Get Smart

Action Comedy

  • Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember
  • Directed by Peter Segal

I approach films based on old TV shows with suspicion, but the comic potential of Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart lowered my guard. But while Get Smart has its charms, it doesn’t fulfill that potential by a long shot.

Carell wisely doesn’t attempt to imitate Don Adams’ broad caricature, and plays Max as something resembling a real human being. This Smart is smart, an analyst (promoted to full agent early in the movie) who speaks many languages, remembers vast facts about the bad guys he tracks, and can turn all of that data into insightful deductions. He’s also physically fit and useful in a fight–even if his lack of experience occasionally shows.

But he isn’t particularly funny. Funny things happen to him–sometimes very funny things. In a clear tribute to Harold Lloyd, a rat crawls into Max’s tuxedo at a particularly dangerous moment, forcing him to jump around out of course when the slightest wrong movement could kill him. It’s funny, but it could have happened to anyone.

Speaking of characters who aren’t funny, Terence Stamp gives a completely straight and humorless performance as the evil mastermind Siegfried. I don’t completely reject the idea of serious villains in action comedies, but why get our hopes up by naming him after the funniest villain on the TV show. Stamp’s Siegfried would never say “Shmart, zere are good guys and zere are bad guys. I am one of ze bad guys.” (Carell gets to repeat some of Adams’ signature lines, such as “Sorry about that” and “Missed it by that much.”) At least Sigfried has a funny sidekick, played by Borat sidekick Ken Davitian.

Anne Hathaway does a fine job as Agent 99, although her exasperation with Max’s clumsy mistakes would have played better if he had been clumsier. Alan Arkin also does a nice turn as the Chief. In the cameo department, Bill Murray is a pleasure as the long-suffering Agent 13 (the guy always hiding in strange places), and James Caan plays the unnamed U.S. President–an idiot who does whatever his Vice President tells him to do. Where did they get that idea?

The whole thing climaxes with a funny yet thrilling plane vs. car chase. Too bad the movie as a whole only achieved this goal sporadically. Cutting the right half hour out of Get Smart would have made a very good film. Writing inherently funny characters would have made a great one.

New PFA Schedule

The July/August Pacific Film Archive schedule arrived in yesterday’s mail. It makes me want to move permanently into that theater.

They’re running five series this summer, honoring a director, a cinematographer, a novelist, a studio, and an aspect ratio.

The studio is United Artists, receiving its yet another 90th anniversary retrospective. But unlike the UA series at the Castro this spring, the PFA isn’t ignoring the years before 1950, when UA released (but seldom owned) the works of such heavy-weight independent producers as Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Walt Disney, and the four artists who originally united in 1919: Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford. (Come to think of it, shouldn’t UA be celebrating its 89th birthday this year?)
From those first three decades, the PFA will show Steamboat Bill, Jr., Stagecoach, Broken Blossoms,
and the original, 1932 version of Scarface. Oddly, two of the original founders, Chaplin and Pickford, aren’t on the list (the PFA ran a Chaplin series late last year). Of the later films on the schedule we have Some Like It Hot, Dr. No, Annie Hall, and West Side Story, although I suggest you wait a day for that musical and catch it in 70mm at the Castro. They’re skipping Heaven’s Gate, the movie that brought UA to its knees.
The aspect ratio is 2.35:1, although more precisely, CinemaScope and its assorted imitators. They’re calling the series The Long View: A Celebration of Widescreen. The films scheduled include Lawrence of Arabia, The 400 Blows, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Harakiri, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The last film in the series, on Saturday, April 30, is Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful action comedy Yojimbo, which will be followed by the penultimate movie in the United Artists series, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly–quite a widescreen celebration, itself. The two make a great double-bill, even if you do have to buy separate admission for each movie.
I’m not familiar with the three artists honored with their own series this summer. According to the PFA’s notes,  Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira celebrates his centenary this year, which is amazing as he’s still alive and making films. Noir novelist David Goodis seems to have inspired a lot of good movies, including Dark Passage and Shoot the Piano Player. I’ve seen one of the films in the series devoted to Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa–John Ford’s The Fugitive (one of two English-language films in the series). It’s beautifully shot, but otherwise probably Ford’s worst film.

What’s Screening, June 27-July 3, 2008

It’s been quite a week. I come home from vacation to discover that my site has been hacked and is infecting PCs. I cleaned out the infection immediately (or more precisely, someone at Bayflicks’ host, IX Web Hosting, did it), but making sure it doesn’t happen again feels like a full-time job. You can read about my problems in Bayflicks Hijacked and Technical Problems and Apologies and Technical Issues. But I also managed to tell you about Cocteau and Kahlo at SFMOMA and the Jewish Film Festival.

The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival opens Friday and runs through Sunday. This year, the festival centers around the studios in the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC). This Edison-led trust, made up of nine leading studios, controlled the American industry during some of its formative years. Most historians don’t look upon the trust favorably; its cautious policies slowed the art’s development and proved, in the long run, economically short-sighted. But filmmakers struggling with the MPPC’s rules, including D.W. Griffith, helped develop the art. The festival will screen seven collections of shorts (no features) [I stand corrected. Six of the seven programs contain a feature in addition to the shorts], each from a different MPPC company. Each series will be presented by a historian and accompanied by a member of the Museum’s regular stable of pianists.

The Frameline LGBT Film Festival also continues through Sunday. Read my preview here.

DOUBLE BILL: Duck Soup & Animal Crackers, Stanford, Wedneday through next Friday. In Duck Soup, a blatantly corrupt politician becomes the country’s all-powerful leader on the whim of the wealthy elite. Once in office, he cuts benefits for the working class, fills important positions with unqualified clowns, and starts a war on a whim. But how could a comedy made in 1933 be relevant today? The Marx Brothers at their very best. Like its predecessor The Coconuts, Animal Crackers is just a photographed stage play. But this second time before the cameras, the brothers perform in top form, in a play that really rides on their strengths. Technically crude, but wonderful in every other way.

North By Northwest, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 5:00. Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by police for a murderer. And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side, he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint. Danger has its rewards.

Iron Man, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday (and next Saturday). Director Jon Favreau and his team of writers insert all the requisite thrills into a story strong enough to support the pyrotechnics rather than get buried by them. After a close brush with violent death, weapons tycoon, genius, and all-around jerk Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) wants out of the death business. But he’s conflicted about his new-found pacifism, so he secretly builds the ultimate one-man weapon–an armored, flying suit with guns and missile launchers attached–to help him keep the peace. Favreau knows better than to fill his movie with wall-to-wall action, and always ties the well-choreographed fighting to the story. See my full review for details.

Jewish Film Festival

Two of my biggest passions–Judaism and cinema–come together this summer like they do every summer for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Come to think of it, some of my other big passions–music, history, and sex–turn up here, as well.) The organizers are calling the 28th SFIFF the largest one ever, with “70 films from 19 countries spread across 114 screenings in five venues” in San Francisco, Berkeley, Palo Alto, and San Rafael.

The SFJFF opens at the Castro Thursday, July 24, with Strangers (which will have three other festivalThe Strangers screenings if you can’t make opening night). I give this film a B. A Israeli man and a Palestinian woman, both young, meet in Berlin, fall in love/lust, have great sex, then must figure out the rest of their lives. To make matters more complicated, it’s the summer of 2006, war is raging in Lebanon, and each blames the other side for the resulting carnage. This sort of movie depends on the leads’ chemistry, and stars Liron Levbo and Lubna Azabal have it in Bogart/Bacall levels. Writers/directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor deserve praise for avoiding easy political or emotional solutions. But the film’s overly grainy, handheld photography–made worse by the scope aspect ratio and some distracting photographic clichés–hurt the storytelling.

The festival runs through August 11 and closes with Emotional Arithmetic at the Rafael. I have yet to see this film, but I can tell you that despite some big names in the cast– Susan Sarandon, Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow–it has not yet found distribution.

What about the other 68 films showing? There are four films about Italian Jews During Facism. Documentaries cover everything from heavy metal musicians to the BRCA gene (which increases the chance of breast cancer) and communal living in early 20th century New York. To acknowledge Israel’s 60th anniversary (and recognize that many see this as nothing to celebrate), Love Comes Latelythere are 17 films on the subject of Israeli diversity.There are even nine episodes from a popular Israeli sitcom called Arab Labor. The Centerpiece film, Love Comes Lately, is based on three stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Cocteau and Kahlo at SFMOMA

Just before I left on vacation I received a press release for two upcoming series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I’m finally now getting to it.

As the name implies, Jean Cocteau: The Orphic Trilogy screens only three films, Le Sang d’un poète (Blood of a Poet), Orphée (Orpheus), and Le Testament d’Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus). Since the pictures were made over a 30-year period, one can’t really call them an intentional trilogy, but Cocteau certainly kept returning to this one mythological theme. I haven’t seen any of these films since college, so I’ll reframe from giving an opinion. Each film gets multiple screenings throughout July.

In conjunction with an exhibit of Frida Kahlo’s work, Angel of Fire: Kahlo, Mexico, and Film screens seven films from July 30 through the end of August. Judging from the provided descriptions (I’ve never seen any of these films and only heard of two of them), Kahlo herself isn’t a frequent subject. Only one of the films, Frida, naturaleza viva, deals with her at all. The others connect with her only in that they come out of the same early-to-mid 20th century Mexican surrealist cultural stew. But it is a chance to see Buñuel’s Nazarín and the reconstructed version of Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! on the big screen.

Apologies and Technical Issues

I have a lot of apologizing to do.

As a PC World columnist, I often admonish readers for not backing up and keeping their security software up-to-date. And while I do everything possible to keep my PC and data safe, I haven’t been so diligent about my blog. And thus, when I got back from vacation, I discovered it feeding malware to my readers.

I had it cleaned within minutes of discovering the problem, but that’s small comfort if you’ve already been infected. That’s a very real possibility if you have a Windows PC and visited Bayflicks.net between June 13 and June 22, especially if your security software didn’t pop up with a warning. (When I visited the site, Kaspersky Internet Security blocked the infection with much noise and proclamations.) If that’s the situation, I recommend you scan your hard drive with a security tool other than the one you already have. Here are four of them, all free, all excellent, and none requiring heavy installations:

In the meantime, I’m altering the blog to make it more secure. I’ve updated my WordPress blogging software, forcing the design change you’ve probably noticed. Among the other security changes, I now require you to register before you can add a comment, and have added reCAPTCHA to guarantee that only real human beings can register.

I hope that I’ll regain your trust.

Bayflicks Hijacked and Technical Problems

I came back from vacation to discover the bayflicks.net web site hijacked I believe the hijacking happened on Saturday, June 14. I removed it today.

If you’ve visited the site in the last week, and have a Windows-based PC, it’s possible that your computer is infected with Trojan-Downloader.JS.Agent downloader. You can read up on it at http://www.f-secure.com/v-descs/trojan-downloader_js_agent_d.shtml.

What else can you do about it? See my article Scan for Malware With Online Tools for some suggestions.

I’ll have more details when I can get them.

In the meantime, I’m altering and fixing the site’s technical code to keep this from happening again. If everything looks funny–well, I’m trying to fix it.

Lincoln Spector

Movies for the Week of June 20

I only published one post this week: A review of Love and Honor. But I have an excuse: I’ve been gone all week on vacation. In fact, I’m gone now. I wrote this newsletter more than a week ago and set it to go live at the appropriate time.

Festival-wise, Another Hole in the Head finishes up Sunday, while Frameline continues through the week.

Love and Honor, Roxie, opens Friday. Yoji Yamada makes Samurai films like nobody else’s–studies of a highly stratified class system with occasional, well-staged fights to break up the serious drama. His follow-up to Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade concerns itself with a low-level samurai (Takuya Kimura) who loses his eyesight in the line of duty. But this is no Zatoichi fantasy. The combination of emotional depression and looming financial disaster soon strain the protagonist’s once happy marriage (Rei Dan plays his wife). But even a serious samurai film must have swordplay, and events eventually force Shinnojo into one-on-one battle without benefit of sight. But Yamada doesn’t pretend that a blind man can make a brilliant fencer; Shinnojo’s one strategic advantage doesn’t promise a long, Zatoichi-style career fighting for truth, justice, and the Japanese way. For more details, read my full review.

Serenity, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Ever hear of a science fiction TV series called Firefly? Like many superb, original shows that somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Firefly failed to find an audience and soon died. This big-screen spin-off is a gift from the series’ creators to the handful of people who saw the show and wanted more. But if you’ve never seen Firefly, skip the movie and rent the complete series on DVD–it’s only a few episodes.

Double Bill: The Son of the Sheik & Road to Morocco, Stanford, Wednesday, 7:00. Okay, I haven’t seen either of these movies in years, but it’s worth noting that Son of the Sheik was Valentino’s last film, released posthumously, and that I remember Road to Morocco well enough to call it one the best Bob Hope/Bing Crosby vehicles. And think of the music. One movie will be accompanied by Dennis James on the Stanford’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, and the other has a very catchy and witty theme song. Other than that, the one thing they have in common (at least that I can think of) is a very Hollywood view of Arabic culture.

Love and Honor

Samurai drama

  • Written by Yoji Yamada, Emiko Hiramatsu, and Ichiro Yamamoto
  • Directed by Yoji Yamada

Yoji Yamada makes Samurai films like nobody else’s. Past works like Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade looked at the legendary warriors as lower-middleclass drones, worrying about money as they perform their dull peacetime jobs for an indifferent lord for whom they may one day be called upon to die. Their concerns involve financial problems, unbreakable class barriers (even within the Samurai), and marital problems. And when they’re inevitably called upon to actually fight a duel, the odds seem realistically against them. It’s as if Yamada wants to tear open the whole Samurai myth and find the reality hiding behind it.

In Love and Honor, he rips the whole Zatoichi franchise to shreds.

Takuya Kimura stars as Shinnojo Mimura, yet another low-level samurai. At least his hated day-to-day job has an element of danger. He’s an official food taster, ever on the lookout for poison. He swallows some, and although he survives, he loses his eyesight.

What good, in this unromantic view of old Japan, is a blind samurai? A blind peasant can earn a living as a storyteller or a masseuse, but no one born to the samurai class could do such a thing. Nor can his loving wife (Rei Dan) take a job without shaming the family. The combination of emotional depression and looming financial disaster soon strain the initially happy marriage.

Even a serious samurai film must have swordplay, and events (which I prefer you discover on your own) eventually force Shinnojo into one-on-one battle without benefit of sight. But Yamada doesn’t pretend that a blind man can be a brilliant fencer; Shinnojo’s one strategic advantage doesn’t promise a long, Zatoichi-style career fighting for truth, justice, and the Japanese way.

Small, flying animals make an interesting reoccurring theme. The couple keep a pair of song birds in a cage. At one point, Shinnojo wishes he could fly away “like a bat.” Different scenes feature fireflies, mosquitoes, and a very lovely butterfly.

The ending stretches credibility a bit, with a resolution tha’s both overly convenient and visible from a mile away. But that doesn’t mar what Yamada has given us: Another realistic look at people trying to get by in a medieval Japan very different from the romanticized one we’re used to. Yet he still manages to work in a really good swordfight.

Movies for the Week of June 13

First, let me remind you that this is the last Bayflicks newsletter to be sent to the old mailing list. If you haven’t yet joined the new mailing list, go to http://bayflicks.net/subscribe-to-newsletter/, enter your email address in the appropriate field, and click the Subscribe button. Within a few minutes you’ll receive a confirmation email from Bayflicks.net, with the email address rssfwd@rssfwd.com (your newsletters will come from that address, as well). Open the email and click the click here link, and you’re subscribed.

If you have already subscribed, you’ll get another version of this newsletter in a few hours.

Plenty of festivals this week. The Black Film Festival continues through Sunday, Another Hole in the Head Film Festival runs through the week, and the Frameline LGBT fest opens Thursday.

In the past week, I’ve posted reviews of Alexandra, Up the Yangtze, and Times and Winds, and told you about the upcoming series on 70mm at the Castro.

The other big news: This is the week where the Kabuki turns over one of its screens to the San Francisco Film Society. Which brings us to the very first film review of this newsletter:

Times and Winds, Kabuki, opens Friday for one-week engagement. The Film Society’s first non-festival Kabuki engagement looks at three children on the cusp of adolescence in a small, Turkish farm village. Their lives aren’t easy. The problem isn’t their poverty (which is real but doesn’t seem crushing), but their parents. Ömer, clearly the least-loved of two brothers, wants to kill his father. Yıldız works hard in school, but feels buried by household responsibilities, including the care of her infant brother. Yakup probably has it easiest of the three, but his crush on the town’s schoolteacher leads to some uncomfortable realizations. Although marred by some heavy symbolism and melodramatic music, this picture succeeds in capturing the slow pace of lives built around the seasons, and around the Muslim daily prayer cycle. For more details, read my full review.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rafael, Wednesday, 7:00. As much as any other artist, John Ford defined and deepened the myth of the American West. But in his last masterpiece, Ford tears that myth down, reminding us that a myth is, when you come down to it, a lie. Avoiding beautiful scenery and even color (a black and white western was a risky investment in 1962) Ford strips this story down to the essentials, and splits the classic Western hero into two–the man of principle (James Stewart) and the gunfighter (John Wayne). Part of the Rafael’s James Stewart 100th Birthday Celebration.

Dirty Country, Red Vic, opens Friday for one-week engagement. Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher of Found Footage fame (or Found Footage obscurity) built this documentary around Larry Pierce, a small-town factory worker with a side job writing and recording joyfully obscene country western songs. He infuses his songs”“with titles like “You Make My Peter Stand Up” and “I Like to Fuck””“with catchy tunes, clever rhymes, a real joy of sex, and what’s clearly a deep and romantic love for his wife. The movie takes him through bad times (he lost his job while the documentary was in production) and good ones (his first real concert), and introduces us to other singers specializing in dirty music. I rarely wish a film was longer, but Dirty Country could really have used more concert footage. Good, clean, dirty fun. NOTE: Filmmakers Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher will be on hand Friday night to answer questions after the 7:15 show.

Up the Yangtze, Rafael, Bridge, and Shattuck, opens Friday. China’s Three Gorges Dam, still under construction, may be the largest hydroelectric project ever attempted, and Chang’s film takes an unusual but effective approach to examining the project’s repercussions. He focuses his camera on two teenagers working a cruise ship that takes western tourists along the river, as well as one of those teenagers’ parents”“a peasant couple forced to relocate as the waters rise. This is not about a construction project, but about the millions of people who have been or will be moved because of the dam.

Standard Operating Procedure, Rafael, opens Friday for one-week engagement. We all know Lynndie England”¦or we think we do. She’s the young, seemingly carefree soldier photographed taunting prisoners in those infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos. Errol Morris wants you to see England and many of her former companions in a different light. He interviews them extensively in Standard Operating Procedure, shows us the letters they wrote home, and uses actors to re-enact some of the most gut-wrenching scenes they witnessed and committed. The result isn’t an easy film to watch. It has you squirming in your seat, trying not to turn away your eyes. It also forces you to ask yourself some very tough questions. See my full review for more details.

Rear Window Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart stands out while sitting down as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, forced by boredom to amuse himself by spying on the neighbors. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly dawns on us that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory (something they don’t realize until it’s almost too late). Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, and to treat his audience to a great entertainment. Part of the Rafael’s James Stewart 100th Birthday Celebration.

The Big Lebowski, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also built quite a cult following; The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve been maintaining this site than than any three other movies put together. A benefit for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

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