Sunday Classical Music Noir Citys

Sunday’s Noir City was all about classical musicians; dark, evil, down-and-dirty classical musicians.

Well, not quite.

Humoresque

Talent isn’t enough to make you a great musician. You need to work hard. You have to devote yourself to your art. And you have to sleep with Joan Crawford.

In Humoresque, John Garfield plays a brilliant young violinist from the streets of New York, trying to eke out a living. The promise of success, and then the reality, comes from a wealthy, extremely alcoholic matron of the arts (Crawford). She’s married, but that doesn’t stop her from making beautiful music with her handsome fiddler friend.

Garfield and Crawford were magnetic stars, and it’s fun to watch them spark. Crawford is the real standout, knocking back one drink after another and swinging to emotional extremes.

For a melodrama, Humoresque has a surprisingly strong collection of funny one liners (and yes, they’re intentional). Oscar Levant plays the sidekick pianist, and gets to say most of the wisecracks. “She was born with a silver flask in her mouth.”

And, of course, it’s filled with great music. Isaac Stern worked as a music advisor.

The story slows down in the last half hour, which is why I give it a B. Most of it would earn a B+.

But I can’t really call this movie film noir. There’s no crime, no violence, and no sense of an inherently amoral world. Yes, it’s in black and white and occasionally shows dark shadows. But that doesn’t make it noir.

The 35mm print was hit and miss. Some reels were in excellent conditions. Others were badly scratched. At one point, the film broke.

Deception

The other film on the double bill was definitely noir. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good a movie.

But the pre-show was great. First, we were treated by a very good violin solo. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the violinist’s name.

Then Eddie Muller took the stage with Monica Henreid, the daughter of one of the film’s stars, Paul Henreid. She talked about her father’s long friendship with co-star Betty Davis, and how the famous cigarette-lighting scene in Now Voyager came about (it was his wife’s idea).

She told about her father’s political troubles. Working in his native Austria in the 1930s, and he was blacklisted for refusing to sign with the National Socialist Actors Guild. He eventually went to England. But when the war started, he became an enemy alien and was blacklisted there. Then he came to America, and had a good career until the 50s, when he was blacklisted again.

Onto the movie:

Betty Davis plays a musician, although we never see her make music. She’s far too worried trying to hide her past from her brilliant cellist of a new husband (Henreid). He’s just come to the US after some horrible experiences under the Nazis, and he’s too emotionally unstable to deal with the fact that she has been the mistress of a famous and brilliant composer.

Luckily for the audience, that composer is played by Claude Rains. Without Rains’ wonderful scene stealing, this stage-bound talky melodrama would be unbearable. Davis is best when she’s tough, and she’s not tough here. And Henreid is best only when playing a calm but fearless revolutionary; he’s not the artist type

And the story is just too dumb. All she has to do is tell her husband that she’s not a virgin, and her problems would be over. But by the time she finally confesses, there’s been a murder (I told you this one really is a noir).

Thanks only to Claude Rains, Deception gets a C+.

The 35mm print was uneven, but not never got as bad as Humoresque.

Saturday at Noir City

I attended three of the four movies screened at Noir City Saturday. They didn’t all adhere to this year’s theme: The Art of Darkness (ie, dark films about artists). But they ranged from reasonably entertaining to absolutely brilliant.

But the movies themselves aren’t the festival’s only attraction. Many people dress up for Noir City, usually in 40’s style clothing. So, before we get to the movies, enjoy these pictures:

The Dark Corner

Saturday’s matinee wasn’t really about artists, but on those who feed on art: curators, critics, and most important, collectors.

And the first film, Dark Corner, barely touched on the subject, with one of the villains running a gallery. Not much is made of that. But since the movie was enjoyable, I let that pass.

This 1946 potboiler manages to be both a pretty good noir thriller, and a parody of the genre–still new in 1946. Mark Stevens plays the hard-boiled private dick to a way-over-the-top extreme. When he picks up two liquor bottles with one hand and pours their contents into one paper cup, you know it wasn’t meant to be serious.

