“A Most Wanted Man” & “Double Indemnity” – Top of the Line

A Most Wanted Man-poster3A Most Wanted Man - Sunday, August 3 at AMC Loews Lincoln Square. I love spy stories in films, TV shows, novels & non-fiction, but I’m sure my most immediate reason to see A Most Wanted Man was to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman in the last full performance we’re going to have from this amazing actor. He’s so good in the film, as he always is, that it made me both sad and angry to realize that this is it. I was somewhat startled looking at a list of his films to see all those titles together and realize what a great body of work he’d created by the time of his death at age 46. A partial listing of these films, titles that jumped out at me, include Boogie Nights (1997), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Magnolia (1999), Almost Famous (2000), Capote (2005), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), The Savages (2007), Synecdoche, New York (2008), Doubt (2008), The Master (2012), and A Late Quartet (2012). When I think of his a cappella rendition of  “Slow Boat to China” near the end of The Master, or having a cocaine-fueled meltdown in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, it makes me crazy to realize we won’t see what he might have done over the next 20 or 30 years.

A Most Wanted Man is the third feature directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Andrew Bovell, based on the John Le Carré novel. Corbijn’s previous features were Control (2007), a profile of Ian Curtis, the lead singer with the band Joy Division who committed suicide at age 23, and The American (2010), with George Clooney as a contract killer in Europe. Corbijn’s controlled, slow-burn approach was a good match for Le Carré. A Most Wanted Man also reminded of what I think is one of the best adaptations of a Le Carré novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).

As Günther Bachman, the head of a covert intelligence operation in Hamburg, Hoffman is rumpled, short-tempered, possibly alcoholic, and totally focused on getting the job done. Hoffman’s performance isn’t at all flashy; but it is just about perfect. The narrative of A Most Wanted Man is set in motion by Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin), a recently imprisoned and tortured half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim who has illegally entered Germany. In a post-9/11 world, Hamburg is especially paranoid about the agenda of anyone who fits Issa’s profile. The German government, the CIA (represented by a cold-eyed Robin Wright with a bit of an echo of her steely Claire Underwood on the House of Cards Neflix series), and Bachman’s own organization are all competing to locate Issa and determine the truth of why he is in Hamburg. The film takes its time. The pace is deliberate, but far from boring (unless you need something blowing up every five or ten minutes to hold your interest).

I thought it might bother me that this was another film in which everyone, regardless of nationality, speaks English. But it didn’t distract me at all. There’s something different about Hoffman’s accent in particular. Whatever it is, it works. In a piece in the New York Times this past July 17, John Le Carré describes his visit to the set of A Most Wanted Man and his impressions of Hoffman, at the end of which he talks about Hoffman’s accent in the film. It’s definitely worth reading.

A Most Wanted Man was shown at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2014. Below is an excerpt from a press conference with Hoffman, cast members Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams, and director Anton Corbijn following the screening from. I wish the entire press conference was available, but this is very interesting nonetheless. Seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in this clip and knowing that he died three weeks later on February 2 is a weird kind of disconnect. What an unnecessary loss.

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Double Indemnity (1944) – Monday, August 3 at Film Forum. Director: Billy Wilder. Co-Writers: Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Film Forum wrapped up its terrific “Femmes Noirs” series with a week’s run of this great film, a key early entry in the “classic” noir cycle (Double Indemnity was scheduled to end on August 7, but has been held over through Thursday, August 14, when the equally great The Killing [Stanley Kubrick - 1956] and Gun Crazy [Joseph H. Lewis - 1949] return for a week’s run through August 21. All three are digital restorations and have never looked better).

Double Indemnity-Neff's doorwayDouble Indemnity set the template for many noirs to follow. Wise-cracking insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets involved with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bored housewife who uses Neff to help kill her husband and collect the insurance money. As Neff says in his confession to claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), recorded on a Dictaphone in his office as he bleeds out from a gunshot wound, “I killed him for the money, and for a woman. I didn’t get the money… and I didn’t get the woman.” That’s usually how it works out for most noir protagonists.

Here is a clip of the beginning of that confession. This scene begins just a few minutes after the opening credits, so I don’t consider it a spoiler. The rest of the story is told in flashback via Neff’s confession.

The cast is uniformly great. For anyone who grew up seeing Fred MacMurray as the father on the TV series My Three Sons (1960-1972) or in Disney films such as The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) or Son of Flubber (1963), seeing him in something like Double Indemnity can be quite a jolt. He’s perfect, as is Barbara Stanwyck, whose role as the manipulative Phyllis Dietrichson sets the bar for femme fatales, and that’s saying something. Edward G. Robinson is terrific as the brilliant claims adjustor Barton Keyes, shrewd, cynical, and a closet softee, with a “little man” inside who alerts him when something is amiss. His final scene with MacMurray is a punch to the heart.

