Pixar into Disney

Now that Disney has bought Pixar, what will become of the two companies? Disney CEO Robert (anyone’s better than Eisner) Iger promises to “welcome and embrace Pixar’s unique culture.” But didn’t a Disney executive say something like that once about Miramax?

Yes, this is another case of a big company swallowing up a small one in an allegedly win-win situation (and it probably is win-win for the stockholders). Pixar creative head John Lasseter–now Disney’s Chief Creative Officer–may improve the behemoth’s animated features in the short run, but he may eventually find himself too busy and overextended to manage the magic that he’s brought to Pixar. He’ll make a few costly mistakes, get fired, and Pixar will be just another brand name for Disney movies, just like Touchstone, Miramax, and Dimension. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs will stay on to make sure that no computer or portable music player seen in a Disney movie lacks an Apple logo.

Lasseter isn’t the first great animation pioneer to profit handsomely by combining good story sense with cutting-edge technology. I can name another, one who refused to sign away control of his film, his characters, and his small studio. He eventually set up his own distribution system and did quite well. Yes, Walt Disney.

In other news, the 8th Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival is coming soon, opening on February 2. As usual, it looks like an eclectic collection of features made for less money than Hollywood spends on a single film’s catering. After opening at the Castro, it moves to Roxie and the Women’s Building where it will run until the 14th.

Then there’s the 4th San Francisco Korean American Film Festival, which runs from the 7th through the 12th at the 4 Star, the Presidio, and assorted non-commercial auditoriums. The festival includes films from Korea and by Korean-Americans. Judging from the film descriptions, a great many of the selections are commercial movies; of course, they’re commercial movies from Korea, which is something we don’t see much in this country.

Speaking of parts of the world that make films that are rarely seen in this country, selections from the New York African Film Festival are coming to the Pacific Film Archive, starting Friday. (It’s films from Africa we rarely get to see; we see plenty of them from New York.)

More good news. You’ll finally get a chance to see Go for Zucker!, which I called the Best Movie You Probably Didn’t See in my 2005 round-up. It will screen for at least one week in Berkeley and San Francisco in early March. If it’s popular, it will stick around.

For more good news, here’s what’s screening now:

Recommended: A History of Violence, 4Star, Roxie, ongoing. David Cronenberg has turned what could have been a conventional Hitchcockian thriller into a meditation on the nature, the lure, and the destructiveness of violence. Viggo Mortensen goes way beyond Aragorn as a small-town family man who kills two thugs in self-defense, then finds gangsters at his door who think he’s one of them. The violence is both visually gruesome (this is Cronenberg, after all) and emotionally harrowing. Life doesn’t return to normal just because you’ve killed all the bad guys. But on one level, it’s still Hollywood: The good guys are impossibly talented fighters. But that’s okay; the movie would be unbearable without that one bit of fantasy.

Not Recommended: Gone With the Wind, Stanford, Friday through Sunday, then coming back the following Friday for another three days. I have a weakness for big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. And no, it’s not because it’s “politically incorrect.– The first part is okay, but boredom sets in after the intermission. In fact, the post-war section is kind of like a slasher flick; x number of characters have to die before the movie ends and you can go home.

Recommended: Pride and Prejudice, 4Star, opens Friday. A sweet romance about class-defying true love, set during a time when marriage was a business proposition. The latest adaptation of this oft-filmed novel is an endearing entertainment (I haven’t read the book, or seen the BBC miniseries, so I’m not bothered by any failure to live up to Jane Austin’s intentions.) The British cast does an excellent job, and token Yank Donald Sutherland is simply grand. But Pride and Prejudice belongs to Keira Knightley; this is the first movie I’ve seen that lets her shine in what is unambiguously the starring role. And shine she does.

Not Recommended: Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, Castro, Sunday. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise–which would be forgivable if it also wasn’t boring and witless. On a double-bill with the much better Trainspotting.

Recommended: Trainspotting, Castro, Sunday. Scary, frantic, painful, exhilarating, and unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced. That’s probably a fair description of heroin addiction. Add to those adjectives funny and very, very Scottish, and you’ve got Trainspotting. On a double-bill, unfortunately, with Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas.

Recommended: The Big Lebowski, Castro, Tuesday. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie.

Recommended: Winter Soldier, Rafael, Wednesday and Thursday. Who knew that 95 minutes of people talking about atrocities would be so riveting? In 1971, more than 125 Viet Nam veterans bore witness to the war crimes in which they themselves participated. This filmed record of the event, shot in grainy, black and white close-ups, was hardly seen at the time. Today, as Americans debate what we are and are not allowed to do to our suspected enemies, it is all the more relevant. Watch for a young John Kerry near the beginning.

Movies for the Week of January 20, 2006

Life is crazy. I don’t have time this week to pontificate about movies, so I’ll just go directly to this week’s comments and recommendations:

Recommended: The Best of Youth, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 3:00; also ongoing at the Balboa. If you live in the East Bay, Friday may be your only chance to see the best two-part, six-hour movie since Godfather I and II. At least, your only chance to see it on the big screen without crossing water. Yes, six hours is a long time to spend in a movie theater, but in those six hours you’ll make new friends, fall in and out of love, learn a lot of recent Italian history, and marvel at just how wonderful a story-telling medium motion pictures can be. The PFA will screen Part I at 3:00, and Part II, after a dinner break, at 7:00.

Recommended: Capote, Parkway, ongoing engagement starts Friday. I can’t think of a historical figure more challenging for an actor than Truman Capote–you can’t do that voice without it sounding like a broad comic impersonation. Yet Philip Seymour Hoffman makes it work in a Golden Globe-winning performance. The story sticks to the years that Capote researched and wrote his last and most-praised book, In Cold Blood. Hoffman creates a witty and self-centered Capote, utterly unable to handle an emotional attachment to a cold-blooded killer, or the sudden literary success of his research assistant, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener).

Noteworthy: NoirQuake, Palace of Fine Arts, Saturday, 3:00. A literary as well as a cinematic event. Local notables will read from the novels that inspired Film Noir, followed by clips from the film versions of the books. Part of the Noir City festival.

Noteworthy: Sean Penn Night, Palace of Fine Arts, Saturday, 7:00. Sean Penn is an actor, an activist, a film director, and, apparently, a film noir fan. Penn will screen his 2001 directorial effort, the neo-noir The Pledge, then present his favorite classic-era noir–whatever that may be. Another Noir City event.

Noteworthy: Wings of Desire, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Another one I’ve seen too long ago to be entirely confident recommending. But when I saw Wim Wenders’ fantasy about an angel who longs to be mortal, I liked it.

Recommended: This is Spinal Tap, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. On a scale of one to ten, This is Spinal Tap rates an eleven. And if you didn’t get that joke, you haven’t seen the parody that put all “rockumentaries” in their place. The Parkway is presenting Spinal Tap as a benefit for HEROES (Helpers Engaged in Reaching Oakland’s Excelling Schools).

Noteworthy: Darwin’s Nightmare, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. I haven’t seen this documentary on the disruptions and destructions caused by the wrong fish in Lake Victoria, but it looks worth seeing.

More Festivals

The holidays are over and the film festivals are starting up. Assuming you’re reading this on Friday, Noir City and the Rafael‘s For Your Consideration series start tonight, while Berlin and Beyond opened last night.

Berlin and Beyond plays a variety of German-language films through Wednesday at the Castro, most new and not readily available in this country. The two conspicuous exceptions are The Nasty Girl and The White Rose, part of the festival’s tribute to filmmaker Michael Verhoeven. Also in the tribute is a documentary on his family and Verhoeven’s early anti-Vietnam movie o.k. You’ll find details of particular festival presentations below.

Noir City has nothing new. Most of the films scheduled for this two week-long wallow in the dark side of Hollywood are more than 50 years old. The program includes rare prints, personal appearances, a jazz concert and a book reading, plus 15 double bills filled with cynical cops, femme fatales, and hard-boiled dicks. The Palace of Fine Arts is hosting most of the festival, which moves to the Balboa for its last four days. I’ve only seen one of the scheduled films, but I’ll do my best to tell you about some interesting shows below.

Finally, the Rafael‘s For Your Consideration series presents 19 films up for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar consideration. (In case you’re not familiar with the Academy’s bizarre rules, a film only qualifies for this award if its country of origin submits it to the Academy. A special group of Academy members screen the submitted movies and vote for the five nominees. The entire Academy selects the winner.) Since I haven’t seen, or even heard of, any of these films, I can’t say anything about them below.

Speaking of which, you’ve reached that point in the newsletter referred to above as below.

Recommended: Strangers on a Train, Palace of Fine Arts, Friday, 7:00. One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (isn’t that the worst kind?) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to trade murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. The Noir City festival is showing Strangers on a Train on a double-bill with They Live By Night, a film which, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never seen.

Noteworthy: The Maltese Falcon (1931), Palace of Fine Arts, Saturday, 1:00. The first of three film versions of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and, from what I’ve heard, the sexiest (it is after all, pre-code). But I’ve never heard anyone suggest that this version is better than John Huston’s 1941 masterpiece. Also known as Dangerous Female. On a Noir City double-bill with City Streets, the only story that Hammett wrote directly for the screen.

Recommended: Truth or Dare, Castro, Saturday, 4:30. The 2005 Audience Award Winner at the Kinofest Lunen Festival speaks of youthful alienation, frustration, and, most of all, dishonesty. 18-year-old Annika (Katharina Schüttler) flunks out of school, but doesn’t have the heart to tell her parents. As the months go by and her “graduation” approaches, the lie grows out of control, alienating her not only from her parents but also from those entrusted in keeping her secret. Part of the Berlin and Beyond film festival.

