When I saw Alps last spring at the San Francisco International Film Festival, it amused but perplexed me, and I gave it a positive but lukewarm B. Several people then told me that I needed to see Giorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, Dogtooth.

Last night, I saw Dogtooth, and they were right. It had the strange, dark, downplayed humor of Alps, but it also made sense. This story of a family so loving its criminal was an experience to savor.

By the way, I streamed Dogtooth off HuluPlus. You probably already know that Hulu streams almost the entire Criterion Collection. But they also offer excellent films from Miramax and Kino–the company presenting Dogtooth to American audiences.

But back to the picture:

Here we have the perfect, upper-middleclass nuclear family: a dad who’s a successful executive, a stay-at-home mom, and three home-schooled teenagers. imageAnd when I say "stay-at-home mom," I mean it. She hasn’t left the property in years. As far as I could tell, the kids have never left. Their parents brazenly lie to them, scaring them with dangers of the outside world and making up fake definitions for problematic words. When the son, at the dinner table, asks his mom to "Please pass the phone," she gives him the salt and he accepts it.

But the son and two daughters have reached an age where they need another kind of companionship. By the time we meet the family, they’ve found a solution for the boy. A young woman–a security guard in the dad’s company–visits on a regular basis to have sex with the son. She does it not for love or desire, but for cash, although she’s developed a moderate friendship with his two sisters. But even that becomes sexual in a weird, suppressed way.

Dogtooth contains several sex scenes, some nearly as explicit as hardcore pornography, and it occasionally even slips across that line. There’s one inarguably hardcore shot–apparently from a real porn flick–briefly visible on television, and I suspect that one sex scene between main characters was for real. Not that they looked like they were having fun. Lanthimos films sex as if it’s a boring and somewhat annoying chore. There’s nothing remotely erotic in Dogtooth.

Nor should there be. These people are emotionally stunted, and incapable of real pleasure or excitement. This is especially true with the oldest daughter (no one in the family has a name). She brims with violent feelings that sometimes come out in violent actions. In an early scene, she cuts body parts off one of her dolls while screaming in mock terror and pain. Later, she will do much worse.

Lanthimos shot and cut Dogtooth in a style so plain and matter-of-fact that it becomes avant-garde. The camera looks straight on, seldom or never moving, with few cuts. People’s faces are frequently out of the shot. The actors play their parts in a reserved, almost deadpan way. As any Buster Keaton fan knows, properly-done deadpan delivery makes the gags funnier.

And make no mistake about it: Despite some horrifying outbursts of violence, Dogtooth will make you laugh, even when the cold darkness of its satire sears your bones in the terror of what some parents will do out of what they think is love.

Which brings up another issue: Are Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou going after more than just overly-protective parents? I think so. As with Alps, I suspect that there’s a political agenda to this family story. These parents could represent a totalitarian government, providing their children (the citizens?) with everything they need except freedom and the truth.

I’m giving Dogtooth an A.

What’s Screening: September 28 – October 4

This is a big week for festivals. The Palo Alto International Film Festival opened last night and closes Sunday. Berlin & Beyond also opened last night, but runs through the week. Both the Irish Film Festival and the Action/Sports Film Festival open today (Friday) and run through Sunday. The Italian Film Festival opens Saturday night and plays only on Saturday nights into November. And the biggest festival of the season, the Mill Valley Film Festival, opens Thursday night for an 11-day run.

Not surprisingly, most of the films below are playing at a festival,.

A Lawrence of Arabia, a great many theaters, Thursday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece isn’t worth seeing on DVD, and loses much in 35mm. Shot in Super Panavision 70, it takes a very large screen and 70mm film (or, arguably, 4K DCP digital projection) to do Lawrence justice. Because this is a Fathom event, I suspect it will be shown on some very large screens, all of them digital. However, it will be sent over satellite, and will probably lack the image quality of DCP–let alone 4K. For more on the Fathom experience, see Watching Casablanca, Digitally Projected, at a Big Multiplex. For more on the film in an optimal environment, see Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia.

The Tin Drum — Director’s Cut, Castro, Saturday, 8:45.  I saw this film at least twice at the UC Theatre, and loved it. But I haven’t seen it in a very long time, and therefore won’t give it a grade here. And, of course, I’ve never seen the newly-restored Director’s Cut, which gets its West Coast premiere Saturday night. Actor Mario Adorf in person. Part of the Berlin & Beyond festival.

