Monday, October 12, 2015

The Assassin (2015)

Screen capture from trailer.
WHO: The legendary Hou Hsiao-Hsien directed and co-produced this film from a screenplay he co-wrote with Xie Hai Meng, Zhong Acheng and his longtime collaborator Chu Tien-Wen.

WHAT: Although I was able to view Hou's first feature since 2007's Flight of the Red Balloon at a Mill Valley Film Festival-sponsored press screening, I'm not supposed to provide more than a brief "capsule" review until its commercial run a week and a half from now. Just as well, as I'd need at least one more viewing to feel comfortable talking about it in any depth. For now I'll just call it a visually sumptuous, anti-kung fu film that verges closer to "avant-garde" than anything else Hou has done. Ninety-nine percent of the film is presented in a square-ish Academy aspect ratio, which along with its black-and-white opening makes The Assassin seem more like a 1950s Akira Kurosawa film than like the wuxia pian made by King Hu and others (always in widescreen) in the 1960s and beyond. Though honestly Mizoguchi, especially a late color film like Princess Yang Kwei Fei, feels like a more relevant referent (and one I'm not surprised to see Danny Kasman had perceived long before I did). Hou has worked with square ratios before, but (I'm pretty certain) only in his framings-within-framings in widescreen films like City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women. It's as if he's reclaiming 4:3 Academy as a more truly "cinematic" shape in this era of wide televisions and phones.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight at the Embarcadero Cinema at 6:30 and 9:15, and 8:30 on October 17th at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. All these showings are "at RUSH", meaning advance tickets are sold out and would-be buyers must form a line in hopes of obtaining seats as they're made available. The Assassin opens a regular theatrical run at the Metreon, the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and Camera 3 in San Jose starting October 23rd.

WHY: Although tonight's screenings will take some persistence to get into for those who haven't already secured tickets, it's fair to say they'll be worth it, as Hou Hsiao-Hsien himself is expected to attend at least the first one, a rare occurrence here in San Francisco indeed. An auteur of his stature visiting this city is cause for real celebration, and the SF Film Society has complied by making Hou a main focus of its entire Taiwan Film Days mini-festival tonight and tomorrow. In addition to the two showings of The Assassin there's a revival showing of what many consider Hou's first great film, The Boys From Fengkuei, and although Hou is not (as far as I understand) expected to attend this showing, he does make a cameo appearance in a very early-eighties perm. There are still advance tickets available for this screening as well as for the Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema, a recent documentary about the 1980s and 1990s heyday of Taiwan's cinematic production history, focusing attention on famous names like Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou (whose Flowers of Shanghai obviously inspired the doc's title) but also on lesser-knowns like Wang Tung, who employed a pre-Rebels of the Neon God Tsai as a screenwriter on multiple films. Director Chinlin Hsieh will be on hand for tomorrow night's showing.

Although the Mill Valley Film Festival The Assassin screening on the 17th is also at "Rush" (as was its Frisco Bay public premiere via the festival this past Thursday), there is still a lot of this festival to go that has plenty of tickets available. There are still seats for tonight's second screening of the Hungarian prize-winner Son of Saul, for instance. I'll be attending this as consolation for missing Hou in person, thankful that the film's distributor insisted it be screened in 35mm. It's the only new film in the festival (and so far, to my knowledge, any 2015 Frisco Bay feature-oriented film festival) to screen in this format, but MVFF has also booked a couple of retrospective titles showing on actual film reels: The Sorrow and the Pity October 16th with director Marcel Ophuls on hand, and on October 18th Autumn Sonata, Inmgar Bergman's final made-for-the-cinema film and his only collaboration with Ingrid Bergman. A documentary about her, Ingrid Bergman - In Her Own Words also screens at the Rafael Film Center tonight, launching an eight-title series celebrating her centennial. I'm told than the program page for this series contains a typo and that the documentary will not screen in 35mm but that Autumn Sonata and Notorious definitely will (the latter is also newly booked to play the Paramount in Oakland in that format) . As will Confidential Report and F For Fake in the Rafael's upcoming Orson Welles centennial conclusion, and Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home on December 3rd. In fact, between the Mill Valley Film Festival (which is far more thoroughly explored at The Evening Class by Michael Hawley and by Michael Guillén) and the upcoming Rafael winter calendar, I feel safe to say the California Film Institute holds a commanding lead among local cinephile institutions stepping up their game in the absence of the Pacific Film Archive this Fall, at least from my perspective. No, the Stanford's current Rogers & Hammerstein festival is not going to cut it for me, and though the Castro and Roxie both have some interesting programs on their slates (I'm most excited by Ken Russell's The Devils October 20th, the Brothers Quay shorts in December and Audition Halloween week), neither venue is doing quite enough to prevent me from wishing it were as easy to get to San Rafael in public transportation as it was to get to Berkeley.

