Thursday, July 23, 2015

GOOD-BYE, ALEX AND MARY



It’s definitely been a week for good-byes.

My daughters and I spent the weekend in the beautiful, still somewhat quaint small town of Auburn, California, helping to lay to rest and celebrate the life of my dear aunt Mary Pascuzzi, my fraternal grandmother’s sister, who was the centered matriarch of her own family and a stabilizing force for all of us in her extended family as well. She and my grandmother were big fans of classic-era American movies and enthusiastically encouraged my interest, just one reason why they’re both dear in my heart and memory.

And being Italian, they both had more than a casual interest in The Godfather when it came out in 1972. I remember my aunt Mary talking to me about having seen it and wondering, me at the ripe old age of 12, if I’d had a chance to go yet. She knew of the campaigning I did to get my parents to assent to my seeing it—I even tried to get my sympathetic grandmother involved—but they would not agree. So I had to settle for my aunt’s accounts of the movie itself and, of course, all the things it made her think of, growing up Italian in small-town America. Once I eventually saw the movie a couple years later I loved it, of course. But maybe not quite as much as I did the feeling of anticipation that my aunt stoked in me with her stories of Coppola’s movie and, by extension, Mary’s life.

The day after my aunt was interred in a beautiful outdoor mausoleum in Roseville, California, next to her beloved husband Pete, we headed back home to Southern California. That was the day Alex Rocco died.


Rocco was a character actor whose street-tough good looks were familiar to anyone who watched movies and TV in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s-- he would later win an Emmy for his comic performance as the slick Hollywood agent Al Floss in the short-lived TV series The Famous Teddy Z. But for most moviegoers he will be remembered—my Aunt Mary certainly would have remembered him—as Moe Greene, the Vegas mobster impresario loosely based on Bugsy Siegel who gets on Michael Corleone’s bad side in The Godfather.

The target of an unwelcome Corleone family buyout, Michael objects to Greene knocking his brother Fredo around in public, but Greene pushes back. “You goddamn guineas really make me laugh,” Greene snorts. “I do you a favor and take Freddie in when you're having a bad time, and now you're gonna try and push me out!” Greene’s defiance, which we know will likely get him killed, is heady and nerve-wracking, and Rocco puts the arrogant spin of a lifetime on it. It’s no wonder that for 40-some years after Rocco claimed people would always ask him to repeat lines like “I made my bones while you were going out with cheerleaders!” and the immortal “You don’t buy me out, I buy you out!” And he always complied, with good cheer. Rocco knew how good Moe Greene had been to him, and he certainly wasn’t above giving some of that back.

As it happened, Rocco knew the mobster life all too well. A member of the Winter Hill Gang in Boston’s Somerville district, which had ties to the infamous Whitey Bulger, Rocco, under his given name, Alex Petricone, was criminally charged with making bets in 1959, and in 1961 was arrested along with Winter Hill Gang leader James “Buddy” McLean for the murder of Charlestown crime figure Bernard McLaughlin. (Petricone was the alleged getaway driver, McLean the alleged killer.) One month would pass before a grand jury would decide that the evidence against them was insufficient for an indictment. And after serving time for an earlier arrest over a public brawl in a Somerville diner, Petricone decided enough was enough and decided to head out of town. He told a Boston Globe reporter in 1989, “I had to get out of the Boston area, so I flipped a coin and said, ‘Heads Miami, tails California.’ I was in my mid-20s and came out here with no training. Acting wasn’t even in my mind.”

California won the toss, so Petricone headed west, where he ended up in an acting class with Leonard Nimoy, who advised him to lose the Boston accent, and where he decided that “Petricone” might be a bit much for the casting directors around town. He settled on the only slightly less ethnic-sounding “Rocco” after seeing it emblazoned on the side of a passing bread truck and shortly after landed his first acting job in 1965’s Motorpsycho for Russ Meyer-- a character actor’s legend, to say nothing of a legendary character actor, was born.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Three the Hard Way. Detroit 9000. The Outside Man. Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. Hearts of the West. The Stunt Man. Cannonball Run II. The Entity. Lady in White. Those are just some of the movies Rocco did in his 50-year career—not all of them great, some of them less than good, but all certainly enriched thanks to his presence and his talent. He also did miles and miles of TV work in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and late in his career found a home in the voiceover studio, doing memorable vocal characterizations for A Bug’s Life, Pinky and the Brain, Family Guy and, of course, The Simpsons.


But outside of Moe Greene, if I were to have ever had the opportunity to ask Alex Rocco to repeat one of his best lines from a movie, it might be this one: “Are you insane?!” That’s the quite sincere query Rocco’s San Francisco D.A. puts to detectives James Caan and Alan Arkin, recounting a recent botched investigation and pursuit near the beginning of Richard Rush’s hysterical, and hysterically funny, Freebie and the Bean (1974). (The strangulated inflection Rocco puts on the phrase, and particularly on “insane?!” is apoplectic perfection.)

