What’s Screening: January 27–February 2

We’re off to see Harry Belafonte, Captain Kirk, and two black birds. And if you find yourself reading this newsletter over and over again, that’s because it’s Groundhog Day.

In festival news, Noir City continues through Sunday. And the Mostly British Film Festival opens Thursday.

B Sing Your Song, Roxie, opens Friday. Harry Belafonte is a great performer and a dedicated activist. This reverential documentary Harry Belefonte Charming TV Audience in Sing Your Songemphasizes the activism, from his high-profile importance to the civil rights movement to his current work reforming gang members. Director Susanne Rostock has made a picture that encourages you to burn with anger at the world’s injustices, and admire those who worked and sacrificed to end those injustices. But if you come into the theater because you love Belafonte’s music, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll hear bits and pieces of many a great song, but you won’t hear a single one from beginning to end. Read my full review.

Science On Screen: What Captain Kirk Can Teach Us (AKA: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the second Star Trek movie (and the first to get it right), but if I remember it correctly, it’s a fun one. Sure, the plot is silly, but the action snaps, the effects look great, and the screenplay seems to really understand the characters—something I can’t say for the first movie or even the original TV show. Buddha’s Brain author Rick Hanson will be on hand to discuss the brain’s relationship to the body, the power of positive thinking, and the "Kobayashi Maru" scenario (Star Trek fans know what that last one is).

Dashiell Hammett Marathon, Castro, Sunday. Hammett’s dark world view and direct writing style helped pave the way for film noir, and was a San Francisco original. So it’s appropriate for this year’s Noir City festival to end with six movies based on his novels. The only pictures here I’ve seen are the two versions of The Maltese Falcon. The 1931 original plays the story for laughs, and works reasonably well. But in the 1941 remake, 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.

Live Jazz & A Great Day in Harlem, Balboa, Sunday, 5:30. Jazz and movies—two art forms that describe 20th century American entertainment. The evening’s festivities include a screening of Jean Bach’s jazz documentary, A Great Day in Harlem, and a live performance by the Jimmy Ryan Balboa Be Bop Band. As I have neither seen the movie nor heard the band, I can’t officially give this event a recommendation, but it sounds like fun.

C British Arrows Awards 2011, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Friday through Sunday. Why pay to see commercials that you would fast-forward through at home? Because these are the best of British commercials, and the British have earned arrowawardsreputations for great television and witty, off-the-wall humor. About 20 minutes of this hour-long presentation is very much worth watching—from a heroic tale of bakery delivery trucks to a small village where everyone’s a cider fanatic to a lesson in making low-budget Doritos commercials. But to get to these gems,  you have to sit through a lot of technical whiz-bang, supposedly heart-warming slices of life, and two poetic odes to Macdonalds. See my full review.

A Groundhog Day, Castro, Thursday (which is Groundhog Day). Is Groundhog Day a deep, spiritual meditation on the nature of human existence and the power of redemption? Or is it simply the best comedy (although not quite the funniest) of the 1990s? It’s hard to say, but as weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over again, with no changes except the ones he makes himself, there appears to be something profound going on along with something profoundly entertaining. I have a rule against giving an A+ to to any film less than 20 years old; I strongly suspect that next year I will give one to Groundhog Day. On a double bill with Caddyshack, which I saw many years ago; I wasn’t impressed with it then.

B+ Scarface (1932 version), Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and 5344_scarface_00_weblg[1]demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni 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 one is shooting at him. 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. Part of the series Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man.

A- Midnight in Paris, Castro, Wednesday; Opera Plaza, opening Friday. I didn’t think Woody Allen still had it in him. He hasn’t made a film this funny, this wistful, and this heartfelt in decades. And I don’t think he’s ever made one this upbeat. Owen Wilson stars as your basic neurotic, romantic, witty, oversexed, and not quite intellectual Allen protagonist in a movie that slightly resembles Allen’s 1985 Purple Rose of Cairo. As with that film, the protagonist’s intense desire to escape into a fantasy world alters reality. But this is a much more optimistic movie, one where fantasy can help one handle reality. Read my full review. On a double bill with The Moderns.

B+ Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz, Lark, Sunday, 3:00. 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. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.

Noir City Report: 2 by Sam Fuller

I spent last night at the Castro, where I saw two crime thrillers by the great Samuel Fuller: House of Bamboo and Underworld USA–all part of the Noir City festival running through Sunday.

The evening got off to a late start. Due to an error, the starting time was advertised as 7:00 in some publications and 7:30 in others. Rather than have people arrive a half hour into the movie, the festival organizers started the show at the later time. 7:30 is not a good time to start a double bill on a weeknight, and I didn’t get to bed until after midnight.

Festival organizer Eddie Muller took the stage at 7:30 and talked a bit about Fuller, then invited former Chronicle columnist and Creature Features host John Stanley to join him. The two talked about Fuller and newspaper work (Fuller started out as a reporter, and–not surprisingly–covered the crime beat). They talked about Fuller’s colorful vocabulary (he would describe a producer he didn’t like as a "banana head") and Muller described Fuller as the ideal American male.

The talk was entertaining and interesting, but in light of the late start, I wish they had skipped it or shortened it significantly. It was getting close to 8:00 before the movies started.

House of Bamboo (1955)
Despite the criminal-laced story, House of Bamboo didn’t feel like noir to me. It’s hard to be dark at an exotic location (Japan), and in Technicolor and Cinemascope. Besides, the story treated evil as an aberration that’s inevitably wiped out, rather than as the natural state of humanity. Robert Stack stars as an American who comes to Japan with possibly illegal motives, and gets involved with a bunch of well-dressed Yankee crooks led by Robert Ryan (who steals the picture). It’s an entertaining story, with great location footage that captures a Japan that’s both exotic and grimy.

Underworld USA (1961)
Now this is noir! And prime Sam Fuller! Cliff Robertson plays a safe cracker on a 20-year quest to avenge his father’s death. Not that his father was such a great man; a criminal himself, he had started his son on a career path that would inevitably lead to time in prison. Three of the father’s killers end up as top crime bosses, so our thuggish antihero joins up with the syndicate, makes himself liked, and starts working to destroy it from within. Told in that sleek and unforgiving Fuller style, Underworld USA presents a world where crime can become respectable, but where a thug is always a thug, especially if he was destined for that role after birth.

I didn’t get enough sleep last night, but it was worth it.

Sing Your Song

Harry Belafonte is a great performer and a great activist. This reverential documentary emphasizes the activism.

B Musical & political documentary

Directed by Suzanne Rostock

My mother was a big Harry Belefonte fan. She loved his singing voice. She very much approved of his political activism. And I suspect she found him very sexy. There were reasons for those tight pants and v-necked shirts.

Director Susanne Rostock clearly likes Belefonte, as well. Her biographical documentary, Harry Belefonte Charming TV Audience in Sing Your Songco-produced by Gina Belafonte and a company called Belafonte Enterprises, makes no attempt to show his warts. The picture celebrates the actor/singer’s talent, and even more, his activism.

Luckily, it’s a life worth celebrating. Born in Harlem and raised partly in Jamaica (the Caribbean Jamaica, not the one in Queens), Harry Belefonte started acting as a young adult. Then he discovered singing, and found fame and fortune with a singing style all his own. But as a black man in post-World War II America, he soon grew disgusted with the segregation that kept him down despite his success–and kept less successful African Americans further down still. He became an outspoken critic of racism and segregation, and soon became an important figure in the civil rights movement, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King. He’s still an activist today, working to reform gang members and against a legal system all too eager to jail young people of color.

Rostock tells all this in her film–or more precisely, she allows Belefonte to tell it; theActivist Harry Belefonte in Sing Your Song subject of this doc is also its narrator. Their picture encourages you to burn with anger at the world’s injustices, and admire those who worked and sacrificed to end those injustices.

But if you come into the theater because you love Belefonte’s music, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll hear bits and pieces of many a great song, but you won’t hear a single one from beginning to end. I understand this is primarily a political biography and not a concert movie, but let’s be honest here. American history is filled with heroes and heroines who devoted their lives to making this a better world, and many of them paid a far greater price for their ideals than did Belefonte. Yet Rostock chose to make this picture about Belefonte. Why? Because he’s a talented and famous singer. Giving us a few complete songs would have resulted in a longer film, but it would have also turned an interesting political polemic into a must-see movie.

I have one more complaint–this one technical. Much of the picture is taken up by old, pre-HD television clips, shot in the old 4×3 aspect ratio. Rather than pillarboxing theseA Distorted Harry Belefonte in Sing Your Song images (putting black bars on the side of the screen to maintain the original framing), Rostock chose to fill the entire screen with every shot. Sometimes, she crops the shots vertically–not an ideal choice but a workable one. But other times she stretches the image horizontally, distorting the picture and making everyone look fat—as you can see above.

Rostock and Belefonte have made a flawed documentary that’s still worth seeing. They could have made a much better one.

Sing Your Song opens Friday at the Roxie.

The Arrow Awards: The Best in British Television Commercials

The British make great television and have a great comedy tradition. But does that mean you should pay to see their television commercials?

C Collection of television commercials

If you’re like me, you probably mute or fast-forward through TV commercials. So why on earth would you go to a movie theater and buy a ticket to watch an hour’s worth of advertising intended for the "telly?"

One reason is that these are, at least in theory, the best–the commercials that have won the elite British Arrow Awards. For another reason, they’re British. Whatever we think of English dentistry and cooking, every PBS fan knows that they make great television. And the British tradition of off-the-wall humor stretches back from Gilbert and Sullivan through Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python to Wallace and Gromit. (Am I hitting enough stereotypes here?)

British Arrow Awards 2011 will screen Thursday through next Sunday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I did not screen these in time for last week’s newsletter.

Unfortunately, surprisingly few of these commercials are funny–intentionally or otherwise. To get to the laughs, you have to sit through a lot of technical whiz-bang, supposedly heart-warming slices of life, and two poetic odes to Macdonalds.

But the funny ones are excellent. What starts as a romantic war epic turns into a heroic tale of bakery delivery trucks. Two commercials introduce us to the small arrowawardsvillage where everyone seems exceptionally devoted to making wonderful cider. Impressive computer animation show us an exceptionally bad-ass way to manufacture a car, and creates a whimsical fantasy world that was so impressive I can’t recall what it was selling.

But the funniest commercial was probably one of the cheapest–a lesson in how to make your own low-budget Doritos commercial. A man addresses the camera as he explains the importance of such elements as conflict, suspense, and rolling your R’s. The lesson cuts frequently to variations of a pathetically bad little film that only gets worse with each "improvement."

I even liked a couple of non-funny commercials. One was an inspirational tale about a paraplegic athlete–which turned out to be hawking Johnny Walker. Another, which was a true public service announcement, warned of the dangers of Christmas tree fires.

One smartphone ad tried to be funny with three offensively stereotypical dumb blondes. Perhaps I found it particularly offensive because one blonde was named Maya and another one Brittany–the names of my youngest daughter and future daughter-in-law.

The program starts with the Bronze award winners, followed by those who took home the Silver, and ending with the "Best Commercial of the Year," which was not the best one on the program. Oddly, the Bronze collection contained most of the truly entertaining commercials. Perhaps the Arrow judges don’t use my criteria.

All told, I’d estimate that you’ll find about 20 minutes of great entertainment in this hour-long collection. For the rest, you may long for the fast-forward button.

What’s Screening: January 20 – 26

The Wages of Separation When You Put Safety Last

Noir City opens today (Friday) and runs through the week and a bit beyond.

A A Separation, Embarcadero Center, opens Friday. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi demonstrates how good people can turn against a_separationeach other in this harrowing tale from Iran about divorce, family responsibilities, and courtroom drama. A middle-class couple break up over an irreconcilable difference. He hires a housekeeper to care for his senile father. That housekeeper—poor, pregnant, with a young daughter in tow and a husband who doesn’t know she’s working—is clearly not up for the task. When disaster strikes, everyone ends up in court, where people are soon doubting their own words. This one will stick with you. See my full review.

