What’s Screening: September 30–October 6

The Berkeley Video and Film Festival opens Friday and runs through Sunday. The much bigger Mill Valley Film Festival opens Thursday.

A The Mill and the Cross, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opens Friday. Painting with the wide palette that 21st century cinema allows, Lech millandcrossMajewski creates a masterwork about Bruegel creating one of his masterworks, The Way to Calvary. True to Bruegel’s style, the film starts with the day-to-day lives of ordinary, 16th-century peasants. But life isn’t a rustic paradise for these commoners. Flanders is part of the Spanish Empire and its Inquisition. Using nature, paint, and digital effects, Majewski creates not a realistic biopic but a visual feast that moves from the world of Bruegel’s experience to the world of his imagination. Bruegel made his statement about religious intolerance. Majewski made his about Bruegel. Both are worth looking at. Read my full review.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:10. I have an interesting personal history with Melvin Van Peebles’ ground-breaking work. My step-father, John H. (Hans) Newman, cut the sound effects on it. Of all the directors Hans worked with, Van Peebles (I still think of him as “Mel”) was on the only one who came to our home and became a friend of the family. “A mensch” my mother said, years later. The only time I saw Sweetback, it was a rough cut in a Columbia Pictures screening room; I’ve yet to see the final version.

A The Maltese Falcon, Lark, Monday, 7:00. Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been maltesefalconfilmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. Author Jeffrey Meyers will introduce the film.

The Mill and the Cross

A No genre that I can reasonably identify

  • Written by Lech Majewski & Michael Francis Gibson
  • Directed bt Lech Majewski

Even when the subject was mythical or Biblical, Peter Bruegel the Elder always painted the world he lived in–16th century Flanders. And he did it with an affectionate eye towards the daily lives of common people–individuals who would be forgotten as the momentous events in the background became history.

Painting with the wide palette that 21st century cinema allows, Lech Majewski created a masterwork about Bruegel creating one of his masterworks, The Way to Calvary. As befits Bruegel (a favorite painter of mine), the film spills over with tiny details of daily life, tells multiple stories in order to dramatize one (or two), and provides plenty of atmospheric eye candy. It also has more digital effects than a Hollywood blockbuster–even if none of them involve robots, aliens, or explosions.

(I saw this film on a review DVD prior to its screening at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. I can’t wait to see it again in 35mm; and perhaps after that on Blu-ray.)

True to Bruegel’s style, the film starts with the day-to-day lives of ordinary, 16th-century peasants. We meet the Miller (obviously an important person in a film called The Mill and the Cross), woodsmen, and assorted farmers. Bruegel himself also shows up (Rutger Hauer), observing life and sketching plans for the painting.

But life wasn’t a rustic paradise. Flanders was part of the Spanish Empire, which considered any act justifiable if it enforced Catholicism. Bruegel saw the dark similarity between those who persecuted Christ and those who persecute in Christ’s name; Majewski sees it, as well. As Bruegel discusses his painting with his friend and patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York), the cruelties of the Inquisition are foremost on their minds.

Majewski did not create a realistic biopic. Some shots are photographed against realistic nature, others against painted backgrounds, and still others against a combination of the two. There’s little dialog, but several speeches. As the film progresses, it slowly moves from the world of Bruegel’s experience to the world of his imagination. We watch Jesus’ torture and crucifixion, carried out by Spanish soldiers as Flemish peasants watch.

Bruegel made his statement about religious intolerance. Majewski made his about Bruegel. Both are worth your attention.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

Here’s a quick preview of two films I’ve been able to preview for the Mill Valley Film Festival:

B- Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, Sequoia, Saturday, October 8, 4:00; Rafael, Monday, October 10, 9:00. Sarah, a young, very pregnant technology geek (Annasmallbeautparts Margaret Hollyman), sets out to find her estranged, irresponsible living-off-the-grid mother. Sarah’s unique personality and Hollyman’s infectious performance are almost enough to carry this modest trifle. Here is a woman who sits on the toilet, admiring how a disposable pregnancy test works as it gives her the news that will change her life. But she isn’t a stereotypical nerd, either; she mixes well with people and has a loving partner whom the filmmakers fail to flesh out as a character. But as this short (73 minutes) feature reaches its half-way point, I began to suspect that it wasn’t really going anywhere. And it wasn’t.

C California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown, Rafael, Tuesday, October 11, 8:00. Do you know who shouldn’t make a documentary about an important politician? That politician’s grandchild. Director and narrator govbrownsSascha Rice is the granddaughter of former California Governor Pat Brown, the niece of former and current Governor Jerry Brown, and the daughter of one-time candidate-for-governor Kathleen Brown. She’s very close to the subject, and seems reluctant to say much that might be negative about grandpa (although, to her credit, she occasionally does —very briefly). She paints his first term as heroic triumph of late New Dealism, and his second as heroic tragedy in the face of rising conservatism. Every so often, she’ll fast forward to more recent Brown victories and defeats. There’s some interesting history here, but she never looks at things deeply enough to be insightful. With one exception, every Democratic governor we’ve had in this state in the last 70 years has been a Brown (the exception was a Gray); I would have enjoyed some discussion of why.

