Newsletter Correction: Emotional Arithmetic

I just discovered that I left a very important screening out of this week’s newsletter–one of the best movies not getting released this week. Since the screening hasn’t happened yet (it’s Thursday night), here it is:

Emotional Arithmetic, Castro, Thursday, 8:30. In the best performance of an excellent career, Susan Sarandon plays an American-born Holocaust survivor (the story is set in 1985) trying to hold onto her family and her sanity. She’s overjoyed by the arrival of two old friends and fellow survivors, but their presence complicates her tricky relationship with her remote, sarcastic husband and their grown son–who appears to be devoting his life to caring for his messed-up parents. Beautifully written, designed, shot, acted, and edited, the Bergmanesque Emotional Arithmetic is simply the best new movie I’ve seen so far this year. Screenwriter Jefferson Lewis wisely avoids heavy exposition, giving us space to wonder how these people became the damaged humans they are. The near all-star cast includes Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow. Read my full review. The closing night presentation of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival‘s Castro Theater run.

Good News on Universal Fire

You may remember my post from last month, Precious Prints Lost to Fire. Universal Studios lost almost its entire collection of archival 35mm prints in the fire that also damaged parts of the amusement park. While new prints could be struck from the unharmed negatives (stored in Philidelphia), economic realities suggested at that time that few such prints would be struck.

But according to Eddie Muller of The Film Noir Foundation, “a quickly paid insurance settlement will allow [Universal] to work virtually round-the-clock striking new prints of everything that was lost or damaged…The plan is to start with films that have upcoming screenings scheduled, so those bookings can be met. Eventually all the lost films will be resurrected in new prints.”

That’s great news all-around. Maybe some local revival house will do a series called “Saved from the Flames: New Prints from Universal.”

What’s Screening: July 25-31

he Jewish Film Festival is up and running. I’ve separated my festival-related recommendations and warnings from the others.

Wonderful Town, Kabuki, opens Friday. Wonderful Town has nothing to do with the 1953 Broadway musical of the same name, although a few songs would liven up this very dull creature from Thailand. The story concerns a young architect who comes to a small coastal town, one that was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, to help rebuild on a luxury resort. He stays at a much plainer hotel, and falls in love with the woman running the place. She’s moderately charming, he isn’t, and everything moves like a tortoise on downers. Allegedly, this Thai drama examines the long-term psychological aftereffects of disaster. Any real ideas about these two people as individuals or post-traumatic stress disorder in general never get through the telling. Read my full review.

Brainwash Movie Festival, Mandela Village Arts Center, Oakland, Friday and Saturday, 9:00. Located in a parking lot near the West Oakland BART station, the 14th Annual Brainwash Movie Festival screens odd shorts in what it describes as a “Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk In” outdoor theater. However you come, you need to bring an FM radio with you to catch the audio. Each night they screen a different collection of shorts.

Stop Making Sense, Red Vic, Tuesday. Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They don’t show us the audience or the backstage; just the performance (actually compiled from three performances). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that makes you want to get up and dance.

Raging Bull, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Martin Scorsese put a cap on 70’s cinema with this study of boxer Jake La Motta. It isn’t an easy film to watch; the experience is not unlike a good pummeling, but it’s absolutely worth it. Part of the PFA’s United Artists: 90 Years series.

Comedy Shorts, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Four shorts by the best: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Laurel & Hardy. The L&H short, Liberty, is one of their best. I can also vouch for Chaplin’s One A.M. and Keaton’s The Paleface. Judy Rosenberg at the piano.

White Heat, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. James Cagney returned to the studio that made him famous for one last gangster movie in 1949. But this time, instead of a basically decent guy who has made a few mistakes, he got to play a psycho. But at least he loves his mother. Come to think of it, maybe he loves her a little too much. I’m not giving White Heat a grade because it has been years since I saw it. But I remember liking it very much. This Cerrito Classic will screen with Eddie Muller’s short film “The Grand Inquisitor”–20-minutes of slow-building dread leading up to a shocker of an ending. And classic noir star Marsha Hunt (now 90) can still send chills down your back.

