The Cerrito Opens

The Cerrito Speakeasy Theater opens for business this week. Built in 1937 and dark for nearly 50 years, the city of El Cerrito has given it’s neighborhood theater a restoration and update.

Although the city owns the Cerrito, Speakeasy Theaters of Parkway fame will run it. That means we can expect something very much like the Parkway–couches, good food, a sense of community involvement, and upstairs and downstairs screening rooms. I haven’t yet been inside the Cerrito, so I can’t tell you more about the physical theater.

The Cerrito opens Wednesday with Casablanca downstairs and Pulp Fiction upstairs. At press time, nothing else has been announced, but I suspect the programming will be very much like the Parkway–mostly open-end runs of new movies, with a sprinkling of the old, the oddball, and the charity benefits.

If An Inconvenient Truth left you reluctant to drive your car, you’ll be happy to know that the Cerrito is only about two blocks west of the El Cerrito Plaza BART station. I’m even happier; it’s also only a short bike ride from my home.

In other news, the International Latino Film Festival opens next Friday at the Castro. It will show 80 films at 17 venues around the Bay Area.

And here’s what else is going on this week:

Not Recommended: Root of All Evil?, Rafael and Roxie, opening Friday. Biologist Richard Dawkins doesn’t like intolerant religious fanatics. No problem there. But in his insistence that all religion is bad, that open-minded, tolerant people of faith are enablers, and that raising children to believe in God is a form of child abuse, he proves himself every bit as intolerant and fanatical as those he attacks. He stacks the deck mercilessly in this two-part TV show (which comes complete with cues for commercial breaks), interviewing one closed-minded zealot after another. When he finally gets around to talking to a token religious moderate, he dismisses the man (in narration, not to his face) as a “fence-sitter.” This scientist isn’t as open-minded as he thinks he is.

Recommended: Pulp Fiction, Cerrito, Wednesday and Thursday. Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong.

Recommended: Casablanca, Cerrito, Wednesday and Thursday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly.

Recommended: Half Nelson, 4Star, opens Friday. Half Nelson is about drug addiction the way Citizen Kane is about journalism. The drug addict in question (Ryan Gosling in one of the year’s best performances) 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 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. On a double bill with American Hardcore.

Recommended: The Departed, Balboa, opens Friday. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn’t mind plot holes as long as they went unnoticed until the audience was driving home. That’s exactly how my wife and I reacted to Martin Scorsese’s all-star remake of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs. As long we were in the theater, Scorsese’s intense police thriller about two undercover moles–one a cop pretending to be a gangster, the other a gangster pretending to be a cop–riveted our eyes to the screen. Talking about the movie on the way home, the problems kept coming up. But Hitchcock was right. The Departed carries you along like a river, offering fascinating characters portrayed by some of the biggest and most talented male stars around, moral ambiguity, graphic violence, and a complete lack of predictability to heighten the suspense. So what if it’s full of holes. This is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years.

Recommended: This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Lark, 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. On a double bill with Al Franken: God Spoke.

Recommended, with Reservations: Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. China’s Cultural Revolution was a bleak time of horrible oppression, but at least it was colorful. Or so it seems in Yan-Ting Yuen’s documentary on the stage-and-screen musical extravaganzas that met Madame Mao’s cultural and political requirements. To modern American eyes, the clips from actual Yang Ban Xi movies walk a strange line between stunning choreography and unintentional hilarity, like Agnes DeMille meets her Uncle Cecil. But the modern interview sequences are hit and miss, and a couple of modern dance sequences shot for the movie seem forced. Most of all, I found myself wanting more information. When did the government start making these shows? When did they stop? Why were only eight shows produced? I also wanted more of those outrageous clips.

Willful Suspension of Morality

We all understand the suspension of disbelief. It allows us to believe in Harry Potter’s magic, sound in the vacuum of space, and the supposedly impromptu dancing of Fred Astaire. If you want to be honest about it, even serious drama requires suspending your disbelief. We know that that working-class gay cowboy is really an obscenely well-paid actor in love with his female co-star.

But what about the willful suspension of morality? What should we think about films that require us to forget our concepts of right and wrong? Is it alright to enjoy movies that celebrate thieves and murderers, especially if they’re motivated entirely by their own greed or perverse sense of fun?

If you can do it with a clear head, yes. Just as it’s okay to once in a while escape into a world where clearly-defined good always wins against obvious evil, there’s no real harm in occasionally going to a place where there’s no real difference between the two.

