Early and Excellent Kubrick at PFA

As I discussed last week, I lost a lot of my love of Stanley Kubrick over the decades. But I didn’t lose my love for all of his pictures. And amongst my favorites are his first two Hollywood pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Saturday night, I revisited these favorites at the Pacific Film Archive, where they were screened as part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

Some historical background: Kubrick started his career with two super-low budget independent features–Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I saw Fear and Desire some years ago and hated it (Kubrick eventually disowned it), and have never seen Killer’s Kiss. The PFA screened them Thursday night, but I was unable to attend.

Although it wasn’t a commercial success, Killer’s Kiss impressed enough people to bring Kubrick into the Hollywood system, albeit on a low budget. United Artists financed and released his next two pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory.

The PFA screened them in reverse order, showing Paths of Glory first.

Paths of Glory

To my mind, this is Kubrick’s masterpiece (with Dr. Strangelove a close second). This World War I tale of ruthless generals and the common foot soldiers they see as disposable pawns, shows Kubrick at his best. His visual flare brings a powerful contrast to the film’s two major settings: the ugly, dirty, and dangerous trenches of the front, and the opulent palace where the generals’ live in comfort and luxury.

The story is simple, but powerful. In 1916, with the war at a long stalemate, two French generals (Adolphe Menjou and George Macready) decide to take a German position that everyone knows can’t be taken. With little time to prepare and almost no support, the men leap out of their trenches and attack–only to be mowed down. The survivors understandably run back to their trenches. Unable to admit that their plan was impossible, the generals order that three men be arrested as examples, tried for cowardice, found guilty, and shot.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen Paths of Glory on a rented, Criterion Blu-ray about a year ago. I don’t remember when I last saw it theatrically, but I think it was in the 1980s.

Paths of Glory is one of the rare Kubrick films that allows us to care about the characters. This is especially true with the three condemned "examples," charged for failing an impossible task and knowing without a doubt that they will be executed. Each was chosen by their superior officer. One of them, played by Ralph Meeker, knows that his truly cowardly lieutenant (Wayne Morris) has reasons for wanting him dead.

Kubrick generally avoided heroes, but he got one in Paths of Glory–Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax–the lawyer-turned officer who leads the charge and becomes the men’s defense attorney. Douglas was the first big star to appear in a Kubrick film, and he probably demanded a rewrite to make his part larger and more noble. In a late scene, he angrily tells off a top-ranking general, calling him a "degenerate" and promising that "I’ll go to Hell before I ever apologize to you again." Kubrick generally avoided such moral preaching.

Kubrick’s visual sense comes to fully glory here. Tracking shots through the trenches help illustrate the claustrophobic, horrific nature of men’s predicament. Another tracking shot, leading up to the executions, help emphasize the ritual aspects of these legal and ceremonial murders. The court martial, or perhaps I should say the kangaroo court martial, is set in an opulent room whose floor suggest a chessboard.

World War I produced more great films than any other war. This is one of the best.

The Killing

It’s hardly surprising that a young filmmaker breaking into Hollywood in 1956 would start with a noir. After all, these gritty crime films were cheap to make and popular with audiences. But The Killing proved to be one of the best of the genre.

In this classic heist thriller, an experienced criminal (Sterling Hayden) orchestrates a complex racetrack robbery likely to net two million 1956 dollars. Of course, he needs collaborators. And each one of them has to do his job at the exact right time for everything to work.

Needless to say, human frailty is going to get in the way.

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Kubrick and screenplay collaborator Jim Thompson (working from a novel by Lionel White) found a unique structure to tell the story. It’s not in pure chronological order, but it’s not a flashback, either. Instead, the movie follows one member of the gang, then leaps back in time to follow someone else. The film’s eye-of-God narrator helps the audience keep all of this straight with simple statements like "Three hours earlier, Johnny left his apartment and headed for the motel." (Someone needs to write an essay on Kubrick’s use of spoken narration.)

Hayden’s Johnny Clay is a professional, but most of his collaborators are breaking the law for the first time, motivated by a desperate need for money. The most heartbreaking is Joe Sawyer’s racetrack bartender, who needs money to help the very sick wife he loves so much.

