What’s Screening: March 27 – April 2

The Tiburon International Film Festival ends Friday, but be patient. The Sonoma International Film Festival opens Wednesday.

Double Bill: The Crowd & Our Daily Bread, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. Silent film was great for melodrama and better for comedy, but we don’t think o f it as the best medium for serious social drama. Yet few dramas are as enthralling, intelligent, or entertaining as The Crowd, King Vidor’s thecrowdexamination of the failed American dream and that failure’s effect on a marriage. Using actual locations, realistic and expressionistic sets, and the subtlety of the human face, Vidor creates two very real individuals and tracks the journey from simple American optimism to despair. With Dennis James at the organ. Our Daily Bread is Vidor’s talkie sort-of sequel to The Crowd, where our everyman and woman face the depression and start a communal farm. No masterpiece (I’m not a fan of Vidor’s talkies), but historically fascinating.

Best In Show, Cerrito, Tuesday, 9:15. Christopher Guest’s dog-show mockumentary has more than its share of hilarious moments. The rest of it is pretty funny, too. A benefit for EBAC.

The Reader, Castro, Sunday. 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?

The Wrestler, Castro, Friday. Yes, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei both give outstanding performances; in Rourke’s case, it was as physically risky as it was emotionally so. And yes, the movie took me into a subculture I had never seen before. What’s more, it had what was probably the most difficult-to-watch sequence in my lifetime of movie-going. But there seemed to be something hollow inside the story, as if writer Robert D. Siegel and director Darren Aronofsky weren’t willing to plunge in as deeply as Rourke. And the ending was horribly clichéd. On a double-bill with Runaway Train.

Medicine for Melancholy, Elmwood, opens Friday. One could describe this low-budget indi as the African-American version (and the Bay Area version) of Before Sunrise. We discover the two characters as they discover each other, maneuver around their mutual attraction, and talk about their very different attitudes about life and race. Wyatt Cenac (of the Daily Show) and Tracey Heggins make attractive and likable leads, and for the first hour they’re completely worth spending time with. But two-thirds of the way through the movie takes a wrong turn to nowhere. Beautifully shot with a color palette so desaturated it often looks like black and white. I saw Medicine for Melancholy at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival. Read my more in-depth report.

What’s Screening: March 20 – 26

The Asian American Film Festival finishes on Sunday, and the Tiburon International Film Festival continues through the week.

Waltz with Bashir, Elmwood, opens Friday. Animated documentary sounds like an oxymoron, but I’m not sure what else to call Waltz With Bashir. The bulk of the film consists of actual interviews thatwaltzwithbashir writer/director Ari Folman had with other veterans of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon war, as he tries to reconstruct his own traumatic memories of the front line. But the interviews, and the flashbacks that illustrate them, are animated in a sparse yet aggressively 3D style. The result carries a documentary’s authenticity, but with a visual power that can only come out of the imagination. Extraordinary.

The Jazz Singer, Tiburon International Film Festival, Friday, 3:30. If you’re at all interested in film history, you have to see The Jazz Singer, even if it’s mediocre at best and racist by modern standards. In the space of about two years—from late 1927 to late 1929—the technology, business, and esthetics of movies changed like no popular art before or since. Stories once told through pantomime and printed title cards now depended almost entirely on spoken dialog. Studios replaced their open-air stages with sound-proofed blocks of concrete. Theaters laid off their musicians and wired for sound. And it all started with this sentimental tale of a cantor’s son who wants to sing jazz. Part of the Tiburon Film Festival‘s Warner Brothers tribute.

Bride of Frankenstein, Stanford, Saturday through Monday. You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays him as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. If the blind hermit sequence doesn’t bring tears, you’re either dead, too cynical, or have seen Young Frankenstein’s brilliant parody of this scene once too often. With Colin Clive as the not-so-good doctor, Ernest Thesiger as a delightfully over-the-top even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (although, technically speaking, Valerie Hobson is the Bride of Frankenstein). One of the rare sequels better than the original. On a double-bill with The Sin of Nora Moran, which I’ve never heard of.

The Pirate, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. Not Vincent Minnelli’s best musical, or Gene Kelly’s, but still a splendid entertainment. With songs by Cole Porter and dance numbers choreographed by Kelly and Robert Alton. The mistaken-identity story debunks one romantic myth (pirates) while building up another (actors). One of the PFA’s Movie Matinees for All Ages.

His Girl Friday, Castro, Sunday. Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–“with a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution. On a screwball double bill with Twentieth Century.

Cabaret, Castro, Wednesday. In 1973, I was angry (but not surprised) that the obviously commercial Godfather had beat Bob Fosse’s Weimar-era musical for the Best Picture Oscar. Time proved me wrong, and while I wouldn’t today put Cabaret in the same class as The Godfather, it’s still a dazzling piece of style. On a double bill with Sweet Charity.

Parkway Closing

The word went out this morning: Sunday is the last day for the Parkway Speakeasy Theater.

This is very sudden. Last night I worked on next week’s newsletter, and looked through the Parkway schedule for upcoming special events. There were several. This morning, I read they won’t be happening.

Founded 12 years ago, the Parkway was something special–fun, quirky, and different. At least in the Bay Area, it was the first of its kind: a theater with couches, beer, wine, and good food, with a combination of current movies and classics.

"Don’t ask me why this is happening because, honestly, I just don’t know," writes Speakeasy Theaters Programmer and Publicist Will Viharo in his Thrillville newsletter. "It’s a sign of the times, but so much more than that."

The spirit of the Parkway will live on in Speakeasy’s other theater, the Cerrito.

Ang Lee & James Schamus at Zelerbach Hall

I just got home from watching Ang Lee and James Schamus talk about their films, show clips, and answer audience questions. It was all at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

I assume you know that Ang Lee is the director of Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a whole lot of other great films (and a few not-so-great ones). As the writer and/or producer of most of Lee’s films, Schamus is Lee’s primary collaborator. He’s also the CEO of Focus Features and teaches film history at Columbia. Busy man.

If you’ve ever listened to Crouching Tiger’s DVD commentary, you know something else about Schamus. He’s one of those people who can’t let a joke go unspoken. Just the character trait you’d expect from a studio head who’s also penned some extremely depressing dramas.

I didn’ take notes, but here are some highlights, from memory. None of the quotes are entirely reliable.

  • They started off the evening, after introductions, with a very short clip reel of scenes from Lee’s films. The scenes chosen were all sex scenes, or scenes that came off as comically suggestive when shown in that context. That set the tone of the evening–they were playing at least partially for laughs.
  • Lee seriously explained that the sexual repression of his upbringing has colored the depiction of sex in his films. And to prove the point, the next clip was an extremely embarrassing and unerotic teenage sex scene from The Ice Storm. (Actually, the comment made me think of Lee’s cameo in The Wedding Banquet, where he jokes about Chinese sexual oppression.)
  • They showed several clips from The Ice Storm. In fact, if there was anyone in the audience who hadn’t seen it, the evening could count as a spoiler. They see that film as a turning point from comedy of manners to serious drama.
  • Lee said his first cut of The Ice Storm was very funny, but he had to recut it to tone down the comedy to make the ending work.
  • Speaking of recutting, Sense and Sensibility originally had a G rating, which the studio found unacceptable. They added another “damn” to get a PG.
  • The moderator, whose name I didn’t get, asked Schamus how he balances creative work (screenwriting) with business (running a studio). He said that a screenplay is just a tool to budget a film and sell it to investors.
  • He also said that he underwrites his screenplays to give Lee more freedom. “That’s why I like his screenplays,” Lee added.
  • The last clip they showed was from their forthcoming film, Taking Woodstock. It’s a return to comedy of manners after what Schamus described as “six suicidally depressing films.”
  • The last question from the audience: What would you be if you hadn’t become a filmmaker.” Lee shot back “A total loser.” To which Schamus said simply “I can’t top that” and the evening was over.

60’s Westerns SFIFF: Robert Redford & Sergio Leone

They keep dribbling out more news about the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival.

Last week, they announced that Robert Redford will receive the Peter J. Owens Award for acting. (No, Peter J. Owens wasn’t an actor; he was a philanthropist.) He’ll receive the award at a big, expensive, black-tie affair April 30. But the night before he’ll be at the Castro for Q&A and the premiere screening of a new, restored print of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

And that’s not the only western from the late 1960s getting a restoration premiere at the festival. On Sunday, May 3, at 12:30, they’re screening the newly-restored Once upon a Time in the West.  The fourth film in his Man With No Name trilogy (and yes, I intended that to sound ludicrous), he replaces Clint Eastwood with Charles Bronson this time, and adds Jason Robards and Henry Fonda to the mix. Fonda does one of his rare villains, and a very evil one at that.

Waltz With Bashir

Animated documentary sounds like an oxymoron, but I’m not sure what else to call Waltz With Bashir. The bulk of the film consists of actual interviews that writer/director Ari Folman had with other veterans of Israel’s 1982Lebanon war, as he tries to reconstruct his own traumatic memories of the front line. But the interviews, and the flashbacks that illustrate them, are animated in a sparse yet aggressively 3D style. The result carries a documentary’s authenticity, but with a visual power that can only come out of the imagination. Extraordinary.

What’s Screening: March 13 – 19

The Tiburon International Film Festival opens Thursday night and runs through the 27th.

Lust, Caution, Wheeler Auditorium, Berkeley, Tuesday, 7:00. Ang Lee in person! Ang Lee doesn’t alter the conventions of the Hitchcockian thriller much in Lust, Caution, but he deepens those conventions, turning the thriller into a study of a young woman (newcomer Wei Tang as Wang Jiazhi) who must turn herself into someone she is not in order to seduce a man and set him up for assassination. Her target (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is a monster–a fascist collaborator who never appears to regret his actions. But he’s a human monster, and there’s a sense that his work is taking a psychic toll. He’s cold, remote, and emotionally cut off from those around him. No wonder he falls for the beautiful young woman who comes into his life. Yes, its rated NC-17 for graphic sex scenes, and yes, those scenes enhance the plot. but if you go to Lust, Caution looking for arousal, you’re going to be disappointed. Go looking for a compelling story, insightful characters, and masterful filmmaking. Click here for my full review.

Alien, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. In 1975, Jaws broke box office records. Two years later, Star Wars jumped light-years over Jaws’ grosses . Is it any wonder that Hollywood would put a scary, carnivorous creature on a spaceship? No, the wonder is that screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scot did such a good job. First, they created the most realistic space jockeys yet to grace movie science fiction: eight working-class astronauts who gripe about the pay and the food. Then they placed these unfortunates on a ship that somehow feels both believable and creepy. Finally, O’Bannon Scot added a difficult-to-see, constantly changing, and very hungry monster. And let us not forget Sigourney Weaver in the role that made her a star.

A Hard Day’s Night, Elmwood, Saturday and Sunday, noon. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a new British musical phenomenon, they wanted a picture fast and cheap. Reasonable demands, as The Beatles’ popularity was limited to England and Germany and could likely die before the film got into theaters. Turns out UA had nothing to worry about.

Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. I can vouch for the Chaplin film, “A Dog’s Life,” as one of his best shorts. Fatty Arbuckle’s “The Garage,” co-starring Buster Keaton, is also quite good. It’s also Arbuckle’s last short before he turned to features and Keaton’s last supporting role before becoming a star. I can’t vouch for the other films, but they’re by Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy; how bad can they be?

Medicine For Melancholy, Shattuck, opens Friday for one-week engagement. One could describe this low-budget indi as the African-American version (and the Bay Area version) of Before Sunrise. We discover the two characters as they discover each other, maneuver around their mutual attraction, and talk about their very different attitudes about life and race. Wyatt Cenac (of the Daily Show) and Tracey Heggins make attractive and likable leads, and for the first hour they’re completely worth spending time with. But two-thirds of the way through the movie takes a wrong turn to nowhere. Beautifully shot with a color palette so desaturated it often looks like black and white. I saw Medicine for Melancholy at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival. Read my more in-depth report.

Sunset Boulevard, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much like Lena Lamont–after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in history. A Cerrito Classic.

Frost/Nixon, Castro, Thursday. 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?

Sean Penn as Who

I subscribed to a Google News Alert that searches for the words classics and blu-ray. What it finds and shows me isn’t always about classics, but it occasionally is.

Occasionally, in the search engine’s desire to give you a title and your search words in context, you can get an odd juxtaposition, such as:

Sean Penn shines in affecting, nuanced film Milk
Winston-Salem Journal – Winston-Salem,NC,USA
classic — about a puppet who wants to be a real boy, his pal the cricket, and assorted other characters — returns to DVD and makes its Blu-ray debut

I don’t remember that story line in Milk.

Tiburon Film Festival

The press release for the Tiburon International Film Festival arrived last night, and I only just got around to opening it. Some interesting stuff in the lineup.

  • A Warner Brothers tribute will include a screening of The Jazz Singer.
  • The legendary cinematographer and sometime director Haskell Wexler will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by George Lucas.
  • There’s a spotlight on Mexican Cinema.
  • And, of course, a whole bunch of family films, adult films, documentaries, and so forth.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 4: The Quiet Duel

Early in his career, Akira Kurosawa seemed unable to be make two good films in a row (or at least films that seem good from a distance of 6 decades and several thousand miles). While his odd-numbered films prove very good, with a promise of the master to come, the odd-numbered ones are usually a chore to sit through.

His eighth film, The Quiet Duel, begins well, and is a hell of a lot better than One Wonderful Sunday, but that doesn’t make it a good movie. Before watching the DVD Friday night, I had seen The Quiet Duel once before, at the Pacific Film Archive, about 30 years ago. I barely remembered it.

The opening sequence, set in a mobile hospital near the front in World War II, shows what the master-to-be was already capable of. In one of those Kurosawa-patented torrential downpours, a young surgeon (Toshiro Mifune) accidentally cuts his own finger while trying to save a wounded private’s life. The operation is a success, but the irresponsible private had syphilis, and now the good doctor has it, too.

The rest of the movie is set after the war, with the doctor hiding his condition while otherwise acting like a saint. He breaks off his engagement without giving a reason, and devotes himself to helping others. Kurosawa brings in some interesting supporting characters, including the veteran who infected him (the doctor’s opposite–marrying and fathering a child while keeping his condition secret) and a nurse who got pregnant out of wedlock. But the main character is just to virtuous to be interesting.

The good doctor in his previous film, Drunken Angel, was alcoholic and short-tempered. But this time, Kurosawa’s respect for the medical profession gets the better of his dramatic instincts, and he creates a flawless and boring saint.

And if there’s anything worse than a flawless and boring saint, it’s a flawless and boring saint played by Toshiro Mifune. The energy, intensity, and mischievousness that made his a great movie star are nowhere to be found in The Quiet Duel.

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