Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Wanderers

I think I can thank The Wanderers for instilling in me a life-long love of all things 1950s and early 60s: clothes, music, cars--it's all in The Wanderers, with the added bonus of a totally swoon-worthy Ken Wahl.

Once again, we're talking about a movie that pre-teens probably shouldn't be watching, but aside from the language, and its opening sex scene, it's not nearly as dirty as the book it was based on, (which, yes, I also read way before I probably should have).

I think the success of Grease lead to a lot of 1950s nostalgia in the 1980s. We saw the rise of 50's-style diners, 80s-does-50s fashions,  and, yes, movies like The Wanderers.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Grease. While I liked the era it was set in, the whole thing just felt inauthentic--the music was all wrong; Olivia Newton John's ending outfit was more disco than rock and roll. That, and John Travolta never really did anything for me.

But The Wanderers felt real, and gritty; authentic. Plus, it's really funny.

Now, the movie does have a few problems. The introduction of Bob Dylan at the end is a little heavy-handed (and not era appropriate). Most of the criticism aimed at the movie seemed to focus on the scenes involving the Ducky Boys, the Irish gang. And it's true, most of those scenes seem like they've been lifted out of director Phillip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But those scenes have kind of grown on me. Yeah, they feel otherworldly, and like a horror movie. But I imagine that's what it would feel like if you were a Wanderer who suddenly found yourself in the realm of scary, switchblade-wielding Irish gang members who seem to magically multiply.

I recently went to a sing-along showing of West Side Story, and I'd never really put the two together, but The Wanderers owes a lot to it. Take out the singing and dancing, and you've got a really similar movie: New York gangs preparing for a rumble. Gang member falls in love with a girl outside his realm. The gangs even have similar gang whistles.

That said, The Wanderers is a much better movie that everyone should see. Except, you probably can't. The DVD is out of print, and not available on Netflix. Can't watch it via Amazon either. You CAN watch a crappy version on YouTube, in 10 or 15 minute increments, which is how I rewatched it, (the only version I have is a crappy VHS copy), and I guess that's better than nothing. In the meantime, I'll keep my fingers crossed for some kind of special edition or Criterion release to happen one day

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wolves Are The New Great White Shark: The Grey

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Judging from the title, and a trailer featuring Liam Neeson amongst a grizzled cast of two and four-legged creatures, I assumed The Grey was about a guy who fights wolves with his grey hair, and some bottles of tiny airplane booze. Turns out, that's pretty much correct!

Neeson stars as Ottway, a wolf sniper working at what appears to be some kind of refinery in Alaska. His job is to shoot wolves that get to close to the workers. He's also suicidal, which isn't the best state of mind for a guy who carries a gun for a living.

The men he works with are identified as losers, ex-cons, and society's cast-offs. Nights at the local watering hole seem to erupt into brawls on a routine basis, and don't do much for Ottway's state of mind. He is forever pining after a woman, presumably his wife, who is no longer in the picture, and he clutches a note he's written to her, repeatedly reading and re-writing it via voice-over.

But when the plane carrying him and a dozen or so co-workers crashes in the snowy Alaskan pit of nowhere, Ottway's suicidal tendencies are cast aside, and a will to live kicks in. This is a good thing, since they have no way to contact help, a blizzard's on the way, and Ottway and the survivors are being stalked by wild wolves.

The good news, obviously, is that Ottway kills wolves for a living. The bad news is, he doesn't have a gun. Thus he must lead his band of men to safety using his wits, an understanding of the hunting behavior or wolves, and a whole lot of hope.

Soon, the number of survivors begins to shrink, and the number of wolves begins to grow. Apparently, if this movie and the 2010 horror flick Frozen are any indication, wolves want nothing more out of life than to eat as many people as possible. Wolves are the new great white shark.

About 30 minutes into the movie I realized it was pointless to try and remember any of the names of the surviving men following Neeson to their dooms, but can tell you Dermot Mulroney, Alicia Florrick's brother, and, (briefly), the dude from "Rubicon" are amongst them.

When explaining the plot to a friend, his immediate reaction was, "Wow. Why would anyone want to sit through that?," and he has a point. This is not a feel good movie. Neeson's character is a depressive suffering a crisis of faith, there's a guarantee not all of his fellow survivors are going to make it out alive, and even if they do, it's not like their lot in life was that great a thing to return to.

