Newsletter Addendum

I just realized that a movie I previewed before this year’s Cinequest has just opened in theaters. I should have included the following in this week’s What’s Screening newsletter:

C- A Little Help, Opera Plaza Cinemas, CineArts @ Pleasant Hill, opens Friday. This film really helped me appreciate Mike Leigh. It did so by reminding me that not everyone can make a good low-key drama about ordinary, damaged human beings. A Little Help’s protagonist (Jenna Fischer) starts the movie with a miserable life. She drinks too much, smokes too much, her socially-awkward son hates her, her husband ignores her, and her sister and mother push her around. When her husband suddenly dies, things don’t get worse…or better. The cast all give fine performances, which is a considerable triumph considering writer/director Michael J. Weithorn’s lukewarm screenplay. Just about everything that happens is painfully obvious and just as painfully pointless, with too many underwritten, unbelievable characters spouting uninteresting dialog.

What’s Screening: July 29 – August 4

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival closed its San Francisco run at the Castro last night. It’s taking today (Friday) off, then opening Saturday at Berkeley’s Roda Theatre.

Going from Yiddish to British, the From Britain with Love festival opens today at the Balboa.

And the Castro is running a tribute to composer Max Steiner this week. I’m commenting on so many of those movies that I’ve moved them to the end of the newsletter, after the Jewish Film Festival recommendations and warnings.

B+ Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Balboa, cameramanFriday through Thursday; Rafael, Wednesday and Thursday. Few filmmakers understood color as well as British cinematographer Jack Cardiff. And those who do have Cardiff to thank for it. In the 1940s, with movies like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (see below), Cardiff took hold of the bulky and clumsy three-strip Technicolor camera and turned it into a fine paintbrush. Although he continued to do very good work for decades, his results in later years were never again revolutionary. Documentarian Craig doesn’t even pretend to provide a warts-and-all portrait. He clearly worships Cardiff—as do Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and other notables interviewed for this film. Cardiff himself comes off as witty, urbane, dashing, friendly, well-read, and smartly dressed, as well as extremely talented. Read my full review.

A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Bump your coconuts together and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for montygrailthe Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. The funniest film of the 1970s—and the 1070s.

A Touch of Evil, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:15. Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and touchofevilone of his few Hollywood studio features. He lacked the freedom he found in Europe,but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress (although Psycho should have taught her to avoid seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say. Part of the series Going South: American Noir in Mexico.

A- The Princess and the Frog, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 6:30. Disney Studio returned to hand-drawn animation with startling success with this more modern variation on their “princess” theme. This “princess” is a working-class African American in jazz-age New Orleans, who dreams not of Prince Charming but of owning her own restaurant. On the plus side, you’ve got good jazz, funny shtick, and a good lesson to teach young children—the value of hard work in achieving your dreams (so much better than the usual “Believe in yourself”). The filmmakers carefully, and not altogether successfully, dance around the race issues that would have held the protagonist back in real early 20th century Louisiana. Co-director John Musker will attend the screening, and hopefully answer questions.

A Hitchcock Double Bill: North by Northwest & Strangers on a Train, Stanford, Saturday through next Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlightest, most entertaining masterpiece, North by Northwest stars Cary Grant as an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer).  On the bright side, he gets to spend some quality time with Eva Marie Saint. Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock’s scariest films. 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.

A- Throne of Blood, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Kurosawathroneblood stands Shakespeare on his head with this haunting, noh- and kabuki-inspired loose adaptation of Macbeth.Toshiro Mifune gives an over-the-top but still effective performance as the military officer tempted by his wife (Isuzu Yamada) into murdering his lord. The finale–which is far more democratic than anything Shakespeare ever dared–is one of the great action sequences ever. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the series Japanese Divas.

The Last Emperor, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. If I trusted my memory, I would probably give this film an A-. An epic like no other, it follows the life of the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi, from his ascending the throne as a three-year-old at the beginning of the 20th century until, as an old man, he faces the cultural revolution. What makes Pu Yi such a unique protagonist is his almost complete passivity. He does not make history, but merely allows others—including fascists–to use him as a patsy while they can make it. Part of the series Bernardo Bertolucci: In Search of Mystery.

B+ The Red Shoes, Balboa, Saturday, 4:30; Monday, 9:00. This 1948 Technicolor fable about  the sacrifices one makes for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their art, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet at the center is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I discuss The Red Shoes in more detail at War and Ballet @ the PFA.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A- 100 Voices: A Journey Home, Oshman Family JCC, Wednesday, 6:15; Roda, Thursday, 6:40. In 2009, documentarians Danny Gold and Matthew Asner followed 100 100VoicesAmerican cantors as they flew to Poland for a concert tour and a return to their personal and professional roots. The resulting film follows many stories: the art and history of cantorial singing, the long history of Jews in Poland, the Holocaust, and a new, Polish resurgence of interest in Jewish culture. Gold and Asner weave these these into a touching, fascinating, and triumphant garment without ever getting them tangled. I do wish, however, that they’d given more time to pre-WWII Jewish-Polish relations. The movie is filled with beautiful music; some sounds like opera, some like jazz, but all of it is deeply spiritual and unquestionably Jewish.

