Robert Altman

I was going to write about everything Bay Area cinephiles have to be thankful for, but death got in the way. So I’ll write about Robert Altman.

Young mavericks took Hollywood by storm in the 1970’s, with Altman all but leading the march. But he wasn’t young. At 45, he had nearly 20 years experience directing TV and educational films when MASH made him a darling of the counterculture. He remained a darling for the next 36 years.

I never cared much for MASH. Even in 1970, I found it only a moderately funny military comedy with pretensions of significance. Age hasn’t improved it; now it’s a misogynistic, moderately funny military comedy with pretensions of significance.

But MASH made Altman’s name, and started a great career. Two films later he put the final, perfect coda on the Western with McCabe and Mrs. Miller. A few more years and he would all but create a genre of his own with Nashville. He wasn’t the first to weave multiple, coincidentally connected stories into one coherent work of art, but he did it best and made the style his own. Mick LaSalle’s review of Bobby in Thursday’s Chronicle calls it “Altman-esque;” seven years ago, similar words were used for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.

Altman holds the record for receiving the most Best Director Oscar nominations without a win–five, for MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. But he doesn’t hold that record alone. Clarence Brown, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and King Vidor all tie with him. Scorsese may yet surpass him–perhaps this year for The Departed.

Hey, here’s something to be thankful for: We had Robert Altman for 81 years, 36 of them as a great filmmaker.

And we can also be thankful that the following films are playing in the Bay Area this week.

Recommended: Brazil, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. One of the best black comedies ever filmed, and the best dystopian fantasy on celluloid. In a bizarre, repressive, anally bureaucratic, and thoroughly dysfunctional society, one government worker (Jonathan Pryce) tries to escape into his own romantically heroic imagination. But when he finds a real woman who looks like the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), everything starts to fall apart. With Robert De Niro as a heroic plumber. This is the second of Gilliam’s three great fantasies of the 1980’s, and the only one clearly intended for adults.

Recommended: The Wizard of Oz, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00; Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:00. You don’t really need me to tell you about this one, do you? The first entry in the new Cerrito Classics series.

Recommended: Little Miss Sunshine, Rafael, opening Friday. I’m glad this movie is a comedy; a drama with these characters would be unbearably depressing. Little Miss Sunshine puts a supremely dysfunctional family on the road in a broken down VW bus, with the goal of entering their prepubescent daughter into a beauty contest for girls too young to have any business in a beauty contest. The result opens a window into the souls of five damaged adults and two youths destined for damaged adulthood, while delivering a steady stream of strong, deep, and sustained laughs. Not a simple feat for a first-time screenwriter (Michael Arndt) and two directors experienced only in music videos (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris).

Recommended: The Departed, 4Star, opened Thanksgiving Thursday; Roxie, opening Friday. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn’t mind plot holes as long as they went unnoticed until the audience was driving home. That’s exactly how my wife and I reacted to Martin Scorsese’s all-star remake of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs. As long we were in the theater, Scorsese’s intense police thriller about two undercover moles–one a cop pretending to be a gangster, the other a gangster pretending to be a cop–riveted our eyes to the screen. Talking about the movie on the way home, the problems kept coming up. But Hitchcock was right. The Departed carries you along like a river, offering fascinating characters portrayed by some of the biggest and most talented male stars around, moral ambiguity, graphic violence, and a complete lack of predictability to heighten the suspense. So what if it’s full of holes. This is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years.

Movies for the Week of November 17, 2006

It’s a busy week for me, so I’ll just point out that the 4Star is running a 8 Films To Die For Horror Fest today through Tuesday, just in case you’re in the mood for the gruesome side of independent cinema.

And now, on to this week’s recommendations:

Recommended: City Lights, Davies Symphony Hall, Wednesday and the following Friday and Saturday, 8:00. In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire. The first doesn’t know Charlie is poor; the second doesn’t know Charlie at all when sober. Sound came to movies as Chaplin was shooting City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. But for these special showings, David Robertson will conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in a live performance of Chaplin’s score.

