Kansas City Confidential

One man conceives of the perfect crime, then brings three hardened criminals in on it. Everything goes smoothly, with an innocent bystander taking the wrap. But when that bystander is released for lack of evidence, he has business to attend to.

I just watched Kansas City Confidential, at home, on Blu-ray. I found it to be a tight, taut, well-made film noir. It was made in 1952, as the genre was reaching its pre-self-awareness peak.

Great name for a noir, isn’t it: Kansas City Confidential? The problem is that only the first act is set in Kansas City. The bulk of the story takes place in a reasonably nice resort in Borados. That’s a strangely pleasant setting for any noir, let alone one called Kansas City Confidential.

Despite the problems with the localation and name, it’s worth catching. You’ve probably never heard of director Phil Karlson or any of the screenwriters, but they knew their business. The plot starts simple, becomes complex, and resolves well.

The picture contains some well-crafted suspense moments–especially one where a thug has to decide whether he’ll use a gun or throw it away. Editor Buddy Small increases the tension by holding several shots longer than normal. Story construction helps, too. Sure, if the thug doesn’t throw away the gun, his partner will be killed. But how much does this thug care about his partner’s life.

As in all good noirs, the moral issues aren’t always clear. A criminal can be a loving father who wants the best for his daughter. The hero can be a man with record going after stolen loot.

In one sense, the movie is surprisingly ahead of its time. The ingenue, played by Coleen Gray, is in law school, and no one seems to object to her professional ambitions.

As befits a 60-year-old low-budget B noir, the cast lacks star wattage. But the thugs include Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, two of the best bad guy character actors of the era.

I guess I can’t talk about this movie without referencing Reservoir Dogs. Let me just say that it’s clear that Tarantino knows Kansas City Confidential.

Watch it if you get a chance.

What’s Screening: June 29 – July 5

The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival opens tonight and runs through the weekend. Other than that, it’s a slow week. Enjoy the fireworks.

C+ Pink Ribbons, Inc., Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday. Breast Cancer kills nearly 60,000 North Americans a year. Yet organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure have turned it into an upbeat campaign–heavily themed on the color pink–to raise money for questionable purposes. At least that’s the claim of this compelling but extremely partisan  National Film Board of Canada documentary. Director Léa Pool makes a persuasive if heavy-handed case against Komen, the Revlon Run/Walk for Women, and others, criticizing them for everything from corporate hucksterism to putting the money to the wrong uses. But there’s something unsettling about the way Pool presents the altruistic individuals walking, running, and otherwise raising money to fight a deadly disease. It’s as if she’s saying "Look at all these fools running around in pink." Read my full review.

B- Sabrina (1953 version), Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. We generally don’t associate the name Billy Wilder with light, upbeat, romantic comedy. We don’t associate the name Humphrey Bogart that way, either. On the other hand, it’s exactly what we expect from a young Audrey Hepburn. The work of a great master who doesn’t appear to be trying very hard, Sabrina just floats along, nice and friendly, occasionally funny, never challenging, and moving towards a resolution as predictable as a full moon. The result is pleasant, but nothing more. On a double bill with Roman Holiday.

Thoughts on Bernie

I caught Richard Linklater’s Bernie this evening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

You probably already know that it’s based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, a popular assistant funeral director in a small Texas town. He befriended, possibly seduced, and definitely murdered the richest and meanest widow in the area. You’ve also probably heard that it contains Jack Black’s best performance to date.

It does.

Black’s Bernie is unlike any other person you’re likely to meet–in the movies or in real life–both a caricature and utterly believable. He’s sweet, kind, and patient. He seems to truly care about the bereaved people he comforts as part of his job, yet he’s brilliant at selling them the most expensive casket. His voice and mannerisms suggest that he’s gay, yet you suspect he’s never acted on those urges. He ardently loves Jesus, as well as the people living around him. And he shot an old woman four times in the back and hid her body in a trunk for nine months.

