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: September 21 – 27

The Third I South Asian Film Festival continues through Sunday (and will resurrect for one day next week). If you’re looking for a strange, out-door movie-going experience, the Brainwash Movie Festival returns tonight and plays through Sunday. Berlin & Beyond, the Palo Alto Int’l Film Festival and Hong Kong Cinema all open Thursday night.

B- Somewhere Between, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday. Linda Goldstein Knowlton, somewhere_betweenherself the new mother of an adopted Chinese daughter, follows the lives of four now-teenage adoptees to discover how their split Chinese and American identities work out. Somewhere Between just glides along for the first half of its 88-minute runtime, then takes off in the second half, when it latches onto two amazing stories. One concerns a teenage girl’s relationship to a baby suffering from cerebral palsy; the other a girl who successfully tracks down her birth family. But the film is essentially shallow, skipping over many issues that adopted children and their parents have to deal with. Read my full review. Filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton and subject Fang Lee In Person Friday & Saturday.

C+ Dial M For Murder, Festival Village, Thursday, 9:00. Presented in 3D; free. John Ford never made a 3D movie. Neither did Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin. But Alfred Hitchcock did–the only major auteur to try the stereoscopic medium before the 21st century. Dial M isn’t great Hitchcock–it’s pretty much a straightforward adaptation of a stage play–but it’s a good play and Hitchcock knew what to do with it. Forced against his will to use the new-fangled double-lens camera, Hitchcock pretty much ignored the obvious 3D effects popular at the time. But when he finally throws something at the camera, he knows exactly what to throw and when to throw it. Note: I haven’t seen this film in 3D in about 30 years. I might give it a higher score if I did. Opening night of the Palo Alto Int’l Film Festival.

A Double Bill: Inglourious Basterds & There Will Be Blood, Castro, Sunday. The A goes to There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson’s small, character-driven films always felt like epics, so there’s no surprise how well he manages the real thing. Based on a Upton Sinclair novel called Oil! (the name change makes no sense), There Will be Blood is big, sprawling, and spectacular, and captures not just a moment in history but a 30-year transition in the life of a man with frightful ambitions and even more frightful inner demons. Read my full review. I don’t have anywhere near as high a regard for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (Tarantini’s spelling, not mine), but I can’t deny the modest pleasures of this Holocaust revenge fantasy. Even as I thought of the plot’s inherent absurdity (Why would these Jewish American soldiers do better than the French resistance?), I enjoyed the clever dialog, some good performances, the movie references, and the sheer audacity. Part of the Castro’sTrajectory of the Titans series of Tarantino/Anderson double bills.

B The Cat and the Canary, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. Americans in the 1920s just couldn’t take haunted houses seriously. But they sure enjoyed laughing at them. Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charley Bowers all made very funny short subjects set in spooky, old mansions. And this feature, never intended to be taken seriously, provides plenty of good laughs as well. The plot involves, of course, the reading of an eccentric millionaire’s will. Dennis James will accompany this silent movie on the Wurlitzer pipe organ. Part of the Stanford’s massive celebration of Universal Picture’s 100th anniversary.

A Spirited Away, California Theatre (Berkeley), Friday. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. Part of the two week-long series The Studio Ghibli Collection, 1984 – 2009. New 35mm print, with the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles.

A The Manchurian Candidate (1962 version), Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Bad dreams keep bothering Korean War veterans Lawrence Harvey and Frank Sinatra. Were they brainwashed by Communists? And where do the rabid anti-Communists  fit in? Easily the best political thriller to come out of the cold war, The Manchurian Candidate finds villains on both political extremes. As the nominal hero, Sinatra proves he really was an actor, but Angela Lansbury steals the film as the screen’s most evil mother–a woman of outsized beliefs and a burning hatred of anyone who disagrees with her. Read my Blu-ray review.

C+ Dracula (1931 version), Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. The film that started Universal’s famed horror series, and the first to star Bela Lugosi in the role that made him famous, really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies, especially those based on stage plays. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless. On a double bill with The Old Dark House, which I’ve never seen but should, as it was directed by the great James (Bride of Frankenstein) Whales.

