What’s Screening: October 31 – November 6

I just found out about the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, which has been running for almost two weeks and is still not over. Sorry about that. Here are some other current festivals:

In addition to the festivals, the Balboa will screen an Alfred Hitchcock Marathon Saturday. But I’m not sure it’s technically a marathon, since the tickets are sold separately. I discuss the individual movies at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. Rare 35mm Print. In James Cameron’s sequel to the movie that put him on the map, a replica of the first movie’s killer robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) returns from the future. But this time, he’s here to help the good guys, stop a worse killer robot, and prevent a nuclear war. Linda Hamilton returns as the original’s intended victim, now a hard-as-nails and probably insane heroine. The action scenes and special effects are outstanding, but what really makes the sequel work is the small-scale story of people trying to survive in extreme conditions while working to block Armageddon. And yet, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that a robot can make a better father than a flesh-and-blood man. The first movie in a series hosted by Dennis Muren, the Senior Visual Effects Supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic,.

B The Graduate, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30. People seeing The Graduate today may have trouble understanding what an amazing breakthrough it was in 1967. In those imagedays, Hollywood didn’t make movies about middle-aged married women seducing young men. Nor, outside of musicals, did they have montages accompanied by pop songs that were not in themselves part of the story (a really boring cliché by now). They also didn’t make movies that pictured the entire World War II generation as hypocrites. The Graduate is no longer revolutionary, but it’s still a well-made romantic comedy with serious overtones that gets Bay Area geography all wrong.

D Romeo+ Juliet, New Parkway, Sunday, 9:00. Updating Shakespeare to the present (or the more recent past) has been all the rage for the last 20 years or so. Sometimes it works brilliantly, but not so in Baz Luhrmann’s ultra-frantic take on the Bard’s most famous romantic tragedy. Set imagein a modern-day “Verona Beach,” this R&J uses its setting as a gimmick, distracting us from the story rather than enhancing it. For instance, we see a close-up of a very modern rifle with the brand name Sword before Benvolio cries out “Put up your swords.” On the rare occasions when the settings don’t distract, the flashy editing does. A lot of great Shakespeare films were made in the 1990s, but this isn’t one of them.

A+ Lawrence of Arabia, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and excellent projection–either 70mm or 4K DCP–to do it full justice. I do not know how the Alameda will project Lawrence or on what size screen. For more on this epic, read The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience and Thoughts on Lawrence of Arabia.

A Nosferatu, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:00. You best forget about sexy vampires before you go see the first  film version of Dracula (an unauthorized version that got the filmmakers sued by Bram Stoker’s widow). Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (the name change didn’t fool the court) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not to be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. I don’t know what digital version they’ll be showing (I know it’s not film because the theater doesn’t support it). With live musical accompaniment by the 29th Street Swingtet, co-presented by film curator Jeff M. Giordano.

A- The Princess Bride, Castro, Sunday. William Goldman’s enchanting imageand funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers, and Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos really grate on your nerves. On a double bill with Guardians of the Galaxy.

B+ The Iron Giant, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30. The young hero of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s first feature befriends a massively-huge robot from outer space.Hey, Steven Spielberg’s Elliot only had to hide the diminutive ET. The robot seems friendly enough, but there’s good reason to believe he was built as a weapon of mass destruction. Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation with plenty of sharp angles, Bird creates a stylized view of small-town American life circa 1958 that straddles satire and nostalgia, and treats most of its inhabitants with warmth and affection. A good movie for all but the youngest kids.

C How to Marry a Millionaire, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. This lavish 1953 romantic comedy succeeds only moderately at being either romantic or funny, despite the talents ofimage Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe (who had only just achieved star status). As the title suggests, it’s about women not so much looking for love as fishing for a sugar daddy–hardly romantic. But How to Marry a Millionaire was one of the first two films shot in Cinemascope, and the first with an intimate, contemporary, non-spectacular story. That alone gives it historical interest. On a Lauren Bacall double bill with Designing Woman, which I haven’t seen.

A Boyhood, New Parkway, opens Friday. 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.

