Month: February 2016

Hollywood Before the Code – “Three on a Match” (3/2) and “Safe in Hell” (3/9)

safe_in_hell1Three on a Match (1932; Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy)

GRADE: B

Safe in Hell (1931; Dir.: William Wellman)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*The Hollywood Before the Code series runs every Wednesday night through March 30 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Safe in Hell is one of the five films that William Wellman directed in 1931, along with The Public Enemy. Three on a Match is one of the six films that Mervyn LeRoy directed in 1932, along with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. They worked on breakneck schedules for relatively small salaries. The cameras were heavy and difficult to wield; the lamps were blazing hot; the sound equipment restricted movements. Contract employees were borderline indentured servants, and could get loaned out to other studios at any time. But I’m sorry, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, I interrupted your story…you were telling us about the time that you got cold and had to put on an extra sweater?

The Motion Picture Production Code was adopted in 1930 (it just wasn’t enforced until 1934), so “Hollywood Before the Code” is a somewhat misleading name for this Elliott Lavine-programmed series, which started last Wednesday and runs through March 30 at the world-famous Castro Theatre. Most of the films in the series come from the early 1930s, so they’re not so much “pre-Code” as they are the dying gasps of a cinematic era.

indexBut what dying gasps! Shot and edited with Wellman’s usual violent economy, Safe in Hell follows Gilda (an excellent Dorothy Mackaill), a career girl turned prostitute turned accidental murderess from sultry New Orleans to an even sultrier South Pacific island immune to extradition laws. On this island of the damned, she attracts the attention of the white-suited lawman sadist who runs the place (“So they say my jail is worse than my gallows, eh?”), as well as every male gargoyle and sex addict living there. It’s a film of great faces, but for all of its seedy atmosphere and leering grandeur, it’s really about the limited options of women in a male-dominated world: Gilda can be a wife or she can be a prostitute, end of list.

Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match boasts a much more recognizable cast, with Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak in the leads and Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in supporting roles, although the 65-minute runtime indicates it was intended to be program filler. A sweeping epic condensed to an hour, Three on a Match opens in 1919 on the eve of Prohibition, and tracks the swerving fates of bad girl Mary (Blondell) and good girl Vivian (Dvorak) over the next dozen years. It’s soapier and squarer and less atmospheric than Safe in Hell, but it comes with that same level of visual efficiency. A typical LeRoy sequence moves from object to person to environment with brutal fluidity. And holy shit, what an ending!

Three on a Match screens Wednesday, March 2 at 7:45pm, while Safe in Hell plays on March 9 at 6:15pm and 9:30pm. These two directors get paired up by Lavine on March 16, when the Castro will screen two of their best films, Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road and LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. I can also highly recommend the March 30 horror triple feature of Island of Lost Souls, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Freaks.

The Barnesyard’s Sacto/SF Now Playing Power Rankings (Feb. 26-Mar. 3)

index* = SF Bay Area only

OFFICIALLY BUMPED

*1) Anomalisa
2) Mad Max: Fury Road
*3) The Hateful Eight
4) The Witch
5) 45 Years
6) Son of Saul
*7) Carol
*8) Embrace of the Serpent
9) Room
*10) The Good Dinosaur
11) Where to Invade Next
12) Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
13) Brooklyn
*14) The Club
*15) Boy and the World

MIXED-POSITIVE

index16) Creed
17) The Revenant
18) Hail, Caesar!
19) Ip Man 3
*20) A War
21) Triple 9
22) Spotlight

MIXED-NEGATIVE

23) The Lady in the Van
*24) Theeb

OFFICIALLY DUMPED) <

*25) The Martian
26) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
27) Gods of Egypt
28) The Danish Girl
29) The Big Short
*30) Joy
*31) Youth

indexHAVEN’T SEEN

Alvin and the Chipmunks 3
The Boy
The Choice
Deadpool
Dirty Grandpa
Eddie the Eagle
The 5th Wave
The Finest Hours
How to Be Single
*Ingrid Bergman/Her Own Words
*In the Shadow of Women
*Jack of the Red Hearts
Kung Fu Panda 3
*The Last Man on the Moon
Mein ren yu
Norm of the North
*Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies
Race
Ride Along 2
Risen
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers…
*Who’s Driving Doug
Zoolander No. 2

These rankings are updated every Thursday, and they reflect only the opinion of Daniel Barnes. All films playing in Sacramento area theaters are listed, as well as most films playing exclusively in the S.F. Bay Area. Underlined films are on my catchup list.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Club”

indexThe Club (2016; Dir.: Pablo Larraín)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens tomorrow at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Rafael in San Rafael.