Noteworthy: The Nasty Girl, Castro, Sunday, 2:30. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Michael Verhoeven’s 1990 drama about a young German woman who pokes too deeply into her home town’s Third Reich past. I remember liking it without being overwhelmed; certainly not overwhelmed enough to trust my memory. But I can tell you that the American title is a misleading translation of the German original, Das Schreckliche Mädchen. According to my German-speaking wife, a more accurate translation would be “The Terrible Girl.– That’s also a more accurate description of the film. Not as commercial, of course. Part of the Berlin and Beyond film festival.

Not Recommended: Netto, Castro, Sunday, 6:30. A loser dreams of a successful career in security. His 15-year-old son, suspicious of his mother’s boyfriend, suddenly moves in and starts teaching his father about job interviews. It’s a good idea, but neither writer/director Robert Thalheim nor his cast find a way to make us care about these two. Part of the Berlin and Beyond film festival.

Noteworthy: People On Sunday, Castro, Tuesday, 7:00. An early film by Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann? Yes, this 1929 German silent exploration of the working class at play was written and directed by people destined for Hollywood greatness. I haven’t seen it yet, but I hope to. As part of Berlin and Beyond, Dennis James will accompany People On Sunday on the Castro’s Wurlitzer organ.

Noteworthy: Ben Hecht Tribute, Palace of Fine Arts, Tuesday, 7:30. Ben Hecht is my favorite screenwriter of studio-era Hollywood. Among the movies graced by his typewriter are Scarface, Notorious, Design for Living, and The Black Swan. He also tried his hand at directing, without the commercial success he enjoyed as a writer. Noir City is presenting two films he directed in the 1930’s, Crime of Passion and The Scoundrel. I haven’t seen them.

Recommended: Silentium, Castro, Tuesday, 8:30. Evil priests, perverted opera singers, and sadistic killers dominate Mozart’s home town of Salzburg in this Austrian neo-noir. Josef Hader stars as a down-and-out private eye hired to look into a suspicious “suicide.– What he finds, of course, is a lot worse than one little murder. Silentium is suspenseful, sardonic, violent, and sacrilegious. It also contains the funniest Hitchcock homage I’ve ever seen. Part of the Berlin and Beyond film festival, although it would be right at home at Noir City, as well.

Recommended: Time Bandits, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. 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.

Noteworthy: The Short Films of Georges Méliès, Alliance Française, Thursday, 7:00. More than a century ago, stage magician Georges Méliès invented movie special effects. His short “trick– comedies were among the first films to tell stories, and he can reasonably be called the first important artist of the cinema. This collection, which includes his best-known film, “A Trip to the Moon,– will be musically accompanied by The Ahl-I Nafs.

Bayflicks’ Top Ten Films of 2005

Yes, I’ve redesigned the site. Hope you like it. Now, on to something more important:

What’s better, Munich or The 40 Year-Old Virgin? You may as well ask if this tennis player is better than that accountant. You can’t really compare two well-made yet very different movies.

But I’ll try. Welcome to Bayflicks’ Top Ten Films of 2005.

Before I begin, I’d like to give special awards to three movies that weren’t in Bay Area theaters long enough to be reasonably called 2005 releases. Indeed, one was originally released here in 1925.

Best Movie You Probably Didn’t See: Go for Zucker!
The Jewish Film Festival‘s opening-night picture didn’t get a regular release, but it deserves one. The title character in this German comedy is a secular Jew and pool hall hustler whose life is falling apart. His wife is leaving him, his grown kids won’t talk to him, and his business is on the skids. Then his mother dies, and he must host his hated, orthodox relatives for a week or lose his inheritance. This is a tale of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation that still manages to be cynical, and funny. I hope that some day you’ll be able to see it.

Best Renter at Your Local Video Store: The Edukators
Another German film that didn’t get the showings it deserved. Hans Weingartner’s little comedy/drama about radical youth and ex-radical middle-age played for only one week in Bay Area theaters. But unlike Go For Zucker, it’s available on DVD. The young protagonists have a novel form of civil protest: They break into expensive homes and rearrange the furniture. But when circumstances force them to kidnap a wealthy home-owner, they come face to face with the middle-aged conservatism that might be in their future.

Best Restoration and Presentation of a Classic: The Big Parade
The American cinema’s first great war epic (and first great anti-war epic) looks better than ever in the new restoration by George Eastman House. The black and white image is crystal clear, and the colors, originally tints and stencils, are gloriously recreated. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival did right by it in July, bringing Chris Elliott in to accompany this 1925 silent on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ.

