The A+ List: Citizen Kane (also Annie Hall & The Bicycle Thief)

And now we return to my list of all-time favorite films–those that I’ve awarded the rare A+ grade. For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.

Alphabetically, the next film on the list is Annie Hall. But I’m not going to write here about films I’ve written about before, so I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray review.

After that comes The Bicycle Thief. But I’ve written about that one, too.

So I’ll skip to the next film on the list that I haven’t written about extensively. And that happens to be the movie almost universally called the Greatest Film Ever Made.

Citizen Kane

Can any work of art survive a reputation as celebrated as Kane‘s? For as long as I can remember, it’s been the default answer to the question “What’s the greatest film ever made?” With a reputation like that, there’s almost no way a novice can see it for the first time and not be disappointed.

And sure enough, it’s status has slipped a bit in recent years. In Sight and Sound‘s most recent once-a-decade list of the The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time, it came in only second. But it came in first five times consecutively before that.

Cinephiles (including myself) love Citizen Kane because Orson Welles was so clearly in love with filmmaking when he made it. Everything about it, from the flashback-structured story to Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography to Bernard Herrmann’s playful score brims with an adventurous spirit, as if everyone wanted to see what they could do with this new toy called cinema.

It’s important to remember that this was a first film for almost everyone involved–including producer, director, co-writer, and star Orson Welles. Most of the cast–veterans of Welles’ work on radio and the New York stage–had never worked on film. It was Hermann’s first movie score, as well.

Not everyone on Citizen Kane was new to movies. Cinematographer Gregg Toland used short lenses and very bright lights to accomplish amazing setups. Welles could place one person in extreme close up, another in mid-shot, and another in the distance and thanks to Toland have all three in focus. He could thus cover a scene in a single shot without it ever looking theatrical.

The story (a collaborations between Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz) could have been made conventionally. An egocentric newspaper tycoon (Welles) goes through life amassing political power and extreme wealth, but his self-centered world view blocks his ability to find love or real happiness. But into this story we have a production number, an opera, a newsreel, broad comedy, and tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. You can sit back and enjoy these set pieces, admire the amazing photography, and still be totally caught up in the story.

The structure of the story shows us Charles Foster Kane through multiple angles. The opening scene of his death feels like a horror film. The newsreel that follows it gives us his various public images, and provides an outline to help us follow the out-of-sequence movie that follows. In the five flashbacks that take up most of the running time, we see Kane from the point of view of people who knew, loved, and hated him.

You can’t discuss Kane without praising Dorothy Comingore, whose performance as Kane’s second wife outdoes all the others. Unlike other cast members, she was a Hollywood veteran–although stardom eluded her. It continued to elude her after Kane. To watch her subtlety age from an innocent young woman to a shrill, pathetic, yet sympathetic drunk is to wonder why this role didn’t jumpstart her career.

Perhaps Welles’ performance overwhelmed hers. He plays Kane theatrically larger than life, but that’s appropriate, because Kane is larger than life. A man of unending self-confidence and bluster, he does everything big. Even when he acts self-effacing, he’s promoting himself. I think there’s a bit of Welles in that.

You probably know that the story of Citizen Kane was inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies. Hearst attempted–and to a certain degree succeeded–in suppressing the movie. But we have it now, and we should be thankful.

Citizen Kane screens at the Rafael this Sunday, May 31. According to a California Film Institute press release, Warner Brothers (which now owns this RKO film) will withdraw Citizen Kane from theatrical release the next day. Fortunately, this suppression is scheduled to last only through the end of the year.

What’s Screening: May 22 – 28

No festivals this week…until the very last day. Both the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Green Film Festival open Thursday night.

All Quiet On The Western Front, Castro, Thursday, 7:00.

The first great talkie war movie delivers a powerful anti-war message. When war breaks out, a young, naïve German student patriotically and enthusiastically volunteers for the grand adventure. 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. I give the talking version an A, but the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens, of course, with the silent version (made in 1930 for theaters that hadn’t yet converted). I haven’t seen this one, but that will be remedied Thursday night. Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

A- Double bill: The Mark of Zorro (1940 version) & Ninotchka, Wednesday through next Sunday.

Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role of Zorro his own, and earned this double bill it’s A+, in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone.  Ninotchka–Greta Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film–is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” Written by Billy Wilder and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, I give it a B+. Read my longer report.

A- Harold and Maude, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00.

The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans embraced non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably. But I do wish screenwriter Colin Higgins had found a better ending. See my full discussion.

