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: June 8 – 14

It’s a gay time for film festival lovers. The Queer Women of Color opens tonight (Friday) and runs through Sunday. Then Frameline LGBT opens Thursday night.

A The Wages of Fear, SF Film Society Cinema, opens Friday for one-week run. You’ll find few other thrillers this painfully suspenseful. Four poverty-stricken Europeans, wages_of_feardesperately stranded in South America, take on a frightfully dangerous job because their only other choice is starvation. They agree to transport a very large quantity of nitroglycerin, in two ill-equipped trucks, across poorly-maintained mountain roads. But Wages of Fear is more than just a thriller. Director and co-writer Henri-Georges Clouzot had some strong opinions on poverty, exploitation, and American economic imperialism, and he used this nail-biting movie to discuss them. An exceptional work, and a new 35mm print.

A- Stranger Than Paradise, Castro, Wednesday. Independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch didn’t so much burst upon the scene as casually stroll onto it with this strange, low-key, black-and-white road picture. Two men and a woman drive from New York to Cleveland to Florida with very little money or motivation. Unhurried in the extreme–every scene consists of a single shot, each one separated from the next by a short fade out. Funny and touching in its quiet, odd little way, and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. On a double bill with another early Jarmusch feature, Down By Law, which I haven’t seen in a very long time and will therefore reframe from grading (although I remember liking it a lot).

A+ Citizen Kane, Kabuki, Wednesday. How does a movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. True, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name many this insightful that are also this dazzling and so much fun. Now I’ll tell you what Rosebud is: It’s a McGuffin.

B+ Ghostbusters, Camera 3, Thursday. Comedy rarely gets this scary or visually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say that special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny. Either way, it’s not a bad way to pass an evening.

Yellow Submarine, Castro, Friday, then Sunday through Tuesday. The Beatles’ one animated feature–which to my knowledge hasn’t played the Bay Area in years–has been restored, and is receiving 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.

The Intouchables

B Comedy

  • Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

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 and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver.

No surprise that this has become a box office bonanza. It’s funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life. It stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma. It has everything that Hollywood execs love in a movie except explosions and English dialog.

Besides, the friendship it celebrates is between a rich white guy and his black servant. That fits easily into most people’s comfort zone. Actually, that fits into too many people’s comfort zone, if you ask me.

The white guy, Philippe (François Cluzet), lives in a mansion and enjoys great wealth. But he lacks a full body. Paralyzed from the neck down in an accident, he can move neither his arms nor his legs. He’s irritable, and caregivers seldom last.

Then, almost on a whim, he hires Driss (Omar Sy), a street-smart black African immigrant with a criminal record and no real desire to work. In fact, he goes to the job interview because the welfare office requires that he go to a certain number of them.

Of course they’re going to bond and become close. Driss helps Philippe learn how to enjoy life again. Meanwhile, Driss learns about the work ethic and begins to take up painting.

As Driss, Sy carries the movie. He’s funny, charismatic, sexy, and holds the screen like a pro. His performance is The Intouchables’ best asset, and probably has as much to do with its commercial success as the feel-good plot. If he doesn’t emerge from this as one of France’s biggest stars, we can only blame racism.

 The Intouchables is as carefully designed as a well-made clock. Unfortunately, it’s almost as predictable. You see everything coming a mile away, but you forgive that because the picture is so entertaining.

A more troubling problem: With its master/servant friendship, the story gets uncomfortably close to magic negro mythology. It manages to avoid the worst pitfalls of that offensive cliché, largely because Driss has his own problems. But then, his problems are those of the underclass. The picture avoids one offensive cliché for another.

Yet I liked the picture. Two-thirds of the way through, I was ready to give it a B+. Then I saw the "crisis" that ends the second act (all commercial movies have a crisis at the end of the second act). I won’t say what happens, but it’s  utterly pointless and unbelievable.

The Intouchables works as a fluffy piece of entertainment, thanks largely to Omar Sy’s performance. Prepare to be touched, even if you’re aware of the manipulation.

I saw The Intouchables at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.

What’s Screening: May 18 – 24

This week in Bay Area festivals:I Wake Up Dreaming continues through Thursday. And the Crossroads Festival opens Friday and runs through the weekend.

C- Elles, Bridge, Shattuck, opens Friday. This NC-17 French/Polish co-production has a lot of sex, and a lot of nudity (both male and female), but is in no way erotic. That’s odd, because it stars Juliette Binoche, who could be erotic cleaning a cat box. In this self-important yet shallow drama, she plays a freelance journalist researching an article about young prostitutes working their way through college. Binoche does her best, which is always excellent. But the screenplay gives her so little to go on that she appears to be emoting in a vacuum. Read my full review.

Shorts in Brief, Rafael, Sunday, 2:00. The name sounds redundant, but this collection of Pixar shorts looks like a fun afternoon.

A+ Children of Paradise, Castro, Saturday through Monday. Shot while the Nazi occupation of Paris fell apart, Children of Paradise may be the most ecstatically French film ever made.children_of_paradise A three-hour epic set in the theater scene of early 19th-century Paris, it follows the life of a beautiful woman (Arletty) and four men who fall under her spell—each in his own unique way. The story is rich, romantic, and deeply in love with theatrical traditions. In this version of Paris, even the violent thugs see their lives as works of art. Written by Jacques Prévert and directed by Marcel Carné. Newly restored, the Castro will be screening Children of Paradise in DCP. That was how I saw it in March, and it never looked so wonderful. In fact, based on the restoration, I’ve upgraded Children of Paradise from an A to a rare A+.  I discuss it in more detail here.

A- Milk, Castro, Tuesday, 7:30. Yep, I’m always a sucker for a historical epic, especially one set in a time and place that I can remember. Sprawling but never boring, and inspiring without preaching. I’ve always known that Sean Penn was a great actor; it’s nice to know that he can do “happy” as well as more tragic emotions. James Franco is also very good as what in a more conventional film would be called the "chick" part. A fund raiser for the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy.

A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Bump your coconuts together and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for montygrailthe Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. The funniest film of the 1970s—and the 1070s.

A- Howard Hawks double bill: Sergeant York & To Have and Have Not, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The A- goes to Sergeant York. No other event morally challenged pacifists like World War II. So it’s no surprise that, as America entered that horribly necessary inferno, Howard Hawks filmed the story of a deeply religious and pacifistic Christian (Gary Cooper) who first objected to serving, then went on to prove extraordinary skill and courage on the battlefield. Not quite that good, To Have and Have Not ignited the Bogart-Bacall romance, which itself ignites the screen. Aside from the considerable charisma and sexual sparks, it’s an entertaining tale of war-time intrigue, with a couple of great scenes. David Thomson will introduce Saturday’s 7:30 screening.

B- Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, Camera 3, Saturday & Sunday, 9:30. Steve Jobs was a stevejobsbrilliant, charismatic figure who drastically changed the world we live in. But does that mean you’ll enjoy a 16-year-old, 70-minute, videotaped interview consisting of a single close-up? Surprisingly, the answer is Yes—up to a point. That charisma, combined with the simple fact that Jobs had some interesting things to say in 1995, make this a reasonably entertaining and informative document. But there’s no filmmaking craftsmanship whatsoever here, and there’s a limit to how much time you can watch a single close-up. Thus, the Lost Interview begins to wear out its welcome well before it’s through. Read my full review for more.

Harold and Maude, Castro, Wednesday. After Woodstock, this comedy about a young man and a much older woman is the ultimate cinematic statement of the hippie generation. At least that’s how I remember it. I loved it passionately in the 1970′s. But I haven’t seen it in a long time and I’m not sure how well it’s aged. On a double bill with Brewster McCloud, which I only saw once, about 40 years ago, and I hated it then.

Yellow Submarine, Elmwood, Saturday, noon. The Beatles’ one animated feature–which to my knowledge hasn’t played the Bay Area in years–has been restored, and is receiving 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.

D+ Darling Companion, Shattuck, 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.

F Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Camera 3, 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.

May Day at the SFIFF: A Sobering Documentary and a Boring Swashbuckler

I got a surprise when I stepped out of the Montgomery BART station on my way to the San Francisco International Film Festival. I ran into a Occupy-themed May Day protest blocking Market St.

That provided two dilemmas. First, should I go to the festival, or take part in the protest? Second, when I decided to go to the festival, how do get there with no 38 Geary bus on a closed Market St.?

A cop told me that I could walk up to Sutter and catch the rerouted 38 there. And I made it to the festival and caught two movies.

 B+ The Law in These Parts
Dense and filled with legalize (which usually makes my eyes glaze over), this Israeli documentary isn’t easy to follow. But if you give it your all, it becomes impossible tothe_law_in_these_parts turn away \. Comprised entirely of interviews with retired military judges who once administered "justice" in the West Bank and Gaza, it examines the legal structure of a temporary military occupation that became permanent. The old men interviewed discuss the legal justifications (excuses, really) they found to hold people indefinitely without trial, hand Palestinian land over to Israeli settlers, and allow those settlers to get away with pretty much anything they wanted. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz asks probing questions that reveal these men’s complicity in oppression.

After the sreening, Alexandrowicz came up for Q&A. A few choice comments:

  • "It took five years to make," mostly in research.
  • "About half the people who were interviewed were not happy with their participation. I’m surprised that the other half were."
  • "I tried to make the film in a neutral way."
  • "I learned to conduct these interviews by working around the subjects and not going directly."
  • "The Occupation has become a metaphor for Israel. When you say you’re against the Occupation, people say you’re against Israel."

I saw the last festival screening of The Law in These Parts, but it’s on the Festival’s list of films that will or may get a regular release.

My other film of the day was very different. It was, however, the third film I’ve seen in less than six weeks that was set in 18th-century France.

D Smugglers’ Songs
Writer/director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche did something I didn’t think was possible: He made a boring swashbuckler. Set soon after the execution of famed outlaw Louis Mandrin, it follows his merry band of smugglers (and, apparently, revolutionaries) as they go from town to town, hawking their wares, smugglers_songsspreading their political beliefs (which are never explained), and confounding the king’s men. The few action scenes are as fanciful as any Errol Flynn picture, with bad guys meeting quick and clean deaths and good guys not getting scratched, but they lack the energy and grace that makes those movies so much fun. In the end, Smugglers’ Songs just asks us to worship these people without offering a reason why.

In all fairness, I should mention that an old friend of mine, Paul Spiegel, liked it a lot. He knows French and is more familiar with French culture than I am, which probably gave the movie an advantage. Apparently there’s a wit to the dialog that got lost in translation.

But from my point of view, this was the worst film I’ve seen at this year’s festival. Fortunately for you, you’ve already missed what will probably be your only chance to see Smugglers’ Songs.

SFIFF Report: Two Frightening Films on Wednesday

I saw two excellent films yesterday at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

They had a lot in common. They were both European. Each was told entirely from the protagonist’s point of view, with the lead actor in every scene, and the audience knowing nothing that he doesn’t know. And I do mean he; both protagonists were married men. Very, very horrible things happen to both of them, and both pictures were extremely scary.

But other than that they were entirely different. The first was a thriller, and scary in a funny, entertaining, and Hitchcockian way. The second one, based on a true story, was truly terrifying, because what happened in it could happen to anyone.

A Headhunters
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 he headhuntersmoonlights 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. Roger doesn’t start out as a likeable character, which allows the audience to enjoy his suffering–for awhile. But by the time he has to bury himself over his head in shit, he has our sympathies. Warning: This movie has several very violent scenes, and much of what Roger experiences is extremely gruesome. On more than one occasion he walks away from a scene that he could not possibly walk away from in real life. But that’s okay; this isn’t real life.

