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: August 31 – September 6

The United Film Festival runs throughout the week at the Roxie.

Not much to discuss this week.

A- Doctor Zhivago, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Thursday. Not quite as good as Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s follow-up still packs a reasonably big wallop. But then, I’m a sucker for epics about ordinary people trying to live their lives while others make history all around them. In this case, the history is the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. Against that background, we have the story of a decent man torn between his wife and another woman who is so clearly his soul mate. I’m even willing to forgive the casting of Omar Sharif, who doesn’t look Russian but still gives a fine performance. For more on the big-screen Zhivago experience, see Dr. Zhivago at the Cerrito.

C Vertigo, Castro, Friday through Monday. What? I’m not recommending VertigoYes, I know that Sight and Sound has declared it the greatest film ever made, and there won’t be a chance to correct that error until 2022. Nevertheless, Vertigo tops my list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time.This isn’t like any other Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. On the other hand, the Castro is showing it in 70mm, which is special; I’ve even increased its grade from a D to a C in honor of the larger format.

Ryan’s Daughter at the Rafael

I caught the presentation of Ryan’s Daughter at the Rafael, last night. It was part of their Films of My Life series. This time around, the honored guest was Pixar writer/director Andrew Stanton, the creator of WALL-E.

Why would someone known for family pictures pick Ryan’s Daughter, a film that somehow got a PG rating despite a nude love scene? (The ratings were different in those days, and PG really meant “probably not for kids.”) For that matter, why would anyone pick a 3-hour-plus epic that bombed commercially and critically when released in 1970, and hasn’t gathered much enthusiasm since?

And how badly did it bomb? Lean was sitting on top of the heap when he made it. His last three films had been The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. Yet except for one TV short, he wouldn’t make another film for 14 years.

Stanton explained that he had been a Lean fan since childhood, yet he never saw this particular epic until he was working for Pixar and  needed to start thinking about how to tell a story on film. It was the first Lean film he “saw through the eyes of a filmmaker, not just a fan.”

By the way, Stanton blames its failure on bad timing. By 1970, no one wanted to see big historical epics, anymore. I doubt it. Patton did very well that year critically and commercially (and at the Oscars), and Patton is if anything more old-fashioned than sensual Ryan’s Daughter. It’s also, however, a much better picture.

This wasn’t an ideal presentation, but there wasn’t much the Rafael could do about it. They screened a badly-scratched, slightly-faded, mono 35mm print of a film meant to be seen in 70mm with six-track magnetic sound. They didn’t have a choice; it was the only surviving print. (Stanton said that the DVD looks excellent.)

I liked the movie, but I couldn’t say I loved it. Set in rural west Ireland during World War I, it’s a story of forbidden love set against smoldering revolution against the English occupation. Most of the acting is wonderful, especially Sarah Miles as the title character. But set entirely in a small town, it lacked the epic sweep of Lean’s other big films. And Maurice Jarre’s score was distracting and annoying—just before the first line of dialog, I expected someone to break into song and dance.

But it as some incredible sequences. My favorite: A wedding night scene where Miles’ character loses her virginity. (And no, that isn’t the big sex scene.)

I suppose the movie was once beautiful to look at, but this print only suggested that beauty.

Stanton did some Q&A after the film, and shared some of his knowledge about it and about Lean’s working methods. Lean was apparently “incredibly insecure and competitive,” to the point where good work from a second unit director would anger him. Stanton closed by reading a hilarious excerpt from Miles’ autobiography about the problems shooting the big sex scene.