Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve now seen five movies that will screen at the upcoming Jewish Film Festival. Here they are, from the best to the worst.

B+ Scarface (1932 version), Castro, Sunday, July 25, 10:00; Roda, Wednesday, August 4, 9:15. The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre,  Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni 5344_scarface_00_weblg[1]acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” (And that’s when he’s being shot at with it.) Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that. Good as it is, I wonder if it really belongs in a Jewish film festival; even one with a retrospective of Jewish gangster films. After all, the gangster here is Italian-American; only the actor is Jewish. The festival argues that Muni was famous in the Yiddish theater before he went Hollywood, and that gave the movie a Jewish subtext in 1932. I don’t buy it.

B+ Stalin Thought of You, Roda, Thursday, August 5, 2:00; JCCSF‎, Saturday, August 7, 4:00. The very idea that a satirical cartoonist could survive the Stalin years seems 5272_stalinthoughtofyou_00_weblg[1] preposterous, but Boris Efimov survived throughout the entire Soviet era, and died in 2008 at the ripe age of 109. How did he manage? By aiming his poisoned pencil only at those that the powers-that-be didn’t like. Kevin McNeer’s documentary, built around interviews with the still-clear-minded-at-103 Efimov, takes the form of something like a confession. This artist stayed alive and employed throughout Stalin’s reign, and that couldn’t be done without moral compromises. His brother, a successful journalist and at one time editor-in-chief of Pravda, wasn’t so lucky. McNeer keeps the story lively with newsreel footage, illustrations, and old animations based on Efimov’s drawings.

B Saviors in the Night, Castro, Saturday, July 24, 7:00 (opening night); Cinearts, Saturday, July 31, 6:45. saviorsnight_thumb2Director Ludi Boeken and his three screenwriters have made a respectable, well-made drama, based on true events, about German Jews hiding from the SS, sometimes in plain sight. The movie is dramatic, suspenseful, and gives a real sense of how war and Nazi propaganda effected a tight-knit, rural, German farm community where everybody looks after everybody else. The story of people living in constant danger holds you in suspense. You very much want to see these people come out of the war okay. Especially interesting are the teenage characters, flirting and fighting, and enthusiastically embracing fascism and anti-Semitism before eagerly going off to war as if it was a grand adventure.

C- Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared, Castro, Thursday, July 29, 3:45; Roda, Monday, August 2, 4:00. An Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew, Sayed Kashua is Israel’s 5002_sayedkashua_00_weblg[1]leading satirist, and the creator of the 2008 Jewish Film Festival sitcom hit, Arab Labor. He’s also the winner of this year’s Freedom of Expression Award. All that  suggests a very interesting and entertaining person. But Dorit Zimbalist’s brief (only 52 minutes) and dry documentary portrait presents us with an unpleasant bore. Clearly intended for people already familiar with Kashua’s work, it shows little of his genius. Nor does it dig deep enough to work simply as a profile of a profoundly unhappy man. On the other hand, it does reveal how closely the fictitious family at the center of Arab Labor resembles Kashua’s real world.

D- King of the Roaring 20’s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein, Castro, Monday, July 26, 12:00 noon. This 1961 gangster biopic is as bloodless as they come—and I’m not talking about the relative lack of violence. As played by a pre-Fugitive David Janssen, Rothstein comes off as too flat and dull to be either liked or hated. His only sins are ignoring his wife and being very good at a business that happens to be illegal (gambling). If the real Rothstein’s business involved any other illegal activities—violence, prostitution, or bootleg liquor—you’d never know it from this movie. Speaking of bootleg liquor, there’s almost no sense of period here; despite the “Roaring 20’s” in the title, it could just as well have been set in 1961. Despite it’s being part of the festival’s series Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, the movie seems reluctant to confront Rothstein’s ethnic and religious origins. His father (who only appears in two scenes), is a very religious man, but he never actually states what that religion is, even when he asks a potential daughter-in-law if she is of the same religion. Disclaimer: The DVD that the festival sent me for screening this film had a horrible, almost unwatchable transfer. I don’t think this effected my judgment, but it’s possible.

Hollywood Does Hollywood at the Castro

I just found out about this series Wednesday at the Castro. It’s not even on their web site as I write this. As the name implies, Hollywood Does Hollywood features American films about American filmmaking.

