Thursday, October 20, 2011
I chose a screening of a film very personal to me for my first trek to Brooklyn Academy of Music (or BAM as it's known by everyone). BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn) celebrated the 35th anniversary of HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A., one of the best American documentaries ever made, by inviting its director Barbara Kopple for an introduction and Q&A. Though I found it frustrating to find my way to and from the Atlantic Ave-Pacific Ave subway station to the venue, it was a warm and comfortable theater worth the trek over the river.
My history with HARLAN COUNTY is an interesting one. Trusty Netflix recommended it to me based on my previous rentals and love of other documentaries, and believe it or not, I had never heard of this film before. It arrived in the mail and blew me away. New York film student Barbara Kopple picked up a camera and drove with two film-making friends to eastern Kentucky to make a film about the coal mine strikes in Harlan County, where miners and their families were demanding a union contract to ensure safer working conditions and better health care and housing options. Without one bit of narration, Kopple constructs an engrossing narrative not only of this particular struggle, but of the tragic history of the union over the better half of the 20th century. She finds a rousing heroine in Lois Scott, the loud-mouthed leader of the striking miners' wives (seen above pulling a gun out of her bra), and could not have asked for a better screen villain than strike breaker Basil Collins, a Lawrence Tierney-esque heavy, who even engages in a chilling tete-a-tete with Kopple herself.
As the end credits rolled, I jetted upstairs to ask my dad if he knew anything about Harlan County. He knew it as a neighboring county of Perry County, where he grew up in the mountains of Glowmar (near Hazard). I excitedly told him about this film, which he had also never heard of, and we sat down to watch it together. We both commented on how Lois Scott not only had our same last name, but was so very much like any one of his sisters (my aunts). As the film ended, the rest of our family walked into the house after a day out and about and they wanted to see the film for themselves. So we all sat in the living room and watched HARLAN COUNTY again. I had effectively viewed the film three times in one day, all with different points of view, something I'd rarely done before or since. I've watched it frequently over the years, even writing a paper on the women in the film for a film course at George Mason. Hell I even researched all the major participants in the film, discovering their deaths and following their lives through newspaper articles and Ancestry.com family trees. What can I say? When I become passionate about something, I want to know everything about it. Witness my research of the exploitation and adult film genres.
The first three minutes of the film
Seeing the film projected in a theater was an emotional experience for me. My paternal grandfather, a coal miner like those in the film, died of black lung disease when my dad was a teenager. I regret never knowing him, and there is so little photographic evidence of him for me to learn from. From the opening credits of this screening, my eyes were moist for the majority of the running time. I remembered going back to Hazard with my family as a child and roaming the mountains, meeting extended family and friends; watching this film again on the big screen spoke to the Kentucky roots I often forget are inside of me. The most important thing I take away from HARLAN COUNTY is pride in my roots. I especially have deep pride and love for my father, who has come such a long way from a mining community like Harlan to provide a better life for his family.
At the BAM screening, I could have sworn this was a director's cut or extended version of HARLAN COUNTY. When I was called on for the first question of the Q&A, I enthusiastically thanked Kopple on behalf of myself and my dad for making the film and capturing this side of American life for future generations, but inquired about the extra footage that I didn't remember seeing on the Criterion DVD. Kopple was puzzled and said it was the original release version...but revealed that most of the outtakes are in a storage facility somewhere in Hazard. Dad, I think it's high time we went back, this time on an archaeological mission! :)
I'm surprised and excited that YouTube has this video of Barbara Kopple, looking all of 17, accepting the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for HARLAN COUNTY.
One of the most important elements of the film is the use of folk songs and miner protest songs throughout. The key voice is that of Hazel Dickens, who passed away earlier this year. I defy you to not want to buy the soundtrack to this film after seeing it, and you're in luck! iTunes carries it! Here is one of the many soulful and powerful songs heard in the film:
Sunday, October 16, 2011
And then there was WEEK END. I've never been a fan of Godard, his pretentious digs at cinematic conventions and social issues leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps if he was a tad more subtle, but he seems to revel in the sheer French-ness of creating a stink. While I can see where he influenced scads of future filmmakers and their use of the medium for artistic purposes and expression, that doesn't mean I or anyone else has to enjoy his films. Just because something was first doesn't make it good. Don't be a sucker by buying into the hype.
Following their surprise engagement of BAND OF OUTSIDERS, Godard's first film, back in September, Film Forum brought his controversial "classic" WEEK END to the venue for a scheduled two-week engagement. The professor of my Film Form Film Sense course showed the famous car crash tracking shot earlier this semester, so I thought it was time to revisit this film. The basic plot is this: two rich married assholes go on a drive to the country to visit the wife's dying father to see if they'll inherit any of his money. Along the way they encounter plentiful gory car crashes and a magician and his girlfriend who force them at gunpoint to drive in the opposite direction before getting into a crash themselves and wandering for days through the countryside. They set fire to Bronte, hear St. Just orate in a field, tag along with a piano player who performs on a farm, the wife is casually raped by the side of the road, murder a woman for her money, and are finally taken hostage by revolutionary guerrillas with a drummer and a cannibal chef at their camp.
Knowing the political background of France in the late 1960s would probably help your viewing of WEEK END immeasurably, but a film that requires homework beforehand is a chore to sit through. We can be on-board for the bizarre shenanigans that leads Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne participate in until the realization hits us: we hate this couple. What is the purpose of this film and its adventure? To experience Godard's political commentary through some kind of clothesline storyline? Essentially that's it. A pretty hard pill to swallow, if you ask me.
