Fort Apache at the Alameda

imageTuesday night, I visited the Alameda Theater for the first time, for a screening of John Ford’s Fort Apache. This was also my first time seeing this classic on the big screen.

The Alameda is a huge, beautiful, art deco theater originally built in 1932. It was, of course, originally built as a single-screen theater. And although it has been turned into a multiplex, the original auditorium remains in its original size–including the balcony. I’d guess that it can sit about 1,000. There are some modern changes–the chairs are new and comfortable, with drink holders. Surround speakers line the wall (a lot of them). And, unfortunately, there’s no curtain.

But the Alameda is impressive before you get to the auditorium. The lobby is huge and sumptuous.

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While it mostly shows new films, the Alameda has a classic movie series that runs on Tuesday and Wednesday in the main theater. I’ve been mentioning their classics in the weekly newsletter for years, but until this Tuesday I had never attended one.

Before the film started, the head of the classics series, Cassady Toles–Host of the Alameda Classic Series–came out and talked about it. He mentioned other movies coming up, their Oscar party, and especially plugged Elevator to the Gallows (I’m happy to plug that one, too). He hawked the Classic Movie Passes–eight films for $44–and asked people not to pay full price. (I did, and it was only $8.) He asked trivia questions about the film before starting it.

Unfortunately, Warner Brothers hasn’t made Fort Apache available on DCP, so the Alameda had to make due with a Blu-ray. (The theater has one 35mm projector, but old films generally require two.) A really good Blu-ray would have been fine, but this one suffered from mediocre transfer, with a bit of a  video look. Chances are that if Warner did provide a DCP, it would be of the same transfer and with the same look.

There were other technical problems. The audio was slightly out of sync for the entire film. And in the film’s last minutes, everything just stopped. After a few seconds, everything came back on again, back where we left off. But this time, the aspect ratio was off, cropping off part of the image vertically.

Toles told me before the film that most of the classics are projected off DCPs. I imagine that these sorts of problems would be less likely in that situation.

There was a good-sized audience. After the movie, people stuck around a bit and talked about it.

Now then, about the movie itself:

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The first and best film in Ford’s accidental "Cavalry Trilogy" both romances the horse soldiers who cleared the West of its rightful inhabitants, and looks on in horror at the prejudice that made that crime possible. It’s a film about our mistreatment of Native Americans told entirely from a white perspective.

Henry Fonda plays the new commanding officer at the fort–extremely strict, close-minded and bigoted. He hate the Apaches, whom he views unworthy adversaries. He doesn’t seem to like much of anyone. He won’t allow his daughter (Shirley Temple, now in her late teens) to marry a young Lieutenant (John Agar) because the Lieutenant’s father is only a sergeant. John Wayne’s Captain York is the film’s liberal voice of reason.

Much of the film explores and celebrates life in the fort. It’s a full community, housing the wives and children of the soldiers, with its own rituals and celebrations. There’s warmth, love, humor, and good-natured kidding around. Fonda’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday seems to find all of this uncomfortable.

Our first encounter with the Apaches follows the worst of stereotypes. They’re murdering savages who need to be put down. Then we meet the trader who has been bilking them. York tries to explain to Thursday why the Apaches–or anyone who cared about their people–left the reservation. But Thursday is set on a military victory. His ambition and hatred of the Apaches sends him into battle. His contempt for these "breech-clothed savages" drives him, and his men, into a trap.

Much as Ford clearly condemns Thursday, he can’t quite condemn the military mind. The men, with little or no respect for Thursday, follow him into what they know will be their death. And Ford celebrates this. These soldiers are wonderful, in Ford’s view, because when told to march into a death trap by a commander who won’t see what they all know, they follow orders.

The ending, with Wayne’s York at a press conference, can be viewed many ways. I always think of Colin Powell at the UN, lying, hating himself for lying, but doing it anyway because he’s a soldier.

It’s playing again tonight (Wednesday), in case you’re looking for a classic to watch on the big screen.

