Why So Many Recommendations?

If you read this newsletter regularly, or check out the star icons in the weekly schedules, you may have noticed that I recommend far more movies than I warn you against. Indeed, last week’s newsletter had nothing but recommendations. I realize that doesn’t help my image as an honest journalist. So let me explain:

Unlike fulltime, professional critics, I don’t have an editor deciding what films I must see; like you, I get to pick. (Well, not always. I’m a parent, and children, like editors, demand that you see certain movies.) Since I pick what movies I’m going to see, and I usually pick carefully, there’s a very good chance that I’ll like a movie before I buy my ticket. But if I don’t like a film, or like only parts of it, I promise that I’ll let you know.

Before I tell you what I did and didn’t like this week, let me mention the Taiwan Film Festival. It’s going on this weekend at the Pacific Film Archive, although it’s not part of the Archive’s programming. The films are free, but seating is limited. The Archive has opened up its old theater at the UC Berkeley Art Museum for one Taiwan screening this evening (Friday). Saturday night’s The Magic Lantern and the Mechanical Age show will also be held at the old theater.

And now, on with the week’s movies:

Noteworthy: The Fabulous Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Wednesday, 7:00. I only vaguely remember Karel Zeman’s version of the Munchausen fables (not to be confused with Terry Gilliam’s excellent 1988 retelling), but the faded memories are happy ones. I recall an almost silent movie feel to this highly imaginative combination of live action and cheap but clever animation, complete with tinted black and white and a fair amount of slapstick. I also remember it being available only, unfortunately, in dubbed English.

Recommended: The Last King of Scotland, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. The “king– in the title refers to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker in a performance that may finally win him that Oscar he’s so long deserved. Whitaker shows us all the sides of a paranoid megalomaniac, at one moment winning us over with his easy-going charisma and the next leaving us shaking in fear. We get to know him through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who accidentally falls into Amin’s inner circle and gets seduced by the good life. The film doesn’t give you much reason to like McAvoy’s character–even when doing the altruistic work that brought him to Africa he seems shallow and self-centered–but you care if he lives or dies. And that becomes a real issue as this political character study gradually turns into an effective thriller. Worth seeing, even through the ending is a moral cop-out. One of the Mill Valley Film Festival‘s two opening night offerings, so seeing it this week will be more for the event than for the movie (which you’ll be able to see in more sane conditions, soon).

Recommended: Young Frankenstein, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks was talented. And never more so than in this sweet-natured parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930’s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies).

Recommended: The Child (L’Enfant), Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:00. 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. Part of the PFA’s tribute to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight, and Saturday and Sunday, noon. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great 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 probably already love it.

Recommended: The Illusionist, 4Star, opens Friday. Film lovers know not to trust their eyes; every movie is a lie, a deceit, a trick. And the biggest illusion in this particular movie is its independent (or at least indiewood) cred. Don’t be deceived by the lack of a major studio logo or the presence of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. The Illusionist is light entertainment, not serious art. It’s as inconsequential as the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, but ten times as much fun and made for a fraction of the cost. On a rather strange double bill with An Inconvenient Truth.

Recommended: This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Elmwood, opens Friday. Who decides which films get an R rating and which have their chances for commercial success blown by an NC-17? Kirby Dick sets out to find the answer in a documentary clearly inspired by Michael Moore (in other words, it’s funny, the director is the central character, and it’s unabashedly partisan). Dick hired a private detective to discover the raters’ identities (which the MPAA doesn’t disclose), and cuts between the sleuthing story and interviews with filmmakers who’ve tangled with the rating system. There’s plenty to chew on here, and it all goes down easily with plenty of comedy–plus steamy sex scenes cut from other movies. But the effect is diluted by a strong bias and factual errors.

Not Recommended: Superman Returns, Elmwood, opens Friday. Back in 2000, Bryan Singer turned the comic book superhero movie into art with X-Men, combining an intriguing concept, political symbolism, emotionally believable characters, and great action sequences. So it’s a big disappointment that he fails so utterly with the most famous superhero of modern times. The big problem is in the casting; it takes someone special to make you believe in their powers and care about their inner demons. His Superman, Brandon Routh, is anything but special. Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane is a perfect match for Routh; she’s lousy, too. The great special effects and Kevin Spacey’s wonderful turn as Lex Luthor help, but not enough to fill a 152-minute movie.

Fall Film Festival Season

Tired of blockbusters? Have no fear. We’re heading into the fall film festival season. I guess the theory is that now that the kids are back in school, the grownups can go to the movies.

Two festivals open the week after next, one big, one small. They’re both general film festivals, identified with a town or neighborhood rather than a type of person (Jewish, Arab, gay) or a type of film (documentaries, noir). One is in Berkeley, the other Mill Valley.

Since you’ve probably already heard of the Mill Valley one, lets start with the Berkeley Video & Film Festival. This three-day affair at the Oaks Theater (at the top of Solano) emphasizes American (and often local) independent films. To my knowledge, none of the films scheduled are up for any kind of regular theatrical release.

The Berkeley festival has a unique admission policy. You don’t pay for an individual screening, but for a daily marathon. For instance, on Saturday, October 7, the programming runs from 1:30 in the afternoon until nearly 11:00 at night. One $12 ticket gets you three features (one fiction, two documentaries), 22 shorts, and one intermission.

The Mill Valley Film Festival used to be small, but these days it’s a major player. The line-up includes 104 features (yes, that’s features, in addition to 127 shorts), with 13 world, seven North American, and 18 US premieres (translation: 18 of these films have been shown at Toronto). A lot of major indiewood films get their first local showing here, including The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, and Babel. Among the less-likely-to-be-seen-later films that caught my eye are a documentary about cinematography called Cinematographer Style (there’s also a cinematography seminar) and Hinokio, a science fiction animated children’s film from Japan.

One sign of festival’s importance is the caliber of stars and high-profile directors willing to come and be honored. This year in Marin County (despite the name, much of the Mill Valley festival happens in San Rafael), visiting celebrities include Helen Mirren, Tim Robbins, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. For less-known auteurs, Mill Valley is presenting multiple filmmaking seminars (including the cinematography one mentioned above) and yet another CinemaSports competition (I’m not sure if these make-a-film-in-one-day contests have become a tradition for Bay Area festivals, or a law).

I’m going to see as many of the scheduled films beforehand as time and the festivals’ screening policies allow. (Time is the big factor, especially with the High Holy Days about to start.) In future newsletters and weekly schedules, I’ll recommend and warn you about individual films as they approach, and use the red dot () to let you know which will likely get a commercial release after the festival.

Speaking of which, here are this week’s recommendations (and they’re all recommendations this week). By the way, instead of listing the films chronologically by exhibition date as I did in the past, I’m now prioritizing them, based on my own subjective opinion of what shouldn’t be missed this week.

Recommended: Matador, Castro and Shattuck, opening Friday for one-week engagement. The most immoral, offensive, and politically incorrect movie I have ever loved. A handsome former matador (Nacho Martínez), missing the thrill of the bullfight, now kills women for pleasure. Meanwhile, a beautiful lawyer (Assumpta Serna) gets her kicks by murdering men. When these two finally meet, will it be a lifelong commitment? A pre-Hollywood Antonio Banderas is the young innocent caught between them. Matador shines a light, even if it’s a playful one, at the darkest side of human sexuality, refusing to judge anyone for how they satisfy their erotic tastes.

Recommended: Sherlock Jr., There’s nothing new about special effects. Buster Keaton used them extensively, in part to comment on the nature of film itself, in this story of a projectionist who dreams he’s a great detective. The sequence where he enters the movie screen and finds the scenes changing around him would be impressive if it were made today; for 1924, when the effects had to be done in the camera, it’s mind-boggling. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr. is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags. This is an extremely short “feature,” running only about 44 minutes (depending on the projection speed). I don’t know at what speed the PFA will screen Sherlock Jr., but they’re showing it, with piano accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg, as part of their Mechanical Age series.

Recommended: Half Nelson, Parkway, opening Friday. Half Nelson is about drug addiction the way Citizen Kane is about journalism. The drug addict in question (Ryan Gosling in the best performance of the year so far) teaches history in an inner-city middle school, and teaches it well. But when school is out, he consumes as much cocaine as he can buy, smoking crack when he can’t afford the expensive stuff. His drug-fueled life is coming apart at the seams, but he can’t step outside of his destructive path. And one student whose difficult life may be turned around by his teaching (Shareeka Epps) discovers his habit and finds herself tempted by the business end of the drug economy. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have created a work about high ideals and low achievements that avoids clichés, melodrama (even the drug dealer is sympathetic), and easy answers.

