Dark Days

Dark Days (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Marc Singer
viewed: 01/25/04

I had been somewhat interested in seeing this film when it was playing in theaters a couple of years ago, but never got around to it. I guess that I have been on a bit of a documentary binge of late for home viewing, so I have been playing catch-up with documentaries like this.

Dark Days is actually a very elegantly filmed documentary, shot all in black and white, largely in the darkness of the subway and other train tunnels in New York City which a certain group of homeless people made into their homes. The film actually documents the end of an era for this particular way of life, and it has largely fairly surprisingly happy endings (as far as the film tracks the tunnels’ denizen.)

Largely, it’s an interesting humanistic series of portraits of these homeless people, who have erected homes in the dark, dank, vermin-infested darkness of these subway tunnels. Mostly, they are very functional people, who have eked out an existance in a very inhospitible place. It’s a very marginalized culture and, interestingly, one that has been in existence for 20 years.


One from the Heart

One from the Heart (1982) movie poster

(1982) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
viewed: 01/05/04 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

The Monday Night Movie Club had been at the Castro for three or four weeks running prior to this film and after seeing the trailer for it, I was really on the fence about seeing it. It seemed like it might be ultra-stylish and cool or stupid and tacky, or both. Ultimately, one of our party tipped the choice, basing the interest in the Tom Waits soundtrack. Mixed-to-bad feelings were had by all of our party regarding this film, though I was definitely of the mixed variety. I had never seen this film before. I think it came out probably only a couple years before I started investigating films a little more seriously and when I was 13 (at the time of this film’s initial release), I was far more interested in seeing the next Star Wars feature than something a little more off-beat. I have decidedly mixed-to-bad feelings about Coppola. Though his early films seem to reek of genius, his mid period and later films reek of something altogether different. If there are any other poor souls out there who saw Jack (1996), which I caught on a weird double feature in a drive-in with Escape From L.A. (1996), they too can attest to the film that I often cite as among my most personally hated.

One from the Heart is often noted as one of the films that cost Coppola his studio and budding empire, so expensive and indulgent and so abysmally unsuccessful on its release that it nearly ruined him. The whole film reeks of hubris and conceit, with its lavish sets and stylized nature, stinking of the 1980’s with neon jutting everywhere. The strange casting at the heart of the film (the otherwise appealing Teri Garr and the underused, but strangely compelling Frederic Forrest) really gives this film its off-beat character. What is it about them? Are they all too naturalistic and believable in this world of pure artifice? Does that contrast matter? But is it what grates at times?

There are some charming scenes and sequences. And some of pure cheesiness. And in some ways they make the whole thing sort of appealing in a misshapen sort of way. It’s hard to be utterly hard-hearted towards it. The lush Vegas of the soundstage, with the pre-digital backdrops, reckon somewhat of the genre of the musical, when artifice and extravagence seem well-married. And this film has a sensibility of a musical with a score that rides in the foreground throughout much of it. The homage is far from accidental.

Who can figure Coppola out? Anyone? This film is a true transition for him, between his era of respectability and his later years of apparent idiocy. And here, in between, is this unique film that is quite engaging and not all at once.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 01/07/04 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

The biggest epic battle of this film was the one that most people probably had with their bladders while trying to endure the full three and a half hours of this, the final segment in the much ballyhooed trilogy. It’s long. Very long. Epic long. And even the ending is long.

Overall, this series of films was very satisfying and is quite an accomplishment, bringing an enormous beast of a story to the screen and managing all of the storylines and viewer-expectations, visual thrills, characters, and everything. On the whole and even in many of the details, it’s hard to fault director Peter Jackson, who has really pulled off something pretty amazing in this film series.

And on the whole, his accomplishment has been well-acknowledged and though there are nay-sayers out there, the overall general reception to this series of films is largely well-deserved and recognized. There’s virtually nothing to add to the litany of praise or even criticism of these films. All I can say is that I found them on the whole entertaining and pretty satisfying, which is by and far their primary goal.

I think I found the second of these films the most satisfying, for whatever reason. It’s been a year since I saw it and I can’t say exactly what was better/more pleasing about it. This third and final segment felt a little slow to get going and then culminated in climax after climax and denoument after denoument where I was eagerly awaiting the credit roll.