B+ Super 8, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

An excellent example of a small film hidden inside a big Hollywood blockbuster, Super 8 follows a bunch of middle schoolkids in 1979, while they try to make a short, amateur zombie movie and struggle with all the garbage of early adolescence. Meanwhile, a strange crisis and a military invasion ravages their small town. Writer/director J.J. Abrams provides a handful of spectacular action sequences, filled with explosions and special effects, but they always take a back seat to the kids’ more normal problems. The movie looks like something Steven Spielberg would have made that year.

Bikes vs. Cars, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Thursday, 6:00.

Director Fredrik Gertten follows various bicycle advocates in various cities around the world, concentrating on two large, horribly auto-centric metropolitan areas–Sao Paulo and Los Angeles. The activists talk both on camera and off, discussing congestion, pollution, bad urban design, and the economic/political forces that emphasize automobiles over common sense. We also visit exceptionally bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and get a chance to boo Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who removed bike lanes to make his city more car-friendly. Read my longer discussion. The Green Film Festival ‘s opening night film.

Alien, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30; Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight).

In the wake of Jaws’ and Star Wars’ phenomenal success, someone had to make a big-budget movie about a large predator on a spaceship. But the obvious marketing value doesn’t explain why Alien came out so well, and on so many levels. First you’ve got the extraordinary art direction, giving us a spaceship that feels like a strange and unsettling high-tech haunted house, yet is absolutely believable. Then there’s the working-class astronauts complaining about the food and pay–amongst the most realistic people Hollywood has ever shot into space. Don’t forget the star-making performance by Sigourney Weaver, or the overriding sense of loneliness, corporate exploitation, and–dare I say it–alienation. It’s also one hell of a fun, scary ride.

B- A Clockwork Orange, Castro, Sunday.

Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning felt self-consciously arty in 1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several 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. On a double bill with Immortal Beloved, which I remember not liking; I called it Citizen Beethoven.

A- Ex Machina, Balboa, Shattuck, opens Friday.

This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the Turing test to determine if a “female” robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein, and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? Do you have a right to replace a sentient machine with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review.

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, Lark, opens Friday.

A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. But this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only  slightly echoes play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Read my full review.

Silent or Green: More on upcoming festivals

A few notes about the two festivals opening next Thursday:

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Pianist, entertainer, film preservationist, and Mel Novikoff Award recipient Serge Bromberg (how many people have that resume) wins this year’s  Francisco Silent Film Festival Award. The Festival will present him with the award on Saturday, May 30, at the screening of Visages d’enfants, a French classic that Bromberg recently restored. Oddly, Bromberg won’t be tickling the keys for that screening.

Bromberg and his company, Lobster Films, have brought many important and obscure films back to life. They’ve restored the hand-painted version of A Trip to the Moon, made Chaplin’s Mutual shorts look new again, and brought us a longer, alternate cut of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (which I have not yet seen).

Bromberg will be around for the entire festival. He’ll host this year’s Amazing Tales from the Archives, accompany the collection of Charley Bowers shorts, and will join Kevin Brownlow for an on-stage discussion before Ben Hur.

A couple of other silent tidbits:

The Blanche Sweet vehicle, The Deadlier Sex, will be preceded with a Fleischer cartoon, Koko’s Queen.

Matti Bye, who with his ensemble will accompany Flesh and the Devil and Norrtullsligan at the festival, recently won a Swedish award for his score for a new film, Faro. Also nominated was his score for The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which is currently playing in local theaters (I haven’t seen it yet). 

Green Film Festival

I managed to preview another film screening at this year’s festival:

A- Landfill Harmonic

Thousands of families live in Cateura, Paraguay, even though it’s not really a town; it’s a garbage dump. And out of that dump comes beautiful music according to this inspiring documentary. Environmental engineer turned music teacher Favio Chávez put together a young people’s orchestra playing home-made instruments built from recycled materials. The group gains Internet fame, accompanies Megadeth in concert (although they usually play classical), performs around the world, and enjoys some relief from grinding poverty. I wish it had gone deeper into how the instruments were made, and the likelihood that music will lift these kids out of poverty. You can’t watch it without rooting for these children, and for the adults shaping their lives.

Landfill Harmonic screens Wednesday, June 3, 6:00, at the Roxie. The movie will be followed by a discussion with the filmmakers (but not, apparently, with a concert).

There is one other film in the festival that I’ve seen. You’ve probably seen it to: WALL-E. It screens at 1:00 on May 30 at the Roxie–so you’ll have to choose between Pixar at Serge Bromberg.

I’m picking Bromberg.

Mad Men and Mad Max

I attended two screenings in movie theaters so far this week. I thought I’d share them with you.

