What’s Screening: September 30 – October 6

Tarantino, King Kong, Mozart, and some early Halloween treats this week in Bay Area screenings.

Also two new films and the opening of this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival.


New films opening

B Cameraperson, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday

Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has been shooting documentaries for decades. The films she’s lensed include Citizenfour and Farenheit 911. Now she’s gathered much of what she shot, including home movies, into a montage of her career and–to a lesser extent–of her private life. The film’s best when it puts human faces into the far-too-many horrible atrocities of recent history. It also shines when it reminds us of the person behind the camera; there’s a great moment when Johnson sneezes and the camera shakes. Often fascinating and moving, but sometimes repetitive and dull. Johnson in person at Opera Plaza Friday, 7:00; Shattuck Saturday, 7:20; Rafael Saturday, 4:15.

B- The Lovers and The Despot, Clay, opens Friday

You can’t find a stranger story in the history of cinema. One of South Korea’s top filmmakers and his actress wife disappeared in 1978, and five years later turned up making movies in North Korea. Yes, Kim Jong-il was so intent on improving his country’s film industry that he took to kidnapping. I don’t think you could make a bad documentary out of this incredible story, but the makers if The Lovers and the Despot failed to make a really good one. While the narrative and interviews were always clear, I often found myself wondering what I was looking at and why it was being shown. Read my full review.

Promising events

Quentin Tarantino Weekend, Balboa, Saturday and Sunday

Five films from the weirdly talented writer/director. Saturday starts with his best work, Pulp Fiction. That’s followed by the excellent Jackie Brown and the kind of entertaining but shallow and offensive Inglorious Basterds. Sunday, you can catch the silly but fun Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2.

King Kong Tribute, BAL Theatre, Saturday, October 1, 6:00

The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up, thanks to Willis O’Brien’s breathtaking special effects, an intelligent script by Ruth Rose, and the evocative score by Max Steiner. I give the original King Kong an A. In addition to the classic movie, this event will include the documentary Long Live the King, about the character of Kong. With various special guests.

Recommended revivals

A Amadeus, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00

In this tale of two composers, the successful Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) works hard to achieve greatness. On the other hand, Mozart (Tom Hulce) composes easily, but struggles to sell his work. Only Salieri can see that Mozart is the better composer. A story of talent, jealousy, and the creative spark, accompanied by some of the best music ever written. This director’s cut is significantly longer than the version that won the 1984 Best Picture Oscar; I like both of them.

A Night of the Living Dead, Saturday, 10:00

This is fear without compromise. The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (sequels and imitations would later rename them zombies) were shockingly gruesome in 1968. Decades later, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear remain, made less spectacular but more emotionally gripping by the black and white photography. Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on American racial issues, or simply as one of the scariest horror films ever made. Read my essay.

B+ Halloween, Tuesday, 10:15

John Carpenter made a very good low-budget thriller that started a very bad genre: the slasher movie–also known as the dead teenager flick. In the original Halloween, an escaped psycho racks up a number of victims on the scariest night of the year. Yes, the story is absurd–the guy seems capable of getting into any place and sneaking up on anyone–but Carpenter and co-screenwriter Debra Hill take the time to let us know these particular teenagers, and that makes all the difference. By the time he goes after the mature, responsible one (Jamie Lee Curtis), you’re really scared.

B Hugo, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

Martin Scorsese, in his only family film, uses the latest CGI and 3D technology to tell the story of the man who invented special effects. Well, actually, he tells a fictional story about a boy who befriends George Melies at the grumpy old man stage of his life. The story is slight and cliché-ridden, but 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. A family film for cinephilic families. The Balboa will not be presenting it in 3D. Read my Thoughts on Hugo.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

The Lovers and The Despot

B- Documentary

Directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam

I don’t think you could find a stranger story in the history of cinema. Shin Sang-ok was one of South Korea’s top filmmakers–a respected director married to movie star Choi Eun-hee. They disappeared in 1978, and five years later turned up making movies in North Korea.

