A Wilder Weekend and the PFA

As part of its series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder, the Pacific Film Archive screened three of his films over the weekend. I caught them all.

Ninotchka

I was delighted to discover that this Ernst Lubitsch-directed comedy was part the Wilder series. We should celebrate Wilder the writer as much as Wilder the director. To my mind, the PFA pays far too little attention to screenwriters; I don’t believe they have ever done a series on a particular filmmaker noted primarily for writing scripts.

This was my first big-screen Ninotchka experience. I had seen the movie only once before, by myself, on Turner Classic Movies. This was a big improvement. The Saturday 6:30 screening was well attended, and the audience came ready to laugh. The PFA screened the film on what appeared to be an excellent 35mm print. I say "appeared" because the PFA’s website says it was a DCP. It sure looked like film to me.

Ninotchka had the misfortune of being out of date when it was released. This very funny political and romantic comedy is set mostly in the romanticized, city-of-lights version of Paris–a Paris that could only be created on an MGM sound stage. But by the time the film was released, France was at war with Germany, and there was nothing romantic about Paris. A prologue gets around this problem, assuring us that "This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm – and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”

Within two years of its release, the Soviet Union–the primary target of the film’s satire–would be our brave ally in the war against Hitler. The star, Greta Garbo, would also be a has-been by then. After Ninotchka, she made only one more movie.

Garbo plays the title character, a loyal Russian and even more loyal Communist, who comes to Paris to supervise three bumbling comrades representing Moscow in a jewelry sale (the jewels were confiscated from aristocrats). But once there, she meets a charming man (Melvyn Douglas). She’s also charmed by the luxuries of capitalism.

This was Garbo’s first comedy (the ads proclaimed "Garbo laughs!"), and she’s wonderful in it. She plays Ninotchka initially as a stereotyped, joyless, humorless ideologue, but she melts into a warm human being. And throughout it all, she displays the comic timing of a vaudeville veteran.

The movie is clearly anti-Communist (my favorite line:  “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”) But it also depicts the Russian aristocracy in exile as vain, shallow jerks with serious entitlement issues.

From my TCM viewing, I gave Ninotchka a B. Now I’m promoting that to B+.

Some Like It Hot

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Some Like it Hot, in 35mm, 16mm, broadcast TV, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. The last time I saw it theatrically–before this weekend–was a disappointing screening some years ago at the Cerrito, with a lukewarm audience and a 35mm print was looked like it had lost a fight with the shredder.

But Saturday night at the PFA, Some Like it Hot played as it should. The DCP looked crisp and clear, without sacrificing the film look. And the audience loved it. The laughter was consistent almost throughout.

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I’ve already written a Blu-ray review, so I won’t go into detail about the movie. I will say that it’s quite possibly my favorite non-silent comedy. Using a gangster situation to drive its men-in-drag plot, it mines deep belly laughs from gender roles and expectations. Two starving musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) witness a gangland massacre, then hide out from the mob by dressing up as women and joining an all-girl band. But the band’s lead singer is played by Marilyn Monroe, who tends to bring out their masculinity.

This was a great way to revisit a beloved and funny masterpiece, one that I gladly give an A+.

Btw, here’s an interesting coincidence about the two movies screened Saturday night: They both starred iconic leading ladies: Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. And each one was that star’s penultimate completed film.

The Apartment

I first saw The Apartment on a rented Laserdisc some twenty years ago. I’d seen it several times since, but always at home. Sunday night was my first time seeing it on the big screen.

I wrote about The Apartment extensively in my Blu-ray review, so I’ll summarize quickly: Deftly balancing comedy and dead-serious drama, Wilder examines the way powerful men exploit both women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. In order to gain traction in the rat race, he loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. Fred MacMurray plays the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane the woman he exploits and Lemmon loves.

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Seeing it with an audience is a treat. It doesn’t provide the steady rumble of laughs that Some Like it Hot generates. But the laughs come almost simultaneously with gasps of concern and horror. Wilder makes us laugh at sexism and exploitation, while reminding us that it’s not a laughing matter.

This may be Wilder’s only film with role models. Lemmon’s neighbors, a doctor and his wife, are sensible, kind, loving human beings. (They’re also, interestingly enough, unquestionably Jewish.) Their concern for others is never mocked.

