3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.

John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home at the Pacific Film Archive

John Ford directed seven films in the three years preceding Pearl Harbor. That in itself wasn’t so remarkable in the days of studio assembly lines. But the quality of those seven show the power of a mature artist at his height. They include Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, and How Green Was My Valley.

The Long Voyage Home, the fifth film in that remarkable series, isn’t as well known as the four I listed above. But it should be. A story of a small, commercial freighter in the early months of World War II, it balances multiple characters while recreating a way of life that most of us will never experience.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive recently preserved The Long Voyage Home, creating a new preservation negative and at least one 35mm projection print. I saw that print projected Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive.

Like Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle. And like Stagecoach, John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell carry much of the film’s story. Both films were produced by Walter Wanger.

Based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and adapted for the screen by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach), The Long Voyage Home starts by introducing us to the crew. They support each other, drink, and commit minor acts of rebellion against the officers. But it isn’t all comradeship; when drunk enough, they fight with each other.

And they talk about giving up the sea and finding a life on land. But they never make it. When a voyage is done and they get their pay, they drink themselves broke, and have to sign up on another ship. Thus the title. Once you go to sea, getting back is nearly impossible.

But it’s 1940, and they have to ship munitions from the neutral United States to besieged England. Their ship has become a powder keg, and German submarines are combing the Atlantic searching for prey.

The John Wayne of this film is far from the iconic hero he was already starting to become. Here he’s a young, sweet-natured Swedish seaman; not quite a greenhorn but not all that experienced, either. But this time, he’s determined to get back to his mother’s farm. If you think that John Wayne with a Swedish accent is laughable, you’re in for a big surprise. He sounds subtle and natural.

Wayne got top billing (although he had to share the card with three other actors), but Thomas Mitchell probably has more lines and screen time. He plays a philosophical Irishman who knows every pitfall a sailor can fall into, yet always manages to take the fall. The rest of the cast is filled out by Ford regulars such as Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, and John Qualen.

Most seagoing movies of the studio era look horribly fake with their soundstage decks and tiny models. Not The Long Voyage Home. While watching the picture, you can easily to forget the film was shot almost entirely on soundstages. Ford and his film crew create a true sense of being out to sea.

Much of the credit for that success, I suspect, should go to the great cinematographer Gregg Toland; his next project would be Citizen Kane. As with Kane, Toland experimented with deep focus here. He also helped us see the textures of the ship, and the pieces of light and darkness inevitable when you’re living inside a machine.

As Welles did with Kane, Ford shared his credit with Toland, with director and photographer named together.

UCLA’s new print does Toland’s work justice. On my Sunday post, I described a 35mm print of Yumeji as “
a very strong argument for digital projection.” This new print of The Long Voyage Home provides an important corrective.

Big and shallow fun in Captain America: Civil War

After the San Francisco International Film Festival, I like to clear my palette with a totally escapist, Hollywood-style explosion movie. So Tuesday night, my wife and I saw Captain America: Civil War. And we even saw it in 3D.

I enjoyed it. Well, sort of. I’m giving it a B-.

In case you make a point of ignoring the biggest blockbusters, Marvel Comics has become the biggest studio in Hollywood, cranking out action-and-effects laden superhero movies that a large portion of our population can’t go without. This particular slice of what’s called The Marvel Universe involves The Avengers, a misfit group of superheroes (or “enhanced humans”) that fight evil together when they’re not arguing or fighting evil in their own movies.

While saving the world, The Avengers accidentally kill a few innocent bystanders (it’s really amazing that this doesn’t happen more often). So the governments of the world insist these loose cannons will now only fight evil when the United Nations asks them to. About half of them, led by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), agree. But the other half, led by Captain America (Chris Evans) refuse.

Look at the movie’s title, and you’ll know what side the story falls on.

To the screenwriters’ credit (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, from a graphic novel by Mark Millar), Iron Man’s argument is treated fairly…up to a point. My own point of view: If there are individuals capable of creating mass destruction and are willing to do so for what they think is the greater good, I hope they’re supervised.

The conflict between heroes takes a lot of the fun out of the action sequences–and that’s the movie’s biggest weakness. When both sides are the good guys, there’s no rooting interest. All you can do is wish they would come to their senses and hope that no one gets hurt.

The big centerpiece fight takes place on the tarmac of a large, international, and strangely empty airport. (Why is it empty? So that these powerful beings can destroy millions of dollars’ worth of property without hurting a single innocent bystander.) What makes this sequence fun, despite the lack of a side to root for, is the comedy. The filmmakers wisely added Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (newcomer Tom Holland) into this fight–and only this fight–to bring in some much-needed laughs.

Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the best thing in this movie, and he has only two scenes. Holland plays the web-slinger as an awkward adolescent who doesn’t know when to shut up. While fighting with Captain America, he points out that the Captain’s shield ignores the laws of physics. Of course, so does almost everything in the movie. Marisa Tomei plays a surprisingly sexy Aunt May.

The much smaller final fight is basically Captain America and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) going up against Iron Man. It was painful to watch–and not in a good way.

Marvel inserted two hints for future films into the closing credits. One is an obvious sequel. The other promises a new Spider-Man reboot starring Holland. That’s the one I’m looking forward to.

We saw Civil War at the Grand Lake’s beautiful Theater 1. After the New Mission‘s downstairs theater, this is probably the best place to see a big, new 3D blockbuster (like the New Mission, it uses two separate digital projectors for 3D). And if you take price into consideration, it’s probably the best–especially on a Tuesday, when all movies, even those in 3D, cost only $5 a ticket.

Visiting North Korea and Afghanistan: Wednesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I’ve really come to hate the upstairs theaters at the New Mission. The number of decent seats are in the single digits–and for the festival, most of them are reserved. The front row is so close it can induce headaches–even for me. If you don’t want to sit that close, and you weren’t one of the first people in the theater, you have to sit way to the side and watch the screen at an extreme angle.

I saw two San Francisco International Film Festival movies Wednesday, both in upstairs theaters.

B+ Under the Sun

Associate Programmer Audrey Chang introduced the film. She explained that the North Korean government commissioned this documentary, intended to present the wonderful life of a “typical” family, complete with two adorable daughters. But the government didn’t have control over the editing, and was not happy with the final result.

The Ukrainian director, Vitaly Mansky, was not able to attend. There was no Q&A.

Under the Sun is on the Festival’s Hold Review list, which means that I must review it in 100 words or less. Here goes:

Of course the people of Pyongyang look happy and prosperous. The government controlled what the filmmakers could shoot and told the subjects what to say and how to say it. But once out of North Korea and into the editing room, Director Vitaly Mansky shows the fakery. He left in footage that shows how everything was staged. We see the government handler reminding people to smile broader. We see multiple takes–with people spouting increasingly higher made-up statistics. He changes people’s careers. But he makes the point too many times; the film could have been 15 minutes shorter.

It will screen again Thursday at the Pacific Film Archive, 6:30. There’s also a good chance that it will get a theatrical release.

B- Neither Heaven nor Earth

Another Hold Review film that I have to review in 100 words or less:

This war movie follows a small group of French soldiers trying to hold onto a piece of Afghanistan. They have a difficult, mutually suspicious relationship with the locals. But things get jumpy when two men disappear without clues or explanation. Then others disappear. The disappearances seem impossible, and particularly bother the commanding officer, who insists on bringing his soldiers back dead or alive. The action sequences are suspenseful and well-made. Some of the French characters are fleshed out (but not the Afghans). And the disappearance mystery is a real puzzle. But the ending is a complete fail.

There were no filmmakers available for Q&A, which was too bad, because the whole audience wanted to ask one very big question.

I saw the last screening at the festival, but it may get an American theatrical release.

Trains on Film Saturday report

I spent Saturday at the Rafael, where I caught three of the six movies in the Trains on Film mini-festival ending today (Sunday). I had seen all three films before, but this was a great way to see them. And not only because of the big screen and enthusiastic audience. Film historian David Thomson and poet/novelist Michael Ondaatje introduced each film, and then led a Q&A afterwards.

Early on in the lobby, I asked Thomson the question that had been eating me since I first saw the Trains on Film schedule. Why not The General?
He explained that there were hundreds of films he wanted to show, and there were issues of getting prints and so on.

Shanghai Express

Thomson continued that thought once we were in the auditorium, acknowledging that “whatever films we showed, you’d be infuriated by what we left out. So would we.”

To partially make up for missing favorites, they screened excerpts from other films. The first excerpt of the day was a song from one of MGM’s most forgettable musicals, Harvey Girls. They also screened a short film from the 1950s about toy trains.

Direct Phil Kaufman (The Right Stuff) was in the audience, and was invited to come on stage. He talked about the difficulties of recreating the inside of a train on a soundstage with rear-screen projectors in the windows (it’s easier today with digital effects). On The Unbearable Lightless of Being, “We shot a number of trains. Being on a train with Lena Olin, you realize just how sexy trains were.”

Before screening the feature film, Shanghai Express, Thompson called it “the best in the series,” and talked a bit about director Von Sternberg. This was the third and most successful of the six films he made with his muse, Marlene Dietrich.

