Monday, May 31, 2010

Films # 7 & 8: Kazan/Brando Double Feature (May 30th)

A Streetcar Named Desire

1951, 124 min.
Directed by Elia Kazan

On The Waterfront

1953, 108 min.
Directed by Elia Kazan

I'm beginning to feel like a bit of a street preacher, spreading the word of The Paramount Theatre. My experiences have been so rich thus far, I can't wait to share. It also has become a bit of a new law around my home: any out-of-town visitors are required to accompany me to a show at The Paramount.

Today's lucky contestants are my parents, who were visiting for Memorial Day weekend. Mom and Dad, COME ON DOWWWWWN!

Truth be told, it was kind of an impromptu affair. On Saturday night, I saw them at a family party here in the Austin area. They asked what I had planned the following day and I replied that I had a double feature to attend. After asking what they had planned (they had nada), I decided to invite them to attend the first film (since I knew they had a lengthy drive back to their home in South Texas) of Sunday's Elia Kazan / Marlon Brando double dip. They were newbies to The Theatre just as I was, so they agreed to meet me there.

Unfortunately, when I woke Sunday, I found I was a bit under the weather. My body fell victim to what I can assume is the late night Chinese food I ingested late Saturday. It is said the body is a temple, and evidently mine has a "No MSG" sign hanging in there. Like that Ghostbusters logo, you know? Who am I gonna call? Pepto Bismol.

Queasiness aside, I gathered myself together for the 2 o'clock start time of Streetcar. I got there early, with plenty of time for free parking and a short trip to the theatre. I was nervous. It was like a "take your parents to work day" kind of unease. The pre-existing case of the stomach "blahs" didn't help. I decide to hit the water fountain upstairs and swing by the bathroom to splash some water on my face. I push open the door, and...

Well, I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. This was an ornate washroom, and was almost like stepping into a time machine. Man, everything at The Paramount has such... style. It reminded me of that scene in The Aviator when Leo (as Howard Hughes) washing his hands in that nice bathroom and then can't bring himself to touch the handle and open the door in fear of contamination. Since I'm a bit of a notorious germ-o-phobe myself, that scene always stuck with me. Thank goodness I'm not that crazy. Yet.

Refreshing myself, I venture back downstairs and get a call on my cell. Mom and Dad are arriving. I meet them outside as they get in line to buy tickets, and I begin to hear the compliments already. After a few minutes, we enter The Paramount and they swoon. I give them a mini-tour and spout off trivia tidbits. I'm sure to recount the Harry Houdini story relayed to me by Brandi (and I gave her credit, of course. The folks raised me right) After a brief overview, we get in line for some soda and popcorn.

Glancing at my watch, I see that perhaps I spent too much time showing off. I could hear a trailer for The Adventures of Robin Hood, and could hear parts of what I believe was the trailer to Giant. No rush, as long as we can make it to our seats for the feature. We go up the stairs to our seats. Entering the auditorium, I am surprised to find the lights come back on briefly, but it does helps us find our seats.

No sooner did we find our seats when the film began.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those movies where you want to take a shower afterward. Every inhabitant is dripping with sweat, and you feel their varying levels of desperation. Its depiction of a sweltering New Orleans makes the entire film feel like its set on a frying pan. Lust and desire provide the sizzle and the motivation of many of its characters. Add an egg and watch it fry.

One such egg does, in fact, arrive. The film begins with Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh), an aged but distinctive Southern Belle of a woman, arriving to stay with her sister and brother-in-law, Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche is full of flamboyance and more than a fair share of delusion. She seems delicate (and elusive), but it doesn't take long for her to make her nest in Stella and Stan's one-room apartment. Blanche explains that the family estate has been lost, and the implication is clear that her stay will be an open-ended one. Stella wants to help her sister who is in desperate need, but Stanley eyes Blanche with suspicion. Of course, there is also more than suspicion in his eye towards Blanche...

Every performance in the film is first-rate. As well they should be, since every actor was chosen from a production of the Tennessee Williams play on which the film is adapted from. All except Vivian Leigh were from the Broadway production (also directed on stage by Kazan), and she was selected from the London production. Leigh perfect here, especially since her iconic role in Gone with the Wind allow us to easily accept this role as a slightly wilted Southern flower. Karl Malden, who many younger viewers may only identify from American Express commercials, is excellent as a would-be suitor for DuBois. His loneliness is as apparent as the clothes on his back, also drenched with the sweat of desperation. Kim Hunter gives a solid but overlooked performance in this cast of eventual titans. She and Brando in particular are the epitomy of co-dependence. Their marriage changes akin to the direction of the wind in a storm; hot then cold, steamy then angry, all subject to fits of his drunken rage.

Marlon Brando's performance is absolutely electric. He's a mixture of a gorilla and a hurricane. A primal force of nature. Like a hurricane, he brings the lightning and the thunder, but you can't help but watch. A man who challenges any semblance of authority, he does not eact well to his new house guest. Determined to undo what he perceives as Blanche's air of superiority and uncover her past, his repeated confrontations with her progress from suspicion to cruelty.

Alas, it is this urban and primal atmosphere that begin to ake our toll on the soft-boiled DuBois. Events transpire that start a slow decent into a personal hell for Blanche, and it leaves her a scrambled mess. Certainly not light Sunday afternoon fare at the movies, but Streetcar is ultimately empowering and insightful.

