Coming Soon: The San Francisco International Film Festival

Prepare yourself for a lot of movie-going. Graham Leggat, the new Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, announced the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival this week. It runs April 20 through May 4.

The numbers, as always, are big: 97 features and 130 shorts from 41 countries, including 38 west coast, 12 USA, 11 North American, and one world premiere. Here’s another statistic: This is the 49th San Francisco Film Festival, which means that next year will be even bigger (or at least glossier).

This year’s festival is all over the place—literally. As usual, the Kabuki will host the bulk of it, with big events at the Castro, and additional screenings at the Aquarius and Pacific Film Archive for people who don’t want to go to San Francisco. But events will also happen at seven additional locations around The City—including a fire station.

Major events include a State of Cinema address by actor Tilda Swinton (see photo), two silent film presentations with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, and the usual collection of life achievement award presentations. This year, they go to screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, actor Ed Harris, and directors Werner Herzog and Guy Maddin—all talented people with impressive bodies of work.

Think musicals are dead? Opening night honors go to Perhaps Love, a romantic musical drama from Hong Kong with Bollywood choreography. The Festival’s “Centerpiece” presentation is John Turturro’s new film (as a director, not an actor), Romance & Cigarettes; you guessed it—working-class Americans with a tendency to break into song. The whole shindig closes with Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, where half the all-star cast appear to be playing singers. The program describes at least one other film, Princess Raccoon (see photo), as a musical.

But musicals don’t impress everyone. At the Festival press conference, one reporter (I didn’t catch her name) caught Leggat off-guard. She wanted him to explain the surprisingly small number of films directed by women in this year’s line-up. Next year, I bet, there will be more.

As the festival approaches, I’ll tell you more about specific shows, and perhaps even make some recommendations. As always with the big festivals, I recommend that you give priority to films that won’t otherwise be coming to a theater near you..

In other news, at least one more theater is marking the earthquake centennial. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum will show the 1927 melodrama Old San Francisco, which climaxes with the big one, on Friday and Saturday, April 14 and 15 (they usually only show films on Saturday nights). This is no masterpiece, but it’s entertaining if you can forgive the racism (this time against the Chinese)—a common problem with American silents. Among the shorts presented with it are “A Trip Down Market Street” from 1906.

The Friday night presentation will also include a book signing event with David Berkhart, author of Earthquake Days: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake & Fire. Judy Rosenberg is accompanying the movies on piano Friday night, and Frederick Hodges on Saturday.

But all that is a week away. Here’s some movies to catch in the meantime:

Recommended: Joyeux Noel, Balboa, ongoing. On Christmas Eve, 1914, soldiers in what was to become known as World War I held an impromptu cease fire, crossing no-man’s land and fraternizing with the enemy. Such acknowledgement of their common humanity horrified their commanding officers, who made sure that this kind of basic decency would never be repeated. Christian Carion washes his highly fictionalized account with sentimentality (he even manages to get a woman into the trenches), but since this is an inherently sentimental story, that’s not a bad thing.

Recommended, with Reservations: A Clockwork Orange, California (Berkeley), Friday and Saturday, midnight. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in 1971, 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. In addition to the movie, this midnight show includes a live performance by The Holy Kiss.

Recommended: The Band Wagon, Stanford, Friday through Thursday. Singin’ in the Rain’s producer and writers teamed up with director Vincente Minnelli to make the one great post-Ginger Fred Astaire vehicle. Their trick? They blended a small dose of reality into the otherwise frivolous mix. For instance, Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to the Broadway stage he abandoned years before, is clearly based on Astaire himself. The songs and dances (including “That’s Entertainment” and “I Love Louisa”) are exceptional. On a double-bill with Meet Me in St. Louis.

Recommended: Capote, 4Star, opening Friday.  I can’t think of a historical figure more challenging for an actor than Truman Capote–you can’t do that voice without sounding like a broad comic impersonation. Yet Philip Seymour Hoffman makes it work in an Oscar- winning performance. The story sticks to the years that Capote researched and wrote his last and most-praised book, In Cold Blood. Hoffman creates a witty and self-centered Capote, utterly unable to handle his mixed feelings about a cold-blooded killer, or the sudden literary success of his research assistant, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener).