Recommended: Citizen Kane, Lark, Sunday; 5:30, Monday, 7:00. How does a movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. True, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name many this insightful that are also this dazzling and fun. And Rosebud, by the way, is a McGuffin.

Recommended: An Inconvenient Truth, 4Star, opening Friday. If Al Gore had been this charming and funny in the 2000 election, the world would be a better place. Basically a concert film of a multimedia slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth explains the science and dangers of global warming in a manner so clear, concise, and entertaining that it can enthrall a ten-year-old (and I know because I saw it with one). I’m generally skeptical about political documentaries as a force for good, but if it’s possible for a movie to have a major, positive effect on the human race, this is the one.

Recommended: National Lampoon’s Animal House, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. The two biggest comedy hits of the 1970′s both portrayed young people in 1962. But while American Graffiti celebrated students leaving high school at the symbolic end of the ’50s, Animal House followed them to college as they created the ’60s. Rebellious, impolite, and very funny, John Belushi and his gang of misfits refuse to let anyone stand in the way of their tasteless, outrageous, and antiauthoritarian fun. Countless bad rip-offs haven’t destroyed the sheen of the first “slob” comedy. A Parkway Tribe Night.

Recommended: Stolen Life, Rafael, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday, 8:45. An emotionally stunted teenage girl leaves her loveless home for college, then makes a really bad romantic decision that will ruin her life. That’s not a particularly new story, but Xun Zhou, who is in almost every scene as well as narrating the picture, plays the lead with such depth and conviction that she overcomes the melodramatic contrivances in Liao Yimei’s screenplay. Stolen Life also offers a view of modern China that few Americans get to see. And yes, it’s still part of the Global Lens series.

This Film is Not Quite Honest

Make no mistake: You should check out Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It covers an important issue (important, at least, to anyone who cares about the art of cinema), the control that the MPAA’s rating board has on what we see on American screens. Dick has a strong opinion, and he makes the case in a funny, entertaining way. I recommend it without reservations.

Well, almost. This Michael Moore-influenced doc needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt. Dick stacks the deck, leaving no real room for opinions other than his own. He strongly believes, and I agree with him, that the MPAA hurts foreign and American independent films by its eagerness to smack anything it deems too sexual with the commercially-unacceptable NC-17 rating. One filmmaker after another describes the ridiculous objections made by this anonymous but powerful group of people. (Dick really hates the anonymous character of this panel. Much of the film involves a private detective, hired by Dick, identifying and outing the people who rate the movies.)

But Dick omits a lot of information. We’re shown unacceptably NC-17 shots from Boys Don’t Cry and The Cooler, but never told how these films were altered to get their eventual Rs. There’s little historical perspective, and none that goes back to the pre-ratings days when the MPAA practiced out-and-out censorship that would make today’s PG-rated movies unacceptable. Nor does he acknowledge that the real problem lies not in the MPAA’s willingness to rate films NC-17, but in American society’s villainization of that designation. If Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and several of the larger theater chains stopped banning NC-17 films, the problem with the MPAA would go away.

Dick’s movie contains one very big error. At least I hope it was an error. But I’m a Cheerleader director Jamie Babbit compares a masturbation scene that caused problems for her independent comedy’s R rating with a more graphic one in the trailer (that’s right, the trailer) of studio comedy American Pie. The problem is that American Pie’s trailer never goes beyond suggesting that someone soon will or just did the deed. Dick compounds the problem by showing, as Babbit talks, a masturbation scene from the unrated DVD of American Pie–one cut from the R-rated theatrical version. In other words, he “proves– that the MPAA is too easy on studio films with a shot that a studio had to cut to satisfy the MPAA.

The last section of the movie concerns Dick’s struggles to get an R rating for This Film is not Yet Rated. When it gets an NC-17, he demands an appeal, then makes much of how poorly he’s treated during the appeal process. Well, duh. Leaving aside the fact that his entire movie is an attack on their organization, no one could reasonably believe that he thought he could get any other rating. Besides, the movie is filled clips that got other movies NC-17 ratings (or would have if they hadn’t been cut). Besides, his title pretty much tells you that he’s going to release it unrated.

