What’s Screening: January 30 – February 5

One festival closes, and a few days later, another opens. Noir City continues through Sunday at the Castro, and IndieFest opens Thursday for a 16-day run at the Roxie.

And the Roxie is closed for renovations.

I Was Born, But . . ., Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00. Ozu’s late (1932) silent comedy/drama sees the world through the eyes of two bothers– sons of a man rising in the corporate world. They love and worship their father, and are shocked by his submissiveness to those above him in his job. Funny, touching, and very true. As part of the Film 50: History of Cinema series and class, the presentation will include a lecture by Marilyn Fabe. if you have any way of playing hooky from work on a Wednesday afternoon (I don’t), catch this one. Bruce Loeb on piano.

Wendy and Lucy, Rafael, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opens Friday. Wendy (Michelle Williams) hopes she can find work in Alaska, but first she has to get to Alaska. Traveling with her dog Lucy, she sleeps in her car and watches every penny. In other words, she can’t afford disaster. And when her car breaks down in a small Oregon town, one disaster leads to another. A sobering film for economic hard times. Read my full review.

Pre-Code Follies, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:30. Short subjects and clips from the few years between the birth of talkies and enforcement of censorship. And speaking about pre-code fun:

Double Bill: Gold Diggers of 1933 & She Done Him Wrong, Stanford, Saturday through Monday. Before A Hard Day’s Night, before Singin’ in the Rain, before Astaire and Rogers (well, before Astaire), Warner Brothers was putting out a whole different type of musical; smart, sassy, funny, definitely pre-code, and with BusbyBerkeley production numbers that defy description (and the laws of physics). Gold Diggers of 1933 is the best early-thirties’ Warners musical; upbeat, sexy, and entertaining, but never really letting you forget that there’s a depression going on out there. I can’t say as much for Mae West’s first starring vehicle, She Done Him Wrong. It has a few classic West lines, but not enough to save the dull, melodramatic plot. This double bill’s A definitely belongs to just one of the movies.

Stranded, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. In 1972, a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team and their friends and family crashed into a glacier high in the Andes. The survivors endured extreme cold, hunger, an avalanche, the deaths of loved ones, and the necessity of eating those loved ones’ corpses. Combining interviews with the survivors, re-enacted sequences, and some photography from the actual events, Gonzalo Arijon recreates the harrowing experience with dramatic intensity. I first saw Stranded at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and you’ll find my full report here.

Double Bill: The Killers and Sweet Smell of Success, Castro, Sunday. The Killers isn’t called the Citizen Kane of film noir because it’s the best of its genre, but because of its multiple flashback story structure. When a gas station attendant (Burt Lancaster) is murdered, starts asking questions and a life of crime is revealed. It’s been too long since I’ve seen Sweet Smell of Success for me to trust my memory with a wholehearted recommendation. But not by much. Lancaster risked his career by producing this exploration of the seamy side of fame and by playing a truly despicable character. The result, if I recall correctly, is fantastic. Tony Curtis co-stars, from a script by Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman.

The Blue Angel, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 2:00. Josef von Sternberg’s one German-language film was meant as a vehicle for Emil Jannings, who had just returned to Germany after the talkies put a lid on his American stardom. But everyone remembered his co-star, Marlene Dietrich, as the singer who seduces him to his doom. Historically fascinating, neither its clumsy use of sound nor its Victorian morality have aged well. Part of the PFA’s Josef von Sternberg: Eros and Abstraction series.

Cinequest on the Way

Cinequest runs in San Jose from February 25 through March 8, with "250 screenings, 150+ films, with 80 U.S., North American, and World Premieres."

In addition to all the new films they’ll be showing (none of which I’ve seen), here are a couple of interesting events:

  • How often do you get to see D. W. Griffith’s two major epics, on the big screen, with with live organ accompaniment? They’re screening The Birth of a Nation (which takes a certain amount of guts in and of itself) Friday the 27. Intolerance screens March 6. 
  • Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody wins this year’s Maverick Award. Her event is on Friday, March 6th, 3:00 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Wendy and Lucy

Low-key drama

Written by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, from Raymond’ story “Train Choir”

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

This is a film for our time. We’re all hurting. We’re all scared. We’re all wondering when the axe will fall and how long we’ll stay afloat when it does. (Pardon the mixed metaphor.) Our economic situation, to say the least, looks grim.

That’s why we need a film like Wendy and Lucy. Not to cheer us up with a joyous piece of escapism (we need that too, but you won’t find it here), but to show us how bad things can get when you’re walking on the financial edge. Comparing new movies to those of the last depression, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is Gold Diggers of 1933; Wendy and Lucy is Grapes of Wrath.

Only this isn’t an epic family drama based on a best-selling novel. It’s a small, sad little tale, adapted from a short story, shot on a shoestring.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) hopes she can find work in Alaska; she apparently can’t find any back home in Indiana. But first she has to get to Alaska. When we first meet her, she’s been on the road a long time, with her old car and a lovable dog named Lucy. She still has a long way to go–if her money holds out. She sleeps in her car and watches every penny.

In other words, she can’t afford disaster. And when her car breaks down in a small Oregon town, one disaster leads to another. Some are of her doing (she does one very stupid thing), and some are just bad luck. Wendy can’t afford bad luck.

The people she meets are usually polite, sometimes cruel, and occasionally helpful. But none of them offer, or realistically could offer, as much help as she really needs.

Shot and edited in a stripped-down, simple style, without music or much of a back story, Wendy and Lucy doesn’t offer the escapes of technique, humor, or celebration of the human spirit. At times I resented what Raymond and Reichardt were putting me through. But by the end, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Fellini’s Amarcord

How’s this for weird: I was actually in film school when Fellini’s Amarcord came out. And I was a big fan of Fellini at that time, with both La Strada and 8 1/2 high on my list of the greatest films of all time (8 1/2 is still there). But until Friday night (when I caught it at the Pacific Film Archive), I’d never seen his nostalgic, autobiographical, yet decidedly weird comedy about village life in the late 1930’s.

But it would have to be weird, now, wouldn’t it? You’ve got horny teenagers, confused adults, distracted clergy, and fantasy sequences that include a production number in a harem. But this is Italy in the late 1930’s. Fascism looms over everything.  Yet Fellini pictures a comic opera fascism, like that in the amarcordfirst half of Life is Beautiful. The scary-sounding authority figures praising Il Duce seem pompous, but hardly dangerous.

Amarcord succeeds frequently but not consistently. And it succeeds best when it’s just trying to be funny. There’s an early school sequence that’s simply hilarious. But the lack of a story, and the simplistic nature of many characters, slowly wear you down. Although filled with great moments, it’s not a great film.

Two paragraphs back, I mentioned a fantasy scene in a harem–something Fellini had already done a decade earlier in 8 1/2. But 8 1/2‘s harem fantasy tells you a great deal about that film’s protagonist, while Amarcord’s seems to be there just for show. Amarcord is a funnier movie than 8 1/2 (which I consider a comedy–of a sort), but 8 1/2 is a better film and a more pleasing experience.

The PFA screened a beautiful, new 35mm print of the recently-restored Amarcord. It’s coming to the Castro February 27-March 5.

What’s Screening: January 23-29

Now that Berlin & Beyond is over, Noir City moves into the Castro, starting Friday and running through February 1. The theme this year is “Newspaper Noir,” with hard-boiled reporters rather than detectives. Among the titles you might recognize are Billy Wilder’s Ace In the Hole, and a Burt Lancaster double-bill of The Killers and Sweet Smell of Success.

Fellini’s Amarcord, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:50. I’ve never seen Fellini’s highly-regarded story of life under fascism. Perhaps a new 35mm print at the PFA can tempt me.

Frost/Nixon, Lark, Shattuck, opens Friday. I didn’t know Richard Nixon composed a piano concerto. That’s not the only thing writer Peter Morgan teaches us in the other Oscar bate movie set in the 1970s. Michael Sheen plays David Frost as insufferably upbeat, which is probably accurate, and Frank Langella creates a complex Nixon who’s almost charming in his willingness to admit his lack of charm. Of course, he admits a lot more before Frost is through with him. Has anyone else noticed that as he ages, Kevin Bacon is starting to look like Clint Eastwood?

Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. Kevin Smith doesn’t make a porno, but he makes a very funny and very dirty comedy. And when all is said and done, I’d rather watch that. Following the Judd Apatow formula of raunchy-but-sweet (to be fair, the Farrelly brothers invented the formula in Something About Mary), and casting Apatow regular Seth Rogen, Smith made a decidedly silly and hilarious movie with a plot that wouldn’t hold water if you thought about it. It’s worth noting that Smith successfully appealed the MPAA’s original NC-17 rating; I would love to know the arguments he used.

Casino Royale, Red Vic, Thursday. The best James Bond flick since From Russia With Love, in large part because it doesn’t feel like a James Bond flick. (In fact, to a large degree, it feels like a James Bond book. And the book it feels like is, amazingly enough, Casino Royale.) Instead of gadgets, countless babes, wit, and incredible cool, you get a well-made and gritty thriller with several great action sequences (and a couple of babes). It just so happens that the protagonist, a newly-promoted, borderline psychotic government agent with a huge chip on his shoulder, is named Bond–James Bond.

Donnie Darko, Red Vic, Friday through Sunday. 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.

Letters from Iwo Jima with Clint Eastwood in person, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 5:00. This member-only event is sold out. 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.

Thoughts on the Oscar Nominees

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning, but I had a busy day, so I’m only writing about it now.

Every year I get excited and hyped-up about the Oscars, and yet I always know how stupid the whole thing is. If the best picture of the year actually becomes the Best Picture of the Year, I consider that a happy accident.

My quick thoughts on the Best Picture nominees:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The only nominee I haven’t seen, so I suppose I can’t render a verdict. But the reason I didn’t see it was because bad and lukewarm reviews convinced me that I didn’t want to see it. (Okay, Rotten Tomatoes says 72% of the reviews were positive, but so maybe I’m just reading the wrong reviews.) And yet it received 13 nominations–more than any other movie this year.

Frost/Nixon: I liked this one, very much. I gave it a B, but it’s a high B. Certainly not one of the best films of the year, though.

Milk: The one I’m rooting for. This and Revolutionary Road tie in my book for the best picture that stands a chance of winning an Oscar.

The Reader: An excellent film. I won’t feel bad if it wins.

Slumdog Millionaire: The traditional low-budget, arguably foreign film that became a surprise art house hit and doesn’t stand a chance of winning Best Picture. Only this year, it’s a movie I didn’t like.

Thoughts on some other nominees.

Kate Winslet up for Best Actress…again. One of these years she may win it. She’s up for The Reader, but gave a better performance (which is saying a lot) in Revolutionary Road, which was also a better film. (That’s saying a lot, too.)

Speaking of Revolutionary Road, I’m glad it’s up for Best Art Direction. It won’t win, but it made the 1950’s all the more oppressive.

”Down to Earth” from WALL-E is up for Best Original Song. Was there a song in WALL-E?

Wim Wenders and Palermo Shooting

I saw Wim Wenders’ new film, Palermo Shooting, at the Berlin & Beyond festival last night. I also saw Wim Wenders, who was there to receive a lifetime achievement award. If the Castro wasn’t sold out, it was close to it.

After four people came onstage to talk about Wenders’ effect on their lives, the filmmaker came took the microphone to accept the award. He told a funny story about the first time he attended a series of his films in the Bay Area, then refused to comment on the movie we were about to see. "There should be a law against filmmakers describing a film before it is seen."

There’s no such rule for bloggers, so here’s what I thought about Palermo Shooting: This is a very strange film, and I mean that in the best possible way. The protagonist, Finn (German rock star Campino) is a successful photographer doing both serious art and fashion shoots–and the fashion shoots seem more fulfilling as art. His life is a fine line between reality and hallucination, and after a brush with death he goes to Sicily–perhaps to recover his equilibrium. Things only get weirder. Let’s just say the movie is about embracing death so you can embrace life, and that Dennis Hopper has a small but wonderful, funny, and pivotal part.

Wenders came on stage again for some Q&A after the movie. Most of the  questions involved Palermo Shooting, and would be meaningless if you haven’t seen it. But there are some highlights:

About digital photography: "The negative was the truth of the moment. With digital you can delete the moment. Photographs can’t prove anything anymore."

wendersOTOH, he thinks digital is just fine for motion pictures, which have always been about illusion, anyway. "In film, digital added something but didn’t change the ball game. In photography, it changed the ball game."

He likes road pictures because people tend to shoot them in sequence. Even the money people want you to shoot them in sequence. "For any young filmmaker, there’s nothing better than to shoot one movie in chronological order."

Images: Berlin & Beyond

Revolutionary Road and the New Shattuck

My wife and I saw Revolutionary Road at the newly refurbished Shattuck tonight. I’ll start with the film, then tell you about the theater.

After a romantic prologue where an attractive couple meet and fall for each other, Revolutionary Road plunges you into a severely unhappy marriage–all the worse because the couple clearly still love each other. Thirtyish in 1955, the two are caught between their youthful, non-conformist dreams and the responsibilities of parenthood, made all the worse by the pressures to conform to a suburban norm. And the way they react to that pressure is making them incompatible. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, so romantic in Titanic, give raw, scraped-to-the-bone performances. Easily one of the best films of the year.

But not a date movie.

This was my first time at the Shattuck since Landmark started remodeling it. The concession stand looks nicer, and there’s a lovely hardwood floor in front of it. Best of all, inside the auditoriums, they’ve given the seats a major upgrade. They’re wide and extremely comfortable, with plenty of legroom. Landmark has obviously decided to reduce the number of people they can jam in front of a screen to make everyone happier.

No love seats, but they’re still working on the balconies. And no bar yet, either.

Oscar Bait Roudup

I’ve seen a few of this year’s Oscar Bait films. Here’s what I thought of them, from best to worst.

Milk: Yep, I’m always a sucker for a historical epic, especially one set in a time and place that I can remember. Sprawling without ever being boring, and inspiring without getting preachy. I’ve always known that Sean Penn was a great actor; it’s nice to know that he can do “happy” as well as less pleasant emotions. James Franco is also very good as the main man in his life.

The Reader: I have to ask myself: Am I a Kate Winslet fan because she’s a brilliant actor with an excellent taste in scripts, or because she takes her clothes off in almost every film? Probably a combination of both. Here she plays her least sympathetic character, but you still care for her greatly. Questions of guilt, evil, and the corruption of innocence abound. But would the main male character (played by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes at different ages) really be that messed up just because he had an affair at 15?

Frost/Nixon: I didn’t know Richard Nixon composed a piano concerto. That’s not the only thing writer Peter Morgan teaches us in the other Oscar bate movie set in the 1970s. Michael Sheen plays David Frost as insufferably upbeat, which is probably accurate, and Frank Langella creates a complex Nixon who’s almost charming in his willingness to admit his lack of charm. Of course, he admits a lot more before Frost is through with him. Has anyone else noticed that as he ages, Kevin Bacon is starting to look like Clint Eastwood?

Slumdog Millionaire: Am I the only person in the universe who didn’t love this mess? Sure, there are some good scenes and funny moments, but the whole story is so ridiculously contrived I couldn’t suspend disbelief. Not only did this poor kid learn the exact pieces of trivia he would need through his mean street experiences, but he learned them in the order he would later be asked them. I can swallow a lot, but not that.

Still to see: Revolutionary Road and The Wrestler.

What Else is Screening: January 16-22

A couple of things I missed.

First of all, the Rafael is also screening the inauguration.

Second:

The Secrets, Kabuki, opened Friday. The Secrets looks at young women trying to change the extremely parochial world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism from within. That’s not an easy–or perhaps even a possible–goal. The young women in question are the scholarly daughter of a respected rabbi (Ania Bukstein), and a French rebel (Michal Shtamler). They meet at a women’s seminary in Safed, where they secretly undertake the subversive task of helping a dying murderess prepare to meet G*d. They also discover a mutual sexual attraction and fall in love. Writers Hadar Galron and Avi Nesher (who also directed) successfully delve into an extreme and often cruel form of Judaism most of us haven’t experienced, and raise questions about forgiveness, repentance, love, and the need both to conform and to rebel.

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