B The Hundred Foot Journey, Castro, Wednesday. An Indian family in a small French town set up an eatery across the street from a famous and highly-imageregarded French restaurant, and the battle of culinary cultures begins. The first half is a lot of fun, but the main conflict gets settled–not very believably–way too soon. Then you spend too much time watching everyone be happy while waiting for two separate couples to realize that they’re in love. But I have to give kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren; this is the best photographed new film I’ve seen in a long time.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 9:30. 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.

Alfred Hitchcock Marathon at the Balboa Saturday

A+ Rear Window, 3:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.

A Psycho, 6:00. You may never want to take a shower again. In his last great movie, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times,image leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I ever saw it; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes.

B Rope, 1:00. Not Alfred Hitchcock’s worst film, but easily his most frustrating, in large part because Hitchcock was working from a terrific screenplay (by Arthur Laurents, adapted by Hume imageCronyn from a play by Patrick Hamilton). Two young men, clearly homosexual (although that couldn’t be stated in those days), kill an acquaintance for thrills, then throw a party with the body hidden in a chest. Unfortunately, Hitchcock made two big errors. First, he cast James Stewart in a role that in 1948 was still outside his acting range (it wouldn’t be for long). Second, he made the movie in eight ten-minute shots that give the impression of a single 80-minute take (which wasn’t technically possible back then). That later decision robbed him of the ability to edit, and Hitchcock without editing is handicapped Hitchcock.

B- The Birds, 8:30. Alfred Hitchcock’s only out-and-out fantasy has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits andimagesmokes while more and more crows gather on playground equipment, and the following attack on the children, are classics. The lovely Bodega Bay location adds atmosphere and local color, and many of the special effects were way ahead of their time. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and that lovely scenery plays side-by-side with obvious soundstage mockups. Worse yet, new-comer Hedren doesn’t provide a single believable moment. She’s beautiful, but utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma.

Four surprising facts from early film history

Historical reality has a way of conflicting with the what we all assume. Here are four totally surprising, unintuitive facts about the early days of cinema.

Animation preceded live action

The first moving images weren’t photographed. They were drawn. Parlor toys such as Zoetropethe Zoetrope used multiple illustrations to create the illusion of movement–as cartoons would decades later–to create the illusion of movement.

The Zoetrope wasn’t the first toy to use Persistence of Vision. The far cruder Thaumatrope had been invented (we’re not really sure by who) by 1824. The Zoetrope came a decade later.

It would take nearly another 40 years before Eadweard James Muybridge used multiple cameras to photograph a running horse, and thus creating the first live action moving image.

Silent movies grew out of sound movies

If any one individual can be called the inventor of motion pictures, it’s Thomas Edison employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Realistically, no one man created the technology, but Dickson was the first (as far as I can determine) to punch sprocket holes in George Eastman’s new photographic film so that it could move in a reliable stop-and-go motion through a camera or projector. He created the 35mm, four-perf pull-down standard that is only dying now with the digital revolution.

And according to his own account, as quoted in Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights, he was given the task "to combine Mr. Edison’s phonograph with a practical zoetropic moving figure device." Dickson also claimed that he showed Edison a talking picture in 1989.

Did this happen? Ramsaye, along with later historians, doubted it. A few years later, Edison released the Kinetoscope without sound.

But we do know that Dickson, still working for Edison, successfully created a way to record and show sound movies in the mid-1990’s. that was just around the time that Lumiere, in France, began to project motion pictures onto a screen in front of paying customers for the first time.image

Narrative cinema grew out of special effects

Today, you can prove your maturity by complaining about blockbusters where the story appears to be nothing but an excuse for the special effects. I’ve even done it myself. And yet, historically speaking, that’s pretty much how it happened.

It’s difficult to say who first started telling fictional stories on film. If you film a scene from a stage play, is that a narrative or merely a recording (especially if there’s no dialog)? Does it count if you film a man watering a lawn, and a mischievous teenager disrupts the chore.

But a real story, taking ten or more minutes? Arguably, the true inventor of narrative cinema was also the inventor of special effects, Georges Méliès. A professional magician, he started making movies because he could do effects in them that were impossible on the live stage. Eventually, he expanded his "trick films," providing stories such as A Trip to the Moon to provide a bigger canvas for his effects.


Colorization preceded real color

You don’t need digital technology to colorize a black and white movie. It was done from almost the beginning of cinema.

