Dough and Opening night at the SF Jewish film festival

I attended opening night of the SF Jewish Film Festival at the Castro last night. It was, for the most part, an enjoyable evening.

Although it did start with the inevitable reserved seating problem. The whole front half of the theater was cordoned off for VIPs. Luckily, I convinced a volunteer usher that as press, I counted as a VIP, so I was able to sit in my preferred 3rd row center seat. Not that I was stealing that seat from a worthier person. For most of the film, I was the only person in the front three rows.

The show started soon after the official 6:15 starting time with a series of past Jewish Film Festival trailers. The last trailer, of course, was this year’s, and its’ one of the best.

The talking started at 6:23. SFJFF officers discussed the history of the Festival, the organization’s new name–the Jewish Film Institute–and their video-on-demand service. We were told that people under 35 can buy a festival pass for $35 (it doesn’t cover the big nights). We heard about other films coming up. And the director of this year’s film, John Goldschimdt, was introduced and talked briefly.

The movie started at 6:46. Not bad.

And the film itself? Not bad.

B+ Dough

This feel-good comedy succeeds in making you laugh and in making you feel good. Why not? The marijuana-laced challah makes the onscreen characters laugh and feel good. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept the absurdities of the story and the conventional comic tropes, but if you do you can sit back and enjoy the movie. The story involves an orthodox kosher baker (Jonathan Pryce) who hires a Muslim, African refugee teenager (newcomer Jerome Holder) as his apprentice. And of course they bond while the bakery thrives. It’s a movie.

Dough will play three more times at the festival:

This British film may get an American theatrical release, although as near as I can tell, it has not yet been picked up my a distributor.

After the film, director Goldschimdt and star Holder came on stage for a Q&A. It happened to be Holder’s 21st birthday, and he was presented with a cake.

Some highlights:

  • How did you (Holder) get involved? “I got called in to come in, and I did and audition with Jonathan Pryce. I’d done a bit of TV work. This is my big break.”
  • On playing a character from Darfur (out of character, Holder speaks with a London accent): It came to me just speaking to people in that circle.
  • Goldschimdt: “We shot 60 percent of the film in Budapest. It was a very good experience.”
  • On casting Holder: “When you look at a video, you can see who the camera likes best.” He brought Pryce into the auditions to make sure they had chemistry together.
  • Holder: “It was the best 10 or 11 weeks of my life.”

After the show, I went to the opening night party at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The current exhibit on Any Winehouse was open for us. There was plenty of good food, but alas, no marijuana-laced challah.

Miracle Mile: A quirky romantic comedy thriller about the ultimate disaster. My Blu-ray review

I usually review Blu-rays of well-loved classics. This time, I’m covering a little-known film you’ve probably never heard of. But it should be a well-loved classic.

Miracle Mile starts as a quirky, one-of-a-kind romantic comedy. Harry (Anthony Edwards) woos Julie (Mare Winningham)–in a science museum–with his wit and his slide trombone. He meets her grandparents. They arrange a first date. He oversleeps and misses it.

Then he answers a wrong phone number and discovers that everything he cares about–in fact, all of civilization–will be gone in a little more than an hour. The United States has fired nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union, and retaliation is inevitable.

Unless, of course, it was a prank call.

At that point, Miracle Mile becomes a very different type of movie. Following Harry in real time, it becomes both a heart-stopping thriller and a very dark comedy of disaster, as he tries desperately to find and save the girl who thinks he jilted her.

And, of course, everything goes wrong. And not just the little, funny things. Harry’s actions result in several deaths and the destruction of a gas station and department store. Eventually, Harry begins to doubt what he heard on that wrong number, but that’s no comfort either. If the bombs won’t be falling, he’s going to be in very big trouble.

The comedy drains away as the suspense increases and the film nears its climax. I found myself shaking in the film’s last minutes–and that was my second time seeing the movie.

Harry isn’t much of a hero. Yes, he puts his life on the line to save the woman he loves–even though they’ve only just met. But he makes one stupid mistake after another, and unlike a Hitchcock protagonist, he doesn’t learn much from his mistakes.

The story wouldn’t work at all if we didn’t care about Harry and Julie. De Jarnatt made a very good choice in casting Edwards and Winningham in the lead roles. They’re both attractive, but not gorgeous. Because they don’t look like conventional Hollywood stars, you can more easily accept them as real people. They’re not fantasy figures. It helps considerably that both Edwards and Winningham are excellent actors.

De Jarnatt and cinematographer Theo van de Sande shot most of Miracle Mile in long takes, often with excellent, dynamic staging and camera movements that don’t draw attention to themselves. This style, almost unheard of today, adds to the feeling that the movie is unspooling in real time–that ten minutes on the screen is equal to ten minutes in the characters’ lives. And when the minutes left in the characters’ lives may be draining away very quickly, the film becomes very tense.

Helping that tension is the remarkable music by Tangerine Dream, which manages to be unusual without drawing attention to itself. Chilling and taut, it produces the feeling of a nightmare.

The title comes from a Los Angeles neighborhood, not far from Hollywood, where most of the film is set.

Made in 1988 and released in 1989, Miracle Mile is probably the last film about nuclear disaster made during the cold war. It barely made a peep when it came out. I discovered this film, almost by accident, in New York in 2011. I wrote about it enthusiastically, and noted that it was available for home viewing only on a badly-cropped DVD. Since I discovered it, it has played once at the Castro.

In other words, it’s a very difficult film to see properly, either in a theater or at home. I’m glad to report that with the release of this Blu-ray next Tuesday (July 28), at least for home screenings that problem will be solved.

First Impression

There’s nothing special about the case, and nothing inside that case except the disc.

When you insert the disc and get past the FBI warning, you’ll find a very stripped down and unexceptional menu. The only options are Play, Chapter, and Bonuses. There are no Setup options.

The disc only has nine chapters.

How It Looks

This low-budget film doesn’t call for an incredible transfer, and Kino didn’t give it one. But the transfer is more than acceptable. The colors look right, and pop when they should pop (which is often). Everything is reasonably sharp, and the film grain is clearly visible.

In other words, it looks like just what it is: A low-budget commercial American film from the late 1980s, shot mostly at night with very fast film.

How It Sounds

Miracle Mile was originally released is Ultra Stereo, a competitor and to a certain extent a clone of the then ubiquitous Dolby Stereo. Coincidentally, this is my second Blu-ray review in a row of an Ultra Stereo film–the other being Hoop Dreams.

Like Dolby, Ultra put two discrete stereo tracks on the 35mm film, then used some electronic tricks to channel the sounds into four, rather than just two, directions. As far as I know, Ultra Stereo soundtracks were compatible with Dolby Stereo sound systems.

Kino is releasing Miracle Mile in 2-track stereo, without any instructions about surround decoding. Before watching the entire movie, I did some tests and decided that it sounded best with my receiver’s Dolby Surround Decode turned on. The tracks use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio compression, and sound great.

Still, I wish Kino had done what Criterion did with Hoop Dreams–release the disc with a 4.0 soundtrack. That gives you the original mix without any ambiguity about how the audio should be played.

And the Extras

  • Audio commentary with writer/director Steve De Jarnatt & film critic Walter Chaw: Interesting and covers all the bases, including how the story evolved, the small budget, and the various actors.
  • Audio commentary with De Jarnatt, DP Theo Van De Sande, and Production Designer Chris Horner: A lot of self-congratulations here, as they say various versions of “We did so much on such a tiny budget.” But they also describe some interesting money-saving tricks, so it’s not a complete loss.
  • Excavations from the editing room tar pits – deleted scenes, outtakes, and bloopers: 11 minutes, 1080p. Some of the scenes are interesting, and tell us more about the characters. But there’s no narration to put it into context. Someone decided to add music over everything, obscuring much of the dialog. Although presented in 1080p, it all looks like standard video.
  • Supporting cast & crew reunion: 14 minutes, 1080p. Several supporting actors talk about the movie and what they’ve done since.
  • Harry & Julie: Interview with stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham: 12 minutes, 1080p. They talk, with clips from the film popping up intermediately. It’s interesting. Edwards mentioned the NYC screening where I discovered the movie.
  • Alternate Diamond Ending: five minutes, 1080p. It repeats the last minute or so of the movie, then has one really stupid shot, then repeats the entire credits roll. Utterly pointless.
  • Trailers for Miracle Mile and De Jarnatt’s only other feature as a director, Cherry 2000.

The A+ List: 8½ (also Children of Paradise & City Lights)

Getting back to my list of all-time favorite films–the near-perfect masterpieces that I’ve loved for decades.

In strict alphabetical order, the next movie on my list is Marcel Carné’s love letter to France and the theater, Children of Paradise. But I’ve written about it twice already, so you can read my appreciation and my Blu-ray review.

Next on the list is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. I wrote a Blu-ray review of that one, too.

