Smoking in Black and White

As the holidays pass, life returns to normal. I even managed to get out and see some movies.

And one of them challenged a long-cherished belief. Good Night, and Good Luck. (the comma and period are part of the title) is based on well-documented historical events, and it follows those events””as near as I can tell””with rigorous accuracy. And in spite of this accuracy, it’s a terrific film.

I’ve always held that, without significant tampering, good history makes lousy drama. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “God never wrote a good play in his life.” Yet here is a film that follows the actual events in the order they took place, often with the actual words, and it works.

By now you probably know that Good Night, and Good Luck. is about the legendary early television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), and his run-in with Senator Joseph McCarthy (Senator Joseph McCarthy). And that’s all the movie is about. We don’t meet Murrow’s family, we don’t see his home. The only personal lives we intrude upon are a couple of minor characters, Joe and Shirley Wershba, who must hide their marriage from fellow employees. Not coincidentally, the Wershbas are credited as consultants.

Of course the film is extremely timely these days. When elected officials like Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) call McCarthy a “hero for America,” it’s important to see just what is “heroic” about him.

Although set in the 1950’s, Good Night, and Good Luck. has the feel of a movie from the “˜40s. It’s not just the black and white photography; it’s the smoking. I haven’t seen that much cigarette smoke since I was in Germany. I hate it in real life, but there’s something romantic and sophisticated about smoking in black and white””even if it killed Humphrey Bogart; and Edward R. Murrow.

Warning: At least one of the following films contains black and white smoking.

Recommended: The 40 Year Old Virgin, Parkway, ongoing; Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. This is a perfect date movie””provided the relationship has progressed past initial awkwardness. Steve Carell stars as the man who’s learned to live with his limited experience, even if his friends are determined to get him laid. The wonderful supporting cast include Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, and the always-wonderful Catherine Keener. Carell co-authored the screenplay with director Judd Apatow. Good clean, dirty fun that earns its R rating the old-fashioned way, with sex.

Recommended: The Aristocrats, Roxie and Parkway, ongoing. “A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says “˜Have I got an act for you.'” Thus begins an old joke that professional comics never tell audiences but love to tell each other. But what goes between that opening and the punch line differs with every telling, and often includes incest, bestiality, scatological acrobatics, and stuff that’s really disgusting. But as famous comics retell the joke, you laugh more than you cringe. And as they discuss the art of telling it, you learn something about how humor is fashioned.

Noteworthy: Berkeley Video & Film Festival, Â Oaks Theater, Friday through Sunday. This is a different sort of festival. You don’t pay for one feature or a handful of shorts, but for a five-hour marathon of long and short movies. There are five such marathons, each with a different set of movies, over the course of the weekend.

Recommended: A History of Violence, 4 Star, opening Friday. David Cronenberg has turned what could have been a conventional Hitchcockian thriller into a meditation on the nature, the lure, and the destructiveness of violence. Viggo Mortensen goes way beyond Aragorn as a small-town family man who kills two thugs in self-defense, then finds gangsters at his door who think that he’s one of them. The violence is both visually gruesome (this is Cronenberg, after all) and emotionally harrowing. Life doesn’t return to normal just because you’ve killed all the bad guys. But on one level, it’s still Hollywood: The good guys are impossibly talented fighters. But that’s okay; the movie would be unbearable without that one bit of fantasy.

Recommended: Nosferatu, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The first (and unauthorized) film version of Dracula, and you can forget about sexy vampires here. Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (renamed in a failed attempt to avoid lawsuits) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. This silent film will be accompanied by Molly Axtmann at the piano, Rachael Durling on violin, Rem Djemilev on viola, and David Brin on cello.

Recommended: Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, Oaks Theater, Berkeley, approximately 4:06. One documentary, four stories of Native Americans fighting to protect their environmentally-threatened reservations. One of the stories deals with the same caribou/Alaskan oil drilling issue that’s at the heart of Being Caribou, but this time, they got it right. Emotional and compelling, this is what an activist, political/environmental documentary ought to be. Part of the Berkeley Video & Film Festival, Homeland will be shown near the end of a marathon screening that starts at 1:00.

Recommended: Casablanca, Parkway, Thursday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or you know that you should. Let me just say that no one who worked on it thought they were making a masterpiece. It was supposed to be just another movie coming off the Warner’s assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. A benefit for the San Antonio Community Development Corp, the Parkway is encouraging people to come in appropriate 40’s costumes.

New Motion on Stop-Motion

Things are slowly getting back to normal around here. I’m preparing a schedule for the week of October 30, and will post it this coming Sunday. If I’m really lucky, I may even find time to see some movies.

Two movies that I did manage to see recently were Corpse Bride and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (parenting does have its responsibilities–and its pleasures). How strange and delightful that we have two stop motion animation features in wide release simultaneously. In this day of computer animation, when conventional Hollywood wisdom states that traditional cell (drawn) animation is dead, who would have expected such a resurgence of stop motion?

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, stop motion animation involves manipulating actual, physical models. You move the model a tiny bit, shoot one frame of film, move it a little more, shoot another, and so on. It takes years to shoot a feature that way.

Hollywood has seldom used stop motion as the primary medium for an entire film. Cell animation features were popular from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 until very recently, but stop motion was used primarily for special effects in otherwise live action movies. Okay, the animation was King Kong’s primary attraction, but animator Willis O’Brien’s giant ape shared the screen with a real, flesh-and-blood Fay Wray.

When Jurassic Park skipped stop motion entirely for computers, it looked as if the old ways were over (dinosaurs had always been a stop motion specialty). But here we have them–two new Hollywood movies done entirely with stop motion animation (okay, not entirely; there’s some CGI in both of them, but not much). It just goes to show: The newest technique isn’t always the best.

For what it’s worth, I liked both movies, but liked Wallace and Gromit a whole lot more. If you can judge a comedy purely on how much laughter it pulls out of you, it’s a great comedy.

And speaking of things pulled out of me, here are some recommendations and noteworthy films for the coming week:

Recommended: Grizzly Man, 4 Star, ongoing. Werner Herzog’s fascinating nature documentary (well, more of an anti-nature documentary) about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor and untrained naturalist who lived peacefully with Alaska’s grizzly bears for 13 summers until one of them ate him. You don’t learn much about bears here except “Keep your distance,– but you learn a lot about Treadwell, who comes off as manic, enthusiastic, charismatic, delusional, and paranoid.

Recommended: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Presidio, ongoing; Balboa, opening Friday. An eccentric inventor, his long-suffering dog, snooty aristocrats, cute bunnies, and whole lot of clay make up the funniest movie of the year. I vote for putting this G-rated, claymation extravaganza on a double-bill with Monty Python and the Holy Grail; two hilarious British comedies with killer rabbits.

Recommended: Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. In 1952, the late twenties was a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s appeal. The nostalgia is now gone, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to come out of Hollywood. Just don’t take its story–about the talkie revolution–seriously as film history.

Recommended: March of the Penguins, 4 Star, opening Friday. Yes, emperor penguins are very cute and extremely funny, Luc Jacquet offers plenty of footage to make you laugh and sigh, but he goes beyond that, showing the tremendous hardships these birds endure to raise their young. No living creatures are as adorable as penguin chicks, and Morgan Freeman is the best celebrity narrator since Orson Welles.

Noteworthy: Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, Act 1 & 2, Friday and Saturday, midnight. I couldn’t let this one by after talking so much about stop motion animation. One of the few features done in this format before CGI hit it big–and made by the same folks as Corpse Bride. I saw this movie when it was new, and liked it, but not enough so that I can wholeheartedly recommend it on the strength of a 14-year-old memory.

Recommended: Bride of Frankenstein, Castro, Wednesday and Thursday. “Sequels are always inferior to the original,– they say. And I respond “Go see Bride of Frankenstein.– Karloff’s tragic monster is an innocent yet angry child, trapped in a huge and frightening body. Ernest Thesiger chews the scenery as a high-camp mad scientist who makes Doc Frankenstein look tame by comparison. And Elsa Lanchester sports filmdom’s most famous hairdo. On a double-bill with Frankenstein, the still-pretty-good original that Bride surpasses.

Movies for the Week of October 14, 2005

I’m taking the week off of Bayflicks, but here are a few movies that I felt I had to mention:

Recommended: I Live in Fear (AKA Record of a Living Being), Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:50. Perhaps it’s the dreadful American title, or maybe it’s the lack of swordplay, but Kurosawa’s 1955 gem (made in-between Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood) is a woefully overlooked masterpiece. Toshiro Mifune is brilliant as an aging industrialist (he was only 35 when the film was shot) obsessed with the dangers of nuclear fallout. Part of the Archive’s Doctor Atomic Goes Nuclear series.

Recommended:  Amélie, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight; Rafael, Saturday 1:15. You’ve probably already heard of this enchanting French romantic comedy about a young woman who decides to make people happy (no, not that way). If there’s a whimsical bone in your body, this will tickle it. The Rafael screening is part of the Mill Valley Film Festival’s Tribute to Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Noteworthy: Donald Sutherland Tribute, Rafael, Saturday, 7:00. Sutherland is an excellent actor, and I’m sure the clips and Q&A will be wonderful. But the new version of Pride and Prejudice (set for general release very soon), is an odd choice as the feature-length cap on the evening. It’s a very good movie, but Sutherland has a very small part (although he is grand as the father of all those marriageable girls). M*A*S*H or Eye of the Needle would have seemed a better choice; in 40 years, Pride and Prejudice will do fine for Keira Knightley’s tribute.

Recommended: Bee Season, CinéArts@Sequoia, Sunday, 5:00, 7:45. I know this film’s setting well—moderately religious Jews in the contemporary East Bay. It doesn’t get everything right (although the father is very religious, they don’t appear to belong to a congregation or even a community), but it’s still a spellbinding story of a spelling bee prodigy and her increasingly dysfunctional family. And it’s one of the few Hollywood films I’ve seen recently that takes spirituality seriously. Definitely worth seeing, but if you wait a few weeks you’ll get to see it for a lot less money.

Capote

I can’t think of a historical figure more challenging for an actor to play than Truman Capote. You can’t do that voice without it sounding like a broad comic Truman Capote impersonation. Capote himself sounded like a broad comic Truman Capote impersonation.

But Philip Seymour Hoffman pulls it off–with major help from screenwriter Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller, of course. True, when you first meet Capote, enthralling New York partygoers with his wit, you snicker a bit at the imitation. But you soon forget the affectation and snicker at what a self-centered jerk he is. Then the jerk becomes ensnared with an emotional involvement he can’t handle, and it’s crushing. (It helps that Catherine Keener is instantly and consistently likeable as his friend and research assistant, To Kill a Mockingbird author, Harper Lee.)

In case you haven’t heard, this isn’t a birth-to-death biopic. It concentrates on the years that Capote researched and wrote his last and most-praised book, In Cold Blood. Highly recommended.

As are some of the films below.

Recommended: Kiss Me Kate, Castro, Friday. Perhaps I’m damning it with faint praise, but this musical is my all-time favorite 3D movie. Okay, it’s not the best MGM musical–or even the best from 1953–but the dancing is fantastic, especially in three dimensions. Part of the Castro’s 3-D series.

Recommended: Brazil, Act 1 & 2, Friday and Saturday, midnight. One of the best black comedies ever filmed, and the best distopian fantasy on celluloid. This is the second of three masterpieces Terry Gilliam made in the 1980’s, and the only one that isn’t a children’s fantasy at heart.

Recommended: Broken Flowers, Balboa and Parkway, opening Friday. Bill Murray at his low-key best as an aging Don Juan looking up old flames and trying to discover if one of them had his baby. Not really a comedy, but funny in that quiet, quirky Jarmusch way. At the Balboa, it’s on a double-bill with 40 Year-Old-Virgin.

Noteworthy: Henri Langois, The Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Roxie, opens Friday. Remember the protests outside the Cinémathèque Française in Bertolucci’s recent film, The Dreamers? This documentary examines the founder of that institution, one of the early leaders in film restoration and preservation. It was the controversial Langois’ firing in 1968 that upset the kids in Bertolucci’s picture.

Noteworthy: The Bridge So Far: A Suspense Story, CinéArts@Sequoia, Saturday, noon. If you drive between San Francisco and the East Bay, you’ve probably spent the last 16 years wondering when we’re finally going to get an earthquake-safe Bay Bridge. This documentary tells the story of that frustrating, constantly-delayed project. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Berkeley, CinéArts@Sequoia, Saturday, 6:45, and at the Rafael, Tuesday, 6:15. Saturday must be local subject day at the Mill Valley Film Festival. First The Bridge So Far, then The Californians, and finally this promising-sounding story of a Cal student in 1968.

Noteworthy: Tribute: Michael Powell, Rafael, Saturday, 6:30. Michael Powell was one of England’s greatest film directors (as opposed to the other Michael Powell, who was one of the FCC’s worst directors) . On Saturday evening, his widow Thelma Schoonmaker (Martin Scorsese’s film editor) will discuss Powell’s life and art, show clips, and answer questions. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Hoppity Goes to Town, Cinearts@Sequoia, Sunday, 11:30. Disney wasn’t the only studio making Technicolor feature-length cartoons in the late ’30s and early ’40s. Here’s a new restoration of the Fleischer Brothers’ (best known for Betty Boop) 1941 entry. Let’s hope it doesn’t show why we don’t think of the Fleischers as feature animators. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Recommended: Dial M for Murder, Castro, Sunday. John Ford never made a 3D movie. Neither did Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin. But Alfred Hitchcock did–the only director in his class to try the short-lived medium. Dial M isn’t great Hitchcock–it’s pretty much a straight adaptation of a stage play–but it’s a good play and Hitchcock knew what to do with it. Forced against his will to use the new-fangled double-lens camera, Hitchcock pretty much ignored the obvious 3D effects popular at the time. But when he finally throws something at the camera, he knows exactly what he’s doing. Part of the Castro’s 3-D series.

Noteworthy: Sound of the Soul: The Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, Rafael, Sunday, 5:45, and Cinéarts Sequoia, Thursday, 7:00. Religious musicians of many faiths and cultures come to Morocco to perform, learn, and celebrate together at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Cinemasports, Masonic Hall, Sunday, 8:00. Filmmaking as a race against time. Saturday morning, contestants are given instructions on what their short videos are to be about. Saturday night, the movies are shown before a paying audience. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Recommended: Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, Rafael, Wednesday, 6:45, and the following Friday, at the Throckmorton Theater, 6:45. One documentary, four stories of Native Americans fighting to protect their environmentally-threatened reservations. One of the stories deals with the same caribou/Alaskan oil drilling issue that’s at the heart of Being Caribou, but this time, they got it right. Emotional and compelling, this is what an activist, political/environmental documentary ought to be.

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