Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bad Girls at the Castro

Last night I had the opportunity to attend an evening of the eighth Noir City film festival, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Wednesday's theme was "Bad Girls Night." I was not disappointed.

The evening kicked off with One Girl's Confession (1953), a crime-tinged melodrama, by Hugo Haas, a B-Movie auteur in the 1950s. He specialized in potboiling stories of fate and irony, usually featuring a bombshell in the lead role. He was an actual auteur, writing, producing, directing and sometimes starring in his films. He has been compared to Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Plan Nine From Outer Space) because of his often-lurid, low-budget dramas. This is unfair: I think he is more of an Ed Wood who managed to keep it in his pants, and thus enjoyed, for a time, a healthy relationship with the studio distribution system.

Confession is the story of Mary Adams, (played by Cleo Moore, a sort of poverty-row Marilyn Monroe) a luckless waitress who steals a large sum of money from her boss, confesses and gets sent to jail. When she gets out, she bides her time, waiting for the right moment to dig up her fortune. Meanwhile complications both professional and romantic ensue, which force her to make a drastic decision which seals her fate. Quite entertaining: it worked well within it's limited budget, and had surprisingly witty dialog.

Women's Prison (D. Lewis Seiler, 1955) is more of an A picture, featuring the likes of Howard Duff, Ida Lupino, Cleo Moore (again!) and Warren Stevens (Doc Ostrow from Forbidden Planet). The titular women's prison is separated from the men's lock-up by a wall and run by a hard-nosed warden (Lupino). The joint is full of tough cookies, but they're all good-hearted women who look out for each other-- which makes this film very much unlike more lurid Women In Prison genre offerings like Chained Heat (d. Paul Nicholas, 1983). There is sadism aplenty, however, with the hard-nosed warden tormenting her prisoners, despite the attempted intervention of the kind prison doc (Duff). As things generally go down in this genre, things in stir get out of hand eventually, and it ends in a riot, with our heroic gal cons running amok, threatening the guards with pointy scissors.

I had a fine time with the whole thing. I co-wrote a Women In Prison film (sort of) and I took some comfort seeing how enthusiastically the audience reacted to a 55-year-old genre piece. And comparing our script with Women's Prison, I can see we hit all the marks, and then some.

I'd make a qualification that it is a bit of a stretch to call these films "noir." Confession was more of a melodrama, and Women's Prison had far too many perfectly nice, reasonable characters, both had upbeat endings, and neither had the moral cynicism and air of futility and hopelessness that embodies the best noir. This isn't a knock on the festival programming: there are only so many core-noir films like The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Asphalt Jungle or A Place in The Sun, so stretching out a bit thematically keeps the whole franchise from getting stale. But they were still wonderful, rarely-seen (not in DVD!) movies.

An aside: I managed to see George Steven's A Place In the Sun a few weeks ago on TCM. An amazing, artistically done, towering example of noir, with Montgomery Clift, Shelly Winters, and a supernaturally beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. A perfect example of noir's leitmotif of hopelessness, it's sense of doom kicks off in the first scene and steamrolls non-stop all the way to the end. It appropriately closes this year's Noir City festival.

It's been a while since I've seen a film in a art house, even longer since I've attended a double-feature (though those are de rigeur at the Castro) and even longer since I've seen a movie from a balcony seat. During the break at a festival-type screening there is a lot of shmoozing and photo-ops and other sorts of activity. But what struck me was the unusual perspective of looking almost straight down over the main floor of the auditorium during the entr' acte. The Castro was built in 1922, and the interior has been for the most part left completely original: Even neighborhood movie houses made back then had plenty of sweeping, dramatic architecture. The whole place was awash in reds and golds under a proscenium and curved ceiling of Baroque magnificence. But the auditorium floor was a bright constellation of blue-white lights-- iPhones, Blackberries, Droids, all manner of 3G phones all being blazed away on by the Festival's urban, hyper-connected audience. It was beautiful in a way, like an upside-down night sky.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Rusty Packard that is NBC

Well, that's over.

Conan is in reruns: Leno's 10 o'clock show is going to wrap up soon, and he'll show up at 11:35 after the Winter Olympics is over.

I have to agree with the minority opinion, held by Mark Cuban and a few others: as a strategy, NBC's move to shift up all their talk shows and keep all their talent actually wasn't a bad idea. It was a bold stroke that got a lot of attention. At the time it was happening, though, it seemed a lot like suicide. Who the hell would watch a talk show at 10?

It all fell apart rather quickly, as everyone predicted. But this had nothing to do with Leno being too bland or out-of-place in prime-time or anything like that. The problem, I think, was two-fold:

1. The shows never developed. If you're going to change hosts and enter new programming slots, the shows have to have something fresh about them. Leno at 10 was Leno at 11:35 without a desk, nothing more. Conan at 11:35 was Conan at 12:35-- in LA rather than New York, but essentially identical. The bet NBC was making is the personalities of the hosts would make all the difference, and we now know how that bet paid off.

