How lucky that the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality in the middle of this year’s Frameline LGBT Film Festival, which runs through Sunday. The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival starts tonight and also runs through Sunday. As usual, I’ve placed Festival events at the end of this newsletter.
A Twenty Feet from Stardom, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday. Now I know why almost all backup singers are African American. They learned to sing in church. Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocal texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton ("Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!"), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without getting credit for it ("He’s a Rebel"). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) prop up among the talking heads (and The Talking Heads), but this time, the spotlight points to the artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration. A celebration of the human voice.
A+ Double Bill: Top Hat & The Gay Divorcee, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. If escapism is a valid artistic goal, Top Hat is a great work of art. From the perfect clothes that everyone wears so well, to the absurd mistaken-identity plot, to the art deco set that makes Venice look like a very exclusive water park, everything about Top Hat screams "Don’t take this seriously!" But who needs realism when Fred Astaire dances his way into Ginger Rogers’ heart to four great Irving Berlin tunes (and one mediocre one)? The Gay Divorcee,on the other hand, is only B- material on its own. Arguably the first true Astaire-Rogers movie, it’s a flawed entertainment with one great dance number, a few funny lines, and some historical interest. In fact, if you didn’t know it was made first, you could easily assume it’s a lukewarm Top Hat rip-off.
A+ Jaws, Castro, Tuesday; New Parkway, Thursday, 6:30. People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really starts. For that first half, it’s a suspenseful, witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, but with a central character more conflicted and less noble (Roy Scheider). Then the three men board the boat and the picture turns into a more exciting version of Moby Dick. Jaws‘ phenomenal success helped create the summer blockbuster, yet by today’s standards, it’s practically an art film–albeit one that could scare the living eyeballs out of you. The Castro will screen it on a double bill with Rocky, which I haven’t seen since it was new. For more on Jaws, see my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article.
C+ Cleopatra, Castro, Thursday. New digital restoration. At 243 minutes, this widescreen epic clocks in as the longest single theatrical release by a major American studio. And at an estimated 40 million 1963 dollars, it’s probably the most expensive. It’s also very dependent on a large screen and a large format to work (it was shot in Todd-AO and originally screened in 70mm). In most theaters and with most projectors, the first half (Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar) is mildly entertaining, and the second half (Richard Burton as Mark Antony), unbearably boring. But with the Castro’s large screen and a good enough print (or in this case, DCP), the movie’s spectacle makes it much more fun. The first half becomes spectacular entertainment and the second…well, not quite as boring.
B+ Show People, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00. We remember Marion Davies, if we remember her at all, as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s talentless second wife. But King Vidor’s 1928 backstage-in-Hollywood comedy proves her a considerable talent. The story of knockabout slapstick versus self-consciously arty cinema must have seemed all too autobiographical to Davies, a talented comedienne whose lover and benefactor wanted to show off her class. The full show will include three shorts, with Bruce Loeb accompanying everything on the piano. Opening night of this year’s festival.
B+ Sherlock Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. There’s nothing new about special effects. Buster Keaton used them extensively, in part to comment on the nature of film itself, in this story of a projectionist who dreams he’s a great detective.The sequence where he enters the movie screen and finds the scenes changing around him would be impressive if it were made today; for 1924, when the effects had to be done in the camera, it’s mind-boggling. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr. is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags. This is an extremely short “feature,” running only about 45 minutes (depending on the projection speed), but the Festival will screen it with the short "The Canyon." With David Drazin on the piano.
Prince Achmed, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 12:30. Eleven years before Walt Disney made Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, Lotte Reiniger used cut-out silhouettes to make what is probably the oldest surviving animated feature. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but I remember a magical experience. The presentation, which will also include "The Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman" and "Pauvre Pierrot," will be hosted by Disney Film Historian Dr. Russell Merritt, and accompanied on piano by Judith Rosenberg.