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Behind Every Great Man: Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread is a tale told by a craftsman with technical precision and keen artistry about a craftsman who approaches his own work — indeed his whole life — with the same technical precision and keen artistry. It is in many ways the film that Paul Thomas Anderson has been working toward his entire career — perfectly contained, carefully observed, not an ounce of fat on it — anchored by a Daniel Day-Lewis performance that makes Thread a worthy swan song, if indeed this is the last we are to see of Day-Lewis. (If he retreats to the artisanal life of a cobbler, we needn’t worry that Thread will be regarded as his Welcome to Mooseport.)

Despite their having garnered wider acclaim, I have found past PTA efforts such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia to be ungainly affairs in need of tighter editorial control, populated by characters for whom I feel little affinity or sympathy. It’s not that I couldn’t see a great artist in the making; it’s that, with all that talent evident on the screen, I couldn’t fathom how he hadn’t already arrived at that place. It’s not that I have to like every character in a story; it’s that I shouldn’t have to work so hard to find even one to cheer for. (Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Magnolia, if you’re scoring at home.)

And it’s not that I held a grudge against Anderson — on the contrary, once I heard him talk about his influences and his own work in interviews, I was smitten — but that I wanted to like his films as much as I like him. I have been cheering for him all this time, even as I have hated his films, until Inherent Vice.1 I can’t think of any other filmmaker on whom I’ve waited so patiently.

And by rights, I shouldn’t like fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock as much as I do. But Anderson allows such subtle glimpses of his humanity to emerge that one is won over to him by both empathy and sympathy. We are allowed to see him as much the captive prisoner of his own genius as he is the warden who supervises its execution, as it were.

Not all men demand as much or hold themselves and others to such exacting standards in all aspects as Reynolds does — and his specificity and hypersensitivity are at times played to great comic effect — but we are all set in our ways, particularly after a certain age or a certain length of time spent alone or apart. In which case the great central conflict of a burgeoning relationship may not be that a significant other wants to change us so much as that they want to change anything at all.

But Reynolds is nothing if not defined by the women in his life — his late mother, who inspired him; his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who has never married and has made facilitating Reynolds’ genius and furthering his reputation her life’s work; and his new muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who is sweetly submissive and a fast learner — but to crack his veneer they must control him in small ways and be useful to him in big ways in order to fuel his ego and keep his delicate genius from pushing him over the edge. It is a balancing act that Reynolds believes he is performing when in fact it is Cyril and Alma manning the levers all along.

Reynolds cares more about his dresses than he does about the women for whom he designs them — hilariously so — and because Alma understands this and genuinely, unbelievably loves him, she finds her opening to be seen by him as more than just his ideal mannequin. Alma aims to be useful in the ways Reynolds needs her to be but also in the ways she wants to be useful to him, in order to be loved by him. The latter she must impose upon him (first by small degrees, then more insistently), just as he imposes the former on her.

More critical perhaps than the campaign she wages for Reynolds’ heart is Alma’s impressing upon Cyril that she is not the shrinking violet or disposable paper doll that serial monogamist Reynolds is accustomed to having in his life. Cyril is at first every bit as dismissive of Alma as she was of Alma’s predecessor (whom she literally dismissed) … until she isn’t. And that moment of recognition — when Cyril realizes that the admirably duplicitous Alma is an ally in her mission to protect Reynolds and preserve the House of Woodcock instead of a distraction and an enemy within — is rather marvelous.

At work behind all of this, though, is Anderson’s remarkable attention to detail. He depicts this world in all its simple elegance, distilling these characters to their essence, and trims away all the excess to create a perfectly tailored, exquisitely bespoke film that presents him at the peak of his prowess. Others may argue that There Will Be Blood is his and Day-Lewis’ showy, sprawling masterpiece, but Phantom Thread, with its quiet grace, its unnerving tension, its spareness and its splendor, is as close to a perfect creation as he has yet produced. And at last Anderson takes his place among the ranks of filmmakers whose upcoming projects I eagerly anticipate instead of await with trepidation.
1 This may be in part because of PTA’s de facto christening as “the Altman of his generation” and his own stated admiration for Altman’s oeuvre. I, on the other hand, fucking loathe Robert Altman.
It’s noteworthy, though, that
Phantom Thread shares a certain period aesthetic and thematic spirit with Gosford Park, one of the few Altman films I like. The scenes of the seamstresses climbing the stairs of the Woodcock manse to begin their work day in service of Reynolds’ vision are evocative of the upstairs/downstairs world of Gosford Park.


