NYC Film Guide: March 2015 (Part 2)

more snow ūüėź

The snow has returned to NYC and I’m back with the second half of Things to See in March. Again, check out the Film Guide for a full list of old movies playing in NYC, but here are some more highlights…

The most important film screening this month is obviously “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990) at my beloved Nitehawk Cinema. It’s part of their “Lil’ Terrors” series, which also includes “Ghoulies” (1984) and¬†“Critters” (1986).

“Gremlins 2” was a long time coming. Its predecessor was released to enormous success, but director Joe Dante apparently had no interest in making a sequel. After six years of cajoling from Warner Bros, and a promise that he could do whatever crazy thing he wanted, he finally relented.

The end product certainly has the feeling of a film untouched by nervous studio executive hands. One doubts that the gremlins’ Busby Berkeley production number would have even been filmed if the studio had had any say. The unhinged madness is what makes this movie so special though.

That, and it features one of the best puppets ever built for the movies. I mean it. Any list of great puppets is incomplete without the Brain Gremlin.

The Brain Gremlin, "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990)
The Brain Gremlin, “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990)

On the surface he looks like any other of his kin, but both in the story and as a puppet, he has one major difference: his ability to speak intelligently. The next time you see this movie, and by all means go to the midnight screening at the Nitehawk, pay attention to¬†his lip articulation. This puppet’s mouth¬†achieves two things that lesser¬†puppets often struggle with: variety of movement and speed. That is, he can move his lips and mouth in a seemingly endless combination of ways, much like a human mouth, and he can do so very quickly, which is crucial to realizing an intelligent, verbose character.

The result is a puppet that delivers a believable performance. I would argue it does so even better than a modern CGI character could because it has the added benefit of being on set, of interacting with the environment and the actors. Its physical reality enhances its believability. That’s not to say all puppets outperform CGI characters, but this one is sophisticated enough to do so.

This month you can see another classic sequel of the early 90s, “Batman Returns” (1992), playing at IFC Center. What a different world were¬†the nineteen-nineties, when this was considered mainstream summer blockbuster superhero fare. It now seems more closely related to¬†the Batman TV show from the 60s than to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Director Tim Burton delivered the humor¬†and¬†campiness from the 60s but painted them with darker tones. The result is a Batman movie that captures the moodiness of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City, but is still a fun adventure instead of¬†a loud, depressing ordeal.

Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer, “Batman Returns” (1992)

My next three picks are all fun adventures too, so maybe¬†I’m biased.

Sundays mornings at Film Forum always have a touch of whimsy, thanks to Film Forum Jr., their ongoing series of kid-friendly screenings. But don’t expect insipid saccharine “kid movies.” This series is for budding film lovers, not easily traumatized crybabies or their overly protective parents. Last year I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) here. Sure, an Indiana Jones adventure seems appropriate for little kids, but this is the one where God melted those Nazis’ faces.

Formerly at Film Forum Jr.
Formerly at Film Forum Jr.

This month at Film Forum Jr., little cinephiles will be treated to two fine examples of screenplay construction. Foremost is a screening of Robert Zemeckis’s “Back to the Future” (1985). They may¬†be a little¬†weirded out by Lea Thompson accidentally trying to have sex with her son, but they’ll get over it. From its novel premise to classic characters and brisk pacing, this screenplay, by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, earned its place in many a Screenwriting 101 course.

“Chicken Run” (2000) is also playing at Film Forum Jr. this month. A more traditional kids movie in the sense that it’s animated, but one of the first things that happens is the (offscreen) beheading of a minor character. This isn’t notable for its gruesomeness; it provides a real sense of peril and a strong motivation for the main character. And a motivated main character, even if she’s a chicken, is the foundation of a strong screenplay.

Michael J. Fox, "Back to the Future" (1985)
Michael J. Fox, “Back to the Future” (1985)

And speaking of strongly motivated characters in peril, we trek to Queens¬†for one of my favorite Hitchcock films, “North by Northwest” (1959) at the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s screening in their series Required Viewing: Mad Men‘s Movie Influences, and the¬†lineage connecting¬†Cary Grant’s suave ad man to John Hamm’s is clear. They’re in the same profession at the same time, both models of coolness under pressure, both love drinking in the daytime, and they’re¬†both ensnared in webs of mistaken, or stolen, identity.

The surface differences between¬†the two men illustrate¬†the different tones of Mad Men and “North by Northwest.” Where Don Draper is severe and broody, Roger Thornhill is quippy and sarcastic. That’s because Hitchcock wasn’t making a serious drama. Although considered one of the greatest directors of all time, he never aimed to make “important” movies. He wanted to entertain. “North by Northwest” is funny, exciting, and sexy – everything you want from a night at the movies.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, "North by Northwest (1959)
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, “North by Northwest (1959)

I always leave “North by Northwest” wanting to take a cross-country train ride and meet a mysterious blond while sipping martinis in the dining car. Then¬†I remember that train rides are dull and the dining cars only serve food wrapped in plastic.

