This Week At the Movies

Cinequest continues and the Irish Film Festival plays its full run this week. See below for comments.

Around the Bay. Sparse and utilitarian, Alejandro Adams’ low-key drama gets right to the point, then tells its dysfunctional family story without pyrotechnics. Single dad Wyatt (Steve Voldseth) is so remote and disconnected from his five-year-old son (Connor Maselli) that he leaves the child home alone–“and that’s in a house with an unfenced swimming pool. Looking for a way out of his responsibilities, he asks his estranged 21-year-old daughter (Katherine Celio) to move in as caregiver. Slowly, they work out some of their problems, but by no means all of them. Adams made Around the Bay for very little money, shooting it on standard-def video. The low budget shows, but thanks to an excellent script and cast, doesn’t hurt the film. Cinequest screens Around the Bay Saturday, 7:45, at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, and Tuesday, 4:15, at the Camera 12, also in San Jose. (There’s an additional screening the following Saturday at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.)

The Irish Film Festival opens Wednesday at the Roxie with Garage, a comedy about a small-town misfit played by actor/comedian Pat Shortt. The festival runs through Saturday. Other features include Learning Gravity, a documentary about the family-run funeral parlor that inspired the series Six Feet Under; Kings, about Irish migrant laborers in London; and a documentary on the infamous Bloody Sunday.

I Was Born, But–¦. Yasujiro Ozu looks at the realities of potential upward mobility through the eyes of a child in this amazing late silent. Truthful, subtle, and frequently funny, Ozu focuses his seldom-moving camera on two brothers adjusting to life in the suburbs, and their realization that the father they look up to must kiss ass to achieve success. One normally doesn’t think of realistic character study as one of silent film’s strongest assets, but in 1932 (by which time Japan was pretty much the only country still making silents), Ozu proved just how much the medium could do. California Theatre, San Jose, Friday, 7:30. Cinequest presents I Was Born, But… with Jim Riggs at the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

And they booked this before the Academy Awards. The Castro runs Coen Brother double bills Friday through Sunday (actually, the series started on Thursday). Sunday has the best show, Fargo and Blood Simple–two of their finest. What’s missing? The most popular cult film of the decade, The Big Lebowski, and a personal favorite of mine: Intolerable Cruelty.

Killer of Sheep. Yes, Virginia, people made great low-budget films before digital video. Shot in 16mm in 1977, Charles Burnett’s neorealistic non-story lets us examine the day-to-day life of an African-American slaughterhouse employee struggling with poverty, family problems, and his own depression. Hauntingly made with a mostly amateur cast, Killer of Sheep takes us into a world most of us know about but have never actually experienced. Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 6:30.

The Stanford continues its Hitchcock series with a double-bill of Rear Window and the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The remake is fun, but Rear Window is the real treasure; on my short list of The Very Best Films of All Time.

Romulus, My Father

Family drama

  • Written by Nick Drake, from the memoir by Raimond Gaita
  • Directed by Richard Roxburgh

Nothing’s worse than a serious, character-driven drama that fails. A bad comedy will probably provide some laughs, and a bad action movie some thrills. But if a drama doesn’t work as a whole, the parts don’t amount to much, either.

Romulus, My Father fails. Although based on a true story, neither the characters nor their actions seem plausible. Their primary motivation, as near as I could tell, was to keep the story going.

That story concerns European immigrants in rural Australia in the early 1960’s. The Romulus of the title (Eric Bana) is a farmer, a blacksmith, and a father. In fact, he’s a wonderful, loving father to his son Raimond (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who doesn’t visually age as the movie spans two years). As the title implies, the story is told through Rai’s eyes.

But Romulus has a serious flaw: He’s still married to Rai’s mother, Christina (Franka Potente), and he’s still in love with her. That’s a flaw because she’s crazy–in just about every way that a woman can be crazy in a bad drama. She’s promiscuous. She has no sense of responsibility. She ignores her children. She’s suicidal.

In fact, she’s so suicidal, it’s catching. Her behavior drives Romulus to try killing himself. Her lover seems like a nice enough guy, but she makes him want to take his own life, too.

Now, I can understand men lusting after a woman who looks like Franka Potente; I’ve lusted after every character I’ve seen her play. But I couldn’t understand why neither of these guys could figure out that bad news is bad news. Yes, I could understand why Romulus cares about her and wants to help her, but not why he turns himself into a suicidal celibate while hoping to bring this disaster back into his–and his son’s–life.

Maybe there are people like that. Maybe this movie is an accurate recreation of Raimond Gaita’s childhood. But that just proves Kurt Vonnegut right: “God never wrote a good play in his life.–

Oscars at the Rafael

I just came back from the big Oscar shindig at the Rafael. I’m sorry to say I was disappointed.

I arrived early and entered the main, downstairs theater to plop my stuff down on a seat. That’s when I discovered that my general admission ticket gave me the right to sit in the last four rows, by the front if I was willing to sit way over to the side, or in one of the tiny upstairs theaters. Curiously, the expensive seats never got more than about half full.

Since it was a couple of hours to show time, I got up and wandered the lobby and reception area, checking out the scene and the offerings for the silent auction (the whole thing was a benefit for CFI Education–a good cause). Most of what they were offering seemed above my income bracket, but I guess that was the point of this whole thing. I wondered who would spend $348 (the listed “Fair Market Value–) for a collection of “Pamper Your Pooch– oddities from dogstor.com.

The one item that interested me (although not enough to make a bid) was an old RCA Videodisc player and large collection of titles. Videodiscs were to Laserdisc what Beta was to VHS–the rival format that didn’t make it and died young. No one in their right mind would want these today as a way to watch movies, but it’s a collector’s item.

btw, the auction incorrectly listed the player and discs as “RCA LaserDiscs.– Videodisc players had no lasers, but used a phonograph-like needle. I hope whoever bought it wasn’t hoping to play real LaserDiscs on it.

Food-wise, the hors d’oeuvres were fine, the boxed dinners were okay but not exceptional (croissant sandwiches get soggy), and the desert was spectacular. Not a healthy balance.

The Oscars pretty much looked like they would at home if you own an HDTV, except that during the commercial breaks, Comedian Geoff Bolt stood up and talked to us. But he didn’t say much particularly memorable or funny. Much of the time he would thank people involved with putting on the evening or read the names of raffle winners. When he sounded like he was about to say something interesting, the tech guy would tell him that he had only ten seconds before the commercials were over and Jon Stewart was back.

Fortunately, Stewart was funny–a big improvement over the last time he hosted the Oscars. And I have to admit letting out whoops of joy for Marion Cotillard winning Best Actress for La Vie en Rose, “Falling Slowly” from Once winning Best Song, and Diablo Cody getting Best Original Screenplay for Juno. The Academy occasionally makes intelligent choices.

But I could have enjoyed that just as much sitting at home with my family. Unlike a real movie, the Oscars don’t seem to improve with an audience.

The Band’s Visit

[B] Comedy

  • Written and directed by Eran Kolirin

Kurt Vonnegut called unusual travel suggestions “dancing lessons from God.” A small Egyptian police orchestra does quite a rumba when they accidentally arrive in the wrong Israeli town in Kolirin’s gentle comedy.

There’s nothing political about this Arabs-meet-Jews movie. Neither politics nor religion ever come up. No one treats anyone else like a sub-human or potential enemy, and no one appears offended by being in close proximity to the other. People talk, flirt, eat, sing, and drink together. There’s a language barrier, of course, but even that doesn’t amount to much, since everyone’s fluent in English.

Although it has a story, The Band’s Visit has no plot or conflict to speak of. The band is stranded in the wrong town, they can’t get transportation out until the next day, but locals are willing to put them up and they’ll still make their gig. There’s a modicum of suspense of the “Will these two bed each other– variety, but it hardly puts you on the edge of your seat.

What the movie provides is a calm comedy served with human observation. Kolirin proves a master at comic timing. Early on, the band poses for a tourist’s camera. Kolirin keeps his camera still for an extended long shot as one musician and then another messes with his hair or straightens his uniform. I can’t say why it was funny, but giggles in the audience built slowly until a photo-ruining janitor provided the big pay-off.

Although there’s surprisingly little musical performances for a film about musicians, there is real love of the art. The band’s leader becomes very defensive when asked why a police department needs a band. “You may as well ask why a man needs a soul?– There’s a reason for his sore spot: Back home in Alexandria, he’s fighting budget cuts that could destroy his pride and joy.

For musicians, some things are universal.

Around the Bay

 A Family drama

  • Written and directed by Alejandro Adams

Sparse and utilitarian, Alejandro Adams’ low-key drama gets right to the point, then tells its dysfunctional family story without pyrotechnics. Single dad Wyatt (Steve Voldseth) is so remote and disconnected from his five-year-old son (Connor Maselli) taroundthebay hat he leaves the child home alone–and that’s in a house with an unfenced swimming pool. Looking for a way out of his responsibilities, he asks his estranged 21-year-old daughter (Katherine Celio) to move in as caregiver. Slowly, they work out some of their problems, but by no means all of them.

This sort of story depends on the acting, and Adams’ cast delivers. Voldseth takes a character who could be a simple villain and turns him into a confused, insecure man in a world that values self-confidence. Celio performs just as well as a young girl with responsibilities and emotional conflicts she’s not ready to handle. Even young Maseli seems like a kid just being a kid rather than a child actor reciting his lines and hitting his marks.

Adams made Around the Bay for very little money, shooting it on standard-def video. The low budget shows, but doesn’t hurt the film. Technology is putting feature film-making into the hands of people who couldn’t have afforded it just a few years ago. It’s nice to see that some people are making good use of it.

But don’t trust the title to tell you anything about Around the Bay. The Bay Area setting hardly matters. Set almost entirely in one house and yard, and shot mostly in close-ups, this picture could be set anywhere.

Cinequest will screen Around the Bay three times: March 1, 7:45 at the San Jose Rep, March 4 at 4:15 at the Camera 12, and March 8 at 7:45 the San Jose Rep.

This Week At the Movies

The big news this week: The Oscars. Several Bay Area theaters will host their own Oscar telecasts, with comic commentary, costume contests, and other frivolity. See Oscars Away from Home for details.

Wednesday night the Balboa celebrates its 81st Birthday with a screening of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate. Not his best work, but fun. People mainly remember it for one spectacular stunt–Fairbanks sliding down a sail with a knife (it was recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie)–and the color. This was one of the first features, and the first really big one, shot entirely in two-color Technicolor. The Balboa promises a beautiful Technicolor 35mm Archival print, and piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges. Also promised: live vaudeville and classic shorts to recreate a night at the movies in 1926, the year both the Balboa and The Black Pirate opened.

What would you do with a map of the universe’s flaws? For a band of unruly dwarves, the answer is easy: Make it the guide for a time-traveling crime spree. Unfortunately, Evil Incarnate believes that the map will give him unlimited power, and the Supreme Being wants it back. Saturday at 3:00 at the Cerrito, the Poop presents Time Bandits. Terry Gilliam takes the children’s fairy tale for a ride in the movie that turned Monty Python’s animator into a major filmmaker. No Poop on Sunday, when the theater is devoted to the Academy Awards (well, maybe there’s some poop, there).

The Stanford continues its series of Hitchcock double bills with Strangers on a Train and Rope. One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, Strangers on a Train is therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. Rope comes from one of the finest screenplays Hitchcock ever commissioned (by Arthur Laurents, from Patrick Hamilton), but the master made two series mistakes in turning that script into a film. First, he miscast James Stewart, an actor he would use to much better purposes in three subsequent movies. Second, and worst, he filmed the picture as a single shot (or as close to a single shot as was possible in the days of 1,000″ film reels). For Hitchcock, making a movie without editing was like fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

If you hate the corny dialog of so many science fiction movies, go to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and catch a silent one. They’re screening Metropolis Saturday night. The first important science fiction feature film, Metropolis still strikes a considerable visual punch. The images–workers in a hellish underground factory, the wealthy at play, a robot brought to life in the form of a beautiful woman–are a permanent part of our collective memory. Even people who haven’t seen Metropolis know it through the countless films it has influenced. But the beautiful imagery only make the melodramatic plot and characters seem all the more trite. Molly Axtmann accompanies on piano.

The Castro‘s giving us a couple of last chances to see recent movies on the very big screen in an old-fashioned form: the double feature. On Friday they’re showing Michael Clayton and Zodiac. Saturday, its Eastern Promises and Rescue Dawn. Then it’s two days of Brokeback Mountain to honor Heath Ledger.

The Red Vic screens I’m Not There Friday and Saturday. If you’re wise, you won’t be there, either. Read my review for details.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Family Fantasy

  • Written by: Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, and John Sayles, from the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
  • Directed by Mark Waters

Basically a horror movie for pre-teens (and all ages above), The Spiderwick Chronicles hits almost every note right. It starts off with a family in crisis–a nice, normal crisis of the sort that everyone gets over eventually. Except this crisis has forced them to move into a large, mysterious, deserted, and creepy house with a strange history. Yup. It’s haunted. Not to worry. The real scary monsters are on the outside trying to get in.

You see, Dad deserted Mom (Mary-Louise Parker), so she packed up her daughter (Sarah Bolger) and identical twin sons (Freddie Highmore–the real star) and moved to the house where her great uncle (David Strathairn) disappeared 80 years ago. There, one of the twins discovers a hidden room and an old book, and…

I don’t want to spoil the fun. I’ll just say that director Mark Waters and his team of writers (including John Sayles) walk a very fine line between a family-friendly PG rating and some very scary stuff. The picture is short and fast-paced, and the thrills almost never let up.

That’s fortunate, because when they do let up, the picture tends towards the gooey, especially when Strathairn and Joan Plowright are on screen. Plowright, by the way, plays his daughter, and yes, the age discrepancy makes sense.

Of course it’s heavy on special effects, with computer-generated characters both scary and funny. Of course the effects by Tippett Studio and Industrial Light and Magic are technically excellent; that’s to be expected. Far more important is the fact that they’re lovely to look at and help tell the story.

Unlike most special-effect heavy fantasies, there’s no epic sense of fate or the clash of magical kingdoms, here. Centering on a family in a house, The Spiderwick Chronicles is chamber piece fantasy, not a Tolkienesque symphony. As characters, the children are well drawn, but their personalities are there simply to serve the plot.

And they serve it well. A good movie for the family that likes to be scared together.

Tiburon International Film Festival

Just a quick note to tell you about the Tiburon International Film Festival, which runs from March 13 to the 21st. According to the press release, it’s “showcasing over 225 films from 94 countries.”

The Festival opens (and not at the Castro, for a change, but at Tiburon’s own Playhouse Theater) with a Spanish comedy called Twins for President, followed by a formal party at the Corinthian Yacht Club.

Festivities include tributes to John Wayne, Bob Rafelson, and Blake Edwards. Special effects animator Hal Hickel will discuss the making of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Panel discussions include “Film, Politics and Culture: How Films Shape Political Beliefs” and “New Technologies for Acquisition and Distribution.”

Early Warnings: San Francisco International Film Festival

Opening night is still more than two months away, but I’m already getting press releases for this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Here’s what I can tell you:

  • The Festival will open April 24 with The Last Mistress, “the latest film from acclaimed director Catherine Breillat.” I tried to watch one of her films, Sex is Comedy, a year or so ago. It was not sexy, funny, nor in any other way worth watching. Hopefully this one will be better.
  • The Festival tradition of interesting silent film presentations continues, with Black Francis of the Pixies accompanying The Golem, a 1920 masterpiece of German expressionism.
  • Speaking of live entertainment, the Festival will also present three multimedia performances by Cloud Eye Control and Anna Oxygen, “followed by a special interactive aerobics set with Oxygen.”

More after the official press conference April 1. (Who picks these dates?)

Non-Western Westerns Coming to SFMOMA

We think of westerns as a…as the…American genre. They’re our national myth; our way of defining ourselves as a people. But just as Hollywood has made medieval romances and tales from the Arabian Nights, other countries have made westerns. They’ve also let westerns influence their contemporary dramas and samurai films.

March 1 through April 26, SFMOMA explores how foreign filmmakers handled this most American genre with the series Non-Western Westerns. The series starts with the obvious choice, Sergio Leone, and ends with the second most obvious, Akira Kurosawa. In between come some curious surprises.

To be fair, they didn’t go with an obvious Leone selection like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but with the less-often-seen For a Few Dollars More. It screens on a double-bill with another spaghetti western, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence. (Unfortunately, the museum is screening For a Few Dollars More off of a DVD. The other movies will all be in 35mm.)

Of course, no one would literally define the closing film, Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, as a western. But the influence is so heavy it fits. I have to assume that’s the case with many of the other films on the schedule, such as the Bollywood Sholay, and Johnnie To’s Exiled, set in Macau in 1998.

OTOH, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Mexican allegory El Topo definitely belongs in the western genre, but is it “non-western?” Mexican culture played such an important role in the American west–and in American westerns–that the genre seems as much theirs as ours.

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