But then, the way Shirley MacLaine plays that old woman, anybody would want to kill her. She’s mean, suspicious of everyone, frowns constantly, and must always have her way. Since she’s rich, she usually gets it. Bernie’s basic goodness melts her cold exterior, and they become close companions and possibly lovers.

The melt doesn’t last, and soon she’s controlling Bernie as she does everyone else. Linklater and screenplay collaborator Skip Hollandsworth make you completely understand Bernie’s action, as well as his guilt after the fact.

Linklater uses actual townspeople as a Greek chorus, addressing the camera directly as they discuss Bernie, Marjorie, their relationship, and the crazy people in other parts of Texas. Mixed in with these real people, actors playing supporting roles (such as Matthew McConaughey as the DA) also speak to the camera from time to time.

I don’t know how accurate the movie is, but it certainly plays fast and loose with the dates. The real murder took place in 1996, yet in the movie, characters use modern smartphones.

The last part of the film concerns the arrest and trial. Bernie is so popular that the DA has to move the trial to another town for any hope of a conviction. The townspeople are cheering for Bernie, and to a certain extent, so are the audience. Linklater has given us a story of a good man who commits a horrible crime and pays the penalty, yet never loses grace.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

C+ Documentary

Directed by Léa Pool

Breast Cancer kills nearly 60,000 North Americans a year. Even if yours is discovered early, and you do everything you’re supposed to do, it could still kill you. Yet organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure have turned it into an upbeat campaign, heavily themed on the color pink, to raise money for questionable purposes. At least that’s the claim of this National Film Board of Canada documentary.

Full disclosure: Breast cancer has touched the lives of many in my family, and my wife is active in the Breast Cancer Fund. The Fund, which concentrates on prevention rather than a cure, has no connection with Komen or other organizations criticized in this film. It turns up in the movie only in the closing credits, as one of the organizations thanked.

Director Léa Pool makes a persuasive if heavy-handed case against Komen, the Revlon Run/Walk for Women, and others. A large part of the issue involves how the money is spent. A curepinkribbonsinc, according to Pool and her assorted talking heads (which include Barbara Ehrenreich, Samantha King, and Dr. Susan Love), often means little more than a drug that will keep women alive for a few more weeks than did last year’s new drug. Companies investing in such "cures," of course, have little incentive for preventing breast cancer.

There are other reasons why some organizations don’t want to deal with prevention. It brings up issues of race, class, and environmental damage. That last one is the most damning, and the one that corporate sponsors most want to avoid discussing. Revlon, a major player in pink ribbon-style fund raising, uses known carcinogens in their products.

The film holds corporations accountable for philanthropy that is more marketing than altruism. One major retailer (I don’t remember which) advertised donating a portion of sales to breast cancer research. Only in the fine print was the amount revealed: one cent out of every purchase.

But there’s something unsettling about Pool’s approach. In addition to criticizing corporate flacks, she also comes down pretty heavy on the altruistic individuals walking, running, and otherwise raising money to help fight a deadly disease. It’s as if she’s saying "Look at all these fools running around in pink."

And boy, is this movie filled with pink. We see pink activists, pink-lit buildings, pink vacuum cleaners, and a pink Kentucky Fried Chicken. At least once, the overwhelming amount of pink onscreen made me feel like I was watching a badly-faded Eastmancolor print from the 1960s.

There’s no way you can consider this an even-handed report. Pool allows people on the other side to have their say and defend their positions, but I suspect that many of their best arguments left their answers on the cutting room floor.

Technically and artistically, the film is well-made, but unexceptional.

If you care about breast cancer, or about how corporations distort philanthropy, you should catch Pint Ribbons, Inc. But save some of your cynicism for the filmmakers.

What’s Screening: June 22 – 28

In festival news, Frameline LGBT continues through Sunday.

A- Oslo, August 31, Kabuki, Embarcadero, Rafael, opens Friday. Anders, a recovering drug  addict living in a clinic in the country, gets a day’s leave to return to Oslo for a job interview. The trip will also give him a chance to catch oslo_august_31up with some friends. But he feels lost, has no idea how to reconnect with the outside world in a safe way, and suffers from constant temptation. Over the course of the day and night, his story moves from difficult but hopeful to harrowing and depressing. Filmmaker Joachim Trier takes us on a journey into Anders’ world and, even scarier, his mind. It’s one thing to read about drug addiction. Oslo, August 31makes you feel the strain of wavering between a difficult recovery and a lifelong disaster. Read my full review.

A+ Rio Bravo, Stanford, through Sunday. In his second western (more than a decade after Red River) Howard Hawks went for a much lighter touch, and achieved an entirely different kind of greatness. The story concerns a small-town sheriff (John rio_bravoWayne at his most cuddly) holding a frontier jail against the well-financed crooks who want to free the murderer inside. His only deputies are a drunk (Dean Martin) and an old man with a bad leg (Walter Brennan). Rick Nelson turns up as the coolest, calmest variation on that western archetype, The Kid, and sings a couple of songs with Martin. Angie Dickinson plays Wayne’s love interest, and their scenes together border on another Hawks specialty, screwball comedy. Funny, suspenseful, and largely character-driven, with some great action, Rio Bravo is the ultimate escapist western. On a Hawk’s double bill with Man’s Favorite Sport?. Film historian David Thomson will introduce Saturday’s 7:30 screening.

A- Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Castro, Tuesday and Wednesday. Only Werner Herzog would ask a scientist about his dreams. But that’s precisely why Herzog was the perfect choice to make this documentary about very ancient cave paintings—amongst the earliest works of art in existence, and works that show significant talent. Herzog’s unique narrative voice, the eerie beauty of the caves themselves, and the haunting score by Ernst Reijseger combine to turn Cave into an homage to what makes human beings special: the artistic, creative spark. And yes, the 3D is justified. Read my full review. On a 3D documentary double bill with Pina in 3D.

A The African Queen, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Africa, and Technicolor all make for splendid entertainment in John Huston’s romantic comedy action adventure. The start of World War I traps an earthy working-class mechanic (Bogart) and a prim and proper missionary (Hepburn) behind enemy lines and hundreds of miles of jungle. It’s a bum and a nun on the run, facing rapids, insects, alcohol (he’s for it; she’s against it), German guns, and an unusual (for Hollywood) romance between two moderately-attractive middle-aged people in filthy clothes. Beautifully restored.

B- The Searchers, Kabuki, Wednesday. A bitter Civil War veteran and racist (John Wayne) spends years searching for his niece, kidnapped by Comanches. At first he wants tothe_searchers save her, but as the years go by, he starts talking about killing her, because she’s now “more Comanche than white.” Talk about an anti-hero. Shot in VistaVision, the movie looks splendid, has many great moments, and contains one of Wayne’s greatest performances. The closing shot itself is unforgettable. Most John Ford fans consider The Searchers his masterpiece. I disagree. It’s marred by a rambling plot and a very unlikable protagonist (probably Wayne’s least sympathetic character). Besides, color always seemed a handicap for Ford, upsetting the delicate balance between myth and realism he achieved so well in black and white.

A To Kill a Mockingbird, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 4:45. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel manages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter. (Had there been a sequel set in her teen years, Atticus would have been an idiotic tyrant.) Part of the series Gregory Peck: An Agreeable Gentleman.

A- Your Sister’s Sister, Albany, Aquarius, opens Friday. This  romantic sex comedy kept surprising me. I thought it was shallow; then the your_sisters_sistercharacters deepened. I figured out whom was going to end up with whom, and what artificial crisis would end the second act.  Boy, was I wrong! It just kept getting better–more surprising, more character-driven and realistic, and funnier, because the humor came from a knowledge of real human behavior. So many movies start promising and deteriorate; it was nice to see one that just kept getting better. Read my full review.

