Dont Look Back Blu-ray Review

You have to be a very hardcore Bob Dylan fan to really enjoy D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary, Dont Look Back (yes, that’s the correct spelling). Not only would you have to know and love his songs, but you would have to know something about Dylan as a person and a phenomenon, and about what was going on around him and within him as he toured England in the spring of 1965.

Fortunately, I qualify. As the biggest Dylan fan I personally know, I find it riveting. It doesn’t really show or explain the many changes he was going through at that time. But in its fly-on-the-wall directness, it captures the insular world he had built for himself, and gives you a glimpse of the extremely conflicted and complex genius he was like just before turning 24.

At this time, Dylan was transitioning from folk music–all acoustic and no other musicians–to full-throttle rock and roll. His first album to include rock songs, Bringing It All Back Home, had just been released. And yet this was a folk tour–with no instruments beyond Dylan’s acoustic guitar, his harmonicas, and his voice. He sings many of the “protest” songs that had launched his career: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and, of course, “Blowing in the Wind.” And yet, in the movie, we’re told that “Subterranean Homesick Blues”–the rocker that opens the then-new album–is climbing up the British charts.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” also opens the movie in one of the most famous precursors of the rock video: As that influential song plays on the soundtrack, Dylan stands shyly and somewhat embarrassed in an alley holding up cue cards with bits of the lyrics–and some puns built around the lyrics .

That is, as near as I can tell, the only staged scene in the film. For the rest of its 96 minutes, Pennebaker’s camera and microphone follow Dylan and his entourage as they hang out in hotel rooms, ride in chauffeured cars, and play music for their own enjoyment. Occasionally, we see a bit of a concert.

The movie shows Dylan as a smart, funny, charismatic, and basically decent person interested in everyone he meets. But not always. Sometimes he’s a first-class jerk. That shouldn’t be too surprising. Here’s a very young man who has become accustomed to being called a genius. Not just a singer/songwriter, but cast uneasily as a poet and a prophet. He can be cruel so casually that one wonders if he knows how he’s behaving. There’s one scene with a Time Magazine reporter that makes your skin crawl.

The film shows us quite a bit of Joan Baez, who came with him on the tour but was never invited onstage. This tour marked the end of their professional and romantic relationship. They don’t seem to like each other much here. We see the moment when she walks out of his life, ending a long professional and romantic relationship. Oddly, she shows up in two scenes right after her walkout.

But his entourage included more than Baez. We see a lot of manager Albert Grossman, close friend and tour manager Bob Neuwirth, and British musician and former Animal Alan Price. Donovan pops up, as well.

This isn’t really a concert movie. It shows him performing occasionally, but never for one complete song. His greatest musical moment is a performance of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” played privately in a hotel room.

Nor is it a conventional, information-filled documentary. There’s no narration, and if you don’t recognize the people on screen, you probably won’t figure out who they are.

Pennebaker captured a brief moment when the ’60s were about to become the 60’s, and the crazy world one of the most influential figures of that transition. Dylan would tour England again in 1966. But then he’d play electric guitar and front a rock quintet that would eventually become The Band. He was booed in those concerts, but he changed music.

First Impression

Rather than the usual Criterion plastic, Dont Look Back comes packaged in a cardboard slip cover containing a cardboard disc holder. Inside that you’ll find the disc (of course) and a fairly substantial booklet.

The bulk of the booklet is taken up by an excellent essay by Robert Polito, along with various images–photos, tickets, headlines, and so on–from the tour. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, and Criterion’s traditional About the Transfer.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, the home screen has menus on the left. When you remove the disc, your Blu-ray player will save a bookmark, and give you an option to return to where it left off the next time you insert the disc.

How It Looks

I’m all for 4K scans of original negatives, carefully transferred to a 1040p Blu-ray. But Dont Look Back was shot on fast, very grainy 16mm film, so this particular 4K/1080p transfer doesn’t show you a lot of details or textures because they simply weren’t there on the negative. What it does show you is a lot of grain.

