Oscars at the Cerrito

I discovered just how fun an Oscar party can be. It happened last night at the Cerrito. cerrito

But I must confess: I did not, after all, come costumed as a lesbian gardener ballet dancer with an eye patch. A few people were costumed as movie characters, however, and a great many dressed up formally for the evening.

Each one of us received a bag of goodies as we entered. Mine included a glow wand, a pen, some candy, a CD from a musician I’d never heard of, and a cheap, cardboard horn. I don’t know how identical the bags’ contents were, but I can say with absolute certainly that there were a lot of glow wands, and a lot of cardboard horns. The later contributed to the general merriment.

Houselights were up for the red carpet preshow, and down for the actual program. During commercials, the screen went blank, the houselights came up, and Rialto Cinemas employee Melissa Hathaway (no relation, I assume, to show co-host Anne Hathaway) came onstage with trivia questions.

Throughout the entire evening, other Cerrito employees moved through the theater giving out hors d’oeuvres. This was in addition to the Cerrito’s normal snack bar offerings, which are more like a restaurant’s than a movie theater’s.

Few contestants stood up for the costume contest. The winner was dressed as Helena Bonham Carter’s queen from The King’s Speech. She didn’t get my vote, however (the choice was made by a panel of judges, not the audience). I liked the woman dressed as Rooster Cogburn. (I took some photos, but I’m not satisfied with the results.)

The enthusiastic audience enhanced the show itself. People cheered and applauded, with remarkably little booing. When the Cinematography and Sound Mixing winners made a point of thanking their union crews, the East Bay crowd gave their approval. I wasn’t the only person to applaud silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow for his life-achievement award.

Speaking of life-achievement awards, I’m amongst those who resents that these are now done at a separate, non-televised ceremony. These were always the best part of the Oscars for me.

The show itself was entertaining, and the winners predictable. But I can’t help wondering: Did the majority of Academy members who saw both Toy Story III and The Illusionist really think the kiddie movie deserved the Best Animated Feature award? Or has voting for the Pixar entry simply become a reflex action?


With its celebration of technology and independent filmmaking, Cinequest always seemed like a festival I should attend. But San Jose a big schlep for me, and I’ve yet to make it.

But that doesn’t mean you should miss it. It runs the first 12 days of March.

The festival kicks off this year with Passsione, a documentary about music by indie movie star and sometimes director John Turturro. He’s also receiving this year’s Maverick Spirit Award. The festival closes officially on the 12th with Soul Surfer, although two other screenings are scheduled after that at another theater.

Considering its techie slant, one shouldn’t be surprised that Cinequest will embrace 3D, this year. They’re even embracing an old 2D film that’s been recently converted to 3D. That’s sacrilege! Well, it would be sacrilege if the masterpiece in question wasn’t Plan 9 From Outer Space. The festival will also screen two collections of 3D shorts, Bats, Boards and Bugs and 3opolis.

Outside of Plan 9, the only film they’re showing that I know is Nosferatu, with Dennis James accompanying on the California Theater’s organ.

I’m going to try to preview a few other movies before they’re screened. If I succeed, I’ll tell you about them.

What’s Screening: February 25 – March 3

Cinequest opens Tuesday night, if only as a reminder that not all festivals open on a Thursday. But then, the Green Film Festival opens on Thursday.

And here’s something strange: There’s not a show in this newsletter I can give a grade to. No A‘s, no F‘s, and nothing in between. There are two movies here I really like, but one I haven’t seen in 20 years (which disqualifies it from a grade) and the other is one of three short subjects on the program.

Oscar Parties, Balboa, Cerrito, Lark, Rafael, Roxie. See my recent post for details.

10 Year Anniversary, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The Museum has been presenting films since February 2001, so it’s time for a celebration. The feature is Lilac Time (I haven’t heard of it, either), starring Gary Cooper as a WWI aviator and Colleen Moore as his French love interest. With three short subjects and Jon Mirsalis accompanying on a Kurzwell, which I think is a digital piano.

