Sorry about the complete lack of a newsletter last week. I prepared one before going on vacation, but in the confusion of getting out of the house, I forgot to post it.
Anyway, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which opened last night, continues through Sunday. The Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie Festival opens Friday and runs weekend evenings through the 27th. And the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens its very long run on Thursday. As usual, festival events are at the bottom of this newsletter.
A Twenty Feet from Stardom, Aquarius, 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) pop up among the talking heads (so do 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 Spirited Away, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 4:30. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. Part of the series Castles in the Sky: Masterful Anime from Studio Ghibli.
Animal House, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday; Kabuki, Wednesday. It’s been decades since I last saw this classic ’70s comedy (on my then-new VCR), so I’m not giving it a grade. But I remember liking it a whole lot. I also remember it being the reverse side of American Graffiti; both were set in 1962, but Lucas’ movie looked back, and was thus about the end of the 50s. Animal House looked forward, and suggested the birth of the 60s. Rebellious, impolite, and very funny, John Belushi and his gang of misfits refuse to let anyone stand in the way of their tasteless, outrageous, and antiauthoritarian fun.
C+ Dial M for Murder, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. Presented in 3D. John Ford never made a 3D movie. Neither did Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin. But Alfred Hitchcock did–the only major auteur to try the stereoscopic medium before the 21st century. Dial M isn’t great Hitchcock–it’s pretty much a straightforward adaptation of a stage play–but it’s a good play and Hitchcock knew what to do with it. Forced against his will to use the new-fangled double-lens camera, Hitchcock pretty much ignored the obvious 3D effects popular at the time. But when he finally throws something at the camera, he knows exactly what to throw and when to throw it. Note: I haven’t seen this film in 3D in about 30 years. I might give it a higher score if I did.
B+ The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, New Parkway, Sunday, 6:00. The first and best of Ray Harryhausen’s three Sinbad movies. In fact, of all his movies, only Jason and the Argonauts is better. The stop-motion animation is splendid, and the story, while trivial, is fun. Not a must-see like Jason, but still an entertaining escape into a fantasy past. 7th Voyage is an important movie in Harryhausen’s career; his first in color, his first period piece, and his first out-and-out fantasy after a series of sci-fi pictures involving aliens or monsters wreaking havoc on major metropolitan areas. A Thrillville Theater presentation.
B The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to their previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as the Coen’s masterpiece, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also built quite a cult following; The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve maintained this site than than any three other movies put together.
A Safety Last!, Castro, Sunday, 8:30. Even Alfred Hitchcock never mastered that delicate balance between comedy and suspense as well as Harold Lloyd, who made that balance perfect in Safety Last‘s final act.. The first two thirds of the feature, with Harold struggling with a lousy job and a girlfriend who thinks he’s a successful executive, makes an excellent piece of comic work, with more than enough laughs for a comedy twice as long. But the final third, where Harold climbs a skyscraper, stands amongst the greatest comic sequences in the history of film. Indeed, the sight of Lloyd, hanging from the minute hand of a clock far above a busy city street, is one of the strongest, most memorable images in the history of cinema. Read my Blu-ray review. Musical Accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Closing night!
B+ The Patsy, Castro, Friday, 7:00. In 1928, King Vidor created not only The Crowd–in my opinion the best serious silent drama of them all–but also two very good comedies starring Marion Davies. In The Patsy, Davies plays the socially awkward outcast daughter of a social-climbing family, determined to win over her sister’s boyfriend. Her Lillian Gish imitation is simply amazing. With the always amazing Marie Dressler as her extremely confused mother. Musical Accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Amazing Tales from the Archives, Castro, Friday, 11:00am. Free! This annual presentation is always one of the Silent Festival’s highlights. This year, Céline Ruivo of the Cinémathèque française will discuss saving films from the Paris Exposition of 1900. Then Rob Byrne will talk about restoring an early Douglas Fairbanks feature, The Half-Breed, which will screen Saturday at noon.Stephen Horne will present musical accompaniment when the archivists aren’t talking.
A- Kings of (Silent) Comedy, Castro, Sunday, 10:00am. Most silent comedies were shorts, not features, and the festival will present four of them. Of course there’s a Chaplin (“The Immigrant”) and a Keaton (“The Love Nest”); neither of these are amongst their best, but they’re still very funny. I’ve never seen “Felix Goes West,” so I won’t comment on it. But the real treasure of the morning is the Charley Chase two-reeler “Mighty Like a Moose,” about a husband and wife who both get cosmetic surgery on the same day, and don’t recognize each other. Musical Accompaniment by Günter Buchwald.
Legong: Dance of the Virgins, Castro, Saturday, 2:15. I haven’t seen this anthropological narrative for a very long time, and will therefore not give it a grade. One of the last silent films made (it was released in 1935), and one of the last films shot in two-color Technicolor, Legong uses a simple romantic tragic plot to show us life in Bali before the rest of the world had made a serious mark. I remember it being enchanting. Musical Accompaniment by Gamela Sekar Jaya and the Club Foot Orchestra.
C+ The Zigzag Kid, Castro, Thursday, 6:30. This year’s festival opens not with a bang, but with a modestly entertaining, family-friendly fizzle. Days before his bar mitzvah, the son of a great detective and a long-dead mother finds himself on a journey of adventure and personal discovery. His main companion just might be a master criminal. The story is not quite rousing enough to be fine escapist entertainment, and only rarely thoughtful enough to be anything else. A few clever plot twists keep it from being entirely predictable. Innocuous and mildly charming, The Zigzag Kid is safe for any child old enough to read subtitles.