Ultimately, though, these films are part of a whole and would be interesting to see back to back, if one ever had the strength to endure such an undertaking. I mean, after all, put end to end and added with all the DVD additional footage and seen in total, this thing would outpace Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), which has been since its creation a joking comparison point for length in film (554 minutes).


Underworld (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Len Wiseman
viewed: 01/09/04

This movie has a concept that I would have found pretty much as cool as it gets when I was ten years old. The vampires versus the werewolves in a sort of all out war. Problem is, I haven’t been ten years old in 24 years or so. But it has some appeal to that side of me, I guess. I rented it, didn’t I?

Really, it’s Anne Rice meets The Matrix but with lots of weaponry, and oh, yeah,…werewolves. Does Anne Rice write about werewolves? Not to show my general ignorance, but I honestly have never read her work.

The film is shot with such a muted palette that it’s almost black and white at times. And at one point, I realized that it might actually be a lot cooler if it was all in black and white and not just muted with gels and filters and their computerized equivalents.

The characters are all supposed to be cool and gothy, serious beyond the pale (pun intended), and the world is so lacking in irony, that…I don’t know. I lack an analogy.

All that said, it was not utterly unentertaining, though I felt like I was looking forward to it being over in the last 20 minutes or so. It may ultimately become a pretty typical marker of the period of post-Matrix science fiction, though one could argue that it’s just as influenced by such lesser films as Blade (1998) and who knows what else? I can guarantee that there is someone out there for whom this film is utterly wonderful. I don’t probably know them, but they probably wear a reasonable amount of black.

The Source

The Source (1999) DVD cover

(1999) dir. Chuck Workman
viewed: 01/04/04

I remembered when this documentary came out originally and thinking that though it got sort of mixed reviews that I wanted to go and see it. With the deaths or William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, the last of the major figures from the Beat movement had passed on. The media was being reflective and it didn’t seem like a bad idea.

I’ve been reading Kerouac a bit over the last couple of years, enjoying the connection to San Francisco and California. I’ve been thinking of reading some more Burroughs, too. I’ve only read one of his books and it was years ago. So, I find the subject interesting.

The documentary is not brilliant. It’s okay. They use Johnny Depp, John Turturro, and Dennis Hopper in dramatic readings which are shot in cheesy ways that make this film already seem dated despite being only 5 years old, which is maybe a harsher criticism of a documentary, since they usually rely on archival footage, which makes them a little harder to date.

I have been wanting to see What Happened to Kerouac? (1985) again. I guess that I must have seen it near its initial release because the date sounds about right. You may see that show up here sometime, who knows?

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941) movie poster

(1941) dir. Orson Welles
viewed: 12/22/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

Citizen Kane is one of those 500-pound gorillas of cinema. It’s not as daunting as much of the European avant-garde, after all, it was made in Hollywood during the height of the “Golden Age” and has great production and verve and entertainment value that probably most people could sit through with their grandmother. Actually, this time around, I was extra impressed with how entertaining it was, so I truly mean it.

It’s one of those films though, that I think most popular “critics”, by whom I mean the ones that everyone reads in the papers and magazines and on television, who still shape popular opinion far more than they should, will put on their “Best Movies of All Time” list and most often will deem #1. It’s like they are afraid to say that they actually liked Casablanca better. Or maybe they are so keen as to differentiate between what they like best and what is best. What is best anyways?

When I first saw Citizen Kane, at the age of eighteen, on a video cassette, I was incredibly disappointed. This film that was supposed to be “The Best” was more or less a drama (albeit quite an epic one), which was not my favorite genre. I didn’t get it. It’s so culturally ingrained, this film, though, that the first place that I had ever heard of it was in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts strip. A cultural reference from a period prior to the popularization of cultural references.

Since going to film school and having read a few texts in my time, as well as aging and (hopefully) maturing along the way, I learned more about the film, its context, Orson Welles, all of the legacy of the film, the drama of the film’s making, all of so much that is built up behind the film that does enhance its reception greatly. So, I see it now quite differently and seeing it on the big screen is also just so much more effective. And NEWSFLASH!!! It’s a great movie!!! (What did you expect?)

The other thing that I will mention here is how funny it was to see the film after all of The Simpsons reinterpretations that have been worked through. I have seen those Simpsons probably a dozen times in reruns since the last time I had seen Kane, and it was really funny to see how much of the film they use and reference, ecpecially in their Citizen Burns episode.

