September at the Castro

Have you checked out the Castro‘s Coming Soon page? Here you’ll find the September schedule–sans links to more details. A few events worth noting:

  • The month begins with the end of a three-day run for Lawrence of Arabia, which should look wonderful with the Castro’s new 4K projector. August 30-September 1.
  • Not surprisingly, Robin Williams gets two double bills (the first two Sundays of the month, plus another mid-week appearance). The movies are Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, and The World According to Garp.
  • If…, a favorite from my youth, plays Wednesday, 9/10 on a double bill with The Chocolate War. I guess that works, but everyone who went to the movies in the 70s knows that If… belongs on a double bill with O Lucky Man, which is sort of a sequel.
  • The very next day, they’re screening the wonderful Dog Day Afternoon, with something called The Dog. Maybe they should bring in Rin Tin Tin.
  • Antonioni’s great study of pollution and madness, Red Desert, plays a double bill with Mickey One on Wednesday, September 24.
  • My favorite Samuel Fuller flick, Pickup on South Street, plays Sunday, 9/28, with Park Row and something called A Fuller Life.
  • Stepping into early October, we have Jaws 3-D. I’ve never seen it, and like all of the Jaws sequels, it has a horrible reputation. They shot it in 3D (very rare in those days) because back then calling a movie Title of a Past Hit 3 was considered a confession that it was a really lousy picture.

What’s Screening: August 22-28

Still no film festivals. We’ll get some in September.

B+ To Be Takei, Kabuki, opens Friday; Rafael, Thursday, 7:00 (one screening, only). Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered, George Takei would be the most beloved imagemember of the original cast. And why not? A childhood in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, a part in the iconic sci-fi TV series, and coming out as gay at age 67 all make for a great story. Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about this extraordinary person,  filled with interviews, video of Takei and husband Brad Altman going about their daily business, and old movie and TV clips. It’s the story, not the story-telling, that makes this film worth seeing. Read my full review. Director Kroot in person Friday at the Kabuki and Thursday at the Rafeal.

A All Quiet on the Western Front, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. The first great talkie war movie delivers a powerful anti-war message. When The Great War (AKA World War I) breaks out, a young, naïve imageGerman student patriotically and enthusiastically volunteers for the grand adventure he had been taught to expect. What he finds instead is a non-stop hellhole with no good guys or bad guys…just losers no matter what side they’re on. A rare Hollywood film that looks at war from the enemy’s side; I doubt it could have been made if it had shown our authority figures pushing our boys to the slaughterhouse. Part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.

A- Knocked Up, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. Writer/Director Judd Apatow tops his The 40 Year Old Virgin in another raunchy-yet-sweet comedy about the complexities and problems of romance. This time around, a rising television personality (the stunningly gorgeous Katherine Heigl) shares a drunken one-night stand with a slacker stoner (the stunningly dumpy Seth Rogen), then discovers she’s pregnant. As the two leads, their friends, and their families react to this life-changing accident, Apatow explores romantic entanglements and the effects of expectant parenthood–all while providing plenty of laughs. Read my full review. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.

A The Leopard, Castro, Sunday. 4K digital projection. For a three-hour film where almost nothing happens, Luchino Visconti’s 1963 epic is remarkably spell-binding. The sumptuous Technirama photography helps. Aristocrats led by patriarch Burt Lancaster live through a theleopardrevolution that changes Italy’s government, but leaves their lives hardly effected. Visconti was an aristocrat by birth but a Marxist by inclination, and his film shows considerable nostalgia for the days of fancy balls and peasants who knew their place, but also understands why this society had to die. The Leopard is a big, bold film about people barely touched by momentous events. It’s graceful in design and shows great sympathy for its flawed characters. I enjoyed it immensely. Read my longer report.

A+ Paths of Glory, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer, more powerful men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviouslyimage pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon is one of the best. When an impossible mission inevitably fails, the officers who planned it arrange for three enlisted men to be tried for cowardice, convicted, and executed–it’s easier than admitting their mistake. Kirk Douglas–in the first performance by a major star in a Kubrick film–plays the honorable officer who tilts at the windmills of corrupted military justice. Another part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.

A- The Lavender Hill Mob, Rafael, Sunday. New digital restoration. In one of the best Ealing comedies, Alec Guinness plays a imagemeek, low-level bank clerk who decides he’s going to become very wealthy very quickly–by stealing a large amount of gold and smuggling it out of the country. He has no experience in crime, but he gathers together a more experienced gang to help him in this endeavor. The result is one of the funniest heist films ever made.  Part of the series Alec Guinness at 100.

