Archive for February, 2016
The Mostly British Film Festival is in full swing in San Francisco this week (closing night is Thursday Feb. 25) and it’s a great opportunity to see a lot of indie and classic movies that might not otherwise get theatrical release here in the states. Established eight years ago, this year’s festival includes movies from the UK and the former British empire, including Australia, and India.
Following along the current craze for film noir, MBFF screened the Richard Widmark/Gene Tierney vehicle Night and the City (1950). Directed by Jules Dassin after he fled to England following his blacklisting during the McCarthy era, the movie transplants the noir aesthetic to London, making great use of the city’s seedy docksides and proving that betrayal, backstabbing, conniving, and cheating aren’t strictly the domain of U.S. crime films. Richard Widmark does his thing, using his kinetic and expressionistic acting style to enliven the character of loser and conman Harry Fabian. Gene Tierney looks pretty as the moral center of the movie but doesn’t get to do a lot with a character that’s much less compelling than her leading turn in Laura. Despite an unintentionally comic climactic wrestling match, the film is an excellent example of noir’s examination of dark side of human existence.
MBFF also screened Women He’s Undressed (2015) Gillian Armstrong’s documentary about legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly. Orry-Kelly was a native of Australia (as is Armstrong) who made his way into the U.S. movie business during its golden age in the 1930-60s. Armstrong’s doc includes lots of Orry-Kelly’s glamorous costumes for stars such as Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Berman, and Barbara Stanwyck, and also outs Cary Grant in a big way, describing his on-again-off-again affair with Orry-Kelly over the many years of their relationship. Intercutting dramatic re-enactments of Orry-Kelly’s life, interviews with top Hollywood costume designers, and many examples of Orry-Kelly movie wardrobes, Women He’s Undressed is a fun and light little romp through gay Hollywood.
The highlight of the festival for me was the chance to see Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies on the big screen. I’m a latecomer to Leigh but now that I’ve seen the glory of his brilliant filmmaking I’m trying to see every movie of his that I can track down. As with most of his oevre, in Secrets & Lies Leigh explores the emotional devastation of complex human relationships. After the death of her adopted mother a young black woman discovers that her birth mother is white. Leigh’s film paints fully fleshed out pictures of each of the characters, who are brilliantly realized by actors Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, the adopted woman, Brenda Blethyn as Cynthia, her birth mother, and Timothy Spall, Cynthia’s brother. Curiously, although it’s a central element of the film, Secrets & Lies elides the narrative’s racial aspect. Although it’s significant that Hortense is black and Cynthia is white this is used mostly as a plot device and not as a means of exploring race relations in the UK in any depth. None of the white characters express any racial animosity toward Hortense and their shocked reactions to her seems to be based mostly on the fact that she is Cynthia’s long-lost daughter and not that she’s black. There’s a passing allusion to Cynthia’s father’s disapproval of Hortense’s biological father, a Jamaican man, but the film implies that the issue of Cynthia’s youth at the time and not the race of the her lover resulted in her giving up Hortense for adoption. Nonetheless, the movie is an excellent look at the overt and underlying tensions in family relations. Secrets & Lies also further indoctrinated me into the cult of Timothy Spall, who I love as a leading man despite his being stocky, doughy, and far from handsome. He’s without a doubt a sensitive, charismatic, and highly underrated actor and he was robbed last year for not getting an Academy Award Best Actor nomination for Mr. Turner (also directed by Leigh). I’m always happy to see him in performances outside of his role as comic relief in the Harry Potter franchise.
The Mostly British Film Festival concludes this Thursday, Feb. 25 with a screening of A Royal Night Out at the newly renovated Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission District. For more information and tickets go here.
My first introduction to one of my favorite cinematic genres, film noir, was way back in grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, aka SAIC. Richard Peña, who at the time was the film programmer at the Lincoln Center in New York City, was doing a guest teaching stint at SAIC and one of the classes he taught was all about film noir. It was in that class that I was introduced to all the classics—Detour, The Big Heat, Out Of The Past, Farewell, My Lovely, Gun Crazy, They Live By Night, Pickup on South Street, Double Indemnity—as well as latter-day rarities such as Otto Preminger’s mid-60s British noir Bunny Lake Is Missing. That class had a huge impact on me and started my lifelong love for movies about the seamier side of life.