Sweet Smell of Success, Pacific Film Archive, 7:30. . It’s been too long since I’ve seen Burt Lancaster’s Broadway noir for me to trust my memory with a wholehearted recommendation. But not by much. Lancaster risked his career by producing this exploration of the seamy side of fame and by playing a truly despicable character. The result, if I recall correctly, is fantastic. Tony Curtis co-stars, from a script by Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman. Part of the PFA’s United Artists: 90 Years series.

DOUBLE BILL: San Francisco & Showboat, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. A big, silly, melodramatic special effects vehicle made before that was Hollywood’s dominant genre, San Francisco is a classic example of code-era Hollywood trying to have it both ways. It celebrates non-conformist, hedonistic, open-minded joy, but covers itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing that’s as annoying as it is laughable. But all the weaknesses disappear when the earth shakes and the fires break out. The 1936 version of Showboat was director James Whale’s chance to break out of the horror genre. It starts well, dealing with miscegenation and racism in ways surprisingly advanced for 1936, but it soon descents into dull lifelessness.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Arab Labor, episodes 1, 2, and 3, Castro, Wednesday, 9:30. What does it mean to be an Israeli citizen and an Arab, especially if you’re not political or religious? How do you get on in the country of your birth where you’re treated as an alien? This Israeli sitcom explores that question in ways both insightful and hilarious. Amjad, an Arab reporter working for a Jewish newspaper, struggles with indignities, tries to fit in (buying, in the first episode, a “Jewish” car so he won’t be stopped at checkpoints). Things aren’t helped by his scheming father, his love-sick Jewish photographer friend, or the wife who’s always one step ahead of him (actually, the wife helps him quite a bit). The characters don’t conform to ethnic stereotypes, but they’re always expecting others to do so. The San Francisco Jewish Festival will screen all nine episodes (I’ve seen seven of them) in blocks of three episodes each, including a 3-admission marathon on August 3 at the Jewish Community Center.

The Secrets, Castro, Monday, 9:30. This sexy spiritual journey (the best kind) looks at two young women trying to change the extremely parochial world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism from within. That’s not an easy–or perhaps even a possible–goal. The young women in question are the scholarly daughter of a respected rabbi (Ania Bukstein), and a French rebel (Michal Shtamler). They meet at a women’s seminary in Safed, where they secretly undertake the subversive task of helping a dying murderess prepare to meet G*d. They also discover a mutual sexual attraction and fall in love. Writers Hadar Galron and Avi Nesher (who also directed) successfully delve into an extreme and often cruel form of Judaism most of us haven’t experienced, and raise questions about forgiveness, repentance, love, and the need both to conform and to rebel. Part of the Jewish Film Festival.

Sixty Six, Castro, Saturday, 7:30. Twelve-year-old Bernie (Gregg Sulkin) sees his upcoming bar mitzvah, with its chance for him to be the center of all attention, as the salvation from his near-invisible life. But then everything that can go wrong with the family’s finances does, making a lavish party impossible, and the big event’s date conflicts with soccer’s Super Bowl–the World Cup. That’s a bad conflict in 1966 England, when Great Britain’s team was winning game after game. It doesn’t help that his father is a loser and his older brother (who got a big party for his bar mitzvah) is a sadist. Director Paul Weiland and his writers paint a bittersweet, funny story of a boy becoming a man under very stressful conditions. Sixty Six might receive theatrical distribution in the future.

Loves Comes Lately, Castro, Sunday, 7:45. A grand-niece of Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me that the great writer didn’t realize that women threw themselves at him because he was famous; he thought he was irresistible. Such confused thinking permeates Jan Schütte’s clumsy adaptation of three Singer stories. Love Comes Lately follows the adventures of a short-story writer who’s an obvious Singer alter-ego, and dramatizes two short stories whose protagonists are obviously this alter-ego’s alter-egos. Otto Tausig plays all three characters, and yes, they’re all irresistible to women. Schütte manages a few good scenes, but the movie goes nowhere and leads to nothing. Strangely, this mediocre film won not only the festival’s coveted Centerpiece spot, but also a future theatrical run.