B+ On the Road, Rafael, Thursday, 6:30 & 6:45 (in different auditoriums). Jose Rivera and Walter Salles came maddeningly close to making a great film out of Jack Kerouac’s highly-regarded, biographical  novel. The sense of time and place are letter-perfect. The characters are rich, surprising, believable, and sexy. On the Road captures the dizzy and seductive joys of a drug-soaked and sexually wild youth, as well as the less joyful results of this lifestyle. The lead performers, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame) bring wild abandon, sexual urgency, and subtle characterization to their roles. But in trying to capture the full arc of the novel, it bogs down at times, and the picture is marred by stunt casting in the smaller roles. Opening night of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Moby Dick (1956 version), Balclutha (Hyde Street Pier), Saturday, 7:30. I haven’t seen this film (directed by John Huston, from a screenplay by Huston and Ray Bradbury) in decades, and I don’t remember being all that impressed. On the other hand, what better way to see any version of Moby Dick than on a sailing ship on the water? See Memories of Ray Bradbury for an amusing anecdote of the film’s making.

A- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Aquarius, Sunday, 12:30. Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because mr_smith_goes_to_washingtonthey think he’s stupid. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness today, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to the throat of any leftwing American patriot. And it’s just plain entertaining. Part of the Palo Alto International Film Festival.

C+ Side by Side, Palo Alto Square, Saturday, 5:00. How do today’s leading filmmakers feel about the seemingly inevitable transition from a photochemical, film-based cinema to a digital one? Short answer: Many have enthusiastically embraced digital cinema, and the rest accept that physical film’s days are numbered. But film still has some clear advantages. For most of this documentary’s runtime, narrator/producer Keanu Reeves interviews high-profile directors and cinematographers, along with a few editors, timers, and technicians, as they discuss the current revolution. The film gives room to people on both sides of controversy (in other words, George Lucas and Christopher Nolan), but the picture seems weighted in favor of going digital. Concentrating almost entirely on the issue of how movies should be shot,  it ignores the many controversies about the conversion in theaters. Read my full review. Part of the Palo Alto International Film Festival.

A Spirited Away, California Theatre (Berkeley), Friday. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. Part of the series The Studio Ghibli Collection, 1984 – 2009, which the California has held over for another week. New 35mm print, with the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

Getting ready for the Mill Valley Film Festival? Here are four films that I’ve been able to preview:

A The Central Park Five, Rafael, Saturday, October 6, 3:30; Monday, October 8, 3:15. In 1989, a white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. New York’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation, even though there was no physical evidence that they committed the crime and considerable evidence that they did not. Ken Burns sets aside his usual historical style to examine this far more recent story of five young men convicted of a horrible crime that they did not commit. Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is.

B+ On the Road, Rafael, Thursday, October 4, 6:30 & 6:45 (in different auditoriums). Jose Rivera and Walter Salles came maddeningly close to making a great film out of Jack Kerouac’s highly-regarded novel. The sense of time and place are letter-perfect. The characters are rich, surprising, believable, and sexy. On the Road captures the dizzy and seductive joys of a drug-soaked and sexually wild youth, as well as the less joyful results of this lifestyle. The lead performers, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame) bring wild abandon, sexual urgency, and subtle characterization to their roles. But in trying to capture the full arc of the novel, it bogs down at times, and the picture is marred by stunt casting in the smaller roles.

B Last Man on Earth, Sequoia, Tuesday, October 9, 9:30; Rafael, Thursday, October 11, 7:15. For the first half of this unclassifiable Italian feature, the aliens arriving on Earth are just background noise. The film is far more concerned with Luca (Gabriele Spinelli), a repressed waiter who can barely talk to his co-workers and spies on an attractive female neighbor. Then the aliens start interacting with the Earthlings and things get really weird. The first two scenes lead you to believe that you’re about to watch a droll and very funny dark comedy, but the picture is serious to its core–examining homophobia and misogyny, and with one very disturbingly violent scene. All these conflicting styles and approaches never really come together as a whole. But the good scenes, and there are many, outweigh the weak ones.

C Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Rafael, Sunday, October 7, 6:30; Sequoia, October 14, 5:00. This southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script. Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving patriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him–one of them with a wife and son. Then Jim’s ex-wife dies, and her second husband and his grown children arrive with mommy’s body in tow for a culture clash funeral. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs. Thornton wanted to make a great drama about war and the 1960s (the film is set in 1969), but he didn’t succeed. Both shows sold out; rush tickets will be available at showtime.

The Grand Lake Theater

I promised in yesterday’s post that I’d write about Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, the only place in the area screening The Master in its ideal format, 70mm.

One of the few great remaining movie palaces in the Bay Area–at least one of the few still showing first-run movies–the Grand Lake combines classic architecture with top-notch projection and audio. Although it has been converted from a single-screen palace to a four-screen multiplex, it retains it’s opulent design.

It does that two ways: By respecting the original lobby, and by keeping the main, downstairs portion of the original theater intact. With its high roof, giant proscenium, and sweeping design, that auditorium is not just a place to screen movies, but a temple of the cinema. There’s even a pipe organ, and we were treated to a concert before the movie.

How many movies have I seen on that screen? I don’t remember, but they include No Nukes, The Princess Bride, Jurassic Park (my first movie with digital sound), Schindler’s List, The Lion King, Shrek, The Mask of Zorro, the last Star Wars movie, and Peter Jackson’s King Kong. In 70mm, I saw ET, Ghostbusters, and a revival of the original Star Wars.

In 1981, the balcony was walled off and turned into a separate auditorium, also with a huge screen and 70mm capabilities. A few years later, two small theaters were carved out of neighboring stores, without hurting the existing theaters. Although they were given palace-like designs, and one of them even supports 70mm,  their small screens make them less than idea when you want that big picture experience.

Appropriately, they’re currently screening The Master in the big, downstairs screen. The theater was nearly sold out Saturday night.

But I saw something that disappointed me when I stepped into the theater–the screen. The beautiful curtain from past visits was gone.

I also noticed, as I walked passed the projection booth, that it had two film projectors (yes, the Grand Lake can do changeover) but no digital projector.

Before the movie started, I was lucky enough to run into Allen Michaan, who has owned the theater since 1980. He told me that the theater is losing money. Despite the very big business that night, people just aren’t going there to see movies much.

This puts him in a bad spot about digital projection. He’s installed it in the two small theaters (one of them has two digital projectors for the best possible 3D). He doesn’t know how he’ll pay for it in the bigger theaters, or what will happen if he can’t. The Grand Lake may be one of those theaters killed by the digital conversion.

About the missing curtain: It’s still there, permanently open. They need to fix the rigging before they can lower it again. That will cost about $11,000 that they don’t have.

So now you have four reasons to patronize the Grand Lake. First, it’s a wonderful theater. Second, it’s the only place in the area screening The Master in 70mm. Third, they need the money. And finally, you may not have a choice before too long.

Photo copyright: Tom Paiva 1991

The Master, by a Master, in Masterly 70mm

My wife and I caught The Master last night, in 70mm, in the Grand Lake‘s main, full movie-palace auditorium. If you care at all about quality films, you must see The Master. and if you care at all about how you see them, you should see it in 70mm.

And in the Bay Area, that means seeing it at the Grand Lake in Oakland. It’s the only theater showing the film in 70mm between Los Angeles and Seattle. (I’ll write another post about the theater shortly.)

As I mentioned in When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm, The Master was shot in the 70mm format, which technically speaking means it was shot on 65mm film, to be screened in 70mm (the extra five millimeters are for the soundtrack). The larger film, with a frame nearly three times the size of standard 35mm, provides a less grainy, more detailed image–photochemical high definition. 70mm projection shows more of that detail, and provides a brighter, steadier image than conventional 35mm.

(Many find 4k digital projection superior to 70mm for showing films shot in 65mm. For more on this, see More on Samsara, 70mm, and 4K Digital Projection.)

One more techy, geeky comment before going on to the film’s contents: Writer/director imagePaul Thomas Anderson, having chosen to shoot The Master in 65mm, then decided not to use the entire frame. He had the sides of the frame masked off to what looked to me like the 1.85×1, standard widescreen aspect ratio. This seems odd to me, for two reasons. First, he’s not using all of that great image. Second, every other feature Anderson has made was shot in anamorphic scope. He’s clearly at home with a wide aspect ratio.

Okay, on to the film, itself:

As you probably know, Anderson loosely based The Master on Scientology and it’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. But this is no more a critique of Hubbard’s cult than Citizen Kane is an attack on Hearst newspapers. It’s the story of two very different men and the strange, dependent relationship between them. One of them is clearly based on Hubbard.

But the other man carries the story. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in the best performance of his I’ve seen) seems about as worthless as a person can get. When we first meet him, he’s a sailor in the last days of World War II. He’s an alcoholic with a knack for creating his own drinks out of stuff no sane person would swallow. If there is such a thing as a sex addict, he is one (in one scene, he imagines all of the women at a party to be naked). After the war, he becomes a drifter whose violent temper keeps him from holding a steady job.

Then he stows away on a very large yacht, and soon finds himself on friendly terms with the yacht’s owner–writer, philosopher, and cult-leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in another of many great performances). Lancaster is everything that Freddie is not. He’s friendly, loved, charismatic, intelligent, and the head of a large family and a larger community. It’s easy to see what attracts Freddy to Lancaster, but harder to see what Lancaster sees in Freddie. Perhaps he sees a bit of himself in the young drifter, or perhaps a soul he can save.

Neither man is trustworthy. Freddy steals from his hosts, and Lancaster runs what he may or may not consciously realize is a scam. Both have short fuses. When a skeptic challenges Lancaster, he bursts out in an angry and intimidating verbal attack. Freddy, on the other hand, attacks with his fists. As he becomes a true believer, he uses violence against those who criticize Lancaster. The cult leader reprimands him for the violence, but not too much.

Amy Adams gives The Master’s third great performance, as Lancaster’s much-younger wife (he also has grown children and jokingly refers to former wives). Sweet on the outside but hard as nails, Adam’s Peggy Dodd is a true believer in her husband’s invented religion, and sees what it needs clearer than he does. (She’s also very pregnant through most of the film.) She warns him about Freddy. She dictates her husband’s book as he types what she says. In one bathroom scene, she almost angrily jacks off Lancaster when explaining what he may or may not do with other women. (I am so glad I first saw Adams in Enchanted; I never could have accepted her in that role if I’d seen her in this film, or The Fighter, first.)

If you’ve seen any of his other films, you know that Anderson is a master at creating characters, writing dialog, and coaching performances out of actors. He’s also a master at photographing them. He has a John Ford-like ability to find the exact right place to set the camera, and in doing so make his characters symbolic archetypes while still being flesh-and-blood individuals. When Freddy recalls the one true love of his life, the flashback includes one amazing close-up of the girl, with focus so tight that her face is sharp but her hair out of focus. Memory fades as it moves away from us.

The Master has received mostly lukewarm reviews, with critics complaining that it doesn’t fully explain Lancaster’s wild, pseudo-scientific theories and suspect therapeutic techniques. I disagree. We see enough of the therapy to see how it works, and hear enough of the theories to realize that Lancaster is a complete crackpot. Besides, the story is about the two men, not Scientology (or, as it’s referred to in the film, The Cause).

The Master‘s other flaw, also noted by many critics, is real. As the story moves along, it becomes obvious that it has nowhere to go. It just putters out, without a real third act. It never becomes bad or boring, but the second half lacks the urgency and discovery of the first.

To my mind, that flaw knocks The Master down to an A-. This is still a powerful and exceptional film.

What’s Screening: September 21 – 27

The Third I South Asian Film Festival continues through Sunday (and will resurrect for one day next week). If you’re looking for a strange, out-door movie-going experience, the Brainwash Movie Festival returns tonight and plays through Sunday. Berlin & Beyond, the Palo Alto Int’l Film Festival and Hong Kong Cinema all open Thursday night.

B- Somewhere Between, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday. Linda Goldstein Knowlton, somewhere_betweenherself the new mother of an adopted Chinese daughter, follows the lives of four now-teenage adoptees to discover how their split Chinese and American identities work out. Somewhere Between just glides along for the first half of its 88-minute runtime, then takes off in the second half, when it latches onto two amazing stories. One concerns a teenage girl’s relationship to a baby suffering from cerebral palsy; the other a girl who successfully tracks down her birth family. But the film is essentially shallow, skipping over many issues that adopted children and their parents have to deal with. Read my full review. Filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton and subject Fang Lee In Person Friday & Saturday.

C+ Dial M For Murder, Festival Village, Thursday, 9:00. Presented in 3D; free. John Ford never made a 3D movie. Neither did Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin. But Alfred Hitchcock did–the only major auteur to try the stereoscopic medium before the 21st century. Dial M isn’t great Hitchcock–it’s pretty much a straightforward adaptation of a stage play–but it’s a good play and Hitchcock knew what to do with it. Forced against his will to use the new-fangled double-lens camera, Hitchcock pretty much ignored the obvious 3D effects popular at the time. But when he finally throws something at the camera, he knows exactly what to throw and when to throw it. Note: I haven’t seen this film in 3D in about 30 years. I might give it a higher score if I did. Opening night of the Palo Alto Int’l Film Festival.