I should also add, who is white Godard to take it upon himself to speak for the disenfranchised African and Arab peoples? Two characters, one African, one Arab, show up on a truck that picks the couple up. Godard places one of them in front of the camera while the other indulges in a lengthy, monotonous diatribe. This happens not once, but twice, and stops the film dead in its tracks. It's as if Godard couldn't fit in his thoughts on this issue anywhere else and shoehorned it into a segment that feels sloppy and obvious. The film never recovers. Third cinema would tackle issues in nations dealing with exploitation and political unrest through the eyes and voices of those experiencing them. Godard, on his throne as one of Europe's most well-known directors, is merely exploiting these peoples and their conflicts under the guise of artistry.
Did I hate WEEK END? I find it hard to hate any film, really. The film has its moments of shock and awe, as I find is true with many Godard films. The ending, which I won't spoil, does offer a potent commentary on social and political cannibalism, but that topic is addressed more effectively in films like MACUNAIMA and HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN. Just do yourself a favor and watch the film's most famous scene. It doesn't spoil anything, frankly, but once you've seen this you've basically seen the whole film and what it's trying to say about the France of 1967.
I made my first trip to Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue) for a special screening that I thought I would have to miss because of class. What better way to spend Columbus Day than getting your mind blown? After taking in Chaplin's GOLD RUSH earlier that day, I ventured downtown to Anthology. It's an unusual venue, with a small cramped sitting area near the box office, and you venture up several flights of stairs to get into the screening room.
I remember when I first saw LIQUID SKY. It was in high school when I was trekking to Video Vault in Alexandria, VA twice weekly and renting as many movies as I could. The now out of print DVD was an accidental discovery and it didn't really click with me on initial viewing. Perhaps I was so spoiled by a diet of Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman movies that I wasn't prepared for the new wave weirdness of Slava Tsukerman's universe. I actually hadn't seen it since that viewing in 1999 so when I saw it would be playing Anthology with director Tsukerman in attendance, it was high time for a revisit.
Co-writer Anne Carlisle stars in a dual role as Margaret, a bisexual model with a drug habit living in a penthouse with underground musician and drug dealer Adrian (ALICE SWEET ALICE star Paula E. Sheppard), and Jimmy, an androgynous drug addict male model who is established as both Margaret's alter ego and her nemesis. An alien spacecraft lands on her roof, and the inhabitants look to feed on the adrenaline rush found in heroin. But they soon discover a more powerful energy is found during the moment of orgasm in the human brain. Soon Margaret's lovers end up dead, all with a crystal shard jutting out of their heads, raising questions for her about her sexuality, her identity, and her life.
An unusual mind fuck of a movie (watch the first five minutes above for a brief taste), LIQUID SKY is like nothing you've ever seen before. Mixing science fiction, performance art, sexploitation, and drug trips into one singular cinematic experience, this film worked splendidly projected on the big screen, far better than seeing it on home video. Cinematography is always surprising, especially when the special effects take center stage during the alien "brain invasion" sequences; the musical score is otherworldly and bizarre, perfectly complimenting the on-screen shenanigans; and the performances are appropriately campy and off the wall. Those who remember Paula Sheppard from ALICE will love seeing her in her only other starring role, and she's just as deliciously bitchy.
One thing is for sure, Anne Carlisle should have been a star. She stuck around New York and acted in other low-budget features like Larry Cohen's PERFECT STRANGERS and appeared briefly in Susan Seidelman's DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, but never really took off in anything else. The guys sitting behind me raved about Carlisle; one of them claimed to be good friends with her, and that she was actually responsible for most of the movie. The other tried baiting Tsukerman in the Q&A, asking if he could ever re-make the movie without an Anne Carlisle. He didn't fall for it, saying he'd have to cast big names.
The Tsukerman Q&A was kind of hit or miss. The native Russian didn't understand some of the questions, so when I was called on for mine, I kept it simple: "Talk about Paula Sheppard." He said she was cast based on her work in ALICE, SWEET ALICE and she was a pleasure to work with, but the reason why she quit acting after the film was because she was with SAG and received a letter from them (as did other cast members) reprimanding and fining her for appearing in LIQUID SKY. According to Tsukerman "she took it very personally" and left the business. He did add that when the film had its L.A. premiere, all the Hollywood producers wanted to know who she was and how they could get a hold of her for their next films. Tsukerman did not reveal how the film's unique special effects were created, nor go into much detail about his musical influences for the superb electronic score (likely because it wasn't entirely created by him). He did talk about the possibility of remaking it in 3-D, which the audience audibly poo-pooed, and the process of casting, which basically involved Carlisle and co-star Bob Brady recruiting people they knew from the underground/punk/new wave scene of downtown NYC in the early 80s. Tsukerman wasn't the only member of the cast and crew in attendance; his wife Nina Kerova (who appears as the designer in the final fashion shoot and acted as co-writer and associate producer), make-up artist Marcel Fieve, and actress Susan Doukas (Jimmy's mother who tries to seduce the German scientist investigating the aliens) were in the audience, too. In an unusual moment, I also noticed John Cameron Mitchell (HEDWIG himself) purchase a ticket at the box office and sit with a group of friends.
For a review of the film when it was released in Chicago by Siskel & Ebert, skip to 4:55 in the video below. It's interesting to note how they dislike it considering how influential this film was on other films both enjoyed immensely in later years.
And Paula Sheppard fans (she has a sizable cult, so I know there are more than a few out there) should indulge in this final taste of LIQUID SKY, when her character Adrian "performs" the show-stopper "Me and My Rhythmbox". As she says later in the film, "They love me in Germany, baby." After seeing this, doesn't that make sense? It's very Dieter-esque. LOL
The method to my madness in selecting which Nikkatsu films to see generally relied on which were available on video in this country. Prepared for some primo Japanese entertainment, I ventured uptown to visit the Film Society at Lincoln Center for the first time. The facilities of this venue are absolutely stunning; the Nikkatsu series was screened at the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (144 W. 65th St), specifically the Howard Gilman Theater.
