Sunday, July 31, 2011

2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Part 2 of 2)

My favorite film from the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was The Great White Silence, a documentary by Herbert Ponting chronicling the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913. Less well known than Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic expedition and Roald Amundsen's discovery of the geographic South Pole, Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova Expedition was more tragic than Shackleton and had cinematic documentation which Amundsen lacked.

More than a decade before his famous stranding on Antarctica, Shackleton served under Scott on a previous attempt to reach the South Pole. The Terra Nova Expedition was a race against Amundsen to reach the South Pole. Scott lost the race by 33 days. More importantly, Scott lost his life on the return trip.

Ponting served as the official photographer and cinematographer on the Terra Nova Expedition. Ponting's The Great White Silence was part of the official record of the expedition.

It is amazing that Ponting was able to get his cameras to film under the extreme conditions. The images he captured are spectacular. There was one sequence showing penguins incubating their eggs. It reminded me of March of the Penguins except it predated it by 90 years and didn't have the voice of God narrating it. I have admit that Morgan Freeman's authoritative but soothing voice added immeasurably to March of the Penguins. However, The Great White Silence benefited greatly from the live accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble. They struck just the right chords to convey the desperation and haunting aspects of living on the most isolated place in the world.

I thought the film would have been better without the cutesy penguin and seal (or were they sea lion?) scenes but in 1913, these animals must have seemed exotic as motion pictures. The long shots and sweeping panoramas were breathtaking. Ponting filmed scenes from up high of dog sleds venturing onto barren and white landscapes. The mens's bodies made tiny by the distance from the camera but also as a metaphor of how tiny men are when compared to the vast forces of nature.

The combination of Ponting's establishing shots and the Matti Bye Ensemble's disquieting score elevated The Great White Silence to a masterpiece which is still spectacular 90 years later. The film was tinted so the still photo below is accurate.

The Great White Silence


The next film I was interested in was Yasujirō Ozu's I Was Born, But... With its translated title's rigorous adherence to the rules of punctuation, but improperly being cited as the original version of Ozu's later Good Morning (1959), I had high hopes for I Was Born, But...

I cannot recall who introduced I Was Born, But..., but he claimed this was the film where "Ozu became Ozu." This statement is open to interpretation but based on it, I was expecting static camera shot and a focus on family dynamics. I noticed more camera movement than Ozu's postwar films but the interactions between the Yoshi family members is the primary story being told. The most obvious difference from Ozu's later films is that the two young boys and their viewpoints occupy much of I Was Born, But... In his later films, children are present and serve to contrast the actions of adults but in I Was Born, But..., the plot incorporates much of the boys' activities and opinions.

Keiji Yoshi and his younger brother Ryoichi have moved into a new neighborhood. Quickly, they encounter bullies from school which cause them to be truant. Much of the film focuses on the plight of the boys and how they eventually overcome their tormentors. This part of the film is handled with a light comedic touch.

The boys make friends with Taro who is their father's boss. The fathers seem to work at film processing company. Ignorant of the pecking order in the workplace, Keiji & Ryoichi are shocked to see their father play the buffoon on some film shot by Taro's father. By extension, the boys figure their father is subservient to Taro's father which is the opposite of the social order among the boys. Disappointed in their father and society at large, the boys throw a temper tantrum and go on a hunger strike. The next day, the father is able to reconcile with the boys and even catch a ride with Taro's father on the way to work. However, the ending has a melancholy tone as Taro's rise and the boy's harsh introduction to reality seem inevitable.

If the introduction was meant to imply Ozu became a film master with I Was Born, But..., I'd be hesitant to agree. I thought the film portends great things from Ozu since I have seen several of his later works. However, I thought the focus on the children distracted from the seriousness of the plot. As the program notes mentioned, this may be because Japanese censors wanted films to avoid classism and social inequities. Ozu used humor and social commentary masquerading as a children's story to get past the censors. The boys' criticism of their father were accurate and stinging as well as naïve and cruel.

I also thought Ozu gained a valuable tools with the advent of talkies. Because of his static camera, dialog took on an important role in Ozu's film. In his silent films, that is lost in the intertitles and perhaps the translation. I Was Born, But... was an exceptional film but this is Ozu afterall. My expectations were not quite met but nonetheless I'm glad I took the afternoon off from work to watch it. I also noticed Ozu had not yet embraced his elliptical storytelling technique as of I Was Born, But...

Tomio Aoki who plays Keiji gave up acting for many years as an adult. He returned to the screen in a supporting role in Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp (1956).

Accompanist Stephen Horne played the piano for the soundtrack but broke out the flute for several key scenes. Although he played a traditional flute, the tone reminded me of many Japanese films featuring what I refer to as a Japanese flute or shakuhachi.


Through the Silent Film Festival, I've become a big fan of Lon Chaney. Over the past few years, they have screened The Unholy Three and The Unknown; both of which I greatly enjoyed. So it was no surprise when I saw He Who Gets Slapped on the program. The role seems tailor made for Chaney. A scientist, who had a his research and wife stolen by a wealthy baron, hides from society & himself as a clown in the circus. The clown persona is He Who Gets Slapped. The act consists of He being slapped and otherwise humiliated by the other clowns which serves a constant reminder of his treatment by his wife and the baron.

He is having modest success at the circus and has his emotions in check until a beautiful horse rider starts at the circus. Consuelo (Norma Shearer) is the daughter of an impoverished count who puts his daughter to work at the circus. A beautiful woman is frequently the cause of trouble in cinema and Shearer's character may well have been named Paris. Immediately, He is drawn to Consuelo who considers him "just friends." Consuelo is more interested in her partner in the horse riding act (John Gilbert). Consuelo's father has other plans as he is essentially pimping his daughter's hand in marriage to...none other than the baron who wronged He.

The reappearance of the baron and his interest in another woman He loves upsets He's fragile psyche with tragic consequences for all involved. I won't recount the ending but it involves a lion and I wonder if the actors and the lion were filmed at the same time. He Who Gets Slapped was an MGM production and marked the first time a lion graced the MGM logo at the opening of the film.

Although Gilbert and Shearer received high billing, Marc McDermott as the baron and Tully Marshall as the count get more screen time and leave a greater impression. Both characters are contemptible whether they are cheating each other or transacting Shearer's maidenhood.

He Who Gets Slapped was very entertaining and a good choice to close the festival.


The Nail in the Boot was an example of Soviet cinema in the 1930s. Unabashedly jingoistic and employing state-of-the-art propaganda techniques, The Nail in the Boot tells the story of a soldier who cannot deliver a key message during war games because his boots were shoddily made. Sentenced to death for his transgression, the soldier calls out the workers at the boot factory where his substandard footwear was produced.

