What’s Screening: August 7 – 13

The SF Jewish Film Festival finishes up Sunday. And the Japan Film Festival opens today and runs into next week. Jewish Film Festival movies are listed at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Manos Sucias, Roxie, Friday & Saturday

A rare chance to see an exceptional film not generally available in this country. Two brothers, barely on speaking terms, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine down river in this Colombian thriller. 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. Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works and how people live in a very different part of the world than what most of us are used to. You may never get another chance to see this film.

A Listen To Me Marlon, Opera Plaza, Rafael, opens Friday

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this. Brando recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life, and director Stevan (not a misspelling) Riley used these recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who made Brando tick.

A The End of the Tour, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opened last night (sorry about that)

Based on a true story about the meeting of two brilliant minds, this film provides something rare in movies–intellectual discussion. In 1996, journalist and budding novelist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent several days interviewing suddenly respected novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). They bond, sort of, but Lipsky wants access to Wallace’s private thoughts, and Wallace is reluctant to open up. Segel turns Wallace into a fascinating character–deeply troubled and, despite his fame, deeply insecure. Excellent film.

A- Best of Enemies, Embarcadero, California (Berkeley), Aquarius, opens Friday

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.

Kurosawa double bill: Yojimbo & Stray Dog, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

The A goes to Yojimbo, where a masterless samurai (Toshiro Mifune) wanders into a small town torn apart by a gang war. Disgusted by everyone, he uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a very dark black comedy rolled into one. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. I’d only give Stray Dog a B+ on its own. This 1949 police procedural about a rookie detective (Toshiro Mifune) who loses his gun to a pickpocket, works best as a straight-up thriller, and doesn’t work at all when it tries to say something meaningful. I have a Kurosawa Diaries entry on this one, too.

A The Bad Sleep Well, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday

Few people know Kurosawa’s dark, contemporary, and suspenseful tale of corruption and revenge—and that’s a shame. It concerns a large, successful, and thoroughly corrupt corporation, and a young man (Toshiro Mifune) out to destroy it from the inside. It begins with his wedding to the president’s crippled daughter—an act that everyone reads as blind ambition (the engagement won him a job as the president’s personal secretary). But the real motive is revenge. Kurosawa reveals the reasons for and depth of that revenge slowly in a startling, suspenseful, and bleak story that provides neither catharsis nor easy answers. See my Kurosawa Diaries entry.

A Strangers on a Train, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychopath (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his philandering wife, and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder.

A Jason and the Argonauts, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

No other movie so successfully turns Greek mythology (or at least a family-friendly version of Greek mythology) into swashbuckling adventure, while remaining true to the original spirit of the tales. As the gods bicker and gamble on the fates of mortals, Jason and his crew fight magical monsters and scheming human villains. Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack are unbearably stiff in the lead roles, but Jason contains several wonderful supporting roles, including Nigel Green as cinema’s most articulate Hercules. But the real star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen’s hand-made special effects.

A Galaxy Quest, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

There’s no better way to parody a well-known genre than to write characters who are familiar with the genre and find themselves living what they thought was fiction. And few movies do this better than Galaxy Quest. The cast of a long-cancelled sci-fi TV show with a fanatical following (think Star Trek) find themselves on a real space adventure with good and bad aliens. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman star. The funniest film of 1999–one of the best years for comedy in recent decades.

C+ The Iron Mask, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

Douglas Fairbanks must have felt melancholy as he made what he knew would be his last silent film. Based on Dumas’ oft-filmed The Three Musketeers sequel, The Iron Mask is unusually dark for a Fairbanks movie, with several likeable characters meeting untimely deaths. But writer-producer-star Fairbanks lacked the knack for serious drama, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of bad melodrama and entertaining swashbuckling. Also on the program: the very funny Snub Pollard short It’s a Gift! Jon Mirsalis will provide the musical accompaniment on the Kurtzweil.

A Blade Runner, Castro, Sunday

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. Read my longer essay.

B+ Aliens, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00

Less of a horror film and more of an action flick (or, arguably, a war movie), Aliens strands a platoon of marines on a barely hospitable planet infested with the big, egg-laying predators. Sigourney Weaver, made famous by the original film, stars again. The Castro’s website gives the film a 137-minute runtime, suggesting that this is the original cut. Too bad. I’d prefer the 154-minute director’s cut, which goes into more character detail and is a much better film. In fact, I’d give that version an A. On a double bill with Blue Steel.

A+ The Third Man, Roxie, opens Friday

New 4K restoration. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided, post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both newly dead and a wanted criminal. Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems bright by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. See my longer discussion on Noir City Opening Night.

A+ Ikiru, Stanford, Friday

One of Akira Kurosawa’s best, and one of the greatest serious dramas ever put up on the screen. Takashi Shimura gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging government bureaucrat dying of cancer. Emotionally cut off from his family–including the son and daughter-in-law with whom he lives–he struggles to find some meaning in his life before he dies. A deep and moving meditation on mortality and what it means to be human, Ikiru manages to be deeply spiritual without ever mentioning God or religion. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

SF Jewish Film Festival

A- My Shortest Love Affair, Rafael, Saturday, 8:30

Funny, serious, sexy, and true to life, this French gem catches the struggles and futility of a bad romance. Months after a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy, Louisa (Karin Albou, who also wrote and directed) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) move in together to raise their soon-to-be-born child. But they’re hopelessly incompatible. They like different music. He’s allergic to her cat. She takes her Jewish identity seriously; he doesn’t. But worst of all, they’re horrible together in bed. Attempts at sex continually turn into arguments. (Both stars are naked for much of the film, and you can clearly see that Albou was very pregnant while directing and acting with her clothes off.) The only misstep is the ending, which is too quick and convenient.

B+ Dough, Rafael, Sunday, 6:20

This feel-good comedy succeeds in making you laugh and in making you feel good. Why not? The marijuana-laced challah makes the onscreen characters laugh and feel good. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept the absurdities of the story and the conventional comic tropes, but if you do you can sit back and enjoy the movie. The story involves an orthodox kosher baker (Jonathan Pryce) who hires a Muslim, African refugee teenager (newcomer Jerome Holder) as his apprentice. And of course they bond while the bakery thrives. It’s a movie.

B The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, Rafael, Sunday, 4:20

Two cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, built a successful Israeli movie studio, then moved to Los Angeles, mass-produced action flicks, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse. Hilla Madalia’s documentary, filled with interviews and film clips, entertains and informs, but isn’t really exceptional. Both men, and especially the more artistic Golan, make good on-screen interview subjects, and their interviews carry the movie.

B A La Vie (To Life), Lakeside Theater (Oakland), Saturday, 6:30

Three Auschwitz survivors, best friends in the camp, reunite at a French beach resort in 1962. The story concentrates on Hélène (Julie Depardieu), who is very much in love with her husband, who was castrated by the Nazis. Understandably, her desires and her loyalties are in serious conflict. Rose (Suzanne Clément) seems at first to be the healthiest mentally, but her short temper belies issues she doesn’t want to surface. Lily (Johanna ter Steege) seems way ahead of her time as an activist for a feminist, egalitarian Judaism. The story is reasonably well-told, but predictable.

C The Law, Lakeside Theater (Oakland), Sunday, 6:30

A great cause doesn’t always make a great film. France’s struggle to legalize abortion in the mid-1970s comes off as a lot of compromises and backdoor deals done in smoke-filled rooms (literally smoke-filled; it’s France in the 1970s). The film’s heroine, Minister of Health Simone Veil (Rue Mandar) comes off as steadfast and strong, but not particularly interesting. A subplot concerning a young photographer who wants to become a real journalist shows some human interest, but not enough. The real story, of pregnant women facing disaster, comes in only rarely.

C- Mr. Kaplan, Rafael, Friday, 6:20

In Uruguay at the end of the 20th century, an old, senile Jewish man almost randomly decides that an equally old German man is a Nazi in hiding. So he teams up with an unemployed, alcoholic loser of an ex-cop to bring the mass murderer to justice. Writer/director Alvaro Brechner tries to mix broad comedy with sentimental drama, but he only moderately succeeds with either style, and never brings them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.

