Fashions and fighting: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I only caught two films yesterday.

A- Iris

I started the day with Albert Maysles’ latest film, Iris. What fun! Here’s what I thought about it:

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Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling.

Maysles died in March at the age of 88, so there was no Q&A with the director.

This was the last festival screening if Iris. But don’t despair, it opens in Bay Area theaters May 8.

B+ The Taking of Tiger Mountain

The bad news came as we were waiting to be let into the theater. Due to technical difficulties, this 3D movie would be screened in 2D. Oh, well. I was looking forward to seeing a 3D Chinese action epic directed by the great Tsui Hark.

Once inside, Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan MC’d the show, which was about far more than this one movie. He started with a clip from an earlier version of the story–a filmed record of a Cultural Revolution stage opera.

After the clip, Cowan brought on Hong Kong film producer Nansun Shi. They showed us clips from other Chinese and Hong Kong films, and discussed the history of Film Workshop, the company that Shi took over in 1981. Her other films films include A Chinese Ghost Story, A Better Tomorrow, and Once Upon A Time In China.

Then they screened The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Based, very loosely I suspect, on a 1946 battle, it’s a big, epic military adventure set in 1946. And it’s a lot of relatively mindless fun. A small band of devoted and virtuous soldiers set out to take a seemingly impregnable fortress from a much larger and better-equipped band of evil thugs. The story involves plenty of tried-and-true devices. It has the hero who goes undercover and manages to outwit the bad guys over and over again. It has the cute kid, traumatized by the bad guys, who slowly learns to trust the good guys. And it has several big, exciting battles, saving the best for last.

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The action sequences depended heavily on CGI, much of which looked fake. I miss the old, more realistic stunt work. On the other hand, I guess it’s good that performers don’t have to risk their lives.

Even in 2D, you can clearly see this is a 3D movie. The opening credits float. Objects fly at you. When a bullet hits a person, it’s accompanied by CGI bursts of blood clearly designed for their dimensionality.

Fun as it was, it left me wanting to revisit some of Hark’s earlier, better work–especially Once Upon a Time in China and Peking Opera Blues.

After the movie, Cowan and Shi came on stage to discuss more about Film Workshop and show additional clips.

Unfortunately, this film hasn’t been picked up for an American release. But it will play one more time at the festival, this coming Thursday, at 2:00, at the Kabuki. Hopefully, they’ll have the bugs worked out by then and will be able to show it in 3D.

Alex Gibney, Steve Jobs, and opening night for the San Francisco International Film Festival

The San Francisco International Film Festival opened last night with a mercifully short introduction, an excellent film, and a short but interesting Q&A.

But the night started off on the wrong foot. When we entered the Castro, we found that almost all of the seats were "Reserved." Only the front three and back five rows were available to people without proper status..

This didn’t bother me too much; the third row is fine for me. But the man sitting next to me was justifiably angry. He had paid $1400 for a CineVisa pass, he came early to get a good seat, and he was shunted to a row that was too close for him.

Film festival opening nights are notorious for getting off to a late start, but this one was reasonably prompt. The show was scheduled to start at 7:00, and at 7:10, the organist broke into "San Francisco." (Night shows at the Castro usually begin with an organ concert, always ending with "San Francisco.") That was followed by this year’s trailer, which was okay, except that I know I’ll be sick of it soon.

Then came the talks–all mercifully short. First up, Executive Director Noah Cowan, then  Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. And then the director of the night’s film, Alex Gibney.

The movie started at 7:24. Not bad.

The film, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, will get a theatrical release in September, so I’m not allowed to write a lot about it now. So I’ll just write this:

A Director Alex Gibney starts this multifaceted documentary with a difficult question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply his death? Jobs was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He made technology friendly for the average person, and significantly changed the world. But he was also a jerk that cheated friends, let his daughter grow up on welfare while he became incredibly wealthy, and parked his sports car in handicap spaces.  Gibney offers us an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a man utterly lacking in empathy.

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The movie was followed by a short Q&A with Gibney, with Rosen asking the first few questions, then moderating questions from the audience. A few highlights:

  • On choosing the subjects for this and other films: "I don’t know. This was something that was just rattling around in my head. I didn’t know where this journey was going to take me."
  • Apple’s response to a request to cooperate with the filmmakers: "They said they didn’t have the resources to help me with this film."
  • On some of his choices for film subjects: "I’m interested in power. Maybe I’m attuned to powerful people who abuse their power."
  • On Bill Gates: "Jobs had a very interesting relationship with Bill. Someone should make a movie about that."
  • Job’s "great talent was his ability to introduce us and create a relationship between us and computers."
  • On his skill as an interviewer: "I’m more like Columbo than Sherlock Holmes. You have to have empathy for the person you’re interviewing, and let them tell the story as they want it."
  • On the large number of films he’s put out recently: "I’m making up for lost time. I’ve made some films that were successful [which results in easier funding]. Also, if you surround yourself with really talented people it’s amazing how efficient you become."

There was a party after the show, but I didn’t attend. I needed my sleep.

Hoop Dreams (my Blu-ray review)

I’d be hard put to name another documentary that feels so much like a narrative feature. Not that Steve James’ Hoop Dreams looks like a fiction film; it most certainly does not. The hand-held cameras, extreme lenses, and low video resolution makes it look like the cinéma vérité documentary that it is. But James and his team edited the film so as to bring the audience through a fiction-like journey, with charismatic protagonists, interesting and likeable supporting players, plot twists, joy, disappointment, and suspense.

The protagonists: William Gates and Arthur Agee, two African-American teenage boys from bad Chicago neighborhoods. They have all the disadvantages you’d expect from that environment–poverty-stricken mothers, absentee fathers, filthy streets, and violence all around them. But they have an advantage. They’re both basketballs prodigies, discovered early on by talent scouts. If they can make an impression on their high school teams, and get good enough grades academically, they just might be able to get into a good college on a scholarship. And from there, if they’re really lucky, they might eventually go professional in the NBA.

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James and his crew followed both boys (who are rarely shown together) through all four years of high school. Scouts get them into St. Joseph’s, a Catholic school with a strong basketball team. But there are setbacks. Agee loses his scholarship, and is forced to drop out mid-semester and return to public school. Gates manages to stay in St. Joseph’s, in part because of a rich sponsor, but he injures his knee, loses time in recovery, and has a difficult time regaining his previous abilities.

The picture is really about the American dream, and the people whom society all but disqualifies from attaining it. Gates and Agee get a rare chance only because of exceptional talent. (One college mentioned had only seven black students; six of them on the basketball team.) But it’s a chance that involves absurdly hard work and damaging physical punishment. And after all that, maybe, a very slight possibility of a lucrative but short career. The film doesn’t touch much on how colleges exploit their players, but John Oliver laid it out pretty well recently.

As you get to know Gates, Agee, and their families over the nearly three-hour running time (and the five years of shooting), you become completely invested in their story. You want these two kids to succeed, even as you realize that the kids they’re competing against are just as desperate and just as worthy.

Hoop Dreams becomes exceptionally exciting and suspenseful in the game scenes . With details of the play intercut with reaction shots of parents and coaches, James and his collaborators bring you to the edge of your seat over and over again. More than once, either Gates or Agee finds himself in a place where only he can win the big game and bring on the happy ending.

But sometimes, he fumbles. That’s when you remember that what you’re watching isn’t fiction.

First Impression

imageLike most Criterion discs, Hoop Dreams comes in a clear plastic case. The cover photo shows a red basketball jersey with the film’s title. Open the box and you get–aside from the disc–a fold-out with two articles: "Serious Game" by John Edgar Wideman, and "The Real Thing," by Robert Greene. Turn it over, and you’ll find credits for both the movie and the disc, along with a collage of photos and news clips.

When you insert the disc into your player, you’ll see the standard Criterion menu on the left side of the screen. As is standard for Criterion Blu-rays, there’s a timeline and the ability to create bookmarks. When you insert the disc into a player in which you’ve inserted it before, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Criterion did as good a job as is reasonably possible making Hoop Dreams look good on Blu-ray, but there’s only so much that can be done. This film was shot on standard-definition analogue videotape in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Blu-ray presents the picture in a 1080i transfer. But when you convert 340 lines to 1080, you still have only 340 lines worth of information. The picture is soft, and shows a great deal of video artifacts.

That’s the way the film always looked, so I can’t complain. But it doesn’t really need to be seen on Blu-ray. I suspect that the DVD–$8 to $10 cheaper–looks just as good or at least very, very close.

How It Sounds

The movie was originally mixed in Ultra Stereo, a competitor and to a certain extent a clone of Dolby Stereo. Criterion provides a four-track, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack decoded from the original two-track, four-channel mix.

The filmmakers made almost no use of three of those channels, and you could easily listen to the film through an excellent sound system and assume it’s in mono. In other words, the sound isn’t impressive, but it was never meant to impress in that way.

And the Extras

  • Filmmaker Commentary: Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx. Recorded in 2005. I haven’t yet listened to it.
  • Subjects Commentary: Agee and Gates, also recorded in 2005. I’m really looking forward to listening to this one.
  • Life After Hoop Dreams: 1080i, 40 minutes. Made in 2014. Covers a lot of ground about Agee, Gates, and their families, with James and cinematographer Peter Gilbert as on-screen narrators. The most interesting realization is that Hoops Dreams itself changed their lives and opened doors for them, even though neither of them got into the NBA.
  • Siskel & Ebert: 1080i, 15 minutes. The famous critics had a lot to do with this film’s success. This selection of clips from their show gets a bit repetitive, but it’s fun seeing the two of them again.
  • Additional scenes: 1080i, 21 minutes. Deleted scenes and earlier versions of scenes that made the final cut. Occasionally interesting, but nothing really exceptional.
  • Music video: 1080i, 3 minutes. Of the film’s theme song. Directed by cinematographer Peter Gilbert. Not to my taste.
  • Trailers: The disc has two of them. It’s painfully obvious which one was made for white people.

Who are they? My review of Lambert & Stamp

B+ Music documentary

  • Directed by James D. Cooper

I don’t know if I enjoyed this movie so much because it was very well made, or simply because it’s about The Who–a band that I have been a fan of for more than 40 years. I doubt if Lambert & Stamp would be of much interest to people who are not Who fans, but for someone like me, it’s catnip.

If Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp hadn’t come across an obscure London rock band called The High Numbers, none of us would have ever heard of The Who. Close friends and aspiring filmmakers, Lambert and Stamp set out to make a documentary about themselves managing a rock group. They never made the movie, but they sure proved their worth as managers. They turned The High Numbers into The Who, and shepherded the group to fame and (to a lesser extent) fortune. Their influence with The Who receded after the phenomenal success of Tommy.

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Lambert’s musical background (his father was composer/conductor Constant Lambert) gave him an edge in helping develop the group’s sound. He worked closest with Pete Townsend, mentoring the young guitar player’s song-writing skills. There’s considerable controversy over to what extent he co-wrote Tommy; filmmaker Cooper shows us both sides of the argument and wisely takes no side.

Stamp and Townsend spend a lot of time talking to the camera here. Other interview subjects include Roger Daltrey and Stamp’s brother Terence (yes, that Terence Stamp). Lambert couldn’t tell his side of the story; he died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1981.

I had to look up that fact on Wikipedia. Cooper seems shy about such things. Early on, Stamp mentions that Lambert isn’t around to tell his own story. But the film never discusses Lambert’s death in a meaningful way. Keith Moon’s death, three years earlier, is mentioned only in the context of legal proceedings. The only sign that John Entwistle is no longer amongst the living is his absence from the interviews. Chris Stamp, arguably the movie’s star, died as the film was being made, but there’s no mention of his passing.

Cooper’s visual flair in filming the interviews (he’s known mostly as a cinematographer), his creative use of stock footage, and Christopher Tellefsen’s frenetic editing style gives Lambert & Stamp a rough, energetic quality appropriate for the subject. Not surprisingly, songs by The Who dominate the soundtrack–although I don’t think we hear one from beginning to end.

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But this isn’t the sort of picture you go to see for the music. If you want a more musical Who documentary, see that other movie made by an American novice director, The Kids are Alright from 1979.

The Wrecking Crew: The hidden heroes of rock ‘n’ roll (my review)

B Music documentary

  • Directed by Denny Tedesco

Who supplied the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the theme music for Mission: Impossible? Despite what it says on the LP sleeves, much of the inspiration came from an unsung collection of Los Angeles session musicians informally called The Wrecking Crew.

Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, introduces these successful but little-known musicians in this mostly entertaining documentary. He interviews surviving members of the group, mixes in old footage, and explains the origins of the songs that became the background track of our youth.

The Wrecking Crew.

And if you’re thinking "Maybe your youth; not mine," you’re probably right. If you’re not a musician, a musicologist, or a baby boomer, this movie isn’t for you. But for me, a boomer who became a teenager in 1967, almost every tune brought back memories, then filled in details about those memories that I had never before thought about.

Not surprisingly, filmmaker Tedesco spends a good deal of the film’s time on his father, who died in 1997. Aside from being a brilliant musician, Tommy Tedesco was a funny guy. He clowned around in the studio, in seminars, and on TV on the Gong Show. He’s inherently fun to watch.

Denny and Tommy Tedesco

But my favorite of the profiled musicians was Carol Kaye, a woman working in a predominately male industry in the decade where Mad Men is set. Starting out as a jazz guitarist and turning to bass as she moved to rock, her driving riffs filled in many a great song., including "California Girls," I’m a Believer," and "These Boots are Made for Walking."

Carol Kaye

None of these musicians started out in rock. But they were young adults as the new genre materialized in the 1950s, and they found a niche where they could earn a good living while doing what they loved. They were not formally a group, but often found themselves working together from one gig to another. In huge demand, they worked round the clock from one session to another, ignoring their families but raking in cash.

Until it stopped. In the late 60s, rock got serious, and fans wanted to know that the actual band members were playing the music. The gigs didn’t disappear immediately–the Crew also worked on other genres and recorded movie and TV scores–but they gradually leveled off.

Except for Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, who became stars in their own rights.

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Clearly, this is a companion piece for 2013’s Twenty Feet from Stardom, concentrating on instrumental musicians instead of singers. But Tedesco can’t quite find the strong narrative line that made the earlier film so exciting. At times, especially in the middle, the discussions of one song after another become repetitive.

Another problem: Since the film is about session musicians, there’s no live performance footage. Studio work lacks the cinematic excitement of live rock and roll.

Aside from the Wrecking Crew veterans themselves, interview subjects include Dick Clark, Cher, Herb Albert, Lou Adler, and Brian Wilson.

Documentary Tearjerker: Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine

A Documentary

  • Directed by Michele Josue

I have a rule. If a film makes me cry, it deserves a high grade. If it makes me cry a lot, it gets an A. This documentary about the homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing.

Do you remember Matthew Shepard? In 1998, he was savagely beaten, tortured, tied imageto a fence, and left to die outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Not quite 22 at the time and extremely short for his age, he was emotionally fragile and had only recently come out to his parents (they had already figured it out). His death was exceptionally shocking and brutal.

Director Michele Josue was, as the title suggests, a friend of his. But she was smart enough not to make the movie about their relationship. For the most part, she interviews other friends, counselors, teachers,  and mostly his parents, who become the stars of the film.

Judy and Dennis Shepard come off as loving, practical, open-minded parents, and Christian in a way that doesn’t fit Bay Area stereotypes of white people in Wyoming. Photos, home movies, and Josue’s interviews take us through the joys of raising Matt, concerns about his emotional state in young adulthood (he was apparently gang-raped in Morocco), the horrifying days when his life was in the balance, and a media-heavy funeral marred by protests from the  Westboro Baptist Church (talk about the evil type of Christians). The Shepards also asked the prosecutor not to try for the death penalty, and founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to fight homophobia in the schools.

On one level, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is terrifying and deeply sad. Coming out of the press screening, I wasn’t the only person with a stunned look on my face. On the other hand, the movie is inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings.

This one is a must-see.

I saw Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine at a press screening previous to its world premiere at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival. It opens Friday at the Elmwood.

Magician: The life and times of Citizen Welles

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Chuck Workman

Every cinephile has to contemplate the strange phenomenon named Orson Welles. He had conquered radio and the New York stage, and had signed a Hollywood movie contract that turned established directors green with envy, before he turned 25. His first film, Citizen Kane, has been called the "greatest film ever made" more often than any other contender.

And yet he spent most of his life a failure. He continually scrambled to raise money to make his films, few of which made any money back. With the exception of a handful of Hollywood projects (Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), much of his work is fractured and problematic–both loved and despised by the type of audiences most likely to appreciate his work.

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Chuck Workman’s documentary covers that life in chronological order, from his 1915 birth to his death from a heart attack in 1985. In between, it follows his early recognition as a theatrical wunderkind, the highpoint of his career with Kane, and his parallel careers as a successful actor and a struggling auteur.

Workman wisely avoids the usual voice-of-god narration. In its place he presents interviews–both archival and original–with friends, co-workers, admirers, lovers, and, of course, Welles, himself. That exposes us to different points of view. In one sequence, Workman cuts between two interviews where Welles tells different versions of how The Lady from Shanghai got made. When interviews can’t provide the needed information, Workman provides written text on screen.

But the picture is hardly objective. Among the many people interviewed–including Steven Spielberg, Richard Linklater, Oja Kodar (Welles’ companion for the last two decades of his life), and Peter Bogdanovich–you won’t find David Thomson, author of Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. Thomson’s biography paints a far less positive picture of Welles than Workman’s.

Orson Welles was one of cinema’s greats, and it’s tragic how often the money men took over and recut his films. But I’ve read enough about Welles to understand that his own emotional immaturity was a major part of the problem. Judging from this documentary, you would think that evil studio executives were the only cause.

Magician suffers from a biased look at its subject. But it’s still an informative and entertaining look at a very entertaining (although not very informative) artist. If you love Welles’ work, you’ll enjoy Magician. If you haven’t seen his work, see the films first.

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