What’s Screening: December 30–January 5

West Side Story, Douglas Fairbanks’ last silent, and The Wizard of Oz.

No festivals this week. And the Pacific Film Archive and Stanford are closed, as well.

B Sing-a-Long West Side Story, Castro, Friday through Monday. I’m commenting on the movie, not the sing-a-long experience. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–West Side Storyespecially 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 musical. 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.

Short Films from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Rafael, starts Friday. I haven’t seen them, but people who went to Sundance did.

C+ The Iron Mask, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Douglas Douglas Fairbanks' last silent, The Iron MaskFairbanks must have felt melancholy as he made what he knew would be his last silent film. Based on Dumas’ oft-filmed The Three Musketeers sequel,The Iron Mask is unusually dark for a Fairbanks movie, with several likeable characters meeting untimely deaths. But writer-producer-star Fairbanks lacked the knack for serious drama, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of bad melodrama and entertaining swashbuckling. Shown with “Mud and Sand,” a Stan Laurel comedy short from before he was teamed with Oliver Hardy. Accompanied by Bruce Loeb on piano.

B+ The Tree of Life, Lumiere, opens Friday for return engagement. Terrence Malick made a career of taking risks (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.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

Two Films Playing at German Gems Festival in January

I’ve previewed two films that will be screened at the upcoming German Gems festival. Here’s what I thought of them.

Both films will screen at the Castro on Saturday, January 14

B+ Above Us Only Sky (Über uns das All), 4:30. Writer/director Jan Schomburg gives us a sad yet sexy story about the secrets that separate us from those we love the most. Schomburg spends the first 15 above_us_only_skyminutes showing us that Martha (Sandra Hüller) is very happily married, even though she can’t help feeling that husband is hiding something. Then, without warning, he commits suicide. She begins to hunt for an explanation, which may make you think that this film will turn into a thriller. It doesn’t. The reasons for his mysterious and tragic act take a back seat to the main story–that of a young woman dealing with profound and sudden grief. With frightening swiftness, long before the emotional scars heal, she throws herself headlong into a new relationship with a guy who vaguely reminds her of her late husband. Her new man is nice, intelligent, and sensitive, but he can’t help feeling that she’s hiding something. The ending is a little too upbeat. As near as I could tell, the title is not a reference to John Lennon.

B Westwind, 7:30. Two young women–17-year-old twins–come of age while Communism begins to unravel in this effective but predictable story of forbidden love. East German athletes and extremely close siblings, Doreen and Isabel travel to Hungary to train for international competition. It’s 1988, and Hungary is already considerably looser than East Germany. They meet and flirt with some West German boys, which seems harmless enough even after westwindtheir supervisor warns them about the danger of contact with westerners. But when Doreen falls head over heels in love with one of the boys (it’s mutual), both their future as athletes and the twins’ close relationship is threatened. Screenwriters Ilja Haller and Susann Schimk, and director Robert Thalheim, paint an image of a Communism that feels warm and friendly at first glance, and repressive when you look closely. For instance, the athletic camp they’re staying in looks positively idyllic, but it’s surrounded by a barbed-wire fence (which allows for some Pyramus and Thisbe imagery).

The New Pacific Film Archive Calendar

The Pacific Film Archive is still on its winter hiatus, and will remain so until January 12. But the January/February schedule is out, so we have some idea of what’s ahead.

This is an auteur heavy schedule, with four series devoted to particular filmmakers (two American, two French): Henri-Georges Clouzot, Howard Hawks, Robert Bresson, and Gregory J. Markopoulos. Hawks is the best-known of them–at least to American filmgoers–and has the biggest retrospective. Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man will run through this schedule and well into the next one, going from January 13 through April 17. Sticking to films appearing on this schedule, we’ll get a chance to see all his major works and several minor ones through His Girl Friday (1940). Several mostly-forgotten silent are included, all with Judith Rosenberg on the piano.