Because I didn’t know about the series when I prepared the current newsletter, I’m inserting a newsletter-like listing that would have been in it had I known:

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Castro, Wednesday. In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the singininrain2 Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. On a double-bill with It’s a Great Feeling, which I’ve never seen and have no opinion of.

The Thursday night double bill has one film I’ve never seen (In a Lonely Place) and one that I don’t remember well enough to write about it (The Player). Other scheduled movies include Sunset Boulevard, the 1954 version of A Star is Born, and Boogie Nights.

What’s Screening: June 25 – July 1

Frameline continues through Sunday, and the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival runs this weekend (Friday through Sunday).

A- Howl, Castro, Sunday, 7:30. What did you expect–ahowl conventional biopic? Would that do justice to the Allen Ginsberg epic poem with which the film shares its name? Like the poem, Howl is challenging, cutting-edge, and unconventional. By weaving together an extended interview with Ginsberg (James Franco), scenes from publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial, and an illustrated reading of the titular poem, Howl gives an overview of Ginsberg’s early life, celebrates the work itself, and cherishes the freedom that made the poem possible. I’ve never read Ginsberg’s poem; this film makes me want to. Frameline’s closing night event. If you miss it, don’t sweat it. It will be around again in September.

Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The first of this summer’s silent film festivals celebrates Essanay films made in 1910, including several directed by Broncho Billy Anderson himself. Also included is The Jack-Knife Man, an early work by King Vidor (who went on to make The Big Parade and The Crowd). All the films will have live piano accompaniment.

A+ Double Bill: Casablanca & Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Whcasablancaat can I say? You’ve either already seen Casablanca 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 entertaining propaganda movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. On the other hand, there’s nothing meaningful, insightful, or propagandistic about Singin’ in the Rain, the great Hollywood musical about the birth of Hollywood musicals. But I’d be hard pressed to find another movie that’s more fun.

A The Hidden Fortress, Wednesday, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. Akira Kurosawa showed astonishing range within the samurai genre (as well as outside the genre). Seven Samurai is an epic drama with fully-developed characters and realistically unpredictable violence; Yojimbo is a black comedy; Throne of Blood is stylized Shakespeare. The Hidden Fortress is just plain fun–a rousing, suspenseful, and entertaining romp. It was also his first widescreen film, and contains two comic peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who were the inspiration for R2D2 and C3PO. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the PFA’s Akira Kurosawa Centennial series.

C- We Have to Stop Now; Victoria Theatre, Friday, 9:30. Talented performers and a funny concept don’t always make a good comedy. That requires a strong script, as well. We Have to Stop Now–2064d[1] apparently a movie made up of bits and pieces of a TV show—lacks just that. The concept: Just as an extremely unhappily married couple, both therapists, agree to divorce, their book on maintaining a happy marriage hits the bestseller lists. Now they have to stay together for the book’s sake. (The fact that it’s a same-sex marriage is almost incidental.) Unfortunately, Ann Noble’s script manages to miss almost every opportunity to milk that rich vein for either humor or insight. The movie has a a few scattered laughs, some of them pretty big, and most of them involving their hilariously incompetent marriage counselor (Suzanne Westenhoefer). Stars Jill Bennett and Cathy DeBuono also display comic talent (and are easy on the eyes), but they don’t have enough to work with. The result is uneven, bland, and even at 79 minutes, too long. A Frameline screening.

The Ultimate Festival Movie

Check out the Current Festivals section in the right panel of this page, and you’ll see a lot of activity this summer. Playing right now or opening soon, we’ve got festival for the LGBT community and another for Jews. There’s a festival of horror films, another of comedies, and two of silent films.

So here’s the trick: Find a film (or at least make up a plot) that can legitimately play at all six festivals. It’s easy to find a gay Jewish comedy; even Ang Lee has made one. And I can think of an actual silent Jewish horror film (The Golem). But what about a silent, gay-themed, Jewish horror comedy? No so easy.

Perhaps if The Golem had starred Buster Keaton as the rabbi and Fatty Arbuckle as the title monster. And instead of falling for a girl, the clay creature loses his head to, say, Snitz Edwards.

Any other ideas?

