What’s Screening: December 28 – January 3

Still no festivals. But as we move in 2013, we do have some good movies.

A Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday through Monday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection to do it justice. The Castro has the screen, but only 2K digital projection. I don’t know how well it will hold up that way, which is why I’m giving it an A rather than the usual A+. I’ll try to catch it over the weekend and let you know. For more on this epic, read Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia.

B- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Castro, Tuesday through the following Sunday. The first American animated feature, and one of Walt Disney’s biggest triumphs, really does suffer from the sugary sweetness so often associated with Disney. But the picture is technically astounding and a visual delight. The dwarfs are funny and have distinct–if shallow–personalities. But Snow White herself and her Prince Charming are so dull that you might find yourself rooting for the evil stepmother (who’s pretty scary, actually). Newly restored and projected off of a DCP, the engagement is in conjunction with The Walt Disney Family Museum’s current exhibition on the film.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The various theaters will be showing it digitally, but I don’t know exactly how and on screens of what size. A 4K DCP would be the digital equivalent of 70mm, but I’m not sure that Warner Brothers has even made it available in that format.

A Steamboat Bill, Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Billsteamboatbill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man that the very-macho Bill imagined, but as an urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story,and you really can’t ask for more. And it contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. With two shorts, and Frederick Hodges on the piano.

A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a double bill with Arabesque, which I haven’t seen.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving Oz a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

B The Intouchables, Rafael, opens Friday. I really can’t complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowdthe_intouchablespleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza–the movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life, it stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma, and it’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Read my full review.

Anti-Commie Friday Night at the Pacific Film Archive

I visited the Pacific Film Archive Friday night to catch two very different films, both from 1953,  and both part of the series An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War. The first, Invaders from Mars, was all sorts of fun in ways that the filmmakers never intended. The second, Pickup on South Street, instantly became one of my all-time favorite noirs.

My big question: Why show the films in that order? Certainly the taut and thoughtful thriller should screen before the unintentionally hilarious sci-fi absurdity.

Invaders from Mars

I first saw this film, in a 16mm print, at  Gary Warne’s fabled Circus of the Soul bookstore. That must have been around 1977. I believe it was part of a series that Gary called It Came From Beneath the Budget. It was laughably bad then, and still is now.

It was directed by the great production designer William Cameron Menzies (Thief of Bagdad, Gone with the Wind). He should have stuck with production design. The acting is bad, the script is worse, and everything looks appallingly cheap. It cries out for MST3K treatment.

Invaders from Mars is one of those movies where aliens take over people’s bodies for their evil plans. This sub-genre produced one really good movie: the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In that one,  the possessed characters continue to act as if nothing has changed. When a spouse or child insists that their loved one isn’t him- or herself, you can easily believe that no one else notices a difference. But in Invaders, you sit there wondering why everyone isn’t asking "How come he’s suddenly an asshole?"

By the way, the Martians aren’t really trying to invade. They’re attacking select people working on a top secret weapon that could one day attack Mars. In other words, they’re acting in self-defense, and much like the American and Israeli intelligent forces who (most people suspect) have been sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program and assassinating their scientists.

The film was not, as I had recalled, shot in three-strip Technicolor, but in a cheaper two-color system called Cinecolor. The PFA screened a horrible-looking, scratched and soft 35mm print.

Pickup on South Street

Wow! What a difference. From a mess to a masterpiece.

Written and directed by the great Samuel Fuller (whose autobiography I’m currently reading), this Cold War noir stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who lifts the wrong wallet on a crowded subway. The wallet, belonging to a beautiful young woman(Jean Peters) contains a piece of microfilm with important government secrets. She has no idea that the people to whom she was supposed to deliver the microfilm are Communist agents. The US government, of course, is also after this valuable piece of celluloid.

Before he came to Hollywood, Fuller spent many years as a reporter on the city crime beat. He knew the underworld. He successfully wrote crime fiction before turning to screenwriting and from there to direction. It’s no surprise that his dialog crackles with both wit and authenticity.

In Pickup, he handles violence as well as dialog. If you’re used to today’s heavily cut action scenes, the fights in this picture are a revelation. Shot in long takes that leave no doubt that the stars took some punishment, the scenes have an immediate impact that doesn’t exist today.

And then there’s the great Thelma Ritter (the nurse in Rear Window). I’ve seen her mostly in comic roles, but here she breaks your heart as a poverty-stricken spinster who sells ties on the streets and information to the cops. She’s saving money for the only thing left she can look forward to: a nice funeral.