But Elisha Cook Jr.’s character is a different kind of marriage problem. He hopes that if he had more money, his dreadful, scornful, adulterous wife (Marie Windsor) might actually love him. We feel little sympathy for Cook’s character, and none at all for Windsor’s, but these two are clearly the most entertaining people in the story. When Clay meets that awful wife, he sees her for exactly what she is. "You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart."

As it should be, The Killing is filled with such snappy, pulp-heavy dialog–probably written by Thompson. In hiring a sharpshooter, Clay argues that the risks are limited. "You’d be killing a horse – that’s not first degree murder, in fact it’s not murder at all, in fact I don’t know what it is."  Hayden’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery makes that like explosive and funny.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen The Killing at the UC Theater, probably in1996 or 1997. I was glad to remake its acquaintance.

Digital projection done mostly right

Both movies were made by United Artists after 1951, which means that they’re now owned by MGM/UA. But MGM/UA no longer distributes its own films. Criterion has released both of these films for home use. Other UA titles have been released on video by Fox and Kino.

A company I’d never heard of, Park Circus, now distributes these two titles theatrically on DCP. Both films started with a Park Circus logo, and then the MGM lion. Every UA film, no matter who distributes it, now starts with the MGM lion–even though none of them are real MGM films. And that lion is in color, even before a black and white film.

Other than that, this were excellent transfers. Whoever supervised the digital mastering respected the film look and the grain structure. They kept the original mono soundtracks, without trying to convert them to 5.1. Both movies looked and sounded great, and still felt like works of their time.

Boyhood: As Real as Fiction Gets

A Long-form drama

  • Written and directed by Richard Linklater

I’m a sucker for long films that take place over the course of several years. But I’ve never seen one as real as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This isn’t a story of an extraordinary person, or of a normal person going through an extraordinary experience. But it does something even more special. It follows the experiences of a relatively normal boy growing up, from elementary school until his arrival at college. With few exceptions, most of his experiences are pretty common.

The result is an exceptional motion picture. Running nearly three hours, without conventional setups and manufactured disasters, it never lags. This just may be the best new film of the year.

You probably already know Boyhood‘s gimmick–it was shot off and on over a period of 12 years. Thus, we get to watch young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up for real. And we see his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) move into middle age.

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But this time, the gimmick works–beautifully. In most films set over a long period of time, we’re aware of the moment when the child actor is replaced by an adult. Or we notice the changing makeup as the characters age. Not here. Aside from occasional hairstyle changes, people in one scene look pretty much as they did in the last. But not quite. You can see those subtle, barely noticeable changes that happen to everyone year by year. The 18-year-old Mason looks very different from the six-year-old, but since we see the whole transition, as we do in life.

This technique has another benefit. The film begins in 2002, with the attitudes, fads, and technologies of the time, and slowly works up to 2013. Yet the early scenes never feel like period pieces, because they weren’t shot as period pieces. The scenes set in 2002 were shot in 2002, by people who didn’t know about smartphones or Barak Obama.

Now then, on to the story:

Mason’s life isn’t all that easy. His parents are divorced, and neither of them have much money. He and his sister live with their mom, who became a mother way too soon and has a history of making poor romantic choices. Their father loves them, but needs to grow up himself.

For the most part, Boyhood avoids the sort of dramatic and disastrous situations that drive most narrative films. Several times, I thought that a horrible accident was eminent, or that Linklater was setting up a conflict for a subplot, but I was almost always wrong. For instance, a scene involving middle school bullies lacks the obvious follow-up.

A lifetime of movie going had taught me to expect these plot points. But when they didn’t materialize, I felt relieved, not disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that everything goes smoothly for Mason and his family. There are the usual problems of childhood and adolescence, but there are also some very scary scenes that go beyond normal childhood experiences. Like I said, their mom makes some poor romantic choices.

Fifty years from now, if civilization survives, people will still be watching Boyhood, both as a document of the early 21st century, and because it so perfectly reflects life as we all know it. It’s a remarkable work.

Palo Alto: More Dazed and Completely Confused

B+

  • Written and directed by Gia Coppola
  • From the book Palo Alto Stores by James Franco

High school kids lead rough lives. They’re under great pressure to get into a good university. They desperately want to break free of their parents. They have to deal with an immense peer pressure. They’re trying to work out their own, often bizarre philosophies. Their hormones are raging, and even the sexually experienced among them don’t really understand what to do about it (and not to do about it). Booze and pot don’t help.

In Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, many of the teenagers are reaching an emotional boiling point. Disaster seems right around the corner. Coppola (Francis’ granddaughter) weaves their stories into a slick yet compassionate drama.

The central characters, April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), sort of like each other, but neither of them seem to know how to approach the other. Although they’re both upper-middle-class white kids growing up in the same town, they seem to have little in common. (Judging from this film, almost everyone in Palo Alto is white.)

We get no indication that April drives drunk, has sex with people she barely knows, or commits acts of random vandalism. I suppose that makes her a “good girl.” But she has a major crush on her soccer coach (James Franco), and she sees a lot of him since she babysits his son. The real problem: The soccer coach, who’s a single dad, has a pretty strong crush on April, as well.

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Teddy, on the other hand, is definitely a bad boy. He’s almost constantly stoned, drives recklessly, and appears to care little about anything. But there’s a soft spot in his soul that suggests he can be better.

Unfortunately, he’s fallen in with Fred (Nat Wolff), another heavy drinker and pot smoker who also gets his kicks from danger and destruction. A complete sociopath, Freddy can act the perfect gentleman while trying to bed a girl, then treat her like dirt as soon as he succeeds. Much of the film involves Teddy’s emotional tightrope walk between Fred’s dangerous excitement and his own better half.

If April is the good girl, than Emily (Zoe Levin) is the “bad” one. She gives blowjobs to just about any boy who smiles at her. Afterwards, she doesn’t understand why she’s unsatisfied.

Coppola clearly doesn’t approve of heavy pot and booze use among teenagers, but she seems to accept a more deadly drug without question. Judging from this film, every teenager in Palo Alto smokes cigarettes, and no one seems to think there’s anything wrong about it. There’s even talk about getting a wish when you smoke the last cigarette in the pack.

Despite the title, Palo Alto could have taken place in any affluent town. There’s no real sense of Palo Alto as a unique place. Neither Stanford University nor Silicon Valley are ever mentioned. The film wasn’t even shot in Palo Alto.

Wherever it’s set and shot, Palo Alto is a clear-eyed look at teenagers on the brink. It’s worth catching.

The San Francisco International Film Festival closes with Alex in Venice

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival ended Thursday night at the Castro with a screening of Chris Messina’s directorial debut, Alex of Venice. It was not a perfect way to end the festival, but it was a good way.

The crowd was surprisingly thin. There was an empty seat next to me, and the row in front of me had one person in it. I recognized Francis Coppola in the audience, and Don Johnson (one of the film’s stars) in the lobby.

The show was supposed to start at 7:00, but it as 7:14 before Executive Director Noah Cowan came onstage and asked us to applaud the staff. “I could not be more imageimpressed by their hard work. I came into this organization less than 10 weeks ago, so what you saw was their hard work, not mine.”

He introduced Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who said that she: "can’t wait to do it again next year." After some brief praise for the night’s film, Alex of Venice, she introduced actor-turned-director Chris Messina. He talked about being a first-time director, and of working with other first-time directors ("They usually tell you to watch a John Cassavetes film.") He said that, because of his inexperience, everyone involved from the actors to the investors had had to make :a leap of faith." He was glad they did.

The film started at 7:29.

A- Alex in Venice

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The work-vs.-family dynamic comes into full force in this drama set in Venice, California. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has more than her hands full. She’s an environmental lawyer working very long hours. She has a son and a senile father (Don Johnson) to worry about. Then her husband (Messina) leaves her. Aside from one unbelievably stupid action, Alex of Venice works beautifully. The characters reveal themselves nicely. They’re sweet, funny, and usually very real. The acting is never short of perfect, and this is the sort of story that depends entirely upon the acting.

After the film, five of the filmmakers came onstage for Q&A. They were director/actor Chris Messina, star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, actor Don Johnson, co-writer/actor Katie Nehra, and producer Jamie Patricof.