The early ways to add color were many. Tinting gave one color to the whole frame, with the color standing out most in the light parts of the image. Toning also colored the entire frame, except that the color stood out in the dark areas. Combined together, tinting and toning could create a vivid two-color effect.

They also hand-painted prints in those days, which must have cost a fortune.


All of these were available in the 1890s. The first commercially successful system using what was then called "natural color" (in other words, the colors were recorded in the camera), was Kinemacolor. In came out in 1908,

Book vs. Movie: The Shining

I read Stephen King’s novel The Shining in the late 1970s, not too long after its publication. It scared and thrilled me like no other work of fiction. I still remember the frustration of not being able to physically turn pages faster.

This past Friday night I finally saw Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation at the Pacific Film Archive, where it was screened as part of the PFA’s current series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick. Before the screening, I reread the book and loved it just as much as I had some 35 years ago. I liked the movie, especially the second half, but unlike my book vs. movie experience with Jaws, the original book version of The Shining really is better. Much better.

Warning: This essay contains spoilers for both the book and the movie.

The Real Heartbreak Hotel

When you come right down to it, The Shining is a haunted house story. Economic imageproblems force a family to live in a residence filled with ghosts and other supernatural evils. By turning the house into a large resort hotel, King created a larger canvas for the familiar story. You’ve got hundreds of rooms, long hallways, a huge kitchen and ballroom, and dark stories of homicidal mayhem.

Not only is the Overlook filled with evil, undead beings. The hotel is, in and of itself, evil. What happens in the Overlook–especially when it involves death–stays in the Overlook, presumably for eternity. And the hotel orchestrates that evil. The ghosts are merely minions of the Overlook Hotel.

But the Overlooks’ evil, supernatural nature has little direct effect on the natural, physical world. The book contains only three small incidents when the hotel’s evil directly effects the physical world. It’s real power is psychological. It can tap into  people’s brains, find their weaknesses, terrify them, or turn them into violent killers.

And the hotel finds a perfect stooge in the story’s principle character, struggling fiction author Jack Torrance. As King paints him, Jack is a loving husband and father, but he’s also an alcoholic with serious anger issues. Over the course of the novel, the Overlook plays with these weaknesses, amplifying his anger and sense of persecution, slowing turning him into a psychotic killer bent on destroying his family, now trapped with him in the snowbound hotel.

What Kubrick Did Wrong

And this is where Kubrick blew it. The movie never shows Jack’s loving side. He comes off as terse, self-centered, and borderline crazy right from the start. The sense of a good man struggling with his inner demons entirely disappears.

Both the book and the film open with Jack’s interview for the job of winter caretaker for a hotel that’s open only in the summer. In the book, the manager interviewing Jack is a jerk, an "Officious little prick" in Jack’s thoughts. The manager, Ullman, rakes him over the coals and lets Jack know that if it was up to him, he’d find someone better qualified. We’ve all had dreadful and humiliating job interviews. Your sympathy goes to Jack from the book’s first sentence.

Kubrick’s version of Ullman (Barry Nelson) is friendly and outgoing. It’s Jack (Jack Nicholson) who seems remote. When he says that he would never do anything to hurt his wife and son, you can’t help but laugh. There’s already a dark twang to his voice. While King uses the interview scene to provide exposition and make us identify and sympathize with Jack, Kubrick just uses it for exposition.

By not showing us Jack’s good side, Kubrick gives him less space to fall into evil. That makes it a less effective story.


I understand that it’s almost impossible to watch a film adaptation of a beloved novel. No matter how good the film is, it can’t possibly contain the detail or the interior monologues of a book. And if it tried to do that, it would become a mess. While watching the film, I tried very hard to push King’s version out of my mind.

Jack’s five-year-old son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) has powerful psychic abilities that play imagea very important role in the novel. He still has them in the film, but they seem less powerful, and less important to the story. That’s a legitimate adaptation choice on Kubrick’s part, but I had a hard time accepting it.

But Kubrick made other, very serious mistakes. Consider the music. As he did in 2001, Kubrick used mostly existing classical recordings, usually of little-known pieces. But here he picked scary-sounding passages, and played them too loud, as if to remind us that we’re supposed to be scarred. That worked very well in the scenes where the audience really was scarred. Otherwise, it got annoying.

What Kubrick Got Right

But Kubrick also added brilliant touches.

