Coming in December: Day of Silents & Alamo Drafthouse

It’s a little early to write about December, but here are two events I want to tell you about right away. In fact, I wanted to tell you about them weeks ago, but I was too busy.

A Day of Silents

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will run a one-day festival at the Castro on Saturday, December 5. As one would expect, it’s going to be a very long day…but probably a fun one.

I’ve only seen one of the five programs scheduled: Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (11:00am). Fairbanks was the top action hero of his day, and also an auteur who wrote and produced (but didn’t direct) his movies. This swashbuckler isn’t his best movie, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In his only pirate movie, Fairbanks plays a nobleman who joins a band of scurvy buccaneers in order to take them down in revenge for his father’s death. The movie contains one of Fairbanks most spectacular stunts–and yes, he did it, himself. Fairbanks sticks his knife into the top of a sail and slides down, holding onto only the a knife. Of course there were a lot of behind-the-scenes tricks to make it safer than it appears, but it was still dangerous and looks amazing. The stunt was ineptly recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

This was Fairbank’s only color movie, shot in two-color Technicolor. To my knowledge, it’s the first feature shot entirely in Technicolor that wasn’t financed and produced by the Technicolor company. For decades, The Black Pirate was available only in black-and-white; the color was restored in the 1990s. This will be my first chance to see it in color on the big screen.

The Alloy Orchestra will provide the musical accompaniment.

It will be followed by:

  • Around China with a Movie Camera
    (1:00): A selection of newsreels and travelogues shot in China. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Grim Game
    (3:00): A melodrama staring the famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Inhuman Woman (6:30): Can one make a good silent film around a singer? We’ll find out with this French film, which the Festival describes as a “fantasy.” Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
  • Piccadilly (9:15): I seldom stay for the last film of the night at the Silent Film Festival, but I just might with this one. The always-amazing Anna May Wong plays a scullery maid turned dancer in this British film. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

Alamo Drafthouse at the New Mission

Movie lovers in Texas, New York, and other locations have enjoyed Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas for years. Now it’s our turn.

The Alamo Drafthouse company has restored The New Mission Theater (in the Mission, of course), and it will open December 17 with the new Star Wars movie.

I’ve yet to attend a Drafthouse theater, but the company’s reputation for good beer, good food (meals as well as snacks), and good projection seems promising. They screen mostly new movies, with some classics–often of the camp variety.

Judging from some of the photos on their Facebook page, The New Mission looks spectacular. And even though they have chopped it up into a multiplex, They’ve kept enough of the original to have one spectacular auditorium.

Or, at least, that’s what the photographs have led me to believe.

I’ve added the New Mission to the list of theaters this blog covers.

The Stanford and Castro in November

The Fox Film Corporation played a major role in Hollywood from 1915 through 1935. During those two decades, it turned John Ford into an A-list director, brought F. W. Murnau to America, and followed Warner Brothers closely into the sound era–investing in what proved to be the better and longer-lasting technology.

But the depression hit Fox hard. By 1935, the company eagerly accepted a merger with a far more successful new kid on the block: Twentieth Century Pictures. The birth of 20th Century-Fox spelled the end of Fox Film.

Through six weeks in November and December, the Stanford will screen 18 double bills made by Fox before the merger. Sundays will be devoted to silent movies, most of them accompanied by Dennis James on the Stanford’s Wurlitzer organ.

Some highlights:

  • 11/22: John Ford’s first big-budget western, The Iron Horse is a trite but entertaining melodrama. I’ve heard James accompany this movie–using the original score–and enjoyed it considerably. On a double bill with Upstream.
  • 11/27: I’ve never seen The Power and the Glory, but I know its reputation. It’s Preston Sturges’ first produced screenplay, with a story structure that influenced Citizen Kane. On a double bill with Cavalcade.
  • 11/29: F. W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise, is a rarely-seen masterpiece. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Four Sons.

The Castro also has some interesting movies coming up:

  • 11/8:
    Fantasia is coming to the big screen for the first time in years.
  • 11/14: Apocalypse Now is out in a new 4K restoration. The Castro is listing its length at 153 minutes, which means it’s the original cut–much better than the longer Redux version.
  • 11/15: Great 1950’s international cinema in alphabetical order? What else can you call a double bill of The Seven Samurai
    and The Seventh Seal. I guess that totals to 14 counts of greatness.
  • 11/22:
    Goodfellas–always a great film.
  • 11/27-29: Of course, the Sing-a-Long Sound of Music. This must be very profitable for the theatre.
  • Throughout the month: Last but very much not least, the Castro will screen Wim Wenders double bills every Monday in November.

