Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015, My Year in Classic Film – I Wish I Had Done the Math

I don't see a lot of movies in the theater. Scratch that, I don't see a lot of new movies in the theater. This year, I saw a total of six new films in the theater:
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Avengers: Age Of Ultron
  • Jurassic World
  • Trumbo
  • Hitchcock Truffaut
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens 
It's almost new year, and unless I make it to The Hateful Eight before the 1st, I assume that number is going to hold. This is pretty typical for me. Seeing about six new movies in the theater in a year is probably what I've done every year for the last 10 or more years.

I actually saw over over 64 movies in the theater in 2015. The six new ones account for about 10% of the total. The rest (58) were classic films. I know the number 58 is not correct. I know that there are a few that I'm not thinking of. Hence, I wish I had done the math. My New Year's resolution is to write down all of the movies I see in the theater in 2016. That way, if I decide to do this silliness next year, I won't have to dredge through old schedules, tweets, and blog posts to figure it out. I did attend three classic film festivals in 2015, Universal Suspects, a year long festival showing 31 Universal Monster movies once a month (I saw 11 of them),  the TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF, saw 13), and the Palm Springs Classic Science Fiction Film Festival (saw all 8).

If you exclude the films I saw at festivals, there were still 26 classics to 6 new films, not bad, considering I live in San Diego, not New York or Los Angeles. The 26 films were spread out over 9 venues. 

Four were traditional theaters, showing Fathom Events screenings, or one of their own special screenings where they show an old movie one or two times only. Three were Indy theaters, where they mostly show foreign and Indy films, and only have limited offerings of classic films. One is a tiny outside theater in the back of a restaurant, where you sit on reclining chairs patio chairs with blankets and heaters. This is the only one where they show mostly classics, but they are only open four nights a week during the summer, two or three nights the rest of the year. The last couple of months they switched to showing new movies and have yet to post a schedule for January. The last venue was the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion, The Phantom of the Opera (silent with live organ accompaniment) on Halloween night.

So you're probably wondering why I writing this. Is it just to brag about the movies I've seen? Well, partly. But the other reason is that I want people to know that even if you don't live in a town where they don't have a lot of theaters that show old movies, you should have access to some. I live in San Diego. I'm sure it's better than some cities, but I know for a fact that it is worse than others. 

Fathom Events brings classic films to theaters across the nation. I just checked half a dozen cities, Des Moine, IA, Mobile, AL, Hartford, CT, Omaha, NB, Anchorage, AK, and Medford, OR, and all had screenings scheduled for January. Their web site currently list the classics they will be showing through November 2016:
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Jan 17 and 20)
  • The Maltese Falcon (Feb 21 and 24)
  • The Ten Commandments (Mar 20 and 23)
  • On the Waterfront (Apr 24 and 27)
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off (May 15 and 18)
  • Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Jun 26 and 29)
  • The Planet of the Apes (Jul 24 and 27)
  • The King and I (Aug 28 and 31)
  • Dr. Strangelove (Sep 18 and 21)
  • The Shining (Oct 23 and 26)
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's (Nov 27 and 30)

Some pretty good stuff there. I'm most psyched on The Maltese Falcon, On the Waterfront, and The Planet of the Apes. The folks who did the Universal Suspects festival are planning a year-long Hammer Horror festival. And I have already bought my passes to TCMFF, so 2016 is looking pretty good.

About three months ago, I started keeping a calendar of all classic films I can find showing in San Diego. I update it once a month. It forces me to scour the internet for screenings. I made it public, but as far as I know I'm the only one using it. There's a link at the top of the page. Just knowing that something is coming up makes me more likely to go out and see it. I now have a number of places I know to look and occasionally I stumble on new ones. The Coronado Island Film Festival is coming up in January, and they will be showing at least some classics including Some Like It Hot

Seeing great old films in the theater is wonderful. I know that film festivals are expensive, TCMFF especially so. The cost of travel, hotel, and the festival itself might not be doable for a lot of people. I consider myself very lucky that I can do some. Still, you should be able to take in the Fathom Events screenings unless you live in the middle of nowhere. I can't help you with that. 

