FilmStruck offers great films and poor tech

As soon as I heard about FilmStruck–the new movie-streaming collaboration from Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection–I eagerly waited for it to open its virtual doors. When it went online November 1, I signed up right away. But as my two-week free trial came to an end, technical and web design issues forced me to cancel my subscription. And even that cancellation was needlessly difficult due to bad website design.

And that’s a real shame, because FilmStruck offers the best selection of movies that a cinephile could hope for. An account gives you access to 25 of Akira Kurosawa’s 30 films, plus large selections of Chaplin, Almodóvar, Godard, and others. Available movies include A Room with a View, Tom Jones, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Kid Brother, The Magic Flute, and The Exterminating Angel–and that’s just in the comedy section. Every genre you pick will be filled with beloved classics and little-known gems.

Kid Brother

And since Criterion is involved, you get extras, as well. Check out this regularly-updated list of available commentary tracks.

The Viewing Experience

But these great movies and informative extras lose a lot if you can’t send them to your television. Yes, I know that some people like watching films on a laptop or even (gag!) a smartphone, but I’m not one of them. If I can’t conveniently stream a movie to my HDTV, I don’t want to pay for the streaming service.

If you have an Amazon FireTV or an Apple TV (I don’t), you should have no trouble watching FilmStruck movies on your television. But if you stream through Roku or Chromecast (I have both), you’re out of luck. FilmStruck promises to add support for these platforms early next year. You can download iOS and Android FilmStruck apps now, but they currently lack the Chromecast support that’s built into most video-playing apps on these platforms.

Chromecast icon on Fandor Android app

You can probably connect your laptop to your TV, and I’ve been doing it a lot these past couple of weeks. But it’s a hassle to set up, and if your laptop lacks an HDMI port, you’ll have to buy some sort of adapter. You can use a wireless mouse as a remote control, but even pausing a movie that way can be awkward.

What’s more, every FilmStruck feature I watched on my laptop (with or without the TV) had buffering problems. Every so often, the image would freeze and a spinning graphic told me to wait. Once I waited several minutes and had to refresh the webpage. I rarely experience buffering issues with other streaming services.

The Website Experience

The FilmStruck website places curated selections front and center. As I write these, the FilmStruck tab offers World Discoveries, Native People, Native Lands, Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, and others. On The Criterion Channel tab, there’s The Mustache Club, Adventures in Moving Going, and a double feature of The Lady Vanishes and The Vanishing. You can also browse by Genre, Recently Added, Popular Titles, and so on. And, of course, you can search for a title or a filmmaker.

FilmStruck website

But the search tool had problems. I searched for Akira Kurosawa, and found 25 of his films plus the documentary A.K. But I also found several Japanese films that had nothing to do with the master filmmaker. What these films did have was a director or cast member named Akira something or something Kurosawa. It’s a good thing I didn’t search for John Ford. Putting “Akira Kurosawa” in quotes resulted in no finds at all.

The site doesn’t always handle shorts well. Rather than offering Chaplin’s 12 Mutual comedies separately, they’re collected into three “features” called Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies, Part 1, 2, and 3.

Another organizing problem: Whoever wrote the alphabetizing algorithm didn’t understand how to treat the word The at the beginning of a title. The 400 Blows, The Bad Sleep Well, and The Last Laugh all come up in the Ts.

I could excuse bad organization if I could easily get the stream to my TV. Since I can’t, I chose to cancel my membership before the two-week free trial ended. And that’s when I discovered just how truly bad the FilmStruck website can be.

I could find no workable way to cancel my subscription. I found links that promised to help me do just that, but when I clicked on such a link, it brought me to a page with another promising link. And then another, and another, until I was back where I started. I used their tech support chat feature, and the support person gave me instructions with included clicking a link that wasn’t there. She gave up and promised that “I will put in a ticket for you to cancel your account. We will be in touch with you via email when it is resolved.”

I never received the email, but my account has been cancelled.

Which means I can’t stream anything of Criterion’s. The company stopped licensing their films to Hulu and Fandor when FilmStruck opened.

The people running FilmStruck clearly love cinema and want to bring us great films. But when it comes to sending those films down to the user, or creating a proper website, they have a lot to learn.

Louise Brooks at the New Mission

I confess. I was wrong. I gave G.W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl a B+ in this week’s newsletter. I should have given it an A. Pabst’s second film starring Louise Brooks is a better film than I had recalled.