I know Clouzot, sometimes called “The French Hitchcock,” primarily from one film, The Wages of Fear (screening January 21). I’m looking forward to getting to know his other works; especially the highly-regarded Diabolique.

The annual African Film Festival presents seven features from late January through early February. Oddly, the opening film is reasonably well-known and not from Africa; it’s the American-made, shot-in-San Francisco Medicine for Melancholy.

Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air looks like fun. Co-presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, this brief, four-day series will present three science fiction features and an afternoon of shorts about air and space travel from the first three decades of the last century. Everything will have live music, of course.

RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 from Outer Space

Three MST3K veterans add comic commentary to Plan Nine from Outer Space, allegedly the worst film of all time. I laughed so hard I was gasping for breath.

When I started reviewing Blu-ray discs on this blog, my policy would be to stick with classics. I’m not sure if this review is a derivation from that policy.

More than 30 years have passed since the Medved brothers named Ed Wood’s Plan Nine the Worst Film of All Time in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. The description has stuck, even if it’s highly questionable. I’m not the first to point out that if a movie finds an audience that loves and enjoys watching it, it’s at least on some level a good movie–even if its charms are not the ones that the filmmakers intended.

Let me put it another way: In just about every way except technical competence, Plan 9 from Outer Space is far superior to I Melt With You.

But Plan 9 just may be the most entertainingly bad movie ever made. The clumsy dialog and wooden acting are a wonder to behold. Who could plan9aforget the wife, assuring her husband that she’ll be alright despite the odd goings-on, by pronouncing “The saucers are up there. The graveyard is out there. But I’ll be locked up safely in there.” Or the brilliant police deduction: “But one thing’s sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible.” Yet my favorite is the obviously gay alien (who isn’t the most obviously gay alien) admonishing the human race with a cry of ” You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”

But the acting and dialog are brilliant drama compared to the sets and the continuity. An airplane cockpit has nothing on the back wall except a circular slide rule, a clipboard, and a doorway closed only with a shower curtain. Exterior location scenes shot in daylight intercut with a soundstage graveyard set lit for night. One character is played by Bela Lugosi in some shots, and by a local chiropractor in others.

But I’m not reviewing a conventional Blu-ray of the movie. I’m reviewing a RiffTrax concert video.

Three Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans– Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett–make up the RiffTrax comedy team. Following that long-running TV series’ shtick, they provide assorted comic commentary to bad movies (and good ones). This particular concert was performed in Nashville, and was broadcast live to movie theaters across the country.

The program gets off to a slow start. We get RiffTrax joking through an allegedly educational short about stewardesses. That’s moderately funny–praise that I can’t give to the two commercial parodies also presented. Nelson comes on stage to give away free stuff–not all that interesting after the fact. Musical guest Jonathan Coulton is mildly amusing with a song about a space invasion and a sing-along about zombies. There are clearly some fans of his in the live audience.

Finally, 36 minutes after the show begins, we get to the main event. You might just want to skip to the movie–it’s chapter 9 on the disc.

That’s when this show comes alive. Plan 9 is funny enough on its own. With Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett riffing on it, it’s about ten times funnier.

Their jokes are virtually all throwaways, so completely dependent on context that it’s pointless to repeat them. A bit player’s haircut will inspire the comment “the reverend Lyle Lovett,” and–silly as it sounds–you can’t help laughing. Before you’ve recovered your breath, another comment gets you laughing again.

They riff on most of the movie’s weaknesses, but they did miss a few. The shower curtain separating the plane’s cockpit from the main cabin goes by without mention. And why didn’t anyone notice that neither the earthlings nor the aliens understand the difference between the Universe and the Solar System?

How It Looks

There’s nothing really exceptional here. In fact, I can’t think of a reason not to save a few dollars and buy the DVD.

The non-movie sequences–introductions, songs, and audience reactions–were shot in HD and look very good. But there’s nothing here that requires high definition.

