Friday, August 29, 2014

Popeye (1980)

Screen shot from Paramount DVD.
WHO: Robert Altman directed Robin Williams in his first major motion picture role.

WHAT: Robert Altman directed thirty-six feature films and dozens upon dozens of plays and television episodes, but only one of these was an adaptation of a beloved comic strip character (who had been translated to screen by the Fleischer Brothers as animation nearly fifty years prior). It followed a post-Nashville hitless streak that included some of his strangest (and, some of them, among his best) movies, most notably the so-called "Fox Five": the Bergman-esque Three Women, the caustic comedy A Wedding, the enigmatic Quintet (which could be a good double-bill-mate with Bong Joon-ho's current Snowpiercer), the rock-and-roll romance A Perfect Couple, and the proto-Pret-A-Porter of the naturopathy movement HealtHLongtime Altman collaborator David Levy is quoted in Mitchell Zuckoff's indispensable book Robert Altman: The Oral Biography: "if the five-picture Fox deal left his career in a place where it was on the precipice, this project would be the one that would either put him back on top or he'd be falling over into the abyss."

As it turned out, it became the latter, as Altman spent the following decade-plus persona non grata at Hollywood studios, forced to shut down his own company Lion's Gate (not to be confused with the current outfit), and scrape together television and below-the-radar independent projects (some of them excellent in their own right) until re-emerging with The Player in 1992. This was because of the critical and commercial failure of Popeye upon its opening. However, in a situation that seems impossible to replicate today, Popeye ultimately caught on with audiences starved for big-screen family entertainment, especially at weekend matinees across the country, and ended up, according to screenwriter Jules Feiffer, one of the top ten moneymakers of the year. Today its reputation is in ascendency among Altman fans, although the director always defended it, as at his last San Francisco public appearance at the Castro Theatre in 2003, when he called it his favorite of all his films in response to an audience question that denigrated it. It may be that, as a recent Dissolve article says, producer Robert Evans "bitterly regretted" the film, but in Zuckoff's book he calls it "a work of genius" and "Bob's best work", suggesting that it should be rereleased today.

As for Robin Williams, the star whose suicide this month would sadly be the most likely reason for such a rerelease, here are some of his comments in Robert Altman: the Oral Biography
It's a beautiful film, man. It's done with the same love he made every other film with. He told me later on, "Don't always go with a critical response. Go with, 'What did you do there?'" Yeah, we did do some really great stuff. I think it was just because it was my first movie, it was like the illusion--"I want the studio to make money." [. . .] I think for the first one of of the gate, that's a pretty amazing experience. It's kind of like Apocalypse Now without the death. . . . For your first movie to get the shit kicked out of it, it toughened me up. It's kind of, in a weird way, a gift. It was like, "Hey, now you go off and you work. You're no longer a virgin. You've been in your first battle. it wasn't a total victory but we didn't get slaughtered. So keep going."
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:20 tonight at the Castro Theatre, and 4:00 today and 3:00 Monday at the New Parkway in Oakland.

WHY: Popeye is a perfect MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS selection, as it snugly fits head MANiAC Jesse Hawthorne Ficks's neo-sincere philosophy of appreciation of "misunderstood and maligned" movies. Though tonight's Castro screening is surely going to be affected by the spike of interest in Williams following his suicide, it was actually planned (unlike the New Parkway shows) before the star made that tragic decision. So although it's not one of the first Williams tribute screenings here in San Francisco, it will end up being the first at the Castro Theatre, to be followed by eight shows on that venue's newly-announced September calendar. If you click that link you can also see the first programs for October at the Castro, beginning with an October 1st tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, who was tributed beautifully by in this week's issue of Eat Drink Films by Eddie Muller, by way of the vivid description of the circumstances of his 2007 interview with the Hollywood icon (who incidentally starred in Altman's HealtH along with the recently-deceased James Garner; it's been a bad summer for stars of 1980 Altman films.) The back page of the September Castro calendar gives us a bit more information than what's available on-line. More Bacall tribute screenings there will include Key Largo and Harper on October 12th and How to Marry a Millionaire and Written on the Wind on October 19th. Although the Castro now has a new 4K projector for its digital screenings, which will be used to show this weekend's booking of Lawrence of Arabia (I hope this doesn't spell the end of 70mm screenings at one of the few local venues which can theoretically hold them, although I fear it might), I hope that, like most of the Robin Williams tribute showings (all but Popeye and The Fisher King), most of the Bacall screenings will be able to be shown in 35mm prints. No word on that yet, though. UPDATE: Shortly after publication I learned that all the Bacall films will be shown in their native 35mm, other than How to Marry a Millionaire.

As Cheryl Eddy notes in her excellent SF Bay Guardian Fall preview of Frisco Bay cinema options (from which I have finally updated my sidebar of upcoming film festivals, if you scroll up and to the right), the next MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS screening is (a week before previously announced) a September 19th showing of Inside Llewyn Davis (shot on film but sadly unavailable to screen that way, it seems) and a 35mm print of Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter. What she doesn't mention (presumably because it was unavailable at press time) are some of the other terrific Castro September options, such as the rarely seen Bob Fosse film Sweet Charity screening in 35mm with the new DCP of All That Jazz September 6th, or a 35mm double-bill of Red Desert and Mickey One Sept. 24, or two prints of Sam Fuller films Park Row and Pickup on South Street, playing with a new documentary by his daughter Samantha called A Fuller Life, on Sept. 28. 

HOW: Tonight's screening is a double-feature with a 35mm print of Sidney Lumet's The Wiz, but Popeye itself will be screened as DCP. The New Parkway's showing will also be digital, as always at that venue.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Paths Of Glory (1957)

Screen shot from Warner DVD of Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures
WHO: Stanley Kubrick co-wrote and directed this.

WHAT: One of the most generally well-regarded films of all time, it has the distinction of being one of only ten films released prior to 1960 on the utterly populist (if male-film-geek-centric) imdb all-time top sixty. I've long considered it my own least favorite of Kubrick's thirteen feature films, which is praising it with faint damnation, as I like or love all of that iconoclast's pictures. It has astonishing battle sequences and a remarkably affecting ending feature Kubrick's soon-to-be-wife Christiane, the niece of German director Veit Harlan (infamous for making the Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß). But I've always felt its treatment of the meaning of war to be more ponderous and less interestingly nuanced than other Kubrick war pictures like Fear and Desire and Full Metal Jacket, or even Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon. Perhaps it's just my usual allergy to courtroom scenes (most agree this one's is among the greatest ever filmed). I've always meant to see it again at some point. There are two upcoming opportunities to do so on the big screen.

WHERE/WHEN: At the Pacific Film Archive in Berkely, at 7PM tonight and on Saturday, September 6th at 6:30 PM.

WHY:  It's rare, perhaps even unprecedented, for the Pacific Film Archive to screen the same film twice in a period of fifteen days, as part of two separate series. But Paths of Glory is the penultimate program in the centennial-focused World War I on Film (which closes Wednesday with the great All Quiet on the Western Front) and also comes early in that venue's Kubrick retrospective being held just over fifteen years after his death. Last week the PFA announced this series as well as the rest of its September and October schedule (with a number of select November and December screenings revealed as well). A brief rundown:

Perhaps the most exciting reveal is the Fall's first half of a fifty-title survey of cinema originating from the (now former, of course) Soviet republic of Georgia, where an astonishingly large portion of great Soviet-era filmmakers including Otar Iosseliani and Sergei Paradjanov have had roots. Those big-name filmmakers may be saved for the Spring section of the series, but the coming semester features filmmakers like the silent-era's Ivan Perestiani, the later Soviet era's Eldar Shengelaia, and modern-day directors like Levan Koguashvili and Nana Janelidze. The latter three will be on hand for screenings of their films and others'. I'm excited to dig into this all-but-unknown corner of world cinema; the only four films from the Fall program I've seen thus far are the four by Mikhail Kalatozov screening November 22-29. All four are brilliant, most especially Cranes Are Flying, my own pick for 1957's greatest anti-war picture.

