What’s Screening: February 26 – March 4

Cinequest continues down in San Jose.

Balboa Birthday Bash, Balboa, Sunday, 7:00. The anniversary celebration will include a new, silent short subject shot at the Balboa, magician James Hamilton, singer Linda Kosut, a birthday cake, and a screening of the 1926 haunted house comedy The Cat and the Canary, accompanied live by Dave Miotke.

A Precious, Red Vic, Thursday (and continuing through the following Saturday).  Few film-going experiences match this one for intensity. And it’s not the intensity of a good precioushorror film or thriller (although it’s more horrifying and suspenseful than most of them). This is the intensity of of life at its most relentlessly depressing and hopeless. The title character, played by newcomer Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, is 16 years old, extremely obese, illiterate, and pregnant with her second child. She’s also regularly abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by her parents. And yet, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, manages to find hope. Where there is life, that life can be improved. Read my full review.

A+ Double Bill: Ikiru & One Wonderful Sunday, Stanford, Wednesday, Thursday, and the following Friday. One of Kurosawa’s best films co-billed with one of his worst. ikiruThe A+ goes to Ikiru, arguably the greatest serious drama ever projected onto the screen. Takashi Shimura gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging government 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 find some meaning in his life before he dies. You can read my Kurosawa Diary entry here. But the second feature, One Wonderful Sunday, is one terrible movie. A young couple who have been dating for years (and still haven’t gotten to first base) try to have a fun day on the town despite a lack of cash or, quite frankly, chemistry. Think Before Sunrise without good dialog, interesting characters, or real sexual tension. I discuss it briefly in this Kurosawa Diary entry.

A+ Rashomon, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00; Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. I know that I’ve reviewed Kurosawa’s first masterpiece–the film that opened Japanese cinema to the world. But according to a search of this blog, I’ve never reviewed it. How could I remember it one way, when the WordPress search engine remembers it differently? I could check Google, but what if its memory contradicts both? If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, you haven’t seen Rashomon, and that’s a real shame. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. The PFA screening is part of it’s class and series, Film 50: History of Cinema. The Stanford engagement is a double bill with Scandal, the truly wretched movie Kurosawa made just prior to Rashomon. And you can read my Kurosawa Diary entry on that, as well.

B+ Double Bill: Fight Club & Donnie Darko, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Fight Club is one  strange flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s not onlydonniedarko shagging Helena Bonham Carter, he’s also a free-spirited kind of guy and a real man. Or maybe he’s just a fascist? Or maybe there’s something stranger going on. Along with everything else, Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history. And speaking of the unspeakable, Donnie Darko may be the only alienated-teenager-in-suburbia-time-travel-science-fantasy comedy that’s also horrific and surreal. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on in this strange movie, but that just adds to the fun.

B+ Up, Castro, Saturday. When compared to WALL-E or Ratatouille, Pixar’s first 3D feature comes off as a bit of a disappointment. But Pixar’s best is a hard target to hit. Up is still very good story well-told, although the bulk of the movie never equals the brilliance of its sweet, sad prologue. Besides, it’s yet another Pixar technical leap forward, and it’s the first cartoon with talking dogs who really seem like dogs. In digital 3D.

A+ The Seven Samurai, Stanford, Saturday through the following Friday. If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours for 7sam_thumb[1]Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. But when the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made. For more on this masterpiece, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 10: Seven Samurai.

SFIFF: James Schamus to Receive Screenwriting Award

I’ve just received a press release regarding the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival (April 22 – May 6). Frequent Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus will receive this year’s Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting.

In addition to writing or co-writing most of Lee’s films, Schamus also runs Focus Features, making him a art-house studio executive.

Expect a lot of laughs when he’s honored on stage. As I discovered the last time I heard him speak, Schamus can’t let a joke go by unsaid. John Waters will interview him on stage, presumably because the festival wanted someone who could match him joke for joke.

The event will include the West Coast premiere of the newly completed director’s cut of Ride with the Devil, a civil war drama adventure that’s probably the least well-known Schamus/Lee collaboration.

What’s Screening: February 19 – 25

IndieFest closed last night, but if you live near or are willing to drive to San Jose, Cinequest starts on Tuesday.

A+ The Seven Samurai, Stanford, Saturday through the following Friday. If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours and watch Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend7sam_thumb[1] them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. But when the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made. For more on this masterpiece, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 10: Seven Samurai.

B+ Hair, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:30. The original “tribal love-rock musical” was plotless, depended on audience participation, and was pretty much unfilmable. So screenwriter Michael Weller and director Milos Forman created their own story for the songs, the characters, and the time. One of the best films about the late 1960’s counterculture—perhaps because in 1979, the whole bizarre thing could be viewed with both perspective and nostalgia. And the songs are great.

Bye Bye Birdie, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:30. I have very vague memories of seeing this 1963 musical comedy, inspired by the Elvis mania of the 1950s, as a child. I’m not going to even guess if it’s any good. I suspect it’s a view of rock and roll for the first generation to be bewildered and slightly offended by it. I do know the movie was originally released in 4-track magnetic sound, and that the 35mm print the PFA will present somewhat recreates that in Dolby Stereo. Part of the series, The Kids Are Alright: Post-Fifties Musicals and the Rise of Youth Culture.

Best Films You Can Finally See

Near the end of both 2006 and 2008, I wrote Top Ten lists of very little value (you’ll find them here and here). They listed the best new films I saw at festivals over the past year that hadn’t received regular releases.  These were, in a sense, lists of the best films of the year that you’d probably never get a chance to see.

But I discovered today that nine of those 20 films are currently listed on Netflix, with seven of them currently available. It’s not like seeing them in the theater, but they’re still worth seeing.

Adam’s Apples: The plot sounds like vapid,adamsapple2 Hollywood, feel-good drek. But Anders Thomas Jensen’s tale of a hate-filled neo-Nazi who learns compassion with the help of an optimistic minister and some oddball eccentrics is actually the blackest of black comedies. That minister and those oddballs should be locked away for their own safety–and ours. On one hand, this is a profoundly religious picture, built on redemption and filled with miracles. On the other, I never laughed so hard at a man shooting a cat.

Forgiving Dr. Mengele: “Getting even has never healed a single person.” Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor devotes herself to keeping the memory of the Shoah alive, even running a small museum in her adopted home town. Yet the subject of this documentary has done something altogether remarkable, and controversial: She has publicly forgiven the mass murderers who killed her family and turned her childhood into a living hell.

In Bed: Before you’ve seen anything but credits, In Bed treats you to thein_bed_02 sound of a very long orgasm. Then we meet two people who’ve just had incredible sex but don’t know what to say to each other. Eventually they say a lot. Writer Julio Rojas and director Mati as Bize catch the intimacy that casual sex can produce in near-total strangers in this talkie and erotic two-person character study. Available under it’s original Spanish title, En la Cama.

Au Bonheur des Dames: A silent film from 1930 is hardly a “new film,” but it made my 2006 list on the grounds of getting its first public Bay Area screening that year. If it wasn’t for the total cop-out of an ending, this Emile Zola adaptation about a giant department store and the people it displaces would equal The Crowd as the greatest serious drama of the silent era. This isn’t actually available on Netflix, but the title is up, meaning you can put it in your queue for when it becomes available.

The Art of Negative Thinking: This Norwegian comedy/drama is brutal, terrifying, and forces you to think about how you’d respond should disaster severely limit your life.  It’s also devastatingly, hysterically funny, and the best movie I saw artofnegativethinkingat at SFIFF in 2008. It addresses a subject that we’re not supposed to laugh at: the disabled and the fully-abled people who care for them. A mostly wheelchair-bound support group, led by an incompetent yet self-righteous social worker, come to the home of a potential new member. But Geirr, boiling with rage since a car accident paralyzed him from the waist down, doesn’t want to join. When he finds it impossible to ignore the group, he sets out to destroy it. This isn’t actually available on Netflix, but the title is up, meaning you can put it in your queue for when it becomes available.

Berkeley: I don’t know if anyone but a baby boomer can appreciate Bobby Roth’s look back at the radical end of the 1960’s; it may even require an East Bay Baby Boomer. But Berkeley progresses beyond nostalgia, examining the both the excitement and the shortcomings of youthful idealism.

Emotional Arithmetic: In the best performance of an excellent career, Susan Sarandon plays an American-born Holocaust survivor (the story is set in 1985) trying to emotionalarithmetic 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, with a near all-star cast including Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow. Read my full review. Released on DVD and available at Netflix under the dumber title Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning.

Idiots and Angels: Bill Plympton made a very bizarre, dark, and funny cartoon, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work. This story of a lonely, angry, and all-together rotten man (at one point he pushes a tear of empathy back into his eye) who inexplicitly sprouts angel wings will make you grimace as well as laugh. Dialog-free, Idiots and Angels reveals its characters by showing us their actions and their daydreams, which are mostly about money and undeserved glory. But no matter what their bearer may be thinking, the wings themselves insist on virtue. Plympton has created a dreadful world filled with dreadful people, yet allows something magical and wonderful to come out of it.

Katyn: In the spring of 1940, Soviet special forces massacred over 15,000 Polish  prisoners of war, including the father of future filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. After Fotos: Maja Ostaszewska (Rotmistrzowa), Artur Zmijewski (Artur) Film: Post Mortem Data: 2006-10-11 Foto: Monika Skrzypczak/FabrykaObrazu.com ZAKAZ PUBLIKACJI W KONTEKSCIE NEGATYWNYM  Still photo: Maja Ostaszewska (Rotmistrzowa), Artur Zmijewski (Artur) Movie: Post Mortem Date: 2006-10-11 Photo: Monika Skrzypczak/FabrykaObrazu.com USE IN NEGATIVE CONTEXT FORBIDDENthe 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.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 12: Throne of Blood

Between 1952 and 1965, Akira Kurosawa make eleven films, and even the worst of these were near-masterpieces. His 1957 Macbeth adaptation, released in the United States as Throne of Blood, is among the most popular of those films.

But for me, it’s among the least great of these films. Although Throne of Blood (or Spider-web Castle, an actual translation of the original Japanese ) creates a heavy and relentless mood, and contains many great scenes, it lacks the warm humanity of his best work. There’s little room for charity, kindness, or even humanity in a stylized, noh-inspired piece about the inevitability and cruelness of fate.

If I recall correctly, I first saw Throne of Blood at the Roxie in the late 1970s. I’ve seen it theatrically once or twice since then, as well as on TV. The last time I saw it, before watching a rented DVD Sunday night, was an HD broadcast on the now-defunct Voom Network.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth examines a man with the potential for good whothroneblood nevertheless chooses evil—that’s why it’s a tragedy. But here, Kurosawa doesn’t seem interested in people who might turn good—or, for that matter, in flesh-and-blood people. Instead, he’s creating a myth, and one not so much about the corrupting influence of ambition as  the inevitability of regicide. Kurosawa’s Macbeth (named Washizu and played, of course, by Toshiro Mifune), is backed into a corner and has no choice.

This is the first Kurosawa film in more than a decade where Takashi Shimura’s part is little more than a cameo. Since Kurosawa often used Shimura as the embodiment of kind and charitable humanity (not always, though; he played a fascist inquisitor in No Regrets of Our Youth), and there’s no room for these feelings in Throne of Blood, that’s hardly surprising. But although he would continue to use Shimura for the rest of the actor’s life, he would never again give him a significant role.

Throne of Blood takes its stylistic cues from noh—an extremely stylized, traditional form of Japanese theater (see the video below). A spoken chorus starts and ends the film. Sets are often minimalist, as are the actors’ movements. This is especially true with Isuzu Yamada as the Lady Macbeth character. She barely moves a muscle asthroneblood2 she goads her husband to murder. She’s such an embodiment of pure evil that her guilt-ridden insanity in the final act hardly seems credible, even though it follows a miscarriage.

The effect is a film that keeps you at an emotional distance, and never lets you feel the death and disaster around you.

Yet Throne of Blood is utterly compelling, and filled with some of the greatest moving images in cinema history. Terrified riders on terrified horses, lost in a foggy forest. The death shutters of an assassin killed for only half-completing his job. The evil spirits whose prophesy sets the plot in motion.

And, of course, the finale. Kurosawa changed Shakespeare’s ending, giving it a more 20th century, democratic flavor, and making it one of the greatest action sequences ever. It’s an amazing sequence, and one for which Mifune risked his life.

This is indeed a tale told by a genius, filled with striking images, and yet, not really signifying all that much.

Coming Attractions

Just a quick note to share some upcoming events.

The Stanford will start a Kurosawa festival this Saturday. The schedule has yet to be announced, but it will tentatively start with Seven Samurai. Check here for more information.

And The San Francisco Silent Film Festival made an exciting announcement about their summer festival (July 15-18). If you follow silent film or restoration news, you probably know that a 16mm print of Metropolis was found in Venezuela a while back.metropolis This print contained many lost scenes, and appears to be director Fritz Lang’s long-sought original cut. Kino International immediately started the long job of giving the science fiction classic a new restoration, integrating the newly-discovered scenes.

That restoration is now complete, and the complete Metropolis had its restoration premiere at the Berlin Film Festival a few days ago.

It will get its Bay Area premiere at the Silent Film Festival, with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. The exact date has yet to be announced.

What’s Screening: February 12 – 18

IndieFest continues through Thursday at the Roxie. And the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum runs its Mid-Winter Comedy Festival this weekend—Friday through Sunday.

A The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Castro, Wednesday. Terry Gilliam  followed Brazil with this big, splashy fantasy spectacular about the legendary teller of tall tales. Thmunchausene Baron’s alleged exploits had been filmed at least twice before, but no one else succeeded in making them so exhilarating, so funny, or so exciting. An escapist work that celebrates the very idea of escapism, Munchausen suggests there is little difference between an imagined victory and a real one—an absurd concept, but you buy it and cheer for it as you watch the movie. Star cameos include Oliver Reed, Robin Williams, Sting, and Gilliam’s Python partner Eric Idle. Then unknowns in the cast include Sarah Polley and Uma Thurman. On a double bill with Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, as the final of the Castro’s three Gilliam Wednesdays (although Gilliam only directed the Meaning of Life’s prologue).

A Chinatown, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Forget it, Jake. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, but you can’t deny his talent. And that talent never shown better than in this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixing a few personal scandals in, as well, and handed it over to Polanski, who turned it into the perfect LA period piece.

B West Side Story, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 4:00. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–westsidestory especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen movie. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in.

A+ Annie Hall, Red Vic, Friday through Sunday. Almost every Hollywood film deals on some level with romantic love, but very few accurately capture the complex, dizzying ups and downs of that common experience. And no other captures it as well, or as hilariously, as Annie Hall.

A+ Casablanca, Rafael, Sunday, noon. Free! 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.