Silent Comedies of the 1920s, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. The PFA is presenting three obscure silent comic shorts on a night that I can’t attend (damn them). The only one of the three I’ve seen is "Pass the Gravy." I don’t want to give away too much about this Max Davidson two-reeler—let’s just say it involves feuding fathers, young people in love, a prize chicken, and one of the funniest dinners on film. If the other shorts are as funny, this will indeed be an evening of merriment.  And since it’s part of the series and symposium, Cinema Across Media: The 1920s, it will presumably be an evening of education, as well.

The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Balboa, Thursday. Documentary on the making of the Simon and Garfield album 40 years ago. I haven’t seen it, but I thought it was worth mentioning here, anyway.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. The only Dr. Seuss feature film made during his lifetime, and as creative, visually daring, and funny as any kid’s fantasy ever to come out of Hollywood. At least that’s how I remember it, many years from my last screening. Even the sets, photographed in three-strip Technicolor, look as if Seuss had painted them himself. The PFA will screen a vault print as part of the series, and class, Film 50: History of Cinema

Shoah, Pacific Film Archive, Part 1, Saturday, 5:00; Part 2, Sunday, 1:00. I admit that I have never seen this much-acclaimed, epic Holocaust documentary. When I was offered me a review copy recently, I turned them down. I couldn’t imagine spending more than nine hours watching a series of interviews about mass genocide. I’m not proud of that decision. But I thought I should note that the film contains no historical footage, is a recent addition to Roger Ebert’ Great Movies series, and  has been restored for its 25th anniversary.

Oscar Parties

The rule used to be that you watched movies in theaters and TV at home. Today, so many of us watch movies at home that we need to get out once in awhile to watch TV in the theater.

And why not do it with the biggest movie night on television: The Academy Awards? Comedy is usually better with an audience.

Here are the theaters playing the Oscars on their big screens Sunday night:

Balboa: Writer/performer Reed Kirk Rahlmann will host what the Balboa is promising to be the "most relaxed and fun Oscar® party in town." They’re giving away prizes for the best costume; I dare you to come as a Winter Bone.

Cerrito: I’ll be attending this one, so if you come, keep an eye out for me and say "Hello." The Cerrito probably has the best food of any local theater, and the most comfortable chairs, which makes it a good choice for a long show (other theaters are bringing in boxed gourmet dinners, but the Cerrito doesn’t have to bring them in; it has a real kitchen). Like the Balboa, they’re giving away prizes for costumes based on the movies;  I saw The Kids are All Right, Black Swan, and True Grit at the Cerrito, so maybe I should come as a lesbian gardener ballet dancer with an eye patch.

Lark: Food-wise, the Lark seems to be giving the Cerrito a run for its money. They’ve got quite a menu planned from various local eateries. And yes, a costume contest. The price is high, though: $55.

Rafael: For what it’s worth, this is the "Only official Bay Area Oscar night event sanctioned by the Academy." It includes a gourmet boxed dinner and a silent auction, but no costume contest. As I write this, the Rafael’s Oscar event is the only one I’ve attended–two years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed it much. Despite my negative review, it’s already sold out.

Roxie: They’re calling this one "Up the Oscars!" which suggests that it might be the only unofficial Bay Area Oscar night event condemned by the Academy. They’re encouraging patrons to "bring your ill-tempered attitude and vent with an equally irascible ilk while we attempt to distract you with prizes and a variety of shenanigans…" These include (you guessed it) a costume contest, "all calculated to keep your blood from boiling as misconceived musical numbers are performed and unworthy winners are announced."

The Leopard at the Castro

Historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, and Cleopatra tell us stories about people who changed history. Others–what I call passive epics–concentrate on people whose worlds are changed by the history happening around them. Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Dr. Zhivago fit into this category.

Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard takes this passivity even further. The aristocratic, Sicilian  protagonists live through a revolution that changes Italy’s government, but their lives are hardly effected, and certainly not for the worst. True, one young man becomes engaged to the daughter of a common-born but wealthy businessman, which would have been unthinkable a generation before. But that causes little conflict because its good for both familie, and besides, they love each other. Since they’re played by Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, how could they not?

My wife and I caught the new restoration of The Leopard at the Castro Sunday night.