The PFA screened The Apartment off a DCP. It looked fine, but not exceptional.

IndieFest Preview

I’ve managed to preview four films that will screen at next month’s IndieFest. Here’s what I thought of them, from "must see" to "must miss."

A Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla
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Imagine Milton from Office Space slowly turning into Travis Bickle. That’s pretty much what you get in this very black comedy from Australia. The main character has his own business–an ice cream truck–that brings him into contact with a lot of people. But he’s a very shy, lonely, and awkward man. He lives alone. He doesn’t have any real friends. He worships Clint Eastwood. He’s obsessed with a soap opera star. He spends most of his workday parked in a horrible location where he’s bullied by a very thuggish pimp. His cat just died, but he still puts food in the bowl every morning. He’s nearing a very dangerous boiling point. The humor drains away appropriately as darkness and violence takes over the movie. A remarkable, brutal, funny, and heartfelt little gem.

  • Roxie, Saturday, February 7, 7:15
  • Roxie, Tuesday, February 10, 9:30

B+ Beyond Clueless
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Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the teenage thrills, terrors, and transitions through the looking glass of high school movies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or parent a teenager. And certainly entertaining.

D- Jacky and the Kingdom of Women
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This French satire imagines a society of reverse sexism. The women are leaders and warriors. The men are sex objects and obedient husbands. It’s an effective way to highlight flaws in our culture, if not an original one (eight years ago I wrote and performed in a one-act play with the same theme). But two problems sink this attempt. First, the society in which it’s set–a combination of North Korea, the Islamic State, and horse worship–is too bizarre to make a satirical point about western society. There’s nothing to recognize. Second, it’s just not funny. My favorite moment was a chase; not because it made me laugh–it didn’t–but because it held the promise that the movie would soon be over. It didn’t even keep that promise.

D- For the Plasma
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Talk about a movie that doesn’t go anywhere. Two young women live in a house in rural, coastal Maine, where they’re supposed to check various cameras and sensors in the woods for early forest fires warnings. One of them has figured out a foolproof way to turn all this data into profitable stock market predictions. She’s getting checks for it, but she doesn’t seem to care. Neither does her companion. Neither did I. Both actresses are flat and dull. Almost nothing happens to them, and the few things that do don’t amount to anything. Even basic continuity is lacking; one scene ends with one woman locked in her bedroom and the other apparently unconscious in a ditch. In the next scene it’s as if nothing happened. I kept hoping it would turn into a slasher movie–and I don’t care much for slasher movies.

Disclaimer: When I viewed the movie, I noticed a mildly irritating visual stutter–as if one frame every second was repeated. I don’t know if this was a problem with the screener DVD or the movie itself. I decided to give the film the benefit of a doubt, which is why I gave it a D+ rather than an F.

  • Roxie, Sunday, February 8, 7:15
  • Roxie, Thursday, February 12, 7:15

Even More Upcoming Film Festivals

On Thursday, I told you about the upcoming Noir City and SF Sketchfest festivals. I also promised to tell you about some other upcoming festivals. Here they are:

Berlin & Beyond, January 29 – February 3

The Bay Area’s German language festival returns with a modest selection of movies from Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking part of Switzerland. In 2008, B&B ran for seven days at the Castro; this year, it only gets three. On the other hand, it will do a day each in Palo Alto and Berkeley.

It opens with To Life!, about a Jewish, suicidal cabaret singer who rediscovers the joys of life. It stars Hannelore Elsner, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the screening. Other films that look promising (I haven’t seen any of them) include Inbetween Worlds and the centerpiece, Exit Marrakech, both of which deal in very different ways with the middle east.

IndieFest, February 5 – 19

I’m never sure if I should count IndieFest has a genre festival, such as DocFest and Noir City, or as a general festival, such as Mill Valley and San Francisco International. If it’s a genre festival, the genre is independent film. But that’s pretty much all you’ll see at Mill Valley and SF International.

But then, the independent films at IndieFest are arguably more independent than those at the bigger festival. Besides, when you’re talking about independent cinema, it’s best to keep the categories fluid.

The festival opens with David Cross’ Hits, about a small town’s reaction to a city council video going viral. It closes with Jacky In the Kingdom of Women, a gender-bending satire that I’ve seen and cannot recommend (I’ll tell you more about it later). The films in between, most of which I hope are better than Jacky, include:

  • Uncertain Terms: A drama set in a home for pregnant teens
  • Sex and Broadcasting: A documentary about a small, independent, listener-supported radio station
  • For the Plasma: Security cameras in the woods can predict the stock market in this sci-fi comedy. Both the New Yorker and IndieWIRE listed For the Plasma in their Best Undistributed Films of 2014.
  • Beyond Clueless: A documentary about teen movies.

Oh, and there’s the now traditional Big Lebowski Party.

Mostly British Film Festival, February 12 – 19

The full schedule isn’t out yet for this selection of films from English-speaking countries not on the North American continent. Think of them as foreign films without subtitles.

The website currently tells us about six of the movies to be screened, without giving us dates. Out of those six, we have two romantic comedies(Standby and My Accomplice), a "quirky" comedy (Gold), a biopic called Winnie Mandela, a story about modern Australian aborigines (Charlie’s Country), and Jimmy’s Hall, a drama about Ireland in the 1920s.

Upcoming Film Festivals

The end-of-the-year film festival drought is coming to an end. New festivals are on the way. Here’s two that we can look forward to in the coming weeks:

Noir City, January 16 – 25

Film noir festivals have become a dime a dozen, but Eddie Mueller’s two-week wallow in the dark side of escapist cinema always stands out. Mueller has a way of finding the best noirs, both famous and unknown, and presenting them with flair.

This year’s festival will concentrate on "how the bonds of matrimony affect an array of characters—those who crave a perfect and permanent union, those who’ll stop at nothing to preserve it, and those who will do anything to escape it." I guess armed robbery, deceit, and murder can get in the way of a happy marriage. On the other hand, they can give a loving couple something to do together.

Noir City will screen an appropriate 13 programs; all of them double or triple bills. I’ve seen only three of the 27 movies, but I’m looking forward to making an acquaintance with more of them.

SF Sketchfest, January 22 – February 8

For years now, I’ve debated with myself about whether I should list San Francisco’s big comedy festival. After all, it’s primarily about standup, not movies. But it includes film events, and some of their non-film events happen in theaters I cover, so I figured I’d list them this year.

Films to be screened include But I’m A Cheerleader, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Groundhog Day, and a Princess Bride quote-along.Mystery Science Theater fans will likely enjoy Shouting at the Screen with Wyatt Cenac and Donwill and RiffTrax Night of the Shorts 5: A Good Day to Riff Hard.

Also coming up

Other upcoming festivals include Berlin & Beyond, IndieFest, and the Mostly British Film Festival. I’ll have more information on those soon.

December at the Castro

Have you seen the Castro’s Coming Soon page? Some interesting stuff coming up in December.

Regular readers know that I disapprove of all the brouhaha over Gone with the Wind’s 75th anniversary. I find it upsetting that a film so racist can be a beloved classic in the 21st century, with very little discussion of what the picture is saying. The Castro has joined the theaters screening this epic apology for slavery, but they did something interesting that I like. For December 28, they’ve put it on a double bill with Django Unchained. I don’t care much for Tarantino’s spaghetti western version of the old south,  but at least it’s on the side of freedom.

gone with django

On the other hand, since Gone with the Wind runs 238 minutes, it’s hard to imagine it on a double bill with anything. At 165 minutes, Django Unchained is hardly short, either. The total approaches seven hours.

I supposed they couldn’t get 12 Years a Slave, which is much better than Django, looks at slavery from a very real perspective, and is about half an hour shorter.