This was my first time seeing Shanghai Express on the big screen, where I could really appreciate the stunning visuals. Von Sternberg created not only the train, but a real sense of China, all on the Paramount lot, and then added the most romantic lighting imaginable.

The story is something of a precursor to Stagecoach, following people of very different levels of society as they travel through war-torn country. But it’s not Stagecoach. The characters (aside from Dietrich) are thin, and the movie goes on way too long after the suspense is over.

But having finally seen it properly, I’m now bumping its grade up to a B+.

The 35mm print looked gorgeous.

The Lady Vanishes

The second session of the day started with the opening of Bad Day at Black Rock and the dining car scene from North by Northwest.

That last one was particularly appropriate. North by Northwest is, in my opinion, Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, deftly leavening the thrills with comedy. The Lady Vanishes is a close second. Shanghai Express may be David Thomson’s favorite of the six films in this series, but The Lady Vanishes is mine.

I won’t go into details about The Lady Vanishes here. I’ve already done so in my Blu-ray review.

The movie was digitally projected, probably from a DCP, and it looked and sounded great. It’s nice to see such a funny thriller with an audience. But I was disappointed with the meager applause for Hitchcock’s cameo.

After the movie, Thomson and Ondaatje came on stage for a discussion with the audience. They had done that with Shanghai Express, but this time, they had comfortable chairs and water bottles.

Thomson found this to be an “interesting look at the English Hitchcock. It’s so light, and he went on to make such dark films.” He felt that the film suggested a “moral failure of people who don’t speak English.” This led to a discussion of various British accents.

When they asked for questions and comments from the audience, I pointed out that the couple’s first meeting was a direct rip-off from the Astaire-Rogers classic, Top Hat.

Runaway Train

The excerpts before the final film of the day were from two movies as different as beloved classics can get: Tokyo Story
and The Wild Bunch. Thomson
apologized for the Tokyo Story clip; the train doesn’t come in until quite late. But even if you’re not looking for trains, the scene doesn’t really work outside of context.

I never cared much about The Wild Bunch, but this except was a great scene on its own, and all about a train.

Also before the feature, Michael Ondaatje read an excerpt from his book, Running in the Family, primarily about his alcoholic father and…of course…trains.

Runaway Train has a curious history. After making Red Beard, Akira Kurosawa wrote a screenplay for what was to be his first American, English-language film. The project fell through. Almost 20 years later, Golan-Globus Productions–an exploitation studio that made the occasional good movie–acquired the rights to Kurosawa’s script. Three other screenwriters rewrote the script, and the final movie has the odd credit “Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa.”

The film came out in 1985. I rented it on Laserdisc in the early 90s, didn’t care for it much, and didn’t see it again until Saturday night.

I can see why I didn’t care for it on Laserdisc, but it’s a hell of a ride on the big screen. Sure, the dialog ix badly written and extremely corny. Some of the characters are broad enough to be unintentionally funny.

But I don’t think I could come up with a better thriller setup than three very different people on an out-of-control train building up speed while racing through an Alaskan winter. And the overdone dialog eventually gives the movie an epic quality.

I give it a B+.

They screened the film from a gorgeous 35mm print. I think this was the first time I’d heard an optical Dolby Stereo soundtrack in maybe 15 years. It’s not as good as today’s digital tracks, but it felt pleasantly nostalgic.

A technical problem with the Rafael’s 35mm projectors forced a short intermission. But that only happened once.

Afterwards, Thomson and Ondaatje discussed the film, how closing credits have gotten out of control (“If this film was made today, the credits would still be going on”), and the problematic career of the film’s star, John Voight.

One member of the audience pointed out that the train itself becomes a character here, and asked about other films where that happened. Thomson mentioned one: The General.

Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback, and Me

I finally saw the completed version of Melvin Van Peebles’ ground-breaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I didn’t see it when it was in theaters partly because I was a bit too young for X-rated movies. But mostly because I had already seen a rough cut.

When it hit theaters, Sweetback created a sensation. Here was a film that idealized black militants; that called for standing up against The Man. The Black Panthers praised it. And Van Peebles knew how to promote it, with posters proclaiming “RATED X BY AN ALL-WHITE JURY.”

For a low-budget, independent movie, it made a fortune. The film’s success hit a nerve. Shaft, Coffy, Super Fly, and even–God help us–Blacula soon followed.

So how did I, a white high school student, get to see Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song before it was ready for paying customers? Let me explain:

My stepfather, John (Hans) Newman was a sound effects editor at Columbia Pictures in 1970, when he was assigned to do the sound effects for Van Peebles’ first American feature, Watermelon Man. Van Peebles–Mel, as we called him–became a friend of the family. (As far as I can tell, Watermelon Man was the first Hollywood studio film directed by a person of color, so Mel had already broke a major record before Sweetback.)

