Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes for laughs in Rules Don’t Apply

B+ Romantic comedy
Written and directed by Warren Beatty
Story by Beatty and Bo Goldman

Don’t be fooled by the posters. Rules Don’t Apply isn’t a thriller. It’s a romantic comedy.

Warren Beatty returns to the director’s chair for the first time this century, wringing laughs out of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. (He also returns to the producer and writer chairs.) Pushing 80, Beatty wisely let a much younger man, Alden Ehrenreich, do the chore of falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll miss Beatty’s on-screen presence in Rules Don’t Apply. While Ehrenreich and Lily Collins carry the love story, Beatty gets most of the laughs as the aging Hughes. Demanding and oblivious, his eccentricities drive his employees crazy.

The film is set in in 1950s and early 1960s, with digitally-enhanced old footage to place us in the time. The movie tells us right up front that it’s more myth than history.

The young lovers, for instance, are entirely fictitious characters. Collins plays a would-be movie star who comes to Hollywood on Hughes’ dime; she’s been promised a screen test. (Hughes ran RKO–very badly–at that point in the time.) Ehrenreich plays a Hughes employee whose jobs include chauffeuring this young would-be actress.

Neither of them are typical Hollywood folk. Both are small-town religious Christians, with little or no experience with sex or alcohol. As they spend time together, they build a friendship that turns slowly but inevitably in the direction of romance. But that’s not going to be easy. He’s already engaged, and their contracts with Hughes explicitly ban sexual or romantic entanglements with other company employees.

Their doubly-forbidden love and shared discomfort with tinsel town’s free ways provide warm, human-level comedy. Beatty’s performance as Hughes produce the broader laughs. He dines with an actress on frozen dinners. He hates kids and watches old movies constantly. He still loves to fly airplanes, but his passengers don’t enjoy the experience.

It seems as if everyone in Hollywood wanted to be in Beatty’s new movie. Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Ed Harris, and others turn up in small, thankless roles that fail to show off their talents. On the other hand, Oliver Platt manages a very funny turn as a frustrated banker. Beatty’s wife, Annette Bening, plays the ingénue’s watchful but supportive mother.

Rules Don’t Apply lacks the political punch of such Beatty-created films as Reds and Bulworth, although it finds some fun with puritan ethics and the extremes of capitalism. But overall, it’s just well-made escapist entertainment. And that’s not something to look down on.

I saw Rules Don’t Apply at a special screening at the Castro, presented by the San Francisco Film Society. After the film, Director or Programming Rachel Rosen conducted a Q&A session with Beatty and Collins.

Beatty proved to be a witty, amiable, and fun interview subject–keeping the audience laughing through most of the session. Collins was also funny, but Beatty did most of the talking (after all, he wrote, produced, and directed the movie).

Here are a few highlights, edited for length and clarity:

  • Beatty on his career: You know you’ve got the right job if you don’t know if you’re working or playing.
  • On directing a movie for the first time in 18 years: Making a movie is like vomiting…I thought I’d just go ahead and throw up.
  • On casting Collins and Ehrenreich: I thought they had the intelligence and wit. They are not ugly. But I don’t want to diminish the guy who played Howard Hughes.
  • On Hughes: He stood for a level of power and capital in that time. I never met him. I like to say I’ve met everyone who met him. Everything we do in this movie about Hughes was based on something I was told.
  • On how the screenplay came together: I don’t know. Things happen. And you go back and forth and back and forth. and then you cast.
  • On Hughes: Everybody thought he was a nice guy.

Rules Don’t Apply opens Wednesday.

Jean Renoir and Spike Lee at the PFA

I saw two highly-regarded classic films Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. This was not a double feature. They were about as different as good films can be.

The Golden Coach

This was my first experience with Jean Renoir’s 1952 commedia dell’arte about, well, commedia dell’arte. It’s also about arrogant aristocrats, starving artists, and, yes, a horse-drawn coach gilded with gold. But the movie’s primary purpose is a simple and yet noble one: To make the audience laugh.

