What’s Screening: September 19 – 25

The big event this week is the one-day Silent Autumn festival. I’ve placed festival films at the bottom of this newsletter.

C+ The Zero Theorem, 4-Star, Elmwood, opens Friday. In the 1980s, 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 Giant, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00. James Dean only plays a supporting role in George Steven’s sprawling epic about 20th-century Texas. The picture really imagebelongs to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as a couple who marry almost on a whim and have to find common ground in the long decades of their marriage. As they age, the world evolves around them, with a world war, changing attitudes about race and gender, and a cattle economy transitioning to an oil-based one. Dennis Hopper plays Hudson and Taylor’s grown son, while Dean grows from his usual alienated youth to a middle-aged man. As James Dean’s last picture, it’s appropriate that Giant closes the series James Dean, Restored Classics from Warner Bros.

B+ American Pie, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. It’s easy to dismiss a Hollywood-financed horny teenager comedy as commercial schlock–especially one followed by imagetwo sequels. But this story of four male high school seniors determined to lose their virginity, and help their friends do the same, manages to be both raunchy and sweet, as well as very funny. Despite the Hollywood polish, it’s a reasonably accurate look at young, male sexuality. I know; I’ve been there.

A Red Desert, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00. No one has ever called Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness a thriller, yet it filled me with a red_desertsense of foreboding and dread that Alfred Hitchcock seldom matched. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a housewife and mother struggling to maintain her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large factory spewing poison into the air, water, and ground (Antonioni made absolutely sure that his first color film would not be beautiful). Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation. On a double bill with Mickey One, which I haven’t seen.

A+ Charlie Chaplin’s Silent Short Films, Roxie, Sunday, 2:00. Free admission for kids under 12. This selection includes three films from Chaplin’s amazing Mutual imageperiod–The Adventurer, Easy Street, and The Immigrant. All three are near-perfect examples of silent comedy. Also on the program, his second film and first as the Tramp, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Live scores provided by local musicians V.Vale, Ethan Li, Kevin Baricar, Benji Marx, and Matt Norman. Part of the Roxie Kids series.

B- Rebecca, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film feels little like a Hitchcock movie.imageBasically a weepie, it stars Joan Fontaine as a young American who marries a British aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), only to find that she has to compete with the memory of his dead first wife. This entertaining melodrama includes a fine, over-the-top performance by  Judith Anderson as the brooding servant who cannot bear to think that a usurper has replaced her lady. This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner, which just goes to show you how silly the Oscars can be.

B To Be Takei, New Parkway, opens Friday. Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered, George Takei would be the most beloved imagemember of the original cast. And why not? A childhood in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, a part in the iconic sci-fi TV series, and coming out as gay at age 67 all make for a great story. Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about this extraordinary person, filled with interviews, video of Takei and husband Brad Altman going about their daily business, and old movie and TV clips. It’s the story, not the story-telling, that makes this film worth seeing. Read my full review.

B Tarzan and His Mate, Stanford, Monday and Tuesday. The second and the best of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, while still juvenile–and, let’s face it, racist–imageentertainment, feels very different from the dumb sequels that followed. At this stage in their lives, Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan made a very sexy Tarzan and Jane, and since the movie was pre-code, the sexuality didn’t have to be hidden. (Okay, the nude swimming scene was cut soon after the film’s release, but it has since been restored.) The stars’ chemistry and the story’s general outlandishness makes for a fun evening. On a double bill with something called Love Is a Headache.

B+ Fight Club, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guyfight_club and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains more credibility than a Fox News commentary. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.

A Dr. Strangelove, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (2:00) and Wednesday (2:00 & 7:00). A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) imageorders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (several of them played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than the Three Stooges.  We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. I have more to say about Dr. Strangelove.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. imageThere’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark; just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, don’t see it; otherwise, you probably already love it.

A Boyhood, Balboa, 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, Boyhood imageallows 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 have 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 that. 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, Lark, opens Friday. An Indian family in a small French town set up an eatery across the street from a famous and highly-regarded imageFrench restaurant, and the battle of cultures begins. The first half is a lot of fun, but the main conflict is 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.

B Walking the Camino, Magick Lantern, Friday and Saturday. For centuries, religious Christians have walked the Camino de Santiago–a 800kmimage pilgrimage across northern Spain. Today, spiritual seekers of all kinds, as well as those just looking for adventure, take the arduous route. This documentary follows a handful of walkers, each going for their own reasons and finding, if not what they were looking for, than at least something worth knowing. The film is pleasant, and provides a sense of what the journey might be like (obviously, no film can recreate the actual experience). Warning: You’re likely to come out of the theater ready to make the journey yourself.

Silent Autumn

All films at Saturday at the Castro.

A+ The General, 7:00. Buster Keaton pushedgeneral film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. With musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.

Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts, 11:00am. Of all the great silent comedians, only the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made a seamless imagetransition into talkies. They’re equally good in each medium. The Festival has announced three shorts to be screened. I’ve only seen one of them, Big Business, but if the other two (Should Married Men Go Home? and Two Tars) are as good as that one, this selection would easily earn an A+.  Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 9:00. I haven’t seen Caligari in a great many years, so I’m not going to give it a grade. The story of a murderous hypnotist and his somnambulist slave would make a fairly conventional horror movie, but three important factors keep Caligari above the conventional. 1) The impressionistic sets and photography make it look like nothing you’ve ever seen in a genre picture. 2) The surprise ending can really throw you for a loop, and is still debated nearly a century after the film’s release. And 3) The horror genre was too new to have any conventions when this film was made. Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

The Zero Theorem doesn’t add up to much

C+ Dystopian satire

  • Written by Pat Rushin
  • Directed by Terry Gilliam

In the 1980s, Terry Gilliam made three sci-fi/fantasy comedies that stood with the best films of that decade. But his best work is now far behind him. His latest movie, The Zero Theorem, although visually exciting and occasionally provocative, doesn’t really go anywhere.

Quentin Tarantino’s favorite German, Christoph Waltz, stars as a brilliant but reclusive mathematician and computer programmer  sinking into some form of depression. He works mostly at home–trying to solve an impossible problem–while his corporate overlords track him closely and watch everything he does. That home appears to be an abandoned cathedral

This is one messed-up dude. He refers to himself in the plural ("we" instead of "I"), as if he were the King of England. He insists that he’s dying, even though there’s no reason to believe it’s so. He also believes that someday he’ll receive a phone call which will explain the meaning of his life.


Despite his best efforts to stay alone, other people barge into his life. There’s his boss (David Thewlis), as well as a brilliant teenager assigned to help him (Lucas Hedges). Matt Damon plays the corporation’s ultimate boss. Tilda Swinton does another of her brilliant, chameleon, comic roles as a virtual psychiatrist program.

The very sexy Mélanie Thierry plays the most insistent want-to-be companion. She flirts with him constantly, saves his life once, and seems very eager to have virtual (but not real) sex with him. To what extent she’s acting out of her own desire, and to what extent she’s being paid for the job, is an open question.

The Zero Theorem feels in many ways like a less-effective retreat of Gilliam’s brilliant Brazil. Like that far superior film, it’s set in a dystopian society that may be in the future, but in some strange ways feels like the past. Technology–ugly and unreliable–runs everything. One huge bureaucracy rules every aspect of everybody’s life. Only this time, the overwhelming bureaucracy is corporate, not government. The corporation is menacingly named Mancom.

Gilliam fills the picture with imaginative, dazzling, and satiric visuals. In an early scene, a video commercial follows Waltz as he walks through the city. When another man passes him, the commercial changes direction to follow the new target. A party is filled with earbud-wearing guests dancing with their eyes glued to their tablets and smartphones. Every time someone discards a piece of food, a rat comes out of hiding to grab it.

But for all of these visuals, and for all of the fun play with actors like Thewlis, Swinton, and Thierry, The Zero Theorem doesn’t really go anywhere. Unlike Brazil’s protagonist, who’s caught between an evil government and its literally tortured victims, Theorem’s protagonist has little to complain about. His emotional problems aren’t dealt with deeply enough to be meaningful–or dramatic. And we really can’t care if he solves a mathematical problem that we scarcely understand.

With nowhere to go, the climax and ending disappoint in obvious ways.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are three movies that I’ve been able to preview for this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I’ve listed them in order of best to worst. There will be more to come.

A- Two Days, One Night

The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. But it never feels like a political tract. It feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 5:4
  • Rafael, Sunday, October 12, 2:00

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria
A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous, but this time, she’ll be playing a 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 slightly echoes play’s characters, but not enough (thankfully) to become an allegory. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 3, 8:45. Sold out. Rush tickets may be available at showtime.
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 1:00.

D Soul of a Banquet
In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life. But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food. The biographical first third offers tantalizing hints at Chiang’s history and her importance in the development of Chinese-American cuisine, but Wang doesn’t give us enough information to prove his argument. The following two thirds is just food porn, with close-ups of succulent dishes being prepared, served, and eaten.

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.

What’s Screening: September 12 – 18

The California Independent Film Festival continues through Sunday. And the Legacy Film Festival on Aging, which opens today (Friday), plays through Sunday.

A Woman of the Year, Lark, Sunday, 3:30 & Wednesday, 5:50. One of only a handful of Hollywood films that accurately conveys the ups, downs, and sideways motions of romantic love as a long-term commitment(Annie Hall is another). Sexist by today’s standard, this love story between two independently-minded professionals was cutting-edge feminist for its time (or at least as cutting-edge feminist as MGM would allow). And its sense of two people who love each other but can’t easily stay compatible never ages. It also started one of Hollywood’s most famous on-screen and real-life romances–that of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin.

A- Rebel Without a Cause, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:10. The only film where James Dean received top billing is a shallow, silly, melodramatic message picture about what’s wrong with kids these days. And here’s what’s wrong: Their parents don’t spend time with them, and the boys need fathers who are man enough to put the womenfolk in their place. And yet, thanks largely to Dean’s electrifying. frightening, and sympathetic performance, it’s a far better movie than it has any right to be. As a middle-class juvenile delinquent adjusting to a new school, Dean defines the word teenager when it was still a new concept. Of course, he got a lot of help from director Nicholas Ray, and by supporting players Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as his only friends. In very wide early Cinemascope. Part of the series James Dean, Restored Classics from Warner Bros.

B Lost in Translation, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. I can’t believe it’s been over a decade since Sophia Coppola introduced us to Scarlett Johansson, and gave Bill Murray his best performance since imageGroundhog Day. And she did it by making a film in which nothing of note happens. Murray plays an American movie star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial. Johansson plays the bored wife of a photographer. They sense a bond. And what you expect to happen never does. But that’s okay because it probably wouldn’t happen in real life, either. Coppola allows us to enjoy these people’s company, and their reaction to a foreign culture, for 104 minutes.

A- The Fisher King, Castro, Sunday, 7:00. Terry Gilliam’s first film from someone else’s screenplay, and his first shot in imagehis native USA, isn’t quite up to his best work. But it’s damn close. Jeff Bridges plays a guilt-ridden former shock jock who befriends a homeless lunatic (Robin Williams in one of his best performances) in hope of redemption. But helping this tragic victim of random violence involves both playing cupid and jumping down the rabbit hole of a brilliant but deeply unhinged mind. Only Williams could sing Lydia the Tattooed Lady and make it sound sweet and romantic. On a double bill with Good Morning, Vietnam, which I recall liking, but not loving, when it was new.

A Sons of the Desert, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. Feature films weren’t Laurel and Hardy’s strong point; something about their humor workedimage best in the short form. But Sons of the Desert is one of only two exceptions that prove the rule (the other being Blockheads). This simple tale of two married men trying to have a good time away from their wives is loose, leisurely, and very funny.  With the short subjects Midnight Patrol and Something Simple. That last one stars Charley Chase, not Laurel and Hardy.

B Walking the Camino, Magick Lantern, Friday through Sunday. For centuries, religious Christians have walked the Camino de Santiago–a 800kmimage pilgrimage across northern Spain. Today, spiritual seekers of all kinds, as well as those just looking for adventure, take the arduous route. This documentary follows a handful of walkers, each going for their own reasons and finding, if not what they were looking for, than at least something worth knowing. The film is pleasant, and provides a sense of what the journey might be like (obviously, no film can recreate the actual experience). Warning: You’re likely to come out of the theater ready to make the journey yourself.

A Spartacus, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00. This very fictionalized version of the famous Roman slave revolt is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of imagetoga epics. And yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. Stanley Kubrick’s only work as a director-for-hire doesn’t give us the glory of Rome, concentrating instead on the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of an empire. Star and Executive Producer Kirk Douglas gave Dalton Trumbo a well-deserved screen credit, which helped end the blacklist. For more, see Cemeteries and Gladiators, On the Moral Dilemma of Gladiator Movies, and How I lost my love for Stanley Kubrick. Part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick. 

B+ The Iron Giant, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. 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- The Nutty Professor (1963 version), various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday. As a young child, I adored Jerry Lewis, but as I matured Iimage found his comedy grating and tremendously unfunny. Today, The Nutty Professor is considered his masterpiece, and I suppose it is–in the sense that it’s not all that awful. The basic concept–a very clever twist of Jekyll and Hyde–is audacious and thought-provoking, especially for what is basically a children’s movie. But the execution is so clumsy and clunky that to a large degree, it sinks the wonderful concept.

C+ Universal Horror Double Bill: The Black Cat & Dracula (1931 version), Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. imageLow-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer made The Black Cat 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. Dracula is a much more important movie–it started Universal’s famed horror series–but it really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless. Each of these films would earn a C+ on its own.

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

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival announced

The California Film Institute today announced the 37th annual Mill Valley Film Festival–which, as usual, doesn’t stay in Mill Valley. Major events will take place in San Rafael and Corte Madera.

This festival provides the Bay Area with our first look at this year’s Oscar bait. Consider this: For the last four years in a row, the Best Picture winner had its local premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That’s The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and 12 Year a Slave.

The festival runs in early October, from the 2nd to the 12th of that month. Those are problematic dates for practicing Jews like myself. Yom Kippur will make the first two full days of the festival impossible. It also interferes with the festival of Sukkot. But for most people, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Some highlights:

  • Following Mill Valley tradition, the festival will launch with two opening night films in different theaters. The Homesman is an "anti-western" written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Hilary Swank. The other opening night film, Men, Women and Children, has an ensemble cast and was directed by Jason Reitman.
  • Amongst the performers and filmmakers being celebrated with spotlights and honors are Eddie Redmayne (who plays a young Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything), Elle Fanning (although, in my opinion, a 16-year-old is a little young for a life achievement award), the talented documentarian and clip editor Chuck Workman, and the late Robin Williams (that event will be free, but tickets will still be required).
  • Classic movies will include The Empire Strikes Back and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Both of these will be screened at the Century Cinema Corte Madera, which has one of the largest screens in the Bay Area.
  • The Centerpiece film will be Mike Binder’s Black and White. It’s about race, not photography.
  • Technology and cinema come together in the Amazing 4K Film Showcase, a competition of short films shot in ultra-high definition. These will screen at the CinéArts@Sequoia, since the Rafael does not yet have 4K projection.
  • As always, the Festival offers selections of films built around a genre or theme. This year, they’re calling one such focus Humor – In the Jocular Vein (as I write this, that link is dead, but hopefully it won’t be for long). This will include What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire comedy from New Zealand, and the Croatian comedy Cowboys,
  • Only one picture, the Japanese drama The Little House, will be screened in 35mm. Everything else will be digital.
  • The festival will end with Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who will be in attendance. It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who made The Dallas Buyers Club.

As I write this, I’ve seen one new film screening at the festival, Two Days, One Night. I’ll tell you about it, and about other films I can preview, before the festival opens.

Early and Excellent Kubrick at PFA

As I discussed last week, I lost a lot of my love of Stanley Kubrick over the decades. But I didn’t lose my love for all of his pictures. And amongst my favorites are his first two Hollywood pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Saturday night, I revisited these favorites at the Pacific Film Archive, where they were screened as part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

Some historical background: Kubrick started his career with two super-low budget independent features–Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I saw Fear and Desire some years ago and hated it (Kubrick eventually disowned it), and have never seen Killer’s Kiss. The PFA screened them Thursday night, but I was unable to attend.

Although it wasn’t a commercial success, Killer’s Kiss impressed enough people to bring Kubrick into the Hollywood system, albeit on a low budget. United Artists financed and released his next two pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory.

The PFA screened them in reverse order, showing Paths of Glory first.

Paths of Glory

To my mind, this is Kubrick’s masterpiece (with Dr. Strangelove a close second). This World War I tale of ruthless generals and the common foot soldiers they see as disposable pawns, shows Kubrick at his best. His visual flare brings a powerful contrast to the film’s two major settings: the ugly, dirty, and dangerous trenches of the front, and the opulent palace where the generals’ live in comfort and luxury.

The story is simple, but powerful. In 1916, with the war at a long stalemate, two French generals (Adolphe Menjou and George Macready) decide to take a German position that everyone knows can’t be taken. With little time to prepare and almost no support, the men leap out of their trenches and attack–only to be mowed down. The survivors understandably run back to their trenches. Unable to admit that their plan was impossible, the generals order that three men be arrested as examples, tried for cowardice, found guilty, and shot.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen Paths of Glory on a rented, Criterion Blu-ray about a year ago. I don’t remember when I last saw it theatrically, but I think it was in the 1980s.

Paths of Glory is one of the rare Kubrick films that allows us to care about the characters. This is especially true with the three condemned "examples," charged for failing an impossible task and knowing without a doubt that they will be executed. Each was chosen by their superior officer. One of them, played by Ralph Meeker, knows that his truly cowardly lieutenant (Wayne Morris) has reasons for wanting him dead.

Kubrick generally avoided heroes, but he got one in Paths of Glory–Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax–the lawyer-turned officer who leads the charge and becomes the men’s defense attorney. Douglas was the first big star to appear in a Kubrick film, and he probably demanded a rewrite to make his part larger and more noble. In a late scene, he angrily tells off a top-ranking general, calling him a "degenerate" and promising that "I’ll go to Hell before I ever apologize to you again." Kubrick generally avoided such moral preaching.

Kubrick’s visual sense comes to fully glory here. Tracking shots through the trenches help illustrate the claustrophobic, horrific nature of men’s predicament. Another tracking shot, leading up to the executions, help emphasize the ritual aspects of these legal and ceremonial murders. The court martial, or perhaps I should say the kangaroo court martial, is set in an opulent room whose floor suggest a chessboard.

World War I produced more great films than any other war. This is one of the best.

The Killing

It’s hardly surprising that a young filmmaker breaking into Hollywood in 1956 would start with a noir. After all, these gritty crime films were cheap to make and popular with audiences. But The Killing proved to be one of the best of the genre.

In this classic heist thriller, an experienced criminal (Sterling Hayden) orchestrates a complex racetrack robbery likely to net two million 1956 dollars. Of course, he needs collaborators. And each one of them has to do his job at the exact right time for everything to work.

Needless to say, human frailty is going to get in the way.


Kubrick and screenplay collaborator Jim Thompson (working from a novel by Lionel White) found a unique structure to tell the story. It’s not in pure chronological order, but it’s not a flashback, either. Instead, the movie follows one member of the gang, then leaps back in time to follow someone else. The film’s eye-of-God narrator helps the audience keep all of this straight with simple statements like "Three hours earlier, Johnny left his apartment and headed for the motel." (Someone needs to write an essay on Kubrick’s use of spoken narration.)

Hayden’s Johnny Clay is a professional, but most of his collaborators are breaking the law for the first time, motivated by a desperate need for money. The most heartbreaking is Joe Sawyer’s racetrack bartender, who needs money to help the very sick wife he loves so much.

But Elisha Cook Jr.’s character is a different kind of marriage problem. He hopes that if he had more money, his dreadful, scornful, adulterous wife (Marie Windsor) might actually love him. We feel little sympathy for Cook’s character, and none at all for Windsor’s, but these two are clearly the most entertaining people in the story. When Clay meets that awful wife, he sees her for exactly what she is. "You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart."

As it should be, The Killing is filled with such snappy, pulp-heavy dialog–probably written by Thompson. In hiring a sharpshooter, Clay argues that the risks are limited. "You’d be killing a horse – that’s not first degree murder, in fact it’s not murder at all, in fact I don’t know what it is."  Hayden’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery makes that like explosive and funny.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen The Killing at the UC Theater, probably in1996 or 1997. I was glad to remake its acquaintance.

Digital projection done mostly right

Both movies were made by United Artists after 1951, which means that they’re now owned by MGM/UA. But MGM/UA no longer distributes its own films. Criterion has released both of these films for home use. Other UA titles have been released on video by Fox and Kino.

A company I’d never heard of, Park Circus, now distributes these two titles theatrically on DCP. Both films started with a Park Circus logo, and then the MGM lion. Every UA film, no matter who distributes it, now starts with the MGM lion–even though none of them are real MGM films. And that lion is in color, even before a black and white film.

Other than that, this were excellent transfers. Whoever supervised the digital mastering respected the film look and the grain structure. They kept the original mono soundtracks, without trying to convert them to 5.1. Both movies looked and sounded great, and still felt like works of their time.

What’s Screening: September 5 – 11

The drought is over! At least, the film festival draught. CAAMFest San Jose opens today and runs through Sunday. And the California Independent Film Festival opens Thursday.

A Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:00. The most-loved Star Trek movie gives us everything that its predecessor failed to deliver: an excitingimage and entertaining adventure starring the seven actors and characters that we learned to love from the original TV show.–and a chance to let several of those actors shine. Ricardo Montalban reprises his supervillian Khan from one first-season episode. This has almost everything you would want in a Star Trek movie.

A Dog Day Afternoon, Castro, Thursday. Two incompetent robbers (Al Pacino and John Cazale, both fresh from Godfather II) try to hold up a bank and find themselves in a hostage situation in one those rare comedies based on an actual news story. dogdayaftPacino’s character, the brains behind the plot, is a basically nice guy who wants to help everyone. That’s a real problem when you’re threatening to kill innocent bystanders. He only wants the money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation. But Cazale’s character is slow, dumb, and potentially violent. The result is touching, tragic, and very funny. On a double bill with The Dog.

B+ East of Eden, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:50. Most people remember this John Steinbeck adaptation as the movie that brought us James Dean. That seems imagereasonable. Dean electrifies the screen as an alienated teenager at odds with his strict and religious father and his ever-so-upright younger brother. An updating of the Cain and Abel story set in early 20th-century rural California, Eden occasionally steers towards the over-dramatic, but for the most part it’s an effective story of a generation gap made a decade before that term was coined. Dean became a star instantly after this film’s release. Five months later, with two other films in the can, he was dead. Part of the series James Dean, Restored Classics from Warner Bros.

A Bringing Up Baby, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. How does one define a screwball comedy? You could say it’s a romantic comedy with glamorous movie starsbringing_up_baby behaving like broad, slapstick comedians. You could point out that screwballs are usually set amongst the excessively wealthy, and often explore class barriers. Or you could simply show Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby,a frivolous and hilarious tale about a mild-mannered paleontologist (Cary Grant), a ditzy heiress (Katharine Hepburn), and a tame leopard (a tame leopard).

B The Hundred-Foot Journey, Balboa, opens Friday. An Indian family in a small French town set up an eatery across the street from a famous and highly-regarded imageFrench restaurant, and the battle of cultures begins. The first half is a lot of fun, but the main conflict is 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.

B+ Under African Skies, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which covers the making of Paul Simon’s hit album Graceland and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. Despite a few brief scenes of jam sessions, it left me wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end.

B+ Bridge On the River Kwai, Rafael, Sunday. The longer it’s been since you’ve seen David Lean’s World War II adventure, the better it gets in your  memory. That’s because the brilliant story of an over-proud British bridgeriverkwaiPOW whose actions become arguably treasonable (Alec Guinness) sticks in the mind. But to see the actual movie again is to be reminded that Guinness’ tale is just a subplot (the actor received third billing). The bulk of Kwai is a very well made but conventional action movie with some uncomfortably Hollywoodish elements. Remember the Burmese porters who all just happen to all be beautiful young women? Read my Blu-ray review. Part of the series, Alec Guinness at 100.

B Fantastic Mr. Fox, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. There’s a cartoon-like quality to a lot of Wes Anderson’s work, so it isn’t surprising that imagehe would eventually try his hand at animation. Based on a story by Roald Dahl, Fantastic follows the adventures of a very sophisticated but not altogether competent fox (voiced by George Clooney) as he tries to outwit a farmer and keep his marriage together. Children and adults will find different reasons to enjoy this frantically-paced comic adventure.

A A Hard Day’s Night, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, andimage could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles still have a following. And Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll.

A Chinatown, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, but you chinatowncan’t deny his talent as a filmmaker (which doesn’t excuse his actions as a human being). And that talent was never better than when he made this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed the whole story over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece.

A+ Paths of Glory, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer, more powerful men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviouslyimage pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon is one of the best. When an impossible mission inevitably fails, the officers who planned it arrange for three enlisted men to be tried for cowardice, convicted, and executed–it’s easier than admitting their mistake. Kirk Douglas–in the first performance by a major star in a Kubrick film–plays the honorable officer who tilts at the windmills of corrupted military justice. Another part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.


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