Big, roadshow musical movies coming to the Bay Area

A particular kind of movie musical will soon get a lot of exposure in the Bay Area–the large-format roadshow musicals of the 1950s and ’60s. These were almost always close adaptations of popular Broadway stage musicals. They were often shot and projected in large, high-definition, film formats such as Todd-AO or Super Panavision 70. And they opened as what the industry called roadshows–playing in one large theater per major city, with expensive tickets, reserved seats, and an intermission.

In my opinion, not one of these films stands up against such great musicals as Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, The Band Wagon, and A Hard Day’s Night. But they have their pleasures. Besides, I have a fascination with the large-format roadshow movies of that period–even the bad ones.

The Stanford devotes the next five weeks to these musicals in their Rodgers and Hammerstein series. Every weekend through November 8, they will screen a large-format roadshow adaptation of an R&H stage musical. They start this weekend with the show that set the template for roadshow musicals: Oklahoma!. In fact, as the first film shot in Todd-AO, it set the template for all of the large-format roadshows–even ones like Ben-Hur where no one broke out into song.

The Stanford series will close four weeks later with the biggest commercial success of the genre, The Sound of Music.

The Stanford press release trumpets that the films will all be shown “in glorious 35mm!” That’s an odd brag since 35mm is a considerable step down from the way most of these films were shot and screened. I’m probably going to get people angry here, but a good DCP transfer can better simulate the glories of Todd-AO than can a 35mm print.

The other theaters will screen these movies digitally off of DCPs.

My Fair Lady, which was not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, will be screened in at least four Bay Area theaters this month:

  • The Alameda will screen it next week on October 13 and 14.
  • The Castro has it on Sunday, October 18, on a very strange double bill with Steve Martin’s The Jerk.
  • The Elmwood will also screen it on 18th, and again on the 19th.
  • Finally, the Cerrito will have a special, 10:00am screening on Saturday, October 24.

The Cerrito and Elmwood will also screen Oklahoma! in November. The Elwood on November 1 and 2. The Cerrito on Saturday, November 7, again at 10:00am.

But the version of Oklahoma! at
the Elmwood and the Cerrito will not be the same as the one now playing at the Stanford. Early Todd-AO was shot and projected at 30 frames per second, rather than the standard 24fps, making it impossible to screen in all but a few theaters. So the film was shot twice: in 30fps Todd-AO for the 70mm roadshow, and in plain old, 35mm, 24fps CinemaScope for the eventual wide release.

I’ve only seen the Oklahoma! movie on Laserdisc (I’ve also seen the live show), and it was transferred from the 35mm version. From what I’ve read, the performances are considerably different.

Since the Stanford will screen Oklahoma! in 35mm, it will be the CinemaScope version. But the Cerrito and Elmwood will screen DCPs from the recent digital restoration, made from the Todd-AO negative. Digital projection can handle 30fps just fine.

I’m looking forward to catching that one…and maybe My Fair Lady, as well.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

I’ve screened five films that will play at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, from best to still pretty good.

A Here Is Harold

This very dark Norwegian comedy touches on issues of age, senility, parent/child relationships, big box stores and their effect on local businesses, and whether it’s wise to kidnap a wealthy capitalist when you have no idea what you’re doing. Harold (Bjørn Sundquist) loses everything when IKEA opens a monstrosity across the street from his 40-year-old furniture store, so he sets out to kidnap IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad (Björn Granath) and force him to confess that his products are badly-made junk. This is not a laugh-a-minute comedy, but the laughs that come are deep and satisfying, with a strong sense of the absurd. I may never listen to popping bubble wrap again without laughing. The big question: How did the filmmakers get IKEA and and the real Kamprad to cooperate?