Look around, you never know what you may find. October tends to be a good month as a lot of places will show horror movies for Halloween. Summers you might be able to find movies in the park. The local library might show film noir or a university might show schlocky science fiction. It's worth the effort to see these films the way they were meant to be seen on the big screen with an audience. Even films, you don't like all that well tend to be better, and by supporting those who show them, you encourage them to do more.

In case you're wondering, the 26 films are listed below. Two are from the 1990s (The Iron Giant, 1999, is the newest, a classic in my book), four are from the 1980s, and two are from the 1970s. The rest are all 1960s or older:

  • Roman Holiday
  • The Good The Bad and The Ugly
  • Dr. Zhivago
  • All About Eve
  • The Phantom Of the Opera
  • Dracula
  • Dracula [Spanish Language version]
  • Duel
  • The Black Cat
  • Dial M for Murder
  • An American Werewolf in London
  • Rafifi
  • Dead Ringer
  • Strait Jacket
  • Duck Soup
  • Iron Giant
  • The Third Man
  • Jaws
  • Double Indemnity
  • Top Gun
  • Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
  • The Sound Of Music
  • Sunset Blvd.
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • Blade Runner: The Final Cut
  • The Shawshank Redemption

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Prime Rib and Joan Crawford

Last night we went to dinner at a place I had never been to, despite having driven past hundreds of times. We used to live with my wife's mother in Southeast San Diego. This is a predominantly black and Latino area, and there really isn't much there other than the mom and pop liquor stores and taco shops (actually marginally better now than it used to be in that respect).

When we went shopping or wanted takeout food, we almost always went to National City, which borders San Diego to the south and was only about 8 blocks from where we lived.  The main north-south street in that part of National City is Highland Avenue. We used to call it eater's row, because it has every fast food known to man on it. About where all of the fast-food places start of give way to more normal businesses, there is a restaurant called Cafe La Maze, a place that looks like it's been there forever, because, well, it kinda has, at least by San Diego standards. 

I always assumed it was a sit-down Mexican place. La Maze to me sounds vaguely Spanish, and in San Diego, that usually means Mexican food. I would have never guessed that it was a steakhouse, nor that it was a haunt for old guard Hollywood. Cafe La Maze opened in 1940 and catered to Hollywood, stars such as  Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, and Johnny Weissmuller. Back then, that stretch of Highland Avenue would have been the road you took south to the horse races at Agua Calliente in Tijuana. According to the web site, they even had a secret gambling room upstairs.

Our friend Anastasia suggested we go when she found out the place was classic film related. The place is definitely old school, red velvet wallpaper and pictures of classic film stars above each booth. The food was excellent. I had a rib eye and everyone else had prime rib in a booth with a young Joan Crawford watching us eat. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday night three days before Christmas. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Five Things I'm Expecting from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, so don't worry about spoilers. It's been out in theaters for about 48 hours now. Yeah, I know, what's wrong with me. I'm planning on seeing it in the next couple of weeks, and I'll do my best to avoid spoilers in that time. I spend way more time on Twitter than Facebook, so I kinda figure how bad can a spoiler be at 140 characters. I am not a huge fan of Star Wars, so if a spoiler or two sneak through my poorly constructed net, I'm probably not going to open any veins.

There are five things I'm expecting from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I honestly don't think I'm going to be disappointed:

1. Fun. At their best, Star Wars films are fun. I'm sure the J.J. Abrams understands this, has shot for that, and likely hit the mark.

