The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Castro, watching one of my all-time favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve seen it many times, and over the last few years, always at the Castro. But this time was different. Sony digitally restored the epic this year, and this new version was played off a DCP instead of a film print.

A bit of history: Lawrence of Arabia was recut and shortened multiple times after its 1962 release. In 1988, Robert A. Harris restored the film to something like it’s original cut–with the help of director David Lean and editor Anne V. Coats. That restoration received a major 70mm release, and became the definitive Lawrence. For the film’s 50th anniversary, Sony restored the film again, using digital technology not available in 1988 to better clean up the image. This new restoration follows the 1988 cut.

So how did the digital Lawrence look? As always with this sort of film at the Castro, I sat in the center of the first row. And from there, for the most part, it looked very, very good. The details were clean and sharp, the vistas expansive, and with a visible film look. The dramatic impact of the images were all there.

But it wasn’t perfect. The image occasionally looked over-processed–as if someone was trying too hard to remove a film-based flaw. But these moments, which may not have been noticeable to someone sitting a few rows back, marred maybe five minutes of this nearly four-hour movie.

On the whole, this new restoration improves upon Harris’, which I last saw, at the Castro and in70mm, about 18 months ago. Faded images and cracks in the film emulsion that marred earlier versions are now gone, and the image is much closer to what, I imagine, Lean wanted.

But was this the best way to project this restoration? The Castro’s 2K digital projector can screen an image slightly superior to a pristine 35mm print. But 35mm was never the optimal way to see Lawrence of Arabia. It was always intended for 70mm presentation, and a 70mm frame is nearly three times the size of a 35mm one.

I suspect the film would have looked better in 70mm. The 2012 restoration credits mention 70mm print timing, so I assume that at least one print was struck. I don’t know if Sony is making that print commercially available, and if they have, why the Castro didn’t rent that.

I also strongly suspect that the picture would look even better with 4K digital projection (which has four times the resolution of 2k). Alas, for economic reasons that are understandable even if they’re regrettable, the Castro doesn’t have a 4K projector.

But the folks running the Castro did a crackerjack job presenting the film. Like most big roadshow pictures of its time, Lawrence starts with an overture–music with no image. The houselights slowly faded throughout the overture, plunging the audience into darkness just in time for the curtain to open on the Columbia logo. The projectionist was awarded with applause.

The audience expressed its appreciation throughout. No one thinks of Lawrence of Arabia as a comedy, but it has its moments of dry British wit. The audience laughed in all the right places.

A few weeks previously, I watched Lawrence without a skilled projectionist or an audience. I was at home with the new Blu-ray. It still works on that medium, and still looks great, but the experience didn’t really do it justice.

The Castro will screen Lawrence of Arabia three more times today and tomorrow–at 2:00 both days and 7:00 tonight. Click here for details.

What’s Screening: December 28 – January 3

Still no festivals. But as we move in 2013, we do have some good movies.

A Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday through Monday. 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 requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection to do it justice. The Castro has the screen, but only 2K digital projection. I don’t know how well it will hold up that way, which is why I’m giving it an A rather than the usual A+. I’ll try to catch it over the weekend and let you know. For more on this epic, read Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia.

B- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Castro, Tuesday through the following Sunday. The first American animated feature, and one of Walt Disney’s biggest triumphs, really does suffer from the sugary sweetness so often associated with Disney. But the picture is technically astounding and a visual delight. The dwarfs are funny and have distinct–if shallow–personalities. But Snow White herself and her Prince Charming are so dull that you might find yourself rooting for the evil stepmother (who’s pretty scary, actually). Newly restored and projected off of a DCP, the engagement is in conjunction with The Walt Disney Family Museum’s current exhibition on the film.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The various theaters will be showing it digitally, but I don’t know exactly how and on screens of what size. A 4K DCP would be the digital equivalent of 70mm, but I’m not sure that Warner Brothers has even made it available in that format.

A Steamboat Bill, Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Billsteamboatbill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man that the very-macho Bill imagined, but as an urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story,and you really can’t ask for more. And it contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. With two shorts, and Frederick Hodges on the piano.

