The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Until yesterday, I’d never seen a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Feeling a need to rectify that, and suspecting that I couldn’t stomach Salo, I watched The Gospel According to St. Matthew last night.

If you have any sense of film history, you can’t watch this stark, low-budget, black-and-white, telling of the life of Christ without seeing it as a reaction to the Biblical blockbusters of its day. It was, after all, made in 1964. That’s five years after Ben-Hur, three years after King of Kings (AKA: I Was a Teenaged Jesus), and one year before The Greatest Story Ever Told (more accurately described as the most boring movie ever made).

Then there’s the issue of Pasolini, himself. How could the most reverent, spiritual, and faithful life of Jesus movie (and I mean faithful in both the religious sense and as an literary adaptation) be made by a self-proclaimed atheist? Perhaps his rejection of religion allowed him to see the story without sentiment or melodrama.

Pasolini stayed as close to the original text as cinematically possible, using only gospelmatthewMatthew’s dialog (in Italian translation), and no dramatic embellishments. In the Italian neo-realistic tradition, he cast regular people instead of professional actors. He shot the film in the Italian district of Basilicata–a place that’s visually striking and looked–at least in 1964–like it hadn’t changed in millennia. The performers wore vaguely biblical costumes. I would guess that about two thirds of the film is comprised of close-ups.

The result is simply Matthew’s Gospel, illustrated with moving and talking photographs. It’s as if Pasolini is daring the audience, stating that this is what the Bible says happened. Deal with it.

I dealt with it, and I overall liked it, but I didn’t fall in love with Gospel the way many others have. (Consider, for instance, Roger Ebert’s opinion. Ebert, like Pasolini, is a former Catholic.) While I liked the audacity of the movie, and was captivated by the series of fascinating faces Pasolini puts on the screen, I found it difficult to completely throw myself into the story.

But then, I’ve always found Jesus wanting as a dramatic protagonist. He’s too perfect and all-knowing to allow much identification, or concern. That’s true even in a film that eschews drama.

Pasolini forces us to consider everything about Matthew, even the parts we’re not comfortable with. Raised Catholic but converted to Marxism, he simply puts the story that millions of people believe in front of us, and dares us to react.

What’s Screening: January 28 – February 3

Noir City continues through the weekend. Both IndieFest and the Mostly British Film Festival open Friday.

A Strangers on a Train, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. One of Hitchcock’s scarieststrangersontrain films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. Part of the series Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock.

A Airplane!, Castro, Monday, 7:00. They’re flying on instruments, blowing the autopilot, and might possibly like gladiator movies. So win one for the Zipper, but whatever you do, don’t call him "Shirley." Airplane! throws jokes like confetti–carelessly tossing out vast quantities of them so that some might hit their target. There’s no logical reason why a movie this silly can be so satisfying, but then logic never was part of the Airplane! formula. I’d be hard-pressed to name a feature-length comedy with such a high joke-to-minute ratio. A Sketchfest tribute to the film’s three writer/directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. The three of them, plus star Robert Hays, are promised in person.

A- The Mark of Zorro (1940 version), Stanford, Saturday through Monday. Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the markofzorro40peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role his own in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. Power, who was bisexual in real life, plays Don Diego as an effeminate fop, and his masked alter ego as dashing masculinity. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone. Double-billed with the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda.

B Nuremberg, Rafael, opens Friday. If you’re looking for a great, insightful, and emotionally effective documentary about the Third Reich or the Holocaust, this isn’t it. It tries to cover too much in 78 minutes, has a monotone feel, and is clearly bending over to avoid criticizing our wartime allies for their mistakes in trying to appease Hitler. But it has the attraction of something that was, in its time, fresh; you’re watching familiar sights, but you’re seeing them from the vantage point of something new. And you can’t watch this film without thinking about more recent war crimes that should also go on trial. Read my longer account.

Voyeurism and Early Cinema, SFMOMA, Tuesday, noon. This collection of early films concentrates on what cinema arguably was all about then, now, and forever: watching other people. Free.

B+ Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz, Lark, Saturday & Sunday, 2:30. I’ve never experienced the Sing-A-Long version, and I wizardozdon’t really have to tell you about the non-interactive version, 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.