Recommended: Brokeback Mountain, Parkway, opening Friday. Ang Lee’s gay love story may one day seem as dated as Kramer vs. Kramer and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but today it looks like a masterpiece. Heath Ledger turns the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy on its head, playing a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are also brilliant as his lover and wife. And, of course, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, working from a short story by E. Annie Proulx, also deserve considerable credit.

Recommended: Good Night and Good Luck, Roxie, opening Friday. George Clooney made a terrific historical drama by sticking rigorously close to well-documented historical facts. It’s not supposed to happen that way. 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 it’s about. We don’t meet Murrow’s family; we never see his home. At a time when elected officials are calling McCarthy a “hero for America,” this movie matters.

Recommended: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. When we think of the French New Wave, we imagine gritty, black-and-white stories filled with angst and alienation. Yet Jacques Demy, shooting a completely believable story in real locations, created a lush, colorful and sublimely romantic musical. A movie like few others. Part of the Archive’s Enchanting World of Jacques Demy series.

Earthquakes

The big one is coming. Actually, the big one came a hundred years ago. What’s coming is the big anniversary of the big one. I’m speaking, of course, of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Expect a lot of ink devoted to it in the local press, including sobering discussions of our unprepared conditions, comparisons with Katrina, and nostalgic looks at a simpler time when government and business conspired to cover up the number of fatalities.

At least two local theaters, the Balboa and the Pacific Film Archive, plan to commemorate this anniversary. And for such a solemn event, their plans look like fun.

The PFA’s four-day series, 65 Seconds That Shook the Earth: Commemorating the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, runs from April 6 to April 9, ending well before April 18, the actual anniversary. Among the highlights are Flame of Barbary Coast, a John Wayne western that climaxes with the 1906 quake, a presentation of archival footage of the disaster’s aftermath, and the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake, presented with a recreation of its original Sensurround process. Come and see why only three movies were released in this format.

The series closes Sunday the 9th with a 1957 cheapie called The Night the World Exploded, about a quake whose aftereffects threaten the entire world. Dr. Peggy Hellweg of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory will be on hand to “evaluate the [film’s] scientific veracity.” I’m not sure if she will speak before the movie, after it, or give us a Mystery Science Theater-style presentation. I suspect the film deserves the latter.

But leave it to the Balboa’s Gary Meyer—who’s probably been programming film revivals in the Bay Area longer than anyone—to get the right movie on the right day. He’s kicking off his Reel San Francisco festival with the most famous ’06 earthquake flick of them all, MGM’s 1936 big-budget extravaganza, San Francisco.

A big, silly, melodramatic special effects vehicle (that was unusual in 1936), San Francisco is a classic example of code-era Hollywood trying to have it both ways. It celebrates the non-conformist, hedonistic, open-minded joy that, at least to the screen-writers, symbolized the Barbary Coast. But it covers itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing that’s as annoying as it is laughable.

These contradictions all come together in the movie’s central character, Blackie Norton (Clark Gable). Saloon-owner Norton represents the City’s dark side, and is described as just about the most evil man in San Francisco. If this honest businessman, making political enemies by fighting for stricter fire regulations (a clever foreshadowing of what we all know is coming), is the worst person in the city, what are all the good Christians in the movie complaining about? Okay, so he’s an atheist. This is definitely a red-state movie.

Still, San Francisco has considerable pleasures, especially in the last half hour when the earth shakes and the fires break out. And let’s not forget the title song—the best ever written about a city.

The Balboa will show San Francisco, on a double-bill with After the Thin Man, on April 16-18. There will be additional presentations on the last night, the actual anniversary.

Nothing earth-shattering, but here are some movies worth seeing this week.

Recommended: King Kong (2005), Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Peter Jackson’s version isn’t as good as the original, but “not as good as a masterpiece” still leaves plenty of room for excellence. Jackson didn’t just improve the special effects; he rethought all of the main characters (human and simian), finding new themes in the old story. But cutting it by half an hour would have made it better still.