The film was well made (certain scenes evoked Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin) and well scored by Stephen Horne but it felt more like I was watching a historical Communist artifact than an actual film.

My lack of enthusiasm for The Nail in the Boot was made up for by Chess Fever, a delightful romp into a society gone mad with its obsession with chess and a woman who loves her boyfriend but not the impact chess is having one him. Breezy and laugh-out-loud at moments, I loved Chess Fever.


Marlene Dietrich graced the cover of the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival program book. Czar of noir gave the most impassioned introduction of the festival when he introduced Dietrich's What Men Yearn For. He even expanded my vocabulary by quoting a passage by director Kurt Bernhardt where he described Dietrich as an intrigante. I willingly admit there is something terrible sexy about Dietrich. With all that going for her, I am sad to say What Men Yearn For disappointed me.

Prior to introducing He Who Gets Slapped, director Alexander Payne (Election and Sideways) said he preferred Norma Shearer before she started talking. In other words, he preferred Shearer as a silent film actress. This opinion drew a few hisses from the crowd.

I could say the opposite of Dietrich. I greatly prefer Dietrich when she spoke. Dietrich has two things going for her which don't exist in the silent films. First, she has that husky voice. It sounded like a lion purring while deciding whether to go in for the kill. Dietrich was sexy and dangerous. Second and perhaps wedded to the tone of her voice is her German accent while speaking English. Again, when Dietrich spoke English it sounded exotic and ominous. She was a like a sex Nazi. Her voice was irresistible and makes you feel she was wicked but yet you (at least me) couldn't resist. You know she is a maneater and you should give her a wide berth, but like a moth drawn to the flame...

All this is alluded to in What Men Yearn For and her perverse and tragic charisma reels in a poor newlywed to their mutual doom. What Men Yearn For is not so much a love triangle as a debauched ménage à trois which was probably passé to Berlin audiences during the Weimar Republic. The film only hinted at the nature of the three sided relationship whereas Berliners had first hand experience if history books and Cabaret are to believed.

Fritz Kortner shines as more jaded third of the triangle opposite Dietrich and Uno Henning. Porcine and sleazy with an aristocratic élan, Kortner is almost the equal of Dietrich.

Marlene Dietrich is a captive of my fetish which unfortunately centers around her voice.


My favorite short film was The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra. Borrowing from German expressionism and mise-en-scène techniques, 9413 was nightmarish experimental film propelled by the Alloy Orchestra's fevered score. The film reminded a little of Dementia (1955) which I saw at this year's I Wake Up Dcreaming program at the Roxie.

9413 was about the dehumanizing and assembly line nature of Hollywood filmmaking. Undoubtedly avante-garde upon its production, the film still seems original and provocative 83 years later.


The Blizzard, The Goose Woman and Mr. Fix-It all had enjoyable or even awe inspiring aspects but left me mild. The Blizzard has this incredible scene with a reindeer stampede and a man being dragged by a reindeer in the snow. The Goose Woman features the incredible transformation of Louise Dresser from an uncouth and filthy wretch to a sophisticated society matron. Mr. Fix-It features the comedic and athletic talents of Douglas Fairbanks which seem wasted on a comedy about false identities and orphans. Douglas Fairbanks was an action star and Mr. Fix-It wasn't an action movie.

Upstream was interesting in that it played with movie conventions. Typically, when a lead character acts like a lout (in this case becomes too big a star to associate with his old friends), the character's success is reversed and s/he learns a valuable lesson about loyalty before being forgiven by those s/he has wronged. In Upstream, the lout high hats his old colleagues during a wedding reception. He is literally tossed out the door onto the street. End of film. The ending was abrupt but I often complain that Hollywood films are predictable.

Il Fuoco featured Pina Menichelli (great name), a wild-eyed Italian diva. Diva has a specific meaning in this context. In Italy in the 1910s, certain actresses reached the stratosphere in adulation which has yet to be equaled. Paid enormous sums and the object of unyielding public interest, the Italian cinema divas eclipsed their Hollywood counterparts. Pina Menichelli was one of the these divas and her sexually aggressive role Il Fuoco catapulted her to the highest echelons of Italian society including a marriage to an Italian baron.

In Il Fuoco, Menichelli prances around with a maniacal look on her face and what appears to be a court jester hat on her head. It may have sexy and shocking in 1915 but in 2011, it looked ridiculous. I could not "transcend time." Instead of English intertitles, Frank Buxton was the reader. I don't like readers or more accurately, I haven't encountered a skilled reader. Buxton read the lines as if the film was high camp. Perhaps with intertitles or a better reader, I could have "transcended time." Free advice to SFSFF, if you are going to bring in world-class musicians to score the film, can't you bring in experienced film readers?

Huckleberry Finn - I couldn't quite get into Huck & Tom's adventure. Admittedly, I dozed off for part of it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Part 1 of 2)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran from July 14 to 17 at the Castro Theater. They screened 18 programs; I saw 12.

The biggest news of the festival is that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is presenting (in association with American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and the British Film Institute) four performances of Napoléon, Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece. The performances will be on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland.

Many people can recount the controversy surrounding this film better than I can. The gist of the problem is that Francis Ford Coppola owns the rights to the film.

Noted film historian Kevin Brownlow has spent most of his life restoring the once lost epic. In 1980, Brownlow presented the 4+ hour restoration at the Telluride Film Festival which is currently run by the Balboa's Gary Meyer. Later in 1980, Francis Ford Coppola released a re-edited version of Napoléon with a Carmine Coppola (his father) score. In the ensuing years, Brownlow has continued assembling previously lost footage. At present, Brownlow has reconstructed 5½ hours of the film. Legal disputes with Copolla have prevented this version from screening except for a December 2004 engagement in London. That version with musical score arranged by Carl Davis will be performed in Oakland next year with Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

I have purchased my tickets. As befitting an epic film like Napoléon, the ticket prices are in a range I am more accustomed to seeing at the opera. If I recall correctly, prices ranged from $35 to $120. Silent Film Festival members receive a discount on up to two tickets. The tickets are sold through Ticket Master which tacked on the most exorbitant service and handling charges (yes plural) for any event I've ever paid for. It was hard to swallow but I eventually pried open my wallet.


The 12 programs I watched were:

Upstream starring Nancy Nash; directed by John Ford; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Donald Sosin Ensemble; (1927)
Huckleberry Finn starring Lewis Sargent; directed by William Desmond Taylor; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Donald Sosin; (1920)
I Was Born, But...; directed by Yasujirô Ozu; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Stephen Horne; (1932)
The Great White Silence; documentary; directed by Herbert G. Ponting; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Mattie Bye Ensemble; (1924)
Il Fuoco starring Pina Menichelli; directed by Giovanni Pastrone; silent with Italian intertitles and reader (Frank Buxton); accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1916)
The Blizzard; directed by Mauritz Stiller; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Mattie Bye Ensemble; (1923)
The Goose Woman starring Louise Dresser; with Jack Pickford and Constance Bennett; directed by Clarence Brown; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1925)
Mr. Fix-It starring Douglas Fairbanks; directed by Allan Dwan; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Dennis James; (1918)
The Woman Men Yearn For starring Marlene Dietrich; directed by Curtis Bernhardt; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1929)
The Nail in the Boot directed by Mikheil Kalatozoz; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1932)
He Who Gets Slapped starring Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert; directed by Victor Sjöström; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Mattie Bye Ensemble; (1924)

The 12th program was Wild and Weird, a collection of short films accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.

Wild and Weird
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend; (1906)
Le Spectre Rouge; (1907)
The Acrobatic Fly; (1908)
The Thieving Hand; (1908)
Princess Nicotine, or the Smoke Fairy; (1909)
Arthème Swallows His Clarinet; (1912)
The Cameraman's Revenge; (1912)
Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet; (1921)
Filmstudie; (1925)
Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra; (1928)

Before several of the feature films, the festival screened silent "orphan" short films. What are orphan films? According to the Orphan Film Symposium, "It's a motion picture abandoned by its owner or caretaker."

The orphan films I saw were

Mrs. Harding, "Cameraman"?; (1922)
Coolidge Trapshooting; (1928)
St. Louis to Chicago Airmail; (1926)
Origin of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata"; (1909)
The Tribal Law; (1912)
Chumming with Chipmunks; (1921)
Madison News Reel; (1932)

Non-orphan films that were paired with features include

Why Men Flirt; (1918) paired with Upstream
Chess Fever; (1932) paired with The Nail in the Boot

At 18 minutes, Chess Fever was over ⅓ of the length of The Nail in the Boot and the two were listed as co-features in the festival program guide.


A few festival observations: the Silent Film Festival is notorious for starting their programs late and they did it again this year. I started Saturday and Sunday with the 2 PM screenings and they were already running behind schedule. Despite the hard work of the sound techs, they have an extremely difficult time finishing the sound checks between shows.

The festival pass was approximately $20 higher than last year. The festival lasted the same number of days as last year so I don't know the cause of the increase. I don't begrudge the increase as much as I wish they could get the shows started on time. I'd pay another $20 if they can improve their on-time performance by 50%.

This year, Poesia was not selling sandwiches in between shows. Those were great sandwiches and they aren't on their restaurant menu. Perhaps the Castro did not like the competition for concessions.

The attendance seemed off slightly from last year. The festival also seems to give out more press passes and guest passes than any other I attend.

Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons sat in front of me for a four or five films throughout the festival. Stephen is sporting a beard with a little more pepper than salt. He looked a little like the Most Interesting Man in the World. He was also carrying what looked suspiciously like a man purse. They looked quite content in their roles as audience members.

Throughout the FIFA Women's World Cup Tournament, I had become enamored with the Japanese team; also known as the Nadeshiko. It was my intent to watch the World Cup Final between Japan and the US on Sunday, July 17. I watched through the 70something minute when the US were up 1-0. The US had dominated the match up until that point and should have been up 3-0 or 4-0. I admit that I gave up on the Nadeshiko and left to make it in time to the 2 PM screening of Wild and Weird. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I found out Japan won the match on penalty kicks. I deserve what I got for not keeping the faith. So although I saw 12 programs this year, I sadly wish it would have only been 11. Does anyone know where I can get an Homare Sawa jersey?


In conjunction with the SFSFF, the San Francisco Public Library has an exhibit on the 4th and 6th floors of the Main Branch at 100 Larkin Street. The exhibition is called Shhhhh! Silents in the Library. I viewed the exhibits yesterday. To quote from the library's website,

Explore the silent film era through displays of rare books, ephemera and photographs. The Silent Screen in the City looks at the Bay Area’s role in silent film production, while Downtown Movie Palaces of the 1920s evokes a visit to San Francisco's lost theater landmarks. Reading the Stars showcases vintage books about the movies published during the era. Included is a nod to The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, one of the world’s largest silent film festivals, now in its sixteenth year.

All except one of the exhibits were on the 4th floor. I counted five wall-mounted display cases and a rack of SFSFF posters dating back to Year 1 on the 4th floor and one display case on the 6th floor. It was interesting for me to see some of the early SFSFF posters. When I first started attending the festival, it had expanded to three days but in the early days, the festival was a one day event and then expanded to two. I believe this is the second year the festival has run four days.

The exhibit was nice but a little disappointing to a cinephile like me. It was interesting to see the cue sheets and display on musical accompaniment. I would have like to have seen more on the Downtown Movie Palaces of the 1920s. I didn't know there was a Pantages Theater in SF. It was located on a presently boarded up block of 900 Market (odd number side of the street). The St. Francis Theater (where I saw the remake of Shaft) was on that same block.

Shhhhh! Silents in the Library will be on display until August 28. On August 7 at 2 PM, Diana Serra Cary better known by her stage name "Baby Peggy" will talk about her life as a child star in the 1920s. Her talk will be in the Koret Auditorium in the basement of the Main Library. At 1 PM on the same day, the curators of Shhhhh! Silents in the Library will give a special guided tour of their exhibit. If you are interested, meet in Steve Silver Room on the 4th floor of the Main Library.


This post has grown to unwieldy proportions and I have yet to discuss any of the films so I'll split the post in two. I'll share my thoughts on several of the films in my next post.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Five in Transition

In the past month or so, major changes have been announced at various San Francisco film exhibition organizations.

1) The Red Vic made it official. They are closing on Monday, July 25 after the 9:15 PM screening of Harold and Maude. I stopped by last night to catch the 9:25 PM screening of The Last Waltz. It was sold out and I was turned away at the door. According to their website, the July 25th screenings of Harold and Maude are already sold out. Where were these crowds before? It appears that I will have to eat the final punch on my Red Vic discount card. C'est la vie et adieu Red Vic.

2) In this morning's San Francisco Chronicle, there was an article on Gary Meyer and the Balboa Theater. Meyer, the operator and sub-leasee of the Balboa, will be leaving the theater after this summer. Meyer cited the need for a $200,000 digital conversion and his duties as the director of the Telluride Film Festival as the main reasons for stepping away. In the near future, films will be distributed digitally rather than in 35 mm prints thus necessitating the digital conversion. Meyer said he's working to find someone to operate the theater. My guess is that the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation (which currently operates the Vogue) will attempt to operate the Balboa.