Or maybe the movie seemed better because the music was better. That can happen with a silent movie.

Saturday night, my wife and I attended a screening of Lost Girl at the New Mission‘s huge and beautiful Theater 1. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival hosted this presentation, part of the New Mission at 100 celebration. The Musical Art Quintet provided the live accompaniment.

Made in 1929 Germany, Diary of a Lost Girl portrays a society driven by sexual hypocrisy. Men use attractive women, worship them, then toss them to the curb. And only the women are punished for what the men do to them.

Brooks’ character is raped by one of his father’s employees and becomes pregnant. When she refuses to marry her rapist (who keeps his job), she’s sent to an exceptionally cruel reformatory. She escapes, and finds a home and a family of sorts in a bordello. She is, in every reasonable sense of the word, a good person. As the story moves into its final act, she must decide between respectability and what she knows is right.

The Musical Art Quintet provided musical accompaniment with a new score composed by bass player Sascha Jacobsen. Combining classical music and jazz, it carried the emotions and enhanced the occasional humor. My wife, Madeline Prager, who plays and teaches viola professionally, put it better than I could:

“The band nailed it. Interesting too, in that most silent film scores for ensembles utilize winds and large percussion instrumentation. This score, for string quintet, was versatile and so hauntingly effective.”

The New Mission projected Diary of a Lost Girl digitally, from a recent 2K restoration that, for my eyes, could have used a little more restoration.

Thomas Gladysz of the Louise Brooks Society had a table set up in the lobby, selling copies of the Margarete Böhme novel on which the film was based. He also sold Diary of a Lost Girl DVDs and Blu-rays containing his own audio commentary. We talked a bit about the art of recording these commentaries (he plans them out carefully), and he told me that Beggars of Life will be coming out next year.

All in all, it was a great way to end an otherwise horrible, election-centered week.

What’s Screening: November 11 – 17

Francis Coppola, Louise Brooks, crack cocaine, and Laurel & Hardy all grace this week’s Bay Area screenings.


New films opening

B- The Eagle Huntress, Clay, Aquarius, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday

Otto Bell’s documentary about a Mongolian girl who proves she’s better than any man tells an interesting and inspiring story. Thirteen-year-old Aisholpan wants to be an eagle hunter, just like her father. That’s fine with him, and the rest of her family, despite traditions that insist that only men can hunt with eagles. But much about the film feels staged, leaving me wondering if it should be considered a documentary, at all. Read my full review.

Promising events

Francis Ford Coppola: The Program You Can’t Refuse, Castro, Tuesday, 7:00

Adam Savage interviews the long-retired director of The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now. He’s got a new book to sell–The Godfather Notebook–and he’ll be signing copies after the talk.

Laurel & Hardy Double Bill: Way Out West & The Flying Deuces, Castro, Sunday (matinee, only)

Laurel and Hardy were almost always better in shorts than in features, and if my memory serves, these two late features prove the point. Many consider Way Out West one of their best features, and it contains an amazing dance sequence, but the plot sinks too many of the laughs. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen The Flying Deuces, but I didn’t care for that one much, either. Both movies have been digitally restored.

New Jack City, New Mission, Monday, 10:15

I saw Mario Van Peebles’ crooks and cops thriller on Laserdisc soon after its 1991 theatrical release. I remember being very impressed with it. Part of the New Mission at 100 celebration.

Recommended revivals

A The Conversation, Castro, Wednesday

Francis Coppola’s low-budget “personal” film, made between Godfathers I and II, is almost as good as the two epics that sandwich it. The Conversation concerns a professional snoop (Gene Hackman) who bugs people’s private conversations for a living. Remote and lonely, his emotional armor begins to crack when he suspects that his work could lead to murder. Walter Murch’s ground-breaking sound mix exposes us to layers of meaning within the titular recorded discussion as we hear it over and over again.

A- Aparajito, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 4:00; Sunday, 1:30

In the second chapter of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, the title character grows from late childhood into late adolescence, and his view of India and the world widens considerably. In many ways, it’s a more optimistic film than its predecessor; this kid just might go places. But there’s a heavy price to pay for advancement out of his class. The weakest film of the three, but still excellent. Read my article on the whole trilogy. Part of the series World Trilogies: Ray’s Apu Trilogy.

A- Elia Kazan double bill: On the Waterfront & A Face in the Crowd, Castro, Sunday, 6:00

The A- goes to On the Waterfront. A thug-run union and conflicted loyalties drive this revered drama, shot on location in New York. Marlon Brando stands out amongst a brilliant cast as a half-bright dock worker struggling between family loyalty and human decency. Yet some plot twists are just too convenient, and the film arguably justifies the blacklist (Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg both named names). A Face in the Crowd isn’t at the same level, but Andy Griffith gives a strong dramatic performance as a hobo turned into a media sensation. I give it a B+.

A- Vampyr, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s part talkie
belongs on any list of great horror films. This is a movie where you’re not always sure just who is a vampire; even the vampires aren’t sure if they’re vampires. The story isn’t much, but individual sequences will stick in your memory, including the young woman who seems to look just a bit too hungry, and the funeral procession and burial, viewed from the point of view of the corpse. Introduced by Robert Beavers. Part of the series Cinema Mon Amour: Robert Beavers.

B+ Diary of a Lost Girl,
New Mission
, Saturday, 7:00

Good as it is, G.W. Pabst’s second and last collaboration with star Louise Brooks doesn’t quite reach the level of their first film together, Pandora’s Box. Brooks as a victim and reluctant prostitute just doesn’t have the emotional impact of Brooks as a femme fatale. But the wonderful Pabst imagery is still there, as is Brooks’ unparalleled sensuality. With musical accompaniment by the Musical Art Quintet. Another part of New Mission at 100.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

Denial at the Albany

Wednesday night, I went to the Albany Theater to see Denial. They were screening the drama in the big, downstairs theater.

I thought I was going to be the only person in the audience. But as the trailers were starting, I heard someone sit down a few rows behind me. I turned around, saw a man, waved to him, and he waved back. An audience.

In case you’re not familiar with the film, Denial dramatizes professional Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel lawsuit against historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). Irving (Timothy Spall at his most loathsome) sued her in England because of that country’s absurd libel laws, which begin with an assumption of guilt. Lipstadt had to prove in court not only that the Holocaust happened, but that Hitler ordered it, Irving is a bigot, and that he distorted history intentionally.

Lipstadt is American, which allowed the film to show the British legal system through the shocked eyes of an outsider. Her lawyers, played by Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty) and Tom Wilkenson, must explain a great deal to her. She wants to take the stand; they don’t want her to. They even refuse to let actual Holocaust survivors testify. They feel it would hurt their case.

Lipstadt and Wilkinson’s lawyer develop a testy but eventually warm friendship. I’m glad to report that the filmmakers felt no need to work a romance into the story.

Wednesday, the day after the election, was absolutely the worst day to see Denial (which may explain the empty theater). The film has neo-Nazis and a bigoted, bullying villain who refuses to accept clear reality. Spall’s performance kept reminding me of Donald Trump. One passing statement of his suggests Trump-like attitudes about women.

I’m a Rachel Weisz fan, but the British actress just couldn’t manage an American accent–or at least not the accent of a Jew raised in Queens. I could hear her consciously flattening long A sounds.

In recent years, I’ve noticed the use of black British actors playing historical African American roles–Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma, and Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving in the upcoming Loving. So I guess it’s no surprise that we get a British Jew (Weisz) playing an American Jew in Denial. But I sure wish they had found a British Jew who was better at accents.

I give the film a B.

A+ List: Do the Right Thing (also Napoleon)

For a 27-year-old film, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing feels very much like the here and now. The only obvious difference is that when cops kill an unarmed black man, no one records it on their cellphone.

By focusing on a few blocks of Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy neighborhood over the course of one very hot day, Lee dramatizes and analyzes everything wrong (and a few things that are right) about race relationships in America. But it’s not an out-and-out lecture. Do the Right Thing is touching, funny, warm-hearted, and humane. Having just revisited the film after a long absence, I’m now putting it on my A+ list of films that I’ve loved over the decades.

But before I discuss Lee’s masterpiece in detail, let me bring your attention to a very different A+ movie: Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

Okay. Back to Do the Right Thing.

Hot weather results in hot tempers, and in an environment already marred by racial distrust, that leads to tragedy. There’s no obvious protagonist in this film. Everybody is right, and everybody is wrong. And almost nobody can see the other person’s point of view. I can’t watch this film without feeling that if only one person had just been a little more diplomatic, tragedy would have been averted.

But life-saving diplomacy feels unlikely on a hot day in race-minded Brooklyn.

Sal’s pizzeria serves as Do the Right Thing‘s epicenter. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a decent man, proud of his Italian-American background, his restaurant, and its overwhelmingly black clientele. But he also has a tinderbox of a temper. His son Pino (John Turturro) hates that clientele; an out-and-out racist, Pino badly wants to work in a different neighborhood. Spike Lee himself plays Mookie, the only local and the only African-American working for Sal.

Unfortunately, Mookie’s behavior confirms many of Pino’s stereotypes. He’s a lazy and undependable worker and an absentee father. His girlfriend, the mother of his son (Rosie Perez in her first major role), orders a pizza just to get Mookie into her apartment.

Do the Right Thing doesn’t stay inside the pizzeria. It introduces us to a vibrant community of richly-painted individuals. Ossie Davis plays Da Mayor, a friendly alcoholic who proves to have some surprising strengths. Davis’ real-life wife, Ruby Dee, plays the block’s wise but overly judgmental matriarch. Bill Nunn, with his hulking body and sad eyes, carries a giant boom box and a dark destiny. Other characters carry such nicknames as Smiley, Coconut Sid, and my favorite, Sweet Dick Willie. Future comedy star Martin Lawrence plays Cee.

Speaking of soon-to-be-famous members of the cast (there are several), Samuel L. Jackson plays the Greek chorus as a DJ broadcasting from the block. Looking out a picture window, he reports on what he sees between songs.

For all its inevitable tragedy, Do the Right Thing contains plenty of warmth and humor. When Sal and Mookie argue, we understand that they love each other.

Motion pictures lost a great cinematographer when Ernest Dickerson became a director. His work on Do the Right Thing won him a New York Film Critics Circle Award and should have won him an Oscar. He makes us feel the heat, the closeness of the environment, and the time of day.

Do the Right Thing stirred up plenty of controversy in 1989. I imagine it would stir up just as much if not more today–maybe more; that was before Fox News. Its brilliant, unsettling filmmaking leaves you thinking about race, bigotry both in your face and below your conscious thoughts, and the flaws inherent in the American experiment.

And oddly, it might also leave you wanting a pizza.

Jean Renoir and Spike Lee at the PFA

I saw two highly-regarded classic films Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. This was not a double feature. They were about as different as good films can be.

The Golden Coach

This was my first experience with Jean Renoir’s 1952 commedia dell’arte about, well, commedia dell’arte. It’s also about arrogant aristocrats, starving artists, and, yes, a horse-drawn coach gilded with gold. But the movie’s primary purpose is a simple and yet noble one: To make the audience laugh.

Anna Magnani stars as a member of a commedia troupe in 17th-century South America, stranded in a remote outpost of the Spanish empire. Here Magnani’s character finds herself juggling a dashing soldier, a famous and egotistical matador, and the aristocratic viceroy of the colony–and thus causing her life to reflect the commedia dell’arte in which she performs. Despite the French director and the Italian star, The Golden Coach‘s dialog is overwhelmingly in English–presumably for commercial reasons.

I can’t quite agree with François Truffaut’s description of The Golden Coach as “The noblest and most refined film ever made,” but I can tell you that it’s a very fun and funny movie, thanks largely to a clever script and Magnani’s precise comic timing. I give it a B+.

Claude Renoir shot the film in three-strip Technicolor, but the heavily-scratched 35mm print screened Saturday night lacked the beautiful, saturated colors I’d come to expect from a dye-transfer Technicolor IB print. On the other hand, the colors were often inconsistent, sometimes changing within a shot–a flaw I associate (perhaps inaccurately) with IB prints. The last minute or so looked especially bad.

Update: Hours after I posted this article, PFA projectionist Seth Lorenz Mitter filled me in on the print:

I was projecting THE GOLDEN COACH last night. That was a Janus Films distribution print on color positive print stock (struck from an internegative) – I know it looked old and worn, but it wasn’t old enough to be an IB print.

Registration errors from the Technicolor three-strip printing process were very noticeable at times and I have to assume were flaws in the master material from which the internegative was made (or in the camera original itself).

The PFA screened The Golden Coach as part of the series Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema. It will screen again on Sunday, December 4, at 4:00.

Do the Right Thing

I first saw Spike Lee’s masterpiece in first run. A few years later I rented the Criterion Laserdisc. I saw it again Saturday night at the PFA. It’s every bit the masterpiece I remembered. I give it an A+.

For a 27-year-old film, Do the Right Thing feels very much like the here and now. When the cops kill an unarmed black man in this 1989 film, the only difference is the lack of cellphones.

By focusing on a few blocks of Brooklyn over the course of one very hot day, Lee dramatizes and analyzes everything wrong (and a few things right) about race relationships in America. And yet the movie is touching, funny, warm-hearted, and humane. It’s beautifully written, acted, photographed, paced, and edited.

I won’t go into detail now. I’m writing a whole other article on the film, which I’ll post soon.

This is a film of bright and hot colors, and the beautiful 35mm print screened Saturday night was all one could hope for. The soundtrack was recorded and presented in Dolby Stereo Spectral Recording, an improved version of the Dolby Stereo I’ve discussed earlier. The PFA’s new Meyer sound system showed that soundtrack at its best.

Do the Right Thing was the first screening of a very short PFA series, Three Lives: Classics of Contemporary African American Cinema.

Doc Stories festival opens with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Quick note: Yes, I’ve been changing Bayflicks’ design a lot lately. Hopefully this one will last.

Growing up with famous parents can’t be easy–especially if your father left home for Elizabeth Taylor, and your relentlessly upbeat mother insisted that you follow in her footsteps. And then, decades later, a bunch of documentarians invade your privacy to record your troubled family.

The Doc Stories film festival opened Thursday night at the Castro with Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a look at the mother and daughter who starred (separately) in Singin’ in the Rain
and Star Wars.

Evening shows almost always start with an organ concert at the Castro. Appropriately, the organist last night stuck to songs Reynolds sang in her many movies–mostly tunes from Singin in the Rain. But the organist didn’t honor her famous daughter with John Williams’ famous Star Wars score.

San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan started the show proper, bringing up directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, as well as producer Todd Fisher. The family relationships may get a little complicated here. Todd Fisher is Debbie Reynolds’ son and Carrie Fisher’s kid brother. In addition to producing the movie, he’s one of the subjects, and the documentary shows us his home, his wife, and his wife’s pet chicken. Co-director Fisher Stevens isn’t related.

After brief comments, they screened Bright Lights.

Debbie Reynolds was an MGM contract player in the 1940s, and when this documentary was shot, she was still doing a one-woman live show. Her daughter, Carrie Fisher, struggled with mental issues and drug addiction, became an icon with Star Wars, and has a remarkable wit. Daughter Carrie worries that her mother is pushing herself too hard.

While largely sympathetic, this documentary doesn’t flinch from its portrait of a barely functional family. We learn about Fisher’s father issues, Reynolds’ obsession with looks and perceived optimism, and the strange circumstances of how Fisher lost her virginity (her mother wanted to supervise).

The movie is at times breezy, funny, touching, and sad. I give it a B.

Last night was probably the film’s only theatrical screening in the Bay Area. It will have theatrical runs in Los Angeles and New York later this year–presumably for Oscar eligibility. It will run on HBO in March.

After the film, Cowan, Bloom, Stevens, and Todd Fisher came on stage again. Debbie Reynolds appeared briefly via Skype. When Todd asked his mother what had happened since they finished shooting the movie, she responded “I’m still here.”

Carrie Fisher was not able to attend.

A Q&A followed the Skype discussion. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • There’s a battle going on about what she can do. In August, she had a stroke. But like Molly Brown, she’s unsinkable.
  • Debbie wanted to know her lines when the camera was on her. “I know what a documentary is, but what do I say?”
  • We filmed for about a year, year and a half. We had a monumental amount of footage. The editors deserve massive credit.
  • She [Reynolds] always knew where the camera was. The challenge was to get her off of that. She never looks terrible. She doesn’t wake up messy like you and me.
  • Todd Fisher: My grandmother wasn’t funny at all, and was very critical of my mother [Reynolds]. Grandfather had a sense of humor. But Carrie is like no other; she just sees the world very differently. That’s part of her disorder.

Doc Stories runs through Sunday.