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.

Yumeji

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.

Alex in Venice Review: Father Figures and Mother in Crisis

Note: I wrote this review after seeing this film at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival. I assumed, at the time, that it would get a theatrical release. The release never happened, but its coming out on home video next week, so I felt it was time to post my review.

A- Contemporary drama

Written by Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton

Directed by Chris Messina

The work-vs.-family dynamic comes into full force in this drama set in Venice, California. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has more than her hands full. She’s an environmental lawyer working very long hours. She’s not working them to get rich; she’s an idealist fighting the corporations who place profit above planet.

But this story is not primarily about her work. It’s about her family.

When we first meet her, she has three men in her life. Her first priority, of course, is her son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner)–ten years old and having trouble making friends. Then there’s her father (Don Johnson), an aging actor sinking into senility. And finally, there’s her husband George, played by the film’s director, Chris Messina.

image

The story really begins when George, with much hesitance and guilt, tells Alex that he’s leaving her. He’s been effectively a househusband for years. Like Meryl Streep’s character in Kramer vs. Kramer, he needs to break free and find himself.

This couldn’t have happened at a worse time. A rich guy is building a spa on land currently inhabited by an endangered species, and Alex needs to devote herself to preparing a court case. Not the best time to suddenly become a single parent.

Meanwhile, her father gets what appears to be his first acting gig in years–the role of Firs in a stage production of The Cherry Orchard. But as dementia sinks in, he’s finding it harder than ever to learn his lines.

But the father does have one good idea–or at least it seemed like a good idea at the time. He invites his unemployed other daughter, Lily, to stay with them and take care of Dakota. As played by Katie Nehra (who also conceived of the story and co-wrote the script), Lily is a wild force of nature–upbeat, sexy, and bursting with energy. But she’s also irresponsible; a good person to party with but not the best babysitter.

And yet Lily plays an important part in helping Alex adjust to her new circumstances. Pregnant at 18 and married at 19, Alex never learned how to navigate the adult single scene. Lily helps her free herself–not an easy thing to do for a single parent with an extremely demanding job.

For the most part, Alex in Venice works beautifully. The characters reveal themselves nicely. They’re sweet, funny, and usually very real. The acting is never short of perfect, and this is the sort of story that depends entirely upon the acting.

But the picture has one big flaw. Alex does something in the movie that is so stupid, so unprofessional, and so unethical, that I simply couldn’t accept it. For any lawyer, it would be, and should be, a firing offense. Luckily, this unbelievable act mars only a few scenes.

Alex in Venice was actually shot in Venice, and it captures that beach town beautifully. The story could be set anywhere (or at least in any advanced democracy), but Venice adds atmosphere and scenery to the tale.

What’s Screening: June 5 – 11

Ain’t we lucky? We’ve got four film festivals running this week in the Bay Area:

Hatari!, Castro, Thursday, 7:00

Archival dye-transfer Technicolor print!
This wild-animals-in-Africa adventure is the only Howard Hawks movie I saw when it was new (I was pretty new myself in 1962), and I loved it. I saw it again maybe 12 to 15 years ago, and wasn’t as impressed. (And no, I don’t remember it well enough to give it a grade.) But whether or not the movie is any good, it’s a dye-transfer Technicolor print, and that makes it tempting in itself. On a double bill with Roar, which I’ve never seen, but was apparently a disaster in every way possible.

Memento, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

Only this exceptional thriller by Christopher Nolan. And how many tell the story backwards, putting you into the mind of someone who can’t remember what just happened? Okay, but how many give that man a mental disability that guarantees failure and makes him dangerous to himself and others? Too many to name. How many thrillers center on a hero bent on identifying, and then killing, the man who murdered his wife? (If you didn’t understand the sentences above, see Memento, and then figure out how to read it)

B+ The Stranger, Rafael, Sunday

Probably Orson Welles’ most conventional movie, this 1946 noir stars Edward G. Robinson has a war crimes investigator looking for an important Nazi now living peacefully in an American small town. Welles himself plays the villain (no spoilers in this) who will do anything to protect himself and resurrect his beloved Reich. With Loretta Young as the beautiful ingénue who doesn’t suspect that she’s engaged to a monster. Part of the series Welles 100 Part One: 1941-1948.

Femme fatale noir double bill: Double Indemnity & Body Heat, Castro, Wednesday

A rich housewife will do anything to be an even richer widow, so she seduces a chump–one who thinks with his libido–into doing her dirty work. That tried and true plot works well for both of these movies. The A goes to Double Indemnity. Made by Billy Wilder in the days of heavy censorship, it has to manage seduction without really saying that anyone is having sex. But it has Barbara Stanwyck as the wicked wife, Fred MacMurray as the chump, and Edward G. Robinson as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. Body Heat, made in a very different and freer era,
has William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and a lot of hard R sex. On its own, I’d give it I’d give it an A-.

A- Modern Times, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

A mostly silent picture made years after everyone else had started talking (seven years earlier, it would have been called a “part talkie”), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times laughs at assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression, with Chaplin’s tramp moving from job to job and jail to jail. With Paulette Goddard, the best leading lady of his career. Part of Charlie Chaplin Days.

B- Goldfinger, various CineMark theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00

I’ve been a James Bond fan, on and off, for much of my life. But I never understood the appeal of the series’ third outing–and the one that really popularized Bond in the United States. True, Sean Connery was wonderful in the role he created. But Gert Frobe’s title character is a dull and unappealing villain. Even worse, Bond spends way too much of the story as a prisoner, and does very little to help save the day.

Henri Langlois Centennial Tribute: Opening Program, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30

As the co-founder of La Cinémathèque française, Henri Langlois helped start the tradition of taking cinema seriously as an art, and doing what he could to find, preserve, and make available classic films. To open this series, Thanks to Henri Langlois: A Centennial Tribute, the PFA will screen La Tosca, a one-reel short from 1918 discovered by Langlois, and three documentaries about the man.

A+ The General, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. The theater mentions nothing about musical accompaniment, so I’m guessing they will screen the Blu-ray with one of the three scores on the disc; probably the excellent one by Carl Davis.

A+ Taxi Driver, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

When I think of the 1970s as a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. It isn’t that De Niro’s character hasn’t found the right companion, or society has failed him, or that he doesn’t understand intimacy. His problems stem from the fact that he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. Read my Blu-ray review.

Dr. Strangelove, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight)

General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (three of them played by Peter Sellers) are almost as competent as the Three Stooges. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. I wrote about more about this film in 2013.

B+ Ghostbusters, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30

Comedy rarely gets this scary or this visually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say that special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny (at least intentionally so). Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver appear to be having a great time as they try to control the phantasm and monsters suddenly attacking New York City. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon or evening.

A- Iris, New Parkway, opens Friday

Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling. Read my full review.

A- Ex Machina, Balboa, opens Friday

This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the Turing test to determine if a “female” robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein, and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? Do you have a right to replace a sentient machine with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review.

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