The movies, both the short and Plan 9, are pillarboxed to 4×3, with black bars on the side of the screen. That’s as it should be, but the movies appear to be transferred from standard definition sources; I suspect they look identical on the DVD. Every so often the presentation goes split screen, so you can see the movie as well as close-ups of the three commentators. This didn’t add anything to the experience.

The disc uses the colorized plan9bversion of Plan 9. It seems ridiculous to object to colorization in this context, but I’m going to, anyway. If a movie’s main claim to fame is cheesiness, additions can’t possibly help. I found myself occasionally wondering if it looked cheesy because Ed Wood was incompetent, or because the colorizers intentionally made it that way. The later, to me, feels like cheating. The colorizers added one intentional joke, which isn’t funny. RiffTrax added a comment to it, which didn’t improve it.

How It Sounds

RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 From Outer Space comes with only a single Dolby Digital soundtrack. It really doesn’t need anything better.

And the Extras

The extras are thin, with a total running time of about seven minutes.plan9_box

The best extra is a three-minute slide show on the event’s production. Each photo is captioned, and they give you some idea of what’s involved with putting on a live show in one movie theater that will be beamed to many others.

The other extras are slightly longer versions of the two fake commercials. They’re not worth watching.

RiffTrax didn’t include the most important and obvious extra: A straight, non-commentary version of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I’m not sure why. Perhaps there were licensing issues.

This is not a great Blu-ray release in the conventional sense. But then, Plan 9 isn’t a conventionally great motion picture. But in this case, bad really does mean good.

What’s Screening: December 23 – 29

It’s a wonderful life for a reincarnated artist who will melt with you while singin’ in the rain. All playing this week in San Francisco Bay Area Theaters.

Still no December festivals, but you can read about the January ones. On the other hand, the Castro will screen four musical double bills, which between them include three of my all-time favorites.

B+ My Reincarnation, Rafael, opens Friday. Sometimes, the fruit does fall far from the tree. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu My Reincarnation: Generational conflict among Tibetan Buddhiststravels the world, teaching others the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism. But his Italian-raised son, Yeshi Silvano Namkhai, rebelled life. This is a story as old as The Jazz Singer—or older. Jennifer Fox’s observant documentary follows both men over a 20-year period, as Yeshi comes to embrace his heritage and his father’s desires. This is a story of diaspora, generational clashes, and returning to one’s roots. More than that, it’s a story of two individuals who love each other but can’t see eye to eye. Read my full review.

D I Melt With You, Lumiere, opens Friday. The plot sounds like an updated, male-oriented version of The Big Chill or TheThe four buddies of Return of the Secaucus Seven: Four 44-year-old college buddies rent a house by the beach so they can party and remember the good old days. But this was meant to be a much darker picture than those 30-year-old classics, and presumably more profound. But it gives us little reason to care about these guys, and provides no insight into them. It doesn’t even succeed in making us believe that anyone would act like these improbable characters. Read my full review.

A The Gold Rush, Rafael, opens Friday. One of the most beloved comedies of the silent era is finally becoming readily available in its original form. In this epic comic adventure, Chaplin’s tramp travels Chaplin_GoldRush[1]through the frozen Yukon of the Alaskan gold rush, gets marooned in a cabin with two much larger men, nearly starves to death, nearly becomes dinner, and falls in love with a dancehall girl who scarcely knows he’s alive. Within this story you’ll find some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe and the dance of the rolls. But my favorite is the scene where his cabin mates wrestle over possession of a rifle that always manages to point to Chaplin. Long available only in a truncated and narrated version created by Chaplin in 1941, we can now view a new restoration of the 1925 original. The music, alas, will not be live. For more on The Gold Rush, see The Altered Charlie Chaplin Problem and The Gold Rush and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, Balboa, Friday and Saturday; Stanford, Saturday; Film Society/New People Cinema, Sunday. There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. wonderfullifeGeorge Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own happiness. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, Bailey needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because Bailey, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it. The Balboa will screen a Blu-ray disc, which based on my experience, should be just fine on their screen. The Stanford screening is sold out.

A+ Gene Kelly Double Bill: Singin’ In the Rain & On the Town, Castro, Wednesday. The A+ goes to Singin’ in the Rain. There’s nothing meaningful, insightful, or didactic about the greatest of all Hollywood musicals, which happens to be about the birth of Hollywood musicals. But I’d be hard pressed to find another movie that’s more fun. 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. The second feature, On the Town, earns a full A in its own right. Three sailors, in New York for a 24-hour leave, look for girls and find true love. What makes this special–aside from great songs, terrific choreography, and a witty script–is the prevailing sense of friendship and camaraderie. Also, for a 1949 Hollywood feature, it takes a surprisingly positive view of sex.

A The Artist, Kabuki, California, opens Friday. Michel Hazanavicius just made a silent movie about the death of silent movies. Even more amazing than that, he pulls it off, creating a warm, funny, heartfelt, and occasionally sad story of a Hollywood star’s fall from grace as talkies ruin his career. Meanwhile, a struggling actress who loves him becomes a star in the new medium of talkies. Hazanavicius fills the picture with funny bits that illuminate the characters; for instance, the star’s unhappy wife spends her time drawing bad teeth and devil horns on photos of her husband. A black-and-white, narrow-screen, silent film is a hard sell in today’s market, and I don’t know if The Artist will find its audience. Catch it before it disappears. Or at least read my full review.

Georges Méliès and Other Movie Magic: A Festive Grab Bag, Oddball Films, Friday, 8:00. With Hugo in theaters, someone had to put together this program. The evening will include three Méliès shorts (not including his most famous, “A Trip to the Moon”) plus assorted other selections. These include a Fritz Freleng cartoon and outtakes from The Monkees. Seating is limited; RSVP at 415-558-8117 or programming@oddballfilm.com.

A The Band Wagon, Castro, Monday. Singin’ in the Rain’s producer and writers teamed up with director Vincente Minnelli to make the one great Fred Astaire vehicle without Ginger Rogers. Their trick? They blended a small dose of reality into the otherwise frivolous mix. For instance, Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to the Broadway stage he abandoned years before, is clearly based on Astaire himself. The result is a sly satire of Broadway’s intellectual aspirations, lightened up with exceptional songs and dances including “That’s Entertainment” and “I Love Louisa.” On a double bill with Meet Me In St. Louis, which I haven’t seen in a very long time and never really liked all that much.

B+ The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Castro, Thursday. When we think French New Wave, we imagine gritty, black-and-white stories filled with angst and alienation. Yet Jacques Demy, shooting a completely believable story in real locations, created a lush, colorful and sublimely romantic musical. A movie like few others, with an astonishingly young and beautiful Catherine Deneuve (as opposed to the astonishingly well-aged and beautiful Catherine Deneuve of today). On a double bill with A Woman Is a Woman, which I haven’t seen.

Review: My Reincarnation

A Tibetan Buddhist master and his westernized son clash over the young man’s place in the old man’s cultural and religious world. It’s a story as old, or older, than The Jazz Singer. But in My Reincarnation, a documentary by Jennifer Fox, it’s made new again.

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jennifer Fox

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu travels the world, teaching others the Tibetan Buddhism that has been his life’s work. Recognized when just an infant as the reincarnation of an important yogi, Chögyal started training early in life. As a young man, he escaped Chinese-controlled Tibet and settled in Italy, where he married a once-Catholic local, had two children, and settled down. (He’s a master, not a monk. As such, he was never expected to be celibate.)

His son, Yeshi Silvano Namkhai, was also recognized as the reincarnation of an important master–in fact, of Chögyal’s favorite uncle, who had died in a ChineseMy Reincarnation: Generational conflict among Tibetan Buddhists prison. As such, Yeshi also seemed fated to a life as a spiritual master.

But sometimes, the fruit does fall far from the tree. More Italian than Tibetan culturally, Yeshi set out to make a different life for himself. He built a career in technology, working for IBM. Yet, in some ways, his life was surprisingly like his father’s; he travelled a lot for his job, and didn’t see as much of his wife and children as he would have liked.

Slowly, over a period of many years, Yeshi came to embrace his heritage, his past life, and his father’s desires. He gives up his secular career to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Filmmaker Jennifer Fox started interviewing and videotaping father and son way back in 1988. Every few years, she’s returned to the Namkhais to check in on them and record how they were doing.

Fox is a classic cinema vérité documentarian. She points the camera at whoever looks interesting and records the events. Her camera gets close and intimate, allowing us to study the faces of people who have learned to ignore it. She also encourages her subjects to talk about their lives. Yeshi’s commentaries become a present-tense narration for the film, and we see most of the events through his eyes.

This is, of course, a story of Buddhist wisdom, but it’s more universal than that. It’s a story of diaspora, generational clashes, and returning to one’s roots. More than that, it’s a story of two individuals who love each other but can’t see eye to eye.

New Film Review: I Melt With You

All middle-aged men are irresponsible jerks who romanticize their youth to the point of psychosis. At least that seems to be the theme of I Melt With You, a new film that is not The Big Chill of the punk rock generation.

D Buddy drama

· Written by Glenn Porter

· Directed by Mark Pellington

The plot sounds like an updated, male-oriented version of The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus Seven, about people born in the 1960s rather than having come of age then. Four college buddies, all of them 44, rent a house by the beach so they can party together, take lots of drugs, and have a good time. Life has taken its toll, and they miss the carefree guys that they once were and thought they’d always be.

But I Melt With You is very different from those films of 30 years ago, and not just because the main characters are all men and of a different generation. This is a much darker picture, one that goes into a very different place. But also, unlike those two, I Melt fails almost completely. The picture gives us no reason to care about these four guys and the generation they may or may not represent. Worse, it gives us no insight into them, and doesn’t even succeed in making us believe that they could actually exist.

Richard (Thomas Jane) is the ringleader–if not the leader of the four than certainly theThe four buddies of "I Melt With You" first among equals. He’s single, always has been single. I believe the others follow his lead because he’s an even bigger jerk than they are. Rob Lowe plays Jonathan, the divorced dad and crooked doctor; occasional moments of sensitivity make him a bit less of a jerk. Ron (Jeremy Piven) is married, has children, and takes his responsibilities seriously, but he can still act like a jerk. Tim (Christian McKay) is the nice, sensitive guy with a tragic past. He’s not a jerk. But then, he’s gay (or bi, I’m not sure), which in the world of dramatic film clichés, explains why he’s sensitive and not a jerk.

The guys start altering their consciousness as soon as they get together. They snort coke, smoke pot, drink alcohol, and take assorted pills courtesy of the good doctor. They run naked in the surf, go fishing, drive a red sports car way too fast while coked up, and invite some much younger adults over for a drug-laced party. (One of these young people is played by Sasha Grey, and yes, one of them sort of has sex with her.)

But it’s not all fun and games. Every so often, they get serious and talk about all the ways in which their lives have gone wrong. In doing so, they never say anything I haven’t heard in a 100 better films, or anything that makes them truly unique individuals. Then they go back to being decadent, which never really looks like much fun.

I can’t discuss this film anymore without some mild spoilers. You have been warned.

Almost exactly halfway through the picture, tragedy strikes. I won’t say what happens. I will say that it caught me by surprise, and that it shouldn’t have. From there, I Melt With You takes a really weird turn that might have been shocking if it was believable. The place it goes to is very, very dark. But darkness doesn’t always promise depth. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers thought they were making something profound; they were self-deceived.

And then the whole thing ends with a car chase.