Silicon Cowboys take on Big Blue

B documentary

Directed by Jason Cohen

In the early 1980s, IBM ruled the personal computer market. If your computer wasn’t made by Big Blue, it was incompatible with all the ones that were. Then a group of young, former Texas Instrument employees created Compaq, and everything changed. By the end of the decade, the PC was still the standard, but it was no longer the IBM-PC.

Jason Cohen’s breezy documentary about Compaq’s rise and (to some extent) fall tells its story in a quick and upbeat 77 minutes. David comes to life, takes down Goliath, becomes king, survives some challenges, but then loses his kingdom.

When IBM released the PC in 1981, it changed the world of personal computers. They were no longer hobbyists’ toys, but real tools for the office. And Big Blue had a monopoly; you could only run PC software on an IBM PC.

Then, in 1983, Compaq released the Compaq Portable. It was fully compatible. And you could carry the whole thing–including the built-in screen and the attached keyboard–as bulky, a 28-pound suitcase. It wasn’t the first portable (or luggable) computer, or even the first portable that was IBM compatible. But for a number of reasons, it became the most successful.

Cohen’s documentary covers the main points, and has some wonderful moments—especially the old Compaq commercials starring John Cleese. But it glides over a lot of important stuff, and fails to explain a lot that needed explaining. For instance, it covers the MicroChannel vs. EISA conflict, but never explains that these were standards for easy-to-use hardware upgrades. That’s something that could easily be explained in a visual medium.

Another problem: The film is so caught up in Campaq’s story that it misses the big picture. Although Bill Gates pops up occasionally in the story, there’s no real discussion about operating systems. IBM lost its monopoly on PC hardware, but it’s partner Microsoft kept its monopoly on the software needed to run it. To this day, the acronym PC generally stands for a personal computer running a Microsoft operating system.

If you’re at all interested in the subject, Silicon Cowboys is worth catching. If you remember those days, it can even be nostalgic. But as I watched, I couldn’t help wishing for a bigger, broader documentary about the entire industry.

Living in Oblivion finds humor in the frustrations of filmmaking

Sports fans like sports movies. Foodies love food porn. So it’s no surprise that we cinephiles have a soft spot in our hearts for movies about movies.

Few movies about movies are as funny as Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo’s low-budget comedy about the making of a low-budget drama. Released in 1995–when independent filmmaking’s popularly was reaching its zenith—Living in Oblivion presents the process of shooting a film on the cheap as one frustrating disaster after another. DiCillo both wrote and directed the film.

I first saw Living in Oblivion when it was in its theatrical release over 20 years ago. I revisited it Tuesday night on Fandor.

Steve Buscemi stars as a director who should probably consider a career change. For one thing, he doesn’t do well under pressure, and when things go wrong (which is always), he makes it worse. For another, he doesn’t appear to have much talent. His screenplay is filled with clichés, and he couldn’t coax a decent performance out of Meryl Streep.

But instead of Streep, he has to coax one out of a woman whose main claim to fame is a nude shower scene in a Richard Gear movie. Catherine Keener, an excellent actress, does a fine job playing a mediocre one.

Living in Oblivion shows the filmmakers struggling to shoot three separate scenes. In the first section, the director tries to shoot a dramatic dialog scene that he insists must be done in a single take. Actors blow their lines. Lights explode. The boom mic drops into frame. And the two actors give a brilliant, natural performance when the camera isn’t on.

In the second part, the director has to deal with a handsome and egotistical movie star who’s agreed to act in this edgy independent (James Le Gros). Every woman on the set wants to sleep with him, causing conflicts. And his overinflated ego crowds everything else off of the set.

In the third part, the hapless director tries to shoot a stupid and cliché-ridden dream sequence. It has Keeler in a wedding gown (it’s supposed to be her dream). It has smoke. And it has a dwarf in a powder blue tuxedo (Peter Dinklage in his first film role). But no one knows how to properly run the smoke machine. The director doesn’t really know what he wants. And the dwarf blows his cool with a spot-on, hilarious rant that made me fall in love with Dinklage way back in ’95.

Living in Oblivion has some dream sequences of its own. But you never know they’re dreams until someone wakes up.

DiCillo and cinematographer Frank Prinzi use an interesting mix of color and black and white. In the first section, the real world is in black and white, but scenes shot for the film within the film are in color. In the second section, that’s reversed, showing filmmakers in color apparently shooting a black-and-white film. The third section is entirely in color.