On the other hand, all that grain makes the image authentic. You can’t mistake it for anything but a cinema verite documentary from the 1960s.

The image is pillarboxed to 1.371, approximately right for the 16mm frame.

How It Sounds

The LPCM 1.0 24-bit soundtrack is very good. Although it’s mono, the single track captures and reproduces the music beautifully. And since the music is seldom more than one person singing and playing guitar, you don’t really need moretracks.

And the Extras

This disc comes with a lot of extras–by my reckoning, more than five hours worth. You’ll learn more about D.A. Pennebaker here than you’ll learn about Bob Dylan.

  • Commentary: Recorded in 1999 by Pennebaker and Neuwirth. This provides the narration that the movie lacks.
  • Dylan on Dont Look Back: four minutes, 1080i. Clips and outtakes, with Dylan narrating, talking mostly about how he got used to the camera and soon didn’t think about it.
  • 65 Revisted: 65 minutes, 1080p. Another movie edited in 2006 from footage not used in the original movie. It has some dull moments, but is generally very good–and it has full songs. It closes with an alternate take of the Subterranean cue card bit, this on a rooftop instead of an alley.
  • Greig Marcus and D. A. Pennebaker: 18 minutes, 1080i. A conversation with journalist and cultural critic Marcus. Interesting, but much of it you will get from other extras.
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues” (alternate take): two minutes, 1080p. Yet another version of the cue card bit, this one shot in a garden. By the way, all of the versions have Allen Ginsberg in the background, on the left, talking to someone.
  • Additional Audio Performances: Five songs recorded during the tour, with nothing on screen except a photo of Dylan singing. The songs are “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “the Lonesome Deagth of Hattie Carroll, and “To Ramona. “
  • D. A. Pennebaker: A Look Back: Four separate short films:
    • It Starts with Music: 29 minutes; 1080p. Pennebaker and some of his collaborators/assistants talk about how he developed his technique. Very interesting. “Narration to me is the enemy of theater.”
    • Daybreak Express: Five minutes; 1080p. Pennebaker’s first film, shot in 1953 but not completed until ’57. A visual love letter to NYC, set appropriately to Duke Ellington music. Also provided: a 3-minute introduction.
    • Baby: Six minutes; 1080p. Another early film, of Pennebaker’s young daughter at the zoo, filmed in 1954. Pennebaker considers this a breakthrough in what type of filmmaker he would become, but on its own, it’s just a home movie set to some nice music.
    • Lambert & Company: 14 minutes; 1080p. A Pennebaker film showing jazz vocalist Dave Lambert auditioning a new group for a record that was never recorded. Nice music, and it’s interesting to see how it’s created in the studio.
  • D.A. Pennebaker and Bob Neuwirth: 34 minutes; 1080p. The two of them talking about their work together, which started but didn’t stop with Dont Look Back. They talk, with some clips from the films they worked on together. The film ends with a clip from a 1971 Neuwirth concert which proves that Neuwirth’s talent was really in helping other musicians.
  • Snapshots from the Tour: 26 minutes; 1080p. More outtakes. It’s uneven, but with a lot of music played in hotel rooms.
  • Patti Smith: 14 minutes; 1080p. Recorded just this summer. Smith talks about Dylan as an idol and eventually a friend.
  • Trailer: You guessed it, they advertised the film with The Subterranean Homesick Blues cue card bit.

And none of these extras answers the big question: Who stole the apostrophe in the title?

What’s Screening: November 20 – 26

The film festival season seems to be slowing down. We only have two this week, and neither survives through Monday.

But we still have movies.

A- Hannah and Her Sisters, Castro, Wednesday

Various members and ex-members of an extended family suffer through their lusts, stupidities, and suicidal urges in Woody Allen’s relationship comedy/drama. Allen juggles an all-star cast (Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Max von Sydow and himself) and produces a story that’s cynical, funny, and surprisingly sweet. On a double bill with Broadway Danny Rose, which I haven’t seen in a very long time but liked when I saw it.

