What’s Screening: February 27 – March 5

Cinequest continues throughout the week. And the San Francisco Irish Film Festival opens Thursday for a two-day run at the Roxie.

[B] The Birth of a Nation, California Theater, San Jose, Friday, 7:00. A film that’s easy to love, easy to hate, and easy to love to hate. The historical influence of this 1915 Civil War and Reconstruction epic can’t be overestimated; it turned film into both a serious art and a big business. Esthetically, it’s still a rousing piece of cinematic historical fiction–if you can ignore its rabid racism. How racist is it? The Ku Klux Klan ride in to the rescue. It takes a certain amount of guts to show The Birth publically these days. Kudos to Cinequest for showing it here. With Dennis James at the Wurlitzer organ.

[B] Amarcord, Castro, Friday through Thursday. Federico Fellini’s nostalgic, autobiographical, yet decidedly weird comedy about village life in the late 1930′s celebrates horny teenagers, confused adults, and distracted clergy, and treats fascists as comic opera buffoons. Amarcord succeeds frequently but not consistently. And it succeeds best when it’s just trying to be funny. 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.

Canary, San Jose Repertory Theatre, Sunday, 6:30. As a fan of Alejandro Adams’ excellent Around the Bay, I was naturally eager to see his latest feature. I’m sorry to say that–based on a work-in-progress disc Adams sent me some months ago–I was disappointed. A weird piece of science fiction involving corporate organ donating, it never lets you close to any of the way too many characters, or even gives you much of an idea what’s going on. The only thing that keeps me from giving it an F is that I have not seen the complete work. Part of Cinequest.

[A] Revolutionary Road, Cerrito, opens Friday. After a romantic prologue where an attractive couple meet and fall for each other, Revolutionary Road plunges you into a severely unhappy marrrevolutionaryroadiage–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 last year, but not a date movie.

The New PFA Schedule and the New New Deal

I got the new Pacific Film Archive schedule. As usual, there’s a lot of interesting stuff.

There’s Women’s Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran, a film-lecture course uses film to understand Buddhism, a screening of Reefer Madness with a “totally dope soundtrack by Cal student DJs,” and a retrospective of Agnès Varda, the one woman director of the French New Wave.

And, because that part of the past really is prologue these days, there’s a four-film series called From Riches to Rags: Hollywood and the New Deal. Seems like a good perspective to take: How did people in the last great depression deal with the economy cinematically.

Since I didn’t program that series (which is probably a good thing), here are some movies made during the last depression that may help us in this one:

  • Gold Diggers of 1933: A silly, escapist musical, but it never lets you forget that there’s a depression going on.
  • Our Daily Bread: King Vidor’s talkie sort-of sequel to The Crowd, about desperate people finding happiness in a communal farm. This one’s getting two local screenings, soon. It’s at the Stanford March 27, and, as part of the Rags to Riches series, at the PFA April 1.
  • My Man Godfrey: Screwball comedies often played with class issues, but none as bluntly as this one (although it blows it in the third act).
  • Grapes of Wrath: The masterpiece of the group.

More Revivals at the SFIFF

The San Francisco International Film Festival just announced two more revivals planned for the upcoming festival. That’s in addition to The Lost World. The movies are A Woman Under the Influence and Le Amiche.

I saw John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence–an extremely harrowing and raw drama about a housewife going insane and a working-class husband who doesn’t know what to do about it–at the tender age of 22. My date was a 36-year-old divorcee who was clearly wondering why she had allowed herself to get involved with a kid. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best situation to see a film that was over my head at that age, anyway. But I don’t remember Gena Rowlands’ performance, which wasn’t the sort of thing one forgets.

I’ve never seen Antonioni’s Le Amiche. It’s an early work, from 1955.

Both movies have been recently restored.

Oscar Report 3

Technical problems kept me from live blogging throughout the Academy Awards, so let me hit the high and low spots:

Just my luck! When Best Picture finally goes to the low-budget, heavily subtitled movie that normally wouldn’t stand a chance, it’s a picture I don’t even like. Yes, Milk was more conventional, but it was also better made and considerably more plausible. Well, the best picture seldom wins Best Picture. I suppose I should be glad that a film of the sort that never wins actually won.

At least the right actors won the leading performance Oscars, even if Kate Winslet won for the second best performance she gave last year. And Sean Penn’s speech was the highlight of the show.

The other stab at controversy, Bill Maher’s crack about “silly gods” bombed as it should. It’s one thing to make a point, it’s another to make an unsupported insult at the vast majority of the human race.

But following Oscar tradition, the worst moments were the production numbers, especially the horrible, over-produced medley of songs from musicals led by host Hugh Jackman and Beyonce. Hey, guys, pick a song a stick to it! Why wasn’t I surprised that it came from  Baz Luhrman.

Oscar Report 2

I apologize for any errors. I’m not checking spelling or even if I’m getting the names right.

The usual, extremely brief mention of the previous technical awards dinner. Historical error: The actress announcing it (I don’t remember her name) said that Thomas Edison invented the Kinemagraph <sp>. He didn’t. An employee of his, William Dickson, has that honor.

The tribute to the comedies of 2008 with Seth Rogen and James Franco was embarrassingly bad. In a year that had some very good comedies (including two starring Rogen), they could have done more. One funny moment was when they watched a big kissing scene from Milk that had Franco in it.

Oscar Report 1

I’ve paused the DVR about an hour into the Oscar presentation. A few quick observances:

  • Why do I watch the pre-show, which is about beautiful movie stars in designer gowns? I want one of the interviewers to ask a star “Who are you wearing?” and have her respond “I picked this up at Woolworth.”
  • I like Hugh Jackman, but he’s an odd choice. Traditionally, hosting goes to a comedian, not an actor.
  • He did well in the Billy Crystal-like one-man opening production number. Best moment was when he brought Anne Hathaway on stage to be Nixon to his Frost. For a moment, I really believed she was caught by surprise.
  • Best Screenplay is usually the first clue about who will win Best Picture, although it’s a complicated clue because there are two Best Screenplay Oscars. My first choice, Milk, won one. Every body else’s first choice, and my last, Slumdog Millionaire, won the other.
  • Loved Steve Martin and Tina Fey giving that award.
  • Slumdog also won Cinematography. Bad sign.

On with the show.

Lost World at SFIFF

This year’s San Francisco International Film opens April 23, and even though the official press conference is more than a month away, bits of information are trickling in.

Here’s one:

The 1925 version of The Lost World will screen May 5, with live accompaniment by the “genre-busting pop band” Dengue Fever.

Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s science fiction novel of man and dinosaur, The Lost World as the first feature to extensively use stop-motion model animation to recreate the big reptiles. The effects were done by Willis O’Brien, who eight years later would create the most famous stop-motion character, King Kong. It’s been years since I’ve seen The Lost World, and while I can’t really call myself a fan, it’s a fun night on the big screen.

I’m not familiar with Cambodian/American band Dengue Fever, so I’ll just quote from the press release:

Dengue Fever’s repertoire isn’t simply Cambodian music or a Cambodian/American hybrid. Bollywood glitz, psychedelic rock, spaghetti Western twang, klezmer, ska, funk and Ethiopian jazz all contribute to the band’s unique sound.

Sounds entertaining.

What’s Screening: February 20-26

IndieFest continues through Sunday (I was wrong to say it went only to the 20th). Most of the screenings now are at the Shattuck.

And Cinequest opens Wednesday and runs through March 8.

And don’t forget that Sunday, you can watch the Oscars on the big screen at the Balboa, Castro, Cerrito, Lark, Parkway, Rafael, or Roxie (did I miss any). Check theaters for times, prices, and the need to buy advance tickets.

Mid-Winter Comedy Film Festival, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, laurelhardy Friday through Sunday. Seven programs of mostly short, mostly silent comedies to cheer you up in the dead of winter. Hosted and curated by film collector and historian Richard M. Roberts. Phillip C. Carli and Frederick Hodges will take turns accompanying the silents on piano.

Balboa Birthday Bash, Balboa, Sunday, 12:45. A lantern slide show, Mary Pickford in My Best Girl, accompanied by Frederick Hodges on piano, selected shorts, and a Live Vaudeville Show featuring chanteuse Linda Kosut and Magician James Hamilton. And all done before the Oscars begin.

Up the Yangtze, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 8:30. 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. Read my full review. Part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

Milk, Castro, Friday, then Monday through Thursday. 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. And for obvious reasons, the Castro is the appropriate venue.

Let the Right One In, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Better than Horror of Dracula, Interview with a Vampire, and The Lost Boys, and maybe better than Nosferatu, this is one of the great vampire movies. What better place for a vampire than a Swedish winter? The nights are very long, snow covers everything, and people drink heavily and seem depressed to begin with. It’s like Bergman, only with undead bloodsuckers. Let the Right One In is also a coming-of-age story, about first love between a boy about to turn 13 and a girl who has been 12 “for a very long time.”

Slumdog Millionaire, Roxie, opens Friday. 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.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 3: Drunken Angel

I watched the Drunken Angel DVD Saturday night, the most recent film in my Kurosawa saga (Kurosaga?). I had seen it several times before, including a Voom Network HD broadcast a few months ago.

In other words, this wasn’t a new discovery or a rediscovery.

Drunken Angel represents a major step towards mature Kurosawa. It hits what would become the dominant theme in his work (in my opinion): The importance of kindness and charity in an otherwise cruel and indifferent universe. He makes good use of a large and complex set. Gangsters are shown as immoral scum.

And Toshiro Mifune steals the film in the role that would shoot him to stardom. It was only his third film and his first with Kurosawa.

Not that the full Kurosawa style had materialized, yet. I didn’t notice any striking use of a telephoto lens. There was no lateral cutting. And as far as I could tell, no multi-camera setups were used.

The title refers to an gruff, short-tempered, and alcoholic doctor (Takashi drunkenangel Shimura, who was in every Kurosawa film made before the actor died in 1982). He runs a small slum clinic next to a filthy sump, and he’s trying desperately to keep people alive. Mifune plays one of his patients, a tubercular gangster who cannot fight the disease and keep up his high-living, macho lifestyle.

This is the earliest Kurosawa film to get the full Criterion treatment, with commentary and extras. One extra, about Kurosawa’s battles with the American military censors, directly contracts the commentary. Who’s right? I don’t know, but it’s nice to get two opinions.

With this post, I’m up to date on my Kurosawa Diary. It will be two or three weeks before I get to the next film, The Silent Duel.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 2: First Post-War Films

Still playing catch-up.

Kurosawa became a great artist in the post-war years of American occupation, but he couldn’t seem to make two good films in a row. He would make a good, really good, or even great motion picture, then follow it with an out-and-out turkey. He didn’t break this cycle until he followed Ikiru with Seven Samurai.

But I’m not there yet. Not be a long shot. Here are his first two post-war films, both of which I have watched within the last six weeks.

No Regrets for Our Youth was Kurosawa’s first film where he didn’t have to answer to Japanese military censors. Instead, he had to answer to American military censors. But since they were promoting progress, free speech, and democracy, they were a definite improvement. I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie, which I’ve seen a couple of times theatrically. It’s Kurosawa’s only film (after The Most Beautiful) with a female protagonist, and the only one that’s unquestionably political and leaning leftward.

It’s the story of liberals and radicals and what they went through during the years of military dictatorship, as seen through the eyes of a young, initially apolitical woman. There’s nothing in the style that suggests Kurosawa, but there’s a joyful sense of freedom to it.

Perhaps, at the very beginning of the occupation, he felt optimistic.

One Wonderful Sunday is one terrible movie. A young couple who have been dating for years (and still haven’t gotten to first base) try to have a fun day on the town despite having almost no money between them. Think Before Sunrise without good dialog, interesting characters, or real sexual tension. 

I had seen this piece of drek once before, at the Pacific Film Archive, maybe 30 years ago.

Next: Drunken Angel


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