Anna Magnani stars as a member of a commedia troupe in 17th-century South America, stranded in a remote outpost of the Spanish empire. Here Magnani’s character finds herself juggling a dashing soldier, a famous and egotistical matador, and the aristocratic viceroy of the colony–and thus causing her life to reflect the commedia dell’arte in which she performs. Despite the French director and the Italian star, The Golden Coach‘s dialog is overwhelmingly in English–presumably for commercial reasons.

I can’t quite agree with François Truffaut’s description of The Golden Coach as “The noblest and most refined film ever made,” but I can tell you that it’s a very fun and funny movie, thanks largely to a clever script and Magnani’s precise comic timing. I give it a B+.

Claude Renoir shot the film in three-strip Technicolor, but the heavily-scratched 35mm print screened Saturday night lacked the beautiful, saturated colors I’d come to expect from a dye-transfer Technicolor IB print. On the other hand, the colors were often inconsistent, sometimes changing within a shot–a flaw I associate (perhaps inaccurately) with IB prints. The last minute or so looked especially bad.

Update: Hours after I posted this article, PFA projectionist Seth Lorenz Mitter filled me in on the print:

I was projecting THE GOLDEN COACH last night. That was a Janus Films distribution print on color positive print stock (struck from an internegative) – I know it looked old and worn, but it wasn’t old enough to be an IB print.

Registration errors from the Technicolor three-strip printing process were very noticeable at times and I have to assume were flaws in the master material from which the internegative was made (or in the camera original itself).

The PFA screened The Golden Coach as part of the series Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema. It will screen again on Sunday, December 4, at 4:00.

Do the Right Thing

I first saw Spike Lee’s masterpiece in first run. A few years later I rented the Criterion Laserdisc. I saw it again Saturday night at the PFA. It’s every bit the masterpiece I remembered. I give it an A+.

For a 27-year-old film, Do the Right Thing feels very much like the here and now. When the cops kill an unarmed black man in this 1989 film, the only difference is the lack of cellphones.

By focusing on a few blocks of Brooklyn over the course of one very hot day, Lee dramatizes and analyzes everything wrong (and a few things right) about race relationships in America. And yet the movie is touching, funny, warm-hearted, and humane. It’s beautifully written, acted, photographed, paced, and edited.

I won’t go into detail now. I’m writing a whole other article on the film, which I’ll post soon.

This is a film of bright and hot colors, and the beautiful 35mm print screened Saturday night was all one could hope for. The soundtrack was recorded and presented in Dolby Stereo Spectral Recording, an improved version of the Dolby Stereo I’ve discussed earlier. The PFA’s new Meyer sound system showed that soundtrack at its best.

Do the Right Thing was the first screening of a very short PFA series, Three Lives: Classics of Contemporary African American Cinema.

The Best of the Marx Brothers in one Blu-ray Box

The Marx Brothers used comedy to deflate the pompous and tear down the establishment. They turned respectable, upper-class society into anarchy and surrealism. They also made us laugh.

The brothers honed their comedy in vaudeville, jumped to Broadway, and made the leap to Hollywood at the height of the talkie revolution. They made their first five films at Paramount–the earliest surviving records of Marxist comedy that show them in their purist form.

Universal, which owns most Paramount films from that era, has restored these films and released them in a Blu-ray boxed set: The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.

Finally, these films get the home treatment they deserve.

All five movies provide a wonderful female foil for Groucho. Margaret Dumont, the greatest straight man (actually a woman) of all time takes that role In The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Duck Soup. In Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, the beautiful and talented comedienne Thelma Todd spars with Groucho.

The Cocoanuts

Their first film–an amateurish effort with occasional scenes of brilliance–only hints at the laughs to come. But It’s fascinating to watch, if only for historical perspective.

