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.

New haunted series at SFMOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently gave its Phyllis Wattis Theater an upgrade. And now they’re combining forces with the San Francisco Film Society for a three-weekend series of Modern Cinema, with an emphasis on films both haunted and haunting.

SFMOMA and SFFS aren’t the only organizations involved. The festival will focus on films preserved and made available by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. And the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul joins the mix, with a weekend dedicated to his work and the films that have inspired him.

Although neither organization is using the word festival, I’m counting the series as one because each weekend provides enough cinema to become an intensive experience.

The first section, Haunted by Cinema, runs Friday, October 7 through Sunday the 9th. Despite the name, these are not necessarily scary movies. They’re films that “have haunted the creative world since they were first screened—the works whose influence can be felt in all the films that followed.” They include such well-known classics as Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, and L’Avventura. But they also include lesser but still influential works like Mysterious Object at Noon and Black Girl.


Unfortunately, that first weekend will conflict with the Mill Valley Film Festival. It’s hard to find a film festival-free weekend in the fall.

The second section, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, concentrates on the filmmaker, his films, and the films that inspired him. It starts with An Evening with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, where he’ll talk and screen shorts. In addition to Weerasethakul’s work, the weekend will include The Spirit of the Beehive, Knife in the Water, The River, and Viridiana. This section runs from Thursday, October 13 through Sunday the 16th.

The River

The final section, Haunted Cinema, is the fun one. It runs Friday, October 21 through Sunday the 23rd--as Halloween in approaching. The movies include Picnic at Hanging Rock, Ugetsu and Carnival of Souls.

The newly improved Phyllis Wattis Theater sports two 35mm projectors (for archival prints), a 4K DCP-compatible digital projector, Meyer Sound, and its own entrance separate from the Museum proper.

Carnival of Souls

It also has drink holders. At the press conference I attended, they kept talking about the drink holders. But they also showed us a digital clip from Carnival of Souls; it looked fantastic.

Twelve of the films will be screened in 35mm. The remaining 14 will be digital. They’ll be showing The River on film; I hope it’s the same 1952 dye-transfer print I saw last year.

Mill Valley Film Festival program announced

Monday night, the California Film Institute introduced this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival–the 39th edition. Now comes your chance to see this year’s Oscar bait early–and probably with the filmmakers ready to answer questions.

I mean it about Oscar bait. Since 2010, every Best Picture Oscar winner (whether it deserved it or not) had its Bay Area premiere at Mill Valley. But the Festival also screens little-known films that will probably never get a theatrical run. It’s good to catch those ones, too.

The Mill Valley Film Festival isn’t really centered in Mill Valley, and would more accurately be called the Marin County Film Festival. Many of the biggest events happen in San Rafael, where the Festival has three screens compared to Mill Valley’s two. Larkspur and Corte Madera will also host screenings.

This is the last year where MVFF will use the magnificent Corte Madera Century Cinema–a single-screen theater with a huge, curved screen that’s perfect for immersive cinema. No longer profitable, the Corte Madera’s days as a theater are numbered. The Festival will close the theater out in style, with a marathon screening of the original Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately, it won’t be the original version of the original trilogy.

The festival opens Thursday October 6 with the musical La La Land in Mill Valley and the drama Arrival in Corte Madera. It ends on October 16 with the historical drama Loving, about the lawsuit that legalized racially-mixed marriage in all 50 states. In between these you can enjoy a whole lot of movies, live music, and Yom Kippur. I won’t be attending that day.

The Festival will honor various filmmakers with tributes, including Julie Dash, Gael García Bernal, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Kidman and McGregor will be screening their newest movies, but the festival will also screen Moulin Rouge! from 2001, in which they both star.

Mill Valley generally picks a few spotlights, showing several films with a similar theme. This year, they’re spotlighting Cannabis, inspired by Proposition 64 on the November ballot, and Culinary Cinema, which just might have been inspired by researching cannabis (it wasn’t).

This will be the first Mill Valley Film Festival without any physical film being projected. Everything will be digital. I know many people object to that. I don’t.

I’ve already started previewing some of the films. I’ll be reporting the good and the bad soon.

A+ List: North by Northwest (also Notorious)

A glib advertising man with two ex-wives and a drinking problem becomes the victim of mistaken identity. Foreign spies want to kill him, and the police want to arrest him for the murder of a man killed by the spies. Clever witticisms won’t help him this time.

Alfred Hitchcock made thrillers more frightening and thoughtful than North by Northwest. But he never made one more entertaining. Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman provide almost as many laughs as thrills, and balance them deftly. Sheer entertainment value earns this movie a spot on my A+ list, where I honor the great films that I’ve loved for decades.

But before we dangle Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint off of Abraham Lincoln’s nose, I’d like to bring your attention to one of those more frightening and thoughtful Hitchcock films that belongs on my list: Notorious. You can read my Blu-ray review.

