[Noir City 2012: The Stuff Bad Dreams Are Made Of]

At the 2006 film festival I saw a gorgeous new 35mm print of The Window, introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. One could draw a straight line from that screening to last week, where I spent every day at SIFF at the Uptown, watching 13 of the 14 films in the 2012 Noir City lineup. noir foundation mug

The best night was Sunday, and not just because we all got to feel superior for coming out to noir instead of watching the Oscars. It kicked off with The Great Gatsby, an adaptation I didn’t even know existed until the Noir City schedule came out. It’s quite a treat, starring Alan Ladd as Gatsby. Is it noir? Well, it does include the perfect casting of Shelley Winters as Myrtle. And any film with Elisha Cook Jr has at least a little noir going on.

I’m looking forward to the Baz Luhrmann Gatsby later this year, mostly because I think Carey Mulligan as Daisy will be worth the price of admission & Joel Edgerton as Tom sounds interesting, but Ladd was a fantastic Gatsby. Leo has a lot to live up to.

It was followed by Three Strangers, which was the biggest surprise of the series for me. I can’t say it enough: Peter Lorre as a romantic lead! Amazing!

Geraldine Fitzgerald, rocking some seriously crazy eyes, has obtained the statue of a Chinese goddess which will, if you follow the rules, grant a wish to the three strangers of the title. Fitzgerald recruits Lorre & Sydney Greenstreet to make the wish with her, and of course nothing goes according to plan. It’s quite a character study & a commentary on fate. It’s not available on VHS or DVD, but if you have TCM it pops up there from time to time. Recommended!

Perhaps the most unlikely evening was the double feature of so-called “comedy noir”. The first pick was Unfaithfully Yours, which about five minutes in I realized I had seen before, but never in the theater.

It’s a Preston Sturges film, starring Rex Harrison as a symphony conductor who believes his wife has been stepping out on him. Structurally it’s pretty interesting; a large portion of the film is made up of fantasy sequences. More importantly: it’s hilarious. Also, it’s available on DVD, so you can check it out!

The second film that night was The Good Humor Man, which was basically film noir by way of Looney Tunes. It has the bones of a straight-up noir picture: an everyman encounters the femme fatale who poses as a damsel in distress and lures him into the underworld. However, this is the first noir I’ve seen where the final shoot-out includes cream pies. It was a tad too golly-gee slapstick for my personal taste, but I can definitely appreciate it as an exercise in stretching the definition of noir.

Other highlights included Thieves’ Highway (available on Criterion), Laura (a classic, and definitely fun to see again), Naked Alibi (for Gloria Grahame), & Pickup (a solid B picture with Beverly Michaels as a helluva dame & writer/director/producer Hugo Haas as the utterly sympathetic Czech immigrant she’s trying to scam).

What were your favorites? I’m already looking forward to next year!

[SIFF weekend one]

* It’s a good thing we liked Three, because oh my giddy aunt the Neptune is uncomfortable. New seats are apparently arriving Friday morning, and I can’t wait. But, the movie was lovely. It’s a German film about a couple in a long term relationship. They each wind up having an affair… with the same guy. It violates all the conventional film wisdom of adultery films and queer films, and hooray for that! Recommended.

* I know a lot of people avoid the archival selections because there is so much else to see, but I can’t resist a sure thing. First one this year was Black Narcissus, the 1947 film about nuns attempting to establish their order, complete with school and hospital, high up in the Himalayas. Deborah Kerr is the Sister Superior with a past, Kathleen Byron is her nemesis, Jean Simmons in bronzer is the native girl taken in by the sisters, and Sabu is the attractive young general who draws a little too much attention from all of the ladies. It’s beautifully shot, acted, everything. There’s a Criterion edition out, so you should see it.

* Paddy Considine’s feature directorial debut, Tyrannosaur is hard to watch, but for me it was worth it. Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, and Eddie Marsan are all familiar faces for their more character work,  as it were, but here they are given a chance to shine as the leads of this brutal but powerful film. Trigger warnings for pretty much all of the things. Also, it is another strong feature that had support from the already-missed UK Film Council.

* I perhaps made an embarrassing noise when C announced the title of Secret #1. It was great. I am curious to know more about the production. That is all I can legally say.

[Noir City 5]

We learned a number of lessons at Noir City 5. We learned that it really is best for doctors not to get involved with patients, we learned that one twin is always evil, we learned about caffeine intake and anger management, and we learned what happens when felons don’t learn about Stop, Drop, and Roll. See? Film can be very educational.

I love the series for the films, of course, but also for Eddie Muller’s introductions. The world of classic noir intersects with the creative challenges of the Hays Code, the personal and professional tragedies of the Hollywood blacklist, and the current race against time that is film preservation, and Muller does a fantastic job of bringing that all to us.

The series brings me back to the good bits of junior high: watching commercial-free black-and-whites on AMC in the early 90s, with introductions by Nick Clooney & Bob Dorian. Looking at my life now, they have a lot to answer for!

I made it to thirteen of the fourteen features, which is a new record for me. My favorite feature this year, unsurprisingly enough, was Don’t Bother to Knock, starring Marilyn Monroe as a babysitter with a tenuous grasp on reality, and classic noir lead Richard Widmark as a pilot looking for a little distraction. Bonus: a gorgeous young Anne Bancroft (in her first film role!) as the lounge singer who’s just dumped Widmark.

All of the action takes place within a hotel, and more-or-less in real time, both of which add to the terrifically claustrophobic noir feel. It’s available on DVD, and is one of the better introductions to noir from this year’s series.

Other notable features:

* Angel Face, with Robert Mitchum as the ambulance driver-turned-chauffeur who gets caught in Jean Simmons’ web.