Jewish Film Festival Announced

Proud of its diversity, the Bay Area hosts a lot of what I call identity film festivals—geared around a particular way people identify themselves, whether it’s ethnic, religious, gender, or sexual identity. And the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, now celebrating it’s 30th year, started the trend.

Being Jewish, this event has more meaning for me personally than the other identify festivals.

The 30th Annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival begins Saturday, July 24 at the Castro with the Holocaust drama Saviors in the Night, and ends Monday, August 9 atSaviors in the Night the Rafael with the music documentary The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground. (That Saturday opening is unusual. I thought it was against the law for a major festival to open any day except Thursday.)  In between those dates, it will serve up 101 screenings of 57 different films. Other venues include Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, the CineArts at Palo Alto Square, and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

In the series Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, the festival will spotlight part of the Jewish-American experience we generally don’t like to talk about. One of the films is actually a cheat—the original, 1931 version of Scarface is about an Italian gangster, although he was played by Yiddish Theater veteran Paul Muni. The other films in the spotlight, Lepke, King of the Roaring 20’s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein, and Bugsy, are genuinely about actual, historical, Jewish gangsters. A panel discussion will follow the Lepke screening.

Another spotlight, People of the Book, looks at writers through documentaries. The included films in the series are A Room and a Half, Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams, Ahead of Time, and Sayed Kashua – Forever Scared. (You could probably make up a drinking game around documentary titles that include colons and hyphens.)

That last title isn’t the only event at the festival built around Israeli Arab satirist Sayed Kashua.  Two years ago, he wowed the festival (or at least me) with the first season of his pointed and hilarious sitcom, Arab Labor. This year, he’s winning the festival’s Freedom of Expression Award. The festival will also screen three episodes from his brand-new Arab Labor: Season 2.

The festival will also screen documentaries on everything from Utopia to Middle East Strife to baseball, assorted dramas, and several films about the Holocaust (just for one year, I want to see a Holocaust-free Jewish Film Festival). And a 1922 silent film, Hungry Hearts, with musical accompaniment by the Moab Strangers.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 17: Yojimbo

And so we come to Kurosawa at his most entertaining, and his most commercial. Oddly enough for this serious and often didactic auteur, also at his best. On one level, we have one of the most enjoyable action flicks ever made, with rousing swordplay, plenty of moments to cheer the hero, and many laughably inept villains. Yet we also have a black comedy about the vileness of the human race, a critique of big business and organized crime, and a work in one genre (samurai sword-fighting movie) that appears to parody another (the western). That’s a lot going on for such a fun entertainment.

I first saw Yojimbo about 30 years ago at Wheeler Auditorium, on a double bill with its sequel, Sanjuro. I’ve seen it a few times since then theatrically. It was one of the first laserdiscs I ever rented, and the first subtitled movie I showed my son. I bought the DVD when it first came out, and eventually replaced it with the better DVD. If I wasn’t cutting back on my home video purchases, I would own the Blu-ray version by now. I watched it Wednesday as part of my Kurosawa Diary project of seeing all of his films in chronological order.

At this point in his career, Kurosawa made star vehicles for Toshiro yojimboMifune, and none showed off the star like Yojimbo. Mifune plays a masterless samurai who wanders into a small village torn between two rival outlaw gangs. These brutes and their corrupt bosses so offend the nameless hero that he decides to kill them all. His incredible skill with a sword helps, of course, but so does his ability to play the various villains against each other, dealing and double-dealing until he has them killing off each other.

Speaking of movie stars, this was the first time Kurosawa used Tatsuya Nakadai in a major role. The actor did extra work in one scene in Seven Samurai (blink and you’ll miss him), then became a star in other people’s films, usually as peaceable, sympathetic protagonists. Here, he’s a killer, and the only villain who constitutes a real threat.

Like it’s predecessor, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo takes a critical view of big business and organized crime, and views them as two peas in the same salad. This being an action comedy instead of film noir, it allows for catharsis. You can’t lose with a sword-slashing Mifune on your side.

Although I call Yojimbo a comedy, it’s not wall-to-wall laughs. The humor is dry, quiet, and only occasionally of the laugh-out-loud variety. And it’s infused with the feeling that the world is so corrupt that only a massacre can save it. Dark comedy, indeed, but that must have been in the air. Kubrick would make Dr. Strangelove two years later.