In the film, Jack spends a lot more time at the typewriter; you never really see him doing the repair work that’s supposed to be his job. As things begin to get really scary, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) picks up and looks at the thick manuscript he’s been working on all this time. It says only "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over again. Sometimes it’s formatted like a screenplay. Other times, it’s just plain text. Often it has typos.

Remember that the film came out in 1980, before personal computers and printers were common. Jack (and, in reality, someone in the prop department) had to type it over and over again. That’s a great way to discover that your husband, who is trapped with you and your son in a snowbound hotel, has gone completely bonkers.

Then there’s the matter of topiary objects. In the book, the Overlook has plants in the front yard cut to look like animals–including a dog, a rabbit, and two lions. They seem to come alive at some very scary moments. This works extremely well in a book; I doubt it would have had the same effect in a movie.

So instead, the film’s Overlook has a topiary maze. Before the snow comes and before things get really scary, Wendy and Danny have a fun afternoon in the maze. At the climax, set on a snowy night, it makes a great setting for the final chase.


It wasn’t until I left the theater that I realized that the film’s maze, unlike the book’s animals, is in no way sinister. It provides fun and then safety. I had expected its walls to move like the novel’s plant animals.

Although the film starts weak, it gets better as it goes along. As the danger and fear ratchets up, the overbearing music began to work. The second half is as scary as the novel, and that’s about as scary as it can get and still be fun.

Kubrick provided one scare, I suspect, to make fans of the book jump out of their seats. Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), easily the most heroic character in either version, dies a sudden and horrifying death in the film. He survives in the book.

Unfortunately, Dick’s death brings in a very unfortunate Hollywood cliché: The black man who dies to save white people. I guess some people find that comforting. I don’t.

Kubrick’s ending, quite different from the book, works very well in its own terms. But it seems an odd choice. King’s ending, where the Overlook goes up in flames, would be far more cinematic. On the other hand, Kubrick’s ending must have been a lot cheaper to shoot.

Why I waited so long?

Why did it take me 34 years to see The Shining? I was intrigued the moment I read that Kubrick was making the film version. I had recently read the book, and at that time, 2001: A Space Odyssey was still my all-time favorite film.

However, A Clockwork Orange had disappointed me somewhat. And I hated Barry Lyndon with a passion. That and bad reviews kept me away from The Shining. I’m glad now that I’ve seen it.

The PFA screened The Shining of a DCP from Warner Brothers. It looked excellent, like a brand-new 35mm print, only steadier.

What’s Screening: October 24 – 30

No festivals this week, but some good movies.

And a lot of scary ones. I’m putting the Halloween movies–which make up the bulk of this newsletter–at the bottom.

B+  2001: A Space Odyssey, Castro, Sunday and Monday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got 2001almost everything wrong. Although I’ve lost my love of Stanley Kubrick, there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The Castro’s large, flat screen is about the best we can do. On a double bill Sunday with The Tree of Life (see below), and on Monday with Giuseppe Makes a Movie (which I haven’t seen)

B+  The Tree of Life, Castro, Sunday. Terrence Malick made a career of taking risks (if someone who has made only five films in 40 years can be said to have a career). tree_of_lifeBut sometimes, when you go out on a limb, the branch breaks. His latest film works beautifully when it concentrates on a loving but troubled family in the 1950s—a story with no plot and many conflicts. The contemporary scenes with Sean Penn as one of the young sons, now a middle-aged man, don’t play as well. Few are as convincing as Penn at looking miserable, but Malick provides us with so little about his current life that we’re not sure why he’s so upset. And then there are the scenes that are just plain weird. But it’s a Malick film, so at least it’s always beautiful to look at. On a double bill with 2001: A Space Odyssey (see above).

A The Two Faces of January, Aquarius, opens Friday; New Parkway, opens Sunday.. The Two Faces of January is the best new thriller I’ve seen since Headhunters, but it’s a very different imagekind of thriller–more cerebral, less fun, and more plausible. When we first meet them, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a wealthy, attractive, and happy American couple vacationing in Greece in the early 1960s. Then they meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), also American, but scratching out a living as a tour guide–and supplementing his earnings with petty larceny. Of course there’s a love triangle, but the story is really about crime and deception. But who’s the criminal? And who’s deceiving who? Read my full review.