Everything seemed to come together for this film. Much like Casablanca (1942), there was a happy confluence of director, script, and cast. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity was the third feature directed by Billy Wilder in this country. His began his career as a screenwriter in Germany in 1929. Like many German directors (Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and others), Wilder got out when the Nazi Party began to come to power. He directed his first feature, Mauvaise Graine (1934), in Paris, before moving to Hollywood, where he had his first hit writing the screenplay for Ernst Lubitch’s Ninotchka (1939). After Double Indemnity, Wilder went on to direct such classics as The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and Some Like It Hot (1959). Wilder co-wrote Double Indemnity with novelist Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe came to personify the picture of a private eye in the public’s mind. Their working relationship was reportedly rocky, but you can’t argue with the result. Chandler went on to write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), though he requested that his name be removed when it turned out that virtually nothing of his work remained in the finished film. Hitchcock readily agreed (his relationship with Chandler was apparently even worse than Chandler’s with Wilder), but Warner Bros. refused because they wanted Chandler’s name on the film.

Raymond Chandler & Billy Wilder

Raymond Chandler & Billy Wilder

Another important component of Double Indemnity is Miklos Rozsa’s score. It’s value to the film cannot be over-estimated. The music is heard at its most forceful during the opening credits, creating an inexorable momentum and emotion that drives the story and its characters to what feels like an inevitable conclusion. The theme weaves in and out of the film and never lets go. As Walter and Phyllis repeatedly say to each other to underscore their determination to stick it out together, “Straight down the line.”

I especially like the tag line on the poster below at left: “You can’t kiss away a murder!” That’s a pretty hard-boiled line, befitting the film. I also can’t resist including a couple of great foreign posters for Double Indemnity. This film is available for streaming or rental via Netflix and for streaming or purchase from Amazon. If you haven’t seen it, you should. - Ted Hicks

Double Indemnity-poster4Double Indemnity-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Books, Fiction, Film, Home Video, TV | 3 Comments

Film Noir & Everything Else – Too Many Movies

Gremlins at 3D movieToday is my birthday. Ta da! Birthdays can be a time of reflection, so maybe I should reflect on the fact that I’ve only put up one new post so far this month, yet more evidence of my constant struggle with procrastination. If this was an actual job where I had to turn in something every Friday, for example, I’d do it. Might not start until Thursday night, but I’d get it done. I’m the world’s worse boss to myself. It’s too easy to go to another movie, which is ironic, since this blog is ostensibly about movies. Seeing all these movies gets in the way of writing about them.

I just tallied them up, and I’ve seen 225 films since July 31st of last year. Do I get a prize? Plenty to write about, right? Plus I’ve got no end of topics on the back burner that I want to cover, such as the films of Buster Keaton, John Frankenheimer, Ed Wood, Robert Siodmak, Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Robert Wise, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Jacques Tourneur, Jules Dassin, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, and many many others, plus drive-in movie theaters, film noir, and all the great stuff on television these days.

I’m really feeling the need to put up a post today so I can have at least two for July. This is arbitrary, I know, but it’s bothering me. I’ve been seeing a lot of film noir the last few weeks that I’ve wanted to write about, but which has resulted in one false start after another. Probably trying to deal with too many films, instead of just focusing on one or two. Film Noir is my favorite type of film (there’s divided opinion on whether noir is a genre or a style, but I know it when I see it). Film Forum here in NYC has been running a series called “Femmes Noir: Hollywood’s Dangerous Dames,” a new double-feature nearly every day. A week before the Film Forum series started, I saw another great noir, The Set-Up (1949), Robert Wise’s brutal boxing picture with Robert Ryan as a washed up fighter trying for one last score. Here’s what I wrote about it before I got distracted by seeing other noirs like Out of the Past (1947) and Murder, My Sweet (1944).

Set Up-lobby cardThe Set-Up (1949) at the IFC Center on Thursday, July 10th. This is a great boxing movie from one of my favorite directors, Robert Wise. He began his long career in film as an editor for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He then joined the Val Lewton production unit at RKO, where he directed The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and the exceptional The Body Snatcher (1945), which has Boris Karloff in one of the greatest performances of his career. Wise also made The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) one of the best science-fiction films of the 50s, and probably ever.

The Set-Up is as dark as it gets. Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a basically washed up fighter at 35 on a losing streak who keeps thinking the next match is the one that will turn it all around for him. But a local mobster wants Stoker to take a dive. Stoker’s manager has agreed, but has so little faith in Stoker’s abilities at this point that he doesn’t even bother to tell him, since he’s sure Stoker will lose anyway. You can probably guess how that works out. Ryan, who I think is still underrated, was an iconic presence in many key noir films. His characters frequently carried the threat of violence to a deranged degree, as in Fred Zinneman’s Act of Violence (1948) and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952), and were often virulently racist, particularly in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), also directed by Robert Wise. This is ironic given Ryan’s liberal politics and reputation as a kind and decent man.

The boxing scenes in The Set-Up, which take place in a seedy club located on a tattered street in the ironically named Paradise City, are as brutal as anything in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Even though the boxing matches are only four rounds each, Stoker’s fight seems to go on forever. We’re there for every minute of every round. The following clip gives a good sense of how tough these boxing scenes are.

