Thursday, January 30, 2014

Two Eyes: Ben Armington

In the San Francisco Bay Area, moviegoing is not just for the newest releases. In 2013 there were more theatrical opportunities to see films spanning the history of cinema than any one person could take advantage of. Therefore, I've asked a sampling of local moviegoers to select a few favorites seen in cinemas last year. An index of participants is found here.  

The following list comes from 
Ben Armington, Box Cubed manager and moviegoer.

1. Heat  (Castro Theatre)

Michael Mann’s sinewy crime saga has been a favorite of mine since it was released in 1995, so it was a real, and rare, treat to see it big at one of my favorite theatres, the Castro.  A lot of the unabashed appeal is that of a good, page-turning popular novel---- situations familiar to genre fans given new life by confident storytelling, solid acting, and subtle detail... a neater trick than it sounds.  With great cameos from Tone Loc, Henry Rollins, and Tom Noonan. Screened with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, which unfortunately did not serve as an especially interesting co-feature.

2. Unfaithfully Yours and To Be Or Not To Be (Stanford Theatre)

I didn’t make it to the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto anywhere near as often as I had hubristically hoped to in 2013, but I did manage to hop the Caltrain for this rib-tickling double feature.  While the comic reversals embedded deep in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic To Be Or Not To Be kept us on the edge of our seats, it was the howlingly berserk and remarkably sustained climactic sequence of Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours that really brought the house down. 

3. Shakedown (Roxie, I Wake Up Dreaming)

A delirious shot of pure noir from obscure actor/director Joseph Pevny that stands comparison with Sam Fuller’s awesome Underworld USA in it’s unsparing portrayal of an unsympathetic protagonist.  Here the heel is an ambitious young hood (played by Howard Duff) who cons his way into a newspaper shutterbug job and proceeds to scramble up the social ladder, often on the backs of hapless accident victims, dithering colleagues, dim gangsters, and even his doe-eyed girlfriend.  He meets his match in a diffident high society dame who really gets his motor running by not instantly succumbing to his charms, and after that it’s only a few double crosses until the bullets start flying.  Pretty much perfect.      

 4. The Lone Ranger/Dead Man/ Walker (Castro/Roxie Midnite for Maniacs “Acid Westerns”)

My favorite of 2013’s Midnites for Maniacs, Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ long-running and always illuminating engagement with accepted film history.  This triple feature invited us to consider three different (post)modern takes on that most American of genres, the Western.  While seeing Jim Jarmusch’s magnificently drone-y deathtrip Dead Man at the Castro in a breathtaking print was the highlight of the evening, it was the capper, Alex Cox’s punchy psychotronic spaghetti western Walker, that provided perhaps the most telling insight through it’s use of purposefully anachronistic elements: that whenever they are set, movies are always about the time, and the attitudes, in which they were made.  It will be interesting to see what people make of Gore Verbiniski’s film maudit The Lone Ranger twenty years from now, will they love it as much as I now love Elaine May’s similarly scorned Ishtar?

5. Modern Romance (Castro)

One of my great, late-breaking discoveries this year was the films of Albert Brooks, so I was front and center at the Castro when his second film, Modern Romance, screened with Fellini’s 8 ½.  Modern Romance finds Brooks bravely battling his own considerable neuroses for the hand of Kathryn Harrold while editing a schlock sci-fi film.  From here springs much of the Judd Apatow “style” comedy that is prevalent today, all though you would have to go back in time to Preston Sturges to match the sheer comic genius of the scene where Brooks works with a supremely unamused sound crew to overdub a scene of George Kennedy running down a spaceship hallway.   

6. “Satanic Sinema: The Devil Gets his Due” (Oddball Cinema)

This was my second trip to the Oddball Cinema on Capp street, and the draw for this Halloween program was Kenneth Anger’s legendary underground naughtie, Invocation of my Demon Brother, complete with stoney droney Mick Jagger on moog .  Which was great, but the real transgressive hysteria lie in the bizarre 1961 GE Theatre television show called “The Devil You Say”, which starred Sid Ceaser on vamp overload as the lecherous incarnate of the devil trying to tempt away the virtuous wife of stone-faced angel incarnate Ronald Reagan.  The gnomic double entendres, mostly revolving around sampling the wife’s cake, are delivered like the State of the Union by the Gipper and practically squealed by Caeser.  Very strange, and, spoiler alert, the devil does not get his due in this telling.    

7. Clockers (PFA)

A welcome opportunity to revisit Spike Lee’s scathing indictment of the 90s gangsta genre, with editor Sam Pollard in person.  Like a lot of Spike Lee joints,  including this year’s summarily dismissed Old Boy remake, there is a palatable tension between the source material (Richard Price’s gritty novel of the same name) and Lee’s flamboyant, almost Brechtian style.  While this tension rarely equates to gripping storytelling, it does yield the occasional visual and dramatic coups that are wholly Lee’s own.  Clockers also has a hard time recovering from it’s brilliant opening credit sequence, which unblinkingly portrays black men murdered by gang violence.  With strong performances by Delroy Lindo, Mekhi Pfeiffer, Isaiah Washington, Harvey Keitel, and John Turturro.   

8. Legend of Kaspar Hauser (roxie, sfindiefest)

This zonked out rave-sci fi-western featured Vincent Gallo in two roles--- at least one of which seemed to be channelling 70s era Dennis Hopper---, had something to do with the oft-told legend of Kaspar Hauser, and rocked a propulsive score by Vitalic.  Honestly, most of this visually striking film went sailing straight over my doggedly sober head, but there is something  charmingly sincere in it’s weirdness and that’s something you can’t fake.

9. Wild Girl (PFA, Raoul Walsh retro)

Raoul Walsh, along with Robert Aldrich and Frank Borzage, is a director I am perpetually trying to watch more films by, so I got very excited when I heard that the PFA was doing a retrospective of his work.  Unfortunately, it was more of a greatest hits collection than deep cuts, and even programmer Steve Seid seemed to be downplaying expectations when he introduced the series.  Out of the three programs I attended (all of which, I hasten to add, were excellent) I chose this one for inclusion because one of my top three favorite film critics, Dave Kehr, was in attendance and spoke after the film.

10.  Impolex (Roxie)

This is the debut film from Alex Ross Perry, director/star of The Color Wheel, and it is notable for being almost nothing like that film, or most any other, and is often unhelpfully described as being “like Pynchon” which I suppose is a reference to Gravity’s Rainbow?  I don’t know, I haven’t read it.  This film is about a world war two soldier searching for undetonated missiles and felt more like a dream or a reverie than a straightforward narrative (I mean that as a compliment).  Screened once, at 10pm, on a Tuesday.


  1. Hi Ben: Who are your other two favorite film critics? I was really sorry when Kehr left his post at the Times. He was probably the best writer on film they've ever had. Not even the estimable J. Hoberman can fill his shoes, IMHO.

  2. Hi Lawrence! The other two faves are Hoberman and the Self-Styled Siren, Farrah Smith Nehme, who I think is one of the best writers around on what is known as classic hollywood. I was also greatly saddened by Kehr's departure, his column (and website) was a regular, cherished destination. I do look forward to seeing where Hoberman takes it...his first piece, on Tarkovsky, was pretty good. What about you, any favorites?

  3. Ben: I don't know Self Styled Siren, must seek her out. My favorite writers on film are Robin Wood, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Manny Farber,and Raymiond Durgnat.