Rediscovering The Big Lebowski

I saw The Big Lebowski at the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night–my first time seeing the cult favorite with an audience. Now I get it. I may be the last person to realize this, but on the big screen, with a room full of people, Lebowski is an exceptional comedy. The laughs are nearly constant.

And yet there’s more to it than laughs. The characters, although broadly drawn and larger-than-life, have a ring of truth to them. And the plot is as complex as a Raymond Chandler novel.

In fact, the story feels very much like something from Raymond Chandler, except that the protagonist is no Philip Marlowe. He’s a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned slacker and competitive bowler who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). In other words, he’s the least competent person you could possibly imagine to be placed in the middle of a Raymond Chandler story.

A bit of personal history:

Lukewarm reviews kept me from seeing The Big Lebowski when it was released in 1998–despite my already being a Coen brothers fan. But I rented it soon after it came out on DVD, and watched it when my then-teenaged son. (My son was also with me Wednesday night at the PFA; this time with his wife.)

Soon after I started this blog, I started recommending The Big Lebowski
when it played in local theaters. It wasn’t long before I realized that it played more one-night stands than any other movie. This perplexed me. I remembered it as a pleasant comedy but not a great one. When I started the letter grades, I gave it a B.

But it kept turning up. People obviously loved it. I even made jokes about it in my weekly newsletter, calling one Lebowski of Arabia and another A Lebowski-Free Week. Slowly, I began to suspect that I needed to see it again, and this time in a theater.

On Wednesday night, I finally did it.

As usual, Steve Seid introduced the movie, which the PFA was screening as part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010. This is the last of three American comedy series that the Archive has been running since the beginning of the year.

To help program this final series, the PFA "worked in cahoots with the East Bay Express," with readers recommending films. Seid called Lebowski part of a "great bowling trilogy" that also included King Pin and Spare Me, which is "about a kind of outlaw bowler who gets kicked out of the league because he has anger issues," and was advertised with the tag line "When you hear thunder, God is bowling."

Seid also brought out his father’s bowling ball. His father bowled until he was in his 90s.

The Big Lebowski is more than a bowling movie, and more than a Raymond Chandler story with a comically inept protagonist. There’s a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen to it–as if you could throw yourself out to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t.

Consider Sam Elliott’s prairie philosopher narration, which sort of sets the scene but is stylistically at odds with everything else in the picture. Or John Turturro’s utterly bizarre turn as a bejeweled bowler named Jesus. Or the dancing dream sequence that looks like something out of Busby Berkeley, only weirder.

Amongst a great supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman at his funniest, John Goodman stands out as the Dude’s friend Walter–a Vietnam vet with a very bad case of PTSD. This is a guy who pulls a gun to settle an argument over bowling scores. On one level, Walter is the sort of dependable friend who will always have your back. On the other, he’s crazy, dangerous, and doesn’t think things through. The Dude gets into a lot of trouble because of Walter’s shenanigans.

The Big Lebowski is a blissfully vulgar movie. It just may have more f-words than any other picture shot. And it uses the word, and its constant repetitions, effectively to get laughs. The Coen brothers understand just how funny a word it is.

The PFA screened The Big Lebowski off of a DCP. As a rule, this doesn’t bother me; I like digital projection. But not this time. Universal’s transfer was over-processed. It looked like video, with film grain removed and everything smoothed over. I suspect this was an early transfer, done before people realized that a film projected digitally should still look like a film, and not like CGI. Considering the quality of this transfer, I would rather have seen a 35mm print.

But I suppose I have to accept the bad with the good. After all, "the Dude abides."

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 2

One of the major problems with life is that it intrudes on watching movies. Saturday, other responsibilities kept me away from the Castro, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, until mid-afternoon. Among other things, I missed Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove. What a pity.

But here’s what I saw on Saturday and Sunday. You can also check out Thursday and Friday in San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 1.

Underground

We got two introductions to this British melodrama from 1928. First, Bryony Dixon of the British Film Institute talked about the restoration. "It can take a very long time to [raise the money] for a big restoration costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. It took, I think, 15 years to get this one going." Initially, all they had was a fourth-generation print. They found another source in Brussels, and "We were able to combine these elements" to make the restoration.

Now that I’ve seen the restoration and the movie, I’d call it money well spent.