2. Kind of a Stupid Story. This is the main reason I don't consider myself a fan of the franchise. At 14, when I saw the first film, Episode IV, Star Wars. I flatly refuse to use those three words to describe it. I came out of the theater pumped like the rest of the audience. The special effects were like nothing you had ever and still hold up almost 40 years later. But I was also kind of disappointed. I couldn't help comparing the story of Star Wars to other great films I had seen at that point in my life, and storywise it wasn't even close. Face it, Star Wars is only Science Fiction because it's set in space. The story could just as easily be a Western or Sword and Sorcery film. You really wouldn't have to change much. I guess If you want  Science Fiction, you should read a book. Or watch Twelve Monkeys, or any of a dozen other movies that have way better science fiction plots than Star Wars.

3. Cool Stuff. This is main reason I have what little affection I have for Star Wars. The films abound with cool stuff. Light sabers are cool. Blasters are cool. Force choke is cool. X-wing and Tie fighters are cool. The Millennium Falcon, way cool. I fully expect Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be full of cool stuff. That's the main reason I'm going to see it, and the only reason I'm even sort of worried about spoilers.

4. Annoying Characters.  In Star Wars, cool stuff and annoying characters walk hand in hand. I guess it's like the light and dark side of the Force. Do I need to explain? Whiny characters, Luke, Princess Leia, Anakin, .... Annoyingly cute characters, C-3PO, wookies, Jar-Jar, .... Lame villains, Darth Maul, General Grievous, I'm looking at you. Or cool villians, who evolve into lame. Yes, Darth, that would be you. It's too late to become a good dad. You have to do what all bad dads have done throughout history: remarry and screw up a new batch of kid. In any Star Wars movie, there's usually a small handful of characters who are not annoying, Han Solo, Chewy, Obie-Wan, the rest, forget about it.

5. A Movie Better Than the George Lucas Films. I know this is not setting the bar very high, but I do like to end on a positive note.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

µ-Blog – Breaking Bad Parenting

µ-Blog – Too long to tweet, too short to call a real post

My 15-year-old daughter and I started binge watching Breaking Bad together. I've already seen the whole series all the way through. I'd watched every episode as they came out from the very beginning as they came out, back when hardly anyone was watching the show.

Going through the series again like this, there are a ton of things that you don't remember. Last night, my wife and I were talking, and I was telling her about one of those minor but really cool plot points (Walter making batteries to jump start the RV when it had died in the middle of nowhere).

My wife says, "You know, we really should have that girl watch something nice every now and then."

"Hey," I replied. "I had her watch Casablanca." My wife gives me a look. "Then, again I also had her watch Night of the Hunter."

Monday, November 30, 2015

µ-Blog – Roku vs Wii U

µ-Blog – Too long to tweet, too short to call a real post

Lately, I have been streaming stuff on Netflix. My 21-year-old son, Matthew, asks, "Are you using the Wii U or the Roku."
Me: The Roku. 
Matthew: Why aren't you using the Wii U?
Me: Because then I'd have to learn how to use the Wii U.
Matthew: It's made for children, Dad.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Railrodder – Buster Keaton’s Last Silent Film from 1965, Wait, What?

I stumbled on the The Railrodder when I was looking at the IMDB page for Buster Keaton. The film was released in 1965 and made in conjunction with the documentary, Buster Keaton Rides Again. Both were produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Buster Keaton Rides Again is a making of film about the production of The Railrodder, though it is twice the length of The Railrodder. Buster Keaton Rides Again is as much a documentary about Keaton’s life as it is a making of.

In The Railrodder, Buster Keaton is a in London reading a newspaper. He sees an ad that says, SEE CANADA NOW! He throws away the paper and jumps off a bridge into the Thames. The next shot he is emerging on a beach in Nova Scotia.  After seeing a sign pointing West and saying Pacific Ocean 3982 ½ miles, he starts to walk along the railroad tracks. He comes on a speeder, an open one seat railroad maintenance vehicle. The seat looks comfy, so he decides to take a nap and accidentally puts it in gear. Off he goes. The rest of the film is a series of gags, following him across the continent.