A The Wages of Fear, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:10. Four poverty-stricken Europeans, desperately stranded in South America, take on a frightfully dangerous job because their only other choice is starvation. They agree to transport a very large quantity of nitroglycerin, in two ill-equipped trucks, across poorly-maintained mountain roads. You’ll find few other thrillers this painfully suspenseful. But Wages of Fear is more than just a thriller. Director and co-writer Henri-Georges Clouzot had some strong opinions on poverty, exploitation, and American economic imperialism, and he used this nail-biting movie to discuss them. An exceptional work. Part of the series Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Cinema of Disenchantment.

B+ Safety Last, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. Harold Lloyd’s iconic image, hanging from a large clock high over a city street, comes from this boy-makes-good-by-risking-his- neck fairytale. Lloyd made better pictures, but even run-of-the-mill Lloyd is damn funny. And once he starts climbing that building, there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about this Lloyd. The laughs–and thrills–don’t stop. On a double-bill with Hot Water, another Lloyd feature, but one  that I haven’t seen in decades. Dennis James will accompany both movies on the Stanford’s Wurlitzer organ.

A- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because they think he’s stupid. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness today, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to your throat. And it’s just plain entertaining.

B Medicine for Melancholy, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. One could describe this low-budget indie as the African-American version (and the Bay Area version) of Before Sunrise. We discover the two characters as they discover each other, maneuver around their mutual attraction, and talk about their very different attitudes about life and race. Tracey Heggins and a pre-Daily Show Wyatt Cenac make attractive and likable leads, and for the first hour they’re completely worth spending time with. But two-thirds of the way through the movie takes a wrong turn to nowhere. Beautifully shot with a color palette so desaturated it often looks like black and white. Read my more in-depth report. Part of the PFA’s annual African Film Festival, which is odd because Medicine for Melancholy is not an African film.

C- Gone With the Wind, Stanford, Saturday through Thursday. I have a weakness for big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s the blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, and generally just winch at it. But Gone with the Wind goes over the top. The entire story is based on the assumed inferiority of African Americans (called darkies in the dialog because the Hayes Office wouldn’t let them use the word nigger), and the presumption that slavery is their natural and rightful place. All that is made worse by the large number of people who even today find this movie’s attitudes acceptable. Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is pretty good, but boredom sets in after the intermission. In fact, the post-war section is kind of like a slasher flick; x number of characters have to die before the movie ends and you can go home. The picture has one thing going for it: It used color far more creatively and effectively than any previous movie.

A The Artist, Marina, 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, the setting, and the medium. A black-and-white, narrow-screen, silent film is a hard sell in today’s market, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see that The Artist found an audience. Read my full review.

A Red Desert, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30; Sunday, 2:00.  No one has ever called Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness a thriller, yet it filled me with a red_desertsense of foreboding and dread that Alfred Hitchcock seldom matched. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a housewife and mother struggling to maintain her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large plant that’s spewing poison into the air, water, and ground (Antonioni made absolutely sure that his first color film would not be beautiful). Through her mental deterioration, she plans to open a shop (without any clear idea of what she’ll sell), flirts with one of her husband’s co-workers (Richard Harris, dubbed into Italian), worries about disease, and attends a party that stops just short of an orgy. Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation; I’ve never seen out-of-focus images used so effectively. A brand-new 35mm print.

A Separation

A remarkable film from Iran reveals the tensions in two families.

A drama/mystery

  • Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi

One seldom finds clear heroes and villains in family turmoil. When marriages fail and people lose their temper, you’re most likely to find good people on both sides, angry and flawed, but trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi understands that very well. He demonstrates how good people can turn against each other in this harrowing tale of divorce, family responsibilities, and courtroom drama.

The film’s Iranian origin makes it appear as a political film almost by default. After all, a_separationmany in our government and media want war with Iran, and that generally involves discouraging us for thinking of Iranians as human beings. Besides, the Iranian government has developed a bad habit of oppressing filmmakers.

But any politics you find in A Separation come from your imagination. The government only appears in the form of family and criminal courts, and these seem to be reasonable and even humane. I don’t know if this reflects the reality of the Iran court system as Farhadi sees it, or if the government insisted on being portrayed this way.

The story begins in family court. Simin wants a divorce from her husband, Nader. She admits he’s a good man, but she wants to leave the country (why and where to is never explained), and he won’t leave with her because he’s responsible for his Alzheimer-inflicted father. He agrees to the divorce, but refuses to give up their 11-year-old daughter.

No longer willing to live with her husband, Simin moves in with her mother. But before she does, she arranges for another woman, Razieh, to come in daily to do housework and care for her senile father-in-law. But Razieh is clearly not up to the job. She’s very pregnant, tires easily, has a young daughter in tow, and is hiding the fact that she’s working from her own unemployed husband. She tries her best, but her work is a disaster waiting to happen.

Disaster happens. When it does, Nadar loses his temper, and Razieh suffers a miscarriage. Soon Razieh and her husband are accusing Nadar of "murdering" their unborn child, and he’s facing prison.

The film’s second half becomes a mystery, filled with difficult-to-answer questions. Did he know she was pregnant (not all that obvious in the devout Razieh’s black cheddar)? Did she really fall down the stairs? When did the fetus actually die?

But the legal questions still take a backseat to the emotional ones. It becomes a story of two married couples, each with problems aggravated by the incident and legal issues. Everyone is doing what they believe is right, and soon people are doubting their own words.

I said earlier that the film isn’t political, but it is about class differences. One family is middle class and relatively secular. The other poor and very religious. Without these differences, the conflict would never have happened. And once it has happened, class stereotypes effect everyone’s behavior.

Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari uses a direct and intimate style here. He shot many scenes with a long lens, which tends to isolate characters from their surroundings–an important reflection on those characters’ emotional states. The camera is often handheld, adding to the tension.

Farhadi has given us a portrait of two families on the verge of breakdowns. By refusing to give us clear good and bad guys, he’s made a remarkable motion picture. This one will stick with you.

Race and Casting in American Movies

Try this exercise:

Start with a large selection of American feature films. They could be your all-time favorites, the ones you own, or AFI’s most recent 100 Best American Films list. Or simply the unsubtitled movies currently in theaters.

Now, remove all of the films where the protagonist–the central character or hero–is portrayed by a white actor (or actress).

That gives you a considerably smaller list. But let’s make it smaller:

Out of that tiny list, remove any titles where the lead role really couldn’t be played by a white person. Perhaps it’s based on a true story–you can’t very well star Brad Pitt in Hotel Rwanda. Or where the story is specifically about race, so that making the character white would have been an entirely different story. In the Heat of the Night would have just been a mystery if it had starred Marlon Brando. Also, remove anything that was made for a predominantly non-white audience, such as Tyler Perry’s work

Got anything left? Okay, remove all films where this non-white protagonist is a cop, criminal, or member of the military.

You may have one movie left–perhaps Night of the Living Dead. But there’s a good chance you won’t have any.

I’m sure you already see what I’m driving at. Hollywood studios and independent distributors have always been shy about casting non-whites in lead roles. They need a reason–and it has to be a good one. In fact, even when the story is about race, studio heads prefer a white protagonist (see The Help; or better yet, don’t see it).

It all comes down to the invisibility of whiteness. Americans see a white doctor, a white scientist, or a white high school student, and we think “doctor,” “scientist,” and “student.” But when we see a black doctor, scientist, or a high school student, we notice skin color. In a movie, an actor’s race inevitably becomes part of their character–unless they happen to be white.

But why is it okay if the protagonist of color is a cop, criminal, or member of the military? I suspect that studio executives believe that Americans can accept non-whites in those particular careers. How often have Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or or Will Smith gotten to play characters who didn’t fit one of these categories? Occasionally, but not often. In I Am Legend (a movie I liked very much), there’s absolutely no reason why Smith’s character, a brilliant scientist and doctor, is also a Lieutenant Colonel. It was just a way to make him more palatable to the perceived audience.

The good news: The trend changed a bit in the last 15 years, especially in children’s films. Family-friendly comedies such as Dr. Dolittle, Spy Kids, and The Game Plan all had non-white leads in stories where race simply wasn’t an issue. None of these are great films (although I liked the first Spy Kids very much), but they broke the racial barriers more than any serious drama I can think of. Perhaps the studios could figure out that the kids who grew up on these movies are now old enough for adult fare, and adjust their casting practices accordingly.

But I doubt it.