But there’s a caveat. The movie in question can’t take itself seriously. It must wink at you and reassure you that it doesn’t really mean what it says. This explains why I love The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but hate The Wild Bunch. It’s one thing to laughingly go along with fictitious evil-doers; it’s another to get all sentimental over them.

And it helps, of course, if there’s a villain who is much more evil than the nominal hero. Clint Eastwood’s Blondie in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly kills for money, but compared to Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes, he’s a saint.

Other joyfully immoral movies worth catching include The Black Swan (better a pirate than a politician), Almodóvar’s Matador (the joys of sexual murder), The Whole Nine Yards (why shouldn’t professional killers attract their own groupies?), and Pulp Fiction (where do I begin with that one?).

Most of the movies recommended below have high moral standards. The rest are just fun.

Recommended: Moolaadé, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:35. Writer/director Ousmane Sembene pulls off something amazing–”an entertaining drama about female genital mutilation. In a small Muslim village, one woman protects four girls who refuse to be “cut.– Her heroism angers many but inspires many others. Sembene doesn’t sentimentalize this small community; those who have seen the larger world are much more likely to sympathize with the heroine. The sense of place, the rich tapestry of characters, the urgency of the conflict, and the vibrant, African colors make Moolaadé a unique cinematic treasure. Part of the PFA’s Ousmane Sembène series. Note: Friday and Saturday showings at the PFA will go on as scheduled. They’re not listed on the PFA’s Web site because of technical problems.

Recommended: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Castro, Wednesday. Considering the unethical behavior of the three leads, Sergio Leone’s epic Civil War western should have been called The Bad, the Worse, and the Totally Reprehensible. But morality is relative when armies are slaughtering thousands, and besides, it doesn’t really enter into Leone’s tongue-in-cheek point of view. While the war rages around them, three outlaws battle lawmen, prison guards, and each other for a fortune in stolen gold. Check your scruples at the door and enjoy the double- and triple-crosses, the black comedy, the beautiful Techniscope photography of Spain doubling as the American west, and Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are fine, but it’s Eli Wallach’s performance as the half-bright, devious Tuco who steals the picture.

Recommended: Triplets of Belleville, Red Vic, Saturday. A modern, low-budget, dialog-free animated film for adults (and teenagers; it’s rated PG-13). The story involves a French champion bicyclist who’s kidnapped by mobsters and brought to America to–¦never mind, it’s just too weird to explain. But who cares? The jokes are funny, the visuals are clever and original, and the music swings (the triplets of the title are an aging big band trio).

Recommended: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. They made a lot of science fiction movies in the 1950s, but few as good as this left-leaning Christian parable. An alien (Michael Rennie in his first major American role) comes to Earth with a message of peace, finds a populace unwilling to listen, and then becomes the target of a manhunt. On a double bill with Panic in the Streets.

Recommended, with Reservations: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination. But it hasn’t aged all that well; we’ve all seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001′s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it in the right theater. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. It’s still worth catching on a really big screen, even a flat one, especially if it’s from a 70mm print. But 35mm at the PFA won’t be the 2001 experience.

Recommended: Panic in the Streets, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. You thought New Orleans had it bad with Katrina. In this taut noir from Elia Kazan, police and health officials have two days to track down a criminal infected with bubonic plague (at least the government seemed to care back then). The cast includes Richard Widmark and a still unknown Zero Mostel. On a double bill with The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Recommended: Little Miss Sunshine, 4Star and Parkway, opening Friday. 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). The 4Star is showing Little Miss Sunshine on a double-bill with Keeping Mum.

Recommended: The Big Lebowski, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. 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: The Illusionist, Elmwood and Parkway, opening Friday. Every film lover knows not to trust their eyes, because a movie is nothing but a lie, a deceit, and 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. But it’s very good light entertainment, as inconsequential as the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, but ten times as much fun and made for a fraction of the cost.

Mill Valley Film Festival Report

It’s called the Mill Valley Film Festival, but many of its best events happen in San Rafael. I went to two of them last Sunday.

Left to right: Moderator An Tran and cinematographers Daryn Okada, Judy Irola, M. David Mullen, and Elliot Davis
photo by Linda Wilkie

First there was the Cinematographer Style seminar. Four cinematographers, known primarily for their work on independent and indiewood films (although most had some Hollywood credits), spoke about their work and answered questions. Journalist An Tran moderated.

Topics ranged from how their families reacted to their career choice (the white-haired Elliot Davis reported that his parents “still don’t know what I do”) to a preference for independent productions. Daryn Okada felt that “Art and commerce can work together, but one shouldn’t overshadow the other.” Judy Irola talked about the importance of pre-production planning and politics, recommending that we “be nice to the 1st AD (Assistant Director), Production Designer, and Costumer,” and that the “lower the budget, the more time [the cinematographer should spend] in pre-production.”

