Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Saturday afternoon, my wife and I drove across the Bay to the Lark for a Mill Valley Film Festival screening of the thoroughly outrageous comedy Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse.

We arrived at the Lark just as the rain started falling. People think that a rainy day is perfect for movie going, but that’s not the case when you have to wait outside in a line without cover. Luckily, a kindly festival volunteer moved us to the sidewalk, where we could stand beneath awnings. They also let us in about 10 minutes earlier than they originally promised.

Now then, about the movie:

Stand-up comedy duo and romantic couple Gabriel Diani and Etta Devine play themselves in this utterly absurd dark comedy that they also wrote and directed. After civilization collapses, they go off into the desert, carrying their pets, searching for food, drinkable water, and safety. It soon becomes clear that working nightclubs didn’t provide them with the right survival skills. It’s a very funny film, with cannibals, violent hippies, Mad Max types, and song and dance.

I give it an A-.

The movie screens one more time at the Festival–Sunday, October 16, 11:15AM, at the Sequoia. I hope you read this in time to catch it.

Gabriel Diani attended the screening, and did a Q&A. Etta Devine, who couldn’t be there, pitched in over the phone. Some highlights, edited for clarity:

  • On the difficulty of developing a project with your partner: It’s really easy. We had to make up stuff to have some conflict in the movie. [Note: He was joking.]
  • There’s so much that’s autobiographical in this apocalypse movie.
  • On finding locations: The desert is free production design. We did a lot of scouting in the Los Angeles area. You drive a bit and you’ll find something.
  • Scripted or improvised: The script was pretty much locked down. We didn’t have time to not know what we were doing. But there’s definitely some improvisation in there.
  • On the animals: They’re our pets. We wrote the parts to their strengths.
  • Any deleted scenes: There were some really terrible scenes that were cut out.

A Man Called Ove returns to community

A- Comic drama

Written by Hannes Holm, from a novel by Fredrik Backman

Directed by Hannes Holm

Even the most warn-out, commercial plots can work when the filmmakers do something original with them. And that’s very much the case with this dramatic comedy from Sweden.

Consider the cliché of the crotchety old man who hates everybody, until good-hearted people melt his resistance and remind him what love and community are all about. Writer/director Hannes Holm makes this overused device new again by adding a very real sense of darkness, and a deep understanding of the inevitable tragedy of human life.

He also makes the film, when appropriate, very funny.

When we first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgård), he lives by himself in a condominium within a gated community. He boils with anger at every minor transgression of the community’s rules. He threatens cats and small dogs.

He shows tenderness only to the dead. He visits his wife’s grave every day.

He’s already mad at the world when, early in the film, something happens that gives him something to be mad about. He’s fired from his job after decades of service.

With apparently nothing else to look forward to, he attempts suicide. Several times. But every time he tries, something–usually other people–interferes. He finds himself reluctantly helping them instead.

These suicide attempts also launch many of the film’s several flashbacks. Holm and cinematographer Göran Hallberg bathe these scenes of Ove’s youth in a nostalgic glow, and show much of what had been wonderful in his life. His widowed and working-class father loved him and taught him not only a sense of right and wrong, but also the mechanical and carpentry skills that would serve Ove throughout his life. He had a long and very happy marriage to a wonderful and generous woman who loved him deeply.

But the flashbacks also showed the many losses in his life. Tragedy, in the form of horrible accidents, destroyed much of his happiness. And as a builder who could work wonders with his own hands, he learned to hate the “white shirts” who always found ways to take away what he had created.

When he’s not remembering the past or trying to kill himself, he’s reluctantly spending time with other people in his community–especially the family that just moved in. It’s a mixed-race family, with a white husband, an Iranian wife, and two adorable daughters. Another child is on the way.

The very pregnant mother, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), becomes the major force to bringing Ove back into the human race. She’s open, friendly, and cheerful. After her husband is injured in a domestic accident, she keeps coming to Ove for help, and much to his surprise, he provides it. Much against Ove’s own wishes, the kids bond with him.

The concept of modern Sweden as a melting pot is a minor theme here. Grumpy as he is, Ove never once uses a racist slur. He reluctantly takes in a young, brown-skinned gay man who has been thrown out by his homophobic father.

The best feel-good movies have a dark and disturbing core. Consider It’s a Wonderful Life. A Man Called Ove, with its disappointing ending, doesn’t reach the magic of Frank Capra’s masterpiece. But the film shows us the inevitable tragedy of human life and the ability to heal–and all done with good, dark humor.

