Archive for the 'Movies'

Keenan’s Klassics: Operation Travolta – Michael Keaton

Reminder: As part of the blog’s gala tenth anniversary week, Down the Hatch is only 99 cents through midnight tonight, PST. Use your Amazon credit and pick up a copy while it’s cheap. And feel free to leave a review once you do.

Once upon a time this website was far more film-oriented, with lots of half-baked semi-recurring features like Remake Rematch (in which I watched multiple versions of a film and declared a winner) and Burt With A Badge (decades worth of Burt Reynolds as a cop, for absolutely no reason). The Operation Travolta pieces were easily my favorite. I did one on Sandra Bullock that, if I say so myself, was prescient. This one on Michael Keaton, which originally appeared on September 23, 2004, was the first. I still hold out hope for the actor, who has what promises to be his best role in years in the new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu; a 2009 post on The Merry Gentleman, Keaton’s directorial debut, would land me a mention on Canadian public radio. Ironically John Travolta, after whom the feature was named, is in need of another such procedure. Maybe it can be done more than once, like Tommy John surgery.

Look fast in the ads for the Katie Holmes comedy First Daughter and you’ll see Michael Keaton as the President of the United States. From the gonzo heights of Beetlejuice to playing the dad (albeit the First Dad) in a teen comedy. Keaton deserves better. So I’m issuing a challenge to filmmakers: give the actor a role worthy of his talents, the way Quentin Tarantino revived John Travolta’s career. (Hence the name of this occasional feature.)

Keaton has a special flair for conveying all-American guy-ness. Genial and decent, with a wariness underneath. He has a uniquely hyper way of moving, like a one-time athlete who still hasn’t figured out what to do with his excess energy. It’s a live-wire quality that charges the screen.

It’s obvious that the man has great comic chops, which come through even in sitcom-style fare like Mr. Mom. (Here’s where I confess my affection for the 1984 gangster parody Johnny Dangerously. I even like Joe Piscopo in it, for God’s sake.) Ron Howard made good use of Keaton in Night Shift, Gung Ho and the underrated The Paper. But it’s really in his collaboration with Tim Burton that the actor bloomed. His fearless performance in Beetlejuice is as potent today as it was in 1988. And he remains the only actor to have brought anything to the role of Batman, which as the screenwriter William Goldman points out is “and always has been a horrible part.”

1988 was also the year of Keaton’s greatest dramatic triumph, playing a drug addict in Clean and Sober. There’s a scene in that film – he calls his elderly parents and tells them he’s doing great while trying to persuade them to mortgage their house so he can have the money – that captures the essence of the addict’s psychology better than any other. The whole movie is Keaton’s show.

The ‘90s weren’t so good to him. But neither were his films. (Speechless? Multiplicity? Did anybody like those movies?) There were hints of a comeback when Keaton played Elmore Leonard’s cocky DEA agent Ray Nicolette in two movies, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight. Rumors circulated that Ray would get his own feature. I’m glad that didn’t pan out, because the character can’t sustain an entire story. But Keaton was perfectly cast, as he was in the recent HBO film Live From Baghdad.

So what’s on tap for the actor? Playing opposite Lindsay Lohan in the remodeled Herbie, The Love Bug. That ain’t right, people, and you know it. Where’s Wes Anderson or Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger) when you need them?

Miscellaneous: Assorted March Recommendations

You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age, by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman (2014). You know you’re getting a true inside Hollywood perspective when your guide ends an appreciation of the home owned by longtime friend Harold Lloyd by remarking “I shot episodes of Switch and Hart to Hart there.”

Robert Wagner has lived in Los Angeles for 75 years. His new book (co-written with Eyman, whose biography of John Wayne is out next week) represents an attempt “to document a way of life that has vanished as surely as birch bark canoes. And I want to do this before the colors fade.” The colors aren’t fading for Wagner yet; he can still recall what he paid for his cocktails at a host of now-shuttered Tinseltown night spots, including an exorbitant dollar fifty for a French 75 at the Trocadero, and conjures up his first meeting with Judy Garland, singing at a party at Clifton Webb’s house, with immediacy.