Once in a Lifetime at ACT

Why would a movie blog cover a piece of live theater? When the play is about the movies.

Last night, my wife and I attended a preview performance of the American Conservatory Theater’s new production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman ’s 1930 Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime. A broad farce about Hollywood, the play is built around the talkie revolution—still recent news when the play first opened.

I have some history with this play. I did tech on a production of it when I was in high school.

The story centers on three down-on-their-luck vaudevillians who, in the wake of The Jazz Singer, dash to Hollywood to make a fortune as elocution teachers. They haven’t a clue what they’re doing, but they figure that no else does, either. They’re right about that. Kaufman and Hart paint Hollywood as an industry run by the clueless. Stupidity, they tell us, is the single biggest career asset.

With a farce of this nature, there are only two relevant questions: Does it make you laugh, and do you care enough about the main characters to happily sit through the few laugh-free scenes? The answers: Definitely, and just barely. The classic script, Mark Rucker’s imaginative direction, and the talented ensemble cast (all of whom get their chances to steal scenes) all work together in this well-oiled laugh machine.

Two favorite bits: All of the waiters, chauffeurs, and other service workers feel the need to “act” when in the presence of a studio head. And a transplanted playwright finds himself trapped in Ionesco-like absurdities while trying to find out what the studio wants in exchange for his generous salary.

Appropriate for a play about movies, movies themselves are worked into the production. The play opens with a scene from The Jazz Singer. Other clips entertain the audience during the set changes—some from old movies, and two shot specifically for this production (these two are particularly hilarious).

The performance was rough around the edges, with a few slow spots and missed cues. But that’s why they charge less for a preview.

I was probably the only person in the audience bothered by historical inaccuracies. Some of these are in the script. Neither Hart nor Kaufman had yet worked in Hollywood, and were proud of that. But the worst errors were in the play’s production design, especially in the one scene set on a sound stage.  There was no microphone, and the camera was sort that had to be abandoned when sound came in: an unblimped, hand-cranked camera. The earliest sound films were shot with cameras equipped with electric motors, with both the camera and its operator trapped in a sound-proof box.

I know. That’s nitpicking. It didn’t impede much on the evening’s entertainment, and probably not at all for anyone except me.

The play runs through October 16. Unlike more popular Kaufman/Hart plays (You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner), this one is seldom revived. Chances to see this particular comedy really do come around once in a lifetime.

Vitaphone Shorts at the PFA

Last night I attended the screening of ten Vitaphone shorts at the Pacific Film Archive. It was part of their current UCLA Festival of Preservation series. Vitaphone was vitaphonelogoWarner Brother’s early talking film technology, synchronizing image on film with sound on phonograph discs. The system was used for features—the best known being The Jazz Singer—but every Vitaphone feature was preceded by a collection of shorts.

Warners continued to use the name Vitaphone for their short subjects long after movie sound was unique or recorded on phonographs. I’ve seen Technicolor two-reelers from the late 1930s with the Vitaphone moniker.

Seven of the ten shorts screened last night were Vitaphone shorts in the classic sense of the term: crudely filmed vaudeville acts. They couldn’t edit the sound (how do you cut and splice a disc?), so they would film and record a stage act straight through using two or three cameras (the technology limited them to about 11 minutes maximum). Then they would edit the picture, always keeping it in sync with the unalterable sound.

Of these seven, the best was easily “Frank Whitman ‘That Surprising Fiddler’.” He played the violin in all sorts of ways. He used a matchstick for a bow, then a glassvitaphonewhitman flask. And when he used a conventional bow, he didn’t always use it conventionally. He held it with his mouth or his knees, and moved the violin across it. Foreshadowing Jimi Hendrix, he played the violin behind his back (although he didn’t set it on fire). But I also liked “Born and Lawrence ‘The Country Gentlemen’,” “Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties,” and “The Wild Westerner with Val Harris, Ann Howe.”

But three of the shorts were of a very different nature. They were more cinematic–clearly written and designed for film. They cut back and forth between scenes in a way that required at least crude audio editing. With two of these shorts, that wasn’t really surprising. “Niagara Falls” and “What A Life” were made in 1930. By that time Warners was recording sound on film like everyone else, and could edit audio. These were titled “Vitaphone Varieties,” clearly signifying a different kind of beast.

But the other cinematic short, “Hollywood Bound,” is a mystery to me. It was released in 1928, and I didn’t know that Warners could cut audio that early. I’m not sure how that one was made.