A Before Midnight, Castro, Thursday. In this threequel to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) imagehave been living together for nine years, and they might as well be married. They have twins, a life together, and bodies transitioning into middle age. Like the previous films, this one takes place in a single day, but this time, they’re vacationing in Greece, and they drive, share a talkative dinner with six other people, and spend considerable time in a hotel room. And they fight. Hard. They still love each other, but you’re not sure if the relationship will last. The result is both sad and sexy. Read my full review. On a double bill with The Lovers on the Bridge.

A Monty Python Live (Mostly), Cerrito, Monday, Thursday, 7:00; Elmwood, Wednesday, 7:00. I know this isn’t technically a movie, but it’s screening in movie theaters and that’s what counts. The five surviving imagemembers of Monty Python, along with a large dancing troupe and the ever-adorable Carol Cleveland, celebrate everything Python in this recorded stage performance. We get old routines with new twists, new routines hopelessly twisted, and clips from the old TV show that often upstage the live acts (Philosopher’s Football is especially hilarious with a full audience). Everyone but the dancers have aged, but they’re just as talented and silly as they were 45 years ago.

C+ Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Stanford,Friday. It’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Nazi spies (and Professor Moriarty) in the fourth Rathbone/Bruce Holmes picture and the second one made by Universal. imageThe low budget shows, and the plot is filled with holes, but it’s still fun to watch Rathbone as the best-cast Sherlock Holmes ever. But the real mystery:Who at Universal thought that Rathbone looked good in that ridiculous hairstyle (which would be abandoned a picture of two later). On a double bill with Charlie Chan in London, which I haven’t seen. I discuss both of these series in a recent article.

To be a Gay Japanese-American Sci-Fi Actor and the Subject of To Be Takei

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot

Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered on NBC, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. But why not. He has a warm, upbeat personality and a great sense of humor. He’s been a political activist for decades, but always came off as a nice activist. He’s a master of social media. And by publically coming out late in life, he’s provided his story with a happy ending of triumph over bigotry.

Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about an extraordinary man. It’s a typical collection of interviews, video of Takei and his husband Brad Altman going about their daily business (except that this time there’s a camera on them), and old movie and TV clips. But it works because Takei is such an interesting and likeable personality, with has a great life story to tell.

image

The bigotry started early. As a young boy living in Los Angeles, he and his family were rounded up by the army and sent to an internment camp for the sin of being Americans of Japanese decent. After spending three years of his childhood behind barbed wire, he returned to a civilian America that had been taught to despise all "Japs."

As a young, struggling actor, he found that his race limited his roles to dubbing Godzilla movies and playing comic stereotypes.

And then there was his sexual orientation. To publically come out was professional suicide, and remained so long after the gay rights movement really got going in the ’70s. So he lived a lie, hiding his long-term relationship with Altman, until he publically came out at the age of 67. But instead of destroying his career, it rejuvenated it.

Kroot’s techniques don’t always work. In one sequence, she cuts between different venues where Takei gives the same speech about the internment camps. Rather than providing visual variety or showing his commitment, the cutting emphasizes that he’s repeating a memorized and rehearsed speech.

Another problem: Although Takei is funny and charismatic, Altman is none of those things, and we see almost as much of him as we see of Takei. It takes a while to warm up to the practical, pessimistic Altman (who now uses the last name Takei). He comes off as a decent person, and obviously the right man for George, but too normal to be a major player in a documentary.

But Takei is interesting, as are the other Star Trek veterans interviewed. (Yes, Takei and William Shatner really do dislike each other.) The film and TV clips are fun. We get a brief section about the gay-porn aspect of Star Trek fan fiction (which concentrates on Kirk and Spock). And it’s rare to see a documentary with such a sense of triumph.

To Be Takei really does feel like a happy ending.

What’s Screening: August 15 – 21

No film festivals this week. In fact, no more Bay Area film festivals this month. But we still have movies.

A Monty Python Live (Mostly), Cerrito, Tuesday, 7:00. I know this isn’t technically a movie, but it’s screening in movie theaters and that’s what counts. The five surviving imagemembers of Monty Python, along with a large dancing troupe and the ever-adorable Carol Cleveland celebrate everything Python in this recorded stage performance. We get old routines with new twists, new routines hopelessly twisted, and clips from the old TV show that often upstage the live acts (Philosopher’s Football is especially hilarious with a full audience). Everyone but the dancers have aged, but they’re just as talented and silly as they were 45 years ago.