Marriage and Murder Marathon: Watching five features Saturday at Noir City

I spent Saturday at the Castro for the penultimate day, and the longest day, of this year’s Noir City festival. Over the course of nearly 12 hours, the festival screened five feature films about crime, attempted crime, sex, attempted sex, and marriages both nurturing and homicidal.

The festival’s theme this year is "Til death do us part," and many of the films dealt with murder as a very consequential form of divorce.

I’m skipping the closing on Sunday. I just can’t take it anymore.

Matinee triple bill with the Stones

These Stones didn’t play rock and roll music, but they sure could build suspense.

I’m talking about Andrew and Virginia Stone, a filmmaking team whose work I was completely unfamiliar with until Saturday. Andrew wrote and directed movies in all sorts of genres from the late silent period to the early 70s. His wife, Virginia, cut the films and sometimes worked as an assistant director.

During the 1950s, they made several noirs. On Saturday I saw three of them.

The Steel Trap
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I think we need to recognize a sub-genre of noir: Truly Idiotic Criminals.

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, who played uncle and niece is Shadow of a Doubt, are man and wife this time around. He’s a bank employee who develops a complicated and essentially stupid plan to rob his own bank. To make things worse, he starts the ball rolling before he has all of the pieces in place. Then he tries to get himself and his wife (who doesn’t know what’s going on) to Brazil before anyone figures out that a million has gone missing from the bank. But because of his rush to get going, he has trouble getting passports and making plane connections.

The whole thing is reasonably entertaining and good fun. But I couldn’t really call it exceptional.

The film was projected digitally, probably off of a DCP. It looked fine.

Julie
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What a fun movie! And easily the best performance I’ve ever seen from Doris Day.

As befits my generation, I hit adolescence hating Doris Day. She represented all that was wholesome, virginal, and culturally conservative. The old joke was that, by playing a wife and mother in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, she risked ruining her image as a virgin.

She made Julie the same year, and her acting range is considerable. She’s not a mother this time around, but she’s a divorcee on her second husband.

Julie (Day) has serious marital problems. In fact, it soon becomes clear that she’s married to a psychopath (Louis Jourdan), and that she’s in line to be his next victim. She leaves home, he follows, and the chase is on. She gets very little help from the local cops and considerably more from a platonic male friend (Barry Sullivan). The climax puts her into a dangerous situation that I’ve seen in a handful of other movies. But outside of a comedy that played it for laughs, I’ve never seen done so well.

The 35mm print was a mess, scratched, torn, and jittery. The projectionist did a valiant job keeping it going–even if he had to stop it a couple of times.

Cry Terror!
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No, that title isn’t the new Republican Party campaign slogan. It’s an excellent crime thriller by the Stones.

An extortion plot that threatens to blow up airliners, a guilt-ridden father (James Mason) kidnapped along with his wife and young daughter, a brilliant criminal (Rod Steiger), and a serial rapist addicted to bennies (Neville Brand) all come together in this exciting tale.  Also in the cast: Inger Stevens as the kidnapped wife, and Angie Dickinson and Jack Klugman as members of the criminal plot.

I don’t want to tell you too much about this one. Even a traffic jam is suspenseful here. Edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

The 35mm print was excellent.

The evening show: Classic European Noir.

Last year, the theme was world Noir, highlighting dark and dangerous thrillers from other countries. Saturday night, this year’s festival returned to that theme, while also continuing to focus on marriage.

Both films were quite long compared to American noirs, with a total running time of over four hours. The show didn’t end until midnight.

Ossessione
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Did you know that Luchino Visconti made the first film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice back in 1943. MGM owned the film rights to the novel (their version would come out in ’46), but American copyrights didn’t hold a lot of sway in Italy during World War II.