Written by Shepcat

January 25, 2018 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Movies

The Insignificant Detail #10

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One of the joys of my trip home this past Christmas was watching North by Northwest with my dad, who kept up a running commentary of the make and model year of virtually every car that appeared on-screen (with the exception of “Laura’s Mercedes”). He was positively Rain Man–like.

Then a couple of days later we were out shopping, and I happened to mention that, though I make a lot of daily purchases with my credit card, I still feel a sense of security having some cash on hand at all times. “Like Cary Grant in the movie the other night?” Dad said. “How he never ran out of cash?”

I’ve seen all or part of North by Northwest at least 70 times (conservative estimate), but until just then I’d never really considered how Roger O. Thornhill’s inexhaustible cash on hand qualifies as an Insignificant Detail, not unlike bullets in a John Woo gunfight.

Remember: Thornhill is abducted in the first four minutes of the film1 and spends the next four days either in the custody of or on the run from or toward his captors. So in 1959, decades before the advent of the automated teller machine, when would he have the time to stand in line at a bank (during regular daytime business hours, no less, while also being widely publicized as a fugitive from justice) to make a withdrawal?

With that in mind, here is a running account of every time Thornhill greases a palm — on camera and off — over the course of the film’s 136-minute running time:


  • 0:02:32 Thornhill buys a newspaper in the lobby of his office building with change he removes from the side pocket of his suit jacket.
  • 0:04:16 He pays the cab driver to return his secretary, Maggie (Doreen Lang), to the office.


  • 0:26:11 Thornhill presumably pays the Glen Cove police the $2 drunk-and-disorderly fine.
  • 0:26:49 He and Mother (Jessie Royce Landis) arrive at the Plaza Hotel in a cab.
  • 0:28:06 He bribes Mother, first with $10, then with $50, to get George Kaplan’s room key at the Plaza. After berating him, she takes the $50.
  • 0:30:59 He tips the hotel valet for the return of George Kaplan’s dry-cleaned suit.
  • 0:34:17 Abandoning Mother, he escapes the Plaza in a cab, which he takes to the United Nations.
  • 0:38:24 He escapes the U.N. in another cab, which we see him sprinting toward in the overhead matte-painting shot. He presumably takes this cab to Grand Central Station.
    However, quite a bit of time must elapse in the interlude because the next scene shows the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) and his staff discussing the matter in Washington, D.C., where the fugitive Thornhill’s picture appears in the afternoon paper. This scene takes place the same day, because the newspaper article references his appearance in Glen Cove police court “earlier today.”
  • 0:41:43 At Grand Central Station, we first see Thornhill on a pay phone, talking to Mother. He references having called the Plaza Hotel and learned that Kaplan checked out en route to the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago. So that’s two phone calls, apparently made with pocket change.
  • 0:51:59 Aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, he hastily tosses some bills on the table as he and Eve (Eva Marie Saint) exit the dining car when the train makes an unscheduled stop.


  • 1:02:31 The red cap Thornhill “assaulted” at Chicago’s Union Station appears to count out at least four bills that he was paid in exchange for his uniform.
  • 1:06:11 Thornhill presumably pays cash for his Greyhound bus ticket to Prairie Stop, Highway 41.
  • 1:24:21 He would pay and tip the valet at the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago after he sends his pesticide-dusted suit down to be sponged and pressed.
  • 1:25:23 He takes a cab from the Ambassador to the auction house at 1212 North Michigan Avenue.


  • 1:40:40 Thornhill views Mount Rushmore through a coin-operated viewfinder. Pocket change.
  • 1:42:37 Just before the sitdown with Vandamm (James Mason), he buys a cup of coffee in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Pocket change.
  • 1:55:13 Finally, Thornhill takes a cab from the hospital in Rapid City to Vandamm’s house behind Mount Rushmore, a trip of at least 20 miles.

By my count, that’s 17 times in four days that Thornhill dips into the pocket at the end of the rainbow and pulls out cash. Not for nothing is his gray suit widely regarded as the greatest suit in film history.
1 Excluding credit sequence. All subsequent timestamps refer to the full DVD runtime.