Pickup is clearly an anti-Communist picture, but it wasn’t anti-Communist enough for many conservatives of its day. They objected to a protagonist (the word hero doesn’t seem applicable) who’s not at all patriotic, but simply looking out for himself.

By the way, none of the bad guys have foreign accents; they’re all clearly Americans. The film never explains if they’re truly Communists, or just in it for the money.

The whole picture is damn near perfect.

Robot & Frank

C+ Futuristic comedy

  • Written by Christopher Ford
  • Directed by Jake Schreier

Frank (Frank Langella) prides himself on his mastery of his chosen profession. He’s a cat burglar. But he’s an aging one, and dementia is setting in. It’s destroyed his career and is pretty much destroying his life. He doesn’t shop for food regularly. His home is a pigsty. He can’t take care of himself.

If Robot & Frank was set in the present day, his adult children would either hire live-in help or put him in a home. But because it’s set in the near future, his concerned son brings him a robot programmed to help people in his condition. Frank is mortified.

You know what’s going to happen. Of course Frank will warm to the robot (whom he refuses to name). They’ll become best buds, there will be a crisis, and everything will be resolved.

to a large degree, that’s exactly what happens, but Frank’s profession adds a mildly interesting wrinkle. No one taught the robot about keeping his charge from breaking the law (which I found extremely unlikely). Since it is programmed to encourage Frank to find stimulating activities, the robot becomes Frank’s partner in crime.

The robot has some interesting edges. Although Frank anthropomorphizes the machine, and the film encourages us to do so, the robot itself insists that is not human and has no real emotions. That was a nice touch.

On the other hand, the robot’s anthropomorphic design didn’t  convince me. This machine lacked the agility needed for all the cooking and cleaning it does, not to mention breaking into buildings and picking locks.

Another thing about the robot: I don’t know if this was intentional, but Peter Sarsgaard’s voice as said android sounded a bit like 2001′s HAL. It was a different voice and a different accent, but the cadence is was similar. It really hit me every time he said the name “Frank.”

On a positive note, the filmmakers successfully create a believable near future. Everyone carries what appear to be transparent smartphones. And a librarian played by Susan Sarandon drives an old, beat-up Prius.

In the end, this is a moderately entertaining picture without anything real to say. The plot has a few surprises, but the only really big one left me thinking “Oh common, now! You don’t expect me to believe that?” You won’t hate this movie, but it’s not worth going out of your way to see.

I saw Robot & Frank at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.

SFIFF Report: The Fourth Dimension

I hit the jackpot for my second and last movie on Friday. First, they were giving out free popcorn and free beer. But the beer was only allowed in the balcony (this was in the  Kabuki’s big Theater 1). I don’t like watching movies from the balcony, so I skipped the beer.

I also hit the jackpot with the movie:

A The Fourth Dimension
Not a real feature, this is an anthology of three short films made by different directors in different countries, all of them in some way about the fourth dimension. It was conceived as a "Creative Brief" by producer Eddy Moretti. The brief contains a lot of rules, many of which were broken by the filmmakers.

The problem with anthology movies is that one is always better than the others. That’s true here, but none of them were really bad. In fact, I don’t think I’d give any of them a lower grade than B+.

Actually, I might have given the first one a low grade if it had been longer, but for 30 minutes it was just fine. The American entry, it starred Val Kilmer as a self-help guru named Val Kilmer. Take that with a grain of salt. Much of the short consists of Kilmer throwing out the most bizarre and funny pearls of alleged wisdom while his audience cheered. Best line: "Velvet killed Elvis." Believe me, the way he says it, it’s funny.

The second, Russian section was the test. It concerned a brilliant scientist who’s fourthdimensioncreated a time machine. You can’t travel in the time machine, but you can view the past.. You can pick the day and general location you’ll view, but not who’s eyes you’ll see past through. The problem: Most people’s eyes are looking in the wrong direction.

The final, Polish section followed four irresponsible young adults wandering through a disserted town.  Slowly, we learn the reason for the lack of others. A huge flood is on the way. At first, they’re just having a fun time with no one to stop their petty theft and vandalism. Slowly, they see their responsibilities.

The Fourth Dimension will also screen at the Kabuki tomorrow (Saturday) night at 10:00. It may be your last ever chance to see it.

There was Q&A with all of the filmmakers afterwards.

SFIFF Report: Robot & Frank

Got off to a bad start with my first movie of the festival: Robot and Frank. They didn’t let people into the theater until 5 minutes before the movie was supposed to start. Then they rushed us in and started the film quickly.