As the lights came up and we made our way downstairs, my parents thanked me for the afternoon. Film discussion is a hobby of both my mother and myself, so I knew we'd have some fodder for the next time I called. With the long drive ahead of them, I knew it was best they take their leave as soon as they could. We hugged and said our farewells that afternoon, and I ventured back inside for the second film (and my fourth by Elia Kazan in a few days).

On the Waterfront is another collaboration between Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, and is another fine film. The story of a mob-controlled waterfront and the lives that their twisted vines touch, it features more outstanding performances across the board. Marlon stars as Terry Malloy, a washed up ex-prizefighter who is now just regarded as he neighborhood "bum." His brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the legal counsel of the local mob boss, so Terry is thrown odd jobs and generally taken care of by the thugs. When Terry is used as bait to coax a potential informant to his death, a line of dominoes begins to fall and Terry begins to question whether it's safe to protect those who protect him.

Two of the best performances in the film belong to the two main characters who help sway Terry's decision. Edie (an Oscar-winning Eva Marie Saint, in her film debut at that) is the slain victim's sister who starts to rile feathers as she demands answers and action for her brother's murder. Terry takes an interest in her, but his puppy love is in danger of releasing the mob's hounds. Karl Malden again appears along Brando in a Kazan film, and as the neighborhood priest, he is the moral center of the film (despite being a rough and tumble guy who's not afraid of having a pint). Malden is solid in a much different role than he played in A Streetcar Named Desire, but is no less effective.

In addition to the acting, On the Waterfront further illustrates why Kazan was one of the finest film directors in American cinema. The craftsmanship of the film matches the caliber of the acting, and they received the Oscars to prove it (winning Best Director, Actor, Screenplay, Editing, Supporting Actress, Art Direction for Black and White film, and Cinematography for Black and White film). What struck me most of the technical fields was the great cinematography. It is, after all, a shadowy place in the underworld of mob bosses and corruption, and the photography handles the mood and locale perfectly. Many shots have a "film noir" feel, and pursuits down back alleys and riverfronts have a deeper sense of dread because of the lighting.

In a film where so much talk is bantered about regarding "cheese-eaters" (rats) and "stoolies" (pigeons), it's inevitable that thoughts turn to Elia Kazan himself. For those unfamiliar with his biography, Kazan in 1952 testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and "named names." Fingering Hollywood figures and alleging their Communist ties; it was a scar he carried with him until the day he died.

Many regard On the Waterfront as his response to the politics of the day and his decisions. Yes, there can be a nobility in shining a light on the darkness. And yes, such action is incredibly brave. But there was a world of difference in taking a stand against corruption and naming names out of fear. In Kazan's case, his act was cowardly (let's not mince words here), but his skill as a filmmaker was undeniable. The four films I've screened of Kazan's the past few days have been powerful, illuminating, provocative and brilliant. Wild River, Splendor in the Grass, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront are of a caliber few could ever match.

Perhaps he saw himself as a Terry Malloy. Perhaps he would've lost it all if he didn't cooperate. Ironically, he picked the wrong side. The sad truth is that the thugs in his life were the HUAC, and Kazan saved himself from persecution by those whose main tool is fear (much like the Waterfront neighborhood did by remaining silent). It's not whether you talk or remain silent, it's whether you take a stand against fear and tyranny. Many deny him his brilliance because of choices made away from the camera. Like poor, feeble Terry Malloy; it's his own choices that constructed the cross that he chose to bear. Kazan made many more brilliant films, but none could erase the tarnish of his HUAC testimony. It's a shame.He could've had it all. He could've had class; he could've been a contender...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Films # 5 & 6: Elia Kazan Double Feature (May 27th)

Wild River
1960, 110 min.
Directed by Elia Kazan

Splendor in the Grass
1961, 124 min.
Directed by Elia Kazan

It was another hot day before I ventured out for the double feature (I have a feeling I'm going to start a lot of blog posts that way). Yep, 'tis gonna be a looong, hot summer. Mind you, I'm not referring to The Long Hot Summer, since that's not on the Summer Series schedule. No matter, there are more than plenty to keep us entertained (over 80 films). Each one will be a lovely oasis from the hot Texas sun.

So I drive to the theatre and am fortunate to find... wait for it... free parking! I didn't pass Go. I did not collect $200. But more importantly, I didn't pay five or six bucks for a parking space! And it was only a block away. As Borat would say, "very niiice."

I walk the block to the theatre with a definite skip in my step. Time is short before the first film begins, so I go and take what has become my usual seat in the mezzanine. I wave to Brandi, who is working again upstairs. As a follow-up to our last conversation, she comes up to me and asks for the website of the blog we discussed (this very one, by the way). Silly me, it appears I told her everything about this blog last time except for the location. Doh! So I write it down for her, so she can now partake of my ramblings like the rest of you, my dear readers. Bless you all. May you one day also have free parking. Or get a really good Chance of Community Chest card.

Well, soon thereafter the lights go down and the trailers begin. There are two shown today. The first is for the 50th Anniversary of Breathless. See the blog post on Casablanca for details.

What happened next was unexpected to me. Bear in mind that all of the films I've screened thus far have been before 1953. Why is that important, you may ask? Well, 1953 was the year The Robe came out. It is most notable for being the first film shot in Cinemascope, and therefore is the first widescreen film. Since the Bogart films and the Thin Man films I've seen were filmed pre-1953, they have not filled the entire screen when being projected for us. Honestly, I took it for granted, and had no expectations of what an image would look like when it filled the width of the screen at the theatre.

Therefore, when the next trailer began. I literally gasped.