Recommended: Swing Time, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time is a close second, and the only other unqualified masterpiece in the series. Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Fred is an incredibly lucky gambler who for private reasons has to limit his winnings. It’s just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On a double-bill with Song of the Thin Man.

Recommended: The Big Lebowski, Act 1 & 2, Friday and Saturday, midnight; Saturday and Sunday, noon. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie.

Recommended: Munich, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. If your view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be summed up with “Our side is virtuous; it’s all their fault,” you’re going to hate Steven Spielberg’s meditation on terrorism and anti-terrorism. By making a potentially conventional thriller into a morally ambiguous and emotionally complex drama, he’s created his best work since Schindler’s List, and his most daring yet. Although Spielberg clearly sides with the Israelis, he’s not ready to let them off the hook.  He understands all too painfully that revenge breeds revenge and violence breeds violence.

Addendum: Asian American Film Festival

I don’t usually send out a newsletter on Sunday, but next Friday will be too late to talk about the 24th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. I caught two Festival events Saturday at the Castro, both very much worth talking about.

As part of its tribute to actor James Shigeta, the Festival screened Sam Fuller’s 1959 murder mystery The Crimson Kimono. Shigeta just may be the only Asian-American male to achieve Hollywood romantic leading man status. That he did this at a time when the civil rights movement was just beginning to alter America’s consciousness, and when World War II was still a recent memory, is all the more amazing.

The Crimson Kimono was his first film, and although he received third billing after two white newcomers, he had as much screen time as anyone, played the most complex character, and got the girl in the end. A white girl, at that.

This is a Sam Fuller movie, which means that it’s a low-budget, semi-exploitation melodrama with all the subtlety of a freight train at a dinner party. But that also means that it’s gutsy, takes on important issues, and is immensely entertaining.

After the movie, James Shigeta himself came onstage to be interviewed by filmmaker Arthur Dong. Shigeta appeared happy and relaxed, frequently joking. When Dong called him a “sex symbol,” Shigeta shot back laughing with “A what?”

He also seemed surprised when Dong described his big, interracial kiss with Victoria Shaw as daring in 1959. “Maybe the acting community is different. I didn’t see kissing a white girl [as a big deal]. When the director says action, you do it.”

Speaking of more recent films, Shigeta has strong opinions of Memoirs of a Geisha‘s casting controversy. He didn’t object, as many have, to using Chinese actresses instead of Japanese ones. “Why didn’t they use our people [Asian Americans]? We have beautiful people.” He didn’t like the broken English used in the film, and would have preferred actresses who were native English speakers. “I didn’t mind that they were Chinese girls playing Japanese. I objected that they were poorly directed.”

But the interview ended with a disappointment: They took no questions from the audience.

After an hour’s dinner break, I returned to the Castro to see Dreaming Lhasa, a small wonder of a film about Tibetan refuges. The principle setting is Dharamsala, a “little Tibet” in the Indian Himalayas; a place for refugees from China’s oppressive policies. The plot, concerning a Tibetan-American documentary filmmaker helping an ex-monk return a charm box to its original owner, is little more than an excuse to explore a culture in exile. The Tibetan world explored here is one of contrasts, of soothsayers and hermit monks, torture victims, and rock ‘n’ roll. Warning: This film contains positive references to the CIA.

After the screening, filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam came on stage to answer questions. Primarily documentary filmmakers (like their protagonist), this was their first experiment with narrative fiction. They “wanted to make a different Tibetan movie.” One that would show a modern, international culture where people listen to “use music heard everywhere.” They’re goal was to “remind younger Tibetans not to forget their past.”

As of Saturday, no American distributor has picked up Dreaming Lhasa. It’s showing this Wednesday at the Pacific Film Archive; after that, who knows when you’ll get another chance to see it.

Links

Bayflicks lacks a links page, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love other web sites. Here are a few:

SF360, a sort of local news site for the independent film scene, officially launched this week (this is called a news hook in the journalism biz). It’s still taking form, but it already looks good, with short but interesting articles on current film festivals, links to articles elsewhere, reports on film people who’ve made local appearances, and a blog page with the good sense to put Bayflicks at the top of its list (even if it did spells my site as “Bay Flicks”—better than Bayflix).