Wagner keeps the book light but also laments the press’s current adversarial relationship with their celebrity subjects and how, with the emphasis on the bottom line, “the movie business has been converted from a long game to a short game.” But there’s little room for grousing when there are parties to attend and polo matches to play. The names from a bygone era he casually reels off – Chasen’s, Ciro’s, the Brown Derby – are still, for some of us, an incantation charged with magic, and Wagner knows how to cast the spell. He has a gentleman’s eye for refinement and strikes an effortlessly rueful tone, a pleasing combination. The book is like uncorking a bottle of wine and having one of TV’s most debonair presences regale you with stories.

Sorcerer (1977). Director William Friedkin’s adaptation of the novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had the misfortune to open a few weeks after Star Wars and never recouped its budget. It fared no better critically at first, but its reputation improved over the decades; I know plenty of people who prefer it to the Clouzot film. This change of fortune came about in spite of the fact that for years Sorcerer was essentially out of circulation, with no decent print available.

Thanks largely to legal action by Friedkin against the studios involved, the situation has improved. A 4K digital restoration of Sorcerer is in limited release prior to its Blu-Ray debut. Seeing the film on the big screen confirms that Friedkin’s take on the tale of four outcasts forced to ferry volatile explosives overland is one of the most intense films ever made, with the justly-celebrated rope bridge sequence easily a masterpiece of action. It’s almost unfair to compare Sorcerer to Wages as the two are so different, but if pressed I’d give the nod to Wages – with the proviso that Sorcerer has a much, much better ending.

Stranger by the Lake (U.S. 2014). Henceforth, whenever I’m asked to provide an example of Aristotle’s unity of time, place and action – it happens more than you think – I’m pointing to this film, which won the Un Certain Regard directing prize for Alain Guiraudie at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Unless my interlocutor objects to repeated shots of the male orgasm, in which case we’re going to have a problem. Every scene unfolds along an isolated stretch of beach where gay men come to cruise. Franck (César award winner Pierre Deladonchamps) is drawn to the spoken-for Michel, lingering to watch him – and witnessing him murdering his lover. But knowing Michel’s secret only heightens the attraction. Guiraudie turns the limited locations into an advantage, using the arrangement of parked cars not only to convey exposition but heighten suspense. Highsmith meets Camus with copious male nudity in a thriller that mesmerizes down to the calculatedly oblique ending. Here’s the trailer.

Keenan’s Klassics: Coldblooded (1995)

A lot of irons in the fire these days, kids, so posts may be even more sporadic than usual. In the meantime, here’s an oldie but a goodie, an essay I wrote for Ray Banks’ late, lamented film site Norma Desmond’s Monkey in September 2011.

Now that the independent film cycle of the 1990s has receded into the mists of time, the truth can be told: the bulk of the movies it spawned simply don’t hold up. It’s true of any creative boom in which the inmates, however briefly, run the asylum. For all the splendors of the auteurist flowering of the 1970s, many of the films made during that period come across now as druggy and self-indulgent. The moral is don’t kick against the pricks, artsy types. A lot of you need a firm hand on the reins.

The Sundance craze of the ‘90s was ultimately co-opted by the studios with the result that the Coen Brothers stable of players turns up in the Transformers movies and the reward for demonstrating vision on a budget is being handed a superhero franchise. Independent film’s true legacy – intimate storytelling that isn’t afraid of dark places or protagonists – isn’t in theaters but on cable television. I will even posit that it was worth sitting through all of those grainy coming-of-age tales and different-drummer comedies so episodes of Louie could be pumped into millions of homes each week.

The truly interesting work in any movement is done in the margins, and no genre is more marginal than the crime comedy. Aside from the fact that Quentin Tarantino raised the form’s bar ridiculously high, there are too many opportunities for lazy transgression. Make the main character a hit man, as plenty of ‘90s filmmakers did, and you risk putting bigger fish in a smaller barrel.