The next image after the Breathless trailer was of the Columbia Pictures logo and it's expansion to a 2:35 ratio not only filled the screen, it nearly filled my field of vision. Wowwwww was all I could whisper to myself as the following trailer began...

Yes, it was for Lawrence of Arabia, and the desert never looked so good. Trust me, the YouTube link I posted is NOTHING compared to seeing this up on the silver screen. The shots were exhilarating, and the cinematography was absolutely breathtaking.

As the trailer ended and the first feature began (no cartoons today), I was thrilled at the new experience I was about to behold. My eyes were about to feast upon a CinemaScope film on this screen: the little known Wild River by Eila Kazan. No, it is not that movie with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon. You're thinking of The River Wild. This is most assuredly NOT that film.

Wild River wasn't a film I was familiar with in Kazan's filmography, and I can see why it was mostly overlooked by the general public. First of all, it requires some heavy lifting on the part of the audience (not exactly what most mainstream moviegoers want to do). It's also not a perfect film, and there are plenty of ambiguities on the part of the characters that are not resolved by the time the closing credits come. I, however, thought it was quite good despite its flaws. I'd give it a solid 3 1/2 stars on a 4 star scale.

The film starts with truly terrifying archival news footage of a river washing away. An interview with a gentleman who lost three young children in the floods places a human face on the tragedies that must have occurred over a span of decades, much like the tides themselves.

The setup is fairly simple. In the 1930's, a young and enthusiastic (borderline naïve) Tennessee Valley Authority agent, Chuck Glover (played by the stoic Montgomery Clift) is assigned to a small Tennessee town to convince an aging matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) and her clan that imminent domain isn't a bad idea. The TVA needs to buy her land and relocate her because the dams being constructed will flood her tiny island to prevent the aforementioned tragedies. Now that I think about it, there's a parallel with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Only without the charm.

Based on the attitudes of the townsfolk toward the TVA and their well-intentioned cause, I was surprised how topical and relevant this film quickly became. Seems that some people are resistant to change by their nature, be it a recoiling from the term "New Deal" or a more recent campaign poster that said "Hope." In fact, many of the arguments against this form of progress can likely be heard verbatim on talk radio today.

Glover's arrival places a face on the "meddlin' federal gov'ment" that so many harp about in the town. For some, it provides a sympathetic figure that represents what noble work the TVA is trying to accomplish. Of course, to others, that face is simply a target to try and hit in the mouth.

He finds that the large segments of the population are apt to drag their heels. The matriarch herself isn't prone to listening to reason, and he finds that his assignment is not an easy one. After all, he's facing pressure from all sides: a staff that doesn't believe he will succeed, superiors who want him to close the deal quickly, and the knowledge that forcing eviction is not a wise PR move.

Oh yeah, and to complicate things just a smidge: he falls for the matriarch's granddaughter (Lee Remick), a widower with two young children. Here's a man drowning in responsibility.

The story is quite involving. The cinematography is really quite beautiful, showing nature in the Tennessee valley. It is very much an American picture. Wild River perfectly captures our needs to commit to progress, to do the best thing for the greatest number, to respect the individual, and do the "right thing" for the ones we love.

Kazan's greatest genius in this film is to give credit to all of those ideals. It would be far too easy to simply take the point of view of Glover's TVA agent. To take a "Do what must be done for progress! Damn the consequences!" kind of attitude. And although the matriarch is stubborn as a mule, she's nobody's fool. She makes valid points, and the audience empathizes with her in spite of the grouchy demeanor. What gives anyone the right to buy the land she's called home all her years? Then again, who really owns land?

Wild River is a bit melodramatic in its performances at times, but still a brilliant film. It is wondrous to see a beautiful piece of America that is not often depicted on film. What is amazing about this film, however, is how balanced it is. You actually understood the value of progress versus tradition, even if the tradition is simple (and at times, backwards).

The conclusion is bittersweet, but has a great deal of grace and dignity. It doesn't force a hand onto the audience. It asks about the nature of "progress" itself and whether it is itself a natural act, or something artificial as the dams men build. Can we control the river? Can we control nature? Can we control human nature? And just what level of control (if any) is ever appropriate? These were questions that lingered long after the day ended.

After Wild River, I did little more than stretch. Eager to drink in more of Elia Kazan's work, I looked forward to the well-known (but previously unseen by yours truly) Splendor in the Grass.

"What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind... "

I'll admit, I had never seen Splendor before because I thought it was going to be a silly love story. The 1960's version of a Nicholas Sparks novel, if you will. Oh my, my, my. How wrong I was. Yes, at its heart is a love story, but it's SO much more. Yes, it's a story of hormones run amok. Yes, it's a romance where both teens think they have everything planned out. Where they know better than their parents because this love is meant to be. And yes, it's about heartache. But most importantly, it's about how growing up is not about any of those things. It's about learning from the experience of life itself.

Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty (in his first role) play two high school teens in love in 1928 Kansas. She is Deanie, basically the girl next door (although I never had a neighbor who looked like Natalie Wood), an every girl of sorts. He is Bud, the star tailback and the son of an oil tycoon. Both face different kinds of pressure. But their most prevalent one seems to be sexual repression.

You see, he wants the good girl to go bad (sorry if I just put that annoying Cobra Starship song in your head), yet he has seen first-hand how those girls turn out. His older sister, Ginny, is a spoiled brat and the family's black sheep. Therefore, his overbearing father (Pat Hingle) caters to him and pins all of the family's hopes on his lapel. The kind of dad who insists "eat a good breakfast before the game, son." You know the kind.