Yes, this is a terribly insightful site.

Modern Times

Modern Times (1936) movie poster

(1936) dir. Charles Chaplin
viewed: 12/29/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I really have seen a shamefully small amount of silent film, despite being moderately exposed to it as a child. And despite the fact that the only silent films that I have seen are all pretty much “classics” that utterly recommend seeing more and more. I even know someone who works on San Francisco’s annual Silent Film Festival. I am ashamed and have every right to be.

And actually, when I saw that Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was playing at the Castro, I almost didn’t put it on the schedule to see. Somehow it seems so obvious? Of course, the great irony is that I had never seen it and when hard pressed couldn’t name a Chaplin film that I had seen in even not-so-recent memory. So, I shamed myself into it. And I’m glad. It was fantastic.

Released in 1936, already several years into the age of the sound film, Modern Times is more or less a silent film. Chaplin uses voice over for voices that come from machinery or radio, some sound effects, and ultimately for a song that his character, “the little tramp”, belts out at the end of the film. I don’t know much about this film or enough specific Chaplin history to do justice to the subject here, but I understand that this film was originally going to be a “talkie”, Chaplin’s first, and for some reason, he ended up approaching sound in this particular way.

Large parts of the film, all set in the factory, seem to reckon heavily of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), but with art design played for humor rather than wonderful art deco decadence. It shares some themes with Lang’s film (I don’t know that it was an influence, but am positing), the dehumanization of the industrial workplace, some proletarian revolt, and it’s been so long since I have seen Metropolis that I won’t try to push this further.

The use of sound, particularly in the factory sequences, reinforces the notions of mechanization and dehumanization as well.

Chaplin himself is amazingly funny. It’s something to see, not to be read about. I also found Paulette Goddard, “a gamin” is what her character is known as, quite amazing, too. With her hair down and a simple dress on, Goddard looks very contemporary, and extremely beautiful. She is excellent throughout, but has a great introductory scene where she is hacking bananas off of a big banana bunch and throwing them to the poor children. When she is seen and chased, she makes a deft getaway and then stands, feet apart in triumph and eats a banana. Writing it here, sure it sounds stupid, but it’s a compelling image that I would encourage any and everyone to see.


Cinemania (2002) DVD cover

(2002) dir. Angela Christlieb, Stephen Kijak
viewed: 01/02/04

What seemed a better film to start off my third year of the Film Diary than with a documentary about people who take cinephilia to extreme levels of psychosis? Actually, this film had been on the Monday Night Movie Club’s list but got missed out due to some cancelation or another. When I saw that it was out on DVD, I thought it still a subject worth exploring.

This documentary focuses on five individuals who live in New York City and all they do is go see films in the theater. 2-5 movies a day, daily, despite or perhaps because they do not have jobs to eat into their precious movie seeing time. For all of them, the intensity of their “philia” or “mania” verges heavily or just simply centered in the realm of psychosis.They are all unemployed, though the older three all collect disability of some sort, and all of them live in tiny hovels stacked high with crap, with the exception of the one guy who appears to still be living with his mother.

The film doesn’t really try to draw the line between a typical cinephile, even a fairly hardcore one who avidly read new schedules and worked a good deal of their free time around seeing films, and these “cinemaniacs”. There is a line that gets crossed between a passion for something and compulsion, and maybe it would have been interesting to see some figures who blur the line between what might be considered “normal” behavior and not. As far as self-destructive habits go, seeing movies “projected” in theaters (as even I in my film diary have deemed “the way God intended them to be seen”), is hardly comparable to serial murder. All three of these people have virtually no lives beyond the theater, though, and some of them articulate that fact proudly.

The main figure, Jack, who is both the most lucid and functional of the people highlighted in this film, is used to interview the other cinemaniacs and becomes the film’s main voice. There are occasional allusions to arrests and such that the film doesn’t go into in detail. Toward the end of the film, Cinemania is screened for the group, which they receive well but seem a little embarrassed by.

Having come through film school, I think I can honestly say that though I have never known any true cinemaniacs, I knew a couple of people who weren’t entirely dissimilar (maybe their passions/mainas were either more diversified)? I guess it depends on how much of a cinephile you are as to how many of these people you might know.