Right below my listing on that page is another local movie site worth checking from time to time, Hell on Frisco Bay. This is simply one cinephile’s discussion of what he’s seen. Brian (if he’s posted his full name on the site, I haven’t found it) seems aware of everything going on and has opinions on much of it. A good read.

Moving beyond the local, there’s always indieWIRE, which is sort of a Variety/Associated Press for independent cinema. Here you can read about upcoming films that AMC isn’t booking into 800 theaters, find out about film festivals outside the Bay Area, and examine a weekly calendar of festivals and releases. indieWIRE, along with the San Francisco Film Society (which I will discuss here in two weeks), co-sponsors SF360 .

I’m not only a movie geek, I’m an obsolete movie technology geek. I could bore a stone to death talking about Todd-AO or 3-strip Technicolor. But Martin Hart never bores at his American Widescreen Museum. Here you’ll find the history and technology of the widescreen formats that sold movie tickets in the 1950’s and ‘60’s (as well as some that failed to sell tickets), pages on early color and sound, and a collection of strange movie posters, all illustrated with interesting photos and witty yet informative text.

But if you’re going to spend hours starring at a screen, at least get out of the house and stare at a really big one. Here are some screens worth staring at this week, including some promising presentations (I haven’t actually seen them) at the Asian American Film Festival.

Recommended, with Reservations: CSA: The Confederate States of America, Roxie, ongoing. Kevin Willmott’s mockumentary starts with a quote of George Bernard Shaw’s: “If you are going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” Willmott better watch his back, because his alternative history of the South winning the civil war hits painfully close to the bone as it examines our country’s cultural and institutional racism, but it just isn’t all that funny. It tries, with mock commercials for slave security devices and fake clips from imaginary movies, but only succeeds (the Home Shopping Network parody is priceless). Still, it’s nice to see someone do a mockumentary about something more important than dog shows and musicians.

Recommended: Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Parkway, opening Friday, and ongoing at the Rafael. Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel (which I haven’t read) is reputed to be funny, complex, digressive, and so self-referential that it’s really about writing that very book. It’s also reputed to be unfilmable. So Michael Winterbottom has made a film version of Tristram Shandy that is actually a film about making a film of Tristram Shandy, starring Steve Coogan as Steve Coogan, who is starring as Tristram Shandy. It’s all very silly, and very, very funny.

Not Recommended: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Act 1 & 2, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise—which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless.

Noteworthy: The Gay Divorcee, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen what is arguably the first Astaire-Rogers movie (certainly the first where they were the real stars). What I remember is a flawed entertainment with one great dance number, a few funny lines, and some historical interest. You could easily mistake The Gay Divorcee for an inferior rip-off of the very similar but vastly-superior Top Hat. The reality is that Top Hat was the rip-off, but one that improved on the original. On a double-bill with After the Thin Man.

Recommended: The Conformist, Balboa, opening Friday. It takes more than good men doing nothing to create fascism. According to Bernardo Bertolucci’s haunting character study, it also takes mediocre men with career ambitions. Jean-Louis Trintignant is chilling as a bland cog in the wheel, ready to use his honeymoon in homicidal service to Mussolini. With Stefania Sandrelli as his not-to-bright bride and Dominique Sanda, in a star-making performance, as the object of everyone’s desire. Showing now in a new, 35mm restoration that promises to restore Vittorio Storaro’s lush Technicolor cinematography.

Noteworthy: The Crimson Kimono, Castro, Saturday, 3:00. I’ve never seen this 1959 Sam Fuller cop buddy picture, but I’ve yet to see a Sam Fuller movie I didn’t like. James Shigeta and Charlie Bancroft play detectives working on a murder and falling in love with the same woman in an interracial love triangle—a courageous plot in 1959. The Asian American Film Festival is presenting The Crimson Kimono as part of its tribute to actor James Shigeta, who, along with documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, will take part in an onstage discussion after the film.

Noteworthy: Dreaming Lhasa, Castro, Saturday, 6:30; Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:30. A Tibetan-American filmmaker visits Dharamsala (a community of Tibetan exiles in India) and becomes involved with an ex-monk, a charm box, and, from what I’ve read, the CIA. It doesn’t sound like your run-of-the-mill spiritual-and-unworldly look at Tibet. Part of the Asian American Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Water, Castro, Sunday, 6:00. This Canadian film from director Deepa Mehta, set in India in 1938, concerns itself with that country’s non-violent revolution against British rule. Only instead of concentrating on Gandhi or Nehru, it concerns itself with a young widow who must rebel not only against the British, but also against the narrow confines of Hindu orthodoxy. Part of the Asian American Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Colma: The Musical, Kabuki, Tuesday, 9:00. Yes, you read that title right. If you can name a musical Brigadoon or Oklahoma, why not Colma? Part of the Asian American Film Festival.

Recommended: Dr. Strangelove, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things once were. Thank heaven we no longer have idiots like those running the country! It’s also very funny. Part of a new Onion AV Club Film Series.

Films for the Week of March 10, 2006

There’s nothing I can say about the Oscars that you haven’t read elsewhere, so I’ll just go directly to my weekly recommendations:

Recommended: Valley Girl, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Was there ever a less promising film to become a classic? Made on a miniscule budget, financed by people more concerned with tits than story, with a title ripped off from a recent hit novelty song, it was just one of many teenage sexploitation movies then glutting the early-’80s drive-ins. Yet writers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane and director Martha Coolidge made it the ultimate teenage romantic comedy. Valley Girl sports Nicolas Cage in his first major role and makes some of the best use of rock ‘n’ roll ever in a non-concert movie. The Castro is showing Valley Girl with The Legend of Billie Jean and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains as part of what they’re calling a Punk Grrrl Triple Feature.

Recommended: Seven ChancesCalifornia Theatre, San Jose, Friday, 7:30. Director/Star Buster Keaton didn’t like this comedy about a young man in financial trouble who must marry that day or lose a fortune, but artists are rarely the best judges of their own work. Keaton turned this silly plot (forced on him by his producer) into one of the most efficient feature-length laugh machines ever filmed. Watch it with an audience, and you seldom get a chance not to laugh. The climatic chase, involving hundreds of brides and an avalanche, may be the funniest sequence ever. But be warned: By today’s standards, Seven Chances is quite racist and sexist. The Cinequest Festival will present Seven Chances and the short One Week (both silent films) accompanied by Chris Elliot on the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Not Recommended: Sarah Silverman: Jesus is MagicRed Vic, Friday and Saturday. Sarah Silverman’s scene in The Aristocrats is the best moment in that wonderful movie, but her combination concert/concept movie only occasionally hits a bullseye. At her best, her raunchy, intentionally shocking humor leaves you laughing so hard you can’t breathe. But she falls flat as often as she delights, and when shock humor isn’t funny, it’s just offensive.

Recommended, with Reservations: The Thin ManStanford, Friday through Sunday. Murder mystery, screwball comedy, wallow in classic MGM glamour, and 93-minute commercial for alcohol as the secret to a happy marriage. Also the start of a very long franchise. William Powell and Myrna Loy make great chemistry as Nick and Nora Charles, the rich, drunk-and-in-love couple with a little murder to clear up. The mystery and the comedy never quite jell, but it’s so fun to watch Powell and Loy together that you really don’t care. On a double-bill with Top Hat.

Recommended: Top HatStanford, Friday through Sunday.  If escapism is a valid artistic goal, Top Hat is one of the great masterpieces of 20th Century art. From the perfect clothes that everyone wears so well to the absurd mistaken-identity plot to the art deco set that makes Venice look like a very exclusive water park, everything about the ultimate Astaire-Rogers musical tells you not to take it seriously. But who needs realism when Fred Astaire dances his way into Ginger Rogers’ heart to four great (and one mediocre) Irving Berlin tunes? And when the music stops, it’s still a very good comedy. On a double-bill with The Thin Man.