Some highlights:

  • On how new director Messina got the cast to trust him:
    Nehra: He’s very convincing. When you meet Chris, you see he had a really clear vision of the film…When I wrote this script, I wanted him to play George; he ended up playing George and directing.
    Johnson: He couldn’t see anyone else playing this part and I couldn’t see myself playing it…" With a smile he added "He talked a lot about John Cassavetes"
  • Someone asked if there was much improvisation. Messina: "I loved the script. We said the words, we wanted to say the words." He then explained how they would run the camera as long as they could at the end of a take and improvise non-verbally. "When I was in the editing room I had a lot to cut with."
  • Messina: “For years I made the mistake of telling my family what a great director I would be. Then I discovered that there were a million challenges that I never thought about before.”

After the Q&A, I went to The Chapel for the Festival’s closing party. It was a fine party, but I couldn’t stay long.

Bad film turns good: My review of Young & Beautiful

B drama

  • Written and directed by François Ozon

As François Ozon’s drama about a 17-year-old prostitute nears its mid-point, you might find yourself wondering why you’re sitting through such an awful piece of junk. Then, beyond all expectations, the film gets interesting. The once-cardboard characters become intriguing and worth caring about. A bad film has suddenly turned into a good one.

Ozon’s script follows the young Isabelle (Marine Vacth) over the course of nearly a year. The four seasons provide formal act breaks. The intertitles “Summer,” “Autumn,” “Winter,” and “Spring” tell us that time has passed and that the story is about to fundamentally change.

In the first act, Summer, Isabelle turns 17 and loses her virginity . She seems like a typical, upper middle-class teenage girl, dependent on her parents and mildly resentful of them. Her first sexual experience (and the first of many sex scenes in the film) isn’t particularly wonderful or horrible; just uncomfortable and embarrassing. In other words, it’s pretty typical for a first time.

In this part of the story, another character seems far more interesting than Isabelle: her voyeuristic kid brother (Fantin Ravat). The film’s first shot is his point of view–through binoculars. He wants to know everything about her sex life and asks her bluntly. He helps her sneak out of the house for a tryst in exchange for her telling him what happened. The brother’s importance as a character drops considerably after Summer–just one of Young & Beautiful’s many disappointments.

An intertitle soon tells us it’s Autumn, and the movie plunks us into an entirely different world. Isabelle is now a prostitute. Nothing shows or explains the transition. She’s not doing it for the money–her family has plenty. She doesn’t seem to enjoy sex with older men who have to pay for it. She goes to great lengths to hide her double life from her family and friends, yet she hides her significant bundles of cash very badly.

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It’s in this second act that Young & Beautiful really becomes dull and nearly unbearable. I’m no prude. I actually like nudity and explicit sex in movies. But for these to work, the sex has to move the story or tell us something about the characters. Or, at the very least, it needs to be erotic. The many sex scenes concentrated into this one act fail on all of those counts.

Then, against all odds, an excellent film emerges in in the third act, Winter. Isabelle’s mother (Géraldine Pailhas) finds out what’s been going on. Suddenly, we’ve got a family in crisis, trying to come to terms with their daughter’s inexplicable behavior. We finally learn anything meaningful about the characters. Ozon shows us the mother’s temper, the bumbling stepfather trying to make everything right, and the difficulties Isabella has reaching out to other people in a meaningful way.

As she navigates her notorious way through the shocked family, she can be inappropriately flirtatious, truly sorry, or play the victim. She knows a secret about her mother that she can use if need be.

I don’t want to go into too many details about the second half of the film. I will say that it’s a fine reward for sitting through the first half. Besides, the great Charlotte Rampling turns up in Act 4 (Spring), in a small but pivotal role.

The first half of Young & Beautiful is about a physically attractive but otherwise uninteresting woman having a lot of sex. The second half puts everything in perspective and helps you understand the protagonist’s bizarre behavior.

It’s a close call, but I’d say that getting to the second half of this film is worth sitting through the first.