What’s Screening: September 23 – 29

The Irish Film Festival, the Latino Film Festival, and Hong Kong Cinema all continue through Sunday.

B+ Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Embarcadero, Shattuck, Piedmont, opens Friday. The nature of the civil rights movement changed dramatically in the mid-to-late 1960’s, and this American/Swedishblackpower documentary tracks the black power movement from Stokely Carmichael’s heyday until heroin ravaged Harlem. The film’s Swedish origin is something of a gimmick. Most of the footage consists of news footage shot by Swedish crews for Swedish television. Occasionally we get the original narration with English subtitles. Most of the narration is made up from recent interviews with African-American activists, and the point of view is definitely theirs. The result is an intriguing and informative overview, if considerably one-sided. Little attention is given to the bad decisions, reverse racism, and raging sexism that warped the movement. Read my full review.

A Psycho, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Contrary to urban myth, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t really want people to stop taking showers. He was, however, inspired by the television show he was then producing to make a low-budget movie in black and white. Note: I incorrectly listed this for last week. I hope I didn’t cause anyone inconvenience.

Red State, Balboa and Camera 3, Sunday. Kevin Smith—the writer and director of cheerfully offensive, dialog-heavy comedies like Clerks, Dogma, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno —has made a thriller. Well, why not? John Huston made a musical comedy. The story involves a trio of teenage boys who take a journey hoping for sex and find themselves prisoners of evil Christian fundamentalists—just like our country. Smith is distributing the film himself, and part of the process will be simultaneous screenings in multiple theaters this Sunday. Smith will be on hand via live webcast to answer questions.

B+ Shaolin, New People, Wednesday and Thursday. The Buddhist monks in Benny Chan’s new period piece hate bloodshed, but they still get to beat up a lot of bad guys. The story concerns a ruthless warlord (Andy Lau) who will do anything to gain and hold power. But when he’s betrayed and overthrown, he finds himself at the mercy of the monks in the Shaolin Temple, a holy place which he recently desecrated. Luckily, the monks are good at forgiveness…and at fighting. They help the general learn to be a decent, peaceful human being. They also help him fight the new—and even worse—warlord who has taken his place. With Jackie Chan providing comic relief. Read my full review.

Manhattan Short Film Festival, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:00. Ten short films will be screened for audiences around the world this week. Then the audiences vote on the best short.

A Lawrence of Arabia, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece isn’t worth seeing on DVD, and loses much in 35mm, which is how the UA will screen it. Shot in Super Panavision 70, it takes 70mm film projected onto a giant screen to fully appreciate Lawrence. If the UA was able to show it that way, I would have given it an A+. See Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia for more information.

B+ Tree of Life, Castro, Thursday. Terrence Malick made a career of going out on a limb (if someone who has made only five films in 40 years can be said to have a career). But sometimes, when you go out on a limb, the branch breaks. His latest film works beautifully when it concentrates on a loving but troubled family in the 1950s—a story with no plot and many conflicts. The contemporary scenes with Sean Penn as one of the young sons, now a middle-aged man, don’t play as well. Few are as convincing as Penn at looking miserable, but Malick provides us with so little about his current life that we’re not sure what he’s miserable about. And then there are the scenes that are just plain weird. But it’s a Malick film, so at least it’s always beautiful to look at.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Göran Hugo Olsson

The nature of the civil rights movement changed dramatically in the mid-to-late 1960’s, abandoning non-violence and attacking the heart of the American government. This American/Swedish documentary tracks the Black Power movement from Stokely Carmichael’s 1967 heyday until heroin ravaged Harlem in 1975.

The picture starts out by explaining that the footage you’re about to see was shot by Swedish crews for Swedish television, and that it presents a  Swedish view of this American phenomenon. Yet despite the occasional use of Scandinavian narration (with English subtitles, of course, and presumably from the original broadcasts), very little feels foreign about this film.

On one hand, that’s a compliment to director Göran Hugo Olsson. He made a filmblackpower about America that felt home-made to this American. On the other hand, the occasional references to Mix Tape’s Swedish origins come off as a gimmick.

One reason the film feels authentically American is that most of the narration is homegrown–made up from recent interviews with such African-American activists as Angela Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, and Abiodun Oyewole. Their voices, recorded off-camera in 2010, tell the story from the point of view of people who shaped the times or were shaped by them.

The result is an intriguing and informative overview of the Black Power Movement, if a considerably one-sided one. Little attention is given to the bad decisions, reverse racism, and raging sexism that warped the movement. Or the inherent flaws in using violence to achieve social ends. No one, for instance, bothers to point out that if you’re going to brandish guns and insist on your right to use them in self-defense against the police, there’s a very good chance you will soon be dead.

I saw Black Power Mix Tape at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival.