Festival Report, Part 3: Sunday

As I mentioned in my last post, I chose Danny Glover on Saturday over Mel Novikoff Award winner Kevin Brownlow, one of the world’s foremost experts on silent films, because I was seeing Brownlow on Sunday. I just did.

Billed as an “Introduction to Silents,– Brownlow’s presentation probably would have confused anyone truly unfamiliar with the medium. But I doubt such a person was in the audience. Everyone was an enthusiast. Brownlow showed a selection of short films and feature excerpts from his personal collection, all in 35mm, many in excellent condition. He introduced each clip with a bit of its historical importance, some context, or how that film was saved from the ravages of time that have destroyed maybe 80% of all silent films.

He showed one complete, legitimate masterpiece: Buster Keaton’s early two-reeler, “One Week.– Keaton’s little tale of a marriage’s first seven days–as the couple builds and tries to live in a do-it-yourself-house–overflows with original, ambitious, visually breath-taking, and hilarious gags. To see it in 35mm, with an enthusiastic audience and live accompaniment, is a very special treat, indeed.

Other highlights included a 1900 “actuality” of a New York street, a Broncho Billy adventure shot in San Rafael, and a thrilling burning orphanage climax to a minor 1926 MGM feature.

As usual, local treasure Judith Rosenberg–a fixture at the Pacific Film Archive and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum–kept the wide variety of movies alive with her expertise at the piano.

Brownlow answered a few questions after the presentation. Someone asked him if the coming of sound ruined the art of film. Brownlow said it hadn’t; that sound added an important dimension that took film in new and better directions. But in doing so, it destroyed an art form.

Festival Report, Part 2: Saturday

Why, after screening a dreadful film called Revolution Summer, would I bother seeing something called The Reel Youth Revolution? Because it was screening at a convenient time, and, as a collection of shorts, it couldn’t be bad for very long. Besides, as a former film student myself, I was curious to see what young people–blessed with far better equipment than was affordable in my youth–were doing with their talent.

Actually, it wasn’t that convenient a time. I’d made a scheduling error, and had to leave after only six of the 11 shorts scheduled. Too bad. I doubt any of these kids are yet ready to hold your attention for 90 minutes, but their short work was enjoyable and occasionally impressive.

One interesting and positive trend: Four of the six shorts I saw were at least partially in black and white. Perhaps the young generation is passed the “color or nothing” attitude of years passed. Let’s hope so.

I had an interesting dilemma for the mid-afternoon. Go to the Castro and see Kevin Brownlow, or attend Danny Glover’s pre- Bamako press conference. I opted for Glover, in part because I wanted to spend the day at the Kabuki, but also because I’m seeing Brownlow this evening (Sunday) at the Pacific Film Archive.

Glover seemed a bit distracted. He showed up late with his 3-year-old grandson in tow. At one point, his cell phone range and he answered it.

He talked about politics, African filmmakers, and mostly about The World Bank–the target of his film’s wrath. He discussed the human toll that crushing debt takes out on these countries–how the “North” is destroying the “South.” He proudly told us that “Groups like Christian Aid UK are using this film as a platform to get the British to stop supporting the World Bank.”

Actually, to call Bamako Danny Glover’s film exaggerates things a bit. The picture was written and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Glover merely helped produce it, and appears briefly in an odd, comedy-relief movie within the movie, “For more than 20 years,” Glover explained, “I wanted to create a relationship with African filmmakers. It’s part of the process of my work as an artist and my work as a–underlined–citizen.”

I saw Bamako immediately after the press conference. If I had seen it beforehand, I would have asked Glover if his western outlaw character was a deliberate echo of his Silverado hero. It wasn’t just the same movie star with a cowboy hat and gun. It looked like the same costume, the same beard, and many of the same gestures.

Better in parts than as a whole, Bamako mixes interesting vignettes of life in modern Africa with a preachy approach to its subject matter that wears you down. The bizarre concept puts the World Bank on trial, complete with formal court hearings, in a residential courtyard in Bamako, Mali. Around the trial, life goes on, and that life is the best part of the film. But as an attack on global economic policy, it’s more of a treatise than a motion picture, explaining what the problem is rather than showing you or involving you emotionally.

I topped the day off with Once, easily the best film I’ve yet seen at this year’s festival. The most romantic picture since Before Sunrise, Once charms you with winning characters, an odd kind of low-key suspense, and terrific music. The music comes out of the story, which concerns two talented but unprofessional musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) becoming close friends and collaborators. There’s clearly a romantic attraction, but you’re never quite clear where it’s going to go. Wherever it goes, it gets there musically; if the film isn’t a hit, the singer/songwriter-style soundtrack will be.

Festival Report, Part 1: Friday

I’m finally back at my computer and able to tell you about what I saw at the Kabuki and Castro.

The first movie I caught was the first one shown without opening night hoopla, Otar Iosseliani, The Whistling Blackbird; appropriately, a movie about movies. Julie Bertuccelli’s documentary is a pleasant and often funny study of an aging filmmaker preparing his latest work (Gardens in Autumn, also being shown at the festival). Iosseliani comes off as an experienced film director who appears to have almost no concept of the medium’s technical or budgetary requirements, but who still makes wonderful, satirical movies. I’’m not familiar with Iosseliani’s work, but this movie left me wanting to gain that familiarity.

I next journeyed to the Castro to catch the special presentation of The Phantom Carriage, Victor Sjöström’s 1921 horror movie, which the Festival presented with live accompaniment by Jonathan Richman and friends. It was a sold-out crowd (quite a feat at the cavernous Castro), and the enthusiasm ran high. A woman sitting next to me enthused about the appropriateness of having the Dalai Lama and Kevin Brownlow visiting San Francisco simultaneously. (Brownlow was not a part of this particular presentation.)

When the show started, we were all treated to a great, tinted print of a very good fantasy melodrama about death, alcoholism, maturity, and redemption. Richman’s score was effective, moody, and absolutely appropriate, although there were some moments of silence that seemed arbitrary to me.

Just one complaint about the print, a relatively new one by Janus Films. Rather than replacing the original Swedish title cards with English ones, Janus added subtitles. This got annoying, especially in some of the longer intertitles, where the Swedish and English words overlapped.

I’ll post my Saturday report soon.

Films for the Week of April 27, 2007

Just to keep things simple, I’m listing San Francisco International Film Festival presentations first.

San Francisco International Film Festival

The Iron Mask, Castro, Friday, 2:00. Douglas Fairbanks must have felt melancholy as he made what he knew would be his last silent film. Based on Dumas’ oft-filmed The Three Musketeers sequel, The Iron Mask is unusually dark for a Fairbanks movie, with several likeable characters meeting untimely deaths. But writer-producer-star Fairbanks lacked the knack for serious drama, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of bad melodrama and entertaining swashbuckling. Although this presentation will have recorded, rather than live, accompaniment, it will be special in another way. Kevin Brownlow, winner of this year’s Mel Novikoff Award, will be on hand to answer questions and present this print of his own restoration.

Murch, SFMOMA, Friday, 9:00; Castro, Sunday, 4:15; Kabuki, Tuesday, 1:00. Not as well-known as the directors he’s worked for, film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The English Patient, American Graffiti, everything worthwhile Francis Coppola ever made) played an essential role in the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls film brat revolution of the 1970’s. What’s more, he’s articulate enough to discuss his work intelligently. And that’s pretty much all this documentary provides–Murch facing the camera and talking about his work, with appropriate clips to illustrate his points. Editor/co-director Edie Ichioka tries to liven things up occasionally with strange visual and audio effects which are occasionally clever but more often annoying. Murch’s talk is sufficiently interesting without the pyrotechnics.

Strange Culture, Castro, Friday, 6:00. Like American Splendor, Strange Culture mixes scripted drama performed by professional actors with documentary footage and interviews of the real-life, still-living people those actors are playing. And while Steve Kurtz lacks Harvey Pekar’s fascinating personality, his story is both compelling and frightening. Kurtz woke up one morning to find his wife dead. Then he was arrested as a bioterrorist. The terrorism charges have been dropped, but he’s still awaiting trial for mail fraud (although no one was defrauded). It’s hard to go wrong with so powerful a story, and writer/director Lynn Hershman Leeson makes an effective piece of agitprop. This film will get a theatrical release after the festival.

Cecil B. De Mille — American Epic, Kabuki, Saturday, 9:15. Kevin Brownlow’s documentary on the greatest showman in Hollywood history (although not, by a long shot, the greatest filmmaker) provides an interesting and sympathetic portrait of an influential artist treated today more as a joke than as a great innovator. This is a TV documentary, one I saw on Turner Classic Movies, and it may feel a bit slight on the big screen. On the other hand, it may not. There are plenty of clips, and no one knew how to fill the big screen like Cecil B. DeMille.

Revolution Summer, Kabuki, Thursday, 9:15. Young people looking for sex, drugs, and violent revolution wander through a predominately-white Oakland in a film allegedly set today but feeling like the early 1970’s. The acting by young unknowns is uniformly excellent, especially Mackenzie Firgens in the starring role. But the slow pace, overuse of close-ups, and clumsy storytelling alienate the viewer. The occasional corny speech and title card commentary don’t help.

The Monastery, Kabuki, Thursday, 4:30. A crusty old bachelor offers his castle to the Russian Orthodox Church for a monastery, then has to contend with a feisty nun. The plot of this documentary sounds like a sitcom. It might have made a good one, but it’s just not an interesting documentary. For one thing, it never really explains the old man’s relationship to the Church–spiritual, emotional, legal, and financial. The Monastery has a few funny scenes, and some moments of insight about this man’s loneliness, but not enough to fill a third of its 84 minutes.

Everything Else

The Conversation, Castro, Tuesday. 9:15. Francis Coppola’s low-budget “personal” film, made between Godfathers I and II, is almost as good as the two epics that sandwich it. The story of a professional voyeur, and therefore, indirectly, a story about filmmaking, The Conversation concerns one Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional snoop who bugs people’s private conversation for a living. Remote and lonely, his emotional armor begins to crack when he suspects that his work is about to result in murder. Walter Murch’s sound mix is one of the best ever, exposing us to layers of meaning within the titular recorded discussion. On a “Fog City Mavericks Double Feature” with the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers–no doubt inspired by the Festival screenings of Murch and Fog City Mavericks at the Castro two days beforehand.

Dead Man, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. A very different type of western. The plot, concerning a timid accountant from Cleveland (Johnny Depp) who becomes a wanted outlaw within a day of getting off the train, sounds like a Bob Hope comedy. But Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, which by definition makes it a very weird flick. And it earns its weirdness with the quirky humor and strange occurrences we associate with Jarmusch. The supporting cast includes John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum. This isn’t one of Jarmusch’s better known films, but it’s one of his best.

Pulp Fiction, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong. A Flashback Feature.

42nd Street, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. This isn’t just a backstage musical; it’s the backstage musical, complete with the chorus girl ingénue whose big chance comes when the star breaks her ankle. A close second to Gold Diggers of 1933, with good humor and spectacular Busby Berkeley dance numbers that could never happen on a real Broadway stage. Co-staring Ginger Rogers as Anytime Annie, who “only said no once, and then she didn’t hear the question.” On a double bill with Cabin in the Cotton.

An Inconvenient Truth, Cerrito, Sunday, 1:00. If Al Gore had been this charming and funny in the 2000 election, the world would be a better place. Basically a concert film of a multimedia slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth explains the science and dangers of global warming in a manner so clear, concise, and entertaining that it can enthrall a ten-year-old (and I know because I saw it with one). I’m generally skeptical about political documentaries as a force for good, but if it’s possible for a movie to have a major, positive effect on the human race, this is the one. An Earth Day presentation (admittedly a week late).

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise–which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless.

Doomed to Subtitles and Other Tales

I’m beginning to suspect that I will never see an English-language film theatrically again. The only one I’ve seen in the last three months is Blades of Glory–an outing that had more to do with parenting than cinephilia.

Today I decided to break that track record and go see Hot Fuzz. But when I got to the theater, I discovered that I had the times wrong and I was late by half an hour. But my timing was right to see Mafioso, which was also on my list even though it’s not in English.

How was Mafioso? I laughed many times, often with hearty enthusiasm, at this rediscovered “classic” 1962 Italian comedy. But I also spent too much time wondering when it would once again be funny, or at least interesting. The best moments come early, with the resulting culture shock when the factory manager protagonist (the great comic actor Alberto Sordi) brings his blonde wife and children to his native Sicily–a place that appears only slightly more civilized than Borat’s Kazakhstan. But director Alberto Lattuada and his five credited writers fail to either consistently keep the comic pace or layer in enough reality to hold our interest when the humor slacks off. And when Mafioso takes a serious turn in the third act, that lack of reality is nearly fatal.

Different subject: Last month I offered my Criteria for the Very Best Films of All Time. The criteria was so strict that, out of probably hundreds of films I love dearly, only seven qualified.

Just this evening, as I was washing the dishes, I realized that I missed a film: Annie Hall. It has all of my criteria: substance, humanity, entertainment, original craftsmanship, and it has stood the test of time. And yes, I’m entirely comfortable calling it one of the eight greatest films ever made.

One more thing: I’ve seen the closing night film for the San Francisco International Film Festival: the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose. It’s a sad, fascinating, always-intriguing life story of an artist blessed with enormous talent and cursed by a horrendous childhood, bad luck, and her own selfish and unpleasant personality. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s impossible to ignore. Great songs, too. You can read my microreview here. If you don’t want to deal with the hoopla and hassles of the festival’s closing night, La Vie En Rose gets a full release this summer.

Speaking of Festival films that getting regular releases, the theater preceded Mafioso with a trailer for Adam’s Apples, my favorite film from last year’s festival. It’s opening for one-week runs in Berkeley and San Francisco on May 11. You can read my microreview here.

Films for the Week of April 20, 2006

Golden Door, Castro, Thursday, 7:00. Emanuele Crialese begins his immigration allegory with two men climbing a mountain, barefoot, each carrying a sharp stone in his mouth. From there, Crialese fills his tale with strange, beautiful, and occasionally bewildering imagery. He also fills it with fascinating people and a dry, sardonic humor. Many of his characters, Italian peasants immigrating to America, are superstitious, ignorant, maybe even stupid, but they’re decent people and we care very much for them (they’re joined on their journey by one considerably more worldly Englishwoman). And through their eyes he shows us the entire process of leaving a community, crossing the ocean in steerage, then navigating the inspections and bureaucracy of Ellis Island, all in more detail than I’ve ever seen it before. A unique, remarkable, and funny motion picture. Advanced tickets for the San Francisco International Film Festival‘s opening night presentation are sold out, but rush seats are available. If you miss it this time around, the film will get a wider opening in a few months.

The Firemen’s Ball, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:50. An official good time run by a small town’s fire department just makes people miserable in Milos Forman’s subtle satire of Communism (an obvious satire would have been too dangerous to make at the time). The people running the alleged good time don’t seem to understand that they don’t always know what’s best for everyone. Besides, people keep stealing stuff. Part of the Archive’s tribute to the San Francisco Film Festival At 50.

Comedy of Power, Roxie, opens Friday. There are few laughs in Claude Chabrol’s character study of a judge (Isabelle Huppert) investigating high-placed corruption as her marriage falls apart. Huppert is brilliant as a calm, cool legal avenger who truly believes she is acting out of completely altruistic motives, even as we begin to suspect that her ego has more to do with the problems than she would care to admit. But Chabrol holds his characters at arm’s length, creating a cold movie that never really draws us in.

Days of Heaven, Castro, Wednesday. I was blown away by this movie when it first opened–Nestor Almendros’ atmospheric cinematography turned the simple story of lovers posing as siblings into something approaching a masterpiece. But that was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t know if I would have the same reaction today. Besides, back then, the spectacular photography was enhanced by 70mm presentation. The Castro is presenting Days of Heaven in 35mm, but at least it will be on their ample screen. On a double bill with Arabian Nights as part of the Castro’s tribute to Composer Ennio Morricone.

Journey From the Fall, Roxie, opens Friday. “Nothing is more precious than freedom.” Ho Chi Minh’s hypocritical quote adorns the entrance to a re-education center (in other words, a slave-labor camp) in Ham Tran’s small-scale historical epic. But the film changes course halfway through and loses a lot of momentum. The haunting, gut-wrenching first half plunges us into a Vietnamese family’s nightmare experiences with Communist oppression in the years after the fall of Saigon, cross-cutting between a father’s degradation and torture in the above-mentioned camp and his family’s attempts to flee the country. While the second half–about the family’s adjustment to life in America–is reasonably good drama, it feels anticlimactic after the harrowing and unforgettable beginning.

The Host. Cerrito and Elmwood, opens Friday. A barely-functional family fights an uncaring government and a giant mutant carnivore, and it’s hard to say which is the scarier threat. I didn’t find this quite the masterpiece others saw–the political points are obvious, the third act gets confusing, and the big finale fails to satisfy. But director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong succeeds where it counts: He makes you care about the characters and scares you out of your seat. Much of the credit goes to the talented computer animators at San Francisco’s own The Orphanage, who brought the monster to life.

Red Dot Journalism

Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival‘s programming is now up on Bayflicks.net, so I have to explain the little red dot icon () that marks some of the festival’s presentations on my schedules.

The red dot tells you that this particular film will probably get a regular theatrical run after the festival. With that information, you can choose to skip the movie that’s coming around later in favor of the one you’ll probably never get a chance to see again.

This weekend, I watched three documentaries that will play the festival, none of which are scheduled for a regular release (which is too bad, since two of them are worth seeing). Click the grade icon next to the title to read my microreview. The films’ titles link to the Festival’s web site.
Strange Culture, Castro, Saturday, April 28, 6:00; SFMOMA, Friday, May 4, 8:45; Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, May 8, 7:00.

Murch, SFMOMA, Friday, April 27, 9:00; Castro, Sunday, April 29, 4:15; Kabuki, Tuesday, May 1, 1:00; Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, May 5, 3:30

The Monastery, Kabuki, Thursday, May 3, 4:30, Friday, May 4, 7:00, Sunday, May 6, 1:00