Written by Shepcat

January 9, 2018 at 9:52 pm

My Favorite Things — #3 in a Series

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Writer-director Gary Ross’ Pleasantville is a practically perfect movie. God, I love every frame of it. I had almost forgotten how much.

Before these latest viewings, it had been several years since I last watched it. Which is astonishing even to me, given the title of this continuing series. (I had begun and abandoned another version of this piece some years ago.) But now, some 19 years and change since the film’s release, it is arguably more relevant than ever. We find ourselves at a juncture in history during which a nostalgia not unlike that which the film both celebrates and satirizes is being wielded against us for more insidious aims.

In the abstract, in its most charitably innocuous interpretation, the phrase “Make America Great Again” might conjure up in our collective imagination that same midcentury, postwar America that gave us such gentle domestic comedies as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — the amalgamation of which forms the basis of Pleasantville’s TV series–within–the movie conceit — as the cultural yardsticks against which American families measured their happiness and prosperity.

But there was a dark side to that happiness and prosperity, because midcentury, postwar America was also Cold War America. And Jim Crow America. And it was “postwar” for only about five years before we became embroiled in the Korean conflict, with Vietnam faintly visible on the horizon. Our innocence, illusory though it was, was soon to be trampled amid the turmoil and unrest of the 1960s.

To geeky, good-natured ’90s teenager David (Tobey Maguire), though, the Parkers of TV’s Pleasantville — father George, mother Betty, siblings Bud and Mary Sue — represent a more personal form of escapism, the perfect nuclear family as counterpoint to the broken home he shares with his divorced mother (Jane Kaczmarek), vulnerable and looking for love, and his cooler-than-thou sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), rapacious and primed for sex.

The film is sometimes criticized for being too on-the-nose, but the milieu lends itself so readily to metaphor that Ross would just as likely be criticized for any low-hanging fruit he left unpicked. (In this regard, Ross’ script is every bit as watertight as, if not somewhat inspired by, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original Back to the Future screenplay.) Yes, the opening is a little slow and the contrivance that sets the plot in motion is a little clunky, but these criticisms are abated by the perfect casting of Don Knotts as the mysterious TV repairman whose timely intervention results in David and Jennifer’s being transported through time, space and cathode-ray tubes into the bodies of Bud and Mary Sue Parker.

The time-travel trope of doing one small thing that totally alters the course of history is turned on its ear here when sex-positive Jennifer introduces original sin to this monochromatic Eden and that life-changing, mind-altering knowledge literally inflames the town and pinballs through its once-innocent population like dopamine run amok, opening their eyes to rapturous art, racy literature, jazz and rock and roll, their own unrealized potential, and the thrilling, dangerous, unknown world just beyond the horizon. Had circumstance dropped David alone into this perfect world, one imagines that he would employ his encyclopedic knowledge of the TV show as would an omniscient god, enforcing predestination to ensure that all the actors hit their marks and the daily life of Pleasantville proceeded according to its intelligent design, as originally televised and repeated ad infinitum in syndication. But Jennifer fell with him, and in the guise of Mary Sue brought free will to the citizens of Pleasantville.

As Big Bob, the mayor of Pleasantville, the late J.T. Walsh exudes glad-handing menace from the moment he first appears in the doorway of the barber shop, in the first of many low-angle shots in which Ross frames him. While his introduction comes after Pleasantville has experienced its first post-Jennifer aftershocks, there is an uneasy reverence toward Bob among the ordinarily cheerful townsfolk that implies he has always been a looming presence, a disingenuous strongman, a benevolent despot who gives but also takes away, who might turn on them at any moment.

Of course, through the lens of 2017 it’s all too easy to view Big Bob as a Trumpian reactionary who throws his weight around, stirring up outrage among “all true citizens,” then claiming to restore order by enacting restrictive ordinances aimed at those whose otherness has suddenly upset the normal life of the town, “to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.” Never mind that they’re the same people he’s lived and worked alongside all his life, friends and neighbors who likely elected him in the first place; he is enraged by their departure from the norm and their perceived rebellion against his magnanimity and authority.

Of all the film’s various relationships, my favorite is the one between Maguire’s Bud and Joan Allen’s Betty, at once maternal and conspiratorial. Because while Jennifer’s intercession unmoors all of Pleasantville from its axis, it is Betty, of all the characters in the film, whom David was sent to set free. It takes the complete undoing of his ideal world to show David that he also has the power to change it for the better, and his empathy for Betty’s circumstance ultimately leads him to facilitate the unraveling of the nuclear family he idolizes, which in turn gives him a deeper, more compassionate understanding of his own mother back home in the untelevised present.

In all the family sitcoms of the 1950s, the father goes to work, the kids go to school, and the mother stays at home to keep the whole operation running smoothly and looking picture perfect. So the father has co-workers, and the kids have classmates — mirrors they can hold themselves up to — but Ross cannily observes that the mother, left alone for hours at a time, is the one most likely to have an interior life, to while away the days contemplating her needs and desires and what her life might have been but for the one defining choice she made. So while George Parker (William H. Macy) is steadfast and true, if a bit daft and guileless, cut from the same gray flannel as Jim Anderson, Ward Cleaver and Ozzie Nelson, one can easily imagine Betty Parker (or Margaret Anderson or June Cleaver or Harriet Nelson) as a melancholy Douglas Sirk heroine, presenting a cheerful façade, resigned to her rote, routine roles as wife and mother even as she imagines a different, vibrant, more complex and intoxicating life.

We feel this undercurrent the first time Betty locks eyes with Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), Bud’s artistically inclined boss at the soda shop. There is a history in their shared gaze. We understand instantly that Bill is Betty’s road not taken. And her inevitability.

Nostalgia, whether wistful or moralistic, might have us believe that these couplings and uncouplings, these little disobediences and larger acts of rebellion, this submission to and eventual embrace of chaos represent a tipping point at which our shared values began to erode and the fallout became irreversible.

But Ross reminds us that the world was never really that black-and-white, or even gray, to begin with. It has always been vivid and chaotic. The volume and variety of our values didn’t end at the few we shared in common and presented to the world. And a challenge to the status quo by one was an invitation to any of us to challenge the status quo, to turn the world upside down and remake it in our own image, painting with all the colors in our palette.

Pleasantville does fill me with nostalgia, but for Pleasantville itself. It is so many things at once — a time-travel story, a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age story, a “woman’s picture,” a social satire, a race allegory, a broad comedy — that it should by rights be a tonal train wreck. But Ross somehow balances all these elements and blends them seamlessly into a thoughtful, funny, warm-hearted picture that, like Pleasantville itself, is almost too good to be true.
Honorable Mentions:

  • The unintended supernatural effect of Joan Allen pleasuring herself in the bathtub for the first time.
  • Macy’s various readings of the line “Where’s my dinner?” each one funnier than the one before it.
  • The remarkable Walsh, who left us entirely too soon, uttering the line “Well, we’re safe for now. Thank goodness we’re in a bowling alley,” then having his Patton moment in front of the overhead projection of the scorecards.
  • The destruction of Bill Johnson’s soda shop, in its own way as startling and upsetting to watch as the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
  • The courtroom scene and its echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, with the “coloreds” sitting in the balcony.
  • The look on Witherspoon’s face when she hears that, under the town’s new Code of Conduct, “no bed frame or mattress may be sold measuring more than 38 inches wide.”
  • The incredible Don Knotts: While he once, in the pages of Esquire, referred to Deputy Barney Fife as his greatest achievement, his performance here as the ubiquitous TV repairman is the perfect culmination of his career, never more so than when he’s losing his shit over the havoc David and Jennifer have wrought on a world that he, Knotts, helped build.

Written by Shepcat

December 13, 2017 at 4:19 pm

How Would Lubitsch Do It?: A Parable

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During Hollywood’s golden age, between 1930 and 1968, filmmakers were governed by the Motion Picture Production Code, often referred to as the Hays code, which set out strict moral guidelines dictating what was acceptable and unacceptable content for American audiences, with a particular emphasis on sex.

The best filmmakers, not the least of whom was my idol Billy Wilder, were masters at subverting the code. By working within the restrictions imposed upon them, working around what they were not able to show or tell, they became better, more entertaining storytellers, in part because they made their audiences put 2 and 2 together, gave them credit for their own intelligence, and made them complicit in the telling of the story. Throughout his career, Mr. Wilder credited his own mentor, director Ernst Lubitsch, as the master of this technique, and challenged himself with a sign hung in his office that asked, simply, “How would Lubitsch do it?”

To illustrate “the Lubitsch touch,” Mr. Wilder pointed to the opening sequence in Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931): There’s a king, a queen and a lieutenant, and you must dramatize, without being explicit, a situation in which the queen has an affair with the lieutenant, and the king finds out.

Open on the bedroom of the king and queen. They are dressing in the morning, and it’s a scene of affectionate domestic bliss.

Now the king leaves the bedroom. As he exits, we see the lieutenant standing guard outside the door in full dress uniform with his belt and sword. He clicks his heels in salute and watches as the king slowly descends the long staircase and eventually disappears into the palace.

We cut back to the lieutenant, who, assured that the king is now gone, enters the royal bedroom.

We cut back to the king as he descends the staircase, and halfway down he realizes he isn’t wearing his own belt and sword. He turns and ascends the staircase, returning to the bedroom. “Now we have a situation,” Mr. Wilder says.

The king enters. The door closes. We are never inside the room. The door opens. The king exits with the belt and sword. Happily he descends the staircase again, but as he tries to put on the belt, it doesn’t fit. It’s too small. It’s not his belt.

The king returns again to the royal bedroom, where he finds the lieutenant under the bed.

And scene.

Faced with a codified list of restrictions, Lubitsch has told us everything we need to know without explicitly showing us the lieutenant screwing the queen.

Early Saturday morning, like thieves in the dead of night, the Senate GOP pushed through their version of a tax code that will cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, explode the national debt by $1 trillion, and benefit the wealthiest citizens in this country while ultimately raising taxes on the middle class it purports to bolster.

Since the Reagan administration, we’ve been fed the lie that, if we decrease regulation, cut the corporate tax rate, and approve a tax code that further benefits the wealthiest Americans, in effect making them all wealthier, they will then reinvest that wealth in job creation and production that will bolster the U.S. economy and trickle that wealth down to the American people at large.

And yet, since the 1980s, all that policy has achieved is to widen the inequality gap among Americans, with CEO pay growing exponentially as American wages have remained stagnant, fewer American families controlling and enjoying the majority of wealth, and corporations increasing their bottom lines by hiding profits offshore and outsourcing jobs overseas, where they can pay foreign employees considerably less than they would pay American workers to do the same work.

The obvious benefit of paying American workers is that we would turn around and put that money back into the American economy, creating more growth, but the gun to the American electorate’s head is the notion that, unless we give the corporations and the wealthy what they want — more wealth up front — they can’t (read: won’t) give us the jobs and income we need to contribute to the American economy.

In point of fact, American corporations are more beholden to the shareholders they already have than to any notion that they might create new shareholders, who are by now so far behind the richest shareholders in this country that they could never catch up. So corporations will continue to outsource jobs to bolster the bottom line for those shareholders, in much the same way as the GOP will continue to court their political donations by creating for them the conditions most favorable to their continued growth and increasingly obscene wealth, which — as the last four decades of American life has shown us — is never going to trickle down to the American public at large.

In the middle of the last century, the average tax rate for the wealthiest 1 percent of American households hovered between 40 and 44 percent while corporations were taxed at a rate between 52 and 54 percent, which not only benefited all Americans and allowed us to rebuild the country after the Great Depression but also allowed us to help rebuild Europe after the Second World War under the Marshall Plan.

And while those rates were a restriction of sorts on the wealthiest Americans and American corporations, it didn’t prevent them from investing in American workers and spearheading a quarter century of growth and innovation during which American homeownership rose significantly as the rise of suburbs corresponded to the growth of American cities; we funded public education and the arts; college enrollment and graduation rates rose steadily as tuition remained affordable; we developed safer, more efficient automobiles; we built an interstate highway system that stitched the entire country together; we advocated for cleaner, safer food, air and water; we made life-saving advances in medicine and medical technologies; we developed faster, more efficient computers that increased production and reinvented the American workplace; and we put satellites into orbit and man on the moon.

Despite those restrictions on the wealthiest among us, somehow we accomplished all this without explicitly screwing American citizens.

And scene.

