Monday, March 19, 2012

One From the Heart

This weekend, I read the book Left In the Dark, a collection of photos of some of San Francisco's oldest movie theaters, accompanied by a variety of essays. Some of the essays are more entertaining and informative than others, but needless to say, it plays right into this here blog, and brought back even more memories about the theaters of my youth. These pictures of the Coronet actually brought tears to my eyes; I still can't believe a theater that was home to so, so many pivotal movie moments in my life is...just not even there any more.

But reading the book also reminded me that many of these theaters are still around, and in operation. And the fact that any time I make the effort to see a movie of my own volition, (which is to say, anytime I go to a movie that isn't a preview or press screening), I automatically just go to a multiplex, well, that's kind of inexcusable. Yes, it is the easier choice; I can easily walk to all of the city's multiplex theaters, and most of them are comfortable, with good seating. But they're also soulless, and more often than not, filled with assholes.

Of course, assholes can go to older theaters too, but I just have a feeling that audiences in a neighborhood theater might be a bit more civil. And that's a theory I hope to test very soon. Sadly, a lot of these still-in-operation-theaters have been split into double plus screens, something I'll never be a fan of. But if it's that or closure, I'll settle for that. So, the next time I make a plan to see a new release, I'm going to check the local theaters first, and if it's playing at one of them, I'm going to do my best to go there.

For the record, those theaters include the Presidio, the Bridge, the Clay, the Four Star, the Vogue, the Balboa, and the Marina, which was formerly the Cinema 21, the theater in which I saw today's movie back on April 19th, 1982. (Once again, my ledger says the date was the 19th, although that was actually a Monday, so in all likelihood, I actually saw it on the 18th...)

One From the Heart is the film that drove Francis Ford Coppola to bankruptcy, and was deemed a disaster and so much folly by critics and audiences alike. But it's a film I loved then, and still do now. (At least, in its original version. But we'll get to that in a bit.)

The plot is pretty simple: Frederic Forrest and Terri Garr play a couple who have been together for years, and feel the spark has left their relationship. On the Fourth of July, they break up, and venture off on their own, looking for excitement, magic, and maybe new love, ultimately meeting some exotic new love interests along the way, (played by Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski).

Perhaps what the movie is best known for is its artifice. Set in Las Vegas, none of it was actually filmed in Las Vegas. Instead, Coppola recreated the Vegas of the day, (which you can now find at the "Fremont Street Experience" in Downtown Vegas), completely in a studio. All that neon and light you see in the movie? It's all on a studio set. That ending scene that takes place at the airport? He built an airport, complete with a jumbo jet, (or at least, the nose of one). The desert? Not actual desert.

Yeah. It's pretty nutso. But it also makes sense, given the genre of the movie. It's a musical--albeit one in which the main characters don't really sing--and like the classic musicals of Hollywood, none of it is really meant to look real. It's supposed look movie real.

He also presents much of the film like a stage musical, with lots of scenes shot in front of screens, (or scrims?), with lighting that then fades to reveal an entirely different room or set behind it. You can see the effect here...

When you think about the logistics of the thing, it's actually really impressive.

The music was written by Tom Waits, and it's performed by him and Crystal Gayle. It's the only Tom Waits album I can stand to listen to, (sorry, I think he's hilarious, and love him in movies, but I just can't deal with most of his music), and all the songs work great within the context of the movie. And because most of the characters don't burst into song, it doesn't have the off-putting awkwardness that tends to bug me with most musicals.

There is one person that sings in the film, and kind of badly. But it's also charming and appropriate, given her character...

I'm pretty sure this is the movie that introduced me to Nastassja Kinski, an actress I would become pretty obsessed with in 1982. (And I wasn't the only one; that was really her biggest year). I really can't explain why she captured me so much; I mean, she's obviously stunningly beautiful, but it was more than that. She also had genuine screen magnetism, combined with a foreign weirdness that was different from most of the movie stars of the day. (A lot of that was her accent which, being that she could speak at least five languages, was never really placeable. Sandra Bernhard did a hilarious bit about her back in her stand-up days, making special note of the way Kinski says the line "Like spit on a griddle!" in the movie.)

My favorite scenes featuring her aren't on YouTube, (including that "spit on a griddle" one), but in this one, you can see her putting her tightrope-walking skills to work, (she plays a girl who performs in a family circus).

Her character is kind of sad, and is ultimately the one you end up feeling the most sorry for. I don't know if it was written that way, or if it's the vulnerability she brings to the role, but she's really heartbreaking...

For most of the movies I write about here--assuming they are movies I actually liked--I make an attempt to re-watch them before posting. And unlike some of them, One From the Heart is a movie I actually own on DVD and could watch.

And yet, I can't bring myself to re-watch it.

When Coppola decided to release the movie in a special edition DVD back in 2004, he also took the opportunity to rework some of it. And in so doing, he almost ruined the damn thing.

I suppose someone who hasn't seen the movie as often as I have might not even notice the changes, but I did, and it really irked me. The biggest thing he did was re-edit much of it. Long takes and impressive tracking shots are instead broken up into multi-edited shots, thus ruining the fluidity, (and musicality), of many moments in the film. He also restructures much of the story, so that overlapping scenes and bits of dialogue are turned into completely separate scenes.

Why he would choose to do this is beyond me, (was he trying to modernize it?), because what was once a technically inspiring piece of filmmaking becomes something completely standard.

