What’s Screening: December 30–January 5

West Side Story, Douglas Fairbanks’ last silent, and The Wizard of Oz.

No festivals this week. And the Pacific Film Archive and Stanford are closed, as well.

B Sing-a-Long West Side Story, Castro, Friday through Monday. I’m commenting on the movie, not the sing-a-long experience. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–West Side Storyespecially 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.

Short Films from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Rafael, starts Friday. I haven’t seen them, but people who went to Sundance did.

C+ The Iron Mask, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Douglas Douglas Fairbanks' last silent, The Iron MaskFairbanks 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 with “Mud and Sand,” a Stan Laurel comedy short from before he was teamed with Oliver Hardy. Accompanied by Bruce Loeb on piano.

B+ The Tree of Life, Lumiere, opens Friday for return engagement. Terrence Malick made a career of taking risks (if someone who has made only five films in 40 years can be said to have a career). But sometimes, when you go out on a limb, the branch breaks. His latest film works beautifully when it concentrates on a loving but troubled family in the 1950s—a story with no plot and many conflicts. The contemporary scenes with Sean Penn as one of the young sons, now a middle-aged man, don’t play as well. Few are as convincing as Penn at looking miserable, but Malick provides us with so little about his current life that we’re not sure what he’s miserable about. And then there are the scenes that are just plain weird. But it’s a Malick film, so at least it’s always beautiful to look at.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. 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.

Two Films Playing at German Gems Festival in January

I’ve previewed two films that will be screened at the upcoming German Gems festival. Here’s what I thought of them.

Both films will screen at the Castro on Saturday, January 14

B+ Above Us Only Sky (Über uns das All), 4:30. Writer/director Jan Schomburg gives us a sad yet sexy story about the secrets that separate us from those we love the most. Schomburg spends the first 15 above_us_only_skyminutes showing us that Martha (Sandra Hüller) is very happily married, even though she can’t help feeling that husband is hiding something. Then, without warning, he commits suicide. She begins to hunt for an explanation, which may make you think that this film will turn into a thriller. It doesn’t. The reasons for his mysterious and tragic act take a back seat to the main story–that of a young woman dealing with profound and sudden grief. With frightening swiftness, long before the emotional scars heal, she throws herself headlong into a new relationship with a guy who vaguely reminds her of her late husband. Her new man is nice, intelligent, and sensitive, but he can’t help feeling that she’s hiding something. The ending is a little too upbeat. As near as I could tell, the title is not a reference to John Lennon.

B Westwind, 7:30. Two young women–17-year-old twins–come of age while Communism begins to unravel in this effective but predictable story of forbidden love. East German athletes and extremely close siblings, Doreen and Isabel travel to Hungary to train for international competition. It’s 1988, and Hungary is already considerably looser than East Germany. They meet and flirt with some West German boys, which seems harmless enough even after westwindtheir supervisor warns them about the danger of contact with westerners. But when Doreen falls head over heels in love with one of the boys (it’s mutual), both their future as athletes and the twins’ close relationship is threatened. Screenwriters Ilja Haller and Susann Schimk, and director Robert Thalheim, paint an image of a Communism that feels warm and friendly at first glance, and repressive when you look closely. For instance, the athletic camp they’re staying in looks positively idyllic, but it’s surrounded by a barbed-wire fence (which allows for some Pyramus and Thisbe imagery).

The New Pacific Film Archive Calendar

The Pacific Film Archive is still on its winter hiatus, and will remain so until January 12. But the January/February schedule is out, so we have some idea of what’s ahead.

This is an auteur heavy schedule, with four series devoted to particular filmmakers (two American, two French): Henri-Georges Clouzot, Howard Hawks, Robert Bresson, and Gregory J. Markopoulos. Hawks is the best-known of them–at least to American filmgoers–and has the biggest retrospective. Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man will run through this schedule and well into the next one, going from January 13 through April 17. Sticking to films appearing on this schedule, we’ll get a chance to see all his major works and several minor ones through His Girl Friday (1940). Several mostly-forgotten silent are included, all with Judith Rosenberg on the piano.

I know Clouzot, sometimes called “The French Hitchcock,” primarily from one film, The Wages of Fear (screening January 21). I’m looking forward to getting to know his other works; especially the highly-regarded Diabolique.

The annual African Film Festival presents seven features from late January through early February. Oddly, the opening film is reasonably well-known and not from Africa; it’s the American-made, shot-in-San Francisco Medicine for Melancholy.

Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air looks like fun. Co-presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, this brief, four-day series will present three science fiction features and an afternoon of shorts about air and space travel from the first three decades of the last century. Everything will have live music, of course.

RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 from Outer Space

Three MST3K veterans add comic commentary to Plan Nine from Outer Space, allegedly the worst film of all time. I laughed so hard I was gasping for breath.

When I started reviewing Blu-ray discs on this blog, my policy would be to stick with classics. I’m not sure if this review is a derivation from that policy.

More than 30 years have passed since the Medved brothers named Ed Wood’s Plan Nine the Worst Film of All Time in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. The description has stuck, even if it’s highly questionable. I’m not the first to point out that if a movie finds an audience that loves and enjoys watching it, it’s at least on some level a good movie–even if its charms are not the ones that the filmmakers intended.

Let me put it another way: In just about every way except technical competence, Plan 9 from Outer Space is far superior to I Melt With You.

But Plan 9 just may be the most entertainingly bad movie ever made. The clumsy dialog and wooden acting are a wonder to behold. Who could plan9aforget the wife, assuring her husband that she’ll be alright despite the odd goings-on, by pronouncing “The saucers are up there. The graveyard is out there. But I’ll be locked up safely in there.” Or the brilliant police deduction: “But one thing’s sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible.” Yet my favorite is the obviously gay alien (who isn’t the most obviously gay alien) admonishing the human race with a cry of ” You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”

But the acting and dialog are brilliant drama compared to the sets and the continuity. An airplane cockpit has nothing on the back wall except a circular slide rule, a clipboard, and a doorway closed only with a shower curtain. Exterior location scenes shot in daylight intercut with a soundstage graveyard set lit for night. One character is played by Bela Lugosi in some shots, and by a local chiropractor in others.

But I’m not reviewing a conventional Blu-ray of the movie. I’m reviewing a RiffTrax concert video.

Three Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans– Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett–make up the RiffTrax comedy team. Following that long-running TV series’ shtick, they provide assorted comic commentary to bad movies (and good ones). This particular concert was performed in Nashville, and was broadcast live to movie theaters across the country.

The program gets off to a slow start. We get RiffTrax joking through an allegedly educational short about stewardesses. That’s moderately funny–praise that I can’t give to the two commercial parodies also presented. Nelson comes on stage to give away free stuff–not all that interesting after the fact. Musical guest Jonathan Coulton is mildly amusing with a song about a space invasion and a sing-along about zombies. There are clearly some fans of his in the live audience.

Finally, 36 minutes after the show begins, we get to the main event. You might just want to skip to the movie–it’s chapter 9 on the disc.

That’s when this show comes alive. Plan 9 is funny enough on its own. With Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett riffing on it, it’s about ten times funnier.

Their jokes are virtually all throwaways, so completely dependent on context that it’s pointless to repeat them. A bit player’s haircut will inspire the comment “the reverend Lyle Lovett,” and–silly as it sounds–you can’t help laughing. Before you’ve recovered your breath, another comment gets you laughing again.

They riff on most of the movie’s weaknesses, but they did miss a few. The shower curtain separating the plane’s cockpit from the main cabin goes by without mention. And why didn’t anyone notice that neither the earthlings nor the aliens understand the difference between the Universe and the Solar System?

How It Looks

There’s nothing really exceptional here. In fact, I can’t think of a reason not to save a few dollars and buy the DVD.

The non-movie sequences–introductions, songs, and audience reactions–were shot in HD and look very good. But there’s nothing here that requires high definition.

The movies, both the short and Plan 9, are pillarboxed to 4×3, with black bars on the side of the screen. That’s as it should be, but the movies appear to be transferred from standard definition sources; I suspect they look identical on the DVD. Every so often the presentation goes split screen, so you can see the movie as well as close-ups of the three commentators. This didn’t add anything to the experience.

The disc uses the colorized plan9bversion of Plan 9. It seems ridiculous to object to colorization in this context, but I’m going to, anyway. If a movie’s main claim to fame is cheesiness, additions can’t possibly help. I found myself occasionally wondering if it looked cheesy because Ed Wood was incompetent, or because the colorizers intentionally made it that way. The later, to me, feels like cheating. The colorizers added one intentional joke, which isn’t funny. RiffTrax added a comment to it, which didn’t improve it.

How It Sounds

RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 From Outer Space comes with only a single Dolby Digital soundtrack. It really doesn’t need anything better.

And the Extras

The extras are thin, with a total running time of about seven minutes.plan9_box

The best extra is a three-minute slide show on the event’s production. Each photo is captioned, and they give you some idea of what’s involved with putting on a live show in one movie theater that will be beamed to many others.

The other extras are slightly longer versions of the two fake commercials. They’re not worth watching.

RiffTrax didn’t include the most important and obvious extra: A straight, non-commentary version of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I’m not sure why. Perhaps there were licensing issues.

This is not a great Blu-ray release in the conventional sense. But then, Plan 9 isn’t a conventionally great motion picture. But in this case, bad really does mean good.

What’s Screening: December 23 – 29

It’s a wonderful life for a reincarnated artist who will melt with you while singin’ in the rain. All playing this week in San Francisco Bay Area Theaters.

Still no December festivals, but you can read about the January ones. On the other hand, the Castro will screen four musical double bills, which between them include three of my all-time favorites.

B+ My Reincarnation, Rafael, opens Friday. Sometimes, the fruit does fall far from the tree. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu My Reincarnation: Generational conflict among Tibetan Buddhiststravels the world, teaching others the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism. But his Italian-raised son, Yeshi Silvano Namkhai, rebelled life. This is a story as old as The Jazz Singer—or older. Jennifer Fox’s observant documentary follows both men over a 20-year period, as Yeshi comes to embrace his heritage and his father’s desires. This is a story of diaspora, generational clashes, and returning to one’s roots. More than that, it’s a story of two individuals who love each other but can’t see eye to eye. Read my full review.

D I Melt With You, Lumiere, opens Friday. The plot sounds like an updated, male-oriented version of The Big Chill or TheThe four buddies of Return of the Secaucus Seven: Four 44-year-old college buddies rent a house by the beach so they can party and remember the good old days. But this was meant to be a much darker picture than those 30-year-old classics, and presumably more profound. But it gives us little reason to care about these guys, and provides no insight into them. It doesn’t even succeed in making us believe that anyone would act like these improbable characters. Read my full review.

A The Gold Rush, Rafael, opens Friday. One of the most beloved comedies of the silent era is finally becoming readily available in its original form. In this epic comic adventure, Chaplin’s tramp travels Chaplin_GoldRush[1]through the frozen Yukon of the Alaskan gold rush, gets marooned in a cabin with two much larger men, nearly starves to death, nearly becomes dinner, and falls in love with a dancehall girl who scarcely knows he’s alive. Within this story you’ll find some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe and the dance of the rolls. But my favorite is the scene where his cabin mates wrestle over possession of a rifle that always manages to point to Chaplin. Long available only in a truncated and narrated version created by Chaplin in 1941, we can now view a new restoration of the 1925 original. The music, alas, will not be live. For more on The Gold Rush, see The Altered Charlie Chaplin Problem and The Gold Rush and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, Balboa, Friday and Saturday; Stanford, Saturday; Film Society/New People Cinema, Sunday. There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. wonderfullifeGeorge Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own happiness. 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. The Balboa will screen a Blu-ray disc, which based on my experience, should be just fine on their screen. The Stanford screening is sold out.

A+ Gene Kelly Double Bill: Singin’ In the Rain & On the Town, Castro, Wednesday. The A+ goes to Singin’ in the Rain. There’s nothing meaningful, insightful, or didactic about the greatest of all Hollywood musicals, which happens to be about the birth of Hollywood musicals. But I’d be hard pressed to find another movie that’s more fun. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. The second feature, On the Town, earns a full A in its own right. Three sailors, in New York for a 24-hour leave, look for girls and find true love. What makes this special–aside from great songs, terrific choreography, and a witty script–is the prevailing sense of friendship and camaraderie. Also, for a 1949 Hollywood feature, it takes a surprisingly positive view of sex.

A The Artist, Kabuki, California, opens Friday. Michel Hazanavicius just made a silent movie about the death of silent movies. Even more amazing than that, he pulls it off, creating a warm, funny, heartfelt, and occasionally sad story of a Hollywood star’s fall from grace as talkies ruin his career. Meanwhile, a struggling actress who loves him becomes a star in the new medium of talkies. Hazanavicius fills the picture with funny bits that illuminate the characters; for instance, the star’s unhappy wife spends her time drawing bad teeth and devil horns on photos of her husband. A black-and-white, narrow-screen, silent film is a hard sell in today’s market, and I don’t know if The Artist will find its audience. Catch it before it disappears. Or at least read my full review.

Georges Méliès and Other Movie Magic: A Festive Grab Bag, Oddball Films, Friday, 8:00. With Hugo in theaters, someone had to put together this program. The evening will include three Méliès shorts (not including his most famous, “A Trip to the Moon”) plus assorted other selections. These include a Fritz Freleng cartoon and outtakes from The Monkees. Seating is limited; RSVP at 415-558-8117 or programming@oddballfilm.com.

A The Band Wagon, Castro, Monday. Singin’ in the Rain’s producer and writers teamed up with director Vincente Minnelli to make the one great Fred Astaire vehicle without Ginger Rogers. Their trick? They blended a small dose of reality into the otherwise frivolous mix. For instance, Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to the Broadway stage he abandoned years before, is clearly based on Astaire himself. The result is a sly satire of Broadway’s intellectual aspirations, lightened up with exceptional songs and dances including “That’s Entertainment” and “I Love Louisa.” On a double bill with Meet Me In St. Louis, which I haven’t seen in a very long time and never really liked all that much.

B+ The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Castro, Thursday. When we think French New Wave, we imagine gritty, black-and-white stories filled with angst and alienation. Yet Jacques Demy, shooting a completely believable story in real locations, created a lush, colorful and sublimely romantic musical. A movie like few others, with an astonishingly young and beautiful Catherine Deneuve (as opposed to the astonishingly well-aged and beautiful Catherine Deneuve of today). On a double bill with A Woman Is a Woman, which I haven’t seen.

Review: My Reincarnation

A Tibetan Buddhist master and his westernized son clash over the young man’s place in the old man’s cultural and religious world. It’s a story as old, or older, than The Jazz Singer. But in My Reincarnation, a documentary by Jennifer Fox, it’s made new again.

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jennifer Fox

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu travels the world, teaching others the Tibetan Buddhism that has been his life’s work. Recognized when just an infant as the reincarnation of an important yogi, Chögyal started training early in life. As a young man, he escaped Chinese-controlled Tibet and settled in Italy, where he married a once-Catholic local, had two children, and settled down. (He’s a master, not a monk. As such, he was never expected to be celibate.)

His son, Yeshi Silvano Namkhai, was also recognized as the reincarnation of an important master–in fact, of Chögyal’s favorite uncle, who had died in a ChineseMy Reincarnation: Generational conflict among Tibetan Buddhists prison. As such, Yeshi also seemed fated to a life as a spiritual master.

But sometimes, the fruit does fall far from the tree. More Italian than Tibetan culturally, Yeshi set out to make a different life for himself. He built a career in technology, working for IBM. Yet, in some ways, his life was surprisingly like his father’s; he travelled a lot for his job, and didn’t see as much of his wife and children as he would have liked.

Slowly, over a period of many years, Yeshi came to embrace his heritage, his past life, and his father’s desires. He gives up his secular career to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Filmmaker Jennifer Fox started interviewing and videotaping father and son way back in 1988. Every few years, she’s returned to the Namkhais to check in on them and record how they were doing.

Fox is a classic cinema vérité documentarian. She points the camera at whoever looks interesting and records the events. Her camera gets close and intimate, allowing us to study the faces of people who have learned to ignore it. She also encourages her subjects to talk about their lives. Yeshi’s commentaries become a present-tense narration for the film, and we see most of the events through his eyes.

This is, of course, a story of Buddhist wisdom, but it’s more universal than that. It’s a story of diaspora, generational clashes, and returning to one’s roots. More than that, it’s a story of two individuals who love each other but can’t see eye to eye.

New Film Review: I Melt With You

All middle-aged men are irresponsible jerks who romanticize their youth to the point of psychosis. At least that seems to be the theme of I Melt With You, a new film that is not The Big Chill of the punk rock generation.

D Buddy drama

· Written by Glenn Porter

· Directed by Mark Pellington

The plot sounds like an updated, male-oriented version of The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus Seven, about people born in the 1960s rather than having come of age then. Four college buddies, all of them 44, rent a house by the beach so they can party together, take lots of drugs, and have a good time. Life has taken its toll, and they miss the carefree guys that they once were and thought they’d always be.

But I Melt With You is very different from those films of 30 years ago, and not just because the main characters are all men and of a different generation. This is a much darker picture, one that goes into a very different place. But also, unlike those two, I Melt fails almost completely. The picture gives us no reason to care about these four guys and the generation they may or may not represent. Worse, it gives us no insight into them, and doesn’t even succeed in making us believe that they could actually exist.

Richard (Thomas Jane) is the ringleader–if not the leader of the four than certainly theThe four buddies of "I Melt With You" first among equals. He’s single, always has been single. I believe the others follow his lead because he’s an even bigger jerk than they are. Rob Lowe plays Jonathan, the divorced dad and crooked doctor; occasional moments of sensitivity make him a bit less of a jerk. Ron (Jeremy Piven) is married, has children, and takes his responsibilities seriously, but he can still act like a jerk. Tim (Christian McKay) is the nice, sensitive guy with a tragic past. He’s not a jerk. But then, he’s gay (or bi, I’m not sure), which in the world of dramatic film clichés, explains why he’s sensitive and not a jerk.

The guys start altering their consciousness as soon as they get together. They snort coke, smoke pot, drink alcohol, and take assorted pills courtesy of the good doctor. They run naked in the surf, go fishing, drive a red sports car way too fast while coked up, and invite some much younger adults over for a drug-laced party. (One of these young people is played by Sasha Grey, and yes, one of them sort of has sex with her.)

But it’s not all fun and games. Every so often, they get serious and talk about all the ways in which their lives have gone wrong. In doing so, they never say anything I haven’t heard in a 100 better films, or anything that makes them truly unique individuals. Then they go back to being decadent, which never really looks like much fun.

I can’t discuss this film anymore without some mild spoilers. You have been warned.

Almost exactly halfway through the picture, tragedy strikes. I won’t say what happens. I will say that it caught me by surprise, and that it shouldn’t have. From there, I Melt With You takes a really weird turn that might have been shocking if it was believable. The place it goes to is very, very dark. But darkness doesn’t always promise depth. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers thought they were making something profound; they were self-deceived.

And then the whole thing ends with a car chase.

January Film Festivals in the Bay Area

At least two film festivals will play the Bay Area in January, both at the Castro Theater.

First off is the modest German Gems, which will take over the Castro for one day–Saturday, January 14–to screen five German features. The films include a documentary on nuclear power, a missing-person psychological thriller, and a drama about Freud. After playing the Castro, German Gens will move up the coast to Point Arena, to reprise three of those pictures on Sunday, the 15th.

Less than a week later, the tenth annual edition of Noir City opens its 10-day run. Perhaps because of that nice, round number, this year’s festival lacks a coherent theme like last year’s "Crazy" or 2010′s “Newspaper Noir.” Instead, they’re promising us "a 10-day extravaganza featuring San Francisco treats, a Dashiell Hammett marathon, freshly preserved 35mm rarities, by-popular-demand encore screenings, surprises galore, and super special guest star ANGIE DICKINSON!" It also contains a surprisingly large number of well-known movies, including Dark Passage, Point Blank, Laura, Unfaithfully Yours (yes, the Preston Sturges comedy), and two versions of The Maltese Falcon.

Blu-ray Review: Seven Chances

Since I first discovered Buster Keaton almost 40 years ago, I’ve considered Seven Chances one of his best features. That was an unusual opinion in the 1970s, when even Keaton fans barely knew this picture existed. But its status has been rising in recent years, and I’m hoping that Kino’s new Blu-ray release will help it rise further.

Seven Chances’ poor reputation stems from Keaton himself, who had personal reasons to dislike the picture. His producer, Joseph M. Schenck, bought the rights to a 1916 Broadway farce and ordered Keaton to turn it into a movie (the only time in their eight-year relationship when he did this). Keaton disliked the story, and this probably colored his view of his adaptation.

Despite his objections to the story (or perhaps because of them), Keaton and his writing team brilliantly turned the static, talkie stage farce into 56 minutes of stunningly hilarious comedy. See it with a large audience, and you will have few opportunities to not laugh.

On its own, the plot is pretty bad. Keaton plays a girl-shy stockbroker who’s facing sevenchances2bankruptcy and possibly prison if he can’t raise a great deal of money very quickly. The problem seems solved when his grandfather dies, leaving him $7 million dollars (in 1925 money). But in order to collect, he must be married by 7:00 pm…that day. Keaton’s objections to the plot were somewhat vindicated in 1999, when a remake titled The Bachelor bombed critically and commercially.

Comedy is built on timing, and few films are as expertly paced as Seven Chances. The prologue, filmed in Technicolor (more on that below), is stately and slow, with a mock-poetical tone that allows the audience reaction to build from mild chuckles to belly laughs. It also tells you something important about Buster’s character.

Then the main story begins. Comic set pieces follow briskly one after another as Keaton sets up the story and his character searches for a bride. How many ways can a shy, awkward man propose marriage to a woman he barely knows (if he knows her at all)? Keaton finds endless variations on this theme. He successfully proposes to the one woman he truly loves, then blows it. He gets rejected twice in a matter of seconds without breaking his pace. He totals his car. He has a scene with a hat-check girl that I won’t even try to describe.

The picture climaxes with what’s easily the greatest comic chase I have ever seen. sevenchances1After spending most of the picture searching for a bride, James finds himself with too many of them. Hundreds of women in bridal gowns chase him through the streets of Los Angeles with intentions of either matrimony or murder. And when he finally gets away from the angry brides, he accidentally starts an avalanche.

Warning: Some of the jokes in Seven Chances deal in racial stereotypes–they were common and acceptable in the 1920s. But a few cringe-inducing scenes are worth it for the many laughs.

Seven Chances is a masterpiece of comic construction and comic timing. Keaton hated the movie, but he should have been proud.

How It Looks

This release premieres a new restoration of Seven Chances’ Technicolor credits and prologue. Until the introduction of dye-transfer printing in 1928, Technicolor prints sevenchancescolorwere highly unstable, and the ones that have survived have little or no color. (Technicolor negatives from this period don’t have this problem, but Seven Chances’ negatives are not known to survive.)

I saw this picture seven or eight times before I even knew that the prologue was shot, and meant to be seen, in color.

Using the very poor sources available, film historian Eric Grayson has restored the colors to something approximating their original look. The colors often look washed out and smudged, but given what Grayson had to work with, this is an impressive achievement–and the best this prologue has looked since 1925.

Most of the movie, in black and white, looks excellent. The images are crisp and clear, with strong blacks and many layers of gray. A few scenes look washed out, presumably because they came from an inferior print source.

How It Sounds

Robert Israel’s jaunty, jazz-age score sets an excellent tone for the comedy, placing it within its time and complimenting Keaton’s pacing. Israel uses stylized sound effects sparingly, and is wise enough not to tell us when to laugh. The score sounds as if it was recorded by a small ensemble plus an organ.

Kino included two mixes of this score: a 2-track, uncompressed Linear PCM version, and a 5.1 mix losslessly compressed in DTS-HD Master Audio. I suspect that Kino created the 5.1 mix by fiddling electronically with the original 2-track one. To my ears, the 2-track mix has a cleaner sound, although the 5.1 one has better bass.

And the Extras

This is the first version of Seven Chances I’ve seen with any extras that really pertain to the movie.

Commentary by film historians Ken Gordon and Bruce Lawton: They cover some interesting ground, discussing how Keaton altered the original stage play, and describing other versions of the story done before and after this one. They also talk sevenchancesboxabout the supporting cast, including the great Snitz Edwards in what is probably his best performance. But they also waste a lot of time describing what we can see on the screen.

A Brideless Groom: This 1947 Three Stooges two-reeler recycles Seven Chance‘s plot. Coincidence? Unlikely. Screenwriter Clyde Bruckman worked on both films. Made during the post-Curley Shemp years, it’s only moderately amusing.

How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns: The title is almost longer than the movie. This 1904 Edison one-reeler, a possible inspiration for Seven Chances‘ climax, consists mostly of women in bridal outfits chasing a man.

Visual essay on the film’s location: John Bengtson, the acknowledged expert on where the silent comedians shot their films, shows us many of Seven Chance’s locations. Bengtson’s essays are always worth watching.

Technicolor restoration: Eric Grayson discusses the condition of the color prologue and how he restored it. Not as interesting or as informative as it should have been.

In Seven Chances, Buster Keaton created one of cinema’s great laugh machines. If you don’t have an opportunity to see it in a real theater with live accompaniment, get the Blu-ray (or the DVD), invite some friends over, warn them about the racism, and enjoy the laughs.

Could RiffTrax Save the Missing Criterion Commentaries?

Last spring I lamented the many Criterion commentary tracks that are no longer available. Back in the days of Laserdiscs, Hollywood studios often licensed Criterion to release special editions of their films. When DVDs destroyed the Laserdisc market, the studios decided to release those titles themselves rather than through Criterion. The films remain available, but the commentaries went out of print. For more details, see The Lost Criterion Commentaries.

But I think I may have found a solution to the problem–and it’s from a company whose mission is about as far from Criterion’s as it can get.

RiffTrax sells downloadable, comic commentary to movies both good and bad. Run by three veterans of Mystery Science 3000, it sells downloadable .mp3 files where Mike Nelson and his collaborators crack wise to everything from Casablanca to Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

RiffTrax doesn’t just sell.mp3s. They also market DVDs and Blu-ray discs of movies with their commentaries, and do live performances (you can read my report on one of them). Nor are they the only group of MST3K veterans to run such a business; Cinematic Titanic provides similar entertainment (and I’ve got a report on them, as well). But for the moment, let’s stick to RiffTrax’ .mp3s.

Almost three years ago, I purchased, downloaded, and tried to enjoy their Raiders of the Lost Ark shenanigans. But I found myself struggling so much to keep the commentary synced with the movie that I gave up after half an hour. I doubt I’m the only one who has had that problem.

The company is now beta-testing a solution–a specialized program for Windows and the Mac called RiffPlayer. As you might guess, it plays the DVD and the .mp3 in sync. I tried it out, and found that while it was a bit rough around the edges (it is beta, after all), it worked. Every gag was on cue, even when skipping chapters.

But I see no reason why this technology should be limited to RiffTrax–even if they did develop it. I asked a company spokesperson whether they might license the technology to others, and was told that the idea was "an interesting one, and we may explore it in the future as a possibility."

So now I’m going to make a couple of pleas, one to Criterion and one to RiffTrax:

Criterion, please contact RiffTrax and try to license their technology. With it, you can sell .mp3s of your commentaries to such films as It’s a Wonderful Life, Jason and the Argonauts, and Bad Day at Black Rocks.

And RiffTrax, if Criterion contacts you, please be receptive. Offer them a reasonable price.

This is a win-win-win situation. Both companies get an extra, easy income stream. And cinephiles get access to important but currently-unavailable pieces of film history.

I readily admit that I don’t know all of the issues involved. There may be a hundred unsolvable problems that could keep this from happening. But it seems worth considering.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 62 other followers