Saturday, May 17, 2014

Noir's Murky Antecedents Surface in Silence

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014
May 29-June 2
The Castro Theatre

Two thirds of Undergroound's  Tube set love triangle

Film noir is a fluid genre, unlike the Western or the science fiction film, not everyone agrees on what a film noir is. Traditionally, noir has been defined as an exclusively American crime genre with certain stylistic and story elements: black and white high contrast cinematography, the femme fatale and the protagonist led to an inevitable doom.  However, many include Technicolor films like Leave Her to Heaven in the noir canon, and there has been a critical awakening to the fact that countries other the U.S. in the 40s and 50s produced film noirs. Similarly, noirs antecedents have been posited and reevaluated. Typically noir’s roots are traced back to the German Expressionism, the Hollywood gangster films of the 30s and the Hardboiled school of pulp fiction. The Film Noir Foundation has been trying to explore the question of what noir is with the international bent of this year’s NOIRCITY film festivals and expanded editorial outlook of its NOIR CITY e-magazine which includes a regular feature entitled “Silent Noir”.

Will the good guy finish last?
The FNF will be co-presenting two silent era proto-noirs at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, running May 29–June 1 at the historic Castro Theatre. Renowned British director Anthony Asquith's second feature Underground (1928) is a working-class love story and thriller set in and around the London Underground (subway system). The romantic triangle pits nice-guy Brian Aherne against sinister Cyril McLaglen for the affections of beautiful shopgirl Elissa Landi. The film's climax is a chase at a power station that rivals Hitchcock's chase scene at the British Museum in Blackmail. The incomparable Stephen Horne will accompany the film on piano. Horne is the house accompanist for the British Film Institute and has previously accompanied Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor for the SFSFF, as well as recording his own score for the BFI's DVD and Blu-ray release of the silent thriller. Underground will screen on Saturday, May 31 at 4:30PM.

Director Ozu proves a  deft hand with the gangster genre
The name Yasujiro Ozu brings to mind the graceful, self-contained family drama or comedy depicting everyday life in Japan. However, Ozu worked in a variety of genres early in his career as a studio director. In his 1933 gangster film Dragnet Girl (Hijosen no onna), a tough gangster (Joji Oka) finds himself embroiled in an unexpected love triangle with an innocent shop girl (Sumiko Mizukubo) and his own tough as nails moll (Kinuyo Tanaka) that causes him to reevaluate his criminal lifestyle. FNF president Eddie Muller will introduce this program, playing at noon on Sunday, June 1. The versatile Guenter Buchwald will accompany the film on piano. Buchwald is the director of the Silent Movie Music Company and conducts the Freiburg Filmharmonic Orchestra, which he founded in 1992.

Urban despair in 1929 Berlin
Also for the lovers of ‘the dark side of the screen’, the Goethe-Institut/Berlin & Beyond will co-present Leo Mittler's Harbor Drift (1929), an eloquent German film that prefigures film noir in its depiction of fated souls, with exquisite camerawork by Friedl Behn-Grund of the shadowy harbor, bridges, canals and alleyways of Hamburg. The German title Jenseits der Strasse’s subtitle: Eine Tragödie des Alltags—a tragedy of everyday life—is an apt description of Germany’s unemployment and destitution as personified in the film by an old beggar (Paul Rehkopf), a jobless young man (Fritz Genschow), and a prostitute (Lissy Arna). The film plays Sunday, June 1 at 7:00PM. Stephen Horne will accompany the film on piano with Frank Bockius joining him on percussion. Bockius’ musical background includes founding both a percussionist band and a jazz quintet. He also performs with the Silent Movie Music Company.

To buy tickets or find out more about the festival, visit

Friday, May 16, 2014

Dreaming of a Noir World

I Wake Up Dreaming 2014
May 16- 25, 2014
Roxie Theatre, San Francisco

The Warner Archive has joined forces with programmer Elliot Lavine to present this year's I Wake Up Dreaming film noir festival. The ten day festival runs the gamut from Pre-Code crime classics like Barbara Stanwyck's outing in the women in prison genre, Ladies They Talk About (1933) to late era noirs such as Brainstorm (1965) featuring Jeffery Hunter as a murderer who fakes insanity in an attempt to beat the justice system with disastrous results. There will be plenty of classic era noirs for the purists too, including the one often considered the first true film noir, The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) featuring a frightening but humane performance by film noir icon Peter Lorre. 

Ann Sheridan and Lew Ayres on the set of 'The Unfaithful'
Other highlights include a double bill of 1947 noirs featuring outstanding performances by Ann Sheridan, Nora Prentiss and The Unfaithful and a pair of Fritz Lang helmed films starring Dana Andrews from 1956, the all-star newspaper noir While the City Sleeps and the suspenseful courtroom noir Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt. Both sets of double features prove the depth of their respective stars, as well as the willingness of Hollywood to take on controversial topics in a sensitive manner: adultery in Nora and Unfaithful, journalistic ethics in City, and the death penalty in Beyond.

George Sanders and Ida Lupino,  two of the all star cast from 'While the City Sleeps'
All 30 selections in this year's festival hail from the Warner Archive, but will also include films produced by RKO and MGM now owned by Warners. In a significant change for the festival, all the films will be presented digitally.  In previous years, rarer films were often presented in 16mm prints in varying condition supplied from private collectors. The Roxie's digital projection and the digital source materials will provide a consistent picture and sound quality to this year's screenings.

For the complete schedule of films and ticket information, visit the Roxie's official website.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Ode to Cronenberg by Way of Saramago

(Denis Villeneuve, Spain-
Canada-US, 2014, 90 mins.)

If a reporter were to ask random people on the street to name the individual who scares them more than anyone else in the world, they would be likely to receive a wide range of responses, from movie monsters to brutal dictators, but it's unlikely that anyone would point to themselves and say, "Me." Yet that's the premise with which French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve begins this psychosexual thriller, a loose adaptation of José Saramago's 2002 novella The Double.  

A bearded Jake Gyllenhaal, who appeared as a dogged detective in Villeneuve's suburban-set Prisoners, plays both of the central characters, starting with Adam, a disheveled history professor in Toronto (for once, the city plays itself). He has a decent job and a pretty blonde girlfriend, but something isn't quite right; he has trouble maintaining focus in class and his relationship with Mary (Beginners' Mélanie Laurent) seems a little perfunctory, though it's hard to say if there was ever any real heat there.

One afternoon, a colleague recommends a local comedy he thinks Adam might enjoy--and the guy definitely looks someone who could use a laugh--but it has the opposite effect. While watching the video, Adam spots an actor in a bit part that looks exactly like him, and becomes obsessed.

He starts by figuring out the actor's name, and then he poses as Anthony to get more information about him. It's clear, at this point, that Adam has crossed a line, but he can't seem to help himself. He calls Anthony to ar-
range a meeting, but gets his pretty blonde--and pregnant--wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), on the phone instead. Since the men share the same voice, Helen thinks Anthony is playing a trick on her. Though her husband is initially reluctant, he eventually agrees to meet his doppelgänger. 

Villeneuve opened the film by depicting a private sex show in which a naked woman threatens to crush a brown recluse with her stiletto (for better or for worse, it plays like an outtake from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut). Once Adam discovers his double, the spider imagery intensifies. Though the director and co-writer Javier Gullón added the creatures to Saramago's text, it works, not least because the special effects are convincing. 

Much of the rest of the film, however, feels more like an ode to the body horror of David Cronenberg, though some of these similarities may be more coincidental than not. Nonetheless, Villeneuve didn't just shoot in Toronto, he used locations that appeared in Stereo and possibly even Crash. He also called on Gadon, who appears in Cosmopolis and his son Brandon Cronenberg's first feature, Antiviral. Then again, it only makes sense to dip into Toronto's talent pool when filming in the city.  

There's also the distinctive look of the film—cold and clinical—and the tone—so humorless that it's humorous (DP Nicolas Bolduc created the washed-out palette in-camera rather than through post-production).  

Then there's the concept of doubling which powers Dead Ringers, though Villeneuve never reveals that Adam and Anthony are long-lost twin brothers, but he leaves the possibility open, since they both have a scar on their abdomen. As with Jeremy Irons before him, Gyllenhaal has to pull off two roles or risk sinking the film. He does, and that helps to keep it afloat. If anything, he gives a better performance(s) in Enemy than he did in Prisoners in which he played an intriguing, if underwritten character. 

[spoiler space]

Not to give too much away, but I think the solution to the mystery lies in Cronenberg's adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider, in which Ralph Fiennes sees a whole lot of things that aren't there. The very title of that book and film seems like a dead giveaway, particularly in light of Enemy's surfeit of spiders, but Villeneuve's bizarre Walker Brothers-scored ending is tantalizingly inscrutable. As a longtime Cronenberg fan, I should probably be offended, except the Torontonian has been moving away from body horror for awhile now, so it was actually kind of enjoyable to see someone else pick up the mantle--at least for the length of one film

Enemy opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown and Sundance Cinemas on Mar 21. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear Has a Sting In Its Tale

Vic + Flo / Kimstim Films
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear / Vic + Flo Ont Vu un Ours
(Denis Côté, Canada, 2013, 95 mins.)

Seattle filmmaker Robinson Devor has described his second feature, Police Beat, as a “blue and green noir” (as opposed to his period debut, The Woman Chaser, a full-on black and white effort).

I recalled that term while watching Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear as the Québécois director is up to something similar in his seventh feature. 

After serving time for a crime that Côté neglects to disclose, 61-year-old Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille), a tall woman with a penetrating stare, leaves prison only to find that her Uncle Émile, who's now confined to a wheelchair, isn't in the best condition to receive house guests. With nowhere else to stay, she moves into his bungalow. As a mute, Émile lacks the means to say no, but he gives no indication that he wants her to leave.

Vic, Guillaume, + Flo / Kimstim Films
Guillaume, a parole officer (Goon’s Marc-André Grondin, virtually unrecognizable with a bald pate), checks in on Vic twice a week. He's pleasant enough, but she lies when she says that her brother, Yvon, still inhabits the house, which abuts a neglected sugar shack. Yvon's presence represents a condition of Vic's parole, but he's just left town with his new lady love.

Vic's lie seems likely to backfire, though Côté, who directed the tonally analogous Curling, keeps things more matter of fact than portentous--not counting the jungle drums, but he keeps even that effect to a minimum.

Vic's bisexual girlfriend, Florence (Romane Bohringer from The King Is Alive), soon joins the mix--as with Yvon's lady, Flo appears to be several years her junior. Guillaume continues to pay surprise visits, and puts things together quickly enough, but opts not to report any improprieties. 

Though Vic tells Flo, "I'm old enough to know that I hate people," she gets along well enough with Guillaume and Marina (Marie Brassard), a flirtatious local, though Nicholas (Olivier Aubin), a neighbor, doesn't believe she's taking proper care of Émile, and lodges a complaint with social services. At this point, Côté also introduces an African American gentleman who has a way with guns and guitars. The feeling that this community is about to collapse on itself grows every time someone new enters the scene.  

Should they stay or should they go? / Kimstim Films
The relationship between the two women shifts when Flo's shady past catches up with her. If Vic doesn't make a few changes to her living situation, she threatens to hit the road. And even if she does, Flo still might flee, since she expresses more affection towards Vic than passion, but where I expected someone to shoot or get shot--Checkov's Gun and all--Côté heads in another, more metaphysical direction. Still, the impression of a noir transferred from the hub-bub of the city to the quiet of the forest remains. And in this forest: there are hunters and there is prey.  

It pains me to say it, but I didn't really like the ending, which recalls Curling to some extent, except Côté isn't going for "likability" (and I haven't yet caught up with his previous film, Bestiaire). In this instance, however, he presents two endings which play alongside each other: the thing that happens and its aftermath, but it's actually rather generous of him, since you can take one and leave the other, or ponder the way they work together. In either case, he ensures that viewers considering a trip to rural Quebec will think twice--if they don't change their plans altogether. 

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear plays the Northwest Film Forum through Mar 20.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Great Beauty Is Gorgeous and Exhausting

Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty / Janus Films
The Great Beauty / La Grande Bellezza
(Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2013, 
142 mins.)

In his Golden Globe-winning film, Paolo Sorrentino, writer-director of the fantastically baroque Il Divo, turns his penetrating gaze from an Italian leader, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, to an Italian city, Rome. 

Both films are cynical, yet gorgeous, which might sound like an oxy-
moron, except I choose to go with his flow, a compelling combination of bravera camera work, artfully selected music cues, and playful perfor-
mances (I missed his English-language debut, This Must Be the Place, which looked like a misfire what with Sean Penn in Robert Smith drag).

Sorrentino's take on The Eternal City presents its leisure class in a manner that recalls Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, though things get so grotesque at times that he slides into Luis Buñuel or Terry Gilliam territory, especially when he depicts a frenzied grade-school action painter or a gaggle of wealthy dowagers waiting for Botox treatments at a dramatically-lit nightclub (to SoundOnSight, Sorrentino demurred, "
La Dolce Vita is a masterpiece. La Grande Bellezza is only a movie").  

Poster image from Midnight Marauder
The novelistic narrative revolves around 65-year-old man-about-town Jep Gambardella (Il Divo's Toni Servillo), a 21st-century successor to Marcello Mastroianni's suave, linen-clad journalist, Marcello Rubini.

Despite having only one novella to his name, Jep lives in a stunning, crane-festooned apartment overlooking the Roman Colosseum. When he isn't attempting to interview conceptual artists, he naps, drinks, parties, and gossips. When accused of misogyny, he claims he's a misanthropist. 

I'm not sure that either claim is true. If anything, Jep seems genuinely interested in people, just not especially invested (later in the film, it transpires that he's still mourning a lost love). During the expansive running time, he cavorts with a stripper and a socialite, and he doesn't make idle promises to either one. Further, he reports to a female editor (Giovanna Vignola), and he doesn't take issue with her gender--or with her stature (she stands three feet high).

Consequently, I didn't find the film as cynical as some viewers, but it didn't knock me out the way I expected it to either. If anything, the repetition of certain themes and visual images--the nuns, the tourists, the empty conversations--becomes wearying after awhile, though this may have something to do with the fact that I watched it over the course of several weeks (and in two different states) due to a hard drive crash and a hectic holiday schedule. Where other people saw a movie: I saw a miniseries

As ever, though, Servillo is terrific, and he's reason enough to see the film, which also received an Oscar nomination. I've been wrong before, but I predict a win, and I hope it inspires moviegoers to catch up with previous Servillo titles, like the chilling Gomorrah. If The Great Beauty didn't cap-
ture the Rome I got to know, however briefly, in 2009, Servillo has come 
to represent his country now as surely as Mastroianni did in the 1960s.  


Because Seattle can't get enough of this thing, The Great Beauty is currently playing at SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave N) and Crest Cinema Center (16505 5th Ave NE) through 2/27. The Criterion Collection will be releasing the film on DVD and Blu-ray on 3/28. Extra features include deleted scenes; interviews with Sorrentino, Servillo, and screenwriter Umberto Contarello; and an essay from Phillip Lopate.

2/27 update: the film's run has been extended at the Crest through 3/7.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bastards on Parade in Paris

Bastards / Les Salauds
(Claire Denis, France, 2013, 83 mins.)

With Bastards, Claire Denis returns to the shadowy, dread-filled filmmaking that characterized 2006's The Intruder (L'Intrus), which was also shot by the amazing Agnès Godard

She starts by showing the central characters going about their business, but without introducing them or explaining their connections to one another. Denis continues to withhold information throughout the film, doling out bits and pieces here and there, but always keeping a few crucial details to herself.  

After his brother-in-law, Jacques (Laurent Grevill), kills himself, Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon, who appeared in Denis's Friday Night and shares a countenance with Yves Montand), a coiled tiger of a tanker captain, returns from the Middle East to Paris to help out his sister, Sandra (Julie Baitaille). Sandra holds business magnate Edouard Laporte (aquamarine-eyed Michael Subor, The Intruder) responsible for her husband's death. 

Now the family business, which revolves around ladies shoes, is in shambles, and Sandra will have to file bankruptcy in order to avoid her debt to Laporte.
Marco proceeds to move into the same noirish, spiral-staircased building where Laporte's mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), and their young son, Joseph, reside. A subtle sexual attraction develops between the two; the divorced man may be older than the single woman, but he's considerably younger than Edouard, so it's not too surprising when they embark on an affair, but it isn't clear whether or not Marco is just using her to get to Edouard.  

While the adults are dealing with their issues, Marco's teenage niece, Justine (Lola Créton, from Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard), ends up in a psychiatric facility due to her propensity to wander the rain-slick streets at night in the nude while wearing high heels, an arresting image, but not an especially persuasive one. 

The head psychiatrist (Denis mainstay Alex Descas) tells Marco that Justine has a history of sexual abuse, but she remains such a cipher that the disclosure fails to carry the necessary weight. Between Créton and Mastroianni, there's also a fair amount of nudity in the film, though the men remain fully clothed, possibly because they exert all of the control, but it still feels exploitative--even if exploitation lies at the heart of the story. 

Further, the narrative strands conjoin in a manner I found more dramatically than emotionally compelling (I preferred the open-endedness of The Intruder). This aptly-titled film is a chilly piece of work, and that includes the Tindersticks' score, which calls on more electronic textures than usual. Chilly isn't a bad thing when it comes to Denis, but after the warmth of 35 Shots of Rum, Bastards isn't the triumph I was expecting.  

Bastards plays the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave.) through Nov. 21 at 7:15 and 9:15pm on weekdays, plus 5:15pm on Sat. and Sun. (click link for more info and to buy tickets).  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Something for Everyone

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 18-21, 2013
Castro Theatre

What drives an audience to the movies? Some viewers go to see beloved stars, some for insightful directors, and some for a good laugh. Has that changed since the advent of sound? Judging from this year’s lineup at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, running July 18-21 at the Castro Theatre, not much has changed at all.

Film stars started to draw progressively larger salaries during the silent period for a reason. Then, as now, a good actor provides the entry point for viewers into a fictional landscape that takes them out of their world and into adventure, and the 2013 festival offers one of the legends. Douglas Fairbanks grew to be a major box office draw throughout the world during the ‘20s with a series of swashbuckling period films, bringing to cinematic life the adventures of iconic figures like Robin Hood and D'Artagnan. The 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival affords attendees a chance to see one of his early films, Allen Dwan’s The Half-Breed (1916), recently restored through the efforts of the SFSFF and the Cinémathèque française.

Douglas Fairbanks half naked in The Half-Breed

Fairbanks plays Lo Dorman, the son of a Native American woman and an unknown white father. He lives among the redwoods on the outskirts of a small town, despised by the townfolks because of his ethnicity.  He finds fellowship when he encounters Teresa (Alma Rubens), a young woman hiding out from the law in the forest. The world they share inevitably collides with the mores of the town. Günter Buchwald will accompany the screening on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Buchwald has accompanied silent films for over 25 years, playing at silent film festivals around the world.

Certain directors, like Dwan with Half-Breed, use an impressive landscape and melodrama to depict human emotion. But some viewers choose their films based on the sensitivities of an insightful director who reveals the human heart of their characters through cinematic storytelling on a smaller scale. Yasujiro Ozu was a master of depicting ordinary people struggling with big but familiar circumstances, deftly blending comedy and drama for poignant results.

As with all of  Ozu's films, family is paramount in Tokyo Chorus.

In Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus (1931), a young insurance man stands up for an older co-worker who is neglected on bonus day, resulting in a humorously escalating tit-for-tat with his boss, at the end of which he loses his job. The film depicts his struggle to support his family during the economically tough times in contemporary Japan. Ozu delicately portrays the emotional hardships involved, not just the economic ones, as the family has to cope with the salesman’s loss of status as well as income. Günter Buchwald will again provide the musical accompaniment.

Sometimes what an audience desires most from a film is escapism provided by laughter, to have a talented comedian lead them into a madcap adventure from the security of their theater seat. In Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923), the small town everyman struggles to better himself financially by moving to the big city. Lloyd’s up-and-comer seizes opportunities as they arise with increasing risk of harm, mainly of the bodily variety. He is Ozu’s everyman thrust into a Fairbanks adventure.

Harold Lloyd running out of time in Safety Last

Ultimately, the desire to get ahead leads to one of the most famous and breathtaking stunts in movie history: Lloyd’s climbing the façade of a 12-story building and hanging precariously off a clock face, which starts slowly detaching itself from the building. Lloyd climbed the building himself; no stunt man and no cinematic tricks were involved. The Mont Alto Orchestra, a quintet dedicated to authentic silent picture accompaniment, will accompany the film.

There are, of course, differences between modern and silent era audiences. Contemporary viewers can watch movies in their homes, but much is lost in doing so. Watching films with an audience, laughing together, crying together, and being amazed together heightens each viewer’s individual experience. To see a film on the big screen of a movie palace immerses the viewer in a way that watching a film on a TV screen, even a 65-inch high definition model, can’t. Of course, now there are synchronized soundtracks to film, providing voices and a score. However, the silent films weren’t watched in silence; live music accompanied the films, adding enormously to the story unfolding onscreen. The SFSFF excels in bringing the best silent film accompanists from around the world to play for the films. The festival provides a chance to see silent films as intended: with an audience, in a movie palace, and accompanied by live music.

Visit the SFSFFwebsite for the full schedule, program notes and ticket information.