The Set-Up is distinguished by a real-time structure, so we’re in the ring with Stoker for as long as he is. A clock seen in the town square in the first shot shows the time to be 9:05 pm; at the end the same clock shows 10:16 pm. Everything in the film takes place during those 71 minutes.  As far I know, The Set-Up was one of the first films to do this. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope had done it the previous year, as well as Fred Zinneman’s High Noon in 1952. High Noon, in particular, really emphasizes the passage of time with repeated insert shots of ticking clocks. Of course, this makes sense, since the concept of time is right there in the title. But as Ellar Coltrane’s character says in Richard Linklater’s wonderful new film, Boyhood, “It’s always right now.” So whether a story is told in real time, as in The Set-Up, or is spread out over decades, as in Giant, every moment in any movie is always present tense, “always right now.”

Set Up-still cornered

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So what should I do with the rest of the day? I could always go to another movie. Actually, we’ve got a screening of Life After Beth at 6:00 pm. Don’t know much about it, but it has Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser and Anna Kendrick. Good cast, right? Wait, here’s a synopsis that came with the email invite: Zach is devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth. But when she miraculously comes back to life, Zach takes full advantage of the opportunity to share and experience all the things he regretted not doing with her before. However, the newly returned Beth isn’t quite how he remembered her and, before long, Zach’s whole world takes a turn for the worse. Okay, I get it, it’s a zombie movie, probably for laughs.

But I’ve got three hours before the film, so maybe I should watch Sharknado2, which I DVR’d last night. The setting is New York City, so how can I resist? Sharks in the subways, what could be better? Though I doubt anything in this one can top the scene in the first epic where a guy chainsaws his way out of a shark’s gut after being swallowed whole.

Sharknado2-poster

What a birthday! - Ted Hicks

Posted in Books, Film, Home Video, TV | 2 Comments

Elaine Stritch – No Pants, Bela Lugosi, and Godzilla in a Stalled Elevator

In a review of Woody Allen’s September (1987), People magazine referred to Elaine Stritch in that film as a “…roaring presence, like Godzilla in a stalled elevator…” I like that vivid image, which really captures something about Elaine Stritch. Her death last Thursday on July 17th at age 89 has gotten a tremendous amount of attention, and rightly so. She was a force of nature, especially in her later years with her blunt, in-your-face persona. She liked to cause a ruckus and stir things up. In death Elaine Stritch is still larger than life.

But for all the obituaries and write-ups since her death, I’ll bet that none of them have Elaine Stritch & Bela Lugosi 1947mentioned Strich’s connection to Bela Lugosi. Earlier this year we saw Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, an excellent documentary directed by Chiemi Karasawa. In it we see in passing a photograph of a young Elaine with Bela Lugosi looming behind her. I wanted to write a blog post about this film and other recent documentaries I’d really liked (Finding Vivian Maier and Particle Fever), though so far I haven’t cranked up the energy to do so. But I was particularly intrigued by the photo of Stritch and Lugosi. Had she been in one of the many stage productions of Dracula with Lugosi? I hoped so, but it turned out not to be the case (though some references give the impression that she actually was in Dracula with Lugosi). The play in question was Three Indelicate Ladies at the Schubert Theater in New Haven, CT (in the interview clip below Stritch says it was at a theater in Westport, CT, so I’m not 100% sure of this). By all accounts that I’ve seen, this was not much of a play. Still, it was Bela Lugosi. In any event, it never made it to Broadway.

Here is a clip of Elaine Stritch on a television show called Theater Talk speaking about working with Lugosi. Her impression of Lugosi’s distinctive way of speaking is pretty good.

Elaine Stritch Shoot Me poster3Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me  played for months here in New York City. I can’t recommend it enough. Through many interviews and archival clips the documentary gives an excellent picture of her career and the persona she developed over the years. The Stritch we see is feisty, irascible, difficult, outspoken, self-deprecating, blunt, hard to handle, difficult to be around, fun to be around, and very very  funny. She may not have the greatest singing voice, but she sells that by the strength how she lays it out. Rob Bowman, her musical director for 14 years, accompianist, friend and caring companion is a steady presence at her side in the film. I assume he also had the patience of a saint.

The filmmakers were granted an unusual amount of access to her life. We see her in situations where she’s sick in her bed or in a hospital, vulnerable and afraid. At the time the film was made (it was completed in 2013 and released in February of this year) Stritch was 87 or 88. In it she talks quite openly about being near the end of her life. She could be sharply funny on the subject of death. In an obituary that appeared on my Earthlink news feed, she’s quoted as saying, “You know where I’m at in age?… I don’t need anything. That’s a little scary — when you know that the last two bras you bought are it. You won’t need any more.” I really like that, “…the last two bras you bought are it.” It’s funny and also quite touching.

Stritch’s professional career lasted nearly 70 years, an amazing run for anyone. Many people today probably know her mainly as Colleen, Jack Donaghy’s mother on Tina Fey’s terrific NBC series 30 Rock from 2009 to 2012. Five of her eight Emmy nominations – and one of her three wins – were for her performances on this show. Her constant sparring with Alec Baldwin was memorable. She was also on an episode of The Simpsons in 2010. One of her obituaries referenced her signature “no pants” style (wearing a loose-fitting white shirt over sheer black tights). I think one of the reasons she could get away with this is that even at age 87 she had a pair of really killer legs.

Elaine Stritch on The SimpsonsElaine Stritch - no pants

 

 

 

Elaine Stritch & Alec Baldwin

 

 

 

1948

1948

Tonight Show - Oct 1975

Tonight Show – Oct 1975

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With balloon, 1954

With balloon, 1954

In 2013, Stritch moved back to her home state of Michigan after 71 years in New York City and a series of farewell performances at the Carlyle Hotel, where she had lived for many years. She was an entertainer in her bones, a hoofer to the end. She gave it her all. Elaine Stritch was buried in Skokie, Illinois next to her husband, John Bay on Wednesday, July 23rd. She will not soon be forgotten.

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The Wikipedia entry on Stritch is particularly valuable as a complete listing of her credits – theatrical, film, television, and cabaret. Her New York Times obituary is also quite good.

Finally, here is a 25 minute interview with Stritch from the New York Times website.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is available for streaming or DVD purchase from Amazon. It is also can be streamed or rented from Netflix. If you haven’t seen it and have read this far, you probably should. - Ted Hicks

Posted in Film, Home Video, Music, TV | 4 Comments

Movie Poster Art – Foreign Versions

Pickup on South Street-posterCARTEL ESPAÑOL - 70x100When searching online for posters and stills for English-language films, I often stumble upon foreign posters for those films. Many of these simply re-purpose the original poster art, but the ones that really get my attention are re-imagined in ways that are often more dynamic and dramatic. Some are almost painterly, with evocative use of color, light and shadow, and often depict characters frozen in action. Some of the posters I’ve included here do reference the originals, especially when someone like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, or Ingrid Bergman star in the film. Here are a few examples of foreign posters for American films, most of which are from the 1940s and 50s. They’re not all graphic reinventions (though some are), but I think it’s interesting to compare them with their Hollywood counterparts.

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Big Heat-posterBig Heat-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scarlet Street-posterScarlet Street-Spanish posterScarlet Street-Italian poster*****************************************************************************************

In a Lonely Place-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a Lonely Place-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Enforcer-posterEnforcer-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notorious-posterNotorious-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Long Haul-poster4Long Haul-French posterI’ve not seen this film, and it’s probably not the greatest, but the French poster at right really pops, and the Italian poster below is truly amazing.

 

 

 

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Point Blank-poster2Point Blank-French poster****************************************************************************************

Casablanca-posterCasablanca-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finally, here are English-language posters from the 1930s that exhibit strengths seen in the best of the foreign posters above; i.e. a strong sense of mood, atmosphere, and drama, as well as excellent design, especially in the choice of fonts. I think this approach was largely abandoned in later years. I’ve not paired these with their foreign versions, but they are just too great not to include here.

Little Caesar-posterLittle Caesar-poster2The poster to the left is particularly beautiful, but what’s interesting is that it showcases Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. rather than Edward G. Robinson.

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Maltese Falcon-1931 posterSatan Met a Lady-1936 posterThese are for the first two versions of The Maltese Falcon, the one at left from 1931 and at right from 1936. Both are greatly inferior to John Huston’s definitive adaptation in 1941.

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Frankenstein-posterInvisible Man-poster

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And what better way to close than with a great Citizen Kane poster I’ve never seen before.

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If you’re interested in the films beyond the posters, all of these titles are available on home video. And if you’d like to see more foreign posters for American films, check online. This is only the tip of the iceberg. - Ted Hicks

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“Coherence” – No Exit

Coherence-posterCoherence, an impressive first feature from writer/director James Ward Byrkit, begins with eight long-time friends gathering for a dinner party on the night a comet is passing near the Earth. What follows is a fascinating, maddening mix of The Twilight Zone, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came from Outer Space, The X-Files, the fiction of Philip K. Dick, as well as discussions of quantum decoherence and Schrödinger’s cat. The characters become progressively freaked out and destabilized over the course of a long dark night, and since we never know anymore than they do, it’s like we’re in their shoes. I’ve seen the film twice in two days and I’m still struggling to sort it out, which makes the inside of my head feel like an M. C. Escher drawing wrapped in a Möbius strip. Coherence has stayed with me, and I think it even got into my dreams a couple of nights ago. I love this kind of stuff, especially when it’s done as well as this is. But if you want a story to “make sense” or be resolved by the end, then Coherence is probably not for you. Watching Coherence I was reminded of two films by Shane Carruth, Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013). In a post I wrote last year about Upstream ColorI said that both films were “perplexing and demanding, but quite rewarding if you open yourself to them.” This holds true for Coherence as well.

The film opens with a tight over-the-shoulder shot of a woman (we later find out this is Em) driving at night. We don’t see her face, only her right shoulder and a part of her head. The image we see of her goes slightly soft while the dashboard remains in focus. She’s talking on a cell phone to a man, but what he says is unclear, difficult to decipher. She realizes she’s lost the call, then hears a sharp sound and sees with a start that the screen of her phone is now laced with cracks. There’s a struggle for coherence, both visually and aurally, right from the start.

The dinner party is at the home of Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria), located in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, California. Their guests are Em (Emily Foxler) and her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling), Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), and late arrivals Amir (Alex Manugian) and his date Laurie (Lauren Maher). We slowly get a sense of the various connections and tensions between these people.