Bringing us to Coldblooded. The movie wafted briefly into theaters in late summer 1995. The biggest name attached to the production was producer Michael J. Fox, who also surfaces in a cameo. It didn’t make much commercial impact, but I remember it with affection. A more recent film brought it to mind anew. Forget this year’s Jason Statham/Ben Foster update. Coldblooded is the actual remake of The Mechanic, replacing the original’s vaguely Mansonesque vibe with coffee shop quirkiness. And yet somehow it works.

The film was written and directed by M. Wallace Wolodarsky, who without the initial earned a place in comedy heaven for his work with partner Jay Kogen on the first four seasons of The Simpsons. (There’s a ‘90s staying power test. What would you rather rewatch, any Sundance prizewinner or “Lisa the Greek”?) Jason Priestley stars in an example of an indie film benefit I wouldn’t mind having back: the casting of recognizable TV actors in unlikely roles. One year later, Priestley’s Beverly Hills 90210 cohort Luke Perry would deliver the performance of his career opposite a sensational Ashley Judd in John McNaughton’s neglected low-budget true-crime tale Normal Life.

Priestley pushes deadpan to dangerous levels as Cosmo, a man-child who is essentially the ward of an unseen gangster. He’s perfectly content working as a bookie, seeing perfunctory prostitute Janeane Garofalo on the company dime, and living in the basement of a retirement home. (Cosmo’s dire digs are a triumph of production design, from the outdated appliances to the hideous mossy green stairs.) But when Cosmo’s benefactor dies, he’s forced into a new role in the organization: trigger man. The transition starts with an internship at the feet of the current holder of the position, the affable Steve (Peter Riegert).

Riegert is the rare actor who can mine humor out of being the voice of reason. Every few years he uses this gift to deliver a peerless comic turn. Local Hero will forever be the best known of these, but in Coldblooded he offers one of the great lost performances of the 1990s. His Steve is a cheerful tummler, eager to have a protégé to whom he can pass along his wisdom even though he knows it will mean his eventual replacement. He’s forthright about his profession, complete with little jokes he’s worked out – “Guns don’t kill people, we do,” followed by a used car salesman’s hearty chuckle – and helpful hints offered in front of victims. Riegert relishes the details of Steve’s middle class life: the procession of sports shirts that are a shade too gaudy, the petty grudges against the organization’s other men, the obsession with his car. To this day I recall Riegert’s precise pronunciation of “Cadillac Sedan de Ville” and his line about occasionally reading the newspaper behind the wheel in his driveway. But additional grace notes trace Steve’s slow unraveling, culminating in an authentically disturbing drunken late-night phone call with Cosmo that Steve can’t recall the following day.

Cosmo’s efforts to deal with the stresses of the position – including his natural aptitude for it – lead him to yoga and an instructor (Kimberly Williams) who needs to be rescued from loutish lover Josh Charles. Priestley plays his character as a down-market version of Peter Sellers in Being There in these scenes, Cosmo’s inexperience with women rendering him perfect boyfriend material. Case in point: his surrendering the TV remote to his paramour, the contemporary equivalent of a knight laying down his sword.

Coldblooded unfolds in a strangely depopulated Los Angeles reminiscent of a hipster hit man film from an earlier generation, Murder by Contract. The small cast, including Robert Loggia as the new capo, forces the plot to become somewhat mechanical. And no professional killer would use his own car on jobs, especially when, like Steve, he has everything in his ride set just the way he likes it. Coldblooded may ultimately seem like a slight film. But its easygoing charm and Priestley’s moving, minimalist performance coupled with Riegert’s richly nuanced one give it more heft than many of the trendy favorites of the era.

Movies: It Always Rains on Noir City Seattle

A scant two weeks after the big top folded in San Francisco, the Noir City carnival rolled into Seattle. Much of the Bay Area’s company of players reassembled: ringmaster Eddie Muller, the redoubtable Daryl Sparks working her usual magic behind the scenes and at the swag table, Tokyo’s stylish noir aficionado supreme Etsuko Tamazawa, the missus and yours truly. Also on hand was this year’s program, a cherce complement of films from around the world attesting to the fact that film noir, even in the middle of the last century, was a truly global phenomenon.