Suzaki Paradise: Red Light (1956) - This early Nikkatsu melodrama held particular interest for me because of its setting in and near a notorious red light district in Tokyo. In the film, it even has a garish neon sign beckoning customers across the bridge over the Suzaki river. Wandering unemployed Tatsuya Mihashi and his frustrated girlfriend Michiyo Aratama (pictured at left) find themselves desperate for income and a place to live, but stop short of crossing the bridge when Aratama gets a job at a roadside cafe run by kindly Yukiko Todoroki. Todoroki still pines for the husband who left her and their two sons for a red light girl two years previously. Mihashi's aimlessness drives Aratama into the arms of rich radio store owner Seizaburo Kawazu, leading our love sick protagonist to search the busy streets of Tokyo for her while ignoring the interest of sweet noodle bar waitress Izumi Ashikawa. All of the performances in this film are superb, but special mention must be made of Aratama's portrayal of an ambitious modern woman tired of supporting and cajoling her dead beat lover and Todoroki as the wise middle-aged cafe owner. Thankfully this is available on DVD in Japan, though I'm not sure if it features English subtitles; if it does, I intend to add this to the home video collection.
Till We Meet Again (1955) - Also known as "The Neverending (Love) Story". This was an absolute chore to sit through, especially after the pleasantly surprising and engrossing SUZAKI PARADISE. The sole point of interest was seeing that film's leading couple Tatsuya Mihashi and Michiyo Aratama together again as a pair of mismatched lovers, a mountain climber and a fashion designer respectively, kept apart by the climber's wife and the designer's rich lover. The twist is that the rich lover and climber's wife are father and daughter. And there's a geeky scientist thrown in for good measure as a potential love interest for the climber's wife. Easily one of the worst movies I've seen in NYC theaters so far.
Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) - This is available on DVD as part of Criterion's Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir, but I figured I was at Lincoln Center already, so why not see another movie? This super stylish crime story was a jolt of electricity to the heart after the dismal TILL WE MEET AGAIN, though the screening was regularly disrupted by the distracting laugh of a girl sitting in the same row as me. The kicker? She's a second year cinema studies MA student at Tisch, and I have her in a Tuesday night class. She did the same thing at the Tisch Cinematheque screening of STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. My question is, if you're studying film, is it the best idea to just go and laugh at movies because they're not contemporary? In America, the film noir genre had pretty much ended by 1960, but Nikkatsu continued in the grand tradition of hard-boiled detectives, vampy femme fatales, and mysterious villains with a series of crime thrillers like this one. Disgraced prison guard Michitaro Mizushima, suspended after he fails to protect two prisoners in a transport van from being shot by a mysterious gunman, investigates the ambush on his own, discovering a trail leading to a sleazy modeling agency run by sinister female archer Misako Watanabe. A woman is shot in the breast with an arrow, underage girls are drugged in preparation to being forced into white slavery, and other sordid surprises are in store for you in this delicious pulpy thriller. Oh, that surprise ending is a doozy, too!
Intimidation (1960) - Another film available through Criterion (Eclipse Series 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara), this gripping drama is an entirely different kind of animal from POLICE VAN, though the two were made by the same company in the same year. Running a tight 65 minutes, this fast-paced thriller focuses on Nobuo Kaneko, a bank executive blackmailed by new kid in town Kojiro Kusanagi, who has evidence of Kaneko's illegal dealings to make his way to the top. The blackmailer will destroy the paper trail if the executive robs his own bank. After all, who would suspect the bank vice president as the culprit? The intense robbery centerpiece of the film is turned on its ear when Kaneko's childhood friend and co-worker Ko Nishimura gets involved. This is an absolutely brilliant little film, injecting a number of interesting surprises into what could have been a pretty standard blackmail storyline.
The Gold Rush (1925) - A $35 student membership to Film Society at Lincoln Center seemed a decent deal for the reduced member ticket prices alone (much like Film Forum's student membership). However, who knew the additional benefits would pay off a mere week into the membership? I received an e-mail on Saturday the 8th giving members the opportunity to receive free tickets to a screening of Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH on Monday the 10th at Alice Tully Hall. Not only was this a restored print, the closest to Chaplin's original 1925 version since its initial release, the film would feature musical accompaniment by members of the New York Philharmonic! This was truly a once in a lifetime motion picture event, with tickets going for $35 a pop, and here was my opportunity to go for FREE! I received my confirmation e-mail that a ticket was reserved for me, and in the nick of time, too. The event had sold out! Seeing a silent film with orchestral accompaniment is something every movie lover should experience. I will never forget seeing Chaplin's classic with live strings, percussion, and piano providing the marvelous score. The tale of the Tramp seeking gold in Alaska and falling for alluring dance hall girl Georgia Hale is still a funny and heart-warming one. Many parents and grandparents brought their kids for this Columbus Day screening and they ate it up. There is something marvelously touching about new generations of film lovers being introduced to the classics. I could tell that some of these kids would be going down the same route I have, devouring any movie they could get their hands on and experiencing a life long love affair with the cinema.
Retaliation (1968) - Returning to the Nikkatsu centennial, RETALIATION was a rare late 60s Nikkatsu that is not available on DVD anywhere, so I knew I had to see it. It was also directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, responsible for some of the best Nikkatsu action films of the 60s and 70s. Studly Akira Kobayashi is a Yakuza recently released from jail who discovers that his gang fell apart when its elderly godfather fell ill. He is recruited by a rival gang to help them usurp another vicious family from power in a small farming town; in return he will be put in charge of the area's gang division. Accompanying him on his mission is legendary Shishido Joe, who has vowed revenge for his brother's death in the gang fight that sent Kobayashi to prison. Meiko Kaji, shortly before she became a Pinky Violence idol, is the innocent farm girl Kobayashi falls in love with. Of course, this being a Yakuza movie, the plan goes wrong when it is revealed that Kobayashi was merely being used for the gang's villainous ends, and all hell breaks loose in a memorable blood-drenched finale! Immediately after seeing this, I wondered why it remains unavailable. The expected Yakuza violence loved by contemporary fans of this gritty genre is here in spades, and considering how many Nikkatsu films of this type have been released on DVD, what's the hold up with RETALIATION? Unfortunately for a screening of a film this rare I had to deal with two middle-aged women talking in the back row for the entire movie. Apparently, even with subtitles, they didn't understand what was going on and, in a pretty boldly racist move, said they couldn't tell one Japanese man from another, so didn't know which character was which. Sigh...
The World of Geisha (1973) - One of many 'roman porno' films being screened at Lincoln Center (others included THE WOMAN WITH RED HAIR, THE HELL-FATED COURTESAN, THE OLDEST PROFESSION, and TATTOOED CORE OF FLOWER), I went into this one with hesitation. While I've seen a number of these graphic sexploitation films on home video, I didn't know what it would be like seeing one with an audience. The turn-out was surprisingly large for a film of this type. We follow roman porno royalty Junko Miyashita as a geisha who falls for a client and eventually marries him. That's the bare essentials of a plot, though director Tatsumi Kumashiro injects random scenes of geisha life, including a madam training a scrub girl to control her vaginal muscles before basically raping her in a drunken stupor, a bumbling soldier's relationship with a popular, worn-out geisha, and a rich client forcing his man-servant to hang himself, to the horror of his geisha companions. Some attempted political (?) commentary appears in dated photo slides indicating the film's timeline through important moments in Japanese military and social history. This is available on DVD in the U.S. but I couldn't resist seeing two Japanese exploitation films in one day.
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970) - The only Pinky Violence Nikkatsu film shown at the festival (a major faux pas, in my opinion) was one of a series of STRAY CAT ROCK films, all starring the peerless Meiko Kaji as Mako, the no-nonsense leader of a delinquent girl gang. This is also available on U.S. DVD, but who could say no to seeing this in a theater? Mako and the girls aim to help new kid in town Rikiya Yasuoka find his missing sister, who he hasn't seen since childhood. A racial angle is thrown into the mix when the girl gang's male counterparts decide to attack and rid the town of any mixed-race people, most of whom congregate at a back alley bar called Mama's Blues. Being half-black and half-Japanese doesn't help Yasuoka in his search for sis. In terms of Pinky Violence, NYFF could have picked a better film, or several, to represent the concept of violent rebel women more appropriately. One of the key criticisms aimed at this film is the fact that it spends too much time with the male gang and telling the story of the new half-breed in town. The film works best when the girls are doing what they do best: destroying vicious men who try to take advantage of them. In this case, the film does deliver in a sequence where the girls are set up to be man-handled by European businessmen at a party. Mako ambushes the party with Molotov cocktails!! She also gets into a knife fight with dizzy fellow gang member Miki in a gripping opening sequence. Plus you get Japanese girl pop group The Golden Half (so-named because they were all half-Japanese, half-American) performing two great songs in a club, "Yellow Cherries" and "Kiroii Sakurambo". The less said about the cheesy song sung by Yasuoka and Kaji the better... You can see the Golden Half performing "Yellow Cherries" in yet another Pinky Violence movie, DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS: BLOSSOMING NIGHT DREAMS, here. This scene is very similar to SEX HUNTER so you'll get a good idea of how they appeared there. Honestly, folks, if I were asked to name my favorite genre of Japanese film, it would be Pinky Violence. There are plentiful examples available in the U.S. market...not enough for my cravings, but enough to whet your appetite and give you insight into this popular sub-genre that was soon replaced by the much more sexual 'roman porno' film movement.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Sep. 1 - Film Forum - HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955) - I celebrated my birthday by making my first of many trips to Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) with Cinema Studies cool kid Anna Murphy. A $40 student membership gets me discount tickets to all shows and it's the place where I spend the most time of all the repertory theaters in town. It helps that it's a quick jaunt down Broadway and right on Houston, though I've now taken to walking through Washington Square to avoid Broadway's sidewalk traffic. So the movie: Samuel Fuller crafts a superb crime story of Western gangsters making heists and crooked deals in Japan soon after WWII. Robert Stack is an undercover military policeman who infiltrates Robert Ryan's gang and takes right hand man Cameron Mitchell's spot as Ryan's number two. Beautiful Technicolor scope photography, much of it on-location in the land of the rising sun, looked stunning on the big screen. Shirley Yamaguchi is very good but given little to do as "the woman" in an otherwise testosterone-heavy story. There's a particularly violent murder of a man in a bathtub that was stunning in its excess (especially considering this was the studio era) and impressively staged, effects-wise. This film ended an August festival of Robert Ryan films at the Forum. I'm more of a Robert Stack man myself; had no idea the "Unsolved Mysteries" host was walking sex in his day.
