Dark Times for San Francisco (and that’s good news)

It’s a dark and dirty world out there, filled with people who’d just as soon kill you as look at you…if there was a profit in it. You certainly can’t trust a beautiful dame. Oh, she’ll play with you until your mind turns to mush, take you for everything you got, then throw you over her shoulder and let you take the rap for that murder down the road.

The good news: Noir City returns to the Castro January 22–31. This year’s theme: Lust and Larceny—a pretty good summary of most noir plot devices.

Programmed this year by Anita Monga, the festival mixes some well-known classics in the rare treats that have always been its main attractions. This year these include The postman always rings twice, The Asphalt Jungle, and A Place In the Sun. Also on the schedule are Walk a Crooked Mile, Odds Against Tomorrow, and the newly-restored Cry Danger. Grover Crisp, Sony’s vice president of asset management and film restoration, will be on hand as part of a Bad Girls of Film Noir night (although I don’t think he counts as a bad girl).

Here’s a little fact about Noir City I didn’t know. All the proceeds go to film preservation. It’s a dark and dirty world out there, but there are some angels, after all.

noir city 10

Movie of the Decade

I’m not doing a Top Ten list this year—I’ve missed too many movies. Nor am I doing a Top Ten of the Decade.

But I’d like to honor one film of the past ten years. Not the best film of the decade by a long shot; I would probably give it an A-. But it was arguably the most influential, raising a silly genre to both big box office and high art.  And appropriately for the film of the decade, it came out in 2000.

The movie: X-Men.

To understand just how important X-Man was, consider the superhero movies that preceded it. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies with of the 70s and 80s played best as intentional camp, never taking themselves seriously. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman cast a dark and serious shadow over the material, but in the end, the story and characters lacked the depth to support it. The sequels were soon as camp as Superman.

But from X-Men’s opening sequence at the gates of Auschwitz, director Bryan Singer let us know that this was a story to take seriously. In the very next scene, a teenage girl kisses a boy for the first time, and nearly kills him. Superpowers never looked so much like a curse.

X-Men is at its best when it explores the characters and the society they live in, where random people are born with superpowers that make them hated and feared outcasts. The plot-heavy second half is a bit of a letdown, despite some very well choreographed fights, because what you really want by that point is more time with the characters.

But X-Men wouldn’t be my film of the decade if it was just a very well-made, character-and-ideas-driven action fantasy. It spawned a decades-worth (so far) of ambitious superhero movies. Three of them, Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight, just might be masterpieces. Other, very good to excellent titles include Spider-Man, X-men 2, Batman Begins, and Iron Man.

There were disappointments as well, of course, some from directors we expected good work from. X-Men’s own Singer helmed the limp Superman Returns. And after making one very good and one great Spider-Man movie, Sam Raimi proved the third time a curse with the nearly unwatchable Spider-Man 3. But the most disappointing of all was Hulk, because it came from the best director ever to make a superhero movie, Ang Lee.

On the other hand, if Singer hadn’t resurrected the genre and made it something better than anyone thought possible, would Ang Lee even have tried to make a superhero movie?

What’s Screening: December 25 – 31

The Bicycle Thief, Roxie, opens Friday. I haven’t seen Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realismbikethief4[1] masterpiece in at least 20 years, so I’m officially unqualified to recommend it. But I remember something stunning and moving, and probably relevant to our economically uncertain times. The Roxie will screen a new 35mm print.

A- A Christmas Story, California Theater, San Jose, Friday, 7:30. Sweet, sentimental Christmas movies, at least those not authored by Charles Dickens or Frank Capra, generally make me want to throw up. But writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth comes with enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays.

A Steamboat Bill, Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Billsteamboatbill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man the very-macho Bill imagined, but as an urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story,and you really can’t ask for more. And it contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. With Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy shorts. Bruce Loeb accompanies on piano.

A+ The Adventures of Robin Hood, California Theater, San Jose, Saturday and Sunday. Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights. And who else could speak treason so fluently? The great supporting cast includes Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Technicolor, a name that really meant something special in 1938.

B+ Baraka, Red Vic, Wednesday (and continuing next week). Strange, haunting, beautiful, and terrifying, Baraka defies description. Without plot, narration, or clip_image0024_thumb[1] explanation, it simply presents images of nature, humanity, and sprituality. Even if you don’t see a message (there is one), you’re captivated by the music and the clear and perfect visuals. Baraka was one of the last films, and one of the few art films, shot in 65mm. Because the larger film format so much enhances this picture, I grade Baraka A when presented in 70mm, but only B+ in 35mm.

New Pacific Film Archive Schedule

The Pacific Film Archive’s January/February schedule came in yesterday’s mail. As usual, there’s a lot of great stuff.

The PFA may be hoping to actually earn a profit (if I can suggest such a motive) with the series The Kids Are Alright: Post-Fifties Musicals and the Rise of Youth Culture, which does not, in fact, include a screening of The Kids Are Alright, or any other westsidestorydocumentary.  The series argues that American and British movie musicals got edgier and less escapist after 1960 and have remained so ever since. Most of the selections, such as West Side Story, Hair, and Pink Floyd The Wall, make that argument. But The Music Man, wonderful as it is, seems considerably more old-fashioned. Weirdest of all, the series begins with Paint Your Wagon, a commercial flop that, from what I’ve heard, richly deserved its box office trashing.

On the other hand, this is a chance to see a lot of great musicals on the big screen.

What’s a PFA calender without tributes to particular filmmakers.  This time we get a series on Jacques Tati, Frank Capra, and Val Lewton. The Capra series, titled Before “Capraesque,” ends with It Happened One Night, the 1934 hit that gave his name marquee value. The series includes American Madness, which even more than Capra_AmericanMadness1[1] One Night is the Capra style in embryo (it’s also timely again, dealing with a bank disaster), Platinum Blonde, and The Younger Generation, a 1929 part-talkie that appears to rip its plot off from the most famous part-talkie of them all, The Jazz Singer. This series will also give me a chance to finally see The Strong Man—my favorite silent comedy feature without Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd—in the big screen with live accompaniment.

An African Film Festival looks interesting, and contains one movie I’ve seen and can recommend: Sacred Places. Shown this past year at the San Francisco International Film Festival, this documentary examines a cine club in a poor but apparently vibrant neighborhood.

I’ve got a high school senior currently applying to multiple colleges, so the series What’s a Matta U? Considering the College Experience Through Film sounded promising. The good news: It contains the funny and touching Pieces of April, which is about being away from home but otherwise not really about going to college. The bad: That’s the only film in the series. Where are The Freshman, Duck Soup, and Animal House when you need them? 

What’s Screening: December 18 – 24

If you’re a Hitchcock fan and live near the Castro, this is your week. I put my microreviews for the Hitch for the Holidays series at the end of the newsletter.

A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, Stanford, Thursday, 9:00. A here’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, Bailey needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because Bailey, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it.

B+ Baraka, Red Vic, Wednesday (and continuing next week). Strange, haunting, beautiful, andclip_image002[4] terrifying, Baraka defies description. Without plot, narration, or explanation, it simply presents images of nature, humanity, and sprituality. Even if you don’t see a message (there is one), you’re captivated by the music and the clear and perfect visuals. Baraka was one of the last films, and one of the few art films, shot in 65mm. Because the larger film format so much enhances this picture, I grade Baraka A when presented in 70mm, but only B+ in 35mm.

A A Christmas Story, Elmwood, Saturday and Sunday, noon. Sweet, sentimental Christmas movies, at least those not authored by Charles Dickens or Frank Capra, generally make me want to throw up. But writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth comes with enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays.

A The Hurt Locker, Opera Plaza, opens Friday. “War is drug.” Writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow illustrate that point effectively in this suspense drama about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq. Jeremy Renner is brilliant as the expert who must get up close and defuse the bombs. This is a man who loves his job–especially the hurtlockerdanger that goes with it. The other members of the team (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) aren’t as happy with the risks, or with the dangers that their partner’s risk-taking forces on them. Although The Hurt Locker is edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, it’s not really a thriller. The scary scenes are set pieces, not connected with the others as a hero works towards his goal, but pieces of the puzzle of this man’s psych. I suspect that award season has brought the summer’s critical hit back.

A+ The Adventures of Robin Hood, California Theater, San Jose, Saturday and Sunday. Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights. And who else could speak treason so fluently? The great supporting cast includes Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Technicolor, a name that really meant something special in 1938.

A+ Casablanca, Stanford, Friday and Saturday. Whcasablancaat can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. And that, astonishingly enough, is about it.  On a double bill with The Philadelphia Story.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, California Theater, San Jose, Friday. 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.

B The Big Lebowski, Clay, Saturday and Sunday. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also built quite a cult following; The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve been maintaining this site than than any three other movies put together.

Hitch for the Holidays at the Castro

A+ Notorious, Castro, Saturday. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. On a double bill with The Birds.

A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Sunday. Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by police for a murderer. And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side, he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint. Danger has its rewards. On a double bill with The 39 Steps (the movie, not the current stage play).

A Strangers on a Train, Castro, Tuesday. One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. On a double bill with Hitchcock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (the one with James Stewart and Doris Day).

D Vertigo, Castro, Friday. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time. Vertigo isn’t like any other Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty.

Silent Film Festival: J’Accuse

There’s something very exciting about being present at the rediscovery of a classic. I, plus several hundred other people, experienced that excitement Saturday afternoon at the U.S. premiere of the restored J’Accuse, Abel Gance’s 1919 anti-war masterpiece.

This was part of the Silent Film Festival Winter Event. You can also read overview of the event.

J’Accuse premiered in France in the spring of 1919, only a few months after the war it’s about ended. United Artists released it in the U.S. in 1921, but it was a shorter, tamer version. Gance’s original version—or something believed to come close—has recently been restored. Saturday’s screening was the first public presentation of that version in the United States.

Quite simply, this is the best feature film I’ve seen made before 1920. Involving, heroic, epic (it’s set over four years and runs nearly three hours) and yet intimate in its human drama.

And no, the story has nothing to do with Émile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair.

Gance uses a love triangle to examine how the “Great War” effected the people in a provincial French town. The sensitive Jean (Romauld Joub) loves Edith (Maryse Dauvray). She loves him, too, but she’s married to the drunken brute François (Sverin-Mars). François is actually the most complex and interesting of the three. An absolute horror before the war starts, and a hero in the trenches, he eventually comes to respect and love his rival. And while the brute is always below the surface, there’s more to him than that. All three leads give complex, impeccable performances.

J’Accuse is a human story set against the horrors of war, but it’s no pacifist tract.  François becomes a better man for his experiences in the trenches. Gance added a fair amount of French nationalism. There’s no suggestion that the other side is suffering as well. The movie doesn’t discuss, let alone condemn, the leaders that turned Europe into a slaughterhouse for their own benefit.

Of course, Gance shot the film during the war, with the cooperation of the military. He was working with severe limitations.

The Festival screened J’Accuse with an intermission. The famed composer/arranger Robert Israel (well, famous among silent film fans) accompanied it on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, giving it all the sweep and power that the story deserves. Israel adapted his orchestra score, written and recorded for the DVD release, for this special event.

Speaking of the DVD, that may be the only way you’ll ever be able to watch J’Accuse—at least if you weren’t with me in the audience Saturday. I don’t know if a print will be available for other revival theaters.

Silent Film Festival Report

I spent all day yesterday at the Castro, attending the Silent Film Festival Winter Event. Could you think of a better way to spend a rainy day?

(Okay, I can think of a better way to spend a rainy day, but my wife was unavailable for such things.)

The festival got off to a slow start, not opening the doors until about 11:15. But they soon caught up and everything ran on schedule. The breaks between films ran from 45 minutes to two hours, giving you plenty of time to schmooze with other filmgoers, browse the books on sale on the mezzanine, or go out and buy something to eat.

I love the social life around this festival—as I do with most film festivals. It’s easy to break the ice and start a conversation, and occasionally the person you talk to turns out to be a filmmaker or a historian. If I watched four movies at home in the course of one day, I’d probably get depressed. With a festival, thanks in large part to the crowds of like-minded individuals, I feel revitalized.

So, on with the details:

11:30: Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
I’d seen Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s ethnographic drama once or twice at the UC Theater (of blessed memory) in the early 90s. I enjoyed returning to it after all these years. The thin story concerns a native family struggling to survive in the Siam jungle. It doesn’t really examine the Siamese culture in much depth, but it provides plenty of cute animals (everyone seems to have a pet monkey), scary animals (tigers and leopards are a constant threat), and animal slaughter (when you come right down to it,the humans are more of a threat to the tigers and leopards than the other way around). The result is fun and thrilling, although it’s marred by some horrible intertitles, including some that have the animals saying cute and cloying things.

Merian C. Cooper biographer Mark Vaz introduced Chang, providing background on what led Cooper and Schoedsack to Siam (now Thailand), the dangers involved in the shoot, and how Chang influenced their later masterpiece, King Kong. Donald Sosin accompanied the movie on piano and laptop. Yes, you read that right. He used the laptop for sounds outside what the piano could do. I don’t know the details, but I was sitting close enough to see him move his hand from the traditional keyboard to the modern one to create drums, flutes, and bells.

2:00: J’accuse
The major event of the day, in my opinion. This epic deserves its own post, so I’ll fill in the details later. (Added 12/15: The post is here.)

5:15: Dinner Break
No, this wasn’t a movie. It was the biggest break of the day. Festival staff, VIPS, press, and those who bought the right ticket were invited to the mezzanine for food, libations, live music (one person with an accordion), and more schmoozing. The food wasn’t substantial enough to count as dinner, so I went out and bought a sandwich. Good schmoozing, though.

7:00: Sherlock Jr. & The Goat
Buster Keaton still sells tickets. I don’t know if this screening sold out, but I saw no empty seats. “The Goat” is my favorite Keaton short, with some of the best gags of his career, and a story (such as it is) not only verging on paranoia but falling whole-heartedly into it. Sherlock Jr. isn’t among my favorite Keaton features, but it has some great scenes—and not only the special effects miracle  of the movie within the movie. It has positively the funniest billiards sequence in movie history.

Dennis James accompanied on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, with foley artist Todd Manley adding sound effects with a number of objects (including his own nose). James did his usual excellent job, but I’m of two minds about Manley’s contributions. Sometimes they enhanced the movies and made them even funnier. But other times they were distracting and just got in the way.

9:15: West of Zanzibar
Like Kurosawa and Mifune, director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney complimented each other perfectly and made great movies together. I’d seen this particular collaboration once before, a couple of years ago on Turner Classic Movies. But I’d never seen it properly until last night. By properly, I mean a 35mm print (although a pretty beat-up one—actually, I suspect that it’s not so much beat up as made from an older beat up print), on a giant screen, with Dennis James again on the Wurlitzer.

This is one strange and nightmarish movie—a gem for those who love either silent movies or weird cult films. Set mostly in a remote jungle trading post, plays a cripple bent on destroying the man who stole his wife and broke his back (Lionel Barrymore—and it is odd to watch a standing Barrymore talk to someone else in a wheelchair). There are no innocents in West of Zanzibar, but there are human beings caught, often by their own devising, in a wretched and evil life.

on BART on the way home, I got into a discussion with a young man who had his first silent film/live accompaniment with West of Zanzibar that night. I recommended other films to catch and places to see them. It’s good to pass this passion on to new generations.

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