The Lost Criterion Commentaries

Back in the days before DVDs, if you loved films and wanted to enjoy them in your own home, the Criterion Collection was king. Their Laserdiscs were the first to have careful, state-of-the-art transfers, the first to letterbox widescreen films, and the first to come in supplement-filled special editions.

They also, to my knowledge, invented the commentary track. The Laserdisc format had a "multilingual" feature that allowed a disc to have two (later four) mono soundtracks. Criterion brilliantly found a use for that, giving you the option to watch a movie while listening to a film historian, or the director, talk about the picture.

Laserdiscs were a niche market, and the major studios were often reluctant to put their own money into special editions. But they were happy to license their classics, and even some of their new films, to Criterion for that purpose. So in addition to the foreign and independent fare we associate with them today, Criterion got to release such titles as Bad Day at Black Rock, It’s A Wonderful Life, Jason and the Argonauts, From Russia with Love, The Great Escape, High Noon, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

And all of them had commentaries.

Today, all of these films are available on DVD. Many of them are even out on Blu-ray. But not by Criterion. The current releases often boast excellent transfers, extensive extras, and well-below Criterion prices. But they lack those wonderful, old Criterion commentaries.

Some of those commentaries are valuable artifacts in their own right. For instance, director John Sturges provided excellent insights in his Bad Day at Black Rock and Great Escape commentaries. He has since passed on, and will be recording no others. Somehow, these commentaries should be made available again.

Now the good news: Columbia’s forthcoming Blu-ray edition of Taxi Driver includes the Martin Scorsese/Paul Schrader commentary from the Criterion Laserdisc. (Columbia has sent me a copy and I hope to get my review up in the next few days). Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend.

If it isn’t, let’s hope that Criterion finds a way to make these commentaries available on their own.

Potiche

D Alleged comedy

I don’t like it when Roger Ebert complains that a lousy movie wasted two hours of his life. After all, it’s his job. He’s paid for it. And watching even the worst picture is better than what most people have to do for a living.

But I review films as a hobby. Therefore, I feel completely justified complaining that Potiche wasted 103 minutes that I will never get back again.

Potiche also wastes two of France’s great stars–Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu–in an unfunny feminist fantasy set in the late 1970′s. The period setting is part of the problem. The 70s were an important time in the Feminist movement, so the setting makes sense thematically. But Director François Ozon tries to turn 1977 into a joke, with exaggerated costumes and hair. Even the overly-cute opening credits, filled with split screens, stretch for a once-hip style (although they get the period wrong, suggesting the 60s more than the 70s).

Despite Depardieu’s co-billing, Deneuve is the real star as the unhappy wife of a rich, ultra-conservative industrialist (Fabrice Luchini). With her evil husband (don’t look for any subtly here) hospitalized, she takes control of his factory (which once belonged to her father) and runs it much better than he ever could. Depardieu plays an elected Communist politician (such things existed in France in the 70s) who had a potichefling with the wife when they were both young. There’s a suggestion that their romance may again kindle.

In her late 60s, Catherine Deneuve is still a remarkably attractive woman. But Depardieu has not aged anywhere near as well. The handsome stranger in The Return of Martin Guerre has let his weight go seriously out of control. He no longer works as a romantic lead, even when the ingénue is a grandmother. I found myself worrying about Depardieu’s health.

I think I chuckled three times in this movie, although I often wondered if I was supposed to be laughing. Ozon seems to think it funny when three worried people sit down simultaneously. At one point he resurrects that old gag of someone hearing bad news and spitting out their drink. I saw that joke coming about ten seconds before it hit. True, I also saw the same joke coming before it hit in Airplane, but that old gem knew how to land an obvious joke in a surprisingly funny way.

Most of Potiche is predictable. The rest of it is surprising in ways that are neither satisfying nor entertaining. I’d give you an example, but really, it wouldn’t be worth your time.

All things considered, this is a pointless time at the movies. I, at least, did not have to pay to see Potiche. If you see it, you will have wasted your time and your money.