 

B+ Mabul (The Flood), Roda Theatre, Sunday, 6:30. The plot is similar to A Serious Man and Sixty Six, but Guy Nattiv’s drama about a Bar Mitzvah in a dysfunctional family couldn’t be more different. Bar Mitzvah boy Yoni sells completed homework to other kids, can’t please the rabbi (you’d think a Bar Mitzvah would be easy for a native Hebrew speaker), and deeply resents his parents—with good reason. His mother is having an affair and his father is an irresponsible pothead. To make matters worse, his extremely autistic brother, who really belongs in an institution, comes to live with them. Nattiv doesn’t leaven the story with humor, or even with much warmth, resulting in a harrowing, merciless look at a family coming apart at the seams. The last act, with a suspenseful climax and a somewhat upbeat ending, feels tacked on.

C+ Next Year in Bombay, Oshman Family JCC, Thursday, 4:00. Did you know there are Jews in India? Not once-British Jews who stayed behind when the NextYearinBombayEmpire collapsed, but people who are racially and ethnically Indian, yet identify themselves as Jews and practice the religion. For too much of this too-short documentary, filmmakers Jonas Parienté, and Mathias Mangin seem content to let us marvel at that very fact. But in its second half, as it looks at a small, Jewish peasant village (seen through the eyes of a young, urban, educated Bombay Jew), and then deals with questions of immigration to Israel, it dips into profound issues of Jewish identity. But it doesn’t give these issues the time they deserve. The festival will precede this 55-minute feature with a 19-minute short, “Starring David.”

Max Steiner Tribute

A+ Bogie double bill: Casablanca & Treasure of Sierra Madre, Castro, Saturday. What can I say? You’ve either seen Casablanca or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on it thought they were making a masterpiece; it was justcasablanca another entertaining propaganda movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. In Treasure of Sierra Madre, three down-on-their-luck gold prospectors (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston) find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed.

White Heat, Castro, Tuesday. In 1949, James Cagney returned to the studio that made him famous for one last gangster movie. But this time, instead of a basically decent guy who has made a few mistakes, he got to play a psycho. But at least he loves his mother. Come to think of it, maybe he loves her a little too much. I’m not giving White Heat a grade because it has been years since I saw it. But I remember liking it very, very much. On a Cagney double bill with Angels with Dirty Faces.

A- Key Largo, Castro, Wednesday. In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character actors like Humphrey Bogart, but Bogey was the top star when John Huston made Key Largo in 1948. Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Bogart faces off against gangster Robinson. Most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and Huston himself adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? On a Bogart/Becall double-bill with The Big Sleep.

A Double Bill: King Kong (1933 version) & The Searchers, The A goes to King Kong. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up, and not  just through Willis O’Brien’s outdated yet still breathtaking special effects. kingkong33The big ape himself is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying, but also confused, loving, majestic, and ultimately doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Most fans of John Ford and John Wayne consider The Searcher s their masterpiece. I disagree. It’s visually splendid and has one of Wayne’s greatest performances, but it’s marred by a rambling plot and a very unlikable hero. Besides, color always seemed a handicap for Ford, upsetting his delicate balance between myth and realism.

D+ Gone with the Wind, Castro, Sunday. I have a weakness for big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s the blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, which generally just makes me winch. But Gone with the Wind goes over the top. The entire story is based on the assumed inferiority of African Americans (called darkies in the dialog because the Hayes Office wouldn’t let them use the word nigger), and the presumption that slavery is their natural and rightful place. All that is made worse by the large number of people who even today find this movie’s attitudes acceptable. Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is okay, but boredom sets in after the intermission. In fact, the post-war section is kind of like a slasher flick; x number of characters have to die before the movie ends and you can go home.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

B+

Documentary

Few filmmakers understood color as well as British cinematographer Jack Cardiff. And those who did understand have Cardiff to thank for it.

Early in Craig McCall’s documentary, an aged Cardiff (he died in 2009 at the age of 94) describes his first interview with Technicolor, which had just opened a lab in England. Then a young camera assistant, he told the Technicolor people that he really didn’t know much about the technical side of filmmaking, but had considerable knowledge about Rembrandt and other important painters (Cardiff painted as a hobby). That answer landed him a job that helped make him the master of the three-strip Technicolor format.

cameramanMcCall doesn’t even pretend to provide a warts-and-all portrait. He clearly worships Cardiff—as does Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and other notables interviewed for this film. Cardiff imself comes off as witty, urbane, dashing, friendly, well-read, and smartly dressed, as well as extremely talented.

He also appears to have no private life. The only relatives mentioned even briefly are his music-hall parents (he first worked in movies as a child actor). Wikipedia tells me that “He was survived by his wife and his four sons,” but you’d never know he married from this movie.

But we’re not interested in Cardiff because of his romantic and family life. We’re interested in him because he shot Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Even if you have trouble surrendering to their melodramatic storylines, you have to admit that no other movies used the Technicolor medium as daringly or creatively as these two. Here’s what I wrote about The Red Shoes last year:

…it’s one of the most expressively beautiful color movies ever made.Theredshoescloseup outdoor European locations and lush interiors dazzled, while the rehearsal halls somehow managed to be lovely while looking completely utilitarian.  But it was in the dance numbers—where expressionistic colors were utterly realistic—where Cardiff’s art shined most. There’s a close-up of Moira Shearer’s eyes where her red stage makeup makes her surprise all the more effective.

Cardiff followed those two early works with dozens of additional films (including some he directed). His work was always good, even when the movie wasn’t. But as far as I know, he never again reached the daring and creative levels of those two early works.

McCall doesn’t directly address the fact that, like so many artists, he peaked early. The second half of Cameraman rides on anecdotes—problematic directors and stars, adventures on location—rather than on the subject’s talent and technique.

Color cinematography changed dramatically in the mid-1950s. The screen widened, and color film replaced the difficult and bulky three-strip camera that Cardiff understood better than anyone. McCall never even discusses this transition, which may have partially caused Cardiff’s fall from brilliant innovator to mere excellent craftsman.

McCall’s documentary shines a light on a great and important film artist whose name was never well-known outside the industry (sorry; I couldn’t resist the light metaphor). I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it left me wanting a little less worship and a little more substance.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff opens Friday for a one-week show at the Balboa.

Blu-ray Review: High and Low

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. Now Criterion brings a high-definition copy into your home.

Toshiro Mifune (who else?) stars as a successful highandlowbusinessman 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 the industrialist’s tenuous hold on his company), forcing the man into a moral dilemma. Can he let another man’s son die for his career?

Most of High and Low‘s first half takes place in the living room of a rich man’s house overlooking a teeming city. Kurosawa uses the wide, Tohoscope frame brilliantly in that confined space. A speeding train blasts the film’s setting wide open, and the second half takes us into police headquarters, garbage incinerators, hospitals, and whorehouses.

See my Kurosawa Diary entry for a more detailed discussion of the movie itself.

First Impression

With Criterion, you never have to work your way through trailers to see the movie. highandlowboxInsert the disc, and after a reasonable wait, the main menu comes up.

How It Looks

I was initially disappointed by Criterion’s transfer, but that didn’t last. Early scenes looked grainy, with too much contrast. Even the subtitles were difficult to read. Perhaps there’s no good source for the first reel.

Whatever the problem, it disappeared soon enough. Grays started to appear, along with fine details in walls and curtains. Moving camera shots—and there are quite a few of them—brought a sense of depth that was lacking in earlier video transfers. The train sequence was particularly effective.

The second half contains a lot of squalor, and that too made full use of the high resolution. This is not a pretty picture, but it is one that depends on small visual details to make its dramatic impact. Criterion provides those details generously.

This widescreen black and white film contains two short color shots. Actually, they’re black and white shots with colored smoke added. I’ve never seen them look as good as they do here.

How It Sounds

Toho originally released High and Low with a four-track stereo magnetic soundtrack. Criterion recreates that mix here in lossless, 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. This is the first Blu-ray title I’ve encountered that offered a pre-Dolby stereo mix without lossy compression. (Fox, which invented the four-track format in 1953, has released some films with original 4.0 mixes, but always in lossy Dolby Digital.)

Not that this movie makes heavy use of those four tracks. Although Kurosawa used some form of stereo for 12 of his last 13 films, he tended to use it subtlety. The music over the opening credits have a true stereo wow feeling, but after that, Kurosawa uses the front side speakers rarely but intelligently, while making the center speaker do most of the work. If there’s any surround in this picture, I didn’t notice it.

To my knowledge, none of Kurosawa’s first seven stereo films have ever been released theatrically in this country with anything better than mono sound. That’s a shame, and it should be rectified.

And the Extras

Most of the extras on this disc came with the DVD. They include an interesting commentary by Stephen Prince that discusses everything from crime in Japan in the 1960s, the American source material, and Kurosawa’s multi-camera technique. As with all Criterion Kurosawa discs, it comes with a section from the Japanese TV series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create. There’s also a 1981 TV interview with Toshiro Mifune, and a more recent interview with Tsutomu Yamazaki, who played the kidnapper.

If you like Kurosawa, or if you like noir, this is a disc worth getting.

Jewish Film Festival Report: Cemeteries and Gladiators

I attended two San Francisco Jewish Film Festival events at the Castro today. Here’s what I saw:

C In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery
The last thing you’d expect to find in Berlin is a Jewish cemetery that was consecrated in the 19th century. But Weissensee is just that—a final resting place that the Nazis left alone.

You might guess that a documentary on this subject would devote considerable timeBritta Wauer Film Weissensee Friedhof to this enigma, but director Britta Wauer gives it only seconds. One interview subject tells us that legends warned Germans that there was a curse on Weissensee. Then another says that the SS just didn’t get around to it, and that if the war had lasted a few more months, it would have been desecrated like most of the Jewish cemeteries in Europe.

The rest of the movie tells us about people who are buried there, people who visit deceased relatives, people who work or once worked there, and even people living on the premises. We also learn a bit about Jewish burial practices.

Some of the stories are fascinating, but others just seem to mark time. This made-for-TV documentary makes a reasonably interesting way to kill 90 minutes, if you have nothing better to do.

It plays again on Saturday, August 6, at 4:40, at the Roda Theater in Berkeley.

A Spartacus and the Freedom of Expression Award
Now this was a great way to spend an afternoon!

This year, the Festival presented its Freedom of Expression Award to Hollywood star, kirk-douglas-1living legend, executive producer, and stroke survivor Issur Danielovitch—better known by his professional name: Kirk Douglas. Douglas earned the award more than 50 years ago, when he insisted that black-listed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo receive credit for his screenplay for the 1960 Spartacus (Douglas executive-produced as well as starred in the epic).

Fifteen years after a stroke robbed him of much of his ability to talk, Douglas spoke to the audience in a strong if occasionally difficult-to-understand acceptance speech. He spoke of the importance of free expression in a democracy, and that how without it we are all slaves. He talked about Trumbo’s adaptation of the original novel, written by the equally controversial Howard Fast (“Fast wrote a horrible screenplay”). He mentioned his second Bar Mitzvah in 1999 (at the age of 83), and how he plans to have a third to get himself into the Guinness Book of Records.

Then they screened Spartacus. I’ve only seen it theatrically once before—when it was restored in 1991. Between the Castro’s magnificent screen and the enthusiastic audience, this was easily my best Spartacus experience.

Spartacus is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of toga epics. Yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. One scene tells you more about gladiators than that whole Russell Crowe silliness from 2000. Douglas, Trumbo, and director Stanley Kubrick don’t give us the glory of Rome, but the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of a seemingly invincible dictatorship. It’s a stirring tale of rebellion that leads to inevitable tragedy.

This was one of the great roadshow productions of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Originally shown in reserved-seat theaters at high prices, it runs for over three hours, not including the overture or the intermission. This is a type of weighty epic spectacle that doesn’t exist anymore, and really requires something like the Castro to make it work its best.

My only regret: They screened it in 35mm. It’s better in 70mm (I assume; I’ve never seen it that way), but no such print is currently available.

What’s Screening: July 22 – 28

I’m writing this a week early, so if anything changed at the last minute, it won’t be reflected here.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival plays at the Castro through the week. I’ve listed those screenings at the end of the newsletter. And the Red Vic closes its doors Monday night.

Harold and Maude, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. After Woodstock, this comedy about a young man and a much older woman is the ultimate statement of the hippie generation. I loved it passionately in the 1970′s. But I haven’t seen it in a long time and I’m not sure how well it’s aged. But the Red Vic has chosen it as the theater’s final farewell.

A Bill Plympton in person & Idiots and Angels, Balboa, Monday through Wednesday, 9:00. Bill Plympton made a very bizarre, dark, and funny cartoon, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work. This story of a lonely, angry, and all-together rotten man (at one point he pushes a tear of empathy back into his eye) who inexplicitly sprouts angel wings will make you grimace as well as laugh. Dialog-free, Idiots and Angels reveals its characters by showing us their actions and their daydreams, which are mostly about money and undeserved glory. But no matter what their bearer may be thinking, the wings themselves insist on virtue. Plympton has created a dreadful world filled with dreadful people, yet allows something magical and wonderful to come out of it. Idiots and Angels made my list of the Best Films You Couldn’t See in 2008, and here’s another chance for you to see it. The Monday and Tuesday events will include the shorts “The Cow that Wanted to be a Hamburger”  (described here), and “Tiffany the Whale.” Wednesday night, Plympton will conduct a master class.

A Life Above All, Embarcadero, opens Friday. Children must often carry greater and more difficult burdens than they should bear. Occasionally, an unusual lifeaboveallchild is up to the task. That’s the case with 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) in this remarkably touching film from South Africa. Her baby half-sister just died. Her step-father is a useless drunk. Her mother isn’t well, and is getting worse. Two young half-siblings need care. Her mother’s close friend is more concerned with respectability than love. Her own friend has become a prostitute. Somehow, she must find the strength to fight poverty, disease, and a disapproving community. Read my full review.