A focus on Jean-Luc Godard's career from 1968-1979 would be impossible to say a bad word about, had the Spring 2014 retrospective of his films up to 1967 not set such a high standard by showing every film he made during that period, including rarely-seen shorts. Though most everyone prefers 1960s Godard to 1970s, it's somewhat disappointing that very little of his Dziga Vertov Group filmmaking is being included in this segment of the series, and that, aside from 35mm screenings of Sympathy For The DevilTout Va Bien, Every Man For Himself (a.k.a. Slow Motion) and perhaps Letter To Jane, at least half the screenings are to be digital. It feels churlish to complain when several of the digital showings involve use of (analog) video, and/or are introduced by Godard-connected luminaries like PFA founder Tom Luddy (who appears in One P.M.) and Jean-Pierre Gorin (who co-directed Ici Et Ailleurs and others of this era). But this series is called "Expect Everything From Cinema", and although I try not to expect everything from my cinematheque, part one of this multi-part retrospective got my hopes up. Perhaps the next installment in the series, covering the underrated 1980s (and beyond?) will be more comprehensive.

By contrast, the PFA's October-December Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective, the first in Frisco Bay since before Millenium Mambo premiered, includes all eighteen of the Taiwanese master's feature films, all shown on 35mm prints except for The Green, Green Grass of Home, for which a 16mm print will substitute. I've never seen any of Hou's films prior to Goodbye South, Goodbye, other than the astonishing City of Sadness, so I'm thrilled with this essentially complete retrospective.

More PFA offerings in September and October will include a fascinating-sounding commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Berkeley's Free Speech movement, with documentaries of the era and beyond, one-night-stand screenings of new films about Ai Weiwei and Mike Seeger, and a complete, all-DCP presentation of James Dean's brief filmography. Finally, weekly experimental moving image screenings under the Alternative Visions header include in-person appearances from animator Laura Heit, local Jerome Hiler, and, for two nights in a row, Leslie Thornton, as well as two evenings devoted to multi-projector screenings and another two devoted the legendary James Broughton as his centennial year winds down.

HOW: Unfortunately, Paths of Glory is the only film in the World War I on Film series screening on DCP (something of a paradox given the series title). More unfortunately, it's among the strong majority of the Kubrick series selections to screen that way, the exceptions being the 35mm prints of Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss, of Spartacus, and of the ideal Halloween-at-PFA movie, Eyes Wide Shut.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Lineup (1958)

Screen capture from Sony DVD
WHO: Eli Wallach had one of his most memorable roles in this as a hit man named Dancer.

WHAT: Often grouped with great San Francisco noir films like The Maltese Falcon, The Lady From Shanghai, and Out of the Past, The Lineup came more than decade after those films, was based on a popular television cop show, and integrates new styles of acting and dramaturgy based in cutting-edge New York Theatre that feel to me somehow out of step with the noir tradition of the 1940s and early 1950s and more in line with the human-psychological explorations of Elia Kazan (who gave Wallach his start in movies), or with the future work of its director Don Siegel (best known for Dirty Harry), than with noir stalwarts like Fritz Lang, Joseph G. Lewis, etc.

Noir or not, it's undoubtedly a great San Francisco film, packed with exciting and/or atmospheric scenes shot in real locations as they were fifty-six years ago. And not just the typical shots from the northeast corner of town usually captured by Hollywood crews when shooting here. The above image was, according to Brian Hollins of the amazing Reel SF website, taken at 2011 Bayshore Blvd., the current site of the Bayshore Cafe. The Cow Palace might not be as familiar a landmark to our-of-towners as Coit Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, but to locals it's unmistakable.

WHERE/WHEN: Noon today only at the Castro Theatre

WHY: You may recall that Wallach died this past June at the age of ninety-eight and a half. Today's screening of The Lineup is the first of an unhappily large number of memorial screenings coming to the Castro in the coming month or so. August 27th tributes director Paul Mazursky, who died a week after Wallch, with his films Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Tempest. August 29ths screening of Robert Altman's Popeye, the first big film role for Robin Williams, was booked well before his tragic suicide last week, but has now become a de facto tribute to his performance genius. Shortly after his death was announced, the Castro's twitter account informed me that the theatre will screen The Fisher King, presumably as a dedicated Williams tribute, on Sunday, September 14th.

If you can't wait that long to see a Robin Williams film with a crowd of the actor's fans (and perhaps even friends?), then tomorrow's screening of the 1996 comedy The Birdcage at the Lark Theatre in Marin might be what you're looking for. The Lark is also the first theatre around to schedule tribute screenings to the iconic Lauren Bacall, who also died last week; they'll show Howard Hawks's classic To Have And Have Not August 24th & 27th. The Lark is not advertising their screenings today and this coming Wednesday of Breakfast At Tiffany's as a memorial to Mickey Rooney, who died at age 95 this past April, perhaps because his role in that film is for so many the aspect of his career and/or of that film they'd most like to forget.  By contrast, the Stanford Theatre's current calendar has reserved two days a week from now until October 7th to show a 35mm print of a film from Rooney's late-1930s/early-1940s heyday every Monday and Tuesday. This week it's showing The Human Comedy directed by Clarence Brown in 1943.

HOW: On 35mm, as part of a Wallach tribute double-bill with The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (the latter on DCP)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Face Like A Frog (1987)

WHO: Sally Cruikshank made this.

WHAT: A five-minute haunted-house cartoon mixes the anything-can-happen feel of 1930s animated shorts from the Fleischer Brothers, Robert Clampett, etc with a 1980s day-glo aesthetic. Creatures speak in cryptic wordplay, backgrounds explode with patterns and colors, and there's no such thing as a truly inanimate object. The largely-electronic music score was composed by Danny Elfman, who even takes a turn at the microphone in the middle of the film, voicing a sinister-looking chameleon singing "Don't Go In the Basement" (perhaps a reference to Friz Freleng's The Wabbit Who Came To Supper?).

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only on a 7:00 program of Cruikshank work at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: Sally Cruikshank will be in attendance at tonight's screening, a rare in-person appearance for a filmmaker who hasn't lived in Frisco Bay in nearly thirty-five years. After making her first film Ducky at Smith College in 1971, she voyaged West to connect with the underground comix scene here and study at the San Francisco Art Institute under the great Lawrence Jordan. There she made her "most experimental film" according J. Hoberman, Fun On Mars, a paper animation which utilized rotoscoping and other techniques. Both it and the following Chow Fun won prizes at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Cruikshank than moved into cel animation while working for an advertising animation company called Snazelle Films. During her time there she was able to work on her own projects Quasi at the Quackadero and Make Me Psychic, which both became midnight-cartoon-circuit staples; the former was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2009. These and Quasi's Cabaret all starred a recurring cast of characters centered around Anita, a glamourous waterfowl with Cruikshank's own voice characterization. She makes a brief cameo in Face Like a Frog. In the 1980s Cruikshank moved to Los Angeles and found work animating title sequences for features like Ruthless People and Mannequin (most recently she worked on Greg Araki's Smiley Face). The 1990s found her making segments for Sesame Street, several of which will screen tonight. She has been an enthusiastic early-adopter of internet animation technologies, creating a chatbot, online comics, and other endeavors using gifs and Flash. 

I was first exposed to Cruikshank's cartoons in 1997 when they were shown at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts on a program with films by Kenneth Anger, David Sherman, Tom Rubnitz and Ladislaw Starewicz. I'd never seen any work by any of these filmmakers before I stumbled into that screening room, and I credit the experience with opening my eyes to the wider world of filmmaking for spaces beyond the multiplex and the arthouse. It makes me particularly pleased that I was able to introduce a film screening in the same space a couple weeks ago as part of the Invasion of the Cinemaniacs series (which is sadly down one Cinemaniac because the expected print of Arturo Ripstein's Hell Without Limits went missing and the August 23 screening cancelled).  

Tonight's Cruikshank series is the last film in the Pacific Film Archive's summer focus on animation under the Alternative Visions banner. Alternative Visions returns in the Fall with focuses on local filmmakers past (James Broughton) and present (Jerome Hiler) as well as on multiple-projector work (including Barbara Rubin's Christmas on Earth October 1). More information on this and on the PFA's other fall programs (including a Stanley Kubrick retrospective) should be available on the venue website soon.

HOW: Tonight's PFA program of Cruikshank's films is entirely presented on new 16mm and 35mm prints; Face Like A Frog is 35mm.

Friday, August 1, 2014

My Fair Lady (1964)

Screen Grab from Warner Home Video DVD
WHO: Audrey Hepburn stars in this, although her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon.

WHAT: The nearly fifty-year-old screen adaptation of the phenomenally successful Broadway musical, directed by George Cukor. According to Mason Wiley & Damien Bona's tome Inside Oscar, it was so popular at special screenings arranged in Hollywood for Academy Award voters that "when the Academy turned away crowds at one showing, so many people came back for the hastily scheduled 11 P.M. showing of the three-hour movie that there was another mad scramble for seats."

Needless to say, the film swept the Oscars that year, winning nine awards including Best Picture. Hepburn, however, was left off the nomination list. Julie Andrews, who'd played her role in the original Broadway and West End productions, won the statue for her screen debut Mary Poppins, an award often attributed to payback for Jack Warner's choice to replace her in the film with an actor whose singing voice was ultimately not used. Marni Nixon performed on screen opposite Andrews in the following year's Sound of Music, and dubbing of star voices in musicals became a more clandestine affair from then on.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens today through Sunday at 7:30, with additional 3PM showings on Saturday and Sunday, only at the Stanford Theatre.

WHY: The force behind the Stanford Theatre for the past twenty-five years, David Packard, has often named Audrey Hepburn as his favorite screen performer, and My Fair Lady in particular has been one of his theatre's top draws over the years he's been running things. But it also kicks off a late-summer calendar filled with classics and rarities that should draw any casual or hardcore fan of Hollywood's "Golden Age" to Palo Alto at least a few times over the next two and a half months, if not multiple times a week. 

The best news is that the Stanford will be open every single day from now until (at least) October 12th. Mondays and Tuesdays every week pair a film starring the recently-departed Mickey Rooney with another feature; several 1930s Tarzan films and a few Deanna Durbin vehicles (I highly recommend His Butler's Sister on September 1-2) among them. Wednesdays are reserved for weekly silent film screenings featuring live accompaniment by organist Dennis James; these are not the usual warhorses but infrequently-seen comedies with Reginald Denny, Leatrice Joy films, etc. The only one I've seen before is the heartbreaking The Goose Woman, directed by the underrated auteur Clarence Brown. Thursdays and Fridays match a Basil Rathbone-as-Sherlock Holmes mystery with a Warner Oland-as-Charlie Chan one (though the Swedish star's yellowface performances can be off-putting at first, these films often feature wonderful performances by the Asian-American actors portraying his sons), with an episode of the Kirk Alyn-as-Superman serial made by Columbian in 1948 as a bonus. Finally, Saturdays and Sundays will feature rotating double-bills of somewhat better-known films starting with Roman Holiday and Queen Christina (August 9-10) or The Black Cat and Dracula (September 13-14). Some of these are extremely rare to see on the big screen any longer, although I can't really imagine who would want to ever see something like Around The World In Eighty Days, for example (at three hours, the only weekend offering besides My Fair Lady not showing on a double-bill) on a television.

Some of the films that I'm personally most excited to see at the Stanford over the next ten weeks include James Whale's One More River (Aug. 16-17), John Stahl's Only Yesterday (Aug. 30-31), William Desmond Taylor's Up The Road With Sallie (Sep. 17), the local-interest Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (Sep. 25-26), and William C. de Mille's For Alimony Only (Oct. 8). I've never seen any of these before.

HOW: The Stanford Theatre is the last local theatre I know of (besides far more occasional screening venues like the Paramount) to pretty much exclusively screen 35mm prints. They do resort to a 16mm print on the rare occasion (the last time being more than two years ago) that something necessary for a series can't be found on 35mm.