A Classic Comedy and a Colombian Thriller: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival is beginning to wind down. Sunday was the last non-workday of the festival. I attended two events, and hit the jackpot both times.

The Mel Novikoff Award Ceremony and The Lady Eve

More than anyone else, Mel Novikoff helped bring repertory cinema to the Bay Area. The SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff Award honors someone who has helped keep a love of cinema alive. This year, the Award went to critic and historian David Thomson.

imageThomson is such an obvious choice I found myself wondering why it took so long. The author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and many other books, he’s considered by many to be the greatest living film historian. And he’s local, a British subject who’s made his home in the Bay Area.

I like to patronize used bookstores, and I always go right to the Cinema section. Despite their popularity, you rarely see his books there. People must be reluctant to part with them.

After introductions by Rachel Rosen and Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, Jeff Dyer interviewed Thomson. So highlights;

  • Thomson on Novikoff: "I lived around the corner from Mel’s office. Every other morning I would bump into him. He had an electricity, an energy, and grace, quite amazing. He had that buzz that was characteristic of great showman. And he was so much fun to be with."
  • Jeff Dyer described a game using Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary. You read one of the brief, very opinionated biographies, and someone else has to guess who that person is. Dyer played the game with the audience; the winner got a dollar.
  • On the original response to the encyclopedia: "Authors expect the world is waiting to acclaim them." It took six months before anyone bothered to review his book.
  • "I taught a class at Stanford two years ago Very smart kids. But their knowledge of film history was not that good. A lot of people think it began in the late 70s."
  • "Actors are not quite there in the way the rest of us try to be. There’s a terrible temptation to decide you like them and be kind to them."
  • "The movies that interest me the most are about the face."

Next came the Q&A with the audience:

  • I got to ask the first question, and I asked about old films being screened digitally: "I have very mixed feelings. I love film as celluloid. I’ve handled it. I love that part of it."
  • "People went into the dark to see things that were impossible. Places they couldn’t visit….What film has done is show us the world you couldn’t see. The wonderful privilege of voyeurism."
  • "Have the movies made us better? I can’t see it. They have filled our time and diverted us from other things."
  • "The remote allows you to be experimenting. It’s frightening. But it’s staggering."

He then introduced the movie he chose to be screened in his honor, The Lady Eve. "It was released a few weeks before I was born. They weren’t aware of that coincidence. The film is sublimely unaware of the war."

Then they screened the movie.

Thomson made a great choice in picking The Lady Eve. To my mind, it’s the perfect screwball comedy. You’ve got lovable con artists lifting money from wealthy snobs, and you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck at her sexiest, wrapping Henry Fonda around her little finger. We don’t generally associate Fonda with comedy, but he’s wonderful here as the shy and naïve son of a wealthy family–a man who’d rather study snakes in the Amazon than go into his father’s beer business. He’s the perfect mark for Stanwyck’s card shark.

I’ve seen The Lady Eve many times (I own the DVD), but it’s been 30 years or more since I’d seen it theatrically. And yes, that is the way to see it, with hundreds of other people laughing with you.

The Festival screened The Lady Eve off one of the most film-like DCPs I’ve ever seen. The grain structure was very visible, and there were even some scratches.

Manos Sucias

The 6:45 start time was almost upon us when the SFIFF volunteers finally let the audience into the Kabuki‘s tiny Theater 2. By the time I got into the auditorium, almost all the seats were taken. I got one in the front row, which in this particular auditorium is too close even for me.

But the movie, produced in part by San Francisco Film Society (which also produces this festival), was well worth the wait and the bad seat.


First-time director Josef Kubota Wladyka uses the thriller formula to examine the society of of rural Colombia, where paramilitary forces and ruthless drug cartels control everything. And yet, somehow, people carry on, loving their families and trying to make the best of things.

Two brothers, barely on speaking terms at first, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine. The coke is contained within a large, old torpedo, and they must tow it, via a small motorboat down river, into the ocean, and up to Panama. The container looks absurd, but it stays underwater and is rarely visible.

Older brother Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) is stable, but hurting. The warlords killed his wife and son. Younger brother Delio (Cristian Advincula) is full of enthusiasm and hope. He’s only 19, a new father enthusiastically in love with his girlfriend and baby. He’s also an aspiring rapper.

It’s the end of them if they’re caught. But things will be worse if they don’t deliver all of their shipment. In that case, Delio’s family will be killed, as well. The suspense is built into the story, and the last half hour is as harrowing as these things go. The ending is not comforting.

But Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works in a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders. We see how people live, earn money, and find unique and original ways of transportation.

I’m giving it an A.

Manos Sucias has not yet found an American distributor. But you have two more chances to see it at the festival. It plays tonight (Monday) at 8:30, and Thursday (the last day of the Festival) at 6:00. Both screenings are at the Kabuki.

After Sunday’s screening, Wladyka, producers Elena Greenlee and Márcia Nunes, and cinematographer/co-writer Alan Blanco came up for Q&A. Here are some highlights:

  • How did you ended up shooting a film in Colombia? "I was backpacking in South America. As we were traveling, we were finding hidden beaches and towns under siege. We were told about narco submarines. After that, making a movie about it was always in the back of my mind."
  • On working with the communities: "We had to collaborate with people to get their blessing."
  • Cinematographer Blanco on shooting on a low budget under difficult conditions: "We knew we’d develop material and shoot no matter what…We knew we had to be flexible with weather and such….I don’t recommend shooting on water."
  • On using locations in what’s effectively a warzone: "We had to ask if a location was safe. And safe today didn’t mean safe next week."

SF Silent Film Festival Report 1: Wings

I always felt that realistic sound effects weren't appropriate for silent films. I was wrong. Or perhaps this was just an exception. Realistic sound effects are fantastic if they're performed live by an ensemble directed by sound effects wizard Ben Burtt. Using bicycles, drums, a typewriter (I think) and devices that I couldn't possibly name (but all, I suspect, existing in 1927), Burtt and his team brought the air and land battles of World War 1 to life. The thrills, shocks, and horrors of combat came through in Burtt's audio as much as in William Wellman's images.

Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra helped, as well. One of the best ensembles accompanying silent films today, they make any silent film come alive. But this time, to be honest, they were upstaged by the sound effects. I don't think they minded.

Silent movies were meant to be seen, not heard, so let's talk about visuals. Paramount's new restoration of Wings–the first Best Picture Oscar winner–is simply stunning. A couple of scenes looked grainier than the rest, but most of it looked like a brand-new black and white movie. Except there wasn't much black and white. Most of the movie was tinted, and if the tints lacked the excitement of those in Napoleon, they were still effective. Flames were hand-painted orange (or CGI'd to look hand-painted). I don't know if I saw a brand-new 35mm print or a digital copy, and frankly, I don't care.

But what about the movie itself? I don't know if it was the audio, the restoration, or my age, but Wings seemed much better than I remembered. A great, big epic of regular soldiers at war, it took its time developing 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 spoke more volumes than any dialog ever could. Among the other impressive performances are a not-yet-famous Gary Cooper in a small but effective role, and Henry B. Walthall as a father trying his best to repress emotions raging inside. The wonderful Clara Bow, despite her top billing, is wasted here as the ingenue in love with a man who doesn't realize he's in love with her.

Tomorrow night, we'll watch Bow shine in Mantrap, a movie more suited to her talents.


Quick Comments on the Oscars

About the awards

  • Third year in a row that a film shot digitally appeared to be a likely Best Picture winner, but lost to a film shot on film.
  • Early on I thought it was going to be a Hugo sweep, but it turned into a happy ending, after all. I liked them both, but The Artist really was the better show.
  • Surprised that neither silent movie tribute won a Best Screenplay award. Usually the Best Picture winner wins one of those awards.
  • Too bad Bridesmaids didn’t win in either category for which it was nominated. Comedy gets overlooked way too often.
  • Delighted about A Separation’s win for Best Foreign Film (even though it was the only one of the five I’d seen, and therefore really couldn’t judge).

About the show

  • I really, really hate the question “Who are you wearing?” I want some movie star to say “I don’t wear people, and I bought this dress at Woolworth.”
  • Billy Crystal’s pre-filmed opening show was pretty funny, up through Tom Cruise’s cameo. Then it ran out of steam.
  • His follow-up opening song about the nominees was lame. Face it Billy: That shtick was brilliant the first year you did it and lame every year after that.
  • Loved the sketch about focus groups and The Wizard of Oz. Did Christopher Guest direct that? It was certainly done by his brilliant rep company.
  • Why would a Hulu Plus commercial remind people that watching too much television is addictive and dehumanizing?
  • The mystery of Meryl Streep. She’s such a brilliant actor, but when she has to address an audience as herself, without pretending to be someone else, she comes off as a complete dork.
  • With two homages to silent films, and one specifically to Georges Méliès, couldn’t they have spared a few minutes to a tribute to the inventor of both special effects and (arguably) narrative cinema?

Changing Film Technologies Reflected in Best Picture Nominees

If either The Artist or Hugo wins the Best Picture Oscar, it will say something interesting about how the Hollywood community accepts the technical changes around them. If Hugo wins, it will be the first 3D movie, and the first shot digitally, to win the prize. If The Artist wins (which would please me far more than Hugo), it will be only the third black-and-white film to win Best Picture since 1956, and only second silent to ever win.

That will be an anomaly, of course, but there’s no question that a digitally-shot film will one day win Best Picture. Each of the last two years, a digitally-shot motion picture was considered a likely winner: The Social Network for 2010, and Avatar for 2009. Each lost to a movie shot on film. But the 2009 winner was another technical record-breaker; The Hurt Locker was the first movie shot in a low-budget, small-gauge format–in this case Super-16–to win Best Picture.

No one who loves cinema views the Best Picture Oscar as a sign that a movie was actually the best picture of the year (although that has happened). But it has always been a sign of what makes Hollywood employees proud of their industry.

Here are some similar Best Picture technical firsts–and lasts.

  • First Best Picture winner and last silent (so far): Wings, 1927/28
  • First talkie winner: The Broadway Melody, 1928/29
  • First color winner: Gone with the Wind, 1939 (three-strip Technicolor)
  • Second color winner: An American in Paris, 1951 (also three-strip Technicolor, but a long wait after the first)
  • First color winner to immediately follow another color winner: The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 (yes, it was also three-strip)
  • Last black & white winner to follow another black & white winner: Marty, 1955
  • First widescreen winner, first single-strip color winner, first winner shot in large format, and first winner presented in 70mm: Around the World in 80 Days, 1956
  • First winner shot in Cinemascope: Bridge of the River Kwai, 1957
  • Last black & white winner for more than 30 years, and only b&w winner shot or shown in scope: The Apartment, 1960
  • First shot in anamorphic scope and blown up to 70mm: Oliver!, 1968
  • Last winner shot in a large format: Patton, 1970.
  • First winner released in Dolby Stereo: The Deer Hunter, 1978
  • Last winner shot in black & white: Schindler’s List, 1993 (The Artist was actually shot on color film, and digitally converted to b&w.)
  • First winner shot in Super-35, and the last released in 70mm: Titanic, 1997

Moving from technological information to censorable material, the rating system replaced the Production Code in 1968, making Oliver! the first Best Picture with a rating. It was rated G.

The next year, Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated Best Picture winner.

Those were the last films with those ratings to ever win Best Picture. No NC-17 film has ever won.

Oscars at the Cerrito

I discovered just how fun an Oscar party can be. It happened last night at the Cerrito. cerrito

But I must confess: I did not, after all, come costumed as a lesbian gardener ballet dancer with an eye patch. A few people were costumed as movie characters, however, and a great many dressed up formally for the evening.

Each one of us received a bag of goodies as we entered. Mine included a glow wand, a pen, some candy, a CD from a musician I’d never heard of, and a cheap, cardboard horn. I don’t know how identical the bags’ contents were, but I can say with absolute certainly that there were a lot of glow wands, and a lot of cardboard horns. The later contributed to the general merriment.

Houselights were up for the red carpet preshow, and down for the actual program. During commercials, the screen went blank, the houselights came up, and Rialto Cinemas employee Melissa Hathaway (no relation, I assume, to show co-host Anne Hathaway) came onstage with trivia questions.

Throughout the entire evening, other Cerrito employees moved through the theater giving out hors d’oeuvres. This was in addition to the Cerrito’s normal snack bar offerings, which are more like a restaurant’s than a movie theater’s.

Few contestants stood up for the costume contest. The winner was dressed as Helena Bonham Carter’s queen from The King’s Speech. She didn’t get my vote, however (the choice was made by a panel of judges, not the audience). I liked the woman dressed as Rooster Cogburn. (I took some photos, but I’m not satisfied with the results.)

The enthusiastic audience enhanced the show itself. People cheered and applauded, with remarkably little booing. When the Cinematography and Sound Mixing winners made a point of thanking their union crews, the East Bay crowd gave their approval. I wasn’t the only person to applaud silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow for his life-achievement award.

Speaking of life-achievement awards, I’m amongst those who resents that these are now done at a separate, non-televised ceremony. These were always the best part of the Oscars for me.

