What’s Screening: February 27 – March 5

The Noise Pop Film Festival continues through Sunday, while Cinequest runs through this week and beyond.

Here’s what else is screening:

A Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Embarcadero, Rafael, Shattuck, opens Friday. Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn spouse won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama imageset in Israel, where only the husband can initiate a divorce. The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber and an adjoining waiting room. While clearly an indictment of Israeli marital laws, it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere of extreme claustrophobia. Read my full review.

Balboa Birthday Bash, Balboa, Sunday, 7:00. The Balboa Theater celebrates its 89th imagebirthday with live entertainment, champagne, cake, and, of course, a movie. Among the acts: magician and escape artist Big Al Catraz (hey, I didn’t make up that name), musical burlesque by Kitten on the Keys, and "Industrial Ragtime" by Parlor Tricks. The movie will be Chicago, not the Oscar-winning musical from 2002, but the original, silent version . With piano accompaniment by Fredrick Hodges. Hosted by Gary Meyer.

B+ Whiplash, Kabuki, opens Friday. Set in a fictitious music conservatory, Whiplash follows a young and ambitious jazz drummer (Miles Teller) as he is tortured and abused by a horrifically imagecruel music teacher. The film’s key pleasure is watching veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, in the Oscar-winning role of a lifetime, as the most evil music teacher since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Other pleasures include the music (of course) and Teller’s way of making you root for the protagonist, even though he’s pretty much a dick. But the film is set in an almost all-male world (although I’ve been told since I first wrote about it that this is actually pretty accurate in jazz), and the teacher would realistically have been fired years ago.

B+ Clouds Of Sils Maria, California Theatre (San Jose), Sunday, 7:15. A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. But this time, she’ll be playingimagea different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only  slightly echoes play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Part of Cinequest.

A Lack of Privacy double bill: The Lives of Others & Citizenfour, Castro, Wednesday. The A goes to The Lives of Others. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck creates a very intimate, human story about the horrors of Communism and all forms of totalitarianism, and turns it into a suspenseful thriller. In East Germany, an up-and-coming secret police officer must gather dirt on a playwright–for reasons that are utterly absurd. Slowly, bit by bit, the secret policeman comes to identify with his prey and lose faith in the Socialist ideal. In Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room where Edward Snowden tells Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy. But the long discussions become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. I give this one a B. Read my longer essay.

A+ Casablanca, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. You’ve either casablancaalready seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

A Hitchcock double bill: Psycho & The Birds, Thursday through next Sunday. The A goes to Psycho, where Alfred Hitchcock leaves the audience unsure who we’re supposed to root for or what could constitute a imagehappy ending. Janet Leigh  and Anthony Perkins defined their careers in Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. But I can only give a B- to the film that followed it. The Birds has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment, and the following attack on the children, are classics. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and new-comer Hedren–while beautiful–is utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma.

A- The Princess Bride, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. 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.

A Timbuktu, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

A- Selma, Lark, opens Friday. I found it difficult at first to accept David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Tom Wilkinson as LBJ. They didn’t look and sound right. But as the film progressed, I accepted them and got lost in the powerful and image(unfortunately) still timely story. I had no problem accepting Carmen Ejogo’s spot-on perfect performance as Coretta Scott King. The film’s biggest strength comes from its picture of King as a flawed human being filled with doubts, exhaustion, and guilt–a man who would lie to his wife, badly, about his infidelities–but still a great hero. The film’s biggest mistake was letting us meet this real person before showing him as we all know him, as a great orator.

A- Birdman, Kabuki, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Guild, starts Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

C- Vertigo, Castro, Saturday through Monday. 70mm. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem is that neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.

A+ North by Northwest, Stanford, through Sunday. Alfrednbnw Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a Hitchcock double bill with The 39 Steps, which I haven’t seen in decades.

Divorce Israeli Style. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

A Courtroom drama

  • Written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn husband won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama from Israel.

The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, inexpensive, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber, with a few scenes in an adjoining waiting room. As in a stage play, the characters’ lives outside of that room are only alluded to in dialog. Although the protagonist, Viviane, has a life and runs her own successful business, the limited settings emphasize that in a very real way, she’s trapped.

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Let me explain: Despite the fact that most Israelis are secular, Orthodox rabbis own a monopoly on Jewish matrimony. You can’t get married or divorced without their approval. And by their rules, only the husband can grant a divorce (gett in Hebrew). If the husband has been particularly cruel, the rabbis can put pressure on him, and even jail him. But only he can set his wife free.

And so the hearings continue. Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) explains the nightmare of her marriage. Her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) proclaims to be a good man and good husband. Witnesses speak on both sides. And little by little, we learn about their lives.

He’s deeply religious and keeps kosher. She grew up that way, and was Orthodox when they married, but now wants to leave religion behind her. And here she is, trying to win the sympathies of three Orthodox rabbis who may hopefully force Elisha’s hands.

Elisha is not a violent man, but he’s cold, self-centered, and horrifically stubborn. You can easily see what a nightmare it would be to be married to such a man. Even the rabbis–who one would assume are pre-disposed to favor an Orthodox man over a secular woman–hate him. But they can’t grant a divorce without him.

Over the years (scenes are separately by intertitles that tell us how many months have gone by), Viviane’s look and demeanor show her growing secular leanings. Her clothes get less modest and more modern over the course of the film.

The picture doesn’t tell us everything about Viviane’s life. For instance, we don’t know if she’s sexually active–quite possibly because she doesn’t want the rabbis to see her as an adulteress. But there are fleeting moments that suggest she has something to hide. And a few glances between her and her very handsome counsel (Menashe Noy) suggest a mutual, although probably not acted on, attraction.

There’s no question that Gett is a didactic film. It’s clearly meant as an indictment of the Israeli system of marriage and divorce. But it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere so claustrophobic that we only see the outside world twice–and both times through a window. And only twice, outside of the opening and closing credits, do we hear music.

Daring in its stripped-down style, Gett never makes you wish for a more expansive canvas. It may make you thankful for the first amendment.

Revisiting Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By

Anyone who cares about silent films has to read Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth oral history survey, The Parade’s Gone By. Not a history book in the usual sense, it describes early Hollywood primarily through the recollections of people who were there. Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Louise Brooks, and William Wellman were among the many filmmakers who Brownlow interviewed.

imageI first read The Parade’s Gone By in 1972, and wrote a book report on it for a film history class. The book was only four years old at that time, and the American silent era had been dead for 42 years. And now, 42 years after my first reading, I’ve re-read it.

We have far better access to silent films, and I suspect have far more silent film enthusiasts, than we did when I first read this book–or when Brownlow wrote it. Brownlow complains frequently about washed-out prints projected at the wrong speed–the most common way silents were screened in those days, if they were screened at all. Today, thanks to restorations, digital technology, film festivals, and especially thanks to Kevin Brownlow, that’s no longer the case. When I first read this book, I’d seen maybe six silent features in theaters and classrooms–two with live music–and maybe another five on broadcast TV. Now, there are weekends when I see more than that.

One example of how things have changed: When I first read Parade, I fell instantly in love with Louise Brooks. I would have to wait ten more years to actually see her in a film. Now she’s readily available everywhere.

Although the creations of the era are now readily available, the people who created them are long gone. And its these people that Brownlow had access to in the 1960s. Here we have Gloria Swanson describing the time Cecil B. De Mille filmed her with a real lion on her back for Male and Female. "Then they cracked their whips till he roared. It felt like thousands of vibrators. Every hair on my body was standing straight up. I had to close my eyes. The last thing I saw was Mr. De Mille with a gun."

Some of what they say is shocking by today’s standard–and even by the standards of image1968. Mary Pickford, recalling a fight with the American Legion over bringing Ernst Lubitsch to America, quotes a speech she planned but never had a chance to say, which including the argument "I’m white, twenty-one, and an American citizen." By then an old woman, she doesn’t seem to realize how offensive the statement sounds. Curiously, Brownlow put Pickford’s chapter in the section on directors, even though she never was one. She was a star, a producer, and ran a studio, but she never directed.

Decades-old recollections are notoriously inaccurate, but enough of them, well edited, can create a vivid view of the world they recall. I doubt that every incident described in The Parade’s Gone By happened exactly as written. But the general sense of a technical gimmick maturing into a major industry and a magnificent art form, then suddenly dying just as it reaches its peak, comes through. So does the sense of pioneers building something new. Those following today’s tech revolutions would do well to read this book.

Brownlow doesn’t stick entirely to his interviews. He has chapters on Griffith and DeMille, neither of whom lived long enough to be interviewed for this book. It includes chapters on art direction, editing, tinting, and, of course, the talkie revolution that killed one art form to create another. He also devotes two chapters to specific films: Douglas Fairbanks’ version of Robin Hood, and the original Ben Hur.

Although the first chapter is called The Primitive Years and the last one The Talking Picture, Brownlow doesn’t attempt a chronological history. He’s more interested in the flavor of the period, and the day-to-day work. He assumes, for instance, that you already know that Griffith was a beginning of cinema as an art form (an opinion that isn’t as widely held today as it was in 1968).

The British Brownlow focuses his book almost entirely on America, but he turns to Europe for two chapters near the end. The second of these chapters, and by far the longest chapter in the book, covers his hero, Abel Gance. In almost worshipful terms, using both Gance’s words and his own, Brownlow describes Gance as the French Griffith, and the greatest filmmaker of all time. He goes into great detail about the man’s life, and the making of his three most important films. He bemoans the fact that Napoleon (in Brownlow’s eyes the greatest film ever made) no longer exists in anything like its original form.

That was 1968. Today, Napoleon has been beautifully restored. We have Kevin Brownlow to thank for that. And not just for Napoleon. The current access to silent films that we all enjoy is, to a large extent, the result of Brownlow’s life work. And The Parade’s Gone By was the beginning.

Whiplash and the All-Male World of Jazz

I saw Whiplash a couple of nights ago. I liked it. It was tense. I very much wanted the protagonist to succeed, even though he was kind of a dick. Veteran actor J.K. Simmons, playing the most evil music teacher since Hans Conried in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., finally got the juicy part he so long deserved (he’ll also deserve the Oscar he’ll almost certainly get Sunday). And best of all, the music was great.

But it was set in a New York City that was almost entirely male, and pretty much white.

In Thursday’s Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote an excellent piece on the achingly few good roles provided for women in today’s American movies. He didn’t mention Whiplash, but it really made his point.

The film is set in what appears to be a very classy, totally fictitious music conservatory, apparently devoted entirely to jazz. And it’s an almost entirely all-male school? I saw one young woman among the students. We never heard her name, and if she had a line of dialog, I don’t remember it. She played sax.

Since that conservatory was created by writer/director Damien Chazelle, he was completely free to select the demographics of the student body. So why was the ratio of boys to girls something like 40 to 1?

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Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer determined to become a great and legendary jazz musician. His name is Andrew, he’s played by Miles Teller. He is, of course, a white man. Simmons plays the teacher/bandleader Fletcher, also a white man. About half of the class are black men. But the important characters, including Andrew’s father and the drummers he competes with in class, are also white.

In reality, this teacher would have been fired long ago. He’s verbally abusive, and sometimes physically so. He uses sexist and homophobic insults. Obviously, in his view, you get the best out of a budding musician by loudly insulting his manhood in front of his peers. The film doesn’t suggest that these insults are in any way acceptable–Fletcher is, after all, the villain–but it seems strange that he’s been apparently getting away with this behavior for years.

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There is a sort of female lead in the film, and…you guessed it…she’s Andrew’s girlfriend. Their relationship doesn’t last long. That’s hardly surprising–Andrew is a single-minded narcissist. To the film’s credit, the break up avoids the usual clichés. I don’t think she’s in more than four scenes.

Almost every American film, Hollywood or independent, is male centric, but this one seemed especially extreme. As I said, I liked Whiplash, but it left an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.

What’s Screening: February 20 – 26

The Noise Pop Film Festival opens today (Friday). And Cinequest opens Tuesday. And the Oscars are Sunday.

Oscar Parties, Balboa, Cerrito, Lark, Rafael, Roxie, Sunday, click on these theater links for starting times and more information. Yes, both the awards and the ceremonies tend towards the ridiculous. But the show is usually entertaining, and sometimes, the right film wins. And like movies themselves, the whole event can be much more entertaining on the big screen, especially when you add costume contests and/or prizes. The Roxie in particular promises a "meeting of malcontents gathered to vent right back at the Holly-white Boys Club bent on publicly patting itself for another year of mediocrity." You can read my Oscar party reports of passed years at the Rafael and  Cerrito.

Pre-Oscar Party, Magick Lantern, Saturday, 1:00. As a fundraiser to bring the theater back to life, the Magick Lantern will have an Oscar party a day early. They promise live music, Oscar ballots, a short film by Camille Cellucci, and Cellucci herself discussing how the Oscars are run.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Embarcadero, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

A+ North by Northwest, Stanford,Thursday through next Sunday. Alfrednbnw Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a Hitchcock double bill with The 39 Steps, which I haven’t seen in decades.

A The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father,imageWalter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed, much of it shot in the remote part of Mexico where the story is set.

A Galaxy Quest, Balboa, Wednesday, 7:00. There’s no better way to parody a well-known genre than to write characters who are familiar with the genre and find themselves living whatimage they thought was fiction. And few movies do this better than Galaxy Quest. The cast of a long-cancelled sci-fi TV show with a fanatical following (think Star Trek) find themselves on a real space adventure with good and bad aliens. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman star. The funniest film of 1999–one of the best years for comedy in recent decades.

A Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version), Balboa, Saturday, 10:00AM. No other movie so successfully turns Greek mythology (or at least a family-friendly version of Greek mythology) into swashbuckling jasonargonautsadventure, while remaining true to the original spirit of the tales. As the gods bicker and gamble on the fates of mortals, Jason and his crew fight magical monsters and scheming human villains. Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack are unbearably stiff in the lead roles, but Jason contains several wonderful supporting roles, including Nigel Green as cinema’s most articulate Hercules. But the real star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen’s hand-made special effects.

A Spirited Away, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55PM. 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.The film will be presented in the original Japanese, with subtitles

Metropolis, Swedish American Hall, Friday, 7:00. I’m not giving this Metropolis screening the usual A, because the website gives it a 77-minute runtime.  That’s about half the length of the so-called Complete Metropolis. This is even five minutes shorter than the Giorgio Moroder special edition. But even in a truncated version, the first important science fiction feature film should still strike a considerable visual punch. 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. Live accompaniment by Chrome Canyon. Part of the Noise Pop Film Festival.

A Wild, New Parkway, opens Saturday, 7:20. Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that reveal what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage. Read my full review.

A- Birdman, Aquarius, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B Citizenfour, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:45 & Wednesday, 6:30; Roxie, Sunday through Tuesday. Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room whereimage Edward Snowden tells Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy. Those four days of interviews make up the film’s centerpiece. Snowden 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. Read my longer essay.

B+ The Imitation Game, Lark, opens Friday. This very British biopic takes considerable liberties in dramatizing the life of Alan Turing. For instance, he appears to have severe Asperger, when the real Turning had nothing of the sort. But it successfully resultimages in an effective, entertaining, and sympathetic tragedy about a man who played important roles in both winning World War II and laying the groundwork for computers, but was hounded to suicide by an intolerant society. Like so many English period pieces, The Imitation Game works primarily as a showcase for actors. Cumberbatch does a variation on his Sherlock Holmes, but he digs deeper here. His emotional struggles are more real. Keira Knightley plays the only woman on his team. See my longer article.

C+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Vertigo & The Trouble with Harry, Stanford,Thursday through next Sunday. The C+ goes to The Trouble with Harry. Alfred Hitchcock laced his thrillers with humor, but his second and last attempt at an out-and-out comedy succeeds in merely being pleasant–despite the Hitchcockian theme of a dead body that everyone wants to hide. Although Vertigo is officially now the greatest film ever made, I can’t give it more than a C-. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations.  Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough.

Undead comedy should have died sooner: What We Do in the Shadows

B- Mockumentary

  • Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

This vampire mockumentary from New Zealand feels a bit like an article in The Onion or The Borowitz Report. The headline and the first couple of paragraphs are very funny. But as you go deeper into it, you experience longer waits between laughs.

The basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentary camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in Wellington (they call it a flat, but it looked like a house to me). They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences.

Initially, the movie finds plenty of laughs about the situation. A vampire’s digital alarm clock goes off at 6:00pm. He opens his coffin, and rises out of it like a flat board being tilted up. But as he does it, he smiles into the camera, as if to say “Look what I can do!”

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A modern vampire’s life has other joys…and problems. They wear wild and crazy clothes, some of which they take from their victims. They have human slaves. On the other hand, drinking the blood of a living person can make a real mess. Their arguments can go on for eternity–literally. And eating just one French fry produces the grossest projectile vomiting imaginable.

The vampires’ different personalities clearly produce conflict. Our primary connection to their world, Viago (Taika Waititi), is fussy, tries to be tidy (he asks his mates to please put newspaper on the floor before biting someone), and wants everyone to be comfortable. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the youngest at 183, is a bit of an adolescent rebel. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) has a very dark but sexual personality. 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) looks like Nosferatu. He seldom moves and never speaks.

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But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. To keep things going, the filmmakers bring in some not-particularly interesting conflict. Brand-new vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) thinks his new situation so cool that he has to tell everyone. Obviously, you don’t want your neighbors, or the police, to know that you’re killing people for your own nourishment. (The cops in this film are geniuses at not noticing what’s really going on.) But this begs the question: If they don’t want mortals to know that they’re vampires, why did they agree to make a documentary?

At times the movie can be quite impressive. Even the generally dull second half has a smattering for very funny jokes. And someone really took the time to create the excellent, low-budget special effects, most of which I’m pretty sure were done in the camera.

The film was made by the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, which I’ve heard good things about but have never seen. Shadows is a fun idea for a movie. But after that idea has been played out, the fun comes only occasionally.

At least it’s better than the last vampire comedy I reviewed.

A Wilder Weekend and the PFA

As part of its series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder, the Pacific Film Archive screened three of his films over the weekend. I caught them all.

Ninotchka

I was delighted to discover that this Ernst Lubitsch-directed comedy was part the Wilder series. We should celebrate Wilder the writer as much as Wilder the director. To my mind, the PFA pays far too little attention to screenwriters; I don’t believe they have ever done a series on a particular filmmaker noted primarily for writing scripts.

This was my first big-screen Ninotchka experience. I had seen the movie only once before, by myself, on Turner Classic Movies. This was a big improvement. The Saturday 6:30 screening was well attended, and the audience came ready to laugh. The PFA screened the film on what appeared to be an excellent 35mm print. I say "appeared" because the PFA’s website says it was a DCP. It sure looked like film to me.

Ninotchka had the misfortune of being out of date when it was released. This very funny political and romantic comedy is set mostly in the romanticized, city-of-lights version of Paris–a Paris that could only be created on an MGM sound stage. But by the time the film was released, France was at war with Germany, and there was nothing romantic about Paris. A prologue gets around this problem, assuring us that "This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm – and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”

Within two years of its release, the Soviet Union–the primary target of the film’s satire–would be our brave ally in the war against Hitler. The star, Greta Garbo, would also be a has-been by then. After Ninotchka, she made only one more movie.

Garbo plays the title character, a loyal Russian and even more loyal Communist, who comes to Paris to supervise three bumbling comrades representing Moscow in a jewelry sale (the jewels were confiscated from aristocrats). But once there, she meets a charming man (Melvyn Douglas). She’s also charmed by the luxuries of capitalism.

This was Garbo’s first comedy (the ads proclaimed "Garbo laughs!"), and she’s wonderful in it. She plays Ninotchka initially as a stereotyped, joyless, humorless ideologue, but she melts into a warm human being. And throughout it all, she displays the comic timing of a vaudeville veteran.

The movie is clearly anti-Communist (my favorite line:  “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”) But it also depicts the Russian aristocracy in exile as vain, shallow jerks with serious entitlement issues.

From my TCM viewing, I gave Ninotchka a B. Now I’m promoting that to B+.

Some Like It Hot

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Some Like it Hot, in 35mm, 16mm, broadcast TV, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. The last time I saw it theatrically–before this weekend–was a disappointing screening some years ago at the Cerrito, with a lukewarm audience and a 35mm print was looked like it had lost a fight with the shredder.

But Saturday night at the PFA, Some Like it Hot played as it should. The DCP looked crisp and clear, without sacrificing the film look. And the audience loved it. The laughter was consistent almost throughout.

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I’ve already written a Blu-ray review, so I won’t go into detail about the movie. I will say that it’s quite possibly my favorite non-silent comedy. Using a gangster situation to drive its men-in-drag plot, it mines deep belly laughs from gender roles and expectations. Two starving musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) witness a gangland massacre, then hide out from the mob by dressing up as women and joining an all-girl band. But the band’s lead singer is played by Marilyn Monroe, who tends to bring out their masculinity.

This was a great way to revisit a beloved and funny masterpiece, one that I gladly give an A+.

Btw, here’s an interesting coincidence about the two movies screened Saturday night: They both starred iconic leading ladies: Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. And each one was that star’s penultimate completed film.

The Apartment

I first saw The Apartment on a rented Laserdisc some twenty years ago. I’d seen it several times since, but always at home. Sunday night was my first time seeing it on the big screen.

I wrote about The Apartment extensively in my Blu-ray review, so I’ll summarize quickly: Deftly balancing comedy and dead-serious drama, Wilder examines the way powerful men exploit both women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. In order to gain traction in the rat race, he loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. Fred MacMurray plays the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane the woman he exploits and Lemmon loves.

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Seeing it with an audience is a treat. It doesn’t provide the steady rumble of laughs that Some Like it Hot generates. But the laughs come almost simultaneously with gasps of concern and horror. Wilder makes us laugh at sexism and exploitation, while reminding us that it’s not a laughing matter.

This may be Wilder’s only film with role models. Lemmon’s neighbors, a doctor and his wife, are sensible, kind, loving human beings. (They’re also, interestingly enough, unquestionably Jewish.) Their concern for others is never mocked.

The PFA screened The Apartment off a DCP. It looked fine, but not exceptional.

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