Rob Cannan and Ross Adam tell Shin and Choi’s story in this entertaining documentary, but their own storytelling capabilities leave something to be desired. While the narrative and interviews were always clear, I often found myself wondering what I was looking at and why it was being shown.

They certainly had a good story to work with. Shin had been a top director, and Choi a top star, throughout the 50s and 60s. Shin had his own production company, and the glamorous couple won prizes and attended international film festivals.

In the 1970s, Kim Jong-il–then North Korea’s heir apparent and now the deceased father of current North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un–took notice of Shin’s work. Wanting to improve North Korean movies, he kidnapped first Choi and then Shin in 1978. After five years in prison, they agreed to make movies for the dictator-in-training.

As their North Korean films gained recognition, they were occasionally allowed to attend international film festivals. In 1986, while attending one in Vienna, they escaped their handlers, ran to the American embassy, and defected.

Not everyone in South Korea believes the kidnapping story. By the mid-70s, financial and political problems had destroyed Shin’s career. The Kim Jong il gave him a studio, huge budgets, and a surprising amount of artistic freedom.

On the other hand, the couple secretly recorded their discussions with Kim. Those tapes make it completely clear that they didn’t willingly move North.

The Lovers and The Despot tells its story through interviews with the people involved–primarily Choi Eun-hee (Shin Sang-ok died in 2006). Other interview subjects include their son (still in South Korea) and US government officials involved in the case. Occasional intertitles fill in more information.

To keep The Lovers and The Despot visually interesting, the filmmakers use clips from Korean films–presumably those made by Shin–and what I assume are reenactments for the camera. But I can’t be sure. I often found myself wondering what I was actually looking at–not a good feeling when watching a documentary. A few words at the bottom of the screen would have solved this problem.

It’s impossible to not be intrigued by the story of Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee, and the future dictator that controlled their lives for many years. But I would have liked some more information.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 2

Here are five more films (mostly documentaries) that will screen at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. As usual, they’re in order from best to worst.

A Circus Kid

Lorenzo Pisoni grew up as part of the Pickle Family Circus–the son of Pickle founder and director Larry Pisoni. It was not a happy childhood. In this very personal documentary, Lorenzo (named after his father’s clown character) discusses his upbringing and interviews his family and other Pickle veterans. As I watched it, I found greater understanding about Buster Keaton’s similar childhood. A sad story about the difficult work of slapstick comedy.

A- A Man Called Ove

Here we have the cliché of the crotchety old man who hates everybody, and the good-hearted people melt his resistance and bring him back to the human race. Writer/director Hannes Holm makes this worn-out plot new by adding a deep understanding of the inevitable tragedy of human life, without losing the humor of the situation. Filled with comic suicide attempts and flashbacks of love and loss, A Man Called Ove manages to be both dark and heartwarming.

B Rolling Papers

Director Mitch Dickman found the perfect way to examine Colorado’s first year of recreational marijuana. As the Denver Post newspaper set up a team of writers and editors to cover the new pot industry, Dickman followed those intrepid (but often stoned) reporters as they followed their stories and reviewed the various strains of weed. The topics covered (or at least glanced at) include pothead parents, the taste and smell of the smoke, edibles with no discernable THC content, and Uruguay–the first country to legalize marijuana nationally. At times it gets too jokey and upbeat.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 8, 12:30. PANEL DISCUSSION AFTER THE SCREENING.
  • Sequoia, Monday, October 10, 2:15

C The Last Dalai Lama?

Don’t expect an objective examination of the 14th Dalai Lama or Tibetan Buddhism. Director Mickey Lemle clearly adores both of them. That’s not entirely bad; the current Dalai Lama has some wise lessons for the human race, and while just about everyone in the movie treats him like a living god, the man himself comes off as a humble mortal (although not humble enough to stop people from calling him “Your Holiness”). Follow his advice about forgiveness and compassion…if you can. But expect a movie that drags on with praise from all sorts of people, including George W. Bush.

