Silent or Green: More on upcoming festivals

A few notes about the two festivals opening next Thursday:

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Pianist, entertainer, film preservationist, and Mel Novikoff Award recipient Serge Bromberg (how many people have that resume) wins this year’s  Francisco Silent Film Festival Award. The Festival will present him with the award on Saturday, May 30, at the screening of Visages d’enfants, a French classic that Bromberg recently restored. Oddly, Bromberg won’t be tickling the keys for that screening.

Bromberg and his company, Lobster Films, have brought many important and obscure films back to life. They’ve restored the hand-painted version of A Trip to the Moon, made Chaplin’s Mutual shorts look new again, and brought us a longer, alternate cut of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (which I have not yet seen).

Bromberg will be around for the entire festival. He’ll host this year’s Amazing Tales from the Archives, accompany the collection of Charley Bowers shorts, and will join Kevin Brownlow for an on-stage discussion before Ben Hur.

A couple of other silent tidbits:

The Blanche Sweet vehicle, The Deadlier Sex, will be preceded with a Fleischer cartoon, Koko’s Queen.

Matti Bye, who with his ensemble will accompany Flesh and the Devil and Norrtullsligan at the festival, recently won a Swedish award for his score for a new film, Faro. Also nominated was his score for The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which is currently playing in local theaters (I haven’t seen it yet). 

Green Film Festival

I managed to preview another film screening at this year’s festival:

A- Landfill Harmonic

Thousands of families live in Cateura, Paraguay, even though it’s not really a town; it’s a garbage dump. And out of that dump comes beautiful music according to this inspiring documentary. Environmental engineer turned music teacher Favio Chávez put together a young people’s orchestra playing home-made instruments built from recycled materials. The group gains Internet fame, accompanies Megadeth in concert (although they usually play classical), performs around the world, and enjoys some relief from grinding poverty. I wish it had gone deeper into how the instruments were made, and the likelihood that music will lift these kids out of poverty. You can’t watch it without rooting for these children, and for the adults shaping their lives.

Landfill Harmonic screens Wednesday, June 3, 6:00, at the Roxie. The movie will be followed by a discussion with the filmmakers (but not, apparently, with a concert).

There is one other film in the festival that I’ve seen. You’ve probably seen it to: WALL-E. It screens at 1:00 on May 30 at the Roxie–so you’ll have to choose between Pixar at Serge Bromberg.

I’m picking Bromberg.

SFIFF Friday: Great trains, bad entertainment

I caught two films at the Kabuki Friday. Here’s what I saw:

D+ Entertainment
Being weird isn’t always enough. A deeply depressed, horrifically inept stand-up comic (Gregg Turkington) travels through small towns in the desert, flopping over and over again. Between lousy material, a complete lack of taste, horrific delivery, and utter contempt for his audience, he’s painful to watch. When he isn’t performing, ihe’s depressed and unable to connect with anyone. There are a couple of good scenes and no real story. For the most part, it’s just extremely unpleasant with nothing to say.

I didn’t stay for the Q&A.

Just in case you’re feeling masochistic, Entertainment will screen again tonight (Saturday) at 9:45, and Monday at 9:30. Both screenings are at the Kabuki. 

A- The Iron Ministry
Life on a Chinese railroad. This narration-free documentary catches life on a long train trip in China. (From where to where? It doesn’t say.) People find comfort in close quarters. They tell funny stories. They drink and flirt. They buy food from a cart. And they talk about religion, ethnicity, and politics. The staff serve dinner in the dining car, object to being filmed, sweep the floor, and in one case agree to talk to the filmmaker (American J.P. Sniadecki). A handful of shots go on too long, but altogether it’s an amazing slice of life in a foreign country, set on one of the most social–and cinematic–forms of transpartition. 

After the film, Sniadecki stepped up for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • This was the sixth film he made in China, a country he fell in love with from books when growing up. “My parents were kind of hippies. I skipped school a lot but I road a lot of trains.”
  • On the idea for this film: “I didn’t choose it. It kind of chose me. I was filming my life and I started to film on the trains. I was hanging out with a friend and she said I should make a film of this. Most of the trains were ones that i had to take anyway.”
  • “When you see the movie, a world opens up. When I see it, I see three years of my life cut down to 83 minutes.”

The Iron Ministry screens again today (Saturday) at the Pacific Film Archive, and May 4, 4:00 at the Kabuki.

Revisiting The Flame and the Arrow

Burt Lancaster, at his most acrobatic, takes on an Errol Flynn role and pulls it off with panache in The Flame and the Arrow, a Robin Hood-like story set in medieval Italy. Like all the best swashbucklers, it’s witty, exciting, beautiful to look at, only slightly suspenseful, totally ridiculous, and a whole lot of fun.

I’m a sucker for swashbucklers, even though I understand why they get so little respect. Unlike other period action genres, such as westerns and samurai films, swashbucklers never grew up. No one ever made a sword and tights movie with the complexity of Red River or Seven Samurai. But the genre’s fun comes from its light touch, the simplicity of obvious good and evil, fights that look more like dance than violence, and witty repartee. In some of the best swashbucklers, not a single good guy dies.

Lancaster became a star, and a top producer, in film noir–a genre about as far from swashbucklers as you can get. Yet his good looks, 500-watt smile, and pre-acting career as an acrobat made him a natural for buckling his swash. Outside of the work of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, few movies show off their star’s athleticism like The Flame and the Arrow. Lancaster climbs poles, jumps down from a tree with a graceful backflip, swings down a drapery, climbs a rope without using his feet, and does every trick of the parallel bar.

And it’s not only Lancaster. Nick Cravat was Lancaster’s acrobatic partner in their youth, and became the star’s personal trainer. Here he plays the sidekick, and the two of them do great physical feats together. In one extended sequence, they find one amazing thing to do after another with a very long pole. One holds it while the other climbs, they walk on it like a tightrope, trip bad guys, and knock out some palace guards.

Cravat wasn’t really an actor, which is probably why his character is mute. But in this over-the-top tale, he’s an enjoyable presence even when both feet are on the ground. His upbeat personality, over-the-top facial expressions, and contempt fo authority gives the impression of a bearded, dark-haired Harpo Marx.

The story borrows a number of tropes from my all-time favorite swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Waldo Salt’s screenplay always finds a variation. For instance, in both movies, the hero escapes an execution by hanging. But the escapes are as different as they can be.

Considering the fact that the film’s star was also the executive producer, it’s astonishing how much of the film’s strength comes from supporting characters. A scene between a minstrel and a tanner about civilization and working with your feet is just charming. But then Norman Lloyd, as the minstrel, steals every scene he’s in

Salt also provided something very surprising for a swashbuckler–a somewhat likeable character who could end up being one of the good guys, or one of the bad ones. By the standards of this type of movie, that’s almost deep.

I saw The Flame and Arrow only once theatrically…probably around 1980. When my son was growing up, I bought him the VHS cassette, and he watched it over and over again. It’s currently streaming in HD on Turner Archive Instant. I don’t know how long it will be there.

Age and stardom: My review of Clouds of Sils Maria

B+ drama

  • Written and directed by Olivier Assayas

A great stage actress and sometimes movie star (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts to star in a revival of the play that made her famous. But there’s a catch. She’s too old to play the young, ambitious lesbian that became the defining part of her early career. Now she’s playing the older woman who falls for the young one, with disastrous results.

To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. It’s not just any house, but the home of the play’s recently-deceased author.

In this lonely but magnificent setting, the two women hike, talk, confess, and run through the play’s dialog. As the actress learns her lines, the assistant  reads the lines for the young character that her employer once played. At times, it’s difficult to tell when they’re running lines, and when they’re talking as themselves.

I don’t want to suggest that the film’s characters come to mirror those in the play within the film. Their characters and their situations are very different. And yet, you can’t ignore that the young woman/older woman dynamic, and the employer/employee relationship, are part of both the play and the film.

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The actress and her assistant have a lot to work out together. On one level, they’re employer and employee. On another, they’re close friends, eating, drinking, and smoking together (both tobacco and pot), and talking about acting and life. They argue a lot about the very young movie star, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, who is taking the role that long ago made Binoche’s character famous. In a very real sense, the assistant is being paid to be a close friend and confidant. But is that the sort of role you can really do for money?

For some reason that I cannot fathom, writer/director Olivier Assayas built some unnecessary suspense into the story. Dialog and action often suggest that a horrible accident–probably a car crash–will change the nature of the story. Richard Linklater did something similar in Boyhood. It worked there because teenagers do stupid things and their parents worry constantly about possible consequences. Here, with two adults, it just felt distracting and unnecessary.

This is a film of spectacular natural beauty. The scenes in the Alps, many shot on a high bluff overlooking a spectacular canyon, can take your breath away–especially when the thick fog moves through the valley below. The picture was shot in widescreen scope on 35mm film. Film still has the edge when you’re photographing the magnificent outdoors–even if you’re projecting digitally.

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The scenes in the alps–whether outdoors or inside the house–make up a long second act–probably more than half of the film. The shorter first and third acts take place in more crowded locations, such as a train, an awards show, and the restaurants and clubs of London. The last act, officially tilted as an "Epilogue," lasts a bit too long.

The cast is excellent throughout, but Binoche and Stewart carry the film. Everyone knows Binoche’s brilliant tallent. If enough people see this picture, more will realize that Stewart–now free of teenage vampires–is also turning into a first-rate performer. With more maturity and enough good scripts, she may one day enter Binoche’s league.

Excuse the recent error

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

Intense Empathy: My review of Two Days, One Night

A- Drama

  • Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Roger Ebert once described cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” Few films show off that important capability better than the Dardenne brother’s latest achievement, Two Days, One Night. I can’t imagine anyone watching this film without worrying about, rooting for, and identifying with the main character. But the Dardennes also make you care about almost every person you meet in the picture, including those ruining the protagonist’s life.

Right from the start, Sandra (the almost always remarkable Marion Cotillard) discovers that she’s lost her job at a small solar power company. The owner gave the other 16 employees a choice: Either Sandra could keep her job, or everyone else would receive a €1,000 bonus. Overwhelmingly, they chose the bonus.

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But there’s hope. She and a co-worker complain to their boss, who agrees to allow another vote. Now Sandra has two days to visit each of her co-workers and try to convince them to forfeit a significant chunk of cash to keep her employed.

This couldn’t have come at a worse time. Sandra is recovering from severe depression. She reacts to the setback by trying to withdraw into herself and taking pills. Her patient and loving husband (Fabrizio Rongione) worries that she’s becoming an addict. What’s more, if she loses the job, they lose their home. They have two kids.

Most of the co-workers she visits feel guilty over what they did to her. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll vote differently this time. Many of them need that extra €1,000 (these are all working-class folk, most with families to support). And Sandra feels like a beggar, going from one home to another hoping they’ll pity her.

The film manages to avoid most of the deadly repetition inherent in the story. Yes, she goes to one person after another, begs them to give up a lot of money so she can remain gainfully employed, and listens to her reasons why they can’t. But each of these co-workers is a unique individual, and they all react to the predicament in different ways. The Dardennes don’t entirely escape the repetition problem (which is why I’m giving it an A instead of a straight A), but they get very close.

Another problem: There’s also a hospital scene that struck me as very unrealistic.

Despite these minor flaws, Two Days, One Night gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. We all know what that’s like. We’ve all worked at a company that had layoffs, experienced that moment of relief when you discover that your job is safe, and then felt guilty because someone else wasn’t so lucky.

And yet, this picture never feels like a political tract. It feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise.

Much of the realism comes from the Dardennes’ technique. The picture is shot with a handheld camera, and the only music you hear is music that the characters hear–most of it through a car radio. Even the closing credits come with no sound except street noise.

As I watched Two Days, One Night, I began to wonder how they could satisfactorily end it. If she wins the election, it’s Hollywood. If she loses it, the whole thing would be pointless. If the film ended before the vote is counted, the audience would feel cheated. I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will say that the ending is absolutely perfect.

Despite a couple of flaws, this is an excellent film. If you work for a living, you need to see it.

Error correction: I failed to note that this film, which I saw at a press screening months ago, was opening this week. Had I caught it, I would have posted this review last Wednesday, and mentioned it in this week’s newsletter.

The Interview at the New Parkway (Spoiler: The theater didn’t blow up)

I haven’t written anything yet about The Interview and its assorted release problems. Why should I? Everyone else has already written about it. Besides, I was on vacation.

Now I’m back. Sunday night, my wife and I saw Kim Jong Un’s least favorite movie at the New Parkway. Perhaps it was a case of lowered expectations, but I enjoyed the movie–for the most part.

Of course I didn’t go because I thought it was the best film currently in theaters. I went to support free speech and free cinema. I went because if someone tries to stop a film from running in theaters, there’s a moral obligation to support that movie.

Because of the threats, The Interview became one of the rare big Hollywood features to open simultaneously in theaters and on pay-per-view streaming. This day-and-date release, as it’s called, just may be the future of the movie business, but for the present is only common with low-budget or foreign films not likely to make much money in the US. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Magnolia released Pioneer day-and-date. Since it’s subtitled, contains no superheroes, and–at least in my opinion–is a mediocre picture, its commercial prospects weren’t promising.

But we chose to spend the extra money to see The Interview theatrically. After all, the hackers didn’t threaten to blow up homes where the movie was showing. Besides, comedies are always better with the crowd.

I’ve been to the New Parkway several times, but this was my first experience in Theater 1. The layout was very different from Theater 2, which I described in 2013. It’s smaller, and the room doesn’t dwarf the screen. Instead of living room furniture, it has tables and chairs, and feels like a coffeehouse.

And what about The Interview?

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It starts out hilariously, as James Franco’s brainless, party animal of a TV host interviews Eminem. This is the last person you want as your partner on a CIA mission to assassinate North Korea’s dictator. The unfortunate man who has him as a partner is his far more intelligent producer, played by Seth Rogen (who also co-directed). Despite the wonderful setup, and a number of great bits along the way (Randall Park plays the evil Kim wonderfully as another party animal), the movie sags. In the last act, it becomes an action film, with great splashes of blood, multiple severed fingers, and good guy bullets proving far more fatal than bad guy bullets. It still manages some good jokes along with the way, but they’re overshadowed by the mayhem. I would have preferred a clever ending to the big action extravaganza we get.

I give it a B.

Oh, and by the way, despite the previous threats, no one bombed the theater.

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