Tuesday, August 29, 2006

This week's film recommendations 8/30-9/6

First this week, a mea culpa and an apology. In last week's post, I misrepresented the film Laura (20th Century Fox, 1944), describing the title character as a femme fatale. Whoops! Of course, Laura Hunt is nothing of the sort. In my haste to complete the column, I confused Gene Tierney's performance in Leave Her to Heaven (20th Century Fox, 1945) with her turn as Laura. (That's an explanation, not an excuse.) My apologies to everyone, and a tip of my dunce cap to special agent ML for bringing the mistake to my attention.

Lon Chaney is mistakenly considered a “horror” star by many, thanks largely to his performance as The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1925). Although it's based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, every subsequent version of the story—including the agonizing Andrew Lloyd Weber version—owes its very existence to this film. The Paris Opera House was constructed on the Universal Pictures studio lot in Hollywood, making this one of the legendary giant productions of movie history. What really makes it work is Chaney's performance—from behind two masks, he delivers an emotional impact that is astonishing to behold. This is another entry in my growing list of Film 101 entries. It's at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto this Friday, 9/1, 7:30 p.m., with Dennis James, one of the world's top silent film accompanists, at the might Wurlitzer. I've no idea which print they're using (there are several, including the gorgeous 1996 Kevin Brownlow/Photoplay print with the two-strip Technicolor sequence and all the tinting restored), but since it's the Stanford Theatre, you're assured of a thoroughly professional presentation, so go!

What may prove to be the most exciting film series of the year (or at least one of my favorites) starts at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley this Sunday, 9/3, with Fritz Lang's utopian nightmare Metropolis (UFA, 1926) at 3 p.m., and Charles Chaplin's dystopian comedy Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936) at 6 p.m. The series is called The Mechanical Age, and serves as an overview of the 20th century's fascination with machinery and the movies—which are themselves a mechanical product.

The Mechanical Age includes a double bill of Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.—in which a film projectionist walks into the action on the movie screen—and Dziga Vertov's brilliant exercise in montage, The Man With a Movie Camera, on Sunday, 9/24, a presentation of Magic Lantern slides, cinema's direct predecessor and a chief Victorian thrill, on Saturday, 9/30, a program of silent-era serials involving mechanical threats on Thursday, 9/24, an evening of industrial films celebrating machines, from the Prelinger Archive (with Rick Prelinger himself!) on Thursday, 10/19, and much, much more. Look here for weekly reminders.

Metropolis is one of the essential silent films. Gigantic, mythical, naïve, often overwrought and frequently fascistic, it remains archetypal, even in the wake of its latest restoration. For decades, Metropolis has been incomplete, much of its original footage lost. In 2002, an entirely new version of Metropolis was prepared by the Friederich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, combining all of the known surviving footage in the sequence dicated by a recently discovered shooting script. Gaps in the script's continuity were filled by using stills and title cards describing the missing action. All of the disparate film elements (including 16mm strips) were digitally modified to give the images an overall uniform quality. This is a controversial approach to restoring films, but it seems quite appropriate as a topic for discussion in a series about films and The Mechanical Age .

Modern Times is the last appearance of Chaplins's Little Tramp character, and it's also the last major silent film made in the United States. Released with a synchronized score and sound effects track, the only dialogue heard in the film originates from mechanical devices in the frame (with the exception of Chaplin's own nonsensical musical number). The film also has a political viewpoint that helped his right-wing opponents exile Chaplin from America in the stupidly paranoid environment of the 1950s. As you might guess, both Metropolis and Modern Times are on the Film 101 list.

Hopefully everyone likes Berkeley, as there's more at the Pacific Film Archive. This weekend, there are two nights with a new 35mm print of David Lynch's break-out film, Blue Velvet (DEG, 1986). With Inland Empire (Studio Canal, 2006) Lynch's first feature in five years, premiering at the Venice Film Festival on 9/5, now's as good a time as any to revisit the first commercially-produced, genuinely Lynchian film. (Like you need an excuse!) Blue Velvet remains compelling, and it retains all of the power it had when it shocked audiences on its first release. The brutal and deranged Frank Booth may be the one role that Dennis Hopper will be remembered for. In an inspired bit of programming, PFA presents it on Friday (8:55 p.m.) with Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956), a CinemaScope examination of secrets and societally-approved drug abuse in the middle of the post-WWII American community and nuclear family. With James Mason in one of his best performances. Presented at 7 p.m., in a 35mm restored vault print from the Criterion Collection and 20th Century Fox.

On Saturday, Blue Velvet screens at 6:50 p.m., followed by Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious at 8:50 p.m. One year after the war's end, Hitchcock uses the trope of post-Reich Nazi spies in South America to explore dominance, submission and sado-masochism in this still astonishingly effective examination of personal power structures. Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains were never better than they are in this film, but Leopoldine Konstantin almost steals the show as the cruel Teutonic matriarch.

We're not done with the PFA yet. Another clever series starts Wednesday, 9/6 at 7:30 p.m.: Arrr, Matey: Pirates and Piracy. Examining the renewed interest in pirates of legend, in the wake of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Talk Like a Pirate Day (9/19, me hearties), and the retail component of 826 Valencia, as well as the new corporate driven copyright regulations that are turning more and more of us into piratical outlaws, this promises to be a fun and thought-provoking series. The first program includes the swashbuckling Errol Flynn battling the delightfully unctuous Claude Rains in Michael Curtiz's The Sea Hawk (Warner Brothers, 1940). With the hilarious-yet-chilling The Artwork in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility by Walter Benjamin as told to Keith Sanborn (1996), a four-minute short by Jayne Austen.

Anime fans and Hong Kong cinema enthusiasts will be lining up on Haight Street outside the Red Vic Movie House for The Great Yokai War (Kadokawa, 2005), opening Friday, 9/1, and playing through Thursday, 9/7. This is a live action/CGI anime-style eco-horror-fairy tale that appears to borrow liberally from the work of Japan's most successful animator, Hayao Miyazaki. It's directed by Takashi Miike, who's best known for nightmarish horror films like Gozu (2003). He also directed the 2005 television revival of Ultraman. The trailer for The Great Yokai War looks promising, but the question does remain: why bother re-doing in live-action and CGI what Miyazaki's already done exceedingly well in traditional animation? Let me know if you see it.

Johannes Vermeer was one of the great Dutch artists of the 17th century. Some 35 of his paintings are known to exist. One of them, The Concert, was stolen in 1990, along with 12 other significant works, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and remains lost today. Stolen, a 2005 documentary by director Rebecca Dreyfus (with cinematography by Albert Maysles), follows art detective Harold Smith as he pursues what has become a personal obsession to locate the missing paintings more than a decade later. It looks to be an interesting examination of the world of high-priced artwork, competitive museums, shady collectors, and maybe the Irish Republican Army. It opens for a one-week run at the Roxie Cinema this Friday, 9/1.


Set your calendars ahead for:
The tenth Madcat Film Festival, 9/12-9/27.
The tenth Arab Film Festival, 9/8-9/14.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved

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