Visconti was an aristocrat by birth but a Marxist by inclination. He clearly understood and sympathized with those born and raised to have absurd entitlement issues, and the film shows considerable nostalgia for the days of fancy balls and peasants who knew their place. But it also understands why this type of life had to go away.

I must admit that I know nothing about the revolution, set at around the same time as our Civil War, portrayed here. I’ll probably look it up and read a bit about it soon.

For a three-hour film where almost nothing happens, The Leopard is remarkably spell-binding. The visuals help immensely. The film was shot in Technirama, the same large-frame, widescreen format used for Sparticus and The Big Country. This yields a fine-grain image with exceptionally saturated colors–perfect for beautiful rooms, ballroom dances, and one well-staged battle scene.

With its baroque proscenium and large screen, the Castro was the perfect place to experience this massive film.

Burt Lancaster’s lead performance as the family patriarch centered the film and held theleopardeverything together. The producers cast Lancaster against Visconti’s wishes, but the director soon accepted the wisdom of their choice. Even robbed of his voice (his lines were dubbed into Italian), Lancaster gives a brilliant performance–one of the best of an distinguished career. His character is strong but aging, a man who takes charge of everyone and every situation as if it’s second nature. But he’s painfully aware that neither he nor his way of life, both of which survive this revolution, can last forever.

Few stars since the talkie revolution have had as strong a physical presence as Lancaster, or as expressive a face. Initially, the disconnect between Lancaster’s face and someone else’s voice threw me off, but not for long. Whoever dubbed him into Italian did a good job.

The Leopard is a big, bold film about people barely touched by momentous events. It’s graceful in design and shows great sympathy for its flawed characters. I enjoyed it immensely, but I also left the theater wondering whether there was a point to it. After all, if the Communists had allowed Zhivago to maintain his practice unchanged, and he continued to enjoy both his wife and Lara, would we care about him?

The Leopard continues at the Castro today (Monday).

What’s Screening: February 18 – 24

No festivals this week.

A Double bill: Chinatown & L.A. Confidential, Castro, Thursday. Roman Polanski chinatownmay be a rapist, but you can’t watch Chinatown and deny his talent as a filmmaker. (Not that that in any way excuses his actions as a human being.) Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving Southern California water rights to create this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Polanski turned it into the perfect LA noir period piece. Speaking of LA noir period pieces, L.A. Confidential – a tale of corruption in the LAPD in the early 1950s – makes a perfect second feature.

A Inside Job, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Once again, I have to ask myself if I liked this documentary because it was well-made, or because I believe in the filmmaker’s point of view. My answer: both. Let me put it this way: Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job covers much of the same ground as Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, and from a very similar point of view. But while Moore grandstands, preaches, and stages funny scenes, Ferguson digs deeper into the problems that caused of the financial crisis, the reasons those problems have not been solved (short answer: They still make the rich richer), and the serious consequences they have for the future of this nation. Moore concentrated on entertaining; Ferguson on being clear and making a case.

A Metropolis, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00. The first important science fiction feature film still strikes a considerable visual punch,and with the latest restoration, tells a compelling story, as well. The images–workers in a hellish underground factory, the wealthy at play, a robot brought to life in the form of a beautiful woman–are a permanent part of our collective memory. Even people who haven’t seen Metropolis know them through the countless films it has influenced. Recently-discovered footage, which restores it to something very much like the original cut, elevates the story of a clash between workers and aristocrats from trite melodrama to grand opera. Read my longer report. Digitally projected, and using the recorded score rather than live accompaniment..

A The Dark Knight, Castro, Wednesday. As far back as Memento, the Nolan brothers have seen evil as an influence very likely to corrupt those dedicated to fighting it. Here no one, including Bruce Wayne/Batman himself (Christian Bale) gets away without moral compromises. But what can you expect when fighting the Joker, who is absolutely nuts in Heath Ledger’s almost-final performance. For more details, see my full review. Playing with Zodiac as the last of three Fincher-Nolan double bills.

