“Song to Song”


Here is what my local theater said about this Terrence Malick movie:

In this modern love story set against the Austin, Texas music scene, two entangled couples – struggling songwriters Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), and music mogul Cook (Michael Fassbender) and the waitress whom he ensnares (Natalie Portman) – chase success through a rock ‘n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal.

I guess that is accurate, as far as it goes.  It doesn’t mention that there is little to no actual plot,* and that none of the characters has a name.  There’s an evil music business tycoon who steals Gosling’s copyrights.  Gosling and Mara have disfunctional families.  There are a lot of shots of stages and backstages, but the supposed musicians Mara and Gosling never perform publicly (he does some noodling on pianos for her, and she holds a guitar once or twice).  I don’t think Gosling’s expression ever changes.  Come to think of it, I don’t think it changed much in “La La Land,” either.

I found it pretty annoying to try to follow, at least for about the first half (it’s long, too — almost 2-1/2 hours) and then I gave up and just went with the flow.  Malick found some gorgeous nature scenes to include, and some amazing houses/apartments, and I liked the bit part Patti Smith had.

I far prefer his earlier film “Tree of Life.”  Apparently audiences agree — though my local theater made a big deal about its opening, it quickly moved into the second smallest room, which holds 40-50 people.  At the prime-time showing I went to, there were only five or six people.

I have to give him one thing: though I don’t think his latest film is successful, it was compelling to watch.  I never looked at my watch and hoped it would be ending soon.

*The lack of plot is probably tied to the fact that no one ever does anything, other than roll around with someone else (not sex, though) or stand for long periods looking away.  A few people stand on stages, but only Patti Smith really does anything on one.  Hard to have a plot when nothing happens.  It’s the barest exposition ever of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” or “girl meets boy,” etc. if you prefer.



I’m back — not that anyone probably noticed I was gone for a few  years.  Got too busy with work.  But, now I have more time and I would like to express myself.

This afternoon my son and I took a break from all the dreadful posturing about the “Wealthcare Act” and other disheartening news emanating from the new “administration” and went to see a movie about cats.  In Istanbul.  In Turkish with subtitles.  It was delightful — a balm for the spirit on a too-cold day.

The film followed seven semi-feral cats — feral in the sense that no one “owned” them, but not feral in the sense of being wild — and the ordinary people who cared for them.  It was really nice to see a grizzled shopkeeper cuddle a cat, or take a kitten to the vet after an accident.  There was a man in a boat — fisherman? we weren’t told quite what it was he did — with luxuriant hair, who very sweetly and openly kissed one of the cats he had with him on a trip over the water. Generally the cats had their own agendas and schedules, which the humans observed but did not attempt to control.  They allowed them their independence.

I was quite impressed with how strongly they all felt about the cats, and what lengths some of the people went to on their behalf.  And, what they thought about the cats’ relationship to humans, and their future in an area under development pressure — some of it was quite poetic.  No one came across as a crusader.  They just loved the cats who shared their city.

For all our fondness for animals in America, it seemed to me that these Istanbul cats lived on a much more equal footing with humans.  They treated them more like adults, where we tend to infantilize our pets.  If you can find this movie, go see it — it’s a great antidote to current events.

Update: my theater brought “Kedi” back!  Maybe they decided to do this when they found out how people were staying away in droves from “Song to Song” — they had told me they had to let “Kedi” go because of the big new openings coming up.  Hah.

“It Came From Beneath the Sea”


Every now and then I get the opportunity to see a really dreadful movie that is nonetheless very enjoyable.  This one, part of my theater’s Science on Screen series, was a hoot (oops, didn’t notice that the web promo called it that, too — well, it was).  It was in black & white and was made in 1955 on a very low budget (hence the two missing arms?).

A gigantic (albeit six-armed) octopus from the greatest depths of the sea is galvanized into action when radiation from H-bomb testing in the Pacific affects its normal feeding habits.

