Weekend at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I spent last weekend at the San Francisco International Film Festival; Saturday at the Kabuki and Sunday at the Castro. I had a wonderful time.

On Monday I told you about Adam’s Apples, Iberia, Play, and Obaba; all films that were reshown this week. Now I’ll fill you in on the rest.

I broke my own “don’t see films at festivals you can see later” rule and caught Who Killed the Electric Car, a movie that will open in theaters in June. I’m glad I did. In the mid-90’s, General Motors released an electric car so wonderful that Chris Paine made this documentary about it. But GM leased these cars rather than selling them, and let very few people get their hands on one. Then they pulled the plug (so to speak) on the entire line; not only ceasing production but also reclaiming all such cars in use.

Paine turns all of this into an informative yet breezy activist documentary. Interview subjects include a GM saleswoman turned activist, NIMH battery inventor Stanley Ovshinsky, and several movie stars who were among the few people GM would lease these cars to (this may be the only progressive documentary with a positive image of Mel Gibson). In the end, Paine finds plenty of guilty parties, including car companies, oil companies, and the government.

After the movie, Paine and his collaborators came up for some Q&A. “When our cars were taken away,” Paine explained by way of motivation, “we waited for news on it.” The headlines never materialized, so he made the movie. One of his interview subjects, there with him, told us that Toyota and every other carmaker selling hybrids could easily convert to far more efficient plug-in hybrids; they just don’t.

The version of Who Killed the Electric Car? the Festival screened is not quite the final one. Before Sony Classics releases it in June, it will get a “slight technical update, and the sound mix will change.”

I started Sunday at Not So Quiet Silents with The Alloy Orchestra. The basic concept: short silent films with audience participation–sort of a Rocky Horror Silent Picture Show. Everyone in the audience received a paper bag with cheap, noise-making toys. Then the Alloy’s Terry Donahue gave an introductory speech, showing us how he and his two collaborators make music and sound effects from the strangest of gadgets, including a saw and a bedpan, and encouraging us to boo the villains and blow the whistles in our bags.

Few short films are as funny as the first selection, Buster Keaton’s “One Week,” a twenty-minute hoot about newlyweds building a do-it-yourself house with mislabeled parts. Fatty Arbuckle’s “Back Stage” (in which Keaton co-stars) isn’t “One Week,” but it’s still fun. The real surprise was “Dragonflies, the Baby Cries,” made in 2000 by Jane Gillooly (who is married to Alloy leader Ken Winokur). Quiet and magical, this tone-piece about kids playing in nature evoked the magic of childhood in a way that probably appealed more to adults than to real kids (my own were unable to attend).

Neither kids nor adults got carried away with the audience participation concept. Sure, there was some clapping and booing and noisemaking, but for the most part, we all seemed to prefer to watching the movies, listening to the professionals, and limiting our participation to laughing.

I closed Sunday with the Alloy Orchestra again, this time accompanying the 1925 Rudolph Valentino vehicle, The Eagle. It’s a silly melodrama, with the saving grace of not taking itself seriously. Valentino is a fun star who holds the screen well, even for a heterosexual male like me. But even a silly melodrama deserved a better resolution than the ending of The Eagle.

The new print was another disappointment. It managed to be both contrasty and soft, and had clearly come from a very scratched-up source. One thing that didn’t disappoint was the Alloy Orchestra. Their score brought the movie to life.

And the movies below may help bring you to life.

Recommended: The Conformist, Shattuck, Friday through Thursday. 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 machine, 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.

Recommendation: Sisters In Law, Balboa, opening Friday. In the cinéma vérité tradition, Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto’s camera simply follows two women magistrates in Cameroon, a place where the idea that women have rights is still pretty new. Although the film deals with such horrible crimes as rape and child abuse, it’s tone is upbeat; these people are making a positive difference. But this narration-free documentary could use some information to put everything in context. I wanted to find out how long Cameroon has had women judges, and why only women appeared to be the victims of crime (which isn’t to say that only men were the perpetrators).

Recommended: Capote, Elmwood, 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, with Reservations: A Clockwork Orange, Castro, Saturday. 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. As part of its Stanley Kubrick series, the Castro is playing A Clockwork Orange on a double bill with The Shining.