It's like a really depressing episode of "Man Vs. Wild," paired with The Edge, that weird survival film starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.

On the other hand, there are moments of genuine thrills, Neeson gives a riveting performance, and he does eventually fight a wolf with nothing but a knife and tiny broken bottles of airplane booze. (Although, come on. Doesn't writer and director Joe Carnahan know they only serve booze in tiny plastic bottles now?)

As a foot note: I always stay until the end of the credits, even if the credits are in another language. I do it partly because I'm just OCD, and feel the need to see every minute of a movie, and I also do it because you never know when the director might tack on something at the very end. At The Grey press screening I went to, I was the last person to leave the theater, and, indeed, there is a little something tacked on to the end of the movie, and it actually might be kind of important, although, I couldn't exactly say how. So, if you do make it through this long, cold, and bleak film, try and stick it out just a little bit longer...and then explain to me what the hell that last bit was all about.

Monday, January 23, 2012

We Went and Had a TV Party That Night (All Right!)

Growing up, movies seemed to be part of my birthday celebrations a lot. I have fond memories of going with a bunch of friends to see Superman on one birthday, and Star Wars on another.

As I got older, these parties moved out of the theater, and in to my living room, and January 23rd, 1982 was one of those birthdays where I gathered a bunch of friends for a sleepover and forced them over the course of two days to watch The Wanderers, Halloween, Times Square, Carrie, and An American Werewolf in London. And all of those movies, save Times Square, (kind of), were really not what you'd typically be showing a room full of 11 and 12-year-olds.

But, as far as I know, none of those friends was permanently scarred or altered by watching those movies, (but if you're an old friend reading this, and were, please lay in to me about it!), so I'm going to deem the evening a perfectly acceptable slumber party.

Since there are so many movies involved on that date, and since it is, once again, my birthday week--and I'm not having a movie party this time, but am, instead, at Disneyland, which is, kind of amusingly, something I actually never did as a kid to celebrate my birthday, but have done several times as an adult--I'm going to spread out discussion of those films over several days.

In the meantime, here's a moment from The Wanderers, a movie I must have watched at least 20 times in my lifetime. (At least!) Don't fuck with the Wongs!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Halloween II

On Saturday, January 16th, 1982, I went to see Halloween II for the second time.

And I have no memory of it.

So last week I went to the library--something I had mentioned in a previous post I might do--to look up old movie listings in the local papers.

It was a lot of fun! I didn't have time to look every movie up I need to, so I'll be going back, which is fine by me. It's kind of cool utilizing a clunky old medium in this digital age: All their newspapers are on microfilm, so you have to load each roll up on the machine, get it centered, and zoooooom through to the date you want. You can print out from the machines, but I just chose to take notes. (And one photo.)

So, according to the Chronicle's movie listings for that day, Halloween II--which had come out in October of '81, was playing at the Royal Theater on Polk Street, and at the Spruce Drive-In. (You can see a picture of the Spruce at this article about old S.F. theaters.) I can't be sure, but I would guess I saw it at the Royal.

I also have no memories of where I saw it the first time, which I imagine was right after it came out, since I was a big fan of the first Halloween (which I had only seen on VHS, at that point). But I do remember being a tad disappointed by it. For one, I was forever distracted by Jamie Lee Curtis's incredibly bad wig. For another, it just felt like another of the countless rip-offs the first movie had spawned.

And there was also the whole "She's his sister!" plot point that was thrown in. I think at the time, I wasn't that bothered by it, and probably kind of liked that it "made sense;" that there was a reason Michael Myers was so relentless in his pursuit.

But I realized on later viewings that it actually harms the first film. It's much scarier to think that this guy is just randomly killing women in his home town, and there is no rational reasoning to it.

Ironically, some of the biggest criticisms the sequel got was that it was too gory and gratuitous; that it threw out everything that made the first film memorable, and was just another dumb slasher movie with a higher body count.

This is ironic because, if you are to believe the following article from "Cinefantastique" magazine, which I saved a copy of, all of these gory additions were the work of John Carpenter himself, who wasn't actually the film's director. (Click image for a larger view.)