A- Office Space, Castro, Saturday, 9:00. Archival print. Work…there’s a reason they have to pay you to show up. In this broad and funny satire by Mike Judge, threeimage young men struggle with their jobs in a soul-killing tech company. They conspire to fool the computers and skim enough money off the top to allow for early retirement –but not enough to be noticed. Jennifer Aniston plays the waitress whose job is as soul-killing as theirs, but pays considerably less. Stephen Root steals the movie as the employee who’s soul was crushed long ago. This special SF Sketchfest presentation will include Root in person.

A Kind Hearts and Coronets, Rafael, Sunday, 4:30 & 7:00. This very dark comedy from Ealing Studios takes a hammer to the British class system with vicious glee.image Dennis Price stars as a distant cousin to a wealthy and well-born aristocrat. He desperately desires to escape from his modest and humble life, but that requires killing several relatives–all played by Alec Guinness. Warning: In one scene the N-word is used in a shockingly casual way–it was apparently acceptable in 1949 England. Part of the series Alec Guinness at 100.

B+ The Fisher King, Lark, Friday, 8:45. Terry Gilliam’s first film from someone else’s screenplay, and his first shot in his native USA, isn’t up to his best work. But it’s still imagevery good. Jeff Bridges plays a guilt-ridden former shock jock who befriends a homeless lunatic (Robin Williams in one of his best performances) in hope of redemption. But helping this tragic victim of random violence involves both playing cupid and jumping down the rabbit hole of a brilliant but deeply unhinged mind. As with all of Gilliam’s work, fantasy and reality converge. The Lark is screening The Fisher King as a tribute to Robin Williams.

Jurassic Park, Lark, Saturday, 5:00. I find it odd that the Lark would put this PG-13 rated movie in their Family Film Series, but then, I saw it in first run with my nine-year-imageold son, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I remember it as a moderately entertaining fantasy thriller with what at the time were cutting-edge special effects. If I remembered it well enough to grade it, that grade would probably be a B-.Three important members of the special effects team will do Q&A after the movie.

A The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Castro, Sunday, 1:40 (double bill starts at noon). Considering the unethical behavior of the three leads, Sergio Leone’s epic Civil War western should have been called The Bad, the Worse, and the Totally Reprehensible. But morality is relative when armies are slaughtering thousands, and besides, it doesn’t really enter into Leone’s tongue-in-cheek point of view. While the war rages around them, three outlaws battle lawmen, prison guards, and each other for a fortune in stolen gold. Check your scruples at the door and enjoy the double- and triple-crosses, the black comedy, the beautiful Techniscope photography of Spain doubling as the American west, and Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are fine, but Eli Wallach’s performance as the half-bright, devious Tuco steals the picture. On a double bill with The Lineup, a Don Siegel movie I haven’t seen.

B+ Bullitt, Roxie, Monday, 7:00. Age hasn’t been altogether kind to this once cutting-edge police thriller. It seems more pedestrian than it once did. But it hasimage its pleasures, especially Steve McQueen’s exceptionally cool charisma and the best car chase ever shot on the streets of San Francisco. Another marker: To my knowledge, McQueen’s single use of the word “bullshit  marks the first time anyone said such a word in a Hollywood movie; Bullitt was released precisely two weeks before the rating system replaced the old production code, but the new freedom was already bubbling up. Presented to Zipcar.

C+ Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Stanford,Thursday and next Friday. It’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Nazi spies (and Professor Moriarty) in the fourth Rathbone/Bruce Holmes picture and the second one made by Universal. imageThe low budget shows, and the plot is filled with holes, but it’s still fun to watch Rathbone as the best-cast Sherlock Holmes ever. But the real mystery:Who at Universal thought that Rathbone looked good in that ridiculous hairstyle (which would be abandoned a picture of two later). On a double bill with Charlie Chan in London, which I haven’t seen. I discuss both of these series in a recent article.

D+ Mamma Mia, Castro, Friday, 7:00. What could go wrong with a musical comedy about long-passed promiscuity, starring Meryl Streep and set on a picturesque Mediterranean island? Plenty, including formless choreography, ABBA’s catchy but imageultimately unmemorable music, and way too many exterior scenes obviously shot on a soundstage. But in terms of sheer embarrassing badness, nothing in Mama Mia! comes close to Pierce Brosnan’s nails-on-chalkboard singing voice. I like Brosnan a lot as an actor, but when he tries to sing, the effect is something like strangling a cat. On a double bill with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, which I haven’t seen in many years. If memory serves, I’d give that one a low grade, too.

A Boyhood, Balboa, opens Friday. Fifty years from now, people will still watch Richard Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood imageallows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up and older. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films, and it’s all the better for that. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. Read my full review.

A A Hard Day’s Night, Roxie, Saturday & Sunday. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, andimage could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles are still popular, all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll.

B+ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939 version), Stanford, imageFriday. The best Sherlock Holmes novel gets a reasonably close and very effective adaptation in the first Holmes adventure starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Yes, the forbidding English moors are on a soundstage, but they still provide the sense of dread that the story requires. Rathbone is the perfect Holmes, and this is one of his best vehicles. On a double bill with Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which I have not seen.

What’s Screening: August 8 – 14

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival closes Sunday, and that’s the festival until September.  I put the SFJFF listings at the end of this newsletter.

A Before Sunrise, Castro, Thursday. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy starts with one of the most romantic films ever made. After meeting on a train, a young man and woman (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) go off together on a whim. Over the imagecourse of a single night, they wander the streets of Vienna, talk about every subject imaginable, flirt, and wonder if they’re going to end up having sex. No other film (at least that I’ve seen) so thoroughly catches the exhilaration of new love–especially among the young–as does Before Sunrise. I used to describe this film as "My Dinner with Andre with scenery and sex appeal," but by now it’s far better remembered than the earlier talkfest. On a triple bill with two films by Leos Carax, whose work I’m not familiar with.

A+ Grand Illusion, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:30. Set in a POW camp during World War I (and made two years before WW2), Grand Illusion sets the conflicts of nationality and class against the healing power of our common humanity. The French prisoners imageand their German guards try their best to be civilized in a world where civilization is all but outlawed. Jean Gabin stars as a French officer of common stock, but you’ll likely remember Erich von Stroheim as an aristocratic German facing the end of his way of life. The original negative was discovered and the film restored in the 1990s, but the new restoration (which I haven’t yet seen), is supposed to beat even that. Part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.

C+ The Rules of the Game, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. I know; everyone else considers this one of cinema’s great masterpieces–an immensely important influence on many imagefilmmakers (one can hardly imagine Robert Altman’s career without it). And yes, I’ve read all about its deep and important commentary on the class system and the institution of marriage. But all I see is a modest comedy of manners without much comedy and nothing exceptional to say about our manners. For me, Grand Illusion remains Renior’s masterpiece.

A Stop Making Sense, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage in this lively film; just the performance (actually compiled from three different concerts). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that turns Stop Making Sense into the most danceable motion picture ever to receive a theatrical release.

A- Mystery Double Bill: Charlie Chan at the Opera & The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesStanford, Friday. The A- goes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second and best of 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel imageBruce. Unlike the movies that followed, this one is set in the Victorian England of the original stories. Adventures pits Holmes and Watson against cinema’s best Professor Moriarty (George Zucc). A reasonably entertaining B picture, Charlie Chan at the Opera is both way ahead of its time in its treatment of Chinese Americans, but way behind the 21st century. The presence of Boris Karloff as an escaped lunatic adds to the fun. I’d give it a B-. I discuss both films in more detail in a recent post..

C Gabriel Over the White House, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. I’m not sure what to make of this very strange 1933 movie by Gregory (My Man Godfrey) La Cava, imageabout a president who goes from crook to saint after a near-fatal car crash. On one level, it might be saying “Here’s what we need to do to fix the country and the world.” On the other, it seems to be warning against fascism. I wouldn’t call it a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s an interesting view of a society desperate for solutions. Also part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film, although I can’t figure out what it has to do with the war.

B+ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939 version), Stanford, Thursday and next imageFriday. The best Sherlock Holmes novel gets a reasonably close and very effective adaptation in the first Holmes adventure starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Yes, the forbidding English moors are on a soundstage, but they still provide the sense of dread that the story requires. Rathbone is the perfect Holmes, and this is one of his best vehicles. On a double bill with Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which I have not seen.

B+ Sing-Along Wizard of Oz, Castro, Friday through Sunday. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.

B Hugo, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Martin Scorsese’s family film (that almost sounds like an oxymoron) proves to be reasonably hugoentertaining. But then, its very plot seems intended to enchant cinephiles like myself. I doubt I would have liked it near as much if it had been about the meat-packing industry. Scorsese uses the latest CGI and 3D technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. And while that story is slight and cliché-ridden, it has the virtue of touching on early film history and ending with a message—integrated into the story—of the importance of film preservation. The Balboa will not be presenting it in 3D. Read my Thoughts on Hugo.

A Life Itself, Magick Lantern, Friday, 5:00; Saturday, 2:00. This totally biased, yet entertaining and informative documentary Siskel and Ebert in the early daysexamines the life and death of Roger Ebert–the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. But be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but Ebert’s upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust. And, of course, there’s a lot about movies here. Read my full review.

B- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, New Parkway, Friday, 4:00; Saturday, 12:25; Thursday, 7:00. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own peeweesbigadvensilliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action flick, is alone worth the price of admission.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A Swim Little Fish Swim, Rafael, Friday, 4:20; Grand Lake Theater, Sunday, 8:55. Don’t let the funny, kind-of-kinky artist and model gag that opens this French/American film fool you. This is a serious drama, and an excellent one, about the conflicts of artistic dreams, political idealism, imageand the very real responsibilities of parenthood. Dustin Guy Defa plays a New York singer/songwriter who won’t take commercial work. In fact, he doesn’t do any work for money, much to the frustration of his long-suffering wife. He takes care of their four-year-old daughter, but he’s more of a fun dad than a responsible one. Meanwhile, a beautiful, struggling French artist (Lola Bessis) needs a professional breakthrough to avoid deportation.This is the rare film about struggling artists and idealists that asks if the struggle is worth it–especially if you have young mouths to feed.

A- Comedy Warriors, Rafael, Saturday, 8:55. Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to watch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help these wounded newbies turn their imagefrustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they have no feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.

B God’s Slave, Grand Lake, Friday, 6:45; Rafael, Saturday, 4:45. A Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the imagecall comes, he knows it’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.

C The Village of Peace, Grand Lake Theater, Friday, 2:35. On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the imageAfrican-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true decedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a community, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (we are told that their young adults serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.

SF Silent Film Festival Makes a September Appearance

We get another day this year of massive silent movie overload. It’s coming September 20, when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes over the Castro for their first Silent Autumn event. According to a festival press release, "We’ve moved our annual winter event to fall ," although September in my book counts more like late summer.

The program leans toward the well-loved and famous rather than the curious and obscure. The three features will be The Son of the Sheik (1:00), The General (7:00), and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (9:00). If you know anything about silent films, you’re probably already familiar with these titles.

But just because you know the titles doesn’t mean you’ve experienced them with a good print, live music, and an enthusiastic audience.

Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made The General. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting, mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death, and  hired thousands of extras. He filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era, then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up. The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made.

The General

I’ve seen The General many times theatrically–most recently at the Oakland Paramount. I’ve even seen it–at the Castro many years ago–with the Alloy Orchestra, who will accompany it at the Autumn event. I don’t recall much about their score, but it didn’t move me as much as some other General scores, such as Carl Davis’ and Christoph Bull’s.

The Alloy Orchestra will also accompany The Son of the Sheik. I’ve only seen this one once, about 40 years ago, at Hollywood’s fabled Silent Movie Theater. They screened it with a needle-drop score, rather than with live accompaniment. I look forward to seeing it properly. (I might prepare for it by seeing The Sheik first.)

Son of the Sheik

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped launch the German expressionist movement, and it’s about as expressionistic as they come. It’s quite possibly the weirdest horror film I’ve ever seen. Donald Sosin will accompany.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In addition to these features, this one-day festival will include two collections of shorts. Both will be accompanied by Sosin.

The first, Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts (11:00am), is exactly what the name implies. Remembered primarily for their talkies, Laurel and Hardy were also the last great stars of silent comedy; their characters gelled and their fame rose just before sound came in. The website only lists two titles: Two Tars (which I haven’t seen) and Big Business (which I love). They’ll probably screen one or two others; I’m hoping for Liberty and/or The Battle of the Century.

Big Business
The second collection of shorts will be A Night At the Cinema In 1914 (3:30). Put together by the British Film Institute, this collection of 14 shorts recreates the experience of watching a typical English movie-going experience from the dawn of World War I.

I know where I’m going to be September 20.

Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Strange Case of the Stereotyped Detective

Racism clouds old Hollywood movies. Even films intended in their time to be progressive and tolerant can look shockingly bigoted today. Consider Charlie Chan at the Opera, which the Stanford will screen Thursday and Friday.

And that’s just the beginning. The theater will screen Charlie Chan mysteries every Thursday and Friday through October 10, each double-billed with a Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. Most of these pictures were cheap B movies, running little more than an hour and intended to fill out the bottom half of a double bill.

The Stanford gives the series a good start this week with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the aforementioned Charlie Chan at the Opera. I consider Adventures the best of the Rathbone/Bruce series. Opera–the only Charlie Chan movie I’ve yet seen–has a high reputation amongst fans of the series.

I want to talk primarily about Chan, but I’ll cover Holmes at the end of this article.

Charlie Chan at the Opera

Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American police detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. He first appeared in novels, then made the leap to movies.

Charlie Chan at the Opera’s racism can shock modern movie-goers. The title character, an Asian, is played by the Swedish-born actor Warner Oland. His yellow-face makeup looks ridiculous, and he speaks with a Chinese accent that wouldn’t fool a cow. His stilted English dialog contains such gems as “Murderer always return to scene of crime,” “Be so kind to explain,” and “Confucius say ‘Luck happy combination of foolish accident.'”

image

And yet, I can’t condemn the film entirely. Taken in context of its time (1936), it offers a surprisingly positive view of Chinese Americans.

After all, Chan is the hero. He’s not a Fu Manchu-type yellow horde villain. Nor is he a helpless victim or sidekick. He’s always the smartest, wisest, and most ethical person in the room.

Chan isn’t a sidekick, but he has one–his son Lee, played by actual Asian-American Keye Luke. Luke gives Lee Chan the slightest of Chinese accents, and plays him as a fashionable American young man of his time. He speaks in the youth vernacular of the 1930s. Although Chan famously refers to Lee as “Number One Son” (although I didn’t catch that phrase in Opera), Lee calls the detective not  “honorable father,” but “Pop.” Or even “Gee, Pop.”

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The result is a parent/child relationship that would have looked very familiar to a great many American families of the 1930s–including that of my light-skinned, blonde-haired mother. Immigrant parents struggled with the English language and kept one foot in the customs of the old country, while their American-raised kids assimilated into the surrounding culture. This is still happening now, of course, but was happening in greater numbers back then.

Charlie Chan at the Opera has a Lestrade character–the bumbling detective who gets everything wrong. But two things make this conventional mystery character particularly interesting. First, he’s played by the wonderful William Demarest, who would light up so much of Preston Sturges’ work in the next decade. Second, he’s a bigot who doesn’t like taking orders from “chop suey.” With this character, the film strongly suggests that bigotry and stupidity go hand and hand.

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Aside from its racial undercurrent, Charlie Chan at the Opera succeeds in being exactly what it was intended to be–an unexceptional but entertaining short mystery feature. The presence of Demarest, and even more so of Boris Karloff as an escaped lunatic, raises Opera above other such movies.

I’d give it a C+.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

No racial issues in this film…unless, of course, you think about the fact that everyone in it is white. But I’ve covered that issue already.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the second of 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the famous detective and Nigel Bruce as his sidekick, Dr. Watson. It’s the last of the series shot on a decent budget and the last one made at 20th Century-Fox.

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It’s also set in Victorian times, which seems obvious today but was somewhat daring back then. As far as I know, every Sherlock Holmes movie made before Adventures’ predecessor, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was updated to the present. But Fox made Hound and Adventures as period pieces. At the time, this may have felt like setting a James Bond flick in the 1950s (which would actually be pretty cool).

Officially based on William Gillette’s 1899 stage play Sherlock Holmes, but very much an original story, Adventures pits Holmes and Watson against arch-villain Professor Moriarty (George Zucco). Holmes and Moriarty enjoy an interesting relationship in this film. They appear to admire and even like each other, even though they know that one of them must eventually destroy the other.

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The soundstage recreation of 19th-century London provides atmosphere, as do the supporting characters. And even though we’re told who the villain is from the start, it’s still a lot of fun. Besides, it has Ida Lupino.

Fox decided not to continue the series. But after Pearl Harbor, Universal picked it up again, updating the stories to the present so that Holmes could track down Nazi spies–although in most of these movies he goes after conventional criminals. Universal made 12 pictures before Rathbone called it quits in 1946. These movies were quickly written and quickly shot, and suffer from huge plot holes. But they’re all reasonably fun. None of them come up to the quality of the two Fox pictures.

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