C+ The Zero Theorem, Lark, opens Saturday. Terry Gilliam’s new film  feels like a less-effective retreat of his brilliant Brazil. Like that far superior picture, imageit’s set in a dystopian society that may be in the future, but in some strange ways feels like the past. Christoph Waltz stars as a brilliant programmer and mathematician trying to solve an impossible problem while his corporate overlords track him closely and watch everything he does. Although visually exciting and occasionally provocative, The Zero Theorem doesn’t actually go anywhere. See my full review.


A Night of The Living Dead, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. This is fear without compromise. The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (sequels and imitations would later rename them zombies) were shockingly gruesome in image1968. Decades later, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear remain, made less spectacular but more emotionally gripping by the black and white photography. Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on American racial issues, or simply as one of the scariest horror films ever made. Read my essay.

A Psycho, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00; UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. You may never want to take a shower again. In his last great movie, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times,image leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I ever saw it; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes.

B+ Halloween, Balboa, Wednesday and Thursday, Castro, Wednesday. In 1978, John Carpenter made a very good low-budget thriller that started a very bad genre: the slasher movie–also known as the dead imageteenager flick. In the original Halloween, an escaped psycho racks up a number of victims on the scariest night of the year. Yes, the story is absurd–the guy seems capable of getting into any place and sneaking up on anyone–but Carpenter and his co-screenwriter Debra Hill take the time to let us know these particular teenagers, and that makes all the difference. By the time he goes after the mature, responsible one (Jamie Lee Curtis), you’re really scared. The Castro will screen Halloween on a double bill with something called Strange Behavior.

B+ Ghostbusters, Castro, Friday. Comedy rarely gets this scary or this visually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say imagethat special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny (at least intentionally so). Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver appear to be having a great time as they try to control the phantasm and monsters suddenly attacking New York City. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon. On a double bill with Innerspace, which I saw a long time ago and remember not liking.

B The Phantom of the Opera (1925 version), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. I haven’t seen the musical, but the original, silent Phantom is a tough one to beat (despite some pedestrian passages). Lon Chaney makes the perfect phantom–tragic, frightening, and yet strangely romantic. The demasking scene will stick in your memory for life. The newly-restored print (which I assume the Museum is showing) recreates the original tints, 2-color Technicolor, and painted stencil colors. With three shorts, including the Chaplin/Arbuckle vehicle The Rounders. Piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges.

B Cabin in the Woods, New Parkway, Wednesday, 9:00. And speaking of dead teenager movies…By the 21st century, the only way to approach this sort of story was to make itimagean ironic comment on the genre (like Scream). This time around, a group of corporate white collar workers control, watch, and bet on the fate of four teenagers who leave town for a weekend and find only horror. By showing us the kid’s suffering through the uncaring eyes of the office workers, filmmakers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon force us to confront the voyeuristic nature of the genre. But the movie’s ending just didn’t do it for me.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car

I wrote this review in 2012, expecting that the film would eventually be released theatrically. It never happened–at least not in the Bay Area. However, as it’s available on disc and pay-per-view, I’ve decided to publish the review.

C Drama

  • Written by Tom Epperson & Billy Bob Thornton
  • Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

When Sling Blade came out in 1996, we all though that writer-director Billy Bob Thornton was the new auteur to watch. Instead, he became a movie star–or at least a well-known character actor. Every so often he returns to writing and directing, but he has never matched the promise of Sling Blade.

Consider his new film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car. A southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war, it provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script.

Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving JMC_03951.jpgpatriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him. One of those sons is married, and his wife and son live there, as well. As far as I could tell, no one in this family works for a living.

Early on, Jim gets an important, overseas phone call. His ex-wife, the mother of his children, has died. Although she left him decades ago, moved to England, and remarried, she wanted to be buried back home in Alabama. Why? Because otherwise there would be no movie. So along with her corpse comes the Brits–her second husband and his children from a previous marriage.

So you get a funeral, a culture clash, sex between people slightly related by marriage, and the unintended use of a psychedelic drug. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs.

The film is set in 1969, so youthful rebellion also plays a part. The picture even opens with a very small anti-war march. Jim’s son Carroll (a long-haired Kevin Bacon) represents the counterculture, even though as a World War II veteran, he’s clearly too old for it. He seems to spend most of his time smoking pot, meditating, and running light shows. He has a son in danger of being drafted.