  • Rafael, Sunday, October 11, 1:00
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 13, 8:30
  • Rafael, Thursday, October 15, 12:15

A- Dheepan

This story of Sri Lankan refugees resettling in France feels like two excellent films that don’t quite fit together. The main film is a social drama about three strangers pretending to be family while adjusting to Western civilization. In addition to learning a new language and surviving financially at the very lowest rung of the economic ladder, they must fake or create real relationships. The other film, which dominates the final act, is a well-made, effective, and extremely violent crime thriller. I loved Dheepan; but I would have loved it more without the big action finish.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 17, 5:30; Sold out; rush tickets may be available
  • Rafael, Sunday, October 18, 5:30; Sold out; rush tickets may be available
  • This film will likely receive a theatrical release after the festival

B+ Hitchcock/Truffaut

This is the movie version of a book about making movies. In the early 60s, François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock and together they created one of the great books on filmmaking. Now documentarian Kent Jones has turned that book into a film. He rightly focuses on cinematic technique as he explains the creation of the book and what it taught filmmakers. Top directors, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese talk onscreen about Hitchcock’s work–how he used camera placement, editing, and other tools of the filmmaker’s art. I enjoyed the movie very much, but I’m biased.

  • Lark, Thursday, October 15, 8:00
  • Rafael, Saturday, October 17, 3:15; Sold out; rush tickets may be available
  • This film will likely receive a theatrical release after the festival

B Sacred Blood

Yet another hip vampire movie filled with punk music, stylish visuals, mortals who deserve to die, and bloodsucker angst. Circus manager Natia gets bitten by a vampire dog and joins the undead. She gets lessons from a more experienced vampire, befriends an innocent young man, and has no trouble cleaning human scum off the streets of San Francisco. The movie is quite often wonderful , especially when it goes way over the top. But the story is predictable and some of the acting is unpardonably bad.

B- 45 Years

Andrew Haigh’s very British chamber drama about an aged married couple approaching their 45th anniversary sticks to a calm and even tone. That’s both its strength and its weakness. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay give excellent performances, and we can’t help sympathizing with their characters. But the movie suffers from an emotional monotone that gets dull after a while. The conflict, about a girlfriend of the husband’s who died years before he met his wife, feels a bit like a tempest in a teapot. But perhaps the wife’s deep insecurity is the point.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 9, 5:30
  • Rafael, Monday, October 12, 2:30
  • This film will likely receive a theatrical release after the festival

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival announced

Tuesday evening, the California Film Institute officially announced the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival. This is one of the two really big film festivals in the Bay Area (the other being the San Francisco International Film Festival). Because of the late summer/early fall dates, Mill Valley tends to get a lot of the better Indiewood films likely to be major Oscar contenders. In fact, for the last five years in a row, the Best Picture winner had its Bay Area premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

This year’s festival will run from Thursday, October 8 to Sunday, October 18. It will screen 107 feature films and 76 shorts on 13 different screens around Marin County (to my knowledge, only two screens will be in Mill Valley). Over 300 filmmakers will be in attendance.

A few promising screenings ,events, and series:

  • As is MVFF’s custom, the festival will open with two premieres: Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl
    (with Eddie Redmayne as transgender painter Lili Elbe) and Spotlight, about The Boston Globe uncovering child molestation in the Catholic Church.
  • Aretha Franklin is keeping the documentary Amazing Grace out of circulation, so the Festival will screen Mavis!, instead.
  • Amongst the panels I’m most eager to catch (which doesn’t mean I’ll be able to catch either of them) are The Future of Film Technology
    and The State of the Industry.
  • If you’re a fan of Green Day, you may want to catch the world premiere of Heart Like a Hand Grenade, a documentary about the making of the album American Idiot. This is the only festival that will screen this film.
  • A number of documentaries will cover every cinephile’s favorite subject: movies. These include Hitchcock/Truffaut, Ingrid Bergman—In Her Own Words, and Women He’s Undressed, about costume designer Orry-Kelly. (Interesting overlap here. Bergman worked with Kelly in Casablanca and with Hitchcock in four films, including Notorious.)
  • There’s even a Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies–co-written by the Coen Brothers..
  • The Spotlight program will be I Smile Back, a drama starring Sarah Silverman. The Festival is describing this as a “groundbreaking departure from her comedic roots,” but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. She played a serious, dramatic supporting role in Take This Waltz, and didn’t do so well in it (at least in my opinion).
  • The Centerpiece screening will be Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia.
  • The great documentarian Marcel Ophuls will be honored with a screening of his new autobiographical doc, Ain’t Misbehavin’. The festival will also screen his four-hour, 1969 masterpiece, The Sorrow and the Pity.
    This will be one of two films screened off actual film.
  • Movies from the Middle East include Mardan, a crime thriller from Iraqi Kurdistan, and Tikkun, which is not about Michael Lerner’s magazine. According to Executive Director Mark Fishkin, this Israeli film “will be controversial. It’s an art film by every definition.” He promises that this story set in an ultra-orthodox community contains full-frontal male and female nudity, and necrophilia. “I think it’s a small masterpiece.”
  • As a last-minute addition, the festival will present a tribute to Ian McKellen. Details, and even a date and URL, will come later.
  • The Festival closes with Suffragette
    (about Britain’s struggle for voting rights). The cast includes Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep.

