Silent Film Festival announced

With live music, great movies, knowledgeable guests, and enthusiastic audiences, and all set in the beautiful Castro Theater, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is easily one of the best movie-going experiences that the Bay Area has to offer.

And this intense, silent movie immersion experience is getting longer. This year, the festival is expanding to five days, May 28 through June 1. That means it opens Thursday night, then plays all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. If you have a conventional day job, you’ll have to take two days off.

As usual, the Festival has put together a compelling collection of acknowledged classics, newly restored discoveries, and movies few people have ever heard of. And then they bring together some of the best musicians working in silent accompaniment. This year, the accompanists include familiar favorites such as The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, and the The Matti Bye Ensemble. Newcomers–at least to my experience–include Frank Bockius, Guenter Buchwald, Earplay, and The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, which to an East Bay citizen like me looks like a misspelling (it isn’t).

Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

The most exciting event this year is the newly discovered and restored Sherlock Holmes, starring William Gillette. In 1899, Gillette became the first playwright to adopt the Holmes stories to a dramatic medium, and the first actor to play the part. The film, made 17 years later, was Gillette’s only motion picture, and it was thought lost for almost a century. Of course I have no idea if it’s any good, but I’m hoping. The Donald Sosin Ensemble will provide the music for the Sunday, 7:00 screening.

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Believe it or not, they’re screening talkies this year…sort of and without the original sound. The Festival opens with 1930’s Oscar winner All Quiet On The Western Front. We generally think of that as a talkie, but a silent version was prepared for theaters that had not yet converted and for foreign release–and that’s the version we’ll see.

Then, on Saturday afternoon, we have The Donovan Affair–Frank Capra’s first talkie (from 1929). The film has survived, but the soundtrack is lost. So a group of actors, called The Gower Gulch Players, will lip-synch the dialog.

Some other promising shows on the schedule:

  • Speedy: Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, shot in New York. It’s not one of my favorite Lloyds, but as I haven’t seen it theatrically, that may change soon.
  • Cave of the Spider Women: A fantasy from China.
  • Amazing Charley Bowers: I’ve only seen a couple of this mostly-forgotten comedian’s two reelers, and those only a DVD. His unique, special effects-laden work has a surreal silliness not to be missed.
  • The Last Laugh: One of the major works of German impressionism. Like Speedy, I’ve only seen it on TV.
  • The Deadlier Sex: Come on, how can you resist that title.
  • Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ: The festival closes with MGM’s first big epic and first big hit. And no, yes, the one with Charlton Heston was a remake.

What’s Screening: March 27 – April 2

The Sonoma International Film Festival runs Through Sunday, which is the only day for the Albany Film Festival.

B The Wrecking Crew, Opera Plaza, Rafael, Shattuck, opens Friday. Now you can meet the artists behind the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," and the theme music for Mission: Impossible. This mostly entertaining Carol Kayedocumentary introduces the successful but little-known musicians who added magic to some of the best songs of the 1960s. The musicians profiled include Carol Kaye or the late Tommy Tedesco (the director’s father); you may not know those names, but you’ve heard their playing. The film lacks a strong narrative line, and thus sags a bit in the middle. But for the most part, it’s a fun look at how professional music gets (or got) made. Read my full review. Director Denny Tedesco will do Q&A at these times and locations:

  • Rafael: Friday, 7:00 show
  • Shattuck: Saturday, 2:35 show
  • Opera Plaza: Saturday, 7:25 show

A- Elevator to the Gallows, Castro, Thursday. Louis Malle launched his directing career, and arguably the New Wave, with this noir tale of a perfect crime gone wrong. Laced with dark, ironic humor, the film cuts back and forth between a murderer (Maurice Ronet) trapped in an elevator in a building closed for the weekend, the murderer’s lover (Jeanne Moreau) wandering the streets searching for him, and two young lovers enjoying a crime spree in a stolen car (they stole it from the murderer). And all of is set to a powerful jazz score by Miles Davis. Read my longer comments. On a double bill with Orson Welles’ The Trial, which I saw long ago and didn’t like.