The Actor’s Voice: My review of Listen to Me Marlon

A documentary

  • Directed by directed by Stevan Riley

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this Marlon Brando biography. By using Brando’s own audio recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration, it takes us into his head. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who he was.

To anyone who loves motion pictures, Marlon Brando is both a giant of the art and a disappointing enigma. His method-based, down-to-earth, realistic acting style made him one of the most, if not the most, influential actor in the history of the medium. Only Lillian Gish comes close in the way she changed acting. He was, in the 1950s, huge. His films made big box office. His talent was universally praised. Women swooned over him.

But then, in the sixties, he earned a reputation as a troublemaker on the set. He had a comeback in the early 70s with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. But he soon gave up on being a great actor. He only took parts that paid huge amounts of money but required very little effort. He became a joke.

Some people write diaries. Brando spoke his. He recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life. When he died in 2004, he left behind hundreds of hours of these tapes. Director Stevan Riley used these recordings as the backbone to Listen to Me Marlon. We hear him talking about his alcoholic and abusive parents, the characters he played, the tragedies that ruined his children’s lives, and his sexual promiscuity. He gives his side of the story about the famously troubled productions of Mutiny on the Bounty and Apocalypse Now. He explains the difficulties he had finding his character for The Godfather, and how he realized the Don Corleone sees himself not as a monster, but as a loving, gentle patriarch.

Riley supplements the talking with music–much of it haunting–interviews, and scenes from his movies. We have a huge photographic record of Marlon Brando’s life and an even larger one of his work. Riley uses both to illustrate what’s being said on the soundtrack.

Listen to Me Marlon doesn’t show us all that much about what Marlon Brando did. It us tells what he thought. And when you come right down to it, that’s the more fascinating story.

Subject to Debate: My review of Best of Enemies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Today’s so-called culture wars burst into existence in 1968, with clashes over Vietnam, racism, and a new sexual freedom. By concentrating on a series of television debates between erudite, east-coast intellectuals, this breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible explanation of how our current world came to be.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were intelligent, influential, and successful, and both were exceptionally skilled debaters. And their world views were as different as they could get. Buckley, the editor of the National Review, was an extreme right-wing reactionary Christian, as determined to stop sexual promiscuity as he was to destroy the safety net for the poor. Vidal, a very successful novelist, was politically progressive, a defender of both the downtrodden and the new "free love." He was gay, and barely inside the closet.

They hated each other.

image

In that tumultuous year, the ABC television network–desperate for better news ratings–decided on something outrageous. They hired Buckley and Vidal to debate ten times over the course of the Republican and Democratic conventions. It was an interesting year to use that approach; riots broke out in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention.

Best of Enemies argues–and many historians agree–that Buckley played a major role in setting America on its current course. He helped turn Ronald Reagan into a popular national figure, and created an intellectual foundation for today’s anti-government, pro-war, elitist, and repressively Christian Republican party.

Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon make another assertion which I hadn’t heard before: That these debates changed television news, taking it from a fact-reporting medium to an opinion-based one, built around argument. Within a decade, televised commentator debates were so common that Saturday Night Live regularly satirized the formula ("Jane, you ignorant slut").

And as you watch the debates (which take up well under half of the film’s 87-minute runtime), you can see the political atmosphere devolving. Here are two brilliant men taking quotes out of context and throwing insults at each other. Being who I am, I was rooting for Vidal. But even though he tended to win the debates, he disappointed me by attacking Buckley’s character, not his views.

Most of the film puts the debates into a historical context, with biographical sketches, news footage of the times, funny stories about ABC’s amateurish convention coverage (their lighting structure literally collapsed), and interviews with people involved.

Oddly for a documentary covering the uprisings of 1968, Best of Enemies avoids the popular songs of the era. That was the right decision, and not only because it avoided a cliché. We generally think of the clashes of ’68 as a generational divide, but Buckley and Vidal were of the same age (both born in the fall of 1925), and way too old for the rock and roll generation.

If you’re at all interested in recent American history, you should see this film.

The version I screened back in April was described as a "working copy." What you see may be slightly different.