An atomic submarine captain (Kenneth Tobey) teams with a pair of scientists (Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis) to stop the monster before it terrorizes major coastal cities. But after snacking on a couple of freighters and scooping up some tasty landlubbers from a beach, the enraged ‘pus manages to make it way to San Francisco. In famous set pieces, the sea beast demolishes the Golden Gate Bridge and the Ferry Building, thwacks a helicopter out of the sky, and sweeps an enormous tentacle through Market Street, before a final showdown.

With fantastic stop-motion animation by special effects master Ray Harryhausen (Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans), this hoot of a sci-fi adventure (complete with a romantic triangle) is a classic of the Golden Age of monster movies, and rarely shown in 35mm on the big screen.

University of Chicago biologist Michael LaBarbera is a big fan of vintage monster flicks, especially those from the ‘50s. In his published paper “The Biology of B-Movie Monsters,” he explores the realities of movie-creature anatomy, including the limits of King Kong’s and the 50 Foot Woman’s bone structure, why a real-life Mothra would have breathing problems, and how the Incredible Shrinking Man would need to eat his own weight daily just to survive.

Join us before the film as Professor LaBarbera discusses the biological implications of really big and really small B-movie creatures, focusing on the massive cephalopod in It Came from Beneath the Sea, one of his all-time favorite B’s.

About the Speaker

Michael LaBarbera teaches biology and biomechanics at the University of Chicago, where he is a professor in the Department of Organismal Biology & Anatomy and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an Associate Editor of The Biological Bulletin, and served on the Board of Reviewing Editors of Science for 11 years. Professor LaBarbera has published on everything from the biomechanics of marine invertebrates to why animals don’t have wheels to the aerodynamics of flying snakes. He has lectured to non-scientist/general public audiences in over 30 U.S. cities and has appeared on many radio and television shows.

The presentation was very interesting.  Before it began, I noticed a man in a suit sitting by himself at the end of the first row (where I always like to sit, in the middle — if I wanted to see movies from far away, I would just watch them on TV).  So I went and asked if he were the presenter, and he was — we had a little chat about how great the theater is.  Then I went back to my seat and embarrassed the heck out of myself by accusing the other person in the front row of eating my popcorn.  She wasn’t, of course; I was just being unobservant about where my seat actually was.  She was very gracious about it, but my distress at my behavior did overlay the lecture, so I don’t remember too much of it, and the beginning of the movie.

The plot, such as it is, is pretty well described in the theater’s blurb above.  I did notice an interesting dichotomy in the movie’s treatment of women.  The lead scientist who made the key discovery was female, and her character was allowed to be an expert and to tell the military men what was what (though in high heels and tight skirts).  But the rest of the time it was “don’t worry your pretty little head” sorts of things, and when they finally went out to battle the giant sextopus, she had to stay behind with all the laypeople.

The nuclear submarine scenes were interesting (must be very primitive compared to subs today — although, some may still be in service?  Not sure if they decommissioned them all) and the Captain (the one who eventually gets the girl), played by Kenneth Tobey, looked very familiar.  So I looked him up:  he later went on to star in the TV show “The Whirlybirds,” which I remember watching as a kid!  He had a lot of TV and movie roles after that, up into the 1990s.  But first, he vanquished the monster that had demolished the Embarcadero.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”


They started showing the previews of this film months ago, then stopped.  But recently the movie did finally arrive — they don’t always.  (Sometime I should ask them about that.)  It delivered pretty much what I expected.

From the theater’s website:

A funny and touching coming-of-age story based on the beloved best-selling novel by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a modern classic that captures the dizzying highs and crushing lows of growing up. Starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a moving tale of love, loss, fear and hope—and the unforgettable friends that help us through life.

I guess…but I would say it is both more and less than that description.  It is a sweet movie with nice kids in it — some familiar faces and some new ones — and they all seem to be doing a good job with their roles.  The story is partly predictable and partly mysterious — all is revealed in the end, and it is successfully cathartic for the main character.

I suppose I can’t complain about its realism if it is based on a true story, but some of the developments seemed far-fetched.  Perhaps it is not taken from a true story, after all, though?   It is based on a book by the same name, which is described as an epistolary novel (I don’t enjoy those, so I won’t be seeking this one out.  As far as I can tell, however, the movie seems to have stayed pretty close to the book), which explains the occasional awkward scene of Charlie (the protagonist) voicing (voice-over-ing?) letters that he is writing to a never-identified recipient, in order to advance the plot or explain his situation.