Ah, the magic of the movies.


NYC Film Guide: March 2015 (Part 1)

jack frozen shining
Current mood

When I first moved to New York from California, I looked forward to March as the official end of winter. This is a trap. As all seasoned northeasterners know, spring only technically begins in March. Cold weather will linger for a couple more months yet, and March is arguably the worst because by this point your patience for snow and ice has worn thin.

On the upside, it gives you a good excuse to shelter inside a movie theater. Below are some highlights of things to see in March, and check out my Film Guide for a full calendar of upcoming revival screenings.

First stop: BAM’s ongoing series “Black & White ‘Scope: American Cinema.” From their¬†website:

Behold some of the most stunningly photographed films of all time. In the late 1950s, sumptuous black and white met CinemaScope. The result was a cinematic era that married the dramatic chiaroscuro of monochrome with the expressive freedom of the widescreen frame. Lensed by some of film history‚Äôs most renowned cinematographers‚ÄĒJames Wong Howe, Joseph LaShelle, and Gordon Willis, among others‚ÄĒthese shimmering black-and-white beauties demand to be seen on the big screen. (

This series has several titles that jumped out at¬†me, but I’m most excited about “The Tarnished Angels” (1957). I’m a sucker for Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, and this one features Dorothy Malone who previously caught my attention¬†in Sirk’s “Written on the Wind” (1956), in a performance that must have influenced the early career of Ann-Margret.

Dorothy Malone in “The Tarnished Angels” (1957)

And if it’s melodrama you’re after, you’ll have to check out “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) at the Nitehawk, featuring Liz Taylor doing one of the best movie screams of all time. This is part of their March brunch series “Committed,” a selection of films set in mental institutions. This series also includes one of my favorite silent films, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). A creepy exploration of the dark corners of German Expressionism, it’s perhaps the closest anyone’s ever come to capturing a nightmare on film. Perfect brunch fare, right?

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920)

I love silent movies. They float between dreamy and nightmarish. Silent filmmakers¬†didn’t¬†bother trying to replicate the real world. What would be the point? They created their own worlds, they experimented, they pushed and expanded the boundaries of their craft. For about ten or fifteen years. Then they disappeared. Usurped forever by talkies.

My admiration for silent films¬†may be in tandem with my love of history. These “moving pictures” are so old they feel like relics. One of the oldest, “The Birth of a Nation,” celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year and is part of Film Forum’s D.W. Griffith retrospective. This is a film that serious lovers of cinema¬†need to see and appreciate. Griffith pioneered the use of close-ups, intercuts, and other techniques that are so fundamental to filmmaking that it’s hard to imagine that movies¬†ever existed without them.

A casual viewer will be oblivious to Griffith’s genius. I mean that not as an insult to casual moviegoers, but as a compliment to Griffith. His greatest achievement is that the¬†innovations in his films are no longer visible. He designed the grammar for a universal language – the language of film – and the generations that followed him have completely absorbed and internalized it.

Its technical aspects aside, “The Birth of a Nation” is a challenging film to watch. Griffith apparently had no idea he was making a racist manifesto, and spent the rest of his career apologizing for it, most famously with his three-hour epic “Intolerance” (1916), also in Film Forum’s retrospective. And his love stories have a gentle sweetness about them that make you wonder about the man who contained such multitudes.

D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean?” So said Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens” (1975), also on view at Film Forum this month. Here is a documentary about how living people can turn into relics. It unfolds as a fable about two women who retreat¬†inside their East Hampton mansion, reasoning that if they never see that the world has changed, they can imagine that it hasn’t.

“Grey Gardens” is a cautionary tale. Edith Beale, the elder, tells her daughter Edie, “You’re in the world. You’re not out of the world.” But it’s only true in the sense that they occupy space. They stopped living in time, and paid the price. Their mansion rots and falls apart, and their minds don’t fare any better. One watches this film with mouth agape as these two former aristocrats lounge¬†in a room full of garbage and pretend that cat food is liver p√Ęt√©.

Edie Beale
Edie Beale

This reminds me, I need to return to the world of time. There’s a lot more to see in March, so I’ll post an addendum soon.


Raging Bull

raging bull
Midnight shows are my favorite. For one thing, the films selected for this coveted time slot often cater to us film geeks. For another, the people who show up to watch movies in the middle of the night always make for an entertaining crowd.

I recently attended¬†a midnight screening of “Raging Bull” (1980) at the magnificent Nighthawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was the first to arrive and waited patiently for the¬†parade of those awkward, lumpy film snobs I love so much. I assumed it would be them coming, because who else would go¬†see Scorsese at midnight.

