You may have already noticed a change in the weekly schedules. I’m now grading movies like a school teacher. If I place an in front of a film title, it’s not to be missed. If I give one an , missing it is a top priority. And when I mark a film with a , I haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it recently enough to reliably grade it, but I still have something to say about it. As before, click on any of these icons for a short commentary.
Within the next two weeks, I hope to grade at least a few of the 38 German-language films showing at the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, which opens January 11 at the Castro with Summer In Berlin, a study of a friendship stressed by life’s difficulties. The Festival ends a six days later with The Fisherman and His Wife, which the program describes as “a contemporary romantic comedy [wrapped] around a Grimm’s fairy tale.” In between there’s a drama about a once-successful model, a documentary on the first American soldier to die in Iraq, and a family-friendly fantasy about a revived Neanderthal.
As usual, Berlin & Beyond will also present a silent feature screened with live accompaniment. This year, it’s Nathan the Wise, a 1924 call for religious tolerance based on a 1779 play. Dennis James will accompany the film on the Castro’s Organ.
Next week I’ll give you my Top Ten Films of 2006. In the meantime, here’s some movies to catch, and to miss, in theaters this week:
Baraka, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Strange, haunting, beautiful, and terrifying, Baraka defies description. Without plot, narration, or explanation, it simply presents images of nature, humanity, and humanity’s effect on nature. Even if you don’t see a message (there is one), you’re captivated by the music and the clear and perfect visuals. Baraka was one of the last films, and one of the few art films, shot in 65mm. Because the larger film format so enhances this picture, I grade Baraka A when presented in 70mm, but only B in 35mm.
Charlotte’s Web, Balboa, ongoing. New rule: If a movie makes me cry, I have to give it an A. By the end of the latest version of E.B. White’s classic children’s tale, my tear ducts were in full spigot mode, despite such “hip” additions to the tale as fart jokes (hey, the film is set in a barn). The story, concerning a piglet destined for the slaughterhouse and a kindly spider who befriends him, deals honestly with issues seldom touched in big-budget Hollywood family fare, including our own mortality. The technology of computer animation makes us believe that a spider and pig can talk; the art of computer animation makes us care what they say.
Night at the Museum, Presidio, ongoing. Yes, it’s predictable Hollywood family fare (Why must every children’s film preach about believing in yourself?), and half the jokes fall flat. But the idea is cute, most of the performances are lively, and a reasonable number of jokes stand up. As much as I disapprove of product placement, it’s nice to see a movie that works as one big commercial for New York’s Museum of Natural History.
Little Children, Presidio, ongoing. Good films don’t have to tell you what a character is thinking or feeling; you sense it from the dialog and the performances. But Todd Field and Tom Perrotta didn’t trust their characters or their actors (which is too bad because the cast couldn’t have been better) and filled Little Children with detailed and annoying narration. Every time the story and performances build dramatic tension, Will Lyman’s omnipotent voice destroys it by telling you what everyone is thinking and to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Things improve after the halfway mark–there’s less narration, giving you a chance to truly appreciate the good performances–but there’s still the overabundance of subplots and some unbelievably idiotic character behavior.
His Girl Friday, Castro, Saturday. Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution. On a double-bill with The Women.
Woman of the Year, Castro, Friday. One of only a handful of Hollywood films (Annie Hall is another) that accurately conveys the ups, downs, and sideways motions of romantic love as a long-term commitment. Sexist by today’s standard, this love story between two independently-minded professionals was cutting-edge feminist for its time (or at least as cutting-edge feminist as MGM would allow). And its sense of two people who love each other but can’t easily stay compatible never ages. It also started one of Hollywood’s most famous real-life romances–that of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. On a double-bill with The Philadelphia Story.
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Elmwood, Saturday and Sunday. An eccentric inventor, his long-suffering dog, snooty aristocrats, cute bunnies, and whole lot of clay make up the funniest movie of 2005. I vote for putting this G-rated, claymation extravaganza on a double-bill with that other hilarious British comedy with killer rabbits, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Black Orpheus, Castro, Monday through Thursday. It’s been decades since I saw Marcel Camus’ retelling of the Orpheus myth, set in Rio during Carnaval. I remember exciting music, eye-popping color, and a strange mixture of joyous celebration and tragedy. I also remember liking it very much. The Castro presents a new 35mm print.