Yojimbo was Kurosawa’s second period piece to be turned into a western, in this case Fist Full of Dollars (Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven). Yojimbo didn’t require much change. From the moment Mifune enters the dust-blown, one-street town, to his walking away after proclaiming that the town will now be quiet, Yojimbo feels more like a western than any other Asian movie I’ve ever seen. (Of course, I haven’t yet seen the recent The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which as I understand it has a Kurosawa connection.)

This film was such a big hit in Japan that Kurosawa followed it with a sequel. And that sequel, Sanjuro, is up next in my Kurosawa Diary project.

07/02: I edited this post to correct an error. I first saw Yojimbo about 30 years ago. 40 years ago, I had never heard of Kurosawa or Wheeler Auditorim.

What’s Screening: June 18 – 24

Frameline continues through this week.

A+ Ikiru, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:15. One of Akira Kurosawa’s best, and arguably the greatest serious drama ever put up on the screen. Takashi Shimuraikiru gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging government bureaucrat 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. 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. Kurosawa followed Ikiru with Seven Samurai, a very different and arguably better masterpiece, and one where Shimura got to play an action hero. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

B The Host, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:15. A barely-functional family fights an uncaring government and a giant mutant carnivore, and it’s hard to say which is the scarier threat.  I didn’t find this quite the masterpiece others saw–the political points are obvious, the third act gets confusing, and the big finale fails to satisfy. But director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong succeeds where it counts: He makes you care about the characters and scares you out of your seat. Much of the credit goes to the talented computer animators at San Francisco’s own The Orphanage, who brought the monster to life. Part of the PFA series Brought to Light: Recent Acquisitions to the PFA Collection.

C- We Have to Stop Now; Elmwood, Wednesday,  7:00. Talented performers and a 2064d[1]funny concept don’t make a good comedy. That requires a strong script, as well. We Have to Stop Now– apparently a movie made up of bits and pieces of a TV show—lacks just that. The concept: Just as an extremely unhappily married couple, both therapists, agree to divorce, their book on maintaining a happy marriage hits the bestseller lists. Now they have to stay together for the book’s sake. (The fact that it’s a same-sex marriage is almost incidental.) Unfortunately, Ann Noble’s script manages to miss almost every opportunity to milk that rich vein for either humor or insight. The movie has a a few scattered laughs, some of them pretty big, and most of them involving their hilariously incompetent marriage counselor (Suzanne Westenhoefer). Stars Jill Bennett and Cathy DeBuono also display comic talent (they’re also easy on the eyes), but they don’t have enough to work with. The result is uneven, bland, and even at 79 minutes, too long. Part of the Frameline LGBT festival.

D- Bluebeard, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Friday through Sunday. [Note: I accidentally left this out of last week’s newsletter.] To put Catherine Breillat’s name on a film with no sex or nudity almost constitutes false advertising. But that’s not the problem here. Despite twobluebeard very stylized bloody scenes near the end (the only moments that might keep Bluebeard from getting the softest of PG ratings), Breillat’s latest remains bloodless, lacking the passion and excitement that make her other efforts watchable even when their stories get ridiculous. In addition to being dull and lifeless, Bluebeard looks cheap. Set in the 17th century, the film’s few straggling extras appear to be recruited from a local Renaissance Faire. The one saving grace is a modern framing story involving two little girls in an attic, with one reading the story of Bluebeard to the other. They’re adorable, and very funny when they discuss things they clearly know nothing about. But a good framing device doesn’t make up for a bad story.

A The Bad Sleep Well, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Few people know Kurosawa’s dark, contemporary, and suspenseful tale of corruption and revenge—and that’s a shame. It concerns a large, successful, and thoroughly corrupt corporation, and abadsleepwell young man (Toshiro Mifune) out to destroy it from the inside. It begins with his wedding to the president’s crippled daughter—an act that everyone reads as blind ambition (the engagement won him a top job), but is actually motivated by revenge. Kurosawa reveals the reasons for and depth of that revenge slowly in a startling, suspenseful, and bleak story that provides neither catharsis nor easy answers. See my Kurosawa Diaries entry. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.