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.

What’s Screening: July 31 – August 6

This weekend marks the end of Pacific Film Archive screenings in its 15-year-old “temporary” theater. The PFA will reopen early next at their new location near downtown Berkeley.

In festival news, the Brainwash Movie Festival reopens today and closes Saturday. As I write this, the programs have not yet been released. But the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival continues through this week and beyond. You’ll find my SFJFF micro-reviews at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Tokyo Story, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 8:15
This is the very last PFA screening in the current building

One of the great films about family in all of its troubling complexities. An elderly couple travel to Tokyo to visit their busy and overworked adult children. Everyone greets them with the proper respect, but only a widowed daughter-in-law offers real warmth. Soon the elderly couple are moved from one house to another like King Lear–except that this time the children feel guilty about it. Death hangs over the last part of the film. You don’t need to have experienced the life changes in Tokyo Story to appreciate it. And if you haven’t experienced them, you will. Read my Blu-ray review. Part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

A+ City Lights, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 4:00

In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of cinema’s greatest endings. Sound came to the movies as Chaplin shot City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Read my Blu-ray review. Part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

A+ Bicycle Thief, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:45

If you want to understand Italian neorealism, the desperation of poverty, or simply the power of cinema, you have to see Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece. This film pits the desperately poor against the desperately poor, in a story that you know can’t possibly end well. And yet, there are many touches of beauty, human kindness, and humor. Unemployed Antonio finally gets a job–in part because he owns a bike. Then, on his first day on the job, his bike is stolen. Most of the film follows a desperate search through Rome, hoping against hope to find the bike. Read my longer appreciation. Part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

A The World of Apu, Rafael, Sunday

in the final chapter of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, the adult Apu leaves college, but seems reluctant to grow up. Like his father, he’s a dreamer, and assumes that good things will come his way. His best friend from college does much better, but then, he came from a rich family. One good thing does come his way: He marries, almost by accident, and finds happiness and true love. But tragedy is never far away in Apu’s world. See my discussion of the entire trilogy.

A+ Ikiru, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday

One of Akira Kurosawa’s best, and one of the greatest serious dramas ever put up on the screen. Takashi Shimura gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging government bureaucrat dying of cancer. Emotionally cut off from his family–including the son and daughter-in-law with whom he lives–he struggles to find some meaning in his life before he dies. A deep and moving meditation on mortality and what it means to be human, Ikiru manages to be deeply spiritual without ever mentioning God or religion. Kurosawa followed Ikiru with Seven Samurai, a very different and even better masterpiece, and one where Shimura got to play an action hero. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A Wallace & Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, New Parkway, matinees every day except Wednesday

An eccentric inventor, his long-suffering dog, snooty aristocrats, cute bunnies, and whole lot of clay make up the funniest movie of 2005. I vote for putting this G-rated, claymation extravaganza on a double-bill with that other hilarious British comedy with a killer rabbit, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

A+ Seven Samurai, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours for Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. But when the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain to be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made. See my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A Sunset Boulevard, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history.

B The Kid, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:0

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid, isn’t among his best–there are times when you can feel him stretching to fill six reels, and others where the sentimentality overwhelms. But it has some wonderful routines, most built around his very young co-star, Jackie Coogan. This may be the only time Chaplin allowed someone else to steal one of his films, and it was the right decision. The future Uncle Fester imitates Chaplin perfectly as an abandoned child raised by the little tramp. The music, alas, will not be live.

A- Iris, Castro, Wednesday

Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling. Read my full review. On a double bill with Grey Gardens–which I really have to see one of these days.

B+ Mr. Holmes, Balboa, opens Friday

Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes as an old man and as a very old man—mostly the later—in this entertaining but not too deep drama. Retired from solving crimes, Holmes is now a 90ish beekeeper (the film is set in 1947–about 20 years after Doyle wrote his last Holmes story), living with a widowed housekeeper and her young son. Holmes is in a race against time, trying to write down the true story of his last case—to correct Watson’s exaggerations—before senility sinks too deep. For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies. Read my full review.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A- My Shortest Love Affair, California (Berkeley), Monday, 6:15

Funny, serious, sexy, and true to life, this French gem catches the struggles and futility of a bad romance. Months after a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy, Louisa (Karin Albou, who also wrote and directed) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) move in together to raise their soon-to-be-born child. But they’re hopelessly incompatible. They like different music. He’s allergic to her cat. She takes her Jewish identity seriously; he doesn’t. But worst of all, they’re horrible together in bed. Attempts at sex continually turn into arguments. (Both stars are naked for much of the film, and you can clearly see that Albou was very pregnant while directing and acting with her clothes off.) The only misstep is the ending, which is too quick and convenient.

B+
Dough, California (Berkeley), Wednesday, 6:30

This feel-good comedy succeeds in making you laugh and in making you feel good. Why not? The marijuana-laced challah makes the onscreen characters laugh and feel good. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept the absurdities of the story and the conventional comic tropes, but if you do you can sit back and enjoy the movie. The story involves an orthodox kosher baker (Jonathan Pryce) who hires a Muslim, African refugee teenager (newcomer Jerome Holder) as his apprentice. And of course they bond while the bakery thrives. It’s a movie.

B The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, California (Berkeley), Sunday, 6:30

Two cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, built a successful Israeli movie studio, then moved to Los Angeles, mass-produced action flicks, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse. Hilla Madalia’s documentary, filled with interviews and film clips, entertains and informs, but isn’t really exceptional. Both men, and especially the more artistic Golan, make good on-screen interview subjects, and their interviews carry the movie.

C- Mr. Kaplan, Castro, Sunday, 5:35

In Uruguay at the end of the 20th century, an old, senile Jewish man almost randomly decides that an equally old German man is a Nazi in hiding. So he teams up with an unemployed, alcoholic loser of an ex-cop to bring the mass murderer to justice. Writer/director Alvaro Brechner tries to mix broad comedy with sentimental drama, but he only moderately succeeds with either style, and never succeeds in bringing them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.

Resnais and Stroheim at the Pacific Film Archive

Friday night, I attended two very different screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. The first, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, is a widely-acknowledged masterpiece. The other, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly, is the uncompleted final work of great but controversial filmmaker.

It was my first experience seeing either film.

Hiroshima mon amour

Why did it take me so long to see Alain Resnais’ first feature film? Simple. For more than 40 years, I’ve actively hated his second feature, Last Year at Marienbad. But finally, I decided to give his first feature a chance.

I’m glad I did.

Hiroshima mon amour starts with a couple in bed, presumably naked, locked in love’s embrace. But their talk is not about love–or even sex. They’re talking about the bomb and Hiroshima. He wants to make sure that she has seen everything of importance in that victimized city and understands what it means. (The film was made in 1959. The end of World War II was as close then as 9/11 is to us today.)

Soon we get to know these lovers. The woman is a French actress (Emmanuèle Riva), working on location in Hiroshima. He’s a Japanese architect, and Hiroshima is his home–it always has been. He was in the army, serving elsewhere when the bomb hit. But his family was there.

They’re very much in love, but it’s not that simple. Not only are they of different cultures (he, conveniently, speaks fluent French), but both of them are already married. She will be gone soon, and presumably they will never see each other again.

But sex can lead to other forms of intimacy, and soon they’re telling each other their secrets. Actually, she tells more than he does, about the German lover she had during the occupation and the punishment she endured for “betraying France.”

Hiroshima mon amour is an intimate, hopeless love story set against the ruins of a massively horrific war that scarred everyone involved (mentally or physically). My one complaint: I would have liked to know more about the man’s past. The flashbacks were all the woman’s.

The film has just been restored, and was screened off a DCP. It looked fantastic.

I give it an A-.

Queen Kelly

How could this be anything except a disaster? Joseph Kennedy, without any real movie experience, financed Queen Kelly as a vehicle for his mistress, Gloria Swanson. He hired Erich von Stroheim to write and direct it–despite Stroheim’s reputation as an overspending, uncommercial, and uncontrollable egomaniac. (He was all those things, as well as a brilliant artist.)

It’s no surprise that Queen Kelly, made at the very end of the silent era, was never completed. Swanson and Kelly fired Stroheim, shelved the film, unshelved it, pieced it together, shot additional scenes, and eventually released it in various forms.

It’s probably remembered best today for a couple of scenes that appeared in Sunset Boulevard.

The film today, at least in the 1983 restoration screened Friday night, is of little but historical interest. The plot–or what’s left of it–is silly. The characters are cardboard. Its attempts at being kinky are just kind of annoying. The whole last part of the film is a series of intertitles–with a few photographs–that tell the audience what would have happened had Stroheim been able to complete his vision.

But then, of all the brilliant and daring auteurs who fought the Hollywood studio heads to have their visions brought to the screen, only Erich von Stroheim makes me feel sorry for the studio heads.

The 35mm print had serious focus issues, presumably because the sources were several generations away from the original negative. Although this was a silent movie, it was shown at the PFA with a recorded musical soundtrack–probably from a very early release. By the time the film came to paying audiences, movie theaters had laid off their musicians and the American silent cinema was dead.

And if it hadn’t been dead, this film might have killed it. I give Queen Kelly a D.

The A+ List: Five Easy Pieces (also Cries and Whispers)

I’d like to bring your attention to two excellent dramas, both made in the early 1970s, and both about dysfunctional families. Both earn my A+ rating, which I only give to films that I’ve loved for decades and still love.

I’ve already written about Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, so I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray review.

The other film comes from a far less likely source: a major Hollywood studio.

Five Easy Pieces

Bob Dupea (Jack Nicholson) doesn’t play well with others. A blue-collar worker on an oil rig near Los Angeles (such things existed then), he’s moody and difficult. He treats Rayette, his live-in waitress girlfriend (Karen Black) horribly. He has one good friend, but he lashes out at him, as well.

As we discover reasonably early in the film, he hasn’t always been working class. He grew up in an economically well-off family of classical musicians. At some undefined point in the past, he ran off–and he’s been running ever since. News that his father has had a stroke brings him back home, where his two siblings still live. Here we discover the dynamics that made him what he is–a drifter who imagines himself to be some sort of rebel.

Today it’s hard to imagine a major Hollywood studio (Columbia in this case) financing and releasing this sort of film. And even in 1970, it was astonishing. The surprise success of Easy Rider the previous year ripped a hole in the studio system, and a generation of experimental filmmakers streamed in. No one was in a better position to take advantage of that opening than Bob Rafelson, whose company had produced Easy Rider. Rafelson produced and directed Five Easy Pieces. For more on this, see America Lost & Found: The BBS Story.

The film never asks us to like Bob, but it does make us care for him. His inability to stay in one place or relationship, his constant alienation and internal anger wins our sympathy, if not our love. He’s clever, good-looking, and magnetic, and easily gains friends and lovers (in the course of the film, he has sex with three woman–including a pre-All in the Family Sally Struthers). But when things get serious, he either becomes abusive or runs away.

Nicholson gives a brilliant performance here; probably the best of his career. He spent the 60s playing supporting roles in cheap B pictures. A scene-stealing support role in Easy Rider made him marketable. Five Easy Pieces, his first leading role, proved him to be star material.

But his isn’t the only great performance in the film. Karen Black’s Rayette is another masterwork of acting. Depressed, insecure, and–let’s be honest–not very smart, she clings to Bob with a desperation that’s heart-breaking. She takes his insults and verbal abuse, and desperately tries to bring the spark back into the relationship. She clearly lacks the confidence to dump him and find someone better.

Bob, on the other hand, clearly feels ashamed that he’s with such a trashy woman. And yet, in the one scene where he acts somewhat decently, he defends Rayette against the patronizing attacks of a pseudo-intellectual.

Other standouts in a uniformly excellent cast are Lois Smith as Bob’s loving but insecure sister, and Helena Kallianiotes as a constantly-complaining hitchhiker. Her character, who is only in the film for maybe 15 minutes, provides an unusual form of comedy relief.

Five Easy Pieces does something rare in American film. It gives us an unlikable leading man, and makes us care about him–even when it makes us care far more for the people he hurts.

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