This is the followup film to director/co-writer’s Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated No, and it’s another intimate and methodical take on a dark era in Chilean history, in this case the systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse by the Catholic church (Larraín’s next film covers Pablo Neruda’s time spent as a fugitive in his own country).  In an unassuming yellow house in a miserable beach town perpetually engulfed in a milky grey haze, the church has stashed four guilty priests and one ex-nun caretaker, and they live out a quietly decadent routine training a prize greyhound and dining on chicken and wine.  The first two-thirds of The Club play like a police procedural, as the suicide of a newly arrived priest brings the attention of a young, laser-eyed church investigator, as well as a deeply troubled adult victim (Roberto Farías, giving the film’s standout performance) who sets up camp outside the house.  Larraín brings the story to a thunderous and downright ugly crescendo in the final act, tolling bells and animal murders and Calvary symbolism and everything, then end its with a fairly galling final flourish that wraps the movie into a neat metaphorical package.  That left a bad taste, but I’ll still take this visceral and disturbing look at the Catholic molestation cover-up over the middle-distance politeness of Spotlight any day.

The Barnesyard’s Sacramento/SF Now Playing Power Rankings (Feb. 19-25, 2016)

images* = Bay Area only

OFFICIALLY BUMPED

*1) Anomalisa
*2) The Hateful Eight
3) The Witch (pictured)
4) 45 Years
*5) Son of Saul
6) Carol
*7) Bridge of Spies
8) Room
9) The Good Dinosaur
10) Where to Invade Next
11) Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
12) Brooklyn
*13) The Club
*14) Boy and the World

MIXED-POSITIVE

index15) Creed
16) The Revenant
17) Hail, Caesar!
18) Ip Man 3
*19) A War (pictured)
20) Spotlight

MIXED-NEGATIVE

*21) The Lady in the Van
*22) Concussion
*23) Theeb

OFFICIALLY DUMPED

*24) The Martian
25) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
26) The Danish Girl
27) The Big Short
*28) Joy
*29) Trumboindex

HAVEN’T SEEN

*Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong
Alvin and the Chipmunks 3
The Boy
The Choice
Daddy’s Home
Deadpool
Dirty Grandpa
The 5th Wave
Fifty Shades of Black
The Finest Hours
How to Be Single
*Ingrid Bergman/Her Own Words
*In the Shadow of Women
Kung Fu Panda 3
Norm of the North
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies
Race
Ride Along 2
Risen
Spectre
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers…
Touched with Fire
Zoolander No. 2

These rankings are updated every Thursday, and they reflect only my opinion. All films playing in Sacramento area theaters are listed, as well as most films playing exclusively in the S.F. Bay Area. Underlined films are on my catchup list.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Rams”

indexRams (2016; Dir.: Grímur Hákonarson)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opening today at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.

A prime Best Foreign Language Film Oscar snub now getting dumped pre-Oscars into an Opera Plaza bandbox, Rams is still smarter and more surprising than most of the actual nominees in that category.  In an isolated valley in Iceland, sheep are everything, the chief source of livelihood and identity and pride for the farming families.  This is especially true for Gummi and Kiddi, long-warring brothers and next-door neighbors who haven’t spoken to each other in forty years (emergency messages are passed between Kiddi’s dog), even as their family rams produce the finest sheep in the area.  After one of the brothers gets snubbed in a ram-judging competition, he examines his brother’s prize animal, making a discovery that could threaten the entire valley.  The symbolism runs thick here – the brothers are just as shaggy and hard-headed as the rams they dote on – without becoming heavy-handed or cute.  Hákonarson’s last film was a documentary about an Icelandic country priest, and he brings the observational eye of a documentarian to Rams while exuding the quiet confidence of a natural storyteller.  He maintains a tone that’s as chilly as the Icelandic countryside, but still offers touches of that dry, dark Nordic humor, and just when the film can’t get any bleaker, he ends it on a note of almost shocking tenderness.  It’s quite a ride for such a quiet ride.

In Theaters – “Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words”

ingrid-bergman-in-her-own-words-126342-poster-xlargeIngrid Bergman in Her Own Words (2015; Dir.: Stig Björkman)

GRADE: C+

By Mike Dub

 *Opening tomorrow at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Last year, new life was fanned into the personal documentary genre with three films that teemed with vitality, intimacy and empathy. Brett Morgen’s Montage of Heck, which featured the private, drug-addled self recordings of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love; Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon, which weaved hours of personal audio recordings of Brando into a profound, posthumous autobiography; and Asif Kapadia’s Amy, which chronicled the decline of Amy Winehouse without a single talking head. All of those films capture the essence of their subjects, stubbornly allowing them to speak for themselves and complicating the relationship between stars, media and the public in ways that personal docs rarely have the ambition to try. To be sure, “in their own words” documentaries are hardly a new invention, but the increasingly pervasive abundance of technology and media, along with what seems to be an inherent compulsion to document our lives, has created a wellspring of material that makes for fascinating, insightful investigations into the minds of people whose identities have been consumed by their public image. In short, it feels like an exciting time in documentary film.

Ingrid-Bergman-My-Local-WorldSuch is the timing that makes Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words already feel antiquated in its polite, honorary depiction of the wonderfully talented, though largely untroubled, Swedish actress. Even in a vacuum, outside of the reemergence of the personal documentary, Ingrid Bergman would not have made a very large impression, but compared to those other films that tread the same water, it seems even more pale and stuffy. Rather than a deep investigation into the mind of the artist, it plays more like a quaint personal biography. The point may well have been to humanize her as a woman who experienced pretty much the same personal problems most people experience, but what that leaves is a rather facile, albeit personal, glimpse into the life of a wealthy, beautiful, well respected woman  who never said a bad thing about anyone and about whom no one has anything bad to say now.

jag_ar_ingrid._ingrid_bergman_-_in_her_own_wordsTold through voiceover readings of Bergman’s diary and a greater amount of talking head interviews than the title would suggest, Ingrid Bergman manages a great deal of personal biography without a great deal of introspection. The most powerful moments of the film come early, in which Bergman’s diary recounts the horrific loss of nearly everyone she cared about in the span of a single year, and her feelings of ambivalence about an affair with war photographer Robert Capa. However, that sense of intimacy holds only as long as we listen to Bergman’s words. In them, we are allowed the space to interpret her motivations and desires. That connection to Bergman decays as the film is gradually overrun by present-day interviews with her children, whom the film allows to become mediators for us, explaining their mother in varnished and at times even apologetic terms. Only Bergman’s first child, Pia, doesn’t seem to be bending over backward to avoid disparaging her mother, despite Bergman’s relative absenteeism from their lives. The other children seem perfectly content and at ease. For Bergman’s son, the most harrowing experience of his childhood was the short span of time between leaving Roberto Rosellini’s Italian villa paradise (“It was like Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden”) and moving onto a private Swedish island owned by Bergman’s succeeding lover (“Miracles do exist!”).

To its credit, the film does not attempt to sensationalize its own subject. It might have been easy to frame Bergman’s reluctance to settle down as feminism, or to martyr her for the ridiculous controversy that arose over her love affair with Rosellini, but Björkman only rarely strays from the voice of Bergman or her family to make a larger point. Ultimately, though, the film settles into a monotone of talking heads and public interview footage. By the time it ends, after fawning interviews with the likes of Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver, it can’t muster the energy for anything more than a glowing montage over a syrupy sweet pop song. It may be personal, but it’s just another biopic.