Jayne Mansfield’s Car

I wrote this review in 2012, expecting that the film would eventually be released theatrically. It never happened–at least not in the Bay Area. However, as it’s available on disc and pay-per-view, I’ve decided to publish the review.

C Drama

  • Written by Tom Epperson & Billy Bob Thornton
  • Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

When Sling Blade came out in 1996, we all though that writer-director Billy Bob Thornton was the new auteur to watch. Instead, he became a movie star–or at least a well-known character actor. Every so often he returns to writing and directing, but he has never matched the promise of Sling Blade.

Consider his new film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car. A southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war, it provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script.

Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving JMC_03951.jpgpatriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him. One of those sons is married, and his wife and son live there, as well. As far as I could tell, no one in this family works for a living.

Early on, Jim gets an important, overseas phone call. His ex-wife, the mother of his children, has died. Although she left him decades ago, moved to England, and remarried, she wanted to be buried back home in Alabama. Why? Because otherwise there would be no movie. So along with her corpse comes the Brits–her second husband and his children from a previous marriage.

So you get a funeral, a culture clash, sex between people slightly related by marriage, and the unintended use of a psychedelic drug. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs.

The film is set in 1969, so youthful rebellion also plays a part. The picture even opens with a very small anti-war march. Jim’s son Carroll (a long-haired Kevin Bacon) represents the counterculture, even though as a World War II veteran, he’s clearly too old for it. He seems to spend most of his time smoking pot, meditating, and running light shows. He has a son in danger of being drafted.

This picture is really about the long-term effects of war. Both Jim and his ex-wife’s second husband served in World War I. That second husband, with the very British name of Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), walks with a cane from a battle wound.

Their sons are also war damaged. Although in some ways Carroll is the most together of Jim’s three sons (he’s the only one not living with his father), Jim suggests that his problems are war-related. His brother Skip (Thornton) has serious scaring all over his body and seems to have never matured past adolescence. The third son, Jimbo  (Robert Patrick), didn’t serve and feels that he missed something. Kingsley’s son Philip spent most of the war in a Japanese prison camp–which permanently ruined his digestion and his relationship with his father, who accuses him of cowardice.

The cast is uniformly terrific, or as terrific as the weak writing allows. Among the standouts is Frances O’Connor, whom I’d never seen before, as Bedford’s daughter. Unlike everyone else, she seems to happily embrace life. However, among cinematic sex scenes that I never want to see again, I have to include O’Connor, naked, enthusiastically reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade while…never mind.

Thornton wanted to make a great drama, but he didn’t succeed. Conflicts are heavy-handed and overly explained. And everyone, from the generous but bigoted southerners to the stiff-upper-lip Brits, are stereotypes. The excellent cast pulls the weak script up to the point where it’s reasonably entertaining, but a drama with too many conflicts and not enough depth can only go so far.

What’s Screening: October 17 – 23

The Bay Area ReelAbilities Disabilities Film Festival closes Sunday. The  Arab Film Festival continues through the end of this week. The Petaluma International Film Festival opens its three-day run today. And Bertolucci – A Film Series, takes up one glorious day on Saturday.

Bertolucci – A Film Series, Castro, Saturday. Here’s your chance to see four of Bernardo Bertolucci’s major works in one day–and go to a party as well.The Last Emperor The films are The Conformist (12:30),  The Sheltering Sky (3:00), The Last Emperor (6:00), and Last Tango in Paris 9:30. The Last Emperor will be screened in its new 3D conversion; Bertolucci has approved the change, but it still makes me feel uncomfortable. The party, at 8:30 in the Castro’s mezzanine, is called "Inside the Forbidden City," and will have Italian and Chinese food. Of the four, there’s only one I’ve seen recently enough to write about, so…

A The Conformist, Castro, Saturday, 12:30. It takes more than good men doing nothing to create fascism. According to Bernardo Bertolucci’s haunting imagecharacter study, it also takes mediocre men with career ambitions. Jean-Louis Trintignant is chilling as a bland cog in the machine, ready to use his honeymoon in homicidal service to Mussolini. With Stefania Sandrelli as his not-too-bright bride and Dominique Sanda, in a star-making performance, as the object of everyone’s desire. Part of Bertolucci – A Film Series.