A The African Queen, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Thursday. Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Africa, and Technicolor all make for splendid entertainment in John Huston’s romantic comedy action adventure. The start of World War I traps an earthy working-class mechanic (Bogart) and a prim and proper missionary (Hepburn) behind enemy lines and hundreds of miles of jungle. It’s a bum and a nun on the run, facing rapids, insects, alcohol (he’s for it; she’s against it), German guns, and an unusual (for Hollywood) romance between two moderately-attractive middle-aged people in filthy clothes. Beautifully restored.

What’s Screening: March 9 – 15

Cinequest runs through Sunday, and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival continues through the week. The San Francisco Dance Film Festival opens Friday.

A Children of Paradise, Castro, Saturday. 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. But the one who loves her most ardently, but can never really have her, is the great mime of his time, Baptiste (played by Jean-Louis Barrault, one of the great mimes of his time). 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.

B+ My Week With Marilyn, Castro, Tuesday. According to Norman Mailer’s autobiography, his famous movie star wife could turn on “Marilyn” at will, and my_week_with_marilynsuddenly be worshipped by crowds that didn’t recognize her a moment before. You see that happen in My Week With Marilyn, a movie owned entirely by Michelle Williams’ beat-perfect performance as Marilyn Monroe. Set during the filming of The Princess and the Showgirl (not a memorable movie), it studies Monroe as her success was peaking and the insecurities that would destroy her were beginning to do real damage. The picture brings empathy both for the frightened girl inside the woman, and for the people who had to work with this most difficult of stars.

B+ Faust, California Theatre (San Jose), Friday, 7:00. F.W. Murnau’s last German film before coming to America and making Sunrise, Faust doesn’t quite measure up to his best work. But the story has always been a strong one, and Murnau’s mastery of images and special effects are as amazing as ever. And Emil Jannings makes one heck of a fascinating devil. Accompanied  live by the Filmharmonica Duo, which is comprised of Dennis James on the Wurlitzer Theatre Organ and the Theremin, and Mark Goldstein on Buchla Lightning Wands. Is James moving away from his purist views on silent film accompaniment? Part of Cinequest.

A Chinatown, Alameda, Wednesday & Thursday. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, chinatownbut you can’t deny his talent as a filmmaker. (Not that that in any excuses his actions as a human being.) And that talent was never shown better than in this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixing a few personal scandals in, as well, and handed it over to Polanski, who turned it into the perfect LA period piece.

B The Fifth Element, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. This big, fun, special effects-laden science  fantasy adventure refuses to take itself seriously. It never manages to be fifthelementparticularly exciting, but it succeeds in being rousing and funny – intentionally funny – eye candy. It’s also one of the few futuristic movies that’s neither utopian nor dystopian, making it, for all the silliness of the plot, relatively realistic.

C+ Way Out West, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. Many consider Way Out West one of Laurel and Hardy’s best features, but I respectfully disagree. Burdened by plot, its moments of true, transcendent comedy are few and far between. On the other hand, the short subject “The Music Box,” also part of this show, is one of their best, and their only Oscar winner. You might want to make the screening just for that. Interesting trivia: When the Marx Brothers made their western comedy in 1940, they stole the plot from Way Out West and the title, Go West, from Buster Keaton’s 1925 entry into this minor genre.

vertigoD Vertigo, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00; Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo?  Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time.Vertigo isn’t like any other Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. The PFA screening is part of the class and series Film 50: History of Cinema, Film and the Other Arts.

Blu-ray Review: The Lady Vanishes

Alfred Hitchcock’s first masterpiece brings almost as many laughs as thrills. The new Criterion Blu-ray gives this near-perfect entertainment a new polish and some interesting extras.

The Lady Vanishes holds an interesting place amongst Hitchcock’s work. It was his penultimate British film before going to America. It is, in my opinion, his first true masterpiece. Aside from his two out-and-out comedies–Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Trouble with Harry–this is easily his funniest picture. If North by Northwest is his light masterpiece (as opposed to more serious masterpieces such as Notorious and Rear Window), The Lady Vanishes is a close second. Yet for all of its lightness, this is a very political, almost didactic, motion picture.

If you walked into this movie immediately after the opening credits, and thus missed the title and directorial credit, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you wereThe Lady Vanishes as Screwball Comedy watching a very funny screwball comedy. An unusually large number of British tourists have overrun a small hotel in a fictitious Central European country. They annoy the natives, have trouble with the language, and can’t understand why no one else seems to care passionately about cricket.

Those two cricket enthusiasts, Caldicott and Charters, nearly steal the movie with their completely out-of-proportion view of the world. In fact, actors Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford enjoyed a minor career playing Caldicott and Charters elsewhere after The Lady Vanishes made the characters famous (that’s one fascinating tidbit I learned from this disc’s extras).

The love interests also follow the screwball comedy formula. The ingénue, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), is an adventuress reluctantly giving up her wild life to marry a nobleman she doesn’t love. The juvenile, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his first major screen role), is a lively and non-conformist musicologist who seems incapable of taking anything seriously. They meet cute, of course, in a way that’s suspiciously similar to how Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers first meet in Top Hat.

And let’s not forget the cheerful, slightly daffy old lady (Dame May Whitty) who proclaims that "I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature."

Not quite 30 minutes into the movie, The Lady Vanishes as thrillerthe main characters all board a train for the first leg of their return to England. Iris befriends a the old lady, then takes a nap. When she wakes up, the lady is gone, and everyone on the train is insisting that she was never there. And thus the screwball comedy becomes a mystery, and a thriller.

As Iris, with Gilbert’s help, try to solve the mystery, Hitchcock and his writers give us all sorts of reasons why people would lie about a woman disappearing on a moving train. The English characters either don’t want to be involved, or don’t want the train delayed. The lying continentals are are part of an evil conspiracy.

And here we come to the movie’s politics. The Lady Vanishes was made largely in 1937, and released in 1938. In England, the big political question of the day was should we appease Hitler or prepare to fight him. With its evil Central European government, and its assortment of courageous and cowardly Brits, this picture clearly comes down on the side of preparing to fight.

Historically speaking, that was certainly the right answer.

First Impression

The Lady Vanishes comes as a single disc in a clear, conventional DVD package (a The Lady Banishes Blu-ray Packaginglittle larger than a conventional Blu-ray package). An 18-page booklet contains cast and credit lists, two interesting essays on the film, and information on the transfer.

How It Looks

As they should, Criterion presents this black-and-white Academy Ratio movie pillarboxed to the correct 1.33×1 aspect ratio. The transfer is crisp and detailed, capturing subtle shades of gray. This is not a film noir with deep blacks, but a picture shot with straight-forward lighting. The 1080p transfer captures fine details that you would otherwise only see on a good 35mm print.

But in the case of The Lady Vanishes, that’s not always a good thing. This is not only a narrow-screen black and white movie, but a narrow-screen, black and white, British movie made on a low budget. Occasionally the rear projection and model work are painfully obvious. This is especially true with the first shot–a long dolly across a fake-looking miniature of a small mountain town. I’ve often wondered why Hitchcock didn’t shorten the shot considerably for take it out entirely; it’s not really necessary.

Of course, that’s a complaint about the movie, not the transfer.

How It Sounds

Once again, Criterion has recreated an old mono soundtrack in uncompressed PCM. The Lady Vanishes was made long before magnetic recording replaced optical, so it lacks the dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio found in Criterion releases of newer mono films, such as 12 Angry Men and Fanny and Alexander. But this is as good as The Lady Vanishes can sound without the sort of overprocessing that would only make it sound worse.

And the Extras

Here’s what’s on the disc aside from the movie:

Audio Commentary: Film historian Bruce Eder discusses the film’s making, the careers of various people who worked on it, and the political themes. Worth watching if you love Hitchcock or simply love this movie.

Mystery Train: No, not the Jim Jarmusch film (damn!). This ten-minute video essay by Leonard Leff gives you yet another overview of the film’s production and themes. It’s not a repeat of the commentary; Leff and Eder have very different takes.

Excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock: For a few minutes, we listen to two great directors discuss The Lady Vanishes–through an interpreter. Stills and clips from the film add visuals to this otherwise audio-only experience. The best moment comes when Hitchcock laughingly points out how ridiculous the plot is when you think about it.

Crook’s Tour: I told you some paragraphs back that Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford enjoyed a minor career reprising their Lady Vanishes characters, Caldicott and Charters. Here’s an espionage/mistaken identity feature they made with those characters in 1941. I managed to get through half an hour of it without laughing before I gave up.

But the original Caldicott and Charters movie, The Lady Vanishes, offers plenty of entertainment. And the new Criterion Blu-ray disc provides one of the best combinations of thrills and laughs you can get in your own home. It goes on sale on Tuesday, December 6.