By the time Mel was cutting Sweetback, Columbia had closed its sound editing department and Hans was freelancing. It was a foregone conclusion that he would cut the sound for Mel’s new, independently financed film.

When the movie was ready for sound editing, Mel arranged a screening of the workprint for Hans and Luke Wolfram–another sound editor who often worked with Hans. I was invited to attend the screening of what was still a work in progress.

How did I react to it back then? I thought it was pretty rough, but that’s to be expected in a rough cut. I don’t remember much else about my reaction, although I’m pretty sure I had the expected teenage reaction to all the sex and nudity.

So how did I like the final movie, seen 45 years later? It’s still awfully rough. Yes, it was daring and political. But it’s amateurishly shot, poorly edited, and badly acted (especially by Van Peebles, who starred as well as writing, directing, producing, and editing the film). The story becomes repetitious, and thus boring.

The story is little more than a chase. Sweetback (Van Peeples) performs in live sex shows until he sees two cops beating up a black militant. He reacts by attacking the cops. The rest of the film has him on the run.

It would have been much better if Mel had cast someone else in the lead. He was, at that time of his life, a very good-looking man–with or without clothes. But he couldn’t act. He shows the same blank face throughout the film. We don’t see his rage when he attacks the cops, or any other emotions.

Another thing: If your movie’s hero is supposed to be the world’s greatest lover–able to satisfy any woman–don’t cast yourself. It just makes you seem conceited.

Hans also worked on Van Peebles’ next film, Don’t Play Us Cheap. After that, they drifted apart. I don’t know why.

It’s reasonable to celebrate Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a daring and influential film, and one that told truth to power. But despite the family history, I can’t celebrate it as a good movie.

I saw the film (this time around) on Fandor.

The Wave loses power in last act

B Disaster triller

Written by John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw Eeg

Directed by Roar Uthaug

Scandinavia created more than just democratic socialism. In recent years, it’s also created some exceptional thrillers–Headhunters being the best of them. Norway’s latest heart stopper almost reaches that level of frightening entertainment, but then it sags in the final stretch.

The Wave belongs to that particularly expensive-to-shoot subgenre of the thriller: the disaster movie. A horrendous tsunami hits the small tourist town of Geiranger, causing huge damage and killing a lot of people. If you’ve seen enough disaster movies, you’ll be able to guess who lives and who dies.

(By the way, Geiranger is a real place. Part of the film is actually shot there. Why the city cooperated I’ll never know.)

The movie starts strong as the filmmakers make us wait for the titular disaster. We get to know the hero, Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), along with his wife and kids. We become emotionally invested in them. Everything is tranquil and pleasant. But you know disaster is coming even if no one on the screen sees it.

Kristian is a geologist, and we meet him only days before he moves to the big city, where he’ll be working for an oil company. We follow him on his last day on his old job, as part of the geological team monitoring seismic activity in the area.

But on that last day, he notices some troubling irregularities. The day after that, as he’s about to leave town, he finds more problems. He warns his former co-workers, but they’re reluctant to press the big red button. It could hurt the tourist industry.

Dread builds slowly throughout this first part of the movie. Of course the thumping music cues us in that something horrible is going to happen. That’s The Wave’s first tired cliché, but it works, so I’ll let it slide.

But one thing about this first act bothered me. Out of a whole team of geological experts, whose job it is to warn people of coming disaster, only Kristian isn’t completely incompetent. How many times can someone see numbers that suggest impending disaster and decide that the instruments are at fault?

The Wave hits its high point when the giant mass of water forces itself through the fiord with deadly power. People desperately drive to high ground, only to be caught in a traffic jam. Cars flip. The fancy tourist hotel becomes an ghostly wreck. And Kristian has to decide between staying close to his young daughter, helping a friend, and going back to save his wife and son.

The special effects are, as one would expect, magnificent. The giant wave isn’t the one smooth wall of water we associate with Pacific Ocean tsunamis. This one is moving through a rocky fiord, with giant splashes of white water.

But once the big muddy washes over town and Kristian sets out on a post-tsunami rescue mission, The Wave becomes a collection of disaster movie clichés. I don’t think there was a single moment in the last half hour that I didn’t see coming.

And then there’s the inherent ethical problem with all disaster movies. They deliver a spectacle of mass death, but everything is okay at the end because the main characters survive.

The Wave comes in slowly and effectively. Then it crests with a gush of high excitement. But it ends with a ripple of foam.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers