What’s Screening: December 28 – January 3

Still no festivals. But as we move in 2013, we do have some good movies.

A Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday through Monday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection to do it justice. The Castro has the screen, but only 2K digital projection. I don’t know how well it will hold up that way, which is why I’m giving it an A rather than the usual A+. I’ll try to catch it over the weekend and let you know. For more on this epic, read Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia.

B- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Castro, Tuesday through the following Sunday. The first American animated feature, and one of Walt Disney’s biggest triumphs, really does suffer from the sugary sweetness so often associated with Disney. But the picture is technically astounding and a visual delight. The dwarfs are funny and have distinct–if shallow–personalities. But Snow White herself and her Prince Charming are so dull that you might find yourself rooting for the evil stepmother (who’s pretty scary, actually). Newly restored and projected off of a DCP, the engagement is in conjunction with The Walt Disney Family Museum’s current exhibition on the film.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The various theaters will be showing it digitally, but I don’t know exactly how and on screens of what size. A 4K DCP would be the digital equivalent of 70mm, but I’m not sure that Warner Brothers has even made it available in that format.

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 that 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 two shorts, and Frederick Hodges on the piano.

A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight 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 in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s 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 Arabesque, which I haven’t seen.

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 Oz 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 Intouchables, Rafael, opens Friday. I really can’t complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowdthe_intouchablespleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza–the movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life, it stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma, and it’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Read my full review.

What’s Screening: November 23 – 29

After all the film festivals we’ve had lately, you might feel that the Bay Area needs another one like it needs another hole in the head. And so, appropriately enough, the Another Hole in the Head Film Festival opens Wednesday.

Here’s what else is going on:

A McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Vogue, Thursday, 8:00 (movie starts at 9:00). Few people realize, at least on first viewing, how much the plot of Robert Altman’s genre-bending mood poem resembles a traditional western: A lone stranger with a violent reputation rides into a remote frontier town, tries to settle down to a peaceful existence, and eventually finds himself menaced by a trio of hired killers. Yet there’s nothing conventional about this sad yet beautiful tale of prostitution, alienated community, unrequited love, and a west that seems not so much wild as stranded in the middle of nowhere. Vilmos Zsigmond’s golden Panavision cinematography makes this one of the most perfectly photographed films ever made. Proceeded by a musical performance by Conspiracy of Beards.

A+ The Third Man, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in thirdmanimpoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both a wanted criminal and newly dead. Or is he? Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. Presented by David Thomson.

Trailer War!, Roxie, Thursday, 8:00. Ever go to the movies, enjoy four or five entertaining trailers, only to then sit through a horribly boring feature? No danger of that here. Instead of a feature, the Roxie will screen "A meticulous selection of the best, strangest and most amazing trailers in the world! From the high flying, explosive metal mayhem of STUNT ROCK to THUNDER COPS’ disembodied flying head chaos…"

All the Trimmings: A Cornucopia of Comedy, Cartoons and Music, Oddball Films, Friday, 8:00. Short subjects from Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones, Laurel and Hardy, Jonathan Winters, Betty Hutton, and others. Sounds like a great way to spend an evening. RSVP required; 415-558-8117 or programming@oddballfilm.com.

A Beauty and the Beast, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:20. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another film that’s anything like Jean Cocteau’s post-war fantasy. It’s a fairytale, told with a charming and often naïve innocence, and contains absolutely no objectionable-for-children content. It’s also a supremely atmospheric motion picture, and one that takes its magical story seriously. But its slow pace and quiet magic never panders to unsophisticated viewers. And yet, I once saw a very young audience sit enraptured by it. See my Blu-ray review. Part of the series Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960.

C Sing-Along Sound of Music, Castro, opens Friday and continues through December 2.. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies. I’ve never experienced a Sing-Along Sound of Music presentation, however. This might be something entirely different.

Hendrix 70: Live at Woodstock, Embarcadero, Shattuck, Thursday, 7:00. The classic rockumentary Woodstock ends with two songs by Jimi Hendrix/. Now, you’ll get to see his entire performance at that legendary festival. Also on the bill: the documentary "Road to Woodstock."

D+ The Three Ages, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30.  Buster Keaton’s first and worst feature tells the same story three times—in caveman days, imperial Rome, and modern times—intercutting between them. The result is a thin story told thrice, with a lot of forced anachronistic humor, and only occasional flashes of Keaton genius–including one of his most spectacular falls. The film’s structure suggests that Keaton didn’t yet feel ready to make a feature, and the film as a whole suggests that his intuition was right. With the short subjects "Koko’s Thanksgiving" and "The Caretaker’s Daughter." Frederick Hodges will accompany on piano.

What’s Screening: August 24 – 30

No festivals this week.

B Alps, Roxie, opens Friday for one-week run.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of Alps. It has just enough continuity to make you try and follow the story, but there’s no story to follow. Many of the characters (primarily the female ones) seem sympathetic, yet their motivations and actions are often entirely opaque. There’s absolutely no mention of politics or government, yet I think it’s about totalitarianism. It’s often boring, yet more often its utterly compelling and strangely funny. Read my full review.

C+ Robot & Frank, Embarcadero, Albany, opens Friday. This moderately entertaining comedy, set in an easily-recognizable near future, stars Frank Langella as an aging cat burglar robot_and_franksinking into dementia. His worried son brings him a servant robot to care for him. That he will grow to like the robot is obvious–this is a movie, after all. The twist is what makes Frank like his robot:  the realization that this machine has no scruples about burglary. The result is entertaining and reasonably (but not exceptionally) funny. Both Frank and the audience tend to anthropomorphize the robot, which is to be expected. But it’s nice that the robot occasionally reminds Frank that, although he sometimes appears to have emotions, he really doesn’t have any. Not bad, but inconsequential and forgettable. Read my full review.

A The Band Wagon, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. 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 You Were Never Lovelier, which I have never seen.

A High Noon, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Thursday. Gary Cooper discovers who his real friends are (just about no one) in Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann’s simple fablehigh_noon of courage under fire in the old west. On the day of his wedding and his resignation, the town’s sheriff (Cooper) finds out that hardened criminals are on their way, presumably for vengeance. But when he tries to form a posse, the people he thought he could count on turn their backs on him. Foreman’s last produced screenplay before getting blacklisted, High Noon can be interpreted as a parable to a Hollywood gripped in McCarthyite fear.

A+ Silent comedy double bill: City Lights & Sherlock Jr., Castro, Thursday. The A+ goes to City Lights, where Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp falls in love with a blind flower citylightsgirl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire. The result is funny and touching, with one of the great tear-jerking endings. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Released a year after everyone else had stopped making silents, City Lights has always had a recorded score (composed by Chaplin) and needs no live accompaniment. There’s nothing new about special effects, and in Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton used them to comment on the nature of film itself, entering the movie screen and finding the scenes change around him. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr.is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags.  I have no idea what music will accompany the second feature. Update: On 9/23/12, I corrected an error in this microreview.

Pandemic Double Bill: Contagion & Panic in the Streets, SF Film Society Cinema, Tuesday. Two thrillers, both by major directors, about germs threatening everyone–and the films were made more than 60 years apart. I haven’t seen them, so I won’t say anymore.

A Chinatown, Castro, Tuesday. Roman Polanski may be a rapist,chinatown but you can’t deny his talent as a filmmaker. (Not that that in any excuses his actions as a human being.) And that talent was never shown better than in this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixing a few personal scandals in, as well, and handed it over to Polanski, who turned it into the perfect LA period piece. On a John Huston double-bill with Prizzi’s Honor, even though Huston merely acts in Chinatown.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Castro, Sunday and Monday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The Castro can and has presented it in 70mm (although on a flat screen), as well as in 35mm. But this time, they’re presenting it in DCP, which I suspect will be better than 35mm but not as good as 70mm (if they had a 4K digital projector, I’d probably feel differently). Sunday it will play with two shorts, including George Méliès’  “A Trip to the Moon.” On Monday, it will be shown by itself.

What’s Screening: July 13 – 19

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs through the weekend, and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday night. I’m hoping to catch every screening at the Silent festival (my recommendations are below) and that Jewish opening night.

A- Bonsái, SF Film Society Cinema, opens Friday for one-week run. Right at the start, a narrator tells us that Emilia will die before the end of the film, but that Julio will live. Cutting back and forth between two timeframes, placed eight years apart, writer/director Cristián Jiménez presents two romances in the life of one young man. In the first, the ill-fated Emilia meets Julio in college. They read to each other in bed, discuss great literature (mostly Proust), go to punk-rock concerts, and enjoy each other’s bodies with the hot single-mindedness of youth. In the later romance, Julio tells his lover Emilia that he’s helping an established author write a new novel. But to keep up the hoax, the young man must become a novelist himself. Jiménez uses a deadpan, matter-of-fact approach of early Jim Jarmusch, to very good effect. Read my full review.

B Farewell, My Queen, Embarcadero, opens Friday. What was Versailles like in the final days of the French monarchy? Was the court panicked? In farewell_my_queendenial? Did anyone realize that they would soon lose their heads? Benoît Jacquot creates an answer to these questions in this small yet visually impressive drama set in the French court in July of 1789. Although seriously marred by an uninteresting central character, Farewell, My Queen gives us a peak into a different world–a beautiful palace in which the realities of normal people seldom intrude. But it is utterly dependent on a bigger world that it thinks it controls, and it can’t last forever. I wish this picture had run longer. Read my full review.

A+ North by Northwest, Kabuki, Wednesday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight 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 in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s 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).

A The Leopard, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. For a three-hour film where almost nothing happens, Luchino Visconti’s 1963 epic is remarkably spell-binding. The sumptuous Technirama photography helps. Aristocrats led by patriarch Burt Lancaster live through a theleopardrevolution that changes Italy’s government, but leaves their lives hardly effected. Visconti was an aristocrat by birth but a Marxist by inclination, and his film shows considerable nostalgia for the days of fancy balls and peasants who knew their place, but also understands why this type of life had to go away. The Leopard is a big, bold film about people barely touched by momentous events. It’s graceful in design and shows great sympathy for its flawed characters. I enjoyed it immensely. Part of the series Bellissima: Leading Ladies of the Italian Screen. Read my longer report.

A- Live Theater on the Big Screen: Frankenstein, Cerrito, Monday and Wednesday. Finally, something directed by Danny Boyle that I actually liked! Playwright Nick Dear starts his adaptation with the monster’s lonely birth, putting the focus on the creature. This poor child-man’s journey, and his inevitable clash with his arrogant creator, make up the heart of the play. A lot of philosophy and religion get discussed, but it never feels forced. In some screenings, Jonny Lee Miller plays the monster and Benedict Cumberbatch plays Frankenstein. In others, they switch roles (I saw it with Cumberbatch as the monster). For more on this, see Live Theater on the Big Screen and Frankenstein.

Dark Knight Marathon, Balboa, Thursday, 6:00. See Batman Begins and The Dark Knight before midnight, and the Dark Knight Rises afterwards. All in 35mm.

B The Intouchables, Shattuck, Aquarius, opens Friday. I really can’t complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowdthe_intouchablespleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza–the movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life, it stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma, and it’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Read my full review.

D Vertigo, UA Berkeley, Thursday. 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 Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

A Pandora’s Box, Castro, Saturday, 7:00. Brand new restoration. Nearly 70 years pandorasboxafter her last film, cinephiles still debate whether Louise Brooks was a first-class talent or just a beautiful woman in the hands of a great director. Either way, her oddly innocent femme fatale wins our sympathy and our lust as she sends men to their destruction without, apparently, understanding what she’s doing. A great example of what the silent drama could do in the hands of a master; in this case, G.W. Pabst. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.

B+ Mantrap, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Here’s your chance to discover why Clara Bow was such a huge star in the 1920’s. Sexy, funny, and bubbling with energy, she playsmantrap a big-city manicurist who on a whim marries a man from the Canadian wilderness. Her new  husband is played by Ernest Torrence—definitely several notches below her on the physical attraction scale. Needless to say, she flirts with everything in pants. The title has a double meaning–it’s also the name of the very small town where most of the movie is set. One of the best romantic comedies to come out of the silent era, and a terrific date movie. Stephen Horne will accompany the movie on piano, which makes me both happy and disappointed. Happy, because he’s a very good accompanist, but disappointed because his score is already on the DVD. I would rather have heard something new.

B The Mark of Zorro (1920 version), Castro, Sunday, 10:00AM. This 1920 adventure flick is where it all began. Douglas Fairbanks bought the rights to a then-new serialized novel, projected his already-famous athletic comic hero into a romanticized past, grabbed a sword, and invented the movie swashbuckler. There are better swashbucklers, better Zorro movies, and better Fairbanks vehicles (the sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro, is all three), but no other catches the birth of a genre. Accompanied by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

South, Castro, Saturday, 5:00. Nanook of the North was not the first feature-length documentary. This record of the Ernest Shackleton’s famous failed expedition beat Robert Flaherty’s northern epic by three years. I saw it long ago at the UC Theatre, and remember being underwhelmed by the constant barrage of cute animal pictures. Director Frank Hurley shows us all of the expedition’s cute dogs, and skips over the fact that the men eventually had to eat them. However, this version, with live narration by Paul McGann and music by Stephen Horne, may be considerably more entertaining and enlightening.

The Cameraman, Castro, Sunday, 7:30. The festival ends with a movie that caught Buster Keaton in transition. The Cameraman was his penultimate silent, his first film without near-total artistic control, and his last really good one. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it for me to give it a grade, but I remember liking it. But I didn’t love it to the degree I love so much of his previous work.

What’s Screening: June 15 – 21

Only one festival this week, but it’s a big one. Frameline LGBT continues through this week and beyond.

A- Your Sister’s Sister,Kabuki, Embarcadero, opens Friday. This romantic sex comedy kept surprising me. I thought it was shallow; then the your_sisters_sistercharacters deepened. I figured out whom was going to end up with whom, and what artificial crisis would end the second act.  Boy, was I wrong! It just kept getting better–more surprising, more character-driven and realistic, and funnier, because the humor came from a knowledge of real human behavior. So many movies start promising and deteriorate; it was nice to see one that just kept getting better. Read my full review.

Best of God (Wednesday) & Best of Drugs (Thursday), Balboa. Comedian Owen Egerton takes his audience through two different collections of film clips, one from "the most outlandish religious films from the 1930′s to modern day," the other moves from "Reefer Madness and Marijuana Girl to the sincere PSAs of the 1980′s featuring Pee Wee Herman, Clint Eastwood and McGruff the Crime Dog all the way to haunting neo-classic anti-meth videos of today."

B- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the leading ladies. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a star, but co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water. In this film, at least, Russell is funnier and sexier. On a double bill with another Howard Hawks comedy, Monkey Business, which stars Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, with a yet-unknown Monroe in a small role. Film historian David Thomson will introduce Saturday’s 7:30 screening.

A Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The laugh line-up is exceptionally good this month. "Easy Street" is one of Charlie Chaplin’s best two-reel comedies. The same goes for Buster Keaton’s "Neighbors" and Charlie Chase’s "Mighty Like a Moose." I’ve never seen "Should Married Men Go Home," but it’s Laurel and Hardy. How bad could it be? Judy Rosenberg will tickle the ivories while Chaplin, Keaton, Chase, and L&H tickle your funny bone.

A Dr. Strangelove, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things once were. Thank heaven we no longer have idiots like those running the country! It’s also very funny.

A Headhunters, Aquarius, opens Friday. Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) leads the good life. He’s rich, powerful, and has a beautiful wife. But even his high-paying, high-status job can’t pay for his lavish lifestyle, so heheadhunters moonlights as a burglar, breaking into homes and stealing expensive paintings. But then something goes seriously wrong. Then it gets worse. Much worse. Before long, avoiding the police is the least of his worries. The result is the most entertaining new movie I’ve yet seen this year–a thriller of Hitchcockian quality. Warning: This movie has several very violent scenes. See my full review.

Yellow Submarine, Elmwood, Saturday, noon. The Beatles’ one animated feature–which to my knowledge hasn’t played the Bay Area in years–has been restored, and is receiving special theatrical presentations. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this whimsical fantasy for me to issue a grade. If memory serves, Yellow Submarine is a wonderful movie for taking drugs, and equally wonderful for taking your kids. Just don’t take both.

Why Silents Are Golden: This Year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival

As regular readers know, I’m passionate about silent movies. Without the crutch of spoken words, a motion picture becomes pure cinema–reality on an entirely different plane. The actors can be fully unique, complex individuals (not that they always are) while remaining archetypes.

Take Louise Brooks. In silent films, she’s magical, mysterious, and the very embodiment of female sexuality. In a talkie, she’s a pretty girl from Kansas.

When you see a silent film, properly presented, you get more than a movie; you get a concert. When silents ruled the cinema, every movie theater kept musicians on the payroll. Today, more than 80 years after the death of the art form, there’s no lack for talented and creative composers and musicians skilled at accompanying silent files.

And there’s no better way to enjoy the films and the musicians than the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For four days every July, the Festival takes over the Castro Theater to exhibit well-known masterpieces, forgotten gems, and rare prints, while also bringing in exceptional musicians to accompany them. The Castro’s own gaudy glory, huge screen, and variable-speed projectors add to the atmosphere, as does the large, enthusiastic audience that the festival attracts.

This year, the Festival runs from Thursday, July 12, through Sunday, July 15. Here are just a sampling of the screenings I’m most looking forward to:

  • Wings. The festival opens with the first Best Picture Oscar winner. Newly restored by Paramount, it will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (amongst my favorites), with live sound effects by one of Hollywood’s best, Ben Burtt, (for more on Burtt, see The Sound of Wall-E at the Rafael).
  • The Loves of Pharaoh. This big, German historical epic, directed by Ernst Lubitsch shortly before he came to America, will be accompanied by Dennis James on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.
  • Pandora’s Box. Speaking of Louise Brooks, here’s her masterpiece. Newly restored, it will be accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
  • The Docks of New York. I’ve never seen this highly-praised Josef von Sternberg drama, but I’m looking forward to it. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano.
  • The Cameraman. Buster Keaton’s first film for MGM, his penultimate silent, and, in many people’s opinions, his last masterpiece. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany both this and the newly restored “Trip to the Moon.”

SFIFF Report: Buster Keaton and Merrill Garbus

Last night I attended the San Francisco International Film Festival silent movie event at the Castro–four Buster Keaton shorts (two of them actually Fatty Arbuckle shorts with Keaton in supporting roles), accompanied by Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs along with guitarist Ava Mendoza.

This is something of a tradition at the Festival–screening silent films with accompaniment by musicians with a strong, local following. Some people come because they love the music, others because they love the movies. The result is a large crowd and a merging of two different fandoms. When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it’s horrible.

Last night’s worked–for the most part.

The Movies

I’ll take these one by one, in the order they were presented.

One Week
Buster Keaton’s second film as star and auteur, and the first one released, is rightly considered a classic. It follows newlyweds as they attempt to build a house from a kit–with very bad results. Highlights include a storm that sends the house spinning on its foundation (during the house-warming party, of course), and the first of Keaton’s many great train gags.

Good Night, Nurse!
This Fatty Arbuckle two-reeler is the only short of the evening I hadn’t seen before. Fatty’s wife sends him to a clinic where his alcoholism will be surgically removed. It’s never explained how. Keaton plays the surgeon. It’s quite funny–especially the drunk sequence at the beginning–but runs out of steam before it’s finished.

The Haunted House
One of Keaton’s less-shown shorts, which is a pity, since in my opinion it’s one of his best. It starts in a bank (Keaton is a teller) then moves to an old house that a gang of counterfeiters have rigged up to look haunted. The glue-and-cash sequence, and the running gag involving a staircase that turns into a slide are both priceless.

The Cook
When I first posted about last night’s show, I said I hadn’t seen this one before. I was wrong. Set in a restaurant with Fatty cooking and Buster waiting tables, it allows both comedians several chances to perform priceless bits. But like "Good Night, Nurse," it begins to drag near the end.

The Music

I’d never heard of Merrill Garbus, tUnE-yArDs, or Ava Mendoza before this event. They’re very good, in their own art rock sort of way.

For the most part, I liked their accompaniment. They added real terror to One Week’s Setup for the musiciansstorm sequence, without violating the comedy. Their music enhanced the comedy, and synced very well with it. In a scene in "The Cook" where an on-screen audience applauds, they stopped playing music and applauded.

They had their off-moments. Garbus occasionally sang, which was distracting and added nothing.

But their worst problem was volume. I’m a Who fan and no stranger to loud music. But theirs was so loud I could barely hear the audience laughing. That takes much of the joy out of watching Keaton with an audience.

The Prints (or Lack of Them)

The physical condition of the movies themselves was the biggest disappointment. Of course they came from sources that were scratched and faded, but that’s to be expected from films of this vintage.

The Festival added to the problem by screening them digitally–and they didn’t look to me like high-quality DCP. I would guess that the Keaton shorts were off the Buster Keaton Short Films Collection Blu-ray. Considering the condition of the original film sources, that was acceptable. But the Arbuckles appeared to be off of a DVD. There’s something no way that a DVD can look anything but awful on the Castro’s giant screen.

I know that there’s at least one good, 35mm print of "One Week;" I saw it in 2007–at an SFIFF event. I’m pretty sure that when I saw "The Cook," it was a 35mm print, as well. But that was before I started blogging my movie-going and I’m not sure.

Despite the loud music and bad "prints," it was still an evening worth visiting. Garbus’ sense of humor goes very well with Keaton’s, and Keaton’s goes very well with everything.

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