The show itself was entertaining, and the winners predictable. But I can’t help wondering: Did the majority of Academy members who saw both Toy Story III and The Illusionist really think the kiddie movie deserved the Best Animated Feature award? Or has voting for the Pixar entry simply become a reflex action?

Oscar Parties

The rule used to be that you watched movies in theaters and TV at home. Today, so many of us watch movies at home that we need to get out once in awhile to watch TV in the theater.

And why not do it with the biggest movie night on television: The Academy Awards? Comedy is usually better with an audience.

Here are the theaters playing the Oscars on their big screens Sunday night:

Balboa: Writer/performer Reed Kirk Rahlmann will host what the Balboa is promising to be the "most relaxed and fun Oscar® party in town." They’re giving away prizes for the best costume; I dare you to come as a Winter Bone.

Cerrito: I’ll be attending this one, so if you come, keep an eye out for me and say "Hello." The Cerrito probably has the best food of any local theater, and the most comfortable chairs, which makes it a good choice for a long show (other theaters are bringing in boxed gourmet dinners, but the Cerrito doesn’t have to bring them in; it has a real kitchen). Like the Balboa, they’re giving away prizes for costumes based on the movies;  I saw The Kids are All Right, Black Swan, and True Grit at the Cerrito, so maybe I should come as a lesbian gardener ballet dancer with an eye patch.

Lark: Food-wise, the Lark seems to be giving the Cerrito a run for its money. They’ve got quite a menu planned from various local eateries. And yes, a costume contest. The price is high, though: $55.

Rafael: For what it’s worth, this is the "Only official Bay Area Oscar night event sanctioned by the Academy." It includes a gourmet boxed dinner and a silent auction, but no costume contest. As I write this, the Rafael’s Oscar event is the only one I’ve attended–two years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed it much. Despite my negative review, it’s already sold out.

Roxie: They’re calling this one "Up the Oscars!" which suggests that it might be the only unofficial Bay Area Oscar night event condemned by the Academy. They’re encouraging patrons to "bring your ill-tempered attitude and vent with an equally irascible ilk while we attempt to distract you with prizes and a variety of shenanigans…" These include (you guessed it) a costume contest, "all calculated to keep your blood from boiling as misconceived musical numbers are performed and unworthy winners are announced."

Technical Formats and the Best Picture Oscar

If The Social Network wins the big prize this month, as many think it will, it will be the first picture to do so not shot on film. The Mark Zuckerberg biopic was shot digitally.

A year ago, a lot of people thought that Avatar was going to win, and it would have achieved that distinction. Instead, The Hurt Locker, becoming the first film shot in a low-cost, small film format (Super 16) to gain the big prize.

The Best Picture Oscar is meaningless as a way to recognize great films. But it can be invaluable in determining the collective mind of the Hollywood industry. It generally takes a few years after a new artistic or technical trend appears before it shows up in a Best Picture, but when it does, you know the trend has accepted.

Consider these milestones:

Sound: The first Oscars were given in May of 1929, as the studios were abandoning silents. But the Best Picture award went to a silent film, Wings. That the second one went to a talkie, The Broadway Melody (not just a talkie but a musical), shows how quickly silents became obsolete.

Color: The first feature shot entirely in three-strip Technocolor, Becky Sharp, came out in 1935. The first to win Best Picture, Gone with the Wind, in 1939. That seems reasonable considering how slowly color became common. But Wind, which boosted Technicolor’s business and popularity considerably, was the last color winner until An American in Paris, 12 years later.

Widescreen: The widescreen revolution, which permanently and literally changed the shape of motion pictures, happened in 1953. Suddenly, the screens were wider, color was becoming the norm, and many films were even in stereo. And for three years, the award went to black-and-white films that were as narrow as the new standards allowed. But when the Academy finally acknowledged the wide screen in 1957 (with the ’56 awards), they did it in a big way, with Around the World in 80 Days.

Large Formats: And by big, I mean big. Around the World was the first of seven Best Picture winners shot in extra-large 65mm formats (the last was Patton, for 1970). Five of those seven won between the years 1959 and 1965, when a large film negative and roadshow presentation (reserved seats and an intermission) signaled an important film. Until The Hurt Locker, these were the only Oscar winners shot on something other than standard 35mm film. And unlike The Hurt Locker, these sacrificed budget for image quality; not the other way around.

So what does it mean when a small format film wins Best Picture one year, and a digital one may quite probably win the next? That Hollywood is accepting technologies, both old and new (Super 16 has been around for decades), that were considered not-quite-respectable only a couple of years ago.

For good or bad, things are changing.


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