A Vengeance is Mine, VIZ Cinema @ New People, Sunday, 2:00. Director Shohei Imamura and screenwriter Masaru Baba take us into the mind of a psychopath in this film, tracking the life of and manhunt for one of Japan’s most notorious serial killers. The result isn’t pretty. The filmmakers treat Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) analytically, neither asking for nor receiving any sympathy for a man incapable of feeling sympathy for others. Yet the film itself is far from cold. For while Enokizu himself fascinates and repels us, Imamura makes us care deeply for the imperfect people whose lives Enokizu touches, ruins, and in some cases terminates. This one stays with you for a long time. Part of the “CLASSIC” SUMMER WEEKENDS series.

A Jaws, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid; and with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jawsscares the living eyeballs out of you.

A On the Town, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00. Three sailors arrive in New York for a 24-hour leave. That’s precious little time to see the sights, drink in the atmosphere, and fall in love. What makes On the Town so special–beyond the great songs, terrific choreography, and witty script–is the prevailing sense of friendship and camaraderie. These three sailors and the women who fall for them all seem to genuinely like each other and care very much for the others’ happiness. The movie also treats sexuality in a surprisingly upbeat and positive way for a 1949 Hollywood feature. The women in the story (Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, and the infinitely funny Betty Garrett) seem at least as motivated by lust as the men (Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and Frank Sinatra). It’s just too bad that screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden updated their own wartime stage musical to the post-war period, losing the urgency that came from not knowing if the sailors would come back alive.

A+ Hitchcock Double Bill: Rear Window & Rope, Stanford, Saturday through rearwindow_thumb[1]Thursday. Rear Window represents Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by watching his neighbors. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder.  Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, and to treat his audience to a great, suspenseful entertainment. Rope, on the other hand, while not Hitchcock’s worst film, is easily his most frustrating. He turned it into a virtual one-shot film, robbing himself of the ability to edit—a distracting and pointless gimmick.

A Hitchcock Double Bill: Vertigo & Psycho, Stanford, Saturday through next Friday. The A goes to Psycho. Contrary to urban myth, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t really want people to stop taking showers. He was, however, inspired by the television show he was then producing, and decided to make a low-budget movie in black and white. On its own, Vertigo earns a D in my book. Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time.Vertigo isn’t like any other Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A Freedom of Expression Award & Spartacus, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. Kirk Douglas Spartacusproduced as well as starred in Spartacus, and made the courageous decision to give blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo a screen credit, and thus helped break the blacklist. That act is large part of why he’s receiving this award. Forgetting the film’s historical significance (it was also Stanley Kubrick’s only work as a director-for-hire), Spartacus is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of toga epics. Yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. One scene tells you more about gladiators than that whole Russell Crowe silliness from 2000. And I can’t think of a better local theater to see it in than the Castro. (Too bad they couldn’t get a 70mm print, however.)

A- 100 Voices: A Journey Home, Castro, Thursday, July 28, 8:15. San Francisco closing night. In 2009, documentarians Danny Gold and Matthew Asner followed 100100Voices American cantors as they flew to Poland for a concert tour and a return to their personal and professional roots. The resulting film follows many stories: the art and history of cantorial singing, the long history of Jews in Poland, the Holocaust, and a new, Polish resurgence of interest in Jewish culture. Gold and Asner weave these threads into a touching, fascinating, and triumphant garment without ever getting them tangled. I do wish, however, that they’d given more time to pre-WWII Jewish-Polish relations. On the other hand, the movie is filled with beautiful music. Some sounds like opera, some like jazz, but all of it is deeply spiritual and unquestionably Jewish.

B- Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology, Castro, Saturday, 4:30. Tiffany Shlain had Tree-of-Life-level ambitions for her documentary about life, human evolution, networking, her father’s terminal cancer, and her own difficult pregnancy. Although she made an entertaining movie, she failed to make a profound one. Like most autobiographical documentaries, much ofConnected Connected comes off as self-centered. But more of it is Daddy-centered; the movie worships her father (surgeon and best-selling author Leonard Shlain) to the point of idolatry. While this is emotionally understandable—she made the film while he was dying—it’s not good filmmaking. When not dealing with family health problems, Connected looks at the networks human beings have created, and the essential connectedness of everything. In doing so, it offers no insights that a reasonably educated and curious person would not have found elsewhere. So why do I give it an even moderately positive B-? Because Shlain is at least an entertaining documentarian if not a deep one. Connected contains many clever, informative, and often funny cartoons (animated by Stefan Nadelman), and uses old movie clips in amusing and original ways.

Jews In Toons, Castro, Monday, 7:00. Three episodes from three different animated primetime sitcoms. I’ve never seen the South Park episode "The Passion Of The Jew," or Family Guy’s "When You Wish Upon A Weinstein" (to be honest, I’ve never seen Family Guy). But I can tell you with full authority that The Simpsons’ episode, "Like Father, Like Clown," is very funny, although it’s not one of the best.

C+ Next Year in Bombay, Castro, Thursday, 1:30. Did you know there are Jews in India? NextYearinBombayNot once-British Jews who stayed behind when the Empire collapsed, but people who are racially and ethnically Indian, yet identify themselves as Jews and practice the religion. For too much of this too-short documentary, filmmakers Jonas Parienté, and Mathias Mangin seem content to let us marvel at that very fact. But in its second half, as it looks at a small, Jewish peasant village (seen through the eyes of a young, urban, educated Bombay Jew), and then deals with questions of immigration to Israel, it dips into profound issues of Jewish identity. But it doesn’t give these issues the time they deserve. The festival will precede this 55-minute feature with a 19-minute short, “Starring David.”

Life, Above All

A drama

  • Written by Dennis Foon and Oliver Schmit
  • Directed by  Oliver Schmit

Children must often carry greater and more difficult burdens than they should bear. Occasionally, an unusually capable child is up to the task.

That’s the case with Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) in this remarkably touching and emotional film from South Africa. Only 12 years old, her father long dead, Chanda’s baby half-sister has just died. Her step-father is a useless drunk. Her mother isn’t well, and is getting sicker. Two young half-siblings need care. The family’s one close friend is more concerned with respectability than love.  Her own best friend has become a prostitute.

Because the word is not spoken until quite late in the film, I’m not going to name the scourge that is destroying lives all around her. You can probably guess it (I did). It’s shocking how this disease, so common in that part of the world, is still taboo. The shame of having it, or of someone in your family having it, is worse than the disease itself.

Chanda is an amazing, intelligent, and loving girl at the beginning of adolescence. She does very well at school–at least before family problems begin to take their toll. She remains loyal to friends and family even when her loyalty shocks and offends the community. In one scene she escapes her crushing responsibilities to attend a party and flirt with a boy, and we get a tantalizing glimpse of the happy life she could have in other circumstances–and may one time find for herself.

Life, Above All depends entirely on Khomotso Manyaka’s performance. Manyaka was only 13 when the film was shot, and without acting experience. Yet she brings depth, courage, tragedy, and charisma to the roll of a girl forced to grow beyond her years. Just as I want the fictitious Chanda to get the life she deserves, so I hope that Manyaka enjoys the successful career that her talent should bring her.

I saw  Life, Above All at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. Manyaka was there in person (as was director Oliver Schmit). When the young actress spoke to the audience, she was a typical shy teenager–very different from the character she played.

Silent Film Festival, Opening Night

I attended both San Francisco Silent Film Festival opening night screenings last night at the Castro. I didn’t attend the party, which conflicted with the second show. That was an easy choice.

Upstream

The festival opened with a newly discovered John Ford film. Thought lost for decades, a tinted print of Upstlream turned up recently in New Zealand.

The movie was introduced by Schawn Belston of 20th Century Fox and Joe Lindner of the Academy Film Archive. They made it clear that this was a preservation, not a restoration. The difference? Their goal was to create a new negative that was as close as possible to this one existing nitrate print, not as close as possible to what the film might have looked like when it was new.

And it certainly did not look like a new film. The source print had suffered from considerable nitrate decomposition. But it was still enjoyable.

The feature was preceded by a newly preserved short comedy, “Why Husbands Flirt.”

Upstream is an amusing and entertaining trifle about the residents of a theatrical boarding house. There’s a love triangle at the center. The movie in no way feels like anything one would call a John Ford film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It showed that he was considerably more versatile than we generally assume.

The Sosin Ensemble provided excellent accompaniment. Silent film fans already know Donald Sosin as an excellent composer and pianist. For this movie, he put together a jazz sextet that probably made the movie more enjoyable than it would otherwise be. They rocked the house.

After the movie, we were treated to a surprise: a widescreen trailer for Abel Gance’s Napoleon, followed by a brief talk by Kevin Brownlow. A new restoration of this classic will play the Oakland Paramount next year—four dates in late March and early April. Carl Davis, one of the leading lights in silent film accompaniment, will conduct a full orchestra. This will be the first time Napoleon has played in the US in 30 years, and the first time ever with the Davis score.

Sunrise

The second feature of the night is better known—and a much better film. Sunrise is widely and rightly considered one of the great masterpieces of the cinema. Let me quote my newsletter blurb:

Haunting, romantic, and impressionistic, F. W. Murnau’s first American feature sunriseturns the mundane into the fantastic and the world into a work of art. The plot is simple: A marriage, almost destroyed by another woman, is healed by a day of reconciliation and romance in the big city. But the execution, with its stylized sets, beautiful photography, and talented performers, makes it both touchingly personal and abstractly mythological.