Also on the schedule:

  • December 9: An Evening with Jared Diamond. I loved Guns, Germs, and Steel, and liked Collapse a lot too. Should be an interesting talk.
  • December 12: Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I saw it when it was new, and loved it. Don’t know if I’d love it now. On a double bill with Ed Wood, which I also saw when it was new. I was disappointed in that one.
  • December 21: Die Hard. One of the best action flicks ever. I’ve seen it on Laserdisc and DVD, and own it on Blu-ray, but I’ve never seen it on the big screen. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to see this screening. On a double bill with Scrooged, which I understand isn’t very good.
  • December 22: It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, it’s corny, but it’s a wonderful movie.
  • December 26: Bogart Double bill. Two of his best and best known: Casablanca and The African Queen.
  • December 29: Two big, large-format roadshow musicals from the 1960s, My Fair Lady and The Music Man. I prefer Pygmalion without the songs, but I do like The Music Man.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part II

Since I wrote Part 1, I’ve managed to see three additional movies that will screen at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order of best to worst.

A Hide and Seek 
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Four young adults, two women and two men, move into a large and remote country house, intent on a life of self-discovery and sex. Mostly sex. That sounds like a wild fling, but everything is oddly planned and organized. For instance, they have a schedule defining who will sleep with who each night. Of course, things won’t stay that organized. For a drama and character study, Hide and Seek is unusually upbeat, and has surprisingly little dialog. Much goes unexplained–finances, for instance. And yet, through looks, gestures, and some well-chosen words, we come to know these four extremely well–and not only because we see a lot of them with their clothes off. A remarkable work, and a pretty explicit one.

  • Sequoia, Saturday October 4, 3:00
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 3:30

B- For Those About to Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela
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For the first two thirds of its 84-minute runtime, this is yet another music documentary woefully lacking in music. We watch and hear Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintera talk about their music and their struggles to get recognized. We learn how they developed their unique style–which I’d describe as instrumental, acoustic heavy metal with a Latin flare–in their native Mexico City, and how they found fame in Ireland. But you only hear the music itself in brief snatches, much of it as basic movie background music. You never hear a song all the way through, and get only quick glimpses of what makes these two worth being the subject of a documentary. But then, almost an hour into the movie, it becomes the concert film it should always have been, and thus becomes exciting and magical.

  • Rafael, Sunday, October 5, 8:00
  • Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15

C Tu Dors Nicole
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Like its main character, this low-key French-Canadian comedy/drama seems to make a point of going nowhere. That would be fine if it was already in an interesting place. The protagonist is a young woman sharing in her parent’s comfortable home (while they’re out of town) with her brother and his band. Early on, writer/director Stéphane Lafleur shows a nice touch for quiet, off-beat humor, with an awkward end to a one-night-stand and a 10-year-old boy with the baritone voice of a large man. But the humor dries up soon, and then there’s nothing left but characters who–aside from some occasional moments–are neither deep nor interesting.

  • Rafael, Friday, October 10, 3:45
  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 8:45

Kubrick in digital and on film

Digital or film? For cinephiles, that’s the great controversy of our age. And the arguments get particularly agitated when talking about classic pictures made at a time when digital projection wasn’t an option.

But in the coming weeks, you get your chance to watch two Stanley Kubrick classics on 35mm film, and then again on DCP–the digital format used for professional theater projection. The films are Dr. Strangelove and The Shining.

This Sunday, September 28, the Roxie will screen both films as a double bill. Then, as part of their ongoing series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick, the Pacific Film Archive will screen Dr. Strangelove on Sunday, October 4. On Friday, October 24, they’ll screen The Shining. Both pictures will be screened off DCPs.

What motivated their decisions?

PFA programmer Steve Seid told me that that when he requested the films from Warner Brothers, and "they said only Eyes Wide Shut was on film." In other words, he had no choice about The Shining.  I neglected to ask him about Strangelove, which is not owned by Warner.

And what about the Roxie? Seid, who’s on the Roxie board, told me that they don’t have the DCI-compliant projector needed for DCPs. The best they can do, digitally, is Blu-ray. That can look very good on a theater screen, but not as good as a 35mm print.

The Roxie double bill is in conjunction with the Spoke Art gallery, which is running a Kubrick tribute art show which, unfortunately, closes today. Art Spoke’s owner, Ken Harman, provided the prints for the Roxie. Harman told me that "The choice to go 35mm was mostly an aesthetic one, I’m by no means a ‘purist’ and appreciate DCP, however being able to view films in 35mm is getting more and more rare…"

Harmen did not tell me where he got the prints. Seid assumes "that the Roxie found either archival or private prints." In that case, those prints should really be a treat.

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