A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays 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). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a double bill with Arabesque, which I haven’t seen.

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

B The Intouchables, Rafael, opens Friday. I really can’t complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowdthe_intouchablespleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza–the movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life, it stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma, and it’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Read my full review.

New Movies I’ve Seen Recently…and How I Saw Them

I’ve managed to see six first-run movies in theaters over the last couple of months. I liked all of them to varying degrees. Here’s what I thought about the movies, and about the conditions in which I saw them.

Technical note: All of these films were screened digitally, two of them on screens that had only recently been converted. Four of the films and part of another were shot digitally. They all looked good, although the only one shot on film looked the best (Lincoln).

Non-Technical note: Five of these films had clear, individual protagonists, all male. The exception was about four people; three of them male.

I’ve written this in the order in which I saw them. The first grade is the for the movie; the second for the presentation.

A-/A Skyfall
Daniel Craig continues to rewrite the whole idea of James Bond in his third outing as fiction’s favorite spy). This time he suffers a traumatic experience in the pre-credit sequence, disappears, then comes back months later only because he feels that M needs him. He’s physically and emotionally unfit to serve, but he does so anyway because some shady figure appears to be targeting MI5. This may be the first Bond film set mostly in Brittan, and the first since The World is Not Enough to give Judi Dench a part worthy of her acting talents. Her M carries the story almost as much as Craig’s conflicted and emotionally tortured Bond. And speaking of Craig’s unromanticized interpretation of the character, has anyone else noticed that he never ends the picture happily in a beautiful woman’s arms?

My wife and I saw Skyfall at the Cerrito, projected onto their beautiful, big screen. The Cerrito is always fun, with their couches and good food. But that night they had something special. Someone had gone to the trouble to prepare an appropriate pre-show playlist. As we waited for and ate our dinner, we were treated to theme songs from classic spy movies and TV shows.

B/C+ Argo
Ben Affleck’s truth-based political thriller holds together very well for most of its runtime, even though we know the ending. After Iranians took the American embassy in 1979, a CIA specialist (Affleck, who also directed) takes on the assignment of rescuing a handful of Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy. His far-fetched plan: Create the illusion of a movie company scouting for locations. The Hollywood and Washington scenes are played very effectively for laughs, while the Tehran scenes provide equally-effective thrills. But in the final half hour, Affleck and his screenwriters provide three saved-in-the-last-second moments that might work with Indiana Jones, but are two too many for this allegedly true story. Another complaint: The real hero of this story, Tony Mendez, is Hispanic and looks it. Affleck is unquestionably white.

My wife and I (I saw all six of these films with my wife) caught Argo at the UA Berkeley. This former movie palace has been broken up into so many many auditoriums that only the lobby retains any grandeur. We saw Argo in a tiny hole in the wall down a long hall.

A logo before the movie proudly proclaimed a Sony 4K projector. I turned around and, sure enough, two stacked light sources told me that they hadn’t bothered to remove the 3D lens for this 2D movie. Thankfully, the image wasn’t horribly dark, suggesting that they at least removed the 3D filters. Still, Argo didn’t look as good as it might have.

A-/B Lincoln
What? No vampires? And how much a movie called Lincoln wasn’t about me?

Seriously, I liked most of Lincoln very much. Tony Kushner’s intelligent screenplay concentrated on the struggle to get the 13th amendment through the House, ending slavery before the South was defeated. That made Lincoln a film about the political process, showing us the arguments, backroom deals, and compromises behind one of the most important and idealist laws ever to go through the American government. The script doesn’t shy away from moral ambiguity, either–Lincoln is clearly prolonging the war, leading thousands of young men to an early grave, in order to end slavery. The acting is uniformly excellent, especially Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. But director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams occasionally overdo it, bashing us over the head with whatever emotion they want us to feel.

For what it’s worth, this is the only picture of the five shot entirely on film, and it’s also the best looking. But Janusz Kaminski’s camerawork is occasionally too beautiful, distracting us from the story.