This Year’s San Francisco International Film Festival Announced

You probably found my notes from the San Francisco International Film Festival press conference impenetrable. Here’s the polished version:

This year’s Festival opens Thursday, April 21 with Beginners and closes May 5 (also a Thursday) with On Tour.  Over the course of those 15 days, it will screen 188 films from 48 countries in five Bay Area venues (four of them in San Francisco and all of them theaters regularly covered here at Bayflicks.

I’ve already reported some pre-announced events. Here are a few other tidbits from Tuesday’s press conference:

  • Festival director Graham Leggat started with the ritual thanking of corporate sponsors–an unfortunate necessity. The big news here is that Grolsch replaces Stella Artois as the official beer of the festival. Blue Angel will still be the official vodka, “without which,” according to Leggat, “it wouldn ‘t be a festival.” Not all sponsors include alcohol.
  • As I write this, no one has been named to receive the life achievement awards for acting and directing. Leggat took responsibility for this shortcoming, intimating that a big part of the problem is making sure that the awards go to people who can show up at the right time. He told us about one one unnamed guest in a previous year that dropped out because he “thought that San Francisco was in Los Angeles.”
  • The festival will screen Werner Herzog’s 3D documentary on cave paintings, Cave of Forgotten Dreams–something I’ve been eagerly waiting to see for months. It’s one of three films on painting. Another of the three, The Mill and the Cross, is Leggat’s favorite of this year’s films (he said so in the Q&A section).
  • The late night screenings will include something called The Selling, which, according to programmer Rod Armstrong, concerns itself with “how haunted houses can be difficult to sell in a down market.”
  • Restorations include La Dolce Vita and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire. That one will be screened digitally in San Francisco, and on film at the Pacific Film Archive.
  • For the first time in years, the festival will not use the Clay Theater, replacing it with the New People (AKA, VIZ Cinema), which Graham considers a big improvement technically.

And now for something completely geeky: Last year the festival had its own iPhone app. I was hoping for an Android app, this year. Instead, there will be no mobile apps. The festival has a mobile-friendly web site at http://fest11.sffs.org/mobile/.

Update, 3/30: In my original version of this post, I wrote that the mobile URL” just brings you to the regular site, which is anything but mobile-friendly.” It turns out I had the URL wrong.

This Year’s San Francisco International Film Festival Announced—Raw Version

These are my unedited notes from the SFIFF press conference. I don’t have Internet access here at the Westin, so I’ll post this as soon as I can. When I get a chance, I will post an edited version.

Update: I had that chance. You’ll find a more readable version here.

I’m not totally comfortable withb this netbook’s keyboard, so excuse the many typos.

Graham Leggat: Talked about organization and what it does year around. Thanked everyone in the room. Award ceremony at Bimbo’s. Thanks sponsors. Different beer this year; didn’t catch the name.

“Official vodka, without which, it wouldn’t be a festival.”

I don’t like all this corporate sponsorship, and the necessity to kiss ass, but I suppose it’s all necessary.

189 films.

Milestones:

  1. 45th festival with cooperation from George ?, who has been supporting the festival a long time
  2. 20th anniversary of Schools at the Festival program. Started on modest scale, grown.
  3. 3th aniversary of daily online magazine, 360.org. Not a house organ, independent.

Most difficult part of my job: Getting people to show up on time and under budget. Part of the reason one guest had to drop out is that that guest thought that San Francisco was in Los angeles.

screenwriter Frank Pearson will be here. Do masterclass. Other award winners will be announced later. Graham took responsibilitgy for that.

Closing nighbt film: Some of the performers will be there.

Credit for program goes to staff.

Rachel Rosen, Difrector of Programming: More thanks, this time to people involved with the pre-screening work.

Matthew Barney gets Persistance of Vision award. Multimedia artist.

Novikof award: Serge Bromberg. He programs a festival, collector, restorer. Will be showing series of 3D shorts. He accompanies them on piano.

State of Cinema: Christine …: Still on cutting edge of how independent filmmakers can get their work out there.

Organization changes: Basically the festival is whatg it’s alwayts been. Local productions will take their place along side other films. Not a separate section in the program.

Grant from Academy to do spotlight on World Cinema. We program the festival as we would, and keep our eye open for a trend. This yeafr: Painting with Light. Three interesting films about painting. Including Herzog’s new 3D documentary on cave paintings. I’ve been dying to see that. Also Polish The Mill and the Cross. And an Indian film.

Sean Uyehara: Pogrammer: Live performance. New skin for the old ceremony. Based on work by Leonard Cohen. Each track has a different ffiln by differfent filmmaker. Gonna try again with Porchlight, which apparently was a disaster last year (I don’t recall it).

Rod Armstrong: Late show. World premiere of The Selling, about how haunted houses can be difficult to sell in a down market. Another bouty Troll.s

Audrey Chang: Films in competition. Cinema Communisto about Tito. Position under the Stars about slum family.

Rachel: Documentaries: Well-known names like Herzog. French film about Detroit and flight from the city. What’s sprouting up in empty places.

New director section: strongest representation by women: 12 out of 28.

World Cinema section: Restored La Dolcha vita. Digital restoration of Fassbinder’s…didn’t catch the title. Shown digitally in SF, new film print at PFA.

Trends: No supercolorful ones. Films that find their own length. five films that are 75 minutes or shorter. 65 to  257 minutes. Number os films set in a semi-realistic near-future.

Any trend might not reflect cinema as a whole but maybe our taste.

Q&A:

Human rights and environmental issues: Yes. One about farming community in Ireland that finds that a pipeline will go through their common land. How people react.

Graham listed titls.

Focus on 12 films from Latin America: Asleep in the Sun. Near future/recent past movies. Ulyssess, echos theme of people forced to migrate to work.

How many black directors in narritive features: A small number

Why not the Clay Theater: Negotiations in holding pattern. Technical genius of New People theater extraordinary. Size fitted us better.

Directors who will definately attend: Many of them.

Not doing iphone app, but mobile site.

Graham’s favorite film: The MIll and the Cross. Literally brings to light Brugal’s Road to Calgary.

What’s Screening: March 25 – 31

The Dance FIlm Festival continues through Monday.

B+ The White Meadows, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 4:00. I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that the Iranian government has sentenced writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof to six years in prison. There’s some definite political satire in this film, although not of the constant belly laugh variety. It follows an aging man with sad eyes as he travels by rowboat through a strange, salty world, listening to people’s tales of woe and collecting their tears. This is an astonishingly beautiful film, filled with striking, forbidding, yet lovely white landscapes and seascapes. The mood is oppressive, watchful, and occasionally funny in a dry, painful way. Part of the series Iran Beyond Censorship. I saw it at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Read my longer report.

Down by Law, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Roberto Benigni got his first American exposure in this strange, low-budget comedy from the then-unknown Jim Jarmusch. I haven’t seen it in about 20 years, but if it’s as good as I remember, it’s well worth seeing. Part of the series Under the Skin: The Films of Claire Denis, although Denis only worked on it as an assistant.

A I Am Legend, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. I wonder if the Warner Brothers executives who greenlit this movie knew what they were getting into. You okay a big budget end-of-the-world scifi adventure starring Will Smith (seems a safe bet), and you get a slow-paced, dark, brooding, humorless horror film where the action scenes are few and very terrifying, and the CGI is used mainly to put wild flora in Manhattan streets. I am Legend is the sort of big-budget movie that gives you hope for Hollywood. With Art Director Patricia Woodbridge in person as part of the series Behind the Scenes: The Art and Craft of Cinema. Read my full review.

Bruce Springsteen The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Balboa, Thursday. I haven’t seen it, but I’m a Springsteen fan, so I’m mentioning it, anyway. This documentary examines the creation of that early album. It also has an absurdly ungainly title.

B+ Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz, Castro, all week. I’ve never experienced the Sing-A-Long version, and Iwizardozdon’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.

Satan Met a Lady, Stanford, Friday. I haven’t seen this one, but I know that it’s the second film version of The Maltese Falcon, Only this time, the character’s names have been changed and it’s not a falcon. The third version–the John Huston one with Humphrey Bogart–was the time they got right. On a double bill with something called The Golden Arrow.

Early News on the San Francisco International Film Festival

The press conference isn’t until next Tuesday, but the San Francisco Film Society has been sending out select announcements for weeks now.

Here’s what I know:

  • The festival opens with Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor as a man recalling the life of his recently-deceased, gay father (Christopher Plummer).
  • Christine Vachon, producer of Kids, Happiness and Boys Don’t Cry, will give the State of the Cinema Address. Usually an afternoon event, this year it will be in the evening–Sunday, April 24, at 9:00.
  • I hate to admit this, but the Mel Novikoff Award, intended for those who have kept an interest in cinema alive, goes to someone whose work I’m not familiar with. Serge Bromberg is a collector, preservationist, exhibitor, and programmer. He will screen a collection of 3D shorts from artists including George Méliès, Chuck Jones, and John Lasseter.
  • Frank Pierson will take home the Kanbar Award for life achievement in screenwriting. His presentation will include a screening of Dog Day Afternoon.
  • Fellini’s La Dolce Vita has been restored, and the restoration will screen at the Castro on May 1st.
  • The festival will close May 5 with On Tour, about American burlesque performers touring France.

Red Vic in Trouble

In 1980, the Red Vic became a movie theater and devoted itself to repertory cinema. Back then, its competition was from other revival houses. Today, most of that competition is gone, and it struggles to compete with DVDs and Netflix.

The competition is much harder.

Those who read today’s Chronicle Datebook section know that the Haight Ashbury’s cooperatively owned and operated movie theater is in serious financial trouble. Deeply in debt and behind on the rent, it’s survival is in question. "June and July seem likely,” Red Vic spokesperson Claudia Lehan told Chronicle reporter Pam Grady. “And after that — we’re really not sure …” (The article is currently available online only to subscribers. The general public will be able to read it on Friday.)

If you want to keep the Red Vic alive, please patronize it. Even better, make a donation to the theater. Best yet, do both.

They Released What on Blu-ray?

To my mind, no Hollywood features show off the virtues of Blu-ray better than the large format road-show spectaculars of the 1950s and ’60s. Indeed, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first Blu-ray disc I bought. I’ve been delighted to see Sparticus, Patton, How the West was Won, and The Ten Commandments turn up on this best of all home video formats.

I was even glad to see The Sound of Music. I don’t care for the movie much, but it’s visually beautiful and I respect the fact that so many people love it. Besides, it’s harmless.

By why on Earth did 20th Century Fox bother to release The Bible: In the Beginning? The low point in John Huston’s career, it’s slow, dull, pondering, and pointless. What’s next? The Greatest Story Ever Told (AKA: The Most Boring Movie Ever Made)?

I don’t mind the studios scraping the bottom of the epic barrel, but why do it when they haven’t used up all the crème, yet. We’re still waiting for Lawrence of Arabia, West Side Story, and Ben Hur.

The Battleship Potemkin

My wife and I caught Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin last night at the Castro. This was my fourth time viewing of what many consider amongst the greatest films ever made. It was my second time seeing it theatrically, and my first since Kino’s new restoration. In fact, it was my first viewing in this century.

And it was my first viewing on a really huge screen. The last time I saw it theatrically, it was at the old Richelieu Theater in the late 1970s. That screen was puny compared to the Castro’s.

I liked it a lot better this time around. Yes, it’s simplistic propaganda (more on that below), but its effective propaganda. The story of mutiny, celebration, attack, and escape stirs your blood. And it does this primarily through editing techniques that were revolutionary in 1925 and still very impressive today.

Eisenstein wasn’t the first filmmaker to use editing for emotional effect. Griffith was doing it a decade earlier. But Eisenstein took it do a different level. He even uses multiple shots to show an angry sailor smashing a plate. That may seem excessive, but it emphasizes the sailor’s emotional state.

The editing really comes alive in what today we’d call the action scenes, most famously the massacre on the Odessa Steps. So much has been written about this sequence that I hesitate to discuss if further–it’s like deconstructing Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy. But I will add one thing that caught my notice last night: It’s the only character-driven scene in the movie. Within the space of those few minutes, Eisenstein lets us get close to and identify with several of the victims. There’s the young, scholarly-looking man, the elderly woman and her daughter, and most heart-breaking of all, the woman who sees her child shot down and trampled upon.

If you haven’t seen the sequence (which stands on its own and contains no spoilers), check out this Youtube version. But it can’t hold a candle to the 35mm print, newly minted by Kino, screening this weekend at the Casto.

Make no mistake: Potemkin is Communist propaganda. The workers and sailors are all good comrades working together for a better world. The officers, aristocrats, and Cossacks are vile filth who deserve to die. A couple of them are so evil they actually twirl their mustaches.

We know now that in the real world, Communism would turn out to be every bit as horrible as Fascism. So why is Battleship Potemkin more acceptable than, say, Triumph of the Will? Of course, Eisenstein couldn’t have known how badly Communism would turn out in 1925, but you can say the same thing about Leni Riefenstahl and Nazism in 1935.

But there’s another reason: Karl Marx recognized a very real problem–the exploitation of working people. Any decent human being would want to liberate the oppressed, take down the ruling class, and create a just society.

It’s only with historical perspective that we realize that Marx’s cure was worse than the disease.

Fascism, with its doctrines of military might, blind obedience, and racial superiority, celebrates the disease.

It’s worth noting that the USSR eventually banned Battleship Potemkin. A totalitarian state isn’t comfortable celebrating a mutiny or vilifying soldiers who gun down unarmed civilians.

The 35mm print screening at the Castro has the original Edmund Meisel musical score. The score was impressive, so much so that at times it felt like a modern movie, with the editing and composing happening simultaneously (it wasn’t). There were some well-synced, very realistic sound effects. My wife, a musician, assured me that they could all be done by an orchestra–even the gun shots. But I still would have preferred live accompaniment.

The Battleship Potemkin plays at the Castro through the weekend. Check it out.

What’s Screening: March 18 – 24

The Asian American Film Festival continues through Sunday, and the Dance FIlm Festival opens Thursday.

Battleship Potemkin, Castro, Friday through Sunday. It’s been too long since I’ve seen Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 agitprop masterpiece for me to assign it a grade. I potemkinremember being at times impressed with its technique and at other times annoyed by it. Beyond technique, it’s just Communist propaganda. On the other hand, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir makes a good argument that it’s a ground-breaking and influential action movie. Whatever it is, Kino recently restored it to something approaching the long-lost original version. With recorded instead of live musical accompaniment, based on Edmund Meisel’s original score.

A The Illusionist, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Nearly 30 years after his death, Jacques Tati has finally made a new film. Okay, animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) made the movie, but he started with a never-produced Tati script, and his illusionist2010protagonist not only looks like the great comedian but moves like him, as well. The story, about a magician in a world that no longer values his craft, and a young girl so naïve she believes his tricks are real, is sadder and more wistful than Tati’s own work. But it still manages to be very funny, as well as almost entirely free of dialog (there are no subtitles and you won’t miss them). This is the best film I’ve seen that was released in 2010. Not to be confused with the Edward Norton/Paul Giamatti indiewood movie of a few years back.

B+ The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2011, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. The Red Vic will screen the Live Action and Animated shorts at different times, with separate admissions, and not as a double bill. The live-action collection is overall a worthy selection, with one remarkable gem, three good little pleasures (one of which won the Oscar), and only one near-turkey. Read my full review. The animated collection includes the five nominees and two that should have been nominated. They range from conventional to creative, hilarious to poetic, and masterful to mediocre. Read my full review.

B Worst in Show, Elmwood, Thursday, 7:00. 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 here 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, giving them an unfair advantage. 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. Part of IndieFest.

Satan Met a Lady, Stanford, Thursday and next Friday. I haven’t seen this one, but I know that it’s the second film version of The Maltese Falcon, Only this time, the character’s names have been changed and it’s not a falcon. The third version–the John Huston one with Humphrey Bogart–was the one they got right. On a double bill with something called The Golden Arrow.

F Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise–which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless.

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