Both the real movie and the film within it are called Living in Oblivion. The name suggests living your life with no understanding of what it’s all about. But it can also refer to filmmakers and other artists who toil for a fame they never receive.

If you’re not on Fandor, Living in Oblivion is available on pay-per-view via YouTube and Google Play. It’s worth catching.

What’s Screening: August 19 – 25

I’m back from the longest vacation I’ve had in years, and there are still no film festivals in the Bay Area. But we do have great comedy, great dancing, and pods turning into real people.

New films opening

B Lo and Behold, Reveries of The Connected World, Clay, Rafael, opens Friday

Werner Herzog tries–and to some extent succeeds–in giving us an overview of the Internet and all that it means. Organized into ten clearly-marked chapters, his latest documentary starts with early tests on the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s and ends with predictions of the future. In between, he celebrates what’s wonderful about technology and warns us about its horrors. Read my full review.

Promising events

Snatchers Body the of Invasion, Roxie, Thursday, 7:00

Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has received a very different type of remake. Anne McGuire re-edited the film, so that starts at the end and ends at the beginning. On a double bill with–you guessed it– Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Laurel and Hardy Newly Restored, Volume 2, Rafael, Sunday

Another collection of shorts by Hollywood’s greatest comic duo. I’ve only seen one of the four movies on this program, Busy Bodies, and it’s as good as they come. I suspect the others will be fun, as well.

Recommended revivals

A The Band Wagon, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

If Singin’ in the Rain is the best musical Hollywood ever created, The Bad Wagon is a very close second. A satire on the clash between serious art and frivolous entertainment, held together by great songs, masterful choreography, and comedy that never feels forced. Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to Broadway, is clearly based on Astaire himself. On a double bill with Meet Me in St. Louis.

A To Be or Not To Be (original, 1942 version), Stanford, Friday

The Nazis conquered Poland with frightening speed. But they prove no match for Carol Lombard and Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch’s World War II comic masterpiece. As a married pair of egotistical stars of the Warsaw stage, Lombard and Benny lead a theatrical troupe of slightly lesser egos as they outwit the gestapo. The rare screwball comedy that’s willing to get serious when the story demands it. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version of Hamlet, which I saw way back in 1981 and thought it was awful.

B Burn After Reading, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

The Coen brothers are back to their old tricks, mining the dark comic prospects of a crime gone wrong. While Burn After Reading lacks the humanity of Fargo, the Zen-slacker philosophy of The Big Lebowski, and the blazing, non-stop lunacy of Intolerable Cruelty, it still provides 95 very entertaining minutes. Read my review.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

Wenders & Suzuki: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw two very different films Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. They were not a double feature, and few people stayed for both of them.

The American Friend

Brief digression: My wife and I watched the first two seasons of Breaking Bad recently; we’re not sure if and when we’ll get to season 3. One problem I had with the show is that the thriller-style plot felt stretched for five seasons of episodic television. I felt it would work much better as a single movie.

Wim Wenders’ The American Friend proves my point. The plot is basically the same–a family man with a fatal disease turns to crime so that his family will have money after he’s gone. In a taut 126 minutes, Wenders tells the story economically, effectively, and entertainingly.

Wender’s film has another advantage. It’s based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley). I haven’t read any of her books, but I have yet to see a film based on one that I didn’t like.

Dennis Hopper gets star billing as Highsmith’s most famous character, Tom Ripley, but the real star is Bruno Ganz as a craftsman who frames and restores paintings. He has a shop, a reputation, a wife, a young son, and a blood disease that will sooner or later kill him.

This makes him an easy target for Ripley’s criminal intentions. Ripley and another crook trick the craftsman into believing that his time is shorter than it is, and convince him to make money quick as a professional killer. A little bit of him dies with that first hit.

Of course things will go wrong.

The pace isn’t as tight as a Hollywood thriller, but that’s fine with me. Wenders gives the story space to breathe. But by the last third, the suspense is ratcheted up considerably.

I give it an A.

By the way, there’s a reference to Buster Keaton’s The General early in the film. I was the only one in the large audience that laughed.

This screening is part of the PFA’s massive Wim Wender series, which runs through the end of July. Like all of the films in the series, it has been digitally restored, and was projected in a 4K DCP. It looked damn near perfect.


Seeing these two films back to back makes a very strong argument for digital projection. The special “Imported” 35mm print of Yumeji was in horrible condition. It was badly scratched. “Silent” moments were accompanied by a persistent hiss. Focus was problematic. Much of film had a yellow, vertical line running through it.

(To be fair, I’ve seen excellent 35mm prints and horrible digital transfers. I just didn’t see them Friday night.)

Maybe I would have noticed the problems less if it had been a better film. Set in the 1920s, Yumeji follows the amorous adventures of a famous painter who often sleeps with his models and other women. The whole film has a this-can’t-be-happening, is-this-a-dream vibe.

That could have been fun, and at times it succeeded in being funny or sexy. But it wasn’t consistently funny or sexy enough to overcome the broad characters and weak plot.

The film screened as part of the PFA’s ongoing series on director Iseijun Suzuki. I went into this movie with no idea what it was about. I was disappointed.

I give it a C-.

Thursday: The last day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival

I saw two movies on the last day of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. The first one was directed by someone named Ross. The second by someone name Moss. Neither of them was a loss.

Frank & Lola

I saw this at the New Mission, and thankfully, it was in the big, downstairs Theater 1.

Director or Programming Rachel Rosen welcomed us to “the last matinee of the festival.” She explained that writer/director Matthew Ross was in town, but under the weather. There was no Q&A.

Frank & Lola is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, so I have to keep my review short:

This psychological mystery and romantic drama examines an excessively jealous man. It starts with a very hot sex scene–except that Frank (Michael Shannon) feels a little reluctant about starting a relationship. He worries about being hurt. He’s also naturally paranoid, and can’t stand to see Lola (Imogen Poots) even talking to another man. On the other hand, Lola really does seem to be cheating on him. His search to undercover Lola’s secrets takes him from their home in Las Vegas–where he’s an upcoming chef–to Paris and some exceedingly seedy pleasures, and then into his own deep fears.

I give the film an A-. It will likely get a theatrical release.

Closing Night: The Bandit

I went to the Castro for the official closing night screening of The Bandit (although five other movies started screening after this one).

After introductions by Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, and the director of the night’s film, Jesse Moss, we watched The Bandit.

Allegedly about the making of the 1977 surprise box office hit, Smokey and the Bandit, this documentary is really a platonic, touching love story between two very macho men–Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. Reynolds, of course, was a top movie star. Hal Needham was a top stuntman. He was also Reynolds’ stuntman, until he found a new career by directing Smokey. The two men complimented each other professionally, and they were the best of friends. Even when they were rich, they shared a house for eleven years.

When Needham got the idea for Smokey and the Bandit, and decided to direct it, Reynolds used his star power to get it funded, albeit at a very low budget. The studio thought it would tank, and it did just that in the big cities. But it was a huge hit in small towns, especially in the south.

Bandit doesn’t cover the making of the movie all that much. It shows us a brief scene about shooting a stunt or arguing with Universal executives, than it cuts away to something else in the long relationship between these two men. Moss has made a charming, sympathetic, enjoyable portrait of two very successful good old boys. But both Reynolds and Needham come off as near perfect; the lack of warts makes me a big suspicious.

I give the movie a B+.

By the way, Smokey and the Bandit wasn’t the only surprise hit to come out the last week of May, 1977. Star Wars premiered two days before Smokey. The Bandit doesn’t mention this.

After the movie, Moss and two of his assistants (I didn’t get their names) came on stage for a Q&A. Rosen moderated. Some highlights:

  • On Reynold’s participation in the documentary: When we went to his house, it was a little like Sunset Blvd. Would I end up dead in his pool? He’s an incredible movie star but he’s disappeared. But Burt was surprisingly open. Really cooperative.
  • Needham’s widow told us that Hal hated documentaries. I wanted to make one that Hal would enjoy.
  • Why Sally Fields wasn’t interviewed (she and Reynold became an item while making Smokey): She works a lot. She just works. We weren’t able to talk to her. And I was much more interested in the relationship with Hal.
  • Burt Reynolds as an actor: Look at Boogle Nights or Deliverance. He really was capable of a great performance.
  • I just wanted to make a fun film with lots of car crashes. It’s a buddy movie, it’s an action comedy. I wanted to see this film.

The Bandit is not likely to get a theatrical release. But Moss promised that “It will be available on the small screen.”

I briefly attended the Closing Night Party at the Mezzanine. It was okay.

The Last Man on the Moon

B biographical documentary

Directed by Mark Craig

What was it really like to be an astronaut when that title was still new? Navy pilot Gene Cernan joined the elite ranks of space explorers not long after the original Mercury astronauts were selected. He flew into space three times–once in a two-man Gemini capsule and twice with Project Apollo. In his final venture into space, he commanded Apollo 17–the last manned trip to the moon. He is, literally, the last human being (so far) to walk on another world.