I think all “serious” lovers of cinema¬†have a special place in their hearts for Martin Scorsese. For me, it’s because his films pulse with intensity and energy. In “Raging Bull” in particular, his actors explode and flip tables,¬†and his screen is spattered with blood and sweat. I’ll take that over Antonioni’s ruminations on nothingness¬†or Bergman’s quiet, brooding empty rooms. I understand that this is heresy, but here I must break from my film school brethren. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the auteurs who shaped modern cinema¬†— I do! — it’s just that I can’t honestly say I enjoy sitting through many of their films. I dunno. I like when things happen in a movie. That’s just my preference.

raging bullI’m sure a lively debate could have been held on the subject that night at the Nitehawk. The auditorium was filled with the collective knowledge of countless hours of moviegoing experience, and some debates had already begun in the lobby queue.

Most of the nerds in attendance were in excited, chatty packs, but in the back row I was flanked by a few stragglers. To my left was the only other person, aside from myself, who had come alone. He was the tallest and fairest of all the attendees. I fell in love with him immediately. To my right was a¬†poor dope who’d come with his decidedly un-geeky girlfriend. Clearly a Nitehawk novice, she placed her bag on the floor, nearly killing our waiter¬†when he twice tripped over it. As the lights when down, I sank into my seat, sipping my whiskey, already full of feelings.

We hadn’t reached the midpoint of the first act before it became apparent that the girlfriend on the right had grown bored. She kept trying to chat with her date, but he would only shush her savagely. His rebukes didn’t stop her though. She had a lot to say. After the movie, he hustled her away, probably hoping to avoid any more peevish glares. I wondered if he was reevaluating¬†his relationship, and whether they would have an awkward brunch the next morning. Can a lover of cinema ever get serious with a person who can’t sit through “Raging Bull”?

I pondered this question while the credits rolled, and stole some glances at the elven boy on my left. He did two things after the movie that sealed his place in my heart. First, he stayed seated through the credits. Second, he produced a flip phone from his pocket. A flip phone! My spirited brain extrapolated his whole persona. An entrenched Luddite. Not on Facebook. Writes letters on paper. (Swoon.)

Then my spine stiffened. Suppose he adores Ingmar Bergman? He’s just the type who would. What if “L’Avventura” is his favorite film? I sat through that “movie” (using the term is a stretch) once, last summer, and I wouldn’t endure the experience again. He’d¬†think I’m a complete dunce, of course, and I’d have to allow him that, or I couldn’t say the same thing about that girl who was bored by Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta. (And I don’t want to not say that.)

The last credit rolled. The boy stood up, stretched, and ambled out of the auditorium. Just as well. It’d never have worked between us. I sighed and searched my glass for a last drop of whiskey.

Next midnight I’ll have to see something more lowbrow. But not too low…

A Guide for Cinephiles in New York City

I have compiled a calendar of all the revival screenings and retrospectives I could find in New York. But let me tell you why.

There exist certain movie theaters that still try to give you a real “moviegoing experience.” They know all the things that bug you about the big multiplexes and they avoid those pitfalls. They don’t show commercials for soda pop or any of a number of godawful cop dramas on D-list cable networks. Their concessions include baked goods and coffee that you’re happy to pay money for, rather than having to smuggle in your own. These cinemas are staffed not by surly high schoolers but by surly film¬†students. (This I consider an upgrade.) But the best thing of all is that these theaters from time to time exhibit classic films, cult favorites, and obscure treasures of the cinema.

IMG_5606It’s at these revival screenings and retrospectives where you’ll find me. Midnight shows are often my favorites. I’m always excited to see what kinds of weirdos will show up. A while back, I went to a midnight screening of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996) at the Sunshine Cinema on Houston. Just who¬†exactly would come out at midnight to see this, I wondered. Well, they were as gangly and oafish¬†a bunch of nerds as you’d ever imagine. They were my people. Now, I’d seen this film countless times on VHS, but to see it on the big screen again, playing to a house full of¬†its dearest fans, transformed the experience. We created a weird sort of energy in the theater that took us all back in time. Jokes I’ve heard fifty times before made me laugh again. I’m sure most of the people in that auditorium had seen the movie before too, probably dozens of times each. But we’d never seen it together.

And finding your weird compatriots is only one of the joys of revival screenings. But I guess I don’t need to convince you of all that. You’re here for the calendar.

Well, recently I grew¬†concerned that I was¬†missing out on too many screenings on account of finding out about them too late. I did a quick internet search to see if anyone had compiled a list of revivals¬†in New York, but my not-too-thorough search yielded no results. Rather than try harder to find one, I just made my own, and I’ve been using this calendar to guide myself through the vast array of cinematic offerings in this city ever since. I’ve found it useful, vital even, so I¬†figured I’d share it with whoever might feel the same way.

Below are the theaters that I’ve included¬†in my calendar. Please consult their websites for more info about the films and to confirm showtimes. You’ll want to sign up for their newsletters too.

Enjoy! Maybe I’ll see you at one of these shows.

Your pal,


Film Forum

Film Society of Lincoln Center

IFC Center

Museum of the Moving Image

Nitehawk Cinema

Sunshine Cinema