Top Ten Preparation, Part V: Final Winnowing

In our last chapter, I managed to get the number of candidates down to 13, despite adding three additional films to the candidates list. Now I must add another, I Am Legend, bringing the number up to 14.

So what can I remove?

In Part III, I considered the possibility of eliminating La Vie En Rose and/or Atonement, on the grounds that the list includes a better historical drama, Golden Door (not to mention Lust, Caution, which also qualifies). Now I’m ready to remove both of them. That brings the list to 12.

I also just realized that, although I decided to eliminate Knocked Up in Part IV, I didn’t actually remove it. That brings the count down to 11. (Isn’t it comforting to know I’m only human?)

But what an 11! There’s not a film here I want to eliminate. (Kind of makes me wish humans had one more finger.)

And then I have to figure out the order. Can I really say that Ten Canoes was better at exploring Australian aboriginal culture than Death at a Funeral was funny?

I’m cutting off, now. You’ll have to wait for the actual list to see my decisions.

Here’s the almost-final Top Ten list, still just in the approximate order I saw the films:

  1. Golden Door
  2. The Lives of Others
  3. Ratatouille
  4. Ten Canoes
  5. No End in Sight
  6. The Savages
  7. Death at a Funeral
  8. Lust, Caution
  9. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  10. Juno
  11. I Am Legend

I Am Legend

Sci-fi horror thriller

  • Written by Mark Protosevich & Akiva Goldsman
  • Based on the novel by Richard Matheson
  • Directed by Francis Lawrence

I wonder if the Warner Brothers executives who greenlit this movie knew what they were getting into. You okay a big budget end-of-the-human-race scifi adventure starring Will Smith (seems a safe bet), and you get a slow-paced, dark, brooding, humorless horror film where the action scenes are few and very terrifying, and the CGI is used mainly to put wild flora in Manhattan streets.

If the suits knew what they were doing, I commend them for their courage. And if they didn’t, I’m thankful for their mistakes.

This third film version of Richard Matheson’s novel is not a fun ride. As the only living, non-zombified human in Manhattan and perhaps the world, Smith spends most of the film fighting off a deep, soul-killing loneliness. He has a sweet and loyal dog, but she doesn’t make up for human companionship. He also has a routine, which includes broadcasting a message to anyone who might listen, hunting the wild animals that now roam the city for fresh meat, and visiting a video store which he has populated with mannequins that he pretends are real people.

He’s free to roam the city during the day, but he locks himself up at night when the zombies are out. An altered version of the measles virus, created to help cure cancer, has turned almost everyone into a rabid, zombie-like creature hungry for human blood. The zombies themselves wiped out all of the healthy humans except Smith’s Robert Neville. Luckily, they can’t stand light.

A biologist, Neville spends much of his time listening to Bob Marley (the man has taste) and trying to develop a cure for the zombie-creating disease. He doesn’t seem entirely sure what he’d do with the cure should he find it.

As the film progresses, Neville sinks deeper into despair and depression. The ending does little to lift that spirit. I am Legend is the sort of big-budget movie that gives you hope for Hollywood.

He-Man Hur and Harold Lloyd: Recommendations and Warnings

Ben-Hur (1959), Castro, Saturday. The best of the many big, long religious epics Hollywood churned out when the wide screen was a selling point, Ben-Hur doesn’t quite manage to be the masterpiece that many people remember. The story is heavy-handed, especially in the final hour when the Christianity is ladled on rather thick. But it’s great to look at, offers several entertaining supporting roles, and belongs on the big screen. If you have a hankering to see Ben-Hur, see it here, not on DVD. As part of it’s tribute to composer Miklós Rózsa, the Castro will screen Ben-Hur in what they promise to be “an excellent 35mm [print] in Dolby “A”, including overture, etc..”

Dr. Jack, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This early Harold Lloyd feature lacks the strong sense of story and character found in his later silents, but it still delivers laughs. Its theme, preferring the common-sense small-town general practitioner to the fancy-pants medical specialist, was probably conservative in 1922; today it feels like holistic medicine. Frederick Hodges accompanies on piano.

Double Bill: Double Indemnity & The Lost Weekend, Castro, Tuesday. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s noir thriller Double Indemnity. Not that she has much trouble doing it (this is not the MacMurray we grew up on in “My Three Sons”). A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal. Also noirish in style, The Lost Weekend is the sort of social problem picture we don’t expect from Wilder. The problem is alcoholism, and while Ray Milland earned the Oscar he won for his performance, the picture seems to be more about the problem than the person. The on this double bill, part of the Castro’s tribute to composer Miklós Rózsa, belongs to Double Endemnity.

Time After Time, Castro, Monday, 2:20. I haven’t seen Nicholas Meyer’s sci-fi fantasy thriller romantic comedy since it was new, and I suspect that 1979 may look almost as quaint to us as 1888 looked then, but I liked this picture enough back then. Meyer plays the silly plot–H. G. Wells travels in time to present day San Francisco to catch Jack the Ripper, but gets distracted by a liberated woman–for all its worth. Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, and Mary Steenburgen star. On a Miklós Rózsa matinee double-bill with Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which I also haven’t seen since new and don’t remember at all.

Reviewed First-Run Films in Bayflicks-Approved Theaters
Click title for review. All films either ongoing or opening Friday.

New Pacific Film Archive Schedule

I just received the Pacific Film Archive’s schedule for January and February. Some interesting stuff, and some disappointing things missing.

But then, those are two short months for the PFA. The Archive closes every year for U.C.’s winter break, and by the time it reopens on January 11, the month is a third gone. February is short for everyone, of course.

One promising series is The Medieval Remake, a examination on how world cinema has imagined Europe’s middle ages. Among the better known titles are Andrei Rublev (maybe I’ll finally get a chance to see it), Alexander Nevsky, The Nibelungen, Parts I and II (with different pianists), and The Seventh Seal (which they just showed a couple of weeks ago).

All of these films are European and generally considered high art. Nothing wrong with that–if I had the time, I’d catch every one. But you can’t truly explore how filmmakers have imagined and recreated the middle ages without including some Hollywood hokum. What this program clearly needs is Adventures of Robin Hood, which doesn’t use medieval Europe as religious allegory or national propaganda, and certainly doesn’t recreate it as it really was, but as it should have been.

Other series include Cool World: Jazz and the Movies, an African Film Festival, and tributes to actors Jean-Pierre Léaud and Sessue Hayakawa.

Top Ten Preparation, Part IV: Comedies

Click the links for Part I, Part II, and Part III.

I have to add another film to my top ten candidates: Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s wonderfully true-to-life comedy, Juno. And that’s handy, because comedy is exactly what I want to talk about in this chapter of my ongoing quest for the Top Ten Movies of 2007.

I see two, equally valid ways to evaluate a comedy. You can take into account everything you would in a drama–fully-realized characters, a well-designed story, an interesting world-view–as well as the fundamental issue of whether it made you laugh. Or you can forget all about that other stuff and just ask if it made you laugh hard and consistently from beginning to end.

With both criteria in mind, I try to include two comedies in my Top Ten list. You can think of them as Best Comedy and Funniest Comedy.

This year, two excellent, funny, true-to-life movies about unwanted pregnancies dominate the Best Comedy subcategory–Knocked Up and the aforementioned Juno. That’s a very tough call, but I’m going to have to go with Juno. It’s funnier, and with it’s lack of Hollywood gloss, it’s more down-to-earth.

But what about Adam’s Apples–another fine Best Comedy candidate. I’m hesitant to put it on the Top Ten for reasons that have little to do with quality. It’s now 19 months since I saw the film at the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival. Can I really compare it to Juno, which I saw last week? So, on those admittedly unfair grounds, I’m eliminating Adam’s Apples from the competition. And although it’s not a comedy, I’m eliminating Venus for similar reasons–I saw it about 16 months ago at a press screening for the 2006 Mill Valley Film Festival.

While writing this, I’ve realized that I accidentally left two of the best comedies of 2007 off the list: Death at a Funeral and Dan in Real Life. Dan would fall into the Best Comedy category, but it’s definitely not as good as Juno (or Knocked Up or Adam’s Apples, for that matter), so I won’t worry about it.

No other flick this year made me laugh as much as Death at a Funeral, even though Hot Fuzz came close. (What is it about British comedies?) So Hot Fuzz gets dropped from the list. When I reviewed it in May, I stated that “If Hot Fuzz doesn’t make my Top Ten list as the funniest film of the year, 2007 will be the best year for comedies in a very long time.” I stand by that.

The list is now down to 13–despite adding three additional titles since Part III. Here’s the current tally:

  1. Golden Door
  2. La Vie En Rose
  3. The Lives of Others
  4. Knocked Up
  5. Ratatouille
  6. Ten Canoes
  7. No End in Sight
  8. The Savages
  9. Death at a Funeral
  10. Lust, Caution
  11. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  12. Atonement
  13. Juno

On to Part V.

Juno

Dramatic comedy

  • Written by Diablo Cody
  • Directed by Jason Reitman

The last thing I expected before the year ended was a comedy about unintentional pregnancy that was more truthful, more insightful, and just plain funnier than Knocked Up. I found one. You could go to movies for years and not find anything as good as Juno.

Ellen Page plays the title character, a cynical, wise-cracking teenager whose insecurities ineffectively hide just below the surface. This is a girl who can’t hear the term “sexually active” without going into a monolog about the expression’s absurdity. The insecurities and absurdities get a lot worse when she gets pregnant from her very first sexual experience, and that with a guy whom she thinks of as just a friend.

Juno decides to carry the baby to term and let a young married couple adopt it. The couple had advertised their desire to adopt in the local advertiser; “Desperately seeking spawn” as Juno describes it.

No one’s free of emotional baggage here, and the more we get to know this couple, the more we worry that they’re not going to be particularly good parents. Not that there’s anything horribly wrong with them–screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman treat everyone as a decent human being trying to do what’s right. But the young wife (Jennifer Garner) has to control everything around her, and doesn’t really approve of her husband’s wilder side. And the husband (Mark Loring), while a warm, sweet, and fun guy, may not be ready for parenthood.

Juno has a good home, despite the fact that her mother deserted the family years ago. Her father (J.K. Simmons–playing a real human being for a change) clearly loves her and supports her. His wry commentary on everything tells us where Juno got her sense of humor (when told who got his daughter pregnant, he responds “I didn’t think he had it in him”). And his second wife–Juno’s stepmother–has clearly taken on mothering responsibilities. Her response to the pregnancy news is to discuss nutritional and medical issues.

For all it’s truth and realism, Juno still manages to find more than it’s share of laughs. It’s not Death at a Funeral funny, but it’s still funnier than most comedies out these days (or in older days), without ever moving into parody or farce, and never straining for laughs. Few films demonstrate better demonstrate that comedy, at its best, is simply truth with timing (although there’s nothing simple about that).

Like Romance and Cigarettes and Enchanted, Juno turns serious as it nears its conclusion. But this time, it works. By sticking close to reality, Juno earns the right to not be funny.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Family action movie

  • Written by The Wibberleys
  • Jon Turteltaub

Since I don’t review films professionally, I don’t have an editor forcing me to go to movies I have no desire to see. That’s my kids’ job.

And so, on opening night, I took my 12-year-old and one of her friends to see National Treasure: Book of Secrets. I’d rather go back to changing diapers.

On the way to the theater, I consoled myself with the thought that a mindless, big-budget action flick can only be so bad. Even if the story makes no sense, it would be fast-paced, have clever (if not quite witty) dialog, and brim with stunts and special effects.

I was wrong. NT: BoS loses on all counts. The pacing is glacial–allowing for plenty of time to contemplate the vastness of the story’s senselessness. I’m not sure if the dialog failed to be funny or didn’t even try. The action scenes were few, slow, and unimaginative.

And it wastes an impressive cast. We’ve learned not to depend on Nicolas Cage, talented as he is, since by now been in as many bad movies as good ones. And has Jon Voight done a good film since Midnight Cowboy made him a star? But you expect a film with Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, and Harvey Keitel to show some class. Actually Mirren shows a lot of class, managing to turn her part into a real person without any help from the screenplay. Harris, on the other hand, seems so uninterested in the part that he occasionally forgets the southern accent he uses elsewhere. Keitel just stands there and recites his lines.

The plot involves finding a treasure that will also prove that the hero Cage’s character’s great-great-grandfather wasn’t part of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. This involves searching for intentionally-left clues in the world’s hardest to get to places (Buckingham Palace, the Oval Office), and talking a lot. Much of the talk involves history, and much of that is even accurate history. But it always gets twisted around in a weird way to match the plot.

The screenplay is officially credited to “The Wibberleys.” I understand why they didn’t want their first names on the film, but in their place, I wouldn’t have wanted my last name there, either.

January Festivals

German-language films, foreign films that aren’t in German, and the dark side of Hollywood all come to Bay Area theaters next month.

The 13th annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival opens at the Castro January 10 for a one-week, 35-film run. The opening night feature, The Edge of Heaven, follows a father and son and a mother and daughter as their lives unfold and intersect in Germany and Turkey. According to the program, “Paternal, maternal, heterosexual and lesbian love are juxtaposed with questions of family and Heimat” (if that last work confuses you, check Wikipedia–I did). Other promising titles include Fashion Victims, The Red Elvis, and Nothing Else Matters. A tribute to the recently deceased actor Ulrich Mühe includes three films, including his best-known work in this country (and the only film in this festival I’ve already seen), The Lives of Others. Following festival tradition, Berlin & Beyond will show one silent, a comedy called The Oddball, with live organ accompaniment by Dennis James.

The day after Berlin & Beyond opens, the Rafael starts its regular For Your Consideration series of films eligible for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. (To be eligible, a film must be submitted by its country of origin.) The films include On the Wings of Dreams from Bangladesh, Jar City, from Iceland, and from Canada, the follow-up to The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, Days of Darkness (The Age of Ignorance. The series runs through January 24.

Which means it’s over just in time for Noir City, which opens January 25 and runs through February 3 at the Castro. Eddie Muller, the Bay Area’s resident noir expert, has put together another selection of obscure cheapies celebrating bad men, worse women, and shadowy black and white photography. As usual, there’s only one movie in the group I’ve seen, Gun Crazy (it was a long time ago but I liked it very much), half of a double bill honoring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The other film, The Prowler, was directed by Joseph Losey and has just been restored. (The blacklisted Trumbo didn’t receive screen credit for either film.) The festival opens with a two-picture tribute to actress Joan Leslie, who will appear in person.

Only Four Recommendations and Warnings

Since I now leave first-run Hollywood and indiewood fare out of the weekly report, my recommendations and warnings on pretty short this week.

Helvetica, Roxie, opens Friday. Director Gary Hustwit clearly feels passionate about typefaces. So do the graphic designers he interviews. Some consider the ubiquitous san serif font for which the movie is named to be brilliant and almost sacred, while another half joking blames Helvetica for the Iraq war. Unfortunately, Hustwit fails to pass this passion on to the audience. Had I known more about the subject going in, I might have enjoyed Helvetica. It’s no coincidence that its best moments are the few where it offers facts instead of opinions. Hustwit appears to have made a documentary for people already familiar with the subject. Click here for my full review.

Doctor Zhivago, Castro, Sunday. The last time I mentioned David Lean’s follow-up to Lawrence of Arabia in my weekly newsletter, I said that it “lacks that masterpiece’s depth, and Omar Shariff is horribly miscast, but it’s still a spectacular epic. On the other hand, I’ve never seen it on the big screen, so it might be a better film than I recall.” Since then, I have seen it on the big screen (although not as big a screen as the Castro) and can now recommend it enthusiastically. This is one of the great romantic historical epics. I’m even willing to forgive the casting of Omar Sharif, who doesn’t look Russian but still gives a fine performance. For more on the big-screen Zhivago experience, see Dr. Zhivago at the Cerrito.

Baraka, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. Strange, haunting, beautiful, and terrifying, Baraka defies description. Without plot, narration, or explanation, it simply presents images of nature, humanity, and humanity’s effect on nature. Even if you don’t see a message (there is one), you’re captivated by the music and the clear and perfect visuals. Baraka was one of the last films, and one of the few art films, shot in 65mm. Because the larger film format so enhances this picture, I grade Baraka A when presented in 70mm, but only B in 35mm.

It’s a Wonderful Life, Stanford, Monday, 9:00. There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, Bailey needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because Bailey, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it.

Top Ten Preparation, Part III: Categories

Click the links for Part I and Part II.

Last time I discussed this topic, I had 17 possible candidates for the Top Ten. Instead of eliminating seven, however, I’ve added one: Atonement. Now there are 18!

The very concept of a list requires you to say that this film is better than that film. That’s reasonable if the pictures resemble each other. You can decide which comedy kept you laughing, which thriller scared you out of your skin, and which daring independent art film did something new and original that actually proved worth doing. But can you really say that Hot Fuzz was funnier than No End in Sight was informative and depressing?

Acknowledging this problem, I try to get a genre mix into my Top Ten. Without following hard and fast rules, I shoot for least two comedies, some documentaries, intimate and epic dramas, and one big, expensive special effects adventure–just to show I’m not totally stuck up.

So let’s see what we have here:

There are two special effects adventures on my list, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Stardust. I gave them s, but they were both kind of low s. I’m tempted to keep Stardust in the running because it’s a flop that should have been a hit, and the more Top Tens it gets in the better, but I guess I’m not tempted enough. So unless I Am Legend really impresses me, no Hollywood blockbusters this year. Two films (really movies) out.
Now here’s something interesting: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and No Country for Old Men. That’s two thriller/dramas, both serious and sad, about crime gone wrong. No Country is the better film technically–beautifully shot to create a hopeless and arid mood. But Before the Devil succeeds on a more important level: You can believe it’s happening to real, recognizable people. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the better film, and No Country for Old Men gets dropped from the list.

I’m a sucker for historical epics, so it’s no surprise that I gave s to three of them: Golden Door, La Vie En Rose, and Atonement. I love all three, but I definitely prefer Golden Door. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to eliminate both La Vie En Rose, and Atonement, nor am I sure which I’d keep. I’ll have to think about that.

So here’s the current list:

  1. Venus
  2. Golden Door
  3. La Vie En Rose
  4. Adam’s Apples
  5. Hot Fuzz
  6. The Lives of Others
  7. Once
  8. Knocked Up
  9. Ratatouille
  10. Ten Canoes
  11. No End in Sight
  12. The Savages
  13. Lust, Caution
  14. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  15. Atonement

On to Part IV: Comedies

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