B+ Silent John Ford double bill: Upstream & The Iron Horse, Stanford, Sunday, 2:00

The B+ goes to The Iron Horse, John Ford’s first big-budget western. The characters are simplistic pawns and stereotypes, and the patriotism is overblown, with an almost God-like view of Abraham Lincoln. But the spectacular visuals and exciting action sequences, especially the final Indian attack (yes, the film is also racist), have an impact beyond the story and characters. Upstream, an amusing and entertaining trifle about the residents of a theatrical boarding house, gets a B- on its own. It in no way feels like a John Ford film, but it’s fun and it shows that he was considerably more versatile than his legend suggests. Dennis James accompanies both films on the Stanford’s Wurlitzer pipe organ.

A+ Goodfellas, Castro, Sunday

Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) was just another crook working for the mafia. Martin Scorsese’s brilliant retelling of Hill’s life follows him from his enthusiastic, adolescent leap into crime until–25 years later–he rats on long-time friends to save his own neck. (Was that a spoiler? Not really.) Liotta narrates most of the film as Hill, who clearly loved his life as a “wise guy.” But while the narration romanticizes the life of crime, Scorsese’s camera shows us the ugly reality. Goodfellas is dazzling filmmaking and incredible story-telling. And the story it tells shows a seductive but inevitably horrible way to live. Read my A+ essay. On a double bill with Carlito’s Way.

Touch of Evil, Rafael, Sunday

Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and his last Hollywood studio feature. He lacked the freedom he found in Europe, but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best works. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress. As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say. The final screening in the series Welles 100: the Maverick.

B- The Toll of the Sea, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

Anna May Wong received one of her few starring roles in this blatant rip-off of Madame Butterfly (set in China rather than the original’s Japan). But the real star is the very early two-color Technicolor process. A pretty good weepie lifted into special interest by Ms. Wong’s beauty and talent, and its historical value as one of the first films shot in Technicolor. As far as I know, the last reel is still missing, but the story gets filled in through new footage and title cards. Preceded with the short subject Fashion News, also in Technicolor. Piano accompaniment by Judy Rosenberg. A celebration of Technicolor’s 100th anniversary.

The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30

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.) Read my full report.

B+ Wings of Desire, Castro, Monday

Wenders’ fantasy about angels in Berlin offers a view of the city as a land of interior monologues. Two angels: Bruno Ganz, and Otto Sander) watch over the people, listen to their thoughts, and comfort them in their pain. Then one of them (Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist, and finds himself longing for mortality. Wenders couldn’t have known it when he made the film in 1988, but he was capturing the last months of a divided city; the wall seen in the film would soon come down. With Peter Falk as a strange version of himself. On a Wim Wenders double bill with Faraway, So Close!

A+ Notorious, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00

One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant sent her on this deadly and humiliating mission, and she literally sleeps with the enemy on his orders. He reacts with blind jealousy. The Nazi, on the other hand, appears to truly love her. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray Review.

B+ Oklahoma, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday

Yes, the plot is silly and some of the cowboy accents are terrible, but when you see Oklahoma! on the big screen, with an audience, you discover what a remarkable piece of entertainment it is. The songs are catchy, the jokes are funny, and Agnes DeMille’s choreography is amongst the best ever filmed. Historically, the movie racked up a lot of firsts. It was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein picture (based on their first play together), the first film shot in Todd-AO, the first presented in 70mm with six-track sound, and the beginning of the roadshow musicals that dominated Hollywood for the next 15 years. The new digital restoration brings back all that Todd-AO magic.