The Marx Brothers first tried a long-form, story-based show in 1925 with the Broadway musical The Cocoanuts. In 1929, the Brothers filmed the play in a Queens studio during the day, while performing their second play, Animal Crackers, on Broadway at night. This is a very early talkie; the opening credits brag that you’re about to see “A Paramount Sound Picture.”

Cocoanuts suffers from the bad audio, static staging, and utilitarian photography of the transitional period–despite a few attempts at visual flair. The movie spends too much time on the stupid jewel-thieve plot and on the songs–none of which are song by the Marx Brothers (Harpo and Chico do get to play their harp and piano solos). Groucho’s usually brilliant timing fails him often in this movie; perhaps he wasn’t yet comfortable performing for a group of technicians trying desperately not to laugh.

But the non-speaking Harpo–the only member of the cast who didn’t have to worry about standing near a hidden microphone–gives his best screen performance. Whether he’s drinking ink, stealing handkerchiefs, or “swimming” across a perfectly dry room, he’s both hilarious and transcendent.

Animal Crackers

Like The Cocoanuts, the Marx Brother’s second movie is a crude adaption of a Broadway play. And yet it’s a vastly superior film, and one of their best.

For one thing, it’s a better play. Set in a big high-society party, Animal Crackers understands what Marxist humor is all about: taking all that is respectable and turning it upside down.

Technically, it’s nowhere near as crude as The Cocoanuts, with considerably better sound. And all four Marx Brothers now seem comfortable on a soundstage. Their timing is impeccable.

The new restoration brings back almost two minutes of previously missing footage–mostly risqué dialog removed by the Hayes Office years after the movie’s original release. It’s great to have it back.

Monkey Business

The first Marx Brother film not based on a stage play starts off as one of their best. But it fails to maintain momentum.

Here the Brothers play stowaways on an ocean liner. While the crew chase the stowaways, Groucho and Chico break into the captain’s cabin and insult him while they eat his lunch.

There’s a plot involving rival, good and bad gangsters. The bad gangster is married to Thelma Todd, which doesn’t stop Groucho’s flirtations. “Young lady, you’re making history. In fact, you’re making me, and I wish you’d keep my hands to yourself.”

But the movie slows down when everyone makes it to dry land and high society. Too many characters onscreen seem to enjoy the Brothers’ antics, which makes them less funny for the audience. On the upside, Groucho and Todd have another wonderful scene together. But the ending is a complete loss.

Horse Feathers

At Huxley College, the professors are pompous windbags with beards and mortarboards, while the students care only about football. But with Groucho running the college, nothing can be taken seriously. This is one of their funniest.

For the first time in a Marx Brothers movie, the plot doesn’t interfere with the fun. Necessary exposition runs by quickly and efficiently.

Horse Feathers does something unique musically for a Marx Brothers film. Each brother gets to perform their own rendition of the film’s romantic song, Everyone Says I Love You.

Unfortunately, some footage was lost over the decades. Jump cuts and lost words interfere with one of the movie’s best sequences, ruining the precision timing. Perhaps one day a complete version of this scene will turn up. Let’s hope so.

Duck Soup

The Marx Brothers’ masterpiece takes place high in the government of the mythical country of Freedonia. Could there be a better setting for attacking the self-important and pompous?

The film has no romance, little exposition, and even lacks the piano and harp solos in every other Marx Brothers movie. I won’t go into details on this one. I’ve already written about it.

How They Look

These films are over 80 years old, and for the most part they have not been well preserved. Universal presents all five movies in 1080p, pillarboxed to about 1.33×1.

Animal Crackers, restored from a duplicate negative found in England,
looks breathtakingly beautiful from start to finish. The other four movies vary in quality. Some scenes look great; others look horrible. Most of the time, they’re acceptable but not extraordinary.

How They Sound

Universal presents these movies in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono.

The Cocoanuts suffers from a lot of noise and an extremely small dynamic range. But what can you expect from a 1929 talkie.

