What’s Screening: December 31 – January 6

Sorry, folks, but the only things playing this week that I’ve got enough knowledge to talk about are the last pieces of the Mifune x Kurosawa : A Beautiful Man series at the VIZ Cinema. Things should pick up when the holidays are over.

A+ Seven Samurai, VIZ Cinema, Sunday, 1:30. f 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 my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A Drunken Angel, VIZ Cinema, Monday & Wednesday, 7:15; Tuesday, 4:30. The title refers to a drunkenangelgruff, short-tempered, and alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) who runs a small slum clinic  next to a filthy sump. He’s trying desperately to keep people alive, and one of those people is a tubercular gangster played by Toshiro Mifune in his first collaboration with Kurosawa. Strutting, macho, and confused, the gangster is torn between fighting the disease and keeping up his high-living lifestyle. Easily Kurosawa’s best pre-Rashomon work. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A High and Low, VIZ Cinema, Monday & Tuesday 3:30. After his two great action comedies (Yojimbo and Sanjuro) and before his last black and white historical epic (Red Beard), Akira Kurosawa made one of the best crime thrillers of the 1960’s.highandlowToshiro Mifune (who else?) stars as a successful businessman who thinks he’s off the hook when a kidnapper snatches the wrong boy, leaving the businessman’s son safe. But the kidnapper still insists on the ransom (large enough to destroy Mifune’s tenuous hold on his company), forcing the man into a moral dilemma. Can he let another man’s son die for his career? Much of High and Low takes place in a single living room, and Kurosawa uses the wide, Tohoscope frame brilliantly in the confined space. See my Kurosawa Diary entry.

B+ Stray Dog, VIZ Cinema, Tuesday & Thursday, 7:15; Wednesday, 4:00. 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.

The Bridge On the River Kwai Blu-ray Collector’s Edition

So here we are with another war film set (and shot) in the jungle. And like the previous one I wrote about, The African Queen, Bridge On the River Kwai was produced by Sam Spiegel. Aside from that, the only things these films have in common are that they were made in the 1950s and are widely regarded as masterpieces.

The longer it’s been since you’ve seen Kwai–David Lean’s second color film and the first of the epics for which he’s most remembered today– the better it gets in your memory. That’s because the brilliant story of an over-proud British POW (Alec Guinness) overpowers the weaker elements of the film. Guinness’ Col. Nicholson represents everything that’s admirable and awful about the military mind. His courage when facing down a cruel and desperate Japanese commander (Sessue Hayakawa) inspires his troops and the audience. But his pride and his belief in military discipline betray his good judgment to the point where his actions become arguably treasonable.

But to see the actual movie again is to be reminded that the Col. Nicholson story is actually a subplot (Guinness received third billing). The bulk of Kwai is a very well made but conventional action movie, starring William Holden as an American GI who escapes from the camp, makes it to safety, then goes back into the jungle on a daring mission. This part of the movie is exceptionally well done for this sort of thing, but it suffers from some uncomfortably Hollywoodish elements. For instance, the Burmese porters who help our heroes travel to their destination all happen to be beautiful young women. And there are a couple of cringe-inducing speeches about the stupidity and madness of war.

I give the movie a B+. When it’s good, it’s excellent, and when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

The Blu-ray transfer looks very good to great—most of the time. It will disappoint you right at the beginning, however. The opening scenes look grainy and contrasty, problems that appear to have more to do with film problems than digital ones. Perhaps Sony’s source for scanning these scenes was a poor one, several generations away from the original camera negative. By the time the credits are over, however, everything looks fine.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix has produced some controversy. Historians aren’t sure if the film had any kind of stereo release in 1957, but if it had, it did not have split surrounds with jungle noises in the background. While the track isn’t true to the historical mix (whatever that was), it is dramatically effective.

There’s no commentary track, but thanks to Blu-ray’s Bonus View capabilities, you can watch the movie with pop-up trivia about the film and its historical settings. Other extras on the disc include a very good 53-minute “Making of” documentary and a few odds-and-ends. The oddest of these is an excerpt from The Steve Allen Show where Allen allegedly interviews William Holden and Alec Guinness live while they’re on location in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It’s painfully obvious that he’s reciting scripted questions to pre-recorded answers.

The box also contains a DVD of the movie (a common practice for family-oriented Blu-rays, but not for mature fair) and 12 lobby cards. The case itself is a book with a few slick pages of photos and articles. This appears to be, for the most part, a reproduction of the 1957 souvenir book sold in theater lobbies. A few bits and pieces were clearly added long afterwards.

bridgeriverkwaibox

What’s Screening: December 24 – 30

Once again, slim pickings plus the last rattle of Kurosawa Centennial Fever.

A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, Stanford, Friday, 9:00. There’s a rarely-acknowledged darkwonderfullife side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, Bailey needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because Bailey, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Thursday, 8:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

The following films are all at the VIZ Cinema, as part of their series, Mifune x Kurosawa : A Beautiful Man.

A Drunken Angel, Wednesday, 7:15; Thursday, 4:30. The title refers to a gruff, short-drunkenangeltempered, and alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) who runs a small slum clinic  next to a filthy sump. He’s trying desperately to keep people alive, and one of those people is a tubercular gangster played by Toshiro Mifune in his first collaboration with Kurosawa. Strutting, macho, and confused, the gangster is torn between fighting the disease and keeping up his high-living lifestyle. Easily Kurosawa’s best pre-Rashomon work. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A High and Low, Monday, 7:15; Tuesday, 3:30; Thursday, 7:15. After his two great action comedies (Yojimbo and Sanjuro) and before his last black and white historical epic (Red Beard), Akira Kurosawa made one of the best crime thrillers of the 1960’s.highandlowToshiro Mifune (who else?) stars as a successful businessman who thinks he’s off the hook when a kidnapper snatches the wrong boy, leaving the businessman’s son safe. But the kidnapper still insists on the ransom (large enough to destroy Mifune’s tenuous hold on his company), forcing the man into a moral dilemma. Can he let another man’s son die for his career? Much of High and Low takes place in a single living room, and Kurosawa uses the wide, Tohoscope frame brilliantly in the confined space. See my Kurosawa Diary entry.

B+ Stray Dog, Tuesday, 7:15; Wednesday, 4:00. 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.

A Red Beard, Sunday, 1:45. Akira Kurosawa never stated his central theme–the importance of kindness and charity in acruel universe–more powerfully or directly than in this three-hour, 1965 epic. A samurai movie without swordfights (but with one fantastic judo fight), Red Beard concentrates on human suffering and what must be done to relieve it. Toshiro Mifune, in his last performance for Kurosawa, plays a doctor in a mid-19th century slum clinic, desperately fighting corruption and exploitation as well as disease. The story is told through the eyes of an arrogant young intern (Yuzo Kayama), shocked to discover that he’s been assigned to work with patients he views as beneath him. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A The Lower Depths, Sun,6:00; Monday, 4:00. Kurosawa’s follow-up toThrone of Blood succeeds on almost every level, despite it’s feeling like a filmed stage play (which it is). Set in a grim flophouse in the 19th century (and based on the play by Maxim Gorky), the film examines several characters at the very bottom of the economic ladder. It’s depressing, of course, but it’s also warm, sardonic, and funny. A rare Kurosawa period piece without swordplay. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

Upcoming Festivals

How long can the Bay Area go without film festivals? Obviously not that long. These festivals will (hopefully) delight local cinephiles in early 2011:

German Gems, January 14 – 16, Castro. Berlin & Beyond may be gone, but this new festival (only the second year) seems to filling its slot—both on the calendar and in the Bay Area’s ethnic makeup. Nine films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, all in German with English subtitles. Subjects in Mahler and Freud, surfing, and homicidal teenagers. I plan to preview the opening night film, Mahler On the Couch, so I can tell you about it.

Noir City, January 21- January 30, Castro. Twelve b-movie double bills shot on the dark side of Hollywood. This year’s theme is crazy, "all kinds of crazy–born crazy, driven crazy, and not as crazy as they seem," according to the press release. Most of the titles are obscure (the only one I’ve seen is Sorry, Wrong Number), and almost all have not been released on DVD, so you’re bound to get some pleasantly unpleasant surprises.

Silent Film Festival Winter Event, February 12, Castro. Silent films, great prints, and terrific live musical accompaniment. What better way to spend the Saturday before Valentine’s Day? And should your main squeeze insist on doing something romantic, the festival ends with King Vidor’s version of La Bohème, with Dennis James on the Wurlitzer (presumably playing Puccini). Also included are a trio of Chaplin shorts and Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent.

Cinequest runs March 1 – 13, but as of yet, nothing else has been announced.

San Francisco Film Museum

I received an emailed holiday card this morning from the San Francisco Film Museum. I’d never heard of the place. So I had to check out the web site.

Let’s start with the bad news: There is no San Francisco Film Museum in the strict sense of the word. There is no building in which you can visit and look at displays. At least not yet. The Museum is "dedicated to establishing a physical location," but they aren’t there yet.

Their goals are all good ones. They’re advocating for film preservation, introducing the public to "the films, locations, and theaters of the Bay Area’s cinematic past.," and other taking up other worthy, local, cinematic causes.

Check them out.

What’s Screening: December 17 – 23

As Akira Kurosawa’s centennial year comes to a close, someone in the Bay Area had to get in one more Kurosawa series. That someone is the VIZ Cinema, and if it wasn’t for them, there would only be two items in this week’s newsletter.

And one of those two would still be Kurosawa!

Hey, he’s my favorite filmmaker, but even I’m getting tired of him.

A- Howl, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. What did you expect–a howlconventional 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+ Seven Samurai, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. f 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 my Kurosawa Diary entry.

The following films are all at the VIZ Cinema, as part of their series, Mifune x Kurosawa : A Beautiful Man.

A Red Beard, Saturday, 2:45; Monday, 7:15; Tuesday, 3:00; Thursday, 7:15. Akira Kurosawa never stated his central theme–the importance of kindness and charity in a cruel universe–more powerfully or directly than in this three-hour, 1965 epic. A samurai movie without swordfights (but with one fantastic judo fight), Red Beard concentrates on human suffering and what must be done to relieve it. Toshiro Mifune, in his last performance for Kurosawa, plays a doctor in a mid-19th century slum clinic, desperately fighting corruption and exploitation as well as disease. The story is told through the eyes of an arrogant young intern (Yuzo Kayama), shocked to discover that he’s been assigned to work with patients he views as beneath him. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A The Lower Depths, Sun, 2:45; Tuesday, 7:15; Wed, 4:00. Kurosawa’s follow-up to Throne of Blood succeeds on almost every level, despite it’s feeling like a filmed stage play (which it is). Set in a grim flophouse in the 19th century (and based on the play by Maxim Gorky), the film examines several characters at the very bottom of the economic ladder. It’s depressing, of course, but it’s also warm, sardonic, and funny. A rare Kurosawa period piece without swordplay. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

F The Idiot, Saturday, 7:15; Sunday, 6:00; Monday, 3:00; Wed, 7:15; Thursday, 3:00. 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.

African Queen Commemorative Blu-ray Box Set

In six years of writing this blog, I’ve only had two occasions to tell readers that they could catch John Huston’s 1951 romantic comedy action adventure on the big screen. Now I can tell you about a great way to own it. True, even Blu-ray can’t compete with sitting in the dark, surrounded by hundreds of enthusiastic strangers, but it allows you to watch the movie more than twice in six years.

Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Africa, and Technicolor all make for splendid africanqueen2entertainment in The African Queen, a movie unlike any other work of escapist entertainment. The start of World War I traps two very different British subjects behind enemy lines and hundreds of miles of jungle. There’s the earthy, Canadian, working-class mechanic with a small, worn-out riverboat (Humphrey Bogart) and a very prim and proper English missionary (Katharine Hepburn). He wants to hide out until they are safe. She wants to help England in its hour of need.

So we have a bum and a nun on the run. They face rapids, insects, alcohol (he’s for it; she’s against it), German guns, and a budding romance. These aren’t young, glamorous movie stars, but two moderately-attractive middle-aged people in filthy clothes. And their growing love for each other is heart-warming, utterly believable, and funny. After all, these are two very different people, and one of them appears to have never even suspected that she could fall in love.

According to Huston’s autobiography, he didn’t intend the film to be funny. But during production (in Africa and on a soundstage in England) he realized that Bogart and Hepburn’s chemistry was inherently comic, and he went with it.

The HD transfer of this late three-strip Technicolor feature is nothing short of mouth-watering, with highly-saturated yet realistic colors and fine details that made you feel you were in Africa. At least it did that for the scenes actually shot in Africa. Some of the scenes make you feel like you’re on a soundstage. Beautiful restorations can have their drawbacks, but they’re still the best way to watch an old movie.

I have this old movie on Laserdisc, and I remember when that transfer looked great. Compared to this one, it’s blurry.

The only soundtrack is the original mono presented in Dolby Digital. I don’t want or need a new 5.1 mix of a mono movie, but lossless or uncompressed mono would have been nice. So would have been a well-done commentary.

The only extra on the disc is a making-of documentary, and it’s a good one. Huston, Bogart, and Hepburn were all entertaining characters off-screen. The movie was a troubled production, with everyone getting sick on location and the director running off to hunt elephants. It’s an interesting story and well worth watching.

But this is a boxed set, so there’s more in it than just a disc.

africanqueenbox

The box contains eight reproduced lobby cards. There’s a Senitype card with four mounted 35mm frames–the same frame from the movie, in cyan, magenta, yellow, and full color, representing 3-strip Technicolor. And best of all, there’s a copy of Katharine Hepburn’s otherwise out-of-print memoir, The Making of the African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. Warning: This book has very small print.

There’s also a second disc, but it’s neither a Blu-ray nor a DVD. It’s an audio CD containing a radio drama adaptation of the movie starring Bogart and Greer Garson. Such adaptations were common in those days, and turn up every so often as DVD and Blu-ray extras. But putting it on its own CD is a new twist, and a nice one. It allows you to listen to it in places where you don’t have a Blu-ray player–like in your car.

This is one of three movies sent to me for my PC World Blu-ray boxed set gift guide that were set in a jungle during wartime. All three were shot largely on location, and were thus very difficult shoots. While The African Queen is not as thematically ambitious as The Bridge on the River Kwai or Apocalypse Now, it succeeds better in its goals, and is therefore, in my opinion, a better film.

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