Written by Shepcat

December 3, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Posted in Life, Movies, Politics, The Nation

Tagged with

The Long and Short of It

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On the April 7 episode of her podcast With Friends Like These, journalist Ana Marie Cox and her guest, author and political commentator Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?), briefly digressed in their conversation to talk about Donald Trump’s sartorial habit of wearing his ties so long that he has to Scotch-tape the narrow end that isn’t long enough to go through the loop in back.1

That’s the how of the Scotch tape, but it doesn’t address the why of Trump wearing his ties so long.

Naturally, I point to writer-director David Mamet’s 2000 comedy State and Main, in which drunken town doctor and bow-tie aficionado Doc Wilson (Michael Higgins) promotes the following thesis to dissuade someone from taking his advice:

It’s the truth that you should never trust anybody wears a bow tie. Cravat’s s’posed to point down to accentuate the genitals. Why’d you wanna trust somebody’s tie points out to accentuate his ears?

I mean, think about it: This is a man who attempts to dominate everyone he meets with a weird, jerky alpha-male handshake that puts his counterpart off balance and yanks him toward Trump, in whose mind this practice — what? makes him appear stronger than the other guy? This flabby asshole who eats KFC on his private jet and doesn’t get any exercise aside from walking to and from his golf cart after hitting a 7-iron shot on the fairway? He’s precisely the kind of asshole who would want your eyes drawn toward his junk.

So yeah: Good luck keeping that thought out of your head next time you look at Trump’s necktie. Go with God.
1 It’s also notable that the ties Trump wears in all likelihood come from his own eponymous menswear line. I mean, they’re certainly not bespoke, but it’s his name on the back of each one. So why does this couturier, this clothes horse, this man of fashion not have his own personal neckties customized with the loop stitched a few inches higher to accommodate his preference for unwieldy length?

Written by Shepcat

April 12, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Movies, Politics

Tagged with

Jon Polito 1950-2016

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Allow me to share with you again one of my top three all-time L.A. memories:

On Tuesday, January 6, 1998, I attended the New Beverly Cinema’s 9:25 p.m. screening of Miller’s Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen’s essential 1990 entry in the gangster genre.

I had scouted out my closest-as-possible-to-dead-center seat and was slumped down, settling in, waiting for the movie to start. And who should walk in and sit down in the next row, directly in front of me? Jon Polito, who plays Johnny Caspar, the Italian mob boss and foil to Irish mobsters Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in the movie I am there to see.

By the standards of the New Beverly — which at that time and for some time afterward was rundown and a little seedy, with squeaky, rattily upholstered seats and dim lighting that hid any number of other flaws and scars — Polito was impossibly elegant. He wore pressed trousers and a blazer with an open-collar shirt and looked as though he may have come over from a party, although it was such a comfortable look on him that — who knows? — probably he was just that casually elegant in everyday life.

I was a fan, not just of his work with the Coens but also his role as Det. Steve Crosetti on Homicide. And yet I couldn’t work up the nerve to say anything to him — even though he was right there. But a braver audience member approached to say hello and give voice to the question burning in all our minds: “What are you doing here?”

Polito replied that hadn’t seen the movie in years and noticed it was playing at the New Beverly, so he came down to check it out. Just that simple.

And so it was that I, who love character actors, had my most meta experience in a lifetime at the movies, sitting behind one of the best, who laughed loudest at some of his own lines, as if he had forgotten what a great part the Coens had written for him.

We lost Jon Polito yesterday. And thus endeth our lesson in — hell, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word — ethics.


Written by Shepcat

September 2, 2016 at 10:59 am

(Blurry) Pictures at an Exhibition

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Date: Sunday, October 18, 2015
Time: 5:20 p.m. screening
Film: Crimson Peak in 2D
Location: Theater 11, AMC Kent Station, Kent, WA

I would imagine that the average moviegoer either doesn’t notice or simply doesn’t complain as often as they should when the movie they have paid to see on the big screen is less vivid than what they’d see at home on their own TV.

I am not the average moviegoer. I used to be in pictures, as they say, and this technological trend toward projection compromised by the “advancements” made in 3D exhibition troubles me on behalf of both the audience, who pays its hard-earned money for a cinematic experience they can’t get at home, and the artists, who spend thousands of hours poring over every aspect of their films to make that experience meaningful.