Now in his 80’s, Cernan tells his story in Mark Craig’s entertaining documentary. He allows us to understand what it was like to be an astronaut–not just in space, but on the ground preparing for the big events. The film shows us the camaraderie and competition within this small, select group. It shows how they all lived in the same neighborhood, and partied hard together.

But the film also shows the toll spaceflight took on families. Training, preparing, and testing was more than a full-time job, and it went on for years–leaving little time to be husbands and fathers. The stress on the family got worse, of course, during the missions, with constant news media and the very real possibility that Dad wouldn’t come back. “If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home,” says his wife of that time. And after the flight, comes the celebratory press junkets and world tours. Cernan admits that he didn’t have the time and focus to be a good husband and father, and like 60% of those early astronauts, eventually divorced.

The Last Man on the Moon provides an interesting but narrow history of early American space exploration, told from an extremely insular point of view. Before becoming an astronaut, Cernan ran bombing missions off of an aircraft carrier. But we’re never told who was he bombing (perhaps they were all test runs). The social and political unrest of the late 1960s pop up only once in a very short montage–as if director Craig felt obliged to mention it. The documentary doesn’t even cover the space race’s effect on popular culture–Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey never come up.

Nor does the film ever discuss the uncomfortable fact that’s visible throughout the picture: That all of those early astronauts were white, seemingly Anglo-Saxon men.

The movie really comes alive when Cernan blasts into space. There’s a sense of really being there, both closed in a tiny container and yet out among the stars. The awe, the majesty–and yes, the fear–comes through via narration, actual footage from the voyage, and well-integrated special effects. You may not notice when you’re looking at an effect; I only did when I realized that there couldn’t possibly have been a camera at that spot.

In the film’s climax, Cernan and Harrison Schmitt explore a valley on the moon, knowing that it would be the last voyage there in the foreseeable future. The sequence is magnificent. The beauty and the airless isolation drive home the film’s message: These men sacrificed a great deal to get there, but they experienced something truly unique.

An old marriage feels the strain in 45 Years

B- Relationship drama

Written and directed by Andrew Haigh

From a short story by David Constantine

The English seem to pride themselves on staying calm. Consider the country’s primary myth: King Arthur and His Round Table. It’s about a monarch who’s too polite to bring up the little problem of his wife shagging his best friend.

There’s no adultery in Andrew Haigh’s chamber drama about a married couple approaching their 45th anniversary. In fact, there’s nothing much to argue about. The two people at the center of 45 Years worry, talk, and feel alienated from each other. But only once does one of them seem to be on the verge of maybe getting a bit warm under the collar.

The film’s calm and even tone is both its strength and its weakness. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay–especially Rampling–show the roiling emotions beneath the calm exterior. We can’t help but sympathize with them and consider the inevitable problems of a long marriage.

But the movie suffers from an emotional monotone. People so skilled at hiding their emotions (I’m talking about the characters, not the actors) can be dull after a while. The stars never get a chance to spread their very talented wings.

But then, the film’s major conflict is hardly something to get into a row about. Geoff (Courtenay) had a girlfriend who died years before he met Kate (Rampling). He had told his future wife long ago about this previous lover, but only now does he slip in the fact that, had she lived, they probably would have married.

With almost perfect calm, Kate reacts way out of proportion. How can she trust the man she’s lived with most of her life? After all, 50 years ago, he almost married someone else.

Geoff is significantly older than Kate (the actors’ ages are nine years apart), and he appears to be slipping into senility. Kate feels the responsibility of caring for a husband who can’t always think straight. But she’s the one whose reaction–buried as it is–is all out of proportion.

All this is happening within the few days before Kate’s and Geoff’s big, 45th anniversary party. Occasionally Kate has to put aside worries about her husband to help plan the event.

I see two ways to interpret her reaction to the news. One is that the filmmakers didn’t realize that this revelation is an absurdly trivial conflict on which to hang a feature-length film. If that’s the case, this is a very bad movie.

The other is that Kate is a deeply insecure person, locked inside an outer shell of complete confidence. The revelation of Geoff’s former love stabs at that insecurity, but doesn’t quite puncture the shell. If that’s the case, this is actually a pretty good drama.

But only pretty good. The even emotional state just emphasizes the fact that this is mostly ado about nothing.

Of course the film ends at the anniversary party, where they dance together romantically with “their” song from that long-ago wedding. The song, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” is a strange choice for celebrating a marriage. But it’s absolute perfect for ending this movie.