Oscar Hopefuls, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I told you about some Oscar hopefuls. Here are two more, both not just hopefuls but real contenders. In fact, they’re amongst the best films currently playing in conventional multiplexes.

Brokeback Mountain
Ang Lee bounces back from the inedible Hulk with a sweeping romantic tragedy. As Ennis, Heath Ledger brings the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy into emotional reality; this is a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. He falls hard for Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), and Jack falls just as hard for him, but for cowboys in the 1960s, coming out of the closet wasn’t an option.

So they marry women, raise families, and try, unsuccessfully, to lead normal lives. But whenever they can, they return together to the place where they fell in love, Brokeback Mountain. Although still closeted, Jack is clearly the more at ease with his lusts—or at least the more driven by them. While Ennis sleepwalks through an unhappy but inescapable life, Jack talks about leaving their wives and ranching together. And unlike Ennis, Jack looks for male sex elsewhere.

Brokeback Mountain is set over a period of about 20 years, and while you feel the passing of time, there’s almost no sense of history. A lot changed for American gays between 1964 and 1984, but not in the society that Ennis and Jack inhabit. They’re hip enough to share a joint in the 1970s, but the obvious solution of moving to San Francisco (or even Dallas) never occurs to them. That isn’t a flaw–you can’t imagine these two living happily in a big city.

But the film does have a serious flaw: Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (working from a short story by E. Annie Proulx) fail to find a real human in the part of Jack’s wife (Anne Hathaway). She’s a simple shrew, and the film doesn’t ask you to feel an ounce of sympathy for her truly awful situation (which includes a domineering father as well as a bad marriage). By contrast, the trials that Ennis’ wife (Michelle Williams) goes through are heartbreaking. Hathaway, whose big breakthrough was The Princess Diaries, is a talented actress who deserves a good role in a movie that isn’t targeted at children.

Munich:
I’ve finally figured Steven Spielberg out . The crown prince of commercial Hollywood is, at heart, an ethnic filmmaker.

We’ve all known for decades that Spielberg is a genius at crafting light entertainment. But we’ve also all seen his embarrassing, pre-Schindler’s List attempts at serious art. And we were all disappointed when he failed to follow that one great film with something else half as compelling.

Now comes Munich, which could have been just a taut, well-made thriller. Instead, it’s a taut, well-made, morally ambiguous, and emotionally complex thriller, and easily his best work since Schindler. That’s why Spielberg is an ethnic filmmaker; so far, he can only create great serious art within a Jewish context.

Munich starts with the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. We first meet Avner (Eric Bana) as he and his pregnant wife watch the events unfold on TV. But Avner is a Mossad agent, and he soon receives an assignment to assassinate those responsible for the Munich massacre.

That sounds like a simple espionage plot, but Munich is no James Bond flick (even though the next James Bond, Daniel Craig, plays a member of Avner’s team). The Palestinians they’re assigned to kill often seem on the surface like perfectly nice people. The underground information dealers who help them track down their prey hardly seem trustworthy. And their orders, which include using bombs whenever possible, but not killing innocent bystanders, seem contradictory. (Bombs are not discriminating weapons.)

Slowy, Avner and his team begin to lose it, succumbing to guilt, cruelty, and paranoia. As with David Cronenberg’s  A History of Violence (which this surpasses as my favorite thriller of the year), there are no happy endings for those who live by the sword.

You’ve probably already heard the political complaints about Munich. A film with no easy answers can’t please people who want art to stick closely to their own world view. Spielberg definitely sides with the Israelis here; no Palestinian here seems capable of the guilt that our Mossad heroes experience. But he understands all too painfully that revenge breeds revenge and violence breeds violence.

And good films breed happy filmgoers. Here are three films worth seeing—or at least worth reading about. For others, see my listings.

Noteworthy: Roman Scandals, Castro, Friday. It’s been a long time since I saw this 1933 Eddie Cantor comedy set (mostly) in an art deco ancient Rome. I don’t remember much about it. But I do recall the most offensive scene I’ve ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie: Cantor, wearing a blackface that would embarrass Al Jolson, surrounded by beautiful, scantily-clad blondes, singing “Be young and beautiful/It’s your duty to be beautiful/Be young and beautiful/If you want to be loved.” On a double bill with That’s Dancing to close the Castro’s Busby Berkeley series.

Recommended, with Reservations: Mighty Joe Young (1949), Castro, Tuesday. Sixteen years after making King Kong, the principle filmmakers tried a warm and fuzzy variation on the giant gorilla theme. The result is no masterpiece, but it’s a pleasant enough entertainment, especially for young children. While Kong is scary, sympathetic, and ultimately tragic, Joe is simply cute, and gets to live happily ever after (but not before saving children from a burning orphanage).

Recommended: King Kong (1933), Castro, one-week engagement starts Thursday. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up. It’s not just Willis O’Brien’s breathtaking special effects–crude by today’s standards but packing an emotional punch, nonetheless. It’s the intelligent script by Ruth Rose, the amazing score by Max Steiner, and the wonderful cast headed by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. But most of all, it’s the complex title character. Kong is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying as he grinds people into the ground or bites them to death, but also confused, loving, majestic, and doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Sure, the story is silly if you think about it, but so are dreams.

The Roxie’s Angel

Good news: The Roxie Theater has found an angel. The non-profit New College of California is taking over the oldest continually-running movie theater in San Francisco, known for introducing new independent films that are truly independent, not Miramax independent. Renamed the Roxie Film Center, it will be, according to the press release, “a non-profit Cinema and Arts Center” (hey, it wasn’t making a profit anyway).

How will the Roxie’s programming style change with the new ownership? “In a nutshell, not at all,” Program Director and former owner Bill Banning told me. But he felt the need to qualify the statement. “The program is always in flux.”

One thing that will change is Banning’s responsibilities, which he hopes will result in more interesting shows. Relieved of the day-to-day chores of running the theater, “I’ll have more time to put into programming.”

Executive Director Allyce Bess described some of these possible changes. “We’re hoping to bring in more directors, special interest groups…create more special events.”

The Roxie will continue to distribute independent films through its Roxie Releasing subsidiary, which made the 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides an art house hit. Even as a non-profit, the Roxie isn’t about to lose the only profitable part of its operations. “The theater has always lost money,” Banning admits.

Considering that business history, it’s not surprising that “We’ve considered going non-profit from the day I walked in here 22 years ago,” recalls Banning. “We would come close, then [Roxie Releasing] would acquire a minor hit.”

In addition to its regular programming, the Roxie will also host New College film classes.

The extremely-friendly takeover, which was the result of seven months of discussions, brings several advantages. Just being part of a larger organization reduces overhead. New College comes with a PR staff, four-color printing, and other resources that the Roxie once had to pay for or do without.

And being part of an established non-profit puts the Roxie in a better position to bring in money. Bess, whose parents brought her to the Roxie as a child, secured a $200,000 anonymous donation that was contingent on the New College deal working out. The donor wasn’t “sure that the Roxie going non-profit [by] itself would work.”

This donation will get the Roxie out of a troublesome debt that was threatening the theater’s ability to book films. “After we pay all of the distributors, we hope to regain their trust,” explains Bess. “There were a lot of films that we couldn’t show” because the distributors lost faith in the Roxie.

A wider choice of films available? Lower overhead? It seems as if an important part of the Bay Area film scene will survive, after all.

In other, admittedly less exciting, news, I’m adding two new icons to my listings as of Bayflicks’ December 25-31 calendar: for Kind of Recommended, and for Not Recommended. Like (Recommended), and (Noteworthy), clicking these icons will bring you my pop-up opinion. You don’t have to click the (Personal Appearance), (Silent Movie With Live Musical Accompaniment), or (Special Print) icons; just rest your mouse pointer over them for a brief explanation.

. And, in case you’re not in the mood to click icons, here are my comments for this week (all, it just so happens, recommendations):

Recommended: The Best of Youth, Balboa, starts Friday. Easily the best two-part, six-hour movie since Godfather I and II. Originally made for Italian television, Best of Youth follows the fortunes of one family, a close circle of their friends, and the Italian people as a whole, from 1966 to 2003. As the story slowly unfolds and you experience the personal joys and crises, and the actual history, you grow to know and love these people as if they were old friends. This is life, as Alfred Hitchcock allegedly put it, “with the boring bits taken out.” Be sure to see Part I first.

Recommended: Gold Diggers of 1933, Castro, Tuesday. Before A Hard Day’s Night, before Singin’ in the Rain, before Astaire and Rogers (well, before Astaire), Warner Brothers was putting out a whole different type of musical; smart, sassy, funny, definitely pre-code, and with Busby Berkeley production numbers that defied both description and the laws of physics. Gold Diggers of 1933 is the best early-thirties’ Warner musical; upbeat, sexy, and entertaining, but never really letting you forget that there’s a depression going on out there. As part of its Busby Berkeley series, the Castro is presenting Gold Diggers of 1933 on a double-bill with a sequel of sorts, Gold Diggers of 1935.

Recommended: 42nd Street, Castro, Wednesday. This isn’t just a backstage musical; it’s the backstage musical, complete with the chorus girl ingénue whose big chance comes when the star breaks her ankle. A close second to Gold Diggers of 1933, with good humor and spectacular Busby Berkeley dance numbers that could never happen on a real Broadway stage. Co-staring Ginger Rogers as Anytime Annie, who “only said no once, and then she didn’t hear the question.” Still part of the Busby Berkeley series, and on a double-bill with Footlight Parade.

Oscar Hopefuls

Forget Christmas and Chanukah! December is Oscar Season.

This is the time that Hollywood studios release their Oscar hopefuls. To officially qualify, a movie must come out before the end of the year. But anything that opened before November is likely to get lost in Academy members’ notoriously short attention spans. Thus, this is Oscar Season.

And what is an Oscar hopeful? A feature that combines slick Hollywood production values with some intentions of serious art. It has to feel “important.” With occasional exceptions like Titanic and Return of the King, expensive effects-heavy action movies don’t qualify. But neither does anything edgy, experimental, truly independent, or subtitled. (I’m talking here about the major awards like Best Picture, Actor, and Actress, not the so-called “technical” awards like Film Editing, Sound, and Foreign Language Film.)

Not every Oscar hopeful is good enough (or conventional enough) to be an actual Oscar contender, of course. Many don’t stand a Republican’s chance in Berkeley of winning anything.

Here’s what I think about those that I’ve seen, in order from the best to the worst:

Capote: I can’t think of a historical figure more challenging for an actor than Truman Capote–you can’t do that voice without it sounding like a broad comic impersonation. Yet Philip Seymour Hoffman makes it work in a performance that’s sure to win him at least an Oscar nomination. You first meet Capote enthralling New York partygoers with his wit. He’s a self-centered jerk, but at least the wit makes him a likeable jerk. Likeable enough, anyway, to make you care when he becomes ensnared with an emotional involvement he can’t handle (the story sticks to the years that Capote researched and wrote his last and most-praised book, In Cold Blood). His emotional self-destruction is crushing to watch.

Pride and Prejudice: I haven’t read the book, and haven’t seen another film version in more than 30 years. That means I can judge this adaptation entirely on its own merits. And it has merits, although not overwhelming ones. This Pride and Prejudice is a nice, entertaining, lovely to look at, but not really exceptional story of lower-middle class desperation, upper-class snobbery, and love and courtship at a time when people didn’t usually love those they courted. It’s also, to my knowledge, the first movie to unequivocally star the wonderful Keira Knightley, not just as the hero’s girlfriend, but as the central character. The rest of the cast, including Yank Donald Sutherland doing a quite acceptable English accent, are all top notch.

Bee Season: An East Bay Jewish family goes through a lot in the course of this story, both good and bad. The daughter (Flora Cross) wins spelling bee after spelling bee, heading for the national championship. The mother (Juliette Binoche) appears to be going insane. The son (Max Minghella) is going through more than the usual teenage rebellion. And the domineering, Talmudic scholar father (Richard Gere) thinks there’s something spiritual going on. The movie basically works; you care deeply about these characters and wonder what’s going to happen next. But it gets the culture all wrong (and I’m saying this as an East Bay Jew). This family appears to live in isolation, without a congregation or even friends to share its trials and joy. For a film that’s allegedly about Jewish spirituality, that’s a very big mistake.

Syriana: : I discuss this one below.

There are plenty of other Oscar hopefuls, but that I haven’t seen them. They include Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Rent, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Squid and the Whale. Some of them may be good, and others probably stink.

And speaking gems and stinkers, here are my recommendations and other noteworthy films for the week.

Noteworthy: Syriana, Presidio, ongoing engagement. What a mess. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan utterly fails to do to the oil industry what he did for drugs in Traffic (which he wrote but didn’t direct). This time around, the convoluted, multiple story lines confuse rather than intrigue and enlighten; eventually, you just give up on them. And the father/son conflicts Gaghan keeps throwing at us in place of real character development don’t help, either. To make matters worse, the whole film appears to have been shot by a blind-folded cameraman pointed in the actors’ general direction. There are plenty of good ways to learn about corruption in the oil industry; this two-hour torture session isn’t one of them.

Recommended: It’s a Wonderful Life, Castro, Friday. There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, Bailey needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because Bailey, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it.

Recommended: Good Night and Good Luck, Parkway, extended run opens Friday. George Clooney broke the rules. He made a historical drama that (as near as I can tell) sticks rigorously close to well-documented historical facts, and the result is terrific. Good Night and Good Luck is about the battle between legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Senator Joseph McCarthy). And that’s all the movie is about. We don’t meet Murrow’s family; we never see his home. There’s little character development, but Clooney sticks to what matters. And at a time when elected officials are calling McCarthy a “hero for America,” it matters.

Noteworthy: Benefit to Save the 4Star, 4Star, Saturday, all afternoon and evening. The 4Star Theater is fighting for its life. The Canaan Lutheran Church, which owns the property, wants the theater out. To raise money for legal fees, the theater will screen Hong Kong movies from 1:00pm until midnight on Saturday, December 17. For more information, see this article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Recommended: Seven Samurai, Balboa, Saturday and Sunday. If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours and watch Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but none of the remakes even come close. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. When the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. Quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made. As part of its Samurai series, the Balboa is presenting Seven Samurai without a second feature; this film is a double-bill all by itself.

Recommended: The Last Waltz, Lark, Monday, 7:00. 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 Mitchell. The filmmakers were just as talented, with great cinematographers like Michael Chapman and Vilmos Zsigmond handling the cameras and art director Boris Leven designing the set, all under the direction of Martin Scorsese. 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.

Recommended: Sanjuro, Balboa, Monday and Tuesday. Yojimbo was such a huge hit that Kurosawa made a sequel. This time, Mifune’s masterless swordsman reluctantly helps a group of naïve young samurai clean up their clan. Of course, they insist on doing everything properly and honorably; without him, they wouldn’t last a minute. The result is an action comedy and genre parody that ties with The Hidden Fortress as Kurosawa’s lightest entertainment. The climax involves one of the greatest, and most unique, swordfights in movie history.

Noteworthy: Down By Law, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. Roberto Benigni got his first American exposure in this strange, low-budget comedy from the then-unknown Jim Jarmusch. I haven’t seen it in about 20 years, but if it’s as good as I remember, it’s worth seeing.

Endings, Happy and Sad

The end is near! At least when you watch a movie, the ending is never more than a few hours away. But what kind of ending? The general rule of thumb is that Hollywood movies have happy endings, because that’s what people want, while serious films have sad endings, because life is like that (or perhaps because it proves that they’re serious).

I can’t talk about endings without giving some away. So I’ll warn you now that this little essay has spoilers for Holes, Boogie Nights, and House of Sand and Fog. I don’t believe that these spoilers would harm your enjoyment of these films. But if the prospect of finding out what happens makes you uncomfortable, click here.

Some Hollywood endings are appallingly happy. Holes, an otherwise very good movie for preteens, is one of the worst. It’s not enough that the hero and his best friend are released from the juvenile work camp. They also find a fortune in buried treasure. And the evil sadists running the camp are arrested. And a 100-year-old drought ends. And all the kids who are still in prison dance with joy. And the hero’s father makes a second fortune with his crazy invention. And the best friend’s long-lost mother turns up. And–¦well, you get the idea. My daughter, who has read the book the movie was based on, assures me that the original ending is happy without getting ridiculous.

But sad endings can be just as forced. Consider House of Sand and Fog. In the real world, that whole dreadful situation would probably have worked out okay. And by the end of the second act, it looked as if the two antagonists would join forces to sue City Hall. But a happy ending would have felt wrong, like a sellout, so the writers threw in a crazy policeman to make sure that everyone ends up either dead or ruined.

The problem isn’t happy endings or sad endings; it’s endings. They’re a necessary part of the story-telling process, but in real life, they’re as artificial as a fade-out. A wedding is not an ending; it’s a beginning. Even death, definitely one person’s ending, leaves a whole lot of supporting characters around to figure out new story lines.

That’s why the best endings balance, like life, between joy and tragedy. They might leave the main characters feeling good, but without suggesting that that’s a permanent state. Boogie Nights has a great ending, and I’m not talking about the famous close-up. The protagonist has returned to his artificial family and the work that brought him fame and fortune. For the moment, everyone is pleased. But you know that more tragedy and heartbreak await.

Okay. If you got to this paragraph by clicking a link instead of reading, you’re unspoiled. How’s that for a happy ending? Some of the films below end happily, as well.

Noteworthy: Rock N Roll Horror Show, 1751 Social Club, Friday night, 8:00. It seems a little late for Halloween, but any season is right for an SF IndieFest benefit. The evening includes a screening of the 1962 Hammer flick Kiss of the Vampire, followed by live performances by two bands, Stolen Babies and The Graves Brothers Deluxe. I haven’t seen the movie or heard the bands, but Hammer’s horror movies from that era are seldom a complete loss, the cover is only $5, and it’s all for a good cause.

Recommended: The Hidden Fortress, Balboa, Friday and Saturday. Akira Kurosawa showed astonishing range within the samurai genre (as well as outside the genre). Seven Samurai is an epic drama with fully-developed characters and realistically unpredictable violence; Yojimbo is a black comedy; Throne of Blood is stylized Shakespeare. The Hidden Fortress is just plain fun–a rousing, suspenseful, and entertaining romp. It was also his first widescreen film, and contains two comic peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who were the inspiration for R2D2 and C3PO. As part of its Samurai series, the Balboa is showing The Hidden Fortress on a double-bill with Three Outlaw Samurai.

Recommended: Ushpizin, Balboa, opening Friday. Shuli Rand was a successful actor before he found religion. Now an ultra-orthodox Jew, he wrote and starred in Ushpizin (Guests), a sweet and religious fable set during the seven-day festival of Sukkot. Rand and his real-life wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand (who never acted before but damn near steals the movie) play a couple so poor they can’t even celebrate the holiday. But good luck brings them everything they need, including guests in the form of two escaped convicts with questionable intensions. In Rand’s world view, good luck is a gift from God, misfortune is a test, and everything will work out if you pray hard enough and treat other people with sufficient patience and generosity. On a double-bill with Ballet Russes.

Recommended: Reds, Rafael, Sunday, 1:00. You have to hand it to Warren Beatty (and to Paramount); it took guts to make an expensive, three-hour, romantic, historical epic about early American Communists. Reds is a story of political and sexual idealism, of free love and Russian revolution, and of deep betrayal. It’s a sad, thoughtful, and intelligent film. Representative Lynn Woolsey will introduce Reds as part of the Rafael’s Reel Politics series.

Recommended: Yojimbo, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15; also at the Balboa, Thursday and next Friday. A masterless samurai (always the best for story-telling purposes) wanders into a small town torn apart by two gangs fighting a brutal turf war. Disgusted by everyone, our hero (who else but Toshiro Mifune) uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a nihilistic black comedy all rolled into one. Allegedly inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, it was remade twice as Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. The Parkway is showing Yojimbo free for Audience Appreciation Night, and the Balboa is presenting it on a double-bill with Samurai Rebellion as part of its Samurai festival.

 Noteworthy: Auntie Mame, Castro, Wednesday. Some movies require an “Almost Recommended– icon. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s stage play (based on Patrick Dennis’ novel) is a wonder–”a comic celebration of a free spirit who lived life to the fullest. The movie version follows the play almost word-for-word, and preserves Rosalind Russell’s great performance, but Morton DaCosta’s stage-bound direction traps the story inside its theatrical origins. And the usually dependable screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin’ in the Rain, The Bandwagon) failed to find a way around the restrictions of 1958 Hollywood censorship. Let’s face it, if you can’t say “bastard– or “sons of bitches,– you don’t have Auntie Mame.