As far as the movie was concerned

C+ Robot & Frank, This moderately entertaining comedy, set in an easily-recognizable near future, stars Frank Langella as an aging cat burglar robot_and_franksinking into dementia. His worried son brings him a servant robot to care for him. Dad is, of course, unhappy about this. That he will grow to like the robot is obvious; it’s a movie. The twist is what makes Frank like his robot:  the realization that the robot has no scruples about stealing if he does it for his owner. It’s entertaining, and reasonably (but not exceptionally) funny. Both Frank and the audience tend to anthropomorphize the robot, which is to be expected. But it’s nice that the robot occasionally reminds Frank that, although he sometimes appears to have emotions, he really doesn’t have any. Inconsequential and forgettable.

The director was available for Q&A after the movie, but I didn’t stay for it.

What’s Screening: February 17 – 23

IndieFest continues through this week, and it’s the only festival that does.

However, I’ve added a new movie theater to the honor roll: the Alameda Theater. A grand old palace with a multiplex attached, it specializes in current fare, but it plays a classic film every Wednesday and Thursday.

A High Noon, Alameda, Wednesday & Thursday. Gary Cooper discovers who his real friends are (just about no one) in Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann’s simple fablehigh_noon of courage under fire. On the day of his wedding and his resignation, the town’s sheriff (Cooper) finds out that hardened criminals are on their way, presumably for vengeance. But when he tries to form a posse, the people he thought he could count on turn their backs on him. Foreman’s last produced screenplay before getting blacklisted, High Noon can be interpreted as a parable to a Hollywood gripped in McCarthyite fear.

A Paths of Glory, Castro, Wednesday. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviously pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon–where three enlisted men are tried for cowardice to hide incompetence at high levels–is one of the best. On a double bill with Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which I saw once, long ago, on network TV with commercials.

onlyangelsA- Only Angels Have Wings, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. The only non-comedy out of the five films that Grant made for director Howard Hawks. Part of the series Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man

B+ Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version), Castro, Saturday. The best alien invasion movie of the 1950’s (and no, that’s not quite damning with faint praise),Invasion of the Body Snatchers is noir, sci-fi, and political allegory—although whether this tale of aliens taking over people’s identities is anti-Communist or anti-McCarthy depends more on your politics than on the filmmakers’. Either way, it’s an effective thriller that has been copied many times but not equaled—despite the cuts and annoying narration added by the studio. On a Don Siegel double feature with The Lineup, which I’ve never seen.

Sex in the Shadows, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. I haven’t seen this, but it looks interesting—and possibly even fun. I’ll just quote from the YBCA web site: “Before VHS players and then the internet rendered hardcore pornography ubiquitous and banal, American stag films, often produced and exhibited illegally and viewed almost exclusively by men, held considerable power to shock, entertain, arouse and educate. Tonight’s program, a series of short subjects from the 1920s through the 1960s, will show that they still retain this power. At times drolly amusing, at others appallingly misogynistic, the films are always 100% American and can be usefully viewed as transgressive cinematic monologues suppressed by the moral standards of their day.” Presented by Albert Steg.

B+ The Red Shoes, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. This 1948 Technicolor fable about  sacrificing oneself for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their art, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet at the center is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I discuss The Red Shoes in more detail at War and Ballet @ the PFA. Part of the class and series Film 50: History of Cinema, Film and the Other Arts.

Henry V (1944 version), Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Laurence Olivier’s version of Shakespeare’s pro-war epic, but I think I’d probably give it an A-. Shakespeare began the play with a monolog (too famous to cut) about the limitations of the stage—essentially the play apologizing for not being a movie. Olivier got around this challenge by starting his version as a stage play, and letting it slowly break out into full cinema. Yes, it’s gimmicky at times, but it’s also breathtaking, with lovely Technicolor photography and the Bard’s great verse spoken by actors who knew what to do with it.

B Hugo, Castro, Monday. I sometimes wonder whether Singin’ in the Rain really is the greatest movie musical hugoever made, or do I just feel that way because it’s about movies. I don’t believe that Hugo is the greatest family film by a long shot, but it did entertain and enchant me—probably more so than it would have had it been about the meat-packing industry. In his first family film, and his first in 3D, Martin Scorsese uses the new technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. And while that story is slight and cliché-ridden, it has the virtue of touching on early film history and ending with a message—integrated into the story—of the importance of film preservation. Presented in 3D.

National Theatre Live: Travelling Light, Kabuki, Saturday, 7:00; Elmwood, Tuesday & Thursday, 7:00; Monday, 7:00. I know little about this stage play, which will screen in HD. But it is about early cinema, as well as (I’m showing my ethnicity, here) Eastern European Jews immigrating to America.

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