You probably know the story: A drifter drifts into a small, roadside restaurant run by a mean-spirited, fat, disgusting slob and his beautiful but long-suffering wife. Once the drifter and wife get a good look at each other, looking isn’t good enough for either of them. Soon murder begins to look like the best solution to their predicament. But happiness proves elusive in their post-murder relationship.

Although it lacks the beautiful spender of, say, The Leopard, Ossessione still feels in many ways like a Visconte film. It’s slow, stately, and prefers people’s daily life to violence and suspense. It’s also very sexy, with two gorgeous stars (Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai) who can’t keep their hands off each other. This was before even the Italian cinema didn’t allow nudity, but the film doesn’t need it to feel hot.

The 35mm print was in good condition, but looked washed out, as if it came from a source quite far from the original negative. That’s hardly surprising. When a film was banned by Mussolini’s censors, the Catholic Church, and (after the war) MGM, you can’t expect it to be in mint condition.

Les Diabolique
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For the second film on the bill, we get something a little more fun from Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known for The Wages of Fear. Les Diabolique isn’t quite as suspenseful as that masterpiece, and lacks Wages’ political themes, but it is far creepier.

The wife and mistress of a truly despicable man plot together to murder him, and dispose of the body in a way that should make it look like an accident. Of course things don’t go as planned. But the real problems pop up when the body isn’t found where they left it. Then odd occurances suggest that the husband is still alive. But how could that be? They killed him!

The movie has one hell of twist ending–even though I guessed it a few minutes before the big reveal. But only a few minutes.

I had no complaints about the 35mm print.

Godard and Wilder: Friday Night at the Pacific Film Archive

What do Jean-Luc Godard and Billy Wilder have in common–aside from the obvious? The Pacific Film Archive is currently running series on both of them: Jean-Luc Godard: Expect Everything from Cinema and Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder. Friday night, the PFA screened one film from each series. This was not a double bill; each movie required a separate ticket, and the films didn’t really go together. As far as I know, I may have been the only audience member to attend both screenings.

The night started with Godard, and ended with Wilder.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero

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To be honest, I wouldn’t have bothered to see this film if I wasn’t also going to the Wilder one. I rarely enjoy–or get anything out of–a Godard film. But the last time I saw a Godard film at the PFA, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought maybe I’d be surprised again.

No surprise this time. Made for French television in 1991 (he was asked to make a film about solitude), Germany Year 90 Nine Zero is a dull meditation on all things German, made just after the wall was torn down. As Eddie Constantine wanders around the former East Germany, playing an out-of-work spy, multiple narrators talk about German artists, Communism, Nazis, the Holocaust, and whatever. News clips and shots of monuments fill the visuals. Much of what the narrators say, at least judging from the subtitles, sounds like an adolescent’s idea of profundity. A few juxtaposing images were clever, but that was about it.

The 35mm print was okay, but had seen better days.

Ace in the Hole

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Billy Wilder at his most misanthropic.

A once-great, now washed-up newspaper reporter–a man with a lot of talent and no scruples  –stumbles upon a big story: A man is trapped deep inside a cave, his legs pinned beneath rocks. The reporter (Kirk Douglas) makes the personal possible tragedy a national sensation. Huge crowds gather to camp out and watch the rescue. Politicians turn up. The whole thing becomes a county fair (the film was alternately titled The Big Carnival). The reporter, hoping to milk the story for as long as possible, pulls strings to delay the rescue.

I first saw Ace in the Hole on broadcast TV. That would have been in the late 1960s. It was broken up by commercials, and I was about 12. Friday night was my second experience.

It’s a pretty good melodrama, heavy its message–which feels very timely these days–and extremely bleak. The characters are all types, not people. The last act stretched my credibility. I enjoyed it, but it’s not one of Wilder’s best.

But it is one of his biggest. I don’t think I’ve seen a Billy Wilder film with so many crowd scenes. Of course, since it was set in the present (1951), Paramount didn’t have to spend much on costumes.