The title phrase is never said, so I guess I will remain ignorant of what those perks might be.  The filmmakers made a good choice of music for the scenes of standing up while driving through a tunnel in a pickup truck, though: “Heroes” by David Bowie.



Another awesome once-only movie showing!  Definitely one of the great movies of the 20th century.  The plot grabs you, the acting is superb, the look is lush and brilliantly varied.

Los Angeles, 1937. There are lots of guys like J.J. Giddes (Jack Nicholson). They’re easy to find…if you want to find them.

It all begins for gumshoe Giddes when a well-to-do dame walks into his office. Sure, it’s happened before, but nothing has prepared J.J. for this broad or for this tale of political corruption, adultery, murder, and….

Well, nothing has really prepared anyone for this hard boiled tale, which is one of the reasons why it endures. Expertly scripted by Robert Towne and masterfully directed by Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby), Chinatown cemented the career of Jack Nicholson and easily became one of the top ten films of all time. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards (though only winning for script; The Godfather Part II is pretty stiff competition, after all).

Take a trip back…to Chinatown.

I saw this when it was first released in 1974.   Though it opened my young eyes to a corruption in municipal affairs that I had never realized could happen, I got a lot more out of it this time.   Everyone in it was terrific — maybe this is my favorite Jack Nicholson movie (though the sandwich scene in Five Easy Pieces is brilliantly done…oh, and Easy Rider…guess I can’t pick just one).  I don’t think I realized that was Roman Polanski with the knife the first time around, either — kind of a creepy little zinger.  This was his last U.S. movie before he fled to avoid the possibility of prison.   I am glad he has kept on making movies, even if they are not all as good as this one.

I was able to see more nuance in the Faye Dunaway role this time.  And I had more appreciation for the masterfully villainous John Huston.  Fortunately (LOL) I didn’t remember the plot very well, so it all rolled out the way the writer and director wanted — one clue at a time.  I can’t think how this movie could be improved upon.   The period clothing and decor still look authentic (that’s not always the case — look at a lot of those old Westerns, for example), and the automobiles — oh, my.

The story is even a valid tragedy — I read that the producer, Robert Evans, had wanted a happy ending but Polanski insisted on a violent end for Dunaway.  It works.

Chinatown was intended as the first installment of a trilogy about California corruptions.   This one was about water and was based on a lot of actual events and people; the second one, called The Two Jakes, was about oil.   Nicholson directed himself in it, and it was not a big hit (I don’t think I saw it, but I sure would like to now).  As a result, the third one, which was to be about land and called Gittes vs. Gittes, didn’t even get made.

It occurs to me that, though they were set in earlier eras, these movies are very relevant to what is now going on:  corporations and special interests riding roughshod over the will of the majority of Americans and helping themselves to our natural resources.  Movies like this can be instructive as well as entertaining.  Best kind.

“The Big Picture” — movie AND book


This was another of the very enjoyable unheralded foreign movies that my theater shows.  “The Big Picture” is a suspense movie in French with subtitles, and I loved it.

Paul Exben (Romain Duris, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) has it all: he is partner in one of Paris’s most exclusive law firms with a big salary, a big house, a glamorous wife and two sons.

When he finds out that his wife, Sarah, is cheating on him with a local photographer, a rash of emotions provokes Paul into a fatal error. Standing over the corpse of his wife’s lover, Paul knows that his perfect life is gone for good. By assuming the dead man’s identity and fleeing for an isolated part of former Yugoslavia on the beautiful Adriatic coast, Paul gets another shot at being himself and, at last, seeing the big picture.