Okay, back to North by Northwest:

Hitchcock made quite a few movies about regular people caught up in the dangerous world of spies. He made even more about innocent people accused of a crime they did not commit. He combined these two plot tropes three times. In North by Northwest, he combined them for the third, the last, and best the time.

We barely get to know advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) before evil foreign spies mistake him for American counterspy George Kaplan–a man that they very much want dead. Then the spies kill a man and Thornhill is blamed for the murder. So Thornhill must now avoid the bad guy and the police while trying to find out the real story and prove his innocence.

Lehman wrote Thornhill, and Grant plays him, as a witty but shallow opportunist with little regard for the truth. “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.”

As the story marches on, he finds something–or someone–he really cares about: Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. An actress associated with serious drama and working-class characters (for instance, On the Waterfront), Saint stepped out of her onscreen image to play one of the best so-called Hitchcock blondes–beautiful, glamorous, poised, and outwardly cold–until she turns up the heat.

I’m a sucker for suave, aristocratic, unfailingly polite villains–the sort who would treat you with every courtesy before killing you. James Mason plays that character to perfection in North by Northwest. As Vandamm, the head of the foreign spies, he’s the sort of man you would like to have at your dinner party–assuming there’s no one there he might need to permanently silence.

Vandamm is as witty as he is ruthless and polite. Much of the film’s humor comes from his banter with Thornhill:

Vandamm: Mr. Kaplan, you are quite the performer. First you’re the outraged Madison Avenue advertising executive who claims that he has been mistaken for someone else. Next, you play the fugitive from justice supposedly trying to clear himself of a crime he knows he didn’t commit. And now, you’re the jealous lover spurned by love and betrayal.

Thornhill: Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.

Vandamm: Your very next role, and you’ll be quite convincing, I assure you.

Hitchcock and Lehman knew when to be funny, when to be suspenseful, and when to combine the two. There’s no humor in the famous crop-dusting scene, and no suspense (well, not much) in Thornhill’s and Kendall’s comic flirting. Interestingly, the broadest, silliest gag in the whole movie comes just before the nail-biting climactic sequence.

Visually, North by Northwest takes its audience on a journey by train, bus, and plane from New York City to Chicago to South Dakota’s Mt. Rushmore (a more accurate title would have been West by West North). This was Hitchcock’s fifth and last film shot in Paramount’s large-frame VistaVision format. The higher definition helps enhance the scenery, even when that scenery is part of the rear-projection special effect.

VistaVision also helps emphasize the film’s glamour and its uniquely modern architecture. The film was a major influence on the early James Bond movies.

According to Alfred Hitchcock, “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.” North by Northwest is a rich, dark chocolate cake served with vanilla ice cream.

What’s Screening: September 9 – 15

Mr. Spock, Dekalog, Merchant Ivory, and a Big Parade in this week’s Bay Area screenings.


New films opening

B+ For the Love of Spock, Roxie, opens Friday

Adam Nimoy splits this feature documentary between his father Leonard and the character that made Leonard famous: Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock. He tells us how the character developed, and then became one of the last century’s most iconic figures. But he also shows us how his father developed, from a struggling actor to a star to a director, how he struggled with family conflicts and alcohol. It’s a loving tribute, but also an honest one. Read my full review.

Promising events

Dekalog, New Mission, Rafael, starts Friday

I’ve yet to see Krzysztof Kieślowski’s masterpiece about the Ten Commandments and the last days of Polish Communism. I suppose I need to fix that. But since it was made as a 10-episode television series, I’ll probably wait until I can see it on the small screen.

Merchant Ivory double bill: Remains of the Day & Howard’s End, Castro, Sunday, 5:00

It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve seen either of these films, both examining the British class system in the first half of the 20th century. I remember liking both of them very much; especially Remains of the Day.
New 4K restoration of Howard’s End.

The new restoration of Howards End will also screen at the Elmwood as a regular feature, opening Friday.

David Thomson Lecture & Lola Montez, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 4:30

Max Ophuls’ last film, Lola Montez, screens at 5:30 as part of the ongoing series, Vienna and the Movies, curated by film critic and historian David Thomson. I haven’t seen the film. But if you get there at 4:30–even if you haven’t bought a ticket–you can listen to Thomson’s pre-screening lecture about the movie.

The Holy Mountain, Castro, Friday, 7:00

I saw Alejandro Jodorowsky’s very strange film about a spiritual quest some 42 years ago at a Los Angeles film festival. I remember it being bizarre, religious, sacrilegious, confusing, and sexual–with a lot of nudity. I kind of liked it (I was 19 at the time). On a double bill with Zardoz, which I saw around the same time, but didn’t care for–despite the nudity.

Recommended revivals

A The Big Parade, Castro, Sunday, 1:30

One of the best films about World War 1, made while the war was still a recent memory. John Gilbert sans mustache plays a spoiled rich kid who signs up almost on a lark, enjoys fun and games safely behind the lines, falls in love with a French girl (neither speaks the other’s language; a perfect match for a silent film), and then is dropped into an unrelenting Hell. With Bruce Loeb live on the organ.

A- Elevator to the Gallows, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, new 2K restoration opens Friday

Louis Malle launched his directing career, and arguably the New Wave, with this noir tale of a perfect crime gone wrong. Laced with dark, ironic humor, the film cuts back and forth between a murderer trapped in an elevator (Maurice Ronet), the murderer’s lover wandering the streets searching for him (Jeanne Moreau), and two young lovers enjoying a crime spree in a car stolen from the murderer. And all of it set to a powerful jazz score by Miles Davis. Read my longer comments.

A Animal Crackers, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday

The Marx Brothers’ second film
overcomes the crudity of early talkies by delivering loads of laughs. “Marxist” humor always tears down the pompous and the self-important, and Animal Crackers’ setting–a society party filled with the wealthy and the pompous–makes the perfect setting for the Brothers’ special form of anarchy. On a very strange double bill with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

A The Terminator, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:00

James Cameron’s first hit provides non-stop thrills that keep you on the edge of a heart attack. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title character–a heartless machine sent back in time to murder the future mother of the man who will save humanity. Simple, straightforward, and modestly budgeted (three things you can’t say about recent Cameron pictures), The Terminator maintains an internal logic rare in time travel stories. On a double bill with RoboCop.

A All About Eve, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

Here’s your chance to explore the sordid ambition behind Broadway’s (and by implication, Hollywood’s) glamour. Anne Baxter plays the title character, an apparently sweet and innocent actress whom aging diva Bette Davis takes under her wing. But Eve isn’t anywhere near as innocent as she appears. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. On a double bill with the 1947 version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

B The Son of the Sheik, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

You can’t discuss Rudolph Valentino’s last and most famous movie without confronting outdated attitudes about romance and sex. The film’s treatment of rape is deeply offensive by today’s standards (as is the use of white actors in swarthy makeup)–and this in a movie designed to appeal to female libidos. But if you can put aside 21st-century values, it’s still a lot of fun. And yes, I know several modern women who find it sexy. I discuss the movie in more detail in this festival report. With the shorts Arabiantics and A Trip to Paramount Town. Frederick Hodges accompanies on piano.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

* Part of Alfred Hitchcock Weekends

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.

For the Love of Spock (and Leonard Nimoy)

B+ Documentary

Directed by Adam Nimoy

When Leonard Nimoy died earlier this year, he was working with his son Adam on a documentary about the character that made the elder Nimoy famous–Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock. After his father’s death, Adam changed his mind and made the film about both Spock and the actor who played him. He also used it to explore the sometimes troubled, sometimes loving relationship he had with his father.

When Star Trek premiered in 1966, NBC didn’t like Spock, and worried about “the Martian” on their new show. Yes, that seems laughable in retrospect. The pointed-eared alien holding his emotions in check became a sensation, and made the show a hit. Fifty years later (almost to the day), he’s still an iconic figure in our culture.

Spock represents much of what’s best in a human being–even if he isn’t one. A scientist, he’s rational and logical. He puts what’s best for everyone above what’s best for himself. He’s not quite a pacifist, but he abhors violence.

He’s also a deeply lonely individual. Half human and half Vulcan, Spock doesn’t quite fit in either culture. Like a good Vulcan, he tries to master his emotions, but the human side of him makes that difficult.

Adam Nimoy paints his father as a hard worker and a practical man. Born to Orthodox Jewish parents early in the great depression, he learned to do things for himself. He was the sort of father who could repair your bike or build a brick fence around the house.

He also believed in the importance of finding your passion and pursuing it. His parents didn’t approve of his decision to study acting, and refused to pay his way through college unless he picked a more practical major. So he left home and worked his way through acting school. And he struggled for years in menial jobs between bit parts to support his family until Star Trek changed his life.

The documentary doesn’t entirely paint Leonard as the perfect father. He was often away, and had a drinking problem. Father and son became estranged for several years. Eventually they reconciled.

Adam managed to get a fair amount of interview footage of his father before Leonard died. Other interview subjects include the remaining four surviving members of the original cast, stars of the new Star Trek reboot movies (new actors playing the original characters), friends and relatives, and famous people who just love Star Trek (Jason Alexander does a great Shatner impression). We learn about other roles Leonard played in movies, TV, and the live theater, but the film doesn’t even mention Zombies of the Stratosphere, a laughably bad 1952 serial where Nimoy first played an alien (if you’re curious, it’s on Fandor).

Breezy and enjoyable, For the Love of Spock provides a loving view of the man behind the Vulcan, and the character that launched a still-loved franchise. It also tells us quite a bit about Adam Nimoy himself.