D+ Big Gay Love, New People Cinema, Sunday, 12:30pm

This romantic comedy rarely succeeds in being funny. And when it’s not trying to be funny, it succeeds only in heavy-handedly preaching about the need to accept yourself for what you are–overweight, insecure, and socially awkward. It starts well, as Bobby (Jonathan Lisecki) considers buying a house, only to be snubbed by the neighbors not for being gay but for being single (the neighbors who snub him are gay fathers). But Lisecki way overplays the loser character to the point where he becomes annoying to everyone on screen and off. When smart, sensitive, gorgeous Andy (Nicholas Brendon) falls in love with him, he can’t believe it…and neither could I. Part of the International Southeast Asian Film Festival.

A- Experimenter, New Parkway, opens Saturday

In the early ’60s, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) ran tests that tricked subjects into thinking they were torturing another person. He wanted to see how many would stop when ordered to keep going. His methods were extremely controversial. Writer/director Michael Almereyda, who clearly sides with Milgram in the controversy, finds unique and entertaining ways to tell the story; Sarsgaard frequently talks directly to the camera, and occasional scenes use intentionally fake backgrounds. The acting is mostly excellent, and the subject matter is just plain fascinating. Winona Ryder plays Milgram’s wife. Read my full review.

Trumbo, California (Berkeley), Aquarius, opens Friday

Jay Roach turns the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo into a lively, entertaining, and important drama. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad makes a lively, funny, and complex Trumbo, and the rest of the cast—almost all of them playing real people—all do a fine job, with Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper standing out. As with all biopics, there’s a lot of fiction here, but it gets to the heart of the true story about a dark but important era in the history of Hollywood and America.

B+ What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, Lark, opens Friday

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: Niklas Frank grew to hate his high-ranking Nazi father. Horst von Wächter insists his father was innocent despite massive evidence otherwise. These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, filmmakers Philippe Sands and David Evans found a strong one. Read my full review.

A+ List: Ikiru; also a Blu-ray review

A bureaucrat, emotionally dead and cut-off from both his job and his family, discovers that he has only months to live. He has scarce time to make his empty life meaningful. He will find that meaning in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru.

The name translates into English as To Live.

When I started this project of revisiting my all-time favorite films–my A+ list of personal classics–I thought I would quickly skip over Ikiru on the grounds that I discussed it previously in a Kurosawa Diary entry. But then Criterion announced the Blu-ray, just as Ikiru came up on the alphabetical list. Sometimes, the timing works.

For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades.

Consider American films about dying of cancer. In The Bucket List, the main characters go skydiving, fly over the North Pole, and eat in a gourmet French restaurant. In Breaking Bad, the hero makes and deals drugs to pay for treatment and help his family. But in Kurasawa’s moral universe, the dying protagonist finds redemption by fighting city hall and getting a park built in a slum.

What’s more, Kurosawa found a unique and original way to structure the story that keeps it from getting preachy or maudlin.

Warning: What you’re about to read has mild spoilers. I don’t think they will ruin your first screening of Ikiru. But if you’re worried, skip down to the First Impression section below.

In what was probably the best role of his career, Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the city hall bureaucrat who almost accidentally discovers he has an advanced case of stomach cancer. He stops going to work. A widower, he discovers he can’t make any significant contact with his son and daughter-in-law, even though they live with him.

He tries wine, women, and song; they don’t help. He befriends a former co-worker–a young woman bursting with life. Their friendship is platonic, but his family assumes otherwise. He’s happy when he’s around her, but eventually she pushes him away.

Before his diagnosis, he led a department where everyone pretended to be busy but never did anything meaningful. Now he takes on a crusade: He will get the city to drain an germ-infested sump and replace it with a park.

And just when the story is about to become sentimental, Kurosawa jumps ahead five months and the narrator tells us that Watanabe is dead. (Ikiru uses narration sparingly, but brilliantly. This is the only drama I’ve ever seen where a voice-of-God narrator sounds sarcastic.) In the extended wake scene that follows, the hero’s family and co-workers piece together at least part of what he never told them.

After Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura was the most important actor in Kurosawa’s career. Primarily a character actor, Shimura rarely got starring roles. But he carries this picture beautifully, and you feel his presence even in the wake sequence, where you see him only in flashbacks.

For a film about death, Ikiru can be surprisingly lively. A jazz nightclub scene gives you a taste of Kurosawa’s love for American popular music. Jokes abound, many around the “rakish” hat he acquires in his night of partying.

Aside from the jazz, music plays some important roles here. Twice in the film, Shimura sings a touchingly sad song (Shimura acted in musicals before his Kurosawa years). And the story’s major turning point happens in a restaurant where young people in the background sing “Happy Birthday.”

Class differences play an important part in Ikiru. Look closely, and you’ll see a society where your birth defines your life in often cruel ways.

Few films are as perfect as Ikiru.

First Impression

The Ikiru Blu-ray comes in a standard Criterion case. The cover shows the famous still of Shimura sitting on a swing on a snowy night. Inside, along with the disc, is a printed foldout with two articles: Donald Richie’s “To Live” and Pico Iver’s “Ikiru Many Autumns Later.” The foldout also contains credits for the film and disc, and Criterion’s traditional “About the Transfer” page.

If you own Richie’s classic book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, you already own the first article on the foldout.

When you inset the disc, the home screen shows a close-up of a very scared Takashi Shimura. There’s no sound. The menu follows Criterion design, with the options on the right.

The only language options are English subtitles–On (default) or Off.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, when you insert the disc a second time, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off. Selecting No will bring you to the home screen.

How It Looks

The 4K scan was taken from a fine-grain master positive–the original camera negative is either lost or destroyed. Criterion presents this scan in 1080p AVC.

For the most part, it looks excellent. Ikiru is not a pretty movie, but the details–stacks of papers, peeling wallpaper–play an important role in creating the atmosphere of post-war Tokyo and of useless bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, some of the source material was beyond repair (or beyond Criterion’s budget). Occasionally the image was marred by what appeared to be uneven exposure, with part of the screen bleached out..

How It Sounds

The uncompressed LPCM 1.0 24-bit, 24-bit mono soundtrack did its job. In some of the music scenes, you could hear the early 1950s technology struggling to capture the notes.

But I suspect this is how it sounded when Kurosawa signed off on the mix. I have no complaints.

And the Extras

The suppliments are identical to those on the 2003 two-disc DVD release.

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
    In a truly excellent commentary, Prince discusses Kurosawa’s techniques, his collaborators, and bits about post-war Japan that helps make this very universal story specifically Japanese.
  • A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies: 81 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. Produced by Kurosawa’s company only two years after his death, this overly-referential, feature-length documentary covers his movie-making techniques from writing to scoring. Much of it is shallow and dull. But occasionally, especially when Kurosawa is on screen talking, it’s interesting and informative.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 42 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. In 2002, Japanese television did a documentary series on Kurosawa’s films. This is the Ikira episode. It’s mostly antidotes from people who worked on the film, and for the most part it’s fascinating. Very much worth watching.
  • Trailer

Raymond Griffith at Niles

Last Saturday night, I visited the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum for a screening of the 1925 Raymond Griffith comedy, Hands Up! I had seen it once before–probably in 1977 or ’78 at the Avenue Theater (of blessed memory). Then, and now, I totally enjoyed it.

Sorry it took me so long to get to write about this. I’ve been busy.

Raymond Griffith (not related to D.W. Griffith) is largely forgotten these days, and his work (or at least what I’ve seen of it) doesn’t come up to the best of Keaton, Chaplin, or Lloyd. But he was funny. He almost always appeared in a top hat and cape, as if he was going to the opera. His character was cheerful, unflappable, and exceptionally polite. I wrote more about Griffith in a recent Eat Drink Films article, Revisiting Walter Kerr’s THE SILENT CLOWNS.

