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.

Festivals

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

What’s Screening: September 16 – 22

This week in Bay Area screenings, we’ve got epic cowboys, silicon cowboys, sinking continents, a Latino film festival, and two celebrations of Star Trek turning 50.

Festivals

New films opening

B Silicon Cowboys, Roxie, opens Friday

IBM ruled the personal computer market until a group of former Texas Instrument employees made a better and compatible product. Jason Cohen’s breezy documentary covers Compaq’s rise and fall in a quick and upbeat 77 minutes. It has some wonderful moments—especially the old Compaq commercials starring John Cleese. But it glides over a lot of important history and the technology that created it. Read my full review.

Promising events

Star Trek Triple Bill, Lark, Saturday

In honor of the show’s 50th anniversary, the Lark will screen three Star Trek films with three different casts. They start with one of the best original cast films, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. They follow that with Star Trek: First Contact–the best of the Next Generation feature films (which isn’t really saying much). Then they close it with the first reboot movie, Star Trek.

Cult Film Double Bill: Multiple Maniacs & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Castro, Friday

I’ve never seen John Waters’ second feature, Multiple Maniacs. It is, I assume, very weird. The $5,000 movie has been restored in 4K (which seems like overkill for a 16mm negative), so it will probably look its best. On a double bill with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a movie that many people love but I just don’t get.

Once upon a Time in the West, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 6:30; Sunday, 6:45

I haven’t seen Sergio Leone’s epic western in decades, and I’ve never seen it on the big screen. I hope to rectify that Sunday.

Big, New Parkway, Friday, 4:30; Saturday, 12:00 noon; Tuesday, 6:30

I have fond memories of this fantasy comedy, which helped make Tom Hanks a star.

Recommended revivals

Fruitvale Station, New Parkway, Friday, 7:50; Monday, 7:00; Thursday, 6:30

The experience of seeing this independent feature is very much like waiting for a time bomb. You watch Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) go through the last day of 2008, knowing that he will be fatally shot by a BART cop in the early hours of the new year. Writer/director Ryan Coogler wisely avoids turning Grant into a saint, but makes us care very much for him. The last moments of the film–not including some documentary footage and the closing credits–will break your heart. Read my longer report.

B Atlantis: The Lost Continent, Balboa, Wednesday, 7:30

This George Pal fantasy adventure scared the spit out of me when it was new and I was a little kid. I saw it again recently, and one scene still sent memory-inspired shivers down my back. Overall, the movie is silly, and makes no sense at all if you have the cognitive abilities of a 12-year-old. But it’s fun. On a double bill with Golden Bat.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

Silicon Cowboys take on Big Blue

B documentary

Directed by Jason Cohen

In the early 1980s, IBM ruled the personal computer market. If your computer wasn’t made by Big Blue, it was incompatible with all the ones that were. Then a group of young, former Texas Instrument employees created Compaq, and everything changed. By the end of the decade, the PC was still the standard, but it was no longer the IBM-PC.

Jason Cohen’s breezy documentary about Compaq’s rise and (to some extent) fall tells its story in a quick and upbeat 77 minutes. David comes to life, takes down Goliath, becomes king, survives some challenges, but then loses his kingdom.

When IBM released the PC in 1981, it changed the world of personal computers. They were no longer hobbyists’ toys, but real tools for the office. And Big Blue had a monopoly; you could only run PC software on an IBM PC.

Then, in 1983, Compaq released the Compaq Portable. It was fully compatible. And you could carry the whole thing–including the built-in screen and the attached keyboard–as bulky, a 28-pound suitcase. It wasn’t the first portable (or luggable) computer, or even the first portable that was IBM compatible. But for a number of reasons, it became the most successful.

Cohen’s documentary covers the main points, and has some wonderful moments—especially the old Compaq commercials starring John Cleese. But it glides over a lot of important stuff, and fails to explain a lot that needed explaining. For instance, it covers the MicroChannel vs. EISA conflict, but never explains that these were standards for easy-to-use hardware upgrades. That’s something that could easily be explained in a visual medium.

Another problem: The film is so caught up in Campaq’s story that it misses the big picture. Although Bill Gates pops up occasionally in the story, there’s no real discussion about operating systems. IBM lost its monopoly on PC hardware, but it’s partner Microsoft kept its monopoly on the software needed to run it. To this day, the acronym PC generally stands for a personal computer running a Microsoft operating system.

If you’re at all interested in the subject, Silicon Cowboys is worth catching. If you remember those days, it can even be nostalgic. But as I watched, I couldn’t help wishing for a bigger, broader documentary about the entire industry.

New haunted series at SFMOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently gave its Phyllis Wattis Theater an upgrade. And now they’re combining forces with the San Francisco Film Society for a three-weekend series of Modern Cinema, with an emphasis on films both haunted and haunting.

SFMOMA and SFFS aren’t the only organizations involved. The festival will focus on films preserved and made available by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. And the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul joins the mix, with a weekend dedicated to his work and the films that have inspired him.

Although neither organization is using the word festival, I’m counting the series as one because each weekend provides enough cinema to become an intensive experience.

The first section, Haunted by Cinema, runs Friday, October 7 through Sunday the 9th. Despite the name, these are not necessarily scary movies. They’re films that “have haunted the creative world since they were first screened—the works whose influence can be felt in all the films that followed.” They include such well-known classics as Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, and L’Avventura. But they also include lesser but still influential works like Mysterious Object at Noon and Black Girl.

Rashomon

Unfortunately, that first weekend will conflict with the Mill Valley Film Festival. It’s hard to find a film festival-free weekend in the fall.

The second section, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, concentrates on the filmmaker, his films, and the films that inspired him. It starts with An Evening with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, where he’ll talk and screen shorts. In addition to Weerasethakul’s work, the weekend will include The Spirit of the Beehive, Knife in the Water, The River, and Viridiana. This section runs from Thursday, October 13 through Sunday the 16th.

The River

The final section, Haunted Cinema, is the fun one. It runs Friday, October 21 through Sunday the 23rd--as Halloween in approaching. The movies include Picnic at Hanging Rock, Ugetsu and Carnival of Souls.

The newly improved Phyllis Wattis Theater sports two 35mm projectors (for archival prints), a 4K DCP-compatible digital projector, Meyer Sound, and its own entrance separate from the Museum proper.

Carnival of Souls

It also has drink holders. At the press conference I attended, they kept talking about the drink holders. But they also showed us a digital clip from Carnival of Souls; it looked fantastic.

Twelve of the films will be screened in 35mm. The remaining 14 will be digital. They’ll be showing The River on film; I hope it’s the same 1952 dye-transfer print I saw last year.