Neither a Bird Nor a Plane

Finally saw Hollywoodland. It’s a very good film hidden inside a very mediocre one.

The good film stars Ben Affleck as George Reeves, the actor best remembered for playing Superman in the 1950’s TV show. It paints Reeves as a tragic figure, and a pathetic one–one of those actors who hangs around Hollywood for years, getting small roles in big pictures and big roles in serials. Then he wins fame in a kiddy TV show, rendering him impossible for adults to take seriously.

In the 1910’s, Mary Pickford discovered just how rich and famous an actor could become thanks to the new medium of motion pictures. Forty years later, Reeves learned how horribly stereotyped one could become thanks to television.

And it’s to television, at least in this movie’s view, that unsuccessful movie actors go to die. Reeves was found shot in the head, probably a suicide, shortly after the show went off the air.

Unfortunately, Hollywoodland stars Adrien Brody, not Ben Affleck. I have nothing against Brody, but in this particular movie, he plays a clichéd private detective trying to prove that Reeves was murdered. Neither Brody, writer Paul Bernbaum, nor director Allen Coulter give us any reason to care about this guy or his probably misguided quest. Every time the story cuts from Affleck to Brody, it’s a letdown.

By the way, I caught one promo for Hollywoodland when it was in theaters that described Reeves as playing “journalist/superhero Clark Kent.” Oddly enough, that makes sense. For reasons probably inspired by the meager special effects budget, Reeves spent more screen time wearing glasses than a cape.

In other news, the Sonoma Valley Film Festival runs April 12 through 15. Special events include a tribute to Pixar’s John Lasseter. As is this festival’s tradition, the emphasis is as much on gourmet food as on movies. I’m not listing a schedule for the festival on Bayflicks; their site is designed in a way that would make that task extremely difficult.

Finally, a bit of self-promotion: I spent much of February testing and reviewing Blu-Ray and HD-DVD players for PC World (that’s one reason why I was too busy in February to maintain Bayflicks properly). Movies look and sound great on these players, but I still prefer the theatrical experience. You’ll find the article here.

Movies for the Week of March 30, 2007

Click here for descriptionSierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Red Vic, Friday through Tuesday. A sad, harrowing, yet ultimately inspiring true story told with only moderate competence. Refugee All Stars focuses on six musicians, refugees from Sierra Leone’s horrifyingly brutal civil war, who came together in the Guinean refugee camps in which they’d lived for many years. In the course of the film, they tour the camps, visit their homeland to record their first record and consider moving back. But directors Zach Niles and Banker White don’t give us a real chance to fall in love with the music, nor do they stay on the individual musicians long enough for us to fall in love with them. The result feels like it’s skirting over the top and not quite opening itself up to show us how these six have turned tragedy and poverty into music.

Click here for descriptionStereotypes in Silent Films, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 3:00. This looks like an interesting presentation: Seven short silent films depicting Hispanics or Native Americans, accompanied by Bruce Loeb at the piano and discussed by Niles Museum historian David Kiehn, anthropologist Nina Egert, and Ohlone educator Ruth Orta. Sponsored by the Vinapa Foundation.. And it’s free!

Click here for descriptionPan’s Labyrinth, Parkway, opening Friday. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) lives in fascist Spain with a cruel and powerful stepfather–a very dangerous and scary place to live. But so is the fantasy realm into which she frequently escapes. But at least the fantasy world, which may or may not be a figment of her imagination, holds out the possibility of hope. Guillermo del Toro fashioned a nightmare inside of a nightmare, filled with dark, gruesome, and often gory imagery, a child’s fantasy that’s appropriate only for adults, and an unforgettable experience.

Grandma’s Boy, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. In his second feature, made years after he donned those horn-rimmed glasses, Harold Lloyd finally found the shy, scared, but clever and ambitious character to go with them. Harold is too much of a coward to face the bully or win the girl, but a fairy tale lie from his grandmother helps him find the courage that was always inside. This sweet fable about the power of self-confidence avoids excess sentimentality by the simple (but actually quite difficult) trick of never letting up on the laughs. I’ve seen people almost asphyxiate from laughter during the mothball scene. Five years later he would return to the rural setting, and the theme, for his best film, The Kid Brother. Shown, along with some shorts, with piano accompaniment by Molly Axtmann.

Letters from Iwo Jima, Cerrito, opening Friday. I didn’t think Clint Eastwood could top Flags of Our Fathers, but he did…just barely. By concentrating on the Japanese experience and turning Americans into the briefly-glimpsed “other,” he forces us to consider not only the dehumanizing aspects of war itself, but also the distortions in conventional war movies. Leaving such high-minded talk aside, he tells a very sad tale of ordinary people selected for death by an exceptionally cruel government.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. 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 there been a sequel with a teenage Scout, Atticus would have been an idiotic tyrant.) Part of the archive’s Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

The Last King of Scotland, 4Star, opening Friday. The “King” in the title refers to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker in the performance finally won him that Oscar he’s so long deserved. Whitaker shows us all the sides of a paranoid megalomaniac, at one moment winning us over with his easy-going charisma and the next leaving us shaking in fear. We get to know him through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who accidentally falls into Amin’s inner circle and gets seduced by the good life. The film doesn’t give you much reason to like McAvoy’s character–even when doing the altruistic work that brought him to Africa he seems shallow and self-centered–but you care if he lives or dies. And that becomes a real issue as this political character study gradually turns into an thriller. My big complaint: The ending is a moral cop-out.

Little Children, Cerrito, opening Friday. Good films don’t have to tell you what a character is thinking or feeling; you sense it from the dialog and the performances. But Todd Field and Tom Perrotta didn’t trust their characters or their actors (which is too bad because the cast couldn’t have been better) and filled Little Children with detailed and annoying narration. Every time the story and performances build dramatic tension, Will Lyman’s omnipotent voice destroys it by telling you what everyone is thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Things improve after the halfway mark–there’s less narration, giving you a chance to truly appreciate the good performances–but there’s still the overabundance of subplots and some unbelievably idiotic character behavior.

Movies for the Week of March 23, 2007

Once again I don’t have time to write an essay, so I’ll just give you my recommendations.There isn’t much, not because the movies are lousy; I just haven’t seen the new ones, and haven’t seen the old ones recently enough to comment on them.

Children of Men, Elmwood, opening Friday. Set in a dystopian, near-future Britain living under a Fascism that looks all too familiar, Alfonso Cuarón’s labor of love feels a bit like V for Vendetta. But it’s better. It’s 2027, with the human race slowly dying out due to mysterious, world-wide infertility, and the British government rounding up illegal aliens the way the Nazi’s rounded up Jews. When one of these aliens turns up pregnant (the last successful birth was more than 18 years ago), an apolitical former radical (Clive Owen) is forced to think beyond himself. One of the rare thrillers that actually keeps you guessing what will happen next.

The Last King of Scotland, Cerrito and Elmwood, opening Friday. The “King” in the title refers to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker in a performance that may finally win him that Oscar he’s so long deserved. Whitaker shows us all the sides of a paranoid megalomaniac, at one moment winning us over with his easy-going charisma and the next leaving us shaking in fear. We get to know him through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who accidentally falls into Amin’s inner circle and gets seduced by the good life. The film doesn’t give you much reason to like McAvoy’s character–even when doing the altruistic work that brought him to Africa he seems shallow and self-centered–but you care if he lives or dies. And that becomes a real issue as this political character study gradually turns into an thriller. My big complaint: The ending is a moral cop-out.

The Queen, Cerrito and Elmwood, opening Friday. 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.

Tiburon and San Francisco

The official press conference is more than three weeks away, but the drumbeat for the San Francisco International Film Festival keeps getting louder. (Excuse me, the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival, abbreviated SFIFF50–even though no one has thought to register sfiff50.org.) We keep hearing about the various awards planned for the event. I’ve already told you what I think of George Lucas’ special award. Nor does Peter Morgan sound all that appropriate for the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. Not that the author of The Queen and The Last King of Scotland lacks talent; he just lacks a resume. He hasn’t done much you’ve likely to have heard of besides those two.

On the other hand, I’m quite happy about the choice of Spike Lee for the Film Society Directing Award. True, he’s had his share of turkeys, but he’s also had more than his share of excellent, thought-provoking entertainment.

The 50th San Francisco International Film Festival runs from April 26 through May 10.

If you don’t want to wait that long, the Tiburon Film Festival opens this Thursday night with Even Money, a drama about compulsive gambling directed by Mark Rydell. Along with a large collection of films from around the world, the festival will screen John Ford and Marcello Mastroianni tributes.

Although my work load has lightened up, back problems are still making it difficult to go to movies (I finally managed to see Pan’s Labyrinth last weekend). I hope to be better in time for the San Francisco Festival.

Movies for the Week of March 16, 2007

This is Spinal Tap, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. On a scale of one to ten, This is Spinal Tap rates an eleven. And if you didn’t get that joke, you haven’t seen the parody that put all “rockumentaries– in their place. Comments?

The Rules of the Game, Rafael, Friday through Wednesday. I know; everyone else considers this one of cinema’s great masterpieces –“an immensely important influence on many filmmakers (one can hardly imagine Robert Altman’s career without it). And yes, I’ve read all about its deep and important commentary on the class system and the institution of marriage. But all I see is a modest comedy of manners without much comedy and nothing exceptional to say about our manners. For me, Grand Illusion remains Renior’s masterpiece. Comments?

Flying Down to Rio, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. This moderately entertaining Dolores del Rio musical wouldn’t be worth a second glance if RKO hadn’t cast a new-to-the-movies Broadway hoofer named Fred Astaire as male lead Gene Raymond’s buddy, and experienced supporting actress Ginger Rogers as Astaire’s girlfriend. Astaire and Rogers dance one number together and trade a handful of quips, but no one came out of the theater raving about Raymond and del Rio. On a double-bill with The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Comments?

Little Children, Roxie, opening Friday. Good films don’t have to tell you what a character is thinking or feeling; you sense it from the dialog and the performances. But Todd Field and Tom Perrotta didn’t trust their characters or their actors (which is too bad because the cast couldn’t have been better) and filled Little Children with detailed and annoying narration. Every time the story and performances build dramatic tension, Will Lyman’s omnipotent voice destroys it by telling you what everyone is thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Things improve after the halfway mark–“there’s less narration, giving you a chance to truly appreciate the good performances–“but there’s still the overabundance of subplots and some unbelievably idiotic character behavior. Comments?

Blood Diamond, Roxie, opening Friday. Good intentions aren’t enough. Writer Charles Leavitt and director Edward Zwick try to deliver an exciting thriller and teach us something important about the diamond industry’s horrible toll on African lives. But Blood Diamond is too predictable, too ineptly written, and too preachy to work as a thriller, and a bad thriller doesn’t make for good education (unless, of course, the lesson is How Not to Make a Thriller). I did learn one important lesson from Blood Diamond: Jennifer Connelly is capable of giving a bad performance–“all she needs is lame dialog and an unbelievable character. Comments?

Criteria for the Very Best Films of All Time

I hate people asking me for my all-time favorite film. I don’t even want to give them an all-time top ten. How do you choose between Ikiru and Singin’ in the Rain? They’re both masterpieces, but each succeeds in doing something entirely different from the other. It’s like comparing apples and orangutans.

But I’ve been thinking: Is there a set of criteria for identifying, even amongst the greatest movies, the few films that are the very best? Could there be some logical way to separate, out of hundreds of masterpieces, a handful that stand above the rest?

How about this? Amongst the great films, the very greatest must be outstanding in all of these areas:

Substance: A work of pure escapism can be a masterpiece, but can’t enter the stratified realm of the very best. Nor can a work with a simplistic theme of “Hooray for our side.” Such a film must say something intelligent and complex about the society in which it was made, or about the human condition.

Humanity: Even a complex message is cheapened if told through cardboard characters. The very best films, therefore, must explore their complex themes through believable, human characters.

Entertainment: There are plenty of great films of substance and humanity, but let’s be honest: They’re not all that much fun to watch. To stand out above that crowd, a deep and complex movie must also provide a good time.

