Monday, January 31, 2011

NOIR CITY rundown

The wrap-up of the annual Noir City festival leaves this writer with mixed emotions. The festival's customary gaudy, self-aggrandizing showmanship continued unabated, which may be an inducement to a number of the festival's loyal, diehard fans, but has always left me cold. I have no interest in winning prizes, in the stale jokes surrounding this (or any) year's Miss Noir City, or in the tired, TIRED wisecracks of the hosts. As dire as a more po-faced presentation would be, I can't help but feel that the irreverence with which Eddie Muller and co. continue to approach the films they purport to love so much only diminishes them, and stokes the unfortunate tendency of the Castro Theatre audience to regard the films in a campier light than necessary (though it seems I'm not alone in feeling so - one patron, during a screening of SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR... made my day by yelling in response to the titters that were steadily streaming through the audience, as did the woman who meekly offered: "I concur.")

That said, my consternation with the Film Noir Foundation's self-congratulation (and the same they cultivate in their audience) doesn't blind me to the nobility of their mission, or the quality of the films they present. There is a thrill that comes with these particular films unrolling during the usually cold month of January (among other things, it's nice to see Anita Monga, ousted years ago from her position as the Castro's programmer, bringing her curatorial intelligence back to its screen). The festival's balancing of classic noir (such as Otto Preminger's ANGEL FACE) with recently restored classics (like festival-closer THE HUNTED, starring actor/ice skater Belita) is as knowing and strong as ever, and the chance to catch up with favorite films and take in new films to the canon is, indeed, precious.

What I saw, briefly:

GASLIGHT - less a noir film than a murky period drama, the film of Patrick Hamilton's play benefits from solid characterizations, including one of my favorite performances from Joseph Cotten, believably smitten and, unlike Holly Martins, able to do right by the film's embattled heroine. I'm probably alone in wanting to see James Wan remake it.

STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT - cheap but credible Republic Gothic, with a returning WWII soldier tracking down his lady pen pal only to become enmeshed in the increasingly insane schemes of her mother (a gloriously unhinged Helen Thimig). Beautifully paced and packed into 56 suspenseful minutes by director Anthony Mann, but where similar stories would end with a house on fire, the danger of this one culminates with a painting falling on somebody. Beautiful.

THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS - For reasons I don't understand, Muller apologized for this one in advance. But Humphrey Bogart is completely believable as a conflicted, artist-blocked painter, as is Barbara Stanwyck as his increasingly concerned and endangered spouse. The reveal of the portrait is a truly unsettling show-stopper - I wonder what became of the actual painting.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS - made the name of director Joseph H. Lewis, and it's easy to see why. If it's too similar to GASLIGHT (the setting of the "madness" theme for the festival resulted in a few cases of deja vu), its inversion of the amnesia storyline makes for some powerful suspense.

SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR... - sorry to hear of the backstage conflicts between Fritz Lang and his creative team. If it's less visually ambitious than even the weirdest of his Hollywood films, it remains an assured and creepy take on the Bluebeard myth, with a lovely, dreamy Joan Bennett confronting the inner demons of perfect stranger Michael Redgrave. This one ends in flames. Muller and crew's insistence that the film is "incomprehensible" demeans it and them - the psychological throughline is completely credible, and its mirror to actual events in architectural history is fascinating (and I hope D., my fellow fancier of fetish and film, will sound off on these elements in the comments).

BLIND ALLEY - a very intriguing early Hollywood foray into the Freudian realm, with hostage psychologist Ralph Bellamy probing the psyche of desperate gangster Chester Morris.

ANGEL FACE - attractive but innocent fall guy: Robert Mitchum. Alluring but deadly femme fatale: Jean Simmons. Obsessed and overbearing filmmaker: Otto Preminger. Feeling that Mitchum is just utterly, completely fucked: Check. In some ways a by-the-numbers noir, but each of the tropes is so beautifully, even realistically realized that it just carries you down its spiral. The unhappy ending so often promised by Muller finally, gloriously manifests here.

THE HUNTED - there's something charming about how, in Monogram's grab for respectability after its rebirth as Allied Artists, the studio put so much faith in ice skater Belita as an A-lister. She's paired here with Preston Foster as the tough but smitten cop who sent her to prison. Though I couldn't really buy Foster in this role (he's fine as a cop, but too old and too grizzled to carry a torch for anyone for quite that long), there's something about Belita's not-quite-A-list looks, something real about her charms that carried me along. And the obligatory ice-skating sequence is just charming.

On balance, I'm pleased that Noir City continues, and I'm glad I got to see a third of the festival's total offerings. And yet for the first time we saw signs that the future is catching up to the venerable fest. The night he introduced THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS Muller mused that in addition to being the first time many of the audience had seen the film theatrically, it will more than likely be their last. Whatever my issues with Mr. Muller, I happily acknowledge that he's closer to aspect of the film exhibition game than I, and to hear such an enthusiastic proponent of film preservation and exhibition so tentative about the future of the festival in particular and exhibition in general does give one pause.

