Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Month in Movies: September 1 - Oct 3 2011

This is a lot to read...but this is how many movies I've seen in a theatrical setting since I arrived in the city. I've also added links to where you can buy these if they're on DVD in the US. You can also click some of the posters and pictures to see the trailers or clips from the films.

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 LinkSIDEWALK 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"
Trailer here

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. :(

Rare poster for "Black Hair"

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.


  1. Great first post! I'd attend the showings at the MoMA and the IFC Center...but I don't have enough money. But still...interesting reviews!

  2. Also...I'm so sorry that we couldn't get your opinion on the great "Cruising."