 
 

There are plenty of great stunts in the picture, of course, but nothing in Freebie and the Bean is as chokingly funny as Caan and Arkin pitching the movie’s central plot mechanism—a proposal to protect a local crime boss from an impending hit just long enough so they can get the evidence to arrest him themselves—to Rocco’s brilliantly discombobulated D.A. These two are their own multi-car pile-up, walking all over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, stutter-starting and stopping mid-sentence as they try to weasel the D.A. and avoid yet another in what one suspects is a long line of shout-downs. And Rocco’s stunned demeanor as he witnesses and tries to reason with these two is a master class in the genius of the straight-man—one Rocco eye-roll here is worth pages of dialogue ranted by countless angry superior officers in countless inferior buddy cop movies ever since.

It’s been a long, sad week, and I’m afraid the remembering of what we’ll be missing, in my family and in the vast audience for great American character actors, is going to last a lot longer than that. Addio, zia Maria. Addio, Alex Rocco. Restate in pace e dolcezza.


(Thanks to Brian Marquard, whose obituary for Alex Rocco appeared Tuesday, July 21, in the Boston Globe. ) 

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

VACUUM-PACKED: IRRATIONAL MAN



Early on in Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s latest half-narcotized attempt to dramatically grapple with a philosophically tinged moral crisis, a fellow academic tells Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), “I loved your essay on situational ethics.” Abe, being a newly appointed professor/radical free thinker to the philosophy department of a picturesque Rhode Island college and himself awash in career disillusionment and an existential dilemma involving writer’s block, smiles and nods appreciatively and noncommittally. 

However, the audience may consider the Big Theme bell well and truly rung. Allen, who would never be so satisfied with a single easy proclamation of achievement, pads the first half of the movie with apparently awe-inspired compliments from fellow professors, administrators and students directed toward Abe’s prodigious intellect—his reputation doth well precede him, and he knows it. And you can bet that every classroom scene will be occasion to name-drop the heavy hitters-- Kant! Heidegger! Dickinson!-- in order to properly season the ground for the harvest of deep-dish themes and the big plot twist to come. (There is occasional unintentional comedy, however-- the way Phoenix wraps his lips around “Simone de Beauvoir,” you’d think he was one of his own wide-eyed, marble-mouthed students.)

This being a Woody Allen movie, Abe is also, despite his alcoholism, impotence and a general indifference to his well-heeled surroundings, quite the ladies’ man. He not only catches the eye of the campus’s resident nymphomaniac, a fellow hard-drinking, unhappily married chemistry teacher named Rita (Parker Posey, who flits in and out of the movie with such tippled, oddball grace and comic timing that you wish the movie were about her), but also that of Jill (Emma Stone), one of Abe’s students.

Jill, an under-imagined character who gets little chance to illuminate Allen’s universe the way Stone did in his widely dismissed Magic in the Moonlight, is intellectually curious and independent. Abe compliments her latest essay by saying that her ideas were freshest and most stimulating when in disagreement with his. But Allen can’t find much room in his dramatic strategy for her to display that intellectual independence within the constraints of the plot—she’s too busy being fascinated by this obviously troubled, yet strangely magnetic genius. (“He’s so self-destructive, but he’s so brilliant,” she coos, rationalizing her infatuation after witnessing Abe’s drunken spin with Russian roulette, which in every world but this one would have resulted in him being ousted from this picturesque academic posting.) Jill also plays the piano-- good for lending the movie a further air of Bach-sweetened cul-cha-- and she has an easily dominated boyfriend whom she dumps in order to pursue her unlikely relationship with the prof, again, this being a Woody Allen movie.


Points to Allen for indicating early on that this particular May-December romance is a dead end, even though Jill batting her lashes at Abe is not the instance of situational ethics the director is concerned with here. For its first half Irrational Man spins its wheels within the hermetically sealed world of academia, and within the even more hermetically sealed world of romantic entanglements vis-à-vis the cinema of Woody Allen. But a seemingly random development kicks off the second act’s hard right turn, which sets up the question Allen is really (sort of) interested in: Is it possible to positively rationalize the commission of a seemingly irredeemable act? And if you got away with it, would you really be getting away with it?

So what happens next? By the time the worm turns, you may welcome the development for the sprinkle of action it provides amidst a sea of talk. Or you may not care quite as much as Allen thinks you should. For all of his attraction to the signposts of genre, Allen seems to look down upon using his filmmaking to encourage the audience to respond to the situations he concocts as anything other than diagrammed insects pinned and wriggling under glass. He films decisive moments of activity from the same placid distance as he observes the clucking and chattering of an academics mixer, almost as if Allen having posed his philosophical queries is quite enough, thank you. It’s this apparent directorial indifference, the high-minded shuffling aside of some of the low places his scenarios end up taking us, and the undeniable pace at which he continues to crank them out, which suggests that for Allen storytelling in movies may be less a calling than a compulsion.