So let’s skip ahead to the next greatly-beloved film that I haven’t dedicated an article to.

Federico Fellini’s surreal, autobiographical, self-referential comedy (of a sort) captures the dread of writer’s block, the pressures on a filmmaker, and the male mid-life crisis better than any other film I’ve seen (Barton Fink may equal it in terms of writer’s block). Fellini takes us deep into the worries, dreams, and memories of a successful writer/director who doesn’t know what his next film–soon to go into production–should be about.

And Fellini does it all with humor, stylish visuals, and an enthusiastic embrace of the cinema as exciting as Citizen Kane‘s. The camera swirls and dances through extras drinking mineral water or waiting for a mud bath. Reality slips into fantasy and back again as easily as a Steadicam can slip from one room to another. I’m still not sure which part of the ending is fantasy and which is reality. Since is an auteurist film about an auteurist filmmaker, we can reasonably assume that Fellini based the main character, Guido, on himself. Of course the part is played by Marcello Mastroianni, who was far better looking than Federico Fellini. But hey, this is a movie. I’d want my cinematic alter-ego to look like Mastroianni.

Guido has a lot on his plate. His next film is headed towards production–sets and costumes are being built–but he’s lost his confidence. He’s delayed the shoot. He avoids talking to his stars about their characters. His producer is losing his patience. And his writing collaborator–apparently the only person who’s read the script–does nothing but tell him how bad it is. This collaborator/critic becomes one of the film’s best running jokes. As he continually points out flaws in the film to be made, it begins to sound as if he’s criticizing (“It doesn’t have the advantage of the avant-garde films, although it has all of the drawbacks”). It’s as if Fellini beat the reviewers to the punch by panning the movie inside of itself. (Not that has these flaws, but I could see how some people might think it did.)

All this is set in an upscale spa resort where Guido has gone for unspecified health reasons. It appears as if he’s brought his entire production company with him, and that the film will be shot (if ever) near the spa.

To make Guido’s life even more complicated, his mistress arrives (played by Sandra Milo–Fellini’s real mistress at that time). Then his wife arrives. And he keeps seeing fantasies of Claudia Cardinale.

The film contains a number of great set pieces. There’s Guido’s walk, mostly shot POV, through the spa to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries. The descent into the mud bath to interview a cardinal. His childhood memory of watching a woman dance and being punished for the “sin.” And, of course, his harem fantasy where all of the women he’s loved and wanted happily do his bidding. I’m a bit hesitant to call a comedy, although on reflection I think the word fits. It’s nowhere near as funny as The General or Some Like It Hot, but it is often funny in a sardonic way.

I was still in high school when I first saw and fell in love with . I saw it at least three more times in college. But the real revelation came when I revisited it in my 40s. With its flashbacks, regrets, insecurities, and sexual fantasies, is very much about the middle-aged male. I don’t think a young person can catch everything about it, although–as my younger self proves–you can catch a great deal.

Bill Plympton’s absurd love story: Cheatin’ (my review)

A Adult animation

  • Written and directed by Bill Plympton

If Bill Plympton isn’t the strangest, most iconoclastic, bizarre, and brilliant animator of all time, we live in a very weird world. His instantly recognizable style takes caricature—the heart of all animation—to an extreme beyond anyone else working in features.

Consider Jake—the irresistible hunk in Cheatin’. He appears to have a 60-inch chest and a six-inch waist. He looks as if the upper and lower parts of his body are connected by a thick rope. The love of his life, Ella, has lips so swollen you can’t imagine how she can talk.

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Not that we ever hear either of them talk. As with Plympton’s last feature, the brilliant Idiots and Angels, this is basically a silent film, told entirely in visuals, music, and occasional sound effects and grunts.

The story is simple. Jake and Ella meet when he saves her life in a carnival bumper car ride. They fall in love, get married, and are so deeply in love that they can barely keep their clothes on. Other women throw themselves at Jake, but he’s not interested. Then one of these would-be seductresses tricks him into believing that Ella is cheating on him. He starts sleeping around, so Ella…at this point I should stop.

But with Plympton, story is secondary. The real joy is in the surreal wit of his hand-drawn animation—drawn, I might add, with Plympton’s own hands. In the Plympton universe, everyone is ugly and misshapen–even characters whom the story paints as attractive. And Plympton shows his work, with visible pencil lines everywhere.

The visuals reflect emotional states, not real ones. When Ella wonders why Jake seems angry and remote–they’re as far apart as they can be in the same bed–she reaches her hand out to him. And it keeps extending, many feet, as she tries to bridge the widening gap in the widening bed. Before the scene is over, the bed splits apart and his half floats away. It’s absurd, but it’s sad and touching.

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Often Plympton uses absurdity simply to get laughs, and he gets them. A hired assassin loads himself up with so many weapons that he can’t get through the door. A cop with both hands and both feet cuffed together, so that he can’t move any of them, still manages to chase his prey by hopping.

The music, much of it familiar classical pieces, adds to the frivolity. When the soundtrack breaks into Verdi’s Libiamo Ne’lieti Calici aria (from La Traviata), Jake and Ella dance and move their lips to the Italian lyrics.

An all-around wonderful film.

Comic noir down under: Kill Me Three Times (my review)

A Comic thriller

  • Written by James McFarland
  • Directed by Kriv Stenders

As Alfred Hitchcock well understood, a good thriller can carry a heavy load of dark humor. And since this particular thriller stars Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), you come in expecting more laughs than thrills.

But make no mistake, Kill Me Three Times is first and foremost a thriller, although an unusually funny one–more Coen than Hitch. This is the sort of movie where a gruesome, bloody murder is interrupted by a ringtone, and the murderer delays pulling the trigger to answer the call.

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I can’t tell you a lot about the plot without giving too much of it away. The film tells its story three times, and each time, you learn a little more about what’s going on and why. It all makes delightfully dark sense in the end, and much of the fun comes in watching the various pieces fall into place.

I can tell you that Pegg plays the only professional killer in the story. But almost everyone here is perfectly willing to rub out one of their neighbors–in most cases for money.

For the most part, they want to kill Alice (Alice Braga). Their reasons vary.

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Kill Me has one long, extended, absolutely brilliant comic sequence. A dentist and his wife (Sullivan Stapleton and Teresa Palmer) attempt a very difficult and complex murder–one that’s supposed to look like an accident. But the dentist is helplessly inept, and Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. Remember this lesson: If you have an unconscious, intended murder victim in your trunk, try to avoid getting a flat tire.

All this is set, I might add, in a small coastal town in Australia, providing some beautiful scenery. That town appears to have about eight people in it. Almost all of them are evil.

The story, the graphic violence, the gruesome humor, and the downbeat view of human nature makes Kill Me feel a lot like the Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple. And like Blood Simple, by the time it’s over, no one outside of the audience knows the whole story. Even the dead people died without getting the full picture.

It’s a  totally enjoyable entertainment.

Undead comedy should have died sooner: What We Do in the Shadows

B- Mockumentary

  • Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

This vampire mockumentary from New Zealand feels a bit like an article in The Onion or The Borowitz Report. The headline and the first couple of paragraphs are very funny. But as you go deeper into it, you experience longer waits between laughs.

The basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentary camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in Wellington (they call it a flat, but it looked like a house to me). They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences.

Initially, the movie finds plenty of laughs about the situation. A vampire’s digital alarm clock goes off at 6:00pm. He opens his coffin, and rises out of it like a flat board being tilted up. But as he does it, he smiles into the camera, as if to say “Look what I can do!”

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A modern vampire’s life has other joys…and problems. They wear wild and crazy clothes, some of which they take from their victims. They have human slaves. On the other hand, drinking the blood of a living person can make a real mess. Their arguments can go on for eternity–literally. And eating just one French fry produces the grossest projectile vomiting imaginable.

The vampires’ different personalities clearly produce conflict. Our primary connection to their world, Viago (Taika Waititi), is fussy, tries to be tidy (he asks his mates to please put newspaper on the floor before biting someone), and wants everyone to be comfortable. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the youngest at 183, is a bit of an adolescent rebel. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) has a very dark but sexual personality. 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) looks like Nosferatu. He seldom moves and never speaks.

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But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. To keep things going, the filmmakers bring in some not-particularly interesting conflict. Brand-new vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) thinks his new situation so cool that he has to tell everyone. Obviously, you don’t want your neighbors, or the police, to know that you’re killing people for your own nourishment. (The cops in this film are geniuses at not noticing what’s really going on.) But this begs the question: If they don’t want mortals to know that they’re vampires, why did they agree to make a documentary?

At times the movie can be quite impressive. Even the generally dull second half has a smattering for very funny jokes. And someone really took the time to create the excellent, low-budget special effects, most of which I’m pretty sure were done in the camera.

The film was made by the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, which I’ve heard good things about but have never seen. Shadows is a fun idea for a movie. But after that idea has been played out, the fun comes only occasionally.

At least it’s better than the last vampire comedy I reviewed.

A Wilder Weekend and the PFA

As part of its series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder, the Pacific Film Archive screened three of his films over the weekend. I caught them all.

Ninotchka

I was delighted to discover that this Ernst Lubitsch-directed comedy was part the Wilder series. We should celebrate Wilder the writer as much as Wilder the director. To my mind, the PFA pays far too little attention to screenwriters; I don’t believe they have ever done a series on a particular filmmaker noted primarily for writing scripts.

This was my first big-screen Ninotchka experience. I had seen the movie only once before, by myself, on Turner Classic Movies. This was a big improvement. The Saturday 6:30 screening was well attended, and the audience came ready to laugh. The PFA screened the film on what appeared to be an excellent 35mm print. I say "appeared" because the PFA’s website says it was a DCP. It sure looked like film to me.

Ninotchka had the misfortune of being out of date when it was released. This very funny political and romantic comedy is set mostly in the romanticized, city-of-lights version of Paris–a Paris that could only be created on an MGM sound stage. But by the time the film was released, France was at war with Germany, and there was nothing romantic about Paris. A prologue gets around this problem, assuring us that "This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm – and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”

Within two years of its release, the Soviet Union–the primary target of the film’s satire–would be our brave ally in the war against Hitler. The star, Greta Garbo, would also be a has-been by then. After Ninotchka, she made only one more movie.

Garbo plays the title character, a loyal Russian and even more loyal Communist, who comes to Paris to supervise three bumbling comrades representing Moscow in a jewelry sale (the jewels were confiscated from aristocrats). But once there, she meets a charming man (Melvyn Douglas). She’s also charmed by the luxuries of capitalism.

This was Garbo’s first comedy (the ads proclaimed "Garbo laughs!"), and she’s wonderful in it. She plays Ninotchka initially as a stereotyped, joyless, humorless ideologue, but she melts into a warm human being. And throughout it all, she displays the comic timing of a vaudeville veteran.

The movie is clearly anti-Communist (my favorite line:  “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”) But it also depicts the Russian aristocracy in exile as vain, shallow jerks with serious entitlement issues.

From my TCM viewing, I gave Ninotchka a B. Now I’m promoting that to B+.

Some Like It Hot

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Some Like it Hot, in 35mm, 16mm, broadcast TV, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. The last time I saw it theatrically–before this weekend–was a disappointing screening some years ago at the Cerrito, with a lukewarm audience and a 35mm print was looked like it had lost a fight with the shredder.

But Saturday night at the PFA, Some Like it Hot played as it should. The DCP looked crisp and clear, without sacrificing the film look. And the audience loved it. The laughter was consistent almost throughout.

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I’ve already written a Blu-ray review, so I won’t go into detail about the movie. I will say that it’s quite possibly my favorite non-silent comedy. Using a gangster situation to drive its men-in-drag plot, it mines deep belly laughs from gender roles and expectations. Two starving musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) witness a gangland massacre, then hide out from the mob by dressing up as women and joining an all-girl band. But the band’s lead singer is played by Marilyn Monroe, who tends to bring out their masculinity.

This was a great way to revisit a beloved and funny masterpiece, one that I gladly give an A+.

Btw, here’s an interesting coincidence about the two movies screened Saturday night: They both starred iconic leading ladies: Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. And each one was that star’s penultimate completed film.

The Apartment

I first saw The Apartment on a rented Laserdisc some twenty years ago. I’d seen it several times since, but always at home. Sunday night was my first time seeing it on the big screen.

I wrote about The Apartment extensively in my Blu-ray review, so I’ll summarize quickly: Deftly balancing comedy and dead-serious drama, Wilder examines the way powerful men exploit both women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. 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. Fred MacMurray plays the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane the woman he exploits and Lemmon loves.

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Seeing it with an audience is a treat. It doesn’t provide the steady rumble of laughs that Some Like it Hot generates. But the laughs come almost simultaneously with gasps of concern and horror. Wilder makes us laugh at sexism and exploitation, while reminding us that it’s not a laughing matter.

This may be Wilder’s only film with role models. Lemmon’s neighbors, a doctor and his wife, are sensible, kind, loving human beings. (They’re also, interestingly enough, unquestionably Jewish.) Their concern for others is never mocked.

The PFA screened The Apartment off a DCP. It looked fine, but not exceptional.

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