In fact, one of the most curious themes is the notion that parents have absolutely no clue how to raise their children. As is said in the film, all they know is how heir own parents raised them. In a film full of life's truths, these might resonate the most.

The sexual frustrations of a teenager are maddening indeed, but this film takes it to a whole new level. Bud is trying to round the bases, but keeps getting held up by the proverbial third base coach. They try to talk to many authority figures about their desires, but it's clear no one in authority can give decent advice (a theme echoed throughout the film). The only one who does is, unfortunately, Bud's dad. He suggests, get this; that if you don't want to spoil the good girl... find a bad girl to release your frustrations. No joke. Although, now that I think about it, I think that was the same advice given to The 40 Year-Old Virgin in 2005. Yikes, Bud's dad, such frank sexual discussion!

Also shocking is Deanie's mother's advice. Mom is stern in telling Deanie to abstain, and basically says that she need not worry about sex until she's married. And even then, "A woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children." Whoa. I nearly slapped my forehead in disbelief. In 1961, you can imagine what kind of shock value it had. Heck, there were a few times I almost blushed myself... in 2010.

Bud starts to fold under the weight of his world. Dad arranges for him to go to Yale. After which he says he'd be happy to give his blessing to a marriage to Deanie. Poor Bud has no desire to go to college; he yearns for a simple rancher's life with his good girl. But when you come from money like his father has, well... That's just not kosher.

So as not to spoil the surprise, I'll just say that things happen. And the movie keeps going places I didn't expect it to. All the performances are top notch, but Splendor belongs to Wood, for this is her journey. Throughout the film she remains the sweet girl, but as she begins to crack under her pressures, life gets more and more tragic. She's a little girl lost, with no one to turn to for guidance. Not her parents, not her pastor, not her doctor. I guess there's a reason teens feel so isolated. Sadly, it's often because they are.

Splendor in the Grass is ultimately an incredible journey and a tremendous life lesson. Of all tragedies that may befall us, it's ironic that the only thing that can save us is the perspective that comes with going through those very events. I was wrong about my initial impression of this film. It wasn't just a love story. It's one of the greatest films I've ever seen. Maybe I'm a romantic, but this movie was devastating in the best possible way. Rarely has the audience left the film with a mixture of such bittersweet sadness and catharsis.

My mindset was heavier than I'd been accustomed to after leaving The Paramount that night. It gave me plenty to digest. Film took me to places I hadn't explored, and left me full. For tonight at least. Tomorrow I'll surely be hungry for more.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Films # 3 & 4: Thin Man Double Feature (May 25th)

Another Thin Man

1939, B&W, 103 min.
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke

The Thin Man Goes Home

1945, B&W, 100 min.
Directed by Richard Thorpe

I arrived for my date with Nick & Nora Charles early. I figured it would give me plenty of time to explore and to see Radio Park before the 7:00 showing of Another Thin Man. It had been an easy-going kind of day, and I was looking forward to some lighthearted cinema to add to the day's motif. I must confess I had not seen any of the six Thin Man movies before, although a few have sat in the Netflix queue for about two years now. I was on the verge of bumping these up, but again figured it would just be best to partake of them on the big screen.

I arrived and decided to seat myself in the mezzanine for the double feature. Gazing again at the ornate ceiling, I nearly bumped into Brandi, a young lady who was ushering on the upper level.

After explaining that I was just taking in the sights again, she asked if this was one of my first trips to The Paramount. I explained that I was a veteran of a whopping two shows, and we both had a chuckle. I introduced myself and explained that I was a new publicist for the theatre, and didn't know if I'd ever stop marveling at it's beauty (mostly, I wanted to reassure her that I wasn't a guest with a neck injury, since I was looking straight up for a lengthy period of time). After taking a couple of photos of the ceiling, Brandi asked if I was gonna take pictures of "the hole."

Now I don't know about you, but terms like "the hole" don't exactly conjure images of nice things. The first thing I thought of was Courtney Love. The second was a solitary confinement cell inside a prison. Images of Andy Dufresne defying The Warden swam through my mind. Blinking off such whimsical fantasy; I listened as Brandi told me the story of why there was a hole in the ceiling of The Paramount.

According to legend, shortly after The Paramount was opened in 1915 (known then as "The Majestic"), Harry Houdini performed a show at the theatre. The story goes that the proprietors of The Majestic aided Houdini by drilling a hole in the ceiling of the brand new establishment for him to complete his escape. Since the hole in question appeared to be the size of a bottle (perhaps the scale of the ceiling was playing tricks on me), I couldn't imagine a body squeezing through that opening. My next thought was that a rope could fit through there; perhaps dangling an upside down Houdini hundreds of feet above the crowd as he worked his magic to escape a straight jacket stunt. Either way, to accommodate Houdini by drilling a hole for any reason seemed awfully gracious of The Majestic. I couldn't imagine anyone offering the same gesture to... say, Gob Bluth (cue "The Final Countdown"). Overall, I must admit it smelled of urban legend, but to me that wasn't the point. What got me about the story was that this movie palace is nearly 100 years old. Oh what these marvelous walls have seen!

I graciously thanked Brandi for her time and the story and let her get back to her duties. Remaining on the upper level, I walked out and over to the lounge, where Radio Park was about to perform. Radio Park is a duo of improv actors (Tami Nelson & Dan Grimm) who portray Birdie and Mr. Jack. Their mannerisms, acting, and dialects would fit right in with the witty banter of the 1930s and early 40s.