Some evenings you gamble and are pleasantly surprised. Other evenings you just know, the moment you sit down, that the projection is going to be less than stellar.

This particular evening fell into the latter category. We could tell during the trailers that the Sony 4K projection was too dim by half, and sure enough, when I looked over my shoulder at the projection booth, I saw two projected images on the glass, one stacked atop the other. Meaning that the 2D movie we paid to see was being projected on a 3D-equipped system that had not had — or, more likely, could not have — its polarization deactivated for the advertised 2D screening.

This was all too evident during an early master shot in Crimson Peak, a daytime exterior of Victorian-era Buffalo, New York. Simply stated, a scene shot in broad daylight should be vivid with detail, but when even a scene such as this looks dingy and gray, the problem lies in the projection, and it’s only going to get worse when the action moves indoors.1

Just because Crimson Peak is a gothic romance in the Hammer Films tradition doesn’t mean everything in it is meant to be dark. Guillermo Del Toro is a craftsman who has thoughtfully and meticulously layered exquisite details into this film. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen lighted every shot in the film very specifically so that certain of those details stand out and others recede at the right moments, so that the faces of the actors can be seen, so that the work of production designers and set dressers and costumers and FX artists is spotlighted, as it were, for optimal effect from one moment to the next. All of that is lost in a badly projected screening.

We left the screening about 10 minutes into the picture, and our money was courteously refunded to us by the friendly, if not apparently knowledgeable, AMC theater staff.2 In point of fact, AMC lost money on us twice Sunday, as we had originally intended to take in a double feature of Crimson Peak and Ridley Scott’s The Martian. However, our experience with the former discouraged us from sticking around for the latter.

Instead we drove across town for a 7:40 p.m. screening of Crimson Peak at the Century Federal Way — a Cinemark theater that operates Barco projection systems and which has never failed me from a projection standpoint. The difference was as apparent as dusk versus day or, in this instance, the difference between a young girl in a dimly lit room being accosted by an indistinct black mass and that same young girl in a candlelit room being accosted by an enrobed black figure with defined facial features and clearly articulated fingers. (Incidentally, the Cinemark promo that now runs before the feature presentation literally ends with the phrase, “Illumination by Barco,” indicating that they know they are not in the business of merely projecting a moving image.)

Because of my previous experiences — now reinforced by this most recent experience — my modus operandi has long been to avoid AMC and Regal Cinemas theaters (both of which employ Sony 4K systems) until a film I want to see has been in release for at least three weeks. By that point, a film has typically been pushed out of the larger screening rooms by incoming new releases and moved “down the hall,” as it were, into a screening room more likely to have dedicated 2D projection uncomplicated by 3D polarization.

I advise everyone whose options are necessarily limited by the predominance of one of these two theater chains in their town to follow this rule of thumb. And if a Cinemark theater, with its superior Barco projection system, is within reasonable driving distance, I highly recommend going out of one’s way to patronize it, particularly on the opening weekend of a new release, if one is so inclined.

I can appreciate the business model that dictates how exhibitors must operate in this new digital world. It’s just that sometimes I wish they seemed to appreciate more the business model that dictates our choices as moviegoers.
UPDATE, 10/19/15: Not 40 minutes after I tweeted my post to the three theater chains I name-check above, I received a nice tweet from AMC Guest Services (@AMCHelps) informing me that they’d follow up with the Kent theater about their filters and settings.

I sent a follow-up tweet thanking AMC and asking whether Sony has provided theaters with a workaround for retracting the polarizers on their 4K projectors. (When I last investigated this issue, Sony projectors had polarizers that were locked in place and required Sony’s intervention to remove or retract. Whether newer models are more accessible and theater staff–friendly is kind of irrelevant if exhibitors aren’t required to upgrade their equipment every few years.) AMC responded that they’d try to find out. I don’t honestly anticipate that AMC would throw a business partner under the bus by supplying that intel to some random schmuck with a blog and a Twitter account, but I’ll keep you apprised just the same.
UPDATE, 10/21/15: @AMCHelps followed up to tell me that Sony has provided no workaround that they’re aware of, but “this issue is definitely on the radar of our sight and sound teams.” As well it should be.

