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.

Brando, Magnini, Powell, Pressburger, the deep South, England & India: Saturday night at the PFA

My wife and I attended two screenings at the Pacific Film Archive Saturday night. This was not a double bill.

The Fugitive Kind

The PFA series Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema just keeps rolling along, and now it’s getting into the great Italian actress’ American films. This 1960 drama co-starring Marlon Brando was directed by Sidney Lumet.

Brando plays a drifter and washed-out musician, nicknamed Snakeskin, trying to turn over a new leaf in a small southern town. He’s tired of uneven work, police trouble, and with women throwing themselves at him.

Magnini’s character runs a store owned by her vile, vengeful, and invalid husband. She hires Snakeskin, and her motives aren’t entirely mercantile. Their romance won’t be easy.

Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts wrote the screenplay, based on Williams’ play Orpheus Descending. Occasional monologs remind you of the story’s theatrical past. Brando starts the film with a near monolog as he answers an unseen judge’s voice. Joanne Woodward, playing a very wild young woman, has an exciting monolog about bar hopping and dancing to juke boxes.

Despite the almost entirely white cast, The Fugitive Kind deals indirectly with the racism one would expect in a small southern town at the beginning of the 1960s (and unfortunately, bubbling up again today). A store that served both black and white customers was burned down years before. And the sheriff makes it clear that to Snakeskin isn’t much better than a…you know the word.

I give The Fugitive Kind an A-.

According to Associate Film Curator Kate MacKay, they screened a 35mm preservation print. When a film is preserved, a brand new negative and print are created from whatever source is available–without the extensive repair work done on a full restoration. The print was certainly workable, but it had more than its share of scratches–probably left over from the source print used to create the preservation.

After the screening, those willing to pay $40 were treated to “a special Anna Magnani–inspired dinner” at Babette. My wife and I chose to skip the dinner and see the next movie.

Black Narcissus

I failed to give this tale of nuns in India its due in the past, giving it only a B when it turned up in my weekly newsletter. I described it as “Not much more than a well-done but silly melodrama.” My previous experience with the movie came from watching it alone on DVD. Theatrically, it’s a whole other experience.

Yes, it’s a melodrama, but so is CasablancaBlack Narcissus tells an intriguing story about a clash of cultures, contrasting the austere life of a convent with the exciting, sensually-rich world of the Himalayas. And it only gets truly silly in the last act, when one of the nuns goes completely bonkers.

Black Narcissus starts the PFA’s series Arrows of Desire: The Films of Powell & Pressburger. With their company named The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collaborated as producers, screenwriters, and directors on 17 films from 1942 through 1956. Their work includes
The Red Shoes
, Stairway to Heaven, and one of my all-time favorites, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

In Black Narcissus, the nuns live in an abandoned fortress high on a cliff–a castle originally built to hold a harem. They intend to bring healthcare and education to the peasants living in the valley below. Sabu plays a young and haughty local ruler. The handsome David Farrar plays the only white man in the film–helpful but cynical about religion. His presence produces problems with two nuns trying to hang onto their vows (Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron). A not-yet-famous Jean Simmons, in brown face, plays an exceptionally sexy but non-speaking native.

You’ve probably already guessed that Black Narcissus has a race problem. Made the same year that India won its independence, it portrays pleasant but immature natives. When Farrar’s character describes them as children, neither the nuns nor the filmmakers object. The Indians represent a simple and yet sexual innocence, without even trying–as the nuns do–to keep their desires in check.

Story wise, the film’s greatest strength comes from the uneasy relationship between the nuns and the secular man who tries to help them. But story was never Powell and Pressburger’s strength; visuals were. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff could work magic with Technicolor’s clumsy but beautiful three-strip process. His lighting and lens choices creates a semi-realistic world where riotous colors fight with repressed grays. Production designer Alfred Junge and costume designer Hein Heckroth helped considerably, as well.

Black Narcissus, set entirely in India, was actually shot in England. And yet you believe every frame (well, almost).

The PFA screened a mouth-wateringly beautiful imported 35mm print. I don’t know if it was IB dye transfer, but I wouldn’t be surprised. With deep colors and almost scratch free, it was the sort of print that reminds one how wonderful physical film projection can be–even while digital projection gets better and better.

Louise Brooks at the New Mission

I confess. I was wrong. I gave G.W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl a B+ in this week’s newsletter. I should have given it an A. Pabst’s second film starring Louise Brooks is a better film than I had recalled.

Or maybe the movie seemed better because the music was better. That can happen with a silent movie.

Saturday night, my wife and I attended a screening of Lost Girl at the New Mission‘s huge and beautiful Theater 1. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival hosted this presentation, part of the New Mission at 100 celebration. The Musical Art Quintet provided the live accompaniment.

