Friday, September 19, 2014

Silent Sampler

San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents
Silent Autumn
Saturday, September 2014
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco

Buster Keaton in The General (1927) playing at SFSFF's Silent Autumn

This Saturday, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents Silent Autumn, a single day sampler of their epic four-day festival that runs each summer at the Castro Theater. This carefully curated day of programming is the perfect introduction to the silent period for the uninitiated, or those with just a few silent film experiences.  It will also delight seasoned fans of the Festival, a little something to keep them going till next year’s main event. The event distills what makes the Festival’s four-day event so remarkable: inclusive programming, the best accompanists in the world, and a chance to travel in time by presenting these films the way they were meant to be seen on the big screen of a movie palace like the Castro surrounded by an enthusiastic audience.

One of the highlights of the main festival each year is the traditional Sunday morning program of comedic shorts; Saturday’s event kicks off with a collection of Silent Laurel and Hardy shorts. The lads still remain the finest team in comedy and a wonderful introduction to silents for children as well as adults. Pianist Donald Sosin will accompany the lineup of miniatures. Sosin has composed over a thousand scores for both live performances for film festivals across the world like Italy’s annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival and for DVD releases such as his scores for the Criterion Collection’s release of Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg and Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies.

Rudolph Valentino overpowers co-star Vilma Bánky in Son of the Sheik (1926) 

The Saturday event continues with a late morning screening of a lush romantic adventure film epitomizing the apex of Hollywood’s golden age of silents, when their technicians and artists brought visual storytelling to an astonishing level of sophistication.  Son of the Sheik, starring the charismatic and unbelievably handsome screen idol Rudolph Valentino, perfectly fits the bill. Valentino plays the title character, having portrayed his father in the wildly popular precursor The Sheik. To convey Valentino’s star power is difficult; fittingly for a Silent film icon there are no words to describe him. The Alloy Orchestra, a trio with a distinctly modern but effective approach to Silent film accompaniment, will play their original score for the film. One of the trio Ken Winokur along with Jane Gillooly restored the film from excellent 35mm negative material.

A Night at the Cinema in 1914 recreates the British movie goer’s experience from the year that The Great War broke out and changed their country forever. The BritishFilm Institute curated this selection comprising travelogues, newsreels, animated, narrative and documentary shorts, and an episode of the legendary serial The Perils of Pauline. A comedic short by Charlie Chaplin, the biggest star of the time, tops it all off. This program serves both as diverting entertainment as well as giving an insight into the times from a historical and social context. Donald Sosin will provide the accompaniment.

Buster Keaton’s The General similarly combines the historic with absorbing entertainment. Keaton tells the true tale of a railroad conductor who ventured into enemy territory during the Civil War to recover his beloved train The General. The story is told with, of course, brilliant comedic embellishments. Interestingly, Keaton changed the engineer’s allegiance from the Union to the Confederacy, claiming “You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.”  The resulting film provides the laughs and breathtaking stunts expected from Keaton as well an accurate and detailed recreation of the period, including the use of The General’s actual engine. Keaton’s underplayed wry style and stunning action direction make his films some of the most accessible silent films for novice viewers including children.

Expresionism as well as evil abounds in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The dreamlike German horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari caps off the day’s programming. This screening combines two beloved features of the SFSFF, a dedication to showing foreign films and a late night psychotronic screening. In this eerie masterpiece a carnival hypnotist puts a young man under his control and sends him out each night to commit a series of murders in his sleep.  Both the film’s pioneering use of Expressionism and the flashback structure became staples of Hollywood’s film noirs in the late 40s and 50s. This will be the U.S premier of the 4K restoration from the original camera negative. Accompaniment by the unfailing Donald Sosin.

There truly is something for everyone at Silent Autumn regardless of their degree of familiarity with silents, preference in genres or age. For show times, ticket information and more on the festival visit the SFSFF’s official website

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.