In this screening, I noticed something interesting. Although Sunrise was shot in Hollywood, and includes a written introduction that says this story could happen anywhere and everywhere, the setting is clearly European. A clear concept of a rural peasant class keeps cropping up, most obviously in the “peasant dance” done to  honor the lead couple. Notice how the husband feels as if he’s being insulted when the music (identified with an insert shot of titled sheet music) begins.

Aw, yes—music. Basically a silent film, the 1927 Sunrise was one of the first films released with a soundtrack (music and effects, only). But the San Francisco Silent Film Festival  doesn’t play recorded tracks. They presented this masterpiece with the world premiere of a new score written and performed by Giovanni Spinelli on solo electric guitar.

I wish I could say it worked beautifully, but I can’t. At best, I can say it worked beautifully on occasion. When things are going bad in the story and the husband is contemplating murder, Spinelli’s discordant riffs heightened and enhanced the drama. The rest of the time, it was a distracting annoyance. It hit its low point in the barber shop and photography studio scenes, where it effectively killed the comedy. I wonder if Spinelli knew that those two scenes are supposed to be funny.

Scheduling conflicts will keep me away from the rest of this year’s festival. I’ll be missing a lot of great stuff.

What’s Screening: July 15 – 21

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival continues through Sunday. San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday night.

Also, this is the Red Vic’s last full week of operation, and they’re going out with a big week. I’m grouping their programs at the end of the newsletter, as if they were a festival.

A Terri, Bridge, California (Berkeley), opens Friday. Terri (newcomer Jacob Wysocki) has problems well beyond those of your average adolescent. For one thing, he’s extremely overweight. He lives with a metally-ill uncle, forcing him into caregiver responsibilities. He dresses only in pajamas, and gets to school late almost every day. On the upside, the school’s guidance counselor (the always dependable and wonderful John C. Riley) has taken an interest in Terri. Maybe that’s not such an upside; this counselor didn’t strike me as particularly competent. Azazel Jacobs’ second feature walks a wonderfully fine line between comedy and drama, finding the humor in Terri’s situation—and the situations of other sufferers around him—without ever sacrificing empathy. The filmmakers show a keen and sympathetic eye for the reality of adolescence. Read my full review.

A I Was Born, But…, Castro, Friday, 4:15. Ozu’s late silent (1932) comedy/drama sees the world through the eyes of two bothers– sons of a man rising in the corporate world. They love and worship their father, and are shocked by his submissiveness to those above him in his job. Funny, touching, and very true. Musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

1900, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00. I saw Bertolucci’s semi-Marxist historical epic many, many years ago, and was very impressed at the time. On the other hand, I saw the full cut, which ran over five hours. The PFA will screen the four-hour version originally released in this country. Whatever the length, the story follows the lives of two close friends, one an aristocrat, the other working class (Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu), both born at the beginning of the 20th century. Part of the series Bernardo Bertolucci: In Search of Mystery.

A- Buster Keaton Double Bill: Sherlock Jr. & Seven Chances, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. It takes guts for a theater other than the Castro to show silent films this weekend, but the Stanford is doing it. About the movies: There’s nothing new about special effects, and in Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton used them to comment on the nature of film itself, entering the movie screen and finding the scenes change around him. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr. is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags. Seven Chances isn’t as well-respected, which is a shame, because it’s one of his funniest features, and IMHO superior to Sherlock Jr. Watch it with an audience, and you seldom get a chance not to laugh. But be warned: By today’s standards, Seven Chances is extremely racist and sexist. Accompanied by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

A- Double bill: Billy Elliot & 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Castro, Monday, 7:00. Working-class boys in an English mining town—especially an English mining town in the grip of a horrific strike—are expected to grow up to be he-men. But Billy Elliot wants to be a ballet dancer in this story of father-son strife set against a greater class struggle. The only Dr. Seuss feature film made during his lifetime, 5,000 Fingers is as creative, visually daring, and funny as any kid’s fantasy ever to come out of Hollywood. At least that’s how I remember it, many years from my last screening. Even the sets, photographed in three-strip Technicolor, look as if Seuss had painted them himself. The cast of the current Billy Elliot stage musical will be in attendance before the movies.

B+ Mabul (The Flood), Castro, Thursday, 6:30. Jewish Film Festival opening night. The plot is similar to A Serious Man and Sixty Six, but Guy Nattiv’s drama about a Bar Mitzvah in a dysfunctional family couldn’t be more different. Bar Mitzvah boy Yoni sells completed MabulTheFloodhomework to other kids, can’t please the rabbi (you’d think a Bar Mitzvah would be easy for a  native Hebrew speaker), and deeply resents his parents—with good reason. His mother is having an affair and his father is an irresponsible pothead. To make matters worse, his extremely autistic brother, who really belongs in an institution, comes to live with them. Nattiv doesn’t leaven the story with humor, or even with much warmth, resulting in a harrowing, merciless look at a family coming apart at the seams. The last act, with a suspenseful climax and a somewhat upbeat ending, feels tacked on.

A+ The Godfather, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable son inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he seems exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece, recently restored by the master of the craft, Robert A. Harris.

Variations on a Theme, Castro, Saturday, noon. For the second year in a row, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will bring the various musicians performing this year on stage to talk about the craft of scoring a silent film. Last year it turned into a riveting argument between the traditionalists and the experimentalists. Let’s hope it’s as exciting and controversial this year.

A Hitchcock Double Bill: Vertigo and Psycho, Stanford, Saturday through next Friday. The A goes to Psycho. Contrary to urban myth, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t really want people to stop taking showers. He was, however, inspired by the television show he was then producing, and so decided to make a low-budget movie in black and white. On its own, Vertigo earns a D in my book. Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time.Vertigo isn’t like any other Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty.

    Red Vic

    A Touch of Evil, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and one of his few Hollywood studio features. He lacked the freedom he found in Europe,touchofevil but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress (although Psycho should have taught her to avoid seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say.

    A+ The Last Waltz, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thanksgiving night, 1976, The Band played their final concert at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom. Among their performing guests were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Joni Mitchell. The filmmakers were just as talented, with great cinematographers like Michael Chapman and Vilmos Zsigmond handling the cameras and art director Boris Leven designing the set, all under the direction of Martin Scorsese. No wonder this was the greatest rock concert movie ever made. Scorsese and company ignored the audience and focused on the musicians, creating an intimate look at great artists who understood that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

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

    Blu-ray Review: Buster Keaton, The Short Films Collection

    Full disclosure: I’m reviewing a Blu-ray set that I don’t even have. Kino accidentally sent me the DVD set rather than the Blu-ray. In fairness, this may be my fault. When I emailed a request for a review copy, I neglected to specify what format.

    Luckily, the content of the two sets are identical, so I think I can pull this off. I just won’t write about the transfers.

    In the early 1920’s, Buster Keaton made 19 two-reel short comedies. These were his first films as a director (co-director, actually), and the first in which he had creative control. You can consider these a prelude to the great features to come (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and so on). You can also approach them as 19 very funny short comedies, each running about 20 minutes.

    The movies in this three-disc set are presented in the order they were made, which, with one exception (“The High Sign”), was the order they were released.

    Quality invariably varies with shorts, but none of the ones I’ve seen (I admit that I have not yet finished the entire set; I’m savoring them) are absolute stinkers. Some of these films—“One Week,” “The Goat,” “Cops”–are unquestionably masterpieces. Others (such as “Neighbors” and “Convict 13”) have slow spots but reward you with occasional big laughs.

    As I go through the collection, I’m surprised how many I haven’t seen in decades. Or not at all. I vaguely recall having seen “The Haunted House” in a theater, probably in the late 1970s. Returning to it now, it became one of my favorites (although the gag where he plays traffic cop in a hallway crowded with ghosts wasn’t as funny as I remembered it to be). The first half, set in a bank, has the funniest mess-with-a-glue-pot routine I’ve ever seen. Somehow, getting glue all over everything is funnier that everything includes large wads of paper money. The haunted house of the title has a staircase that turns instantly into a slide at the worst possible times. Keaton falls down it many times, but never the same way twice.

    Some, like “The Paleface,” I had never seen before.

    How It Looks

    Yes, I promised that I wouldn’t discuss the transfer, but I can still discuss the quality of the film prints from which those transfers were made. And for films this old, that’s a very important part of the equation. You can make a lousy transfer from a great print, but you can’t even made a mediocre transfer from a lousy one.

    The print quality varies considerably more than the quality of Keaton’s work. At their best, the prints are acceptable, although nowhere near as good as what’s available for the later features. At their worst, they’re almost unwatchable. This is especially the case with “Hard Luck,” which was thought lost when Keaton died. The gray scale on this print is so bad that it looks more like a bad xerox copy of a bad xerox copy than a piece of celluloid. It’s also missing pieces of film, including the ending.

    Kino includes two versions of some shorts—standard and digitally enhanced.

    How It Sounds

    Neither the box, the included booklet, nor the press release mention anything about musical accompaniment. Each film has accompaniment, of course, but you have to wait until the end to see who did it.

    The scores I’ve listened to have been serviceable, but not exceptional.

    And the Extras

    The three-disc set comes with 15 four-to-eight-minute video essays—almost one for every film. I’ve yet to find one that wasn’t very much worth listening to. Each essay consists of a narrator talking over film clips about a specific film. Some use that particular movie as a jumping off point for another issue, such as a leading lady or intertitle restoration. Each essay was written by a noted scholar, but some are read by someone other than the author.

    Other features include outtakes, excerpts from comedies influenced by Keaton, and two shorts with Keaton cameos.

    I can assure you that if you love Keaton, the DVD set is worth considering. I suspect the Blu-ray set is even better.

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