Ultimately, I have a bigger beef with Sony here than I do with the theater chains, because it’s Sony that developed and mass-manufactured a projector system on which only its representatives can make adjustments and corrections.

This forces Sony-equipped theater chains and their individual theater management teams to make a one-time prediction regarding how many dedicated 3D and 2D screening rooms, respectively, they require to satisfy market demands. Opt for too few 3D screens, and a multiplex might have to choose between blockbusters on particularly big release weekends; opt for too many 3D screens, and multiplexes by necessity will end up showing some of its patrons dimly projected 2D films because they can’t afford to just let a screening room sit empty and unused during one or more time slots.

Here are AMC Kent Station’s showtimes for today, Wednesday, October 21:

Bridge of Spies   1:00 4:10 7:20 10:30
Crimson Peak: The IMAX Experience   1:20 4:15 7:15 10:10
Crimson Peak * 10:45   2:30 5:20 8:10
Goosebumps 3D 12:30 3:00 5:30 8:00 10:40
Goosebumps 11:15 1:50 4:30 7:00 9:40
Pan 3D **   1:30 4:10    
Pan 11:30 2:20 5:00 7:40 10:10
The Martian 3D 11:20 12:20 3:30 6:50 10:00
The Martian   1:15 4:25 7:45  
The Walk 3D **** 11:10   4:50   10:30
The Walk ****   2:00   7:40  
Hotel Transylvania 2 12:35 2:50 5:10 7:25 9:50
The Intern 10:50 1:40 4:40 7:10 10:20
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials **       7:30 10:35
Sicario 11:00 1:45 4:45 7:50 10:45
The Visit ***   1:10      
Back to the Future I, II and III marathon ***     4:30 7:00 9:30

So by all appearances, AMC Kent Station’s 14 screens break down as: one IMAX, five 3D and eight 2D.

* Clearly this is Theater 11, the 3D screening room where we saw Crimson Peak in 2D.

** Pan screens twice in 3D in the afternoon, then apparently cedes its screening room to two evening showings of Maze Runner in 2D.

*** It is reasonable to assume that because The Visit is screening only once on this day, it is making room for the Back to the Future marathon to take up the subsequent three showings on that screen.

**** That leaves The Walk, which by all appearances is alternating 3D and 2D showings on the same screen.

So if we set aside the IMAX screening room as its own separate enterprise, that leaves a total of 65 possible daily showtimes spread across 13 screens, and in eight of those screenings — four of Crimson Peak and two each of The Walk and Maze Runner, or 12 percent of the theater’s exhibition day — they’re going to be giving customers an inferior 2D experience, all because they have no means of manually retracting the polarization on their own projectors.

Worst of all, unless a moviegoer can read a schedule of theater showtimes the way Rain Man can count cards in Vegas, he doesn’t know he’s getting an inferior experience until he’s already driven across town, hunted for a parking space, paid for his ticket and taken his seat. In a Sony-equipped theater, this amounts to cinematic Russian roulette.
1 This is, coincidentally, the second time I’ve experienced bad projection of a period drama co-starring Mia Wasikowska, the previous occasion being a screening of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre at a theater in Sacramento. That theater was screening in 35 mm, though, and either couldn’t afford to regularly replace its Xenon bulbs or, worse, was operating under the delusion that it was saving money and extending bulb life by dimming its projectors.

2 Look, I get it: These are most likely the kids who are given the keys to lock up at the end of the night — I didn’t see anyone in the front of the house who looked particularly managerial to me — and I don’t know to what extent their employers have briefed or educated them about projection, because in the new digital world, an entire week of exhibition can be scheduled on and operated by computer software, and entire days probably pass without a single human soul ever setting foot in a projection booth.

I once had a kid from the concession stand at a Regal Cinemas theater assure me that there was nothing wrong with the projection of the extremely dark screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo I was enduring there. It was a repeat screening for me; I had seen Hugo once before, properly illuminated, and knew how the film was supposed to look, so I had clearly been sold a 2D screening on a 3D projector. That kid is the primary reason I’m now emboldened to leave any screening I’m dissatisfied with and just ask for my money back, because there’s likely no one in-house who can just dash up to the projection booth and remove the polarizer from the projector — if it’s even a system with retractable polarization to begin with.

Written by Shepcat

October 19, 2015 at 11:58 am

Posted in Movies