Maybe it's true. Maybe it isn't. Perhaps Carpenter just thought he was adding what the audience would want, seeing as how gorier ripoffs were making money at the time. But there's a lot more wrong with the movie than the added gore, including a lack of compelling characters; the fact that the hospital Laurie's trapped in doesn't appear to have any other patients (aside from a ward full of babies); and a real meanness at the (spoiler alert!) killing of a guy who Laurie obviously likes, and who seems to like her, too.

As for this last point, interestingly, when the movie is shown on TV, it sometimes has a different ending, one that's a little more upbeat (albeit pretty silly)...

I'll end this post with two reviews of the movie I found saved in my book. Neither are mine, (I guess I wasn't compelled to write one at the time), but one is, I believe, also from "Cinefantastique" magazine, and the other is from an issue of "Trashola."

Halloween II is definitely a failure, as far as sequels goes. But it's still a hell of a lot better than the many sequels and remakes that followed, including the only other one to star Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween H20. (And which I saw opening weekend at the AMC on Van Ness. Just for the record.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Lot Of Dumb Fun: Contraband

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Let me start with the bad news: Contraband is a crime thriller starring Mark Wahlberg, in which Wahlberg neither walks around shirtless, nor talks to animals.

But despite those deficits, the movie's still pretty good. (Of course, this is January, a notorious month for movie dumping, so "good" is relative.)

Wahlberg stars as Chris Farraday, a former smuggler--of goods, not drugs--who has gone legit in his hometown of New Orleans, now running a home security business. He's living a life of suburban comfort across the river in Algiers, with his wife Kate, (Kate Beckinsale), and their two young sons.

But when Kate's none-too-bright little brother, (Caleb Landry Jones), screws up a smuggling job of his own, Farraday steps in to help pay off the debt to scummy drug dealer Tim Brigss, (Giovanni Ribisi, whose Mephistopheles goatee is almost as ridiculous as his "New Orleans" accent).

With the help of his best friend, and former smuggling partner, Sebastian, (Ben Foster), Farraday puts together a crew and boards a cargo ship to Pananma, (Captained by J.K. Simmons), in order to pull off One Last Job, and pay of his brother-in-law's debt.

All of this is fairly standard heist film fodder, but director Baltasar Kormákur--who starred in, but did not direct, the original Icelandic film this is based on--manages to keep the story moving along at a brisk pace, complete with shoot-outs, chase scenes, and some third act twists.

Those are the things standard to a movie like this. But what Kormákur does differently is what will either make you like the movie, or hate it.

Everything you know about the characters comes from what they say or do in the present. Aside from some brief talk between Farraday and Sebastian at the beginning of the movie, in which they talk about how they smuggled a Ferrari into the country, a job that helped earn them the title of "the Lennon and McCartney" of smuggling, you don't know much about what they did, when they did it, or how they did it. There's no requisite flashback sequence filling the audience in on any of it.

So, when Farraday finds himself in Panama on that final job, you really have no idea if he's going to be a ruthless guy, or someone who just wants to get a job done as cleanly and quickly as possible, at all cost. Is he a nice smuggler? Is there such a thing?

Back in the states, his best friend Sebastian is placed in charge of protecting his wife and kids, but, once again, because we don't know that much about this guy to begin with, what we eventually do learn ends up being much more surprising because of that.

Unfortunately, the place this kind of shallow character creation doesn't work is with the character of Kate, Farraday's wife. Kate Beckinsale does her best to give some balls to a character who is really not much more than a Thing That Must Be Protected, but ultimately she's a victim and not much else.

The film's got what one wants from an action flick starring Mark Wahlberg: ass-kicking; questionable morality; that thing he does where his voice gets higher the angrier he gets; plus it's got the added bonus of an inexplicable--and hilarious--inclusion of a Jackson Pollock painting. So even without the presence of animals or naked abs, Contraband is a lot of dumb fun.

Insufferably Privileged: Carnage

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Roman Polanski's Carnage, which is based on Yasmina Reza's prize-winning play, God of Carnage, might be perfect proof that some stage plays just can't work as movies, because if one of the most acclaimed directors of our time can't make it work, I doubt anyone could.