While I do own a VHS copy of the original movie, it is, being VHS, pretty crappy to look at, but I do like knowing I have the version of the movie that originally captivated me back in 1982.

If only I could run out to a nice old movie theater and watch it again right now...

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Laughable Reveal: Silent House

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

There are two gimmicks that propel the thriller Silent House. One is that the movie appears to be shot in one long take. (It's not). The other is that the story takes place in real time. (It does; kind of). These two gimmicks may convince you, for a while, that you're watching an exciting new take on the spooky house horror film. (You're not).

Gimmicks are nothing new to directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, whose 2003 killer shark flick Open Water succeeded largely because the use of an actual open water setting filled with real sharks elicited some visceral chills. Where it didn't succeed as well was in the performances and dialogue, a problem that ultimately sinks Silent House.

Elizabeth Olsen, last seen in the acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene, stars as Sarah, a post-high-school young woman who is helping her father, John, (Adam Trese), and uncle Peter, (Eric Sheffer Stevens), fix up the family's lakeside summer home after it's been sitting abandoned for a a few years. Squatters and vandals have broken all the windows, which are now covered up with plywood, and rats have eaten through the house's wiring, necessitating the use of electric lanterns to light one's way around the perpetually dark place.

Spooky surroundings? Set.

After a visit from a childhood friend she can't quite remember, (Julia Taylor Ross), Sarah finds herself alone in the house with her father, cleaning things out, when dad suddenly disappears after a very loud and mysterious crash shakes the house. Before long, Sarah is convinced they are not alone in there, and something bad has happened to her father. Problem is, she's locked in, and must find a way out.

The remainder of the movie consists of Sarah creeping through the house, often in almost complete darkness, being stalked by an unknown person or presence. Like many of the "verite" horror movies (Paranormal Activity, et al), most of the scares come from sudden loud noises or the surprising appearance of something or someone in the corner. Silent House has those types of scares down pat, and in that way, it's effective.

The illusion of a single take movie, and its resulting real time plot, means there's a lot of shaky, handheld camera work. Olsen is in almost every shot of the movie, and when the camera zooms in close on her absolutely terrified silent screams, its unsettling. But at other times, the image is so shaky and blurry the only think it elicits is motion sickness.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the ultimate reveal about just what that house's big bad is, the movie falters, and becomes almost laughable. I went into it knowing nothing aside from its gimmicks, and the presence of the Other Olsen sister, and I was kind of surprised, in reading about it after the fact, by how much the directors and star are giving away about the plot in interviews.

Perhaps they understand that the film's resolution is actually pretty lame, and by talking about it, audiences will go in expecting it, and not be disappointed?

The thing is, there are some really icky and sensitive topics that come up in the plot, and it seems like a lot to throw at an audience that is expecting some cheap thrills. And perhaps if the actors involved were better, and didn't deliver lines like they were the weekly villain on an episode of "Law & Order," the shock factor in the ending wouldn't come off as borderline tasteless.

But the actor who plays Sarah's father is, frankly, terrible, (which might explain why he's also a real estate agent), and the actor who plays her uncle isn't much better, and it doesn't help that the dialogue they often have to deliver is hackneyed and cringe-inducing.

Ultimately, this means Elizabeth Olsen has to carry the movie entirely on her shoulders, and as good as she is, (and she is), she just can't silence the hamminess around her.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

On Golden Pond

I mentioned that for a long time, my birthday celebrations centered on movies. Well, it seems at least one friend had the same idea, as that's how I came about seeing On Golden Pond on March 6th, 1982.

I can't remember what friend it was, but she, (I am assuming it was a girl), had a party that culminated in a bunch of us going to see the surprise hit about a couple of old coots hanging out on a lake listening to loons. And I think this was at least a second viewing for this friend. Which is fine. There's nothing really wrong with On Golden Pond. It's perfectly acceptable PG-rated material. (And I'm actually surprised to learn it was rated PG and not G. I guess there's some cussing. And Jane Fonda in a bikini might have pushed it over the edge into PG land.) It's just not a movie that made any real lasting impression on me, nor is it one I've felt compelled to return to.

We saw the movie at the Regency II, which, of the two Regencys located on the corner of Van Ness and Sutter, was by far the preferable one. The Regency I really sucked, (a sentiment I am glad to see is echoed here). Its conversion to a movie theater was poorly done, with the theater seats at a weird angle facing the (relatively small) screen, and lousy sound. The people who managed the theater for years were also notorious assholes. There were many instances of rudeness, but the most vivid memory is one night when me and my parents were trying to see Saturday Night Fever. We had stood in line in the pouring rain, for what seemed like forever, and when they finally started letting people in, they started the movie before even half the line was in the theater, which meant we all got to stumble around the theater in the dark, sopping wet, looking for seats, much to the chagrin of those already seated. I think my dad got so fed up that we left and he demanded our money back.

ANYWAY, the Regency II was much nicer. The screen and the theater itself was bigger than the Regency I, it had an actual lobby, and the theater doors were at the rear of the theater instead of the side. The management, unfortunately, wasn't much better, and I'll have a story about that in a later post.

Since I don't have much to say about On Golden Pond itself, I'll leave you with a link to a great article about the life of one of its stars, Katharine Hepburn. She really was an awesome, awesome lady.