Saturday at Noir City

Yesterday (Saturday) was a beautiful day, so I spent most of it at the Castro, enjoying two dark double bills–all part of the ongoing Noir City festival.

Out of these four feature films, I watched two ex-cons re-entering society, four violent crimes turn out really bad for the perpetrators, two people jump to their deaths, multiple car and truck chases, and I’m not  sure how many murders.

Oddly enough, I didn’t see a single femme fatale, despite the presence of Gun Crazy’s Peggy Cummins in the first two films.

But a more important talent snaked through these four pictures: Cy Endfield. He wrote or co-wrote the first two films screened, and directed the third (and best).

First Double Bill: Peggy Cummins Tribute

Both of these films were released in 1957, after Cummins abandoned Hollywood for her native Britain. In other words, they were English, rather than American, noir.

Curse of the Demon
To my mind, this supernatural thriller doesn’t really qualify as noir, since the evil comes from something other than human weakness. But that doesn’t disqualify such a thriller as entertainment. Dana Andrews stars as an American scientist who comes to England to debunk a Satanic cult. And if you think he’ll be proven right, you haven’t seen enough movies.

For the most part, it’s a likeable and thoughtful thrill ride, with a great villain and some truly scary moments. But two major problems, both added in post production, make it a worse movie than it should have been. First, the producers replaced the scary, unseen demon originally planned with a laughably bad monster special effect. Second, composer Clifton Parker overdid the musical "fright" stingers  until they became funny, then annoying, then funny again.

One problem can’t be blamed on post production: Andrews’ hero comes off as kind of a dick.

Hell Drivers
Now this one was more like it! An ex-con looking for honest work (Stanley Baker) gets a job driving a truck. Sounds good, except that the company he’s working for insists on dangerously fast driving, encourages the drivers to compete with each other, and takes no responsibility for the results. Loud and suspenseful, Hell Drivers examines machismo and the way it can be used to exploit working-class men.

In addition to Baker and Cummins, Hell Drivers contains a number of future stars, including three of what would be the biggest names is the ’60s spy craze: Patrick McGoohan, David McCallum, and the biggest of all, Sean Connery (in a very minor part).

One complaint: Hell Drivers contains a character of the sort that I call dead meat–someone who is sympathetic but will obviously not survive for the fade-out. I call such characters "dead meat" after a parody of this type in Hot Shots. Always a nice guy, dead meat characters inevitably befriend the hero, and have their fates clearly telegraphed to the audience beforehand.

One technical note: Hell Drivers was the first black and white VistaVision film I’ve ever seen. But despite the extra-large negative, it looked no better than any other black and white movie from 1957–and worse than many. According to Martin Hart’s invaluable American WideScreen Museum, "the infrequent black & white VistaVision films didn’t seem to gain much by the use of a large format negative."

Second double bill: Nancy Mysel Tribute

The Film Noir Foundation doesn’t only honor movie stars. Film preservationist and restoration expert Nancy Mysel died last year of cancer, and last night the festival honored her with two films she had helped restore.

These were both 35mm, photochemical, analog restorations rather than digital ones. I talked to Noir City’s head honcho, Eddie Muller, about digital vs. analog restorations after the movies. He’s not against digital (several of this year’s films will be screened off DCPs), but these two were in good enough condition to allow them to use less expensive analog processing.

Try and Get Me (aka: The Sound of Fury)
Easily the best of the four films I saw yesterday, Try and Get Me (originally titled The Sound of Fury) easily sits among the best noirs ever made. Based very loosely on the same 1933 San Jose lynching that inspired Fritz Lang’s Fury and the recently disappointing Valley of the Heart’s Delight, it follows a decent but flawed man as he sinks into crime and then faces a murderous mob.

Howard (Frank Lovejoy) has a son and a pregnant wife to support, but not a job. He also has a drinking problem. In other words, he’s a deeply sympathetic protagonist, but not someone you’d want to depend on.

Then he meets Jerry (Lloyd Bridges in a brilliantly over-the-top performance), who seems to have plenty of cash. Soon they’re robbing cash stations and liquor stores. Then Jerry leads him into deeper waters, with a kidnapping that turns into a particularly grisly murder (or at least as grisly has was allowed in a 1950 Hollywood film). Step by step, their capture becomes inevitable.

But a local journalist has been whipping up hatred for these two "animals," and the large crowd that gathers around the police department isn’t willing to wait for a trial. The horrible crimes committed by two unhinged men become the nucleus of another crime–this one committed by almost everyone.

Director Cy Endfield fills the story with remarkable performances. Not just Lovejoy and Bridges, but in minor characters, as well. Katherine Locke gives a particularly touching performance as a lonely spinster. The crowd and lynching scenes have a remarkable immediacy.

My one complaint: There’s a minor character who clearly exists to express the film’s themes. He’s annoying and unnecessary. Fortunately, he’s seldom seen.

The Hoodlum
Noir is often quick, violent, and cheap. Those three words best describe the last film of the evening. Three other words also describe The Hoodlum: a guilty pleasure.

Lawrence Tierney plays the title character–a young man and hardened criminal who gets out of prison with no intention to go straight. He asks for a receives no sympathy from the people around him or from the audience, and badmouths the suckers willing to work for a living. Reluctantly working in the family gas station, he plans and organizes a daring armored car robbery. You know that’s not going to go well.

In the film’s short 61 minutes, he pretty much ruins the lives of everyone near him. That makes for an enjoyable time.

Noir City continues through February 3.

Images courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation.

What’s Screening: January 25 – 31

The Bay Area film festival scene looks dark and dreary this week. But that’s a good thing! Noir City opens tonight and runs through the week and beyond.

A Gun Crazy, Castro, Friday, 8:00. No, this movie isn’t about Fox News and the NRA. imageWritten under an assumed name by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Gun Crazy combines the crime thriller with a love story. Peggy Cummins and John Dall play a loving couple as excited by firearms as they are by each other. Naturally, their proclivities do not keep them within the law. Both are crack shots, but Dall’s character can’t bring himself to shoot a living creature. Suspense and sexual tension burn through this low-budget masterpiece. Opening night of Noir City, with  Peggy Cummins in person.

B+ Sparrows, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. Sparrows’ plot feels like the stereotype of a silent film melodrama. An evil miser keeps children imageimprisoned and enslaved on what’s basically an island in the middle of a swamp. When it’s in his interest to kill them all, sweet and beautiful Molly (who else but Mary Pickford) must lead them to safety. The story is as silly as it sounds, but the photography and tints are so gorgeous, and Pickford is such a delight, that you forgive it all. I’m hoping the Rafael screens the same gorgeous print I saw some years back at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Christel Schmidt, editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, will introduce the presentation, which will also include the original trailer, outtakes, and piano accompaniment by Dan Redfeld.

A The Best of RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 from Outer Space, quite a lot of theaters, Thursday. In this theater-only broadcast of a live presentation, three MST3K veterans add comic plan9acommentary to Plan Nine from Outer Space,allegedly the worst film of all time. The clumsy dialog and wooden acting are a wonder to behold, but they’re brilliant drama compared to the sets and the continuity. Assuming this is the same performance I saw on Blu-ray (read my review), it gets off to a slow start and drags in the pre-show, but picks up and moves into delirious humor when the main feature finally starts. The movie is funny enough on its own, but with the RiffTrax commentators riffing on it, I laughed so hard I was gasping for breath.

A- The Master, Opera Plaza, return engagement opens Friday. As you probably know, Paul Thomas 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. The story is really about an alcoholic drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who finds himself in the circle of a charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Neither man is trustworthy; one steals from his hosts, the other runs what he may or may not consciously realize is a scam. Amy Adams gives The Master’s third great performance, as the "great" man’s wife–sweet on the outside but inwardly hard as nails. The film suffers from a weak third act. This is one of two new films shot in the 70mm format. For more on the film and the format, see The Master, by a Master, in Masterly 70mm and When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm,

A+ North by Northwest, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. 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). Part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.