The story is rather simple: Two sets of New York parents get together in one of their homes to calmly discuss an altercation that had occurred between their 11-year-old sons. Their boys got in a fight, and one boy hit the the other with a stick, knocking out some teeth.

The parents of the injured boy are Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), and it's in their home that the meeting occurs. The parents of the stick-wielding boy are Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz).

Penelope and Michael seem to be, at first, slightly on the granola side; liberal, artsy, and down-to-earth. Nancy and Alan, on the other hand, appear prim, conservative, and bombastic, as Alan, a lawyer, is forever taking calls on his cell-phone trying to avert a crisis with a pharmacological company client.

While the goal of the afternoon is calm discussion, it, of course, eventually devolves into screaming, fighting, and name-calling, and this is where the comedy comes in.

Or should come in, and therein lies the movie's fatal flaw. It seems perhaps no one told Polanski Carnage is a comedy, or the director has just completely lost the feel for comedy he has displayed in such past movies as The Tenant, Fearless Vampire Killers, and even Rosemary's Baby, (another movie kinda sorta about two New York couples). And to watch God of Carnage without the comedy is to watch nothing but an uncomfortable afternoon of fighting between four insufferably privileged parents.

But I think the issue might be that this kind of talky ensemble comedy is simply better suited to the stage. Some lines are just inherently funnier when they're spoken in the loud bravado a stage setting requires, and the comedy of those lines can be completely squashed when stated by an actor whose face is in a tight close-up.

Unless you're just setting up a camera and filming a stage play, the performance of said play has to be different when performed for a movie. If done as broadly as a stage play has to be, it can be overbearing, and tiring to watch. Jodie Foster, during her character's more angry moments, feels like she's performing to a live audience that isn't there, with an intensity that is uncomfortable instead of comedic.

Kate Winslet has a moment that, if performed on stage, is probably much more shocking, and therefore funny, than it comes across on screen, simply because of the setting. (I don't want to spoil the moment because, while it ultimately doesn't work the way it's intended to, it's still surprising.)

Speaking of Winslet, her American accent has always been the verbal equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to me, and she's paired with Christoph Waltz, who is Austrian, but seems to be trying to mask that accent in a way that's really distracting. Which is a shame, because his character is ultimately the most entertaining one, first coming across as above the charade of amicable discussion, and then gleefully digging in for an afternoon of bitter exchanges fueled by liquor, until the tables are turned on him.

John C. Reilly's affable everyman, who turns out to be filled with a lot more rage than you'd think, doesn't quite make that transition believable, and really made me wish I had been able to see James Gandolfini's turn in the role on Broadway.

In the original play, the incident between the boys isn't something the audience is witness to, but Polanski, in what I imagine is an ill-fated attempt to "open the play up," presents the incident in a single-take wide shot at a park at the beginning of the movie, and then bookends it with a similar scene at the very end, once again showing the boys at the park. But while the scenes are meant to be ambiguous, they are in no way as ambiguous to the story as not having the scene there at all would be, a point which is actually a very integral aspect of the play as a whole.

Ironically, instead of opening the play up, Polanski has made a movie that feels insular and one-sided; full of too much carnage, and not enough comedy.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Ghost Story

On Saturday, January 9th, 1982, my parents and I went to see Ghost Story at the Royal Theater on Polk Street.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: Ghost Story is a mess of a movie, and even as an eleven-year-old, I was able to recognize that fact, which you'll see proof of in a moment. It's not very scary, way too reliant on gross-out effects, and basically a waste of the talents of four Hollywood legends. There is, however, one good thing in it: Alice Krige is suitably spooky and odd as the ghostly love interest. She almost makes it worth watching.

And what makes the movie's badness even more crushing is that it's based on the really, really great scary novel by Peter Straub. I'm pretty sure I didn't read the book until after I saw the movie, (and even recall writing a book report about it). I loved it, and have re-read it a few times since then, and I highly recommend it to any fan of horror fiction.

So, since there really isn't much to say about this one, (I did re-watch it on cable last year; it still sucks), I'll try and entertain with some historic images instead.

As I mentioned in my first post, along with my movie ledger, I began to keep a scrap book I called my "Genre Book," in which I kept clipped newspaper ads, movie reviews, and anything else pertinent to any horror, science fiction, or fantasy film that was appropriately "genre."

It didn't last long, but I did have some stuff about Ghost Story in it, including these two ads, (one has a list of NYC theaters showing the movie, so it must be from the Village Voice, which my dad read).

There's also a couple of capsule reviews. This is from the Chronicle's "Pink Section," and the Little Man is suitably asleep.

The other capsule review is from the zine "Trashola," which I was a big fan of. It was a self-published zine by a guy named Jim Morton, and you could find it for free around town at record shops and comic book stores. It was pretty awesome, and a big influence on me. (Click for larger size.)

(Jim Morton went on to contribute to the Re/Search Incredibly Strange Films book, and is still around, writing about movies and popping up on podcasts here and there.)

Also included in this scrapbook were a few of my own movie reviews. And yes, they are as embarrassing as you'd imagine movie reviews written by an eleven and twelve-year-old would be. I consider myself very brave for including this personal Ghost Story review here, so please refrain from any snide comments regarding my prose stylings and how they haven't improved much in thirty years. KTHX.

So, while the movie Ghost Story was a total disappointment, at least it inspired me to try and describe that disappointment in words, something it seems I continue to do on a semi-weekly basic 30 years later.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Body Heat

The second sex-filled movie I saw on that fateful day in 1982 was Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat. And while a lot of the sex in American Gigolo was implied, there's nothing subtle about the sex in Body Heat. At all. (Again, here's a totally NSFW clip, dubbed in Italian, of the film's first love scene.)

And yes, I suppose this really wasn't a movie an eleven-year-old should have been seeing, but to me, the sex was just something slightly embarrassing I had to sit through to get to the good parts, which were the dialogue and funny bits, and it's those things that led to me re-watching the movie over and over again. (In fact, I still know this movie so well that I can tell you a moment in the trailer above, which also seems to be featured in the clip's screen grab, isn't in the final movie at all.)

Another thing that kept me coming back to it is this scene featuring Mickey Rourke. A few months later I'd see him again in Diner, and a full-on crush would be born. But it's here that he made his first impression, by totally stealing this scene from William Hurt.

I wish I could find some clips of the movie's dialogue, because it's as good as anything in classic noirs, if a tad on the blue side, but here's an example:

Matty: My temperature runs a couple of degrees high, around a hundred. I don't mind. It's the engine or something.

Ned: Maybe you need a tune up.

Matty: Don't tell me. You have just the right tool.

I think I can thank Body Heat for introducing me to the genre in the first place. Eventually I'd see The Big Sleep, and Double Indemnity, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and many others, and love them all as much as I loved Body Heat, and I believe the movie deserves to be in the same company with those classics. I say phooey to the critics who panned it (including Pauline Kael!) as nothing but pale imitation.

I can understand some of the criticism--that since film noir was an organic reaction to a time, and not a definable genre until years later, that any later noir is really nothing but an exercise in style--but don't really agree in this case. I think it succeeds in being both a stylish homage and a legitimate entry into the genre.

Recent viewings made me realize that for so many years I was under the impression--because he is played by William Hurt, who is not a dumb guy--that Ned Racine was intelligent, but just too emotionally and sexually wrapped up in Matty Walker to think rationally. But really, he's just plain dumb, and lives up to one of the first things Matty says to him: "You're not too smart, are you? I like that in a man." Matty may be a femme fatale, and a manipulative bitch, but that doesn't mean I didn't look up to her. I mean, at least she was smart!

Like American Gigolo, I had a Body Heat poster on my walls for years. It's a bit faded and stained now, and rolled up in a tube, but I'd still proudly display that poster today...perhaps next to a window and some wind chimes...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

American Gigolo

Richard Gere was the first actor I have a clear memory of being totally gaga for. Sure, I had other pre-teen crushes: Shaun Cassidy; Andy Gibb: I think even William Katt from "The Greatest American Hero" made the list. But eventually Richard Gere replaced all those blonde-haired babies, and he was the guy for me, yielding the hilarious punchline that if we were to ever get married, my name would be Rain Gere.

American Gigolo is what did it for me, and how could it not? His Julian Kaye character has perfect 80's hair; a nose that's just a little too big; a ripped, hairless chest; impeccable clothes; and to top it off, he gets TOTALLY NAKED! (Click here for a very NSFW clip of that moment, poorly dubbed in Italian.)

But really, the movie sucked me in from the very beginning, with an opening credits sequence that convinced me the only life worth living was one in which I owned a Mercedes convertible, lived in Los Angeles, and had Blondie as my constant soundtrack. (That last part was already true.)

Yes, American Gigolo is a very sexual movie, even though there aren't any graphic sex scenes in it. There is a lot of dirty talk, some nudity, and the movie is about a dude who has sex for a living, so yes. Sex permeates the film.

But I didn't find it particularly scandalous or shocking when I saw it. Then again, I was probably distracted by my personal lust for Richard Gere, so I didn't have room for shock. (Of course, at that age my fantasies merely involved Richard Gere driving me around in his Mercedes, buying me stuff, and then maybe some kissing. As a matter of fact, that's probably still what I'd consider a perfect date.)

But it wasn't just the presence of Richard Gere that made me love the movie--although it was a big part--it was also the music, and its slickness, and the whole hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold storyline that also sucked me in. (It's a little ironic that 10 years later, Richard Gere would have the biggest hit of his career when he co-starred in another movie about a Hollywood hooker, Pretty Woman--a movie, for the record, I can't stand.)

Watching it again, I can understand how some critics dismissed it as pretty and shallow, and it is probably responsible for ushering in the flashy 80's that would eventually be epitomized on TV in "Miami Vice." The murder mystery Julian Kaye gets ensnared in is basically one huge MacGuffin, and what director and writer Paul Schrader is really interested in is redemption for a character that is, at heart, about as lonely as his most famous lonely man, Travis Bickle.

The one thing that really stood out on my rewatching is an underlying homophobia I didn't really pick up on all those years ago. It's implied that Julian started out as a hustler with male clients, but eventually "moved beyond" that, and he views any return to "fag stuff" as a complete sink back to the bottom (so to speak).

The movie even ends with a visit to a gay nightclub, presented in all its lascivious glory, with loud disco music, poppers, and anonymous sex. And the film's ultimate villain is gay (although he probably wouldn't admit to that). In all, not exactly an open embrace of the gay community.

(That visit to an "underworld" club is a a common trope in film noir movies, and ultimately, American Gigolo is neo-noir, which made it a good companion piece to Body Heat, which I also saw that Saturday in January, and which I will talk about tomorrow.)

I still love American Gigolo, even with its homophobia, and moments of silliness (the love scene between Gere and Lauren Hutton is a tad too artsy and obvious). It's one of those movies I can just turn on and watch and never be bored by. I don't think I'll be rehanging my German poster on the wall any time soon, but I don't regret giving the movie a "5!" all those years ago.

Monday, January 2, 2012

There You Were, Beautiful

On January 2nd in 1982, I saw American Gigolo and Body Heat, two movies that a twelve-year-old probably shouldn't see. (ETA: And actually, I was only eleven at that point, as I wouldn't be twelve until the 25th of January!) But I loved the hell out of both of them, and they both had big influences on me. Because of that, I am going to spread my posts about them over more than one day.

At first I was trying to remember if I saw these two films on video, or as a double feature at the York, a repertory theater that used to be on 24th Street and York in the Mission. (The theater is still there, but now it's home to a live theater company called Brava!) But thanks to my littler ledger, I see that there was a price noted next to the date, ($2.50--sorry you can't see it in the scan I have), and I usually only wrote down the cost of movie admissions, not video rentals.

Of course, since American Gigolo came out in 1980, it's feasible that it was on video by then. But Body Heat was released in August of 1981, and it usually took at least a year before movies made it to video back then, so I am going to assume this was a theatrical viewing. (One day soon I'm going to go down to the main library and look at some old newspapers on microfiche--assuming such a thing still exists--and try to find some movie theater listings.)

God bless the York Theater, (which was actually called the Roosevelt when it opened in 1926). Since it was basically walking distance from where I lived, (though I don't think I ever did actually walk there, ha!), I saw a hell of a lot of great movies there in my youth, usually second run flicks. (I guess DVDs and an increase in first-run theater screens has made the second-run theater a thing of the past, although the Castro kind of fills that bill every now and then.)

Anyway, along with second run, I also saw older movies there that were either not on video at all, or hard to find for rent. The York theater and our home VCR were easily the two greatest contributors to my movie-watching youth.

I'd like to say that all my York Theater visits were either followed or preceded by a visit to the St. Francis Fountain, which was right across the street, but I actually don't remember ever combining the two. Maybe the St. Francis really sucked back then. Or maybe my parents were just really good at keeping me away from ice cream parlors. I don't really know.

I'm going to save my mullings about the actual movies for tomorrow and the day after. But to whet your appetite for my American Gigolo post, here's one of my favorite scenes from the movie. God DAMN but Richard Gere was hot.

(And a little post-script about the above: I eventually bought the soundtrack album--music by Giorgio Moroder--but the Smokey Robinson song wasn't on it. One night my parents and I decided we really needed a copy of that song, so we hopped in the car, drove down the Embarcadero freeway to North Beach, and bought a best of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles album at Tower Records. Which I still have. And THAT, kids, is what we had to do to "instantly" get music before the invention of the Internet.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Pennies From Heaven

In the 80's in San Francisco, there were two theaters one always hoped a movie would end up playing: The Northpoint on Powell, close to Fisherman's Wharf, and the Coronet, out on Geary.

They were the two biggest theaters in town, boasted 70mm and Dolby Stereo, and most importantly, were single-screened venues.

The Coronet had standard seating, as well as a "loge," which was kind of like a balcony, but not. (Basically it was the part of the theater that looks like what most theaters these days look like, the so-called "stadium seating" set-up.)

The Northpoint, on the other hand, was just straight on floor  seating. No balcony, and no loge. This was usually fine, as long as no one tall sat in front of you. Also, you wouldn't want to get stuck sitting on the side aisles, since those were the smoking sections. (I remember having to sit there in 1977 when I saw The Goodbye Girl, and the person next to me was a chain smoker, so all my memories of that movie come with a smokey haze, and the sent of tobacco.)

Pennies From Heaven was playing at the Northpoint in 1982, and I saw it with my parents on New Year's Day. It was a movie I was keen on seeing for two reasons: I loved Steve Martin, and I had a fondness for lip-syncing movie musicals.

Well, a fondness for one, a BIG fondness, for Bugsy Malone, (which I saw in 1976 at the Coronet). I loved that movie so much I wore out the soundtrack record, and could lipsync to all of its songs better than the cast members themselves did.

Pennies From Heaven ended up being a flop, and I know I found it a bit perplexing. Of course, at the time I had no real awareness of its history, since I had not been exposed to the original Dennis Potter miniseries which aired in Britain, and wouldn't be exposed to it for years to come.

It's a goddamned depressing movie--complete with rape, murder, and the gallows--and certainly wasn't the thing I expected from my favorite comedian, Steve Martin. Nonetheless, I bought the soundtrack album (and still have it!) and the movie was probably what brought classic movie musicals to my consciousness, particularly the "Let's Face the Music and Dance" sequence.

In rewatching it, I understand even more why it was a flop. For one thing, Steve Martin's character is just a creep, and it's really hard to muster up any sympathy for him. It's been a while since I saw the BBC version, but I recall finding Bob Hoskins's take on the character much more likable. I think it's because Hoskins is such a tough looking little bruiser that his love for sentimental songs softens him up unexpectedly, and even though he does some pretty egregious things, when he bursts into song, you can't help but feel a little sorry for him

Martin's Arthur is just an oversexed jerk from the very beginning, and because he's handsome to begin with, he's not enough of an underdog to warrant any rooting for.

Pennies From Heaven is definitely an R-rated movie, but it wasn't unusual for me to go to R-rated movies as a 12-year-old. (You'll soon see even more proof of that.) But the sexual stuff in Pennies, like the lipstick on the nipples moment, definitely icked me out then. And it still kind of icks me out now, mainly because, once again, it just helps paint Martin's character as creepy.

I'm not a huge fan of musicals, but when I do like them, they tend to be really depressing musicals. This falls into that camp, for sure. And while as a whole I can't say I'm a huge fan of Pennies From Heaven, I can appreciate most of its musical moments, and can definitely thank it for introducing me to Christopher Walken, song and dance man: