What’s Screening: December 28 – January 3

Still no festivals. But as we move in 2013, we do have some good movies.

A Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday through Monday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection to do it justice. The Castro has the screen, but only 2K digital projection. I don’t know how well it will hold up that way, which is why I’m giving it an A rather than the usual A+. I’ll try to catch it over the weekend and let you know. For more on this epic, read Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia.

B- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Castro, Tuesday through the following Sunday. The first American animated feature, and one of Walt Disney’s biggest triumphs, really does suffer from the sugary sweetness so often associated with Disney. But the picture is technically astounding and a visual delight. The dwarfs are funny and have distinct–if shallow–personalities. But Snow White herself and her Prince Charming are so dull that you might find yourself rooting for the evil stepmother (who’s pretty scary, actually). Newly restored and projected off of a DCP, the engagement is in conjunction with The Walt Disney Family Museum’s current exhibition on the film.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The various theaters will be showing it digitally, but I don’t know exactly how and on screens of what size. A 4K DCP would be the digital equivalent of 70mm, but I’m not sure that Warner Brothers has even made it available in that format.

A Steamboat Bill, Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Billsteamboatbill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man that the very-macho Bill imagined, but as an urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story,and you really can’t ask for more. And it contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. With two shorts, and Frederick Hodges on the piano.

A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a double bill with Arabesque, which I haven’t seen.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving Oz a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

B The Intouchables, Rafael, opens Friday. I really can’t complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowdthe_intouchablespleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza–the movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life, it stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma, and it’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Read my full review.

What’s Screening: May 11 – 17

In festival news, the Roxie’s I Wake Up Dreaming noir festival opens tonight and runs into next week. Also opening tonight: After Dark Action Films at the Balboa; it runs through Tuesday.

B+ Last Call at the Oasis, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opens Friday. Water covers most of Earth’s surface, yet the human race is rapidly running out of safe drinking last_call_oasis copywater. Jessica Yu’s surprisingly polished documentary  shows us how as more water is tapped upriver, communities downriver are doomed, how industrial pollution makes the water we have unsuitable for consumption, and how global warming worsens these problem. Hollywood-quality flashy graphics and occasional humor help make this doc watchable, but no less frightening. Read my full review.

D+ Darling Companion, Embarcadero, Aquarius, opens Friday. I hate watching good actors struggle through a bad script. This particular bad script concerns a long-married couple (Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline) and several relatives searching for a missing dog. It’s supposed to turn into a search for self-discovery, but the people are too shallow and contrived to be worth discovering. The result is a character-driven comedy almost entirely lacking in believable characters or laughs. If it were not for the inspired cast, which also includes Dianne Wiest and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, the movie would be an entire loss. Read my full review.

Spanish-Language Laurel & Hardy, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (although these are not silent films), Sunday, 4:00. In the early days of talkies, studios often made multiple versions the same movies, in different languages and with different casts. But since no one else could replace Laurel & Hardy, they appeared in all versions, reading their dialog phonetically. Click here for more on these pictures.

A Howard Hawks Double Feature: His Girl Friday & Ball of Fire, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. His Girl Friday wins the A. Hawks turned The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution. It’s been too many years since I’ve seen Ball of Fire for me to grade it. From what I remember, it’s not one of Hawks’ best works, but it’s still a worthy entertainment. Billy Wilder worked on the screenplay. Film historian David Thomson will introduce Saturday’s 7:30 screening.

A- Double feature: The Social Network & Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, Castro, Tuesday, 7:30. The A- goes to The Social Network, clearly the biopic of our socialnetworktimes. I don’t know about the real Mark Zuckerberg, but the movie version makes for great drama. A young man with a serious social disorder, he betrays partners, has sex with groupies, and almost inadvertently becomes extremely wealthy. The Steve Jobs movie is for real. Jobs was a brilliant, charismatic figure who drastically changed the world we live in. But this 16-year-old, 70-minute, videotaped interview consisting of a single close-up is only watchable up to a point. Read my full review.

Yellow Submarine, Elmwood, Saturday at noon, and Wednesday at 8:00 (and the two following Saturdays). The Beatles’ one animated feature–which to my knowledge hasn’t played the Bay Area in years–has been restored, and will receive special theatrical presentations. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this whimsical fantasy for me to issue a grade. If memory serves, Yellow Submarine is a wonderful movie for taking drugs, and equally wonderful for taking your kids. Just don’t take both.

A The Artist, Opera Plaza, Shattuck , return engagement opens Friday. Michel Hazanavicius just made a silent movie about the death of silent movies. Even more amazing than that, he pulls it off, creating a warm, funny, heartfelt, and occasionally sad story of a Hollywood star’s fall from grace as talkies ruin his career. Meanwhile, a struggling actress who loves him becomes a star in the new medium of talkies. Hazanavicius fills the picture with funny bits that illuminate the characters, the setting, and the medium. A black-and-white, narrow-screen, silent film is a hard sell in today’s market, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see The Artist find an audience. Read my full review.

F Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Camera 3, Thursday (and next Saturday). Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise–which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless.

What’s Screening: May 4 – 10

No festivals this week, which is kind of a relief. But I’m starting this newsletter with a wonderful gem I saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival:

A Headhunters, Clay, Shattuck, Piedmont, opens Friday. Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) leads the good life. He’s rich, powerful, and has a beautiful wife. But even his high-paying, high-status job can’t pay for his lavish lifestyle, so heheadhunters moonlights as a burglar, breaking into homes and stealing expensive paintings. But then something goes seriously wrong. Then it gets worse. Much worse. Before long, avoiding the police is the least of his worries. The result is the most entertaining new movie I’ve yet seen this year–a thriller of Hitchcockian quality. Warning: This movie has several very violent scenes. See my full review.

Yellow Submarine, Elmwood, Thursday, 8:00 (with four additional screenings this month). The Beatles’ one animated feature–which to my knowledge hasn’t played the Bay Area in years–has been restored, and will receive special theatrical presentations. It’s been so long since I’ve seen this whimsical fantasy for me to issue a grade. If memory serves, Yellow Submarine is a wonderful movie for taking drugs, and equally wonderful for taking your kids. Just don’t take both.

A- Only Angels Have Wings, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. The only non-comedy out of the five films that Grant made for director Howard Hawks, who is being honored in the Stanford’s extensive Hawks series (a similar series recently completed at the Pacific Film Archive). On a double bill with a Hawks film I haven’t seen, Air Force. Saturday night, David Thomson will introduce the film.

B The Graduate, Castro, Saturday and Sunday. Maybe it’s no longer the breakthrough movie it was in 1967, but The Graduate is still a well-made romantic comedy with serious overtones. And, of course, it gets Bay Area geography all wrong. The Castro is advertising a brand new 35mm print.

B- The Searchers, Cerrito, Thursday. A bitter Civil War veteran and racist (John Wayne) spends years searching for his niece, who was kidnapped by Comanches. At first he wants tothe_searchers save her, but as the years go by, he starts talking about killing her, because she’s now "more Comanche than white." Talk about an anti-hero. Shot in VistaVision, the movie looks splendid, has many great moments, and contains one of Wayne’s greatest performances. The closing shot itself is unforgettable. Most John Ford fans consider The Searchers his masterpiece. I disagree. It’s marred by a rambling plot and a very unlikable protagonist (probably Wayne’s least sympathetic character). Besides, color always seemed a handicap for Ford, upsetting the delicate balance between myth and realism he achieved so well in black and white.

B- The Dreamers, Castro, Thursday. More so than most cities, Paris exploded with youthful revolution in 1968. While others their age riot in the streets, three young people (Michael Pitt, Eva Green, and Louis Garrel), prefer to stay inside, smoking pot, discussing movies and Marxism, and making very close, exact, and detailed studies of each others’ naked bodies. In fact, they do the later in such detail that The Dreamers earned itself an NC-17 rating. The film works on two levels: simple eroticism, and baby boomer nostalgia for the days of sex, drugs, revolution, and passionate cinephilia. In other words, it’s not as deep as it thinks it is, but it’s still enjoyable. On a double bill with The Sheltering Sky.

B Tiger Shark, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. I like this minor Howard Hawks effort, despite tiger_sharkEdward G. Robinson’s awful Portuguese accent. He plays the captain of a fishing boat –a skilled fisherman and a decent human being, but with a fierce temper and unlucky with the ladies. When he helps a woman in need (Zita Johann), she agrees to marry him out of gratitude. Of course she’s going to fall in love with his tall and handsome best friend (Richard Arlen). I discuss the film in more detail in Two By Howard Hawks. On a Hawks double bill with Barbary Coast.

SFIFF Thursday: French Comedy and Irish Animation

I didn’t hit two jackpots at the San Francisco International Film Festival yesterday, as I did on Wednesday. But I enjoyed what I saw.

B The Intouchables
I can’t really complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowd pleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing the_intouchablesfriendship between a wealthy paraplegic–paralyzed from the neck down–and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza. The movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life. It stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma. It’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Worse, it at times get uncomfortably close to magic negro mythology, and the "crisss" that ends the second act (all commercial movies have a crisis at the end of the second act) is utterly pointless and unbelievable. On the other hand, the first two acts are, if obvious, very entertaining.

I saw the last festival screening of The Intouchables (and the best; as I understand it; at the first screening there were no subtitles). The film will open in the States in late May.

David OReilly Says Something
I went into this presentation without ever having seen any of this young, Irish animator’s work. An Internet sensation, makes makes short, inexpensive cartoons that can be grotesque, poignant, and very funny–often all at once.  You should check david_oreilly_external_worldout his work.

And don’t worry about seeing it on a computer. As OReilly pointed out from the stage, these shorts were never meant for the big screen.

Amongst the cartoons screened were the crudely-made yet sweet and sad "Please Say Something," which follows a relationship (a marriage?) between what appear to be a cat and a mouse. "The External World," my favorite of shorts, is pretty much indescribable. It includes the world’s worst piano teacher, cute little creatures eating ice cream (at least I hope it’s ice cream), a deadly Frisbee, and a surprisingly realistically animated cat. (Cats turn up in a lot of OReilly’s movies.)

In between the shorts, OReilly and festival programmer Sean Uyehara discussed his work, followed by Q&A with the audience. (I asked about that realistic cat.)david_oreilly_interview

Among the revelations:

  • He created his sole feature, The Agency, in one week with the use of a web site that automatically creates very crude animation. He described it as as "terrible."
  • He grew up next door to an animation studio, and started working there at a very young age. "Everyone was terrified about CG, so I taught myself that. I was the nerdiest."
  • "You really have to be tripping balls to enjoy it."
  • On making a living: "It’s a patchwork. I’ll never be a millionaire."

Silent Influences: Mostly Silent Movies From the Talkie Era to the Present

With The Artist finally playing locally, I thought it would be fun to look at other post-silent movies with little or no dialog.

Cinema, in its purest form, is a visual art. What it can do without words has always been more powerful than what it can do with them.

If I ran my own revival house cinema, I would put together a series on feature films, made after the death of silent movies, that use little or no dialog. But since I don’t own a theater, I’ll just share with you the movies that I’d include in this series. Most of them are available on DVD—at least from Netflix–and I’ll note the exceptions. Of course, seeing them at home can never equal the theatrical experience.

And just in case someone asks, here are three pictures that I wouldn’t include, and why:

  • City Lights: The silent film wasn’t quite dead when Chaplin made this masterpiece, so it doesn’t qualify.
  • Brand Upon the Brain: I haven’t seen it, and therefore have no opinion on it.
  • Silent Movie: I saw it long ago, and hated it.

None of these films are, strictly speaking, silent. They all have soundtracks, and were not meant to be shown with live accompaniment. But they’re as close as we come these days, and a couple of them are very close, indeed.

WALL-E: I’d start the series with the most commercial movie in the lot, even if it has more dialog than any other film on this list. It still has astonishingly little—and none at all for the first (and best) third. But when Disney finances your big-budget family entertainment, it takes guts to make an almost dialog-free film, especially one that looks closely and critically at such consequences of our consumer culture as garbage, obesity, and planetary destruction. WALL-E wimps out in the third act, and not only because that’s where it becomes relatively talkative. As the end approaches, the picture becomes much more conventional, with an action finish leading to an unlikely and unsatisfying happy ending. Those let-downs were probably inevitable, and while they diminish the film’s achievements, they don’t destroy them. Read my full review.

