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.

The Castro in July

The Castro‘s July calendar is up–at least in its details-free “Coming Soon” version is up. Here are some highlights:

July 5:
Jaws plays a lot in the theaters I cover, but this time it will play on a double bill with one of the first Jaws rip-offs, Roger Corman’s Piranha. Not a great movie, but it has the distinction of being John Sayles’ first produced screenplay.

July 10: A Dolly Parton double-bill of 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I haven’t seen either, but I’ve also never heard of a Dolly Parton double bill.

July 12: A matinee-only screening of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.–the only Dr. Seuss feature film made in his lifetime and with his cooperation. And one of the strangest and most delightful children’s films ever made.

July 16: As a Christopher Lee tribute double bill, the theater will screen Horror of Dracula and The Wicker Man.
Horror was the first of Hammer’s Dracula films starring Lee, and probably the best. I have not seen The Wicker Man since it’s American release nearly 40 years ago, and was very impressed then. I understand that the restored director’s cut is much better.

July 19: Two of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British films. The 39 Steps was one of the two films that made him the unrivaled Master of Suspense (the other being the original version of The Man Who Knew too Much). The second is his penultimate British film, and in my opinion his best before he hopped the pond, The Lady Vanishes. You can read my Blu-ray review.

The last night days of the month belong to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I intend to screen some of those films before opening night. I’ll tell you what I find.

SF Jewish Film Festival: 35th edition

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which claims to be “the first and largest festival of its kind,” turns 35 this summer. The 17-day collection of screenings and other events will take place all around the Bay Area.

Whether it really is the first or largest, it is certainly my favorite of what I call ethnic film festivals–those that concentrate on a certain type of person. But my reason is totally subjective: I’m Jewish, so this festival concentrates on people like me.

Nevertheless, I missed Tuesday’s press conference. I had a good excuse. I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail–or at least a very tiny bit of it.

The festival runs from July 23 through August 9 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Rafael.

As near as I can tell, I have not yet seen anything screening in this year’s festival. But here are a few films and events that sound promising.

  • Dough: The opening-night dramedy followed the growing professional relationship between an aging kosher baker and his young Muslim assistant. When the assistant accidentally spills pot into the challah dough…well, I haven’t seen the movie and can’t go beyond that.
  • The Armor of Light: This documentary follows Rob Schenck, an ethnically Jewish evangelical minister and anti-abortion activist who begins to feel a certain contradiction between being pro-gun and pro-life.
  • Freedom of Expression Award: Lee Grant & Tell Me a Riddle: This year’s award goes to actress Lee Grant, who was blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing the cooperate with the anti-Communist witch hunt. Grant directed Tell Me a Riddle, which was screened at the very first San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
  • A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did: Every year, I say I want a Holocaust-free Jewish Film Festival. And yet, every year, there’s at least one worthwhile film about the Shoah. This British documentary, about the sons of two Nazi executions, just might be it this year.

I’ll try to view some of these films before the festival, and will let you know what I think about them.

Three Ways to See Three-Strip Technicolor at the PFA

They stopped making three-strip Technicolor movies about 60 years ago. The movies are still around, and they’re still beautiful. This summer, the Pacific Film Archive will screen three different films shot in the still-loved format, and thanks to the way they’re being screened, each one projected using a different technology. You can decide which is best way to see them.

From the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, almost every Hollywood color film was shot in Technicolor No. IV–casually known as “three-strip Technicolor.” These include Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Bandwagon, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The African Queen.

The unofficial name tells you how it worked. Through a beam splitter, filters, and special film stocks, a special camera captured each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.

From Filmmaker IQ

From each of these three negatives, Technicolor would create a special relief print that was thicker where the image was darkest. From these three intermediate prints (called matrices), the lab would literally print (in the pre-photographic sense of the word) the colors to 35mm release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

From The American Widescreen Museum

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) have a considerably longer history than three-strip. Technicolor introduced them in 1928 as an improved printing method for their then-current two-color system. And when three-strip died around 1954, Technicolor started making IB prints off of three-strip’s replacement–Eastman Color Negative film. The company continued this service until the mid-1970s.

So what does all this mean for presenting and watching three-strip films today?

Both three-strip and dye-transfer have significant advantages in preservation and restoration. The printing dyes in IB prints don’t fade as quickly as the photochemical dyes in color film (especially color film from the 50s, 60s, and 70s). And since the three-strip negatives store color information on black-and-white film, fading colors isn’t an issue.

But three-strip has its own problems. Film shrinks over time, and no three cans of film are going to shrink exactly the same way. Even the slightest shrinkage can cause a disaster when three strips have to line up perfectly. Because of their high contrast, dye-transfer prints don’t make good sources for new copies.

Digital technology has solved the shrinking problem. You can scan all three negatives at a high resolution (say, 4K), resize them to match each other, and produce a full image. But this sort of restoration requires three things not always available. You need the original negatives (or at least black and white protection positives made from them), a lot of money, and people who know what they’re doing.

So let’s look at the three films to be screened at the PFA this summer, and how they’ll be projected:

Leave Her to Heaven
35mm Eastmancolor print
Thursday, June 18

I strongly suspect that the PFA will screen the same print I saw in 2008–or certainly one from the same restoration. And as beautiful as I found the print, I suspect this will be the least accurate three-color experience of the PFA summer.

In the 1970s, Twentieth Century-Fox created new, color-film negatives of their three-strip titles. Then they did something unforgivable: They destroyed the original three-strip camera negatives. When the color negatives inevitably faded, they had no way to restore them.

So the Film Foundation basically had to colorize this film, using the sole surviving three-strip print as a guide. In other words, they didn’t really restore the colors, they painted them in.

By the way, this is the only one of the three I’ve seen. A rare Technicolor 40s noir, it stars Gene Tierney as a woman who loves too much. She’ not the typical film noir femme fatale, seducing men to their doom in her quest for material ends. She doesn’t need material things, but she needs her man (Cornel Wilde) so desperately she can’t bear the thought of sharing him with friends or family. And she’s willing to do anything to keep him to herself. I give it an A-.

The River
35mm Technicolor IB dye-transfer print
Wednesday, July 15

Jean Renoir took the big Technicolor cameras to the newly-independent nation of India to film this coming-of-age story. And the PFA will screen it in an actual Technicolor dye-transfer print from 1952.

That’s about as close to the original experience as you can get.

Note: I altered this section after first posting the article, after confirming when the print was manufactured.


The Tales of Hoffmann
Sunday, July 19

If Leave Her to Heaven is the problematic restoration, and The River is closest to the original experience, The Tales of Hoffmann provides an example of an ideal restoration, done off of the original, 35mm three-strip camera negative. I haven’t seen the restoration (or the film in any form), but i trust the people who did it.

Unlike Heaven, Hoffmann will
be projected the way it was restored–digitally. I realize that many will object, but not me. Taking it from the digital domain and converting it back into film loses image quality, and adds nothing except vibration, flicker, and, inevitably, scratches.

Of course, I hope that they have transferred it back to film for archival purposes. it will be decades before we know if we can safely archive bits.


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