Sep. 3 - Film Forum - WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950) w/ LAURA (1944) - Kicking off September's "NYPD Festival" at FF, spotlighting films featuring the work of the New York Police Department, this Otto Preminger-Dana Andrews-Gene Tierney double header is hard to beat. LAURA is a classic, obviously, but I had never seen WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did. Many critics give it a bad rap because it reunites the main players of LAURA, inviting unfair comparisons to that trend-setting noir masterpiece. Andrews is a grizzled cop with a history of bad behavior who accidentally kills a drunk suspect and tries to cover it up while also attempting to prove a prominent gangster's connection to a murder; Tierney is the suspect's put-upon wife. A woman as glamorous as Tierney should be miscast in this role, but she is quite superb and her interplay with Andrews works well. The ending is a tad too pat and perfect, but all around a tense, pleasant surprise. Need I say anything about LAURA? If you haven't seen it...well, there should be a law. Everyone needs to see this film. For the longest time I thought it was overrated, but seeing it in a theater has brought me around to its brilliance. Tierney is one of the most entrancing femme fatales in the genre. Watching LAURA made me revisit Shaun Costello's excellent X-rated revision, FIONA ON FIRE, which takes the source material and transforms it into one of the best murder mysteries in the adult genre. Yes, believe it or not, FIONA has some great twists and turns, all welcome detours from Preminger's original.
Dana Andrews admiring Gene Tierney in LAURA
Sep. 4 - Film Forum - THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974) w/ THE DETECTIVE (1968) - Every time I take the subway now, I think of Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman (a couple years after his stint as a Michael Findlay regular) as the criminals holding a subway car and its occupants for ransom. Running throughout this intense hostage thriller is a streak of welcome humor, anchored by the everyman Walter Matthau as the policeman. How could they replace Matthau with the humorless Denzel Washington in the remake? Unfortunately you follow this with THE DETECTIVE and the Sinatra film can only pale in comparison. I found this film's rampant homophobia discomforting, but an interesting snapshot of the times, especially considering the rough history New York homosexuals have had with the NYPD. A team of officers busting gays hooking up down by the piers looks eerily similar to the snapshots and newsreel footage we've seen of this kind of thing pre-Stonewall. The supporting cast has some interesting additions, including Robert Duvall, Jack Klugman, Tony Musante (two years before BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) as a psychotic bisexual, and a very, very young Tom Atkins as a reprimanded officer. Lee Remick is unwelcome as Sinatra's much too young ex-wife, though it's a sign of the upcoming MPAA ratings board that the film is allowed to portray her as a nymphomaniac without punishing her. The two cases in the film, of a prominent homosexual's brutal murder and the supposed suicide of a figure connected to real estate and police corruption, are appropriately involving, and the film derails when it spends too much time in Sinatra's off-duty life.
Sep. 6 - Film Forum - REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER (1975) w/ MADIGAN (1968) - I dragged my feet to this one, but the esteemed Ted Cogswell suggested I give these a whirl and I'm glad he did. REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER is one of the best surprises I've encountered during my movie-going here. It's not a perfect film by any means, and the script could have used some work, but you've got Michael Moriarty in an early intense performance as a do-good detective in over his head searching for a mysterious "runaway", gorgeous Susan Blakely cast against type as a tough undercover narcotics cop, an engrossing nightclub scene scored with Vernon Burch's "Changes", Bob "Seinfeld" Balaban as a crippled street person engaging in an edge-of-your-seat chase through the streets of New York, and Moriarty and Tony King (years before CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE) in a sweaty, claustrophobic stand-off in a Bloomingdale's elevator. Oh yeah and Richard Gere as a pimp. You really can't go wrong with this one, and MGM has released it as a DVD-R through Amazon. Do not hesitate to add it to your collection. Of course with a movie this good, MADIGAN couldn't help but disappoint. Like a "Dragnet" episode with some brief nudity and violence added, this here is a dud, folks. Richard Widmark is the title character, a detective whose gun is stolen by a bespectacled murderer; the entire film follows Madigan and his partner as they try to track him down. Henry Fonda shows up as the police commissioner with a mistress in a subplot that goes nowhere. He and Widmark share one scene together, and it's not even a memorable one. The primary problem with the film is too much time is spent on the personal romantic lives of the male characters. The ending might come as a surprise to some, if you can make it to that point.
Sep. 7 - Film Forum - THE WRONG MAN (1956) w/ SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) - Hitchcock's docudrama has never been a favorite of mine. The story is interesting (Henry Fonda is accused of being a bank robber and must prove his innocence), but there's something off in the pacing... Fonda is decent enough, but Vera Miles is the real showstopper as the loving wife destroyed by the quest for witnesses and alibis to save her husband from jail. I appreciated seeing this in a theater but I wasn't converted to a strong supporter of this film. I'd recommend it but only after you've seen all the other important and underrated Hitch features first. Now, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: this was a revelation! How had I not seen this before? I knew Criterion had released it on Blu-Ray earlier this year, but I had yet to pick it up. Tony Curtis is a ruthless agent tied into an unusual business "friendship" with powerful columnist Burt Lancaster. These two men, throughout the film, play with people like toys, deliver dialogue like venomous vipers, and are ultimately revealed to be miserable sons of bitches. All the power in the world couldn't fix their broken spirits. You should have seen me watching this in the theater, squirming in my seat, sitting forward as the script gripped me and drew me in. I did not take my eyes from the screen once; I wonder if I even blinked. Hyperbole cannot oversell this film, a drama that still feels contemporary and retains its power to stun an audience. Hitchcock who? SUCCESS left me staggering out of the theater in a daze.