B+ The Red Shoes, Lark, Sunday, 1:00; Wednesday, 5:30. This 1948 Technicolor fable about  sacrificing oneself for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their art, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet sequence is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I’ve discussed The Red Shoes in more detail.

B West Side Story, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songsWest Side Story and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen musical. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in. See West Side Story in 70mm for more on the movie–even though the Balboa will not be showing it in 70mm..

A- Selma, New Parkway, opens Friday. I found it difficult at first to accept David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Tom Wilkinson as LBJ. They didn’t look and sound right. But as the film progressed, I accepted them and got lost in the powerful imageand (unfortunately) still timely story. I had no problem accepting Carmen Ejogo’s spot-on perfect performance as Coretta Scott King. The film’s biggest strength comes from its picture of King as a flawed human being filled with doubts, exhaustion, and guilt–a man who would lie to his wife, badly, about his infidelities–but still a great hero. The film’s biggest mistake was letting us meet this real person before showing us the great orator that he is his public image.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Sonoma Woman’s Club, Thursday, 3:15. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the thrills, terrors, and transitions of teenage life through the looking glass of high schoolimage movies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail about a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining. Part of the Sonoma International Film Festival.

The Wrecking Crew: The hidden heroes of rock ‘n’ roll (my review)

B Music documentary

  • Directed by Denny Tedesco

Who supplied the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the theme music for Mission: Impossible? Despite what it says on the LP sleeves, much of the inspiration came from an unsung collection of Los Angeles session musicians informally called The Wrecking Crew.

Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, introduces these successful but little-known musicians in this mostly entertaining documentary. He interviews surviving members of the group, mixes in old footage, and explains the origins of the songs that became the background track of our youth.

The Wrecking Crew.

And if you’re thinking "Maybe your youth; not mine," you’re probably right. If you’re not a musician, a musicologist, or a baby boomer, this movie isn’t for you. But for me, a boomer who became a teenager in 1967, almost every tune brought back memories, then filled in details about those memories that I had never before thought about.

Not surprisingly, filmmaker Tedesco spends a good deal of the film’s time on his father, who died in 1997. Aside from being a brilliant musician, Tommy Tedesco was a funny guy. He clowned around in the studio, in seminars, and on TV on the Gong Show. He’s inherently fun to watch.

Denny and Tommy Tedesco

But my favorite of the profiled musicians was Carol Kaye, a woman working in a predominately male industry in the decade where Mad Men is set. Starting out as a jazz guitarist and turning to bass as she moved to rock, her driving riffs filled in many a great song., including "California Girls," I’m a Believer," and "These Boots are Made for Walking."

Carol Kaye

None of these musicians started out in rock. But they were young adults as the new genre materialized in the 1950s, and they found a niche where they could earn a good living while doing what they loved. They were not formally a group, but often found themselves working together from one gig to another. In huge demand, they worked round the clock from one session to another, ignoring their families but raking in cash.

Until it stopped. In the late 60s, rock got serious, and fans wanted to know that the actual band members were playing the music. The gigs didn’t disappear immediately–the Crew also worked on other genres and recorded movie and TV scores–but they gradually leveled off.

Except for Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, who became stars in their own rights.

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Clearly, this is a companion piece for 2013’s Twenty Feet from Stardom, concentrating on instrumental musicians instead of singers. But Tedesco can’t quite find the strong narrative line that made the earlier film so exciting. At times, especially in the middle, the discussions of one song after another become repetitive.

Another problem: Since the film is about session musicians, there’s no live performance footage. Studio work lacks the cinematic excitement of live rock and roll.

Aside from the Wrecking Crew veterans themselves, interview subjects include Dick Clark, Cher, Herb Albert, Lou Adler, and Brian Wilson.

Excuse the recent error

I am still using this blog! The recent, short post was meant for another blog.

What’s Screening: March 20 – 26

We’ve got three festivals this week:

A Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, Elmwood, opens Friday. If a film makes me cry, it gets an A. This documentary about the imagehorrific, homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die. In telling his story, Director Michele Josue wisely focuses on his friends and–more importantly–his parents. The result is deeply sad, but also inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings. Read my full review.

C+ Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, Rafael, Roxie, opens Friday. This is a very pleasant picture. For almost two hours, you get to hang out with three very likeable imagepeople who, in their travels together, meet other likeable people (and some who aren’t that nice). The scenery is lovely. In 1966 Spain, a middle-aged Beatles fanatic sets out by car to meet John Lennon, who’s in Spain shooting a movie. On the way, the fan picks up one young teenager and then another, and they become something of a temporary family. The movie is sweet, upbeat, and touching. But that’s about it. Read my full review.

The Great Nickelodeon Show, Vogue, Thursday, 8:00. In the early 20th century, the imagenickelodeons were the first theaters to specialize is showing motion pictures. They screened one-reel shorts and slideshows, added sing-a-longs and live vaudeville, and charged only five cents admission. This recreation of the experience will have shorts from Melies and Griffith, a contortionist, illustrated songs, and Frederick Hodges accompanying the movies on piano. But no, they can’t afford to let you in for five cents. Admission is $12.

A- The Great Dictator, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. Charlie Chaplin made his one good talkie on his first attempt, playing dual roles as a Jewish barber (basically the tramp with a voice and an imageethnicity), and Der Fooey, Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania. Slapstick and dark satire seldom work well together, but they do here. Many people criticize the final scene, where Chaplin faces the camera and pleas for peace, tolerance, and democracy, but I’ve seen audiences burst into applause as it concludes. I have to admit that I’ve burst into applause myself. With Paulette Goddard (his wife at the time) as the barber’s romantic interest and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini-like Napaloni – Dictator of Bacteria.

A Leonard Nimoy Tribute Star Trek Double Bill: The Wrath of Khan & The Search for Spock, Balboa, Wednesday, 7:00. The A goes to The Wrath of Khan, the most-imageloved Star Trek movie ever. It’s an exciting and entertaining adventure starring the seven actors and characters that we learned to love from the original TV show.–and a chance to let several of those actors shine. The sequel, The Search for Spock, is only a moderately entertaining actioner, with some interesting scenes of the crew off-duty on Earth. Nimoy is hardly in this one, but it’s his debut as a director. I’d give it a C+.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Burlingame Hall, Thursday, 3:15. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the thrills, terrors, and transitions of teenage life through the looking glass of high schoolimage movies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining. Part of the Sonoma International Film Festival.

B+ Aliens, UA Berkeley,Thursday, 9:00. Like most sequels, James Cameron’s first big-budget movie isn’t as good as the original Alien, but it comes close.. Less of a imagehorror film and more of an action picture (or, arguably, a war movie), it strands a platoon of marines on a barely hospitable planet infested with the big, egg-laying predators. Sigourney Weaver stars again. Unfortunately, the UA will screen the original, 137-minute cut. Cameron’s 154-minute director’s cut, which to my knowledge has never been shown theatrically. That one goes into more character detail and is a much better film. I’d give that version an A.

A The Maltese Falcon, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice maltesefalconbefore, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay (by Huston) that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett motion picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. This movie is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

A+ Some Like It Hot, Castro, Sunday; Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic imagemasterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review. The Castro screening is a double-bill with the only other Wilder/Monroe collaboration, The Seven Year Itch.

A+ Rear Window, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment imageand a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.

A Blade Runner, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget imagevariety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. Read my longer essay.

B The Man Who Fell to Earth, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30. Movies were pretty weird in the ‘70s, but they didn’t get much weirder than this—at least with a major director and stars. David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, but imageinstead discovers capitalism, TV, alcohol, and human sex. Yet it’s not entirely clear what the film is about. Nicolas Roeg directed it, so you know that the movie won’t be about story. But the images are intriguing, the central characters are puzzles that cry out to be solved, and it has some very sexy scenes for your enjoyment. If for no other reason, see it to remind yourself what science fiction films could be like in the years between 2001 and Star Wars. Part of the series Cracked Actor: David Bowie On Screen.

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed: My review

C+ Road picture

  • Written and directed by David Trueba

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed is a very pleasant picture. For almost two hours, you get to hang out with three very likeable people who, in their travels together, meet other likeable (and some unlikeable) people. The scenery is lovely.

But the picture doesn’t get much beyond pleasant. Although the three leads are reasonably believable, and you can’t help rooting for them, the film never really explores the depths of their souls. There is nothing here to challenge your view of the human condition. Although set in a fascist country, the picture is primarily apolitical. There’s very little suspense, and the laughs are too few to call it a comedy.

image

I enjoyed the movie–most of the time. But I often found myself wishing that something dramatic would happen.

The setting: Spain, 1966. Young people all over the world are enthralled with a new sense of freedom, and are all in love with The Beatles. But this is Franco’s Spain, and that sense of freedom is somewhat curtailed.

Antonio (Javier Camara) seems too old to be a Beatles fan (few over 30 were in those days), but he’s a fanatical one. A middle school foreign language teacher, he uses Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics to teach English. Knowing that John Lennon is in Spain making a movie, he sets out to meet his hero in person. (The movie being made, by the way, is How I Won the War. The title is never mentioned here.)

The movie location is in a small, beachside town far from Antonio’s home, so he takes a long weekend to drive there. On the way, he picks up first one and then another teenage runaway. Belen (Natalia de Molina) has escaped from a strict and authoritarian home for pregnant and unmarried girls (she’s not yet showing). Juanjo (Francesc Colomer) ran away from his large family because his cop father insisted he cut his hair.

Of course the two kids are going to fall in love. The considerably naïve Juanjo takes a long time to figure out that this gorgeous creature is interested in him.

Antonio becomes something of a father figure for the teenagers, although he hardly seems more mature than them. Goodhearted and generous, and reasonably well-educated, he seems to know little about the real world. (The film’s title is more than just a Lennon lyric.) His attempts to contact the well-protected Lennon are ridiculous and juvenile. But they aren’t anywhere near as funny as they should have been.

The movie is sweet, upbeat, and touching. But that’s about it.

Documentary Tearjerker: Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine

A Documentary

  • Directed by Michele Josue

I have a rule. If a film makes me cry, it deserves a high grade. If it makes me cry a lot, it gets an A. This documentary about the homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing.

Do you remember Matthew Shepard? In 1998, he was savagely beaten, tortured, tied imageto a fence, and left to die outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Not quite 22 at the time and extremely short for his age, he was emotionally fragile and had only recently come out to his parents (they had already figured it out). His death was exceptionally shocking and brutal.

Director Michele Josue was, as the title suggests, a friend of his. But she was smart enough not to make the movie about their relationship. For the most part, she interviews other friends, counselors, teachers,  and mostly his parents, who become the stars of the film.

Judy and Dennis Shepard come off as loving, practical, open-minded parents, and Christian in a way that doesn’t fit Bay Area stereotypes of white people in Wyoming. Photos, home movies, and Josue’s interviews take us through the joys of raising Matt, concerns about his emotional state in young adulthood (he was apparently gang-raped in Morocco), the horrifying days when his life was in the balance, and a media-heavy funeral marred by protests from the  Westboro Baptist Church (talk about the evil type of Christians). The Shepards also asked the prosecutor not to try for the death penalty, and founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to fight homophobia in the schools.

On one level, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is terrifying and deeply sad. Coming out of the press screening, I wasn’t the only person with a stunned look on my face. On the other hand, the movie is inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings.

This one is a must-see.

I saw Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine at a press screening previous to its world premiere at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival. It opens Friday at the Elmwood.

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