The other movies sound as good as one could reasonably expect, considering their vintage.

And the Extras

  • Resume feature: When you insert one of the three discs a second time, you have an option to return to where you left off.
  • Booklet: The Marx Brothers from Vaudeville to Hollywood: Adapted from Robert S. Bader’s book, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage. The article sticks mostly to money matters.
  • The Cocoanuts commentary: Anthony Slide talks quite a bit about director Robert Florey, whom he obviously reveres. But he also discusses the play, the movie, and the Brothers.
  • Animal Crackers commentary: Jeffrey Vance offers some interesting facts, but sometimes goes off topic.
  • Monkey Business commentary: Robert S. Bader and Bill Marx (Harpo’s son) talk about the Brothers’ stage work and how that effected the Paramount movies. Other topics include the Brothers’ personal lives, and Zeppo’s unusually large part in Monkey Business.
  • Horse Feathers commentary: F. X. Feeney offers some interesting bits of knowledge. But he also sits quietly for much of the time. I also noted some errors (the name Chico is pronounced chick-oh, not cheek-oh).
  • Duck Soup commentary: Leonard Maltin and Robert S. Bader provide excellent commentary about every aspect of the movie.
  • The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos: 1080p; 80 minutes. This entertaining and informative documentary feature was made for this box set.
  • Inside the NBC Vault-The Today Show Interviews: 480i; 17 minutes. Not all that illuminating, but you get to see older versions of Groucho and Harpo, and quiver at the sexism in 1960s TV talk shows.

Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Saturday afternoon, my wife and I drove across the Bay to the Lark for a Mill Valley Film Festival screening of the thoroughly outrageous comedy Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse.

We arrived at the Lark just as the rain started falling. People think that a rainy day is perfect for movie going, but that’s not the case when you have to wait outside in a line without cover. Luckily, a kindly festival volunteer moved us to the sidewalk, where we could stand beneath awnings. They also let us in about 10 minutes earlier than they originally promised.

Now then, about the movie:

Stand-up comedy duo and romantic couple Gabriel Diani and Etta Devine play themselves in this utterly absurd dark comedy that they also wrote and directed. After civilization collapses, they go off into the desert, carrying their pets, searching for food, drinkable water, and safety. It soon becomes clear that working nightclubs didn’t provide them with the right survival skills. It’s a very funny film, with cannibals, violent hippies, Mad Max types, and song and dance.

I give it an A-.

The movie screens one more time at the Festival–Sunday, October 16, 11:15AM, at the Sequoia. I hope you read this in time to catch it.

Gabriel Diani attended the screening, and did a Q&A. Etta Devine, who couldn’t be there, pitched in over the phone. Some highlights, edited for clarity:

  • On the difficulty of developing a project with your partner: It’s really easy. We had to make up stuff to have some conflict in the movie. [Note: He was joking.]
  • There’s so much that’s autobiographical in this apocalypse movie.
  • On finding locations: The desert is free production design. We did a lot of scouting in the Los Angeles area. You drive a bit and you’ll find something.
  • Scripted or improvised: The script was pretty much locked down. We didn’t have time to not know what we were doing. But there’s definitely some improvisation in there.
  • On the animals: They’re our pets. We wrote the parts to their strengths.
  • Any deleted scenes: There were some really terrible scenes that were cut out.

A Man Called Ove returns to community

A- Comic drama

Written by Hannes Holm, from a novel by Fredrik Backman

Directed by Hannes Holm

Even the most warn-out, commercial plots can work when the filmmakers do something original with them. And that’s very much the case with this dramatic comedy from Sweden.

Consider the cliché of the crotchety old man who hates everybody, until good-hearted people melt his resistance and remind him what love and community are all about. Writer/director Hannes Holm makes this overused device new again by adding a very real sense of darkness, and a deep understanding of the inevitable tragedy of human life.

He also makes the film, when appropriate, very funny.

When we first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgård), he lives by himself in a condominium within a gated community. He boils with anger at every minor transgression of the community’s rules. He threatens cats and small dogs.

He shows tenderness only to the dead. He visits his wife’s grave every day.

He’s already mad at the world when, early in the film, something happens that gives him something to be mad about. He’s fired from his job after decades of service.

With apparently nothing else to look forward to, he attempts suicide. Several times. But every time he tries, something–usually other people–interferes. He finds himself reluctantly helping them instead.

These suicide attempts also launch many of the film’s several flashbacks. Holm and cinematographer Göran Hallberg bathe these scenes of Ove’s youth in a nostalgic glow, and show much of what had been wonderful in his life. His widowed and working-class father loved him and taught him not only a sense of right and wrong, but also the mechanical and carpentry skills that would serve Ove throughout his life. He had a long and very happy marriage to a wonderful and generous woman who loved him deeply.

But the flashbacks also showed the many losses in his life. Tragedy, in the form of horrible accidents, destroyed much of his happiness. And as a builder who could work wonders with his own hands, he learned to hate the “white shirts” who always found ways to take away what he had created.

When he’s not remembering the past or trying to kill himself, he’s reluctantly spending time with other people in his community–especially the family that just moved in. It’s a mixed-race family, with a white husband, an Iranian wife, and two adorable daughters. Another child is on the way.

The very pregnant mother, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), becomes the major force to bringing Ove back into the human race. She’s open, friendly, and cheerful. After her husband is injured in a domestic accident, she keeps coming to Ove for help, and much to his surprise, he provides it. Much against Ove’s own wishes, the kids bond with him.

The concept of modern Sweden as a melting pot is a minor theme here. Grumpy as he is, Ove never once uses a racist slur. He reluctantly takes in a young, brown-skinned gay man who has been thrown out by his homophobic father.

The best feel-good movies have a dark and disturbing core. Consider It’s a Wonderful Life. A Man Called Ove, with its disappointing ending, doesn’t reach the magic of Frank Capra’s masterpiece. But the film shows us the inevitable tragedy of human life and the ability to heal–and all done with good, dark humor.

Anna Magnani, Vittorio De Sica, Teresa Venerdì, and screwball comedy at the Pacific Film Archive

Saturday night, I visited the Pacific Film Archive to see Teresa Venerdì, a 1941 screwball comedy directed by and starring Vittorio De Sica. (When the film was finally released in the USA in 1951, it was renamed Doctor, Beware.)

If the phrase “screwball comedy directed by and starring Vittorio De Sica” makes your head want to explode, calm down. De Sica is remembered today primarily for such serious dramas as Bicycle Thieves and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. But he started his career as a handsome leading man. And as a director, he made far more comedies than dramas. (The first film of his I ever saw was After the Fox, a 1966 Peter Sellers vehicle written by Neil Simon.)

Saturday’s screening launched the PFA’s new series, Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema. It struck me as a strange choice for opening a series on the great Italian actress. She has a small role–I doubt she’s on screen for 20 minutes. On the other hand, when she’s on screen, she’s hilarious. She plays the star of a song-and-dance act who rehearses as if she’s bored out of her mind.

Most of the comedy centers around De Sica’s character, a doctor who gets far more visits from creditors than from patients. And of course he has woman problems. His jealous mistress (Magnani’s bored showgirl) is getting suspicious. He gets engaged to the daughter of a rich man in hopes of a big dowry. And a sweet orphan girl–just now old enough to leave the orphanage and brimming with romantic fantasies–falls madly in love with him.

De Sica and his collaborators found a great deal of madcap action for the story. When the three creditors come to the doctor’s home (which they plan to repossess), they fight over the one comfortable chair. And the doctor’s remarkably inept servant adds slapstick with his vacuum cleaner troubles.

By American standards, Teresa Venerdì seems slow for a screwball comedy–especially in the first half. But the zany atmosphere and funny characters earn it a B+ in my book.