The performances are excellent throughout, and the actors play it absolutely straight as they deal with panic and paranoia. The increasingly insane situation is all the more disturbing because of the conviction they bring to their roles. It’s nuts, but it feels real.  The cast was unfamiliar to me with the exception of Nicholas Brendon, who played Xander Harris for seven seasons (1997-2003) on Joss Whedon’s great television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a joke in Coherence is that Brendon’s character Mike is an actor who had been on a popular TV series, Roswell – which was a real show, though Brendon was not on it).

Seeds are planted early that provide clues (possibly) to events that follow. At the dinner table the passing comet – “Miller’s Comet” – is mentioned. Em relates that after a comet passed over Finland in 1923, many residents didn’t know who they were, couldn’t find their homes, and that a woman called police to say that the man in her house was not her husband. She claimed she was certain of this because the day before she had killed her real husband, and this guy wasn’t him. Mike jokes that now she can kill him again. It turns out that the screen of everyone’s cell phone is cracked like Em’s, and that no one has cell service, nor is there Internet service. Then the power goes out. They look outside and see the entire neighborhood is dark, except for one house a few blocks down the road.

Events become increasingly strange and disturbing. Has the comet somehow created at least two sets of the same people and houses? As they struggle to make sense of what’s happening, cause and effect become totally scrambled. For these eight people it’s the worst acid trip ever as they try to figure out who are the “visitors,” them or us?

Coherence-still3Coherence is proof that filmmakers don’t need a big budget to do terrific work. The film was reportedly shot in chronological sequence in basically a single location with a cast of eight, one or two cameras and two sound guys. The actors were given limited information about what would happen next, resulting in performances and interactions that feel natural and authentic, almost like we’re watching a documentary. James Ward Byrkit has created a small gem, thought-provoking and challenging. I’m really looking forward to what he does next. - Ted Hicks

Coherence opens in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles this Friday, June 20, with additional theatrical dates to follow. It will also be available for instant streaming and HD downloads beginning August 5, 2014.

 

 

 

Posted in Film, Home Video | 1 Comment

Washroom Attendant to the Stars: My Technicolor Years

Technicolor logoWhen I graduated from the University of Iowa in the summer of 1973 (with an awesome “General Studies” degree), I moved to Minneapolis. Not long after arriving I managed to land a job with a motion picture lab that did work mainly for producers of TV spots and industrial films. I’d taken film studies and production courses at Iowa, but I think that what actually got me this job was having worked in a facility that processed and printed aerial reconnaissance film during the four years I was in the Air Force. Thus began my employment in a series of film labs over the next fifteen years or so, with my nine years at Technicolor being the most interesting by far.

For a long time I’d envisioned a life of making movies, of being involved with them in some way. But this was more of a wish, a fantasy, than anything that seemed remotely possible for an Iowa farm boy. Making short films and taking film studies courses in college fed that fantasy to a degree, but I think I was waiting for something to happen (rather than trying to figure out how to make it happen). Working in a 16mm lab in Minneapolis didn’t exactly fill the bill, but I was working with interesting people, many of whom became friends. And it was film, images on strips of celluloid. This was undeniably the film world (sort of), though I was on the periphery.

I moved to New York City in 1977 for another lab job, but this lab handled 35mm and occasionally made prints of feature films, some of them pornos (Inside Jennifer Wells, anyone?). This felt more like the real movie business, but the job turned out to be a disaster. The only time I’ve ever been fired from a job was this one, which was probably a good thing, since it would have taken me a lot longer to work up the nerve to quit on my own. But I’ve always thought, yeah, it was a terrible job, but it got me to New York, where I’ve been for 37 years.

I got the job with Technicolor a year later. The name itself had UA logostrong recognition value, and I felt that now I had a real connection to the film world. At the previous labs I’d been an expeditor as well as working in customer service. At Technicolor there were four or five expeditors who handled separate accounts. I was assisting a man from the Bronx named Joe Fratangelo, who had the United Artists account. I thought, “Wow! United Artists!” This felt like I was working for Cadillac instead of some place that made go-karts.

Joe Frat was an interesting guy. He really got my attention one day when Al Pacino was in the lab. Joe mentioned casually that years before, he and his wife would babysit Pacino in their home. I guess this is normal stuff and no big deal when you’re just part of it, but I was impressed.

Aside from the kick I got from being able to say I was working on the UA account at Technicolor, what I was really doing was writing up 16mm print orders of UA titles and helping Joe make sure schedules were met. This was before VHS had taken hold, let alone DVDs, so if a television station in Cincinnati was going to run Breakheart Pass, for example, they’d have to order a 16mm print from us. Super-8mm prints of features were also made to show on airlines. This all seems unbelievably bulky and inefficient now, but digital formats were still in the future.

Print elements for films (35mm & 16mm picture negatives and sound tracks) were stored in a vault in cans on racks that looked exactly like those in the photo below. This doesn’t show Technicolor’s vault, but it could have been. The vault at Technicolor is also where I kept my bicycle, which I rode nearly everyday from my from my apartment on West 92nd Street down to the lab at 321 West 44th.