Aleandro González Iárritu
photo by Alicia Williams

Next I attended the Spotlight presentation for Director Aleandro González Iárritu, which included a screening of his new film, Babel. Iárritu came off as an open, unassuming, likeable man well younger than his 43 years. Acknowledging that Babel is only his third feature, he admitted that he was “too young, I think,” for this type of award (his previous films were Amores Perros and 21 Grams). Before the screening, he told us that his three films so far comprise a trilogy about parents and children, and that the nearly one-year process of shooting Babel in four countries was life-transforming (“The most dangerous borders are the ones we create within ourselves.”). He also pointed out that, despite the big stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho), the bulk of Babel’s cast were non-actors. “That was an accident,” a fortuitous one in his opinion, caused by casting difficulties.

A stupid act, committed by a boy too young to understand its consequences, puts Babel’s complex plot into motion, sending shockwaves around the world that effect the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, a Mexican nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga weave a complex, four-strand tale of love, tragedy, parental responsibility, and the borders–political, economic, linguistic, and emotional–that separate us all. In the end, Babel (an appropriate title for a film told in Arabic, English, Spanish, Japanese, and Japanese sign language) hails the incredible human ability to heal. Babel is easily the best new movie I’ve seen this year.

Babel opens in theaters next month. If you can’t wait, here are some films playing this week:

Recommended: Overlord, Pacific Film Archive, Friday and Saturday. An award-winner from 1975, Stuart Cooper’s study of World War II Britain finally comes to American screens. The story is simple: A young man (Brian Stirner) bids his parents farewell and goes off to war. Basic training proves a dehumanizing experience, but it can’t quite remove the human being inside the soldier. As he and his mates are transferred from place to place, never told where they’re going or why, he strongly suspects that he’s to be part of the big landing on the European mainland and thus probably won’t live much longer. Cooper combines extensive and fascinating newsreel footage with his fictitious story (shot in black and white), creating an authentic picture of a time and place.

Recommended: The Iron Giant, Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA, Sunday, 12:00 noon. The young hero of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s first feature befriends a massively-huge robot from outer space. Hey, Steven Spielberg’s Elliot only had to hide the diminutive ET. The robot seems friendly enough, but there’s good reason to believe he was built as a weapon of mass destruction. Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation with plenty of sharp angles, Bird creates a stylized view of small-town American life circa 1958 that straddles satire and nostalgia, and treats most of its inhabitants with warmth and affection. A great movie for all but the youngest kids. The last film in the Animation Showcase.

Recommended: Army of Shadows, Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. Resistance is a dirty and almost inevitably deadly job, but in Nazi-occupied France, someone had to do it. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark 1969 adventure, recently restored and playing for the first time on American screens, occasionally confuses those who don’t know the history (or the geography). But the rewards are well worth the effort. The suspense set pieces, including a night-time novice parachute jump and a rescue attempt by ambulance, are nerve-wracking, but not nearly so much as the protagonists’ constant moral dilemmas. Nothing gets romanticized in this spy story.

Recommended: The Departed, Presidio, ongoing. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn’t mind plot holes as long as they went unnoticed until the audience was driving home. That’s exactly how my wife and I reacted to Martin Scorsese’s all-star remake of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs. As long we were in the theater, Scorsese’s intense police thriller about two undercover moles–one a cop pretending to be a gangster, the other a gangster pretending to be a cop–riveted our eyes to the screen. Talking about the movie on the way home, the problems kept coming up. But Hitchcock was right. The Departed carries you along like a river, offering fascinating characters portrayed by some of the biggest and most talented male stars around, moral ambiguity, graphic violence, and a complete lack of predictability to heighten the suspense. So what if it’s full of holes. This is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years.

Recommended, with Reservations: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the stars. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a major name, yet co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water. In this film, at least, Russell is funnier and sexier. On a double bill with Monroe’s other big hit of 1953, How to Marry a Millionaire (see below).

Noteworthy: How to Marry a Millionaire, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. This lavish 1953 romantic comedy is neither romantic nor funny, despite the talents of Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe (who had only just achieved star status). But How to Marry a Millionaire was one of the first two films shot in Cinemascope, and the first with an intimate, contemporary, character-and-dialog driven story. That alone gives it historical interest. On a double bill with the non-widescreen but much better Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (see above).

Recommended, with Reservations: Kiss Me Kate, Castro, Wednesday. Perhaps I’m damning it with faint praise, but this musical is my all-time favorite 3D movie. Okay, it’s not the best MGM musical””or even the best from 1953″”but the dancing is fantastic, especially in three dimensions. Part of the Castro’s Dual System 3-D Series.