SFIFF: Boyhood and an Evening with Richard Linklater

Last night at the Castro, the San Francisco International Film Festival honored Richard Linklater with their Founder’s Directing Award. The event included a discussion between Linklater and actor Parker Posey, followed by a screening of Linklater’s new film, Boyhood.

When I arrived, more than an hour before the show, the line was already around the block. Once inside, the theater was crowded, and the line for the concession stand snaked around half of the lobby.

Amazingly, considering the crowd, the show started almost on time. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen came on stage and talked briefly about Linklater, pointing out that his first film, Slacker, played at SFIFF. She told the audience that he had founded the Austin Film Society.

Then we got the clip reel–a few minutes of quick scenes from Linklater’s work. These are always fun if kept brief, and this one was.

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Then Posey and Linklater can onstage for the discussion. They worked together on Dazed and Confused more than 20 years ago, and were clearly comfortable with each other. In fact, they seemed so relaxed that it felt more like two old friends goofing off than a real interview. It was entertaining, but pretty light on information.

But the talk did include some gems:

  • "Casting is like love at first site. I have a feeling of what it should be when I write the script, but I don’t know until I see it."
  • On writing Dazed and Confused: "The music came first. I just listened to the music when I wrote it."
  • “That theatrical experience is so special. That can ever die. I don’t care how big your home TV is.”

Then they asked for questions for the audience. Some highlights:

  • On Waking Life: "I wanted you to be confused about if [what you see] is real or not."
  • An "aspiring screenwriter" asked how important it is to watch films on the big screen. “It is important. It’s harder to do now..”
  • He called the Before… series "The accidental trilogy. It was never planned."
  • On the future of cinema: "The industry doesn’t care. People are going to theaters less and less…Films cost so much to market, that studios have to think on terms of how many films we can release."
  • I asked who was more important, the writer or the director (Linklater does both). "If you take yourself seriously as a writer, go with literature or theater. Filmmaking is a collaborative storytelling effort. The director is the guy rubbing the bottle to get the genie out. "

After the Q&A, there was a five-minute intermission. Then the movie started.

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Fifty years from nowpeople will still be watching Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood allows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films. It’s all the better for that. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. You really feel as if you’re watching these people grow.

I give Boyhood an A.

There was another Q&A after the movie. But by the time the movie ended, it was nearly 11:00, and I had to take BART back to the East Bay. So I had to skip the final part of the evening.

Before Monday: My review of Le Week-End

C+ Drama

  • Written by Hanif Kureishi
  • Directed by Roger Michell

If the shockingly misleading trailer for Le Week-End makes you want to see the movie, don’t. It is not, as you may have been led to believe, a romantic frolic about an aging couple rekindling their romance in the city of lights. Quite the opposite. It’s a dark and depressing drama about a marriage in horrible decline.

I can’t blame the film for bad marketing. But I can blame it for it’s own faults. While Le Week-End has several very good scenes and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character, it suffers from a overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight.

The plot is reminiscent of the Before… trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), and yet feels far more contrived. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.

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What empathy the film offers goes entirely to Nick (Jim Broadbent), a man of deep insecurity coming to the end of his rope. He’s lost his job and is running out of money. Age is delivering one new physical pain after another. His wife treats him with contempt, and their son has become a father without growing into responsible adulthood.

That wife, Meg (Lindsay Duncan) , is horrible. She refuses to stay in the modest hotel where they have a reservation, and insists on going to the most expensive place in Paris–despite their serious money problems. She insults him, flirts then rejects him, and argues about everything. When he falls on a cobblestone street and lies there in pain, she walks away.

Why doesn’t Nick simply divorce her? He can’t afford to.

Halfway though the film, they run into an old, once-very close friend of Nick’s (Jeff Goldblum), who somehow never met his wife of 30 years. This chance meeting leads to an insufferable party filled with annoying intellectuals. A series of toasts at the dinner table become of the film’s climax, where the main characters stand up and express their feelings out loud to strangers.

The film has a few light-hearted moments, and even a few comic ones. Occasionally, Nick and Meg appear to actually love each other in some strange way. But these moments never last. The entire cast give excellent performances, but only Broadbent is well-served by the script. His character is the only reason to see this film.

A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows.

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