Film can neg storageAt that time there were at least seven other labs in the city. Most of them are now long gone. DuArt Film Lab, where I worked briefly after Technicolor, is still here, but stopped processing film entirely in late 2010. This is ironic, since DuArt’s motto — displayed on t-shirts and shopping bags, and I think even on the side of their building — was “Shoot Film.” Before digital all major features were shot on 35mm, and until the late 80s all feature dailies were printed on film.

Joe Violante

Joe Violante

Maybe my end of it was the equivalent of working in a sausage factory, but across the hall from us was the dailies department office, which was run by Otto Paoloni and Joe Violante (aka “Joey V”). Any feature film that used Technicolor to process and print its 35mm footage went through this department. The printed footage, called “dailies,” would be shown to filmmakers in a small theater down the hall.

Otto and Joey V were great guys who befriended me and didn’t seem to mind all the time I spent hanging out in their office (which I did a lot of, despite Otto’s penchant for noxious-smelling cigars). I would have killed to be doing the work they were doing, and wanted to find out as much about it as I could. One of the biggest unofficial perks for me was that Otto and Joey V would let me read shooting scripts for features that were going through the lab. Another was being able to watch dailies before the filmmakers saw them. This was on the third floor where the processing and printing machines were, as well as negative cutting and assembly. There was a room with four or five high-speed projectors where Joey and Otto would view dailies fresh out of processing and printing to make sure there weren’t any technical problems. An older woman named Olga operated one of the projectors. She would often put her hand over the lens if there was any nudity in the footage, which was frustrating to the guys who had clustered in the doorway to watch. Everyone on the floor always seemed to know when such footage was about to be projected.

John Huston

John Huston

Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack

Having access to all of this was like having an inside track on at least part of the filmmaking process. This felt especially true when I’d catch sight of directors and actors who came in to screen dailies in the little theater down the hall. When John Huston was directing Annie (1982) I followed him out to the elevators and told him how much I loved his films. He thanked me with that voice of his and stuck out his hand for me to shake. Or when I spoke with Sidney Pollack, who was directing Tootsie (1982) while he waited outside the dailies theater. I asked him how he liked the New Balance 990 running shoes he was wearing, hoping he’d think I was one of the guys instead of a nervous movie buff. The truth of it is that I was constantly amazed to be around these people and this world. I felt less intimidated approaching them in the lab than I would have on the street. It seemed somehow more legitimate.

Angel Heart-posterI’d be reading shooting scripts usually months before the finished films would be released (obviously the idea of “spoilers” didn’t bother me too much). Except for the time I finished reading the script for Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) just seconds before the lights went down at a screening of that film. This had a disorienting effect, as though there was the movie on one screen and the pages of the script on a screen right beside it. I don’t recommend this approach. Angel Heart wasn’t any good, but this didn’t help.

But it was always interesting and instructive to compare the shooting scripts with what ended up on the screen. This was especially true with Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981). The screenplay by Michael Weller was one of the best I’d ever read. Besides being an excellent adaptation of the novel by E.L. Doctorow, it was a real pleasure to read just for itself. So it was quite a surprise when I finally saw Ragtime in a theater and discovered that every scene in the film was better than in the script. Milos Forman obviously made the difference. It takes a great director to improve on an already great script.

Milos Forman (R) directing Elizabeth McGovern in "Ragtime"

Milos Forman (R) directing Elizabeth McGovern in “Ragtime”

Otto lived in New Jersey and Joey on Staten Island, so they would usually give me invitations they’d received for evening screenings rather than come back to the city after having already gone home, especially since they’d been in the lab since 5:30 or 6:00 that morning to see dailies from the night before. I loved seeing films before they were released; it made me feel like I was ahead of the curve in some way that probably doesn’t really matter all that much. But there it was.

Diane Keaton & Warren Beatty - "Reds"

Diane Keaton & Warren Beatty – “Reds”

They’d also pass on invites to the wrap parties that would take place shortly after a featurehad finished shooting. The wrap party for Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) was different. It was was held a month or two after the film had been released in theaters. So it wasn’t really a “wrap” party, but it was definitely a party, and promised to be fairly elaborate. It was being held in a theater with a band (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, if you remember them), dancing, food, and a large area in the lobby space with an open bar. I saw a bearded Robert De Niro standing alone at the bar, totally unobtrusive. Usually at these wrap parties it was mostly just the crew that would attend, but this one was clearly a bigger deal. Diane Keaton was there, along with Maureen Stapleton, and the great film editor Dede Allen, to name a few. But something very interesting happened when Warren Beatty showed up. It seemed to me that everyone, without being obvious about it, was totally aware that he was there. It was like the center of gravity in the room had shifted.