The PFA projected Ace in the Hole off a DCP. But it was a poor transfer that often looked more like video than film. Oddly, the opening credits were windowboxed (black bars on all four sides). This is common for transfers intended for TV, but I’d never seen it before for a theater-bound DCP.

And now, I’d like to discuss what bothered me about the final act. If you haven’t seen the movie, and object to spoilers, please stop reading now.

I mean it.

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Okay, everyone here willing to read about the ending?

As the story nears its end, the reporter grows a conscience, and tries to force the trapped man’s cold and bitter wife to wear a fur her husband bought her. The argument turns into a fight, and she stabs the reporter with scissors. As he bleeds to death, he drives to a church, picks up a priest, drives back, takes the priest down into the cave to give the trapped man last rites, returns from the cave, hops a makeshift elevator (a moderately impressive stunt done by Douglas himself)  to the top of the mountain, gives a speech, lets his sidekick drive him to town (which we’ve been told is a three-hour drive), goes back into the newspaper office, and manages to deliver a clever line before dropping dead.

As I said, the last act stretched my credibility.

Douglas Sirk Day at Noir City

On Sunday, the Noir City festival screened two potboilers from the late 40s, both directed by Douglas Sirk. Best remembered for his lush, Technicolor melodramas of the 1950’s, Sirk made a number of noirs before he broke into the big leagues.

Sleep, My Love
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Claudette Colbert wakes up on a train with no idea how she got there. She obviously has some serious mental problems. As the story unfolds, we discover a conspiracy devoted to creating and augmenting those problems. But who is in the conspiracy, and who really wants to help her? Can she trust Don Ameche, the husband who cares very deeply about her health, but possibly not in the way one would expect? Or Robert Cummings, the friend of a friend who just happens to fall into her life at a very convenient time.

Hint: The theme of this year’s Noir City festival is "’Til death do us part," with the emphasis on death.

Anyway, the plot is outrageous and ridiculous, but that didn’t block my enjoyment of the movie a bit. Sleep, My Love is funny, clever, intriguing, and suspenseful enough to let you ignore the many improbabilities.

There’s an interesting Chinese-American wedding sequence that balances on a thin line between being ahead of its time and embracing the usual stereotypes. This results in a nice running gag where the new bride and groom get stuck in the back of a car when they want to get to their hotel room. The groom, by the way, is played by Keye Luke, who played Charlie Chan‘s Number One Son in the 1930s.

The film was produced by Mary Pickford (yes, that Mary Pickford), some 15 years after she gave up acting. Of course it was released by United Artists, a company that Pickford co-founded in 1919 when she was a star, and of which she still was a major stock holder.

The festival screened yet another fantastic 35mm print from the UCLA archive. Although Noir City is calling this a 35mm restoration, the credits on print itself uses the less impressive word preservation. Considering how good it looks, I’m guessing that the source materials didn’t need a full restoration.

Shockproof
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What’s the longest sentence you can create with the  fewest words? "I do." With that joke, Eddie Mueller started his introduction to Shockproof, and reminded us that this year’s festival is about the darker side of marriage.

I was looking forward to this one. Samuel Fuller co-wrote the screenplay with Helen Deutsch. Until Sunday, I had never seen a movie written by Fuller but not directed by him.

I was disappointed. This potboiler about a parole officer who falls in love, and then marries one of his parolees, just wasn’t that interesting. The story was obvious, and the characters were clichés. As with Hitchcock’s Suspicion, the studio insisted on a more commercial ending, and as with Suspicion, that ending lets all the air out of the movie.

The bad ending doesn’t hurt as much as it did in Suspicion, but that’s only because this film didn’t have as far to fall. The first part of the film, where she moves into his house to take care of his saintly, blind mother, and he falls in love, is utterly ridiculous. His behavior is so unprofessional it’s illegal. In the third act, when they’re on the run, it’s just the same old same old–although I did like the gag where they stole a car with tin cans and a "Just Married" sign tied to the bumper.

The best thing about this movie: It’s only 79 minutes long.

Sony provided Noir City with a mostly excellent 35mm print. A few scenes looked like they came from warn-out sources.

Joan Fontaine, Poison, Marriage, and Murder: Saturday at Noir City

I spent Saturday at the Castro, where I caught two double bills in the Noir City festival. The theme this year is "’Til death do us part," examining the thin line between marriage and murder.

It was a lot of fun. 

All of the films were in 35mm, and for the most part were excellent prints. Ivy, the best of the four, also had the best print. In fact, it was one of the best 35mm prints of a 40’s movie I’ve seen in years.

The Matinee

The matinee double bill was a tribute to the actress Joan Fontaine. It started with her Oscar-winning performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, where she marries Cary Grant. In the second film, The Bigamist, she’s married Edmond O’Brien. As film historian Alan K. Rode pointed out in his introduction, that shows a major decline in star power over the 12 year’s between the films.

Suspicion
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Alfred Hitchcock’s third American film, and his first with a major studio (RKO) could have been one of his best. Fontaine plays a naive young woman who falls in love with a charming but untrustworthy gambling addict (Cary Grant). After their marriage, his petty thefts, his lies, and his manipulations get worse. And worse. Eventually, she begins to suspect that he murdered a friend, and is planning to murder her for the insurance.

In Hitchcock’s original ending (which was never filmed), she writes a letter to her mother, detailing her suspicions. After he murders her, he mails the letter. RKO objected. The company-approved ending is so lame, and so much of a letdown, that it sinks what could have been one of Hitchcock’s best.

The movie, released in 1941, is set in England. There’s no mention of war, and a supporting character actually goes to Paris on business. Not likely after September 1939. Perhaps the movie is set before the war, but it never explicitly says so.

 The Bigamist

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Of the four movies I saw Saturday, this was the only one not set in England (they were all shot in California). It’s also the only one where murder by poison–or any other form of murder–doesn’t play a part.

Edmond O’Brien plays the title character in this 1953 tale, although he only receives fourth billing. In San Francisco, he’s married to Fontaine. They run a business together, and are hoping to adopt a child.

In Los Angeles, he’s married to Ida Lupino (who also directed), and they have a baby. Most of the movie uses that classic noir device, the narrated flashback, to tell us how this came to be.

It’s a fun little pot-boiler. Odd for a noir, everyone here is trying to do the right thing. But that proves impossible, and the morality gets complicated and murky–as it should in noir.

The Evening Show

The second double feature centered on Edwardian London–noir with top hats instead of fedoras. And in each movie, the central character murders their spouse, with unpredictable results.

And the first film starred Joan Fontaine, linking this double bill to the matinee.

Ivy
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This was easily the best of the four movies I saw Saturday. After watching Fontaine as the naïve new bride and the happily-married businesswomen, it’s nice to know that she could do a great femme fatale.

As this 1947 story begins, Ivy (think poison) is married to a decent guy without much money. She has a lover on the side, but she wants to drop him. In fact, she wants to drop both of them; she’s looking for a richer husband.

She’s greedy and evil, but she’s also smart, quick thinking, and knockout gorgeous. She’s a genius at manipulating men. That makes murder, and framing an innocent bystander, relatively easy.

I won’t go into detail. Why spoil the fun?

The Suspect
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In the last movie of the day, a good man (Charles Laughton) is driven to murdering his dreadful wife–and every member of the audience sympathizes with him. His wife (Rosalind Ivan) is as despicable as a character can be without kicking a puppy. She’s hateful not only to her husband but to their grown son. He finds companionship with a much younger, much nicer, and much more intelligent woman (Ella Raines). Eventually, he’s pushed into a corner and he has no choice.

Of course, murder never goes smoothly in the world of classic noir.

But, from a good seat in a movie theater, it can sure be fun.

My top 12 movie-going experiences of 2014

As usual, I didn’t see anywhere near as many movies last year as I would have liked. But when it came time to make my list of best movie-going experiences, I had a tough time getting it down to 10. So I settled for 12. After all, what does the number of fingers I have have to do with it?

