What’s Screening: July 30 – August 5

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival moves out of San Francisco this week to settle in Palo Alto and Berkeley. (That’s why we’re called Wandering Jews.) And once again, I’m placing the SFJFF screenings at the end of this post.

Also, the SFFS Screen opens again Friday at the Kabuki with Alamar. Since I missed that film at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, and didn’t have time to view it since, I’m not reviewing it below.

Cinematic Titanic: “War of the Insects”, Castro, Tuesday, 8:00. Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, along with other MST3K veterans, will riff live on aphoto_1_full.jpg 1968 Japanese science fiction flick called War of the Insects. I’ve never seen the movie, and I’ve never seen a live Cinematic Titanic performance, but I’m an MST3K fan and am looking forward to the event.  Hodgson told me that the movie is “kind of the story of a heroin addict bomber pilot and a beautiful mad scientist who’s trying to take over the world with insects.” Sounds like typical MST3K fodder to me. For more on the event, see Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater, and Cinematic Titanic.

A+ Double Bill: Casablanca & The Maltese Falcon, Castro, Sunday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen Casablanca or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just casablancaanother entertaining propaganda movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right this time with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941, an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.

A Sanjuro, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Yojimbo was such a huge hit that Kurosawa made a sequel. This time, Mifune’s masterless swordsman reluctantly sanjurohelps a group of naive young samurai clean up their clan. Of course, they insist on doing everything properly and honorably; without him, they wouldn’t last a minute. The result is an action comedy and genre parody that ties with The Hidden Fortress as Kurosawa’s lightest entertainment. The climax involves one of the greatest, and most unique, swordfights in movie history. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

A King Kong (1933 version), Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up. It’s not just Willis O’Brien’s breathtaking special effects–technically crude by today’s standards but still awe-inspiring. kingkong33It’s the intelligent script by Ruth Rose, the evocative score by Max Steiner, and the wonderful cast headed by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. But most of all, it’s the complex title character. Kong is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying as he grinds people into the ground or bites them to death, but also confused, loving, majestic, and ultimately doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Sure, the story is silly, but so are dreams. This screening for the summer’s Paramount Movie Classics series was postponed from an original July 9 date.

B Dead Man, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. A very different type of western. The plot, concerning a timid accountant from Cleveland (Johnny Depp) who becomes a wanted outlaw within a day of getting off the train, sounds like a Bob Hope comedy. But Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, which by definition makes it a very weird flick. And it earns its weirdness with the quirky humor and strange occurrences we associate with Jarmusch. The supporting cast includes John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum.

C Rosemary’s Baby, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Roman Polanski’s first American filmrosemarysbaby_pic barely works. Mia Farrow looks fidgety and nervous as a pregnant wife who slowly begins to suspect that she’s carrying the devil’s spawn, and that everyone she thought she could trust is in on it. Slow enough to let you see what’s coming a mile off, it never quite builds the sense of dread that the material, and the director, were capable of bringing to it. On a double-bill with See No Evil, another thriller starring Farrow (proving that some things are scarier than Woody Allen). Terry Castle, the daughter of Baby producer (and cult director) William Castle, will be there in person.

F Scandal, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. After opening credits that promise a fast-paced film noir, we get a preachy, dull, and utterly predictable story about a semi-famous painter who innocently meets a beautiful, much more famous singer, only to find their names and photos splashed together by the 1949 Japanese equivalent of the National Enquirer.  Although the protagonist is a) an artist, b) rides a motorcycle, c) considers himself something of a rebel, and d) is played by Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa still manages to make him dull, lifeless, and annoyingly flawless. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Another part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

F The Idiot, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. Kurosawa blew it badly when he adapted this Dostoyevsky novel to the screen. The dull and lifeless story concerns a man with a mental disability, his romantic prospects, and those prospects’ other romantic prospects. That sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is. Minute by minute, this is worse than Scandal, but since it runs 166 minutes instead of 104, it’s much worse. (Kurosawa’s original cut ran 265 minutes, and the studio insisted he cut it. We’ll never know if the suits destroyed a masterpiece or saved our sanity. I suspect the later.) The good news is that The Idiot, made in between Rashomon and Ikiru, was the last bad film he would make for a very long time. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A Stop Making Sense, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage; just the performance (actually compiled from three performances). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that makes you want to get up and dance.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

B+ Scarface (1932 version), Roda, Wednesday, August 4, 9:15. The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni 5344_scarface_00_weblg[1]acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” (And that’s when he’s being shot at with it.) Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that. Good as it is, I wonder if it really belongs in a Jewish film festival; even one with a retrospective of Jewish gangster films. After all, the gangster here is Italian-American; only the actor is Jewish. The festival argues that Muni was famous in the Yiddish theater before he went Hollywood, and that gave the movie a Jewish subtext in 1932. I don’t buy it.

B+ Stalin Thought of You, Roda, Thursday, August 5, 2:00, August 7, 4:00. The very idea that a satirical cartoonist could survive the Stalin years seems5272_stalinthoughtofyou_00_weblg[1]preposterous, but Boris Efimov survived throughout the entire Soviet era, and died in 2008 at the ripe age of 109. How did he manage? By aiming his poisoned pencil only at those that the powers-that-be didn’t like. Kevin McNeer’s documentary, built around interviews with the still-clear-minded-at-103 Efimov, takes the form of something like a confession. This artist stayed alive and employed throughout Stalin’s reign, and that couldn’t be done without moral compromises. His brother, a successful journalist and at one time editor-in-chief of Pravda, wasn’t so lucky. McNeer keeps the story lively with newsreel footage, illustrations, and old animations based on Efimov’s drawings.

Arab Labor: Season 2, Roda, Saturday, 2:00; Cinearts, Sunday, 8:45. I haven’t seen the new season, but I loved the first season of this controversial but hilarious Israeli sitcom, and I’m looking forward to the three new episodes the festival will be screening. Writer Sayed Kashua will be on hand for Q&A.

B Saviors in the Night, Cinearts, Saturday, July 31, 6:45. Director Ludi Boeken and his three screenwriters have made a respectable, well-made drama, based on true events, saviorsnight_thumb2about German Jews hiding from the SS, sometimes in plain sight. The movie is dramatic, suspenseful, and gives a real sense of how war and Nazi propaganda effected a tight-knit, rural, German farm community where everybody looks after everybody else. The story of people living in constant danger holds you in suspense. You very much want to see these people come out of the war okay. Especially interesting are the teenage characters, flirting and fighting, and enthusiastically embracing fascism and anti-Semitism before eagerly going off to war as if it was a grand adventure.

C- Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared, Roda, Monday, August 2, 4:00. An Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew, Sayed Kashua is Israel’s5002_sayedkashua_00_weblg[1]leading satirist, and the creator of the 2008 Jewish Film Festival sitcom hit, Arab Labor. He’s also the winner of this year’s Freedom of Expression Award. All that  suggests a very interesting and entertaining person. But Dorit Zimbalist’s brief (only 52 minutes) and dry documentary portrait presents us with an unpleasant bore. Clearly intended for people already familiar with Kashua’s work, it shows little of his genius. Nor does it dig deep enough to work simply as a profile of a profoundly unhappy man. On the other hand, it does reveal how closely the fictitious family at the center of Arab Labor resembles Kashua’s real world.

Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater, and Cinematic Titanic

Next Tuesday, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, along with other MST3K veterans, will invade the Castro to riff on a 1968 Japanese science fiction called War of the Insects. “It’s a great looking print, widescreen, really well made,” Hodgson told me earlier this month in a phone interview. “It’s kind of the story of a heroin addict bomber pilot and a beautiful mad scientist who’s trying to take over the world with insects.”

Sounds like typical MST3K fodder.

MST3K has been off the air for almost a decade, and it’s been nearly two decades since Hodgson severed his ties with the show he created, but he’s back to his old tricks with his old friends, adding comic commentary to bad movies (he prefers the adjective cheesy), with his current venture, Cinematic Titanic.

Although CT sells DVDs, its primary focus is live performance. “With a TV show, you’re really kind of talking to one person. When we do it now…we think in terms of what will work in a live environment. Some of the obscure references don’t make it in because you need an immediate reaction when performing live.”

That was a bit of a disappointment to me. One of my favorite aspects of MST3K were the obscure jokes that most people didn’t get. When you got one, whether it was about nitrate film, Schonberg, or Ann Rand vs. Lillian Hellman, you laughed even harder.

They no longer edit the movies for length, but they occasionally do for content. Although their audience is primarily adult, Hodgson prefers to keep it clean. “Everyone who’s coming are MST3K fans. Our tone was family oriented, and [audience members] bring that sensitivity with them. I’m proud we did that without being dirty. We kind of look at it as if its PG-13…People aren’t hungry for a dirty movie riffing experience.”

Cinematic Titanic isn’t the only MST3K spin-off on the web. Other show veterans, including Mike Nelson (who took over hosting when Hodgson left) have another one, RiffTrax. But while CT sticks to public domain movies or ones they can license, RiffTrax sells MP3 commentaries to popular pictures like Die Hard, Star Trek, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, that customers are likely to already own on DVD. I reported on a live RiffTrax event a few years ago.

I intend to report on the upcoming Cinematic Titanic one, as well.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 21: High and Low

After two detours into early Kurosawa films I couldn’t catch the first time around (see this and that), I’m finally back to the main point of what this Kurosawa Diary project: an examination of all of his films in chronological order. And what a relief that is—returning from the uneven (and often dreadful) quality of his early work to the master at the height of his power.

High and Low was the last and best or Kurosawa’s contemporary crime dramas, topping Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and The Bad Sleep Well. When a kidnapper grabs the wrong child—not the son of a wealthy industrialist but of the industrialist’s chauffer—he still insists on the outrageously-high ransom. The timing couldn’t be worse for the industrialist (Toshiro Mifune). About to lose his position in the company he’s devoted his life to, he’s mortgaged everything he owns to buy enough stock to take over the business. Now he’s being asked to forfeit his wealth and his career to save someone else’s child.

Mifune plays a good capitalist here—or at least the not-so-bad one. An artisanhighandlow who’s worked his way to up an executive position, he’s fighting for his corporate survival because he refuses to give up quality products in pursuit of quick profits. And while some of his business practices seem ruthless, they’re positively saintly compared to those of his rivals. Kurosawa and Mifune make us feel his moral dilemma acutely; in that unlikely situation, I could easily see myself behaving the same way.

The original Japanese title translates as Heaven and Hell, and Kurosawa sets the film in both locations (figuratively speaking, of course). The first 55 minutes take place in the industrialist’s expensive, mountaintop home overlooking Yokohama. Filmmakers should study this section, which never leaves the house and seldom moves out of the living room. No one else, before or since, has used the widescreen so brilliantly in a confined location.

Then, after nearly an hour of confined space, the story takes us to a speeding train for a short, fast, and suspenseful scene. The rest of the film—more than half of the total running time—takes place mostly in the hot, teeming, hellish city below, as teams of detectives track down the kidnapper. By the climax, we’ve delved into the world of cheap whores and heroin addicts.

Kurosawa always refused to let us see criminals sympathetically—to the point where their motives can become unclear. That’s the case here, where the kidnapper seems brilliant, psychotic, crazy, and just plain evil. The police are all virtuous, and talk about making sure this lunatic gets the death penalty.

But Mifune’s industrialist remains the film’s true center—a good man driven to do bad things for good reasons, suddenly faced with a lose-lose moral dilemma. That performance, combined with Kurosawa’s brilliant techniques for building and holding suspense, make High and Low a masterpiece.

Next up: Red Beard.

What’s Screening: July 23 – 29

Disclaimer: This may not be up-to-date. I’m actually writing this Monday, July 19, before going off on a vacation. Should anything change, I won’t be able to update it.

Another Hole in the Head continues through the week, and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Saturday night. I’ve placed Jewish Film Festival screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Stop Making Sense, Red Vic, Thursday (and continuing through the next Saturday). Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage; just the performance (actually compiled from three performances). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that makes you want to get up and dance.

A Yojimbo, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. A masterless samurai (always the yojimbobest for story-telling purposes) wanders into a small town torn apart by two gangs fighting a brutal turf war. Disgusted by everyone, our hero (who else but Toshiro Mifune) uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a nihilistic black comedy all rolled into one. Allegedly inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, it was remade twice as Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

A+ Rear Window, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily rearwindow_thumb[1]confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by watching his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly begins to dawn 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. On a double-bill with Harvey, which includes another great—but very different—Steward performance.

Metropolis Redux, VIZ Cinema, Saturday & Monday, 7:00. Now that you’ve had a chance to see Metropolis as it was originally meant to be seen, here’s your chance to see the wrong version (although I admit I haven’t seen it). This 1984 reissue has bright tints, subtitles instead of intertitles, and a rock soundtrack to mask the sound of Fritz Lang spinning in his grave.

One Wonderful Sunday, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. 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 a lack of cash or, quite frankly, chemistry. Think Before Sunrise without good dialog, interesting characters, or real sexual tension. Another, less fortunate part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Arab Labor: Season 2, Castro, Wednesday, 6:30. I haven’t seen the new season, but I loved the first season of this controversial but hilarious Israeli sitcom, and I’m looking forward to the three new episodes the festival will be screening. Also on the program: satirist and Arab Labor screenwriter Sayed Kashua will receive this year’s Freedom of Expression Award.

B+ Scarface (1932 version), Castro, Sunday, 10:00. The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni 5344_scarface_00_weblg[1]acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” (And that’s when he’s being shot at with it.) Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that. Good as it is, I wonder if it really belongs in a Jewish film festival; even one with a retrospective of Jewish gangster films. After all, the gangster here is Italian-American; only the actor is Jewish. The festival argues that Muni was famous in the Yiddish theater before he went Hollywood, and that gave the movie a Jewish subtext in 1932. I don’t buy it.

B Saviors in the Night, Castro, Saturday, 7:00. Director Ludi Boeken and his three screenwriters have made a respectable, well-made drama, based on true events, saviorsnight_thumb2about German Jews hiding from the SS, sometimes in plain sight. The movie is dramatic, suspenseful, and gives a real sense of how war and Nazi propaganda effected a tight-knit, rural, German farm community where everybody looks after everybody else. The story of people living in constant danger holds you in suspense. You very much want to see these people come out of the war okay. Especially interesting are the teenage characters, flirting and fighting, and enthusiastically embracing fascism and anti-Semitism before eagerly going off to war as if it was a grand adventure. The opening night show.

C-- Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared, Castro, Thursday, July 29, 3:45. An Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew, Sayed Kashua is Israel’s5002_sayedkashua_00_weblg[1]leading satirist, and the creator of the 2008 Jewish Film Festival sitcom hit, Arab Labor. He’s also the winner of this year’s Freedom of Expression Award. All that  suggests a very interesting and entertaining person. But Dorit Zimbalist’s brief (only 52 minutes) and dry documentary portrait presents us with an unpleasant bore. Clearly intended for people already familiar with Kashua’s work, it shows little of his genius. Nor does it dig deep enough to work simply as a profile of a profoundly unhappy man. On the other hand, it does reveal how closely the fictitious family at the center of Arab Labor resembles Kashua’s real world.

C- King of the Roaring 20′s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein, Castro, Monday, July 26, 12:00 noon. This 1961 gangster biopic is as bloodless as they come—and I’m not talking about the relative lack of violence. As played by a pre-Fugitive David Janssen, Rothstein comes off as too flat and dull to be either liked or hated. His only sins are ignoring his wife and being very good at a business that happens to be illegal (gambling). If the real Rothstein’s business involved any other illegal activities—violence, prostitution, or bootleg liquor—you’d never know it from this movie. Speaking of bootleg liquor, there’s almost no sense of period here; despite the “Roaring 20’s” in the title, it could just as well have been set in 1961. Despite it’s being part of the festival’s series Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, the movie seems reluctant to confront Rothstein’s ethnic and religious origins. His father (who only appears in two scenes), is a very religious man, but he never actually states what that religion is, even when he asks a potential daughter-in-law if she is of the same religion. Disclaimer: The DVD that the festival sent me for screening this film had a horrible, almost unwatchable transfer. I don’t think this effected my judgment, but it’s possible.

Silent Film Festival Report, Part II

I took Sunday morning off from movie-watching, and got to the Castro in time to see the last three screenings of the festival.

A- Man with a Movie Camera: I read about Dziga Vertov’s 1929 surreal documentary in college, but I didn’t see it until yesterday. The genre was actually fairly common in the late silent era: recreating a day in the life of a city through footage of actual people at work and play. But Vertov livened it up with strange and comical double exposures and visual effects, and by creating a maddenly fast pace in the editing room. 1015[1] He also made this movie something of a meta-documentary, with much of the movie following a cameraman traveling throughout the city (three actual cities were used) filming what he sees. The result is exhilarating and entertaining.

It’s also Communist propaganda. Vertov paints a picture of the Stalinist USSR as a place where people work hard, then play hard in healthy activities. They compete in sports, swim in the Black Sea, and enjoy mud baths and manicures. No starving Ukrainians here.

The Alloy Orchestra’s accompaniment seemed overbearing at first, with too much reliance on heavy percussion and an unrelenting pace. But about half-way through, they eased up a bit, and I ended up quite liking it.

B The Woman Disputed was my first Norma Talmadge movie. Now I know that she wasn’t just Buster Keaton’s sister-in-law and Joe Schenk’s wife; she was also a brilliant actress. She starts this movie, loosely based  Maupaussant’s "Boule de Suif" (also an unofficial inspiration on Stagecoach), as a prostitute. But she soon finds a better life with the 1928: Norma Talmadge (1893 - 1957) the American silent heroine, plays an Austrian girl in the film 'The Woman Disputed', directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor for United Artists.help of two men, best friends, who both adore her. But World War I comes along, the friends are on opposing sides, and her past comes back to haunt her. The climax brings her to a shattering moral dilemma, but the epilogue ties things up way too neatly.

Stephen Horne gave his usual wonderful performance (this festival has turned me into a fan) on flute, accordion, and piano. He even managed shells whizzing through the air.

A- L’Heureuse mort closed the festival closed the festival with a bang, with a story  that every artist must have fantasized. A 1017[1]struggling playwright (Nicolas Rimsky, who also wrote the film) is lost at sea and presumed dead. He’s unharmed, of course, but before he can return to his wife, he discovers that, now that he’s dead, he’s revered, respected, and bankable. This is no time to make his survival known. The story depends a little too much on intertitles (which were in French, with live, spoken English translation), but kept everyone laughing, anyway.

The Matti Bye Ensemble accompanied this final film. I’d never heard them before. The music was pleasant and supported the film well.

Silent Film Festival Report

Four days of silent films, spectacularly presented with live music at the Castro, is too much even for me. I left before last night’s screening of Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and, as I type this, am missing Amazing Tales from the Archives: First the Bad News…then the Good! I plan to miss The Shakedown, too. I expect to be back in time for Man with a Movie Camera.

A few interesting points from Friday and Saturday.

Friday

B Amazing Tales from the Archives: Lost & Found Films included Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña, the two Argentinean archivists who discovered the complete Metropolis print. They showed fragments from partially-missing Argentinean films, and discussed their big find. Peña, who knew of the existence of the print 20 years before he finally got his hands on it, fumed when the international press described it as an accidental find.

C A Spray of Plum Blossoms was my first Chinese silent. An update of Two Gentlemen of Verona with a bit of robin hood mixed in, it never really got passed mildly amusement. Curiously, the intertitles were original, illustrated ones in Chinese and English. My guess is that the source print was from a Hong Kong release (the British required all films be understandable in English), but that’s only my guess. Update: I’ve since read the that English intertitles were part of the original, Chinese release.

A Rotaie was the real find—an amazing, late-silent (1929) drama from Italy. A young1003[1] couple, well-dressed but broke, yet very much in love, consider suicide. Then they acquire a large wad of cash and take up the high life. Once life is good, we can see the character flaws that left them destitute in the first place, and will leave them that way again. A surprisingly empathetic film to come out of a fascist country, although the tacked-on happy ending felt a bit like the work of government censors.

The festival screened the only known existing print of Rotaie. An English translation of the intertitles were read out loud. Stephen Horne, who’s really more of a one-man band than a pianist, contributed mightily to the atmosphere with his accompaniment.

A Metropolis was great, of course. Having already seen the new restoration, I knew that going in (see my report). What I only suspected, and now know, is the Alloy Orchestra’s score brings out the film’s overall weirdness and the third act’s metropolisexcitement better than any other Metropolis score I’ve heard. I was pleased to hear that Kino will include that score, along with the same original-score recording I heard in New York, in the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases. Of course, the home theater version won’t be live.

Metropolis also looked great—or at least the scenes that came from good sources looked great. That’s important to note because, in a festival that prides itself on showing great 35mm prints, this film was shown digitally. I had never before seen a classic film projected digitally onto a really huge screen with a first-class digital projector. And I can say: It was at least as good as 35mm film—maybe better.

Saturday

A The Big Business of Short, Funny Films: Saturday began with a trio of comic sorts selected by Pixar’s Pete Doctor (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up). Leonard Maltin 1006[1]interviewed Doctor before the movies, and he discussed the influence that silent films had on him. WALL-E, which he co-authored, was conceived as a silent film.  Of the three, Pass the Gravy was the real find. I don’t want to give away too much about this Max Davidson comedy—let’s just say it involves feuding fathers, young people in love, a prize chicken, and one of the funniest dinners on film. And like the screwball comedies of a decade later, it allows good-looking, sexy people to do the silliest sight gags. Dennis James accompanied, superbly as always, on the Wurlitzer.

B- In Variations on a Theme, the musicians performing at this year’s festival discussed the decisions they make when scoring a film. I was expecting a panel discussions. Instead, I got five mini-lectures with demonstrations, with only 10 minutes of Q&A at the end. And it was only during that 10-minute Q&A that the issue humming around in the background really came came to the front: traditionalists vs. experimentalists. Organist Dennis James represented the traditionalist extreme: He plays the original score if it exists, and sticks as closely as possible to the original spirit if it doesn’t. Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra took the other extreme—he has no interest in even researching the original score, and described himself as the “anti-Dennis James.”

C+ The Flying Ace disappointed me, somewhat. The only surviving feature from the Norman Film Manufacturing Co.—an independent studio that made films with African-1009[1] American casts—it was a run-of-the-mill, extremely low-budget murder mystery. That would have been fine if director Richard E. Norman had bothered to find actors with talent and charisma, but, with one exception, he didn’t. That one exception was the hero’s one-legged comic-relief sidekick, who could outrun most two-legged villains and bicycle as fast as a car (and no, I’m not going to describe one-legged bicycling; you’ll have to see it, yourself). The movie redeems itself—somewhat—in the final chase.

B+  I’ve wrote enough about The Strong Man that I don’t feel the need to write about it again. (See my report on its last local screening only six months ago.) Let me just add that pianist-flutist-accordion player Stephen Horne kept things lively, and the laughter shook the house.

B+ Diary of a Lost Girl wouldn’t be well-remembered today if the previous collaboration between director G.W. Pabst and star Louise Brooks hadn’t been theDiary of a Lost Girl (Germany 1929)   aka  Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen 
Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Shown center: Louise Brooks great Pandora’s Box. Brooks as a victim and reluctant prostitute just doesn’t have the emotional impact of Brooks as a femme fatale. But the wonderful Pabst imagery is still there, as is Brooks’ unparalleled sensuality.  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s score wasn’t as outstanding as the one they played two years ago for The Freshman, but it supported the film without getting in the way.

Silent Film Festival Opening Night

Last night I attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opening. The movie: John Ford’s first big-budget western, The Iron Horse. I had seen it once before on television. It was much better on the Castro’s very big screen.

Ford biographer Joseph McBride introduced the film, comparing it to Jaws in the effect it had on the director’s career. Like Jaws, The Iron Horse was directed by a young man who had never been given that big a budget or responsibility before. And like the big fish picture, it went out of control and way over budget, to the point where it could easily have destroyed Ford’s career. And, like Jaws, it was a huge hit at the box office, shooting its auteur into a life as a top, easily bankable Hollywood director.

Not that The Iron Horse is anywhere near as good as Jaws. The story is trite melodrama,the characters simplistic pawns and stereotypes, and patriotismThe Iron Horse (1924) Directed by John Ford (uncredited) Shown: George O'Brien overblown, with an almost God-like view of Abraham Lincoln. But the spectacular visuals and exciting action sequences, especially the final Indian attack (yes, it’s also racist, but that’s hardly unusual for an American film of the 1920s), have an impact beyond the story and characters. They bring the mythic West alive—just as one would expect in a John Ford western. Consider it, at least from a vantage point of 86 years later, as a promise of better things to come.

Dennis James gave his usual exemplary performance on the Castro’s pipe organ. One advantage of sitting in the second row (yes, I’m crazy) was that I could see his sheet music. He was playing the original score provided to theaters when the film was in first run (I confirmed that with him after the show). Heavy on familiar tunes (Battle Hymn of the Republic was featured frequently), it added considerably to the excitement.

I don’t know how regularly I’ll be able to report on the festival, as I’m not taking my laptop with me and I’m not very good at typing into my phone. But I’ll try to keep posting, and if I fail, I’ll sum it all up for you on Monday.

What’s Screening: July 16 – 22

Festival climate for this week: silent but scary. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs through the weekend, and Another Hole in the Head continues all week.

I’ve separated the Silent Film Festival listings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Love and Honor, VIZ Cinema, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. 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. This one 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. But even a serious samurai film must have swordplay, and events eventually force Shinnojo into a one-on-one battle without benefit of sight. 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. A digital, rather than film, presentation.

B Blackmail, Rafael, Monday, 7:15. If you’re not burned out by silent films after the weekend, you can head north to San Rafael for Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film. (Blackmail was also his first talkie—it wasn’t unusual to make two versions in 1929. I’ve seem both, and the silent one is better.) A young woman commits an indiscretion, putting her in a situation where she has to kill a man in self defense. A witness sees this as a ticket to comfort. This is Hitchcock in an incubator, preparing to blossom a few years later into the master of suspense. By the way, am I the only one who thinks Donald Calthrop, who plays the blackmailer, is a dead ringer for Kenneth Branagh? With live music by The Alloy Orchestra, who accompanied Blackmail when I saw it at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2006.

A+ Seven Samurai, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00. If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours for7sam_thumb[1] Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. But when the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain to be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made. See Kurosawa Diary, Part 10: Seven Samurai for further discussion. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Castro, Thursday. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Eli Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams play—the film that made Marlon Brando a star—so I’m not giving it a grade here. I it would get an A. On a double-bill with The Fugitive Kind, another Williams adaption starring Brando, although in the case, one I haven’t seen. Part of the Castro’s Tennessee Williams on Film series.

A- The Hidden Blade, VIZ Cinema, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Another Yoji Yamada period film that concerns itself with the daily life of lower-rung samurai at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Masatoshi Nagase stars as a samurai in love with a peasant girl and intimidated by new, western methods of warfare just coming to Japan. Matters get worse when a close friend is accused of treason. The misleading title suggests an action flick, something that The Hidden Blade only becomes–in a calm, meditative way–in the final act. While the film ends a little too happily, it’s still an intriguing, unglamorous look at the warrior’s life. The Hidden Blade will be screened, unfortunately, in digital form.

B+ No Regrets for Our Youth, Wednesday, 7:00. Kurosawa’s first postwar film, the first where he didn’t have to answer to Japanese military censors, is his only work that’s unquestionably political and leaning leftward. It’s also the second and last of his films with a female protagonist. It’s through the eyes of this young, initially apolitical woman that Kurosawa shows us how liberals and radicals were treated by the military dictatorship that suddenly ended the year before this film was made.

A+ North by Northwest, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight 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 in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s 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. On a double bill with the Mae West vehicle, I’m No Angel, which I haven’t seen in decades but remember enjoying.

B Freaks, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. A morality tale set in a circus sideshow, Freaks presents actual, severely deformed people, and dares you to look at them and accept them as full human beings. It also gives you a good scare. Certainly one of the strangest films ever to come out of that most conservative of studios, MGM.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

A Metropolis, Castro, Friday, 8:15. The first important science fiction feature film still strikes a considerable visual punch, and with the latest restoration, tells a compelling story, as well. 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. Recently-discovered footage elevates the story of a clash between workers and aristocrats from trite melodrama to a tale of real people in an artificial world. Read my longer report. A digital presentation rather than on film, but accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. Note: This screening is sold out, but rush tickets are available.

Amazing Tales from the Archives: Lost & Found Films, Castro, Friday, 11:30am., free. The first of two “Amazing Tales from the Archives” programs on this schedule will include the archivists responsible for finding the lost Metropolis footage. See this New York Times article for more on that amazing story of cinematic rescue. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano.

B+ The Strong Man, Castro, Saturday, 4:00. Frank Capra’s first feature a a director is also my favorite silent comedy not starring Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd. But it doesimage star Harry Langdon, who for a very brief time came close to toppling Chaplin off his throne. Langdon plays the Belgian assistant to a German strong man touring the US. The assistant is also hoping to find his beautiful war-time pen pal. The ultimate innocent child-like man, Langdon makes a mess of Ellis Island, has a shocking (to him, not to the audience) sexual encounter, fights off a cold to the annoyance of everyone around him, and cleans up a small town at the mercy of bootleggers. Charming, extremely funny, and occasionally preachy, The Strong Man shows Capra’s already-considerable talents at the start of his career. Accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano.

The Big Business of Short, Funny Films, Castro, Saturday, 10:00am. I can only vouch for one of the three comic shorts on this program: Big Business. But its one of Laurel and Hardy’s best silents. Accompanied by Dennis James on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Variations on a Theme, Castro, Saturday, noon. This moderated discussion of silent film accompaniment will include all or most of the musicians performing at this year’s festival.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 20: The Most Beautiful and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail

It’s official! I have now seen every film Akira Kurosawa ever made. I still have nine films left in my Kurosawa Diary project, but that’s mostly about revisiting films I’ve seen before, this time in chronological order.

Last night at the Pacific Film Archive, I caught a double-bill of The Most Beautiful and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. I saw Beautiful at the very beginning of the diary project (see Kurosawa Diary, Part 1: The War Films). But Tiger’s Tail was the last Kurosawa film I hadn’t seen (there were four when I started the project). Now I’ve seen them all.

While far from great, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail shows promise of better things to come. Kurosawa’s first real samurai movie, it contains plenty of themes that would crop up in his later, better work. The plot, involving a noble and retainers trying to cross a dangerous border, resurfaced in The Hidden Fortress. Its chanting narrator chorus and stylized acting foretell the noh-influenced Throne of Blood (although it seems much more forced and stage-bound here). Class differences play an important role, as they did in Seven Samurai. And like Yojimbo and Sanjuro, much of this film is played for laughs.

The comedy comes mainly from a porter (Kenichi Enomoto)—the only lower-classKurosawa_MenWhoTreadonTigersTail_1[1] character in the film and a very broad clown. His oversized mugging was funny at first, but wore thin as the film went on. I imagine it would have worked better on a live stage without the intimacy of film. The story comes from a traditional kabuki play and feels very stage-bound. It runs only 59 minutes (a blessing); easily the shortest work of Kurosawa’s career.

It ran into some serious censorship problems when it was new. Shot in the last days of World War II, Tiger was banned by Japan’s military censors as critical of the feudal system. Then the atom bombs were dropped, the war suddenly ended, and the movie was banned by America’s military censors as supportive of the feudal system. The American censors eventually relented and it was finally released in 1949.

The Most Beautiful had no trouble with the literally fascist censors; it was exactly the sort of movie they wanted made. In his second film, Kurosawa paints a rosy picture of teenage girls living in a dormitory and working in a defense plant. Everyone is concerned for their welfare, and their only problems are the obstacles that keep them from working harder. They sing songs about victory over China and destroying Britain and America. A title card before the Toho studio logo calls for “Eternal Conquest.” The movie lacks a unified plot and interesting characters.

I first saw The Most Beautiful off a dreadful Hong Kong DVD import. O_0592_N011.tif The image quality was dreadful and the subtitling was worse (and possibly censored to tone down the rhetoric), completely ruining my enjoyment of the movie. This time, seeing a well-subtitled 16mm print in reasonable condition, only the movie itself ruined my enjoyment. But it’s image of imperialist Japan as a wonderful place to be was, at times, fascinating as a historical peek–not at what was–but of the official version of itself that Japanese society was putting forward.

Between Sanshiro Sugata II, which I saw and reported on last week, and Tiger’s Tail, my theory of odd-and-even early Kurosawa (odd-numbered films are good to great, even-numbered ones bad) got blown out of the water. The odd-numbered Sanshiro Sugata II was mediocre at best, while Tiger’s Tail was at least entertaining, if a far cry from his later work. The odd-even theory now applies only to his American-occupation films, from No Regrets for Our Youth to Ikiru.

What’s Screening: July 9 – 15

This is a heavy week, festival-wise. Another Hole in the Head and LOL-SF both run through the week. And the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens Thursday night. I’m devoting an entire section of the newsletter to LOL-SF. Unfortunately, I don’t have links to specific films on the schedule.

The Iron Horse, Castro, Thursday, 7:00. This year’s  San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens with John Ford’s first big-budget, epic western. I saw it on TV long ago, and it didn’t leave much of an impression. But I’m happy to give it another chance, especially since they’ll be screening the only existing 35mm print of the American cut, with Dennis James accompanying on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ.

A- Leave Her To Heaven, Castro, Wednesday. Gene Tierney’s “woman who loves too much” isn’t the typical film noir femme fatale, seducing men to their doom in her leavehertoheavenquest for material ends.  She doesn’t need material things, but she needs her man (Cornel Wilde) so desperately she can’t bear the thought of sharing him with friends or family. And she’s willing to do anything to keep him to herself. Tierney gets top billing, but the real star of Leave Her to Heaven is Technicolor. Set mostly in scenic locations (New Mexico, rural Maine, and others), the film shows three-strip Technicolor at its best.

A Harakiri, VIZ Cinema, Sunday through harakiriTuesday. Absolutely the best samurai film not made by Akira Kurosawa.  A samurai (Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to a fort and asks permission to kill himself, then tells a harrowing tale of poverty made unbearable by the strict samurai code. Director Masaki Kobayashi had no love for feudal Japan’s social structure, which he shows as cruel, arrogant, and hypocritical. Part of the series Samurai Saga Vol.1.

F(?) Double Bill: The Most Beautiful &The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. Akira Kurosawa’s second film, The Most Beautiful, is pretty much pointless. A wartime home-front propaganda movie, it paints a dull picture of teenage girls working in an optical factory making bombing sights for the brave bomber pilots. However, since I’ve only seen it on a wretched Hong Kong DVD with a horrible transfer and worse subtitles, it may not be quite as bad as I remember it. The other feature, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, is now the only Kurosawa film that I’ve never seen. I intend to rectify it on Wednesday night. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial series.

A King Kong (1933 version), Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up. It’s not just Willis O’Brien’s breathtaking special effects–technically crude by today’s standards but still awe-inspiring. kingkong33 It’s the intelligent script by Ruth Rose, the evocative score by Max Steiner, and the wonderful cast headed by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. But most of all, it’s the complex title character. Kong is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying as he grinds people into the ground or bites them to death, but also confused, loving, majestic, and ultimately doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Sure, the story is silly, but so are dreams. Part of this summer’s Paramount Movie Classics series.

B+ Stray Dog, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30.  This 1949 police procedural follows a young, rookie detective (Toshiro Mifune) who loses his gun to a pickpocket. Tortured by guilt, he becomes obsessed with finding the stolen Colt. Stray Dog works best as a straight-up thriller, and doesn’t work at all when it tries to say something meaningful about the relationship between the police and the criminals they chase. See my Kurosawa Diaries entry. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial series.

D Vertigo, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. What? I’m not recommending  vertigoVertigo?  Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time. Vertigo isn’t like any other Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. On a double bill with Destry Rides Again, which I saw once long ago and, if memory serves, liked.

B The Bad and the Beautiful, Castro, Friday. The same year he made The Band Wagon, Vincente Minnelli used a Citizen Kane-like multiple flashback structure to tell the story of a talented, outwardly nice Hollywood producer who only seems evil to those who get close enough to become a former friend. As realistic a look at how Hollywood changes and corrupts those who serve it as tinsel town has ever dared to make. On a double bill with The Big Knife, which I’ve never seen.

LOL-SF screenings:

Why Comedies Aren’t Taken Seriously, Vogue, Sunday, 5:00. Former Chronicle columnist Gerald Nachman moderates a discussion on comedy’s lack of artistic respect.

A Duck Soup, Vogue, Sunday, 2:00. A blatantly corrupt politician (Groucho ducksoupMarx) becomes the  country’s all-powerful leader on the whim of the wealthy elite (Margaret Dumont). Once in office, he cuts benefits for the working class, fills important positions with unqualified clowns, and starts a war on a whim. Enemy spies (Chico and Harpo Marx) terrorize the good citizens with puns and scissors. All very silly, of course, but how could a comedy made in 1933 be relevant today? “We got guns. They got guns. All God’s chillun got guns!” The Marx Brothers at their very best.

A Groundhog Day, Vogue, Sunday, 7:00. Is Groundhog Day a deep, spiritual meditation on the nature of human existence and the power of redemption? Or is it simply the best comedy (although not quite the funniest) of the 1990s? It’s hard to say, but as weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over again, with no changes except the ones he makes himself, there appears to be something profound going on along with something profoundly entertaining. Introduced by comedian Bob Sarlatte.

A- Chicken Run, Vogue, Saturday, 2:00. The Great Escape with chickens, and all made out of clay. The first (and best) feature from the Wallace and Gromit gang has a group of very British chickens and one cocky rooster (Mel Gibson) bound to escape the farm before they’re all turned into pies. Animated in clay, it’s a remarkable feat of ingenuity, technical savvy, and pure patience. More importantly, it’s hilarious. Introduced by standup comic W. Kamau Bell.

A- Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Vogue, Tuesday, 7:30. Men are  jerks and women are crazy. At least that’s the view of Pedro Almodovar’s comedy of infidelity. womannervousbreakdownThe picture starts like a reasonably serious comedy, sprinkling a few laughs in with the character study. But it keeps suggesting something broader. The décor is just a little over the top, and some of the jokes (consider the detergent commercial) are in the stratosphere. Those outrageous bits are a harbinger of things to come. By the half-way point, the movie is as wacky as classic American screwball comedy–and considerably bawdier. Carmen Maura stars as the woman wronged (well, the main woman wronged), with an impossibly young Antonio Banderas playing the son of the man who wronged her.

B The Pink Panther (1963 version), Vogue, Monday, 7:30. The original Pink Panther was never intended to be an Inspector Clouseau movie, or a Peter Sellers vehicle. It was meant to be a charming European comedy of manners starring David Niven. But when Peter Ustinov dropped out at the last minute, Sellers was cast in the supporting role of the bumbling detective. It’s a tribute to Sellers’ performance that we now think of him as the star. But the scenes without him, which are most of the movie, are only okay.

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