For a hard core film buff like myself, seeing actors and directors on a regular basis was more than a little surreal. Sometimes very surreal. Like the time I rode up in the elevator at the lab with Meryl Streep and another person. As were getting off the elevator I suddenly realized this other person was Robert De Niro. They were shooting Falling in Love (1984) at the time. It was weird, but off-screen you hardly noticed him. Or the time Paul Newman appeared in the doorway to our office and asked if he could use the phone at the desk next to mine. His call was mundane stuff, like anyone would make – dinner arrangements, something like that. When he got up to leave I pulled out my usual “I really like your work” line (and meant it). He thanked me and I added, “Especially Buffalo Bill and the Indians.” A beat after he’d left the office he stuck his head back around, gave me a thumbs up and said, “You’re in a minority.” If you’re impressed by stuff like this, which I obviously am, you remember it.

Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, Lindsay Crouse (left to right), shooting "The Verdict" 1982

Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, Lindsay Crouse (left to right), shooting “The Verdict” 1982

I realize I still haven’t explained the “Washroom Attendant to the Stars” part of the title for this post. The men’s restroom was just around the corner from our office. The restroom was locked and the key hanging from a hook on the wall near my desk. Anytime someone wanted to use the men’s room, they got the key from me. This was pretty straightforward, but sometimes it got a little more interactive. Liza Minnelli was in the small theater down the hall, probably watching dailies from Arthur (1981). I was startled when she burst into our office and said she needed a restroom. I told her the ladies room was further down the hall near the elevators. She said she didn’t have time and wanted to use the men’s room, which was closer. So what the hell, I went into the restroom and verified that it was empty, then stood guard outside for Liza Minnelli. Anyway, I used to joke about writing something with “Washroom Attendant to the Stars” as the title, and now I’ve done it. - Ted Hicks

(I’ve probably exceeded any acceptable quota for shameless name-dropping in this post, but I hope it’s been interesting.)

 

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Christopher Walken & Talkin’ (& Dancin’)

Everyone knows Christopher Walken, or thinks they do. He is a singular presence in American film, largely due to his uniquely eccentric line readings and vocal mannerisms, filtered through a frequently deadpan affect. Walken has cultivated this over the years, to the point where I think most people now expect his characters (and Walken himself) to be definitely strange, genuinely weird, and predictably unpredictable. But it took him awhile to get there, to go

from this…                                               …to this.

Chris Walken3Chris Walken4Walken doesn’t turn down many parts, so he’s been in more than a few second-rate (or simply bad) films during his career, but even in these he gets your attention, because he brings something special to the table in interesting and compelling ways (and sometimes he’s just weird). Walken believes that making movies (whether they turn out good or bad) is always a worthwhile experience (in one way or another). He’s been quoted as saying, “I’ve enjoyed making movies for lots of different reasons. Sometimes, it was the other people. Sometimes, it was the fact that I was really good in it. Sometimes, it was the location. Sometimes, it was the paycheck. Sometimes, it can be lots of different things, or a lot of those things. Or there can be reasons why you’d like to avoid it the next time. Like the jungle. I’ve made a couple of movies in the jungle, and I don’t want to go back to the jungle.”

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This post is not intended to be at all comprehensive. I think I’m mainly using it as an excuse to display a variety of clips and stills from Walken films I really like that give a good sense of his range and show just how great an actor he can be when everything is in alignment.

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Chris Walken-Next Stop G'wich Village still1The first time I saw Christopher Walken on screen must have been in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976), but it was his appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) that really got my attention. As Annie’s off-kilter brother Duane, he brings an intensely odd vibe to a small but memorable role. Woody’s encounter with Duane culminates in one the funniest payoffs in that film. It’s a short, intense sequence where we can see the Walken persona begin to be defined.

Only a year later he starred, along with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep, in The Deer Hunter (1978), Michael Cimino’s epic film of the Vietnam War years. Regarding the impact that film and Annie Hall had on his career, Walken says, “I was already 35 years old, and I’d been in show business for 30-plus years, and suddenly there was this big Chris Walken5movie and I was getting an Oscar, and this enormous thing happened. In Annie Hall I played the strange brother who wanted to drive into oncoming cars. Immediately after that was The Deer Hunter, where I played this nice guy who shoots himself in the head. Something happened there. The fact that they came so close together, and they were both important movies, two big public things where I was simultaneously . . . ‘disturbed’. That got the ball rolling for me in terms of being an actor.” His role in The Deer Hunter earned Walken an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He would subsequently be nominated in the same category for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002).

Christopher Walken was born Ronald Walken on March 31, 1943 in Astoria, Queens to immigrant parents. His mother, Rosalie, came from Scotland and lived to be nearly 103. His father, Paul, was from Germany and operated Walken’s Bakery in Astoria; he died at age 97. Good genes. Walken and his two brothers were child actors on television during the 1950s. In 1953, credited as Ronnie Walken, he got a regular part on a series titled The Wonderful John Acton. In 1963 he changed his name to Christopher because a friend had said he thought that was a better name for him than Ronnie. Walken’s first role (as “The Kid”) in a feature film is with Sean Connery in Sidney Lumet’s heist film, The Anderson Tapes (1971).

Walken initially trained as as dancer before deciding to focus on acting. He’s often been able to utilize this skill in his films, as he ably demonstrates in the following showstopping scene with Bernadette Peters from Pennies from Heaven (1981), lip-syncing to “Let’s Misbehave” while he dances and does a striptease atop a bar. It’s a stunner. (Walken tries to put a little dance number or movement into all of his roles, whether scripted or not.)