* High Wall, where Audrey Totter is a doctor convinced of Robert Taylor’s innocence and commits several ethical violations to prove it.

* Loophole, your classic story of an average-Joe getting caught up in the underworld; in this case, being framed for a bank robbery. Other viewers seemed frustrated by a lot of bad decisions he made, but it made sense to me. When you don’t have a devious mind yourself, it’s hard to anticipate what folks with devious minds will do.

* The Dark Mirror, featuring brilliant performances from Olivia de Havilland as the sisters, some unfortunate pop psychology, and a few more ethical violations; and Among the Living, which is an entertaining (granted, ridiculous) flick featuring bloodthirsty villager-types in what might easily be Brooklyn or Queens, and a barely legal Susan Hayward setting her cap for the murderous twin. Of course.

I already can’t wait for next year, fourth row center with my Americano from Caffe Zingaro. Bring it on.

[SIFF Weekend One]

Nevermind the backlog, here’s the SIFF capsules. That is, if I don’t skip everything else and post about SIFF now, I might as well just give up. Obligatory background: this is my 14th year attending, I’m only planning on about 30 films*, and I currently have tickets to about 20, including the Secret. Let’s get this party started!

One of the things I look forward to most about the festival is the opportunity to see Asian film. First up, the Hong Kong/Taiwan film Prince of Tears is understandably indulgent, being a composite of memories from the director’s childhood, but is all-around gorgeous: cinematography, costumes, and the cast are all beautiful. The perspective is that of a fairy tale, the traditional kind containing true horror, as beloved adults surrounding two sisters are arrested & accused of being communist spies. I’m looking forward to seeing star Joseph Chang later in the festival in Au Revoir Taipei.

I believe From Time to Time is my only Films 4 Families selection this year. Adapted from a novel & directed by Julian Fellowes, it’s a charming fantasy/ghost story. It’s very mildly cheesy in spots, an effect of being a children’s film, but even though you know more or less how it’s going to end, it’s a lovely ride getting there. Maggie Smith is delightful as ever as the grandmother, and Dominic West is a classic, sneering villain as the evil butler from the past. Also, I have to say, it was solid Jaci-bait, what with the present of the film being the end of WWII, and the past being Age of Sail/early Regency. I would very much like to read the original series.

Holy Rollers was my first totally crazy over-sold screening of the festival, and even starting a half hour late (on an already late screening) it was a great time. I have yet to meet a Jesse Eisenberg film that I do not enjoy. Here his character is a Hasidic Jew who gets caught up in an ecstasy smuggling ring. Based on a true story, and definitely my recommended feature of the weekend. I don’t know why the current IMDb rating is so low. Save it to your queues!

All I will say about Secret #1 is that it was full of failures of communication. Also that I enjoyed it. Shhhh. This is my second year doing the Secret Festival, and I only wish I had started sooner. It is absolutely the only time that I can have the experience of viewing a film with zero preconceptions. Such a unique thing, and very much worth getting up for an 11am Sunday screening.

We’ve been excited about On the Town for weeks, and deservedly so. Musicals on the big screen are such a fabulous treat. I am looking forward to the Grease sing-along (and still think SIFF missed a chance — a sing-along Everyone Says I Love You would have been a great addition to the Ed Norton tribute series. I know at least two people who would have gone. Um. Including me.)

The weekend finished off with a Northwest Connections feature, The Penitent Man. It’s a low-budget time travel piece in the tradition of Primer (which is far and away the better film, so if you haven’t seen that, please do.) I found it to be a great example of the importance of casting; the film is largely conversation, so much that the concept would have been better served by the novella format rather than a feature film. However, Lance Henriksen was great, elevating the material he had to work with. Bonus: street scenes shot in my neighborhood. See my supermarket & my walk home immortalized on film! Or, I suppose, on digital.

* Not very many, I know, in a festival of 250 features. But I am poor. So it goes.

[SIFF is coming! Look busy!]

I was doing so well for a while there, but I guess when I wasn’t seeing something every other day I forgot to keep this up. But SIFF is coming — the schedule is out next week! — so this is a good time to clean up this file.

* Putney Swope was another one of those 69 series movies I wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t have the full series pass, so I’m glad I did. It was interesting as a cultural artifact, and I did laugh, but I also spent a lot of time thinking “I see what you did there, but I’d be more interested if the writer-directer wasn’t white.” Maybe that’s just me.

* Sullivan’s Travels, however, was unquestionably great. It’s a meta-picture about the Hollywood system & the Depression (timely, that!), though I must admit a large part of why I wanted to see it is that the film Sully wants to make all through it? O Brother, Where Art Thou.

* The Class was fantastic, and yet another movie to make me Very Bitter that I speak about three words of French. You *know* that the subtitles left out about 90% of the material. It’s a year-in-a-classroom film based on the book by François Bégaudeau, who also plays a version of himself. The setting might make it easy to dismiss, but it’s not just Les Minds Dangereuses. I was particularly interested in the immigrant make-up of the class and the tensions that creates, and I loved how complex François was — he makes mistakes & decisions that could turn the audience against him. Finally, it’s interesting that the entire film takes place within the school, within the year. As an audience you experience the same frustration the staff does of only knowing a fraction of a student’s life.

* I haven’t seen Rear Window in years, so I was pleased about the opportunity to see it on the big screen in a full theater. It’s still a great movie. Obviously. And now I will use my icon of Kris Marshall in the Rear Window episode of “My Life in Film.”

In other news, due to total calendar reading fail, I missed Fellini’s Satyricon & The Damned. I am totally bitter about this, which is ridiculous in the grand scheme of things.