And his actors aren’t left with much better. Phoenix couldn’t be less convincing, except in his lethargy, I suppose, as a besotted professor whose days of social activism have been subsumed by the sort of depressed solipsism that can only lead to implosion. We need to find Abe as magnetic as Jill and Rita do, to find something outside the margins to make us believe he isn’t an entirely lost cause. But that would require Allen giving Phoenix something of depth to play, and the acclaimed writer-director simply coasts on providing familiar clichés of existential dilemma for his lead actor to chew on. Stone is asked to coast as well on her natural charm, which can never approach answering why someone so young and smart isn’t formulating the sorts of questions about Abe that should send her flying back into the comforting arms of her dull boyfriend and the possibility of a future.


Only Posey manages to hint at a (screwed-up) life off-screen. She seems to be operating gloriously independent of the director’s puppet strings here, and she lights the movie up in the same way that Maureen Stapleton did Interiors, without having to function as the movie’s symbolic life force. The way Rita/Posey impatiently blows off Allen’s clunky attempt to update her, and the audience, on the developing plot (“I don’t have time for a crazy story right now. But I’ll see you soon, okay?”) makes her the audience’s truest representative, as well as the character most worth caring about. If only Allen had the time.

I must admit, an understanding of the praises and honors awarded to Woody Allen during this most recent renaissance of interest in his career, starting with Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), on to the stillborn You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), the occasionally charming but unsatisfying Midnight In Paris (2011), the maddening To Rome with Love (2012) and up through this latest dud, largely escapes me. And I may never forgive him for Whatever Works (2009), as terminal a comedy as he has ever made, or Blue Jasmine (2013), which convinced me Allen had completely lost touch with the day-to-day details of how the world and society actually functions. All of those movies have their defenders (well, maybe not You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger), with three Oscars sprinkled among those titles, if that matters, for two of his actresses and for the writer Allen himself. And I have no doubt each one of those previously mentioned are precisely the films Allen intended to make. So what do I know?

Well, I know that I could barely contain my disregard for most of those movies, yet the one Woody Allen movie I’ve enjoyed without reservation since Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), the undeniably gossamer but quite charming Magic in the Moonlight (2014), is one that admirers of his recent Oscar-winning films have found beneath contempt. Whether that says more about Allen or me is entirely in the eye of the beholder. And I admit that given the presence of Stone, I was hoping she might be working a little muse magic on the director such that their second collaboration might be as engaging in its way as their first one was.

Alas, Irrational Man is one from the “position paper” pile in Woody Allen’s box of ideas, and it plays about as dry and pro forma as one would expect from a director who has become as skittish about the illuminating, beyond-the-thesis marginalia of human relationships, to say nothing of the sticky mess of homicide, as Allen has. The venerated writer-director wonders in his ostensibly dramatic framework if a morally reprehensible act could ever be justifiable. I found myself wondering in turn, if Woody Allen asks such a question in a movie which itself feels as though it were made in a vacuum, will it make a sound if no one is there when it flops?


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VIVE LE DISCOUNT MOVIE HOUSE!



$3.00 admission all day, every day! $1.50 on Sundays and Tuesdays! Free parking! $1 hot dogs that are actually safe to eat, and tasty! Digital projection! Good popcorn! Family-friendly environs! Do you have a discount theater in your neighborhood? If so, count yourself very lucky indeed. Where I live, in Glendale, CA, USA, I’m within cycling distance of at least three overpriced, technically underwhelming “luxury” cinemas which charge outrageously high admission fees for the “privilege” of posh seating (there’s usually a heavily padded recliner involved) and even in-your-seat service which, so far as I’ve seen, equals and sometimes even beats the shining beacon of a cell phone light or a loud conversation between movie pals as a distraction from the picture on the screen. But I only have to pedal a little ways further (truth be told, I usually drive) to avail myself of the second-run pleasures of two little ramshackle discount multiplexes that offer all the bargains listed above, and probably a couple others I have yet to sniff out.


The Academy Theater in Pasadena, owned and operated by the Regency Cinemas chain, is a hastily renovated movie palace that still looks a bit rundown on entry to its once-ornate lobby. (It was originally the Fox Theater, designed by the same gentleman who created the plans for Pasadena’s other movie palace, the Rialto, and became in the Academy in the late ‘50s.) Inside, the auditoriums are laid out as though the architect’s main tool was a chainsaw, but the Academy is still a great place to catch up on any big, popular, or would-be popular mainstream Hollywood fare mired in the purgatory between first-run theatrical engagements and the promised land of Blu-ray, streaming and digital downloads.


And though the Academy is geographically closer to where I live, I tend to gravitate toward the Valley Plaza 6 in North Hollywood, Regency’s real success story in bargain movie multiplex culture. The Valley Plaza 6 is no great shakes in the architecture department either. Once owned by the United Artists chain, it’s a pretty typical ‘70s-‘80s cracker-box complex—two auditoriums built to hold around 500 customers, the other four around 150, with little to no amenities of style or presentation, all function, no form. With the advent of new and even bigger multiplexes featuring stadium-style auditoriums and reserved seating, this old school Cineplex looked to be on the way out. But several years ago Regency refashioned it as a discount house and now the place flourishes as a reasonable alternative to $15 first-run ticket prices.

In many ways, the success of the Valley Plaza 6 and other theaters like it mirror the mini resurgence that drive-in theaters, in Southern California and elsewhere around the country, have enjoyed over the past 10 years. Once thought of as a fleapits attracting exactly the sorts of audiences (young, rude, possibly criminally oriented) that would keep the general populace tucked safely away in front of their 60-inch screens at home, drive-in movie theaters are now, against all odds, primarily family-friendly locations, emphasizing affordable entertainment options for parents and children who want a fun moviegoing experience without having to take out a loan to pay for it.


Similarly, you used to be able to count on a show outside the Valley Plaza 6, located on the border of North Hollywood and Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley, where street racers and other young toughs would loiter after dark in the theater’s vast parking lot, spinning 360s in their tricked-out rides and unnerving moviegoers headed back their own far-more-modest vehicles. But these days, the Valley Plaza 6 has been co-opted by audiences who wouldn’t look out of place at the drive-in—parents and excited children, alongside young couples looking for an affordable night out, everyone having a good time undoubtedly fueled by the buzz that only buying a $3 ticket to see an (almost) new movie can provide. (Those prices are cheaper than drive-in admissions even!)

And I used to think of second-run houses as places where the discounted admission was code for a trade-off that almost always included seeing a beat-up print that had been abused by indifferent or incompetent projectionists on its journey to the end of the theatrical road. But no more. The presentation at the Valley Plaza 6 has benefited greatly from the presence of 35mm’s mortal enemy, digital projection. When the Valley Plaza 6 was running film, the projection was always highly variable in quality and one could never count on whether or not the movie would even be shown in the correct aspect ratio. (Scope prints were routinely masked down to 1.85:1 in the smaller auditoriums.) But now, also like drive-ins, the Valley Plaza 6 offers projection that is comparable, and sometimes even better, than some of the higher-priced options around town—a few weeks ago I saw Spy at a renovated first-run multiplex with fancy recliner chairs and reserved seating and was horrified to discover the digital presentation of the feature looked no different than the flimsy, washed-out video quality of the pre-show “content.” For $13 a ticket!

Programming at the Valley Plaza 6 is hit and miss, as it is in first-run houses, but especially so if you tend to keep up with new releases and arthouse fare at other venues. However, it’s always a good idea of keep an eye on the schedule (I get e-mail alerts every week), because sometimes the stars they do align and room is made for something other than crappy comedies (I’m looking at you, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2) or CGI animation. This past weekend my daughter and I found ourselves at the Valley Plaza 6 for a do-it-yourself double bill of the recent Poltergeist remake and Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, neither of which exactly set the box office on fire and both of which made their way out of first-run theaters with relative haste, and we had a great time.

A quick look at the schedule for the upcoming weekend at the  Valley Plaza 6 reveals that both Poltergeist and Tomorrowland (and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2) will continue their runs, along with the addition of Ted 2, Pitch Perfect 2 and the Reese Witherspoon-Sofia Vergara chase comedy Hot Pursuit. Meanwhile over at the Academy Theater in Pasadena, if you’re among those who wish they could have caught (or were afraid to catch) Insidious Chapter 3, Entourage or Cameron Crowe’s much-maligned Aloha upon their initial releases, well, here’s your chance, and at prices that won’t make you feel utterly cheated, should the movies themselves turn out to be as bad as their reputations. If you live in another part of the country and have a discount house near you, there’s probably a similar roster of programming available this weekend as well, so take heart. As admission prices continue to rise, it’s nice to know there are options for economically minded audiences who choose to read the fine print of the newspaper listings (Newspaper? What’s that?) or click on the theater’s Web site  and take advantage.

Vive le $3 ticket! Vive le $1 hot dog! Vive le discount movie house, wherever it may be, whatever form it may take!

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(Critical aside: The Poltergeist remake is certainly unnecessary, but even so it stands up well against the 1982 original, which I’ve never held in very high regard. The new version is clearly much more grounded in PG-13-scaled horror, as opposed to the Hooper/Spielberg film, which as I rediscovered in watching it again last night, is more a Spielbergian light show than a haunted house movie, the entire cast directed to stare into the strobes displaying the director’s patented Gaping Maw of Awe as if the movie were a supernatural wrinkle on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which maybe it is. The remake trades in the original’s very charming loosey-goosey family dynamic for one imbued with a more stressful 2015-ready economic uncertainty, but it doesn’t really pay off. Where the new version shines is in its casting. As good as Craig T. Nelson is, Sam Rockwell’s is the more interesting paternal performance, and the paranormal tag team of Jane Adams and Jared Harris represent a significant upgrade over Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubenstein. However, as good as she is, Rosemarie DeWitt can’t touch JoBeth Williams, without whom the 1982 would have no reason to exist. Both movies are ultimately underwhelming, but the new Poltergeist is much better than Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe, and my daughter and I enjoyed its many effective scares.


That goes double for Tomorrowlanda movie marketed as a kids’ adventure tale (and none too ably marketed, I guess) which, in the tradition of the most serious and socially engaged science fiction literature and films, has some deadly serious things to say about our pop culture’s romance/infatuation/obsession with all things dystopian. Critic David Edelstein rightly called it “a major pop-culture statement with all sorts of implications, both vital and nutty,” locating the “nutty” part somewhere near director Bird’s assertion of “imagination over knowledge.” Bird suggests that recognition of problems like global warming, which might well lead to the sort of post-apocalyptic fate movies and television shows and young-adult literature are so in love with, shouldn’t be allowed to overwhelm our need to band together and create solutions to preserve our future. I couldn’t quite make the leap toward accepting that Bird’s movie believes that those most vocal about impending disaster are dampening the creative spirits of those most likely to find a way to right our listing global ship. But even if that’s the feeling you take from it, at least it’s a position that can be argued and examined in the aftermath of the exhilarating storytelling buzz the movie leaves you with. Bird's ability to conjure access to both the grandeur of classic sci-fi and the swift grace and sharp wit of his animated features is at a peak in Tomorrowland. Critical aside concluded.)

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Thursday, July 09, 2015

THE CORRECT ANSWERS TO MS. ELIZABETH HALSEY'S ROTTEN APPLE, HOT FOR (BAD) TEACHER SUMMER MOVIE QUIZ



Better late than never, right? That one rarely worked on my teachers in high school, and almost never at the university level. But it’s all I’ve got, so I’m trotting it out in the hopes that my loyal readership will just look the other way. Whichever way you look, these are the answers I’ve got, my responses to the fiery inquiry at the heart of Ms. Elizabeth Halsey’s Rotten Apple, Hot for (Bad) Teacher Summer Movie Quiz! Have at ‘em, and don’t grade me too harshly! It's still summer, right?

         1)    Name a line from a movie that should've become a catch phrase but didn't 


“Well, you can do what you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America! Gentlemen!”

2) Your second favorite William Wellman film


With this question I find myself echoing the refrain of several folks who have undertaken this quiz: It appears I am woefully undernourished when it comes to William Wellman. I’ve only seen eight of the 83 directorial credits listed on his IMDb page. I wish The Boob (1926) were one of them so I could claim it as my second favorite, something I would consider doing on the basis of the title alone. But I’m all about integrity here, so I’ll stick to the ones I know. Nothing Sacred is the clear favorite in my book. And as much as I like Night Nurse (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Wings (1927), I award second place to The Ox-Bow Incident (1946), a marvel of tension and the dense interpersonal politics of conscience clocking in at a lean 75 minutes. (Take that, Quentin Tarantino.) The one Wellman I haven’t yet seen that I am most keen to? I’ll say Westward the Women (1951), though now it might really be The Boob.

3) Viggo Mortensen or Javier Bardem?


Bardem delivered one for the ages as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men and he was almost as good in John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs,  but his supporting turns in Skyfall , The Counselor and Vicky Christina Barcelona were pitched at the level of the movies themselves--  overkill, druggy camp, low-gear sexy, respectively, and all less than inspired. Mortenson, on the other hand, has not only the eye candy credit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but also weird and/or searing turns in pictures like The Indian Runner, Carlito’s Way, The Prophecy, A Perfect Murder and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho retool. (IMDb also says he starred as Jimmy Kowalski in a TV movie remake of Vanishing Point—whaaa????!) But Mortenson gets my vote on the strength of lead performances in his two movies for David Cronenberg—A History of Violence and Eastern Promises—plus The Road and one especially close to my heart, Hidalgo. And I’m very keen to see him in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja.

4) Favorite first line from a movie


There are a lot of really good examples in the comments section of the original quiz post (like Weigard’s example from Billy Wilder’s One Two Three). But for me, no opening line in any movie so succinctly encapsulates, given the context, the shadows within the story to come quite so perfectly as the one Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola crafted to open their 1972 classic:

“I believe in America.”

5) The most disappointing/superfluous “director’s cut” or otherwise extended edition of a movie you’ve seen? *


I’m really not much of one for keeping up with altered versions of beloved or otherwise familiar movies—I have a hard-enough time just keeping pace with everything I’d like to see, current releases as well as past classics, to find time to sit around comparing the theatrical cut against the director’s cut or the unrated extended version or whatever the marketing department happens to choose to call it. And I’m also not interested in having my memories of the original film jumbled with other versions, which may have excised (and sometimes for quite justifiable reasons) elements or scenes that I love or remember well, particularly if it’s a movie I’ve seen several times in its release form. All of which means the “special edition” of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1980) is probably the one I’m most familiar with and the one that strikes me as the most egregious example of what can happen when a director (with or without the studio’s insistence) begins to second-guess himself. Spielberg’s decision to let us see the inside of the mothership, after crafting a sense of mystery and emphasizing the elements of communication between humans and an unknown alien species over the entire film, is clearly meant to augment the awe generated by the original cut, but it only deflates that mystery, justifying all by itself the famous show-biz edict to leave ‘em wanting more. The “special edition” is actually three minutes shorter than the theatrical cut, which means that other scenes inside the film were also tightened, replaced or excised altogether. I can’t even trust my recall of what’s in what version anymore, thanks to the proliferation of this “special edition” in the ‘80s. But some of my favorite moments of Spielberg doodling in the margins—I’m thinking mostly of the scenes involving Roy Neary and his family—have been spoiled by the presence of overwrought additional scenes (Neary’s son screaming “Crybaby! Crybaby!” at his dad) that I wish weren’t cluttering up my memory bank.

6) What is the movie you feel was most enhanced by a variant version? *


Even though what the meaning of a director’s cut really is remains pretty fluid in the age of digital video, especially when it comes to reconstructing a film based on the notes of an artist who is no longer among the living, I can say that both Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1974) and Once Upon a Time in America (1985) are both movies which have benefited from the home video-inspired retooling of their bowdlerized theatrical cuts. Sergio Leone’s movie is available in a newly reconstructed four-hour version, which I haven’t seen but which reportedly is magnificent and as close to Leone’s original vision of his final film as we’re likely to ever see. And the history of Peckinpah’s movie and the endless tinkering and reshuffling that it has been subject to is a fascinating story unto itself, as witnessed by Paul Seydor’s recent book The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah's Last Western Film.

But I also hold in very high regard Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut. And even though I realize that I’m probably more in love with the theatrical cut, the extended version of 1941, which doesn’t move as swiftly as the choppier version originally released in 1979, at least has one classic sequence left out of the shorter version—Christmas tree salesman Hollis “Holly” Wood (Slim Pickens) being set upon by kidnap-minded Japanese sailors who are all somehow disguised as seasonal pines.

7) Eve Arden or Una Merkel?


For Mildred Pierce alone (oh, and Stage Door, and Cover Girl, and That Uncertain Feeling), but also for so much more (and I would even include in that bounty her stint on the ‘60s sitcom The Mothers-in-Law), it’s all about Eve. Though I do love Una too. Una, Arden? Arden, Una? What a choice…

8) What was the last DVD/Blu-ray/streaming film you saw? The last theatrical screening?


Blu-ray: Maps to the Stars, by which I was pretty much floored. Who knew that Cronenberg’s clinical cool would be such a perversely apt match with Bruce Wagner’s turned-to-11 bile-infused Hollywood satire? And a publicity shot of Julianne Moore in this role should be forever placed in Webster’s next to the word “fearless.”

Streaming: Django Unchained, which I was surprised to discover didn’t have much impact a couple of years removed from its release. (I’d only seen it once theatrically before seeing it again this week.) When it was over, my wife remarked, “Well, that seemed kinda silly,” and reflecting on the movie’s various excesses and the vague sense of being a little too big for its britches-- the movie begs for the crispness that the late Sally Menke  always brought to even the director’s talkiest pieces—I had to agree. There are plenty of things to like, still—Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson among them-- but the movie doesn’t have even close to the formal or textual audacity of Inglourious Basterds and it trots when a good, sturdy gallop would better suit the moment. And I’m still puzzling over QT winning the screenplay Oscar for this— the structure seems lumpier than usual, and there’s not a single exchange of dialogue here that’s in the same league as the least of the many memorable confrontations in Inglourious Basterds

Theatrical: The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle’s supremely empathetic, defiantly non-exploitative documentary about the Angulo brothers, a group of siblings brought up in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment completely shut off from the outside world, whose vision of the way the world works (and, as it turns out, their inspiration for striking out on the own outside the walls of that apartment) is derived entirely from the movies.

9) Second favorite Michael Mann film


My favorite has to be The Insider, so I’ll bestow honorable mention status upon The Last of the Mohicans (1992). It strikes me that these two are the ones that stand furthest apart (excepting maybe The Keep) from what I’ve come to think of as the Michael Mann Existential Hero Formula. So does my high regard for his Miami Vice feature automatically classify it as a guilty pleasure, even though I feel no guilt at all about enjoying it?

10) Name a favorite director’s most egregious misstep


I don’t know if they could be called Brian De Palma’s most egregious missteps—I might reserve that label for the potentially career-killing trifecta of The Black Dahlia, Redacted  and  Passion—but it seems to me that the one-two punch of Scarface (1983) and Body Double (1985) might qualify on some level. De Palma followed a career and style-defining run of films, from Sisters (1973) through Blow Out (1981) with the overscaled, sloppy excess of Scarface (from an Oliver Stone screenplay), which was the focus of an intense battle between filmmaker, studio and the MPAA, who originally saddled the movie with an “X” rating, presumably for violence. (The movie also hit high-water marks for swearing—IMDb cites uses the word “fuck” in Scarface, including its derivatives, at 226, for an average of 1.32 “fucks” per minute—and the vacuuming-up of a certain powdered narcotic.)

De Palma took the rating battle personally—in interviews he railed against what he saw as the MPAA’s overly stern tsk-tsking of his movie, and vowed that if they wanted a “X,” next time he’d give ‘em one. The presumable result of the director’s outrage, Body Double, found him being self-conscious about his own body of work for the first time, making “a De Palma movie” instead of one from the charred and blackened heart. (I wrote about the movie at length here.

From here on out there would be masterworks (Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way, Femme Fatale), top-drawer Hollywood work for hire (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) and bizarre misfires (Wise Guys, The Bonfire of the Vanities) along the way. But I look at the Scarface/Body Double combo as the point when De Palma, a master of cinematic control, began to sense a shift in the Hollywood paradigm within which he’d functioned as an independent voice for a decade and responded not with focus or even rage, but with a sort of infantile contempt unbecoming such a master manipulator of image and sound.

11) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?


Delon’s better looking, and he shared the screen with Claudia Cardinale in The Leopard, but Mastroianni has the Fellini connection, and he shared the screen with Claudia Cardinale in 8½. Advantage: Marcello!

12) Jean-Luc Godard famously stated that “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.” Name one other essential element that you’d add to the mix.

Snarky answer: A whole bunch of unexposed film.
Serious answer: A good reason to make one.

13) Favorite one-sheet that you own, or just your favorite one-sheet (please provide a link to an image if you can)

This one hung in my rooms for years, throughout college and beyond. 


I also like this variation.


14) Catherine Spaak or Daniela Giordano?


I first encountered the undeniably lovely Daniela Giordano in Mario Bava’s satisfyingly strange sex comedy  Four Times That Night, but I can recall ever seeing her elsewhere only in the 1970 spaghetti western Have a Nice Funeral, My Friend! Sartana Will Pay! But Catherine Spaak started off on a high note in 1962, with Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso among her first efforts. In addition to lots of Italian sex comedies, she also has Dario Argento’s Cat O’ Nine Tails, Antonio Margheriti’s (say it like Eli Roth) Take a Hard Ride, Damaniano Damiani’s A Complicated Girl and, of course, her tag-team comedy with Claudia Cardinale, Certo, certissimo, anzi... probabile, a.k.a. Diary of a Telephone Operator. For all that, and those awesome glasses, advantage Catherine!

15) Director who most readily makes you think “Whatever happened to…?”


The name that immediately pops to the top of my brain is Bill Forsyth. After a string of wonderful comedy/dramas in the ‘80s, including That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, Comfort and Joy and Housekeeping, he made the largely ignored Burt Reynolds comedy Breaking In in 1989, followed it with the almost universally reviled Being Human (1994) starring Robin Williams, took another five years to come up with a sequel to one of his breakthrough films, Gregory’s Two Girls (1999) and has not been heard from on screen since. He won a lifetime achievement award from the Scottish branch of the British Film Institute in 2009, for which occasion he made a short film:



A quote on his IMDb page may provide a clue as to his diminished output over the past 15 years:

And so the passion ultimately fizzles out because of the limitations of the goal; because movies are really not that important. At the very end of the day you're sitting with an audience of four or five hundred people and all they want is to be entertained. You see we're dealing with a medium which really only wants to involve itself in the superficial manipulation of emotions.”

Be all that as it may, based on Local Hero alone, I’m sorry there aren’t twice as many Bill Forsyth films as there are.

Here's a good piece on Forsyth from the New York Times.

16) Now that some time has passed… The Interview, yes or no?


Speaking as someone who hated Pineapple Express and had only marginally more tolerance for This Is the End, I thought The Interview was terrific, and it’s not even the weirdest James Franco comedy I’ve liked. (That award goes to Your Highness.

17) Second favorite Alberto Cavalcanti film


If Went the Day Well? (1942) is my favorite (and it is), then second place must go to his nifty noir They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) starring Trevor Howard and the indescribably luscious Sally Gray. I disqualified Dead of Night (1945) because Cavalcanti was one of four directors on that omnibus film, but it’s still damn good.

