Sunday, July 13, 2008

SFSFF: Stephen Horne Brings Kinugasa to Life

Pianist and silent film accompanist Stephen Horne just electrified the Castro Theatre with a stunning performance that glorified a gorgeous 35-mm print of Teinosuke Kinugasa's "Jujiro" ("Crossways"). He captured the film's mesmerizing, experimental visual language and draining emotional content. The score incorporated flute and other sounds to great effect, and ended in an exhausted, emotional entanglement.

Prior to the feature, Horne accompanied an early experimental color short from the Kodak labs called "Kaleidoscope," which was a perfect prelude, as the performance reflected the film's building blends of shapes, colors and light (I know, it sounds like one of George Lucas's upcoming projects).

There have been a lot of fine performances by orchestras, oranists, quartets and pianists at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year, but this one (Horne's third), I'll never forget.
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

SFSFF: 'The Kid Brother'

The Silent Film Festival opened last night with a screening of Harold Lloyd's "The Kid Brother," the silent clown and filmmaker's second-to-last silent feature, and by some accounts his favorite.

The festival, which has gone from a one-day event to a three-day marathon since I last attended, projects pristine prints of a variety of silent masterpieces, all on the giant screen of the historic Castro Theatre—one of the best places in the world to watch movies. Even Leonard Maltin, who one would assume has been to his share of fabulous screenings by this point in his career, expressed his amazement at the size of the screen and the clarity of the newly restored Buffalo Bill short that played before the main feature.

Before "The Kid Brother" screened, Maltin interviewed Lloyd's granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, who has devoted her life to the preservation and promotion of her grandfather's work. Lloyd shared her memories of her grandfather while Maltin demonstrated his passion and knowledge.

Maltin attributed Lloyd's diminished stature compared to contemporaries Keaton and Chaplin to his refusal to let his work be shown on television. (Personally, while Lloyd's films are always packed with clever gags and exciting comedic action, I find his everyday bozo to lack some of the magic of Keaton.) Suzanne remembered Harold saying that if all these people took the time to get together and create gags and shoot and edit and re-work a movie, it shouldn't be chopped up and interrupted by car salesman. She credited channels like Turner Classic Movies for allowing Harold's work to be widely seen on television without betraying his wishes.

The festival screening revealed, as it always does, the stunning image quality that the silents had when they were first shown. Lloyd's best moments, like the tree-climbing shot, feel all the more magical when you can see them with the detail and attention that was intended.
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Friday, July 11, 2008

Wall-E and Buster Keaton: Vaguely Related to this year's SFSFF

I just arrived in San Francisco for the city's annual Silent Film Festival and am mega-excited about seeing a collection of films as they were meant to be seen, in 35-mm with live musical accompaniment.

This year, the festival arrives with great timing. Next week, the Batman film "The Dark Knight" comes out; and this week, SFSFFF's centerpiece is "The Man Who Laughs," the film that inspired Batman's greatest villain, The Joker. And two weeks ago, the largely silent "Wall-E" charmed filmgoers everywhere.

The brilliant offering from Pixar Animation Studios is chock full of references and echoes of great films past, my favorite of which involves my favorite filmmaker, Buster Keaton (none of whose films are on this year's SFSFF roster).

One Keaton's trademarks was his characters' logical deduction in the face of repeating oddity. Keaton knew not only how to create great gags, but how to build them into increasingly absurd scenes of comedic genius. Take, for example, the scene in "The General" in which he tries to give orders to a number of soldiers, all of whom fall victim to an unseen sniper before he can complete instructions. At first, Buster handles the situation calmly and proceeds to the next soldier, only to see that one drop dead as well. Puzzled, he slowly inches toward the next one with a suspicious look on his face, hesitant to give the order that will bring about the inevitable.

In the case of Wall-E, the trash-compacting has encountered a cleaning robot whose task is to tidy up all external contaminants on a resort space station. Wall-E, having spent the past 700 years rolling around on a trash-contaminated earth, is understandably filthy. He rolls, a trail of dirt is left on the shiny white floor, the cleaning robot spazzes and quickly cleans up the mess. But of course, as soon as Wall-E moves, there's more mess. This interplay of aggravation builds up, and Wall-E begins to pick up on his friend's peculiar behavior. So curiously begins some experiments of his own. He sticks his wheel-chains out just a little bit, and sees the robot address the little dirt smudge with the same level of ferocity. Having detected the pattern, Wall-E tried something new: He smudges the dirt right across the robot's face. Pure brilliance. Pure Keaton.
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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Our Action Sequence of Discontent

Hancock is the first movie super-hero to deserve a write-up for drunk-flying. As he soars through the skies of Los Angeles, bitter that a young boy woke him from his drunken bus-stop slumber so he could intervene in a high-speed chase, his flight stands out from all the other crumby CG scene in every other super hero movie. It's erratic. If there were lanes in the sky, he'd be swerving in and out of his, and knocking over some bus stops, too.

It's not that he's still learning how to use his powers, it's that he doesn't care.

"Hancock" goes a long way simply with the ingenious casting of Will Smith in the title role. The imminently likable Smith has established himself as the quintessential action hero of his generation, and now he offers us a malcontent anti-hero who doesn't like his job.

In the film's best scene, a giant crowd surrounds Hancock after he rescues a man who couldn't get out of his car, which was stuck on the track of an oncoming train. The crowd isn't there to praise Hancock, but to critique his admittedly inept way of handling the rescue. He should have done it different, and if he had, he would have caused a whole lot less damage. They have a point, but we get the feeling that Hancock might be a little better at heroics if he weren't so insecure about the way people think of him.

The man Hancock rescues turns out to be a public-relations wizard, and he offers to help turn around the hero's image. Jason Bateman is funny as usual in the role, but Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan's screenplay could have provided more dimension (the tacked-on plot about his charity brand that will change the world notwithstanding). Nevertheless, he and Smith have a slap-happy awkward chemistry as he gets to know the hero and brings him home to meet his wife (Charlize Theron), who looks upon Hancock with suspicion and mistrust, and son, who actually likes the guy.

Running around 90 minutes, "Hancock" could have benefitted from a longer runtime to develop all its themes. As it is, it seems to throw ideas at us, then abandon them for something else. The film's villains are so poorly set up that they might as well not be in the film at all, and the third act, while full of interesting developments, devolves into aimless action right when it needs to build on its ideas.

But in its best moments, "Hancock" is good for some nice laughs and character humor, along with the requisite summer excitement.
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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Is "WALL•E" a Godless Commie, or Just Adorable?

Bill Wyman's new column notes that many critics, although I am surely not among them, ignore the material in "WALL•E" that "[attacks] the American way of life." The claim is fair enough, but one can't help but wonder if there wasn't simply too much interesting stuff going on in Andrew Stanton's film to cover in a short review.

For example, imagine that you're a critic for a major daily, and have 450 words to write on a film that you think is fantastic (as most of "WALL•E's" reviewers do). Because you love the movie so much, you want your readers to go see it to. At this point, you can either talk about issues of exercise or obesity, or you can talk about visual bedazzlement, touching characters and perfect storytelling. Which one would you discuss?

What Wyman misses, however, is that kids movies have somehow become, over the past decade, the safest corner of mainstream cinema for political discourse. He opens his piece with:

If Michael Moore, or Oliver Stone, or, God forbid, some effete French director, had crafted a feature film that was a thinly disguised political broadside portraying Americans as recumbent tubbos who moved around on sliding barcaloungers with built-in video screens and soft drinks always at the ready, don’t you think there’d be some sort of notice taken?

But Pixar does it and …

… the reviewers barely mention it.

The thing is, a new Michael Moore movie is such a hot button issue in itself that everyone has already heard about it in the news by the time reviews run on release day. The interest buzzing around over a new Pixar film isn't its underlying political message, but the anticipated high-quality filmmaking and top-rate entertainment. Maybe reviewers decided to let that remain the headline, and let the audience figure out the underlying messages of lifestyle choices on their own.

Truth is, it's easier to get a political screenplay greenlit when it's "Antz" than when it's "Michael Clayton." Add a dash of whimsy and some cute comedy, and the topics of edgy adult dramas make great stories for the kids. While one would expect blowhard TV pundits to be most concerned about the material that appeals directly to the children, family-oriented movies tend to get a free pass as long as they aren't out to convert the tots to atheism or teach them to hate their religious leaders.

Take for example "Robots," 20th Century Fox's 2005 release from its computer-animation studio. The film comes from the same conglomerate responsible for the Fox News Channel and the New York Post, yet delivers a cry for socialism that would feel at home in an Upton Sinclair novel. The world of "Robots" is one in which corporations care only about the bottom line—where greedy CEOs abuse the downtrodden, lower-class worker robots, then discard them when they are no longer useful. The politics are overt enough before the film's rallying cry of a third act: The robots violently overthrow their corporate overlords, take over the means of production and transform their city into a utopian paradise. By comparison, "WALL•E's" commentary on wastefulness, civic responsibility and obesity seems downright tame.

Perhaps theses radical animation directors tapped into the perfect shield from controversy: the lessons people want to teach their kids. No one really wants to look their kid in the eyes and say, "Sorry Skippy, but if that cute little robot is no longer profitable to the company, it's the CEO's responsibility to discard him. He has to think of the shareholders! And there's nothing wrong with sitting on the couch all day staring at a TV screen—you don't need any exercise. Also, sorry I named you Skippy—I hope you don't get the shit kicked out of you at school." So those who disagree with the underlying political principals probably find it easier to pretend they're not there.
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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

WALL•E: The Robot Who Rediscovers Humanity

The first five minutes of "WALL•E," place so much visual wonderment on the movie screen that my eyes almost danced out of my skull trying to take in all the details. And it never stops dazzling. Pixar Animation Studios' latest effort presents one among hundreds of cinematic visions of a post-apocalyptic future, but in this one there are no down-and-out humans living in cyberslums or sinister corporate goons who lord over them. With the exception of a cockroach, there's no life at all besides a run-down robot that may be humanity's last hope.

In an uninhabited city whose towering skyscrapers are actually giant stacks of compressed trash cubes, the plucky little robot zips from place to place, scavenging alone on the dusty brown landscape. The scenes of him rolling through the desolate nothingness recall the opening shots of last year's "I Am Legend" (a similarity that's surely unintentional, given the extensive pre-production required of Pixar's computer animation). But there are two key differences between the films. The hero of "WALL•E" is never as dour as Will Smith in "I Am Legend," and there are no vampiric monsters with whom the little fellow has to contend. Also, Smith wasn't cranking the "Hello Dolly" soundtrack while he worked. This is a film about connection, not fear.

It's 800 years in the future, and Earth has become a land of garbage. The humans abandoned it 700 years ago, with plans to return in a few years, when trash-gathering WALL•E robots were supposed to have disposed of it. But the humans never came back, and the sole functioning robot goes about business in his own idiosyncratic manner.

Fred Willard—who is so consistently good that his presence alone earns a smile, plays the film's only live-action part, in old footage of the president of the company that pledged to clean up earth's mess. His is the only voice that says more than a word during the first act of the film.

The trash-filled wasteland is a commentary on a wasteful society, and Willard's promises are ones that appeal to mankind's laziness. Don't stay behind to fix the problem, he says, take a pleasure cruise through space and everything will be fixed when you return. Now, the ignore-the-problems attitude has been passed on for several generations, resulting in an obese human who only knows how to pass the time by looking at computer screens while traveling on hovering chairs.

Director Andrew Stanton, who previously made "A Bugs Life" and "Monsters, Inc.," reaches the highest level of visual storytelling. The personalities of the film's many different robots come through in their movement and sounds—dialogue isn't necessary. WALL•E's mannerisms makes for great comedy and great action. One scene, in which he aggravates a cleaning robot by trying to deduce his motivations, comes right out of Buster Keaton's handbook. The supporting human characters who speak almost feel trite by comparison.

Stanton and his collaborators brilliantly designed their characters and environments, both on the depleted earth and on WALL•E's ensuing journey to outer-space. The designs are both original and full of references, including the most iconic robot-computer of all time, the HAL 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

WALL•E's solitude must have given his processors lots of time to consider the greater purposes of existence. And so he became a deeply sentimental robot, hungry for interaction and extremely attached to the trinkets that Earth's former inhabitants left behind. He doesn't plow the trash and compact it without thought, as his programmers intended. He sorts through it, looking for special trinkets that interest him—a hand-powered food mixer, a jewelry case (the ring inside, not so much) and, most of all, a VHS player and an old cassette of "Hello Dolly," which shows him the magic of singing, dancing and holding hands.

He brings this hunger for interaction to a human race that has started to forget it. Whether you're a baby or a senior citizen, you can't help but notice the robot's steadfast commitment to friendliness, and the difference it makes. "WALL•E" reminds us of the joys to be had in life's simple gestures, like a wave, a handshake or the beautiful act of holding hands.
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