Well, that’s probably the worst I’ve ever said about a movie I liked. I’ll try to stick below to praising the good films and only panning the bad ones.

Not Recommended: Head Trauma, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday, 11:30. This low-budget horror flick succeeds in sustaining a creepy atmosphere, but that’s the limit of its success. There’s nothing original, nothing entertaining, and nothing truly scary. The story, about weird goings on in a condemned house that the owner wants to restore, doesn’t go anywhere, and none of the characters are people worth spending 84 minutes with. The whole thing would have been worth it if the ending satisfied, but it doesn’t. Because of its last-minute billing, Head Trauma isn’t on the Red Vic’s printed schedule or web site, but the theater’s managers assure me that it will be shown these two evenings.

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great 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 probably already love it. Part of the theater’s Midnight Madness series.

Recommended: Only Angels Have Wings, Stanford, Friday through Monday. Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. The only non-comedy out of the five films that Grant made for director Howard Hawks. Double-billed with Bringing Up Baby to show us just how versatile Hawks and Grant were.

Recommended: Bringing Up Baby, Stanford, Friday through Monday. How does one define a screwball comedy? You could say it’s a romantic comedy with glamorous movie stars behaving like broad, slapstick comedians. You could point out that screwballs are usually set amongst the excessively wealthy, and often explore class barriers. Or you could simply show Howard Hawks’ frivolous and hilarious tale about a mild-mannered paleontologist (Cary Grant), a ditzy heiress (Katharine Hepburn), and a tame leopard (a tame leopard). On a double-bill with Only Angels Have Wings.

Recommended: Stolen Life, Grand Lake, Oakland, Friday through Tuesday. An emotionally stunted teenage girl leaves her loveless home for college, then makes a really bad romantic decision that will ruin her life. That’s not a particularly new story, but Xun Zhou, who is in almost every scene as well as narrating the picture, plays the lead with such depth and conviction that she overcomes the melodramatic contrivances in Liao Yimei’s screenplay. Stolen Life also offers a view of modern China that few Americans get to see. Still part of the Global Lens festival.

Not Recommended: Zen Noir, Lumiere, opens Friday for one-week run. It starts semi-promising as a broad, very funny parody, placing a 40’s-style detective in a Buddhist monastery. But you can only take that sort of thing so far. (Full disclosure: I know something about noir parody. My own hard-boiled computer consultant, Mac Rowe, pops up frequently in my humor column, Gigglebytes.) When the gags run out of steam very early on, writer/director Marc Rosenbush turns to serious Buddhist philosophizing. But there’s not much spirituality to be found when the characters and environment are at Naked Gun reality levels. The result isn’t funny or meaningful, and even at 71 minutes, Zen Noir is way too long.

Recommended: This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Lumiere and Shattuck for one-week run. Who decides which films get an R rating and which have their chances of commercial success blown by an NC-17? Kirby Dick sets out to find the answer in a documentary clearly inspired by Michael Moore (in other words, it’s funny, the director is the central character, and it’s unabashedly partisan). Dick hired a private detective to discover the raters’ identities (which the MPAA doesn’t disclose), and mixes the sleuthing story with relevant interviews, mostly with filmmakers who’ve tangled with the rating system. There’s plenty to chew on here, and it all goes down easily with plenty of comedy–plus steamy scenes from other movies. But the effect is diluted somewhat by the strong bias and factual errors.

Not Recommended: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Elmwood, opens Friday. Yet another bad sequel to a good movie. Whereas the original Pirates of the Caribbean tread lightly over its silly story, this one takes itself seriously. But as there’s nothing serious about the shallow and meaningless story, so the dark imagery and poor attempts at character development just get in the way of the fun. Worse yet, it ends with a cliffhanger; no one is supposed to see Dead Man’s Chest and skip the third installment. Two good action scenes aren’t enough to justify an otherwise dreary 2 ½-hours.

Recommended: An Inconvenient Truth, Parkway, opening Friday; Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. If Al Gore had been this charming and funny in the 2000 election, the world would be a better place. Basically a concert film of a multimedia slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth explains the science and dangers of global warming in a manner so clear, concise, and entertaining that it can enthrall a ten-year-old (and I know because I saw it with one). I’m generally skeptical about political documentaries as a force for good, but if it’s possible for a movie to have a major, positive effect on the human race, this is the one.