The Festival’s Twitter hashtag is #mvff38.

September Preview

A few things to look forward to next month:

  • After a summer recess, the Alameda relaunches its Classic Movie Series on the 15th with the Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii, which I vaguely remember seeing as a kid. My memories of the other two films–Three Days of the Condor and The Seven Year Itch–are also vague.
  • The Balboa‘s Thursday classic series will cover Hollywood in the 60s with four well-chosen films: The Apartment, To Kill a Mockingbird, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Midnight Cowboy. They’re
    also screening heist films every Tuesday throughout the month.
  • The Castro has a lot of good stuff, of course, including Nashville (9/17), Lawrence of Arabia (9/18-20), Midnight Cowboy (9/24), and a double bill of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Sorcerer (9/27).
  • The Castro will also do an all-day Vittorio De Sica series on 9/26. Oddly, it’s skipping his Neorealism masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief.
  • After a summer hiatus, the Cerrito restarts its Classics series with Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.
  • The I Wake Up Dreaming series of very dark noirs will play in Berkeley’s California Theater Wednesdays throughout the month. I’ll be able to see noir on the big screen without crossing the bay!

Finally, I want to clear up some confusion concerning two documentaries on the same subject. This year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented a doc called The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. It focused on Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who built a successful Israeli movie studio, moved to Los Angeles, churned out low-budget action flicks at record speed, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse.

I screened that documentary before the Festival, enjoyed it moderately well, and gave it a B.

So I was surprised a few weeks ago to discover that a documentary about Cannon Films called Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films would be coming out in September. Had a new distributor changed the name?

No. It’s actually another documentary. According to this blog post by George Rother, “Neither Golan nor Globus participated in Electric Boogaloo. True to old form, they immediately set about making their own documentary, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. It beat Electric Boogaloo
into theaters by three months. I can’t think of a more appropriate swan song for Golan, ” who died earlier this month.

Manos Sucias: Not-to-be-missed thriller coming to the Roxie

A Political and social thriller

Written by Alan Blanco    & Josef Kubota Wladyka
Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka

I loved Manos Sucias when I saw it at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. But it had no American distributor, and I assumed that neither I nor anyone else in the Bay Area would ever see it again.

So I was delighted to discover that it’s getting a two-day run August 7 and 8 at the Roxie. The following comes from my first write-up of Manos Sucias, just after I had seen it:

First-time director Josef Kubota Wladyka uses the thriller formula to examine the society of rural Colombia, where paramilitary forces and ruthless drug cartels control everything. And yet, somehow, people carry on, loving their families and trying to make the best of things.

Two brothers, barely on speaking terms at first, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine. The coke is contained within a large, old torpedo, and they must tow it, via a small motorboat, down river, into the ocean, and up to Panama. The container looks absurd, but it stays underwater and is rarely visible.

Older brother Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) is stable, but hurting. The warlords killed his wife and son. Younger brother Delio (Cristian Advincula) is full of enthusiasm and hope. He’s only 19, a new father enthusiastically in love with his girlfriend and baby. He’s also an aspiring rapper.

It’s the end of them if they’re caught by the police. But things will be far worse if they don’t deliver all of their shipment. In that case, Delio’s family will be killed, as well. The suspense is built into the story, and the last half hour is as harrowing as these things go. The ending is not comforting.

But 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. We see how people live, earn money, and survive. And even how they find happiness while living in conditions that seem horrifying to those of us in more wealthy and comfortable places.

Manos Sucias was one of my top movie-going experiences of 2014. Try to make it one of your best for 2015.


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