Resurrecting ‘Sherlock Holmes’: An interview with Rob Byrne

“I’ve always been, since my early, early days, a silent film fanatic, or aficionado, or whatever you call it.”

After a successful career in the tech world, lifelong silent movie fan and President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Rob Byrne decided what he really wanted to do with his life: restore movies. So in 2006, at a point when, in his own words, “I could go after and do what I wanted to do,” he moved to Amsterdam for two years to attend the master’s program in film preservation at the University of Amsterdam. After internships at several different archives, he received an award from the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now the EYE Film Institute) and Haghefilm to restore the 1923 Pola Negri film The Spanish Dancer. He’s now back in San Francisco and building a legacy as an independent film restorer and preservationist. His restorations of the Douglas Fairbanks features The Half-Breed (1916) and The Good Bad Man (1916), the three-reel When the Earth Trembled (1913) and the San Francisco-shot The Last Edition (1925) all premiered at SFSFF over the past few years.

William Gillette and his team in the 1916 ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Byrne’s most recent project is one of the most important restorations of the last decade: the long-assumed-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette, the definitive Sherlock Holmes of the stage.

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Review: We All Loved Each Other So Much

[Originally published in The Weekly, October 12, 1977]

The Pizza Triangle opens with an all-male reenactment of a crime of passion before a judge and jury. Everything else but the final scene is flashback, a reconstruction of the cockeyed lovelife of a bungling leftist, a streetwalker, and the protestor’s best buddy, a pizza chef. The prostitute first sees the protestor while she is riding in a delirious, fluorescently colorful circle above a makeshift amusement park; he is lying on some rubble. She disembarks, walks over to him, and kisses him back to life. They become a couple. She meets the buddy. Everyone is friends for a while. Then she and the buddy make love. Alliances form, shift, realign. Everyone gets older. The three inadvertently meet again after time has passed and the girl and buddy have married. There is a clumsy fight, fully as graceless and absurd as—and much more moving than—its comic reenactment; the original is funny, too, but the woman ends up dead.”

That’s from a review I wrote six-and-a-half years ago. You’re reading it now because Ettore Scola, the director of that idiosyncratic 1970 comedy, is the guy who made We All Loved Each Other So Much, and because I was struck, upon rereading the piece, how true it also seems of the newer film. Make it a girl and three men instead of two, expand the time frame by a couple decades, change the lethal reunion into a self-designated “ambiguous conclusion” wherein three old friends discover a fourth is not what he pretended to be, and you have much the same film, in style, essential scenario, and sadly comic spirit.

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Review: Down and Dirty

[Originally published in The Weekly, 1979]

…Another, more peculiar Italian film has opened this past week: Ettore Scola’s Down and Dirty. A surrealistic comedy bedrocked in a card-carrying realist milieu, it deals with a dirt-poor Italian family living in a shantytown. The catch is that the family numbers in excess of twenty—in-laws, outlaws, legitimate and illegitimate children—and they all live in one (1) crumbling hutch on a mudflat. Although their occupations include housekeeping, nursing, pursesnatching, and several varieties of prostitution, they have one thing in common: they all hate papa Giacinto and he hates them.

Story is rarely the long suit in Italian movies and Down and Dirty is no exception. Having established the basic situation—embellished by the fact that Giacinto has received a sizable insurance settlement for the loss of one eye, money that he must constantly shift from hidey-hole to hidey-hole and guard with a sawed-off shotgun—Scola simply plays it and plays it. He gets away with this, keeps it all interesting, because he has a truly grotesque sense of humor and boundless capacity for visual invention within carefully maintained limits.

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Nonconformists: A Report on Two Italian Films

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

Partner is the film Bernardo Bertolucci made following Before the Revolution and prior to The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem, and Last Tango in Paris. It is nominally based on Dostoevsky’s The Double. There are some really extraordinary things in it, but it is also the least satisfying of the five Bertolucci films that have found their way to the United Stares (his first feature, The Grim Reaper, is not in distribution here). While there are sometimes two Pierre Clémentis on screen at once, the movie and the character suffer less from split personality than from multiple fractures. Clémenti plays Jacob, a young intellectual haunted by his own double; and here, as elsewhere, Bertolucci is concerned with the gap between political awareness and political action. But despite the film’s basic conceit, he has failed in Partner to find illuminating forms and figures for this very contemporary emotional ailment. The double device signifies in only the most obvious ways: mostly it provides opportunities for Bertolucci to create some fascinating shots. Toward the end, we are told that the revolutionary side of Jacob is a part of all of us that may some day find expression. But this neither suggests nor compels much conviction, especially since Bertolucci, his film, and the characters trail off into self-doubt … at which point the film ceases to continue.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The American Friend,’ ‘Bitter Rice,’ and the ‘Lady Snowblood’ chronicles

AmericanFriendThe American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.