Once their show began, they delighted the crowd with their characters and repartee. Nelson and Grimm charmed the onlookers (who sat a mere 8 feet away) without a trace of nervousness about the proximity of their audience. Their exchanges were like volleys, at times reminiscent of Spencer and Tracy. All were delighted, giggling and snorting at the silly antics of Birdie and Mr. Jack. It was the ideal way to set the mood for the night's double feature. While everyone was there for the cinematic features, the live comedic duo did not disappoint. After their 15 minute show, their improv was met with enthusiastic applause.

Following Radio Park's act, I made my way back and took my seat. The lights went down, and a lone cartoon started.

"Who Scent You?"

My, my, zey really like PePe Le Pew at zee Paramount, zon't they? I must admit he's probably always been my favorite Looney Tunes character because of his combination of romanticism and cluelessness. Oh, and the accent, of course. Another case of skunk chases cat. On to the show.

Another Thin Man is third in the six part series. That makes it the Revenge of the Sith of the saga, if that helps you. The story features the team of Nick and Nora Charles, a retired famous detective and his witty and curious wife. Also along for the ride is Asta, a surprisingly adorable pooch and a real audience favorite. This third film marks the beginning of their adventures with a baby in tow, but Jr. here is more of a plot device than a character.

Now, as I said earlier, I've never viewed a Thin Man movie before. I was expecting more comedy than mystery, so I was taken aback by how dark and tense the first act of this film was. Sure, it has light moments and humor injected into it by the hilarious Nick and Nora, but the circumstances of the plot are insidious indeed. Dogs are slaughtered, houses are burned, and throats are slashed in the first half hour. Yikes.

Luckily for us, Nick and Nora are both captivating and a ton of fun to watch. Separately they're stellar; together they are pure gold. Nick Charles (William Powell) is not just a smart detective, but a clever one. Always several steps ahead of everyone else, he seems to be following bread crumbs before anyone even knows the oven was turned on. Nora (Myrna Loy) is beautiful and a smart cookie herself. She can handle anyone in her way; especially Nick when he plots to keep her in the dark. Time and time again, Nick fails to realize you can't pull one over on her.

And what a cast of characters these two must contend with over the course of this film! There's a creepy Cuban blackmailer who dreams of murdering people. Now, that's not exactly normal by itself, but the fact that they die after he dreams it three times makes him the Freddy Krueger of the Depression era. Surprisingly, no one ever seriously questions the Cuban's sanity. There's also a myopic heavy, an inept assistant D.A., the Cuban's creepy little henchmen (hints of a deadly bro-mance there, for sure), many others and of course... Asta.

Once the second act begins, the movie finally begins to lighten up and stretch its legs, leading to the highlight. The best sequence in the film is an evening at The West Indies Club. Nick and Nora follow separate leads to the club, and a series of riotous exchanges kept the audience holding their sides in laughter. A quip about "a quarantine" in particular brought the house down. Yet even better is a seemingly random dance sequence by the club's dancers, René y Estela. She dances around him as he pivots on one leg, seemingly defying physics or gravity. He's like a flamingo spinning and dancing like Michael Jackson in his heyday. It's simply amazing to see.

The plot held my interest, but I was slightly disappointed to see how quickly Nick was able to assemble all of the suspects together and demonstrate the whodunit like a game of Clue. Nevertheless, Another Thin Man was solid entertainment.

As the lights came up for the brief intermission between the two films, I decided to go downstairs and grab some refreshments. Ah... Sprite and popcorn. NOW it's a movie night! I was ready for round two, which starts with another Looney Tunes short.

"Past Perfumance"

What I find most fascinating about these PePe Le Pew cartoons is the many inventive ways they get a white stripe on that cat. This one has several good chuckles, as it takes place in a studio setting. To me the biggest laugh was early in the short, when the director is followed closely by his yes men, er- make that "oui men." Some things never change, eh? Good stuff.

The Thin Man Goes Home, the fifth in the series, was the second feature of the evening. This one has Nick and Nora going to visit his old stomping ground on his birthday. The humor is much more evenly spread in this film, and overall the film feels smoother.

I must say, however, that the funniest thing about the movie is unintentional. You see, the filmmakers don't even try to bring Jr. along in this episode, yet Asta is present. It made me wonder what kind of parents Nick and Nora really are. Sure, they're smart, metropolitan, witty, rich and fun, but Jr. probably grew up with some issues. I mean, they picked the dog rather than take Jr. to see his grandparents. The friggin dog. Oh well, guess the producers realized what a mistake it was to write a baby into the series in the first place.

Once they get to Sycamore Springs (the hometown), everyone assumes the famous Detective Charles is on a case. Of course, soon a murder occurs in this sleepy town, and the game is afoot. Nick and Nora find Sycamore Springs is a community full of closet skeletons and red herrings.

All the while, Nick is dealing with his own daddy issues and is trying to curb his own notorious drinking habits. Perhaps all the cider he drinks worked to keep a clean mind, because by the time "the Scooby Doo solution" is presented at the end of the film, there are some major leaps of logic only Sherlock Holmes himself may have attempted.

What struck me about these films after their conclusion was how elaborate these mysteries were. Every character and event serves the plot in some way, even if not immediately. One can easily see that these characters were created by Dashiell Hammett (as was The Maltese Falcon). In fact, I could easily envision Sam Spade working the same city as Mr. & Mrs. Charles. The clientele may be slightly different, but the crimes are no less heinous and the criminals no less desperate.

What a blast it was to see these films, though. The Thin Man series let the characters run free and were fantastic escapist entertainment. Leaving the theatre, I rushed home to rearrange my Netflix queue. All that evening and the next morning I kept thinking of lines of dialogue and smiling to myself. Yes, indeed. Tuesday was a fun night for Nick & Nora's intricate playlist.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Film # 2: The Maltese Falcon (May 23rd)

The Maltese Falcon

1941, B&W, 100 min.
Directed by John Huston

It was a hot, lazy Sunday afternoon. We were entertaining company that weekend so we could go out and take in the best of Austin for my birthday weekend. Saturday night had seen a celebration at The Highball. Drinks! Bowling! Revelry! Late night! More drinks! This of course led to a morning of headaches! Dry mouth! Sleeping in! Luckily, Sunday's agenda was a virtual tabula rasa. It provided for an afternoon of recuperation.

We had The Maltese Falcon scheduled that evening, and our guest was also to accompany us. Now, our houseguest is a movie fan, but has more contemporary tastes. I must confess I was concerned whether it would hold their interest. Bear in mind, that my girlfriend and I were still spellbound by The Paramount from Thursday's events and screening of Casablanca, but I wasn't sure if I could recruit another with slightly different tastes than we.

Early dinner at The Spaghetti Warehouse and then we hoofed it the couple of blocks down to the theatre. This time I was prepared for the world I was about to enter, but I didn't warn our friend. Immediately, the feedback was positive. Duh. Who wouldn't fall in love with The Paramount?

Entering the venue, I noticed selections from John Williams scores playing as we found our seats. I noticed a great number were from The Empire Strikes Back, which was apropos of its 30th anniversary that same weekend. A nice touch, indeed.

We explored the building, found seats and then went to snag some beverages. Soft drinks, I might add. No hair of the dog, thank you very much. After securing Dr. Peppers and water, we sat comfortably and awaited the show.

First up, the trailer.
Another by Michael Curtiz. This one is the most famous adventure film of the early 20th century, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

After our tiny dose of Earol Flynn came two Looney Tunes shorts. Yay! Candy for the id!

"Punch Trunk"

An odd little ditty featuring a tiny elephant who wrecks mental havoc on a city. Funny, but repetitive. Yes, yes, we get it. People see a tiny elephant and think they're crazy. Lather, rinse, repeat.

"Odor of the Day"

An early Pepe Le Pew cartoon that doesn't really showcase him as a character. In fact, he doesn't have a single line of dialogue. A story about a homeless dog who breaks into Pepe's house to find a bed in the dead of winter. Pepe uses his natural (Ahem!) defenses to try and vanquish the intruder, and a series of punch and counterpunch antics continue until the dog gets a cold. Uh oh, now what does Pepe do? Since it was just a "passing entertainment" type of cartoon, I must admit that I didn't really care what the skunk did.

While the cartoons in front of Casablanca on Thursday had thematic elements prepping the audience for the feature. This prepped me for The Maltese Falcon in a very different way. It made me wish the movie would start already. So when the title card appeared, I was pleased as punch.

The Maltese Falcon is in many ways the definitive film noir. Humprey Bogart is splendid, per usual. Like Casablanca, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are present. Greenstreet is great as the fat man pulling the strings; a man who portrays himself as grand and measured. Peter Lorre has a much more substantial role in Falcon, and is delightfully eerie and sinister while serving pretty much as a punching bag. And of course, Mary Astor holds her own as one of the most pathological liars to ever grace the screen. Even politicians would be in awe of the labyrinths of lies she constructs.

It starts as these movies always do. Private investigators are hired to follow someone, things turn south, someone is murdered, and (as they say) the plot thickens. Only, this one is the prototype. The standard by which all gritty detective movies are judged. And when they're compared to the excellence of The Maltese Falcon they're... well, who are we kidding? They don't compare, do they? The Falcon is the gold standard. I don't mean the statue, I mean the film. It really is the stuff dreams are made of.

For a film chock full of suspense and mystery about a bird statue, the most intriguing element is Sam Spade himself. This role launched Bogart into a whole new orbit, and there's no mystery in how he accomplishes that achievement. Falling more on the side of sinner than saint, he is still magnetic in personality and identifiable to audiences even though he juggles the fates of men and hearts of women with his dirty hands. With a smirk and a cigarette, he charms us all. A leading man of a time gone by, it really is a shame to see that no one man today can approach the level of charisma that Bogart radiates. Even when slapping Peter Lorre or stringing along a few different ladies.

When one thinks about the complexities of the plot, it's astonishing that John Huston was able to keep the double and triple crosses of the plot from turning The Maltese Falcon into an indecipherable mess. The film has style and substance, and is smart enough to know how to mix them. Despite being his first film, Huston's directorial prowess is evident. The film is tightly woven, and still captivating to behold.

After the movie, we stopped by the merchandise cart in the lobby. We were browsing and I struck up a conversation with Cynthia, who was working the cart. It was a fun, friendly and enlightening conversation. I was happy to find someone else to share my experiences with regarding this magical weekend. We visited for a while, sharing anecdotes about the theatre and Las Vegas trips. I couldn't help but smile as we parted. At first merely looking for swag, I found something else... a realization. Those who volunteer at The Paramount are more than film fans. They are crusaders for a cause they feel passionate about. Sharing their time and efforts in hopes os creating something special. Something worthwhile. Something that is the environmental magic at every film screening.

Oh, and about our guest, you ask? As we left and ventured back to the car, they kept on and on about the theatre and the movie itself. I knew I had converted another moviegoer. Why would anyone choose a multiplex over this? What can they offer? Cup holders? An Imax screen? 3D? Barf. You know what else is there? Endless commercials. Uncouth talking audiences. The glow of cell phone screens from people texting with no regard for the experiences of fellow moviegoers. Compared to that... well, who are we kidding? They don't compare, do they?

Film # 1: Casablanca (May 20th)


1942, B&W, 102 min.
Directed by Michael Curtiz

As I took my seat, Ken Stein (Executive Director for the Austin Theatre Alliance which manages the Paramount and State Theatres) came out on stage and graciously welcomed us all to the 2010 Summer Film Series. Clad in a jacket once worn by Richard Burton, he reminded us of the benefits of the auctions. Ken explained the expense of maintaining a movie palace of The Paramount's stature. Specifically, he reminded us that replacement parts for the theatre's audio system can't simply be picked up at Radio Shack or Home Depot. At the conclusion of his curtain speech, Ken revealed a last item that he placed up for live auction. He enticed two patrons into a mini bidding war for a private wine tasting party. The auction itself was like a performance unto itself, with all in attendance cascading Ken in applause.

The house lights dimmed and the projector started. First was a trailer for the 50th Anniversary Restoration of Godard's Breathless. This particular film I have yet to see, so it's one I eagerly anticipate this summer.

After the lone trailer, imagine my surprise when the familiar tunes of Carl Stalling began over the Warner Brothers logo. That's right, ladies and gents! Looney Tunes! Again, as originally intended, before a feature in a movie theater, not merely on Saturday morning TV. Do they even show cartoons on Saturday mornings anymore? I'm under the impression they don't.

The cartoons:

"8 Ball Bunny"

Bugs Bunny has a little penguin stumble into his wabbit hole and he takes it upon himself to get him back home to the South Pole. Mishaps ensue, of course. What makes this one appropriate for today's screening is a very special recurring character appears and asks, "Pardon me, but could you help out a fellow American who's down on his luck?"

When he made his first appearance, the crowd gasped and went wild. Each subsequent time he showed up on screen brought laughs, giggles and more murmurs. It was a great time.

"The Cat's Bah"

After the first 30 seconds or so, my first thought was "A-ha! I know where Christopher Walken got his inspiration for those Saturday Night Live skits of 'The Continental.'" It begins with an audience point-of-view. We are a lady being seduced by Pepe Le Pew, in a smoker's jacket no less. Behaving like a young Hef, he smokes his pipe, offers champagne and tells a tale of how he pursued his love (that ever so unfortunate feline) through the Casbah. It was funny, if remarkably un-PC. Although I must admit a nervous giggle escaped at the conclusion when the camera pans to reveal... well, just see for yourself.

Something doesn't smell right, huh? That scent isn't a skunk's scent, but the stench of human trafficking. Er, cat trafficking? Actually, I don't know what you'd call it, but it's certainly illegal, I'm sure.

After the two shorts, the Warner Brothers shield appears in its black and white glory. The audience sits reverently as the opening titles of Casablanca begin and the film hits the ground running. I won't pretend like there's anything I have to say about this film that is new when it comes to its inherent greatness. It really is one of the all time bests. in my opinion, it is a near perfect hybrid of the best elements of cinema of its day. The screenplay is top notch, and it benefits by having a first rate collection of actors and their performances. Not only is Bogart at his debonair finest, not only is Ingrid Bergman one of the most striking beautiful leading ladies of all time, but the most iconic character actors are present and in top form. Sydney Greenstreet is at his gluttonous best, Peter Lorre is perfect in his small seedy role, and Paul Henreid is a perfect counterpoint to Bogart's character. To me, the man who manages to steal the show has always been Claude Rains as the corrupt but affable Captain Renault. It's a character that on the page must have been so sleazy, but Rains breathes such vitality into the role that one can't help but smile as he trades quips with Bogart. The comic relief he provides is due largely to his comedic timing.

What struck me this time viewing Casablanca is how fast-paced it really is. The choice of Curtiz as director must have been perplexing to those expecting a mere romance story, but the editing allows the film to move at a brisk pace. A young Steven Spielberg must've taken note, because Raiders of the Lost Ark moves just as quickly. In Casablanca there is never a boring instant, and often you are afraid to blink in fear of missing a single moment. It's a romance filmed as film noir, and the cinematography heightens the tension and emotion without ever calling attention to itself.

I was quickly swept away from my journalistic duties and was enveloped by the story yet again. I was there at Rick's. Caught up in the passion of all these desperate characters in a practical purgatory. Casablanca swallowed many hopes and dreams, but sacrifice and heart can flourish even in such harsh conditions. Like an oasis in the desert, heroism is often an illusion, but when it manifests itself... it's a beautiful thing.

When the movie ended and the lights came back up, I'm sure there was nary a dry eye in the house. I left that night still under the spell cast by fine cinema and a gorgeous venue.

Paramount Theatre, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

May 20th: The Summer Film Series Kick-Off Party

So after sleeping lightly due to a case of sheer giddy anticipation, I awake Thursday as a publicist. Still hard to believe. After a long day of taking care of business (nothing like real life to get in the way of daydreaming huh?), I am definitely looking forward to my first event at The Paramount.

The kick-off party started at 6, but I get there a tad late because of the lovely parking found downtown. I attempt the impossible quest of scoring free parking (at my age, I NOW know how nice that space on the Monopoly board actually is). Thursday I was thwarted in that quest, but a few bucks got me a solid space in a good location (i.e.- within walking distance under a hot Texas sun).

At the box office I receive my credentials and step inside The Paramount for the first time. The lobby was full of friendly faces and enthusiasts. The smell of popcorn from the concessions is warm and inviting. I meet Nick, The Paramount's web coordinator and my liaison. After an introduction to the film series, the theatre, and to my duties, I venture upstairs to glance at the movie memorabilia up for silent auction. Many were also browsing the collection of items.

There was an assortment of miscellaneous items up there, including costumes worn by Peter Ustinov and various other film treasures. All to benefit the continuing efforts of The Paramount, a Movie Palace that's been keeping Austin classy since 1915. It is completely supported by the contributions of others such as members, film fans, or other benefactors. The items upstairs for auction aren't merely to provide guests with memorabilia; they help ensure the continued excellence of the venue. Tables display all of the items available for bid: props, costumes, photographs, artwork, all available to those who wrote The highest offer. Heck, I even saw autographed photos of John Waters; you know, should you happen to be the type who needs just the right thing over the mantle to complete that the shrine you may have to Hairspray, Serial Mom, or even Pink Flamingos.

Just to be clear... No, I don't mean these guys above. In fact, if you don't know what John Water's Pink Flamingos is... Well, it's probably best you stay in the dark on that one.

But I digress.

After some visiting with fellow moviegoers and gawking at the items on display. I finally made my way to the seating area. Since I was already on the upper level, I ventured out onto the Mezzanine.


As a film lover with an appreciation for architecture and history, my first steps into this area were breathtaking. (to such a degree I forgot to take photos. Dern it.) The ornate detail of the ceiling was beautiful. I kept turning my head to capture all of the detail. I found myself spinning around and around so much I must've looked like Saul Bass's title sequence to Vertigo.

You think I kid, but I actually have photographic proof. Below is a rough transcript of my left brain and right brain trying to take it all in.

"Don't forget to some snapshots."
"Oooooh. This'll make a great photo for the blog!"
"Hey, what's that over there?!"
(Whips head while pressing shutter)

Awesome. That'll make me look like a pro. Surely I amused some seated patrons and ushers as well.

Glancing down at my watch, I saw the show was about to start. The preview party would have a screening of Casablanca, followed later in the evening by The Maltese Falcon.

I descend the stairs to grab a peek of the view from down at stage level, when the house lights start to dim. Quickly I take a seat on the lower level and get ready take in Casablanca like a fine glass of wine. As a part of a generation that has only seen classic film on DVD and VHS (remember those?) in my younger days, I was eager to see this film as it was meant to be seen.

Up there. On the silver screen.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I got a golden ticket!

I guess I should start by saying that labeling me as a "film fan" is a vast understatement. No word in the English language can serve my love of cinema its justice. "Enthusiast?" No. "Zealot?" Nuh uh. "Connoisseur? Aficionado?" Not quite. "Disciple?" Warmer, but no. You see, film has had a significant influence in my life and attitudes. Since childhood, it has shaped who I have become. Life lessons at 24 frames a second.

As a hobby, I discuss film. With friends, with family, with fellow fans. I write occasional film reviews for my personal blog. After a sabbatical of sorts, I've grown to savor the experience of the big screen again. Little did I know that my passion would present a rare opportunity... and a nervous wait.

The anxiety started Tuesday.
I logged into Facebook with the lack of enthusiasm but slavish devotion it seems to demand from its users. Prepared to read some updates and hide yet more posts of silly farm games, I was astonished to see something that genuinely caught my eye. A post from The Paramount Theatre of Austin asking for submissions to become a publicist for their Summer Film Series.

Now, I'd like to say I was lackadaisical about the prospect of being a publicist for The Paramount, but by now I'm sure you can guess that the truth was... my eyes lit up. Salivating at the chance to write about what I love (in a professional manner, to boot), I wasted little time. After dusting off browser bookmarks and rediscovering my old collection of writing samples from scattered corners of the internet, I composed a cheeky and informal e-mail in lieu of a proper cover letter. Then simply attached the links, crossed my fingers and hit send. That was the easy part. Tom Petty was right; the waiting is the hardest part.

Awoke Wednesday and felt like I was constantly checking messages. E-mail every few minutes, voicemail just as often. Were they gonna call or write? Would I get notified if I struck out? Would I get a rejection letter? When would I find out? The first event is Thursday night!

Luckily, I got caught up in different projects to occupy my nervous mind. At about 4 pm, I checked e-mail again. My eyes see the subject line that begins "CONGRATS!..." and my heart soars. I blink in disbelief and open the message. Sure enough, I'm one of the chosen. I slump back in my seat and exhale deeply. My luck's been rather hard of late, and this is the pendulum swing I needed. I was relieved, and my anxiety quickly melted into excitement and enthusiasm.

The rest of my day was like a sugar high. Everything had the frosting of accomplishment on it.

So now I lay in bed with a huge smile on my face, waiting to see what tomorrow brings. I can't wait for the thrill of seeing these films on the big screen. I can't wait to see what these events will be like. I can't wait to meet all these new faces. I can't wait to see what creativity is sparked in me. I can't wait. I can't wait. I've got a golden ticket and a hunger. I may not have a Wonka bar, but what lies ahead is far sweeter.