Hands Up! is a civil war comedy, with the hero on the side of the Confederacy, so comparisons to The General
are almost mandatory. The General is a masterpiece–a near perfect alloy of epic adventure and slapstick comedy. Despite the laughs, it feels plausible and realistic. But Hands Up! is simply farce. It will do anything for a laugh, even at the expense of the atmosphere or story.

Griffith plays a Confederate spy who travels west to sabotage a Yankee goldmine. Along the way he outwits a firing squad, teaches native Americans to dance the Charleston (a major anachronism), and romances a pair of young and beautiful sisters.

The film wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. Over the years, my memory had improved some of the jokes, making them better timed. Some sequences involving an African American were shockingly racist, even for a film of this vintage.

But the good parts were strong enough for me to give it an B+.

The 16mm print was made up from several sources to get the entire picture looking as good as possible. And for the most part, it looked good if not great.

The feature was preceded by two shorts: D.W. Griffith’s The Last Drop of Water and William S. Hart’s The Taking of Luke McVane. Neither was better than moderately entertaining, in large part I suspect from the washed-out prints, especially of the Griffith.

There was a theme running through all three movies: the desert. The organization Desert Survivors was involved with this screening.

Bruce Loeb accompanied all of the films on piano.

Before the movies began, I took the liberty of taking some photos of the museum. Enjoy:

The theater

Old cameras, with an old projector on the right

Another view of the cameras and that black projector

The two 16mm projectors in the projection booth. The blue box in the rear is one of the two 35mm projectors

What’s Screening: November 13 – 19

We’ve still got a lot of film festivals going on. Six of them.

Trumbo, Kabuki, opens Friday

Jay Roach turns the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo into a lively, entertaining, and important drama. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad makes a lively, funny, and complex Trumbo, and the rest of the cast—almost all of them playing real people—all do a fine job, with Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper standing out. As with all biopics, there’s a lot of fiction here, but it gets to the heart of the true story-a dark but important era in the history of Hollywood and America.

B+ What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: Niklas Frank grew to hate his high-ranking Nazi father. On the other hand, Horst von Wächter insists his father was innocent despite massive evidence otherwise. These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, filmmakers Philippe Sands and David Evans found a strong one. Read my full review.

? Hands Up!, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

Buster Keaton’s wasn’t the only feature-length Civil War comedy to come out of the 1920s. I haven’t seen this Raymond Griffith vehicle in decades, but I recall it as being very funny, in a weirder and more off-the-wall vein then Keaton’s masterpiece. I suspect that if I saw it again, I’d give it a B+ or maybe even an A-. I discuss the movie in more length in my EatDrinkFilm article on The Silent Clowns. The show includes two shorts: The Last Drop of Water and The Taking of Luke McVane. Bruce Loeb will accompany the films on piano.

A+ 80’s dystopian double feature: Brazil & Blade Runner, Sunday, 7:00

The A+ goes to Brazil; but Blade Runner earns an A on its own. I’ve thought for years that these would make a great double bill. True, one is a big-budget blockbuster, and the other an “art film.” But they’re both set in disturbing, dystopian, near futures (which are now in the past). They were made within three years of each other. And both had trouble with studio executives and thus now exist in multiple versions. Read my Blade Runner’s final cut.

A- Paris, Texas, Castro, Monday

Harry Dean Stanton gives a masterful, understated performance as an amnesiac who walks out of the desert and back into the lives of his family. Missing for years, he’s taken in by his brother’s family, which now includes his own son. As the man’s memory slowly returns, he becomes obsessed with earning his son’s love again, and finding out, not the mystery of his own disappearance, but that of his wife’s. Wenders’ first American film. On a Wim Wenders double bill with The State of Things.