Lucille Ball plays his secretary/romantic interest…another hint that this was meant to be played at least partly for laughs. And yet it’s an effective mystery/thriller.

I give it a B.

The festival screened The Dark Corner in a perfectly acceptable 35mm print.

Crack-Up

The second movie in the matinee wasn’t all that great. But it really was about art critics, curators, and collectors. And also about forgers and criminals.

An art museum employee has a nervous breakdown after surviving a horrible train wretch. But no trains have been wretched. Obviously, someone has been playing with his mind.

That shouldn’t be surprising. A lot of his co-workers don’t like him, because his lectures are too much oriented to regular people. He also wants the museum to invest in an X-ray machine, which can help them study how the great artists created their works. But there’s a little problem here: An X-ray machine can also identify a forgery.

It was modest fun. I give it a C.

Again, I have no complaints about the 35mm print.

The Bitter Stems

Few experiences are as exciting as going to see a movie you’ve never heard of and discovering a classic.

This Argentinian thriller from 1956 can hold its own amongst the best thrillers of the classic noir period. We know within minutes that the main character–not a hero in any sense of the word but the person through who we see the story–is planning to kill his business partner. We know enough about noir to know that he will do the dirty deed, and that everything after that will go horribly wrong.

A flashback fills us in. The soon-to-be-a-murderer starts out as a journalist, but not a particularly good one. He’s frustrated with his assignments and his pay. Then he meets a con man. The two go into business. Their business is profitable and not all that illegal, but not strictly honest, either.

No need to tell you the rest of the story. Better to enjoy it yourself. I give it an A.


This is one of the best-made noirs I’ve scene. The dark, shadowy photography has a moody subtlety the heightens the experience. And that was greatly enhanced by one of the best 35mm black and white prints I’ve seen in a long time.

According to Eddie Muller’s introduction, Saturday’s screening was the film’s North American premiere, and this is the first print of The Bitter Stems with English subtitles. Although it was revered in Argentina in its time, it has been all but lost. But the negative was recently found rotting in a basement, and it has now been restored.

I didn’t stay for the last film, Girl With Hyacinths. It was just too late for me.

Rear Window and Noir City Opening Night

Friday night I came the Castro for opening night of this year’s Noir City festival. They were screening one of my all-time favorites, Rear Window, along with the obscure Public Eye from 1992.

After grabbing my seat in the 3rd row, I went upstairs to the mezzanine, where I examined the bookstore table. The covers looked fun, but I didn’t buy anything. My backpack was heavy enough already.

This year’s Noir City theme is “The Art of Darkness”–noir stories about painters, writers, musicians, and other creative people who barely make a living from their passion. The opening night double bill focused on photographers.

It clearly wasn’t about clockmakers. The Festival scheduled the double bill in such a way as to guarantee running late. Rear Window was set to screen at 7:30, and Public Eye at 9:30. Rear Window is just five minutes short of two hours.

The festivities started soon after 7:30, with this year’s classical music-themed trailer. Then the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, took the stage, pointing out that our society is built on money, but our culture is built on art. He introduced the model for this year’s poster (sorry, but I didn’t get her name), and then talked a bit about Rear Window. The movie started at about 7:50.

I’ll be posting a full essay on Rear Window soon for my A+ List. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. A news photographer confined to a wheelchair and his small apartment (James Stewart) has taken to watching his neighbors to relieve boredom. Then he begins to suspect that one of those neighbors committed murder. The movie is thoughtful, funny, and entertaining. The suspense builds slowly to a point that’s almost unbearable. And it says some interesting things about how we live our lives in the modern city.

But I’m not sure it’s really film noir. Most of it is in bright colors, and the murder is dealt with as something strange and unusual, not the inevitable consequence of our sick world.

The Castro screened Rear Window digitally, probably from a DCP. And it was the sort of DCP that gives digital projection a bad name. The long shots were slightly fuzzy with dots that didn’t look quite like film grain. And the close-ups had that ultra-smooth, waxwork look you find in early digital transfers.

Rear Window is a great film to see with an audience. People laughed and gasped in all the right places. Unfortunately, there was a guy sitting behind me who also laughed in all the wrong places–including the death of a small dog. Very annoying.

The movie ended around 9:45–15 minutes after the second feature was set to begin. Ten minutes later, with no hint of the intermission ending, I decided to skip Public Eye and go home. I didn’t want to be up that late.

And besides, I had to finish this article.

Catching The Hateful Eight in 70mm

I’m not one of those cinephiles who sees the digital transition as the end of cinema. Far from it. I respect the practical and even the aesthetic advantages of shooting digitally. And as a general rule (there are exceptions), I rather see a movie projected off a DCP than a 35mm print–and that includes classics that were filmed before most people knew what the word digital meant.

But Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, is the best argument I’ve yet seen for sticking with physical film. Shot in the large and super-wide Ultra Panavision 70 format (the first film shot that way in almost 50 years), it looks outstanding when projected in 70mm. Not only do you see fine details rarely visible on a big screen, but those details have a hue that adds considerable emotional impact.

It helps greatly that this ambitious western is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown–maybe even his best since Pulp Fiction.

But it’s a shame that The Hateful Eight came out while Star Wars: The Force Awakens still controls every first-run theater in the world. My wife and I saw it Sunday at Oakland’s Grand Lake theater, the only place in the East Bay screening it in 70mm. But they couldn’t screen it in their really big, downstairs, main theater.

The Grand Lake’s main, downstairs auditorium, where they’re not screening The Hateful Eight

Instead they showed it upstairs in the former balcony. The screen is reasonably large, but not huge. But at least it has a curtain–a real necessity for a roadshow presentation.

Of course The Hateful Eight isn’t a real roadshow. If it was, it would play on only one screen per major metropolitan area, at high prices and with reserved seats. People in rural areas or looking for a discount would have to wait months–sometimes even years–to see it.

Tarantino has done quite a bit to make the 70mm version of The Hateful Eight feel like a roadshow. It starts with an overture. There’s an intermission, and an entr’acte (intermission music) to bring you back into the story. The movie runs a little over three hours.

This is not the sort of movie that got the roadshow treatment in the 1950s and 60s. It lacks spectacular sets, masses of extras, and historical sweep. Yes, there’s some beautiful outdoor scenery, and Ultra Panavision 70 captures it magnificently. But most of the film is set in a single, darkly-lit, one-room building. It is, to a large degree, a chamber drama.

Yet even that one dim set works better thanks to the greater detail and width created by Ultra Panavision 70. The flickering light from the various fires and oil lamps bring on an urgency that wouldn’t have been there in digital or 35mm. The lens can encompass several actors, at different distances from the camera, with full detail on each face. When cinematographer Robert Richardson shows us a close-up–usually of Samuel L. Jackson–we feel like we could swim in his eyes. And when you consider that he’s both a cold-hearted killer and the closest The Hateful Eight has to a hero, that’s pretty scary.

Jackson played one of two bounty hunters trying to get their catches to town so they can collect, but now trapped by a blizzard in a store and stagecoach stop in the middle of nowhere. Jackson’s catches are all dead–easier to ship them that way. But the other bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) is shipping living cargo–a notorious killer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (it’s so good to see her again, this time as a psychopath). Of course there are five other people trapped in that store, and pretty much everyone is trigger happy.

The film occasionally reminded me of my all-time favorite western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That film also had eight very different people thrown together in a difficult, pioneering situation. And as with Stagecoach, some of the people are still fighting the Civil War years after it was over.

But this is Tarantino, not Ford, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by telling you that the film eventually turns into a bloodbath. (Believe me, I’m holding back on some real spoilers, and there are plenty.) The over-the-top violence goes from shocking to gross to funny to disgusting to just barely skirting the edge of too much. Many people will consider it too much.

My biggest complaint: Part II contains some narration, spoken by Tarantino himself. His voice was flat and uninteresting. He should have hired a better narrator.

I’m giving The Hateful Eight an A, at least if you see it in 70mm. And yet I strongly suspect that it would look just as good in a 4K DCP. Let the 70mm print run three times a day for two weeks, and the DCP (which doesn’t wear out) will definitely look better.

Best Movie-going experiences of 2015

I don’t do the usual top ten list. Instead, as one year ends and another begins, I list my favorite movie-going experiences of the previous year.

What makes a great movie-going experience. A great movie helps a lot–but it isn’t entirely necessary. It’s a combination of the movie, the theater, the print, the projection, and even the audience.

An experience can include more than one trip to the movies, but usually doesn’t.

12: An entertainingly gruesome Halloween
Castro
35mm

On Halloween, my wife and i improvised costumes and headed for the Castro–not for the street party, but for the movies: a triple bill of Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Evil Dead. The show started with a hilarious selection of trailers–mostly of deservedly forgotten flicks. We skipped Massacre (I don’t care for it much) and enjoyed a very long intermission. The audience was rowdy and fun, and we ran into friends. Unfortunately, the print of Living Dead was badly battered.

11: Bridge of Spies
Corte Madera Century Cinema
Mill Valley Film Festival
DCP (probably 4K)

Not only did I get a chance to see Steven Spielberg’s complex and cerebral espionage drama with a festival audience, I also got to revisit an exceptional Bay Area theater I hadn’t been to in years. The Corte Madera is a rarity in today’s world: A single-screen first-run theater. But that single screen is one of the best in the Bay Area–huge and curved and perfect for immersive cinema. Wonderful movie, too.

10: Steve Jobs and a big opening night
Castro
San Francisco International Film Festival
DCP

This year’s big festival started with a bang. Documentarian Alex Gibney was on hand with his new film, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. After the screening (I gave the film an A), Gibney took the stage for questions and answers.

9: Noir triple bill with the Stones (no, not those Stones)
Castro
Noir City
35mm (I think)

The Noir City festival is always fun. But in 2015, the festival’s highlight were three thrillers made by Andrew and Virginia Stone, a filmmaking team whose work I was completely unfamiliar with until this screening. None of them were masterpieces, but they were all well-made and enjoyable. The usual Noir City audience helped with the enjoyment.

8: Apu Trilogy
Shattuck
DCP

I finally saw the Apu Trilogy this year, on three consecutive nights. It’s clearly one of the great masterpieces of cinema (or, arguably, three of the great masterpieces). And it has been beautifully reborn with one of the most impressive restorations in history. The original negatives were destroyed in a fire, but L’Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna physically restored much of the melted negatives to the point where they could be scanned.

7: Visages d’enfants
Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
DCP

I had never heard of this film before I read the festival program. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t know until it started that I was watching a masterpiece. Set in a small town high in the Alps, in what appears to be the last 19th century, Visages d’enfants follows the difficulties of what is now called a blended family–and–as is so often the case–it wasn’t blended very well. Beautiful restoration, and Stephen Horne‘s accompaniment–on piano, flute, and I’m not sure what else–just dazzled. Before the film, Serge Bromberg gave an informative and enjoyable introduction.

6: Inside Out
Grand Lake
3D DCP

Pixar’s animated adventure through the workings of the human brain can tell you a lot about how we humans behave, while remaining funny and entertaining for adults and kids alike. What’s more, the Grand Lake’s big Theater 1 is a great place to see 3D movies. By using two synchronized digital projectors, you get a smoother and brighter image.

5: Oklahoma!
Elmwood
DCP

The new digital restoration allows us to enjoy the movie as it was meant to be seen–and that hasn’t been available for decades. Yes, the plot is silly and some of the cowboy accents are terrible, but when you see Oklahoma! on the big screen, with an audience, you discover what a remarkable piece of entertainment it is. The songs are catchy, the jokes are funny, and Agnes DeMille’s choreography is amongst the best ever filmed. And the new digital restoration allows us to experience it in something similar to the original 30 frames-per-second Todd-AO.

4: Picadilly
Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival A Day of Silents
not sure how it was projected

The last silent film I saw theatrically this year was one I’d wanted to see for years. The Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong finally gets the great part she deserved in this British drama about dancing and sex in a London nightclub. Musicians Donald Sosin (on piano and Macintosh) and John Mader (on percussion) put together an often jazzy, occasionally Chinese score that always served the story.