Imax and the Return of 70mm

I saw The Dark Knight in Imax on Monday (read my review). Although once skeptical, I’m now a fan of the giant format as the best way to present the most spectacular of Hollywood entertainments.

Regular Bayflicks readers know that I’m a fan of 70mm. In that format’s second golden age (roughly 1977-1993), the movies I went out of my way and paid extra to see that way included the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, Alien, Apocalypse Now, Gandhi, Amadeus, The Last Emperor, E.T., Ghostbusters, Days of Heaven, Silverado, Remains of the Day, the Lawrence of Arabia restoration, and a whole lot of lesser works I’m trying to forget. Now I’m ready to consider going out of my way and paying extra to see similar movies in Imax.

Technically speaking, Imax is 70mm, using the same film stock as was used for the films mentioned above. But it uses three times as much of that film to create a frame that is not only very wide but also very tall. While a film shot for 2.35×1 35mm scope projection can fit snugly into a conventional 70mm frame with just slight horizontal cropping, it has to be letterboxed to look good in Imax. True Imax movies–mostly documentaries and travelogues–use the full height of the screen and fill it with tremendous detail.

My first Hollywood Imax experience, The Matrix Reloaded, disappointed me, and not just because it was a lousy movie. It looked horrible, although I’ve been told that the 35mm prints also looked bad, and that the look was intentional.

But The Dark Knight really uses the large format. While most action films today are shot in an inferior process confusingly called Super-35, and must be blown up just to fill a standard scope frame, cinematographer Wally Pfister shot most of The Dark Knight in full scope. With more detail in the negative, the images filled the Imax screen’s width (although, since letterboxed, not its height) with a rich, textured image. It looked at least as good as the best 70mm blow-ups of the early 1990’s.

Select scenes, mostly action sequences and establishing shots, were actually filmed in Imax. You can easily identify these shots; they’re not letterboxed and therefore fill the entire screen. They’re also so real you don’t feel like you’re just looking at the real world. I doubt the frequently-changing aspect ratio bothered anyone.

From what I’ve read, the Imax footage is vertically cropped to the wider aspect ratio in the 35mm prints. The movie would hold up on a conventional movie screen, but in Imax, the thrills were bigger, better, and stronger, and the urban landscapes all the more beautiful.

A short trailer for the next Harry Potter movie proceeded the feature, and promised select scenes shot in Imax 3D. I’ve already promised my daughter that we’ll see it that way. At least for some films, I’m a fan.

Wonderful Town

[F] Drama

  • Written and Directed by Aditya Assarat

Wonderful Town has nothing to do with the 1953 Broadway musical of the same name, although a few songs would liven it up.

This Thai drama allegedly examines the long-term psychological aftereffects of a devastating natural disaster. According to the press release, the town of Takua Pa, where the movie is set, “is the real town where the 2004 tsunami hit the hardest and 8,000 people were lost.” Although the town has been largely rebuilt physically, writer/director Aditya Assarat reports that “the people are still walking around in a daze, like they just woke up and can’t find their way home.”

Unfortunately, Assarat doesn’t find a way to make an interesting film about people walking around in a daze. Somnambulant in pacing, Wonderful Town fails to be either interesting and insightful.

And the most dazed, dull, and spiritually dead character in the film isn’t even from the town. It’s the film’s protagonist, a young architect (Supphasit Kansen) who comes to Takua Pa on a job rebuilding a luxury hotel. The story shows him working, driving around, and even falling in love, but he never seems to react much to anything.

The love story, such as it is, is the center of the movie. The architect checks into a low-cost hotel, and falls in love with the woman running the place (Anchalee Saisoontorn). She’s moderately charming, which is more than you can say for her leading man. As the local young woman falls in love with the young man from the big city, people talk–not exactly an original plot.

There’s some nice nature photography. Visually, at least, Takua Pa apparently is a wonderful town. But you could set this picture in Mendocino and it would still be a lousy movie.

Wonderful Town screened at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival.