D- Archive Talkie Matinee: Monsieur Verdoux, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00

I feel like a cad attacking Charlie Chaplin’s second talkie and penultimate American film. It took courage in the Hollywood of 1947 to make a movie with a serial killer as the protagonist, and to use that murderer to attack greed, industrialization, and war. But let’s face it: The movie is slow, preachy beyond human tolerance (even if you agree with Chaplin’s sentiments), and almost totally devoid of humor.

A+ Masterpiece double bill in alphabetical order: Seven Samurai & The Seventh Seal, Castro, Sunday

The A+ goes to Seven Samurai. If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours for Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. In Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (almost the cliché art film), a knight returning from the Crusades plays chess with death while the plague ravages the land. Filled with wonderful characters, religious allegory, and sly humor, it bursts with a love of humanity and a fear for our place in the universe. I give it an A.

A Beauty and the Beast(1946 version), Balboa, Wednesday, 8:00

I’d be hard-pressed to think of another film that’s anything like Jean Cocteau’s post-war fantasy. It’s a fairy tale, told with a charming and often naïve innocence, and contains absolutely no objectionable-for-children content. It’s also a supremely atmospheric motion picture, and one that takes its magical story seriously. Its slow pace and quiet magic never panders to unsophisticated viewers–and yet, I once saw a very young audience sit enraptured by it. See my Blu-ray review.

B The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, New People Cinema, Saturday, 9:00

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an easier film to admire than to like. The story is very conventional–at least until the end. But visually speaking, this has to be one of the weirdest commercial films ever made. It’s expressionistic visuals and way over-the-top acting keeps the audience at an arms-length. The constant intensity can be exhausting. But the atmosphere can also have a powerful hold. I discuss it at more length in this article. A group called Its Own Infinite Flower will provide the musical accompaniment. Part of Another Hole on the Head Film Festival.

A- Apocalypse Now, Castro, Saturday

New 4K Restoration, original cut
You can see Francis Coppola’s talent melt away in his Vietnam War epic. Most of Apocalypse Now achieves a powerful, hypnotic, surreal brilliance. A modern updating of Heart of Darkness, it follows an army operative (Martin Sheen) assigned to terminate the command of a rogue officer (“terminate, with extreme prejudice”). He travels with four sailors upriver in a small boat, and the river itself becomes a metaphor for the insanity of this particular war. Then, in the last act, they arrive at their destination, meet Marlon Brando, and the whole movie collapses under its own (and Brando’s) weight. On a double bill with The Thin Red Line.

B Sacred Blood, New People Cinema, Friday, 9:00

Yet another hip vampire movie filled with punk music, stylish visuals, mortals who deserve to die, and bloodsucker angst. Circus manager Natia gets bitten by a vampire dog and joins the undead. She gets lessons from a more experienced vampire, befriends an innocent young man, and has no trouble cleaning human scum off the streets of San Francisco. The movie is quite often wonderful, especially when it goes way over the top. But the story is predictable and some of the acting is unpardonably bad. Another part of Another Hole on the Head Film Festival.

A Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine, Lark, Sunday, 8:20; Tuesday, 7:45

Director Alex Gibney starts this multifaceted documentary with a difficult question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn his death? Jobs was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He made technology friendly for the average person, and significantly changed the world. But he was also a jerk that cheated friends, let his daughter grow up on welfare while he became incredibly wealthy, and parked his sports car in handicap spaces. Gibney offers us an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a man utterly lacking in empathy. Read my full review.

A Fantasia, various Cinemark theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday; Embarcadero Center, Sunday through Wednesday

I have a sneaking feeling that I don’t really have to tell you about this movie. Decades before MTV, Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and countless other artists took classical music and added animated visuals. Not every piece is brilliant, but several of them are and none of them are truly bad. A great achievement and an entertaining two hours.

? 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. (Why haven’t I experienced this big-screen version? Because I’m too old to see movies that start at 10:30.) I hope this will be a good episode; no one is telling us which one will be screened.

