'Almost Famous,' 'Psycho' lead old films playing in local theaters
With the Allen temporarily out of commission for a digital projection refit, the locale for almost all older films being revived on the big screen in September is Lititz's Penn Cinema. Their Monday Night Movie Series got underway again on Sept. 14 with Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical "Almost Famous" (2000, R). The tale of teenager William Miller (Patrick Fugit) assigned by Rolling Stone to cover an up-and-coming rock band (the fictional Stillwater) is based on (or possibly just inspired by) his having similarly followed a band on tour for that publication when he was 15. There are terrific performances from Billy Crudup and Frances McDormand (has she ever given a bad one?) amongst others but there is also a lot of casual sex and drug use. Yes it's probably an accurate picture of the times but the film is rated R for a reason and you may not want to take your own teenager to watch another indulge in such activities. Times have changed and people who used to drop acid regularly back in the day now worry about the "f-bomb" so I issue a word of caution.
The film was shown at 7 p.m. on Monday with an encore screening at 10 a.m. the next morning, as is the case with all the Monday Night Movies.
A week later on Sept. 21, we get the inexplicably popular "Top Gun" (1986, PG), Tony Scott's paean to airborne hardware. It cemented Tom Cruise's (since faded) stardom and remains the perfect embodiment of the Reagan era. Both mean that I am less than enamored of the thing despite the presence of such terrific (and hugely underrated) B-listers as Adrian Pasdar, Anthony Edwards and Clarence Gilliard. Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan register strongly in a film that gives women little to do except be wives and girlfriends. It's strictly a boy's club affair designed to send testosterone levels soaring. If that floats your boat don't miss your chance to see it on the big screen.
More to my taste is Sidney Lumet's scrumptious "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974, PG) an Agatha Christie adaptation that seems to boast — as MGM used to claim — more stars than there are in the heavens. Albert Finney plays Hercule Poirot in a fussy performance that may not be to all tastes (I'll go with David Suchet or Peter Ustinov myself) but the list of suspects includes Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, John Geilgud, Michael York and (a personal favorite) Rachel Roberts just for starters. Who killed the slimy Richard Basehart, stabbing him to death behind the locked door of a train compartment? Hey, I ain't telling!
From the duplication of the interiors of the famous choo-choo to the 1930s fashions, this film looks fabulous (why has Lumet never made another film this visually exquisite or even remotely this good for that matter?). It sounds splendid, too, thanks to a ravishing score by Richard Rodney Bennett doing an homage to Richard Addinsell's "Warsaw Concerto." If only every movie were this close to being flawless (let's not fail to credit Paul Dehn for his witty screenplay). Don't miss a chance to see it in a theater on September 28.
Another nigh-perfect film is Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960, rated R retrospectively though it went out as a general release back in the day). After a decade of overstuffed features Hitchcock got the notion into his head of showing that he too could go lean and mean and turn out the kind of budget thriller that was in vogue at the time. He purchased Robert Bloch's novel (using a pseudonym to keep the purchase price down) and had it adapted by Joseph Stefano (far more closely than is sometimes acknowledged) and made it primarily on standing sets using the crew from his TV show. Lean and mean it is and it's also a particularly nasty piece of work for the time. Writer Donald Spoto sees the film as the emergence of Hitchcock's misogyny; women had primarily been objects of romance in prior films but with "Psycho" they became recipients of violence and for all its lack of anything being graphically depicted the shower murder is astonishingly violent.
It's difficult now, with the film's plot so well known, to appreciate the director's real masterstrokes in casting Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Initial audiences were not prepared for a major star such as the former to be killed off less than halfway into the story or for the latter – then known for boy-next-door roles – to be a serial killer. (Alas for Perkins he was afterward pretty well typed as neurotics and psychotics, so effective was his performance.) Considering it is arguably the director's best-known film it is surprising that Hitchcock initially considered "Psycho" a failure and contemplated cutting it down to become an episode of his TV anthology. That is until he heard composer Bernard Herrmann's music for it – a brilliant score written entirely for strings that has them shrieking away in the murder scenes in one of the most quoted, paraphrased and parodied pieces of film music ever created.
If you've never seen "Psycho" on the big screen – and even though it's a small film it deserves to be seen in a theater with an audience for maximum impact – Fathom events and Turner Classic Movies have scheduled special showings on Sunday, September 20 and Thursday, Sept. 23 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. The Penn Cinema is one of the theaters that will host the screening but so is the Lebanon Valley Mall's Regal Theatre if you want a shorter drive.
Another Fathom movie event is the remastered and expanded "The Iron Giant" (1999, PG) on September 30 at 7:00 p.m. and repeated October 4 at noon. This delightful film from director Brad Bird has young Hogarth discover a giant robot from outer space in the forest. He befriends it and when a paranoid government agent arrives, determined to destroy the alien contraption, Hogarth hides it in the local junkard (where it snacks on scrap metal). Set in an accurately detailed 1957 — the height of Cold War panic and when movies involving invasions from outer space were very popular — the mostly hand-drawn animated feature (only the robot is computer rendered) is an enchanting and sophisticated treat for old and young alike. Because the film had atrocious publicity on its initial release few people saw it in a theater and it deserves that venue for its impressive visuals. Don't pass up this chance to see it properly.
September normally marks the beginning of Lebanon Valley College's symposium films, which are shown at Annville's lovely art deco Allen Theater. So far no listings have appeared online at either the college's or the theater's websites. The theater's marquee notes that it is closed so that a digital projection system can be installed (mandatory these days as 35mm prints are being phased out). An email to the Allen's owner, Skip Hicks, went unanswered by deadline so I can only advise you to check the theater's website for news of the film series and other special film events.