one their old songs.  I recall during the car trip, Turner asks Davis "Are you a homo?" and Davis responds with silence.

The second item Jesse posited was about an older man who pops up in a few scenes.  He has no dialog and his appearance is just short of conspicuous due to the camera time he is given.  Jesse's theory is that the old man is Davis from the future looking back on his life.  That's not a literal representation but as if Davis in the present time & Davis in the early 1960s were juxtaposed in the same frame.

During the viewing, I suspected the relationship between Davis and former partner was more intimate than a simple musical duo although I guess I was looking for more visible signs of their relationship.  Given that Davis impregnated two women, I wonder about his sexual orientation but he could be compensating.  It would also explain why he engenders such resentment from the women:  Jean is palpably contemptuous of Davis while his former girlfriend skipped town with his baby.

As for the old man, I'm not as convinced of Jesse's theory but the film doesn't contradict it.  The film ends with the likelihood that Davis will give up his musical career & rejoin the merchant marines.  The film feels like it is documenting a nexus in Davis' life.

I'm a Coen Brothers fan and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of their stronger entries; it's more subtle and understated than most of their films.


Inside Llewyn Davis was followed by Coal Miner's Daughter.  Jesse revealed to the audience that the film is being remade with Zooey Deschanel as Loretta Lynn.  After chortling from the audience, Jesse said Deschanel was endorsed for the role by Lynn herself.  I'm not sure if I misheard him or if he misstated the situation.  Deschanel played Lynn in a Broadway musical adapted from the film which was in turn adapted from Lynn's autobiography.  I can't find anything about a remake in film production.  Still the thought of Deschanel as Loretta Lynn is hard to fathom.

Director Michael Apted is an Englishman and best known for the 7 Up documentary series.  Given his filmography at the time, he seemed an odd choice to direct a film about a country singer from Appalachia but the film doesn't appear to have suffered from his direction.  Spacek won an Academy Award for her performance and the film was nominated for Best Picture.  Interestingly, Apted was not nominated for Best Director.

As Jesse mentioned in his introduction, Coal Miner's Daughter was made during a time when biopics just told the story.  They didn't delve too far into the psychological underpinnings of the characters.  If the movie is to be believed, Lynn was the victim of marital rape on her wedding night as a 15 year old.  She doesn't seem to be any worse off because of it.  Indeed, in real life her marriage lasted 50 years.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Doolittle "Mooney" Lynn, a WWII vet, moonshiner and Loretta's hard-drinking, hard-living husband.  To be honest, I think I would have liked to have seen more screen time exploring what made Mooney tick but the title of the filmvwas Coal Miner's Daughter not Coal Miner's Daughter's Husband.

The film touches all the bases.  We see the rise of Loretta Lynn, her friendship with Patsy Cline (Beverly D'Angelo), her struggles, her strained relationship with Mooney and their ultimate reconciliation.

Coal Miner's Daughter confirms that from day one, Tommy Lee Jones the type of actor that you can't ignore on screen.  Although Spacek won the Oscar, she had the benefit of acting or reacting to Jones' performance which is vaguely reminiscent of his other roles.  The slight Southern twang and cadence of his voice seem to be constant in all his film performances.  Jones has a talent for portraying aggressive but fallible men with an innate sense of decency.

The storytelling in the film seems dated but Coal Miner's Daughter is well above average and showcases Apted's versatility as a director.


Reign of Fire was made in the aftermath of 9/11.  If you look hard enough, you can see some allegories but ultimately the film is about dragons and dragon-slayers.  Actually, watching it 12 years after it was made, I thought Reign of Fire could be thought of today as an allegory for global warming and other looming environmental disasters.

Christian Bale is the leader of a group of people who take refuge from the dragons in a remote castle.  Matthew McConaughey (bulked up and with shaved head) is the American dragon-slayer who has come to recruit some men for his Ahabesque quest for the white whale...I mean dragon.  Bale fights the dragons (or more like he runs from the dragon), McConaughey fights the dragon, Bale & McConaughey fight each other and finally, Bale & McConaughey fight the dragon (and not that is not a euphemism).

There are holes large enough in the plot that you could fly an attack helicopter through but there is not need to recount them here.  I guess the CGI was good or good for its time.  Frankly, Reign of Fire bored me for the most part.  The post-apocalyptic films really have a hard time grabbing my attention.  Most people consider Reign of Fire a well-made but glorified B movie; all action, no story.  I won't disagree.

Jesse paired Reign of Fire with The Dark Knight.  Reign of Fire was the 2nd half of the double bill.  I missed The Dark Knight due to work & a trip to the gym.  I hadn't seen Reign of Fire  but I had seen The Dark Knight (at the Castro too).  In hindsight, I wish the Maniac had reversed the order of the double bill as I would have much preferred seeing The Dark Knight a second time over Reign of Fire a first time.

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