Mad Men Finale at the New Parkway

My wife and I have been following Mad Men for some years now–without cable or satellite. We binge-watched the first three seasons on disc, and season four on Netflix. We paid to see the last three seasons on Hulu, where each episode became available the day after its broadcast.

But we wanted something special for the big series finale on Sunday. So we went to the New Parkway, where they had been screening the last few episodes live for a paying audience. At $6 a head, it seemed like a bargain.

The presentation leaved a lot to be desired. The houselights stayed on for several minutes after the show started. They finally came down, but they went back up again before the show ended. And we had to sit through the commercials, which weren’t even muted.

On the other hand, the audience was wonderful. Some were costumed as Don, Betty, Joan, and Peggy. The crowd laughed and cheered at appropriate places, and called out encouragement for the characters on screen. That made the problems worthwhile.

So much has been written about the show and the finale that I don’t feel a need to discuss my reactions. But it did make me think about what real separates a happy ending from sad one. It’s all about where you stop telling the story.

Mad Max: Fury Road in 3D at Berkeley’s California Theater

After the San Francisco International Film Festival, I like to cleanse my palate with a big, Hollywood action movie. This year, it took me almost two weeks to get around to that ritual. But I waited for the right movie.

I caught the new Mad Max in the big, downstairs auditorium in Berkeley’s California Theatre. I had to skip out of work early to see it in 3D. For some odd reason, they were showing it flat version–in the same auditorium–for the prime-time 7:00 screening.

You have to understand three things about this movie:

  1. It’s basically one long motor vehicle chase broken up with a few dialog scenes.
  2. It’s surprisingly feminist for this sort of movie. It’s about a woman warrior rescuing a tyrant’s enslaved harem.
  3. Mad Max isn’t the main hero.

Charlize Theron plays the real hero–the woman warrior mentioned above. She’s strong, smart, determined, and ethical. She’s putting her life on the line and burning all of her bridges for a completely altruistic motive. She’s freeing slaves.

Max, by comparison, is just along for the ride. He’s the central character in the way that Dr. Watson is the central character in a Sherlock Holmes story–we see the story primarily through his point of view. Unlike Watson, he has to find his moral center. At first he cares only for his own survival. Slowly, he becomes a valuable part of the team bringing these women to freedom. But he never becomes the team’s leader.

Tom Hardy plays Max. I guess Mel Gibson is too old and too anti-Semitic.

But all of that moral and character stuff is just an appetizer. The main course is the chase, filled with crashes, weapons, hand-to-hand combat, acts of courage, close calls, and fatal errors. It’s fast, brutal, and for the most part very well-choreographed. The film makes effective use of 3D, and should be seen that way.

Occasionally, the action got repetitious, and even briefly tedious. Director/co-writer George Miller could have cut out 20 minutes and made a better movie for it.

Miller does a good job creating a dystopian future Australia (and yes, I know he’s done it before). He gives us a barren landscape presumably savaged by climate change, populated by a handful of desperate people living on shrinking resources and the remnants of a dead civilization.

But one thing bothered me about Miller’s vision. Whatever destroyed the environment apparently killed off everyone who wasn’t white. When you consider that Theron’s character seems based on Margaret Tubman, it would have been nice to cast a black woman in the role.

You’ve probably read about reactionary men’s groups objecting to the film. Think about the reaction if Zoe Saldana had Theron’s role.

I give Mad Max: Fury Road a B+.

Summer Season at the Pacific Film Archive

You may have noticed that the Pacific Film Archive is currently closed. No big deal; it always closes for a few weeks in May and June. It will open again on June 11.

But not for long. August 2 will be the last screening in the current PFA theater. When it reopens, hopefully early next year, it will be in the new location just west of the campus.

So what will screen in those scant 52 days? Quite a bit. Here are the upcoming series:

Thanks to Henri Langlois: A Centennial Tribute
This series honors the late, great archivist and cofounder of La Cinémathèque française, screening films that would no longer exist without his dedication. Ernst Lubitsch’ 1924 Forbidden Paradise, Early Films by Abel Gance, Tod Browning’s Lon Chaney vehicle, The Unknown, and two Erich von Stroheim features: Foolish Wives and Queen Kelly.

A Theater Near You
The PFA’s traditional series for films that don’t fit into any of their series. This time around, it includes Hiroshima mon amour, the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens, and the new restoration of Powell/Pressburger collaboration The Tales of Hoffmann (screening on my birthday).

Sunday Funnies: Laurel & Hardy and W. C. Fields

Can’t get much wrong here, although I wish the series included some silents. And while I realize that I’m in the minority here, I don’t put Way Out West amongst L&H’s best features. I would have picked Sons of the Desert or Blockheads.

The Phantom Foe
How do you present a a 15-chapter, silent, 1920 serial at a film archive? The PFA will screen this “proto-feminist masterpiece of terror and tension” on three Sunday evenings–five chapters each. All will be archival prints; with Judith Rosenberg on piano.

Melodrama Master: John M. Stahl

I’m not very familiar with this director, and the only film on this program that I’ve seen is the Technicolor noir, Leave Her to Heaven. But I liked that one.

The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky
I’ve been telling myself that I need a serious dive into Tarkovsky. This is my chance.

New Video Art from India
This isn’t really a series, but a single screening of shorts.

An Open Window: Víctor Erice
This Spanish director, best known for The Spirit of the Beehive, must be a slow worker–he’s made only three features in a career that spans over 40 years. But this isn’t the only series built around Erice. See:

Cinema According to Víctor Erice

This much longer series of Erice’s personal favorites include Sansho the Bailiff, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Renoir’s The River (a dye-transfer archival print), City Lights, and They Live By Night. The series, and the PFA’s use of the on-campus, off-Bancroft theater, will end with Ozu’s Tokyo Story,

By the way, both Tales of Hoffman and The River were shot in three-strip Technicolor, and originally released in dye-transfer prints. They’re playing only four days apart–The River in 35mm dye transfer, and Hoffman off a DCP. This should make a great way to compare the old and new projection technologies.

The A+ List and The Adventures of Robin Hood

I’m embarking on a journey through my all-time favorite films–the ones that I’ve awarded an A+.

For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.

I started giving my favorite films the A+ grade in 2009. The list currently has 56 films, although it may grow before I’m finished. I strongly suspect that Fargo will make the list next year.

I plan to go through the list roughly in alphabetical order, but I won’t stick to that. I’ve written about many of these films extensively before; for those, I’ll just include a link.

And I’ll start, alphabetically, with what is arguably the most shallow, silly, and entertaining movie on the list.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights.

If you look at it logically, everything about The Adventures of Robin Hood fails utterly. Robin Hood, the famous mythological rebel and defender of the weak, spends much of the film defending the monarchy. Much of the film, from the quiver that never runs out of arrows to Maid Marian’s idiotic way of hiding incriminating evidence, makes no sense whatsoever.

And the film makes violence look fun and helpful. There is a lot of action in the movie, and Robin and his men kill quite a few bad guys. But not a single good guy–not even an extra–dies.

And I won’t even mention historical inaccuracy.

And yet, when we watch it, we not only can but must forgive everything. We gladly accept this tale of medieval Europe not as it was, but as we want it to be. We imagine ourselves leaping about, fighting with sword, bow, and staff, making heroic speeches, and righting all wrongs by killing those who need to be killed.

This is, quite simply, the perfect swashbuckler.

A lot of people deserve credit for this masterpiece. It came off the Warner Brothers assembly line with two credited directors (one was taken off the film). You can’t call this an auteur film.

But here are the movie’s three best assets:

Errol Flynn

You don’t need to be a good actor to be a great movie star–Errol Flynn proves that beyond a doubt. His acting range was limited. But no one could buckle a swash like Flynn, and this was the movie he was born to make.

First of all, at this time in his life, he looked great; women swooned over him. He was not an acrobat (if you look closely, you’ll notice a lot of stunt doubling in Robin Hood), but he had an easy, natural and athletic grace, especially when he was leaping onto tables or fighting with a sword. And he spoke his lines with a simple conviction that made you believe the most outrageous lines. Consider this scene early in the film.

The movie gives Flynn not one, but three big entrances. With an audience, it’s almost impossible to not applaud for each one of them.

I recently wrote about Burt Lancaster’s swashbucklers. Lancaster was every bit as handsome as Flynn. He was an excellent actor. And unlike Flynn, he was an expert acrobat, thrilling audiences with his own impressive stunts. But he couldn’t quite pull off the dashing, devil-may-care personality that was Flynn’s stock and trade. When Lancaster gives a speech to his men, he comes off as human being (The Flame and the Arrow) or an actor trying too hard (The Crimson Pirate). Flynn comes off as the embodiment of graceful heroics.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

The Adventures of Robin Hood easily has the best musical score of any action flick I’ve heard. It’s rousing, majestic, epic, exciting, and joyful. The fight theme matches the flavor of a graceful swordfight without trying to synchronize with it. And the score is beautiful in its own right.

