What’s Screening: February 27 – March 5

Cinequest continues throughout the week. And the San Francisco Irish Film Festival opens Thursday for a two-day run at the Roxie.

[B] The Birth of a Nation, California Theater, San Jose, Friday, 7:00. A film that’s easy to love, easy to hate, and easy to love to hate. The historical influence of this 1915 Civil War and Reconstruction epic can’t be overestimated; it turned film into both a serious art and a big business. Esthetically, it’s still a rousing piece of cinematic historical fiction–if you can ignore its rabid racism. How racist is it? The Ku Klux Klan ride in to the rescue. It takes a certain amount of guts to show The Birth publically these days. Kudos to Cinequest for showing it here. With Dennis James at the Wurlitzer organ.

[B] Amarcord, Castro, Friday through Thursday. Federico Fellini’s nostalgic, autobiographical, yet decidedly weird comedy about village life in the late 1930’s celebrates horny teenagers, confused adults, and distracted clergy, and treats fascists as comic opera buffoons. Amarcord succeeds frequently but not consistently. And it succeeds best when it’s just trying to be funny. But the lack of a story, and the simplistic nature of many characters, slowly wear you down. Although filled with great moments, it’s not a great film.

Canary, San Jose Repertory Theatre, Sunday, 6:30. As a fan of Alejandro Adams’ excellent Around the Bay, I was naturally eager to see his latest feature. I’m sorry to say that–based on a work-in-progress disc Adams sent me some months ago–I was disappointed. A weird piece of science fiction involving corporate organ donating, it never lets you close to any of the way too many characters, or even gives you much of an idea what’s going on. The only thing that keeps me from giving it an F is that I have not seen the complete work. Part of Cinequest.

[A] Revolutionary Road, Cerrito, opens Friday. After a romantic prologue where an attractive couple meet and fall for each other, Revolutionary Road plunges you into a severely unhappy marrrevolutionaryroadiage–all the worse because the couple clearly still love each other. Thirtyish in 1955, the two are caught between their youthful, non-conformist dreams and the responsibilities of parenthood, made all the worse by the pressures to conform to a suburban norm. And the way they react to that pressure is making them incompatible. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, so romantic in Titanic, give raw, scraped-to-the-bone performances. Easily one of the best films of last year, but not a date movie.

The New PFA Schedule and the New New Deal

I got the new Pacific Film Archive schedule. As usual, there’s a lot of interesting stuff.

There’s Women’s Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran, a film-lecture course uses film to understand Buddhism, a screening of Reefer Madness with a “totally dope soundtrack by Cal student DJs,” and a retrospective of Agnès Varda, the one woman director of the French New Wave.

And, because that part of the past really is prologue these days, there’s a four-film series called From Riches to Rags: Hollywood and the New Deal. Seems like a good perspective to take: How did people in the last great depression deal with the economy cinematically.

Since I didn’t program that series (which is probably a good thing), here are some movies made during the last depression that may help us in this one:

  • Gold Diggers of 1933: A silly, escapist musical, but it never lets you forget that there’s a depression going on.
  • Our Daily Bread: King Vidor’s talkie sort-of sequel to The Crowd, about desperate people finding happiness in a communal farm. This one’s getting two local screenings, soon. It’s at the Stanford March 27, and, as part of the Rags to Riches series, at the PFA April 1.
  • My Man Godfrey: Screwball comedies often played with class issues, but none as bluntly as this one (although it blows it in the third act).
  • Grapes of Wrath: The masterpiece of the group.

More Revivals at the SFIFF

The San Francisco International Film Festival just announced two more revivals planned for the upcoming festival. That’s in addition to The Lost World. The movies are A Woman Under the Influence and Le Amiche.

I saw John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence–an extremely harrowing and raw drama about a housewife going insane and a working-class husband who doesn’t know what to do about it–at the tender age of 22. My date was a 36-year-old divorcee who was clearly wondering why she had allowed herself to get involved with a kid. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best situation to see a film that was over my head at that age, anyway. But I don’t remember Gena Rowlands’ performance, which wasn’t the sort of thing one forgets.

I’ve never seen Antonioni’s Le Amiche. It’s an early work, from 1955.

Both movies have been recently restored.

Oscar Report 3

Technical problems kept me from live blogging throughout the Academy Awards, so let me hit the high and low spots:

Just my luck! When Best Picture finally goes to the low-budget, heavily subtitled movie that normally wouldn’t stand a chance, it’s a picture I don’t even like. Yes, Milk was more conventional, but it was also better made and considerably more plausible. Well, the best picture seldom wins Best Picture. I suppose I should be glad that a film of the sort that never wins actually won.

At least the right actors won the leading performance Oscars, even if Kate Winslet won for the second best performance she gave last year. And Sean Penn’s speech was the highlight of the show.

The other stab at controversy, Bill Maher’s crack about “silly gods” bombed as it should. It’s one thing to make a point, it’s another to make an unsupported insult at the vast majority of the human race.

But following Oscar tradition, the worst moments were the production numbers, especially the horrible, over-produced medley of songs from musicals led by host Hugh Jackman and Beyonce. Hey, guys, pick a song a stick to it! Why wasn’t I surprised that it came from  Baz Luhrman.

Oscar Report 2

I apologize for any errors. I’m not checking spelling or even if I’m getting the names right.

The usual, extremely brief mention of the previous technical awards dinner. Historical error: The actress announcing it (I don’t remember her name) said that Thomas Edison invented the Kinemagraph <sp>. He didn’t. An employee of his, William Dickson, has that honor.

The tribute to the comedies of 2008 with Seth Rogen and James Franco was embarrassingly bad. In a year that had some very good comedies (including two starring Rogen), they could have done more. One funny moment was when they watched a big kissing scene from Milk that had Franco in it.

Oscar Report 1

I’ve paused the DVR about an hour into the Oscar presentation. A few quick observances:

  • Why do I watch the pre-show, which is about beautiful movie stars in designer gowns? I want one of the interviewers to ask a star “Who are you wearing?” and have her respond “I picked this up at Woolworth.”
  • I like Hugh Jackman, but he’s an odd choice. Traditionally, hosting goes to a comedian, not an actor.
  • He did well in the Billy Crystal-like one-man opening production number. Best moment was when he brought Anne Hathaway on stage to be Nixon to his Frost. For a moment, I really believed she was caught by surprise.
  • Best Screenplay is usually the first clue about who will win Best Picture, although it’s a complicated clue because there are two Best Screenplay Oscars. My first choice, Milk, won one. Every body else’s first choice, and my last, Slumdog Millionaire, won the other.
  • Loved Steve Martin and Tina Fey giving that award.
  • Slumdog also won Cinematography. Bad sign.

On with the show.

Lost World at SFIFF

This year’s San Francisco International Film opens April 23, and even though the official press conference is more than a month away, bits of information are trickling in.

Here’s one:

The 1925 version of The Lost World will screen May 5, with live accompaniment by the “genre-busting pop band” Dengue Fever.

Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s science fiction novel of man and dinosaur, The Lost World as the first feature to extensively use stop-motion model animation to recreate the big reptiles. The effects were done by Willis O’Brien, who eight years later would create the most famous stop-motion character, King Kong. It’s been years since I’ve seen The Lost World, and while I can’t really call myself a fan, it’s a fun night on the big screen.

I’m not familiar with Cambodian/American band Dengue Fever, so I’ll just quote from the press release:

Dengue Fever’s repertoire isn’t simply Cambodian music or a Cambodian/American hybrid. Bollywood glitz, psychedelic rock, spaghetti Western twang, klezmer, ska, funk and Ethiopian jazz all contribute to the band’s unique sound.

Sounds entertaining.