Speaking of Silents

I attended the screening of 3 Bad Men at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum last night. I’d been wanting to see this John Ford silent western since I’d read Joseph McBride’s Ford biography, where he described it as “the silent film pointing most clearly to the strengths of his mature masterpieces.”

Visually, it was close to classic Ford–or probably would be in a decent print. The damaged, washed-out 16mm print they screened left me frequently thinking “This would probably be a great shot if I could see it.” The melodramatic plot had some interesting points, but I’d hesitate to pass judgment on this movie until I can see a good print.

Coincidentally, I received Niles’ January/February calendar in the mail yesterday. Aside from a few shorts, there’s nothing I’ve seen or really have an opinion about. But there’s one unfortunate conflict:

Every summer, the Niles Museum closes for the San Francsico Silent Film Festival. Alas, no such luck for the Silent Film Festival Winter Event at the Castro February 14. That night, Niles will screen 7th Heaven (which I’ve wanted to see for years), while the San Francisco event shows Sunrise (which I love). The two films were made at the same studio (Fox) the same year (1927). They were Fox’s first two films released with a recorded music score (both venues will ignore the recordings and screen them with live music).

I wish I could be in two places at once!

Also on the schedule: A night of Pre-Code Follies and their annual Mid Winter Comedy Film Festival.

What’s Screening: December 26-January 1

Sorry I’m late with this. I can’t even blame Christmas for the oversight, since I don’t celebrate Christmas. But here’s the newsletter, a few hours late.

Not much of note this week, anyway. Best to take the time to catch a new film. I recommend Bolt (especially in 3D) and very highly recommend Milk. I’ll let you know if I see a good movie with more than four letters in the title.

3 Bad Men, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. I’ve never seen John Ford’s second big budget western (his first was The Iron Horse). But biographer Joseph McBride described it as “the silent film pointing most clearly to the strengths of his mature masterpieces.” Musical accompaniment by Greg Pane.

Mary Poppins, California Theatre, San Jose, Saturday and Sunday. The best live-action movie Walt Disney ever made, and one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really is wonderful in this movie. So what if it takes liberties with the books.

Singin’ in the Rain, Castro, Thursday. In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. 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.

W., Red Vic, Thursday through next Saturday. The very fact of W.’s existence raises an interesting and important question: Why go to an Oliver Stone movie after all the times he’s disappointed us? And W. provides an answer: There is no good reason. The movie looks as if Stone couldn’t decide between a comic farce or a serious character study of our disastrous president. He fails on all counts, creating a film that isn’t funny, dramatic, or particularly insightful. Read my full review.

The Best Films You Couldn’t See in 2008

I saw a lot of great movies this year. Unfortunately, quite a few of them never got released in this country. They screened at local festivals, but didn’t get picked up for commercial exhibition–even by the small, independent distributors who pick up the good stuff that the Hollywood studios and their faux independent subsidiaries, don’t bother with.

Not that the distributors miss everything. When I saw them at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I was sure Forbidden Lie$ and Stranded would make this list. But they got picked up and shown, at least briefly, in a few theaters.

The following films did not. I hope you get a chance to see them someday. I list them in the approximate order I saw them, because I don’t want pick one as better than another.

Around the Bay, Cinequest. Sparse and utilitarian, Alejandro Adams’ low-key drama gets right to the point, then tells its dysfunctional family story without pyrotechnics. Single dad Wyatt (Steve Voldseth) is so remote and disconnected from his five-year-old son (Connor Maselli) that he leaves the child home alone–and that’s in a house with an unfenced swimming pool. Looking for a way out of his responsibilities, he asks his estranged 21-year-old daughter (Katherine Celio) to move in as caregiver. Slowly, they work out some of their problems, but by no means all of them. Adams made Around the Bay for very little money, shooting it on standard-def video. The low budget shows, but thanks to an excellent script and cast, doesn’t hurt the film.

Mataharis, San Francisco International Film Festival. Three female private detectives, all working for the same agency (and the same sleazy boss), struggle with private and professional problems in this character study. Inés finds herself in a moral dilemma when she realizes that the two factory workers she’s supposed to spy on are suspected of union activity, not theft. Eva uses her skills to follow her own husband, thus discovering a secret that, while not really all that horrible, shatters her ability to trust him. And the older and possibly wiser Carmen helps a client facing double betrayals and begins to doubt her own marriage.

Time to Die, San Francisco International Film Festival. Almost a monolog by an old woman talking to her dog, this Polish wonder is much better than any film that meets that description has any right to be. Danuta Szaflarska is wonderful in the lead role–wistful, bitter, demanding of respect, a little crazy, with a tendency to spy on her neighbors. Not that she doesn’t have reasons. The yuppies next door want to buy her property and tear down the once-beautiful house where she spent her life. Despite the title, the film is not so such much about death as about how one spends the last years of one’s life.

The Art of Negative Thinking, San Francisco International Film Festival. This a Norwegian comedy/drama is brutal, terrifying, and forces you to think about how you’d respond should disaster severely limit your life. It’s also devastatingly, hysterically funny, and the best movie I saw at SFIFF. It addresses a subject that we’re not supposed to laugh at: the disabled and the fully-abled people who care for them. A mostly wheelchair-bound support group, led by an incompetent yet self-righteous social worker, come to the home of a potential new member. But Geirr, boiling with rage since a car accident paralyzed him from the waist down, doesn’t want to join. When he finds it impossible to ignore the group, he sets out to destroy it.

Emotional Arithmetic, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In the best performance of an excellent career, Susan Sarandon plays an American-born Holocaust survivor (the story is set in 1985) trying to hold onto her family and her sanity. She’s overjoyed by the arrival of two old friends and fellow survivors, but their presence complicates her tricky relationship with her remote, sarcastic husband and their grown son–who appears to be devoting his life to caring for his messed-up parents. Beautifully written, designed, shot, acted, and edited, with a near all-star cast including Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow. Read my full review.

In the Family, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Joanna Rudnick made this haunting and troubling film to document her own emotional struggles with the news that she carries the BRCA genetic mutation–a condition that forces some serious decisions. One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carry it, and for women it means an almost certain death by ovarian or breast cancer–-unless the dangerous body parts are removed before the cancer strikes. For Rudnick, only 31 and looking forward to having children, that’s a very difficult decision. She trains her camera on her boyfriend, her family, and herself, and lets everyone speak candidly. She also goes beyond her problem and interviews others who have, or might have, BRCA, including some who found out about it or acted upon it too late. She also speaks with the scientist who discovered it and the inventor who got rich off the very expensive diagnostic test. This one stays with you.

Idiots and Angels, Mill Valley Film Festival. Bill Plympton made a very bizarre, dark, and funny cartoon, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work. This story of a lonely, angry, and all-together rotten man (at one point he pushes a tear of empathy back into his eye) who inexplicitly sprouts angel wings will make you grimace as well as laugh. Dialog-free, Idiots and Angels reveals its characters by showing us their actions and their daydreams, which are mostly about money and undeserved glory. But no matter what their bearer may be thinking, the wings themselves insist on virtue. Plympton has created a dreadful world filled with dreadful people, yet allows something magical and wonderful to come out of it.

Jerusalema, Mill Valley Film Festival. The best new film I saw at Mill Valley. Like the Warner Brothers gangster flicks of the early 1930’s, it tells the tale of a street punk who rises to the top of his profession through a combination of brains, charm, and ruthlessness. But this isn’t prohibition America, but post- Apartheid South Africa. In other words, it’s a society filled with grinding poverty, new opportunities, lingering racism, and bitter disappointment that the revolution didn’t bring Utopia. In this environment, Lucky Kunene (Jafta Mamabolo as a boy, Rapulana Seiphemo as a man) shows both street smarts and book smarts. He starts by hijacking cars. Eventually he’s taking over Johannesburg tenements, intimidating both the tenants and the landlords, and doing well by pretending to do good.

Katyn, Mill Valley Film Festival. In the spring of 1940, Soviet special forces massacred over 15,000 Polish prisoners of war, including the father of future filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. After the war, Stalin’s government insisted that the Nazis were to blame and suppressed the truth. Wajda tells the story of the crime and the cover-up through a handful of fictitious characters in this visually gorgeous yet emotionally shocking historical epic. The second half, set mostly after the war, sags through too many characters you haven’t really gotten to know, but it’s still an amazing recreation of a largely-forgotten atrocity.




Upcoming Festivals

After a brief lull, the festivals are starting again.

Berlin & Beyond runs January 15 through 21 at the Bay Area’s favorite festival venue, the Castro. In addition to the Blue Angel screening I mentioned earlier and a Wim Wenders tribute, it includes 29 new (at least for America) features.

As soon as B&B closes, Noir City takes over the Castro for a January 23 through February 1 run. The theme this year is “Newspaper Noir,” with hard-boiled reporters rather than detectives. Among the titles you might recognize are Billy Wilder’s Ace In the Hole, and a Burt Lancaster double-bill of The Killers and Sweet Smell of Success.

IndieFest runs February 5 through 20 At the Castro, Roxie, and Shattuck theaters. The program hasn’t been announced, but you’ll find lots of trailers at IndieFest’s MySpace page.

The Silent Film Festival Winter Event happens on Valentine’s Day this year, and has one great romantic masterpiece, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. It also includes Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, the horror comedy The Cat and the Canary, and the Russian comedy A Kiss from Mary Pickford. All films will have live accompaniment. And it all happens, of course, at the Castro.

Blue Angels

Now here’s something odd: Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel was one of the first German talkies. As was common in the days before dubbing and subtitles, the movie was shot twice–once in German, and once in English. The German version is widely considered a classic. (Personally, I find it interesting, and Marlene Dietrich wonderful–it was her breakout role–but not great.)

Early next year, you’ll have a chance to see both versions. The Berlin & Beyond festival will screen the rarely-seen English-language version at the Castro January 19. And the Pacific Film Archive will show the better-known German version February 1, as part of a  Josef von Sternberg series.

Shattuck Theater Getting Remodeled

Landmark Theater’s is remodeling the Shattuck, adding “Landmark’s exclusive Screening Lounge™ auditoriums and other upscale amenities.” I suspect that’s a trademarked name for what other theater chains have been doing for years. I found a description of another “Screening Lounge” theater on Landmark’s site; it should give you an idea of what it means.

Basically, it appears to mean plush chairs, love seats, and so on.  They’re also adding “a full-service bar and an upgraded and expanded concession area.”

I think the Parkway is creating a trend.

The Sound of Wall-E at the Rafael

First, let me apologize for getting this out to you so late. It describes an event that happened a month ago tomorrow, and I wrote it that day. I held back on posting it because I was hoping to have it posted elsewhere.

Andrew Stanton and the folks at Pixar created an amazing although compromised piece of work when they made Wall-E (read my review). Sound designer Ben Burtt, who more than three decades ago invented the squeaks and beeps that made us fall in love with R2D2, deserves a large part of the credit for what makes WALL-E work. He created the title character’s voice twice, both as an actor speaking the few words the little robot says in the movie, and in distorting and altering those words in ProTools to make them sound less human. Burtt estimates that he created over 25,000 sounds, not all vocal, for this one movie.

Sunday afternoon after a screening of WALL-E at the Rafael, Ben Burtt took the stage to tell us about and demonstrate how he created WALL-E’s the bits and pieces of WALL-E’s audio environment. He brought props large and small, and several members of his crew.

Burtt admitted that he was originally reluctant to take on the assignment. He had just come off of Revenge of the Sith and “was kind of burnt out on robots.” But Stanton intrigued him with the idea of a robot love story that would be, if not a silent movie, than at least a “non-verbal” one.

“Not everything is done on a digital computer,” explained Burtt, after playing a wind effect created by filtering a recording of Niagara Falls. In fact, in answer to a reader’s question, Burtt guessed that only about 80% of WALL-E’s sounds were synthesized. People have an easier time believing in a science fiction or fantasy setting, he argues, if the sounds come from the real world.

Proving his point, Burtt showed off a number of earthly gadgets he uses to create WALL-E’s out-of-this-world audio landscape. These include a World War II-era hand-cranked generator, and a old airplane’s inertia starter–essentially a bigger and heavier crank than the generator. He bought both on E-bay.

Listening to him, one gets the feeling that Burtt finds inspirations in everyday sounds most of us don’t notice. He showed us a large punching bag he originally bought for Indiana Jones effects, and explained how, when dragging it across the floor to put it away, he discovered yet another wind effect.

Photograph by Doug Currens

Burtt wasn’t the only master of prop sounds at the Rafael. He introduced his Foley artist, Dennie Thorpe, hwho had her own connection of noisy devices, including a broken toy wagon she bought at a thrift shop for $20. One gadget of no discernable purpose (her husband had made it) produced the sound of WALL-E removing and reinserting his eye. She demonstrated how she could change the tone, suggesting an empty cavity in the robot’s head, by putting the device on top of an empty cylinder. Thorpe also demonstrated an old suitcase that made a great squeak when she opened it.

In addition to Thorpe, Burtt also introduced the film’s various sound editors, who “took these notes I created and created themes,” and mixer Tom Myers. He discussed how Myers and other mixers have to reconcile the often-conflicting desires of the music and sound effects people. Myers explained how, on a busy soundtrack like WALL-E‘s, the mix helps guide the audience’s focus.

Burtt clearly enjoyed being on stage. A cell phone went off in the audience during the question and answer session. “I made that ringtone!” he cried out.