IndieFest Preview

I’ve previewed three films coming to IndieFest. Here’s what I thought about them.

B+ The Drummond Will, Roxie, Friday, February 4, 7:00; Sunday, February 6, 2:30;drummondwill Monday, February 7, 7:00. No one can make murder funny like the British. In this low-budget comedy, two very different brothers inherent a ramshackle house from the father neither of them cared for (they don’t much like each other, either). The house contains a bag with a very large amount of money, and at least some of the townspeople know about it. The brothers want to keep everything secret, of course, and it’s not really their fault that the people who might stand in the way of their new found wealth keep dying under suspicious circumstances. Made on a low budget, The Drummond Will lacks the largish cast and familiar faces we associate with English comedy, but the fresh faces seem just as funny. Special kudos go to Mark Oosterveen as the more straight-laced brother (his voice and phrasing remind me of Simon Jones–the original Arthur Dent), and Jonathan Hansler as the local constable (think John Cleese at a normal height). In widescreen black and white.

B Worst in Show, Roxie, Wednesday, February 9, 9:15; Sunday, February 13, 2:30. There’s one thing you know going into a documentary about Petaluma’s Ugliest Dog Contest: You’re going to see an awful lot of adorably ugly dogs. (Believe it or not, even the one shown looks lovable when cuddling with his owner.) What’s surprising is how involved the human contestants become, and why. There’s a real shot at fame and modest fortune by having your dog win this contest, which is covered by media from all over the world. And there are controversies. Should dogs qualify who are ugly because disaster or disease have disfigured them–opening up charges of exploitation–or just those who come by it naturally. But even here, the Chinese Crested are arguably bred for ugliness. The festival web site lists Worst in Show as a 90-minute movie, but the review screener sent to me by the festival runs just under an hour.

D+ The Evangelist, Roxie, Sunday, February 6, 4:45; Wednesday, February 9, 7:00. Another great idea ruined by poor execution. Danny–lonely, gay, miserable, and an atheist of the Richard Dawkins variety–adopts Gideon, a 12-year-old evangelistboy who seems to have materialized on the beach with no backstory. But Gideon turns out to be a fanatical Christian of the most annoying variety. This could have been great with believable characters–or at least entertaining with funny ones. But Danny, as played by Theodore Bouloukos, is dull and borders on being a gay stereotype. And Gideon (Lucas Fox Philips) is simply annoying and arguably evil. There’s no attempt to make him a human being, but just a force of plot development. An interesting twist near the end, plus the way the film captured Provincetown, Massachusetts in widescreen black and white, brought the grade up from a straight D.

Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

They’re out, and there are no real surprises. But I still have a couple of comments:

Like everyone else, I’m assuming that either The Social Network or The King’s Speech will win Best Picture and its almost constant companion, Best Director. Both of them could win Best Screenplay, however. The King’s Speech, based on historical events, is nominated as an Original Screenplay. The Social Network, based on a non-fiction book, is an Adapted Screenplay.

Where is it written in the Academy bylaws that no one under 17 can ever have a leading role? Hailee Steinfeld is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for True Grit, but she’s in almost every scene of the movie, which is essentially about her. This trend goes back at least to Tatum O’Neal, who won this award  for Paper Moon, in which she was clearly the star.

A Weekend in Black and White, Part 2: Noir City

It was dark. It was dangerous. Lust, greed, and fear hung heavily in the air. It was enough to drive you crazy.

That’s right. I spent Saturday at the Castro with two Noir City double bills. That’s four pictures from the 40s and early 50s  I’d never seen before. While the movies where dark and painted a picture of a cruel and hostile world, they were considerably more entertaining than my Friday night venture.

Crazy is the operative word, here. The theme of this year’s festival is noir victims and villains who are "all kinds of crazy––born crazy, driven crazy, and not as crazy as they seem," according the the festival’s web site.

castronoir

The first movie I saw was the widely respected Gaslight. With it’s MGM production values, Victorian England settings, big star (Ingrid Bergman), and major director (George Cukor), this arguably doesn’t qualify as noir. But the dark atmosphere and crime-and-insanity-driven plot make a good counter-argument. Whether it’s noir or not, it’s an exceptional psychological thriller.

