Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Marin and Beyond

If you're not reading the GreenCine Daily website with the frequency prescribed by its title, you may not have noticed that the site published my interview with Lance Hammer, the director behind one of 2008's most assured and affecting debuts, Ballast. It was published a little more than a week ago, and already the pointer post has dropped off the main page (a tribute to the Daily editor David Hudson's unflagging prolificacy). I would have mentioned it here at Hell on Frisco Bay earlier, but I wanted to be able to name the Frisco Bay venues where the film will be showing starting the Friday. I've now learned that Ballast will open here in Frisco proper at the Sundance Kabuki, where a filmmaker q-and-a is expected to take place opening weekend. In the East Bay, the venue is Berkeley's Elmwood, and in the North Bay, it's the Rafael Film Center. Hammer is self-distributing his film, so a ticket purchase to Ballast at any of these venues might be seen as a vote for greater filmmaker (as opposed to distribution company) autonomy when it comes to controlling the release of their films.

Speaking of the Rafael Film Center, it recently released its calendar of film programs for the next few months. Just coming off its stint as a venue for the 31st Mill Valley Film Festival, the restored San Rafael theatre is the North Bay location to see a lot of the season's most exciting commercially-released films, new and old. There are a number of exclusive screenings that should tempt potential bridge-crossers to come to Marin county for a night at the movies as well.

First, let me talk about the latter category. If you missed last Friday's in-person tribute to Harriet Andersson hosted at the Rafael by the MVFF, you might want to note that she's still in town, and will be on hand for a screening of Ingmar Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel tonight. The screening is part of an eclectic set of Bergman's theatrical and television works, some of which are making their Frisco Bay premieres at the Rafael this week. There are a few selections repeated from recent Bergman retros around Frisco Bay, such as Cries and Whispers, perhaps Andersson's most powerful performance, which plays October 16-17. But there are also genuine rarities such as the Blessed Ones and the Best Intentions. The full five-and-a-half hour television version of Bergman's crowning achievement Fanny and Alexander will make its West Coast theatrical premiere in a HD presentation on October 19-23.

From October 29-November 2 the Rafael will host a series entitled Irving Thalberg's MGM, showing three films the mogul made at the most "star-studded" studio in the early 1930s. On the 29th, Red Dust pairs Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in the steaming jungles of colonial-era Vietnam. On the 30th it's Ernst Lubitsch's slice of perfection the Merry Widow. And Private Lives, a vehicle for Thalberg's wife Norma Shearer that I have not seen, rounds out the trio on November 2. Another short series is a four-film, seven-day (Dec. 5-11) stint of Janus Films' touring Essential Art House collection of landmark foreign classics that stopped by the Castro last year and the Pacific Film Archive the year before. (Which reminds me to mention that, according to the Janus website, the PFA has booked Masaki Kobayashi's trilogy, the Human Condition for February 15th.)

The Rafael will have three November one-off events with guest speakers: a November 15 screening of Wall-E accompanied by a presentation from sound designer Ben Burtt. Burtt, visual effects whiz Craig Barron and silent film historian John Bengstom will take a look at Charlie Chaplin's silent-sound hybrid Modern Times November 20th, and Christopher Plummer will be on hand for a showing of Man in the Chair November 29th. Perhaps even more eye-catching, at least to my baby blues, is the December 4th return of the now-traditional "the Films of..." series highlighting films made exactly 100 years ago, in this case the Films of 1908. It will include early efforts from Max Linder and D.W. Griffith, as well as J. Stuart Blackton's famous "trick" film the Thieving Hand, all accompanied by Michael Mortilla at the piano. Back then they were just films, but today motion pictures of the Thieving Hand's length are considered shorts, and the Rafael will also be presenting an exclusive selection of some of Sundance 2008's better efforts. I've seen three of them, which range from good (Dennis) to excellent (Yours Truly and my olympic summer, which both also show up on the new SF Cinematheque calendar on November 6th.)

There's three more Rafael bookings I'd like to highlight, but these are not Marin-exclusive screenings. Each is booked to play for at least a week at the Rafael, but also at other Frisco Bay theatres on the same dates. In reverse chronological order, I'll start with Lola Montès, opening November 19 at the Rafael, the Elmwood, and the glorious Castro Theatre. This is a picture that I've only seen on video, where one barely gets the sense of its grandeur and scope. I can't wait to see it on a screen big enough to do justice to director Max Ophuls' vision and to the larger-than-life life of its subject played by Martine Carol, Lola Montez (who counted Frisco Bay as one of her realms of conquest).

Momma's Man opens October 24 at the Rafael, the Camera 12 in San Jose, and the Clay. One of the very best new films I've seen all year, this is the third feature directed by Azazel Jacobs, son of avant-garde film legend Ken Jacobs. He cast his father and his real-life mother Flo Jacobs as the parents of the lead character Mikey, a new parent who cocoons in his childhood loft rather than face his responsibilities as husband and father. As strange and alienating as his behavior may seem, the relationship between Mikey and his parents feels so natural that I really felt I started to understand what might lead a grown man to act in such a way, and what might or might not be able to lead him back out of the vicious circle he's drawn around himself. At one point he asks, "is this an intervention?" as if he hopes the answer will be yes, but knowing deep down that his parents' personalities preclude them from giving him that kind of a wake-up call. For me, the final shot packed a powerful dose of emotion that was unexpected given the detached, almost casual style that the rest of the film uses to present, but not underline in a heavy-handed way, the heartache of the situation.

Finally, Ashes of Time Redux opens October 17 at the Rafael, the Camera 12, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Lumiere. I've considered the original arthouse wuxia to be among director Wong Kar-Wai's most interesting films since watching a scratchy print at the 4-Star several years ago, but I've never gotten around to revisiting it. I had no idea that the screening would be the last chance I'd get to see the intact film. According to articles like this one, this Redux version is not a new "director's cut" like so many reissues these days, but rather an attempt to preserve film elements that were not only at risk but in fact already becoming unwatchable due to poor archival practices in the Hong Kong film industry. It's great to see Ashes of Time's images (shot by Christopher Doyle, of course) back up on cinema screens, in such vivid colors. But I must confess that some of the attempts to patch over preservation problems are very distracting, particularly the new musical score with its too-prominent cello parts. (Yo-Yo Ma is great, but is not the solution to every musical problem.) The cast is packed with the greats of what many consider to be the peak period of Hong Kong cinema, but there's something bittersweet about seeing them (especially the late Leslie Cheung) digitally-spruced-up for a release like this: one can't help but wonder how many other films from the years before the handover are left to decompose because nobody who cares enough has the clout to save them.


  1. Can't wait to see the redux version too.

  2. See it on as big a screen as possible and report back!