Made in 1929 Germany, Diary of a Lost Girl portrays a society driven by sexual hypocrisy. Men use attractive women, worship them, then toss them to the curb. And only the women are punished for what the men do to them.

Brooks’ character is raped by one of his father’s employees and becomes pregnant. When she refuses to marry her rapist (who keeps his job), she’s sent to an exceptionally cruel reformatory. She escapes, and finds a home and a family of sorts in a bordello. She is, in every reasonable sense of the word, a good person. As the story moves into its final act, she must decide between respectability and what she knows is right.

The Musical Art Quintet provided musical accompaniment with a new score composed by bass player Sascha Jacobsen. Combining classical music and jazz, it carried the emotions and enhanced the occasional humor. My wife, Madeline Prager, who plays and teaches viola professionally, put it better than I could:

“The band nailed it. Interesting too, in that most silent film scores for ensembles utilize winds and large percussion instrumentation. This score, for string quintet, was versatile and so hauntingly effective.”

The New Mission projected Diary of a Lost Girl digitally, from a recent 2K restoration that, for my eyes, could have used a little more restoration.

Thomas Gladysz of the Louise Brooks Society had a table set up in the lobby, selling copies of the Margarete Böhme novel on which the film was based. He also sold Diary of a Lost Girl DVDs and Blu-rays containing his own audio commentary. We talked a bit about the art of recording these commentaries (he plans them out carefully), and he told me that Beggars of Life will be coming out next year.

All in all, it was a great way to end an otherwise horrible, election-centered week.

Denial at the Albany

Wednesday night, I went to the Albany Theater to see Denial. They were screening the drama in the big, downstairs theater.

I thought I was going to be the only person in the audience. But as the trailers were starting, I heard someone sit down a few rows behind me. I turned around, saw a man, waved to him, and he waved back. An audience.

In case you’re not familiar with the film, Denial dramatizes professional Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel lawsuit against historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). Irving (Timothy Spall at his most loathsome) sued her in England because of that country’s absurd libel laws, which begin with an assumption of guilt. Lipstadt had to prove in court not only that the Holocaust happened, but that Hitler ordered it, Irving is a bigot, and that he distorted history intentionally.

Lipstadt is American, which allowed the film to show the British legal system through the shocked eyes of an outsider. Her lawyers, played by Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty) and Tom Wilkenson, must explain a great deal to her. She wants to take the stand; they don’t want her to. They even refuse to let actual Holocaust survivors testify. They feel it would hurt their case.

Lipstadt and Wilkinson’s lawyer develop a testy but eventually warm friendship. I’m glad to report that the filmmakers felt no need to work a romance into the story.

Wednesday, the day after the election, was absolutely the worst day to see Denial (which may explain the empty theater). The film has neo-Nazis and a bigoted, bullying villain who refuses to accept clear reality. Spall’s performance kept reminding me of Donald Trump. One passing statement of his suggests Trump-like attitudes about women.

I’m a Rachel Weisz fan, but the British actress just couldn’t manage an American accent–or at least not the accent of a Jew raised in Queens. I could hear her consciously flattening long A sounds.

In recent years, I’ve noticed the use of black British actors playing historical African American roles–Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma, and Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving in the upcoming Loving. So I guess it’s no surprise that we get a British Jew (Weisz) playing an American Jew in Denial. But I sure wish they had found a British Jew who was better at accents.

I give the film a B.

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.

Doc Stories festival opens with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Quick note: Yes, I’ve been changing Bayflicks’ design a lot lately. Hopefully this one will last.

Growing up with famous parents can’t be easy–especially if your father left home for Elizabeth Taylor, and your relentlessly upbeat mother insisted that you follow in her footsteps. And then, decades later, a bunch of documentarians invade your privacy to record your troubled family.

The Doc Stories film festival opened Thursday night at the Castro with Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a look at the mother and daughter who starred (separately) in Singin’ in the Rain
and Star Wars.

Evening shows almost always start with an organ concert at the Castro. Appropriately, the organist last night stuck to songs Reynolds sang in her many movies–mostly tunes from Singin in the Rain. But the organist didn’t honor her famous daughter with John Williams’ famous Star Wars score.

San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan started the show proper, bringing up directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, as well as producer Todd Fisher. The family relationships may get a little complicated here. Todd Fisher is Debbie Reynolds’ son and Carrie Fisher’s kid brother. In addition to producing the movie, he’s one of the subjects, and the documentary shows us his home, his wife, and his wife’s pet chicken. Co-director Fisher Stevens isn’t related.

After brief comments, they screened Bright Lights.