These are not my new films of 2014, but my favorite movie-going experiences. In choosing these awards, I consider the theater, the presentation, audience enthusiasm, live music, and Q&A with the filmmakers.

Of course I also consider the quality of the film itself. That’s why Interstellar didn’t make the grade, despite my seeing it in 70mm at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater.

As usual, the Castro, the Pacific Film Archive, and various film festivals fill this list. That’s where you find the best screenings in the Bay Area.

And so, without further ado, here are my top 12 movie-going experiences from 2014. Click on the film titles for my longer reports.

12: Paths of Glory & The Killing
Pacific Film Archive 
Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick
DCP

To my mind, Paths of Glory stands out as Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. This World War I tale of ruthless generals and the common foot soldiers shows the budding auteur at his best. The film he made just before it, The Killing, is a wonderful little noir; a classic heist thriller with a complex plan that goes horribly (and entertainingly) wrong.

The DCPs, supplied by Park Circus, looked great. 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.

11: Manos Sucias (Local Premiere)
Kabuki Theater 2
San Francisco International Film Festival
DCP
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One of the joys of international film festivals is the chance to catch a great movie you may never get to see again. In this thriller set in rural Colombia, two brothers, barely on speaking terms, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine down river on a boat. Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works in a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders.

The presentation didn’t seem promising at the beginning. The Kabuki’s Theater 2 is horribly small, and the festival was running late. But the excellence of the film itself, and the Q&A with the filmmakers ("I don’t recommend shooting on water") more than made up for these problems.

10: Too Late For Tears  & The Hitch-Hiker
Castro
Noir City
35mm
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Lizabeth Scott plays that paragon of mid-century American virtue, the housewife, in Too Late for Tears, but she plays her as a femme fatal-. Willing to do anything to hold onto an illegal fortune, she proves herself smarter and meaner than everyone else as she sinks into depravity and murder. The Hitch-Hiker is a quick, efficient thriller that’s simple, suspenseful, and based on a true story. Two men on a fishing vacation pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a psychotic killer wanted by the police.

Both films were shown in recently restored 35mm prints. Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation explained the problems in restoring Too Late for Tears, which admittedly suffered from uneven image quality. Shy of an expensive digital restoration, it’s not likely to look any better.

9: Duck Soup
Pacific Film Archive 
Funny Ha-Ha: American Comedy, 1930–1959
35mm
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The Marx Brothers at their purest and most perfect. What makes it so pure and perfect? First, it’s comedy stripped to the bone; there’s scarcely a minute without at least one good laugh. Second, the Brothers were always at their best when up against the stuffy, respectable protectors of the status quo, and the richest strain of that gold can be found in the halls of government. As the absolute ruler of Freedonia, Groucho Marx encourages graft, refuses to take anything seriously, and starts a war on a whim.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Duck Soup, but the day before this screening, it had been at least 30 years since I’d seen it theatrically. Watching this great comedy in a theater, with an enthusiastic audience, made it come back to life again. Over the years, I’d forgotten that even the name Rufus T. Firefly gets a laugh.

8: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Lark
Mill Valley Film Festival
4K DCP

Here’s an epic, sardonic, semi-comic western quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other. Meanwhile, the Civil War rages all around them.

MGM recently gave this classic a new, 4K restoration, which included the original mono soundtrack. it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get. A great audience as well, and my first visit to the Lark.

7: The Best Years of Our Lives
Castro
DCP
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There’s no better movie for Veteran’s Day. A huge commercial hit and the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1946, it’s now all but forgotten. That’s too bad, because Best Years is not only an excellent film, it also deals with an issue that’s unfortunately still with us–integrating war veterans back into civilian life.

This was my first chance seeing Best Years theatrically, and it was worth it. Before the film started, the Castro entertained us with a slideshow of coming attractions and music appropriate to the immediate postwar period. Then came the organ concert, followed by The Best Years of Our Lives. The digital transfer was mostly excellent, although a few scenes had clearly come from low-quality sources.

6: Wild (Local Premiere)
Sequoia
Mill Valley Film Festival
DCP
 
Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Flashbacks show us her struggling but loving mother, who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

Before the show began, we  were treated to Pixar’s new short, Lava, about a lonely volcano who finds love. Yes, the story is silly, but fun enough for a short. Then Festival Director of Programming Zoë Elton interviewed Laura Dern, who has a small but important role in the picture.

5: Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts
Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s Silent Autumn
35mm, with live music
  Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen personas were probably the dumbest reoccurring characters in the history of cinema. Stan appears incapable of having a thought or remembering an instruction. But Stan at least knows he’s dumb; Oli considers himself smart. Their comedy is extremely violent, but the slow, methodical, and absurd nature of that violence makes it enduring. The festival screened three of their two-reel silents–Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, and Big Business. All three were extremely vengeful and destructive–and extremely funny.

Donald Sosin accompanied these shorts on a grand piano. All three films opened with the MGM lion, and Sosin managed to recreate the roar musically. His lively music also  helped keep the laughs coming. The Festival screened archival prints from the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film Archive. Aside from some bad titles in Should Married Men Go Home?, they looked excellent.

4: Die Hard
Castro
DCP
image  What makes a great action movie? A strong plot, a likeable and sympathetic hero, a fun but scary villain, great fights, and the willingness to spend nearly half an hour on character development before the first violent act. NYC policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in LA hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia). She’s a rising executive; he’s a working-class cop. Then a dozen well-armed bad guys take over the building, kill a few people, then hold everyone hostage.

Die Hard was originally released in 70mm, but up until a couple of weeks ago, I had only seen it on Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. But between the big screen, the powerful sound system, the excellent DCP transfer, and the enthusiastic audience, it was a whole new experience. I used to give Die Hard an A. Now I give it an A+.

3: The Big Lebowski
Pacific Film Archive 
Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010
DCP
  As with Die Hard, I had never seen the Coen Brothers’ cult hit theatrically before 2014. But unlike Die Hard, I had never really appreciated it before. This comedy really needed the theatrical experience to come alive. Imagine a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t.

The well-packed audience made the film special, allowing me to discover that a film I thought was pretty good was actually pretty great. But the presentation had a very big flaw: an over-processed DCP. It looked like video, with film grain removed and everything smoothed over. Considering the quality of this transfer, I would rather have seen this movie in 35mm.

2: Boyhood (Local Premiere)
Castro
San Francisco International Film Festival
DCP
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Fifty years from now, people will still be watching Richard Linklater’s intimate epic–the best new film I saw in 2014. 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. 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.

The screening was the center of an event honoring Linklater, latest winner of the SFIFF’s Founder’s Directing Award. After a short clip reel of his work, the writer/director and actress Parker Posey (who isn’t in Boyhood but has worked with the director) came on stage for a Q&A. There was another Q&A after the film, but, unfortunately, I had to leave and missed that one.

1: The Gold Rush
Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s The Little Tramp at 100
DCP, with live music
Gold Rush

In this epic comic adventure, Chaplin’s tramp travels through the frozen Yukon of the Alaskan gold rush, gets marooned in a cabin with two much larger men, nearly starves to death, nearly gets eaten, and falls in love with a dancehall girl who scarcely knows he’s alive. This seemingly serious story contains some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe, the dance of the rolls, and my favorite–the fight over a rifle that always points at Chaplin. It’s not my favorite Chaplin feature–that would be City Lights, but it’s a close second.

This was unquestionably the best screening of The Gold Rush I’ve ever experienced. The digital image quality was uneven, but most of it looked very good, and none of it looked dreadful. Timothy Brock conducted the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in his adaptation of Chaplin’s score, adding some wonderful musically-created effects. And the large, enthusiastic audience made it even better.