A Sunset Boulevard, Castro, Sunday. Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s  seedy underbelly is the flip imageside of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history. As part of Noir City, Sunset Boulevard plays a double bill with–no, not Singin’ in the Rain–but Repeat Performance, another "Show Biz Noir," but one I haven’t seen.

A+ Rear Window, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily rearwindow_thumb[1]confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by watching his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly begins to dawn on us that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory (something they don’t realize until it’s almost too late). Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment. Another part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.

B+ Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz, Lark, Sunday, 3:00. 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. I have never experienced the Sing-A-Long version.

What’s Screening: January 18 – 24

Movie-going with the stiff upper lip: The Mostly British Film Festival continues through the week.

Berkeley’s Movie Theaters – the Lost and the Found, Berkeley Historical Society, Sunday, 2:00, free. Author Dave (It Came from Berkeley) Weinstein will discuss the history of Berkeley’s movie-going habits, including the birth of repertory cinema. Weinstein will also discuss old theaters and efforts to preserve them. The fact that I’ll be out of town Sunday has me kicking myself.

A- Beasts of the Southern Wild, Embarcadero, opens Friday. How often does this happen? An unknown American director makes his first feature, with a cast of non-actors, imageand it turns out to be magical, joyful, frightening, thoughtful, and unlike any other movie ever made…and it gets wide distribution. Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a young girl living on a tiny, poverty-stricken island off the coast of Louisiana. She has no mother to speak of, her father’s health is deteriorating, and global warming is destroying the island, called The Bathtub. And let’s not forget the strange and scary creatures, released from a melting glacier, who are swimming south to confront her. The whole film unfolds like a dream, sometimes wonderful and sometimes nightmarish, with the real world occasionally peaking through.

A Hitchcock Double Bill: Young and Innocent & The Lady Vanishes, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend The Lady Vanishes as Screwball Comedynearly half an hour thinking you were watching a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she was there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Of his work, only North by Northwest is more entertaining. Read my Blu-ray review. Hitchcock made Young and Innocent just before The Lady Vanishes, but aside from one great tracking shot, it feels like the new Master of Suspense just going through the motions. Each film requires separate admission, although you’ll get a discount if you buy tickets for both. Part of the PFA’s big series, Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.

A- The Princess Bride, Clay, Saturday and Sunday, midnight. 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.

B+ The Law In These Parts, Roxie, opens Friday. Dense and filled with legalese  (which usually makes my eyes glaze over), this Israeli documentary isn’t easy to follow. But if you give it your all, it becomes impossible to the_law_in_these_partsturn away. Comprised entirely of interviews with retired military judges who once administered “justice” in the West Bank and Gaza, it examines the legal structure of a temporary military occupation that became permanent. The old men interviewed discuss their legal justifications (excuses, really) for holding people indefinitely without trial, handing Palestinian land over to Israeli settlers, and allowing those settlers to get away with pretty much anything. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz asks probing questions that reveal these men’s complicity in oppression. I discuss more on this film at May Day at the SFIFF: A Sobering Documentary and a Boring Swashbuckler.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. In 1952, the late twenties looked 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. Consider this: 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 if you take out the songs, and you take out the best part.

C Rosemary’s Baby, Castro, Sunday. Some things are rosemarysbaby_picscarier than Woody Allen–or Roman Polanski, but this may not be one of them, since Polanski’s first American film barely works. Mia Farrow looks fidgety and nervous as a pregnant wife who slowly begins to suspect that she’s carrying the devil’s spawn, and that everyone she thought she could trust is in on it. Slow enough to let you see what’s coming a mile off, it never quite builds the sense of dread that the material, and the director, were capable of bringing to it. On a Polanski double bill with Tess, which I saw about 30 years ago and–despite my love of long epics with intermissions–found immensely boring.

C+ To Catch a Thief, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. More like a vacation on the Riviera than the tight and scary thriller one expects from the master of suspense. Not one of his best work by a long shot, To Catch a Thief nevertheless provides a few good scenes and sufficient fun. Besides, 106 minutes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Monaco, photographed in the beauty of VistaVision, can’t be all bad.

On the Road

B+ Drama

  • Written by Jose Rivera, from the novel by Jack Kerouac
  • Directed by Walter Salles

Note: I wrote this review last summer, after a screening prior to the Mill Valley Film Festival. When I was told that the film would open in the Bay Area on January 18, I set this review to go live two days before that date. Now that it’s already live, I’ve discovered that the local release won’t happen until March (maybe). I’ve decided to leave the review up, anyway.

Jose Rivera and Walter Salles came maddeningly close to making a great film out of Jack Kerouac’s highly-regarded novel (which I haven’t read). The sense of time and place are letter-perfect. The characters are rich, surprising, and believable.  On the Road captures the dizzy and seductive joys of a drug-soaked and sexually wild youth, as well as the less joyful results. But in trying to capture what I guess is the full arc of the novel, it bogs down at times, and the picture is marred by stunt casting in the smaller roles.

Full Disclosure: I have not actually seen the entire movie. There was a problem with the DCP used for the press screening I attended, and the movie froze at what I suspect was just before the final fade-out. (You film purists can stop snickering. I’ve seen many a physical print missing far more than this.)

The film concentrates on the friendship between Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett OntheRoadHedlund), two exceptionally good-looking young men living a carefree, nomadic existence in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They drink, smoke pot (and tobacco), go to jazz clubs, and sleep with a lot of women. Dean also sleeps with men.

The story is told through Sal’s eyes, and Riley is in nearly every scene. As I understand it, Sal is a thinly-disguised Kerouac, while Dean is based on Neal Cassady. For much of the film, there’s a third friend, Carlo–a stand-in for Allen Ginsberg.

Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame) plays Dean’s sometimes wife, Marylou. If that sentence sounds confusing, so is their relationship. They’re newlyweds when we first meet them, but she soon leaves Dean and gets a divorce. Then she joins them again and is soon shagging both Sal and Dean. And no, jealousy does not raise its ugly head. There’s a lot of R-rated sex in this movie, and it’s filled with joy, lust, and youthful excitement, but there’s no real romance aside from the love between Sal and Dean.

But the constant travelling and dangerous driving, along with the odd jobs and petty theft needed to finance their adventures, wears everyone down. So does Dean’s complete lack of responsibility. He’s the sort of friend you can depend on to always let you down. He gets married a second time, with far more disastrous results.

Okay, everything I’ve said so far makes you think this is a great film. Why isn’t it one?

First, Sallas couldn’t resist casting big name stars in minor roles. These types of cameos work fine in a broad farce (as in Moonlight Kingdom), but in a serious drama, they take you out of the story. Instead of reacting to a new character, you’re saying “That’s Amy Adams!” Or Viggo Mortensen. Or Steve Buscemi. Or even “Oh, that’s what’s-her-name from Mad Men” (Elisabeth Moss, actually).

Second, the film runs out of steam about half an hour before it ends. The problem about people wandering aimlessly is that they’re not going anywhere. After awhile, you feel that you’ve learned everything you need to learn about Sal and Dean, and all you want is a fade-out.

To be fair, however, I wouldn’t drop the last three scenes–which do reveal some interesting twists. Even after the picture becomes repetitious and predictable, it can still occasionally surprise and delight you.

