I’m Not There

Musical biopic/mockumentary/weird undefinable something

  • Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman
  • Directed by Todd Haynes

Artists should experiment, try new things, push the boundaries of their art. There can be no masterpieces without experimentation. But since experimentation involves trying something that may or may not work, failure is a real possibility. (I’m talking about artistic failure here, although one shouldn’t discount the importance of commercial failure, either.)

I regret to report that Todd Haynes’ courageous experiment, I’m Not There, is a failure. His original idea–six actors playing different aspects of Bob Dylan’s personality or public persona–gives us little insight and no comprehensive view of either the artist or the art. A conventional biopic, with one actor taking us through Dylan’s changes and masks, would have been more enlightening and more entertaining.

Full disclosure: I am a huge Dylan fan. Although too young to have fully appreciated him at his artistic and influential height in the mid-1960’s, I fell in love with his work in college, and never fell out of it. I’ve read several biographies and own a large collection of his work. So I went into this movie knowing a good deal about the subject.

There’s no character called “Bob Dylan” in I’m Not There. Each of the six stars plays someone with a unique name. And each appears in a story that’s for the most part unrelated to the other five. And in the case of Richard Gere’s Billy the Kid, pretty much unrelated to Bob Dylan, too. I’m not really sure what that story was about.

The Heath Ledger sections kind of work, but have little to do with Dylan. Ledger plays a movie star who makes life miserable for his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg). I guess Haynes meant this to examine Dylan’s first marriage, but nothing I’ve read about that marriage look like anything on the screen. But they were interesting characters and deserved more screen time.

The film’s best moments belong to Cate Blanchett as another side of Bob Dylan, this one called Jude Quinn. The Quinn sequences catch Dylan at his most electric–literally and figuratively–as he alienates his fans by moving from folk to rock. As she did in The Aviator, Blanchett manages both a flawless imitation and a real character study as Quinn drowns in ego, drugs, fame, and his own considerable wit.

Here and elsewhere, Haynes has fun with the medium. The Quinn scenes are in black and white, mostly with a ’60’s, cinema verite look. One sequence opens like a scene from 8½, morphs briefly to A Hard Day’s Night, then returns to Fellini territory.

These playful touches and Blanchett’s performance are all that make I’m Not There worth checking out.

There’s also the music, of course. The soundtrack is one great Dylan song after another, mostly in the original recordings. On the other hand, if you love Dylan, you probably already own these.

Silent Recommendations and Warnings

In three years of Bayflicks, I have yet to see a week so totally dominated by silents. The silent movie events listed below outnumber the talkies three to one.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival–Winter Edition, Castro, Saturday, all day. What a great way to spend a Saturday! The festival begins at 11:00 with a series of Vitaphone shorts, then at 2:00 presents Intolerance. And it finishes at 8:00 with Flesh and the Devil. The two silents are accompanied by Dennis James at the Wurlitzer pipe organ. Click here for my detailed discussion.

A Century Ago: The Films of 1907, Rafael, Thursday, 7:30. The cinematic art is just barely old enough for centenaries. This collection of shorts promises to that art was evolving a century ago, in the year that Kalem and Essanay both went into business and D. W. Griffith first appeared in front of a camera (it would be 1908 when he stepped behind it and really made history). The selection includes trick films, actualities (today we’d call them cinéma vérité), and something called “An Awful Skate, or The Hobo on Roller Skates.” The California Film Institute (which runs the Rafael) promises 35mm prints (in most cases). Michael Mortilla will accompany the movies on the piano.

City Lights, Castro, Thursday. In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of the great tear-jerking endings. Sound came to movies as Chaplin was shooting City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself.

Double Bill: Modern Times and The Circus, Castro, Sunday. In Modern Times Charlie Chaplin takes an anachronistic art form (silent film in 1936) and uses it to explore headline topics: assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression. The tramp’s innate dignity and optimism, upholstered by Chaplin’s perfectly choreographed comedy, keeps Modern Times light despite the heavy theme, and turns his last silent (with music, sound effects, and an occasional human voice) into his last great masterpiece. Made in between Chaplin’s two feature masterpieces (The Gold Rush and City Lights), The Circus can’t help but suffer by comparison. But it’s funny and touching enough to be liked–if not loved–on its own merits. The Castro will screen The Circus with Chaplin’s own recorded score (including a dreadful song he sings himself) rather than live accompaniment. For more details, read about The Altered Charlie Chaplin Problem. A part of the Castro’s PFA at the Castro–Charles Chaplin series.

The Strong Man, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. For a brief shining moment in the mid-1920’s, Harry Langdon sat in the pantheon of great comedians along with Chaplin and LLoyd. Then his star fell quickly. He was never better than in his second feature, The Strong Man. Perhaps that’s because Langdon promoted one of his gag men to producer on this one, and Frank Capra would prove a far more long-lasting talent. Langdon plays a Belgian immigrant–a vaudeville strong man’s assistant–who hopes to find his pen-pal sweetheart in America. Much of Capra’s faith in American small-town decency (as well as his Christian faith) already shows itself in The Strong Man, along with his sense of cinema. And Langdon’s innocent child/man was never so endearing, or as funny. Accompanied by Dennis James at the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

The Iron Mask, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Douglas Fairbanks must have felt melancholy as he made what he knew would be his last silent film. Based on Dumas’ oft-filmed The Three Musketeers sequel, The Iron Mask is unusually dark for a Fairbanks movie, with several likeable characters meeting untimely deaths. But writer-producer-star Fairbanks lacked the knack for serious drama, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of bad melodrama and entertaining swashbuckling. Shown the “The Great Train Robbery” from 1903 and Chaplin’s “Shanghaied,” all accompanied by Jon Mirsalis on piano.

The Kid and The Pilgrim, Castro, Tuesday, 6:30. Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid, isn’t among his best–there are times when you can feel him stretching to fill six reels, and others where the sentimentality overwhelms. But it has some of his best routines, most built around his very young co-star, Jackie Coogan. This may be the only time Chaplin allowed someone else to steal one of his films, and it was the right decision. The future Uncle Fester imitates Chaplin perfectly as an abandoned child raised by the little tramp. The Pilgrim, which is either Chaplin’s last short or his second feature, depending on how you want to define a four-reel movie, improves considerably on The Kid. Chaplin creates one of his best roles as an escaped convict posing as a clergyman in a story that mixes comedy and social commentary while keeping the sentimentality at a minimum. A part of the Castro’s PFA at the Castro–Charles Chaplin series.

Once, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. Wow! A recent film! The most romantic picture since Before Sunrise, Once charms you with winning characters, an odd kind of low-key suspense, and terrific music. The music comes out of the story, which concerns two talented but unprofessional musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) becoming close friends and collaborators. There’s clearly a romantic attraction, but you’re never quite clear where it’s going to go. Wherever it goes, it gets there musically; if the film isn’t a hit, the singer/songwriter-style soundtrack will be. Sorry, but I have to say it: You’ll want to see Once twice.

Double Bill: Modern Times and Three Late Chaplin Shorts, Castro, Wednesday. See above for Modern Times review. The three shorts, “Sunnyside,” “A Day’s Pleasure,” and “Pay Day” combined earn only a D. I don’t think you can put together a worse selection of late Charlie Chaplin shorts. “Sunnyside” is pretty good–not a masterpiece, but a pleasant enough comedy. But “A Day’s Pleasure,– and “Pay Day” may be the worst movies Chaplin made after gaining full control of his work. I don’t think there are three good laughs in their combined four reels. As part of the Castro’s PFA at the Castro–Charles Chaplin series, the theater will present these shorts with Chaplin’s own score on the recorded soundtrack.

Sing-Along The Wizard of Oz, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I have no experience with, and therefore no opinion of, watching The Wizard of Oz in a sing-along setting. A benefit for the Pacific Center.

The Gold Rush (sound version), Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00; Castro, Tuesday, 8:45. Nothing George Lucas ever did to a finished Star Wars movie compares to Chaplin’s 1942 reworking of The Gold Rush (1925). Wanting to re-release his masterpiece but fearful that audiences would no longer accept a silent movie, Chaplin removed all of The intertitles, trimmed several scenes, and added new, and seemingly endless, narration. Thus, one of the greatest comedies ever made is “enhanced” by a non-stop monolog written and spoken by the world’s greatest mime. The original, 1925 Gold Rush still exists–it’s even an “extra” on the two-disc special edition DVD. But Chaplin went to his grave insisting that the 1942 Gold Rush was the definitive version. His family has respected his wishes rather than history, general consensus, and the wishes of his fans. So that’s the version the Castro will screen as part of its PFA at the Castro–Charles Chaplin series. For more on the subject, read The Altered Charlie Chaplin Problem.

Valley of the Heart’s Delight, 4Star, opens Friday. I hate saying anything bad about a locally-made independent film struggling to get national distribution. Based very loosely on historical events, Valley of the Heart’s Delight details the circumstances leading to the lynching of two kidnapping/murder suspects in San Jose in 1933. The lynching occurred with the active or passive endorsement of just about everyone who should have stopped it, from the local sheriff to the Governor of California. Writer/Producer John Miles Murphy believes the suspects were innocent, and has turned his theories into a work of fiction with completely original characters. Cinematographer Hiro Narita, Production Designer Douglas Freeman, and Costume Designer Cathleen Edwards all do a remarkable job creating 1933 San Jose out of modern day Bay Area locations and very little money. Unfortunately, Murphy and director Tim Boxell fail to fill that world with real people. Click here for my full review.

A Century Ago on Film

The cinematic art is just barely old enough for centenaries. After all, the oldest movie to still retain some popularity as entertainment, “A Trip to the Moon,” is only 105 years old.

On December 6, the Rafael will look back at the year 1907 in a collection of shorts that promise to capture that transitional year. Okay, 1907 was probably no more transitional than 1906 or 1908, but every year meant big changes back then. Kalem and Essanay both went into business that year. D. W. Griffith first appeared in front of a camera (it would be 1908 when he stepped behind it and really made history). The selection includes trick films, actualities (today we’d call them cinéma vérité), and something called “An Awful Skate, or The Hobo on Roller Skates.”

The California Film Institute (which runs the Rafael) promises 35mm prints (in most cases) from the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, George Eastman House and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Michael Mortilla will accompany the movies on the piano. The CFI hopes this becomes an annual event.

Recommendations and Warnings: Chaplin, Rats, and Balloons

The Red Balloon and White Mane, Rafael, Lumiere, and Shattuck, opens Friday for one week. Janus Films put two Albert Lamorisse short children’s films together into one feature-length package. Lamorisse’s masterpiece “The Red Balloon” introduced me to a cinema beyond Hollywood when I was too young to read subtitles. They’re not necessary; Lamorisse uses visuals, music, and sound effects to tell his story of a young boy and his loyal pet balloon. The boy walks to school, goes to church, runs from bullies”“all the while a balloon follows him attentively (if a bit mischievously). There’s no need to understand what little dialog Lamorisse gives you. “White Mane” has a bit more dialog, and a new, irritating English-language narration. The story of a wild horse and the people who want to tame him (boy good; men bad) is cloying and sentimental”“something “The Red Balloon” avoids through magic and wit. The horse movie has some strikingly beautiful images, but they’re not enough to make up for a story that feels thin and stretched even at 40 minutes. Click here for a more detailed write-up.

Music at the Elmwood. Two famous concert movies in HD and 5.1 digital sound. On Monday: Bob Marley Live at the Rainbow. Tuesday: Led Zeppelin The Song Remains the Same. I haven’t seen the Marley film, which isn’t too surprising since this is a North American premiere. I saw The Song Remains the Same in 35mm and 4-track magnetic sound at the U.C. Theater of blessed memory way back in 1983. I’m sure of the year because I went with my then wife, who was pregnant. It was the first time she felt the baby kick.

The Kid and The Pilgrim, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 4:45. Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid, isn’t among his best”“there are times when you can feel him stretching to fill six reels, and others where the sentimentality overwhelms. But it has some of his best routines, most built around his very young co-star, Jackie Coogan. This may be the only time Chaplin allowed someone else to steal one of his films, and it was the right decision. The future Uncle Fester imitates Chaplin perfectly as an abandoned child raised by the little tramp. The Pilgrim, which is either Chaplin’s last short or his second feature, depending on how you want to define a four-reel movie, improves considerably on The Kid. Chaplin creates one of his best roles as an escaped convict posing as a clergyman in a story that mixes comedy and social commentary while keeping the sentimentality at a minimum. Part of the PFA’s Charles Chaplin series. Unfortunately, these silent films will not have live accompaniment.

The Circus, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. Made in between Chaplin’s two feature masterpieces (The Gold Rush and City Lights), The Circus can’t help but suffer by comparison. But it’s funny and touching enough to be liked–if not loved–on its own merits. This time around, the Little Tramp finds himself hired as a stagehand by a small circus, and accidentally becoming a comic star without knowing it. He also falls in love with the circus owner’s beautiful daughter, who sees him only as a good friend. The story feels like a denial of Chaplin’s personal life at the time; he was a womanizer with a young wife he wanted to shed, and an artist who knew very well that great comedy doesn’t just happen. In the case of The Circus, he merely made good comedy. As combined part of the PFA’s Movie Matinees for All Ages and Charles Chaplin series, The Circus will be shown with Chaplin’s recorded own score (including a dreadful song he sings himself) rather than live accompaniment. For more details, read about The Altered Charlie Chaplin Problem.

Ratatouille, Cerrito, Saturday, 2:00, Sunday, 1:00. Brad Bird keeps proving himself the most original, talented, and interesting animator since Chuck Jones. While there’s nothing really original about building a cartoon around sympathetic, anthropomorphic rodents (just ask Walt Disney), Bird does something totally different. He gives us the unpleasant, relatively realistic image of rats in the kitchen”“he even lets our skin crawl at the spectacle”“but he still gets us rooting for the rat. And for the hapless, human chef-in-training who intentionally sneaks a rat into a gourmet restaurant. The animation is, as you’d expect from Pixar, technically perfect, but you don’t really notice it except as an afterthought. You’re too caught up in the story to notice how it was made.

Sunnyside, A Day’s Pleasure, and Pay Day, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 4:00. I don’t think you can put together a worse selection of late Charlie Chaplin shorts. “Sunnyside” is pretty good–not a masterpiece, but a pleasant enough comedy. But “A Day’s Pleasure,” and “Pay Day” may be the worst movies Chaplin made after gaining full control of his work. I don’t think there are three good laughs in their combined four reels. As part of their Charles Chaplin series, the PFA will present these shorts with Chaplin’s own score on the recorded soundtrack.

Donnie Darko, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. How many alienated-teenager-in-suburbia-time-travel-science-fantasy comedies can you name? Okay, there’s Back to the Future and its sequels, but add the adjectives horrific and surreal to that description, and Donnie Darko stands alone. And how many alienated movie teenagers have to deal with a slick self-help guru and a six-foot rabbit named Frank (think Harvey, only vicious). It’s not entirely clear what’s going on in this strange movie, but that just adds to the fun.

Enchanted

B Family-friendly fantasy comedy

  • Written by Bill Kelly
  • Directed by Kevin Lima

Howard Hawks’ famous criteria for a great film–three good scenes and no bad ones–almost applies to this family fantasy. It has more than three great scenes. But it also has a few that border on the edge of just plain bad, and some horrendously cast lead roles.

Call Enchanted a good movie, but not a great one.

Like the Shrek franchise, it’s a riff on traditional fairy tales, especially in their Disneyesqe form. It even starts with a book opening. From there it takes us to that familiar world of beautiful blonde princesses, handsome princes, cute animal friends, and old-fashioned hand-drawn animation. These opening scenes walk a very fine line, managing to be just over the top enough to let is know that they’re parody. But when the wicked stepmother tosses sweet, innocent Giselle down a well to keep her from marrying Price Edward, she emerges from a manhole cover in a live-action Time Square. She’s live action now, too, played by Amy Adams.

Adams nails the part perfectly. Naïve, upbeat, and optimistic to the point of insanity, she smiles at everyone, can’t understand concepts like divorce, and sings at the drop of a hat. The movie is never better than when she sings, especially the song where she cleans up a messy apartment with the help of her little wild animal friends. Only this time, they’re the sort of wild animals that New Yorkers try to exterminate.

She also meets, and eventually falls in love with, a single dad and divorce lawyer played by Patrick Dempsey. (I’m not giving anything away. If you’ve seen three Hollywood movies in your life, you know where their friendship is going.) But this is where the movie fails. This lawyer is a dull guy as written, and Dempsey’s lack of charisma doesn’t help. There’s no reason beyond plot necessity for her to fall in love with him.

His daughter and girlfriend are also dull. I suppose the filmmakers wanted dull New Yorkers to contrast with the wild fantasy characters, but it doesn’t really work. The guy could have been disillusioned with life (as the screenplay makes clear), and still have been fun to be around.

Luckily, there are more fantasy characters coming through that manhole, such as the handsome, chivalrous, but stupid-as-a-doorpost Prince Edward (I knew the romantic story had problems when I found myself rooting for the dumb guy over the dull one), and the wicked stepmother herself. These parts are perfectly played by James Marsden and Susan Sarandon, who clearly relishes playing a two-dimensional villain.

Near the end, the movie forgets it’s a comedy. That’s unfortunate, as the story doesn’t earn the right to be taken seriously. But before it gets bogged down, it’s enchanting.

The Red Balloon & White Mane

B A pair of family-friendly short subjects

  • Written and directed by Albert Lamorisse

It’s not easy marketing and distributing shorts in an industry geared to features. That’s probably why Janus Films put two short children’s films by Albert Lamorisse together into one package. Combined, “The Red Balloon” and “White Mane” run 73 minutes–just about the minimum for a feature.

“The Red Balloon” is a masterpiece. “White Mane,” at least with the new English translation, is nothing of the sort.

Like many an American baby boomer, “The Red Balloon” was my introduction to a cinema beyond Hollywood. I think I first saw it in a museum screening at a very young age, and it redballoon stunned me with its wit, charm, simple story, and semi-sad ending–I hadn’t realized such a thing was possible. I saw it again two or three times after that. But until Landmark Theaters sent me a review screener last week, I had not seen it since I was old enough to read subtitles.

I don’t recall the film having subtitles when I was a kid, although it does now. They’re not necessary. Lamorisse uses visuals, music, and sound effects to tell his story of a young boy and his loyal pet balloon. The boy walks to school, goes to church, runs from bullies–all the while a balloon follows him attentively (if a bit mischievously). Of course, his unusual companion is part of the problem. There’s no need to understand what little dialog Lamorisse gives you.

There’s a bit more dialog in “White Mane,” and no subtitles. Instead, Janus has added a new English-language narration, “faithful to the original French voiceover and dialogue” according to the press release. When a character says something in French, the narrator comes in a second later like a United Nations translator–except that he adds something like “said the wrangler” in case kids don’t understand that the person speaking French is, in fact, the person who is speaking. I’m happy to report that large passages of the movie are narrator-free, but the all-knowing voice seldom adds anything worthwhile when it comes on.

Not that “White Mane” would be “Red Balloon” if the narrator would just shut up. The story of a wild horse and the people who want to tame him (boy good; men bad) is cloying and sentimental–something “The Red Balloon” avoids through magic and wit. The horse movie has some strikingly beautiful images, but they’re not enough to make up for a story that feels thin and stretched even at 40 minutes.

According to the press release, “Both films are narrated in English.” On my screener DVD, only “White Mane suffered such abuse. I hope that the screener was right and the press release wrong.whitemane

Previews of Coming Attactions

Remember Hal Ashby? If you don’t, he was a top director in the –˜70s–one of those people who was Hollywood then but would be indiewood now if he were still alive. The Castro screens six of his movies over three nights in late November. Most are films I haven’t seen in decades but loved when they were new (Harold and Maude, Coming Home, Shampoo, and so on). But it also contains one that I hated off the bat, even though everyone else loved it–Being There. For the full line-up, click here and scroll down to November 27 while you wonder why the Castro’s webmaster doesn’t use more bookmarks.

As December starts, the Elmwood will host a series of weekend kiddy matinees at real kiddy matinee prices. Some good choices in there, especially in the first two weekends. They’re running An American Tale the weekend of December 1 and 2, and the 2003 live action version of Peter Pan on December 8 and 9. If you didn’t catch Peter Pan during its all-to-brief and commercially unsuccessful initial run, by all means do so. No other version of the story–not Disney, not Mary Martin, not even the silent one–come near as close to catching the original book and play’s subversive magic.

Finally, on December 15, the Film on Film Foundation presents The World’s Greatest Sinner at the Roxie. I haven’t heard of it either–these guys find some really obscure stuff and show it (at least in this case) in glorious 35mm. According to the press release, this 1962 cheapie concerns an insurance salesman (writer/director Timothy Carey) who becomes an “an atheistic rock ‘n’ roll evangelist,– thanks to a little help from Satan. Shows at 7:00 and 9:15.

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