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.

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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.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are three movies that I’ve been able to preview for this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I’ve listed them in order of best to worst. There will be more to come.

A- Two Days, One Night

The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. But it never feels like a political tract. It feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 5:4
  • Rafael, Sunday, October 12, 2:00

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria
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A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous, but this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which slightly echoes play’s characters, but not enough (thankfully) to become an allegory. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 3, 8:45. Sold out. Rush tickets may be available at showtime.
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 1:00.

D Soul of a Banquet
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In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life. But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food. The biographical first third offers tantalizing hints at Chiang’s history and her importance in the development of Chinese-American cuisine, but Wang doesn’t give us enough information to prove his argument. The following two thirds is just food porn, with close-ups of succulent dishes being prepared, served, and eaten.

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival announced

The California Film Institute today announced the 37th annual Mill Valley Film Festival–which, as usual, doesn’t stay in Mill Valley. Major events will take place in San Rafael and Corte Madera.

This festival provides the Bay Area with our first look at this year’s Oscar bait. Consider this: For the last four years in a row, the Best Picture winner had its local premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That’s The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and 12 Year a Slave.

The festival runs in early October, from the 2nd to the 12th of that month. Those are problematic dates for practicing Jews like myself. Yom Kippur will make the first two full days of the festival impossible. It also interferes with the festival of Sukkot. But for most people, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Some highlights:

  • Following Mill Valley tradition, the festival will launch with two opening night films in different theaters. The Homesman is an "anti-western" written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Hilary Swank. The other opening night film, Men, Women and Children, has an ensemble cast and was directed by Jason Reitman.
  • Amongst the performers and filmmakers being celebrated with spotlights and honors are Eddie Redmayne (who plays a young Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything), Elle Fanning (although, in my opinion, a 16-year-old is a little young for a life achievement award), the talented documentarian and clip editor Chuck Workman, and the late Robin Williams (that event will be free, but tickets will still be required).
  • Classic movies will include The Empire Strikes Back and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Both of these will be screened at the Century Cinema Corte Madera, which has one of the largest screens in the Bay Area.
  • The Centerpiece film will be Mike Binder’s Black and White. It’s about race, not photography.
  • Technology and cinema come together in the Amazing 4K Film Showcase, a competition of short films shot in ultra-high definition. These will screen at the CinéArts@Sequoia, since the Rafael does not yet have 4K projection.
  • As always, the Festival offers selections of films built around a genre or theme. This year, they’re calling one such focus Humor – In the Jocular Vein (as I write this, that link is dead, but hopefully it won’t be for long). This will include What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire comedy from New Zealand, and the Croatian comedy Cowboys,
  • Only one picture, the Japanese drama The Little House, will be screened in 35mm. Everything else will be digital.
  • The festival will end with Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who will be in attendance. It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who made The Dallas Buyers Club.

As I write this, I’ve seen one new film screening at the festival, Two Days, One Night. I’ll tell you about it, and about other films I can preview, before the festival opens.

How I lost my love for Stanley Kubrick

45 years ago, when I was a teenager enthralled by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick was not only the greatest living filmmaker, but the greatest filmmaker of all time (I didn’t know much film history back then). Today, I see him as a flawed genius–a brilliant visual artist lacking the warmth and empathy needed to be a great auteur.

With a complete retrospective about to open at the Pacific Film Archive, it seemed like a good time to discuss his checkered career and my reactions to it..

The first Stanley Kubrick film I ever saw was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the title links in this article point to the webpages for the films’ upcoming PFA screenings). I must have been about ten, and I didn’t know it was a Stanley Kubrick film; I didn’t know what director was back then. I but liked this dark satire about the cold war and the fear of nuclear Armageddon very much. I still do. I discussed the movie in more detail last year.

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I was not quite 14 when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Warner Cinerama on Hollywood Blvd. On the huge, deeply-curved screen, it blew me away. I felt like I was in space. This was my first confrontation with film as a serious art form. I instantly became a ardent fan of Stanley Kubrick (and screenplay collaborator Arthur C. Clarke).

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But over the years, with each new long-awaited release, I lost my affection for Kubrick’s work. A Clockwork Orange was interesting, but flawed. Barry Lyndon was an unbearable bore. I didn’t bother to see The Shining, despite–or perhaps because–I loved Stephen King’s novel so much. The book worked because King made you care deeply about Jack and his family. By 1980, I had realized that Kubrick didn’t care, and didn’t want you to care, about any of his characters.

Sometimes, not caring about the characters helped the film. If we had cared about anyone in Strangelove, we wouldn’t have laughed. And the shallow, barely-emotional astronauts of 2001 suggested a dehumanized future.

Kubrick’s best work, in my opinion, came early in his career, before the coldness really took hold. His first Hollywood film, The Killing–easily one of his best–is cool, but not too cold. A brilliant noir about a complex robbery, it’s precise and distant, like much of Kubrick’s work. But the movie seems to like its ill-fated crooks, especially Sterling Hayden as the brains behind the heist.

His next, Paths of Glory, is to my mind his absolute best. A brilliant war and anti-war film, it shows not only the hell of battle but the corruption and heartlessness at the top. But now, for the first time, Kubrick had a really big star–Kirk Douglas. Douglas wasn’t about to play someone that the audience wouldn’t root for, and Kubrick had to alter his screenplay to make the star’s character more of a conventional movie hero. Yes, this was Hollywood commercialism, but in this case, it worked for the quality of the picture.

Kubrick’s other collaboration with Douglas, Spartacus, is easily his warmest work. It doesn’t feel at all like a Stanley Kubrick film. And that’s not surprising, because it really wasn’t one. It wasn’t Kubrick’s idea. He came in a week into production to replace a fired director. He had no say in the screenplay or the casting. At the risk of offending hardcore auteurists, Spartacus was directed by Stanley Kubrick, but it is not a Stanley Kubrick film. And frankly, I think it’s all the better for it.

In the late 1950s, Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant, young, promising filmmaker. But a decade later, he seemed to have lost his touch with humanity. He had become a photographer.

September at the Castro

Have you checked out the Castro‘s Coming Soon page? Here you’ll find the September schedule–sans links to more details. A few events worth noting:

  • The month begins with the end of a three-day run for Lawrence of Arabia, which should look wonderful with the Castro’s new 4K projector. August 30-September 1.
  • Not surprisingly, Robin Williams gets two double bills (the first two Sundays of the month, plus another mid-week appearance). The movies are Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, and The World According to Garp.
  • If…, a favorite from my youth, plays Wednesday, 9/10 on a double bill with The Chocolate War. I guess that works, but everyone who went to the movies in the 70s knows that If… belongs on a double bill with O Lucky Man, which is sort of a sequel.
  • The very next day, they’re screening the wonderful Dog Day Afternoon, with something called The Dog. Maybe they should bring in Rin Tin Tin.
  • Antonioni’s great study of pollution and madness, Red Desert, plays a double bill with Mickey One on Wednesday, September 24.
  • My favorite Samuel Fuller flick, Pickup on South Street, plays Sunday, 9/28, with Park Row and something called A Fuller Life.
  • Stepping into early October, we have Jaws 3-D. I’ve never seen it, and like all of the Jaws sequels, it has a horrible reputation. They shot it in 3D (very rare in those days) because back then calling a movie Title of a Past Hit 3 was considered a confession that it was a really lousy picture.
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