Kurosawa

The Balboa starts its Samurai series today. That’s as good an excuse as any to talk about my all-time favorite filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa. No one else combined as full a technical and artistic mastery of the medium with such a deep and sympathetic understanding of the human condition. At least no one else did so consistently while making such entertaining movies.

When I say “consistent,” I don’t mean that he made nothing but masterpieces; he had his share of turkeys. But from 1952 through 1965, he made eleven films in a row– Ikiru, Seven Samurai, I Live in Fear, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Red Beard–that can all reasonably be described as masterpieces. No other filmmaker had anywhere near that string of artistic success. And those eleven weren’t his only masterpieces, either; he made Rashomon before them and Ran decades later.

His best works include film noir, serious drama, epic adventure, Shakespeare and Gorky adaptations, and comedy both dark and light. Many, but not all of them, are what we westerners call “samurai films.” Set in the past or present, they examine every aspect of human existence, although they don’t seem much concerned with sex and romance. That’s an important subject to ignore, but plenty of other filmmakers have covered it extensively.

For all their genre differences, most Kurosawa films share a visual style (he loved long lenses) and a world view. The Kurosawa universe is a cruel and indifferent place, but individual acts of kindness and charity go a long way in making it bearable and meaningful–even if they don’t result in Frank Capra endings.

Americans think of Kurosawa as an art house director. Of course they do; in America, if it has subtitles, it must be art. But he was a commercial filmmaker, not the Scorsese or Sayles of mid-century Japan but its Spielberg–the maker of hits. But he was a Spielberg who turned out nothing below the quality of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List.

After Red Beard, Kurosawa’s luck changed. Or more precisely, the Japanese film industry changed and he no longer fit. For the rest of his career, Kurosawa would spend more time scrambling for money than making films; producing only seven of them in the remaining 29 years of his career. Only two of those seven, Dersu Uzala and Ran, approached the previous eleven in quality. And not surprisingly, they’re considerably more bitter. Kindness and charity mean nothing in the tortured world of Ran.

But cheer up. There are always some movies worth seeing.

Recommended: Harakiri, Balboa, Friday through Tuesday. Absolutely the best samurai film not made by Akira Kurosawa. A samurai (Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to a fort and asks permission to kill himself, then tells a harrowing tale of poverty made unbearable by the strict samurai code. Director Masaki Kobayashi had no love for feudal Japan’s social structure, which he shows as cruel, arrogant, and hypocritical. The opening film in the Balboa’s Samurai series.

Noteworthy: Earth, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:30. This last great Soviet silent classic has a reputation for beauty and lyricism, without the heavy-handed propaganda of Potemkin. I’ve never seen Earth, but I’d like to. This presentation will be introduced by PFA’s new Senior Curator, Susan Oxtoby, and accompanied on the piano by Gabriel Thibaudeau.

Recommended: Throne of Blood, Balboa, Wednesday and Thursday. Kurosawa stands Shakespeare on his head with this haunting, noh- and kabuki-inspired loose adaptation of Macbeth. Toshiro Mifune gives an over-the-top but still effective performance as the military officer tempted by his wife (Isuzu Yamada) into murdering his lord. The finale–which is far more democratic than anything Shakespeare ever dared–is one of the great action sequences ever. As part of its Samurai series, the Balboa is presenting Throne of Blood on a double bill with New Tale of Zatoichi.

Recommended: The Grapes of Wrath, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. When we think of classic, studio-era Hollywood, serious social criticism doesn’t come to mind. But this Darryl Zanuck/Nunnally Johnson/John Ford production of John Steinbeck’s flip side of the California dream doesn’t pull any punches (well, not many of them, anyway). The ending may be considerably less downbeat than Steinbeck’s original, but as the desperately-poor Joad family moves from Oklahoma to California in their rickety truck, only to find bigotry and more poverty, you can cut the sense of desperation with a knife. Presented by Assemblyman Mark Leno as part of the Rafael’s Reel Politics series.

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