And now, finally, Bayflick’s Top Ten Films of 2005:

10: Ushpizin: This sweet and religious fable from Israel just barely edges out Millions and A History of Violence to be my tenth favorite film of the year. Writer and star Shuli Rand is ultra-orthodox, and in his world view, good luck is a gift from God, misfortune a test, and everything will work out if you pray hard enough and treat other people with sufficient patience and generosity. Maybe it’s just another culture’s version of Frank Capra optimism, but what’s wrong with a little optimism now and then?

9: King Kong: Can you fairly judge a remake of a beloved classic? Peter Jackson’s version isn’t as good as the original, but not as good as a masterpiece still leaves plenty of room for excellence. Jackson didn’t just improve the special effects; he rethought all of the main characters (human and simian), finding new themes in the old story. Nevertheless, cutting it by half an hour would have improved it immensely.

8: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Can a film make the year’s Top Ten solely on the basis of laughs? Yes, if it never lets you stop laughing. An eccentric inventor, his long-suffering dog, snooty aristocrats, cute bunnies, clever site gags, and whole lot of clay make Wallace & Gromit the funniest movie of the year.

7: March of the Penguins: The best children’s film of the year, the second-best documentary, and the “But that doesn’t fit our demographics” hit of the summer.

6: Good Night and Good Luck: I’m not saying that George Clooney is cuter than a flock of penguins, but he turned the battle between legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy into a first-rate drama and an entertaining history lesson.

5: Munich: If your view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be summed up with “Our side is virtuous; it’s all their fault,” you’re going to hate Steven Spielberg’s new thriller. Easily his best work since Schindler’s List, and his most daring yet.

4: The 40 Year-Old Virgin: Can a sex comedy really be better then Munich? It’s a tough call, but I’d have to say yes. This raunchy movie has a sweetness and a feel for how men relate to each other that takes it beyond simple laughs, and yet it’s almost as funny as Wallace and Gromit. This is a perfect date movie–provided the relationship has progressed past initial awkwardness.

3: The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear: The best documentary of the year explores the parallel rise of militant Islamism and American neo-conservatism in a way that’s fascinating, entertaining, and surprising. And important. Michael Moore can only dream of making something this good. This three-part BBC production played for several weeks last year at the Roxie, but received no theatrical, television, or home video distribution in this country. It’s available as a very large (but free) download at http://www.archive.org/details/ThePowerOfNightmares.

2: Brokeback Mountain: Ang Lee’s sweeping romantic tragedy is the best American film of the year. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are brilliant as two cowboys who fall in love in the 1960s, and continue to see each other as they marry women, raise families, and try, unsuccessfully, to lead normal lives.

1: The Best of Youth: No competition here; The Best of Youth is easily the best new movie of 2005. Yes, six hours is a long time to spend in a movie theater, but in those six hours you’ll make new friends, fall in and out of love, learn a lot of recent Italian history, and marvel at just how wonderful a story-telling medium motion pictures can be. The Best of Youth is currently playing for another week at the Balboa, and will soon screen twice at the Pacific Film Archive. The DVD comes out next month.

So much for the best of the year. Now here’s the best of the week:

Noteworthy: Good Old Naughty Days, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Silent but sexy? I haven’t seen this collection of 12 hardcore shorts from the early 1900’s, but the idea of early, silent pornography sounds, well, innocent and fun.

Recommended: Waging a Living, Opera Plaza and Act 1 & 2, week-long run starts Friday. This is one hell of a sobering and depressing documentary (gee, I bet that line won’t appear in the ads). The filmmakers follow four low-wage workers over a three-year period, recording their struggles to get by on salaries that hardly cover the rent. They work hard to improve their situations, going to school and getting better jobs, but the game is fixed by the winners. If you’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (and you should), you’ll have some idea what to expect. But unlike Ehrenreich, these folks don’t have a secret life as a successful journalist; they’re stuck where they are.

Recommended: Munich, Presidio, open-ended engagement starts Friday. See above.

Recommended: The General (1926), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used it as the setup for a punch line told in a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. Frederick Hodges will accompany this silent film on the piano.

Recommended, with Reservations: Corpse Bride, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. At a time when Hollywood considers traditional cell animation dead and CGI king, who could have expected two stop-motion animated features to come out almost simultaneously? This tale of a nice young man who accidentally marries a lovely but rotting member of the living dead lacks Wallace & Gromit’s non-stop wit, but it’s still funny. It also manages to be pleasantly macabre without becoming too scary for children.

Recommended, with Reservations: 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. The first and best of Ray Harryhausen’s three Sinbad movies. In fact, of all his movies, only Jason and the Argonauts is better. The stop-motion animation is splendid, and the story, while trivial, is fun. Not a must-see like Jason, but still an entertaining escape into a fantasy past. The “No one under 21 admitted” Parkway will present this children’s film as part of a “Sexy Sword ‘n’ Sorcery Show” that also includes the belly-dancing troupe Clandestine.