I saw the Festival’s final screening of Headhunters, but don’t despair. It’s opening in LA and New York tomorrow, and in the Bay Area next week.

A Guilty
Overnight, Alain Marécaux’s life became a nightmare. Police arrested him and his wife for raping children and running a child prostitution racket. Despite a complete lack ofguilty physical evidence and contradicting testimony from the accusers, he spent two years in prison and had his life ruined before finally being exonerated. That’s the true story. Guilty dramatically recreates this story from Marécaux’s point of view (he worked as a technical advisor on the film and apparently had veto power over its contents). The result is intense, harrowing, and frightening. Despite the help of a talented and caring attorney, Marécaux is at the mercy of a young judge determined to find him guilty no matter what the facts state. A very powerful film and a strong indictment of the French legal system.

You’ve got another chance to see Guilty, although you may have to cut work to do so. It’s playing at the Kabuki on Friday at noon.

Technical side note: So far, Guilty is the first new film I’ve seen at this year’s festival that was actually projected on film.

SFIFF Report: Jacque Tati & Barbara Kopple

It’s been an unusual day at the festival. Here’s what I’ve seen:

Master Class: Malcolm Turvey: Tati, Chaplin and the Democratization of Comedy I started the day with professor Malcolm Turvey, lecturing on Jacque Tati and how his comedy related to what he described as the “classical comedy” of Chaplin, Keaton, and other silent clowns. Obviously, they inspired Tati considerably, but Tati, in his own words, “democratized” comedy. “Every man is entertaining,” Tati explained in interviews, and “There is no need to be a comic to perform a gag.”

He didn’t mean that it didn’t take talent and hard work. Tati knew that as well as anyone. He argued that Chaplin’s Tramp was an exceptional character, while Tati’s M. Hulot could be anyone.

This struck me as odd. Chaplin’s immense popularity came from the everyman aspect of the Tramp as much as anything. But he has exceptional abilities. And if the argument is that Hulot has no great gifts, he’s certainly more competent than Laurel & Hardy’s onscreen personas.

One difference he made was that Hulot never intentionally created something. He would never, for instance, eat a shoe as if it was a gourmet dinner.

Another difference: Tati is much more likely to fool the audience. He’ll place the camera in such a way as to fool us as well as the character’s onscreen. Chaplin almost never did this. Keaton and Lloyd did, but not as otten as Tati, who used this type of gag over and over.

Finally, Tati required the audience to pay attention. It’s easy to miss gags. He showed us clips from Playtime (a movie I’ve seen many times) that I had never noticed.

Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award
I next attended the Persistence of Vision Award ceremony honoring documentarian Barbara Kopple. After a brief introuction, they screened her first feature, which I hadn’t seen in a long time and had never seen theatrically.

A Harlan County, USA
What’s it really like to work in a coal mine? Or to live with a coal miner, wondering every day if they’ll come home alive or will die from black lung disease? Or to go onharlan_county_usa strike when your union doesn’t support you and hired goons are shooting at you?   In 1976, a very young and determined Barbara Kopple showed us exactly what it was like, filming an extended strike that threatened at any minute to succumb to violence (and occasionally did). She doesn’t ignore the history either, interviewing old timers and including old footage. Even the music is authentic–songs written and performed by members of the mining community. Harlan County’s reputation as a great documentary is richly deserved.

After the screening, Kopple came on stage along with former PoV winner Jon Else [4/23: text altered; spelling correction].

She talked about the physical threats and money problems she had making the film. How her father would mail raw stock to her when she ran out of film. How she won the miners’ trust by showing up at the picket lines at 4:00AM in the rain. How she was shot at, and how she couldn’t pay the lab bills. “I wasn’t going to make a little thing like money keep me from making this film.”

Unfortunately, the interview was interrupted by an emergency announcement. There had been a fire report, and everyone had to evacuate the building.

As I write this, less than an hour later, I don’t know what finally happened. I’m guessing it was a false alarm–presumably not created by a mining company.