3: Three-Strip Technicolor Projection Experiences
Pacific Film Archive
35mm archival print & 4K DCP

In July, quite by happenstance, I was able to compare the old and new ways to project a film shot in Technicolor’s three-strip process. The first, Jean Renior’s The River, was screened pretty much as the original audiences saw it–in a 35mm dye-transfer print manufactured in 1952. The second, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann, has been digitally restored and was digitally projected. Each was wonderful in its own way.

2: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Alamo Drafthouse New Mission
4K DCP
010216_0116_TheForceAwa2.jpgDirector J.J. Abrams understands Star Wars better than George Lucas. He’s developed a fun, exciting fantasy film with the energy and wit of the original, pre-alteration trilogy. And the New Mission’s huge screen, first-class projectors, and enthusiastic audience made this a great way to see this particular type of movie. But it was expensive.

1: Ian McKellen at the Mill Valley Film Festival
Rafael
Mill Valley Film Festival
live event

No movie here, aside from multiple clips which I suspect were run off a computer. Instead, we were treated to a talk, followed by Q&A, with the great British actor. He proved to be witty, open, honest, and knowledgeable about his craft.

The Force Awakens at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission

Thursday afternoon–the last afternoon of 2015–my wife and I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And we went out of our way to see it at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. It was our first experience seeing a movie there.

It was a lot of fun, but expensive.

I’ve already written about the New Mission–the restored movie house now run by Alamo Drafthouse. They offer gourmet food, a great variety of alcoholic beverages, comfortable seats, and the best projection (digital and film) available. Their main downstairs theater–the one we went to–has a huge screen.

Taken by author before the theater was ready to open

We arrived early and spent some time in the bar before moving to our reserved seats–front row center. Yes, we were very close to the screen. But for this type of movie, it was just perfect.

Soon after we sat down, our waiter came by, introduced himself, and took our order.

Like so many theaters today, there was a pre-show. But unlike most pre-shows, this one was movie-specific. Instead of annoying advertorials, we were treated to a selection of some of bizarre Star Wars-related videos. We watched Darth Vader dancing like Michael Jackson, with a chorus line of storm troopers behind him. The final short asked the question “What would Star Wars be like if wookiees sounded like Pee-Wee Herman. Then it brought tears of laughter by answering that question.

The real show began with this entertaining but serious warning:

(The version screened in the theater was appropriately censored.)

The food service continued through the movie, but with minimum distraction. Waiters and waitresses bend down when they walk in front of you. If you want to order something after the movie starts, you place a card vertically in a slot on your table. Someone will come over and get it, with no speaking required.

I had a cup of tea and a vegan pizza. The pizza was delicious; the tea was fine, but took an awful lot of time to get to me. My wife had a hamburger with fries. She didn’t think it was exceptional.

But here’s what was exceptional: The projection. The theater used two Sony top-of-the-line 4K digital projectors working together. We had opted to see the film in 2D (because the movie wasn’t actually shot in 3D), which meant that the two projectors were projecting the same image. Why? Brightness. It looked about as good as anything I’ve seen short of film-based Imax. The sound as excellent, as well.

We loved the movie. Director J.J. Abrams understands Star Wars far better than he ever understood Star Trek. In fact, he understands it better than George Lucas ever did. He knows that A Star Wars movie must be big and exciting, with mind-blowing action sequences and special effects. It also needs not-quite-believable, bigger-than-life characters and a simplistic view of good and evil. And he understands that, most important of all, Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s Tolkien-like fantasy with sci-fi hardware.

He got just about everything right.

Now the downside: If you’re not careful, going to the New Mission can cost a fortune. The seats were $13.25–and that was for a 2D matinee. The food and beverages were also expensive. My wife’s cocktail cost $14 (including tip). We spent $40 (including tip) for the burger, pizza, and tea; the tea alone cost $5. Including BART fare (we live in the East Bay), the total experience cost us almost $100.

But we went in assuming that this would be splurge. We could have seen it for less than $20 in a nearby theater. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun.

My Saturday: A whole lot of silent films at the Castro

I spent this Saturday at the Castro, where the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran a one-day festival called–appropriately enough–A Day of Silents. They showed five programs, each with live musical accompaniment.

The Black Pirate


The festival got off to a slow start due to technical problems. The first movie, The Black Pirate, started more than 20 minutes late due to audio issues with the Alloy Orchestra. The sound problems were still apparent for the first few minutes of the screening/performance.

Someone must have fixed something, since the problem disappeared, allowing us to enjoy the three-man “Orchestra” play their exciting and utterly appropriate score. They really caught the spirit of this silly entertainment. Producer, writer, and star Douglas Fairbanks plays a nobleman out to destroy the pirates responsible for his father’s death. He does so by joining their band, becoming their leader, leaping all over the place like a jackrabbit. It’s all good fun.

The Black Pirate is, I believe, only the second feature film shot entirely in Technicolor, and by far the most ambitious. In those days, Technicolor could only capture two of the three primary colors, but Fairbanks’ team did excellent work with this limited palette.

Around China With a Movie Camera


The only program at the festival that wasn’t a narrative feature, this collection of travelogue excerpts, home movies, and other actualities provided a glimpse of China from the beginning of motion pictures until the late 1940s. For the most part fascinating, it showed us the different races and ethnicities of the people we westerners tend to lump together as “Chinese.” It shows us a China seemingly untouched by western forces, and a China overwhelmed by them. The clips were arranged geographically, not chronologically.

This particular collection was put together by the British Film Institute. New intertitles introduced each section, saying where, when and by who they were shot–except for when the authors of these titles had to admit that they didn’t know.

Donald Sosan gave his usual excellent but not distracting accompaniment on piano and Macintosh. (Yes, you read that properly. He uses the Mac for synthesizing other instruments. )

The Grim Game


This Harry Houdini vehicle just may have the silliest plot of any melodrama I have ever seen (not counting science fiction or fantasy). The hero, an ace reporter, frames himself for murder as part of a scheme to save his paper–and then confides his plan with three evil men.

But the story is just a vehicle for showing off Houdini’s acrobatics and escape artist skills in one scene after another. And on that level, it was fun.

I could see why Houdini, one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th century, never really made it big in movies. His acting range is limited, and he lacks onscreen charisma. From what I’ve read, he had considerable charisma in live performances, and women swooned over him.

Donald Sosan did his usual excellent accompaniment.

The Inhuman Woman


And I thought the Germans were the cinematic impressionists of the 1920s. This French film is so over-the-top impressionistic that it makes Caligari feel like a documentary.

The plot revolves around a famous and heartless singer/femme fatale. Men seem willing to kill or die for her, although she struck me as someone I wouldn’t want sitting next to me at a dinner party. The movie is really about the wild imagery, from servants wearing baby-face masks to the sharp angles of the décor. But while the images were amazing, I found it hard to get emotionally involved with the story. Since the movie ran over two hours, that became a serious problem.

But two things saved The Inhuman Woman for me:

1) The Alloy Orchestra’s score was just amazing. Alloy excels when working with expressionism, and they took to The Inhuman Woman like like a cat to salmon. For much of the film, I enjoyed the images primarily as an accompaniment to the music.

2) The climax, which clearly inspired James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, was exciting and thrilling.

Picadilly


The day ended with the best film in the bunch.

Anna May Wong gives a great performance in this British drama about dancing and sex in a London nightclub. She plays a scullery maid who becomes a successful exotic (i.e., Chinese) dancer after sleeping with her boss (she deserves the job for her dancing talent, too). Since the club’s leading dancer is also the boss’ lover, and Wong’s character has a boyfriend, the story becomes not so much a love triangle as a love rectangle.

It’s sad that the American Wong had to go to England to play a character who wasn’t an Oriental stereotype. But it’s wonderful that she got this chance to play a fully fleshed-out human being in this complex tragedy.

A silent film set in a nightclub, with a lot of dancing, poses special challenges for musical accompanists. And musicians Donald Sosin (on piano and Macintosh) and John Mader (on percussion) were more than ready for the challenge. Their score was often jazzy, appropriately Chinese, and always served the story.

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