What’s Screening: June 19 – 25

Frameline continues through the week.

A Katyn, Kabuki, Rafael, opens Friday. In the spring of 1940, Soviet special forces  massacred over 15,000 Polish prisoners of war, including the father of Fotos: Maja Ostaszewska (Rotmistrzowa), Artur Zmijewski (Artur)
Film: Post Mortem
Data: 2006-10-11
Foto: Monika Skrzypczak/FabrykaObrazu.com

Still photo: Maja Ostaszewska (Rotmistrzowa), Artur Zmijewski (Artur)
Movie: Post Mortem
Date: 2006-10-11
Photo: Monika Skrzypczak/FabrykaObrazu.com
USE IN NEGATIVE CONTEXT FORBIDDENfuture filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. After the war, Stalin’s government insisted that the Nazis were to blame and suppressed the truth. Wajda tells the story of the crime and the cover-up through a handful of fictitious characters in this visually gorgeous yet emotionally shocking historical epic. The second half, set mostly after the war, sags through too many characters you haven’t really gotten to know, but it’s still an amazing recreation of a largely-forgotten atrocity. Katyn made my list of The Best Films You Couldn’t See in 2008; I’m glad it’s reappearing in 2009.

B The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Rafael, Saturday, 7:30. I haven’t seen the musical, but the original silent Phantom is a tough one to beat (despite some pedestrian passages). The demasking scene will stick in your memory for life. The newly-restored print recreates the original tints, 2-color Technicolor, and painted stencil colors. Accompanied live by the Alloy Orchestra, who also performed the last time I saw it, at a San Francisco International Film Festival event in 2005.

An Evening With Les Blank, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00. The anthropological documentarian (and East Bay resident) will screen some of his films (including "Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers"), then answer questions from the audience. Part of the Museum’s June series on Local Independent Production.

A Raiders of the Lost Ark, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Steven Spielberg directedraiderslostark it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it.

A A Hard Day’s Night, Rafael, 8:30, free. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a new British musical phenomenon, they wanted a picture fast and cheap. Reasonable demands, as The Beatles’ popularity was limited to England and Germany and could likely die before the film got into theaters. Turns out UA had nothing to worry about. A special, outdoor, sing-along screening.

A Bringing Up Baby, Stanford, Friday through Monday. How does one define a screwball comedy? You could say it’s a romantic comedy with glamorous movie stars behaving like broad, slapstick comedians. You could point out that screwballs are usually set amongst the excessively wealthy, and often explore class barriers. Or you could simply show Howard Hawks’ frivolous and hilarious tale about a mild-mannered paleontologist (Cary Grant), a ditzy heiress (Katharine Hepburn), and a tame leopard (a tame leopard). On a double-bill with Holiday, which I saw too long ago to have an opinion about.

A Pulp Fiction, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Quentin Tarantino achieved pulpfiction cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong.

Bayflicks Slowing Down for Awhile

My life is extremely busy these days. I have little time to see movies, let alone write about them. I don’t foresee that changing for a couple of months, at least.

For that reason, I’m putting Bayflicks on semi-hold. I’ll try to post the weekly newsletter, although it will probably be short. And if I have something to say and time to type it, I’ll do a post.

But I don’t expect to do much, or to cover the Silent Film or Jewish Film Festivals. I’m hoping to be back in time for Mill Valley.

What’s Screening: June 12 – 18

Frameline, the LGBT festival, opens Thursday at the Castro.

Other than that, not much to report, if only because I’ve been just too busy. But a very special event is happening tonight in Fremont:

A Around the Bay, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00. Sparse and  utilitarian, Alejandro Adams’ low-key drama gets right to the point, then tells its dysfunctional family story without pyrotechnics. Single dad Wyatt (Steve Voldseth) is so remote and disconnected from his five-year-old son (Connor Maselli) that he leaves the child home alone–“and that’s in a house with an unfenced swimming pool. Looking for a way out of his responsibilities, he asks his estranged 21-year-old daughter (Katherine Celio) to move in as caregiver. Slowly, they work out some of their problems, but by no means all of them. Adams made Around the Bay for very little money, shooting it on standard-def video. The low budget shows, but thanks to an excellent script and cast, doesn’t hurt the film. As part of the Museum’s June series on Local Independent Production, I’ll be introducing Adams and leading the Q&A after the film. Read my original review.

singininrainA- Double Bill: Citizen Kane & Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford, Friday through Monday. Two great masterpieces, amongst the best ever, but I have to downgrade  this to an A- because they make a really strange double-bill. There are films more insightful about the human condition than Citizen Kane, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name many this insightful that are also this dazzling and fun. There’s nothing insightful about Singin’ in the Rain, the great Hollywood musical about the birth of Hollywood musicals, but I’d be hard pressed to find any movie more fun.

An Evening With John Korty, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 7:00. Writer, director, animator, and cinematographer John Korty will discuss independent production in the Bay Area. Part of the Museum’s June series on Local Independent Production.

B Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Elmwood, Saturday and Sunday, noon. Tim Burton’s peeweesbigadven first feature revels in its own silliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action film, is alone worth the price of admission.

Around the Bay and My Personal Appearance

A small film I’ve been championing for over a year, Alejandro Adams’ Around the Bay, comes to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum this Friday night (June 12). This low-key drama never got a theatrical release, and isn’t available on Netflix. You don’t get many chances to see it.

You can read my original review.

I’ll also be coming to the Museum that night, and not just as a member of the audience. I’ll introduce Adams before the screening, and conduct the Q&A afterwards.

It’s all part of the Museum’s June series on Local Independent Production.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 9: Ikiru

After the overlong, stultifying mess of The Idiot, we come to one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. The title, Ikiru, means “to live” (or so I’ve been told), and I’d be hard pressed to think of a better film about the mortality that shapes and shadows our lives. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better serious contemporary drama, period.