I'm not going to surmise what sort of changes needed to be made, but I have a few examples. Maybe Conan should have ditched all of his old bits and characters (except the "Year 2000" bit, which is gold) and made a big deal of starting from scratch: that way, his new audience would feel they truly owned the show. Maybe Leno should have done something like took the show on the road (which worked really well for Letterman over the years) rather than pace around in his narrow, mall-storefront set. All things considered, it still ain't too late.

2. The Big Audience is gone, and no amount of talk-show-host shuffling will bring them back. The relative success of the pre-shuffle late-night lineup had a lot to do with the fact they could always be found in the same place, every night. Everything else changed-- Cable shows bled off audience, and the internet chopped up the good bits for direct viewing. The mere fact they moved all the pieces doomed the entire experiment.

NBC's late light slate reminded me of what they call in the vintage car trade a "Garage Find:" an old vehicle, found after years of neglect, to still be in perfect running condition. It worked great, you could drive it anyplace, but it was held together with rust. You don't dare take it apart, for fear it would never start again. And sure, you could rebuild it, but why bother when there are so many other good cars available elsewhere?

Alright, it's a shaky metaphor, but I think Jay Leno would appreciate it.

'Avatar' is king of the world

'Avatar' is king of the world

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Weekend Box Office

I'm gonna be busy all this month, but hear this: Avatar is STILL number one.

Okay, back as you were. I got work to do.

Friday, January 15, 2010


I picked the wrong month to skip blogging about showbiz, judging by the interest in this Tonight Show decision. I don't have a lot of time even now, but I want to suggest that nobody made a boneheaded decision here, it's just that NBC took a gamble that didn't pay off. You might argue that they shouldn't be gambling in such a high-stakes game; but the truth is network TV is rapidly becoming the penny slots of the entertainment world.

In fact, I think a good way to see the future of network TV is by looking at the past: check out episodes of Suspense, the long-running CBS radio show. Suspense premiered in 1940, hit it's stride around 1951-1954, and then kept going all the way until 1962, long after the rest of radio drama had taken it's ball and gone home. Those last episodes boast 15-minute running times, reused scripts and guest stars that you've never heard of. They're cheap cheap cheap, and the commercials are all either PSAs or ads for old people's medications. What was sucking away the audience from Suspense? Network TV.

Anyway, don't worry about who is hosting the Tonight Show. They'll probably offer the job to YOU in two years time.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Weekend Box Office

Numbers here.

Avatar again. Too busy this week to snark about it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Avatar: A Blue Handful of Further Observations

Just saw Avatar - Unlike Skot, I wanted to wait a couple of weeks until the crowd died down. Ha! Still a crowd. But at least they were calmer. In the spirit of the movie, I'm writing this blog on a virtual laptop from within Second Life. It occurs to me that James Cameron missed a great opportunity by not making it so one of the avatars was forced to climb into one of those exoskeletons and operate it. Or am I complicating the concept? When I say I, I mean me, not the Second Life me. Or do I?

As I say, the theatre was sold out, which is to be expected because I saw it in the IMAX theatre. Though it's not the good IMAX. Of course like pizza, even bad IMAX is still pretty good. Still as others have commented, the 3D is splendid, better than you've seen before. I did get a tiny bit of motion sickness but it wasn't like the miasma I experienced during Blair Witch Project, so again, still pretty good.

So, is it worth seeing in 2D on a normal screen? Can't say. I can't imagine getting the same enjoyment out of it that way, but I felt the same way about Beowulf and people tell me it was just fine in 2D. Strangely the movie this most reminds me of is Dial M For Murder which I don't believe I've even seen. The thinking goes like this - Skot remarked about the lack of real surprises in the screenplay. And indeed, Avatar does seem like a parade of James Cameron's best ideas, brought out again but refined and perfected. It's Cameron doing what he knows he can do as a storyteller. Dial M was an Alfred Hitchcock movie that came out during the first big 3D scare rollout in the fifties. It was big at the box office but it hasn't captured anyone's imagination, because Hitch was applying all his big creative thinking to the gimmick, putting the rest on autopilot.

But like a good bedtime story, you can know what's going to happen and still enjoy it. In Avatar the predictability leaves you free to concentrate on the details of his virtual world, which are just phenomenal. It's the work of a guy who had fifteen years to do pre-production, and he used it. So I can't say the movie will endure but like Dial M For Murder it's a great way to spend a couple of hours.


This bothered me - when they first lose touch with Sully's Avatar a search party is sent out but they have to stop looking as night falls. You're telling me that a guy has a machine-enabled telepathic link with this Avatar and yet there's no way to triangulate its position?

Also Skot says he was tipped off to the ending by a line of dialog near the end of the second act; I think the ending is prefigured long before then. Did you notice that the material they are seeking to mine on Pandora is called Unobtanium? Yeah, that's right. The Company is doomed from the get-go.