Shoah, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, Part 1, 11:30am; Part 2, 5:15. I admit that I have never seen this much-acclaimed, epic Holocaust documentary. When I was offered me a review copy recently, I turned them down. I couldn’t imagine spending more than nine hours watching a series of interviews about mass genocide. I’m not proud of that decision. But I thought I should note that the film contains no historical footage, is a recent addition to Roger Ebert’ Great Movies series, and  has been restored for its 25th anniversary.

B Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Did Warner Brothers rip-off Potter fans by splitting the last book into two films so theyhpdeathyhal1 could get in an eighth movie? Or did they rightfully see this as the best approach for adapting a very long book? Whether they did it for commercial reasons or not, it was the right decision. The movie is fun, scary, and suspenseful, although like most of the Potter films, it does little but visualize what most of us have already read. The fact that you go in knowing there will be no resolution is kind of annoying, but it’s better than finding that out in the theater.

B Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Cerrito, Friday and Saturday, Midnight. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own peeweesbigadvensilliness. 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.

B+ The Oscar-Nominated Live-ActionShort Films, Aquarius, opens Friday for one week. In theory, these are the best five short, live-action, narrative film to play in American theaters in 2010. That brings up a question: Did any short subjects play in American theaters last year? However they qualify, they’re overall a worthy selection, with one remarkable gem, three good little pleasures, and only one near-turkey. Read my full review.

B The Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films, Aquarius, opens Friday for one week. This collection of seven short cartoons (the five nominees and two that should have been nominated) range from conventional to creative, hilarious to poetic, and masterful to mediocre. "The Lost Thing" and the not-nominated "Urs" are the best. If you’re thinking about bringing your kids, all of these shorts are child appropriate, and most of them are child-entertaining. Some may even be child-enlightening. Read my full review.

B Bedlam, Stanford, Friday. A good, fun little low-budget horror film from 1946, set in the legendary madhouse. With Boris Karloff, of course. On a double bill with The Body Snatcher.

Technical Formats and the Best Picture Oscar

If The Social Network wins the big prize this month, as many think it will, it will be the first picture to do so not shot on film. The Mark Zuckerberg biopic was shot digitally.

A year ago, a lot of people thought that Avatar was going to win, and it would have achieved that distinction. Instead, The Hurt Locker, becoming the first film shot in a low-cost, small film format (Super 16) to gain the big prize.

The Best Picture Oscar is meaningless as a way to recognize great films. But it can be invaluable in determining the collective mind of the Hollywood industry. It generally takes a few years after a new artistic or technical trend appears before it shows up in a Best Picture, but when it does, you know the trend has accepted.

Consider these milestones:

Sound: The first Oscars were given in May of 1929, as the studios were abandoning silents. But the Best Picture award went to a silent film, Wings. That the second one went to a talkie, The Broadway Melody (not just a talkie but a musical), shows how quickly silents became obsolete.

Color: The first feature shot entirely in three-strip Technocolor, Becky Sharp, came out in 1935. The first to win Best Picture, Gone with the Wind, in 1939. That seems reasonable considering how slowly color became common. But Wind, which boosted Technicolor’s business and popularity considerably, was the last color winner until An American in Paris, 12 years later.

Widescreen: The widescreen revolution, which permanently and literally changed the shape of motion pictures, happened in 1953. Suddenly, the screens were wider, color was becoming the norm, and many films were even in stereo. And for three years, the award went to black-and-white films that were as narrow as the new standards allowed. But when the Academy finally acknowledged the wide screen in 1957 (with the ’56 awards), they did it in a big way, with Around the World in 80 Days.

Large Formats: And by big, I mean big. Around the World was the first of seven Best Picture winners shot in extra-large 65mm formats (the last was Patton, for 1970). Five of those seven won between the years 1959 and 1965, when a large film negative and roadshow presentation (reserved seats and an intermission) signaled an important film. Until The Hurt Locker, these were the only Oscar winners shot on something other than standard 35mm film. And unlike The Hurt Locker, these sacrificed budget for image quality; not the other way around.

So what does it mean when a small format film wins Best Picture one year, and a digital one may quite probably win the next? That Hollywood is accepting technologies, both old and new (Super 16 has been around for decades), that were considered not-quite-respectable only a couple of years ago.

For good or bad, things are changing.