Sep. 7 - Quad Cinema - BEGINNERS (2011) - One of my favorite films of the year! Ewan McGregor is marvelous as the son of Christopher Plummer, an elderly man who comes out of the closet after the death of his wife. It's a captivating drama about understanding what love is. Melanie Laurent is stunning as McGregor's love interest, as damaged as he is. It's best to go into this just knowing the basics, because it will wow you. Sadly I fear this will be neglected come awards time, as it was released earlier in the year. Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.) is a great venue, with ticket prices slightly cheaper than other indie and first-run houses in the city.
Shirley Ballad, the true star of "Cop Hater"
Sep. 8 - Film Forum - COP HATER (1958) w/ HIGH AND LOW (1963) - This was an initiation trip, as I dragged Stephen Wade with me to show him why Film Forum had become my second home in the city. Unfortunately this was the wrong double feature for the uninitiated to FF's charms. COP HATER, while an interesting low-budget curio, is ultimately just a silly time waster. It's fun to see a young Robert Loggia as a cop investigating the murders of his squad members with a deaf-mute girlfriend (yet he doesn't know or seem to care to learn sign language, like Linda Blair in SAVAGE STREETS), and trashy blonde Shirley Ballard is sizzling sex as his partner's wife (with a pair of the craziest eyebrows you've ever seen). A film this rare is fun to see revived, but there's a reason why it was hard to see before it was re-released on DVD-R earlier this year. Now, HIGH AND LOW is a pretty much perfect film. Kurosawa's adaptation of an Ed McBain novel (the reason why it was paired with McBain adaptation COP HATER) is perhaps overlong at 2 1/2 hours, but the film's two halves compliment each other very well. The first segment of the film focuses on a kidnapper demanding a financially crippling ransom from executive Toshiro Mifune, and the second follows the police as they attempt to find the criminal responsible after he runs off with the money. I'd say part 1 is more tense and gripping than part 2, but the last 40 minutes of the film, pursuing the kidnapper, in a pair of chilling sunglasses, as he attempts to score lethal doses of heroin in a horrific back alley, are just superb. Clearly this leaves COP HATER in the dust. That said, I'm kinda dreading have to sit through this again for my Film Form Film Sense class next Monday night.
Sep. 9 - Film Forum - I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941) w/ PHANTOM LADY (1944) - Two more film noirs I had never seen, and I liked both of them. SCREAMING is a very early but quite fine noir, so don't let the casting of WWII pin-up girl Betty Grable in a dramatic role throw you. She's actually pretty damn good as the sister of a murdered model (tragic Carole Landis) trying to help agent Victor Mature (seen in tight bathing trunks, sigh) clear his name off the list of suspects. The peerless Laird Cregar, gone too soon from a heart attack, is the hulking detective determined to pin the murder on Mature, and perfect weasel Elisha Cook, Jr. is a jittery doorman. In an unusual score choice, the love theme for Grable and Mature is "Over the Rainbow", a mere two years after WIZARD OF OZ popularized it through the pipes of Judy Garland. I wouldn't say this is essential noir, but I had a great time with it and plan on adding it to my collection. While SCREAMING was a lot of fun, PHANTOM LADY was one of those movies like SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS that completely blew my mind. Long unavailable and rarely screened on TCM, this needs to be seen by any serious fan of the genre. Director Robert Siodmak is pretty much synonymous with quality noir, so why this remains such a hidden gem of his filmography is unknown to me (though I suspect it has everything to do with distributor Universal, generally quite hands-off with their catalog titles). Alan Curtis is wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and it's up to his stenographer, Ella Raines, to find the mysterious title character he claims is his alibi. What sounds like a simple story is amplified into greatness with stunning shadowy photography, a mesmerizing sequence in a jazz club with drummer Elisha Cook, Jr., plentiful sequences of suspense and dread, and most of all Raines' captivating performance as the female sleuth (unusual in noir films). I posted clips of this from YouTube onto my page because I think more people should see it. I don't know if seeing it on video will have the same power, but sitting in that darkened theater, engrossed in the taut drama of Raines' search for the truth, was one of the most thrilling movie going experiences of my life.
The unforgettable jazz club scene from "Phantom Lady"
Watch it now
Sep. 11 - Film Forum - PAY OR DIE (1960) w/ THE NAKED CITY (1948) - Escaping from the crowds plaguing the streets of New York City on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I found this double feature to be only a lop-sided affair. PAY OR DIE, telling the true story of early NYPD lieutenant Joseph Petrosino dealing with the 'Black Hand' in 1900's Manhattan, is a fine star vehicle for Ernest Borgnine, but when he becomes a romantic leading man to pre-JESSICA Zohra Lampert, the film takes a detour into the unbelievable. One particular sequence stands out, a gripping assassination attempt outside a store; this is otherwise merely serviceable entertainment. THE NAKED CITY, on the other hand, was truly ahead of its time, a stylishly superb police procedural shot on the streets of New York when most films were still using unconvincing sound stages. There is a gritty realism permeating every frame of this film, and it still stands the test of time. It later became a popular 50s TV series which challenged the censors with its violent content (much like the equally great "M Squad"). This is pure pulpy fun, easily recommendable and unforgettable! It was during this movie I became a New York movie goer: a group of twentysomethings sat in the row in front of me and were laughing at parts of the movie that are supposed to be humorous (director Jules Dassin injects a number of comic moments to lighten the mood, all successfully done). A woman directly in front of me kept shushing them whenever they laughed. Finally she did it one too many times and I kicked the back of her seat. She turned and glared at me and I said, "Stop that!!" She turned to her boyfriend to see if he was going to do something, but he didn't care and probably knew she was being a pain in the ass, too.