This Year’s IndieFest Announced

Most film festivals fall into one of three categories:

  1. Genre festivals, like Noir City and the the Silent Film Festival, concentrate on a particular kind of film.
  2. Ethnic festivals, like the Jewish Film Festival and Frameline, concentrate on a particular kind of filmgoer.
  3. General festivals, like the San Francisco Film Festival and Mill Valley, don’t specialize. They show any films they think are worth showing, to an audience that loves cinema.

The upcoming IndieFest fits uneasily between categories 1 and 3. Technically, it’s a genre festival, concentrating on independent films. But that’s a very broad genre these days, and almost everything at a general festival qualifies.

Despite this hybrid identity, or perhaps because of it, IndieFest celebrates its 15th anniversary this year with a line-up of movies that I know pretty much nothing about. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

However, if you liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as much as I did, you’ve got a good chance of liking the opening night feature, The We and I, also directed by Michel Gondry. It’s a study of adolescents in all their confusion, cruelty, and humor. The festival closes with Inside Lara Roxx, a drama about AIDS in the porn industry.

Also of interest: The Revisionairies, a documentary about a creationist trying to control what our children are taught.

But the festival isn’t all serious. Manborg follows a group of misfits as they fight to save the world from "Count Draculon’s robo-Nazi-vampires from Hell." Every film festival should have at least one movie like that.

big_lebowski[1]But there is one film scheduled that I’ve seen. And it’s the one that’s ended up on more of my weekly newsletters than any other: The Big Lebowski–at a midnight screening.

Now I just hope I have time to see some of these films.

What’s Screening: January 11 – 17

The holiday festival draught is over. Both For Your Consideration and the Studio Ghibli Series open tonight. And the Mostly British Film Festival opens Thursday.

And here’s what else is playing.

B+ Hitchcock Double Bill: The 39 Steps & Sabotage, Friday, 7:00. The B+ goes to The 39 Steps, which is not one of my favorite Hitchcock films, but it’s very well-made imageand an important step in his becoming the Master of Suspense. The basic story, which he’d repeat again in Saboteur and North by Northwest, involves an every man (Robert Donat) chased both by evil, foreign spies, and by the police, who blame him for a crime committed by the evil, foreign spies. Certainly a fun romp. Although made soon after after 39 Steps, Sabotage feels more like a work from the Apprentice of Suspense. The plot concerns the owner of a London movie theater committing acts of mayhem and destruction on the side, and the negative effect this has on his family life. Technically speaking, this is not a double bill, since each film requires separate admission, but there is a discount if you buy tickets to both. Opening night of the PFA’s big series, Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.

A+ Taxi Driver, Castro, Thursday. When I think of the 1970s astaxidriver1 a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. It isn’t that De Niro’s character hasn’t found the right companion, or society has failed him, or that he doesn’t understand intimacy. His problems stem from the fact that he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. For more about Taxi Driver, see my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with the far more recent Drive.

B+ Spirited Away, Camera 3, Friday, 8:45; Sunday and Thursday, 9:10. 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 Studio Ghibli Series. Unfortunately, the Camera 3 will screen the English-dubbed version, which is odd because only a few months ago, various Landmark theaters screened a  new 35mm print with the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles. Because of the language problem, I’m grading Spirited Away as a B+ rather than the usual A.

B- Rebecca, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film feels little like a Hitchcock movie. imageBasically a weepie, it stars Joan Fontaine as a young American who marries a British aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), only to find that she has to compete with the memory of his dead first wife. Although it’s not what Hitchcock fans expect, it’s still an entertaining melodrama, with a fine, over-the-top performance by  Judith Anderson as the brooding servant who cannot bear to think that a usurper has replaced her lady (her performance provides the most Hitchcockian moments in the picture). This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner, which just goes to show you how silly the Oscars can be (at least John Ford won Best Director for the vastly superior Grapes of Wrath). Another part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Castro, Saturday. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and no message to help uplift you. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that the rest of it just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it. On a double bill with Superman: The Movie, which I haven’t seen in a very long time and never really cared for.

B Double Bill: Show Boat (1936 version) & My Man Godfrey, Stanford, Friday through Monday. The B+ goes to My Man Godfrey. This depression-era story of a bum-turned-imagebutler provides plenty of laughs. Like all screwball comedies, it finds humor in both romance and class warfare, although Godfrey addresses class issues more pointedly than most screwballs. Perhaps that’s a result of its time—it was made in 1936, early for a screwball but right in the middle of the depression. Godfrey blows it badly in the third act, but that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the first two. Showboat was director James Whale’s chance to escape the horror genre (in which he made all of his best work), but it’s too plodding and dull to be an effective escape. The first part, involving racial issues and with Paul Robeson in an important supporting role, works quite well. Then it just drags down.

B Argo, Castro, Tuesday. 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 clobber the audience with three saved-in-the-last-second moments that might work with Indiana Jones, but are two too many for an allegedly true story. Another complaint: The real hero of this story, Tony Mendez, is Hispanic and looks it. Affleck is unquestionably white.

C The Sound of Music, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough for light entertainment, yet lacking the substance necessary for anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture-postcard sort of way.

What’s Screening: January 4 – 10

Still no festivals. But that sorry state of affairs ends next week.

Important note: I’m writing the newsletter early this week, and may not be able to update it later. Please excuse any errors.

A Performing arts double bill: A Late Quartet & Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Castro, Tuesday. The A goes to A Late Quartet, about the unraveling of a string quartet that’s been playing together for decades. imageWhen the cellist (Christopher Walken, for once not playing a psychopath) tells his partners that he has Parkinson’s disease, personal and creative differences that have long been simmering bubble to the top. People get hurt, they get angry, and they sleep with the wrong people. On its own, I’d give the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present a B+. We watch as Abramovic prepares and presents of a major show at MOMA, with sidelines into her past life and work. She’s a fascinating person, filled with life, devoted to her work, humane, empathetic, and sexy as all hell (at 63).  Read my SFIFF Report.

A- The Master, Rafael, opens Friday. As you probably know, Paul Thomas 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. The story is really about an alcoholic drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who finds himself in the circle of a charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Neither man is trustworthy; one steals from his hosts, the other runs what he may or may not consciously realize is a scam. Amy Adams gives The Master’s third great performance, as the "great" man’s wife–sweet on the outside but in reality hard as nails. The film suffers from a weak third act. This is one of two new films shot in the 70mm format. For more on the film and the format, see The Master, by a Master, in Masterly 70mm and When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm,

A Psycho, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. You may never want to take a shower again. In his last great movie, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times, imageleaving us unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I saw it for the first time; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes.

A Samsara, Castro, Wednesday and Thursday. 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 with today’s digital cameras or with standard 35mm film. The filmmakers have stated that Samsara is best seen in 4K digital projection, a format that the Castro doesn’t support. See my full review as well as More on Samsara, 70mm, and 4K Digital Projection.

B- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Castro, through 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 actually pretty scary). 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.

My Top Ten Movie-Going Experiences of 2012

As the curtain parts on 2013′s opening titles, it’s time to look at my favorite movie-going experiences of the past year.

To make this list, both the film and the presentation had to be exceptional. I consider the quality of the print or digital transfer, the theater, the showmanship involved with the presentation, the audience, and, of course, the movie itself. 

Some of the best new movies I’ve seen this year, including A Separation and Samsara, didn’t make the grade because I didn’t see them under the best of circumstances.  On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t make the grade despite a wonderful Imax presentation, because I didn’t like the movie.

Both the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Castro Theatre dominate this list, but that’s not surprising. Silent films inherently require showmanship, and the Festival doesn’t stint on that. And the Castro offers a great movie-watching environment.

2012 was the year that the art houses went digital, and I saw less and less physical film as the year went by. Six of the ten programs here were digitally projected.