The action moves right along.  You are swept up in the story, which is plausibly told, and you are rooting for the sympathetic central character.  It is all done really well.  Of course, I loved seeing Paris and other French scenery, and the villages and towns of Montenegro (I think) were also very interesting.  In the early part of the movie, Catherine Deneuve appears as Paul’s business partner — other than being able to say that the movie had Catherine Deneuve in it, I am not sure why they bothered.  But, she was not awful — just kind of superfluous.   If someone unknown had been in the role, perhaps it would have been as small as the plot really dictated.

There is a lot more to the plot than the summary above.  He finds considerable complication once he does start to be successful as a photographer, and all that is very coherently treated.   The route he chooses to escape the complications of success turns out to be more dramatic than expected — he is nearly killed on a freighter, and at the end he is on yet another foreign shore, possibly without any identity at all.  It’s not a neat ending, but it is a really nice progression, from very structured life to risk-taking to (perhaps) complete freedom.

This was a movie I liked so much that I decided to seek out the book it was based on.  Often I find movies based on books not as good as the books — occasionally I like the movie better.  In this case, I liked them both, but I found that they were not really the same story all the way through.

The book was written by Douglas Kennedy, and the protagonist is an American.  The action stays in the U.S., while following much of the same storyline at first:  unfulfilling career, wife’s affair with photographer, unintended killing of same, assuming his identity and going away (done much more simply in the movie, though I guess it would have to be — it was engagingly described in the book), photography from the heart that is now successful, photo editor in remote new location who becomes a lover, success and complication.   Paul’s love for his two children is the same in both, as is his acquisition of a new friend, a drunk who turns out to be a prominent journalist andwho is instrumental in his first success.

But at the point of the complications of that first success, the movie diverged from the book.  In the movie, Paul moves on again, leaving his photo editor lover behind without apparently a second thought — she doesn’t appear again.  In the book, she continues to be an active and important character (she has a much larger role and more characterization than the movie lover, even from the start).  After he surmounts all the complications with her assistance, they move on to a final situation in Los Angeles that includes a new identity for him and a even new family.  Very neat and tidy — satisfying, in that the characters that we have been rooting for have a happy ending after all.  (Even the wife left behind gets a happy ending, and presumably the children get the benefit of that. )  It’s a circle closed, where the movie has a rising trajectory.

In the movie, Paul doesn’t get a new wife and a new situation in a known location.  He’s left alone in a strange place (North Africa?) with nothing but the clothes on his back and his camera.  He has escaped — from both the most recent danger and the complications in Montenegro, as well as from the original problem back in France.  He is completely free, and judging by the last shot of him, he is finally completely happy.

Different ways to go with the same story — different story arcs.  I like them both.  I may look for more books by Douglas Kennedy — I will definitely go to see future foreign-language movies of suspense.   I recommend the same to anyone!

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”


Another of my wonderful local theater’s one-offs, this one on Hallowe’en:

Celebrate Halloween with a costume contest and rare 35mm screening of this endlessly quotable classic on the 50th anniversary of its original release date!

Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was a vaudevillian child star, but as an adult, her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became the successful actress in the family as Jane’s career flopped. Presently, both are retired and living together in a decaying Hollywood mansion. Crippled following an accident, Blanche spends most of the time watching her old movies on television while Jane remains in a grotesque state of arrested development, acting like a bratty spoiled child as she dementedly berates and spews jealousy towards her shut-in sister.

Equal parts suspenseful psychodrama, gothic horror and campy black comedy, the film was a surprise hit, reviving Davis’ and Crawford’s moribund careers. The two veteran divas apparently hated each other and fought incessantly during the filming, and you can sense every shred of that animosity between them in their gloriously catty performances.

I remember being aware of the movie when it came out, but I hadn’t ever seen it.  It was great!  The costume contest beforehand was fun, too — the winners were a Mommie Dearest and daughter Christina, complete with coat hanger.

The movie went to greater extremes than I expected from its era.   The business with the parakeet and then the rat, for example.  It really is a horror movie!  The suspense builds well and keeps up until the end.   Even at the end, we’re not sure whether Blanche is dead or alive.  As for the actors, they were all very good (Bette Davis’s actual daughter excepted — she was kind of wooden, playing the girl next door.  I wondered why there was this exception to the generally high standard, till I found out who she was).  Bette Davis must have had a wonderful time being Baby Jane!  Not so sure that having Joan Crawford’s part would have been as enjoyable — apparently some of the fighting was real — but still it was a terrific performance.