Amidst the filmgoing, there were copious amounts of socializing and strategizing. The latter has heaped quite a bit more on my plate, so herewith are truncated highlights. There is a twist ending, though, because it just ain’t noir without a sting in the tail.

Death is a Caress (Norway, 1949). The first half of what is surely the most perverse Valentine’s Day double bill ever programmed. A Scandinavian riff on James M. Cain (note the note on the homme fatale’s doorbell to “ring twice”), directed by a woman (Edith Carlmar) and made in a country with no production code and a more tolerant attitude toward infidelity. Aimless young man takes up with sexually aggressive, wealthy older married woman. Murder is never plotted, yet doom hangs in the air. A bracing lesson in gender politics. It took a while to recover from the shock of seeing characters in a 1940s film speak openly about abortion.

Death of a Cyclist (Spain, 1955). Think working for the studios in the heyday of the Hays Office was a tricky proposition? Try making societal critiques under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Part two of the Nobody’s Getting Laid This Valentine’s Day line-up, this film from director/co-writer Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of Javier) is a scathing critique of bourgeois privilege. Returning from a tryst, a married woman and her ex-fiancé are involved in a hit and run accident. An oily hanger-on in their circle (the spectacular Carlos Casaravilla – think a sinister Oscar Levant) insinuates that he knows all. The film eventually gets bogged down in philosophizing en route to an ending at once predictable and brazen, but its opening forty-five minutes is supple, modern, and brimming with both style and righteous anger.

Hardly a Criminal (Argentina, 1949). Bank clerk José (Jorge Salcedo), addicted to gambling, isn’t above dipping into the till to cover his losses. When he realizes Argentine law means he’ll serve the same six-year sentence no matter how much he steals, he goes for broke and deliberately gets caught, planning to do his time then live high. What he doesn’t figure on is how his actions will affect his family – and how his fellow inmates will cotton to his clever crime. A blast of pure, straight-ahead noir that you could easily see being made Stateside. Little wonder the chops on display here brought director Hugo Fregonese to Hollywood.

The Murderers Are Among Us (Germany, 1946). A day of films shot from 1946 to 1948 as war clouds were dissipating began with a landmark, the first movie made in Germany after Berlin fell. (As Eddie said when introducing Japan’s Drunken Angel, contemplate what noir means in the countries that lost World War II.) A concentration camp prisoner (Hildegard Knef) returns to her ruined flat to find an alcoholic doctor squatting there. Even as her presence awakens something in him, it also leads to the discovery that his brutal former commanding officer is prospering as Germany starts to rebuild. An astonishing artifact filmed guerilla-style in the rubble, it’s only slightly compromised by its compelling history. (Production had to be backed by one of the city’s occupying powers. Only the Soviets stepped up, but they insisted on changes in the script. Later the Americans arrested lead actor Wilhelm Borchert for falsifying information on his papers, jeopardizing imposed reshoots.)

It Always Rains on Sunday (England, 1947). A movie I’d missed in repertory screenings for years, finally viewed on a Sunday – when it was raining! Kismet! The revelation of the festival, Sunday captures a day of supposed rest in London’s East End as the city copes with war’s aftermath. The script by director Robert Hamer, Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius weaves together a mosaic of stories all anchored by the tale of an escaped convict seeking temporary sanctuary at the home of his now-married former flame played by a magnificent Googie Withers. A powerhouse of a film.

I promised a twist, didn’t I? Turns out master of ceremonies Muller would not be available to present the President’s Day roster of French noir. Not wanting to disappoint the crowd, he asked Rosemarie and me to stand in for him. A tall order, considering he was just named a host on Turner Classic Movies, but who could deny the man who’s done so much to preserve film noir? We suited up – I put on a tie, people, I got my shoes shined – and set about our task in earnest.