Anna Magnani, Vittorio De Sica, Teresa Venerdì, and screwball comedy at the Pacific Film Archive

Saturday night, I visited the Pacific Film Archive to see Teresa Venerdì, a 1941 screwball comedy directed by and starring Vittorio De Sica. (When the film was finally released in the USA in 1951, it was renamed Doctor, Beware.)

If the phrase “screwball comedy directed by and starring Vittorio De Sica” makes your head want to explode, calm down. De Sica is remembered today primarily for such serious dramas as Bicycle Thieves and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. But he started his career as a handsome leading man. And as a director, he made far more comedies than dramas. (The first film of his I ever saw was After the Fox, a 1966 Peter Sellers vehicle written by Neil Simon.)

Saturday’s screening launched the PFA’s new series, Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema. It struck me as a strange choice for opening a series on the great Italian actress. She has a small role–I doubt she’s on screen for 20 minutes. On the other hand, when she’s on screen, she’s hilarious. She plays the star of a song-and-dance act who rehearses as if she’s bored out of her mind.

Most of the comedy centers around De Sica’s character, a doctor who gets far more visits from creditors than from patients. And of course he has woman problems. His jealous mistress (Magnani’s bored showgirl) is getting suspicious. He gets engaged to the daughter of a rich man in hopes of a big dowry. And a sweet orphan girl–just now old enough to leave the orphanage and brimming with romantic fantasies–falls madly in love with him.

De Sica and his collaborators found a great deal of madcap action for the story. When the three creditors come to the doctor’s home (which they plan to repossess), they fight over the one comfortable chair. And the doctor’s remarkably inept servant adds slapstick with his vacuum cleaner troubles.

By American standards, Teresa Venerdì seems slow for a screwball comedy–especially in the first half. But the zany atmosphere and funny characters earn it a B+ in my book.

This is not the sort of film one would expect from a Fascist country at war (which Italy most certainly was in 1941). It’s risqué and funny. There’s no hint of war anywhere. And like all good comedies, it thumbs its nose at authority figures–in this case the rich, the creditors, and the women running the orphanage. I don’t know how much freedom Mussolini gave his filmmakers. Perhaps I should look into that.

The PFA screened Teresa Venerdì off of an English-subtitled 35mm print imported from Italy. The print had its problems, but for the most part they weren’t serious. There was one point, however, where I felt that a scene had been chopped off too soon–as if there was some missing footage.

The Anna Magnani series will run over the next two months. I’m looking forward to more of it.

Strauss, Powell, Leone, and Eastwood: Sunday evening at the Pacific Film Archive

I really wish the Pacific Film Archive allowed eating. When you go to two movies, the first starting at 5:00, hunger can become a problem.

And yet I managed it Sunday afternoon/evening. I saw two very different movies, both by filmmakers I respect. Both were in scope, and presented in 35mm prints.

Other than that, they were entirely different.


This is an Archer production, meaning it was written and directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell. Their work includes Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and one of my all-time favorites, The Third Man, you know what I’m talking about.

But this is as far from Carol Reed’s location-shot, noir Vienna as Goodfellas is to Singin’ in the Rain. Oh…Rosalinda was shot entirely on London soundstages, and makes no attempt to look realistic. The sets often appear to be from a stage production.

And that’s absolutely appropriate for this light-as-a-feather musical comedy about adultery and mistaken identity. Yes, the movie entertains, but the absolute refusal to take anything seriously has an alienating effect. Sometimes doing something new and daring doesn’t work.

This was Pressburger and Powell’s first widescreen movie, shot in Cinemascope. They clearly had fun with the wide aspect ratio, but that’s pretty much all they do with it. They rarely use it to tell us something about the place or characters.

I give it a B.

The PFA screened a rare, imported 35mm print in very good condition. With the beautiful music, I often wished that they could have presented it with the original four-track stereo mix (a standard for Cinemescope in 1955). Alas, even if such a print survives, I doubt the PFA had the out-of-date equipment to play it.

Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby introduced the film. She told us that next Saturday, David Thomson (who curated the Vienna series) will give a 4:30 lecture before the 5:30 screening of Lola Montez, that the Stanford will soon have its own Thomson-involved Vienna series, and that the PFA has a Pressberger/Powell coming up later this year.