  • Rafael, Saturday, October 8, 11:30AM
  • Lark, Sunday, October 9, 5:00

D+ Baden Baden

The movie opens well, in a long-running, very tight shot of Ana (Salomé Richard) messing up horribly on a job. After that, there’s little to recommend it. Ana visits her grandmother in the hospital. She has sex several times with a boy who’s supposed to be just a friend (he can’t always resist her advances). She takes on the chore of replacing her grandmother’s bathtub with the help of a man who knows only slightly more about this sort of work than she does. She doesn’t grow much. She doesn’t learn anything. And frankly, she’s not that interesting a person.

  • Sequoia, Sunday, October 9, 8:30
  • Rafael, Monday, October 10, 2:00
  • Rafael, Tuesday, October 11, 12:00 noon

What’s Screening: September 23 -29

This Saturday is National Art House Theater Day, where we celebrate the kind of movie theaters I cover in Bayflicks. In the Bay Area, the Rafael, the Lark, the Balboa, the Vogue, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the New Mission are taking part.

Other than that, we’ve got six five festivals this week (yikes!), Madeline Kahn and Gene Wilder celebrations, and a lot of good movies.


Promising events

Madeline Kahn-a-thon, Balboa, Friday, 5:00

A triple bill of High Anxiety, Blazing Saddles, and Clue. I kind of like Blazing Saddles, although it’s far from my favorite western comedy. I haven’t seen the other two. But Madeline Kahn was a wonderful comedienne. Two days after the Kahn-a-thon, the Balboa will screen Blazing Saddles again in a “Gene Wilder Tribute”–actually a double bill with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

A Fuller Life, Roxie, Friday, 7:00; Rafael, Sunday, 4:15

Judging from his autobiography, crime reporter, novelist, soldier, screenwriter and Hollywood director Sam Fuller had an interesting life. This documentary, made by his daughter, should be fun. See my article on him.

Recommended revivals

A Rome Open City, Castro, Saturday, 1:00

Roberto Rossellini helped create Italian neorealism in this dark tale of the German occupation. Gritty and at times horrifying, it vividly recreates the physical dangers and mental strains of living under Nazi rule. Technically, I suppose, it shouldn’t count as neorealism, since two major parts are played by established stars: Anna Magnani takes the central role of a pregnant woman who discovers that her fiancé is working for the underground, and the usually comic Aldo Fabrizi takes on a rare dramatic role as a priest who finds he has to administer to more than just souls. Part of Anna Magnani – a Film Series.

A Pickup On South Street, Roxie, Saturday, 5:30; Rafael, Friday, 5:00; Saturday, 2:00

This Cold War noir stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who lifts the wrong wallet on a crowded subway. The wallet’s owner (Jean Peters) has no idea that it contains a piece of microfilm with important government secrets. She’s merely a dupe of Communist agents. The US government, of course, is also after this valuable piece of celluloid. A hell of an exciting story. Part of Samuel Fuller: A Fuller Life.

A M, Stanford, Thursday and next Friday

In this early talkie, director Fritz Lang shows us a Germany sinking into corruption, depression, and paranoia. The paranoia is understandable; someone is murdering little girls and successfully eluding the police. Eventually the underworld must do what the authorities cannot and stop the killer. Peter Lorre became famous as the oddly sympathetic child molester, driven by inner demons to kill. I’m not sure film noir would ever have happened without M. Part of the series Vienna and the Movies.

A Pandora’s Box, Stanford, Friday, 7:30

Nearly 70 years after her last film, cinephiles still debate whether Louise Brooks was a first-class talent or just a beautiful woman in the hands of a great director. Either way, her oddly innocent femme fatale wins our sympathy and our lust as she sends men to their destruction without, apparently, understanding what she’s doing. A great example of what the silent drama could do in the hands of a master; in this case, G.W. Pabst. Accompanied by Dennis Jameson the Wurlitzer pipe organ. On a double bill with a talkie called The Devil is a Woman.

A Time Bandits, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

What would you do with a map of the universe’s flaws? For a band of unruly dwarves, the answer is easy: Make it the guide for a time-traveling crime spree. Unfortunately, Evil Incarnate believes that the map will give him unlimited power, and the Supreme Being wants it back. Terry Gilliam takes the children’s fairy tale for a ride in the movie that turned Monty Python’s animator into a major filmmaker. Read my Blu-ray review.

B+ In the Realm of the Senses, Roxie, Thursday

Probably the first, and best, serious work of cinematic art to show real sex on the screen. Based on a true story, it examines a man and woman who become sexually obsessed with each other. But as the pleasures increase, darker impulses begin to take hold, leading to tragedy. Part of the Roxie’s Banned Movie Week.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

High Noon Blu-ray Review

Small, compact, and brimming with suspense, High Noon feels nothing like the other A westerns of the post-war period–epic movies like Red River, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers. With its 85-minute runtime and looks-like-every-other-western sets, it feels more like the forgettable B oaters Hollywood was cranking out weekly in those days.

But unlike those cheapies, it had an expensive cast (headed by Gary Cooper), a talented director in Fred Zinnemann, and a crackerjack screenplay by Carl Foreman. With all that talent, it stands out as one of the best westerns of the 1950s–and one of the most controversial.

The plot is simple enough. On his last day on the job, which is also his wedding day, Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) discovers that murderer Frank Miller will arrive on the noon train to murder Kane. Miller’s three buddies are waiting at the train station already.

Against the wishes of his new wife, a Quaker and pacifistic (a not-yet famous Grace Kelly), he sets out to line up a posse to take care of the bad guys. But one by one, his so-called friends turn away from him, leaving him to face four killers on his own.

Westerns always celebrate courage, but Cooper’s Kane feels more courageous than most. He’s facing almost certain death. Everyone tells him to run away. He’s terrified and comes close to crying (Cooper won an Oscar for the performance). But he still does what he has to do.

This is a very self-contained film in something very close to real time. The story appears to take place in something very close to the film’s 85-minute runtime.

At the time Foreman was writing High Noon, he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be blacklisted from Hollywood for his left-wing activities. He assumed, correctly it turned out, that High Noon would be the last film he’d be able to put his name on for some time. The story of a man insisting on doing the right thing, and having his friends turn on him for it, would have meant a lot to an ex-Communist working in Hollywood in the early 1950s.

Not everyone approved of High Noon, and many still object to it. Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo (an even better western, where the marshal refuses help from the citizens) as an answer to High Noon. And Samuel Fuller’s 40 Guns ends in a scene that is similar to–yet shockingly different from–High Noon’s climax.

How It Looks

Shot in 35mm black and white, High Noon recently received a 4K digital restoration. Olive Films presents this new restoration in a glorious 1080p Blu-ray, pillarboxed to the appropriate 1.37×1 aspect ratio.

I’ve never seen it look this good–and I’ve seen it in 35mm. The detail is absolutely amazing. You can see wood grain even in the long shots. And when you can’t see the wood grain, it’s because you can see the film grain.

The grayscale isn’t all that great. But High Noon never really had much of a grayscale, even on film. That was apparently intentional.

How It Sounds

Olive presents High Noon’s original mono soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound is as good as it should be for a low-budget film from 1952.

And the Extras

Olive Films built a reputation on licensing classic films and releasing them with good transfers but no extras. This release of High Noon marks the new Olive Signature series, with extras.

  • A Ticking Clock: 6 minutes; 1080p. Academy Award Nominee Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator) discusses the movie’s real-time structure and the use of clocks. Fascinating and too short.
  • A Stanley Kramer Production: 14 minutes; 1080p. Michael Schlesinger talks about High Noon’s producer, who would soon be a major director. It’s a quick overview of his career, from someone who loves It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World far more than I do.
  • Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon: 9 minutes; 1080p. Larry Ceplair, author of The Inquisition in Hollywood,
    talks about the blacklist and Foreman in particular. Blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein adds additional insight.
  • Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon: 12 minutes; 1080p. This visual essay covers the making of the film, the blacklist issue, and Gary Cooper’s involvement. Until I saw this, I had no idea that Poland’s anti-Communist Solidarity movement used an image from High Noon in a poster.
  • Uncitizened Kane: Essay by Sight & Sound editor Nick James. You can read this article on your TV screen via the disc, or on the printed booklet that comes in the package. I read it from the booklet. It’s worth reading.
  • Theatrical trailer

This disc is available now.

A+ List: Singin’ in the Rain (also Some Like It Hot)

You will not learn anything by watching Singin’ in the Rain. It will not make you a better person or help you understand the human condition. But for 103 exhilarating minutes, this movie will entertain you like no other.

Singin’ in the Rain contains several of the best dance routines in film history. And when no one is singing or dancing, it’s one of the funniest comedies of the 1950s. The movie’s perfect mixture of dancing and laughs earns Singin’ in the Rain a spot on my A+ list of great films.

But before we do our song and dance, let me direct you to another A+ comedy from the 1950s–and one that share’s Singin’ in the Rain‘s late 1920s setting: Some Like It Hot. You can read my Blu-ray review.

I caught Singin’ in the Rain Saturday afternoon at a Pacific Film Archive
Movie Matinee for All Ages. It was the first time I’d seen it on the big screen in at least 20 years. The audience response, with laughter and applause (and one little kid’s “Yeww!” at a kiss), added to the fun.

Singin’ in the Rain mines laughs from Hollywood’s sudden transition from silent films to talkies. It follows the fortune of a swashbuckling movie star who has to make the painful transition to sound (Gene Kelly, who also co-directed and co-choreographed the movie).

The talkie revolution wrought fear and confusion, which makes it a perfect subject for comedy. Two back-to-back sequences–of shooting an early dialog scene and suffering through a sneak preview–are inspired by actual early talkie disasters, and are all the funnier for it.

Of course, they’re exaggerated. Singin’ in the Rain should not be taken as a history lesson. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green telescoped changes in the movie industry that happened over four years into less than one. But who cares? This isn’t a documentary; it’s a musical comedy.

The songs, almost all of which had come from previous MGM musicals, get their definitive versions here. No one remembers a group of scared-of-the-microphone stars (including Buster Keaton) belting out Singin’ in the Rain in Hollywood Revue of 1929. But Gene Kelly’s solo performance–a soaking-wet man so happy he’s bursting–is dance-on-film perfection.

And it’s not even the film’s best number. That, in my opinion, goes to Donald O’Connor’s solo, Make ‘Em Laugh. He falls, he jumps, he hits on a dummy and then gets into a fight with it. He runs up walls and backflips off of them. His astonishing acrobatics and comically rubber face puts this number is a league of its own. When you watch the number, you don’t know if you should laugh, enjoy the catchy song, or just be amazed at O’Connor’s physicality. Soon you give in and enjoy all three.

Those are just the solos. Kelly and O’Connor do a great duet, also comic, in Moses Supposes. Ingénue Debbie Reynolds (who had no significant dance training before being casted–although you wouldn’t know it by watching the movie) joins them for the upbeat Good Morning.

And then there’s The
Broadway Ballet. Running almost 14 minutes, it tells its own fable of gaining fame and losing love, completely separate from the film’s Hollywood-set story. There’s no dialog and little singing; the story is told in pantomime and dance. It’s sad, funny, spectacular, and sexy. Kelly is the only performer in the Ballet and the rest of the movie.

Kelly was the type of actor/director who put the overall movie above his own ego. He lets O’Connor steal the show. And when he’s not stealing it, Jean Hagen does as a silent movie star with a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard.

The great dancer Cyd Charisse turns up in The Broadway Ballet. She dances with the litheness of a cat…or a snake. Her dance with Kelly is so sexy I’m not sure how it got passed the censors.

Behind the camera, we can thank Stanley Donen, Kelly’s collaborator in directing and choreographing. Most of the songs were written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown in the first decade of talking pictures. Freed went on to become the best producer of musicals in Hollywood history, and Singin’ in the Rain was his greatest achievement.

Singin’ in the Rain–originally shot in Technicolor’s three-strip process–was screened at the PFA digitally off of a DCP. The image quality was decent, but nowhere near as impressive as other three-strip-to-digital transfers I’ve seen. The audio was a relatively new 5.1 mix; I would have preferred the original mono, but the surround version is okay.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Over the course of this last week, I caught six films that will enjoy their Bay Area premieres at the Mill Valley Film Festival. I list them here from best to worst.

None of them are really bad, and most of them are very good. All six will have theatrical releases after the Festival, so if you miss them in Marin, you can catch them later.

A The Salesman

An intruder assaults a woman in her home. As she recovers physically and emotionally, her husband’s obsession with finding the perpetrator makes things worse. Meanwhile, both husband and wife are acting in a production of Death of a Salesman. As you’d expect from Asghar Farhadi, all points of view, and all emotional reactions, are understandable and believable–even when they go over the line. You may not like every character, but you’ll understand them.

  • Rafael, Friday, October 7, 7:30
  • Rafael, Wednesday, October 12, 12:00 noon

A Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy follows an resident of the inner city from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, examining three stages of his life. Three different actors play Chiron, a young man unsure of his sexuality who must learn to at least appear macho to survive in the tough streets. Mahershala Ali from Game of Thrones carries the first act as drug-dealer who is also a gentle and kind father figure.

  • Sequoia, Monday, October 10, 7:45
  • Rafael, Thursday, October 13, 11:30am

A Julieta

Middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) runs into an old friend of the daughter that disappeared from her life ages ago. And so she starts writing a long letter to her missing daughter. That letter, and the film, will reveal the deep, dark secrets of her past in Pedro Almodovar’s sad yet sexy tale of love, lust, and loss; of having what you want and losing what you care about most.

A- Toni Erdmann

Imagine a Marx Brothers movie weaved into a reasonably realistic family comedy/drama running almost three hours. And for the most part, it works. An incorrigible practical joker tries to reconnect with his estranged, very successful, uptight, and corporate daughter. She’s clearly unhappy, and his slovenly dress and inappropriate remarks embarrass her at every turn. Toni Erdmann contains what may be cinema’s funniest nude scene. But at 162 minutes, it could use some trimming.

  • Rafael, Saturday, October 8, 7:45
  • Rafael, Thursday, October 13, 3:15

B- Elle

As you’d expect from Paul Verhoeven, Elle is silly, tasteless, and unbelievable, and yet it somehow succeeds as entertainment. Isabelle Huppert gives a strong, gutsy, courageous performance as a strangely matter-of-fact rape victim. Perhaps she likes it? But then, her father was a mass murderer, her mother is addicted to botox, and her son can’t possibly be her grandchild’s biological parent. Like I said, silly, tasteless, and unbelievable. But fun.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 7, 9:00
  • Sequoia, Wednesday, October 12, 12:00 noon

B- The Eagle Huntress

Otto Bell’s documentary about a Mongolian girl who proves she’s better than any man tells an interesting and inspiring story. Thirteen-year-old Aisholpan wants to be an eagle hunter, just like her father. That’s fine with him, and the rest of her family, despite traditions that insist that only men can hunt with eagles. But much about the film feels staged, leaving me wondering if it really should be considered a documentary.

  • Sequoia, Sunday, October 9, 11:15 am
  • Rafael, Monday, October 10, 12:45