The Railrodder is definitely a silent film. There isn’t a single word of dialog, only music and overdubbed sound effects. The speeder in addition to having an inexhaustible fuel supply also has a Tardis-like storage cabinet. A running gag throughout the film is him pulling everything from his signature pork-pie hat to a tea set to a blanket and pillow from the tiny cabinet. Keaton celebrated his 69th birthday during the filming. While he is not falling off any buildings, he is clearly doing his own stunts, I presume with the exception of the jumping off the bridge. He certainly had not lost his feel for physical comedy.

The Railrodder is credited as, Written and Directed by Gerald Potterton. Watching the documentary, Buster Keaton Rides Again, it’s clear that he wrote/improvised most of the gags and surely co-directed with Potterton. I honestly don’t think he cared about the writing/director credits. The documentary clearly shows how he worked. The Railrodder is a wonderful short film.

I have embedded The Railrodder below:

Both the The Railrodder and Buster Keaton Rides Again are available for streaming free from National Film Board of Canada’s YouTube page at the links below:

Monday, November 23, 2015

When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk – What a Character Blogathon: Eli Wallach

Eli Wallach was born on December 7, 1915 in Redhook, Brooklyn, New York to the only Jewish family in an otherwise Italian neighborhood. Oddly, the root word his surname comes from, Wlochy, is the Polish word for Italy. He attended the University of Texas in Austin. Though the university didn't have a Dramatic Arts department, he performed in many plays in the student drama club. In one play, he performed with both Ann Sheridan and Walter Cronkite, the latter of whom he remained friends with for over 70 years.

After being drafted into the Army in WWII, he served in the Army Medical Corps and achieved the rank of Captain. After the War, he became a founding member of the Actors Studio, and he studied with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Sidney Lumet, Marilyn Monroe, and the woman he would soon marry, Anne Jackson. He and Jackson remained married until his death in 2014. Wallach made his Broadway debut in 1945 and won a Tony Award in 1951 for his role in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo with Maureen Stapleton. Through the 1940s and into the 1950s, he worked in both theater and television.

Wallach made his film debut in the 1956 Elia Kazan film, Baby Doll, with Karl Malden and Carroll Baker. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards and four British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards. Wallach won the BAFTA Most Promising Newcomer Award for Baby Doll. He is probably best remembered for his roles of Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). After starting in films, he continued to do theater in between film and television roles. 

Wallach was one of three actors to play the supervillain, Mr. Freeze, in the 1960s Batman TV show. He was in very good company. The other two were George Sanders and Otto Preminger. He said that he received more fan mail for Mr. Freeze than any other role he ever played. He continued to work in both film and television well into his 90s. Later in life, he had roles in the numerous films including Mystic River and The Godfather: Part III and TV series including Murder She Wrote, L.A. Law, Law and Order, and Nurse Jackie.

I'm going to look at a total of four roles, my two favorites from his prime and two from later in his career. 

The Magnificent Seven was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai. Eli Wallach plays the outlaw, Calvera, whose gang terrorizes a small Mexican village. When approached to do the film, Wallach wasn't impressed. In The Seven Samurai, the head bandit was just a guy with an eye patch on a horse, he thought. Director John Sturges told him to read the script. Wallach did and realized that even though after the first scene, his character doesn't appear for another 35 minutes, that whole time the movie revolved around the character. 

The film opens with Calvera and his men robbing a meager Mexican village of food and supplies. Through all of this, Wallach talks to the villagers and somehow manages to sound magnanimous. Not that he is, but he makes you think he really believes he is being magnanimous. It adds dimension to what otherwise be just be a ruthless character. Every scene that he is in, Wallach is riveting. Some of the best lines in the film are his, and he just nails them. He has said in interviews that he chose certain items for the character, like the gold teeth and red silk shirt. He wanted to show what a man like Calvera would spend the money he stole on. It turns out that Wallach's gang in the film, played by Mexican actors more or less adopted Wallach, taking charge of his horse and gun, and not letting the crew give them to him unless they checked them first. Wallach said that he was so impressed with the Elmer Berstein score, that if he heard it while making the film he would have ridden his horse better.

In The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Wallach plays Tuco, "the Ugly" from the film's title. In a film like The Good the Bad and the Ugly, it's almost hard to say who the good guy is. Obviously, it's Clint Eastwood, but he is so far into anti-hero territory that he is very little different from the "bad guys." Wallach's Tuco is an utterly reprehensible character. He is vicious, cruel, and cowardly. Yet through all of that Wallach manages to make the character likable and has you pulling for him.  In the scene in the gun store, all of Wallach's actions were unscripted. He knew so little about guns that he was instructed to do whatever he wanted. I just rewatched it last week, and the scene was brilliant. In the film, Wallach's character wore his gun on a lanyard around his neck and then tucked it into his belt rather than using a holster. This was Sergio Leone's idea, because Wallach said he had trouble putting his gun back in the holster without looking at it, something that drove John Sturges crazy on The Magnificent Seven.

When Wallach first arrived in Madrid for fliming The Good the Bad and the Ugly, all of the hotels were full. Clint Eastwood invited him to stay with friends he was staying with. The two of them ended up sharing the same bed. Later Wallach's wife Anne Jackson told him that he could tell everyone that he was the only man to ever sleep with Clint Eastwood. During the filming, Wallach barely spoke any Italian, and director Sergio Leone barely spoke any English, so they spoke to each other in French. Still, they had similar senses of humor and got along well, and the end product speaks for itself.

In Tough Guys (1886), Wallach plays Leon B. Little, an aging hitman, who had been hired to kill Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and has waited 30 years while they were in prison. I love Tough Guys, but I'll be the first to admit that almost 30 years later, it looks very very dated. Still, it's worth a watch if only to see Lancaster and Douglas on screen for the last time together. But another reason is to see Wallach, a senior citizen hit man who can barely see, presumably from cataracts. Most of the humor surrounding his character involves him losing his glasses and not being able to see well enough to find them, making him pretty ineffectual as a hit man. Still, he's great in the role and a huge asset to the film. He plays it straight. He plays it well, and that makes it all the more funny. 

Wallach: I wanna get a hundred of those coppers.
Burt Lancaster: There's only fifty Leon.
Wallach: So? I'll shoot 'em all twice!

Finally, I watched Wallach in Murder She Wrote of all things, from an episode called "A Very Good Year for Murder" from the fourth season. I chose this mostly because it was available on Netflix. It was the first episode of Murder She Wrote I have ever seen all the way through. My wife came in and said, "What the hell."

"It has Eli Wallach in it," I said.

"Oh, that makes sense."

In addition to Wallach and Angela Landsbury (duh), the episode also had John Saxon, Billy Zane, and Grant Goodeve. All in all, it was good. A big part of that was Eli Wallach as Savatore Gambini, the patriarch of a well-to-do wine raising family in the Napa Valley. He was great. I'm probably not going to be watching a whole lot of the series, but still it was well worth watching this one episode. I think that is the sign of really great actor, he makes whatever he's in that much better. Old or young, that's what Eli Wallach did.


This post is part of the fourth annual What A Character Blogathon, hosted by:

See their sites for more posts in the series.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Bonhams/TCM Auction Preview Photo Gallery

I only put in captions on a handful of these that you'd really be hard-pressed to figure out what they are without them. If they look Roman, they are probably from Ben Hur

Frank Capra's Golden Globe for It's a Wonderful Life

Marilyn Monroe's Defense Department ID

Steve McQueen's pants from Papillon

Sam Spade's easy chair

Claude Rains tailcoat from Anthony Adverse

Whole set of cases from Natalie Wood collection

Walt Disney WWI-era art

Katherine Hepburn costume, African Queen

Torch from Witch's castle, Wizard of Oz