The Dark Knight

Superhero Drama

  • Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; based on a character created by Bob Crane
  • Directed by Christopher Nolan

What a great summer for Hollywood blockbusters! First Iron Man took the comic book superhero movie, if not to a new level, than at least within striking distance of the best that genre had so far offered. Then Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proved there was still big fun in an old formula. When Pixar’s turn came, they offered the near-silent, courageous, environmental comedy WALL-E.

Now the brothers Nolan top them all off with their Batman sequel, The Dark Knight (although the first half of WALL-E tops even this film). I’m not sure this outing robs Spiderman II of its place in my heart as the greatest superhero movie ever made, but it might. The movies are very different, with The Dark Knight vastly scarier and more depressing. Spiderman’s Peter Parker tries to live a normal life despite his powers; for Bruce Wayne, normalcy is out of the question.

As far back as Memento, the Nolans have seen evil as an influence most likely to corrupt those dedicated to fighting it. The major The Dark Knightgood guys in their story–Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Bruce Wayne/Batman himself (Christian Bale)–all do things they know are wrong. They cross moral lines, they make choices they know they shouldn’t make, and they pay a price. And they do it because the evil they’re fighting drives them to it.

That evil is personified in Heath Ledger’s final performance as the Joker. This guy is nuts. He’s not after power or money (although he steals quite a bit of it), but mayhem. He wants to terrorize, confuse, and force people into kill-or-be-killed situations. The actor’s dreamboat face hidden under a hideous makeup, Ledger plays the Joker as a dark force of nature, so unpredictably cruel even the mob doesn’t understand him.

Story and characters are one thing, but an action movie also requires great action. Christopher Nolan hadn’t quite mastered that in Batman Begins, where the over-edited fight scenes suffered from spatial incoherence–you couldn’t really tell what was going on. The problem crops up only occasionally in The Dark Knight. The action scenes, done with a minimum of CGA, work this time. They’re exciting and scary, although not fun in the Indiana Jones sense. This is not a happy movie, and Nolan gives you few chances to applaud.

I saw The Dark Knight in Imax, which certainly enhanced my enjoyment of the movie. But that’s a topic for another post. Expect it soon.

Few seem to have noticed it, but we’re living in a golden age of superhero movies. In the last decade, filmmakers like Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, and the Nolans have pushed this once silly genre into directions of character depth and social commentary normally not expected from muscle men in spandex. Enjoy it while you can.

The Red and the White

I just got home from the Pacific Film Archive, where I caught a screening of Miklós Jancsó’s decidedly strange war film,The Red and the White. This was part of the PFA’s current series, The Long View: A Celebration of Widescreen.

I’m not sure what to make of this Hungarian Russian Civil War drama–if drama is the correct word. Jancsó never gives you the chance to really get to know any of the characters (none of which have names). He occasionally lets you develop a slight attachment to one or the other, but never for long.

The picture doesn’t concern itself much with battles–the few it has are few and small (possibly for budgetary reasons). It’s mostly about soldiers mopping up enemy survivors, taking them prisoner, then killing them, often by making them run and shooting them in the back. Although Jancsó shows White Russians (Czarist counter-revolutionaries) reluctant to commit atrocities, and Reds with no such qualms, the general tone of the film is decidedly Red. That was probably unavoidable for a film made in Hungary in 1967; most of the people probably hated Russian Communists, but they couldn’t openly put that sentiment into a movie.

Yet nationalism raises its head in an interesting way. Most of the Red soldiers are Hungarian volunteers, while the Whites are all Russians. I’m no expert on the Russian Civil War, but I don’t believe that’s any more realistic than Hollywood war films like Mission to Burma, Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Great Escape, that place American soldiers in parts of World War II where we didn’t have a presence.

The Red and the White contains many startling and effective scenes: Whites giving their prisoners a 15-minute head-start, without telling them there’s a dead-end ahead. Soldiers looking up from playing dead behind a hospital. A small Red regiment singing The Internationale before marching into certain death. But the scenes never quite come together as a whole.

Cinematographer Tamás Somló shot The Red and the White in black and white, which tends to make violence less visually gruesome but more emotionally horrifying. It was the right choice.