This picture is really about the long-term effects of war. Both Jim and his ex-wife’s second husband served in World War I. That second husband, with the very British name of Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), walks with a cane from a battle wound.

Their sons are also war damaged. Although in some ways Carroll is the most together of Jim’s three sons (he’s the only one not living with his father), Jim suggests that his problems are war-related. His brother Skip (Thornton) has serious scaring all over his body and seems to have never matured past adolescence. The third son, Jimbo  (Robert Patrick), didn’t serve and feels that he missed something. Kingsley’s son Philip spent most of the war in a Japanese prison camp–which permanently ruined his digestion and his relationship with his father, who accuses him of cowardice.

The cast is uniformly terrific, or as terrific as the weak writing allows. Among the standouts is Frances O’Connor, whom I’d never seen before, as Bedford’s daughter. Unlike everyone else, she seems to happily embrace life. However, among cinematic sex scenes that I never want to see again, I have to include O’Connor, naked, enthusiastically reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade while…never mind.

Thornton wanted to make a great drama, but he didn’t succeed. Conflicts are heavy-handed and overly explained. And everyone, from the generous but bigoted southerners to the stiff-upper-lip Brits, are stereotypes. The excellent cast pulls the weak script up to the point where it’s reasonably entertaining, but a drama with too many conflicts and not enough depth can only go so far.

What’s Screening: October 17 – 23

The Bay Area ReelAbilities Disabilities Film Festival closes Sunday. The  Arab Film Festival continues through the end of this week. The Petaluma International Film Festival opens its three-day run today. And Bertolucci – A Film Series, takes up one glorious day on Saturday.

Bertolucci – A Film Series, Castro, Saturday. Here’s your chance to see four of Bernardo Bertolucci’s major works in one day–and go to a party as well.The Last Emperor The films are The Conformist (12:30),  The Sheltering Sky (3:00), The Last Emperor (6:00), and Last Tango in Paris 9:30. The Last Emperor will be screened in its new 3D conversion; Bertolucci has approved the change, but it still makes me feel uncomfortable. The party, at 8:30 in the Castro’s mezzanine, is called "Inside the Forbidden City," and will have Italian and Chinese food. Of the four, there’s only one I’ve seen recently enough to write about, so…

A The Conformist, Castro, Saturday, 12:30. It takes more than good men doing nothing to create fascism. According to Bernardo Bertolucci’s haunting imagecharacter study, it also takes mediocre men with career ambitions. Jean-Louis Trintignant is chilling as a bland cog in the machine, ready to use his honeymoon in homicidal service to Mussolini. With Stefania Sandrelli as his not-too-bright bride and Dominique Sanda, in a star-making performance, as the object of everyone’s desire. Part of Bertolucci – A Film Series.

A The Dark Knight, Castro, Friday. As far back as Memento, the Nolan brothers have seen evil as an influence imagevery likely to corrupt those dedicated to fighting it. In what is by far the best Batman movie ever made, no one–including Bruce Wayne/Batman himself (Christian Bale)–gets away without moral compromises. But what can you expect when fighting the Joker, who is absolutely nuts in Heath Ledger’s final performance. For more details, see my full review. On a MiDNiTES for MANiACS double bill with Reign of Fire.

A Lauren Bacall double bill: Key Largo & To Have and Have Not, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The A goes to Key Largo. Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Humphrey Bogart faces off against gangster Edward G. Robinson. Most of the movie To Have and Have Notis talk, but when Richard Brooks and John Huston adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? But I can’t honestly give To Have and Have Not anything higher than a B. Yes, the Bogart-Bacall romance ignites the screen. But aside from the  sexual sparks, it’s just a moderately entertaining tale of war-time intrigue.

C How to Marry a Millionaire, Castro, Sunday. This lavish 1953 romantic comedy succeeds only moderately at being either romantic or funny, despite the talents of imageLauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe (who had only just achieved star status). As the title suggests, it’s about women not so much looking for love as fishing for a sugar daddy–hardly romantic. But How to Marry a Millionaire was one of the first two films shot in Cinemascope, and the first with an intimate, contemporary, character-and-dialog driven story. That alone gives it historical interest. On a Lauren Bacall double bill with Written on the Wind, which I haven’t seen.