Original Craftsmanship: It’s not enough for a film on the very top to be well written, designed, shot, acted, edited, and directed. It must avoid clichés and push the envelope. Uh, let me reword that. It must be well-made in an unusual, preferably ground-breaking way.

Well-Aged: A work of art can’t truly be a classic until it has stood the test of time. It’s not that new works are inferior, it’s just that we have no way of knowing if they’ll look great or absurd to the next generation–or to older versions of ourselves. I put the minimum age for a classic at 20 years. That’s long enough for it to be discovered by a generation too young to remember the world it was created in.

Now that we have the criteria, we can put together a completely objective list of the greatest of the great–the very best, movies ever made.

Yeah, and digital always looks better.

Even if everyone agreed with these criteria (and I don’t expect them to), no one would agree as to what films match it. But following this criteria, here’s my list of the 8 greatest films ever made (I couldn’t actually find 10 that made the list). I list the films chronologically because I wouldn’t dream of picking the best amongst this lot. The links lead to my microreviews.

  • The Crowd
  • Citizen Kane
  • Rear Window
  • Seven Samurai
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • 8 1/2
  • The Godfather: Part II
  • Annie Hall

    What do you think of my criteria? And what films would you put on your own short list?

    [June 24, 2007: This post has been altered since I first wrote it. I originally left Annie Hall out as a complete oversight. I have since added it.]

    Films for the Week of March 9, 2007

    Pandora’s Box, California Theatre, San Jose, Friday, 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. Cinequest will present Pandora’s Box accompanied by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer organ.

    White Heat, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. James Cagney became a star playing tough-but-likable gangsters in the 1930’s. But by the time he made White Heat in 1949, he insisted on playing a complex, oedipal, and totally despicable psychopath who neither asks for nor receives the audience’s sympathy. It’s an electrifying performance, the best of his career, making us easily forget Edmond O’Brien as the nominal hero. One of the best, and most unique, gangster movies ever made. On a double-bill with The Body Snatcher. Comments?

    Forbidden Planet, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. Nothing dates faster than futuristic fiction, and with its corny dialog and spaceship crewed entirely by white males, Forbidden Planet is very dated. But MGM’s 1956 sci-fi extravaganza still holds considerable pleasures. The Cinemascope/Eastmancolor art direction is pleasing to the eye, Robby the Robot is adorable, and the story–”involving a long-dead mystery race of super-beings–”still packs some genuine thrills. It’s also an interesting precursor to Star Trek. Part of the Archive’s Movie Matinees For All Ages

    The Rules of the Game, Castro, Friday through Wednesday. I know; everyone else considers this one of cinema’s great masterpieces–“an immensely important influence on many filmmakers (one can hardly imagine Robert Altman’s career without it). And yes, I’ve read all about its deep and important commentary on the class system and the institution of marriage. But all I see is a modest comedy of manners without much comedy and nothing exceptional to say about our manners. For me, Grand Illusion remains Renior’s masterpiece. Comments?

    Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, Red Vic, Wednesday through the following Monday. 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 Indiana’s first integrated church) 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, 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. Comments?

    8 1/2, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00. Funny, exhilarating, perplexing, and tragic, 8½ is not only the greatest film ever made about writer’s block and the ultimate cinematic statement on the male midlife crisis, it’s also a movie about making a movie, where the movie being made appears to be 8½. Filled with one memorable and unique scene after another, Fellini’s autobiographical surreal comedy lacks nothing except a coherent plot–“something it has no use for. Part of Marilyn Fabe’s open-to-the-public Film 50: History of Cinema class. Comments?

    Venus, Lark, opens Friday. Yet another film about an old person befriending a young one, but it’s so much better than Mrs. Palfrey At the Claremont. Peter O’Toole stars as an aging actor (not much of a stretch) whose sexual desires have outlived both his ability to attract women and his talents at pleasing them. The object of his attentions is a young woman (newcomer Jodi Whittaker) who tries to discourage his flirtations while latching on to him as a friend and, perhaps as a father figure. The resulting relationship burns with conflict and occasional minor violence, but also concern and genuine love. Funny, sad, and real. Comments?

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