This is not the sort of film one would expect from a Fascist country at war (which Italy most certainly was in 1941). It’s risqué and funny. There’s no hint of war anywhere. And like all good comedies, it thumbs its nose at authority figures–in this case the rich, the creditors, and the women running the orphanage. I don’t know how much freedom Mussolini gave his filmmakers. Perhaps I should look into that.

The PFA screened Teresa Venerdì off of an English-subtitled 35mm print imported from Italy. The print had its problems, but for the most part they weren’t serious. There was one point, however, where I felt that a scene had been chopped off too soon–as if there was some missing footage.

The Anna Magnani series will run over the next two months. I’m looking forward to more of it.

Strauss, Powell, Leone, and Eastwood: Sunday evening at the Pacific Film Archive

I really wish the Pacific Film Archive allowed eating. When you go to two movies, the first starting at 5:00, hunger can become a problem.

And yet I managed it Sunday afternoon/evening. I saw two very different movies, both by filmmakers I respect. Both were in scope, and presented in 35mm prints.

Other than that, they were entirely different.

Oh…Rosalinda!!

This is an Archer production, meaning it was written and directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell. Their work includes Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and one of my all-time favorites, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, you know what I’m talking about. [Note: I corrected this paragraph on November 20, 2016.]

But this is as far from Carol Reed’s location-shot, noir Vienna as Goodfellas is to Singin’ in the Rain. Oh…Rosalinda was shot entirely on London soundstages, and makes no attempt to look realistic. The sets often appear to be from a stage production.

And that’s absolutely appropriate for this light-as-a-feather musical comedy about adultery and mistaken identity. Yes, the movie entertains, but the absolute refusal to take anything seriously has an alienating effect. Sometimes doing something new and daring doesn’t work.

This was Pressburger and Powell’s first widescreen movie, shot in Cinemascope. They clearly had fun with the wide aspect ratio, but that’s pretty much all they do with it. They rarely use it to tell us something about the place or characters.

I give it a B.

The PFA screened a rare, imported 35mm print in very good condition. With the beautiful music, I often wished that they could have presented it with the original four-track stereo mix (a standard for Cinemescope in 1955). Alas, even if such a print survives, I doubt the PFA had the out-of-date equipment to play it.

Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby introduced the film. She told us that next Saturday, David Thomson (who curated the Vienna series) will give a 4:30 lecture before the 5:30 screening of Lola Montez, that the Stanford will soon have its own Thomson-involved Vienna series, and that the PFA has a Pressberger/Powell coming up later this year.

A Fistful of Dollars

I first saw Sergio Leone’s rip-off of Yojimbo on Laserdisc in the early 1990’s. I thought it was a weak Xerox copy of the original. Now that I have seen it again, this time in 35mm on the big screen, my opinion has changed. It’s a pretty good but inferior variation of the original.

This was Leone’s second film as a director, and his first western. More than any other individual movie, it created the so-called spaghetti western trend.

The story is almost identical to Kurosawa’s original. A lone man, incredibly talented at killing, wanders into a small down in the middle of nowhere. The town is torn apart between rival gangs, so the lone man offers his services to one gang and then the other, playing them against each other. Most of the characters and many of the scenes have exact analogs in the original.

But this time, it’s set in northern Mexico. No one has a sword, and everybody has a gun. Eastwood’s Man with No Name shoots and kills four men in what feels like a second.

A Fistful of Dollars provides reasonable entertainment, mixing action, suspense and comedy. Leone doesn’t sermonize like Kurosawa, which may be a good thing.

The 35mm print has some specks—especially at the beginning and end of reels. It was quite grainy, and always has been. You have to expect that from a 1960s film shot in the small-frame/widescreen Techniscope format. But otherwise, it looked fine.

Chronologically, A Fistful of Dollars sits between the Kurosawa masterpiece that inspired it, and Leone’s later masterpieces. In quality, it sits well below either of them, but offers a promise of better work to come. I give it a B.