Recommended: Fuck, Lumiere and Shattuck, opens Friday for one-week run. What is it about that word? Steve Anderson tries to find out in the funniest documentary since The Aristocrats. In his search for an answer, he interviews linguists, porn stars, standup comedians, and moral crusaders who want the word banned. His respect for those with whom he clearly disagrees puts Fuck (or whatever it’s called on your local theater’s marquee) considerably above the similarly themed (and equally raunchy) This Film is Not Yet Rated. Interview subjects include Miss Manners, Bill Maher, Kevin Smith, and Pat Boone; Bill Plympton provides the animation.

Recommended: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Presidio, ongoing. Don’t expect the reported insights into American bigotry; only a couple of scenes show unknowing local folk spouting bile (including the frat boys now suing the studio). Instead, 90% of Borat’s jokes attack writer/star Sacha Baron Cohen’s sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and completely idiotic Kazakhstani journalist. Most of the remaining 10% take pot shots at the ludicrous customs of the utterly fictitious society that Cohen and his collaborators have named after the real country of Kazakhstan. The movie is offensive, grotesque, cringe-inducing, and completely lacking in any sense of decency. It’s also side-achingly funny.

Recommended: To Kill a Mockingbird, Castro, Sunday. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel manages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his young daughter. (Had a sequel been set when the girl was a teenager, Atticus would probably have been an idiotic tyrant.) The Castro will celebrate the movie all day, with a simple screening at noon and a big event screening, complete with a personal appearance by star Mary Badham, at 6:30.

Recommended: Horse Feathers, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:00. The Marx Brothers go to college, where they major in puns, pranks, and chasing Thelma Todd. One of their best films, and the only one where all four get to perform their own variation of the same song–each sillier than the last. Part of the Archive’s Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

Recommended: Fight Club, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Strange flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s not only shagging Helena Bonham Carter, he’s also a free-spirited kind of guy and a real man. Or maybe he’s just a fascist? Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains credibility more than a speech by George W. Bush. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.

Recommended: Blackmail, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00. Hitchcock’s last silent film was also his first talkie; making two versions wasn’t unusual when some but not all theaters had sound. Either way, Blackmail is vintage early Hitchcock. A young woman kills an obnoxious artist in self defense, then fears the repercussions (including those of her police detective boyfriend). And there’s a witness willing to take advantage of the situation. The sound version is very good, making clever use of the new medium, but smarter pacing makes Blackmail work best as a silent. The Museum will show it that way for the second week in a row, this time with piano accompaniment by Bruce Loeb.

Recommended: Catch a Fire, Rafael, opening Friday. Police arrest and torture an innocent man suspected of terrorist activity, and thus produce a militant. No, it’s not ripped from today’s headlines, but set in apartheid South Africa. Director Phillip Noyce turns the story of actual ANC freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) into both a morality play and an effective thriller, all without sacrificing the complexity of the situation. Six years ago, this movie would hardly have been controversial; today, it’s courageous.

X-Men, Silent Directors, and the Oakland Paramount

Back in August, I bemoaned the lack of good big-budget action movies this summer. At that time I hadn’t yet seen X-Men: The Last Stand. I loved the first two X-Men movies, but wasn’t optimistic about number three as director Bryan Singer had left the franchise and the far less talented Brett Ratner had taken over. I finally caught it on DVD recently. It’s not as good as the first two, but it’s way ahead of Singer’s Superman Returns. Story and character trump technique. No matter who is directing, the tortured, doubt-filled, and morally ambiguous mutants of the X-Men make better drama than the straight-arrow alien from Krypton. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Inside the Oakland Paramount
photo by Cathe Centorbe

But enough of recent movies. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum presents this weekend a big Behind the Megaphone series, hosted by David Shepard and Russell Merritt. Friday night is a silent Hitchcock double bill. Saturday are four European silent masterpieces, and Sunday is D.W. Griffith day. That means a rare screening of Birth of a Nation, still the most controversial American film of all time. The bad news: The museum is showing several of the films, including Birth, with recorded, rather than live, music.

Finally, classic movies return to Oakland’s Paramount Theater after 20 movie-free months. Movie night at the Paramount is about more than the film. The doors open an hour before the show, giving you plenty of time to enjoy and explore the incredible, art deco ambiance. The show itself includes an organ concert, a cartoon, a newsreel, a wheel-of-fortune-like game, and the feature presentation.

Speaking of feature presentations, here’s some of what’s going on this week:

Recommended, with Reservations: Birth of a Nation, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 9:30am. No other motion picture (except, perhaps, The Jazz Singer) so profoundly changed the art and business of the cinema, and none raised as much controversy. The power and excitement of D.W. Griffith’s Civil War and Reconstruction epic shocked people into recognizing film as an art form, while it’s massive commercial success opened eyes to the cinema’s other potential. But few today are comfortable with its unflinching racism (the Ku Klux Klan ride to the rescue). Most revival theaters refuse to show Birth of a Nation, which is too bad. Yes, it’s grossly offensive. But it’s important to see as a major step in the evolution of an art, and as an unintended record of early twentieth century racial attitudes. (It’s also, if you can lay your repugnance aside, a thrilling and entertaining movie.)

Recommended: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Rafael, ongoing. Dangerous, tyrannical, and megalomaniac religious leaders don’t just exist on the political right. Stanley Nelson’s documentary takes us into the heart of the left-leaning, San Francisco-based Christian cult that ended in mass murder and suicide in 1978. Nelson shows us, and survivors tell us, why people followed Jim Jones, how the good things he did (including creating what was perhaps the first integrated church in Indiana) attracted so many, how he robbed his followers of their facility for critical thought, and finally, how he robbed them of their lives. Through archival footage, photos, and audio recordings, plus interviews with survivors, Nelson does more than tell you what happened; he makes you feel it, understand it, and shiver all the more for the reality of it.

Recommended: My Darling Clementine, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. There’s little history in John Ford’s retelling of the shootout at the OK Corral, but there’s brilliant Western mythology. Ford sets aside the main plot of the Earp/Clanton feud for much of the film, concentrating instead on an uneasy friendship between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Doc Holiday (Victor Mature in what may be his only good performance). Meanwhile, the wide open town of Tombstone–set beautifully yet improbably in Monument Valley–slowly turns civilized, a change that necessitates the Clantons’ deaths and the Earps’ moving on. On a double-bill with the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro.

Recommended: Broken Blossoms, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 2:00. D. W. Griffith treats the Chinese with a sympathy and understanding sorely lacking in Birth of a Nation‘s view of African Americans. This bleak and depressing tale of London low-life stars Lillian Gish as the abused daughter of a sadistic prizefighter (Donald Crisp), and Richard Barthelmess as the once-idealistic Chinese immigrant who loves her (and yes, that’s a white actor playing a Chinese character, not unusual in 1919). As part of its Behind the Megaphone weekend, the museum is screening Broken Blossoms with recorded accompaniment.

Recommended: The Mark of Zorro (1940), Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role his own in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. Power, who was bisexual in real life, plays Don Diego as an effeminate fop, and his masked alter ego as dashing masculinity. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone. Double-billed with My Darling Clementine.

Recommended: The Queen, Balboa, opening Friday. A good movie anchored by a great performance, The Queen works best as a study of a totally bizarre one-family lifestyle. Helen Mirren is perfect, brittle yet human, as the monarch Bette Midler once called “the whitest woman in the world.” Concentrating on the week after Princess Di’s death, the film focuses on Elizabeth’s failure to react to or understand her subjects’ affection for her son’s estranged ex-wife. But there’s a coldness to The Queen, as if the film, like its central character, is keeping everyone at arm’s length. And it’s strange to watch a movie that asks you to root for Tony Blair. This isn’t a must-see movie, but you won’t regret going.

Not Recommended: Flushed Away, Presidio, ongoing. Aardman Animations of Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit fame abandon clay for computer graphics. That might have worked if they hadn’t also exchanged most that quirky Aardman humor for predictable plot, characters, and moral lessons. As entertainment, this tale of the London sewers falls closer to Chicken Little than Chicken Run.

Recommended: Catch a Fire, 4Star, opening Friday. Police arrest and torture an innocent man suspected of terrorist activity, and thus produce a militant. No, it’s not ripped from today’s headlines, but set in apartheid South Africa. Director Phillip Noyce turns the story of actual ANC freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) into both a morality play and an effective thriller, all without sacrificing the complexity of the situation. Six years ago, this movie would hardly have been controversial; today, it’s courageous.

Recommended: Winged Migration, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. You won’t actually learn much from this almost narration-free documentary, but if you have any taste for the majestic beauty of nature, you’ll be in heaven from beginning to end.

Recommended: The General (1926), Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:00. Buster Keaton pushed 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 it as the setup for a punch line told in 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. Judith Rosenberg will accompany The General on piano as part of the Archive’s Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

Recommended: Pandora’s Box, Rafael, Saturday, 7:00. Nearly 70 years after her last film, cinephiles still debate whether Louise Brooks was a first-class talent or just a beautiful woman in the hands of a great director. Either way, her oddly innocent femme fatale wins our sympathy and our lust as she sends men to their destruction without, apparently, understanding what she’s doing. A great example of what the silent drama could do in the hands of a master; in this case, G.W. Pabst. British critic and historian Peter Cowie will introduce this screening of a new, restored, 35mm print. The music, unfortunately, won’t be live.

Noteworthy: Louise Brooks Centenary Celebration, Balboa, Sunday, 7:30. If you miss Pandora’s Box at the Rafael, or if it left you wanting more Louise Brooks and Peter Cowie, the show continues the next day at the Balboa. Cowie will give a talk, followed by “one of the most rarely shown Louise Brooks features, a short comedy and coming attractions.” Film titles are as yet unannounced.

Recommended: Blackmail, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:15. Hitchcock’s last silent film was also his first talkie; making two versions wasn’t unusual when some but not all theaters had sound. Either way, Blackmail is vintage early Hitchcock. A young woman kills an obnoxious artist in self defense, then fears the repercussions (including those of her police detective boyfriend). And there’s a witness willing to take advantage of the situation. Even the resolution puts our heroine (Anny Ondra) into a moral dilemma. The sound version is very good, making clever use of the new medium, but better pacing makes Blackmail work best as a silent. As part of its Behind the Megaphone weekend, the Museum is screening Blackmail on a double-bill with The Manxman, accompanied by Frederick Hodges on piano.

Recommended, with Reservations: A Clockwork Orange, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in 1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the “Singin’ in the Rain” rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim.

Recommended: Half Nelson, Cerrito, opening Friday. Half Nelson is about drug addiction the way Citizen Kane is about journalism. The drug addict in question (Ryan Gosling in one of the year’s best performances) teaches history in an inner-city middle school, and teaches it well. But when school is out, he consumes as much cocaine as he can buy, smoking crack when he can’t afford the expensive stuff. His drug-fueled life is coming apart at the seams, but he can’t step outside his destructive path. And one student whose difficult life may be turned around by his teaching (Shareeka Epps) discovers his habit and finds herself tempted by the business end of the drug economy. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have created a work about high ideals and low achievements that avoids clichés, melodrama (even the drug dealer is sympathetic), and easy answers.

Janus Films

A Janus Film Festival brought me my first major emersion into classic and foreign films at the idealistic age of 18. Among the movies I first saw at this and subsequent Janus festivals were The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Rashomon, The 400 Blows, and Shoot the Piano Player. (I hate to admit how many of those films I haven’t seen since.) Either the festivals stopped or I stopped noticing them about 30 years ago, but many a masterpiece I’ve seen since started with Janus’ two-faced logo.

In the 1980’s, Janus teamed up with Voyager to bring many of these classics into people’s home with the then cutting-edge Laserdisc technology. They called this joint venture The Criterion Collection.

A new Janus Film Festival–celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary, starts Friday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The films include Jules and Jim, The Rules of the Game, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and the above-mentioned 400 Blows and Seventh Seal. If the line-up seems short on Japanese cinema, a follow-up series on Janus Samurai Classics plays in December. For what it’s worth, Gary Meyer planned to bring Janus to the Balboa, as well, but had to cancel due to fears of poor box office. Your loss, San Francisco.

In other East Bay news, and in a follow-up to last week’s report, I was one of many to receive a quick tour of the Cerrito days before it opened. The place looks great, freshly-painted in the art deco style of its original construction, complete with murals and edged glass. Not many couches (and the ones they have are so close to the screen that even I might hate them), but very comfortable chairs with tables. Both theaters have nice screens and digital sound, and the bottom one can manage the changeover projection needed for screening old and rare prints (click here if you’re wondering what I’m talking about.)

On the west side of the bay, the American Indian and Latino film festivals both start Friday. I haven’t seen any of the films at either festival, so I can’t make any recommendations.

But there are a few things I can recommend:

Recommended: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Red Vic, Saturday. Few people realize, at least on first viewing, how much the plot of Robert Altman’s genre-bending mood poem resembles a traditional western: A lone stranger with a dangerous reputation rides into a remote frontier town, tries to settle down to a peaceful existence, but is soon menaced by a trio of hired killers. But there’s nothing conventional about this sad yet beautiful tale of prostitution, alienated community, unrequited love, and a West that seems not so much wild as stranded in the middle of nowhere. Without Vilmos Zsigmond’s golden cinematography, this would be a very good film; with it, it’s a masterpiece.

Recommended: The Grapes of Wrath, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. Serious social criticism doesn’t come to mind when we think of classic, studio-era Hollywood. But this Darryl Zanuck/Nunnally Johnson/John Ford production of John Steinbeck’s flip side of the California dream doesn’t pull any punches (well, not many of them, anyway). The ending may be considerably less shocking than Steinbeck’s original, but as the desperately-poor Joad family moves from Oklahoma to California in their rickety truck, only to find bigotry and exploitation, Ford and his collaborators don’t pull any punches. On a double-bill with Tobacco Road.

Recommended: The Black Swan, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. Tyrone Power plays like the dark side of Errol Flynn–a swashbuckler with a hint of real menace and warped sexuality (at least as warped as Hollywood allowed in 1942). Here he’s a violent pirate who takes whatever and whomever he desires. True, he tries to clean up his act and enter even politics when given the chance, but as W. S. Gilbert said about piracy, when “contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest.” A big, fun, Technicolor adventure and one of the best pirate movies ever made. On a double-bill with Sitting Pretty.

Recommended: Alien, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight. In 1975, Jaws broke box office records. Two years later, Star Wars jumped light-years over Jaws’ grosses . Is it any wonder that Hollywood would put a scary, carnivorous creature on a spaceship? No, the wonder is that screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scot did such a good job. First, they created the most realistic space jockeys yet to grace movie science fiction: eight working-class astronauts who gripe about the pay and the food. Then they placed these unfortunates on a ship that somehow feels both believable and creepy. Finally, O’Bannon Scot added a difficult-to-see, constantly changing, and very hungry monster. And let us not forget Sigourney Weaver in the role that made her a star.

Recommended: Donnie Darko, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. How many alienated-teenager-in-suburbia-time-travel-science-fantasy comedies can you name? Okay, there’s Back to the Future and its sequels, but add the adjectives horrific and surreal to that description, and Donnie Darko stands alone. And how many alienated movie teenagers have to deal with a slick self-help guru and a six-foot rabbit named Frank (think Harvey, only vicious). It’s not entirely clear what’s going on in this strange movie, but that just adds to the fun.

Recommended: Little Miss Sunshine, Cerrito, opens Friday. I’m glad this movie is a comedy; a drama with these characters would be unbearably depressing. Little Miss Sunshine puts a supremely dysfunctional family on the road in a broken down VW bus, with the goal of entering their prepubescent daughter into a beauty contest for girls too young to have any business in a beauty contest. The result opens a window into the souls of five damaged adults and two youths destined for damaged adulthood, while delivering a steady stream of strong, deep, and sustained laughs. Not a simple feat for a first-time screenwriter (Michael Arndt) and two directors experienced only in music videos (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris).

Recommended: The Illusionist, Cerrito, opens Friday. Every film lover knows not to trust their eyes, because a movie is nothing but a lie, a deceit, and a trick. And the biggest illusion in this particular movie is its independent (or at least indiewood) cred. Don’t be deceived by the lack of a major studio logo or the presence of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. The Illusionist is light entertainment, not serious art. But it’s very good light entertainment, as inconsequential as the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, but ten times as much fun and made for a fraction of the cost.

Recommended: One, Two, Three, Castro, Tuesday. Billy Wilder’s cold war comedy can’t compare to his Some Like It Hot, but its fast pace and farcical nature keep it funny, even when the topical satire has long since lost its edge. James Cagney plays broad as a hard-driving, easily-angered Coca Cola executive stationed in West Berlin, suddenly having to cope with a daughter in love with a Communist. On a Billy Wilder double-bill with Ace in the Hole.

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