What’s Screening: August 31 – September 6

The United Film Festival runs throughout the week at the Roxie.

Not much to discuss this week.

A- Doctor Zhivago, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Thursday. Not quite as good as Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s follow-up still packs a reasonably big wallop. But then, I’m a sucker for epics about ordinary people trying to live their lives while others make history all around them. In this case, the history is the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. Against that background, we have the story of a decent man torn between his wife and another woman who is so clearly his soul mate. I’m even willing to forgive the casting of Omar Sharif, who doesn’t look Russian but still gives a fine performance. For more on the big-screen Zhivago experience, see Dr. Zhivago at the Cerrito.

C Vertigo, Castro, Friday through Monday. What? I’m not recommending VertigoYes, I know that Sight and Sound has declared it the greatest film ever made, and there won’t be a chance to correct that error until 2022. Nevertheless, Vertigo tops my list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time.This isn’t like any other Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. On the other hand, the Castro is showing it in 70mm, which is special; I’ve even increased its grade from a D to a C in honor of the larger format.

Side by Side: New Documentary Examines Cinema’s Digital Revolution

C+ Documentary

  • Written and Directed by Christopher Kenneally

How do today’s leading filmmakers feel about the seemingly inevitable transition from a photochemical, film-based cinema to a digital one?

Short answer: Many have enthusiastically embraced digital cinema, and the rest accept that physical film’s days are numbered. But film still has some clear advantages.

For most of this documentary’s runtime, narrator/producer Keanu Reeves interviews high-profile directors and cinematographers, along with a few editors, timers, and technicians, as they discuss the current revolution. The film gives room to people on both sides of controversy (in other words, George Lucas and Christopher Nolan), but the picture seems weighted in favor of going digital. I don’t know if this reflects industry feelings or Kenneally’s and Reeves’ own biases.

Others among the interviewees are Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, Richard Linklater, and Anne V. Coates, who has been editing films since 1952.

This picture is overwhelmingly about acquisition–what technology one should use toside-by-side-image shoot a motion picture. It’s at its best when it covers the history of digital cameras. Pretty much everyone interviewed agreed that Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, the first big movie shot digitally, looked horrible. Later cameras were better, but they still had problems, mostly with dynamic range (how well a frame can contain both very bright and very dark objects). The latest cameras appear very close to film quality.

On the other hand, digital has significant advantages. The cameras are much smaller and lighter. You can watch the results immediately. Leaving the camera running doesn’t cost a thing, so you don’t have to cut between takes.

The film covers other aspects of the digital transition only in passing. You get a few minutes about editing and a few more about special effects–two areas where digital won long ago. (Coates blames today’s over-frenetic editing on digital technology. I always thought it came from producers scared of boring ADD-afflicted audiences.) It says almost nothing about the most controversial part of the transition–the switch in theaters. Everything the film says about digital projection is positive–a reasonable response from filmmakers wanting their creations accurately displayed to the public. But this ignores the vast expense that theaters must make to go digital, and how this may put many independent movie houses out of business.

Side by Side isn’t scheduled for a regular Bay Area release. However, it will be shown at the Palo Alto Int’l Film Fest on September 29, and will start a three-day run at the Yerba Buena Arts Center on October 18. However, it’s available on a pay-per-view basis from iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (which is how I saw it).

Note: I altered this post soon after it went live. Brian Darr informed me of the Palo Alto screening.

On David Pogue, Piracy, and the Call for Making Movies Available Online Immediately

Last week, tech journalist David Pogue wrote a piece for the Scientific American calling for the Hollywood studios and the MPAA to make new movies available for streaming and downloads as soon as they open in theaters.

Streaming movies offers instant gratification: no waiting, no driving—plus great portability: you can watch on gadgets too small for a DVD drive, like phones, tablets and superthin laptops.

His basic argument is that people are forced to download illegal copies because they would otherwise have to wait a few months. Even worse, some movies are still not available online.

From an economic point of view, his argument might make sense, although I shudder to think of what that would do the already-struggling movie theaters. But as a lover of motion pictures, the argument makes no sense to me, at all.

If you need to see the latest blockbuster so badly that you can't wait for it come out online, why not spend a few dollars and see it properly? And by properly, I mean in a theater. A film isn't meant to be background noise, but an immersive experience–preferably a communal one with an audience.

Yes, I know: But you can't watch it on your phone! To which I reply: Why would you want to? That's not a movie. It's not even television. It's a peephole.

And if you really can't afford tickets, wait a few months and rent the DVD–or better yet, the Blu-ray. Nothing else you can watch at home matches the image and sound quality of a Blu-ray. Yes, I know that some PPV services offer Blu-ray's 1080p resolution; I've even tested them. And believe me, Blu-rays look better.

Okay, so you're a complete hermit, and you're determined to never leave your house again. So if you can't stream a movie, you can't watch it.

Guess what! Between Netflix and Hulu Plus, you've got an incredible collection of films. Hulu's Criterion channel alone has hundreds of the best motion pictures ever made, and unlike the rest of Hulu, there are no commercials. Netflix has a pretty impressive collection, too, and a more diverse one.

So don't complain that movies are too inconvenient to see. Give them a little respect, and the inconvenience will seem like a small price to pay.

Full Disclosure: Many years ago, David Pogue pirated three works of mine…accidentally, of course. Other people had pirated intentionally and he thought they were anonymously written when in fact I held the copyright. I long ago accepted his apology.

When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm

A funny thing happened on the way to a fully-digital cinema. At least two major filmmakers are returning to a beautiful, large film format of yesteryear. But you may not be able to see either of these films as they were meant to be seen.

Pretty much everyone agrees that film is dying as a physical medium (but not, thankfully, as an art form). By the end of next year, if everything goes according to plan, no major studios will release movies on film. Movies will continue to be shot on film, but for how long is anybody's guess.

And yet two films will open next month that were more than merely shot on film. They were shot in the 70mm format, with a frame nearly three times the size of 35mm. The sad part is you may never get a chance to see either of them in their proper presentation.

(Let's get some terminology out of the way. The “70mm format” involves shooting the picture on 65mm film. Only the release prints are 70mm–the extra 5mm adding room for high-quality magnetic sound tracks. But advertisers preferred saying “70mm,” so that became the familiar name.)

How rare is 70mm production? The last film shot in 65mm was Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, released in 1996. To my knowledge, that was only the fourth feature shot that way since 1970.

But from the late 50's through the late 60s, 70mm was the format for big, prestigious, yet popular films. The still-loved hits include Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Patton. There were embarrassments too, of course, including The Greatest Story Ever Told and Dr. Doolittle.

The post-Easy Rider shift to low-budget, youth-oriented films ended the first 70mm period. The large format enjoyed a second wave of popularity from 1977 through 1993, but almost all of those films were shot in standard 35mm and blown up to fill the large frame. Only three features in this period were primarily shot in 65mm.

Ron Fricke's Baraka was one of those exceptions. So it's no surprise that his new film, Samsara, was also shot in the large format. Like Baraka, this wordless documentary promises to explore “the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience.” It will open in San Francisco on September 7.

Fricke's producer and chief collaborator, Mark Magidson, had plenty to say about the 65mm photography. “There is a beauty, immediacy, and level of detail within imagery captured in this venerable wide-screen format that is unique, and there is still no form of image capture that compares to 65mm negative.”

Paul Thomas Anderson, the creator of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, wrote and directed the other new 70mm product, The Master. A fiction film inspired by the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, it's likely to be controversial in its content. The Master will open locally on September 21.

Last Tuesday, the Castro screened a 70mm print of The Master on short notice. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend.

And here's the really sad part: That may have been the only 70mm screening of either film in the Bay Area. As near as I can tell, most planned local bookings will be in plain-old 35mm. And if they are digital, they'll be conventional, 2K presentations.

Actually, there are no plans to even strike a 70mm print of Samsara, and the reason is provocative. According to Magidson, it's not the best format. “We have chosen to output SAMSARA to DCP for digital projection rather than creating 70mm film prints this time. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is we believe a digital output from the high res scan of our film negative yields the best possible viewing experience.” And the best digital presentation is 4K DCP.

Unfortunately, there are no plans to screen Samsara anywhere in the Bay Area in 4K, either. So whether you consider 70mm film or 4K DCP the best way to screen a picture shot in the 70mm format, you're out of luck. You'll have to accept a compromise.

Update: I'm delighted to inform my readers that the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland will be screening The Master in 70mm. My thanks to Brian Darr of Hell On Frisco Bay for making me aware of this.


What’s Screening: August 24 – 30

No festivals this week.

B Alps, Roxie, opens Friday for one-week run.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of Alps. It has just enough continuity to make you try and follow the story, but there’s no story to follow. Many of the characters (primarily the female ones) seem sympathetic, yet their motivations and actions are often entirely opaque. There’s absolutely no mention of politics or government, yet I think it’s about totalitarianism. It’s often boring, yet more often its utterly compelling and strangely funny. Read my full review.

C+ Robot & Frank, Embarcadero, Albany, opens Friday. This moderately entertaining comedy, set in an easily-recognizable near future, stars Frank Langella as an aging cat burglar robot_and_franksinking into dementia. His worried son brings him a servant robot to care for him. That he will grow to like the robot is obvious–this is a movie, after all. The twist is what makes Frank like his robot:  the realization that this machine has no scruples about burglary. The result is entertaining and reasonably (but not exceptionally) funny. Both Frank and the audience tend to anthropomorphize the robot, which is to be expected. But it’s nice that the robot occasionally reminds Frank that, although he sometimes appears to have emotions, he really doesn’t have any. Not bad, but inconsequential and forgettable. Read my full review.

A The Band Wagon, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. 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 You Were Never Lovelier, which I have never seen.

A High Noon, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Thursday. Gary Cooper discovers who his real friends are (just about no one) in Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann’s simple fablehigh_noon of courage under fire in the old west. On the day of his wedding and his resignation, the town’s sheriff (Cooper) finds out that hardened criminals are on their way, presumably for vengeance. But when he tries to form a posse, the people he thought he could count on turn their backs on him. Foreman’s last produced screenplay before getting blacklisted, High Noon can be interpreted as a parable to a Hollywood gripped in McCarthyite fear.

A+ Silent comedy double bill: City Lights & Sherlock Jr., Castro, Thursday. The A+ goes to City Lights, where Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp falls in love with a blind flower citylightsgirl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire. The result is funny and touching, with one of the great tear-jerking endings. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Released a year after everyone else had stopped making silents, City Lights has always had a recorded score (composed by Chaplin) and needs no live accompaniment. There’s nothing new about special effects, and in Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton used them to comment on the nature of film itself, entering the movie screen and finding the scenes change around him. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr.is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags.  I have no idea what music will accompany the second feature. Update: On 9/23/12, I corrected an error in this microreview.

Pandemic Double Bill: Contagion & Panic in the Streets, SF Film Society Cinema, Tuesday. Two thrillers, both by major directors, about germs threatening everyone–and the films were made more than 60 years apart. I haven’t seen them, so I won’t say anymore.

A Chinatown, Castro, Tuesday. Roman Polanski may be a rapist,chinatown but you can’t deny his talent as a filmmaker. (Not that that in any excuses his actions as a human being.) And that talent was never shown better than in this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixing a few personal scandals in, as well, and handed it over to Polanski, who turned it into the perfect LA period piece. On a John Huston double-bill with Prizzi’s Honor, even though Huston merely acts in Chinatown.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Castro, Sunday and Monday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The Castro can and has presented it in 70mm (although on a flat screen), as well as in 35mm. But this time, they’re presenting it in DCP, which I suspect will be better than 35mm but not as good as 70mm (if they had a 4K digital projector, I’d probably feel differently). Sunday it will play with two shorts, including George Méliès’  “A Trip to the Moon.” On Monday, it will be shown by itself.

My Thoughts on The Passion of the Christ

I recently satisfied eight years of curiosity and watched Mel Gibson’s controversial religious epic, The Passion of the Christ. I missed it in theaters back in ’04 because I didn’t want Gibson to get any of my money. (Although if I had been writing this blog at the time, I probably would have seen it.) I figured catching it on Netflix Instant in 2012 was okay.

The movie can best be described as ultra-reverent, self-righteous torture porn. For the bulk of its 127 minutes, it shows you nothing but a healthy, good-looking thirtyish man being beaten, tortured, and killed in the most graphic way possible. It was, quite simply, gross.

Despite the religious music, the slow motion, and the artful photography, I never felt anything spiritual here. I realize how important this story is for Christians, but Gibson’s movie offers little reason to view him as anything other than fresh meat.

The picture had a few good moments, almost all of them in the all-too-short flashbacks. Here we see Jesus as a human being rather than a symbol or a victim. In the first and best flashback, he’s a carpenter joking with his mother and playfully splashing water in her face.

Is the movie anti-Semitic? That’s a question that requires context. We know more now about Gibson’s own hatred of Jews than we did in 2004. And I only recently read James Carroll’s excellent book, Constantine’s Sword, so I have the history of Christian anti-Semitism fresh in my mind. The Gospels themselves attack the Jews viciously for reasons that have more to do with first-century politics than spirituality or history. It’s part of the story–which is, of course, a serious problem of its own.

Other Jesus movies dance around this problem, emphasizing Roman oppression and making only a small minority of Jews into villains. But not Gibson. In the first half of the film, he seems to revel in the evil Hebrews. Barabbas here is such a weird-looking and vilely-behaving brute that we can’t imagine why the crowd chose him over Jesus–unless they were all both evil and insane.

But a strange thing happens when the story moves towards the crucifixion. While the upper-class Roman officers and statesmen are all decent human beings who would never hurt anyone to protect their empire, the common foot soldiers are all sadistic thugs. They delight in torturing Jesus no end. And then the Jews become the good guys, crying out in sorrow and doing everything possible to comfort the poor victim.

Perhaps Mel Gibson was confused about his own anti-Semitism when he made this film. But then again, these days he seems to be confused about everything.


B Indescribable

  • Written by Giorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
  • Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos

I’m not exactly sure what to make of Alps. It has just enough continuity to make you try and follow the story, but there’s no story to follow. Many of the characters (primarily the female ones) seem sympathetic, yet their motivations and actions are usually opaque. There’s absolutely no mention of politics or government, but I think it was about totalitarianism.

And yet, it was often utterly compelling and strangely funny.

The name refers to a club that the main characters belong to. What kind of club? I’m not sure. One man is definitely the leader. He gives the club its name, arguing that no other mountain in the world can replace one of the alps, although any alp could replace any other mountain. He tells everyone to pick a mountain for their new name. He, of course, names himself Mont Blanc, after the highest one.

The principle character, I think, is a nurse who works in a hospital. She’s empathetic and kind, but behaves in odd ways. For instance, when a young tennis player dies in the hospital, she spends time with the deceased girl’s parents and encourages them to let her pretend to be their daughter.

At times, the characters seem to be intentionally acting something out, and not quite believing what they’re doing. Before sex, a man instructs the nurse to say “Don’t stop! It feels like heaven!” When she says “Don’t stop! It feels like paradise,” he stops to correct her.

Orders are arbitrary and ridiculous, but enforced with threats of violence or the real thing.

I often found myself laughing, yet unsure about doing so. Judging from what I heard around me, so did others. I’m pretty sure in retrospect that we were supposed to laugh, although it was a given that, at any moment, a laugh would die in our throats from something horrible.

I’m not sure what Lanthimos intended. Whatever it is, I don’t think he succeeded. There are several boring stretches. But most of the time, it’s an interesting and intentionally funny.

I saw Alps at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival. It opens Friday at the Roxie.