I think I’ve seen Ikiru three or four times theatrically, the last time being at Berkeley’s Fine Arts theater about ten years ago. I was so eager to own it on DVD that I bought a Hong Kong import before the Criterion disc came out. The English subtitles were so badly translated they turned it into an unintentional comedy. I pre-ordered the Criterion as soon as it was announced.

Takashi Shimura gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging governmentikiru bureaucrat who discovers he’s dying of cancer. Emotionally cut off from his family–including the son and daughter-in-law that live with him–he struggles to experience life before he dies. He finds it, not through a bucket list, but through Kurosawa’s primary theme: The universe is cruel and indifferent, so you must be kind and charitable. A deep and moving meditation on mortality and what it means to be human, Ikiru manages to be deeply spiritual without ever mentioning God or religion.

People talk a lot about the professional relationship between Kurosawa and movie star Toshio Mifune. With Ikiru (the only Kurosawa film without Mifune from the period of their collaboration), it’s worth talking about Kurosawa and Shimura. The great character actor (more talented than Mifune in my opinion, although less charismatic) appeared in almost every Kurosawa film until Shimura’s death in 1982. His parts were occasionally small, but often substantial. Ikiru is his one unchallenged starring role, although you could argue that he was the real star of both Drunken Angel and Seven Samurai–even if Mifune stole both of those pictures from him. But by the late 50s, his parts in Kurosawa’s films were reduced to cameos—short appearances of a familiar face. I don’t know why, and I’ve yet to find a scholar who addressed the question.

Scholars also seldom talk about Kurosawa and jazz. Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru (easily his three best contemporary-set films of the American occupation) all have scenes in jazz nightclubs. The clubs are meant to be decadent and shallow—breeding grounds of crime and prostitution. Yet the musical numbers are shot with such love and excitement that it’s clear Kurosawa was reveling in the music’s power and promise. Or maybe he was just showing off.

The American occupation ended in 1952, the year Ikiru was released.

Kurosawa followed Ikiru with Seven Samurai, a very different and arguably better masterpiece, and one where Shimura got to play an action hero. Both the auteur and the actor were exceptionally versatile.

What’s Screening: June 5 – 11

Life isn’t scary enough for you? Have no fear! Or better yet, have some. Another Hole in the Head Film Festival opens Friday for a two-week run, mostly at the Roxie.

Charlie Chaplin Days, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday and Sunday, all day. Chaplin spent his second year of filmmaking largely in Niles, and the museum (and town) celebrate. Lookalike contest, art show, and, of course, movies. Early shorts (I think all from his Niles days) in late morning and early afternoon, and his first Feature, The Kid, Saturday at 7:30. This isn’t among his best; there are times when you can feel him stretching to fill six reels, and others where the sentimentality overwhelms. But it has some of his best routines, most of them built around his very young co-star, Jackie Coogan. This may be the only time Chaplin allowed another performer to steal one of his films, and it was the right decision. The future Uncle Fester imitates Chaplin perfectly as an abandoned child raised by the little tramp.

A Casablanca, Stanford, Saturday through Thursday. Whcasablancaat can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. And that, astonishingly enough, is about it.

Ryan’s Daughter at the Rafael

I caught the presentation of Ryan’s Daughter at the Rafael, last night. It was part of their Films of My Life series. This time around, the honored guest was Pixar writer/director Andrew Stanton, the creator of WALL-E.

Why would someone known for family pictures pick Ryan’s Daughter, a film that somehow got a PG rating despite a nude love scene? (The ratings were different in those days, and PG really meant “probably not for kids.”) For that matter, why would anyone pick a 3-hour-plus epic that bombed commercially and critically when released in 1970, and hasn’t gathered much enthusiasm since?

And how badly did it bomb? Lean was sitting on top of the heap when he made it. His last three films had been The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. Yet except for one TV short, he wouldn’t make another film for 14 years.

Stanton explained that he had been a Lean fan since childhood, yet he never saw this particular epic until he was working for Pixar and  needed to start thinking about how to tell a story on film. It was the first Lean film he “saw through the eyes of a filmmaker, not just a fan.”

By the way, Stanton blames its failure on bad timing. By 1970, no one wanted to see big historical epics, anymore. I doubt it. Patton did very well that year critically and commercially (and at the Oscars), and Patton is if anything more old-fashioned than sensual Ryan’s Daughter. It’s also, however, a much better picture.

This wasn’t an ideal presentation, but there wasn’t much the Rafael could do about it. They screened a badly-scratched, slightly-faded, mono 35mm print of a film meant to be seen in 70mm with six-track magnetic sound. They didn’t have a choice; it was the only surviving print. (Stanton said that the DVD looks excellent.)

I liked the movie, but I couldn’t say I loved it. Set in rural west Ireland during World War I, it’s a story of forbidden love set against smoldering revolution against the English occupation. Most of the acting is wonderful, especially Sarah Miles as the title character. But set entirely in a small town, it lacked the epic sweep of Lean’s other big films. And Maurice Jarre’s score was distracting and annoying—just before the first line of dialog, I expected someone to break into song and dance.

But it as some incredible sequences. My favorite: A wedding night scene where Miles’ character loses her virginity. (And no, that isn’t the big sex scene.)

I suppose the movie was once beautiful to look at, but this print only suggested that beauty.

Stanton did some Q&A after the film, and shared some of his knowledge about it and about Lean’s working methods. Lean was apparently “incredibly insecure and competitive,” to the point where good work from a second unit director would anger him. Stanton closed by reading a hilarious excerpt from Miles’ autobiography about the problems shooting the big sex scene.