Debbie Reynolds was an MGM contract player in the 1940s, and when this documentary was shot, she was still doing a one-woman live show. Her daughter, Carrie Fisher, struggled with mental issues and drug addiction, became an icon with Star Wars, and has a remarkable wit. Daughter Carrie worries that her mother is pushing herself too hard.

While largely sympathetic, this documentary doesn’t flinch from its portrait of a barely functional family. We learn about Fisher’s father issues, Reynolds’ obsession with looks and perceived optimism, and the strange circumstances of how Fisher lost her virginity (her mother wanted to supervise).

The movie is at times breezy, funny, touching, and sad. I give it a B.

Last night was probably the film’s only theatrical screening in the Bay Area. It will have theatrical runs in Los Angeles and New York later this year–presumably for Oscar eligibility. It will run on HBO in March.

After the film, Cowan, Bloom, Stevens, and Todd Fisher came on stage again. Debbie Reynolds appeared briefly via Skype. When Todd asked his mother what had happened since they finished shooting the movie, she responded “I’m still here.”

Carrie Fisher was not able to attend.

A Q&A followed the Skype discussion. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • There’s a battle going on about what she can do. In August, she had a stroke. But like Molly Brown, she’s unsinkable.
  • Debbie wanted to know her lines when the camera was on her. “I know what a documentary is, but what do I say?”
  • We filmed for about a year, year and a half. We had a monumental amount of footage. The editors deserve massive credit.
  • She [Reynolds] always knew where the camera was. The challenge was to get her off of that. She never looks terrible. She doesn’t wake up messy like you and me.
  • Todd Fisher: My grandmother wasn’t funny at all, and was very critical of my mother [Reynolds]. Grandfather had a sense of humor. But Carrie is like no other; she just sees the world very differently. That’s part of her disorder.

Doc Stories runs through Sunday.

Revisiting Rocky Horror at the UC Theatre

On Halloween night, I attempted to go back in time. Call it a time warp. I attended The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the fabled UC Theatre. I had a lot of fun, but much of the experience annoyed me.

When I wrote about the UC, I neglected to mention that it ran Rocky Horror every Saturday night at midnight for over 20 years. I saw it there at least three times; maybe four. The last time couldn’t have been later than 1982; parenthood gets in the way of a lot of things.

The UC went dark in 1999, and so did the Rocky Horror midnight shows. The Taube Family recently restored the UC and turned it into a non-profit music venue. This was my first time inside the UC after the restoration.

I loved the crowd. Many wore costumes–some from the movie, and some just to be weird (well, it was Halloween). 17 years after Rocky Horror last screened at the UC, the rituals still existed. Not just the costumes, but throwing confetti and toilet paper (throwing rice and toast was banned), dancing to the Time Warp, and talking back to the screen. But rituals change over decades; I only heard my voice shout out “No shit, Sherlock!”

Unfortunately, a jerk stationed only a few feet from me kept up a constant monologue of annoying commentary. He managed to be funny twice.

As I looked over the mostly young audience, I marveled at the longevity of this 40-year-old ritual. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. When I was their age, teenagers and young adults ardently loved the Marx Brothers. Perhaps there’s something special about impolite, anarchistic comedy from earlier generations.

But the new UC made me yearn for the old one. I didn’t spring for an expensive ticket, which meant I could sit only in the last two rows–or not sit at all. I could barely see anything on the stage. Luckily, the screen (which was really too small for the theater) was mounted high, and I could see most of the movie if I stretched my neck. But the live parts of the show–including a 45-minute pre-show that I probably would have enjoyed if I could have seen it–were all but invisible.

My view of the screen, before people with reserved tickets sat down in front of me.

As near as I can tell, they screened Rocky Horror off a DVD. Maybe it was a Blu-ray, but I doubt it. The excellent Meyer sound system was cranked up to eleven, which was fine for the songs but uncomfortable for the dialog. The UC used its lightshow capabilities to enhance the movie. For instance, when someone on screen took a flash photo, a light above the screen flashed, as well.

And what about the movie?

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is in no way, shape, or form a great movie. It’s cheaply shot. The songs, while catchy, are hardly great music–and I say that as someone who loves rock and roll. The characters are broad clichés and the plot is nearly non-existent.

But none of that hurts the experience one bit. It’s a crazy, funny, absurd celebration of everything sexual–including things that were still very shocking in the 1970s. Tim Curry holds the film together as the cross-dressing mad scientist, Dr. Frank N. Furter. Both macho and feminine, he wants what he wants and he usually gets it–including the virginity of the innocent couple who fall into his hands (including a very young Susan Sarandon).

It’s a silly movie that runs on the simplest rock and roll, moderately funny dialog, and raw sexual energy. But mostly, it runs on the enthusiasm of the audiences who watch it–young and once-young folk who know deep down that while they can’t really be it, they can always dream it.

At least in a theater, I give it a B+.