Sep. 13 - Film Forum - CRY OF THE CITY (1948) w/ DETECTIVE STORY (1951) - Another unequal double feature. CRY OF THE CITY, another rarity long unavailable, was the star attraction here and it was a sore disappointment. Victor Mature is a cop pursuing cop killer Richard Conte; the film takes this basic concept and tries building sympathy for both parties, unsuccessfully. Conte is a manipulative psychopath and Mature is a cold authority figure. It's hard to root for either of them, frankly, and the film just drags to a violent climax. The highlight was surprisingly not Shelley Winters in an early role, but hulking she-beast Hope Emerson (CAGED) as a long in the tooth masseur. DETECTIVE STORY was a vast improvement, though its stage origins were obvious throughout (the film rarely leaves the squad room). The audience sees a number of different cases in the day of an NYPD squad room, including Lee Grant (Oscar-nominated and should have won) as a flighty shoplifter, a young man who stole from his employer to impress a rich love interest, a psychopathic thief with a rap sheet revealed to include murder, and a smug abortionist who just might get off scot-free for killing women on his table. Kirk Douglas is the violent detective determined to get the doctor sent to the gas chamber. Douglas is typically over the top, but Eleanor Parker as his wife is quite amazing. If you only know her as the Countess in SOUND OF MUSIC, you likely have no idea how powerful an actress she could be. This was a screening where some movie geek began bitching at an employee that they hadn't advertised it would be projected from 16mm. Hey, you obnoxious prick, sit down and shut up! Just watch the fucking movie!
Scene-stealer Lee Grant and character actor extraordinaire Bert Freed in "Detective Story"
Sep. 14 - Film Forum - THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) - The NYPD Festival ended with this 40th anniversary screening from a new print; cool kids Anna Murphy and Jackie Pinkowitz came with me to take in this still-impressive Friedkin thriller. I admit to not being a big fan of this film from seeing it on video. I didn't get why we were supposed to care about Gene Hackman's 'Popeye Doyle' or get that invested in the drug ring investigation. But seeing it projected in front of me, it clicked. Now I love this film. And that chase scene...still a white-knuckle thrill ride 40 years later! Whew! Gene Hackman, by the way, is all kinds of sexy in this. Don't ask me to explain it. He just is.
Sep. 16 - 92Y Tribeca - ABBY (1974) - This was one of the greatest nights of my life because I got to meet two of my dearest, oldest Internet buddies, Joseph DiPietro and Anthony Vitamia, as well as new buddy David Austin and legendary Keith Crocker, and stayed out till 5AM wandering the city. It was so much fun I almost forgot I saw a movie, too! The blaxploitation cash-in on THE EXORCIST was screened from Crocker's personal 16mm print, worn and red, but that's the sign of an incredible journey this film has had over the years. The finale is way too long, but Carol Speed's over the top performance and William Marshall insisting on bringing class to this cheap production ensure it's otherwise consistently entertaining.
Sep. 17 - Regal Union Square - DRIVE (2011) - Taking a break from the repertory theaters, the Cool Kids took a trip to the movies to see this excellent thriller from BRONSON director Nicolas Winding Refn. Ryan Gosling is a nameless stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals in L.A. He finds himself in over his head when he attempts to help neighbor Carey Mulligan (good but woefully miscast) and her fresh out of prison hubby. "Mad Men" fans take note: Christina Hendricks is decent but has three whole scenes. Albert Brooks is a total surprise as a seemingly mild-mannered mobster with a dark streak when he gets down to business. Easily one of my favorite films of the year, and that soundtrack is to die for!
Sep. 23 - Tisch Cinema Studies Cinematheque - STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) - The Tisch Cinema Studies department has weekly Friday night screenings of films on 16mm prints from the university's collection. This was their first and I've not yet been back to see subsequent screenings, but it's a great idea, especially when they precede the film with cartoons and shorts like the good old days. This early noir, often written about as being the first, is pretty sloppy seen today, but has that incredible dream sequence to save it from being a complete waste. Peter Lorre (with a hideous set of teeth) is the mysterious title character who murders the neighbor of reporter John McGuire and disappears, leaving McGuire the main suspect. Don't even get me started on the ridiculous ending. You can do much better than this in the genre, but as the proposed "first", it's one you should probably see once.
Sep. 24 - Museum of Modern Art - ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) - MoMA spent all of September scheduling a Roman Polanski retrospective, showing all of his films, including the underrated FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and TENANT and the very obscure WHY?. It was perfect timing that my two favorites showed back to back on the last weekend of the month. I went to both with Anna Murphy, providing the opportunity to go to MoMA's movie theater (11 W. 53rd St.) for the first time. A $50 student membership gets you free admission to the galleries, the theater, all special exhibits, and $5 guest tickets over the standard $25 for adults, $14 for students. Best deal in town! It had been a long time since I'd seen ROSEMARY'S BABY, so I was unprepared for some of the twists and turns throughout. It's fun seeing a classic horror film like this with an audience, especially when some haven't ever seen it. The jolts still work, Mia Farrow is endearing and perfectly cast as the pregnant newlywed who discovers sinister forces around her, and I finally understood the moments of humor Polanski infused throughout. A practically perfect film.
Sep. 25 - Museum of Modern Art - CHINATOWN (1974) - I've always felt this film is one of the finest of 1970s American cinema, and I left the theater still sticking with that thought. Another great movie to see with an audience filled with people who I was surprised hadn't seen it before. Actually, this screening was sold out, something I did not expect to happen. Anna Murphy had to rush to my rescue when I discovered I left my ticket and membership card at home (d'oh) and she had to get one for me. What more can be said about CHINATOWN? If you haven't seen it, shame on you, and get on it. This is from the days when both Nicholson and Dunaway were at their very best, Polanski was at the peak of his vision as a director, and I can honestly say this is a perfect film. I'll say that to my dying day. A mystery that you can come back to time and time again and still be surprised by.