Recommendation: Paths of Glory, Castro, Sunday. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviously pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon–where three enlisted men are tried for cowardice to hide incompetence at high levels–is one of the best. On a double bill with Full Metal Jacket as part of the Castro’s Stanley Kubrick series.

Recommended: The Life I Want, Aquarius, Sunday, 7:00. Two actors, a novice and a movie star, fall in love on the set of a period romance, then find themselves incompatible. Their relationship parallels the movie they’re making, but director/co-writer Giuseppe Piccioni handles this contrivance far better than Peter Ho-Sun Chan did in the superficially similar Perhaps Love. Sandra Ceccarelli and Best of Youth’s Luigi Locascio glow as the lovers; we like them even when we see them at their worst. A clear-eyed view of love, acting, and the process of movie-making. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Not Recommended: See You in Space, Kabuki, Tuesday, 8:45, Thursday, 5:45. Hungarian filmmaker Eg Veled fails to pull off an Altman-like multithreaded film about people looking for love in all the wrong places. There’s little connection between the stories, and little to care about with the characters. The one unique gimmick, a cosmonaut stuck in a space station while his marriage falls apart on Earth, fails to take off. The zero-gravity effects are the best I’ve seen since Apollo 13, but that’s not enough to recommend the movie. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I know I just mentioned the following films a few days ago, but they’re showing this week as well, so I’m including them here. Besides, this gives me a chance to polish my blurbs. All are part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Recommended, with Reservations: Obaba, Kabuki, Friday, 4:00; Aquarius, 9:45. No, it isn’t a typo in the name of Illinois’ junior senator. The title character of Montxo Armendáriz’ latest is a small town in an out-of-the-way corner of Spain. A college student (Bárbara Lennie) visits Obaba (a fictional place that doesn’t exist outside of this movie) to interview people for a school assignment. She finds old rivalries, a man who loves lizards, a great-looking guy for her to fall for, and flashbacks to an earlier time when everything was shot with a golden light. There’s much to like in Obaba, including the story of a scandal-ridden teacher (Pilar López de Ayala) and some truly scary moments involving those lizards. But much of the film is silly and sentimental, and in the end, it just doesn’t add up.

Recommended: Play, Kabuki, Friday, 6:30; Wednesday, 9:45. This quiet Chilean study of alienation and attachment doesn’t reach out and grab the audience; you have to meet it halfway. But it’s worth the effort. Play follows two lonely people through Santiago. Cristina (Viviana Herrera) is a young indigenous woman who left her home for the big city; she spends her free time walking and playing video games. Then she finds a lost satchel and becomes fascinated with its owner. That would be the severely depressed Tristán (Andrés Ulloa), who isn’t even trying to get over the end of his marriage. His wife has left him for a much sexier man. He returns to live with his mother, but she’s found a stud of her own. Writer/director Alicia Scherson paints a modern world in which technology separates us but human nature brings us together; where people wearing headphones and listening to different music can still flirt with each other.

Recommended: Adam’s Apples, Aquarius, 9:30. The plot sounds like vapid, Hollywood, feel-good drek: A hate-filled neo-Nazi fresh out of prison (Ulrich Thomsen) is paroled to a church where, with the help of a minister who sees the good in everyone and a couple of oddball eccentrics, he learns to help and care for others. But Adam’s Apples is no Hollywood uplift tale. In fact, it’s the blackest of black comedies from Denmark’s Anders Thomas Jensen. That loving and forgiving minister is dangerously insane, the two oddballs should probably be locked away, and the parish doctor has the worst bedside manner since Groucho Marx’s Dr. Hackenbush. No wonder the neo-Nazi seems to be the sanest person around. On one hand, this is a profoundly religious picture, built on redemption and filled with miracles ranging from a Bible that always opens to the Book of Job to a man who just won’t die. On the other, I never laughed so hard at a man shooting a cat. The best film I’ve yet seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Midweek Festival Report

I spent the weekend at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I’ll tell you more about it in my regular Friday newsletter. But I thought I should let you know about some movies you’ll have an opportunity to see at the festival before Friday.

I’ve listed them in order of quality, from the best to the not-so-great.

I wrote this in a hurry and I’m not taking the time to look over what I write. So please excuse any rough edges; consider them the price of timeliness.

Recommended: Adam’s Apples, Kabuki, Monday, 9:45. The plot sounds like vapid, Hollywood, feel-good drek: A hate-filled neo-Nazi (Ulrich Thomsen), fresh out of prison, must spend time living in a church as part of his parole. With the help of a minister who sees the good in everyone and a couple of oddball eccentrics, he learns the virtues of virtue. But Adam’s Apples is Hollywood uplift, but the blackest of black comedies from Denmark’s Anders Thomas Jensen. This loving and forgiving minister is dangerously insane, the two oddballs should probably be locked away, the parish doctor has the worst bedside manner since Groucho Marx practiced medicine in Day at the Races, and the neo-Nazi is the sanest person around. On one hand, this is a profoundly religious picture, built on redemption and filled with miracles ranging from a Bible that always opens to the Book of Job to a man who just won’t die. On the other, I never laughed so hard at a man shooting a cat. The best film I’ve yet seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Recommended: Iberia, Kabuki, Tuesday, 9:45; Thursday, 2:45. Dance. Pure, simple, graceful, and beautiful, and without any story-filling dialog scenes to get in the way. Carlos Saura brought together great dancers, choreographers, and musicians to bring to life the work of composer Spanish Isaac Albéniz. There’s little artifice; Iberia was shot on a near-bare soundstage, with just some screens and projections to set the stage. The dancers often (but not always) seem to be wearing their street clothes. The dances are plentiful and short; in the unlikely event that you don’t like one, something wonderful is only a few minutes away.

Recommended: Play, Kabuki, Wednesday, 4:00; Friday, 6:30. This quiet Chilean study of alienation and attachment doesn’t reach out and grab the audience; you have to meet it halfway. But it’s worth the effort. Play follows two lonely people through Santiago. Cristina (Viviana Herrera) is a young native American whose left her home for the big city; she spends her free time walking and playing video games. Then she finds a lost satchel, and becomes fascinated with its owner. That would be the severely depressed Tristán (Andrés Ulloa), who isn’t even trying to get over the end of his marriage; his wife has left him for a much sexier man. He returns to live with his mother, who’s also shacked up with a much sexier man. Writer/director Alicia Scherson paints a modern world in which technology separates us but human nature brings us together; where people wearing headphones and listening to different music can still flirt with each other.

Recommended, with Reservations:  Obaba, Kabuki, Tuesday, 6:30, Friday, 4:00. No, it isn’t a typo in the name of Illinois’ junior senator. The title of Montxo Armendáriz’ latest is a small town in an out-of-the-way corner of Spain. A college student (Bárbara Lennie) visits Obaba (a fictional place that doesn’t exist outside of this movie) to interview people for a school assignment. She finds old rivalries, a man who loves lizards, a great-looking guy for her to fall for, and flashbacks to an earlier time when everything was shot with golden light. There’s much to like in Obaba, including the story of a scandal-ridden teacher (Pilar López de Ayala) and some truly scary moments involving those lizards. But much of the film is silly and sentimental, and in the end, it just doesn’t add up.

Another movie theater bites the dust

Another movie theater bites the dust.

Without so much as a press release, Landmark Theaters quietly closed Berkeley’s Act I & II a few weeks ago. The company won’t comment on the closing, but it’s a good guess that this relatively old two-screener wasn’t making the bottom line.

It was no palace, but the Acts was a good theater, especially downstairs. It has a decent-sized screen, good sound, friendly help. I believe it was one of the first theaters in Berkeley with Dolby stereo.

Landmark showed a lot of good films there. My first Act experience was Animal House back in 1978. My last was CSA: The Confederate States of America. Among the many in between were Kagemusha, La Cage Aux Folles, Chariots of Fire, Lone Star, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Romance, and a revival showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1998, I took a woman there to see Shakespeare in Love; we’re now married. Recently, it’s been the main home of Landmark’s East Bay one-week engagements and midnight movies (in other words, the Landmark presentations I list here).

Landmark Theaters once dominated downtown Berkeley. In addition to the Act I & II, they had the Berkeley
(gone), the Fine Arts (sold, run independently as a wonderful revival house, but now gone), and their great flagship, the UC (gone and sorely missed). All they have left there is the California and the Shattuck.

On a happier note, the San Francisco International Film Festival is opening as this goes out Thursday night. I only caught four of the films in previews, but you’ll find three of those, and other items, below.

Recommendation: Inside Man, 4Star and Presidio, ongoing. Looks more like Spike Lee than Match Point looks like Woody Allen, but not by much. Going slick and commercial, Lee and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz fashioned an effective and entertaining puzzle thriller. The game here is guessing what a character will do next, and the story offers enough surprises to keep you guessing and usually guessing wrong. I suspect Lee took this relatively apolitical Hollywood assignment because he needed a hit; and he’s earned it. It’s nice to know he can do light entertainment.

Recommended: The Princess Bride, Clay, Saturday and Sunday, midnight. William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere.

Recommended: In Bed, Castro, Saturday, 9:15; Kabuki, Monday, 3:15. Before you’ve seen anything but credits, In Bed treats you to the sound of a very long orgasm. When the screams of delight are over, we see two people who’ve just had incredible sex but don’t know what to say to each other. This modest film from Chile, with a cast of two and set entirely in a motel room, sticks to the essentials of a one-night stand–”lust and conversation. Writer Julio Rojas and director Mati as Bize catch the intimacy that casual sex can produce in near-total strangers. Like My Dinner of Andre, In Bed is primarily a film about conversation, but this time, the dialog is punctuated not by dinner courses but by some of the steamiest sex ever put on the screen. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Recommended: The Life I Want, Kabuki, Saturday, 9:15; Monday, 8:30; Thursday, 6:00. Two actors, a novice and a movie star, fall in love on the set of a period romance, and then find themselves incompatible. Their relationship parallels the movie they’re making, but director/co-writer Giuseppe Piccioni handles this contrivance far better than Peter Ho-Sun Chan did  in superficially similar Perhaps Love. Sandra Ceccarelli and Best of Youth’s Luigi Locascio glow as the lovers; we like them even when we see them at their worst. A clear-eyed view of love, acting, and the process of movie-making. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Not So Quiet Silents with Alloy Orchestra, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. Silent films were never silent–”especially when there were children in the audience. The Alloy Orchestra, returning for a second year to the San Francisco International Film Festival, will provide part of the accompaniment for this selection of family-friendly silent shorts. The audience will provide the rest. I know one of the shorts involved, Buster Keaton’s One Week; it’s a good one.

Recommended: Annie Hall, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Almost every Hollywood film deals on some level with romantic love, but very few accurately capture the complex, dizzying ups and downs of that common experience. And no other captures it as well, or as hilariously, as Annie Hall.

Recommendation with Reservations: The Pirate, Stanford, Sunday through Tuesday.  Not Vincent Minnelli’s best musical, or Gene Kelly’s, but still a splendid entertainment. With songs by Cole Porter and dance numbers choreographed by Kelly and Robert Alton. The mistaken-identity story debunks one romantic myth (that of pirates) while building up another (actors). On a double-bill with The Clock.

Recommendation with Reservations: Black Narcissus, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. Not much more than a well-done but silly melodrama, Black Narcissus is nevertheless a must if you love old-fashioned three-strip Technicolor. No one could work emotional magic with that clumsy but beautiful system like cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and this is his best work. On a double-bill with Age of Consent.

Noteworthy: Werner Herzog honored with Film Society Directing Award, Castro, Wednesday, 7:30. This year, the San Francisco International Film Festival gives its Directing Award (AKA, The Honor Formerly Known as the Akira Kurosawa Award) to a filmmaker who truly deserves it: Werner Herzog. In addition to a screening of his soon-to-be-released-in-the-US 2005 science fiction film The Wild Blue Yonder, the evening will include clips from previous pictures and a personal appearance. But Herzog will probably not eat his shoe.

Not Recommended: See You in Space, Kabuki, Thursday, 4:00. Hungarian filmmaker Eg Veled fails to pull off an Altman-like multithreaded film about people looking for love in all the wrong places. There’s little connection between the stories, and little to care about with the characters. The one unique gimmick, a cosmonaut stuck in a space station while his marriage falls apart on Earth, doesn’t really go anywhere. One positive note: The zero-gravity effects are the best I’ve seen since Apollo 13. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15.  Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a good movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you already know it’s wonderful. The first Parkway Tribe Night screening.

Earthquakes and Monsters

Earthquakes and monsters. Oh, my.

I didn’t see a single new movie last weekend, but I still managed some intense movie-going. A good chunk of it had to do with technology–either movie technology or plate tectonics.

It started Friday night with both. My wife and I went to Earthquake at the Pacific Film Archive–part of their 65 Seconds That Shook the Earth earthquake centennial series. Earthquake is a big, silly, yet surprisingly entertaining disaster film from 1974. How silly? If I hadn’t known that it was made before the advent of personal computers, I would have assumed that the screenwriter used a cliché-generating program. But the big quake itself, boosted by the recreated Sensurround system, was outstanding, and in a few isolated sequences, the movie actually generated suspense.

Sensurround involves extremely powerful subwoofers sending out a sub-audio frequency at appropriate moments. You don’t hear these sounds; you feel them. I’ve lived in California more than 50 years; this felt like the real thing.

Speaking of real things, Saturday night I went to the Rafael to hear Ray Harryhausen speak and hawk his new book, The Art of Ray Harryhausen. Much of the talk centered around 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the movie on view that evening. 7th Voyage is an important movie in Harryhausen’s career; his first in color, his first period piece, and his first out-and-out fantasy after a series of sci-fi pictures involving aliens or monsters wreaking havoc on major metropolitan areas. Harryhausen decided to make 7th Voyage, he explained, “when I got tired of destroying cities.–

Much of the talk, appropriate to the book’s subject, revolved around his pre-production drawings and his creature designs, which often avoid too-human forms. “I didn’t want [7th Voyage's Cyclops] to look like a man could get into a Cyclops suit.–

Harryhausen made his pictures for very little money–about $650,000 for 7th Voyage. “We never had the money or time to do retakes.–

Speaking of low-budget –˜50’s sci-fi and destroying cities, Sunday night I attended the last movie in the PFA’s 65 Seconds series, The Night the World Exploded. Let’s just say that this Columbia cheapie is not earthshaker. For what it’s worth, Kathryn Grant plays the insufferably upbeat heroine both here and in 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

After the movie, Peggy Hellweg of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory stepped up to the podium, theoretically to discuss the film’s scientific accuracy or lack thereof. She didn’t have much to say about the movie, so she spent about half an hour answering our questions about earthquakes.

But my weekend wasn’t all fantasy and adventure. Sunday afternoon, once again at the PFA, I attended a talk by Phillip Lopate, editor of American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, accompanied by a screening of Mikio Naruse’s 1935 drama, Wife! Be Like a Rose! The anthology came about, Lopate explained, because he “wanted to put together my two great loves–movies and essays.– Lopate argues that there has been “more interesting writing on film in the last 50 years than on any other art form.”

Typical of Naruse, Wife! Be Like a Rose! is a close, intimate look at a family in low-level crisis. The father left the mother years ago for another woman, and the now-grown daughter needs her father back as her own wedding approaches. There are no villains in this movie, just good people who can’t help but to hurt each other. An excellent film.

But enough of my weekend. On to the San Francisco International Film Festival. For that big event, I’ve revived my old red dot icon () in the listings. A red dot by a film tells you that it’s scheduled for a regular theatrical release at some point in the future. In other words, if you can’t make these films at the festival, you can catch them later.

Speaking of skippable pictures, my son Elijah informs me that there’s another movie about a carjacking/kidnapping on the way, Waist Deep. Judging from the trailer, this one is a pretty conventional action flick.

That description, I’m glad to say, doesn’t apply to any of the films below.

Not Recommended: Syriana, Elmwood, ongoing. 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: King Kong (1933), Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up. It’s not just Willis O’Brien’s breathtaking special effects–technically crude by today’s standards but still awe-inspiring. It’s the intelligent script by Ruth Rose, the evocative 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 ultimately doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Sure, the story is silly, but so are dreams.

Recommended, with Reservations: Old San Francisco, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday and Saturday nights. Aristocratic Spaniards, corrupt Chinese, a caged dwarf, an Irishman in love, and an evil land speculator with a humiliating secret all get shaken by the 1906 earthquake and stirred by lurid melodrama. Silly and offensively racist, but still fun. There’s also considerable historical interest; this movie offers a fascinating glimpse at how Hollywood (and white America) saw the world in 1927. With its pre-Jazz Singer Vitaphone music-and-effects soundtrack, the essentially silent Old San Francisco stands as an important early film in the transition to sound. But you won’t hear that soundtrack at Niles; the Museum is showing Old San Francisco with live accompaniment–a different pianist each night.

Noteworthy: Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the second Star Trek movie (and the first to get it right), but if I remember it correctly, it’s a fun one. Sure, the plot is silly, but the action snaps, the effects look great, and the story understands the characters better than the first movie or the original TV show.

Recommended, with Reservations: Sir! No Sir!, Roxie, opening Friday. Today’s mythology vilifies Vietnam-era protesters for mistreating returning veterans. David Zeiger attempts to put the record straight, using old footage and new interviews to remind us that it was the soldiers fighting that war and the veterans coming home who started the anti-war movement. There’s nothing exceptional here as filmmaking, and the picture never really hooks you on an emotional level. Still, we’d do a lot of good if we could get people to see Sir! No Sir! who don’t already agree with it’s message.

Not Recommended: Adam & Steve, Roxie, opening Friday. Craig Chester (who also wrote and directed) and Malcolm Gets make an attractive-enough couple as two gay men falling in love, but their chemistry can’t carry a picture that’s almost entirely lacking in conflict. Without conflict, it’s also deficient in story, drama, and humor. When conflict finally arrives in time for a third act, it feels contrived–even though it was telegraphed at the beginning. With it’s New York setting, Jew/WASP romance, and mixture of the realistic and the absurd, Adam & Steve clearly wants to be a gay Annie Hall, but Chester lacks Woody Allen’s ability to bring diverse elements together and make them all work–¦or even just to make them funny.

Recommended, with Reservations: San Francisco, Balboa, Sunday through Tuesday. 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 screenwriters, symbolized the Barbary Coast. But it covers itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing that’s as annoying as it is laughable. 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. As part of its Reel San Francisco festival, the Balboa is showing San Francisco on a double-bill with After the Thin Man. On Tuesday night (the actual earthquake anniversary), the theater will present historical shorts before San Francisco.

Recommended: The Big Lebowski, Red Vic, Tuesday through Thursday. 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.

Not Recommended: Perhaps Love, Castro, Thursday, 7:00. Sounds promising. A musical romance from Hong Kong, filled with flashbacks, film-within-film sequences, and dances choreographed by Farah (Monsoon Wedding) Khan. Unfortunately, Perhaps Love is basically a love story between an obsessive stalker and a self-centered bitch. Who cares if these two get together and live happily ever after? The movie-within-the-movie sequences feel contrived, and the dance numbers are so heavily edited that we don’t get to watch any actual dancing. This unfortunate movie is the opening night event of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Stealing Children

What does it mean when three movies with similar but unusual subjects come out almost simultaneously? Are they tapping into something in the national psyche? Not if they’re from different countries.

So far this year, three films about parent-baby separation hit Bay Area theaters. In each one, a criminal deprives a mother of her baby. Two involve car-jacking. Is this a new fear, effecting the people in South Africa, Belgium, and the United States?

I haven’t seen the American film, Freedomland, so I’ll refrain from commenting on it. The Belgian film, L’Enfant, is very good. The South African one, Tsotsi, is the best new film I’ve seen so far this year. It deservedly won the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

Tsotsi is so good it’s difficult to watch. Writer/director Gavin Hood asks for no sympathy for the violent young thug at the film’s center (Presley Chweneyagae), even as he shows you the dire poverty that created this scary young man. Early in the film, he highjacks a car, shooting a woman in the stomach. Then he discovers a baby in the back seat. The thug has no idea what to do, so he finds himself caring for the child, and slowly, he begins to soften. This is a tense, scary, vicious, yet ultimately beautiful film about humanity and redemption. It’s playing around the Bay Area.

L’Enfant isn’t in Tsotsi‘s class, but it’s still very good. A petty thief (Jérémie Renier) with no sense of morality or responsibility–in fact, no sense–sells his own baby on the black market, then is caught off-guard when his girlfriend reacts violently. Everything goes downhill for him from there. This is not the sort of foreign-language “art” film that crosses over and appeals to conventional movie-goers. Shot in long, hand-held takes and almost entirely devoid of music, L’Enfant doesn’t even give us a sympathetic protagonist. But watching this young man dig himself deeper into a pit of his own making is endlessly fascinating–at least until the ending stretches our credibility.

L’Enfant opens Friday around the Bay Area. If you don’t care to see it, here are some other films worth seeing–or at least worth talking about:

Recommended, with Reservations: Ice Age: The Meltdown, Presidio, ongoing. Not in the same class as Shrek or The Incredibles, or even of the first Ice Age movie, but still an entertaining diversion for an afternoon with the kids. The best scenes (which have nothing to do with the rest of the movie) involve skrat, a sort of proto-squirrel who may be computer animation’s answer to Wile Coyote.

Noteworthy: EarthDance: The Short-Attention Span Environmental Film Festival, Oakland Museum of California, Friday, different shows at 6:00 and 8:00. Every year I tell myself I’m going to make the EarthDance festival; one of these years I will. Aimed at environmentalists who like their propaganda short and light, EarthDance presents two collections of short films, many of them whimsical in nature, about our planet’s precarious condition.

Noteworthy: Harold and Maude, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. After Woodstock, this comedy about a young man and a much older woman is the ultimate statement of the hippie generation. I loved it passionately in the 1970’s. But I haven’t seen it in a long time and I’m not sure how well it’s aged.

Noteworthy: 65 Seconds That Shook the Earth, Pacific Film Archive, Friday through Sunday. The PFA has a creative, and, I expect, entertaining series this weekend to mark the 1906 earthquake centennial. Among the highlights are Flame of Barbary Coast, a John Wayne western that climaxes with the big one, 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. The series closes Sunday with a 1957 cheapie called The Night the World Exploded, with Dr. Peggy Hellweg of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory discussing “the [film's] scientific veracity.”

Not Recommended: Adam & Steve, Castro, opening Friday for one-week run. Craig Chester (who also wrote and directed) and Malcolm Gets make an attractive-enough couple as two gay men falling in love, but their chemistry can’t carry a picture that’s almost entirely lacking in conflict. And thus, also deficient in story, drama, and humor. When conflict finally arrives in time for a third act, it feels contrived–even though it was telegraphed at the beginning. With it’s New York setting, Jew/WASP romance, and mixture of the realistic and the absurd, Adam & Steve clearly wants to be a gay Annie Hall, but Chester lacks Woody Allen’s ability to bring diverse elements together and make them all work–or even just to make them funny.

Recommended, with Reservations: Sir! No Sir!, Red Vic, opening Friday for one week. Today’s mythology vilifies Vietnam-era protesters for mistreating returning veterans. David Zeiger attempts to put the record straight, using old footage and new interviews to remind us that it was the soldiers fighting that war and the veterans coming home who started the anti-war movement. There’s nothing exceptional here as filmmaking, and the picture never really hooks you on an emotional level. Still, we’d do a lot of good if we could get people to see Sir! No Sir! who don’t already agree with it’s message.

Recommended: Match Point, Balboa, open-ended engagement starts Friday. 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 looks like a creation of its auteur. 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: The Art of Ray Harryhausen, Rafael, Saturday, 7:00. Model animator Ray Harryhausen occupies a unique place in film history; he’s the only special effects technician who is both an auteur and a star. He’s an auteur because no matter who wrote and directed, his films reflect his vision. And he’s a star because his name has marquee value. Now retired, Harryhausen will discuss his designs and illustrations, then present a restored print of the first and best of Ray Harryhausen’s three Sinbad movies, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.. Of all his movies, only Jason and the Argonauts is better.

Recommended, with Reservations: Forbidden Planet, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Nothing dates faster than futuristic fiction, and with its corny dialog and spaceship crewed entirely by white males, Forbidden Planet is very dated. But MGM’s 1956 sci-fi extravaganza still holds considerable pleasures. The Cinemascope/Eastmancolor art direction is pleasing to the eye, Robby the Robot is adorable, and the story–involving a long-dead mystery race of super-beings–still packs some genuine thrills. It’s also an interesting precursor to Star Trek.

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