What made it easier than expected was the quartet of movies we were fortunate enough to introduce. Pépé Le Moko (1937), with Jean Gabin incarnating the essence of la belle France as the gangster who yearns for home from his aerie in the Casbah of Algiers. Rififi (1955), perhaps the definitive heist film. Une si jolie petite plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach, aka Riptide, 1949) the wild card of the bunch, a bleak, elliptical story of a mysterious young man who haunts an off-season resort village with a memorable lead performance by Gérard Philipe, France’s James Dean. And finally, one of my personal favorites, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfévres or Jenny Lamour, a saucy tour of the demimonde of Paris music halls. This movie has everything: sex, love, suspense, humor, and an inspired ending. It was the perfect way to ring down the curtain. To have some small part in bringing this peerless gem to a new audience was an honor. But honestly, I don’t understand how Muller does this night in and night out. Rosemarie and I were exhausted at the end of our tour of duty, and we were sharing the workload. Still, we’d do it again.

Austin, you’re up next. Get ready.

Noir City: The Streets of San Francisco

Film noir is an organic American cinematic movement, but its DNA contains elements from elsewhere: the visual motifs of German Expressionism, the fatalistic viewpoint of artists fleeing the war in Europe. It’s only fitting, then, that the twelfth annual Noir City Film Festival cast its net wide and showcased noir from around the globe. Programmer, master of ceremonies and impresario extraordinaire Eddie Muller has assembled an amazing line-up including several films that have never screened theatrically in the United States before. Rosemarie and I attended the opening weekend in San Francisco.

The festivities kicked off with international intrigue in a duo of films dominated by Orson Welles even though he didn’t direct either one. Journey Into Fear (1943) would mark the end of Welles’ sojourn at RKO. Norman Foster is credited as the director but Welles’ fingerprints are everywhere, starting with the cast of familiar faces. Joseph Cotten is the munitions engineer passing through Turkey at the start of World War II. Cotten puts his patrician bearing to excellent use playing one of those WASPish Americans overly concerned with propriety, which becomes an impediment when he’s targeted by Nazi agents and must flee the country by boat. A truncated 68 minute running time owing to a troubled production nonetheless preserves the leisurely, almost comedy of manners feel of the Eric Ambler novel. Minor but engaging. Welles plays a Turkish cop. His hat earned a round of applause from a packed Castro Theatre.

What can I say about The Third Man (1949), other than this movie directed by Carol Reed and scripted by Graham Greene is one of the few perfect things in this world? The Ferris wheel scene is its best-known moment, but on this viewing (I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve seen the film) I was mesmerized by what came just before it, as Holly Martins (Cotten) sees his friend Harry Lime (Welles) approaching from a distance. Welles moves with uncanny brio; Harry, like Welles himself, is a star in the world of post-war Vienna. Rosemarie’s succinct analysis: “At the start of the movie Cotten bounds off the train an American, full of purpose. At the end he’s slumped against a broken down cart, smoking, wishing for something he knows will never happen to happen. He’s become European.”

Saturday afternoon brought forth a pair of unsung films from Mexico. 1951’s En la palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand) features one of my favorite noir tropes: the bogus psychic. “Professor” Karin relies on his beautician wife to acquire information about the upper crust which he then deploys to his advantage. When he deduces an industrialist was murdered by his spouse, he horns in on the scheme – only to become enmeshed in the newly rich widow’s plot to eliminate her lover. Featuring glossy, high-toned storytelling that wouldn’t be out of place in a studio film of the era shot through with a brooding Catholic sensibility that is distinctly Mexican. Up next, a screening of the only subtitled print of the astonishing Victimas del pecado (Victims of Sin, 1951) in the U.S. Starring “The Golden Venus” Ninón Sevilla, it’s an example of the rumberas or nightclub film and compresses an entire telenovela into ninety unhinged minutes with time to spare for some of the sexiest dancing ever before a movie camera (Exhibit A and Exhibit B). A piñata that never empties, Victims communicated directly with the audience’s reptile brain. We didn’t care about motivation or coherence. We only wanted, craved, demanded MORE. These two movies, produced when the Production Code still held sway over Hollywood, demonstrated the freedom filmmakers elsewhere had when addressing adult subject matter. A scene in Palm has a married couple in the standard separate beds of the 1950s only to have the husband slip in beside his wife, while Victims is breathtakingly forthright about prostitution.