I don't go to the Balboa often anymore. When Meyer was programming repertory and international films, it was my favorite theater but for the past several years, my attendance has been spotty. It's anyone's guess as to what the future holds for the Balboa.

I will say that with the exception of the Mostly British Film Series, I have not gone to the Vogue except for a disastrous John Cazale double feature in April 2009. I much prefer Meyer's programming at the Balboa over the line-up of mostly mainstream films which have appeared at the Vogue over the past few years.

3) In early July, Graham Leggat, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society (which runs the San Francisco International Film Festival), announced he was immediately resigning from SFFS. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Leggat has been diagnosed with cancer. After treatment earlier this year, the cancer has metastasized to several organs and according to Leggat, "It is largely deemed incurable."

My mother died of cancer and her suffering was horrible. I don't wish that on anyone. I was never formally introduced to Leggat. He was a friendly type who would occasionally chat up festival goers. I've exchanged pleasantries with him but can't say I know him well. His successes at the SFFS and SFIFF are undisputed. Still, I've never been a huge fan of SFIFF as the crowds are too large for my taste. I prefer their smaller fall festivals more. Speaking of which, programmer Sean Uyehara announced at the 2011 SFIFF that they were planning a Hong Kong series in the fall. True to his word, the series will be held September 23 to 25.

I wish Graham Leggat the best. After my mother's passing, I have one wish in life - let me die peacefully in my sleep.

4) Just before Leggat's departure, SFFS announced an agreement with Viz Cinema. SFFS will program films, events and classes at the Viz on a daily basis beginning in September. Replacing a similar deal SFFS had with the Sundance Kabuki, the Film Society will have a venue dedicated to their programming needs.

I'm a little ambivalent about this announcement. The Viz is currently in the middle of a classic Japanese film series. Although their programming is sparse, the Viz's dedication to Japanese cinema is to my liking. I hope they can retain some of that programming when SFFS takes over. I don't believe I ever went to the SFFS screen at the Kabuki. I am not a fan of their reserved seating policy or vaguely off-putting environment. The $11 admission price plus sliding scale "amenity fee" hasn't help matters either.

5) Also in this morning's SF Chronicle was a Q&A with San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Executive Director Peter Stein. The 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs from Today to August 8. Stein is resigning his position of 8 years after this year's festival closes. I wasn't aware of this but Stein started the documentary series on San Francisco neighborhoods which has aired on KQED for years. He personally wrote and produced the installments on the Castro and the Fillmore. He also co-hosts the Sunday Cinema Club with SFIFF programmer Rod Armstrong.

I've never spoken to Stein and probably wouldn't recognize him if he came up to me. I have enjoyed numerous screenings at the SFJFF over the years. Not being Jewish, it's hard for me to embrace the films that celebrate being Jewish. I have purchased tickets for four programs in this year's festival so I saw a few I liked. Two are documentaries on Adolf Eichmann and Bobby Fischer - a key Nazi figure in the Holocaust and the Jewish-born/anti-Semite chess champion. My interest is more historical curiosity than specific Jewish curiosity.


As I mentioned, I was told that the Landmark Bridge is soon closing. Between the mice, sparse crowds and defection of Peaches Christ to larger venues, it doesn't surprise me. However, I can't find anything on-line to confirm it. The information was already third hand when it got to me so I won't state it as a certainty although it could very easily be fait accompli.

In this post
, I pondered the fate of the Landmark Clay. The entry was posted a week before SFFS announced the deal with Viz. That leaves the Clay out in the cold as far as SFFS is concerned. Brian Darr commented that the Clay will take over midnight screenings of The Room from the Red Vic. It seems that Landmark decided it needed to close one of its single screen theaters in the City; if not the Clay, then the Bridge will do.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Das Boot

I went to a screening of Das Boot at the Viz Cinema in July. The screening was co-presented by Berlin and Beyond and the Goethe-Institut of San Francisco.

Berlin and Beyond has announced the dates of its festival. It will be held October 20 to 26 at the Castro Theater.

Das Boot starring Jürgen Prochnow; directed by Wolfgang Peterson; German with subtitles; (1981) - Official Website

The version screened on this night was the director's cut which ran 208 minutes. The "film" was projected from a Blu-ray disc. The original US version was about 150 minutes. Jürgen Prochnow was in the audience and took Q&A before the film. He mentioned the original version was a five hour miniseries which was televised in Germany and the BBC. Berlin and Beyond Festival Director Sophoan Sorn moderated the Q&A. Prochnow spoke at length about the model submarine they filmed on and the special cameras used. He also mentioned that the full length miniseries gave more time to the backstories of the characters and how they came from all over Germany and beyond (the first officer grew up in Mexico). This can still be detected in the various German accents spoken by the cast. Like regional American dialects, one's origin can be determined by the accents of German speech. Anyone who watched Inglourious Basterds would know this and that Germans cannot detect fragmented Italian spoken with distinct Southern drawl.

As I've stated before, I cannot resist a well made submarine film. They are almost formulaic. They have to include the depth charge/torpedo explosion rocking the boat & crew as well as the sub unable to stop its descent as it approaches (and usually exceeds) rated crush depth. Das Boot had those scenes so it falls within the confines of the genre. What is unique about Das Boot is how it goes for long periods with ignoring the most salient fact about a WWII film - the protagonists are Nazis. Actually, they weren't all Nazis. Not all German military members were Nazi party members as well. Towards the end of the war, being a party member gave a boost to one's career or was crucial to certain postings. Set in the 1941, the U-Boaters were surprisingly anti-Nazi in their comments and cynicism.

I found myself empathizing with the Kriegsmarine's submariners even as they attacked Allied shipping and attempted to impose Nazi dominion on freedom loving people of the world. In films and life, I'm never able to fully sympathize with German soldiers, sailors and aviators due to the cause they were fighting for but Das Boot came close. The beauty of the film was the way the sailors were humanized. They certainly suffered as their sub seemed more like an underwater coffin but so did the sailors on the ships they torpedoed. However, the film is about a German U-Boat crew, not a Allied shipping convoy.

Jürgen Prochnow won fame as the U-Boat captain. His performance was the center of the film but it was the supporting characters who I found more interesting. Erwin Leder as Johan, a veteran CPO who has a nervous breakdown but ultimately redeems himself, delivered the standout performance. Director Wolfgang Peterson went on to a successful Hollywood career including directing In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood and The Perfect Storm with George Clooney.

Das Boot is an outstanding submarine film but by telling the story from the German point of view, the film transcends the genre. It humanizes the enemy through realistic portrayals of the men and espouses an anti-war stance which is dramatically conveyed in the finale. Das Boot is a powerful and great film and you don't have to be a submarine film freak like me to appreciate it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Old Gray Lady Ain't What She Used to Be

I was told that the Landmark Bridge Theater on Geary Blvd. would close soon. I don't know if that is true or not. I should see more films at the Bridge. Parking was plentiful when I went there for a 9:30 screening on a recent Tuesday night. I was able to park on Geary and on the same block as the Bridge.

There were 13 people in the audience for the aforementioned screening. I also saw two mice scurry across the floor or maybe I saw one mouse scurry twice across the floor. Of the five existing Landmark theaters in San Francisco, I have been to the Bridge the least. I notice that someone from the staff always introduces the film and thanks the audience for attending. It's a nice touch. I seem to recall that occurring infrequently at the Opera Plaza but definitely not at the Embarcadero or Lumiere. I've only seen festival films at the Clay so there is almost always a pre-film announcement.

The Bridge is showing its age. The stage curtain was torn in a few places. It was also rather stuffy in the auditorium considering it was foggy and chilly outside. I guess good thermal insulation is a positive. For the gentlemen, the Bridge has the wildest looking urinals I've ever seen.

I had been planning a trip to the Bridge for about a week because they were screening Page One: Inside the New York Times.

Page One: Inside the New York Times; directed by Andrew Rossi; documentary; (2011) - Official Website

Page One: Inside the New York Times is a wide ranging documentary that is about the New York Times as well as the state of affairs in print news business. For approximately one year, the filmmakers follow a handful of staffers at the NYT. Most notable among them is David Carr, a former cocaine addict cum rumpled newsman who seems as though he stepped out of a Damon Runyon story. During the filming, Carr breaks a story on malfeasance and sexual harrassment at the Tribune Company who subsidiaries include the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Beyond the intriguing Carr, the individual staffers held little interest to me.

The film is more interesting when it focuses on trends in the news media. The film states that most blogs and website are either aggregators of hard news stories produced by old-school newspapers like the Times or commentators on stories originated by the Times. In essence, the Times provides the content (for free) which other websites repackage or critique. The expensive part of running a newspaper is not so much the ink and paper but rather the staff. To report the news, you need boots on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. You need reporters who adhere to journalistic standards. Finally, you need editors to give direction to the reporters. All this costs a lot of money which was being recovered in the old days when a newspaper relied on advertising revenues and subscriptions.

However, those days are long gone. As noted in the film, a dollar in advertising revenue in a print ad translates to 10 cents or a penny on-line. Advertising revenues are down as advertisers shift their spending to cheaper on-line venues. The Times (along with other newspapers) gave their content away for free on-line. Initially, on-line newspapers were meant to funnel readers to print editions. Print editions have been steadily declining for years and readers have been conditioned to expect free news content. When the Times instituted a fee structure for their on-line news, several readers revolted. The imminent demise of the Times was being openly predicted. In the epilogue it was revealed the Times had instituted further pay-as-your-read fee structures. As a NYT staffer said, the newspaper business had long established that advertising revenue and subscription fees were necessary to keep a newspaper afloat. Those twin pillars have been undermined on-line but organizations like the Times have no choice but to reclaim some of the subscription revenues.

The film touches on a lot of other topics - the iPad's potential role in reinvigorating the newspaper industry (I notice the Times have a iPad subscription option), Carr's various battles against pretenders to the news throne and inside baseball looks at how Page One stories written and decided. The biggest star of the film is not a person at all but rather the Times' snazzy newsroom and office space in their Midtown headquarters. A red banistered stairway figures prominently in many shots. The open layout, natural lighting and (faux?) wood finishing made this cube dweller envious.

The film wears its emotions on its sleeve. It's clear that director Andrew Rossi is in love with the Gray Lady as is Thomas Carr, who gets the most screen time. Carr, who survives a round of layoffs during the film, considers it a fantasy come to life to work at the Times. After surviving his drug addiction and other associated troubles, a little thing like layoffs or cost cutting is not going to damper his enthusiasm and employee morale. The feeling is infectious as I started rooting for Carr and the Times during the film.

If the Bridge closes, I'm glad I bid my adieu with Page One. If the Bridge stays open, they may want to invest in some Victors.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo

"Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo" is the title of book by Joe Adamson. It came out nearly 20 years ago but the title stuck in my mind. I recall reading portions of it several years ago when I used to prowl book stores...back when book stores and single screen movie theaters were plentiful.

During Independence Day weekend, the Castro theater screened two Marx Brothers films.

Duck Soup starring the Four Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont; directed by Leo McCarey; (1933)
A Night at the Opera starring the Three Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont; (1935)

For the neophytes, the Marx Brothers consisted of Groucho, Harpo, Chico (pronounced Chick-O not Cheek-O) and Zeppo. I consider that line-up to be the Golden Age of Marx Brother films. Eventually Zeppo left the act (to become a successful agent) and the remaining Marx Brothers carried on. Groucho quipped, "We're twice as funny without Zeppo" although that was in response to studio demands for a salary cut after Zeppo lef the act. Zeppo remained close to his brothers after leaving the act; even representing the three Marx Brothers. There was actually a fifth Marx Brother whose stage name was Gummo. He performed in the act while they were on the vaudeville circuit. Gummo left the act after he was drafted into the Army in WWI.

So the title of this post is fitting because Duck Soup was Zeppo's final film and A Night at the Opera was the first Marx Brothers film without Zeppo. Zeppo never had much to do in the films so maybe Groucho was right. However, I think their films was more zany during the period Zeppo was part of it. Duck Soup and all the Marx Brother films before it were filmed at Paramount. A Night at the Opera was the first film after the brothers moved over to MGM. I'm not sure if MGM reeled in some of their on-screen antics but I can clearly distinguish the Paramount films from the MGM films.

Duck Soup is not one my favorite Paramount films by the brothers. A plot summary only serves to distinguish the Marx Brother films from each other. Duck Soup is the one where Groucho is the dictator of a Freedonia. Horse Feathers is the one where Groucho is the president of a university. Monkey Business is the one where they are stowaways on a ship.

The most memorable part of any Marx Brothers film are the gags. Duck Soup has the one where Groucho and Harpo do the mirror gag. Harpo would repeat the gag 20 years later on a memorable episode of I Love Lucy. Duck Soup is also the one where Harpo has a feud with a lemonade seller. Something unusual is that Harpo didn't play his signature instruments in Duck Soup.

A Night at the Opera actually has two major plot lines. For the first half, the boys are on a ship (Chico, Harpo and Allan Jones as faux Zeppo are stowaways). The centerpiece of the film takes place in the second half when the boys wreck a performance of Il Trovatore. Among the memorable gags include crowding 15 people into Groucho's tiny stateroom, Harpo (or maybe Chico) inserting "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the orchestra's sheet music & the ensuing baseball themed chaos and Harpo & Chico hiding among the supernumeraries on stage during the performance.

Even if they weren't my favorites, I can't help but laugh during a Marx Brothers film. They don't make films like these anymore - all gags with a meager plot. Most comedians couldn't pull off a movie based on their gags alone. That just proves the greatness of Marx Brothers' comedy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Left Handed Gun

The PFA had an Arthur Penn retrospective in June. I only saw one film from the series.

The Left Handed Gun starring Paul Newman; directed by Arthur Penn; (1958)

I had seen several of the films in the series previously - Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde and The Missouri Breaks. I would like to have watched The Chase and Little Big Man.


I was confused about this film prior to the screening. I went in thinking The Left Handed Gun was a television playhouse production. PFA programmer Steve Seid clarified matters by mentioning Newman had portrayed Billy the Kid in the The Death of Billy the Kid (1955). That production was a Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse episode, directed by Robert Mulligan and writing credits by Gore Vidal. The Left Handed Gun is based on Vidal's material but is a different production with only Newman returning. It was also Penn's directorial debut. As I recall, Seid said the studios took control of the film from Penn or edited it against his wishes.

I was expecting an exploration of Billy's psyche. The film didn't really provide any new insights to me. Basically, Billy was self-conscious and eager to burnish his own legend. Having read a book on Billy and seeing Peckinpah's take earlier ths year, I was curious to see how Penn & Newman would interpret him. As portrayed by Newman, Billy is a man-child, illiterate, a killer by age 11 and a braggart who quickly believes the legend of Billy the Kid which he himself has so carefully constructed. When Newman is not manic mode, he internalizes much of Billy's deeper emotions. The result, for me, was an uneven movie that left me futilely searching for clues to Billy's psychological make-up.

I also thought the film added a latent homosexuality to Billy's confusion in a way that only Gore Vidal could write. Alas, that was The Death of Billy the Kid and was specifically excised from The Left Handed Gun. That's one more likely reason Penn was less than satisfied with the end result in The Left Handed Gun. I have to agree with Penn; The Left Handed Gun was interesting but ulimately less than satisfying for me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ip Man 2 Take 2

I saw three films at the Asian Movie Madness series at the 4 Star in June.

Iron Fan and Magic Sword; Mandarin with subtitles; (1971)
Ip Man 2 starring Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung; directed by Wilson Yip; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Tiger Cage 2 starring Donnie Yen; directed by Woo-ping Yuen; Cantonese with subtitles; (1990)


I'll be honest and say I can't clearly remember Iron Fan and Magic Sword. I may be confusing parts of Deaf Mute Heroine (which I saw in May) with Iron Fan and Magic Sword.

Instead of a deaf and mute heroine, Iron Fan and Magic Sword features a blind heroine. Wait a second, was she blind? Her mentor was killed and she had these iron fans that she used as a shield. I think the magic sword belonged to her late father who was murdered. I remember a battle scene on the beach and another at a grave or something.

Let's just say I have forgotten most of Iron Fan and Magic Sword in less than a month and leave it at that.


I saw Ip Man 2 at the 2010 Chinese American Film Festival at the 4 Star in November 2010. As they seem to do every year, the 4 Star screened a Chinese language film without subtitles. In 2010, the film was Ip Man 2. I sat through the film because I had enjoyed Ip Man and wanted to see the sequel. At the time, I didn't think I missed much due to the lack of subtitles but there were a few scenes I wanted translated.

What did I gain by seeing Ip Man 2 with subtitles. Sammo Hung's character dies from asthma and not a heart attack which I would have assumed give Sammo's girth. Sammo is packing a huge spare tire around his gut and this is the second film I have seen where he is a kung fu master and 50 pounds overweight. It's laughable to see Sammo doing his kung fu moves in the shape he is.

Also, I thought Ip Man (Donnie Yen) and Sammo's character had some profound conversation before Sammo is beaten to death by the English boxer. Instead, Ip Man simply suggests that Sammo attack the boxer's mid-section. Later, while being pummeled by the boxer, Sammo returns to Ip Man in a hallucination and suggests he attack the mid-section which Ip Man does and eventually leads to his victory.

Despite these underwhelming insights provided by subtitling; Ip Man 2 is the best film so far in the Asian Movie Madness series.


Ip Man 2 was the second half of a Donnie Yen double feature. The first film that evening was Tiger Cage 2. Before re-watching Ip Man 2, I said Tiger Cage 2 was the best film in the Asian Movie Madness series. Now I say it is the second best but not by much.

In Tiger Cage 2, Donnie Yen plays a cop (or ex-cop) who is getting divorced. His wife's lawyer or the divorce arbitrator witnesses a murder and Yen is the prime suspect. Eventually, the two of them are on the run from the law while trying to find the real killers. Rosamund Kwan plays the lawyer and is for the most part a whiny pain in the ass.

The film has some nice action sequences as David Wu shows up as a third wheel. The climax of the film is quite good. Yen has to face three bad guys in a row - white guy John Salvitti in a hellacious sword fight, black guy Michael Woods in something like an MMA bout crossed with a WWE match and finally Chinese guy Robin Shou in a running battle from an office to a warehouse.

I'm becoming a Donnie Yen fan and Tiger Cage 2 only reinforces my opinion of Yen. I'd like to see Tiger Cage which also starred Jacky Cheung & Simon Yam.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mamma Mia! Mamma Roma!

In early June, I caught Mamma Roma at the YBCA.

Mamma Roma starring Anna Magnani; directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Italian with subtitles; (1962)

I added the Italian exclamation to the title because it sounds like something Anna Magnani would utter in the film. Ms. Magnani is like a force of nature in so many of her films - fiery, volcanic, passionate...she's the Mt. Vesuvius of Italian cinema. Sometimes it works and sometimes it seems like she is doing a parody of a loud and crass Italian woman. Fortunately in Mamma Roma, her character is a loud and crass Italian woman.

Magnani plays Mamma Roma; I don't think the character has a "real" name. Mamma Roma is a whore; not figuratively but literally. Technically, she is an ex-whore for part of the film but her pimp shows up and blackmails her into getting back into the life. Mamma Roma is not quite a hooker with a heart of gold. She shepherds some pigs into the pimp's wedding and engages in not-so-playful banter with the bride and groom at their wedding reception. She also plays a variation of the Murphy Game to get her son a legitimate job. All in all, Mamma Roma is trying to go legit for the sake of her mixed up teenage son, Ettore (Ettore Garafolo).

Not content with getting him a job, Mamma intervenes in his love life (even setting him up with another whore) and tries to buy his love with a Vespa. Mamma is quite busy juggling manipulating her son, running her fruit stand by day and talking up potential johns at night. Magnani never goes for subtlety though. Mamma is a brassy woman.

Mamma Roma is anchored by three performances. Magnani as Mamma Roma, Franco Citti as the weaselly pimp (in a role very much like the one he played in Accattone!) and Garafolo as the mixed up son. The three of them propel Pasolini's plot while Pasolini pulls out all the stops in terms of blocking and camera angles. More than once, Mamma is shown recounting her life to various people in a continuous "walking and talking" tracking shot. The extended opening (with the pigs) is arresting for the imagery as well as the spectacle of Magnani's Mamma. In the end, Ettore, considered mentally unfit, is bound to a table in a Christlike pose which Pasolini shoots from various angles.

If I left it at that, Mamma Roma is highly recommended. However, Pasolini mixes in a lot more into the story. As I mentioned, Christian iconography is brought into play but Pasolini also seems to dabble with Greek mythology as Mamma's suffering and Ettore's fate seem more Bulfinch than Biblical. In keeping with the Greek mythology theme, Pasolini imbues Mamma with a rather sordid and Oedipal interest in her son's nascent sex life. I'm sure there were some Marxist imagery shown which escaped my bourgeois sensibilities.

What's left to say about Mamma Roma? It is Pasolini & Magnani after all so expectations are set high. Fortunately, Pasolini & Magnani easily clear the hurdle as I was engrossed in the film from start to finish. In fact, I'd like to see Mamma Roma a second time as I'm sure there are a number of threads I missed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

2011 United Film Festival

I saw three films at the 2011 United Film Festival at the Little Roxie in June.

Gabi on the Roof in July starring Lawrence Michael Levine & Sophia Takal; directed by Levine; (2010) - Official Website
Cleanflix; documentary; (2009) - Official Website
Official Rejection; documentary; directed by Paul Osborne; (2009) - Official Website

The first thing I noticed about these films is that they are "old" least by film festival standards. Gabi on the Roof in July played at the 2010 Cinequest and 2010 Indiefest. Cleanflix played also played at the 2010 Cinequest. Official Rejection is a documentary about the film festival journey of Ten Til Noon which played at the 2006 Indiefest! Clearly, the United Film Festival is not about getting the world premiere. Although their Saturday night screening of Superheroes appeared sold out less than 10 people attended the screenings I was at. For Official Rejection, there were only three paid attendees including myself and I think all of us came because we saw Ten Til Noon at Indiefest.


Gabi on the Roof in July is a Mumblecore film (if that terms still applies). In general, I don't like Mumblecore films. The best I can say is that I didn't dislike Gabi as much as other Mumblecore films I've seen. Actually, that left-handed compliment is more sincere when one considers that every character in Gabi behaves in unlikable ways.

Gabi, a college student and would-be artist, travels to New York City to spend the summer with her older brother Sam, an artist of modest success. Gabi is childish and disdain conventional jobs which would help pay the rent. Sam is more practical in pecuniary matters as he spends time with his girlfriend who has a regular teaching art to school kids. Sam shows his flaws when his ex-girlfriend returns to town and commissions a few pieces from him for an avant-garde bed & breakfast. Sam quickly resumes his relationship with the woman while treating his current girlfriend in an increasing shabby manner. Meanwhile, Gabi is exploring her sexuality with frequent nudity and with Garrett, Sam's ne'er do well college classmate.

As I mentioned, each and every character displays character flaws which I found deeply off-putting. I guess this passes for common behavior among the new Bohemians in NYC. Although it is difficult for me to personally relate, I found myself drawn to Gabi's plight. She was a girl in over her head. Still testing the limits of her sexuality, Gabi is a girl in a woman's body. She also has some anger towards her recently divorced father which manifests itself in inappropriate behavior. Sam is not much better as it becomes clear his current girlfriend was on the rebound and that he never got over his breakup with Chelsea.

Recounting the plot or the character flaws is fruitless because Gabi and Mumblecore films in general, are not about plot but rather relationships gone awry. Gabi has broken relationships in spades but it also has a semi-poignant story of a confused young woman whose summer vacation falls well short of expectation and almost ends in rough sex (at least rougher than she was bargaining for).


Cleanflix bills itself and comes on as a documentary about companies (primarily in Utah) that edit films so that offensive material are removed. Imagine Pulp Fiction without the profanity...and violence...and sodomy...and brain matter... Actually, one of the talking heads mentions that some films are beyond sanitizing but many film just need a few surgical edits to make it past the standards broadly established by the Church of Latter-Day Saints. As you would expect, when Hollywood is made aware, arguments in support of artistic integrity and copyrights are made.

The film would be rather mediocre if that is all there was to it. Fortunately for the filmmakers, Daniel Thompson, the most successful purveyor of sanitized films in the Beehive State is arrested for paying for sex with an underage girl. Some in the film argue that the repression of sexual imagery partially caused Thompson's troubles. I don't know if that is true. Thompson never even admits to the crime on camera. He is found guilty and sentenced.

What I do know is that the filmmakers "got lucky" in that there is no way they knew that Thompson would be arrested for the crime when they started the film. As a result, the film takes this strange detour which becomes the main focus during the second half of the film. It makes the film disjointed. Thompson's story would have made a better documentary but the filmmakers seemed too invested in the original premise to let the time and footage go. By the end of the film, a court ruling had basically gutted the film sanitizing business so the film had the feel of telling the audience about a business practice that no longer occurred.

I found the ostensible subject of Cleanflix to be uncompelling and the admittedly sordid business with Thompson to be in need of more examination. Cleanflix tried to have it both ways and I wasn't buying either.


One of the films which really turned me on to SF Indiefest was Ten Til Noon (Official Website) at the 2006 festival. That might have been the first year I bought a festival pass. Ten Til Noon had its world premiere at the 2006 Indiefest.

Ten Til Noon was an exciting story about the interconnectedness of numerous people over a 10 minute period. The 10 minutes is played over and over again from different viewpoints. Each replay adds certain details and surprises to the story. I recall being tremendously enthusiastic about the film.

Official Rejection is a documentary directed by the screenwriter of Ten Til Noon. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of the filmmakers as it Ten Til Noon on the film festival circuit. Along the way, it becomes an exposé of certain film festival practices as well as direct criticism and kudos to specific festival. San Francisco Indiefest comes off quite well. Former programming director Bruce Fletcher gets significant airtime as the audience's instructor on various film festival practices. Chicago Indiefest comes off the worst as a number technical errors and a reclusive festival director incur the wrath of Official Rejection director Paul Osborne.

What did I learn? The big four in North America are Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca and Toronto. I already knew that but Osborne attacks their indie street cred (particularly Sundance). Part of that may be sour grapes. Osborne goes on to criticize the film festival industry's preoccupation with "premieres." Premiering one's film at a Big Four festival is not a guarantee of success but increases the chances than if you premiere, at say, SF Indiefest.

Additionally, Osborne addresses issues such as festival entry fees, the secretive and suspicious nature of festival programming, rivalries among the festivals and the personal costs that filmmakers invest in their films. Scott Storm, the director of Ten Til Noon, gets divorce with the implication being that his frequent absences due to following Ten Til Noon on the festival circuit is a primary contributor to his marital woes.

Although I chose to attend the film due to my enjoyment of Ten Til Noon, the merits of that film were only tangentially referred to. The typical audience for Official Rejection probably hasn't seen Ten Til Noon. Official Rejection has to stand on its own two legs and not as a companion piece to Ten Til Noon. I think it does so quite well.

At over two hours, the film breezed along as I started to root for the amiable Storm who doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. By the end, I felt like I had experienced the Ten Til Noon festival tour along with Storm.

Jason Wiener gets about a minute of screen time in Official Rejection. He's interviewed in front of the Roxie as representative of the film festival audience or at least überfan. Osborne added animation to point out the $100 festival pass Jason was wearing around his neck. Jason is a good guy but he came off kind of creepy on film. There is the trench coat and the Fear-the-Beard (four years before Brian Wilson made it cool) which are attention grabbers. During the interview, the enthusiastic (and perhaps nervous) Jason periodically giggled in a manner which suggested he was slightly deranged. Obviously he made enough of an impression on Osborne to keep him in the film.


A fixture at the 2006 SF Indiefest was John Daniel Gavin whose film, Johnny Montana (Official Website) screened that year along with Ten Til Noon. Having been to many film festival, I can say that Gavin was the hardest working filmmaker I've ever seen. I saw him all around the Mission District handing out postcards for Johnny Montana. Every cafe and restaurant in the Mission had Johnny Montana flyers in the window or on its bulletin board. The man was indefatigable.

In Official Rejection he was full of ideas to get your film noticed. One idea was to send the festival a blank DVD screener. If they call and tell you the screener was blank, you know the programming is legitimate. If they don't call you, call them and ask how they liked the film. Gavin hinted that some festival told him they had watched the screener and liked the film but don't call us, we'll call you.

A little research shows that Gavin has no credits on IMDB since Johnny Montana. A link on IMDB sends users to his official website. Mr. Gavin is now billing himself as the Film Dr. His pitch is Let me examine your work, diagnose any problems and prescribe you a winning formula. Among his clients are Adam Bronstein, director of My Movie Girl which I saw at the 2010 SF Indiefest.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Moveable Feast Served by Woody Allen

In June, I took advantage of the Balboa's policy of free admission on your birthday. I saw Midnight in Paris.

Midnight in Paris starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams & Marion Cotillard; directed by Woody Allen; (2011) - Official Website


I'm not a huge fan of Woody Allen's films. I won't bother to catalog the films I enjoyed or didn't enjoy. Midnight in Paris falls into the "like" category.

The plot revolves around Owen Wilson's Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter with ambitions of being a serious novelist. He travels to Paris with Inez (Rachel McAdams), his fiancée and her parents. Inez is materialistic (her parents are Republicans after all) and noticeably dismissive of Gil's opinions in general.

For his part, Gil seems ambivalent about his upcoming nuptials. Inez's pretentious friend Paul is guest lecturing at the Sorbonne. While Inez hangs on each and every supercilious word out of his mouth, Gil finds him insufferable and quickly decides he prefers roaming the streets of Paris late at night to the company of his fiancée and the ever present Paul.

Gil eventually falls in with the wrong crowd - promiscuous alcoholics without steady least that would be Inez's opinion. Through a tear in the space-time continuum or some other explanation which is never broached, at the stroke of midnight, Gil is able to travel to 1920s Paris where he encounters his artistic heroes - Ernest Hemingway, Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, etc. Gil returns night after night to interact with the legendary expatriates as well as receive critical advice and editing help on his novel from Gertrude Stein.

Gil catches the eye of Adriana (Marion Cotillard as appealing as I've ever seen her). I believe Adriana is a fictional character but she is presented in the film as Picasso's mistress and Hemingway's conquest. Adriana is attracted to the uninspiring Gil because he is unlike any of the men she knows in 1920s Paris. Ultimately, Gil & Adriana "double time travel" - they travel from Paris in the 1920s to Paris in the 1890s where they encounter Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas.

Adriana considers this period (Belle Époque) to be the Golden Age is dissatisfied with the 1920s which Gil similarly considers the Golden Age. Adriana wants to stay in the 1890s with Gil but the situation has made Gil realize that each generation is nostalgic for the past and that his time travel is enabling his dysfunction. Gil returns to the present day, confronts Inez about her affair with Paul (which he has been subconsciously denying), breaks off the engagement and decides to stay in Paris to work on his novel as well as explore the nascent relationship he has struck up with a pretty antiques dealer.

This is a Woody Allen film and a romantic comedy which is another way of saying it was too obvious by a half. Woody portrayed the 1920s characters as caricatures which is acceptable to me. Was Gil really in the 1920s or was he imagining (hallucinating?) the whole thing? Allen implies the former but it is easy to understand how Gil's impression of these people could be influenced by the legends which have taken hold in the intervening years. In particular, Corey Stoll's performance as Hemingway conflates the man, his work and the legend but it is to good comedic effect.

More troublesome for me is the portrayal of Inez, her parents and Paul. These people were so irksome that I wondered why Gil would associate with them much less marry into their family. I took a breath and softly repeated "It's a Woody Allen comedy. It's a Woody Allen comedy." Accepted on those terms, Inez's shrewish nature and her parents obvious condescension towards Gil were easier to appreciate. Actually, Mimi Kennedy and the always solid Kurt Fuller delivered some genuinely funny moments. Rachel McAdams who I last saw as the preternaturally perky producer in Morning Glory showed some range between the two films.

Overall, Midnight in Paris was an enjoyable Woody Allen film. It is a lightweight comedy which seemed as though it had the potential to be more. Rather than focus on what it wasn't, I appreciate it for what it was.