No other actress could look at a man with love and passion like Ingrid Bergman. Here she looks at Charles Boyer with her patented intensity. Her new marriage makes her so happy, it might even help her overcome the decade-old grief that has overwhelmed her since the unsolved murder of her aunt. But her husband is clearly hiding something, and appears to be intentionally driving her insane.

Why are old, B westerns almost always laughably bad, while so many old B noirs can turn your blood to ice water? Consider Strangers In the Night (no relationship to the song), the recently-restored, 56-minute cheapie that the festival double-billed with Gaslight. A marine sergeant on leave (William Terry) visits the female pen pal he fell in love with but has never met. Turns out he has an extremely disturbed prospective mother-in-law on his hands.

The second double bill of the day started with They Won’t Believe Me, a relatively big-budget noir that was, for me, the weakest of the four (those sitting near me didn’t agree). There’s no real insanity here–just a weak man (Robert Young) who can’t help cheating on his rich wife–with potentially fatal consequences. His character wasn’t very bright, but the plot required him to do one thing so stupid that I couldn’t believe it even from him.

But the festival billed that movie with Don’t Bother To Knock, so all is forgiven. Marilyn Monroe, in one of her first starring roles, plays a babysitter who really should not be trusted with a child. She shouldn’t be trusted with a grown man like Richard Widmark, either. Monroe gives one of her best performances, even if it’s a little over the top, as a troubled young woman trying to hold onto the last shreds of her sanity…but not trying too hard. Anne Bancroft appears in her first movie role.

A Weekend in Black and White, Part 1: Nuremberg

I saw five movies theatrically over Friday and Saturday, all of them in black and white.

I started Friday night with a screening at the Shattuck of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. The director’s daughter, Sandra Schulberg, who also oversaw the restoration of this 1946 documentary, spoke before and after the screening.

Her father, Stuart Schulberg, made Nuremburg for the US Government, to show to German audiences as part of the de-Nazification campaign. It intercuts footage from the famous trials with older footage of Nazi atrocities. (And yes, Stuart Schulberg was the brother of the great writer and stool pigeon Bud Schulberg.)

Re-release trailer

If you’re looking for a great, insightful, and emotionally effective documentary about the Third Reich or the Holocaust, this isn’t it. It tries to cover too much in 78 minutes, has a monotone feel, and is clearly bending over to avoid criticizing our wartime allies for their mistakes in trying to appease Hitler.

But it has the attraction of something that was, in its time, fresh. This was made for an audience that still had to be told what had happened in those "showers." That rawness makes it fascinating in the way that films from the 1890s are fascinating–you’re watching a now-common sight that was once a first-time experience.

There was something else: This film kept reminding me of recent events involving my own county. It was, after all, a trial of government leaders who had performed war crimes and crimes against the peace, and who thought they were invulnerable. There’s a moment when the narrator quotes a high Nazi official–a defendant in the trial–about the irrelevant Geneva Conventions. No one used the word quaint, but I thought it.

I wasn’t the only one who had that reaction. When she talked after the film, Schulberg made it clear that this was the movie’s "Lesson for Today." Then she brought up Daniel Ellsberg to drive home the point. The United States officially considers itself exempt from all accusations of war crimes, and while our atrocities don’t match those of the Nazis, they still require our attention. And a fair trial.

I’ll tell you about my Saturday experiences in another post.

What’s Screening: January 21 – 27

Noir City opens Friday night and runs through the week.

A The Thief of Bagdad (1940 version), Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. One of the greatest fantasy adventures ever made, thiefbagdad1940and made decades before Star Wars clones glutted the market. The special effects lack today’s realism, but they still pack an emotional punch (my daughter, when she was young, found this giant spider scarier than the ones in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings). The sets are magnificent, the dialog enchanting, and the story’s randomness gives it a true Arabian Nights flavor. And all in glorious Technicolor. Part of the series and class Film 50: History of Cinema, which focuses on fantasy films this season.