HOW: The Assassin screens as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art (1973)

Image from brief youtube excerpt from the film.
WHO: Los Angeles filmmaker Gary Conklin directed this 28-minute documentary.

WHAT: I wrote this brief blurb on this film for the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) website:
An investigation of one of Mexico's most intriguing painters, known especially for his use of color (thankfully SFPL's print has retained all of its lovely hues.) Born in Oaxaca and proud of his Zapotec Indian heritage, Tamayo was one of the twentieth century's most prominent artists influenced both by pre-Columbian art and by European modernists such as Picasso. These inspirations, as well as the visual characteristics of Mexico itself, are presented in conjunction with interviews with Tamayo. In addition, Hollywood director John Huston (the Treasure of Sierra Madre, Night of the Iguana) speaks a narration written by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz; director Gary Conklin would later return the favor by documenting the filming of Huston's final Mexico-set feature, Under the Volcano. Conklin has also made film portraits of Gore Vidal, Paul Bowles, and Ed Ruscha.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 6:30 PM tonight only at the SFPL Noe Valley branch's meeting room.

WHY: I sense that Frisco Bay is feeling a smaller presence of 35mm this September than in any month since the nineteenth century. With the PFA closed as it prepares its move down the hill into downtown Berkeley, with the Stanford shuttered until October for remodeling, and with the Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission location still without a publicly-announced grand opening date, it feels like a moment of uncertainty and waiting. Meanwhile Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting a Neil Young screening series (to be followed by an Architecture & Design doc series) with only one 35mm print (his blown-up-from Super-8 Greendale), and the format is running a distant third (with 13 shows) even at the Castro behind digital shows (well over 20) and 70mm screenings (10 Labor Day weekend Vertigo shows plus 5 of Lawrence of Arabia this weekend = 15). The 4-Star Theatre, the last San Francisco cinema still regularly showing new releases in 35mm, has the digitally-shot Straight Outta Compton, and though the South Bay's BlueLight Cinema is showing 35mm prints of 50% of its current offerings (including four shot-on-video action films and one shot-on-35mm drama by a guy whose films I currently refuse to see), I imagine that percentage will drop in the near future, at least if its kickstarter to raise funds for better digital projectors is successful. Finally, the Paramount in Oakland will be showing a 35mm print of the original Mad Max on Friday, although I've been told to expect the American-dubbed version.

When I can rattle off a month's worth of 35mm showings in the region in a single paragraph, it's pretty clear I'm talking about a waning format, perhaps an "inevitable" transition as a panel at the newly-announced Mill Valley Film Festival seems set to prove. But even if 35mm were to die tomorrow, it wouldn't mean the end of projected reels as long as there were 16mm-centric venues like Oddball Films and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and the Exploratorium (which is showcasing a set of brand new 16mm preservations this Thursday) around and thriving. Artists' Television Access (A.T.A.) is another venue which values 16mm projection and which is busier than usual this September; Craig Baldwin traditionally involves 16mm in every one of his weekly Other Cinema programs, and my girlfriend Kerry Laitala will be presenting 3 different multi-projector performances this Friday at her show with Voicehandler at the Valencia Street venue. I highly recommend attending, especially if you missed one or both of their shows at Oddball and Shapeshifters Cinema this past July.

in 2015 I've become involved with a group of A.T.A. volunteers who are spending evenings going through the San Francisco Public Library's collection of 16mm prints, most of them untouched in 20 years or more. The library has a collection of hundreds of films intended for teenage and adult viewers, most of which appear to have been acquired for the collection in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We're looking at some of the more intriguing-sounding films and putting screening programs together of the best (both in physical and aesthetic quality) prints we're coming across. Our first program screened this past June at the Noe Valley library, and showcased five diverse documentaries, most of them unavailable on any home video format or (as far as we've been able to find) the internet. Our second program, screening tonight, is a little more focused, bringing together two nearly-half-hour films about North American artists. Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art, a color film about a painter, is paired with My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's Harlem, a black-and-white film about a writer of poetry, plays, essays, etc. that was broadcast on television in 1964. In addition to helping to select the films, I wrote short blurbs about both, but as I reprinted the Rufino Tamayo one above, I'll make you follow a link to read what I wrote on My Childhood. I hope you can make it tonight's showing of the two films. Admission is free and there will be an opportunity for discussion afterward.

On strange coincidence I discovered after the pairing of these two films was made. As I noted above, Rufino Tamayo's director Gary Conklin later made an hour-long documentary about the filming of John Huston's final film shot in Mexico, Under the Volcano. The documentary is available through the Criterion Collection edition of the 1984 feature. Well, it turns out that one of the key filmmakers involved in making My Childhood, cinematographer Ross Lowell, also traveled to Mexico to document the making of a John Huston film, namely the 1964 Night of the Iguana. Lowell's 15-minute final product is available on the Warner DVD of the Huston film. Just to add another layer to the coincidence, it was well after we selected these two films to play together tonight that I learned the Castro Theatre would be screening a 35mm print of Huston's first Mexico-set feature (and my favorite of the three), Treasure of the Sierra Madre, on September 27th.

HOW: Rufino Tamayo: the Sources of His Art and My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's Harlem will screen together in 16mm prints from the SF Public Library collection.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Screen capture from New Line Entertainment DVD
WHO: Wes Craven, who died of brain cancer last weekend, wrote and directed this.

WHAT: In an age where we love our screens so much that we like to take them to bed with us, the above-pictured scene, starring Johnny Depp in his very first movie role, seems eerily prescient. Or maybe it's just fun. Either way it's a great moment to see in a theatre full of other moviegoers.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens at the Roxie tonight and tomorrow at 9:45 PM, on Sunday at 3:00 PM, and next Wednesday at 9:45 PM

WHY: The very first of the nine-and-counting "official" films featuring modern bogeyman character Freddy Krueger was never expected by its writer-director to launch a franchise, but it touched such a nerve in popular culture that it was inevitable to occur. I was a horror-averse preteen and, later, teenager when these movies came out so I never saw them at the time, but that doesn't mean I wasn't constantly exposed to Freddy through schoolmates descriptions of him, through Halloween costumes, through novelty songs, and the like.

I finally saw my first Freddy film (this one) in October 2007 when Jesse Hawthonre Ficks of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS played it on a Castro Theatre triple-bill with Flowers in the Attic (which Craven was slated to direct but ultimately didn't, to the finished product's detriment) and the 1977 The Hills Have Eyes, which I instantly recognized as the best of the handful of Craven-directed films I'd seen thus far. Though to my regret I haven't added to that small list in the nearly eight years interim (aside from a DVD viewing of his underrated The Serpent and the Rainbow). Nor have I watched any of the many non-Craven-directed Freddy Krueger movies aside from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge when it screened at the Frameline festival a couple years ago after a stage show featuring drag queen Peaches Christ wearing a red-and-olive green sweater lipsynching the Hell out of "Enter Sandman".

It's a shame that it's taking the horror icon's death for me to realize how desperately I need to familiarize myself with his legacy. In addition to this week's Roxie screenings, Ficks (who told me about the sad news in person when we ran into each other at Sunday's Castro screening of King Vidor's The Crowd- the venue's final silent film to be performed with the current Wurlitzer organ before it's replaced with a new one in the coming weeks) has booked 35mm prints of two 1990s Craven films for October 30th at the Castro: Scream (the first Craven film I ever saw) and New Nightmare, his return to the franchise he never intended to be one, that has always sounded fascinating to me, set as it is on the production of Freddy Krueger movie (how meta!) I'm not sure I'll make time to fill in the gaps and watch A Nighmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors through Freddy's Dead: the Final Nightmare on DVD before then, as it appears from this list of references that I've probably seen enough of the series already to follow along with the film nicely. I'd rather spend time watching some of the more highly-recommended Craven films like Swamp Thing and Shocker, assuming they're available from Le Video. Or watching other films on the new Castro calendar such as the other MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS auteur tribute, on October 2nd (John Carpenter's They Live and Assault on Precinct 13).