Recommended, with Reservations: Serenity, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Ever hear of a science fiction TV series called Firefly? Like many superb, original shows that somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Firefly failed to find an audience and soon died. This big-screen spin-off is a gift from the series’ creators to the handful of people who saw the show and wanted more. But if you’ve never seen Firefly, skip the movie and rent the complete series DVD.

Life vs. Film

I accidentally knocked my wife’s coat off a hook the other evening. So I bent down, picked it up, and hung it back up.

What’s the point of this story? There was no point. In fact, the very point I’m trying to make is that the incident was completely pointless.

Here’s my point: If that had happened in a movie, there would have been a point. Maybe the momentary clumsiness would be the first sign of the degenerative disease destined to kill me. Or the act of picking up the coat would reveal a clue to my wife’s infidelity. If I was Buster Keaton, hanging the coat up again would cause others to fall, resulting in an extended comedy sequence. Alfred Hitchcock would let the audience know that there was a bomb in the coat, leaving them on the edge of their seats while I unknowingly fiddled with it. Goddard would have me turn to the camera and deliver a monolog on how the coat relates to Communist dialectics.

That’s one of the biggest differences between life and film. No Communist dialectics. Also, everything that happens in a movie happens for a reason. It was put there on purpose. In life, things just happen. Either that or God micromanages more fanatically than the worst boss you ever had.

So next time you drop a coat, as you bend down to pick it up, be grateful that you’re not in a movie.

But wish you were in a movie theater. You may even want to check out one of these:

Recommended: The Illusionist, Balboa, ongoing. Every film lover knows not to trust their eyes; everything is a lie, a deceit, a trick. And the biggest illusion in this particular movie is its independent (or at least indiewood) cred. Don’t be deceived by the lack of a major studio logo or the presence of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. The Illusionist is light entertainment, not serious art. It’s as inconsequential as the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, but ten times as much fun and made for a fraction of the cost.

Recommended: Zozo, Roxie, Friday, 7:00; Camera 12, San Jose, Sunday, 4:30; Roxie, Tuesday, 9:15. An eleven-year-old boy (Imad Creidi) suddenly loses his family in Lebanon’s extremely uncivil civil war. So he must make it on his own to Sweden, where his grandparents are waiting. Zozo’s first half details the title character’s flight from his war-torn home; the second his adjustment to a new life in a different culture. Writer-director Josef Fares uses a style reminiscent of Latin American magical realism to show us these journeys through the eyes of a child who is neither overly street smart nor unrealistically innocent. The opening night presentation of the 10th Annual Arab Film Festival.

Recommended: The Third Man, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:55. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided post-war Vienna to see an old friend. But he soon discovers that the friend is both a wanted criminal and recently deceased. Or is he? Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery in a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, they introduce the real star of the film when Orson Welles appears to steal everything but the sprocket holes.

Recommended, with Reservations: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, 4Star, opens Friday. When a British film starring an aging and respected thespian has neither laughs nor explosions, it is, by definition, a serious work of art. Except when, as in this tale of bonding between an old lady and a young man, it is neither deeply serious nor especially artful. On the plus side, the performances are excellent and the pretending-to-be-someone-you’re-not story doesn’t move to the obvious conclusion. On the minus, the main characters are too good to be true and everyone else is a caricature.

Recommended: Who Killed the Electric Car, Lark, opens Friday. 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 very few people got their hands on one. Then GM pulled the plug (so to speak) on the entire line, ceasing production and reclaiming all existing cars. Paine turns all of this into an informative, very partisan, yet breezy documentary. Interview subjects include a GM saleswoman turned activist, NIMH battery inventor Stanley Ovshinsky, and movie stars who were among the few people allowed to lease these cars (this may be the only progressive documentary with a positive image of Mel Gibson).

Recommended: Stolen Life, Balboa, Saturday, 11:00; Grand Lake, Thursday, 7:00. An emotionally stunted teenage girl leaves her loveless home for college, then makes a really bad romantic decision that will ruin her life. That’s not a particularly new story, but Xun Zhou, who is in almost every scene as well as narrating the picture, plays the lead with such depth and conviction that she overcomes the melodramatic contrivances in Liao Yimei’s screenplay. Stolen Life also offers a view of modern China that few Americans get to see. Part of the Global Lens festival.