A The 400 Blows, Roxie, Friday. François Truffaut helped launch the400blowsFrench 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 films playing 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. Part of a series of early films by Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

B+ Sorry, Wrong Number, Castro, Monday, 9:30 (complete show starts at 7:30). An invalid (Barbara Stanwyck), heavily dependent on her phone, accidentally hears some men on a party line plotting a murder. Things are going to turn very ugly in this tight and effective expansion of a 22-minute radio play into a feature-length thriller. Co-starring a shockingly young Burt Lancaster as her husband. On a double-bill with The Lady Gambles, which I haven’t seen. (I would like to point out, however, that something called The Lady Gambles really should be on a double bill with The Lady Vanishes, while another Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder should play with Sorry, Wrong Number.) Part of Noir City.

B Blackmail, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie was alsoblackmail his last silent –making two versions was common practice in 1929. I’ve seem both; the silent one (which the PFA is screening) 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 act 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? Part of the series Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock. Accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano.

IndieFest 2011

I tend to put film festivals into three categories. First, you’ve got identity festivals, which focus on the many ethnic, religious, racial, and gender ways in which people group themselves (the Jewish Film Festival, Frameline, and so one). Second, you have genre festivals, which look at particular kinds of movies (Noir City, Silent Film Festival). And finally, there are plain old, generic film festivals, which don’t restrict themselves to kind of movie or type of audience (San Francisco International, Mill Valley).

But I’ve not sure whether SF IndieFest goes into the second category or the third. At first glance, it’s a genre festival, concentrating on independent films. But you’d be hard pressed to find much at a Bay Area generic film festival that doesn’t qualify as an independent film.

However you categorize it, the 2011 edition of SF IndieFest opens February 3rd for a 15-day run at the Roxie, with a wide assortment of movies not financed by the major studios (although some will be getting non-festival theatrical releases). IndieFest will present dramas, comedies, experimental films, movies about music, documentaries, horror/exploitation flicks, and at least one documentary about horror/exploitation flicks.

By the way, the folks who produce InfieFest also run two major genre festivals: DocFest and Hole in the Head–which concentrates on sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. That means that they could have run that documentary about horror/exploitation flicks, Machete Maidens Unleashed, in any of their festivals.

I haven’t seen that one, nor any other IndieFest film this year–although I hope to rectify that before the festival opens. Some of the more interesting titles include:

KABOOM: Judging from the description and trailer (click the link in the title), the festival’s opening program amps the teen sex comedy up to 10,000 watts. I’d probably dismiss it if it hadn’t been an official selection at Cannes. (If you don’t want to spend $25 for the opening night show, be patient. IFC plans to release KABOOM theatrically.)

The Trashmaster: Described on the IndiFest site as a "cross between Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver and Seven," this animated feature was created entirely from  Grand Theft Auto IV video game images.

Worst in Show: A documentary on Petaluma’s Ugliest Dog Contest.

The Drummond Will: A black & white black comedy from England about two very different brothers who inherit a house, discover hidden cash, a get into all sorts of illegal and life-threatening trouble.

The Evangelist: An atheist adopts a 12-year-old religious fanatic.

We Are What We Are: Judging from the festival’s description, this does for cannibals what Ann Rice did for vampires.

NUDE NUNS WITH BIG GUNS: Okay, I said "interesting titles," and this one certainly qualifies. I’m not sure if that makes it an interesting movie.

What’s Screening: January 14 – 20

For Your Consideration continues through the week. German Gems opens tonight at the Castro and runs through the weekend. And

B+ Budrus, Lumiere, Shattuck, opens Friday. This documentary is all about message, and I’m sure I would have hated it if I had disagreed with its point of view. But I liked the movie, which presented a Gandhian, non-violent side of the Palestinian struggle that I hadn’t seen before, but always hoped was there. When the Israeli government sets out to build its separation wall between the town of Budrus and its olive groves, the people peacefully revolt, standing amongst the trees as the army-backed bulldozers arrive. It’s an inspiring story that practically tells itself. Read my full review.

A Fantasia, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. I have a sneaking feeling that I don’t really have to tell you about this movie, aside from the fact that, as far as I know, this is its first theatrical presentation in the Bay Area in over 20 years. Let’s just say that this collaboration between Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and countless other artists still stands out as a great achievement and an entertaining two hours.

