What’s Screening: November 28 – December 4

No festivals this week. But we do have some movies.

B+ The Cranes Are Flying, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 5:30. War has a nasty way to interfering with true love. This sweet Russian story of young lovers separated by The imageGreat Patriotic War (AKA World War II) never comes off as Soviet propaganda (it was made during Khrushchev’s “thaw”), but as a clear-eyed look at the realities of romance in difficult times. This was one of the first post-Stalin Soviet films to get wide play in the West, where it helped remind at least some moviegoers that the Cold War enemies were just human beings. Part of the PFA’s series, Discovering Georgian Cinema.

B+ Holiday double bill: Christmas in July & Holiday Inn, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.” The B+ goes to Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July, a Christmas in Julycharming yet bitter comedy about the American Dream. Dick Powell stars as a lowly clerk who thinks he has the makings of a brilliant adman. Curiously, Sturges appears to have borrowed some plot points and themes from King Vidor’s very serious masterpiece, The Crowd. On its own, the musical Holiday Inn earns only a C for putting the talents of Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Irving Berlin to only modest use. It has one song that became a standard ("White Christmas"), and a very racist tribute to Abraham Lincoln.

A- A Christmas Story, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Sweet, sentimental Christmas movies–at least those not authored by Charles Dickens or Frank Capra–make me want to throw up. But writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth comes with enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays.

B- The Lost World, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Even though it’s over 85 years old, Hollywood’s first big man vs. dinosaur epic isn’t that different from today’s blockbusters. Like them, it uses amazing special effects to prop up what’s otherwise an extremely silly movie. Of course, the silliness is of the 1920s variety–overacting and fake-looking facial hair, and the FX are technically crude by today’s standards. But model animator Willis O’Brien (who would make King King eight years later) infused his dinosaurs with weight and thought, which sells them to the viewer. With Frederick Hodges on the piano. See my earlier report on The Lost World & Dengue Fever.

A Fruitvale Station, New Parkway, Friday, 9:10. Free. The experience of seeing this imageindependent feature is very much like waiting for a time bomb. You watch Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) go through the last day of 2008, knowing that he will be fatally shot by a BART cop in the early hours of the new year. Writer/director Ryan Coogler wisely avoids turning Grant into a saint, but makes us care very much for him. The last moments of the film–not including some documentary footage and the closing credits–will break your heart. Read my longer report.

A Spirited Away, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. A truly amazing work of animation. I don’t know whether the film will be presented in the original Japanese with subtitles, or if it will be the English dubbed version.

Harold and Maude, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30. After imageWoodstock, this comedy about a young man and a much older woman is the ultimate cinematic statement of the hippie generation. At least that’s how I remember it. I loved it passionately in the 1970s. But I haven’t seen it in a long time and I’m not sure how well it’s aged.

C Sound of Music, Lark, Friday and Sunday, 1:00; Castro, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture postcard kind of way. The Castro presentation will be the Sing-Along version, which I have never seen.

December at the Castro

Have you seen the Castro’s Coming Soon page? Some interesting stuff coming up in December.

Regular readers know that I disapprove of all the brouhaha over Gone with the Wind’s 75th anniversary. I find it upsetting that a film so racist can be a beloved classic in the 21st century, with very little discussion of what the picture is saying. The Castro has joined the theaters screening this epic apology for slavery, but they did something interesting that I like. For December 28, they’ve put it on a double bill with Django Unchained. I don’t care much for Tarantino’s spaghetti western version of the old south,  but at least it’s on the side of freedom.

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On the other hand, since Gone with the Wind runs 238 minutes, it’s hard to imagine it on a double bill with anything. At 165 minutes, Django Unchained is hardly short, either. The total approaches seven hours.

I supposed they couldn’t get 12 Years a Slave, which is much better than Django, looks at slavery from a very real perspective, and is about half an hour shorter.

Also on the schedule:

  • December 9: An Evening with Jared Diamond. I loved Guns, Germs, and Steel, and liked Collapse a lot too. Should be an interesting talk.
  • December 12: Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I saw it when it was new, and loved it. Don’t know if I’d love it now. On a double bill with Ed Wood, which I also saw when it was new. I was disappointed in that one.
  • December 21: Die Hard. One of the best action flicks ever. I’ve seen it on Laserdisc and DVD, and own it on Blu-ray, but I’ve never seen it on the big screen. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to see this screening. On a double bill with Scrooged, which I understand isn’t very good.
  • December 22: It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, it’s corny, but it’s a wonderful movie.
  • December 26: Bogart Double bill. Two of his best and best known: Casablanca and The African Queen.
  • December 29: Two big, large-format roadshow musicals from the 1960s, My Fair Lady and The Music Man. I prefer Pygmalion without the songs, but I do like The Music Man.

Birdman, Dear White People, & Citizenfour–new movies I’ve seen recently

Here are three new films I caught in theaters recently.

A- Birdman
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Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star hoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. But as he goes through rehearsals and previews, everything seems to be spinning out of control. What’s more, he either has supernatural powers or believes that he has them. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Also in the cast: Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, it’s not really shot in a single take, but is designed to give that impression. But unlike Rope, the gimmick works this time, perhaps because digital technology made this sort of thing possible. Much of the film is hysterically funny. But the picture is just a bit too long for the story or the idea, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B+ Dear White People
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Justin Simien’s first feature is funny, dramatic, and insightful, and successfully avoids preaching. The main characters talk about their philosophies and ideals, but they’re all young college students, and that’s what young college students do. And when they’re African-American students in an overwhelmingly white ivy league school, you should expect some anger in their talk. Samantha (Tessa Thompson), whose campus radio program provides the film’s name, is the most militant and political. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) wears a giant afro, writes for the school paper and is too insecure to come out of the closet. Everything comes together at the climax (this is not a spoiler) where a group of largely white students throw an extremely racist Halloween party.

B Citizenfour
It’s impossible to evaluate this documentary as a work of art. For one thing, it’s subject matter is so important that I’m inclined to ignore it’s narrative flaws. For another, it covers subjects that I write about professionally. I’m actually researching a piece right now on encrypted email, and one of the first images in the film is a PGP public key (don’t worry if you don’t know what that means). But I’ll try.

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Laura Poitras starts the film with her own credentials as an activist filmmaker hated by the US government, but the real protagonist is Edward Snowden. Poitras and her camera were in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden told Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy, and those four days of interviews make up the film’s centerpiece. Snowden–a great American hero in Poitras’ view and in my own–comes off mostly as a self-effacing nerd who understands right from wrong. But the long discussions in the hotel room become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. Things get better as the action moves elsewhere, mostly in court hearings and press conferences. It would have been better if Poitras had found a more visually interesting way to show what Snowden was explaining. Being a nerd myself, my favorite moment had Snowden criticizing Greenwald for using a too-short password.

What’s Screening: November 21 – 27

The end-of-the-year film festival draught approaches. A lot of festivals ended last week. Only three are still running, and they’ll close before Thanksgiving.

And now, this week’s movies that I actually have an opinion about:

B+ The Better Angels, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday. This story of Abe Lincoln’s childhood concentrates on his relationship first with his mother, who died when he was very imageyoung, and then with the loving and supporting stepmother who recognized something special in this uneducated backwoods boy. Braydon Denney, a talented child actor who looks remarkably like a young Abraham Lincoln, plays Abe as a boy torn between the rural life that is all he’s ever known and a larger world that pulls at his curiosity. The artful, widescreen, black-and-white cinematography produces a distancing effect, as if we’re watching an old memory. Read my full review.

A+ The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. As much as any other artist, John Ford defined and deepened the myth of the American West. libertyvalanceBut in his last masterpiece,The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford tears that myth down, reminding us that a myth is, when you come right down to it, a lie. Avoiding beautiful scenery and even color (a black and white western was a risky investment in 1962), Ford strips this story down to the essentials, and splits the classic Western hero into two: the man of principle (James Stewart) and the gunfighter (John Wayne).

A+ Capitalist epic double bill: Citizen Kane & There Will be Blood, Castro, Sunday. The A+, of course, goes to Citizen Kane, a movie so good it survived a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made. As Orson Welles and hisimage collaborators tell the life story of a newspaper tycoon through flashbacks, they turn the techniques of cinema inside out. The result in revolutionary, insightful, and just plain fun. There Will Be Blood earns its own A for its big, sprawling, and spectacular telling of not just a moment in history, but a 30-year transition in the life of an oil speculator with frightful ambitions and even more frightful inner demons. Read my full review.

B+ The Triplets of Belleville, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. A modern, low-tripletsbellevillebudget, dialog-free animated film for adults (and teenagers; it’s rated PG-13). The story involves a French champion bicyclist who’s kidnapped by mobsters and brought to America to…Never mind, it’s just too weird to explain. But who cares? The jokes are funny, the visuals are clever and original, and the music swings (the triplets of the title are an aging big band trio).

A Blade Runner – The Final Cut, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Based on Philip K. Dick’snovel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. I’m assuming this is the same final cut I saw in 2008, and not a more final cut made since.

A Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The Museum has a great selection of shorts this week. Like all of Chaplin’s Mutual’s, Pass the GravyThe Rink is an excellent example of two-reel comedy. The Boat is one of Keaton’s best shorts. Leave ‘em Laughing isn’t my favorite silent Laurel & Hardy, but it delivers on what the title promises. But the real treat is Pass the Gravy, starring the pretty-much-forgotten Max Davidson. I don’t want to give away too much about this minor masterpiece—let’s just say it involves feuding fathers, young people in love, a prize chicken, and one of the funniest dinners on film.

B- Blazing Saddles, Castro, Wednesday. The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to imageinstitutional racism to the clichés of every other movie genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sherriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles. On a ’70s comedy double bill with What’s Up Doc?, which I’ve never seen (and no, it doesn’t star Bugs Bunny).

A Boyhood, Castro, Tuesday; Elmwood, opens Wednesday. Fifty years from now, people will still watch Richard Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhoodimage allows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up and older. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them has much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films, and it’s all the better for it. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. Read my full review.

C- Gone with the Wind, Stanford, Friday. I love big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s that blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, and generally just wince. But the racism in Gone with the Wind makes me cringe. The entire story depends on assumptions of white masters and black slaves as the natural order (you can read my in-depth comments). Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is pretty good, but boredom sets in after the intermission. The picture has one thing going for it: It used color far more creatively and effectively than any previous movie. 35mm print.

The Better Angels

B+ Historical drama

  • Written and directed by A.J. Edwards

About half way through A.J. Edwards’ gentle exploration of our 16th president (and my namesake), it occurred to me that a native-born American who hadn’t paid much attention in history class might not realize that the film was about Abraham Lincoln. Names are seldom spoken, and if the very young protagonist was ever called Abe, Abraham, or Lincoln, I missed it.

This is the story of Abe’s childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana; and his relationship with his mother (Brit Marling), his father (Jason Clarke), and the stepmother who came into his life a little more than a year after his mother’s death (Diane Kruger). It was these two women who recognized something special in Abe and made sure he got an education–a rare luxury for that time and place.

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Edwards finds an unusual way to tell the story. There’s little dialog, and almost no exposition. The artful, widescreen, black-and-white cinematography makes heavy use of  a Steadicam and some very short lens. The resulting, heavy atmosphere produces a distancing effect, as if we’re watching an old memory.

And that, in fact, is what the film is meant to be. What little exposition there is comes from narration spoken in the character of Abe’s older cousin, Dennis, as an old man. Cameron Mitchell Williams plays the young Dennis; I don’t know who spoke the narration.

Braydon Denney, a talented child actor who looks remarkably like a young Abraham Lincoln, plays Abe as a boy torn between the backwards life that is all he’s ever known and a larger world that pulls his curiosity. He works hard in the fields, and enjoys roughhouse play with other kids. But he has a thirst that can’t be slaked by what’s in the woods. He reads whenever he can, and that’s limited by the hard, physical work and the few books available.

More than anyone else, his stepmother sees something special in Abe, and helps him get an education. His rough-hewn father doesn’t quite understand. He’s a strict disciplinarian, quick with a switch, without enough reading to understand the value of an education. But he loves Abe and the rest of his family, and he comes to accept what is happening.

At times the aforementioned cinematography (by Matthew J. Lloyd) gets in the way of the story. Several panning and tracking shots made the distortions caused by the short lens just plain annoying. But most of the time, the technique worked, creating the sense of a distant but very personal memory, centering on a poverty-stricken but very intelligent young boy. Who he will become is almost irrelevant.

The film opens Friday.

The Mediocre Fascist: The Conformist comes to Blu-ray

Fascist states don’t really need that many committed fascists. But they do need ambitious, unscrupulous, and cowardly people.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s brilliant character study of a man lacking character, we see political murder as an act of a bureaucrat. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici as a confused, emotionally cut-off cog in the wheel of Mussolini’s government in the late 1930s.

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A civil servant with a "good" record, Marcello yearns for middle class respectability. To that end, he’s preparing to marry the bourgeois imageGiulia (Stefania Sandrelli), whom he doesn’t really love although he feels some fondness for her. Why shouldn’t he? She’d attractive and can hardly keep her hands off of him.

But their honeymoon provides an ideal tool for the government, which wishes to make a lesson out of Marcello’s old college professor–an anti-fascist activist now living in exile in Paris. Marcello, of course, takes the assignment.

While Trintignant plays Marcello as a nervous man who keeps his cards close to his chest, Sandrelli’s Giulia is an open book. She clearly adores her new husband, and doesn’t object in the slightest when he looks up an old professor. In fact, she becomes bosom pals with the professor’s much younger wife Anna, played by Dominique Sanda as a self-assured sex goddess.

Marcello soon starts ditching his wife to visit this irresistible woman (remember that this is their honeymoon). Anna lets him seduce her, possibly because she understands the danger and wants to control him. But sexually, she’s clearly interested in Giulia, who doesn’t quite understand this other woman’s advances.

But The Conformist isn’t about sex. It’s about a man desperate to fit into society, even if that society is evil.

For a serious political drama, The Conformist is a surprisingly beautiful film. The sets, clothes, and makeup are as glamorous as an old-fashioned MGM musical. Visually, the film is set in an idealized 1930s, even though the story looks coldly at the reality of that horrible decade. This gives the film a sense of people not quite living in the real world. They’re comfortable, but we know they won’t be comfortable for long.

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Another curious aspect of this very serious drama: When it’s funny, it’s very funny. Not often, but on rare and brief occasions, it goes completely off the wall. There’s no reasonable way to explain the fascist bureaucrat with a desk covered in walnuts. But bits like this break the tension and never undermine the serious story.

The Conformist makes for great art and great entertainment. It’s sexy, vibrant, and suspenseful–with a story that makes you care not for the protagonist but for the people unfortunate enough to know him.

First Impression

imageThe Conformist arrives in a standard Blu-ray box inside a slip cover. The slip cover and the case display totally different graphics.

Inside, you’ll find one disc and a 27-page booklet, containing film credits and multiple short articles.

The first thing that comes up when you play the disc (after the FBI warning) is a logo for Video Cinema Arts Visions. Then the menu comes up.

The setup allows Italian or English audio, with English subtitles on or off. I selected the default: Italian audio, subtitles on.

How It Looks

The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot The Conformist with the intention that it would be shown in dye-transfer Technicolor prints. The beautiful transfer provided by Kino recreates the saturated colors that made those prints special.

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This is a film of colorful interiors and cold, snow-and-fog whites (I’ve never seen Paris look so chilly). Storaro captured these visuals magnificently. The Blu-ray does justice to his work.

How It Sounds

The slip cover announces that the audio would be in PCM stereo, which is odd because The Conformist was recorded and released in mono. The Video Cinema Arts Visions logo at the beginning of the movie is indeed in stereo. But once the movie really begins, it’s thankfully all mono.

And that’s uncompressed PCM mono. It sounds just fine.

And the Extras

Not much here. The only significant extra is a 57-minute documentary, In the Shade of the Conformist. It’s interesting when Bertolucci is talking, less so with the voice-of-god narrator. Fortunately, Bertolucci does most of the talking.

The only other supplement shows us two different English-language trailers–one from its original American release, and one from the 2013 restoration. The first one provides a good example of how fading color film can hurt a image.

In short, this is a great transfer of a great film. But the extras are slight.

The Conformist Blu-ray goes on sale November 25. Something to be thankful for just before Thanksgiving.

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What’s Screening: November 14 – 20

A lot of festivals this week, most of which will be closed by the end of the week.

Whether in festivals or not, there aren’t many films playing this week for which I can give an honest opinion. But here are the opinions I can give:

A+ The Thief of Bagdad, Rafael, Sunday, 4:30. One of the greatest fantasy adventures ever made, thiefbagdad1940and made decades before Star Wars clones glutted the market. The special effects lack today’s realism, but they still pack an emotional punch (my daughter, when she was young, found this giant spider scarier than the ones in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings). The sets are magnificent, the dialog enchanting, and the story’s randomness gives it a true Arabian Nights flavor. And all in glorious Technicolor. Since there are no available 35mm prints, and it hasn’t been prepared for DCP, the Rafael will screen it from an HD CAM tape previously used at the Film Forum. Part of a series hosted by Dennis Muren, the Senior Visual Effects Supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic,.

Made in Niles, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. To celebrate the Museum’s 500th Saturday imagenight show, they’re screening six short subjects made in Niles, mostly by the Essanay Film Company. These will, of course, include starring turns by Broncho Billy and Charlie Chaplin. But they’re also screening a brand-new short made by Niles enthusiasts, Broncho Billy and the Bandit’s Secrets. Frederick Hodges will accompany on piano.

A Metropolis, Castro, Saturday. The first important science fiction feature film still strikes a considerable visual punch,and with the latest restoration, tells a compelling story, as well. The images–workers in a hellish underground factory, the wealthy at play, a robot brought to life in the form of a beautiful woman–are a permanent part of our collective memory. Even people who haven’t seen Metropolis know them through the countless films it has influenced. Recently-discovered footage, which restores it to something very much like the original cut, elevates the story of a clash between workers and aristocrats from trite melodrama to grand opera. Read my longer report and my Blu-ray review. With the recorded score rather than live accompaniment.. On a double bill with the newly-restored Robocop, which I haven’t seen in a long time but remember liking.

B When Comedy Went To School, Oshman Family JCC, Sunday, 4:00. This sweet, nostalgic documentary looks at the culture, traditions, and humor that defined the Catskills from the 1930s through the 1960s, and in doing so created the art of standup comedy. Like all documentaries covering recent history, When Comedy Went to School contains a lot of interview footage, but this time around, the interview subjects are amongst the funniest people alive. This very short feature moves at a good clip and covers a lot of ground, but ignores one important side of the story: What did these comics learn in this "school." Read my full review.

A- Force Majeure, Aquarius, opens Friday. The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneer imageof a troubled marriage in this Swedish drama set in the French alps. When an avalanche threatens his family, Tomas fails to protect them as he should. Soon his wife loses all respect for her husband, and Tomas losses all respect for himself. All this is set within a resort that appears to be just a bit more realistic than Disneyland.  Force Majeure studies courage and fear, and the destructive behavior that can destroy a marriage. But it’s about the artificial worlds we create for our own enjoyment. See my full review.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

C- Gone with the Wind, Stanford, continues through the week. I love big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s the blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, and generally just wince.But the racism in Gone with the Wind makes me cringe. The entire story depends on assumptions of white masters and black slaves as the natural order (you can read my in-depth comments). Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is pretty good, but boredom sets in after the intermission. The picture has one thing going for it: It used color far more creatively and effectively than any previous movie. 35mm print.

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