Revenge of the Sith

They’re low-brow popular entertainment, but in many ways the original Star Wars movies are about as good as motion pictures get. We can talk all we want to about cinema as fine art, but in a very primal way, we go to the movies to thrill at the beautiful and the exciting, cheer the hero, and escape into an alternate universe far more interesting than our own. Few movies have offered this escape with as much skill and imagination as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

Now for the shocking part: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is right up there with those ancient classics. Much to so many people’s surprise, George Lucas has finally made a film worthy of the works that made him rich and famous.

You’ve probably already heard that this is the darkest Star Wars movie since Empire. It’s grim, scary, and suspenseful–no mean feat when everyone going into the theater already knows the story. (What? Anakin doesn’t turn into Darth Vader?) It’s also, as the story of a good man turning bad, reasonably character-driven. It shows the conditions, the character flaws, and the confusion that drives a human being over the line. And it does it all in a slam-bang, battle-filled, special effects-heavy action movie. As I said–no mean feat.

This is a prequel in the truest sense of that publicist-created word. It works because you know these characters’ destinies, and you understand the New Hope to come in the next generation.

If you’ve never seen a Star Wars movie, start with the original trilogy, then watch this one. But skip its immediate predecessors, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. They’re not worth watching–even their special effects are humdrum–and you can pretty much figure out everything you need to know without them. If you’re really concerned, just read the various plot summaries on imbd.com.

Sith‘s effects, on the other hand, are wonderful, and the best effect of all is a character we all know: Yoda. In the originals, he was a hand puppet, a fact that Lucas has bemoaned because of the limits puppetry placed on the character’s movements. But he was a terrific hand puppet, manipulated by one of the great puppeteers of our time, Frank Oz, and everyone except Lucas loved him. Now Yoda is computer-animated, and Oz just does the voice. The digital Yoda of episodes I and II lacked the personality of Frank Oz’s hand, but this time around, the animators nailed him. He’s the strongest, wisest, most powerful of the Jedi. The best moment in the movie has him wave his hand in annoyance and off-handedly drop two imperial guards.

There’s something odd about an action film where Samuel L. Jackson lacks personality, and the real bad-ass is a little green creature with the voice of Miss Piggy. But then, George Lucas was always better creating effects than handling actors, or writing dialog for them. If he had passed those jobs on to others, as he did in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, this would have been an even better movie.

Speaking of animation, this week the Pacific Film Archive launches its Studio Ghibli series. If you loved Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, now is your chance to see them on the big screen in the original Japanese (subtitled, of course), as well as catch other works by Japan’s most acclaimed anime studio.

And here are a few other movies that are, or may be, worth seeing:

Noteworthy: Tell Them Who You Are, Opera Plaza, one-week engagement opens Friday. I haven’t seen this documentary on the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, but it’s high on my list. Directed by his son, Mark Wexler.

Noteworthy: Complete Vigo: A Centennial Celebration, Rafael, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Jean Vigo was a promising young filmmaker when he died in 1934 at the age of 29. His four films, which include Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante, can be seen in one sitting. And here’s your chance.

Recommendation: A Night At the Opera, Film Night in the Park at the San Geronimo Cultural Center, Saturday night. The Marx Brothers’ MGM films aren’t as good as their Paramount comedies–more commercial in the 1930’s, they haven’t dated that well. But if you can sit through the dumb romantic plot and the insipid love songs, you’ll be rewarded with some of their greatest routines. This presentation is on DVD, so don’t expect a film-quality image.

Noteworthy: Green Screen Environmental Film Festival, Castro, Wednesday through next Sunday. No, this has nothing to do with special effects. The Castro is hosting a five-day environmental, mostly documentary festival which will include Never Cry Wolf, Werner Herzog’s latest, two works by Adam (Century of the Self) Curtis, and, believe it or not, a taped speech by Prince Charles.

The Roxie in Danger

These are grim days for Bay Area movie lovers. First Anita Monga, then Edith Kramer. And now the future of the Roxie looks dark. The Mission District’s wonderful little revival/art/anything left-wing movie house is up for sale. According to an article by Jesse Hamlin in Monday’s Chronicle, the theater can’t cover $140,000 in debts, and unless it finds a buyer, it will close.

And it’s not likely to find a buyer—at least one who will keep it running. It’s a sad fact, but the style and selections that bring us the best cinematic art and entertainment are no longer a viable business model. That doesn’t just mean that a heartless corporation won’t invest in the Roxie; it means that anyone who does is likely to end up in debt, as well.

I hate to say this, but the independent, privately-owned, single-screened (or even twinned) art/revival house may soon be a thing of the past. With the big chain megaplexes now showing the occasional “independent” film (definition: anything released by Miramax), and everything ever made available on DVD, the type of theaters I list on this site are getting slowly squeezed out.

But do these theaters have to be businesses? The Lark, Pacific Film Archive, Rafael, Stanford, and Yerba Buena Center are all nonprofit or educational institutions. None of them are expected to stay solvent solely on ticket and concession sales. Which isn’t to say they don’t have their own economic headaches. Note that both the PFA and the Stanford are currently dark. But these institutions have other income sources and financial structures that help them survive when times are rough.

Maybe that’s the solution for the Roxie: Find a nonprofit or create one. According to Hamlin’s article, “A couple of nonprofits have shown some interest.” I’m no expert on these organizations, but I know that they all need donations. What if enough of us pledged to donate to any nonprofit that bought and promised to properly run the Roxie?

It might work. If you think it’s worth a try, drop me a line at savetheroxie@bayflicks.net and let me know. Then tell your friends to do the same. If I get enough positive responses and the Roxie’s current management supports the idea, maybe we can start something.

I sometimes feel that I launched this site just in time to report on the demise of the Bay Area’s once-proud independent revival house tradition. I’d rather help save it.

Who knows, if we can save the Roxie, maybe we can revive the U.C. Theater. Okay, that’s just a dream.

At least one small, privately-owned art/revival house appears to be doing well: The Balboa. Despite the recent “must end” threat, The Best of Youth has been extended for another week. This is one six-hour movie that may never end.

Try to catch some of this week’s recommended and noteworthy films. The more we support these theaters, the longer they will thrive.

Recommendation: Kung Fu Hustle, Parkway, opens Friday. Stephen Chow’s big-budget action comedy is totally bizarre, thoroughly ridiculous, but absolutely entertaining. The occasional attempts at serious storytelling are as jarring as an orphan’s death in a Road Runner cartoon, but the laughs overwhelm the poor attempts at making you cry. The knife-throwing scene is the single funniest new sequence I’ve seen this decade.

Noteworthy: Major Dundee, Castro, Tuesday through the following Tuesday. I’m not a huge Peckinpah fan, and I’ve never seen any version of this 1965 western, but its reputation as a semi-lost film, now semi-restored, makes it worth noting. Columbia Pictures, which drastically cut Major dundee for its original release, has now restored it to something approaching Peckinpah’s original (but lost) cut.

Recommendation: Pulp Fiction, Parkway, Thursday night. Okay, it’s completely amoral and offensive. But it’s fun, creative, and daring. You already know that.

Movies for the Week of May 13, 2005

There are plenty of interesting films playing this week. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write about them (let alone see any), so I’ll just draw your attention to the Irish and San Francisco Documentary Film Festivals showing at the Roxie (the Documentary fest is also at the Woman’s Building). They both have interesting line-ups.

And I’ll tell you about three other shows you might enjoy:

Recommendation: The Royal Tenenbaums, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Wes Anderson’s modern comic epic explores a wealthy, dysfunctional family with three grown and disappointed child prodigies. Gene Hackman’s estranged patriarch is probably his funniest, and most sympathetic, villain.

Recommendation: Some Like It Hot, Film Night in the Park, Dolores Park, Saturday night. A few years ago, the American Film Institute called this the greatest American film comedy. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s definitely in my top ten. Warning: The presentation will be on DVD, not film.

Noteworthy: The Mark of Zorro, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday night. This is where it all began. Douglas Fairbanks bought the rights to a then-recent novel, projected his already-famous athletic comic hero into a romanticized past, grabbed a sword, and invented the movie swashbuckler. There are better Zorro movies (including Fairbanks’ sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro), but no other catches the birth of a genre. Judy Rosenberg will accompany the movie on the piano.

TV at the Movies

We leave the house and open our wallets because we expect a better movie experience in a theater than we could get on TV. But what creates that experience? Is it film’s superior visual properties? Or is it the thrill of sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers, without benefit of a pause button?

This isn’t idle curiosity. It’s becoming increasingly common to pay admission, settle down with an audience, and technically speaking, watch TV. Is this a reasonable entertainment alternative or a waste of money?

I’m not talking about the fancy digital projection systems proudly advertised in certain multiplexes, or consumer HDTV, both of which at least try to approximate the quality of 35mm film. I mean plain old NTSC video that comes off a DVD—or worse. And if you think the image on your TV looks bad, try blowing it up to 50 feet.

I caught The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear at the Pacific Film Archive last Saturday. It was terrific. I loved it. It’s a pity it’s not widely available in this country. But it was presented in video, and from my seat in the second row, it looked lousy.

This documentary was made for TV. It was intended, and originally shown, as a three-part BBC miniseries. It was not made as a theatrical experience.

But it still worked as one. Nearly 200 people laughed and gasped together. And when it was over, the director stepped to the podium and we gave him a standing ovation. That never happens in my home.

There are other opportunities to watch video in a theatre. Film Night in the Park starts in San Francisco’s Dolores Park May 14, and despite the title, no film will be run (most of the shows will be in Marin). The series consists entirely of classic and recent movies on DVD. Does that make it worth getting out of the house and forking over the $5 “suggested donation?” Perhaps. The opening night show is Some Like It Hot. I already own the DVD, but it’s always fun to watch it with an audience. (Full disclosure: Bayflicks.net is a Film Night in the Park sponsor.)

And 35mm film is no guaranty of quality. Check my Letters page to read about a recent bad experience at the Castro. And if you have any experiences, good or bad, to share, don’t hesitate to drop me a line at // protects email from bots user = ‘webaddress'; site = ‘bayflicks.net'; message = ‘webaddress at bayflicks dot net'; document.write(‘‘); document.write(message + ‘‘); webaddress at bayflicks dot net .

In other news, the Stanford is closed for renovations until early summer, and the Pacific Film Archive will be closed for most of May.

And we now know how long The Best of Youth will play at the Balboa. It’s last day there will be May 19th. Catch it if you can.

This isn’t a great week for the calendar houses. Not much new that’s worth a comment, let alone a recommendation. Maybe, now that the festival is over, now is the time to catch a movie where lots of things blow up. Or to note the two listings below:

Recommendation: Greed, Balboa, Sunday. Was Eric Von Stroheim’s original, 40-reel cut of Greed the greatest movie ever made? Or was it a colossal bore? We’ll never know. But Irving Thalberg’s massive recutting is one of the best serious silent dramas. Rick Schmidlin’s four-hour video restoration is even better, but as it’s not available theatrically (or even on DVD), we’ll have to make do with MGM’s theatrical cut. On a double bill with Old San Francisco, a mediocre 1927 melodrama that’s historically fascinating both for its racism and its early, pre-Jazz Singer use of sound. Part of The Reel San Francisco festival.

Noteworthy: The Last Waltz, Balboa, Wednesday. Perhaps the greatest rock concert movies of all time, but I can’t recommend it. The Balboa’s mono sound system is unlikely to do it justice. On a double bill with Janis. Part of The Reel San Francisco festival.

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