Die Hard: Even Better on the Big Screen

Sunday afternoon, I finally saw Die Hard in a movie theater. And not just any movie theater, but the Castro. I’ve liked this movie for a long time. But between the big screen, the powerful sound system, and the enthusiastic audience, it was a whole new experience.

And a great experience. I used to give Die Hard an A. Now I give it an A+.

To begin with, it has one of the great action hero plots. Very evil people, who don’t care how many innocent bystanders they kill to achieve their goal, take over a location where they control who gets in and who gets out. Luckily, one man (always a man) is in that location but out of their control. He plays cat and mouse with the bad guys, killing them one at a time while avoiding being killed.

By now, that plot is a cliché. But Die Hard did it first, and more importantly, did it best.

The movie’s power comes from its willingness to build a situation before the action starts. For the first 25 minutes, Die Hard is a relationship drama. NYC policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in LA just before Christmas, hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia). She relocated to California, with their children, for her job. She’s a rising executive; he’s a working-class cop. His attempts to reconcile turn into arguments; he acts like a sexist pig, then regrets it the moment she leaves the room.

All this happens in the new, not-quite-finished skyscraper where she works.

Then a dozen well-armed, highly-trained bad guys take over the building, kill a few people, then hold everyone hostage. But not everyone. They missed McClane. Barefoot and initially armed with only a pistol, he has to do what he can to stop them and save the hostages–including his wife.

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Willis doesn’t play McClane as a superhero. He’s obviously very clever when cornered, but he’s clearly a regular guy in a horrible situation. He spends much of his time talking to himself, wondering how he got into this awful situation and why he just did something stupid.

He’s also, it’s quite clear, a very annoying person. But in this situation, he uses that character flaw to his advantage. He makes the bad guys angry, and when they’re angry, they make mistakes.

Much of the film’s pleasure comes from his discussions, via walkie talkie, with the chief bad guy. Alan Rickman plays one of the great, suave villains. He’s civilized, well-mannered, well-dressed, and witty. But he’s also a cold-blooded murderer. The hero and villain come to respect each other, and enjoy their talks, even though each wants desperately to kill the other.

But this is an action movie, not a drama. It’s filled with gunfire, explosions, and impressive stunts. These action scenes are as well-staged and as well-edited as any you can find. They keep the suspense and the adrenaline running throughout the movie.

They’re also, I should mention, very violent. Die Hard earns its R rating, and not for sex or nudity.

I missed Die Hard when it first came out, and saw it a few years later on Laserdisc. I rented it several times–both on Laserdisc and DVD. Then, when I was researching an article for PCWorld , 20th Century-Fox sent me the Die Hard box set, containing the original and the three sequels released as of that time.

But on Sunday, I finally got to see it properly. (Okay, it wasn’t a 70mm print, but it was a very good DCP, and aside from some soft scenes early on, I can’t complain.) When the screen fills most of your field of vision (I was in the third row), and you can’t hit a pause button, McClane’s sense of entrapment feels personal. After all, you can’t glance at the bookshelf or get up for food (at least not without missing something).

But the audience really made this screening special. Applause, laughs, and cheers turned the matinee into a group experience. You don’t get that feeling when you watch Die Hard in the living room.

The movie is so much fun that, even though I find more implausibility each time I see it, I don’t care.

If you doubt how good the basic story is, consider how many rip-offs we’ve seen since the original came out in 1988. We’ve had Speed, Under Siege, The Rock, Sudden Death, Air Force One, and last year’s White House Down. And those are just the ones I saw and liked.

Sequels are another story. The only really good one was Die Hard with a Vengeance, at least until it fell apart in the third act. The sequels to the rip-offs aren’t worth discussing.

But the original is one of the great action movies. And it’s much more fun in a theater.

The Castro screened Die Hard on a double bill with Scrouged. But other responsibilities (including writing this report) kept me for seeing the second feature.

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