B Frankenstein (1931 version), Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff imageinto a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s so little story that the movie feels like a warm-up for the infinitely superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Still, it was one of the most influential horror movies ever made, and Jack Pierce’s makeup for the monster is still iconic more than 80 years after the film’s release.

B+ Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This month’s collection of silent shorts has an unsurprising Halloween theme. imageOne AM (which actually  has no Halloween connection) has Chaplin playing his rich drunk character, too soused to find his bed. Like all of his Mutuals, it’s very funny. The Haunted House is one of Buster Keaton’s best shorts. Harold Lloyd’s Haunted Spooks is very funny, but be warned: It suffers from racist humor. I haven’t seen Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus. Greg Pane will accompany everything on piano.

C+ The Black Cat, Castro, Thursday. Not all Universal horror films were carefully crafted by artists like James Whale. Low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer threw this imagequickie together for very little money, and it looks it. But this silly story of revenge, lost honeymooners, a very modern spooky castle, and fear of cats offers a good share of laughs, some of them intentional. But why did Universal pick a cheapie like this for the first pairing of its two biggest horror stars–Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? On a double bill with the 1935 version of The Raven, which I haven’t seen.

A Boyhood, New Parkway, opens Friday. 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.

A The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. I recently revisited this cult favorite, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.)

Opera in the multiplex

Wednesday night, I finally saw an opera in a movie theater. I liked the experience.

I’ve known about the Met Opera HD series for years. But I’ve never been a huge opera fan, so it took me awhile to get to one.

I picked a good one, Verdi’s Macbeth. While I’m not that big on opera, I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, and Macbeth is one of my favorites. And I’m certainly open to loose adaptations. After all, I love Throne of Blood.

Verdi stuck much closer to Shakespeare’s text than Kurosawa ever did. The libretto is in French Italian, but the setting is still Scotland and names haven’t been changed. If anything was left out, I didn’t notice it.

But Verdi added enough to stretch Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy to about three hours–not including the intermission. Every soliloquy in the play got turned into an aria, and I think there were some other arias thrown in, as well.

19th century operas apparently demanded far more spectacle than Elizabethan tragedies, and Verdi didn’t miss a chance to fill the stage with large choruses. Instead of three witches, we get what looked onscreen as 30. Banquo is murdered not be two assassins but what appeared to be a battalion. That make it awfully hard to believe how Banquo’s son got out alive.


Not much of Shakespeare’s language survived. You can’t take English iambic pentameter, translate it into French Italian song lyrics, then back into English subtitles, and expect a copy of the original. But famous lines (“Out, damn’d spot”) survived.

But the music was beautiful–at times joyful, martial, frightening, and tragic. Macbeth is the story of a potentially good man who consciously chooses evil. His wife, on the other hand, is evil incarnate. And yet, in the end, she’s the one who feels remorse, even if she doesn’t understand it. It’s a complicated story, and Verdi’s music helped take us on this moral roller coaster.

imageHe was helped by the cast, of course. Anna Netrebko sung and acted an amazing Lady Macbeth–scheming, manipulative, sexy, and way over the top. That’s how it works in opera. As her manipulated husband, Zeljko Lucic carries the title role with both the strength and the self- doubt that the part requires. His was also an excellent performance, but one that gets blown out of the water by Netrebko.

The production placed the story in the 20th century, around the time of World War II judging from the clothes, weaponry, and especially the jeeps. This is very much like modern Shakespeare productions, which tend to be set in any time after Shakespeare’s own. However, as I watched the previews for coming operas, I realized that Met was following a similar, “let’s update” approach.

In the first scene, as the camera panned across the chorus of witches, I noticed a few little girls mixed amongst the grown women. The girls didn’t sing; they were there for visual effect. Most of them looked awkward and confused, as if they didn’t know what to do. But one was clearly enjoying playing an evil witch. All of them were, of course, adorable.

But as I watched the scene, I realized that in those girls I was seeing something unique to live theater on the big screen. If I had been in the Met watching the show live, the girls would have been too far away to study. In a real movie, their amateurish performances would have been fixed with retakes and editing. But this was an entirely different experience.

I think I’m going to catch more operas.

10/17: I corrected an error. The libretto was in Italian, not French.


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