HOW: The Roxie will show A Nightmare on Elm Street via DCP, a format they became able to screen this past April but which I haven't experienced there for myself yet, having only seen 35mm and DVD-projections there in the meantime. I'm sure this digital format will look better than the latter, even if it can't quite maintain some of the essential qualities of the former. It seems DCP is only available in the "Big Roxie" and not the "Little Roxie" so take that under consideration in picking your showtime for The Tribe (a film I have much more to say about than to simply recommend or dismiss) should you decide to see it during its current run. I'm pleased that the venue was able to bring in DCP without giving up its ability to show 35mm, which it will from October 30 to November 3rd when it brings a set of Quay Brothers shorts along with a documentary by Christopher Nolan.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Screen capture from Criterion DVD
WHO: Robert Montgomery directed and starred in this film, shortly after doing the same in the notorious experiment Lady In The Lake, which was filmed entirely from the perspective of the lead character. This follow-up was not.

WHAT: I haven't seen Ride the Pink Horse yet, but I can't wait to. I first came across the title perusing Academy Award nominee lists; Thomas Gomez was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in this film, by some measures the chronologically first on a short list of Hispanic nominees over the years. Then in 2011 Elliot Lavine showed it in his "I Wake Up Dreaming" series at the Roxie and Steve Seid screened it as part of his "American Noir in Mexico" Pacific Film Archive series, and though I missed both showings I heard from many that it was a standout noir. So I wasn't all that surprised when Criterion added it to its collection despite its non-canonical status. Perhaps it's part of a shifting canon, however. Dennis Harvey guesses that it "may be the best border-town noir predating Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil" in his essential 48hills article this week.

WHERE/WHEN: 7:30 PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, as part of I Wake Up Dreaming 2015.

WHY: Harvey's article gives a much better explanation of Elliot Lavine's 5-Thursday noir series, and why it's at the Castro Theatre rather than Lavine's traditional curatorial home the Roxie, than I would be able to. Pam Grady has also written a generous preview. As someone whose cinephilia blossomed at the tail end of Lavine's original stint at the Roxie, and whose interest in noir was stoked more at the Castro than at that venue, I'm not the ideal person to talk about the full importance of his past programming glories. I take it on faith that a huge part of the current fashion for noir, especially in San Francisco, is thanks to his efforts. But testimonials to this fact can come from the most unlikely places. I happen to have just read Patton Oswalt's new(ish) book Silver Screen Fiend, which is an oddly ambivalent recounting of the famous comedian's four years of obsessive moviegoing in Los Angeles. Mostly. But he occasionally hints at the role that San Francisco screenings played in his cinemania, and rather comes out and says it (at the risk of diminishing his overall, LA-centric thesis) on page 10:
I became addicted to film noir during the three years I lived in San Francisco, when the Roxie Theater on Sixteenth Street would do its noir festival every spring. I saw H. Bruce Humberstone's brilliant I Wake Up Screaming in 1993. That scene where psycho policeman Laird Cregar stares, openmouthed and turtle-eyes, as the film of his now-dead, unattainable dream girl plays in the smoky interrogation room? The one he's using to torment slick, grinning Victor Mature, hoping to railroad the poor bastard into the electric chair? That got me. Wow, did that get me.
Of course Oswalt's describing a scene from the film that inspired the name of Lavine's current series, from a screening that Lavine undoubtedly programmed and perhaps introduced. His taste was a formative influence on the aesthetic sensibilities of a guy who now has well over 2 million twitter followers. I Wake Up Screaming isn't one of the twelve titles Lavine's offering up for his first gig at the Castro, but from what I've seen of and heard about the selections, I'm not going to want to miss very many of the showings. The first three Thursdays are entirely populated by films I've never seen before, though some of them (especially Ride the Pink Horse, So Dark the Night and the Frisco-set Chinatown at Midnight) have been on my must-watch lists for a long time. I've seen four of the five films playing the final two weeks of the series, and all at the Roxie as part of Lavine double-bills. My favorite of the four is definitely Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall, followed by Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss, which just might be the first noir I ever saw at the Roxie. The one I haven't seen yet is Dementia, but I've been kicking myself for missing it when Lavine last programmed it over four years ago, and I'm thrilled to get another chance. 

HOW: All screenings in I Wake Up Dreaming 2015 are sourced from 35mm prints. Ride the Pink Horse plays on a double-bill with So Dark the Night.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stalker (1979)

Screen capture from A Story of Film DVD, Music Box
WHO: Andrei Tarkovsky directed this, as well as contributing to the screenplay and production design. It was his last completed film to be made within the Soviet Union.

WHAT: Surely the most challenging film still impressively hanging on to a spot on the imdb's Top 250 list of films as ranked by users of the popular (and, for the most part, populist) movie website. It ranks 193 there, just behind The Best Years of Our Lives and ahead of Shutter Island, for what it's worth. The only other Tarkovsky film on the list is currently Solaris, barely clinging to the bottom at #250 for now. It's a film I waited years to see on the big screen, finally doing so in 2009 at SFMOMA. (It was worth the wait.) Since then at least one key collaborator on the film has died: Boris Strugatsky, who co-wrote the screenplay based on his and his brother Arkadiy's quite-different science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Stalker was rated among the top ten greatest by 39 critics and 14 film directors, placing it in the top 30 films on both the critics' and directors' 2012 Sight and Sound lists of all-time great films. And it is the subject of an unusual but very readable monograph by Geoff Dyer entitled Zona, also published in 2012. Though I'm not sure why Dyer feels it's important to diffuse accusations of being overly invested in The Art Film by describing how bored he was watching L'Avventura early in the book, he recovers and proceeds to provide intriguing anecdotes and insights. For instance, he talks about tracking down screenings of Stalker in whatever city he happened to be living in, reflecting on "the possibility of cinema as semipermanent pilgrimage site" in one of his footnotes that takes over the main body of the text:
That list of things and people I won't watch on TV does not stop at Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson. It also includes....Stalker. One cannot watch Stalker on TV for the simple reason that the Zone is cinema; it does not even exist on telly. The prohibition extends beyond Stalker, to anything that has any cinematic value. It doesn't matter if the TV is HD: great cinema must be projected. It is the difference, as John Berger puts it, between watching the sky ('from where else would film stars come if not from a film sky?') and peering into a cupboard.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:30 PM.

WHY: There had been no 35mm presentations of Stalker in a Frisco Bay cinema between the 2009 SFMOMA screenings and this past Thursday, when it screened as part of the Pacific Film Archive's Tarkovsky retrospective. Perhaps this is why the screening sold out well in advance, and another screening (tonight's) added to the PFA's final week of showings at it current "temporary" (for the past 16+ years) space at 2575 Bancroft, before re-opening nearer to Shattuck Street early in 2016. For those of us who began frequenting the PFA after its move out of the Berkeley Art Museum basement in the late 1990s, this is a site of a great deal of nostalgia (to borrow another Tarkovsky title), and the place where we saw some of the greatest films we've ever seen, in some cases for the only time.

A sampling of distinguished guests who have graced this humble room might include Budd Boetticher, Donald Richie, Anthony Slide, Midori Sawato, Gus Van Sant, Sogo Ishii, Frederick Wiseman, Hedy Honigmann, Charles Burnett, Walter Murch, Michel Brault, Kim Longinotto, Clint Eastwood, Gunvor Nelson, Martin Reijtman, Kazuo Hara, Patricio Guzman, Phil Tippett, Mark Isham, Les Blank, Alex Cox, J. Hoberman, Kidlat Tahimik, Agnes Godard, Mati Diop, and Nino Kirtadze. Sadly I missed all of these events. But I did see Rob Nilsson, Guy Maddin, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Peter Kubelka, Kevin Brownlow, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Olivier Assayas, Lech Majewski, Terence Davies, Pedro Costa, Janet Bergstrom, Ernie Gehr, Lawrence Jordan, David Meltzer, Wilder Bentley II, Kelly Reichardt, Kerry Laitala (before I'd met her), Craig Baldwin, George and Mike Kuchar, Sam Pollard, Dave Kehr, Phil Solomon, Agnes Varda, Tony Buba, Sally Cruikshank, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Lana Gogoberidze, and J.P. Sniadecki talk about their (or in some cases, others') films, and had my perceptions of cinema changed in some small or large way by every single one of them. Not to mention stalwart pianist Judith Rosenberg and other musical accompanists that silent films have almost always been attended with over the years.

Though there is no guest expected at tonight's Stalker showing, the remainder of the week will feature daily appearances from Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice, who will be on hand to show each film in his small but powerful body of work since his 1973 masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive, showing Saturday, and perhaps if we're lucky, some of the films in the Erice Selects series concluding the PFA's final Bancroft screenings: Zero For Conduct (a free 35mm screening!), City Lights, Bicycle Thieves, The Kid, and my favorite of all of these, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story. Just be aware that there is no BART service between San Francisco and the East Bay on August 1st and 2nd, and plan your transportation accordingly.

HOW: 35mm print