Me ruining a perfectly good book.
A personal milestone came on Saturday evening. The sixth Noir City Annual, collecting work published in the 2013 editions of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine, debuted, and a host of contributors including yours truly were invited to a gala signing. It was a pleasure to be seated alongside ace designer Michael Kronenberg – the man responsible for the gorgeous cover of Down The Hatch – and talented writers like Steve Kronenberg, Imogen Sara Smith, Dan Akira Nishimura, Anne Hockens and Carl Steward among others. The annual will be sold at other Noir City festivals and soon through Amazon; please note that my signature on a copy of the book actually makes it worth less.

For the last few years Eddie has been keeping festgoers apprised of the status of the FNF’s latest project, a restoration of the independently made 1949 film noir Too Late For Tears. The new 35mm print, financed in part by a contribution from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s trust, was unveiled on Friday night. Having seen it, I should just toss the two public domain DVDs I own. Roy Huggins’ casually diabolical script prefigures A Simple Plan as young L.A. marrieds Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy accidentally come into possession of a hefty extortion payoff. As Scott’s avaricious tendencies get the better of her, the blackmailer (Dan Duryea) comes calling. It’s unquestionably Liz Scott’s finest hour, but good luck taking your eyes off Duryea who saunters onto the screen all rancid insouciance and ends up timid and broken before La Scott. How successful was Saturday’s screening? People were turned away from a theater that seats over 1400 people.

Our gaze shifted to the Far East on Sunday with a twin bill from Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. The Drunken Angel of the 1948 film’s title is Takashi Shimura’s doctor, toiling amongst the poor of occupied Japan. He patches a bullet wound for brash yakuza Toshirô Mifune and insinuates himself into the younger man’s life, a relationship that becomes more critical once Mifune’s callous boss is spring from prison. A masterwork of humanism made more impressive when followed by Stray Dog (1949), with the same actors reteamed as Tokyo cops pursuing a stolen police gun through a sweltering summer. Maestro Muller, never missing an opportunity, arranged for culturally appropriate libations to be poured throughout the festival. On this night we enjoyed sake served up by Beau Timken, owner of San Francisco’s True Sake and author of Sake: A Modern Guide. A second round came courtesy of the woman Eddie dubbed “the ichiban of noir,” our very good friend Etsuko Tamazawa. The impossibly stylish Etsuko has a film noir blog in Japanese, and beautifully provided Eddie’s introductions in her native tongue.

Alas, that was it for us, but Noir City Seattle starts in only two weeks. Not every title that screened in San Francisco will play in the Northwest; the Mexican films we saw won’t make the trip, for instance, and neither will The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentine remake of Fritz Lang’s M unspooling at the Castro on Friday.

Miss Noir City 2014 Evie Lovelle. Also pictured: me.
There are so many people to thank for our experience at the festival, which continues through Sunday. First and foremost is Muller. The other big piece of news out of Noir City is that Eddie will be joining Turner Classic Movies as a regular on-air host. Eddie’s knowledge and above all his passion for film makes him the perfect addition to America’s repertory theater. This year’s Miss Noir City is burlesque performer and long-time friend of the festival Evie Lovelle, who performed her duties with aplomb and her usual drop-dead flair. There’s also the utterly essential Daryl Sparks and the army of volunteers who make Noir City a one of a kind event.

Cocktail notes ... on this trip I finally made it to the highly touted Rickhouse, where I enjoyed a Fort Point (bourbon, grapefruit, tart cherry, falernum) and a Rye Smile with rye, lemon and mint. I’d heard nothing but raves for the drinks at Nopa so I ventured there for brunch with David Corbett. I can thus sing the praises of the California perfect Sunshine Fix (aperol, gin, lemon and Angostura bitters). If you’re dining around the corner from the Castro at Poesia – and you should – order yourself a La Dolce Vita made with Jack Daniel’s and Amaretto. My primary contribution to this year’s Noir City will come on Friday night when, naturally, I won’t be there. Cocktails at the Castro that evening will be made with Giffard liqueurs and by Erik Hakkinen, the Giffard rep in the U.S. whose secret identity is bartender at my haunt the Zig Zag Café. Should you find yourself at the theater, be sure to sample his handiwork – then tell him to get back up here and make me a drink.