But hey, as long as the Film Noir Foundation continues to fight the good fight in keeping these films in the public eye and up on screen, I'll happily go see them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Your proprietor was smitten with this film as soon as Stacie Ponder posted the above image during the stellar Shocktober list-o-rama last year. The name rang a bell from my (now-ended) years of MST3K viewing, but some research showed that it was based on a story by Theodore Sturgeon (an accomplished science fiction writer, and author of some fine episodes of OG Star Trek). And it was not available on video. But some stalwart soul grabbed it on the SciFi Channel back in the day, and put it up on YouTube in eight parts. And so tonight, recovering from an illness, I finally went through the thing chapter by chapter.

And the thing just moves, briskly introducing an otherworldly menace that sets down among a half dozen American construction workers on a Pacific island, infecting one of their vehicles with malevolent life, and then setting murderously upon them one after another. At 75 minutes it's a novella-length film, suffering from none of the padding or dead spots that plague similar made-for-cable productions today and benefiting from richly (if economically) written characters, salt of the earth men played by salt of the earth actors. Each actor makes the most of the morsels given him, including some downright Hemingwayesque philosophizing.

Which plays into one of the film's strengths: these characters behave in completely logical ways given the bizarre circumstances they're in. They're stunned with disbelief. They mourn. They bicker. They drink. They confiscate alcohol. They fight. They joke. They share their darkest, deepest thoughts. In one devastating moment, one resignedly closes his eyes as mechanized death bears down upon him. And in the last minutes, the survivors scramble to make a last, desperate grab for life.

The film's joke-status notwithstanding, there's much to be appreciated here, even (especially) from a non-ironic perspective. The movie doesn't try to live down its low budget, but delivers an economical and thrilling little story that it's smart enough to reach. If The Criterion Collection decided to release this on disc, complete with the Sturgeon story in a booklet (like they did with Patriotism or Mr. Arkadin) and maybe (just spitballing here) an optional new audio track by someone like, say, Robin Rimbaud, I'd pre-order that sucker immediately.

Monday, January 17, 2011


An invitation from comely classmate Natsuki brings young Kenji to the Japanese countryside, where he tries to balance working remotely on the super-social-network Oz with the challenges posed by Natsuki's family (particularly her formidable grandmother). But all of these concerns quickly evaporate in the face of a threat posed by the Love Machine, a sinister program that Kenji unwittingly unleashes upon Oz and the world.

The latest feature from venerated anime producers Madhouse, Summer Wars is an absolute delight. Madhouse runs riot in the scenes set in Oz, with colorful icons waging ongoing battle against the escalating threat of the Love Machine. But the film's real world sequences are every bit as moving. The film's extended supporting cast, including what feels like twenty members of Natsuki's family, are all vividly realized, and each has a role to play in the film's intensifying battle scenes.

The comparisons that have been drawn between this film and the work of Miyazaki are misleading - the film is as madly inventive, but not rooted in Miyazaki's whimsy. The film takes in myriad genres and subgenres of Japanese film - anime cyber action dances between seasonal scenes straight out of Kurosawa. Though profoundly sensitive viewers may take issue with the film's quiet endorsement of Japanese militance, Summer Wars is a rare anime that examines Japanese traditions and values in terms of today's globally interlinked cyberworld. Your proprietor was pleased by the film's balance between its gentle attack on American isolationism and its keenly-expressed family values.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

two by Hitchcock

I CONFESS - had never seen Hitchcock's tale of a priest (Montgomery Clift) forced to keep mum about a murder confessed to him - a lovely series of lesser-seen Hitchcock films unfurling at the Castro Theatre's helping me fill in some blanks. I liked this film - was pleasantly surprised at the ensemble nature of the film, less centered on our conflicted hero than taking in all of the people in his orbit, including the authorities brought in to investigate the case and the surrounding community. Strong though it often is (and unusually serious for a Hitchcock film), one does long for more contemporary characterization. In the mid-50s it was enough to simply show Clift as a priest, but we need more details these days to really understand WHY he doesn't just divulge what he knows. There's very little insight into why Clift became a priest, thus little tactile understanding of what he'd lose by breaking the seal of the confessional. A remake penned by George Pelecanos (or even Richard Price), an author with a knack for that much character detail and grounding in both religious and crime stories, would not be remiss.

ROPE - the problem of characterization continues here. It's just impossible to buy James Stewart as a professor who espouses belief in murder as a right of the superior being. But the mechanics of storytelling in the movie, presenting the action as in a single, mostly-unbroken take (save for a truly high-impact close-up) move the thing along beautifully, making for a dense and entertaining 80 minutes, the last three of which are absolutely stunning.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Your proprietor extends this open invitation to everyone who's trying to recast BLACK SWAN as a campy, overwrought, SHOWGIRLS-for-the-21st-century:

Go fuck yourselves.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

the House's top 20, 2010

The Very Top Two:


The Top 20ish:




the RED RIDING trilogy
WE WERE HERE: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco