B+ Documentary

Directed by Ana Sofia Joanes

I hate reviewing didactic, political documentaries, even when I like them. I’m never sure if I’m judging them as works of art and entertainment, considering how well they make their argument, or simply reacting to whether I agree with the filmmakers’ very obvious point of view. And, of course, there’s always the issue that almost no one will see these movies unless they already agree with what they say.

So let me say right off that in the case of Fresh, I agree wholeheartedly with director Ana Sofia Joanes’s point of view. Large, corporate factory farms are a disaster, producing taste- and nutrition-impaired food while poisoning our land and water. True, they keep the cost of food down, but we pay for that down the road with higher medical bills and environmental degradation.

I should also mention that, unlike virtually everyone interviewed in Fresh, I’m a vegetarian. I’ve been one for more than 40 years, and my reasons are ethical. I drink milk and eat eggs, however, and I’d rather the cows and chickens that feed me lived on farms such as the ones pictured here, rather than the animal concentration camps where most milk and eggs are produced.

Okay. So much for my own views on the subject. What’s Fresh like as a film?

Very good, actually.

fresh_allenMore about the solution than the problem, Fresh spends most of its short, 72-minute runtime introducing us to farmers, distributors, and supermarket managers who are making a difference. Farmers like Will Allen and Joel Salatin (pictured here) work with nature rather than fight it to produce the food they eat and sell.

  Salatin shows us how he moves his cows from one field to another so they can dine on grass (a much more natural meal for bovines than the corn—often laced with dead cow parts—fed to fresh_salatintheir siblings in factory farms). After the cows are done, he brings in the chickens, who clean up after the cows by eating the insects and larvae in the cow droppings. Allen, who comes off as more of an activist, uses his small, urban, three-acre farm to teach others how to grow food and appreciate fresher, more natural produce.

We also meet experts. Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, explains the problems of mass farming and how the nutritional quality of produce has dropped in recent decades. He also attacks the one moral argument in favor of factory farms: slow, organic farming doesn’t produce enough food to feed a hungry world. Pollan mentions new statistics which prove that natural farming is actually more efficient. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go into detail about this—or perhaps Joanes left the details on the cutting room floor.

That’s too bad, because I would have liked to have read the argument. At this point, I still haven’t been sold on it.

Oddly, the filmmakers appear to have missed the one great and coincidental joke in the movie. In one sequence they introduce us to a corporate-style, horrible chicken farm…owned and managed by a Mr. and Mrs. Fox.

Speaking in Tongues on KQED

I know this blog is supposed to be about theatrical presentations of movies, but I’m about to recommend something on TV.

But hey, at least it’s PBS.

The wonderful documentary Speaking In Tongues will play on KQED (channel 9) on Sunday, September 26, at 6:00. It will play five other times over the next few days (click here for the schedule). If you’re at all interested in language or early education, this is a must.

I saw Speaking In Tongues last year at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Here’s what I wrote about it back then:

Let me start with a confession. I’m monolingual. Horribly monolingual. I hate being an English-only individual, and after seeing Speaking in Tongues, I suspect that if I had been part of an immersion program in elementary school (such things are rare today and didn’t exist back then), [I might not be monolingual today]. Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s documentary looks at four students going through such a program in the San Francisco public schools, and it’s a revelation. Keeping in mind that the filmmakers have an agenda, they give good arguments that teaching children in two languages, only one of which they speak at the beginning, results in a better education, all around. The movie is also well-shot, cleverly put-together, and a lot of fun. Highly recommended.

What’s Screening: September 24 – 30

The Irish Film Festival, Latino Film Festival and Isle of Wight 40th Anniversary Film Festival (which is not about people the Isle of Wright ethnicity) are all currently running and will all close this weekend. Both the Berkeley Video and Film Festival and the International Children’s Film Festival open their three-day runs today.

Red Vic Benefit, Joxer Daly’s, Sunday, 6:00-10:00. Party to help keep the Red Vic alive. Free admission, free food (how will this raise money?), raffle (that’ how), surfer movies, and music.

A- Howl, Kabuki, Elmwood, Rafael; opens Friday. What did you expect–ahowl conventional biopic? Would that do justice to the Allen Ginsberg epic poem with which the film shares its title? Like the poem, Howl is challenging, cutting-edge, and unconventional. By weaving together an extended interview with Ginsberg (James Franco), scenes from publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial, and an illustrated reading of the titular poem, Howl gives an overview of Ginsberg’s early life, celebrates the work itself, and cherishes the freedom that made the poem possible. I’ve never read Ginsberg’s poem; this film makes me want to read it. And you might want to read my full review.

A+ 8 1/2, Red Vic, Sunday. Funny, exhilarating, perplexing, and tragic, is not only the greatest film ever made about writer’s block and the ultimate cinematic statement on the male midlife crisis, it’s also a movie about making a movie, where the movie being made appears to be 8½. Filled with one memorable and unique scene after another, Fellini’s autobiographical surreal comedy lacks nothing except a coherent plot, and it has no use for that. One of only eight films to meet my Criteria for the Very Best Films of All Time.

Chaplin at Keystone, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00. In 1914, his  first year in films and his only one at Mack Sennett’s roundersKeystone Studio, Charlie Chaplin became the most beloved entertainer the world had yet seen. The year’s output has just undergone a massive restoration, with a new DVD coming out on October 26. But if you can’t wait that long, or if you prefer a theatrical experience, the Museum will screen seven of the short movies Friday night. David Shepard will be on hand to discuss the films and their restoration. The music scores are from some of the best in the business, such as the Mont Alto Silent Film Orchestra and Robert Israel, but they will not, alas, be live.

A Metropolis, Castro, Saturday through Wednesday. 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 them 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. The presentation will be off a Blu-ray disc, but I can tell you from personal experience that it looks great. Unfortunately, the accompaniment will not be live, but also off of the disc. Be sure to check the times; it’s only a matinee on Saturday and only an evening show on Sunday. (Note: When you click the Metropolis link above, it will take you to a Twilight Saga Marathon. Scroll down for information on Metropolis. I can’t control what the Castro provides links to.)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:45. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen this 1988 comic fantasy about animated characters and flesh-and-blood people living side by side in late 1940’s Hollywood. I remember it being funny, outrageous, and delightful for anyone who loves old cartoons. The special effects were cutting edge for their day, but still based on pencil, ink, and an optical printer. Today, of course, they’d be digital, and would lose a lot of their old-time charm. Part of the series Drawn from Life: The Graphic Novel on Film.

C+ Grace Kelly VistaVision Double Bill: To Catch a Thief & High Society, Castro, Thursday. To Catch a Thief is more like a vacation on the Riviera than the tight and scary thriller one expects from the master of suspense. Not his best work by a long shot, but it has a few good scenes and thus sufficient fun. Besides, 106 minutes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Monaco, photographed in the beauty of VistaVision, can’t be all bad. And speaking of Grace Kelly and VistaVision, the music-laden Philidelphia Story remake High Society, also has its charms, especially with Louis Armstrong playing himself (and his horn).

Limited Coverage

I was hoping to give the Mill Valley Film Festival significant coverage this year, as well some of the many other festivals going on and coming up. This time of year, the festivals really pile up.

Unfortunately, family obligations and work that actually pays—such as reviewing home theater equipment for PC World—has to take a priority. I won’t have much time for Bayflicks.

I’ll continue to do my weekly newsletter, but for the time being, I won’t be able to do much else here. I’ve got a couple of reviews, already written, that will be going up soon (in fact, one is going up just about now), but that’s about it.

Hopefully I’ll be able to increase coverage in a few weeks.



You can’t expect a dramatic film about Allen Ginsberg to be a conventional biopic? Especially if the film is titled after his famous epic poem. (Full disclosure: I’ve never read it.)

Like the poem for which it’s named, Howl is challenging, cutting-edge, and unconventional. Yes, it gives an overview of Ginsberg’s life through 1957 (when Howl was first published), but it also celebrates and illustrates the work itself, as well as the freedom we enjoy that allows us to appreciate art that steps out of the bounds of perceived good taste.

Written and directed by documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman,howl Howl is as close to non-fiction filmmaking as you can get with actors reciting written dialog. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that there is any written dialog in the usual sense of the word. Or at least not much.

Most of the scenes where people are talking to each other, responding to each other, and asking and answering questions are set in a courtroom. And I believe that all of the dialog here was taken for actual court transcripts.

The trial in question is that of Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, brought up on obscenity charges for publishing Howl in 1957. These scenes are the most conventional in the movie, with good guys to cheer and villains whose logical absurdities are easy to laugh at. These court scenes are intertwined with two other threads that together make up the tapestry of Howl, the movie.

The narrative backbone comes from scenes of Ginsberg (James Franco) telling his life story to a barely-glimpsed person with a tape recorder—presumably a reporter. Interspersed flashbacks, in black-and-white, illustrate his words and add visual variety.

The other thread, and the best of them, has Franco reading excerpts from the titular poem. We see him, again in black-and-white, reading to an enthusiastic crowd of hipsters in 1955. But visuals don’t remain on this scene. Epstein and Friedman illustrate much of the poem with vibrant, startling, and occasionally (and appropriately) shocking animation. One could argue that Ginsberg’s poetry doesn’t need to be illustrated, but the animation adds another level to the imagery, and takes nothing away from Franco’s dramatic reading.

Epstein and Friedman fill the film with familiar faces. In addition to Franco, we get David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, and Jeff Daniels.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I’ve never read Howl. Now I really want to. This movie definitely had its intended effect.

What’s Screening: September 17 – 23

I just found out about the Latino Film Festival, playing at various locations, while preparing this newsletter. It’s already running, and will continue to do so through this week and beyond. The Iranian Film Festival plays Saturday and Sunday at the San Francisco Art Institute. The The Isle of Wight 40th Anniversary Film Festival opens Wednesday at the Red Vic. And the Irish Film Festival opens Thursday at the Roxie.

Meanwhile, the Castro will be screening Chaplin films most of the week. I’ve lumped those together at the end of this newsletter.

A The 400 Blows, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. François Truffaut helped launch the400blows French New Wave and modern cinema with this tale of a rebellious boy on the cusp to adolescence. Shot on a very low budget, it follows young Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud in the first of six film in which he would play this role) as he cuts school, gets in trouble, discovers his parents’ marital problems, and refuses to fit in. Set to a brilliant jazz score, The 400 Blows captures the exhilaration and the horror (mostly the horror) of being 13.

B+ This is Spinal Tap, Lark, Sunday, 7:00. On a scale of one to ten, This is Spinal Tap rates an eleven. And if you didn’t understand what you just read, you haven’t seen the parody that put all “rockumentaries” in their place. That can, and should, be remedied. Part of the Lark’s Guys’ Night Out series, and a benefit for the Lark Theater Retire the Mortgage Capital Campaign.

B Dead Birds, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. War is inevitable. That depressing message permeates Robert Gardner’s 1964 documentary about deadbirdsdaily life amongst the Neolithic tribes of remote West Papua. Tribal battles break out regularly—almost ritualistically. When one occurs, it lasts until someone is seriously injured or killed. At that point, the losing side retreats to mourn, while the winning side retreats to celebrate. Gardner presents this tapestry of life with an almost willful lack of cinematic style. The narration is direct, neutral, and informative, and read in a flat, dry voice. You come away feeling that you’ve watched a simple presentation of fact. The YBCA will present a new 35mm print as the first screening of the series Others/Ourselves: The Cinema of Robert Gardner.

B Akeelah and the Bee, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. A talent for spelling gives Akeelah—a poor, eleven-year-old African American—a shot at escaping the ghetto. But first, she’s going to have to learn about more than words from her mentor, played by  Laurence Fishburne. Yes, it’s inspirational, but that’s not always a bad thing. As part of the series Behind the Scenes: The Art and Craft of Cinema, the evening includes a discussion with producers Sid Ganis and Nancy Hult Ganis.

D+ Sin City, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:50. Graphic artist Frank Miller and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez collaborated on this visually stunning, technically cutting GraphicNovel_SinCity1[1] edge, but ultimately empty mishmash.  In Miller’s world (the film is based on his graphic novel), every man is a killer, and every woman a stripper or a whore. Not that Sin City completely lacks heroes, it’s just that those heroes are violent vigilantes who don’t hesitate to torture people they don’t like. The result is grim, joyless, humorless, sexless (despite quite a few scantily-clad beauties), and totally disconnected from even the worst of the real world. But the mixture of black and white and color is striking. Part of the series Drawn from Life: The Graphic Novel on Film.

Charlie Chaplin at the Castro

A+ City Lights, Sunday. If you can attend only one Chaplin screening this week, go to this one. In his most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower citylights girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of the great tear-jerking endings. Sound came to movies as Chaplin was shooting City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Rounding out the entertainment is one of Chaplin’s best shorts, “A Dog’s Life,” plus another pretty good one, “Sunnyside.”

A Modern Times, Monday. Leave it to Charlie Chaplin to call an moderntimesextremely anachronistic movie Modern Times. Why anachronistic? Because it’s a mostly silent picture (with a recorded score) made years after everyone else had started talking. Why Modern Times? Because it’s about assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression. Chaplin’s tramp moves from job to job and jail to jail as he tries to better his condition and that of an underage fugitive (Paulette Goddard, his lover, future wife, and the best leading lady of his career). With the mediocre short “Pay Day.”