A Double Bill: Inglourious Basterds & There Will Be Blood, Castro, Sunday. The A goes to There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson’s small, character-driven films always felt like epics, so there’s no surprise how well he manages the real thing. Based on a Upton Sinclair novel called Oil! (the name change makes no sense), There Will be Blood is big, sprawling, and spectacular, and captures not just a moment in history but a 30-year transition in the life of a man with frightful ambitions and even more frightful inner demons. Read my full review. I don’t have anywhere near as high a regard for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (Tarantini’s spelling, not mine), but I can’t deny the modest pleasures of this Holocaust revenge fantasy. Even as I thought of the plot’s inherent absurdity (Why would these Jewish American soldiers do better than the French resistance?), I enjoyed the clever dialog, some good performances, the movie references, and the sheer audacity. Part of the Castro’sTrajectory of the Titans series of Tarantino/Anderson double bills.

B The Cat and the Canary, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. Americans in the 1920s just couldn’t take haunted houses seriously. But they sure enjoyed laughing at them. Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charley Bowers all made very funny short subjects set in spooky, old mansions. And this feature, never intended to be taken seriously, provides plenty of good laughs as well. The plot involves, of course, the reading of an eccentric millionaire’s will. Dennis James will accompany this silent movie on the Wurlitzer pipe organ. Part of the Stanford’s massive celebration of Universal Picture’s 100th anniversary.

A Spirited Away, California Theatre (Berkeley), Friday. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. Part of the two week-long series The Studio Ghibli Collection, 1984 – 2009. New 35mm print, with the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles.

A The Manchurian Candidate (1962 version), Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Bad dreams keep bothering Korean War veterans Lawrence Harvey and Frank Sinatra. Were they brainwashed by Communists? And where do the rabid anti-Communists  fit in? Easily the best political thriller to come out of the cold war, The Manchurian Candidate finds villains on both political extremes. As the nominal hero, Sinatra proves he really was an actor, but Angela Lansbury steals the film as the screen’s most evil mother–a woman of outsized beliefs and a burning hatred of anyone who disagrees with her. Read my Blu-ray review.

C+ Dracula (1931 version), Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. The film that started Universal’s famed horror series, and the first to star Bela Lugosi in the role that made him famous, really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies, especially those based on stage plays. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless. On a double bill with The Old Dark House, which I’ve never seen but should, as it was directed by the great James (Bride of Frankenstein) Whales.

A The African Queen, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Thursday. Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Africa, and Technicolor all make for splendid entertainment in John Huston’s romantic comedy action adventure. The start of World War I traps an earthy working-class mechanic (Bogart) and a prim and proper missionary (Hepburn) behind enemy lines and hundreds of miles of jungle. It’s a bum and a nun on the run, facing rapids, insects, alcohol (he’s for it; she’s against it), German guns, and an unusual (for Hollywood) romance between two moderately-attractive middle-aged people in filthy clothes. Beautifully restored.

Somewhere Between

B- Documentary

  • Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton

Approximately 35,000 Chinese girls have been adopted by American families since 1985 (reference). Linda Goldstein Knowlton, herself the new mother of an adopted Chinese daughter, follows the lives of four now-teenage adoptees to discover how their split Chinese and American identities work out. Her uneven film is often flat, and skips over a lot of issues, but has moments of sublime grace.

Full disclosure: I have two adopted Asian daughters, one of whom is from China. My wife knows one of the girls featured slightly .

Somewhere Between does little besides glide along for the first half of its 88-minute runtime. We meet the girls, all of whom seem surprisingly well-behaved and well-adjusted for teenagers of any nationality. Some of them have had to deal with the somewhere_betweenoccasional stupid, racist remark, but they all seem capable of shrugging that off.

Much more interesting are the abandonment issues they all have to deal with. China instituted a one-child policy in 1979, and a great many couples desperately wanted that child to be a son. Thus, parents gave up their daughters to orphanages, and eventually to Western parents. It’s not easy knowing that the mother that bore you rejected you because of your gender.

But the picture really takes off in the second half, when it latches onto two amazing stories. One of the film’s subjects, Fang Lee (who is, by the way, local), visits a Chinese orphanage and falls in love with a baby suffering from cerebral palsy. Over a period of years, Fang helps the little girl from a distance and in visits to China. Eventually, she helps arrange for an American family to adopt her.

The other amazing story involves Haley Butler, who wants desperately to find her birth parents–something that’s considered almost impossible. Through detective work on various visits to China, posters with her baby pictures, and eventually DNA testing, she succeeds. The reunion is both amazing and joyful, and sad. To meet her birth mother is to confront her own abandonment.

These scenes hit you on a gut level, and will make Somewhere Between worth seeing for many people, but the film barely touches many aspects of adoption. You learn nothing here about the organizations, email lists, and summer camps that nurture both the adoptees and their parents, and help the girls know more about the culture they were born into but probably don’t know. Nor does the film address the many adoption problems, such as birth parents who see their abandoned and now Western children as a source of income.

Knowlton’s upbeat approach shouldn’t surprise anyone; she says right at the start that she made this film for her own, very young adopted daughter. But her choices limit the picture’s scope. She made an affecting documentary, but she could have made an intelligent one.

Blu-ray Review: Children of Paradise

The one great black and white sound epic, Marcel Carné’s and Jacques Prévert’s love letter to France and to the theater, draws you in like a miracle. And why not? The movie’s very existence is a miracle. How could they shoot a grand story on such a lavish scale during the last months of the Nazi occupation, when finding enough food was a major challenge?

How bad was it? Production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Maurice Thiriet did their work while hiding from the Nazis and Nazi collaborators. One of the supporting actors was a collaborator and had to flee from the resistance; his part was reshot. By the time the film was released in March of 1945, Paris was liberated, and the "clandestine" contributors were properly credited. But the star, Arletty, could not attend the premiere; she was under house arrest for the crime of sleeping with a German officer.

I wrote extensively about Children of Paradise in March, so rather than repeating myself, I’ll just point you to the earlier article, and go on with a discussion of the Blu-ray itself.

First Impression

children_of_paradise_boxFrom the outside, the two-disc set comes in a standard Criterion box. The cover is a reproduction of one of Trauner’s pre-production paintings.

When you open the box, you’ll find both discs on the same side, one stacked offset over the other. I don’t know if this type of configuration endangers the discs, but I always fear that I will damage them when I remove one.

The first disc contains the full, three-hour, two-part movie (the older DVD version put each section of the film on a separate disc). It’s only extra is the commentary. The second disc (also a Blu-ray) contains the other supplements.

The package also contains a 40-page booklet, with an essay by Dudley Andrews and an interview with director Carné made in 1990.

How it Looks

Thanks to Pathé’s new restoration, Children of Paradise probably looks better than it ever has before. It certainly looks better than it has in decades. It’s not razor-sharp with fine detail, but it never was. This is a romantic look at a past century, with much of it slightly soft focus by choice. Pathé was right not to over-sharpen it.

This new restoration allows you to really appreciate cinematographer Roger Hubert’s realistic yet stylized lighting scheme, especially in the scenes set on theatrical stages. This is as close as you’ll ever come to a gas-lit, early 19th century theater.

Criterion did a fine job converting Pathé’s restoration to the Blu-ray format (assuming that there was much work to be done). This is easily the best Children of Paradise you’re likely to ever see at home, and very close to what you’d see today in a theater. I suspect it looks better than any theatrical presentation you saw before this year.

How it Sounds

As is Criterion’s Blu-ray policy with mono titles, Children of Paradise’s soundtrack is presented in uncompressed PCM. There are a few instances where the opulent, symphonic music strains with distortion, but that’s a reflection on the limitations of the original recording.

And the Extras: Disc 1:

  • Bookmarks: As is standard for Criterion, the Children of Paradise Blu-ray has a timeline. You can insert bookmarks anywhere in the movie and return to them later on.
  • Commentary: (Or perhaps I should say commentaries.) The first part of the film has a commentary by Brian Stonehill; the second by Charles Affron. Stonehill covers a lot of ground, discussing, for instance, script notes about the characters and Picasso’s influence on the film’s design. Affron’s covers similar ground and isn’t as interesting.

    And the Extras: Disc 2

  • Terry Gilliam Introduction: 5 minutes. Shouldn’t an introduction to the film go on the same disc as the movie? Either way, it’s not all that interesting.
  • Restoration Demonstration: 4 minutes. The difference between the original camera negative and the 4K restoration is just amazing. Scratches, tears, custom stamps, and mold disappear to reveal the beautiful shades of gray in between. I know some people will insist that the negative was more "authentic;" I don’t buy it.
  • US Trailer: 3 minutes. Funny how a timeless masterpiece never gets old, but its trailer sure does.
  • Once Upon a Time: "Children of Paradise": 51 minutes. 2009 documentary by Julie Bonan about its making and impact. Very little on impact, actually. It’s not exceptional as such documentaries go, except when dealing with the occupation issues. But definitely worth checking out.
  • The Look of Children of Paradise: 22 minutes. Fascinating visual essay on the design. Very interesting discussion of the men (all men) most important in the film’s visual style. Much of it concerns Alexandre Trauner, the Jewish production designer who worked in hiding and was not able to visit the set.
  • The Birth of "Children of Paradise": 63 minutes. A 1967 German TV documentary made up mostly of interviews with the picture’s creators, and with some then-young French filmmakers. Kind of strange, because the interviews are in French, verbally translated by the narrator into German, which is subtitled in English. The best moment has Claude Lelouch talking about why Children of Paradise, almost by default, is old-fashioned and no longer worthwhile. I hope that, now that he’s older and presumably wiser, he can laugh at what he said.
  • Children of Paradise is one of the great films; one that you can return to again and again. I’m glad that Pathé gave it the restoration it deserved. And I’m just as glad that I have such an excellent reproduction of that restoration in my home collection.

    The Blu-ray goes on sale on Tuesday.

    What’s Screening: September 14 – 20

    The Brainwash Movie Festival opens Saturday night, then closes until next weekend. And the Third I South Asian Film Festival opens Wednesday. And although I’m not really counting it as a festival, the Studio Ghibli Collection moves to Berkeley’s California Theatre.

    A Samsara, Camera 7 Pruneyard, Guild, opening Friday. Ron Fricke (Baraka) provides us with a succession of stunningly beautiful, and occasionally shocking images,accompanied by a hypnotic musical score and almost no other sound. I sat, enraptured, my eyes and mouth open in astonishment. Although there’s no real story, Samsara is structured like one. Or if not a story, then at least a journey. Fricke shot Samsara in the 70mm format, providing a level of detail impossible to capture digitally or with standard 35mm film. The filmmakers have stated that Samsara is best seen in 4K digital projection, and I know that the Pruneyard has 4K projectors. However, I do not know if they’ll be projecting this movie this way. The Guild will screen it in 35mm. See my full review as well as More on Samsara, 70mm, and 4K Digital Projection.

    A- Moonrise Kingdom, Castro, Monday and Tuesday; Cerrito, opens Friday. Wes Anderson at his most playful. Also at his sweetest and funniest. Two pre-teens in love run away–disrupting everything on the small New England island where the story is set. While the fantasy of young love makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, the adult reaction keeps you laughing–in large part because the main adults are played by major stars clearly enjoying a chance to clown around. They include Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and, best of all, Tilda Swinton as "Social Services."

    B+ The Iron Giant, Castro, Friday. The young hero of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s first feature befriends a massively-huge robot from outer space. Hey, Steven Spielberg’s Elliot only had to hide the diminutive ET. The robot seems friendly enough, but there’s good reason to believe he was built as a weapon of mass destruction. Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation with plenty of sharp angles, Bird creates a stylized view of small-town American life circa 1958 that straddles satire and nostalgia, and treats most of its inhabitants with warmth and affection. A good movie for all but the youngest kids. On a MiDNiTES for MANiACS triple bill with Labyrinth, which I liked when I saw it very long ago, and Phenomena, which I’ve never seen.

    B Secretary, Castro, Thursday. Now here is something you don’t see every day–a kinky, S&M-tinged story that is utterly and enthusiastically romantic. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the title character, a troubled young lady who gets a job working for a strangely withdrawn lawyer (James Spader). This lawyer has trouble keeping secretaries, probably because when they make a mistake, he wants to spank them. But this new secretary seems to enjoy the spankings. Clearly it’s love at first wallop. On a double bill with Office Space, which I haven’t seen in a long time but liked a whole lot when I saw it.

    B+ The Bridge on the River Kwai, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Thursday. The longer it’s been since you’ve seen David Lean’s World War II adventure, the better it gets in your  memory. That’s because the brilliant story of an over-proud British bridgeriverkwaiPOW (Alec Guinness) sticks in the mind. But to see the actual movie again is to be reminded that Guinness’ tale is just a subplot (the actor only received third billing). The bulk of Kwai is a very well made but conventional action movie with some uncomfortably Hollywoodish elements. Remember the Burmese porters who all just happen to all be beautiful young women? In one way, Kwai is like sex: When it’s good, it’s fantastic, and when it’s bad, it’s at least entertaining. Read my Blu-ray review.

    A The Manchurian Candidate (1962 version), Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. Bad dreams keep bothering Korean War veterans Lawrence Harvey and Frank Sinatra. Were they brainwashed by Communists? And where do the rabid anti-Communists  fit in? Easily the best political thriller to come out of the cold war, The Manchurian Candidate finds villains on both political extremes. As the nominal hero, Sinatra proves he really was an actor, but Angela Lansbury steals the film as the screen’s most evil mother–a woman of outsized beliefs and a burning hatred of anyone who disagrees with her. Read my Blu-ray review.

    B Kill Bill, Parts 1 & 2, Castro, Saturday, 7:00. Quentin Tarantino creates a whole new universe for his two-part martial arts epic about revenge. In a sense, it’s the ultimate Tarantino flick, since this time around, even Tarantino himself knows that it’s set in an alternate universe. Part 1 drags a bit with fight after fight, even though some of them are beautifully choreographed. And there are a great many clever and funny moments throughout. But Tarantino’s shallow ultraviolence doesn’t quite hold up for a three-hour story.

    A Spirited Away, California Theatre (Berkeley), Thursday (and the following Friday). Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. Part of the two week-long series The Studio Ghibli Collection, 1984 – 2009. New 35mm print, with the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles.

    It Came From Beneath the Sea, Vogue, Thursday, 8:00. Have you ever looked at the Golden Gate Bridge and thought "That really needs to be destroyed by a giant octopus," this is the movie for you. I haven’t seen it in decades, but I remember it fondly. It’s not Ray Harryhausen at his best, but it is Ray Harryhausen. Preceded by The Brothers Comatose in a live concert.

    A- The Princess Bride, Camera 3 Cinema, Saturday. William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale, The Princess Bride, dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers, and Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos really grate on your nerves.

    This Year’s Mill Valley Film Festival Announced

    As summer closes, the superhero blockbusters dry up. In their place comes a whole other genre–Oscar bait. That’s okay, because these are usually the best films of the year.

    And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, your first chance to catch the Oscar bait is usually the Mill Valley Film Festival. The two most recent Best Picture winners, The King’s Speech and The Artist, both had their Bay Area premieres at Mill Valley.

    The festival was officially announced this morning, at the same time and not far from Apple’s big announcement. Rather than try to turn a press conference into a narrative, I’ll just list some of the more interesting nuggets discussed.

    And yes, I know that Mill Valley is only one of 13 festivals coming up in the Bay Area. I’m sorry I can’t cover all of them in detail, so I’m concentrating on the most important one.

    As I write this, the Festival Web site is not yet complete, so I can’t provide links to many of these films.

    • Mark Fishkin delighted the press by not reading off a list of sponsors. But he pointed out that ticket sales bring in a fraction of what it costs to run this event, and that we should be thankful to the corporations that make the festival possible.
    • The stats: The Festival will screen 92 features, 62 shorts, and 32 US premieres.  They expect some 45,000 people toi attend and buy about 60,000 admissions.
    • Most of the films will not be on film at all, but screened digitally. The Rafael installed a digital projector in one screen some time ago, and has recently installed another, leaving only one more waiting for the change. They’ve kept their 35mm projectors, as well. The Sequoia has already converted to digital.
    • The two opening night films are On the Road (yes, based on Jack Kerouac’s novel) and David O. Russell’s Silver Lightings Playbook.
    • Tributes will go to Dustin Hoffman, Mira Nair, and Billy Bob Thornton. Hoffman’s tribute will include the local premiere of his directorial début, Quartet.
    • In a tribute to actor John Hawkes, the festival will screen the Bay Area premiere of The Sessions.
    • The Italian Caesar Must Die sounds fascinating. It’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, filmed in a prison with the prisoners and guards performing.
    • Ken Burns will teach a master class.
    • The Festival will screen the world premiere of The Sinners, a murder mystery from Iran with a victim who has just returned from the United States.
    • On Monday, October 8, the Festival will screen Star Wars (AKA A New Hope) on the giant, curved screen at the Corte Madera. This year is the film’s 35th anniversary, but I’m sure they’re not showing the original version.
    • The Festival will close with Ang Lee’s first 3D film, Life of Pi.

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