B Mahler On the Couch, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Troubled by his wife’s infidelity, Gustav Mahler visited Sigmund Freud in 1910. That’s just a framing device for a film about mahlercouchMahler’s stormy marriage to the former Alma Schindler, and it’s not a particularly original, insightful, or clever one. But if you ignore the Freud scenes, you get a very good drama about a famously troubled marriage, and a movie held together by one brilliant performance–Barbara Romaner as Alma. She’s joyous, energetic, brimming with life, and sexy as hell. But when difficult times come (and they do), she rages with a dark pain from the deep wells of her generally happy soul. This performance alone makes Mahler On the Couch worth seeing. Mahler On the Couch opens the three-day German Gems film festival.

Rifftrax Presents: Night of the Shorts, Castro, Thursday, 9:30. Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett of Mystery Science Theater 3000 present and comment on what are promised to be "some truly appalling shorts from past and present – the worst instructional, PSA, nature, science and safety videos ones [sic] can find!" With special guest riffers Maria Bamford, Adam Savage, Paul F. Tompkins, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney.

Golden Globes On the Big Screen, Balboa, Sunday, 5:00. Screening the Oscars theatrically has become a Bay Area art house tradition. Now the Balboa is now putting the other big award night on the silver screen. With "prizes and surprises" promised.

A Beauty and the Beast (1946 version), Wednesday, 3:10. Many years ago, I attended a double bill of the original King Kong and Jean Cocteau’s haunting retelling of the famous fairytale. The audience, mostly young children, ruined Kong by running, playing, and talking throughout the movie. I cringed, imagining how bad those little devils would behave when confronted with a slow-paced, atmospheric film with subtitles. But when Beauty and the Beast came on, they sat quiet, spellbound by a story they all knew but had never imagined it quite like this. Part of the class and series Film 50: History of Cinema.

A- The Social Network, Castro, Wednesday. This is clearly the biopic of our times, offering a window into the life and soul socialnetwork(or lack thereof) of a young man who changed everything. Much of it is fiction, of course, but that’s the case with all such biopics. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher paint Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as the ultimate nerd, barely able to relate to other human beings as he revolutionizes the very way we socialize. I don’t know about the real Zuckerberg, but Eisenberg’s version appears to have a serious social disorder as he betrays partners, has sex with groupies, and almost inadvertently becomes extremely wealthy.

A- Sawako Decides, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 4:00. How do you manage in a highly competitive world when you’re hopelessly mediocre? That’s the question writer/director Yuya Ishii asks in this strange, ironically funny drama. (The YBCA is calling Sawako Decides a comedy; I’m not so sure I agree.) Sawako has done poorly at work and in love, drinks too much, and thinks little of herself.  But with her father dying, she returns to her home town–current boyfriend and his young daughter in tow–to take over his small business. Although the last act  comes dangerously close to a Hollywood ending, it’s overall a sad, funny, quirky, and ultimately moving tale of people who will never be winners, but may be able to scratch a modicum of happiness out of their lives. Sawako Decides is one of two films in the YBCA series Lost In Japan: The Existential Comedies of Yuya Ishii.

B- In the Heat of the Night, Cerrito, Saturday and Sunday, 11:00am. The 1967 Best Picture Oscar winner lost a lot of punch over the the last 43 years. It still works moderately well as a murder mystery, and even more so as a moment in time, captured in celluloid. In 1967, white Americans who didn’t hail from Dixie could still pat themselves on the back and be glad they weren’t like those bigoted Southerners. There’s plenty of such backslapping in this tale of a black police detective from Philadelphia investigating a murder in a small, Mississippi town. There’s also a few good scenes and one great one. Another Cerrito Classic.

For Your Consideration

I missed a festival: For Your Consideration.

Well, I didn’t quite miss it. It opens tomorrow at the Rafael, and runs for eight days. But I didn’t catch it in time to include it in last week’s newsletter.

The festival will screen ten foreign-language films that have been submitted, by their countries of origin, into the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar competition. A full 65 films have been submitted, out of which five will be nominated.

I don’t know how these particular ten were selected.

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