Sep. 28 - Museum of Modern Art - DUEL IN THE SUN (1946) - When I learned MoMA was having a free screening of this Selznick disaster, how could I say no? Shot in bold Technicolor (another reason I had to see this), this is much maligned as a total misfire, an attempt by Selznick to re-capture the magic of GONE WITH THE WIND, and an expensive star vehicle for his muse (later wife) Jennifer Jones. Jones has been good in other things, and she's not all that bad here, but this is ultimately an overlong soap opera with stunning photography and little else. Lillian Gish looks embarrassed to be here; I'm also not sure how she received her only (what?!) Oscar nomination for this yet her awesome work in Laughton's NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was ignored. Gregory Peck smirks his way through an unusual villainous role, Joseph Cotten is dull as the "good love interest", and only Walter Huston registers with any moments of pathos or emotional resonance. Have to say, though, that ridiculous overwrought finale is one for the record books. The entire audience around me in the theater were senior citizens who just loved every minute. If they felt something, the film can't be entirely unsuccessful...maybe it's a generational thing.
Sep. 29 - Film Forum - MARRIAGE, ITALIAN STYLE (1959) w/ "THE TEMPTATION OF DR. ANTONIO" - My long-awaited return to Film Forum (the lady ticket taker looked at me with serious bewilderment as if I was the prodigal son) was for this de Sica dramedy that I had never seen. Like Penelope Cruz in her native Spanish language, Sophia Loren is never, ever bad in her native Italian, so I knew I'd love this and I wasn't wrong. Marcello Mastroianni is a rich lout who strings along reformed prostitute Loren with promises of marriage and eternal love for 20 years until she turns the tables on him in a superb comic revenge. However, the laughs give way to tears when Loren reveals a secret that threatens to ruin the both of them. For someone to be as beautiful as Loren and be able to give equally beautiful dramatic and comic performances is a rarity. I think my earlier comparison to Cruz is valid, as long as both women stick to their native language. :) MARRIAGE was preceded by the short "film" "Temptation of Dr. Antonio", which in actuality is simply Fellini's segment from the anthology film BOCCACCIO 70. It starts off a fun spoof of moral watchdog blowhards but once milk ad billboard girl Anita Ekberg comes to life to harass uptight Peppino De Filippo, the joke has worn thin and I just wanted the Sophia Loren film to start. That said...Ekberg is a whole lotta woman! They don't make 'em like her anymore, or Loren, for that matter.
Oct. 2 - Museum of Modern Art - BLACK HAIR (1964) & A DAY OFF (1968) - Because these were free screenings, I saw no problem spending a Sunday afternoon trekking to MoMA to see two black and white Korean films from the 1960s that I knew virtually nothing about. And it was a trip worth taking because I loved both films. The brief description I found for BLACK HAIR on-line described it as a noirish crime film, and seeing as I had no idea Korea produced anything resembling noir, I had to see it. It did not disappoint. A mobster's wife is brutally scarred as punishment for her supposed philandering behind his back (she was in fact being raped by an opium addict), and she must turn tricks to make ends meet. A romance blossoms with a taxi driver client, but the unfinished business with her ex-husband must be settled before they can live happily ever after. The film does give way to melodrama in many sequences, but leading lady Jeong-suk Moon is amazing and the photography consistently striking. I wasn't sure if I was going to stick around for A DAY OFF, fearing it would harsh my buzz off BLACK HAIR, and while it wasn't as good, I found its history made viewing pretty much essential. Shot in 1968 but not released due to censorship problems until 2005 (!), this well-acted character piece focuses on a couple and their struggle over whether the woman should get an abortion or not. Some scenes become so turgidly melodramatic my eyes hurt from rolling so much, but eventually the film stabilizes in mood and it becomes a gripping piece about the wandering youth of the 1960s. I was struck by how marvelous the original scores for both films were. But considering how obscure the features themselves are, I hold out no hope in finding their soundtracks. :(
Oct. 3 - Film Forum - THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) - Another 40th anniversary screening, this is, like CHINATOWN, a film I consider one of the best American films of the 1970s. Seeing it in a theater confirmed it for me. What happened to Peter Bogdanovich? It's as if he ran out of things to say or stories to tell after a very brief spotlight. Every performance is brilliant in this film, from the criminally underrated Timothy Bottoms as the drifting football player to Jeff Bridges as his love sick best friend, Cybill Sheperd as the vixenish prettiest girl in town and Ellen Burstyn as her fun-loving mother hiding a broken heart, Eileen Brennan as the wise restaurant owner and Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion, the town legend, and Cloris Leachman (before she became typecast as a horny funny grandmother type) as the wallflower married woman in a role that won her a deserved Oscar. Her final scene still makes me cry, and I was a baby in the theater. Plus you get two S.F. Brownrigg actors (Bill Thurman, KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN & Jessie Lee Fulton, DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT!) and Kimberly Hyde of THE CHEERLEADERS. My experience seeing this was almost sullied when an elderly woman decided out of all the empty seats in the theater to sit next to me, plopping her behind on my hand as it rested in the seat to my right. But even she couldn't ruin this experience of the sublime kind.
Since I arrived in New York City to study in New York University's Cinema Studies masters program, I've tried seeing as many movies as I can. I keep a large pile of movie tickets on my dresser and add to them sometimes daily. Here is a very lengthy report of all the movies I've seen from Sep. 1 (my birthday and first NYC movie day) through Oct. 3. Subsequent reports will be shorter, as I plan on updating on a weekly basis. Check back often! I might also post little thoughts on upcoming movies or festivals or screenings or special events, too.