“The Master”


I had to wait a few weeks to see this (because I didn’t want to pay the surcharge for the 70 millimeter showings — not sure why that is a big deal.  Well, it is more that don’t know enough to appreciate it) so I was worried that the actual movie would be anticlimactic after all the promotion that kept on coming.   But as is so often the case, when I did see the movie, it turned out not to be the same one I was expecting.

My theater said:

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for, folks. If the reviews are to be believed, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master, is a “landmark American film” (The Daily Telegraph) that “will cause the lame to walk and the blind to see” (The Guardian).

After returning from the Second World War, and having witnessed many horrors, a charismatic intellectual, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), creates a faith-based organization in an attempt to provide meaning to his now landlocked life. His teachings gather a devout following and he becomes known as “The Master”. His right-hand man Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix), a former drifter and bad boy sailor, begins to question both the belief system and The Master himself.

See what I mean?  But this wasn’t what the movie was like at all.   (It just occurred to me to wonder if the people who write these have seen the movie. )  I did enjoy it — it’s a lovely color film, with all the nice period details and some good sets and scenery, and a pretty good rollicking story — and I would not advise anyone not to see it.  But it won’t work any miracles for you.  I found it mostly a showcase for the two lead actors, but their acting was pretty believable.  The cult material was plausible, at least, except for the nude scene (shades of Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe?).  Amy Adams was good, though I thought her character could have been developed more.

Quite a change from the last time I saw Joaquin Phoenix, which was in his pseudo-documentary a few years ago.  Maybe he is growing up (if this part was in fact not just playing himself?  That may be hard to tell, as apparently he lives his parts).  I read in Wikipedia that he came up with the character’s twisted posture himself.  I had wondered about that: was it how Phoenix actually is physically?  Apparently not, but I don’t see what the purpose was.  Oh, maybe it was “Symbolism” — yeah, that must be it, it’s the outward reflection of his twisted psyche!  …Please.

The whole movie was kind of like that.  What’s the point?  I thought a good expose (how do you make accents in this?) or sendup of Scientology would be interesting, but it didn’t really do that.  I couldn’t see any allegory going on.  What was the director trying to say?  The movie was like one of those novels from the 1950s that’s a good story but doesn’t qualify as literature — it could have been chosen by the Book of the Month Club, and I would have pulled it from my parents’ bookcase and read it.  But I wouldn’t have learned anything from it.  I don’t think there is anything to learn here, either.

“Girl Model”


Despite its having won awards at film festivals, I found this to be a slight and kind of dispiriting documentary.  From the theater’s website:

With the worldwide rise in popularity of young models, have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes? Girl Model follows two protagonists involved in this industry.

Despite a lack of obvious similarities between Siberia and Tokyo, a thriving model industry connects these distant regions. Ashley, a deeply ambivalent model scout who scours the Siberian countryside looking for fresh faces to send to the Japanese market, and one of her discoveries, Nadya, a 13-year-old plucked from her rustic home in Russia and dropped into the center of bustling Tokyo with promises of a profitable career. After Ashley’s initial discovery of Nadya, they rarely meet again, but their stories are inextricably bound. As Nadya’s optimism about rescuing her family from financial hardship grows, her dreams contrast against Ashley’s more jaded outlook about the industry’s corrosive influence.  In English, Russian and Japanese with English subtitles.

I suppose it told me things I hadn’t known, but I don’t think I have had any use or interest in that information since viewing this movie.  I thought it would be more like “America’s Next Top Model,” I guess, but the setups never came to positive conclusions.  I think the film’s maker could have made more of a context for what was actually going to happen (not much, and nothing really positive).  For example, it could have been more of a movie about Ashley — how she was in this life, then she was not, and now she is enabling others to take advantage of girls who are possibly even easier to victimize than she was.  Well, I guess that was there if I am able to write that, but still it could have been done better, I think.