We saw Lincoln at the Shattuck soon after it went all digital. However, the particular auditorium we saw it in has been digital for over a year. I have absolutely no complaints about the projection or sound, but there was nothing exceptional about it, either.

A/B+ A Late Quartet
Artistic collaboration is always a tricky business. A string quartet that’s been playing together professionally for decades begins to come apart in Yaron Zilberman’s musical drama. The problems start when the cellist (Christopher Walken, for once not playing a psychopath) tells his partners that he has Parkinson’s disease, and will not be able to play for very long.This sets off various chain reactions, as personal and creative differences that have long been simmering for years bubble to the top. People get hurt, they get angry, and they sleep with the wrong people. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are brilliant (aren’t they always?) as the frustrated second violist and his violist wife. Like the Beethoven piece that gives the film it’s title, the picture is slow, deliberate, and rewarding, with the joy coming primarily from the performances.

Like Hoffman’s character, I’m married to a violist, so seeing A Late Quartet was inevitable. We saw it downstairs at the Albany. This was our first experience at the Albany since they went digital.

Before the movie, an employee came down to the front of the theater and welcomed us. The movie itself It looked and sounded great. No complaints.

A-/D Life of Pi
I came in wondering what Ang Lee could do without his major collaborator, writer/producer James Schamus. Pretty darned good. Told in flashback and shot almost entirely in a studio water tank, Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian boy who’s shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific ocean, sharing his lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. Clearly, this is meant as a parable, as the boy gains skills and discovers abilities he didn’t know he had, while wrestling with fate, God, and a companion who wants to eat him. The computer-animated tiger, I’m glad to say, behaves like a real beast, not an adorable Disney creation. The digital effects aren’t always convincing, and the story occasionally drags, but the film’s best parts easily outweigh the weak ones. What’s more, this is the best use of 3D I’ve seen since Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I wanted to see Life of Pi in 3D, on a really big screen. In the East Bay, by the time we got around to seeing it, that meant the AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville. Yes, the screen was big, and the sound was terrific, but the left side of the image looked slightly blurry, with a sort of double-vision effect, as if the two parts of the 3D lens weren’t properly aligned.

Did I complain? No. It was the AMC Bay Street 16. Why bother.

B+/D Hitchcock
Don’t go to this movie expecting to learn anything about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. From the opening scene, where Anthony Hopkins appears in a fat suit and addresses the audience directly, Hitchcock is clearly what Sir Alfred would have described as "only a movie."  Helen Mirren is far more glamorous than the real Alma Reville–Hitchcock’s wife and major collaborator–but that doesn’t hurt the picture an iota. The story, part of which actually happened, shows how Hitch and Alma got the idea for Psycho, struggled to find funding, cast and shot it, then did brilliant work in the editing room, and all the while with Hitchcock suspecting that his wife was having an affair. Fun escapism disguised as film history.

Just one warning: Don’t see Hitchcock if you haven’t seen Psycho. It contains spoilers.

We saw Hitchcock upstairs at Berkeley’s California Theatre–our first time there since it went digital. Made up of what was once half of a balcony, the auditorium was small and oddly shaped.

And familiar. We’d been there many times.

But this time, there was an audio problem. The California’s other two auditoriums were both showing The Hobbit, and the theater isn’t sufficiently soundproofed to block out such a loud movie. Battles and explosions did not improve Hitchcock.

Yet Another Upcoming Festival, This One With a Stiff Upper Lip

When I posted First Festivals of the New Year yesterday, I missed an important one:

Mostly British Film Festival
January 17 – 24

This festival celebrates British cinema–by a rather broad definition of the term–both old and new. Amongst the films you may have seen are Odd Man Out, two by David Lean, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter, plus the recent hit Once. Other promising titles include My Tehran for Sale, the Australian Black and White, and a documentary on ventriloquism, Her Master’s Voice.

Her Master’s Voice

First Festivals of the New Year

The holiday season isn’t so festive for Bay Area cinephiles. In fact, it’s a big, seasonal, film festival drought.

But it won’t last. Here are some festivals on the way:

For Your Consideration
January 11 – 17

As it does every year, the Rafael will screen a series of movies that the Academy is considering for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Although these films all opened in the US in 2012, most of them haven’t opened in the Bay Area.

I’ve seen only one film on the list, The Intouchables, which I found entertaining but not exceptional (read my review). Other promising titles include Keep Smiling, a satire from Georgia about a beauty contest and War Witch, a Canadian film about a child soldier.

Note: I have changed the For Your Consideration section above to include new material.

Noir City
January 25 – February 3

There’s one thing about this year’s Noir City that must be acknowledged right away: They unquestionably have the most bad-ass logo in the history of film festivals:NOIR CITY X, the 10th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Foundation, presented by the Film Noir Foundation

Now that you’ve enjoyed the visuals, what will they be screening?

Over the course of 11 days, the festival will show 27 features from the 30s (proto-noir), 40s, 50, and into the 60s. These include one film that everyone knows, Sunset Boulevard, another that everyone should know–opening night’s Gun Crazy, The way-ahead-of-its-time Intruder In the Dust, and 24 movies that I would very much like to get acquainted with.

Others that sound promising include James Whale’s pre-code The Kiss Before the Mirror, Native Son, and Experiment In Terror.

Three of the films will be screened in what the festival describes as "35mm restorations." I assume this means that the source materials were in good enough condition to not need digital restorations. Several others have undergone "4K digital restorations." I don’t know if these will be screened in 35mm or DCP. Nor am I worried about that one way or another.

IndieFest
February 7-21

I can’t tell you anything about this one yet except the date. I’ll have more information, and a URL, come the second week of January.

Silent Winter
February 16

This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival winter event will take place over one long but (presumably) fun day at the Castro. The program contains the 1916 version of Snow White, a selection of three Buster Keaton Shorts, The Thief of Bagdad (my favorite Douglas Fairbanks movie), My Best Girl (Mary Pickford’s last silent and the only film in the series I haven’t already seen), and F. W. Murnau’s Faust. Donald Sosin will cover most of the films on the grand piano, but Faust will get the full Mighty Wurlitzer organ treatment by Christian Elliott, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will help Fairbanks do his magic.

The sad part: I’m not sure I’ll be able to attend. I’m directing a play that will have its one and only performance a week later.

Important Notice for Those Receiving Bayflicks by Mail

Hello, readers.

Some of you may be receiving the weekly Bayflicks newsletter via the RSS-to-Email service Feed My Inbox. I’ve been promoting that site for people who just want to receive the Friday morning "What’s Screening" newsletter via email.

If you’re one of those people, you should know that Feed My Inbox will stop its service on January 10. If you don’t act before then, my newsletter will cease to appear in your inbox.

What should you do instead?

You can subscribe directly to the blog, including the newsletter, via the Email Subscription option at the top of the top of the left column on this page, above the Categories section. The only problem: You’ll get not only the newsletter but every Bayflicks post.

Actually, I hope you don’t consider that a problem.

If you only want to receive the newsletter, and you want it via email, I recommend picking another RSS-to-Email service. But as Feed My Inbox is the second such service that I recommended for this purpose and that died on me, I’m reluctant to recommend another. You can find several by clicking here.

The URL for the RSS newsletter-only feed is http://bayflicks.wordpress.com/category/weekly-newsletter/feed/..

What’s Screening: December 21 – 27

No festivals this weekend, but there is a deeply religious Christian holiday turned into an orgy of consumerism.

Also some really good movies. We’ll start with a very special rarity that you may never get another chance to enjoy:

A Miracle Mile, Castro, Friday, 9:20. This apocalyptic romantic comic tragedy thriller sits high on my list of little-known gems. Miracle Mile starts out as a gentle, witty, charming, and sweet-natured romanticmiraclemile1 comedy. Then the male lead answers a wrong phone number and discovers that Soviet missiles are fast approaching (the film was made in 1988). The tone remains funny, in a very dark and suspenseful way, as he searches for his new love and tries to arrange a seemingly hopeless rescue. By the final act, there’s little humor and plenty of horror. Rarely seen and unavailable in a decent video transfer, this is a must. For more details, see Miracle Mile: A Little Miracle I Just Discovered. On a double bill with John Carpenter’s They Live, which starts at 7:30.

B- Ben-Hur (1925 version), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The original isn’t always better than the sequel. The first feature-length version of the best-selling novel–essentially The Count of Monte Cristo meets Jesus Christ–doesn’t quite measure up to the much more impressive 1959 version. Ramon Novarro seems a bit lightweight for the hero, and the story comes off as much more simplistic in its preaching. But it still offers spectacle, suspense, and a wonderful chariot race.  Jon Mirsalis will provide live musical accompaniment.

A The Central Park Five, Roxie, Saturday through Thursday, with no shows on Monday. A white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. NewYork’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation, even though there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime and considerable evidence for their innocence. 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 to where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is. Read my full review.

singininrainA+ Singin’ in the Rain, Castro, Wednesday. In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, so we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part.

A Double Bill: King Kong (1933 version) & Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Castro, Thursday. 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. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes, Gentlemen Prefer Blodes, contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the leading ladies. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a star, but co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water, giving a far funnier and sexier performance.

A- Moonrise Kingdom, Opera Plaza, 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 Argo, Piedmont, opens Friday. Ben Affleck’s truth-based political thriller holds together very well for most of its runtime, even though we know the ending. After Iranians took the American embassy in 1979, a CIA specialist (Affleck, who also directed) takes on the assignment of rescuing a handful of Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy. His far-fetched plan: Create the illusion of a movie company scouting for locations. The Hollywood and Washington scenes are played very effectively for laughs, while the Tehran scenes provide equally-effective thrills. But in the final half hour, Affleck and his screenwriters provide three saved-in-the-last-second moments that might work with Indiana Jones, but are two too many in an allegedly true story. Another complaint: The real hero of this story, Tony Mendez, is Hispanic and looks it. Affleck is unquestionably white.

The Coming PFA Schedule

The new Pacific Film Archive schedule arrived in the mail today, and it left me wanting to move into the screening room for a few months.

Unfortunately, that’s not possible, and not only because it lack beds and showers. I’m directing a one-act play to be performed on February 23, and my time will be restricted.

But here’s some of the highlights. I hope I can catch a few.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense
January 11 – April 24
Running well beyond this two-month calendar, this series will screen 28 of Hitchcock’s 53 films, concentrating primarily but not exclusively on his American work. It includes all of his major films (unless you count The Lodger and Blackmail), and quite a few lesser but still interesting one. My top priority here: Under Capricorn, which I’ve never seen, in an imported print, on March 3. The series also includes all of my personal favorite Hitchcocks: The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Psycho.

The Hills Run Red: Italian Westerns, Leone, and Beyond
January 10 – January 27
I’m not really an expert on spaghetti westerns, especially when you get beyond Sergio Leone. In fact, this six-film series contains nothing I’ve seen, including Duck, You Sucker, the one Leone title in the bunch. I’m hoping to find time to rectify this.

Film 50: History of Cinema: The Cinematic City
January 23 – May 1
Marilyn Fabe’s usual Wednesday afternoon film class (open to the public) concentrates this semester on urban environments. Features include Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Metropolis, The Bicycle Thief, The Third Man, and Do the Right Thing.

Werner Schroeter: Magnificent Obsessions
January 19 – March 31
Until I opened the schedule, I’d never heard of this German experimental filmmaker, who suddenly appeared on the scene in 1967 (a major year for experimentation), and went on to influence Fassbinder and Wenders. Maybe I’ll have time to acquaint myself with his work.

African Film Festival 2013
January 23 – February 5
I should learn to expect this one, since it happens every year. I’ve never heard of any of these films, but that’s basically the point. I’m sure there are some wonderful gems here.

What’s Screening: December 14 – 20

If the holidays are putting you into a festive mood, sorry. No festivals this week.

But we do have movies.

A The Central Park Five, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opens Friday. A white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. NewYork’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation, even though there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime and considerable evidence for their innocence. 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. Read my full review.

A- Found Footage Festival, New Parkway, Friday, 10:00; Roxie, Saturday & Sunday, 8:00. The world is full of unwanted VHS cassettes, which is a good thing for Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett. They mine comic gold from the unwanted dregs of the video universe. In their sixth installment of the Found Footage Festival, they have masturbation instruction videos, a very stoned man who thinks he’s Jesus, proper care of your pet ferret and opossum, a mock game show involving extremely graphic body wounds, and the entirely bizarre Dancing With Frank Pacholski. Definitely not for kids, or the easily offended. But a real treat for everyone else. Read my longer report.

A Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Four comedy shorts by masters of the genre, and I can vouch very enthusiastically for three of them. "The Goat" is my all-time favorite Buster Keaton short. "High and Dizzy" is my favorite Harold Lloyd short. And "Big Business" is pretty much everybody’s favorite silent Laurel and Hardy film. If I’ve ever seen Charlie Chaplin’s "His New Job," it didn’t stick in my memory.

Noir City Xmas, Castro, Wednesday, 7:30. The Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, but together this double-bill to help damper the holiday spirit. I’ve never seen The Lady in the Lake, but I know its reputation as an oddity–a film shot entirely in the main character’s point of view. I’ve never even heard of Holiday Affair. The evening will also include the official announcement of this year’s Noir City festival lineup.

A The Apartment, Castro, Thursday. How do you top Some Like It Hot? Billy Wilder found the answer in this far more serious comedy about powerful men exploiting both women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave the best of his many great performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. His small desk sits in a sea of other small desks that disappear off the horizon. In order to gain traction in the rat race, he loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. With Fred MacMurray as the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane as the woman he exploits. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Three Days of the Condor, which I haven’t seen.

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

The Central Park Five

A documentary

  • Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon

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. Their confessions contradicted each other, and they all contradicted the physical facts. What’s more, none of their DNA could be found near the crime scene. Yet they were all convicted, and spent many years in prison before the real culprit, also incarcerated for other crimes, confessed.

Ken Burns made The Central Park Five (with two collaborators), but it is unlike any other Burns documentary. The events it chronicles are recent–and not entirely over. Burns’ usual, slightly nostalgic style would have been totally inappropriate for a story UNITED STATES - AUGUST 18:  Accused rapist Yusef Salaam is escorted by police.  (Photo by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)that feels ripped from the headlines, so he went for a tougher, grittier style. No movie stars supply the voices of long-dead historical figures. There’s no voice-of-God narration. The camera never glides over still photographs, although Burns does use that signature technique sparingly with court illustrations. And, of course, this is a theatrical feature, not a multi-part PBS miniseries.

But in one way, this is very much a Ken Burns documentary: It focuses on American racial issues. Burns has always been fascinated with our country’s original sin, slavery, and it’s still searing after-effects.

Burns and his collaborators start with a grim view of New York City in the 1980s. The crack epidemic had turned the city into a teeming cauldron of violent crime. The white, often affluent population was terrified, even though the vast major of victims, like most of the perpetrators, were black or brown. The city seemed ungovernable.

In that atmosphere, this particular rape produced shockwaves, and offered a high-profile way for the police to prove their worth. According to The Central Park Five, the police pressured and intimidated the scared, young boys into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. Once they had the videotaped confessions, the prosecutor made sure the boys were convicted first in the press, and second in court. Needless to say, their parents couldn’t afford the type of lawyers who could have gotten them off.

Not surprisingly, the police and the prosecutor (who made her reputation on this case) deny these charges.  The only legal investigation into police misconduct here found them innocent of all wrong-doing, but that investigation was conducted by the New York City Police Department. Neither the cops nor the prosecutor agreed to be interviewed for this film.

The five themselves, all extensively interviewed, come off as intelligent, decent men who have suffered from the theft of their youth. Their personal stories (which are hardly tales of angels), and the stories of people close to them, give The Central Park Five heart. The rush to judgment that ruined their lives gives the film a sense of purpose.

Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got to where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is.

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