Modern Times: Charlie Chaplin used minimal dialog in what was probably the last mostly-silent film made by someone who became rich and famous making real silent pictures. But leave it to Chaplin to call an extremely anachronistic movie Modern Times. Nevertheless, the name fits, because Modern Times is about assembly lines, mechanization, and the scarcity of jobs—very real issues in 1936. Chaplin’s tramp moves from job to job and jail to jail as he tries to better his condition and that of an underage fugitive (Paulette Goddard, his then lover, future wife, future ex-wife, and the best leading lady of his career).

Mon Oncle: This may be the funniest visual comedy made after the death of silent film. In the 70+ years since Chaplin talked onscreen, Jacques Tati has monunclebeen the closest thing we’ve had to a silent comedian–writing, producing, directing, and starring in a handful of brilliant, dialog-light comedies. The slight story here looks at a mischievous boy, his image-conscious parents, and their disapproval of the mother’s unemployable brother–Tati’s onscreen persona, Monsieur Hulot. But that’s just an excuse for a wonderfully loopy comedy in that quiet Tati style. I discuss the film in more detail here.

Naked Island: This dialog-free Japanese drama from 1960 needs neither subtitles or a plot. It focuses on a nuclear family living on and farming a tiny island in what appears to be a pretty large harbor. Their life is tough beyond measure. The island doesn’t even have enough water for their needs; several times a day they row to a larger island, fill four large wooden buckets, row back, carry the buckets up a steep incline, and water their crops. Yet they persevere through the seasons and through heartbreak.  This is the only film in the group that’s in no way a comedy; It’s also not available in this country on DVD. But you can stream it on Hulu Plus.

Triplets of Belleville: In 2003, a new master of dialog-lite cinema emerged from France: Sylvain Chomet. An animator in the old-fashioned, hand-drawn style, his worktripletsofbelville is marked by a unique, quirky humor. His first feature involves a French champion bicyclist who’s kidnapped by mobsters and brought to America to…never mind, it’s just too weird to explain. But who cares? The jokes are funny, the visuals are clever and original, and the music swings (the triplets of the title are an aging big band trio).

Idiots and Angels: Bill Plympton made a very bizarre, dark, funny cartoon, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work. It’s also entirely dialog-free, unless you count the occasional grunt. This story of a lonely, angry, and all-together rotten man who inexplicitly sprouts angel wings will make you grimace as well as laugh. How rotten is he? At one point he pushes a tear of empathy back into his eye. Dialog-free, Idiots and Angels reveals its characters by showing us their actions and their daydreams, which are mostly about money and undeserved glory. But as evil as the man may be, the wings themselves insist on virtue. Plympton has created a dreadful world filled with dreadful people, yet allows something magical and wonderful to come out of it.

Playtime: Jacques Tati, again. Here Monsieur Hulot mingles with American tourists and playtime[1]assorted other specimens of humanity adrift and befuddled in a very modern Paris. That’s all there is of plot in Tati’s large-scale comedy, and that’s all that’s needed. On one level, Tati is commenting on modern architecture. On another, he’s just making us laugh in his odd, almost meditative way. And even when you’re not laughing, you’re fascinated by the little details of Tati’s city-sized universe. Tati spent (and lost) a fortune on Playtime, building a giant set and shooting the movie in 65mm for 70mm release, and the result is ours to enjoy…immensely.

Cumbia Connection: Can someone make a silent musical? René Villarreal comes close with this vibrant, sexy tale of a love triangle in Monterrey, Mexico. There’s almost no dialog, or singing, but as the name implies, the never-ending cumbia music drives the story. A videographer falls in love with a beautiful thief. She already has a boyfriend, but that’s okay—she doesn’t mind having two. The music plays to vibrant colors, lots of dancing, and steamy, semi-explicit soft-core sex.

The Illusionist: In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Jacques Tati and Sylvain Chomet would collaborate on a dialog-lite comedy—even though Chomet made his illusionist2010first picture 16 years after Tati’s death. For The Illusionist, Chomet animated a never-produced Tati script, and drew the protagonist not only to look like the great comedian but to move like him, as well. The story, about a magician in a world that no longer values his craft, and a young girl so naïve she believes his tricks are real, is sadder and more wistful than Tati’s own work, but still manages to be funny.

The Artist: Well, of course. This one isn’t available in any home video format yet, but it will be. Read my full review.