Robin Hood not only earned Korngold his only Oscar; it also saved his life. A Viennese Jew and a respected Opera composer, Korngold just happened to be Hollywood, working on this film when Hitler took over Austria. Had he been home, he would probably have been swept up in the Holocaust.

Perhaps Korngold’s appreciation for the assignment helped him create this great and influential score.


Today we take color movies for granted, but in 1938, they were something special. And the people who made Adventures of Robin Hood went overboard to make it especially special–in a good way.

Warner Brothers shot Adventures in the three-strip Technicolor process, which was just six years old in 1938. Only a handful of previous features had been shot in it, and none of them seemed to delight in the new technology the way Robin Hood did.

The movie is a blast of color. Bright greens and reds flow through it. Aside from one scene where Robin is tossed into a dungeon, there’s always something bright and colorful, usually a costume or an ornament, on the screen.

That super-saturated Technicolor look, amped up by Carl Jules Weyl’s art direction and Milo Anderson’s costumes, help create the feeling of a storybook without ever pressing the point.

Cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito also deserve credit.

And all the rest

But then, so did so many other people who worked on this film. Consider the supporting cast: Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone conspire and glower as the fun-to-hate villains. Olivia de Havilland makes a beautiful and love-struck Maid Marian. She comes closest to being a real person (not that close), largely because she gets to change her mind.

And then there’s Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin as the second romantic couple, considerably older and homier than Flynn and de Havilland. They’re essentially comic characters, but Mundin’s merry man gets a couple of admirably heroic moments.

Finally, let’s not forget the exceptional fight choreography, done by swordsman Fred Cavens, director Michael Curtiz, and archer Howard Hill. The fights are graceful, exciting, thrilling, and not in the least bit believable.

But The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn’t earns its A+ by providing realism. It earns it by being fun.

What’s Screening: May 15 – 21

No film festivals this week. Not many films I can tell you about, either. If it wasn’t for the Castro, this would be a very short newsletter.

On the other hand, the newsletter has a whole new look–one that should be more mobile friendly.

A Orson Welles Centennial Double Bill: Touch of Evil & Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles , Castro, Sunday

Every cinephile must contemplate the strange phenomenon of Orson Welles. His first film, Citizen Kane, has frequently been called the “greatest film ever made.” And yet he spent most of his life a failure, scrambling to raise money to make films, few of which made a profit. Welles’ noir classic, Touch of Evil, earns this double bill an A. Along with directing, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely damsel in distress, and hero Charlton Heston, though miscast, manages the role well. Chuck Workman’s documentary about Welles, Magician, suffers from an ignore-the-warts perspective, but it’s still an informative and entertaining look at a sometimes great artist. I give it a B+. Read my full review.

A Matt Shepard is a Friend of MineNew Parkway, Saturday, 4:20; Tuesday, 7:00.

If a film makes me cry, it gets an A. This documentary about the horrific, homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die. In telling his story, Director Michele Josue wisely focuses on his friends and–more importantly–his parents. The result is deeply sad, but also inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings. Read my full review.

A+ The Godfather, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00.

Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable youngest son reluctantly and inevitably pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he proves exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and heart-stopping violence.

A- The Grand Budapest HotelCastro, Tuesday.

Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story within a story within a story, the concierge of a magnificent European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young bellhop under his wing and teaches him about hostelry and life, while also trying to save his own skin from some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except that I think there’s a message about the rise of Fascism in there somewhere (the innermost story is set in the early ’30s). The hotel, which sits on a high mountain’s peak, is one of those places that you want to visit but could only exist in a movie. This is the sort of picture where the local newspaper is called The Trans-Alpine Yodeler. On a double bill with The Hotel New Hampshire.

B The Wrecking CrewCastro, Monday

Now you can meet the artists behind the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “California Dreamin’,” and the theme music for Mission: Impossible. This mostly entertaining documentary introduces the successful but little-known musicians who added magic to some of the best songs of the 1960s. The musicians profiled include Carol Kaye or the late Tommy Tedesco (the director’s father); you may not know those names, but you’ve heard their playing. The film lacks a strong narrative line, and thus sags a bit in the middle. But for the most part, it’s a fun look at how professional music gets (or got) made. Read my full review. On a double bill with Danny Collins.

B- The BirdsCastro, Saturday.

Alfred Hitchcock’s only out-and-out fantasy has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment, and the following attack on the children, are classics. The lovely Bodega Bay location adds atmosphere and local color, and many of the special effects were way ahead of their time. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and that lovely scenery plays side-by-side with obvious soundstage mockups. Worse yet, new-comer Hedren doesn’t provide a single believable moment. She’s beautiful, but utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma. On a double bill with Q, which I haven’t seen.


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