A- Double Feature: The Great Dictator & The Kid, Tuesday. Chaplin made his one good talkie on his first attempt, playing a dual role as a Jewish barber (really the tramp with an ethnicity and a voice), and Der Fooey, Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania. Slapstick and dark satire seldom work so well together. Many people criticize the final scene, where Chaplin faces the camera and pleas for peace, tolerance, and democracy, but I’ve seen audiences burst into applause as it concludes. The Kid, his first feature, isn’t among his best; there are times when you can feel him stretching to fill six reels, and others where the sentimentality overwhelms. But it has some great routines, most of them built around his very young co-star, Jackie Coogan.

B The Circus, Saturday. Made in between Chaplin’s two feature masterpieces (The Gold Rush and City Lights), The Circus can’t help but suffer by comparison. But it’s funny and touching enough to be liked–if not loved–on its own merits. This time around, the Little Tramp finds himself hired as a stagehand by a small circus, and accidentally becoming a comic star without knowing it. He also falls in love with the circus owner’s beautiful daughter, who sees him only as a good friend. The story feels like a denial of Chaplin’s personal life at the time; he was a womanizer with a young wife he wanted to shed, and an artist who knew very well that great comedy doesn’t just happen. In the case of The Circus, he merely made good comedy. The Circus will be shown with Chaplin’s recorded own score (including a dreadful song he sings himself) rather than live accompaniment. Also on the program: One of Chaplin’s best shorts, “The Idle Class,” and one of his worst, “A Day’s Pleasure.”

C- Limelight, Wednesday. Chaplin’s last American movie is definitely a talkie. As a past-his-prime music hall comedian in early 20th century London, Chaplin pontificates on life, determination, and love as he nurses a crippled ballet dancer (Claire Bloom) back to health. Basically a dull melodrama, Limelight comes to life whenever Chaplin’s onstage, where his character proves very funny, indeed. There’s not much of this in the film’s 142-minute running time, but Limelight climaxes with the only known filmed sequence of Chaplin and Buster Keaton being funny together. That’s every bit as good as it sounds (or perhaps, I should say, as it looks). With another excellent short, “Solder Arms.”

Cerrito Theater Vandalized

I just received word that the Cerrito Theater’s box office was vandalized last night. A window was broken, as was a piece of historic glass that had been rescued during the restoration.

If you have any information, please contact the El Cerrito Police Department.


Dead Birds

B Documentary

Directed by Robert Gardner

War is inevitable.

That depressing message permeates Robert Gardner’s 1964 documentary Dead Birds, which depicts daily life amongst the Neolithic tribes of remote West Papua—people who had had minimal contact with “civilization” at the time Gardner shot this film.Their lives are a constant state of ritualized, low-intensity warfare with their neighbors. Not for conquest or plunder, according to the narration, but for vengeance, and because they like it.

Every day, men spend a good piece of their time sitting on watchtowers, ready to warn friends and family of an encroaching attack. When one occurs, it lasts until someone is seriously injured or killed. At that point, the losing side retreats to mourn, while the winning side retreats to celebrate. The victim need not be a soldier—a woman or child will do.

deadbirds After mourning, the losing side must appease the victim’s ghost with revenge. And so the cycle continues.

Their cruelty extends to animals, as well. The people raise pigs, and when they slaughter them, they leave them to slowly bleed to death in the dirt.

And yet these are loving and caring people. They treat their children, spouses, and friends with concern and affection. Perhaps it’s the constant reminder that death can come at any time. Or perhaps it’s simply human nature at its best and at its worst.

Gardner presents this tapestry of life with an almost willful lack of cinematic style. The narration is direct, neutral, and informative, and read in a flat, dry voice. There’s almost no music.  You come away feeling that you’ve watched a simple presentation of fact. (I do not know how factual the film actually is.)

This style (or lack thereof), while convincing, has a price. Although Dead Birds concentrates on two specific people—a man and a boy—it holds them at arms length. You see their emotions, and in case you don’t, the narrator explains what they’re feeling and thinking (sometimes annoyingly. But you never actually feel like you know the people. Despite the fascinating story, the movie feels distant and at times even a little bit dead—like an anthropological study but not a human one.

A newly-restored, 35mm print of Dead Birds will screen next Thursday, September 23, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It’s the first of three documentaries in the series Others/Ourselves: The Cinema of Robert Gardner.

The Mill Valley Film Festival

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival started out the gate Tuesday morning with a press conference. By coming at the end of summer, the Bay Area’s other big film festival has one big advantage over that spring shindig in San Francisco: It gives this part of the world our first chance to catch some of the big prestige pictures that will be vying for Oscars in a few months. This year’s festival will run from October 7 through 17.

Of course, those big prestige pictures will be playing in first run theaters before long, so you may want to concentrate on movies you won’t see elsewhere.

A few random comments on what I know:

  • The festival opens with The King’s Speech, one of those Oscar-baiting prestige pictures. They screened this at the press conference, and I can tell you right away it’s worth seeing. I’ll tell you more, soon.
  • One of most beloved films ever made by a Marin County company celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. So it’s appropriate that the festival host a special screening of The Empire Strikes Back on the huge, curved screen of Corte Madera’s Century Cinema theater. The festival doesn’t mention what version they’ll show, but I suspect it will be the 1997 Special Edition. To bad. I’d love to see the original again, preferably in 70mm.
  • As in previous years, several political films will get the Active Cinema treatment, intended to help audiences become involved with the issues presented. Among the “active” titles are Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today—a restoration of the famous trial’s official documentary–and a British labor (or labour) drama, Made in Dagenham.
  • Among this year’s tributes will be evenings honoring Edward Norton and Annette Bening.
  • You can count on Julie Taymor to make interesting films, and her latest, The Tempest, stars  Helen Mirren as a female Prospero.
  • Gérard Depardieu stars as the famous novelist in Dumas. While the folks announcing the festival thought this was perfect casting, he strikes me as a little too white for the part.
  • In the documentary Submission, director Stefan Jarl gets a sample of his own blood analyzed and discovers hundreds of industrial chemicals.
  • The festival describes Red Hill as a “relentlessly thrilling kangaroo Western.” We shall see.

I’m hoping to see a few more of the films before the festival starts. I’ll let you know.

What’s Screening: September 10 – 16

B+ The Bridge On the River Kwai, Castro, Friday through Thursday. The longer it’s been since you’ve seen David Lean’s World War II adventure, the better it gets in your  memory. That’s because the brilliant story of an over-proud British bridgeriverkwaiPOW (Alec Guinness) sticks in the mind. But to see the actual movie again is to be reminded that the Col. Nicholson story is just a subplot (Guinness received third billing). The bulk of Kwai is a very well made but conventional action movie with some uncomfortably Hollywoodish elements. Remember the Burmese porters who all happen to be beautiful young women? But when it’s good, it’s excellent, and when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. Columbia Pictures recently completed a new 4K restoration of Kwai, and the Castro will screen the film digitally.

Flash Gordon (1980 version), Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:00. I saw this campy remake of the 1930’s serial theatrically, maybe two years after its original release. I remember it being a lot of silly fun, and just sexy enough to avoid an R rating at a time when there was no PG-13. Definitely turn-off-the-brain fare. That original series was based on a comic book, which explains why the PFA is screening it as part of its Drawn from Life: The Graphic Novel on Film series.

C Yang Bang Xi: The Eight Model Works, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. China’s Cultural Revolution was a bleak time of horrible oppression, but at least it was colorful. Or so it seems in Yan-Ting Yuen’s documentary on the stage-and-screen musical extravaganzas that met Madame Mao’s cultural and political requirements. To modern American eyes, the clips from actual Yang Bang Xi movies walk a strange line between stunning choreography and unintentional hilarity, like Agnes DeMille meets her Uncle Cecil. But the modern interview sequences are hit and miss, and a couple of modern dance sequences shot for the movie seem forced. Most of all, I found myself wanting more information. When did the government start making these shows? When did they stop? Why were only eight films produced? I also wanted more of those outrageous clips.

A Shall We Dance, Stanford, Friday. Along with Top Hat and Swingtime, Shall We Dance represents the best of what Astaire and Rogers had to offer. The story–¦well, who cares about the story. The only collaboration between Astaire, Rogers, and the two Gershwins gives us “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” dancing on shipboard, dancing on stage, dancing in roller skates, and the most romantic song ever written, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” When Fred and Ginger aren’t singing or dancing, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore provide plenty of comedy, with light satire aimed at celebrity scandals and the culture gap between ballet and popular music. On a double bill with The Sky’s the Limit,which I saw long ago and kind of liked.


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