Noteworthy: Robot Monster, Castro, Tuesday, 8:40. Few images in our culture cry “So bad it’s funny” like an overweight man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet over his head. That’s the title character in this weirdly preachy end-of-the-world epic that appears to have been made on a smaller budget than a modest bar mitzvah. The story is meant to be depressing, but like everything else in Robot Monster, it’s just laughable. On a double bill with Gorilla at Large. Part of the Castro’s Dual System 3-D Series.

Recommended: Catch a Fire, Sequoia, Saturday, 6:45. Police arrest an innocent man on suspicion of terrorist activity, torture him, then release him, having now turned him into a full-fledged militant. No, it’s not ripped from today’s headlines, but set in apartheid South Africa. Director Phillip Noyce turns the story of actual ANC freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) into both a morality play and an effective thriller without sacrificing the complexity of the situation. Six years ago, this movie would hardly have been controversial; today, it’s courageous. But don’t sweat if you miss Fire at the Mill Valley Film Festival; it will soon be at a theater near you.

Recommended: Half Nelson, Elmwood, opening Friday. Half Nelson is about drug addiction the way Citizen Kane is about journalism. The drug addict in question (Ryan Gosling in one of the year’s best performances) 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 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.

Noteworthy: Jesus Camp and Al Franken: God Spoke double bill, Balboa, opening Friday. I haven’t seen either of these movies, so I can’t give a definitive recommendation, but I nevertheless suspect that this is a terrific double-bill. How often do you get two political/religious documentaries for one admission price? (Okay, I don’t know if there’s anything religious about the Al Franken picture aside from the name.)

Recommended, with Reservations: 3 Needles, Sequoia, Friday, 7:15 and Sunday, 12:15. Thom Fitzgerald tells three stories about AIDS and poverty, set in China, Fitzgerald’s native Canada, and South Africa. But the farther Fitzgerald gets from Western Civilization, the less sure his storytelling becomes. The Chinese section is a complete washout, confusing as pure narrative and lacking any emotional punch beyond the simplest of manipulations. The South African tale improves on that one, but it largely misses the point by focusing on white missionaries. But Fitzgerald scores a home run in the Canadian story of a porn actor (Shawn Ashmore) hiding his HIV-positive status from his co-workers, and the moral dilemmas his actions thrust upon his religious mother (Stockard Channing). Screening as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival, 3 Needles will receive a full theatrical release soon.

Recommended: This Film is Not Yet Rated, Rafael, Monday through Thursday. 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.

Oscar Season and the Mill Valley Film Festival

Just a quick note on the Mill Valley Film Festival; something I probably should have pointed out two weeks ago.

A large part of this festival’s significance comes from its early fall calendar position. For Bay Area film lovers, the MVFF is the beginning of the Oscar season– your first chance to see any of the likely contenders.

Oscar bait, that most unique and interesting of all Hollywood genres, comes in every year with the cold and drizzle. Oscar bait is as clear and distinct a genre as film noir or westerns, recognizable by a glow of prestige, an important but not too controversial subject, great actors in juicy roles, and a fourth-quarter release date. (Last year I named the genre Oscar hopefuls, but I’m officially changing the name. Oscar bait sounds better.)

The recently-completed Toronto Film Festival is the real starting gate for the Oscar season, but Mill Valley is the local event for becoming the first on your block to see The Queen, Catch a Fire, or Little Children. Of course, the movie will be just as good at your neighborhood theater in a few weeks, but you’re more likely to get a Q&A with the filmmakers at the festival. And there are plenty of non-bait movies at Mill Valley you may never get a chance to see again.

In other news, the Devil Music Ensemble is coming to town. I’ve never heard this group, but they’re building quite a reputation as silent film accompanists. They’re playing in two Bay Area screenings next week. Tuesday, they’ll perform at the Parkway for Nosferatu. Then Thursday it’s to the Balboa for the 1920, John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In and out of Mill Valley, with or without the Devil Music Ensemble, here’s what to catch and what to skip this week:

Recommended: Overlord, Balboa, opening Friday. Stuart Cooper’s award-winning 1975 study of World War II Britain finally comes to American screens. The story is simple: A young man (Brian Stirner) bids his parents farewell and goes off to basic training. Overlord shows us the dehumanizing process that turns him into a soldier but can’t quite remove the human being. As he and his mates are transferred from place to place, never told where they’re going or why, he strongly suspects that he’s to be part of the big landing on the European mainland and thus probably won’t live much longer. Cooper combines extensive and fascinating newsreel footage with his fictitious story (shot in black and white), creating an authentic picture of a time and place. The Balboa is showing a brand-new 35mm print. Cooper will appear in person for Friday and Saturday’s evening shows.