18) Though both displayed strong documentary influence in their early films, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog have focused heavily on the documentary form late in their filmmaking careers. If he had lived, what kind of films do you think Rainer Werner Fassbinder, their partner in the German New Wave of the ‘70s, would be making now?


With Berlin Alexanderplatz as exhibit #1 in evidence, I’d like to think he’d have a home at HBO or Showtime or one of those joints making the sort of long-form TV that has everyone glued to their iPads these days.

19) Name a DVD you’ve replaced with a Blu-ray. Name another that you decided not to replace. 


I happily replaced my MGM Midnite Movies double bill of The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971) with Synapse Video’s lush, feature-packed Blu-rays and will never look back. Synapse also put out gorgeous Blu-ray transfers of Twins of Evil (1971), Vampire Circus (1972) and Hands of the Ripper (1971), all of which grace my bookshelf and which make my house the place to be in Glendale if you have an itch for some early ‘70s Hammer!

And I don’t see any point in upgrading my Jackass: The Movie, Jackass 2 and Jackass 3-D collection to Blu-ray. Picture quality is not the raison d’etre here, and those shiny Blu-ray discs will just get smudged with all manner of debris anyway.

20) Don Rickles or Rodney Dangerfield?


Who do you think, dummy? The Man with the X-Ray Eyes! Casino! Kelly’s Heroes! Toy Story! Run Silent, Run Deep! Beach Blanket Bingo! CPO Sharkey! Come on! Advantage: Mr. Warmth!

21) Director who you wish would hurry up and make another film


The answer to this one and to #15 seem as though they might be interchangeable, but I don’t necessarily think so. Bill Forsyth may have discovered that the creative fire that kept him going 30 years ago is too difficult to light now. So what we’d get if Bill Forsyth churned out another movie might be (would most likely be) more on the uninspired order of Being Human than another uniquely entrancing creation like Local Hero or Comfort and Joy or Gregory’s Girl. 

It might be cheating a bit to say Hou Hsiao-hsien, since The Assassin has already screened at Cannes and it's just a couple of months away from hitting the States. So I’ll say Walter Hill, whose recent Bullet to the Head proved he’s still got the chops. He just needs a stronger screenplay.

22) Second favorite Michael Bay film


 

The great American satire Pain & Gain gets my top spot here, so the runner-up award for Michael Bay’s second-best film is Bad Boys II, which is a movie that has a lot of junk in it—it’s two and a half hours long. How could it not?—but is still a lot of fun, especially when everybody starts flinging fast-moving cars at each other. Missing the second-place cut by a hair is Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

23) Name a movie that, for whatever reason, you think of as your own


National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) for the obvious reasons. For perhaps less obvious ones, Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1974) and Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), which I saw on the second half of a late-night Sinister Cinema double feature back in the early ‘70s. It made me feel like I’d discovered a movie no else knew about. Which wasn’t true, of course, but it still made me love the movie even more than I would have already. (I call up the great opening title music in my head whenever life doesn’t seem quite dramatic or urgent enough…)

24) Your favorite movie AI (however loosely you care to define the term)

Right now it’s a toss-up…


25) Your favorite existing DVD commentary track *



I will put in one very decisive vote for the commentary track featuring Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs on the DVD for The Limey. There’s a time and place for friendly back and forth, and then there’s a time for a screenwriter to confront his director about choices made that he disagrees with. This commentary track is the time for the latter.

And I will also make room to urge you to listen to Richard Harland Smith’s informative and enlightening track on Kino’s recent Blu-ray remastering of the 1940 Poverty Row production The Devil Bat. The movie itself is unlikely to impress anyone who doesn’t already have a taste for horror marginalia or a fond memory of watching it on late-night TV as a kid, but Smith, a more-than-worthy host and raconteur, will open up this Bela Lugosi sort-of classic to you like no one else could. (Above: Richard hanging out with one of his many acolytes.)

26) The double bill you’d program on the last night of your own revival theater


There are so many combos floating around in my head, some of which wouldn’t be quite right for the last night of a presumably beloved cinema. But I think a movie that stretches back to the silent era and points a poison pen toward the heart of Hollywood, combined with a movie that revels in the form of epic Hollywood (and international moviemaking) as well as the audacious use of those forms to unexpected ends, which itself concludes with the burning of a big, beautiful movie house, would seem to fit the requirements of the evening.

May I suggest Sunset Boulevard and Inglourious Basterds?

27) Catherine Deneuve or Claudia Cardinale?


Well, unlike Alain Delon, Marcello Mastroianni or Catherine Spaak, as far as I know Catherine Deneueve never made a picture with Claudia Cardinale, so…. Like there was ever a contest here! Advantage: Claudia!

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