Roxie gains beer & better projection; hopes to gain members

Late last year, when the major theater chains refused to screen The Interview
for fear of North Korean terrorists, San Francisco’s own Roxie offered to show the comedy. Sony turned them down for technical reasons: The Roxie could screen it in 35mm or Blu-ray, but Sonly would only send the movie out to theaters in DCP.

The lack of a DCP-capable digital projector is a major shortcoming for a movie theater these days; even an eclectic theater like the Roxie. Most new movies aren’t available in any other format. And even classics are becoming easier to rent on a hard drive than on multiple reels of 35mm film.

So I’m delighted to let you know that the Roxie now has a DCP-compatible (the official term is DCI-compliant) projector. The next time terrorists (or hackers pretending to be terrorists) scare the multiplexes from screening a big Hollywood blockbuster, the Roxie will be waiting and able.

And don’t worry about the death of film. The Big Roxie still has two 35mm reel-to-reel projectors, able to project the old-fashioned way.

And if you find the images from any of these projectors too sharp, you can blur your own perceptions with beer or hard cider, now on sale at the Roxie’s concession stand. The Roxie has a license to drink. (Okay, it’s a license to sell drinks, but only beer and cider.)

But with all these changes, the Roxie needs money. So the theater is pushing a membership drive this month. According to the Roxie’s announcement, a membership buys you “free or discounted admissions, free popcorn, private screenings and more.”

Sons wrestle with their past in What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

B+ Documentary

Written by Philippe Sands

Directed by David Evans

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father, arguably your loving father, was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: You can denounce your father for the monster that he was, or you can live in denial. This troubling documentary shows us both approaches.

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and eventually became Governor-General of occupied Poland. Guilty of millions of murders, he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg. His son Niklas grew to hate and condemn his father. He almost feels as if he must do penance for his father’s sins.

Otto von Wächter wasn’t as successful a Nazi as Hans Frank, but he did well for himself. Working under Frank, he administered Kraków and Galicia. Hundreds if not thousands were killed by people under his command. After the war, he eluded capture and died of natural causes in 1949. His son Horst insists that he had nothing to do with the Holocaust or any other crimes–despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Over the years, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter got to know each other and become friends. But their relationship was always marred by their very different approaches to their similar family histories.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather was the only survivor of a large family of Galicia Jews. Yes, that Galicia–both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were complicit in the slaughter of his family. The British-born Sands is the film’s author, interviewer, and narrator.

Sands’ interviews with both Niklas and Horst comprise the bulk of What Our Fathers Did (I’m using the subjects’ first names to not confuse them with their horrible fathers). They’re interviewed in their current homes, their childhood homes, in front of a live audience in England, and in the locations of their fathers’ crimes. The interviews are all conducted in English; luckily, both subjects are fluent in the language.

These various locations keep the film visually interesting. So does the archival footage, which includes home movies, family photos, and what I assume are Nazi-filmed moviesfrom the Warsaw or Krakow ghetto–some of it in color (yes, the Germans had color film). These films were shot before things got too bad, and it’s strange to see these very skinny people putting up the face of a normal life, and even smiling and waving at the camera. They don’t yet know what’s in store.

And then there’s the story of Niklas’ mother going “shopping” in the ghetto. It was a great way to go bargain hunting.

As the film continues, Horst becomes less and less likeable. Nothing will get him to admit that his father was guilty of mass murder. For every piece of evidence, he finds an excuse. At his lowest point, he says that no one ever accused his father of a crime “except a few Jews, because of the Holocaust.” By the end, Niklas is calling Horst a Nazi and is re-evaluating their friendship.

The film’s most shocking sequence happens in Galicia. Some local Ukrainians take part in a ceremony honoring the fallen German soldiers. Many wear Nazi uniforms and swastika jewelry. When they’re told that the son of Otto von Wächter is in their presence, they treat him like a returning hero. Horst just beams.

These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands and director David Evans found a strong one.


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