A Fistful of Dollars

I first saw Sergio Leone’s rip-off of Yojimbo on Laserdisc in the early 1990’s. I thought it was a weak Xerox copy of the original. Now that I have seen it again, this time in 35mm on the big screen, my opinion has changed. It’s a pretty good but inferior variation of the original.

This was Leone’s second film as a director, and his first western. More than any other individual movie, it created the so-called spaghetti western trend.

The story is almost identical to Kurosawa’s original. A lone man, incredibly talented at killing, wanders into a small down in the middle of nowhere. The town is torn apart between rival gangs, so the lone man offers his services to one gang and then the other, playing them against each other. Most of the characters and many of the scenes have exact analogs in the original.

But this time, it’s set in northern Mexico. No one has a sword, and everybody has a gun. Eastwood’s Man with No Name shoots and kills four men in what feels like a second.

A Fistful of Dollars provides reasonable entertainment, mixing action, suspense and comedy. Leone doesn’t sermonize like Kurosawa, which may be a good thing.

The 35mm print has some specks—especially at the beginning and end of reels. It was quite grainy, and always has been. You have to expect that from a 1960s film shot in the small-frame/widescreen Techniscope format. But otherwise, it looked fine.

Chronologically, A Fistful of Dollars sits between the Kurosawa masterpiece that inspired it, and Leone’s later masterpieces. In quality, it sits well below either of them, but offers a promise of better work to come. I give it a B.

Café Society and the Woody Allen Problem

My wife and I saw Café Society Saturday night. We both enjoyed it quite a bit. Of course, these days, whenever you watch a Woody Allen film, part of the problem is that it’s a Woody Allen film. More on that later.

Café Society is an entertaining but unsubstantial romantic (and unromantic) comedy set in the 1930s or ’40s (the exact years are never mentioned). In addition to romantic love, it milks gags about Hollywood, New York, gangsters, and high society. Jesse Eisenberg plays the traditional Woody Allen surrogate, and he’s the best one I’ve seen. Like Allen, he’s a skinny New York Jew. (Allen narrates the film, himself; thankfully, the narration is kept to a minimum). Eisenberg’s character (Bobby) finds professional success on both coasts, but can’t quite get over the girl who jilted him (Kristen Stewart).

Allen fills this simple story with his patented comic dialog (“Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living; but the examined life is no bargain”). There’s a hilarious scene early where Bobby has a “date” with the prostitute. Neither of them has any experience with this sex-for-money thing. They’re both nervous, they argue, and both keep changing their minds about whether or not they’re going to have sex.

This is the most Jewish film Allen has made in years; maybe decades. Bobby’s family is unquestionably Jewish. There’s a Passover Seder, and a discussion of the shortcomings of a religion that doesn’t include life after death.

I give it a B+.

The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist) used Sony digital cameras to give Café Society the saturated color and slightly soft focus of three-strip Technicolor–appropriate for the film’s setting. When I saw Storaro’s name in the opening credits, I wondered if he was still hung up on the non-standard 2.00×1 aspect ratio. Once the movie proper began, I knew that he was. The standard 1.81×1 frame was slightly letterboxed to 2.00. I suspect I was the only person in the theater that noticed.

As the story unfolds, Bobby’s former lover becomes his aunt. It’s a funny situation, and somewhat autobiographical. After all, Allen’s lover of 12 years is now his mother-in-law.

I have a hard time believing Mia Farrow’s claim that Allen raped their young daughter. Perhaps I want to give some slack to an artist whom I’ve admired for most of my life. And there are good reasons to distrust Farrow. She never charged him with the crime. No one else has ever accused him of pedophilia. And Farrow made those claims when she was very, very angry at Allen.

She had a right to be. Allen probably didn’t rape a child, but he certainly slept with his girlfriend’s adult daughter–a young woman who knew Allen as her mother’s boyfriend throughout her entire adolescence.

Allen’s defense at the time still makes him out as a horrible human being. He insists he never had anything like a parental relationship with Farrow’s daughter Soon-Yi; he barely spoke to her until she was grown. Remember that this is a man who had three children with Farrow (biological and adopted). He was, apparently, a father to his own kids. But by his own admission, he refused to have anything to do with their older half-sister. If he’s telling the truth, he was a pretty cold fixture in the family.

On the other hand, he and Soon-Yi have been together for a long time now. They’re married with kids, and appear to be good for each other.

Sometimes you have to separate the great artist from the horrible human being. Woody Allen has made many excellent films, including at least one absolute masterpiece (Annie Hall). He’s also, of course, made his share of stinkers. Café Society isn’t one of his very best, but it can provide an enjoyable evening at the movies.

Love, romance, and a whole lot of problems bubble up in The Intervention

B+ Comedy-drama, but mostly drama

Written and directed by Clea DuVall

All romantic relationships have problems, and those problems provide fodder for this very funny relationship drama (or maybe it’s a very serious comedy). But according to Annie (Melanie Lynskey), only one couple is supposed to have problems here, and everyone else is supposed to be on the same page about the only conceivable solution: divorce.

Annie knows with absolute certainty that her married friends, Ruby and Peter (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza), need to go their separate ways. And when we first meet the unhappy couple, we understand her certainty. They treat each other with behavior so passive aggressive that it’s just one step away from aggressive aggressive. So Annie organized this big weekend shindig so that she and other friends of Ruby and Peter can help them see the light.

But Annie’s pretty messed up herself. Engaged to Matt (Jason Ritter), she keeps postponing their wedding. What’s more, she has a very serious drinking problem. (Actually, everyone drinks pretty heavily here, but Annie’s problem is considerably worse than the others.)

Also in attendance is Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall, who also wrote and directed) and her girlfriend Sarah (Natasha Lyonne). Sarah worries that Jessie is a little too interested in younger women.

And speaking of younger women, Jack (a friend of Peter’s played by Ben Schwartz) arrives with a new and barely legal girlfriend oozing sexuality in everyone’s direction (Alia Shawkat). Her name is Lola; no screenwriter gives a character that name without a good reason.

As everyone tries to solve Ruby and Peter’s relationship problems, their own complications bubble to the top. And people are soon getting angry with their partners and hitting on other members of the gang.

Almost the entire film is set in an extremely large and expensive mansion and estate in the south. Ruby and Jessie apparently came from a very wealthy family. For what it’s worth, everyone here is white, and everyone except Sarah has dark hair. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional.

Don’t expect a laugh fest, but don’t expect a tragedy, either. Most of the characters are likeable, and all ring true. The Intervention isn’t trying teach a lesson; or if it is, the lesson is to be tolerant of your lover’s faults.

Not sage advice, but worth knowing.

The Phantom Boy doesn’t quite come together

C+ Animated family-oriented fantasy crime thriller

Written by Alain Gagnol

Directed by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli

Eleven-year-old Leo is very sick. He’s in the hospital, will be for months, and he may not survive. But he has a superpower. His spirit can leave his body, fly through walls, and see and hear everything around him.

Meanwhile, an evil villain demands a billion dollars or else he will destroy New York City’s power and data networks. Need I mention that he has two bumbling assistants?

Then there’s the often brilliant and athletic, but occasionally clumsy police detective. He’s got a sidekick of sorts–a pretty newspaper reporter who’s obviously in love with him.

All of these parts don’t quite come together in this moderately entertaining movie. Yes, it has thrills and laughs, but neither the suspense nor the humor ratchet up enough to make The Phantom Boy really worth seeing.

The detective breaks a leg early on, and is confined to the same hospital as Leo. Once the cop recognizes Leo’s powers, they become a team to protect the journalist (AKA, the damsel in distress) and save the city. Leo can follow the reporter, flying all over the place, sticking his head through walls, all without being seen. When he talks, the sound doesn’t come out of his disembodied spirit, but from his physical body back in the detective’s room in the hospital. Then the detective can give the reporter instructions via cellphone.

Another thing we learn early about Leo’s powers: If he stays out of his body long enough, his disembodied hands and then feet begin to fade away. If he stays out too long, he will never be able to return to his body. Nothing like a painfully obvious plot point.

Leo’s mortality is the movie’s biggest problem. When the hero is a dying kid, there are only two possible endings. Either Leo dies, which is way too sad for such a light piece of entertainment. Or he recovers, which is predictable and mawkish.

Despite the New York setting, The Phantom Boy is a French film, and in the subtitled version that I reviewed, everyone speaks French. That’s kind of funny at first, but I got used to it. Theaters will be screening both subtitled and dubbed versions.

Newspapers and signage are all in English.

As old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation goes, The Phantom Boy isn’t particularly original, clever, or beautiful. It can’t hold a candle to another recent, feature-length French cartoon, April and the Extraordinary World.

There is one curious bit of design. The main villain has what is repeatedly described as a horribly disfigured face. A running gag keeps him from explaining the disaster that ruined his face. But judging from how he looks in the movie, he was apparently attacked by Pablo Picasso.