Summer Season at the Pacific Film Archive

You may have noticed that the Pacific Film Archive is currently closed. No big deal; it always closes for a few weeks in May and June. It will open again on June 11.

But not for long. August 2 will be the last screening in the current PFA theater. When it reopens, hopefully early next year, it will be in the new location just west of the campus.

So what will screen in those scant 52 days? Quite a bit. Here are the upcoming series:

Thanks to Henri Langlois: A Centennial Tribute
This series honors the late, great archivist and cofounder of La Cinémathèque française, screening films that would no longer exist without his dedication. Ernst Lubitsch’ 1924 Forbidden Paradise, Early Films by Abel Gance, Tod Browning’s Lon Chaney vehicle, The Unknown, and two Erich von Stroheim features: Foolish Wives and Queen Kelly.

A Theater Near You
The PFA’s traditional series for films that don’t fit into any of their series. This time around, it includes Hiroshima mon amour, the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens, and the new restoration of Powell/Pressburger collaboration The Tales of Hoffmann (screening on my birthday).

Sunday Funnies: Laurel & Hardy and W. C. Fields

Can’t get much wrong here, although I wish the series included some silents. And while I realize that I’m in the minority here, I don’t put Way Out West amongst L&H’s best features. I would have picked Sons of the Desert or Blockheads.

The Phantom Foe
How do you present a a 15-chapter, silent, 1920 serial at a film archive? The PFA will screen this “proto-feminist masterpiece of terror and tension” on three Sunday evenings–five chapters each. All will be archival prints; with Judith Rosenberg on piano.

Melodrama Master: John M. Stahl

I’m not very familiar with this director, and the only film on this program that I’ve seen is the Technicolor noir, Leave Her to Heaven. But I liked that one.

The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky
I’ve been telling myself that I need a serious dive into Tarkovsky. This is my chance.

New Video Art from India
This isn’t really a series, but a single screening of shorts.

An Open Window: Víctor Erice
This Spanish director, best known for The Spirit of the Beehive, must be a slow worker–he’s made only three features in a career that spans over 40 years. But this isn’t the only series built around Erice. See:

Cinema According to Víctor Erice

This much longer series of Erice’s personal favorites include Sansho the Bailiff, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Renoir’s The River (a dye-transfer archival print), City Lights, and They Live By Night. The series, and the PFA’s use of the on-campus, off-Bancroft theater, will end with Ozu’s Tokyo Story,

By the way, both Tales of Hoffman and The River were shot in three-strip Technicolor, and originally released in dye-transfer prints. They’re playing only four days apart–The River in 35mm dye transfer, and Hoffman off a DCP. This should make a great way to compare the old and new projection technologies.

San Francisco International Film Festival Preview

Here are five films I’ve previewed for the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. I’ve arranged them in order from potential masterpiece to stinker.

Except that there are no stinkers in this batch. As Dorothy Parker once said of Katherine Hepburn’s acting range, these films run the gamut from A to B. Only in this case, that’s a compliment.

A Dearest
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Heart-breaking, thoughtful, suspenseful, and complex, Dearest is easily the best new drama I’ve seen this year. A young child is kidnapped (apparently a common crime in China), and his divorced parents react in different ways. While his mother (Hao Lei) sinks into depression, his father (Huang Bo) takes a reckless proactive approach, following pointless leads and con artists. They find some solace with a support group. Then, halfway through the picture, the plot  takes a very unexpected turn and the moral issues become much more complicated.

  • Clay, Saturday, April 25, 6:00
  • Kabuki, Thursday, April 30, 6:30

A- Democrats
image  How does a country transition from dictatorship to democracy–especially when the dictator is still running the show? Camilla Nielsson’s cinema vérité documentary tries to answer that question as it follows the process of creating a new, more democratic constitution for Zimbabwe. The film’s clear hero is Douglas Mwonzora, an activist fighting for what he sees as his country’s second liberation struggle (the first involved kicking out the British). It seems like an impossible dream, with President (and in reality dictator) Robert Mugabe holding all of the cards. Yet Mwonzora and his collaborators can laugh and joke about every roadblock thrown up in front of them. More suspense than your average thriller, and far more informative.

A- Best of Enemies
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In the tumultuous year of 1968, the ABC television network put the reactionary William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal on TV to debate the issues of the day. They were both erudite, east-coast intellectuals, and their world views were as different as they could get. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that those debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film.

  • Kabuki, Friday, April 24, 9:00
  • Clay, Sunday, April 26, 3:30

B+ The Postman’s White Nights
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This Russian ethnographic tale has three strong elements going for it. It’s a beautifully photographed film. Second, it brings us to a place that most of us have never experienced–summer in a small village in northern Russia. And finally, it introduces us to Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn), the affable but lonely mailman who climbs into his boat every morning and travels across the water to collect the village mail. Lyokha is kind, knowledgeable, makes a good surrogate father for the son of a single mother, and is utterly helpless in his attempts to find romance. Filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky brings us to a community that holds on to its roots while still being part of the modern world.

B Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
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The National Lampoon magazine was irreverent, offensive, bold, crazy, satirical, and often hilarious. It spawned, among other things, Saturday Night Live. As someone who grew up on Mad Magazine, and reached adulthood (if not maturity) in the early 1970s, I was very much part of the Lampoon’s target audience. Douglas Tirola’s fast-paced documentary brought back a lot of fun memories while introducing me to the people who made the laughs. Zany graphics, interviews with very funny people, a 70s rock soundtrack, video clips from their live shows, and animated versions of the magazine’s cartoons keep it lively. But the film crams too much history into 93 minutes, making it occasionally hard to follow. And it never really confronts the extreme sexism of the Lampoon.

  • Kabuki, Friday, April 24, 9:30
  • Kabuki, Sunday, April 26, 9:30

Note: On April 22, I discovered that I had left screening times off for Democrats. I have just corrected that.

SFIFF: Paul Schrader to be honored in this year’s Kanbar Award

The San Francisco International Film Festival just announced that writer and sometimes director Paul Schrader will receive this year’s Kanbar Award for life achievement in storytelling (previously, it was life achievement in screenwriting).

I guess he’s a good choice. He’s written at least two great films: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Both were directed by Martin Scorsese. Since Scorsese has made more great films without Schrader than Schrader has made without Scorsese, one has to assume the director played the more important role in their brilliance.

Other films he’s written include American Gigolo, The Last Temptation of Christ, Blue Collar, and Obsession. Schrader also directed The Canyons, which–from I’ve heard–was one of the major embarrassments of 2013 (I didn’t see it). But he didn’t write that one, and this isn’t an award for directing, so that’s okay.

He’ll be honored at the Kabuki on Tuesday, April 28, at 6:30. I do not know who’s going to interview him.

After the interview, the festival will screen Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a film that he wrote and directed in 1985. I saw it at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2008. My reaction: It’s not so much a great film as several great short films that kind of hang together.

Richard Gere, Guillermo del Toro, and the rest of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival officially launched at a San Francisco press conference Tuesday morning. It opens Thursday, April 23 with Alex Gibney’s tech documentary, Steve Jobs: the Man In the Machine. Two Thursdays later, on May 7, it will close with Experimenter, a history-based drama about psychologist Stanley Milgram, who did some horrifying experiments in his day.

Oddly enough, the Centerpiece film on May 2 sounds like it would make a better closing nighter. It’s called The End of the Tour.

Including those three, the festival will run 102 feature films–including 35 documentaries–and 79 shorts. There will also be talks, master classes, live music, and Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live (don’t get your hopes up–or your organs; it’s about animals).

And, of course, there will be the various awards:

  • The Irving M. Levin Directing Award (or as I prefer to call it, the award formerly named for Akira Kurosawa) goes to Guillermo Del Toro. They’ll screen his 2001 film, The Devil’s Backbone.
  • The Mel Novikoff Award, which honors those who help keep love of cinema alive, goes to Lenny Borger. I hadn’t heard of him either. He translates French dialog into English subtitles, and he finds and restores lost and mostly forgotten films. These include Monte-Cristo, the 1929 silent adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel that the festival will screen.
  • The Peter J. Owens Award for life achievement in acting goes to Richard Gere. The festival will screen Time Out of Mind.
  • As I write this, the Festival hasn’t picked a winner for the Kanbar Award, which is now an award for story-telling, not screenwriting. What’s the difference? It can now include the writer/producers who oversee long-form television stories.
  • This year, special effects wizard and sometimes director Douglas Trumbull will give the State of the Cinema address.

Among the music events, I’m most interested in Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918. The famed (and local) quartet will accompany a new film by Bill Morrison, put together from World War 1 newsreel footage. Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov wrote the score.

But not everything is a special presentation. Here are some regular movies that look promising:

  • Mr. Holmes: Believe it or not, someone has found another approach to Sherlock Holmes. This time around, Sir Ian McKellen plans an aging, retired detective.
  • Best of Enemies: Televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. from 1968.
  • The Postman’s White Nights: Set in rural, northern Russia, this leisurely story looks at small town life at the edge of the world.
  • Of Men and War: A documentary about veterans and the psychological wounds of combat.
  • 54: the Director’s Cut: The restored, original cut of Mark Christopher’s story of the famous club.

As I write this, I haven’t seen a single film on the menu–even the revivals. But I hope to preview some beforehand, and see more of them at the festival itself. I’ll keep you informed.

Silent Film Festival announced

With live music, great movies, knowledgeable guests, and enthusiastic audiences, and all set in the beautiful Castro Theater, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is easily one of the best movie-going experiences that the Bay Area has to offer.

And this intense, silent movie immersion experience is getting longer. This year, the festival is expanding to five days, May 28 through June 1. That means it opens Thursday night, then plays all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. If you have a conventional day job, you’ll have to take two days off.

As usual, the Festival has put together a compelling collection of acknowledged classics, newly restored discoveries, and movies few people have ever heard of. And then they bring together some of the best musicians working in silent accompaniment. This year, the accompanists include familiar favorites such as The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, and the The Matti Bye Ensemble. Newcomers–at least to my experience–include Frank Bockius, Guenter Buchwald, Earplay, and The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, which to an East Bay citizen like me looks like a misspelling (it isn’t).

Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

The most exciting event this year is the newly discovered and restored Sherlock Holmes, starring William Gillette. In 1899, Gillette became the first playwright to adopt the Holmes stories to a dramatic medium, and the first actor to play the part. The film, made 17 years later, was Gillette’s only motion picture, and it was thought lost for almost a century. Of course I have no idea if it’s any good, but I’m hoping. The Donald Sosin Ensemble will provide the music for the Sunday, 7:00 screening.

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Believe it or not, they’re screening talkies this year…sort of and without the original sound. The Festival opens with 1930’s Oscar winner All Quiet On The Western Front. We generally think of that as a talkie, but a silent version was prepared for theaters that had not yet converted and for foreign release–and that’s the version we’ll see.

Then, on Saturday afternoon, we have The Donovan Affair–Frank Capra’s first talkie (from 1929). The film has survived, but the soundtrack is lost. So a group of actors, called The Gower Gulch Players, will lip-synch the dialog.

Some other promising shows on the schedule:

  • Speedy: Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, shot in New York. It’s not one of my favorite Lloyds, but as I haven’t seen it theatrically, that may change soon.
  • Cave of the Spider Women: A fantasy from China.
  • Amazing Charley Bowers: I’ve only seen a couple of this mostly-forgotten comedian’s two reelers, and those only on DVD. His unique, special effects-laden work has a surreal silliness not to be missed.
  • The Last Laugh: One of the major works of German impressionism. Like Speedy, I’ve only seen it on TV.
  • The Deadlier Sex: Come on, how can you resist that title.
  • Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ: The festival closes with MGM’s first big epic and first big hit. And yes, the one with Charlton Heston was a remake.

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
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