In 1982 Christopher Walken appeared with Susan Sarandon in a 60-minute film of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Who Am I This Time?, directed by Jonathan Demme for American Playhouse on PBS. Walken plays Harry Nash, a shy, introverted man who works in a hardware store in a small town. He breaks out of his shell whenever he performs in local theater productions. For Harry this is acting out in extreme fashion. Sarandon is Helene Shaw, a new arrival in town working for the phone company. She’s attracted to Harry when she sees him onstage, but is thrown for a loop when she tries to get something going with him offstage. Her solution to this problem is worked out in a very charming way. I haven’t seen this for years, but remember being quite taken with it. Demme is a very humanistic director, and tells this story in a relaxed, respectful way. It’s quite a different kind of role for Walken, and he’s great in it.

In 1983 Walken starred in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, which for my money, is the best film adaptation of a Stephen King novel that I’ve seen to date. Cronenberg is a great director, and he really puts his stamp on this. Walken brings humanity, heartbreak, and loss to the role of Johnny Smith, a mild-mannered school teacher who gains (or is cursed with) the ability to foretell future events, at great cost to himself.

"The Dead Zone" - 1983

“The Dead Zone” – 1983

In At Close Range (director: James Foley, 1986), Walken is the leader of a gang of thieves based in rural Pennsylvania in the late 70s. Sean Penn (almost unrecognizable) plays his son, who is trying to extricate himself from this life. Walken is deadly serious and pretty scary in the following scene from that film.

Christopher Walken has made four films with director Abel Ferrara, the most notable being King of New York (1990), in which Walken plays recently-paroled crime boss Frank White making moves to regain control and expand his turf. This is one of my favorite Walken performances, and a rare lead role for him. Ferrara’s strongest films have a take-no-prisoners approach, and Walken is definitely up to the challenge here. He vividly conveys the sense of threat, power, and control that this character has, which is well expressed in the following clip:

In 1993 Walken appeared in True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, where he makes a lethal impression as a lawyer and enforcer for the Sicilian Mafia in Detroit. Walken is in the movie for a single 10-minute scene with Dennis Hopper as he tries to determine the whereabouts of Hopper’s son, played by Christian Slater, who has made off with a suitcase packed with the mob’s cocaine. The interrogation takes place inside Hopper’s dark and smokey trailer, which only adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, especially with several of Walken’s minions (including James Gandolfini) crowding the background. Walken and Hopper have never been better. I haven’t watched the entire film for a long time, I frequently return to this scene to watch them give a master class in acting as they move toward a conclusion that was never in doubt. It’s a mini-movie within the movie.

Christopher Walken’s part in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is similar to True Romance in that in both films he appears in a single scene to great effect. The following scene is one of the many high points in the Pulp Fiction. Walken’s Air Force captain has come to the young Bruce Willis’ home to deliver the gold watch that had been passed on from his grandfather to his father and now to him. Walken carefully explains the ludicrous method employed by the father to safeguard the watch during his years of captivity in a Vietnamese prison camp.

A lot of affection for Christopher Walken has developed over the years. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like him. He can be very entertaining and very funny. Walken hosted Saturday Night Live seven times from 1990 to 2008, where he most memorably appeared in the famous “More cowbell!” sketch. Anyone who does impressions has a “Christopher Walken” in their bag (Kevin Spacey and Kevin Pollak are two of the best at this). This is a measure of how familiar everybody is with Walken.

But he can still surprise us when he has the opportunity to move beyond the humor that exaggerations of his vocal mannerisms provoke. In 2012 Christopher Walken appeared with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivani in A Late Quartet, directed by Yaron Zilberman. Walken is Peter Mitchell, who plays cello in a classical string quartet that’s been together for 25 years. He announces at the beginning that he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and that their upcoming concert will be his last. How everyone deals with this forms the substance of the film. This is acting at a high level for Walken and the rest of the cast. His performance is quiet, heartbreaking, and totally unsentimental.

In the following clip from A Late Quartet, Peter movingly describes meeting Pablo Casals when Peter was a young musician. The scene is subtitled (possibly in Polish, I’m not sure), which is only mildly distracting.

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I want wrap this up with another clip of Walken dancing, which I’ve always seen as a wonderfully playful aspect of his long and durable career. He’s a song and dance man! This is a music video for Fat Boy Slim’s Weapon of Choice (2001) directed by Spike Jonze. It’s simply amazing.

One more thing. Here’s a Walken quote I love that says a lot about his approach to language and dialogue: “I have this theory about words. There’s a thousand ways to say ‘Pass the salt’. It could mean, you know, ‘Can I have some salt?’ or it could mean, ‘I love you.’ It could mean, ‘I’m very annoyed with you’. Really, the list could go on and on. Words are little bombs, and they have a lot of energy inside them.”

And another thing (the last). Christopher Walken supposedly doesn’t use a computer and has never owned a cell phone. Strange, indeed. You gotta love the guy. - Ted Hicks

Walken "good movie" quoteAll of the films referenced here are available on home video via rental, streaming, or purchase. Use this link to see Christopher Walken’s complete filmography.

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