Noteworthy: Charley Bowers: Dream Machines, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. Few people today know of animator-turned-comedian Charley Bowers; I studied silent comedy for 35 years before I heard of him. His short films (he never made features) mix live action, stop motion animation, and an utterly bizarre sense of the impossible. Judging from the two I’ve seen (neither of which are part of this program), they’re also very funny. As part of its Mechanical Age series, the PFA will screen these shorts with Jon Mirsalis accompanying on the piano.

Recommended with Reservations: The Pirate, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:30. 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 (pirates) while building up another (actors). Part of the PFA’s Arrr, Matey: Pirates and Piracy series.

Recommended: The Aristocrats, UA Berkeley, 8:00. “A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says ‘Have I got an act for you.’” Thus begins an old joke that professional comics never tell audiences but love to tell each other. But what goes between that opening and the punch line differs with every telling, and often includes incest, bestiality, scatological acrobatics, and stuff that’s really disgusting. But as famous comics retell the joke, you laugh more than you cringe. And as they discuss the art of telling it, you learn something about the mechanics of humor. Part of the UA’s Flashback Flicks series.

So Much to Cover!

So much to cover! The Bay Area is hosting a lot of interesting film events in the next couple of weeks. Here are a few quick summaries.

But first, if you’re not entirely bored with all the coverage I gave the Castro’s recent 70mm series, check out some discussions of sound problems on my Letters page. I wasn’t the only one to notice them, and the Castro has supplied me with an excellent explanation of what went wrong.

Speaking of the Castro, tonight (Friday) starts a four-week long Almodóvar series, Viva Pedro, there and at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. I haven’t seen all of his work by any stretch of the imagination, and I’ve seen even less of it recently enough to comment on it. But Almodóvar’s films are always interesting, often funny (only when it’s intentional), and very sexy.

The Shattuck is also one of three Landmark theaters starting a midnight movie series next weekend. The movies tend to be horror, science fiction, and cult favorites from the ‘80s and ‘90s (it’s as easy to see The Big Lebowski on the big screen these days as it was to see Duck Soup there 30 years ago). If you can’t stay up that late, the UA Berkeley multiplex (just a block from the Shattuck) is holding a similar series, Flashback Flicks, at 8:00 on Thursdays.

Want something more esoteric? The new Pacific Film Archive calendar starts tonight. There’s a Syrian Cinema series (try saying that ten times really fast), giving us a glimpse of a country whose films are almost unknown in this country, plus tributes to Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène and the Belgian Dardenne brothers. A series on The Mechanical Age offers a good excuse to show some wonderful silent films by Lang, Chaplin, Keaton, Eisenstein, and people you’ve probably never heard of. Best of all, in my modest opinion, is Arrr, Matey: Pirates and Piracy. But I should disclose that I’m hardly unprejudiced; my son is writing a pirate novel.

The 10th Annual Arab Film Festival starts next week. With “more than 40 films from more than 12 countries” (don’t you just love the way PR people handle math?), it should provide some interesting views of a people Americans are too ready to kill and know too little about.

The MadCat 10 Women’s International Film Festival starts the week after next. This isn’t an intensive festival; it spreads its twelve programs of avant-garde films made by women over two weeks, often including a free barbeque before the movie.

Finally, the Global Lens Initiative brings its annual collection of films from developing countries to Bay Area theaters this month (and into next month). The Initiative’s goal is to “promote cross-cultural understanding through cinema,” and education is part of the program. The series includes free screenings for high school students.

That’s what’s coming. Here’s what’s here this week:

Recommended: Little Miss Sunshine, Balboa, ongoing. I’m glad this movie is a comedy; a drama with these characters would be unbearably depressing. Little Miss Sunshine puts a supremely dysfunctional family on the road in a broken down VW bus, with the goal of entering their prepubescent daughter into a beauty contest for girls too young to have any business in a beauty contest. The result opens a window into the souls of five damaged adults and two youths destined for damaged adulthood, while delivering a steady stream of strong, deep, and sustained laughs. Not a simple feat for a first-time screenwriter (Michael Arndt) and two directors experienced only in music videos (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris).

Recommended: Duck Soup, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Friday, 8:00. A blatantly corrupt politician is appointed leader at the request of the wealthy elite. Once in office, he cuts benefits for the working class, fills important positions with unqualified clowns, and starts a war on a whim. But how could a comedy made in 1933 be relevant today? The Marx Brothers at their very best. True, Film Night in the Park is presenting it on DVD rather than on actual film, but with Duck Soup, seeing it with an audience is more important than seeing the best possible picture.

Recommended: Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Castro and Shattuck, opening Friday. Men are jerks and women are crazy. At least that’s the view of Pedro Almodóvar’s comedy of infidelity. The picture starts like a reasonably serious comedy, sprinkling a few laughs in with the character study. But it keeps suggesting something broader. The décor is just a little over the top, and some of the jokes (consider the detergent commercial) are in the stratosphere. Those outrageous bits are a harbinger of things to come. By the half-way point, the movie is as wacky as classic American screwball comedy–and considerably bawdier. Carmen Maura stars as the woman wronged (well, the main woman wronged), with a very young Antonio Banderas playing the son of the man who wronged her. Part of the Viva Pedro series of Almodóvar films.

Not Recommended: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Parkway, opening Friday. Yet another bad sequel to a good movie. Whereas the original Pirates of the Caribbean tread lightly over its silly story, this one takes itself seriously. But as there’s nothing serious about the shallow and meaningless story, the dark imagery and poor attempts at character development just get in the way of the fun. Worse yet, it ends with a cliffhanger; no one is supposed to see Dead Man’s Chest and skip the third installment. Two good action scenes aren’t enough to justify an otherwise dreary 2 ½-hour movie.

Recommended: March of the Penguins, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Saturday, 8:00. Yes, emperor penguins are very cute and extremely funny. Luc Jacquet offers plenty of footage to make you laugh and sigh, but he goes beyond that, showing the tremendous hardships these birds endure to raise their young. No living creatures are as adorable as penguin chicks, which is a good thing considering what their parents go through for them. And Morgan Freeman is the best celebrity narrator since Orson Welles. Another Film Night in the Park presentation on DVD.

Recommended: Notorious, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:50. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. The PFA will screen a rare print from the vault.

Recommended, with Reservations: Metropolis (1927), Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. 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 know it through the countless films its influenced. But the beautiful imagery only make the melodramatic plot and characters seem all the more trite. As part of its Mechanical Age series, the PFA presents Metropolis with piano accompaniment by Judy Rosenberg.

Recommended: Modern Times, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00. Leave it to Charlie Chaplin to call an extremely anachronistic movie Modern Times. Why anachronistic? Because it’s a mostly silent picture (with a recorded score) made years after everyone else had stopped making silent pictures. Why Modern Times? Because it’s about assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression. Chaplin’s tramp moves from job to job and jail to jail as he tries to better his condition and that of an underage fugitive (Paulette Goddard, his future wife and the best leading lady of his career). The plot sounds depressing, but the tramp’s innate dignity and optimism, upholstered by Chaplin’s perfectly choreographed comedy, keeps Modern Times light despite the heavy theme. Another part of PFA’s Mechanical Age series.

Recommended: Stolen Life, San Francisco Art Institute, Wednesday, 7:30. An emotionally stunted teenage girl leaves her loveless home for college, then makes a really bad romantic decision that will ruin her life. That’s not a particularly new story, but Xun Zhou, who is in almost every scene as well as narrating the picture, plays the lead with such depth and conviction that she overcomes the melodramatic contrivances in Liao Yimei’s screenplay. Stolen Life also offers a view of modern China that few Americans get to see. Global Lens‘ opening screening.

Recommended: The Sea Hawk (1940), Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:30. If only British history was really like this! Errol Flynn buckles his swash as a Francis Drake-like privateer who saves Elizabethan England from evil Spaniards bent on world domination (an obvious 1940 metaphor for the Nazis). The story bears no resemblance to the Rafael Sabatini novel on which it’s allegedly based, but that doesn’t mar the fun of Flynn’s second best picture (after Adventures of Robin Hood). The dialog, much of it by Howard (Casablanca) Koch, snaps with wit, the action set pieces thrill, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score is as lush and romantic as you would expect. Part of the PFA’s pirate series, Arrr, Matey.

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