Yellow Submarine, Elmwood, Saturday, noon, Thursday, 8:00. The Beatles’ one animated feature–which, to my knowledge, hadn’t played the Bay Area in years–has been restored, and has lately been receiving special theatrical presentations. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this whimsical fantasy for me to issue a grade. If memory serves, Yellow Submarine is a wonderful movie for taking drugs, and equally wonderful for taking your kids. Just don’t take both.

Oslo, August 31

A- drama

  • Written by Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier
  • Directed by Joachim Trier

Early in Oslo, August 31, a young man leaves the home of a beautiful woman he has just slept with, and attempts suicide. We know this is not going to be a happy picture.

The young man is Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a former journalist and recovering drug addict, living in a clinic in the country. It’s nearing time for him to face the real world.

That real world is the big city, Oslo. With a one-day pass, Anders goes to town for a job interview with a magazine. He’ll also be able to visit his sister.

He first visits a friend, now stable, married, and raising a daughter. The friend attempts to give Anders advice and encouragement, but Anders rejects it.

Nothing is easy for this man except for picking up women–he’s always had a knack for that.  But even there, he’s lost his old enthusiasm.

Sex is just a piece of the problem. Anders has no idea how to reconnect with the outside world in a safe way. To make matters worse, he feels threatened by constant temptation.

Over the course of the day and night, his story moves from difficult but hopeful to harrowing and depressing. Filmmaker Joachim Trier gives us no reason to believe that Anders will successfully resist drink and drugs, but gives us plenty of reasons to care whether he does or not.

The picture  takes us on a journey into Anders’ world and, even scarier, his mind. It’s one thing to read about drug addiction. Oslo, August 31makes you feel the strain of wavering between a difficult recovery and a lifelong disaster.

I saw Oslo, August 31 at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

This morning, one month before opening night, I attended the press conference announcing this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It will run in seven different venues around the Bay Area from July 19 through August 6. The largest runs will be at the Castro and Berkeley’s Roda Theater.

A few noteworthy items:

  • A lot of music documentaries this year. The festival opens with Hava Nagila (The Movie), and closes with A.K.A Doc Pomus. In between you can catch Gypsy Davy, Under African Skies, Ben Lee: Catch My Disease, and God’s Fiddler.
  • This year’s Freedom of Expression Award goes to actor and ’70s icon Elliot Gould. The program honoring him will include a screening of his latest film, Dorfman.
  • The Centerpiece presentation, The Other Son, concerns two 18-year-old boys, one Jewish Israeli, the other Palestinian, who discover they were switched at birth. Oddly, this appears to not be a comedy.
  • There will, of course, be "four or five" Holocaust films. I’m still hoping for a Jewish Film Festival without them.
  • You’ll get another chance to see The Law in These Parts, a very good documentary about the occupation that screened at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. You’ll find my thoughts on that one here.
  • If you’re under 30, this festival is a real bargain. The Millennials Pass gets you access to 60 films for only $25.

After the conference, the press was treated to a screening of the first three episodes of Arab Labor‘s third season. In 2008, the festival screened the entire first season. It was brilliant. In 2010, they screened three episodes from season 2. My only disappointment was that they didn’t show the rest of it.

But I can’t be quite as enthusiastic about this year’s subset of season 3. The humor and satire hit home, but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad Alian tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Palestinians, and the next day things get turned around. With much of the satire aimed at celebrity culture (an obvious target), the bite was lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.

The best scenes involved a young interfaith couple. If you’ve seen the previous seasons, you know who I’m talking about. It appears that, in one of the season 2 episodes that didn’t screen here, they got married. Now they’re new parents, and even though neither of them are religious, parenthood creates ethnic content.

By the way, I recently discovered that season 1 is available on DVD in the US. You can rent it from Netflix, or buy it from numerous online outlets.