The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.

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Oscar, You’re Breaking My Heart (but you always do)

I have no proof whatever that when the final ballots were tallied, late at night at the Academy, and the prospect of a second year of the dreaded hashtag #OscarsSoWhite hung over the room, considerable thought was given to The Messenger of this news. Messengers.

I do know that it was really nice to see that Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee were given the first swath of nominations to read. The second list was handled by redoubtable Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and John Krasinski.

It was a gallant show of inclusiveness, before the truth was out and hellfire rained down from every side.

– Sylvester Stallone but not Michael B. Jordan? So, who was Creed about, an old, slow white guy from Philly?

– Idris Elba nowhere in sight, unless you count Netflix ads.

Straight Outta Compton? Not exactly the screener that . . .ummm, mature Academy voters bring out to share with poker cronies.

– Women? Don’t start. Freud said it best, “My god, what do women want?”

– Spike Lee? Maybe no one could pronounce Chi-Raq. In any case, he just got an honorary Oscar. . . in November, at one of those ceremonies that happen way, way off-stage. Check out his speech, every last minute of it.

Don’t even want to think what he’s saying today. No, actually, I do.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 15

“When they first met, Coogler mistakenly assumed Jordan had already played starring roles. ‘I talked to him, and I just knew there was a movie that he had made—that he carried—that I hadn’t heard of,’ says Coogler. ‘And he was like, Nah.’ Jordan buckles over laughing and hits the director on the shoulder. ‘His was the first one!’ says Jordan.” Their winning streak is likely to hit pause unless Ryan Coogler can shoehorn a role into Black Panther—Achebe, maybe?—for Michael B. Jordan; But the camaraderie and respect the pair display for one another in Rembert Browne’s dual profile makes clear the partnership is far from over.

Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan

“With each message received, the needle on the speedometer rises; we are cruising at well over 100 miles per hour. I like speed. But not without my own hands on the wheel.” Sean Penn’s interview with Mexican drug lord El Chapo is no great shakes, the kind of intelligent but unenlightening questions a smart neophyte would ask, and that an experienced criminal like Chapo has no trouble deflecting. But Penn’s much derided introduction, solipsistic even as it tries to show off its concern (genuine, I’m sure) for the wider world, overlong without ever quite rambling, makes for a hell of a self-portrait of one of our more curious, socially committed actors.

“We may feel that Highsmith’s interest in Jonathan Trevanny is mostly about how the puppeteer Ripley yanks on his strings. But Wenders portrays Ripley’s victim… as a tragic figure, a hero for whom we are actively rooting in his struggle against the forces unleashed by the reprehensible caprice of his American friend. How can we not side with a character played by Bruno Ganz at his most radiantly handsome, an actor who can manage to perform the deceptively simple but in fact challenging feat of making a mild and fundamentally decent family man both interesting and charismatic?” Francine Prose praises Wenders’s The American Friend as something “deeper than crime, than noir,” and if it’s not quite Highsmith it compensates by being the director’s most complicated take on his love/hate relationship with America.

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Review: Anomolisa

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film ‘Anomalisa.’

“Scrambled is my favorite eggs style. What about yours?” The speaker is Lisa, a lonely, sincere, somewhat vapid woman sharing breakfast with a well-regarded expert on customer service, Michael Stone. The line is vintage Charlie Kaufman: The Oscar-winning screenwriter has an uncanny ear for small talk and eager inanities—the chintzy conversation of the 21st-century mall-dweller. Kaufman risks the acid reflux that can result from writing these characters; there’s a fine line between the despair he conveys over the way we live today and out-and-out contempt for it. But his dialogue is so sharp you can’t help appreciating these people despite themselves (or you’ll be so impressed by the moviemaking experiment—the fact that Adaptation becomes exactly the kind of movie the on-screen Kaufman doesn’t want it to become, for instance—that liking the characters won’t matter).

Anomalisa is lemon-sucking sour, but there are enough gimmicks—and enough lacerating humor—to make the film memorable.

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Blu-ray / DVD: Jacques Rivette’s nouvelle vague magnum opus ‘Out 1’ restored and reclaimed

Out1BoxJacques Rivette’s Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) has been one of the Holy Grails of international cinema since its premier screening in 1971. Rejected by French TV and, at over 12 1/2 hours in its initial cut, too long for theaters, the definitive editions wasn’t even completed until 1989. It showed on French and German TV but apart from periodic special screenings (including a handful of showings in the U.S. and Canada in 2006 and 2007) was impossible to see.

That changed in 2015 with a French digital restoration from the original 16mm negatives, a high-profile two-week run in New York (qualifying as the film’s American theatrical debut) followed by screenings across the country (including Seattle), streaming availability from the arthouse subscription service Fandor and a late 2015 disc release in France. Now 2016 brings this amazing Blu-ray+DVD combo box set release. It features not only the 13-hour Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971 / 1989) but the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision, plus an accompanying documentary and a booklet.

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Keith Baxter: On Acting in Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Keith Baxter was a struggling young Welsh actor when Orson Welles tapped him to play Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight in Ireland. Like Welles’ earlier Five Kings, this massive production brought together elements of numerous Shakespeare plays, in particular Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, to chronicle the education of a king, and like the earlier production is was commercial failure. But Welles was still determined to make his production. As Baxter related in a 1988 interview, “on the last night, coming back to England, he [Welles] said to me on the ship, ‘This is only a rehearsal for the movie, Keith, and I’ll never make it unless you play Hal in that, too.’” Welles was true to his word and Baxter, in his first major screen role, starred opposite Welles in a cast that included John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford.

Keith Baxter and Orson Welles in Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Mr. Baxter, now eighty-two years old and a grand old man of British and American theater, was in New York City to introduce the American debut of the new restoration if Chimes at Midnight on Friday, January 8. Before the event, he granted a few interviews. “Ask me whatever you want to ask,” he said with a bright enthusiasm as our phone conversation began.

Sean Axmaker: You starred as Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight with Orson Welles in Ireland. You were the only member of that production (besides Welles) to appear in the film. Was there any change in the way that you played Hal and in the relationship between Hal and Welles’ Falstaff between the stage production and the film a few years later?

Keith Baxter: Well not really, you know. The thing is that Welles discovered me when I was out of work, washing dishes, so it was a wonderful opportunity to play on the stage with him. And, how can I explain? He really loved me and I really loved him. I don’t mean in any sexual sense. I mean because he’d given me a whole opportunity to play a wonderful part with a great actor instead of washing dishes and being out of work. So of course I felt a tremendous debt towards him. And he was wonderful to act with. He didn’t direct the play in Dublin, it was directed by an old friend of his who had discovered him when he was a teenager in Ireland [ed. note: Hilton Edwards]. Because when we started rehearsing Welles wasn’t there for two weeks, he was in Paris working on his film of The Trial, so we rehearsed without him and then he arrived. And of course we were all mightily… not in awe of him, well yes, in awe of him, whatever, and it was quite clear that he liked acting with me and I was a source of light.

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Review: Zandy’s Bride

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

It may be a peculiarity of my character that a little of Jan Troell’s unassumingness goes a very long way. There’s something very admirable—and certainly “grownup,” to anyone passionately concerned that the movies grow away from Melodrama and towards Life—about his talent for capturing the offhand beauties of a field, a rock, the picturesque yet undecorative angle from which the whimsy, at once gentle and profound, of a pregnant woman indulging in her last reverie on a swing is observed and defined. The New Land begins (at least, as it is shown in this country) with a slow, obscurely motivated zoom-out from a deep stand of trees somewhere in 19th-century Minnesota, the sound of … an axe? a gun? a wheel? … reverberating within. Anything could be happening there—something surely seems to be happening there—and in its own good time the land and the film may reveal that something to us.

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Review: The Underground Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

While maintaining a properly modest reticence myself, I spent the commercial breaks—and part of the regular showtime—wondering who really should be the one to direct the film versions of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books. Altman has the southern California feel for the milieu, but—sometimes for good, sometimes ill—he can’t leave the original of anything intact enough to suit an admirer of the original. Besides, his acid-splashing approach to interpersonal relations runs counter to the concerned decency of Macdonald and his protagonist, a sort of well-meaning-English-teacher-with-an-edge private eye with memories of a long-ago world war and a marriage that failed. Huston? Yes, the Huston of today, the Huston of Fat City rather than The Maltese Falcon, the Huston who can now take his camera where a Lew Archer has to go without the sense of slumming that mars some of his best work (The Asphalt Jungle, for instance). Bogdanovich? Maybe, yes, if he can keep from quoting The Big Sleep (Hawks’s grey-and-grey soundstage world with sprinkler rain and Max Steiner thunder music and chauffeurs getting driven off piers on the wrong side of a town that has nothing to do with real space, isn’t Archer’s California, though it was certainly Bogart/Marlowe’s). Bogdanovich has the penchant for long-take, middle-distant contemplation that the styles of both novelist and detective call for.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 8

“Fogelson knows early in development what the sell of a movie is, and he shapes the film accordingly. He’s an optician, swapping out the lenses in his refractor and inquiring, “Clearer now? Or now?,” until the image is crisp. When STX was negotiating with the owners of UglyDoll, a line of mischievous, misshapen plush dolls, for the rights to make an animated movie, Fogelson told his staff that he could already see the tagline over ‘a cute-looking version of that one-eyed character: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ How do you not want to see that? There are so many good and easy ways to make you care about creatures who know they’re not attractive.’” Tad Friend profiles start-up studio STX and its chairman Adam Fogelson, who’s betting on the success of mid-range hits rather than the all-or-nothing blockbusters that dominate the majors’ slate. But whether he’s changing a movie’s elusive villain into the hero to attract a big-name star or bonding with Jackie Chan over the changes necessary to make a film more successful, Fogelson comes off very much as more of the same, if on an admirably smaller scale.

Sam Jones as Flash Gordon and Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan

Adam Smith’s history of Flash Gordon glosses over some details—such as Sam Jones’s falling out from the project—that are probably more interesting than they come across. But Mike Hodges talks amusingly about what it’s like to step in at the last minute on a De Laurentiis super-production that had been designed for Nic Roeg, and Brian Blessed turns out to have been cast exactly the way you’d hope he was: by threatening to kill the filmmakers if he wasn’t.

In the course of nearly 30 years living in Japan, Pico Iyer has seen his appreciation of Ikiru go from enthusiasm to dissatisfaction with its Western attitudes back around to an appreciation for how thoroughly Kurosawa portrayed the Japanese soul, which turns out not to be the exclusive bailiwick of Ozu.

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Blu-ray: ‘Fantomas’ – Cinema’s original supervillain, remastered

Kino Classics

Fantômas (Kino Classics, Blu-ray) – There may be no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive, and entertaining surreal filmmaking in the years 1913 and 1914 than the five wicked short features of Louis Feuillade’s serialized adaptations of the pulp adventures of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, films that captured the imaginations of filmgoers of the time and inspired the crime and adventure serials of the next decade, including Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films.

Thief, assassin, escape artist and master of disguises, Fantômas (played with calm, stylish command by Rene Navarre) is the cinema’s first supervillain, an anti-hero who is very much the center of attention in this mad masterpiece of secret identities, violent conspiracies and cliffhanger twists. The character of this pulp mastermind was established in blitzkrieg of pulp adventures cranked out by the authors at the rate of one a month for 32 months between 1911 and 1913. That, according to film historian David Kalat, has a lot to do with the incoherence of the plotting. The rest is a matter of Feuillade’s breakneck pace of filmmaking: he made these five feature-length (some just barely) films in a single year, in which he also turned out almost fifty short films (most of them with his popular child star Bout-de-Zan). I don’t think there was anyone more prolific than Feuillade in the early teens, and this while also serving as the artistic director of Gaumont.

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Review: The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio

The Revenant is a huge whopping spectacle, the likes of which have rarely been seen since Cecil B. DeMille ordered Charlton Heston to part the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. It’s unlikely that anybody compared Revenant director Alejandro González Iñárritu to DeMille back in the days of Amores Perros and Babel?; the somber Mexican filmmaker demonstrated little interest in cultivating the gaudier possibilities of cinematic fun, even as his compatriot/friends Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro flaunted their showmanship. Iñárritu’s role was to ponder the deep questions of whether misery has a breaking point, and how to measure the weight of the human soul.

2014’s Birdman signaled a change. Exuberant and funny—while still carving out room for lofty ideas, sometimes to the film’s detriment—it showed off a new playfulness in Iñárritu’s approach. (He took home the Best Director Oscar as a reward.) Now comes The Revenant, and while nobody would tag this movie as “fun,” the great Hollywood huckster DeMille would surely approve of its incredible scale. This thing is a lollapalooza.

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