Recommended: Go for Zucker!Lark, opening Friday. Possibly the first Jewish film from Germany in 70 years that’s not about the Holocaust, and almost certainly the funniest. Pool hall hustler and one-time Communist sportscaster Jaeckie Zucker is so not Jewish that he refuses to call his granddaughter by her given name: Sarah. Overwhelmed by financial and family woes, he sees monetary salvation in his mother’s death. But to get his half of the inheritance, he must host his hated, orthodox relatives for a week. This movie has everything: religion, death, reconciliation, pool, first-cousin incest, an orthodox Jew on ecstasy, and plenty of good, strong laughs.

Recommended: Match Point, Parkway, opening Friday, and continuing at the Presidio. The opening and closing credits have that distinct Woody Allen look, and one plot twist may remind you of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but nothing else in this very British class-and-sex drama reveals its writer/director. And while it’s no Annie Hall, this tale of a social-climbing tennis pro who lusts too much for another gold digger is probably Allen’s best in 20 years.

Recommended, with Reservations: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Castro, Saturday and Sunday. I call them unintentional comedies–movies so bad they’re funny (as opposed to so bad they’re boring). Ed Wood’s strange science fiction fable, which includes Bela Lugosi’s last performance, isn’t the best of them (or the worst, or the best at being the worst), but it certainly earns its cult following. As part of an “Ed Wood Film Festival,”  The Castro will screen a new, colorized print of Plan . That’s a real moral dilemma for me. I’m opposed to colorization because it mucks with a film’s artistic integrity, but can I use artistic integrity and Plan 9 from Outer Space in the same sentence?

Noteworthy: The Great Train Robbery & TumbleweedsTiburon International Film FestivalSunday, 1:00. The Tiburon International Film Festival is billing this presentation as “The Great Train Robbery,”  but in terms of length, that one-reel 1903 western is just the short before the feature. Made at the dawn of narrative cinema, The Great Train Robbery’s success helped push film’s transition from a technical novelty into a story-telling medium. Filmed almost entirely in long shots, it still works as simple entertainment. The feature presentation is William S. Hart’s last film, Tumbleweeds, from 1925, which I haven’t seen. These silent films, unfortunately, will be presented with recorded, not live, accompaniment.

Not Recommended: Mardi Gras: Made in China, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:00. David Redmon had a terrific idea for a 20-minute film: Compare the wild partying at New Orleans Mardi Gras–specifically, the tradition of women exposing their breasts in exchange for cheap, plastic beads–with the hard lives of the Chinese workers who make those beads. But Redmon fails to keep this idea compelling for a full 78 minutes. It doesn’t help that Hurricane Katrina changed our view of New Orleans. Part of the  Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Selections from “Les Vampires”Alliance Française, Thursday, 7:00. In 1915, Louis Feuillade made a seven-hour serial about a gang of heartless crooks led by an evil and seductive woman (Musidora). Alliance Française will show selections from the series, with live musical accompaniment by The Ahl-I Nafs.

 

DVD Recommendations

Sometimes you just can’t get to a movie theater. Or there’s nothing playing that you want to see. Or you just don’t want the hassle. That’s why we have DVDs. This week, I’m going to ignore the real thing and give you a couple of home theater recommendations.

Let’s start with the big one–in more ways than one. Amazingly enough, Best of Youth isn’t currently at the Balboa. But Miramax has released the best film of 2005 on DVD in a deluxe two-disc set containing absolutely no extras. I guess a 6-hour masterpiece doesn’t need them.

Easily the best two-part, six-hour movie since Godfather I and II, 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. Yes, six hours is a long time to spend in front of your television, but in those six hours you’ll make new friends, fall in and out of love, learn a lot of recent Italian history, and marvel at just how wonderful a story-telling medium motion pictures can be.

Despite its length, Best of Youth is best experienced in a single day. Set aside a Saturday or Sunday. Invite some friends over. Start at, say, 2:00 in the afternoon. Assuming you don’t take too many bathroom breaks, you’ll finish Part 1 a little after 5:00. Take a walk. Eat a hearty meal (Italian cuisine recommended). Start Part 2 at 6:30, and you’ll be done before 10:00.

For something lighter (and shorter), try Free Enterprise. No, it’s not another anti-corporate documentary, but a comedy about young adult, male Star Trek fanatics trying to reconcile their hobby with their life. Low-budget and independent, Free Enterprise had a very limited theatrical release in 1999 (it didn’t even get to the Bay Area), but has apparently attracted enough of a cult following to justify a two-disc set loaded with extras.

I know what you’re thinking: “A comedy about trekkies? Spare me!” But if you’ve ever been obsessed about anything, or knew someone who was, or were romantically involved with someone whose obsessions conflicted with your own, you’ll get a lot of laughs out of Free Enterprise. The movie is funny, sweet, knowledgeable about its subject, and sexy enough to earn its R rating (it contains what is probably the funniest oral-sex-in-a-moving-vehicle scene in movie history).

The best thing about Free Enterprise is William Shatner. He plays himself, in a substantial supporting role, as an insecure actor with dreams of singing Shakespeare. Shatner specializes in self-parody these days, but here he takes it to a level of real acting. Who would have thought he had the talent?

The version of Free Enterprise in this “Five Year Mission Extended Editionis six minutes longer than the theatrical version (which I’ve never seen). It will be in stores this coming Tuesday.

So much for DVDs. Here’s what’s in theaters this week.

Recommended, with Reservations: Metropolis (1927), California Theatre, San Jose, Friday, 7:30. The first important science fiction feature film still strikes a considerable visual punch. The images–workers in a hellish, underground factory, the wealthy at play, a robot brought to life in the form of a beautiful woman–are a permanent part of our collective memory. Even people who haven’t seen Metropolis have seen some of the countless films it influenced. But the beautiful imagery only make the melodramatic plot and characters seem all the more trite. The Cinequest Festival is presenting this silent movie with live organ accompaniment by Clark Wilson.

Noteworthy: Tron, Act 1 & 2, Friday and Saturday, Midnight. I haven’t seen Tron since it was a new movie showing on very big screens. I remember it being a dumb story but a entertaining light show. Whatever computer geek in-jokes it contained went over my head (although I might get some of them, now). Today, I suspect Tron would have considerable historical interest. It was the first film to extensively use what we now call CGI. It was one of only two Hollywood films shot in 65mm between 1971 and 1992. And it was probably the last big movie about computers made before they became household appliances.

Recommended: Go For Zucker, Opera Plaza and Shattuck, opening Friday. Possibly the first Jewish film from Germany in 70 years that’s not about the Holocaust, and almost certainly the funniest. Pool hall hustler and one-time Communist sportscaster Jaeckie Zucker is so not Jewish that he refuses to call his granddaughter by her given name: Sarah. Overwhelmed by financial and family woes, he sees monetary salvation in his mother’s death. But to get his half of the inheritance, he must host his hated, orthodox relatives for a week. This movie has everything: religion, death, reconciliation, pool, first-cousin incest, an orthodox Jew on ecstasy, and more laughs than anything this side of The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

Recommended: Truth or Dare, Camera 12, San Jose, Friday, 4:30, Sunday, 9:00, and Thursday, 12:00 noon. The 2005 Audience Award Winner at the Kinofest Lunen Festival speaks of youthful alienation, frustration, and, most of all, dishonesty. 18-year-old Annika (Katharina Schüttler) flunks out of school, but doesn’t have the heart to tell her parents. As the months go by and her “graduation” approaches, the lie grows out of control, alienating her not only from her parents but also from those entrusted in keeping her secret. Part of the Cinequest Festival.

Noteworthy: The Academy Awards, Balboa, Castro, Lark, Parkway, Rafael, Roxie, and your home, Sunday, 5:00. All jokes about the stupid Academy aside, they actually picked some good movies this year. And with Jon Stewart hosting, it’s bound to be entertaining.

Recommended, with Reservations: To Catch a Thief, Castro, Monday through Wednesday. Not one of Hitchcock’s best by a long shot. The story is weak, with too much mystery and not enough suspense. But it has its good points, including the only pairing of Hitchcock’s most glamorous romantic stars (Cary Grant and Grace Kelly), one of the best kisses in movie history, and wonderful French Riviera locations filmed in glorious VistaVision.

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