Next, Leonard Maltin introduced the movie. "I’ve seen this film once before. I remember liking it." He talked about the great film collector and historian William K. Everson, and the "visual flair" you find only in late silent films. "No one was untouched by the work of Murnau and other innovators of that period…It seems kind of a shame that just when filmmaking had reached this pinnacle, sound came along and everything froze."

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Underground is not about criminals or black-market economics, but the London subway system. When the movie started, I assumed it would follow Aristotle’s unity of place, and contain all (or almost all) of its action within the subway system. I was wrong, and a bit disappointed. It opens and closes in the subway, and two main characters work there, but it’s set all around working-class London.

But really, I didn’t have much to be disappointed about. Underground is a fun melodrama about a cad, a nice guy, a nice girl, and a mentally unhinged young woman. A great deal of it was shot on location, with a real sense of London in the late 20s.

Stephen Horne gave his usual fantastic one-man-ensemble accompaniment. I could see him from my seat, and noticed him playing flute, accordion, clarinet, and piano. I think he’s part octopus.

Under the Lantern

Weimar Germany must have had a thing about prostitutes. The Germans filmed a lot of downbeat tragedies about girls sliding into the oldest profession and suffering the consequences. Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl are unique only in being better than the others. (It helped, of course, to have Louise Brooks.)

In Under the Lantern, we follow the fate of a young woman who goes dancing without her overly-strict father’s permission. She takes up with her boyfriend, joins a vaudeville act, becomes a kept woman, and is eventually reduced to walking the streets. But don’t worry; worse things are ahead.

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It’s an often-told story, reasonably well-done, although slower than it needed to be. It worked well enough to make me hope that she could turn her life around.

But it had one big problem: The star, Lissy Arna, while an excellent silent actress, was not the ravishing beauty that the story required. And she looked too old in the early scenes. When an intertitle told us that she was underage, I wondered just what age constituted adulthood in the Weimar Republic…35?

Many of the film’s flaws were papered over by the Donald Sosin Ensemble. Their European and yet jazzy score carried all of the film’s rich emotions, and deepened the otherwise shallow sequences. Occasionally, someone on screen would turn on a phonograph. When this happened, the musicians stopped playing and we were treated with recordings off of old 78s.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West In the Land of the Bolsheviks

The Soviet Union was a pretty horrible place to live in 1924. World War, revolution, civil war, and an experimental economy had shaken the nation to the core. No one quite yet knew how much freedom of expression would be allowed. (Final answer: not much.)

And yet, in that very year, Russian film theoretician Lev Kuleshov created one of the most intentionally silly comedies I’ve ever seen. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West In the Land of the Bolsheviks (let’s just call it Extraordinary Adventures) makes Duck Soup feel like neorealism.

The title character is an American executive who comes to the newly-Communist Russia on business, brandishing a fur coat, Harold Lloyd glasses, and an American flag. His sidekick and bodyguard is a cowboy with a quick draw and a slow brain (Mr. West isn’t any smarter). They almost immediately fall in with a bunch of con artists intent on taking advantage of their ignorance and fear to separate them from their money.

I have to give a special shout out for Aleksandra Khokhlova as the "sexy" con artist. As skinny and flexible as Popeye’s Olive Oyl, she comes off as a strange, warped, and hilarious caricature of a human being. Like everyone else in the movie, she’s a broad stereotype, but her bizarre performance is funnier than any other.

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It seems strange that a movie intended to be Communist propaganda would show almost all of its Russians as liars and thieves. Only near the end do honest Bolsheviks appear, and only then does Extraordinary Adventures become Communist propaganda.

The Mattie Bye Ensemble did a great job accompanying the feature.

Extraordinary Adventures ended Saturday’s program. I had a nasty surprise on my way home. When I arrived at the North Berkeley BART station around noon, I discovered that someone had stolen my bicycle.

Now, on to Sunday:

Seven Years Bad Luck

The always entertaining Serge Bromberg introduced this 1921 Max Linder comedy. More to the point, he introduced Linder.

Max Linder is probably cinema’s first comic star. He started making shorts in his native France in 1905, and came to the USA in 1916. He went back and forth between the two countries until his 1925 suicide.

The festival screened two American Linder comedies: the 1917 short Max Wants a Divorce and the 1921 feature, Seven Years Bad Luck. This was my first Linder experience, and I found him funny–often hilarious. Linder reminded me of an upper-class Charlie Chase—dapper, normal, and stuck in funny situations. It’s clear that he influenced Chase, but then, he influenced everyone.

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Unfortunately, the feature hit its comic peak early. Max’s servants conspire to keep him ignorant of a broken mirror. One servant, who vaguely resembles Linder, stands on the other side of the empty mirror frame and imitates his master’s every move while shaving. It’s the old mirror routine (Groucho and Harpo did it in Duck Soup), but I’ve never seen it done so well as it’s done here.

The rest of the film plays fine, but never again reaches that level. Max keeps expecting to have a lot of bad luck. That sort of thing tends to be self-fulfilling.

Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius collaborated on the musical accompaniment. It was fine.

Dragnet Girl

Earlier this year, New York’s Antohology Flm Archives ran a series called "Auteurs Gone Wild"–films by major directors that are not in the director’s usual style (see Rare Lubitsch in New York). Yasujiro Ozu’s Dragnet Girl would have fit right in. As Noir City’s Eddie Muller explained it when he introduced the picture on Sunday, it was quite a surprise to discover that Ozu, known for his quiet and contemplative family dramas and low-key comedies, "made a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster movie."

Muller also talked about the "absolutely dazzling camera movement," more "like a Martin SCorceses fever dream" than anything by Ozu. The future director of Tokyo Story clearly wanted to make an American film; posters and signs are all in English.

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The movie definitely has style. It’s flashy and fun to watch. And Kinuyo Tanaka is wonderful as a seemingly innocent young girl who’s really a tough-as-nails moll. Well, maybe she’s not as tough as she seems. The exceptionally handsome Joji Oka brings energy and charisma to the part of her gangster boyfriend–a Japanese James Cagney. But the story manages to be both weak and confusing. In the end, it just didn’t do much for me.

To accompany Dragnet Girl, Gunter Buchwald played piano and violin, with Frank Bockius on the drums. Their jazz-infused music was everything it should have been.

The Girl in Tails

This 1926 Swedish romance starts similarly to Under the Lantern. A young woman disobeys her father’s orders to go dancing. But this time, breaking the rules and making trouble results in love and happiness, not tragedy.

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Actually, her father doesn’t object to her going to the ball; he just won’t pay for the needed clothes. This is particularly unfair because he gives her brother a seemingly limitless clothing budget. So she steals her brother’s white tie and tails, and goes to the dance in drag.

And let me add that the film’s star, Magda Holm, looks very fetching in men’s formalwear.

Of course she scandalizes the town, but she has a few defenders, including the very wealthy young man she obviously loves. You never really worry that things will not come out right.

The Girl in Tails goes on too long, and overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes. But it’s such a warm, generous, and subversive movie that you can forgive a few slow spots.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did their usual wonderful accompaniment.

The Sign of the Four

I was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan in my early teens, and I’ve reread all of the stories over the last few years. The second novel, The Sign of the Four, is one of my favorites. It’s an atmospheric mystery with a good action climax. And Watson gets to fall in love.

Eille Norwood played Holmes in something like 45 movies, mostly shorts, from 1921-23. The Sign of Four, a feature, was his last.

It’s hard to imagine how the dialog-heavy Sherlock Holmes stories could work in silent film, but they do. After all, much of the talking in the original stories involve one person telling another about what happened. All you need is a flashback and you’re back to telling a story visually.

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Norwood is one of the best Holmes of the screen, up there will Rathbone, Brett, and Cumberbatch. He underplays the great detective, moving little and seeing all. His is a contemplative Holmes, a man always in the process of thinking.

On the other hand, Arthur M. Cullin makes a poor choice for Watson–especially for The Sign of the Four. Flabby, plain-looking, and dull, there’s nothing here for Mary Morstan to fall in love with. Cullins didn’t play Watson in any of the other Norwood Holmes films, which makes this choice odder.

The film follows the book relatively closely, but when it deviates, it goes off in the wrong direction. Specifically, in the "innocent white girl menaced by evil dark people" direction.

Oh, well. It was fun, anyway.

Donald Sosin (on piano) with Guenter Buchwald (on violin) kept everything lively.

Harbor Drift

Sleep deprivation is a major problem with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. At least it is for me. If I try to attend everything, I don’t get enough sleep.

And that’s why I’m not really qualified to tell you about Harbor Drift, yet another German film about poverty and prostitution. The movie started, and I fell immediately to sleep. I think it was about half over when I woke up.

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From what I saw, it was well made, with daring camera angles and wild editing. I couldn’t really get a handle on the characters, but the main ones seemed real and sympathetic.

Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius’ accompaniment sounded fine, even in my dreams.

The Navigator

The closing show of the Festival presented one of Buster Keaton’s most beloved works. It was the only film screened that I’m really familiar with. This was my fourth time seeing The Navigator theatrically. (I also own the Blu-ray.)

This is not my favorite Keaton, but it’s still a very fun movie. Keaton and Kathryn McGuire play spoiled rich kids adrift on an otherwise deserted ocean liner with no power. Thus, two people who can’t boil water have to make due in an environment designed for feeding hundreds.

This provides for plenty of great comic sequences. Buster tries to put an unconscious Kathryn into an uncooperative deck chair. The two, working together, manage to create a pot of coffee comprised of three beans and a couple of quarts of salt water. A small cannon with a lit fuse manages to always point at Buster.

In my favorite sequence, Buster tries to shuffle and deal a pack of cards so wet that they’re dissolving in his hands. Kathryn got the cards wet in the first place, and chivalry demands that he ignore their soggy condition.

Unfortunately, the Matti Bye Ensemble added too many bizarre and weird sound effects. At first they were funny, but soon they just got in the way of the truly funny stuff going on onscreen.

Nevertheless, watching Buster Keaton with 1,500 other fans is always a wonderful experience. It was a good way to end an enjoyable, if exhausting, weekend.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 1

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the closest thing to a movie marathon I’ve experienced in decades. For three of its four days, it runs movie after movie from 10:00am until nearly midnight, with breaks that generally last an hour or less. Seeing everything–or almost everything–requires stamina and sleep deprivation.

Attending the festival, and blogging about it, takes Herculean efforts.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse

Festival President Robert Byrne started things off with a little pep talk, thanking sponsors, noting that this is the 19th year, and talking about the feature.

The movie started only 15 minutes after the scheduled time. For any festival’s opening night, it’s excellent.

If you want to see the value of star power, there’s no better example than Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rudolf Valentino  was just another handsome face when he was cast in this film, receiving only fourth billing. But he owns the picture. His open likeability, his energy, and his exceptional sexuality dominate this epic about Argentinians caught up in World War I.

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Valentino was a competent actor, although not a great one. Occasionally, he’s horrible. But his magnetism overwhelms his flaws.

The family dynamics of the story are a bit complicated. Let’s just say that a wealthy Argentine family develops into separate French and German forks. The French move to France, the Germans move to Germany, and war puts them on separate sides.

It’s an antiwar movie, of course, but a flawed one. The message seems to be "War is evil, and Germans are evil because they love war." Germans are inherently bad guys in this film’s worldview.

The picture is big, epic, and spectacular. It drags a bit in the first half, but is overall good fun, despite the anti-German sentiment. And Valentino makes it a much better film than it would otherwise be.

The 35mm print was tinted and mostly beautiful. Some scenes were soft; I assume they came from an inferior source. For some reason, it was projected at an aspect ratio that was too narrow even for a silent. Occasionally the sides looked cropped.

The Mont Alto Silent Picture Orchestra did their usual wonderful accompaniment.

Amazing Tales from the Archives

This Friday morning free show is always one of the Festival’s highlights. Once again, Robert Byrne got it started. "I love the smell of nitrate in the morning. It smells of history."

This year’s tales came in three segments.

First, Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film for the British Film Institute, showed us some early nature films–forerunners of David Attenborough’s work. The best sequences involved bees and beekeeping, and required experimental lenses.

Next, Dan Streible of the Orphan Film Symposium discussed one of the most famous films to come out of Edison’s laboratory, The Sneeze. Thanks to the discovery of a new paper print, we now know that this laboratory experiment ran twice as long as anyone suspected. Yes, Fred Ott sneezed twice!

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He also used some of his talk to criticize digital, proclaiming that "digital film is an oxymoron." I disagree, but I should read his article on the matter anyway.

He ended his presentation with a little gem that I saw once maybe 35 or 36 years ago: Raymond Rohauer Presents the Sneeze–a two-minute gem by David Shepard. You have to know about the silent film restoration/copyright battles of 60s and 70s to appreciate this one.

Finally, special effects designer Craig Barron and sound effects creator Ben Burtt took the stage to discuss Charlie Chaplin’s his use of technology. Their point was to dispel the myth that Chaplin was a luddite, interested in the camera only as a way to record his silent performances. Barron and Burtt showed he used trick photography, and Burtt discussed his use of sound effects in City Lights and Modern Times.

These two are always worth listening to.

Song of the Fishermen

They were still making silent movies in China in 1934, although sound was beginning to sneak in. Song of the Fishermen is a bit like the Jazz Singer. Basically a silent film, but every so often, the lead character breaks into song.

The star, Wang Renmei, was both a movie and a singing star at the time.

The movie was shot in horrible conditions on location in a very poor fishing village. The singing was dubbed in later.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with Song of the Fisherman–a story about a sister and brother struggling to survive in a depressed fishing village. Many individual scenes worked well, but the continuity was confusing and I often felt unsure about what was going on. After the film, I talked to others who had the same experience.

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It was beautifully shot, but the excellent photography was marred by a poor print source and a worse digital transfer. Fades and dissolves showed very bad digital artifacts.

Donald Soshan’s piano work was fine. But three times he stopped playing and the film’s original soundtrack took over, so we could hear Wang Renmei singing. Sometimes it was out of sync.

Life sometimes gets in the way of going to movies, and I had to return to the East Bay after Song of the Fishermen. I made it back to the Castro in time for the 10:00pm screening of…

Cosmic Voyage

Experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin selected this Soviet sci-fi for the Festival, and introduced it. "One reason I picked it is it has a sense of otherness. My own films deal with technology. Mine are more pessimistic."

He spoke about as fast as is humanly possible. I think my typed notes are accurate.

"The film is a lesson in itself about how soviet film played out. And it’s a children’s film. It would have been popular, but it was pulled. The benefit of it being a silent is the crucial role of montage. The odd angles, the willingness to take chances, and the release from melodrama."

That’s Baldwin’s view. Here’s mine:

Cosmic Voyage feels like something George Pal would have made in the 1950s, except that it’s a silent film made on the other side of the iron curtain. A brilliant but loveable scientist with a Santa-like beard, a young boy brimming with pluck, and a beautiful young woman convince the powers that be that their rocket is safe. Then they go to the moon, have some adventures there, and return home.

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In many ways, the science is remarkably accurate for its time. Zero gee starts when the thruster rockets stop. The moon has gravity, but it’s so weak that the explorers can make big leaps.

On the other hand, the spaceship has a very high ceiling, which is a big waste in a spaceship (Pal made the same mistake in When World’s Collide). And who can forget a timeless intertitle like "You gather the atmosphere. I’ll rescue the cat." This and other intertitles were in Russian; Frank Buxton read an English translation out loud as the film played.

In other words, the whole thing is charming, silly, and entertaining. I wish it was readily available in this country.

But I don’t understand the festival’s scheduling decision. This is a kid’s movie, and should have screened as a matinee. The 3:00 show that day (which I missed) was called Midnight Madness; that sounds like a better late-night movie.

The print, which I believe was digital, looked great. The Silent Movie Music Company accompanied Cosmic Voyage. They did a good job.

Two Pre-code Crime Flix at Roxie Noir Festival: I Wake Up Dreaming

Saturday afternoon, I made my way to the Roxie to attend a program in the theater’s current Film Noir festival, I Wake Up Dreaming. Like most of the 13 programs on the festival’s schedule, it was a double bill (the rest are triple bills).

It was a fun afternoon, but not an exceptional one.

The movies both came out of the early 1930s, well before the mid-40s golden age of film noir . While they were both crime pictures with a thick layer of cynicism, they lacked the dark, impressionistic lighting that gave Film Noir its name.

On the other hand, they’re both pre-code. They could be sexier, and even more cynical, than anything Hollywood would put out in the classic Noir period.

The very nature of the event made the movies more entertaining than they would otherwise be. The auditorium was reasonably crowded, and the audience responded enthusiastically to every joke–intentional or not.

So let’s get to the movies:

C+ Love is a Racket

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Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays a reporter on the Broadway beat. He actively wants to avoid the crime beat for reasons of personal safety, and he’s in love with a struggling actress (Frances Dee). That spells trouble. She’s written some bad checks, and a powerful and ruthless gangster wants to add her to his conquests. The story isn’t much, But a fast pace, occasional witty dialog, and an ending as cynical as they come keeps it reasonably entertaining. It was directed by the great William Wellman, but I wouldn’t count it amongst his masterpieces.

C+ Ladies They Talk About

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Before seeing this 1933 women-in-prison drama, I had no idea that the lady’s section in San Quentin had such an excellent beauty parlor. While some of the women appeared to have lost all interest in their personal appearances, most of them sported perfect hair and makeup. Fortunately, the extremely silly story about a beautiful bank robber and the man who wants to reform her stars Barbara Stanwyck. Her very presence on screen can make up for a lot of back writing. The always-upbeat Lillian Roth plays her best friend behind bars, and even gets to sing a song.

Now that I think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Stanwyck play a law-abiding citizen.

I’d seen this one before, some years ago, but I’d forgotten about it.

This year, all of the films screened come from the Warner Archive Collection, and Warner has made them available to the Roxie only on DVD. On a really big screen like the  Castro‘s, that would be a disaster. But at the modestly-sized Roxie, the two films I saw looked acceptable–even if they were a bit soft. They looked at least as good as 16mm prints. Blu-ray, DCP, or 35mm would have looked a lot better. But for these lesser-known titles, they’re just not available.

I Wake Up Dreaming runs through May 25.

Catching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 After the Festival

After two weeks watching dramas and documentaries (most of them with subtitles) at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I felt it was time to reconnect with another aspect of cinema. So I visited a multiplex and caught The Amazing Spider-Man 2–in 3D, no less.

This is the sort of summer movie that makes you forgive Hollywood for its current excesses. Sometimes, the excess is worth it.

I didn’t bother seeing The Amazing Spider-Man two years ago; bad reviews kept me away. But having seen all three films in the first Spider-Man franchise, plus knowing a few things about the original comic strip (my son is a huge Marvel fan), I felt I didn’t need to see the reboot movie first. Besides, the sequel has received much better reviews.

I made the right decision. I love this movie.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a big, splashy, fun, CGI-heavy action flick with a small, character-driven independent art film hidden inside. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a teenager in crisis. His parents deserted him when he was young.  His girlfriend is about to desert him. A now-powerful old friend is putting him in a moral dilemma . The widowed aunt who’s raising him (Sally Field) can barely make ends meet. And because he has superpowers, he feels responsible for stopping all the crime in New York City.

The film ties all of these conflicting emotional issues into a whiz-bang action ride. You never feel as if the personal story is just there to fill in the spots between special effects. Nor do you feel that director Marc Webb and his team of screenwriters reluctantly added action scenes to please the suits. All the pieces fit together. If you take away one action scene, or one quiet moment of reflection, everything would fall apart.

I can think of only one other superhero movie that balanced the personal and the spectacular so well: Spider-Man 2–the sequel to the first Spider-Man feature film. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence.

Interesting technical fact: The Amazing Spider-Man was shot digitally in 3D–pretty normal for a modern special effects action movie. But this sequel was shot on 35mm film, and artificially converted to 3D in post production. I don’t object to that the way I did when they converted Titanic and The Wizard of Oz. The picture was designed and shot with the intention of 3D conversion. Besides, the really impressive 3D effects weren’t "shot" in the normal sense of the word. They were all CGI.

But it does leave me wondering. In 1953, Hollywood was routinely shooting 3D movies on 35mm film. Why can’t they do that today?

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.

Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I managed to get to three San Francisco International Film Festival screenings at the Kabuki yesterday. Let me tell you about it.

B Bauyr (Little Brother)

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This seems to be the year of young boy films at SFIFF. Bauyr is the fourth such movie I’ve seen at this festival so far. It was pretty good, but easily the weakest of the four.

This time, the boy is only eight years old, and he lives in a small town in Kazakhstan. His name is Yerkin, and he’s pretty much deserted. His mother is dead, his father is gone "on a business trip," and his much older brother is studying in the city.

His brother returns for a visit about halfway through the film. He clearly loves Yerkin and does what he can to help him. (He didn’t know about Dad’s disappearance until he arrived.) But his resources are limited and he has to get a good education.

Naturally, Yerkin has learned to be quite resourceful, and much of the film’s pleasure concerns his growing skill and confidence at dealing with the adult world. Writer/director Seric Aprymov adds surreal, comic touches to keep the film entertaining. Consider, for instance, the school principal who never seems to leave the outdoor billiard table.

This is a touching and entertaining film, but not an exceptional one. It will screen again at the Kabuki, on Wednesday, at 9:15.

C+ Pioneer

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Early in this Norwegian thriller, a professional deep-sea diver—who is also a loving husband and father–tells his brother and diving partner that this will be his last dive. He wants to spend time with his family. Yes, this is another thriller from the cliché playbook. The surviving brother (Aksel Hennie, the star of wonderful Headhunters), is blamed for the fatal accident, and spends the rest of the movie trying to uncover the evil conspiracy. The movie improves considerably in the last act, with a climas that wasn’t at all what I expected. But that wasn’t enough to make it more than an okay thriller.

I caught the last SFIFF screening of Pioneer. But Magnolia has picked it up for an American release, so you’ll have other chances to miss it.

B+ Centerpiece: Palo Alto

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The Centerpiece screening is one of the major events at SFIFF. It’s not always the best film at the festival (in fact, it rarely is), but it’s always a big event.

This year, the film was Gia Coppola’s first feature, Palo Alto. And yes, she’s one of those Coppolas. In fact, grandpa Francis’ winery was one of the night’s corporate sponsorships. Genealogy charts  have always played a big role in film history.

Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who also acts in the film), Palo Alto exams a handful of teenagers reaching an emotional boiling point.  Fueled by booze, pot, and raging hormones, they deal poorly with the choices they’re making on their way to adulthood. Drunk driving, random vandalism, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, and other serious mistakes mar these kid’s lives. Yet you really hope they get their acts together. A slick yet compassionate and well-acted drama.

I give Palo Alto a B+.

After the movie, Festival Director of Programming Rachel Rosen led the Q&A with Coppola and one of Palo Alto’s actors, Emma Roberts. Some highlights:

  • What was it like to have the author of the book [Franco] present? "Everyone thought it was strange to have him there. But he’s an experienced director. On those days I got stuck he could help me."
  • Was she influenced by her grandfather’s film, The Outsiders? "Yeah. I love his movies."
  • On the artistic decision to make the nighttime exteriors exceptionally dark: "We were so low budget that we didn’t have any money for lighting."
  • "We didn’t get to shoot in Palo Alto because we were so low budget we couldn’t afford to transport everyone. [The story] could really happen anywhere."
  • On screening rough cuts before finishing the film (what we saw was the finished version): "What was really helpful was doing test screenings. A lot of things changed in an edit. You live so closely to [the film] that it’s nice to have other people’s opinions.

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.

SFIFF: Getting Down and Staying Down at the Castro

Tuesday night I visited the Castro for a special San Francisco International Film Festival event: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.

SFIFF has a tradition for daring silent movie accompaniment. They bring in a local musician or group, one with a significant following, and have them accompany a silent feature or a collection of shorts. The idea, I suspect, is to attract both silent film lovers and fans of the musician. Hopefully, there is cross-pollination between the two groups.

Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it’s a disaster. Tuesday night fell in between, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Before I read the press release about this event, I had never heard of Thao Nguyen, or of her band, The Get Down Stay Down. Having now experienced them in live performance, I can say that the music was fun and infectious, often with an ironic touch. I would describe their music as very good art rock, pushing the envelope without sacrificing the beat. Nguyen sang through much of the performance, although I had trouble making out the lyrics.

And make no mistake about it: This was as much a concert as a screening. Probably more so.

And yet, they weren’t always playing music. Some of the shorts were talkies. Three of these were short comedies starring Nguyen as herself–or at least a vain and insecure comic version of herself. She’s a good comic actress and I enjoyed two of these shorts quite a bit (one wasn’t so good). The other talkies were newsreel segments from the 1930s.

The silent movies they accompanied included two additional newsreel segments, both about women’s beauty, and clearly treated ironically by the band. One showed the "torture" Broadway chorus girls must go through to remain beautiful; it looked about as painful as a moderate massage, and they were smiling. There were a couple of very short, color animated works that functioned as lightshows for the music. And there were two well-known silent shorts.

The first of these was the very strange "The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra." Made in 1928 by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich, it takes German expressionism to an outlandish extreme–even though it was made in America. As the title implies, it’s a satire of depersonalization in the Hollywood system. Nguyen’s weird music made a perfect match.

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The program ended with Charlie Chaplin’s "The Pawnshop." Like everything else that Chaplin made during his Mutual period, it’s a small comic gem, filled with remarkable gags and extended routines. They were right to close the show with "The Pawnshop," easily the best picture in the group.

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But here, Nguyen’s music hindered rather than helped. Loud and electronic, it overwhelmed the picture. The drummer did some excellent, perfectly-timed sound effects, but they were often overwhelmed by the loud rock and roll. It was as if Chaplin and Nguyen were fighting over the audience’s attention. Nguyen won.

And yet I still enjoyed "The Pawnshop." And the whole evening. When it was over, the audience called for an encore. After a few minutes, Nguyen came back on stage and thanked us. But she didn’t pick up her guitar.

Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I attended opening night, and managed to get to one movie Friday night, but Saturday was my first full day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

Oddly,  I didn’t see a single feature-length film that day.

But here’s what I did see:

Dolby Labs: The Sound of Movies

In this Master Class at the New People Cinema, Angus McGilpin and John Loose of Dolby Labs discussed the history of sound in movies, then walked us through an audio mix.

They started off talking about the primal importance of sound to the human experience. "It’s fundamental to how we experience the world. We hear sounds before we understand them."

They covered the evolution  of sound with clips from eight different space movies made at very different times: "Trip to the Moon" (1902), Flash Gordon (1935), Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (AKA, A New Hope, 1977), Apollo 13 (1995), and Gravity (2013).

Unfortunately, that part of the presentation was marred with errors. They stated that Forbidden Planet was originally in mono, and 2001 in two-track stereo. They were both released in formats that would e called surround today–Forbidden Planet in four-track stereo, and 2001 In six-track.

They then screened Silent. a very short cartoon made by Monbot Studios for Dolby. I’d seen it before on Youtube, but it was much better on the big screen. Starring an animated Buster Keaton and clearly inspired by Sherlock Jr., it celebrates cinema’s technical evolution. It’s a fun two and half minutes.

After the movie, they walked us through the creation of the film’s audio, allowing us to hear how different types of effects, plus music, layer into each other.

The presentation ended with a brief Q&A. One audience member asked how much dialog these days is recorded after the film is shot. Loose guessed about 60%, which is more than I expected. 

Agnès Varda: From Here to There

Only last year did I really discover, and fall in love with, the work of Agnès Varda. I’ve discussed her early work here and there. So I was very willing to devote most of the afternoon to her 2011 documentary miniseries, Agnès Varda: From Here to There.

The concept is simple: Varda travels the world, visiting old friends and making new ones. But this is more than a 225-minute home movie. The friends she visits include renowned and unknown (but still talented) painters, sculptors, and filmmakers. She uses her considerable photographic skills (like Kubrick, she was a photographer before she became a filmmaker) to show us amazing paintings, statues, and works of kinetic art in the best light. She films 102-year-old auteur Manoel de Oliveira doing a jaunty Chaplin imitation, and reconnects with fishermen she turned into actors almost 60 years ago in her first film, La Pointe Courte. She re-examines a photo of strangers she took at the beach long ago, and directs a little movie about what they might be doing.

And all the while, her upbeat, impish curiosity and joy at life itself shine through. At one point, a journalist comes to interview Varda. Soon, she’s the one being interviewed.

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I enjoyed the experience quite a bit, but I suspect I would have enjoyed it even more as it was meant to be seen: On television, in five 45-minute episodes. In one sitting with a single, five-minute intermission, it was grueling.

I give it a B+.

If you have the time and stamina, Agnès Varda: From Here to There will play again on Monday, April 28 at the New People Cinema (which is where I saw it) at 12:30. Then it will move across the Bay and screen at the Pacific Film Archive Sunday, May 4 at 1:30.

Shorts 1

I closed the evening with a collection of short subjects. It contained two documentaries, two comedies, one drama, and a dance film.

This was my first time in the Kabuki since last year’s festival. Guest what! Auditoriums 3 and 4 are now adults only–no matter what’s showing. They sell alcohol in that part of the multiplex.

My favorite short was the comedy "So You’ve Grown Attached," by Kate Tsang. It looks at the plight of a young girl’s imaginary friend, who’s terrified that she will outgrow him. Luckily, he gets emotional support from his understand (and very fuzzy) boss in the imaginary friend organization. Very touching and funny.

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I also enjoyed the beautiful "Barn Dance" and the other comedy, "Angels," which is very much a celebration of San Francisco. I found the documentary "Santa Cruz del Islote" fascinating as it explored a tiny and very-much inhabited island 50 miles off the coast of Colombia. I thought I was going to hate the one drama on the program, "The Birds’ Blessing," because I could see the ending a mile away. Fortunately, it didn’t end the way I expected.

In fact, the only short I didn’t like was the other documentary, "Re:Awakenings," about a medical breakthrough in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It did little more than make you look at severely-disabled anonymous people.

After the pictures, several of the filmmakers came up for Q&A. Someone asked Tsang how she came up with the idea for "So You’ve Grown Attached." "It was autobiographical. I was aware that my friends had imaginary friends and I wanted one of my own."

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