Recommended: Berkeley, Oaks Theater, Berkeley, Friday, 9:45 and Sunday, 6:45. I don’t know if anyone but a baby boomer can appreciate Bobby Roth’s look back at the radical end of the 1960′s; it may even require an East Bay Baby Boomer. But this particular East Bay Baby Boomer enjoyed the nostalgic feel of the first half very much; it’s fun to remember a time when we thought that sex, drugs, and revolution would change the world. But Berkeley progresses beyond nostalgia, examining the both the excitement and the shortcomings of youthful idealism. Part of the Berkeley Video & Film Festival. A Friday ticket also buys you more than an hour’s worth of shorts before the feature; Sunday’s screening is part of a 10+ hour, one-ticket marathon.

Recommended: Nosferatu, Parkway, Tues, 9:15. The first (and unauthorized) film version of Dracula, and you can forget about sexy vampires here. Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (renamed in a failed attempt to avoid lawsuits) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not to be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. The Devil Music Ensemble accompany this silent movie.

Recommended: The Big Buy: Tom Delay’s Stolen Congress, Oaks Theater, Berkeley, Saturday, 7:00. If you read the news, there’s little in this documentary you won’t already know. But Texas Prosecutor Ronnie Earle makes an engaging and entertaining hero. Put him alongside other Lone Star personalities like Jim Hightower and Molly Ivins (as directors Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck do here) and you get a witty description of Delay’s crimes against democracy. The wit doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mask the anger, and by the end of The Big Buy you’re burning with rage. Part of the Berkeley Video & Film Festival‘s 10+ hour Saturday marathon.

Recommended: Venus, Sequoia, Tuesday, 7:15; Cinema Corte Madera, Thursday, 6:45. Yet another film about an old person befriending a young one, but better than Mrs. Palfrey At the Claremont and Four Weeks in June. Peter O’Toole stars as an aging actor (not much of a stretch) whose sexual desires have outlived both his ability to attract women and his talents at pleasing them. The object of his attentions is a young woman (newcomer Jodi Whittaker) who tries to discourage his flirtations while latching on to him as a friend and, perhaps as a father figure. The resulting relationship burns with conflict and occasional minor violence, but also concern and genuine love. Funny, sad, and real. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival, but it will have a regular release soon enough.

Recommended: Catch a Fire, Rafael, Tuesday, 7:00, and Wednesday, 6:30. Police arrest an innocent man suspicion of terrorist activity, torture, then release him, having now turned him into a true militant. No, it’s not ripped from today’s headlines. Catch a Fire is a period piece set in apartheid South Africa.. Director Phillip Noyce turns the story of actual ANC freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) into both a morality play and an effective thriller, without sacrificing the complexity of the situation. Six years ago, this movie would hardly have been controversial; today, it’s courageous. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival and soon to be widely released. The Wednesday screening is part of a Tribute to Tim Robbins, who’s excellent as Chamusso police tormentor.

Recommended: All About Eve, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. You don’t succeed on Broadway (or in Hollywood) if you’re not willing to cut your mentor’s throat. Anne Baxter plays the title character, an apparently sweet and innocent actress whom aging diva Bette Davis takes under her wing. But Eve isn’t anywhere near as innocent as she appears. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. On a double-bill with A Letter to Three Wives.

Recommended: Wallace & Gromit shorts, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. Before the were-rabbit and Chicken Run, the talented Brits at Aardman Animations made a trio of 30-minute television programs about the eccentric inventor and his loyal but long-suffering dog. These are just as funny as their later theatrical features. Part of the Canine Film Festival.

Recommended: Best in Show, Castro, Saturday, 7:30. Christopher Guest’s dog-show mockumentary has more than its share of hilarious moments. The rest of it is pretty funny, too. As part of the Canine Film Festival, the presentation will include cast members and Jan Wahl in person.

Recommended: Young Frankenstein, Dolores Park, Saturday, 8:00. 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). Like all Film Night in the Park presentations, it will be on DVD.

Not Recommended: Cine Manifest, Rafael, Sunday, 6:00. The 1970′s Marxist film collective Cine Manifest spent far too much time in self-critical discussion. I know this because the former members who interviewed themselves and made this documentary spend far too much time discussing this bad habit of self-criticism. They should instead have asked each other how they could make the story interesting to anyone other than friends and family. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

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