So I always look forward to seeing noir on the big screen and this year’s Noir City film festival at the glorious Castro Theater successfully slaked my thirst for dark cinema. I was in the middle of writing a series of long academic articles so I wasn’t able to make it to as many shows as I would’ve like to, but the ones that I saw were top-notch. Once again organizer Eddie Mueller and film programmer extraordinaire Anita Monga put together a captivating, engaging slate of films. After fourteen years of programming most of the classic noirs have been shown to death, so the challenge is in finding fresh material to fill the bill every year.
In that vein my Noir City 2016 experience started with the Argentine film, Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems, 1956). Recently restored with the help of the Film Noir Foundation, Noir City’s parent organization, the movie is a gem, following the gradual descent of the flawed leading character, a Buenos Aires newsman who get caught up in a spiral of paranoid deception that eventually leads to murder. The film is on American Cinematographer’s Top 100 list (at #49) and it’s all about the chiaroscuro lighting and snazzy cinematography. The film demonstrates how well the noir esthetic travels, as it combines classic American noir conventions with Argentine innovations including Astor Piazzolla’s stunning tango-based score.
The highlight of the festival for me was the thrill of seeing In A Lonely Place (1950) again. I first saw this movie back in that life-changing class in grad school in Chicago and I always enjoy watching it. Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame as star-crossed lovers are a noir film match made in heaven and their soulful performances complement the angsty storyline perfectly. Bogart is fearless as the tormented screenwriter Dixon Steele, bringing some of his darkest shadings to a character that supposedly very closely matched Bogie’s personality IRL. The chemistry between Bogart and Gloria Grahame is fierce and Grahame’s flawless performance matches Bogie beat for beat. Combining a sharp-eyed look at the world of mid-century Hollywood, Nicholas Ray’s masterful direction, and the one of the most emotionally devastating endings ever captured on celluloid means that once again I was completely wrecked at the film’s conclusion.
The second half of the Bogart double bill, The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), also shows off Bogie’s acting chops, and co-stars another member of noir royalty, Barbara Stanwyck. Set in England, The Two Mrs. Carrolls features Bogie as an anguished painter with a shady past who may or may not have killed his first wife in order to marry an ingénue, played by Stanwyck. Even though it’s not a great movie, Bogart and Stanwyck are undeniable in their talent, charisma, and screen presence. Acting-wise, they both hit a lot of notes in this one, effortless demonstrating their command of their craft. Barbara Stanwyck in particular utilizes the brilliant instrument that is her voice to convey a vast emotional range.
The last film I caught at the festival was The Bad And The Beautiful (1952). A bit classier than your average noir, this MGM product, directed by Vincent Minnelli, stars A-listers Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in a tale of greed and betrayal in Hollywood. The film is littered with great character actors, highlighted by Gloria Grahame’s cute and charming turn as a Southern belle married to an F. Scott Fitzgerald stand-in, played by Dick Powell. Kirk Douglas shows off his alpha male chops and Lana Turner is beautiful, glamorous, and vulnerable in her platinum blonde coif and on-fleek fur-trimmed and beaded gowns, making this considerably less seedy than, say, Detour or Double Indemnity. But noir’s world-weary cynicism is still present in this bitter tale of one man’s ascent to the top of Hollywood over the bodies and careers of some of his best friends and lovers.
I could have easily spent every night at the ten-day festival but alas my other life obligations made that impossible. But I’m more than happy for the chance to see a bunch of excellent noir on the big screen every year, complete with mid-century cosplaying audience members and free gin in the mezzanine between films, so I’m grateful for Noir City’s annual lovefest to one of my favorite film genres.
UPDATE: Noir City will be hitting the road later this year! Here are the confirmed dates and locations:
NOIR CITY Hollywood: April 15-24
NOIR CITY Austin: May 20-22
NOIR CITY Chicago: August 19-25
Go to the Noir City website for more updates as they happen.