A The Dark Knight, Castro, Friday. As far back as Memento, the Nolan brothers have seen evil as an influence imagevery likely to corrupt those dedicated to fighting it. In what is by far the best Batman movie ever made, no one–including Bruce Wayne/Batman himself (Christian Bale)–gets away without moral compromises. But what can you expect when fighting the Joker, who is absolutely nuts in Heath Ledger’s final performance. For more details, see my full review. On a MiDNiTES for MANiACS double bill with Reign of Fire.

A Lauren Bacall double bill: Key Largo & To Have and Have Not, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The A goes to Key Largo. Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Humphrey Bogart faces off against gangster Edward G. Robinson. Most of the movie To Have and Have Notis talk, but when Richard Brooks and John Huston adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? But I can’t honestly give To Have and Have Not anything higher than a B. Yes, the Bogart-Bacall romance ignites the screen. But aside from the  sexual sparks, it’s just a moderately entertaining tale of war-time intrigue.

C How to Marry a Millionaire, Castro, Sunday. This lavish 1953 romantic comedy succeeds only moderately at being either romantic or funny, despite the talents of imageLauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe (who had only just achieved star status). As the title suggests, it’s about women not so much looking for love as fishing for a sugar daddy–hardly romantic. But How to Marry a Millionaire was one of the first two films shot in Cinemascope, and the first with an intimate, contemporary, character-and-dialog driven story. That alone gives it historical interest. On a Lauren Bacall double bill with Written on the Wind, which I haven’t seen.

B Frankenstein (1931 version), Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff imageinto a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s so little story that the movie feels like a warm-up for the infinitely superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Still, it was one of the most influential horror movies ever made, and Jack Pierce’s makeup for the monster is still iconic more than 80 years after the film’s release.

B+ Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This month’s collection of silent shorts has an unsurprising Halloween theme. imageOne AM (which actually  has no Halloween connection) has Chaplin playing his rich drunk character, too soused to find his bed. Like all of his Mutuals, it’s very funny. The Haunted House is one of Buster Keaton’s best shorts. Harold Lloyd’s Haunted Spooks is very funny, but be warned: It suffers from racist humor. I haven’t seen Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus. Greg Pane will accompany everything on piano.

C+ The Black Cat, Castro, Thursday. Not all Universal horror films were carefully crafted by artists like James Whale. Low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer threw this imagequickie together for very little money, and it looks it. But this silly story of revenge, lost honeymooners, a very modern spooky castle, and fear of cats offers a good share of laughs, some of them intentional. But why did Universal pick a cheapie like this for the first pairing of its two biggest horror stars–Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? On a double bill with the 1935 version of The Raven, which I haven’t seen.

A Boyhood, New Parkway, 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, Boyhoodimage allows 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 has 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 it. 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 The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. I recently revisited this cult favorite, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.)

Opera in the multiplex

Wednesday night, I finally saw an opera in a movie theater. I liked the experience.

I’ve known about the Met Opera HD series for years. But I’ve never been a huge opera fan, so it took me awhile to get to one.

I picked a good one, Verdi’s Macbeth. While I’m not that big on opera, I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, and Macbeth is one of my favorites. And I’m certainly open to loose adaptations. After all, I love Throne of Blood.

Verdi stuck much closer to Shakespeare’s text than Kurosawa ever did. The libretto is in French Italian, but the setting is still Scotland and names haven’t been changed. If anything was left out, I didn’t notice it.

But Verdi added enough to stretch Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy to about three hours–not including the intermission. Every soliloquy in the play got turned into an aria, and I think there were some other arias thrown in, as well.

19th century operas apparently demanded far more spectacle than Elizabethan tragedies, and Verdi didn’t miss a chance to fill the stage with large choruses. Instead of three witches, we get what looked onscreen as 30. Banquo is murdered not be two assassins but what appeared to be a battalion. That make it awfully hard to believe how Banquo’s son got out alive.

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Not much of Shakespeare’s language survived. You can’t take English iambic pentameter, translate it into French Italian song lyrics, then back into English subtitles, and expect a copy of the original. But famous lines (“Out, damn’d spot”) survived.

But the music was beautiful–at times joyful, martial, frightening, and tragic. Macbeth is the story of a potentially good man who consciously chooses evil. His wife, on the other hand, is evil incarnate. And yet, in the end, she’s the one who feels remorse, even if she doesn’t understand it. It’s a complicated story, and Verdi’s music helped take us on this moral roller coaster.

imageHe was helped by the cast, of course. Anna Netrebko sung and acted an amazing Lady Macbeth–scheming, manipulative, sexy, and way over the top. That’s how it works in opera. As her manipulated husband, Zeljko Lucic carries the title role with both the strength and the self- doubt that the part requires. His was also an excellent performance, but one that gets blown out of the water by Netrebko.

The production placed the story in the 20th century, around the time of World War II judging from the clothes, weaponry, and especially the jeeps. This is very much like modern Shakespeare productions, which tend to be set in any time after Shakespeare’s own. However, as I watched the previews for coming operas, I realized that Met was following a similar, “let’s update” approach.

In the first scene, as the camera panned across the chorus of witches, I noticed a few little girls mixed amongst the grown women. The girls didn’t sing; they were there for visual effect. Most of them looked awkward and confused, as if they didn’t know what to do. But one was clearly enjoying playing an evil witch. All of them were, of course, adorable.

But as I watched the scene, I realized that in those girls I was seeing something unique to live theater on the big screen. If I had been in the Met watching the show live, the girls would have been too far away to study. In a real movie, their amateurish performances would have been fixed with retakes and editing. But this was an entirely different experience.

I think I’m going to catch more operas.

10/17: I corrected an error. The libretto was in Italian, not French.

Tombstone as Myth: My Darling Clementine on Blu-ray

By all rules of the western genre, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine shouldn’t work. The plot, the primary motivations, and the action all but disappear for the whole middle part of the movie. And yet it’s one of the greatest westerns ever made.

Ford’s westerns, at their best, danced along a thin line between reality and myth. The characters seem down-to-earth, and can surprise you with their all-too-human frailties and contradictions. But the atmosphere created by framing, lighting, and music suggests something bigger than the story of these people–the story of America..

Of all Ford’s westerns, Clementine gives us the greatest sense of myth. That’s hardly surprising, since it’s built around one of the west’s most famous legends–the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

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Yes, I know that it really happened. But the tall tales about this gunfight overtook actual history long before Ford rebuilt Tombstone in Monument Valley. And Ford and his screenwriters pretty much ignored history in their goal of creating an American myth.

Ford never used Monument Valley as extensively and as effectively as he does here. Every daytime exterior in the film uses the Valley as its background. When you’ve got Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons on the streets of a Deadwood right smack in Monument Valley, you know that you’re watching a myth.

The plot is simple. The Clantons rob Wyatt Earp’s cattle, and murder one of his brothers. So Wyatt (Henry Fonda), who was just passing through, becomes the town’s marshal, clearly without any ambitions beyond vengeance.

All that is set up in the first 20 or so minutes. Then the film all but forgets about vengeance. Instead, it introduces us to Tombstone, pictured as a wide open western town inching its way towards proper civilization.

And in that changing town, Wyatt Earp develops a complicated and not-always-imagecooperative friendship with Doc Holiday (Victor Mature). Holiday’s Mercurial, self-hating, and possibly suicidal personality makes it impossible to know when he’s with Wyatt, and when he’s against him. If you need any more proof that John Ford was a great director, consider this: He pulled a terrific, conflicted, and empathetic performance out of Victor Mature, a movie star known for being a bad actor. Even he would joke about it later in life. But here he even manages a slice of Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy without it looking ridiculous.

While praising the cast, I have to recognize Walter Brennan as the Clanton’s evil patriarch. This is one of the great villains in the movies–spiteful, angry, intelligent, and terrifying even to his own four sons. They’re as evil as he is, but considerably less intelligent. 23 years later, he played a comic variation of the same character in Support Your Local Sheriff.

Alas, the female leads scarcely appear to be their own people. Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine, is little more than a symbol of civilized American womanhood. She’s the pure, perfect woman that Wyatt loves but can’t approach with anything but stiff politeness. And Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, lovesick and full of larceny, would be a horrible Mexican stereotype if some dialog didn’t define her as Apache. That doesn’t help.

The climatic gunfight is one of the best, with slow-building suspense before the bullets fly.

My Darling Clementine was John Ford’s first film after he was mustered out of the navy after World War II. In it, he took one of America’s strongest myths and made it his own.

First Impression

imageCriterion has given up their policy of putting DVDs and Blu-rays in the same package. Now, you have to buy one or the other.

The Blu-ray version of My Darling Clementine comes in a simple plastic case. There’s one disc, and a small foldout rather than a full book. The foldout is dominated by an essay by David Jenkins, "The Great Beyond."

As is standard for Criterion, the disc opens to the main menu the first time you insert it into a player. After that, it offers an option for Resume Playback. A timeline allows you to set bookmarks.

How It Looks

Like most films of its time, My Darling Clementine was shot in black and white, and in the Academy Ratio, 1.37×1. it’s one of the most visually striking films of its era.

Fox and Criterion have done a wonderful job on this 4k restoration. Fine details, including stubble on men’s chins, are clearly visible. The grayscale is excellent, from near-whites to deep blacks, with fine shadow detail.

How It Sounds

The audio is PCM 2.0 mono. As such, it succeeds in producing the original sound as well as could be imagined.

The Preview Cut

Like most Hollywood movies, My Darling Clementine was previewed and recut multiple times before its release in the final 97-minute version. One of those preview cuts, running 103 minutes, has survived.

The Blu-ray offers this preview cut as a supplement. The disc also contains a 42-minute documentary, narrated by UCLA’s . Robert Gitt. Both cuts, plus the documentary, were on the original Fox DVD release.

As Gitt reminds ups, this is "Not a director’s cut, but a work in progress." Both of these cuts were supervised by studio head Darryl Zanuck, and they’re almost certainly closer to each other than to Ford’s lost rough cut.

Most of the differences are minor. A few scenes go on a little longer, and these are seldom the best scenes. One scene is visually identical, but with different music cues. Overall, I prefer the release version.

But I wish that Zanuck had kept Ford’s original ending. Zanuck, in a memo, admitted regret for altering the ending for commercial reasons. Ford’s original ending, available now in the preview version, makes a big improvement.

Although transferred in HD, the preview cut doesn’t get the full 4K-mastered, 1080p treatment of the release cut. It looks like broadcast HD, with that annoying video smoothness that movies shot on film are not supposed to have.

And the Other Extras

  • Commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride. This is a new commentary; not the one on the original Fox DVD. McBride covers pretty much every issue about the film, from historical inaccuracy to how Chihuahua becomes idolized once she’s dying. He even explained a few things about the gunfight that had me confused.
  • Print the Legend: 14 minutes, HD. New interview with western scholar Andrew C. Isenberg, author of Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life. He talks about the real Earp and Ford’s fiction.
  • David Brinkley Journal: "tombstone": 8 minutes. A 1963 NBC-TV piece on Tombstone. Moderately interesting.
  • Today: "Report on Monument Valley": 6 minutes. 1975 episode of NBC’s Today show. Talks about the location, the Navaho, and the movies. Doesn’t mention My Darling Clementine by name, but does mention the Tombstone set.
  • Lost and Gone Forever: 18 minutes. Video essay by Tag Gallagher. Discusses Ford’s early friendship with Earp, the different cuts, music, framing. Makes a good argument that Ford’s wartime experience influenced the film and made it Ford’s darkest work.
  • Bandit’s Wager: 14 minutes. 1916 western short starring and directed by Ford’s older brother, Francis Ford. John also plays a supporting role. I only figured out who is was by matter of subtraction; only three people in the movie. Not all that funny. Music by Donald Sosin.
  • Lux Radio Theater: 58 minutes; audio only. I have to confess, I got only 12 minutes into this 1947 radio adaptation of the film. 
  • Trailer

The Blu-ray is available now.

Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spent Sunday at Mill Valley Film Festival. Amazingly, I was actually in Mill Valley.

Here’s what I saw:

The 3D Sideshow

3D enthusiast and filmmaker Robert G. Bloomberg introduced this selection of shorts with a trailer to a 50’s 3D movie called The Maze. He followed this with his own Frogs & Friends–a selection of (mostly) still images of wildlife–often very tiny insects.

That one was wonderful, but the best movie in the show was unquestionably Jason Jameson and James Hall’s One Night in Hell. Stylistically Victorian, yet with a modern sense of humor, it followed Satan on his rounds, using the 3D for very funny effects.

I also liked Jeff Boller’s rock video, A Geek Like Me.

A Geek Like Me

Some of the shorts were pre-3D. They screened Georges Méliès’ The Infernal Cauldron, accidentally shot in 3D (I’ve already described how that happened). Also included: a colorized and 3D-converted version of the Safely Last climax; it was hilarious–almost as funny as the 2D, black-and-white original. And one of the two Disney shorts in the show started as an old, early, black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon that exploded into widescreen, color, and 3D.

Speaking of big names, Fox provided a Simpson’s cartoon of Maggie in the world’s worst daycare.

In Order of Disappearance

Local Citizen of the Year Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is a peaceful man. But when his son turns up dead from a drug overdose, and he wasn’t using drugs, our hero sets out to make the bad guys pay. I’m not really a fan of revenge thrillers, and this one is exceptionally violent, both in the body count and in the gruesome nature of the deaths. But a strong sense of absurd humor helps the violence go down easily. When was the last time you saw a movie where the horrifically evil organized crime boss is also a high-strung vegan? A sick, twisted, yet entertaining thriller from Norway.

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I’m giving this film a B+, and can recommend it to anyone who likes dark and gruesome humor. Unfortunately, you’ll likely never get a chance to see it, as it’s not expected to get an American release.

Wild

Before the show began, we  were treated to Pixar’s new short, Lava, about a lonely volcano who finds love. Yes, the story is silly, but fun enough for a short.

After the short, Director of Programming Zoë Elton, who introduced one of the stars of the film, Laura Dern. Dern actually has a relatively small role in the picture, but the event was in her honor.

Elton interviewed Dern for a few minutes about being a second-generation actor and the people she’s worked with.

Then they screened the film.

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Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that tell us what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

It’s a powerful film, and I’m giving it an A. It opens later this year.

MVFF: A Bridge to a Border

Saturday afternoon, I made it to the Rafael for a Mill Valley Film Festival screening of Rob Nilsson’s A Bridge to a Border. To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked that film if I had recognized the director’s name. Two years ago I caught his Maelstrom, and hated it.

I’m glad to say that A Bridge to a Border is nowhere near as bad as Maelstrom. This time around, the characters seem vaguely interesting, and are actually involved in trying to do something. It even gets exciting near the end. I’d give it a C+.

This time around, a quarrelsome group of left-wing terrorists plan to blow up the Bay Bridge. Why? I’m not sure. There’s some talk about how successful the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers had been, and how pathetically the Occupy Movement failed.

Because it’s a Rob Nilsson film, there’s a lot of semi-improvised dialog, much of which goes nowhere. Occasionally the dialog succeeds to letting us know something about the the characters, but not often. We get to know what turned some of them into violent radicals, but others are left as cyphers. Things pick up near the end, and the climax kind of works.

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After the movie, we were treated to a Q&A with Nilsson and members of his cast. Some highlights:

  • Nilsson said the film was made not so much with money but by  "people power."
  • The climactic scene on the Bridge was done with a green screen.
  • Someone asked about Nilsson’s unique approach to working with actors (who he prefers to call players). He runs a workshop where people work on relaxation and concentration. "We try to find the places inside ourselves"
  • "We do a lot of backstory improvisation."

Addition, 10/13: I just discovered that A Bridge to a Border) is available on Fandor. So if you want to see it yourself, you can stream it.

What’s Screening: October 10 – 16

The Mill Valley Film Festival finishes Sunday. But don’t’ despair. The Arab Film Festival opens today (Friday). The  one-day Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase happens Saturday. And the Bay Area ReelAbilities Disabilities Film Festival opens Wednesday.

Plus, there are all of these:

A The Two Faces of JanuaryEmbarcadero Center, Shattuck, opens Friday; Rafael, opens Monday. The Two Faces of January is the best new thriller I’ve seen since Headhunters, but it’s a very different imagekind of thriller–more cerebral, less fun, and more plausible. When we first meet them, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a wealthy, attractive, and happy American couple vacationing in Greece in the early 1960s. Then they meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), also American, but scratching out a living as a tour guide–and sublimating his earnings with petty larceny. Of course there’s a love triangle, but the story is really about crime and deception. But who’s the criminal? And who’s deceiving who? Read my full review.

A+ Night of the Living Dead, New Parkway, Saturday, 9:30.  This is fear without compromise. The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (sequels and imitations would rename them zombies) were shockingly gruesome in image1968. Decades later, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear remain, made less spectacular but more emotionally gripping by the black and white photography. Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on American racial issues, or simply as one of the scariest horror films ever made.Read my essay.

A+ The Last Waltz, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. On Thanksgiving night, 1976, The Band played their final concert at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom. Among their performing guests were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Joni imageMitchell. The filmmakers were just as talented: director Martin Scorsese,  cinematographers Michael Chapman and Vilmos Zsigmond, and art director Boris Leven. No wonder this was the greatest rock concert movie ever made. Scorsese and company ignored the audience and focused on the musicians, creating an intimate look at great artists who understood that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

A+ Sunrise, Castro, Saturday, 8:00. Haunting, romantic, and impressionistic, F. W. Murnau’s first American feature sunriseturns the mundane into the fantastic and the world into a work of art. The plot is simple: A marriage, almost destroyed by another woman, is healed by a day of reconciliation and romance in the big city. But the execution, with its stylized sets, beautiful photography, and expressionist performers, makes it both touchingly personal and abstractly mythological. Basically a silent film, the 1927 Sunrise was one of the first films released with a soundtrack (music and effects, only). But the Castro will have live organ accompaniment by Warren Lubich.

A- Two Days, One Night, Sequoia, Saturday, 5:45; Rafael, Sunday, 2:00. The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. Rather than becoming a political tract, this film feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

A+ Cary Grant double bill: Notorious & Only Angels Have Wings, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. The A+ goes to Notorious, where a scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman Notoriousproves her patriotism by seducing, bedding, and marrying Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant’s secret agent sends her on this deadly and humiliating mission, then reacts with blind jealousy. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray Review. In Only Angels Have Wings, Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. On its own, I’d give this one an A-.

A Rome Open City, Castro, Wednesday. Roberto Rossellini helped create Italian neorealism in this dark tale of the German occupation. Gritty and at times horrifying, it imagevividly recreates the physical dangers and mental strains of living under Nazi rule. Technically, I suppose, it shouldn’t count as neorealism, since two major parts are played by established stars: Anna Magnani takes the central role of a pregnant woman who discovers that her fiancé is working for the underground, and the usually comic Aldo Fabrizi takes on a rare dramatic role as a priest who finds he has to administer to more than just souls. On a double bill with The Fugitive Kind.

A Key Largo, Castro, Sunday. In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character imageactors like Humphrey Bogart. But by 1948, Bogey was the top star and Robinson the supporting player (and a great one). Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Bogart faces off against gangster Robinson. Most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and John Huston adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? On a double bill with Harper, which I haven’t seen.

C Tu Dors Nicole, Rafael, Friday, 3:45; Sequoia, Saturday, 8:45. Like its main character, this low-key French-Canadian comedy/drama seems to make a point of going nowhere. That would be fine if it was already in an interesting place. imageThe protagonist is a young woman sharing in her parent’s comfortable home (while they’re out of town) with her brother and his band. Early on, writer/director Stéphane Lafleur shows a nice touch for quiet, off-beat humor, with an awkward end to a one-night-stand and a 10-year-old boy with the baritone voice of a large man. But the humor dries up soon, and then there’s nothing left but characters who–aside from some occasional moments–are neither deep nor interesting. Another part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

B+ American Graffiti, Rafael, Thursday, 7:30. Benefit for the Friends of the San Rafael Public Library. A long time ago, in a Bayimage Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. You can also talk about old-time rock ‘n’ roll–American Graffiti makes great use of early 60s music in one of the most effective and creative sound mixes of the ’70s.

A Spartacus, Castro, Saturday, 1:00. This very fictionalized version of the famous Roman slave revolt is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of imagetoga epics. And yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. Stanley Kubrick’s only work as a director-for-hire doesn’t give us the glory of Rome, concentrating instead on the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of an empire. Star and Executive Producer Kirk Douglas gave Dalton Trumbo a well-deserved screen credit, which helped end the blacklist. For more, see Cemeteries and Gladiators, On the Moral Dilemma of Gladiator Movies, and How I lost my love for Stanley Kubrick.

B+ This Is Spinal Tap, UC Berkeley’s Crescent lawn, Friday, 8:00. Free outdoor screening. The mockumentary to end all rockumentaries. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, imageand Harry Shearer play the subject of this fake documentary–an English heavy metal band of questionable talent on a disastrous American tour. Director Rob Reiner plays, appropriately enough, the documentary’s director. Uneven, but often brilliantly hilarious, although you need a good grounding in rock music and concert movies to get most of the jokes. On a scale of one to ten, the best scenes rate an eleven. Part of the PFA series, Endless Summer Cinema.

B- A Clockwork Orange, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed imageself-consciously arty in1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it just doesn’t add up. Part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

A Chinatown, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, chinatownbut you can’t deny his talent as a filmmaker (which doesn’t excuse his actions as a human being). And that talent was never better than when he made this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed the whole story over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece.

C- Popeye, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Robert Altman’s one attempt at a big-budget family musical manages to be both imageextremely odd and utterly mediocre. The story is a mess, the gags are too outrageous to be funny (there are some things that only work in animation), and Harry Nilsson’s songs are utterly forgettable. The only real joy is watching actors who are remain recognizable as themselves while managing near-perfect physical embodiments of famous cartoon character; for the best example, consider Shelley Duvall’s amazing likeness to Olive Oyl.

C- Vertigo, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem with the movie is that neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog. New 4K restoration.

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.

B- Terror by Night, Stanford,  Friday. In the early 1940s, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 12 low-budget, updated Sherlock Holmes adventures for Universal. This is one of the best, with our heroes riding on a imagenight train while tracking a jewel thief who’s not above murder. The enclosed setting of the train, combined with the rumbling of the tracks, adds atmospheric suspense that you usually don’t get in these films. True, the identity of the villain is both ridiculously obvious and totally unbelievable, but Rathbone was such a great Holmes that you can forgive such silliness. On a double bill with a Charlie Chan picture called Castle in the Desert, which I have not seen. For my thoughts on both of these series, see Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Strange Case of the Stereotyped Detective.

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