10) Anti-Commie Double Bill, Pacific Film Archive
35mm film
Last fall, the PFA screened two very different flicks from 1953, Invaders from Mars was silly, cheap, and a lot of unintentional laughs. Pickup on South Street was a revelation. Written and directed by the great Samuel Fuller (2012 was my Sam Fuller year) this Cold War noir stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who lifts a wallet containing top-secret information. Soon, the FBI and Communist agents are after him. By the time it was over, I had a new all-time favorite Sam Fuller picture, and a new all-time favorite noir.

The PFA screened both films in 35mm with changeover projection (the way film should be projected). The print of Pickup, from Criterion Pictures, was exceptional. My one complaint: The movies would have played better if they had reversed the order.

9) Lawrence of Arabia, Castro 
DCP
This Lawrence of Arabiasame film, in this same theater, won ninth place last year, as well. That time, it was the 1988 restoration, projected in 70mm. And it looked great. This time, it was the new, 2012 restoration, projected digitally, and despite some flaws, it looked even better. A long, wide, visually expansive epic that cries out for a giant screen, Lawrence also succeeds as an intimate study. Peter O’Toole plays the title character as an emotionally troubled military genius, a megalomaniac and an exhibitionist, riddled with guilt and wanting to become something he knows he can never be.

Whoever was working the booth at the Castro that day knew how this type of roadshow epic should be presented. The houselights slowly faded during the overture, reaching full darkness just before the Columbia logo flashed onto the opening curtain.

Wonderful as Lawrence looked, I wish the Castro had used a 70mm print of the new restoration, or better yet, had a 4K digital projector. But economics make those options impractical.

8) Amazing Tales From the Vault, Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Live, with some digital and film demonstrations
Paramount’s Andrea Kalas and Sony/Columbia’s Grover Crisp (both executives in charge of aging film libraries) were on hand to discuss their companies’ digital restoration work. Kalas showed us before-and-after images from the newly-restored Wings (which was screened the night before; see number 2 below). Crisp, repeating a demonstration he had shown at New York’s Film Forum, allowed us to compare the first reel of Dr. Strangelove off of a DCP and a 35mm print. DCP won.

7) Bernie, Palace Theater in Hilco, Hawaii
35mm film
While vacationing in Hawaii this summer, my family stumbled upon a beautiful old movie palace, still in operation, screening independent and indiewood fare. They showed Bernie that night, and although I had already seen and liked it, I decided it was a good time to see it again with the family. The lobby is deep and ornate, the auditorium large, and they’ve got two 35mm projectors for changeover presentation.

Jack Black plays the movie’s title character as a sweet, kind, and patient guy. He seems to truly care about the bereaved people he comforts as part of his job. His voice and mannerisms suggest that he’s gay, yet you suspect he’s never acted on those urges. He ardently loves Jesus, as well as the people living around him. And he shot an old woman four times in the back and hid her body in a trunk for nine months.

6) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Rafael
DCP
Clive Wynne-Candy is an officer and a gentleman. A career soldier in His Majesty’s army, he believes in following the rules of combat–even against an enemy willing to commit atrocities. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows Wynne-Candy through four decades, from his dashing youth to a somewhat foolish old age. Along the way, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger–the same team that created The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus–provide warmth, heartbreak, laughs, and several viewpoints on what it means to be a soldier, a patriot, a young man, an old man, and a decent human being.

This beautiful, three-strip Technicolor fable received a major restoration in 2012. Screened through the Rafael’s new digital projector, it looked great. A talk before the screening helped set the scene.

5) Children of Paradise, Castro
DCP
Have you ever loved a film for decades, then seen it restored, and realized that it’s even better than you thought?

That was my experience watching the new restoration of Children of Paradise. Suddenly there were shades of gray and fine details I’d never seen before (was that really one of Arletty’s nipples?). Flaws and scratches and duty stamps have been removed, and what’s left is a beautifully realized past recreated in sumptuous black and white.

The most ecstatically French of all French films, Children follows the life of a beautiful woman and four men caught in her orbit–all set in the theater scene of 1840s Paris. That this big, expensive epic was shot in the last months of the Occupation makes it all the more impressive.

4) The Master, Grand Lake
70mm
Physical film may be dying, but it hit back in some interesting ways last year. For instance, two films released this fall were shot in the 70mm format (see When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm), the first films shot that way since 1996.

And of the two, only The Master was released in 70mm. Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, which is grand indeed, was the only Bay Area venue to screen the film that way for more than a one-night stand. I saw it in their opulent main theater, which was almost sold out that night.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson loosely based The Master on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard–although it should in no way be considered an expose. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the Hubbard-like title character, but the story really centers on an alcoholic drifter played by Joaquin Phoenix. The weak final act hurts but doesn’t ruin The Master, and the 70mm image gives it a striking clarity.

3) Headhunters, Kabuki
San Francisco International Film Festival
DCP
This Norwegian thriller entertained me more than any other new film I saw in 2012. The protagonist of this Hitchcockian tale leads the good life of wealth, power, and a beautiful wife. But even his high-paying, high-status job can’t pay for his lavish lifestyle, so he moonlights as a burglar, breaking into homes and stealing expensive paintings. But something goes seriously wrong. Then it gets worse. And then…Well, before long, avoiding the police is the least of his worries. See my full review.

What was so special about the presentation? The audience. They cheered, laughed, and gasped in horror in just the way that they’re supposed to in this type of movie. Headhunter is a crowd-pleaser, and it sure pleased that crowd.

2) Wings, Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
DCP
Live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Ben Burtt, & others

I never cared for realistic sound effects in silent films, but this summer I found the exception to the rule. Sound effects wizard Ben Burtt (Star Wars, WALL-E, and others) used bicycles, drums, a typewriter, several assistants, and devices that I couldn’t possibly name to bring the air and land battles of World War 1 to audio life. Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra–one of the best ensembles accompanying silent films today–added emotional heft to the story.

But let’s not forget the movie. William Wellman’s Wings, the first film to win the Bestimage Picture Oscar, is a grand epic of regular soldiers at war, taking its time to develop the atmosphere and characters, and foreshadowing an important death. When the action starts, we’re entirely invested. The two leads, Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Richard Arlen, give complete and subtle performances. There’s a moment when Arlen’s character is receiving a medal, and the weary sadness and confusion on his face speaks more eloquently than any dialog ever could.

Newly restored, Wings looks more thrilling than it has in at least 80 years.

1) Napoleon, Oakland Paramount
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
35mm, with the final sequence in three-strip Polyvision
Accompanied by 46-piece orchestra conducted by Carl Davis

I have a confession to make. I went into 2012 all but certain that this event would hit the number 1 spot on this list. I was right. This may have been the greatest movie-going experience of my lifetime.

I doubt I have ever seen such a perfect melding of cinema and showmanship. Napoleon requires the special presentation that the Festival provided, and the presentation would overwhelm any other movie. Running 5 1/2 hours (broken up by three intermissions, including a long dinner break), and filled with thousands of extras, this picture is huge in every way. Yet it can be intimate and witty when appropriate. Although the film was made in 1927, it uses the camera and scissors in ways that seem revolutionary today.

And 20 minutes before the end, the masking opens up and the screen triples in width, showing us a vast vista recorded by three cameras and shown by three projectors. The audience went wild.

I’ve been watching silent films for more than 40 years. Many of them had color tints. But this was my first literally tinted print. Rather than recreating tints on color film, restorer Kevin Brownlow ran black and white film through dye baths, giving the colors a radiance that no photochemical or digital process can replicate.

Carl Davis, one of the heroes of modern-day silent film accompaniment, conducted a full orchestra at the screening. His score, which leaned heavily (and appropriately) on Beethoven, added zeal, depth, and beauty to the film.

Talk about a hard act to follow.

Runners up

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