The scenes showing life in Siberia and in a very tiny Japanese apartment were interesting.

“The Best Man”


As I anxiously wait for the polls to close on this Election Day, what better movie to write about than “The Best Man,” that terrific look at presidential campaign politics from 1964?  (A mere coincidence, though — I am way behind on my movie reporting, and I actually saw this more than a month ago.)  The movie is based on Gore Vidal’s play of the same name from 1960, and he wrote the movie as well.

My theater’s writeup:  “In Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (based on Vidal’s play of the same name), Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson square off as political adversaries during a presidential primary in this sardonic, insightful drama that brings out the best, and worst, in American politics.

Released during the Presidential campaign of 1964, The Best Man is a caustic political drama which kept a lot of critics and filmgoers guessing which real-life politicians inspired the lead characters. In one corner, you have William Russell (Fonda), the older, more idealistic candidate whose wife is on the verge of divorcing him. In the other corner, you have Joe Cantwell (Robertson), the younger, more opportunistic candidate who doesn’t hesitate in using smear tactics if necessary. In the middle is the former President (Lee Tracy) who still hasn’t decided which candidate to endorse.”

(I shall miss Gore Vidal — I wish he had written more memoirs.  His acerbic take on people celebrity-worshipped by most Americans was at times startling but nonetheless a nice counter to that blind approval of people in the public eye.  For example, he held no love for the Kennedy family and shared the anecdotes to demonstrate why. )

But back to the movie.  It tells the story of a party convention, back in the days when decisions were actually made at these events (I do remember watching them on TV and enjoying the colorful voting of the states…).  Two candidates vie to be nominated to become the next President of the United States (apparently the other party is in disarray and isn’t in contention), one played by Henry Fonda and one by Dale Robertson.   The Henry Fonda character is portrayed as an intellectual, a man of conscience who is widely believed to be modeled on Adlai Stevenson.  The Dale Robertson character is a firebrand who will do or say whatever it takes to reach his goal; he’s considered to be based on John F. Kennedy (see above re Vidal’s attitude) with perhaps bits of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon.

Digression: I wasn’t paying attention when this particular movie came out, but I do remember when Dale Robertson played JFK in the PT 109 movie.  Isn’t it interesting that he got to play him twice — once as a hero and once as a villain!

There is not a lot more I can think of to say without giving away the full plot.  I don’t know why they chose to make it in black-and-white — oh, symbolism much LOL? — because the spectacle at the convention would have been good in color.  Also, I would have liked to see the room decor and the attire of the women characters in color.

Speaking of the women, Henry Fonda’s wife was played by Margaret Leighton, whom I can’t remember seeing in any other roles.   She was 42 at the time but seemed a lot older to me — possibly that is just the effect of distance in time upon perception of fashion and coiffures; I often have trouble figuring out how old some people are supposed to be in old movies.  She also had an English accent, which they never explained.  Dale Robertson’s wife was played by Edie Adams (age 37), who did a nice job with the downscale character.   (Vidal got in a nice dig at Jacqueline Kennedy, too, placed in the mouth of Fonda’s character.)

Other interesting parts were played by the comedian Shelley Berman, whom I had never seen in a dramatic (though here comedic) role, and a young-looking Kevin McCarthy (though he was actually 50 at the time — he died in 2010 at 96; I had no idea he was that old), who, Wikipedia tells us, was a real-life cousin of the other McCarthy, Eugene.  The ex-President Hofstader, played by Lee Tracy (who was the only carryover from the stage version), seemed like a real throwback to pre-WWII movies — that must have been the right way to do it, though, because he did get an academy award nomination for it.

One more comment, about the plot — it had a nice twist at the end.  I didn’t see it coming.  Maybe I will go read more Gore Vidal fiction and hope for more such interesting surprises.  Except for “Myra Breckinridge,” which my peers and I read when it came out for its shock value rather than its literary value, I think I have only read historical fiction by him.  I carried one of his books about ancient Rome as my subway reading back in the 70s — it took months to finish.  Not an inspiring experience.  But now I am older and wiser.  If I do read some Vidal, I will report on it.