I’m Back!

I’m back!

Well, sort of. My life has been taken over by a play I’m directing, the resurgence of an old back problem, and a professional assignment that I couldn’t refuse. The assignment is over, giving me a chance to breath again.

Unfortunately, the back problem limits the amount of time I can spend sitting down, making computer use difficult and moviegoing all but impossible.

But I’m slowly getting better, and even managed to see Letters From Iwo Jima over the weekend–my first theatrical experience since Berlin and Beyond. At least I’m going into the Oscars with every Best Picture nominee under my belt.

How do I rate the nominees? Babel’s still my first choice, although I’d be perfectly happy to see Little Miss Sunshine or Letters From Iwo Jima win. Not that either of them stands a chance. Little Miss Sunshine is, after all, a comedy, and therefore isn’t dignified enough for the award (although I’d love to see it win for just that reason). Clint Eastwood has too many relatively new Oscars to win more this year.

While Babel gets my vote, The Departed gets my bet. I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as the three mentioned above, but a lot of Academy members probably feel that it’s Scorsese’s turn. I can’t say I entirely blame them.

There are plenty of options for watching the Oscars in a theatrical setting. There are Oscar parties at the Balboa, the Roxie, the Lark, the Rafael, the Cerrito, and the Parkway. Some of these are sold out, already, so call ahead.

Here’s what else you can catch theatrically this week:

Commune, Red Vic, Friday through Thursday. One expects to be depressed by a documentary on a hippie commune founded at the end of the ’60s, but Commune, thankfully, doesn’t live up to that expectation. True, the Black Bear Ranch had to cope with difficult winters, promiscuity’s inevitable problems, and even a cult that tried to make the ranch its own. But the commune is still there. True, the old-timers interviewed for the film have all left, but they all look back at Black Bear as a mostly positive experience that helped shape their lives. A pleasant yet intelligent documentary that manages to be both nostalgic and clear-eyed.

Sherlock Jr., Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30. 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). As part of its Birthday Bash, the Balboa will present Sherlock Jr., Keaton’s short subject “The Playhouse,” and some live vaudeville. Frederick Hodges will accompany the movies on the piano.

Letters From Iwo Jima, Presidio, ongoing. I didn’t think Clint Eastwood could top Flags of Our Fathers, but he did…just barely. By concentrating on the Japanese experience and turning Americans into the briefly-glimpsed “other,” he forces us to consider not only the dehumanizing aspects of war itself, but also the distortions in conventional war movies. Leaving such high-minded talk aside, he tells a very sad tale of ordinary people selected for death by an exceptionally cruel government.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Cerrito, Saturday. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel manages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his young daughter. (Had a sequel was set when the girl was a teenager, Atticus would probably be an idiotic tyrant.) Part of the Cerrito Classics series.

The Lady Vanishes, Castro, Wednesday. The best (and almost the last) film Alfred Hitchcock made in England before jumping the pond. This is Hitchcock light–starting out as a gentle comedy and slowly building suspense, but never taking itself seriously. On a double bill with The 39 Steps.

Sunset Blvd., Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00. Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much like Lena Lamont–after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in history. Part of the Film 50: History of Cinema class.

Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Bump your coconuts together and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for the Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Python’s first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end.

The Last King of Scotland, Balboa, opens Friday. 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 thriller. My big complaint: The ending is a moral cop-out. On a double-bill with Venus.

Babel, Presidio, ongoing. A stupid act committed by a boy too young to understand the consequences sends shockwaves around the world, affecting the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, an immigrant nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu 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. The cast, which ranges from major international stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho) to complete novices, is uniformly excellent. Emotionally draining yet exhilarating, and filled with an intense love of humanity that never ignores our weaker selves, Babel is easily the best new movie I saw in 2006.

Movies for the Week of February 16, 2007

I really hope to have a life back, soon. Honest.

In the meantime, here’s this week’s recommendations and warnings–for the lucky ones out there with time to go to movies.

Venus, Balboa, opens Friday. Yet another film about an old person befriending a young one, but it’s so much better than Mrs. Palfrey At the Claremont. 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.

Children of Paradise, Castro, Sunday. What a place Paris must have been in the early 19th century! Or so Marcel Carné’s 1945 romantic epic paints it. The beautiful Garance (Arletty) wraps brilliant mimes, famous actors, dangerous criminals and the filthy rich around her finger, never seeming to realize the harm she does to every man she touches. A 3-hour, bittersweet romantic epic passionately in love with artifice, theater, and all things French, shot as the occupation was coming to an end. Part of the Janus Films series.

Beauty and the Beast, Castro, Thursday. Many years ago, I attended a double bill of the original King Kong and Jean Cocteau’s haunting retelling of the famous fairytale. The audience, mostly young children, ruined Kong by running, playing, and talking throughout the screening. I cringed, imagining how bad those little devils would behave when confronted with a slow-paced, atmospheric film with subtitles. But when Beauty and the Beast came on, they sat quiet, spellbound by a story they all knew but had never imagined it quite like this. On a rather strange double bill with The Seventh Seal in the Janus Films series.

Hands Up!, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 4:00. It’s been at least 25 years since I’ve seen this silent comedy, so I can’t trust my memory and give it a whole-hearted recommendation. But what I remember is very funny. The unflappable Raymond Griffith stars as a Confederate spy sent out west to sabotage a Union gold mine. Along the way he outsmarts a firing squad, falls in love with two sisters, and succeeds in everything except his mission. Part of the museum’s Mid-Winter Film Festival. With piano accompaniment by Phil Carli.

Brazil, Red Vic, Tuesday through Thursday. One of the best black comedies ever filmed, and the best dystopian fantasy on celluloid. In a bizarre, repressive, anally bureaucratic, and thoroughly dysfunctional society, one government worker (Jonathan Pryce) tries to escape into his own romantically heroic imagination. But when he finds a real woman who looks like the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), everything starts to fall apart. With Robert De Niro as a heroic plumber. This is the second of Gilliam’s three great fantasies of the 1980′s, and the only one clearly intended for adults.

An Inconvenient Truth, Balboa, Tuesday, 9:20; Wednesday, 4:10. 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. Part of the Balboa’s two day-long free screenings of Oscar-Nominated Documentaries.

This Is Spinal Tap, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. On a scale of one to ten, This is Spinal Tap rates an eleven. And if you didn’t get that joke, you haven’t seen the parody that put all “rockumentaries” in their place. A benefit for the Midnight Special Law Collective.

Singin’ in the Rain, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00. In 1952, the late twenties were a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. Part of Marilyn Fabe’s Film 50: History of Cinema class.

The Queen, Lark, opens Friday. The Queen works best as a study of a totally bizarre one-family lifestyle. Helen Mirren is perfect, brittle yet human, as the monarch Bette Midler once called “the whitest woman in the world.” Concentrating on the week after Princess Di’s death, the film focuses on Elizabeth’s failure to react to or understand her subjects’ affection for her son’s estranged ex-wife. But there’s a coldness to The Queen, as if the film, like its central character, is keeping everyone at arm’s length.

Casino Royale, Cerrito, opens Friday. The best James Bond flick since From Russia With Love, in large part because it doesn’t feel like a James Bond flick. (In fact, to a large degree, it feels like a James Bond book. And the book it feels like is, amazingly enough, Casino Royale.) Instead of gadgets, countless babes, wit, and incredible cool, you get a well-made and gritty thriller with several great action sequences (and a couple of babes). It just so happens that the protagonist, a newly-promoted, borderline psychotic government agent with a huge chip on his shoulder, is named Bond…James Bond.

Babel, Elmwood, opens Friday. A stupid act committed by a boy too young to understand the consequences sends shockwaves around the world, affecting the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, an immigrant nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu 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. The cast, which ranges from major international stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho) to complete novices, is uniformly excellent. Emotionally draining yet exhilarating, and filled with an intense love of humanity that never ignores our weaker selves, Babel is easily the best new movie I saw in 2006.

Little Children, Parkway, opens Friday. 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 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.

Movies for the Week of February 9, 2007

Still swamped. Here’s this week’s minireviews:

Stalking Santa, California Theater, Berkeley, Monday, 7:00; Roxie, Tuesday, 7:00. With so many millions believing in him, mustn’t there be some truth to the legend? What about that papyrus from ancient Egypt? Or that curious, suppressed footage from the North Pole expedition? And why is the government hiding those dead elves and burnt venison from the Roswell “UFO” crash site? William Shatner is the perfect narrator for Greg Kiefer’s always amusing, occasionally hilarious send-up of paranormal “documentaries.” Part of indiefest.

Ballad of Greenwich Village, Victoria Theater, Friday, 4:30 and Saturday, 9:30. Karen Kramer’s documentary is a pleasant enough way to spend 70 minutes. You get to see old footage from the sixties and seventies, listen to Woody Allen talk about hanging out with Bill Cosby, hear some jazz, and discover the Village’s origins in an early 19th-century protest against city planning. You also learn how modern economics are driving out the poor artists that made the Village so special. But the Ballad feels more like a TV special than a real movie–something you’d watch on PBS if you had nothing better to do. Part of indiefest.

Green Mind, Metal Bats, Roxie, Saturday, 7:00 and Monday, 9:30; California (Berkeley), Thursday, 7:00. You don’t exactly warm up to the characters in this Japanese baseball drama. It’s hard to get excited about a guy with no personality falling into a mutually abusive relationship with a woman for whom no personality would be an improvement. When these two turn to crime to support her drinking habit, we meet the third principle character–a cynical cop so apathetic and misanthropic it’s a wonder he’s kept his job. We never actually get to like these three, but as we discover more about what shaped their lives (at least with the guys; the woman remains a cipher throughout), Green Mind, Metal Bats acquires a strange and not-entirely pointless fascination. Part of indiefest.

LOL, Victoria Theater, Saturday, 4:30. I hate panning a movie made on the extreme cheap by young, eager filmmakers, especially when they try an unusual approach to explore an interesting subject–in this case, how Internet addiction affects young men’s love lives. But there’s a good reason why this approach–non-actors improvising without a plot outline (let alone a script)–has remained unusual. The result is a really bad movie. This is one case where a movie’s low budget isn’t rendered irrelevant by talent; the camerawork and sound are as amateurish as the acting and (lack of) writing. Part of indiefest.

The Lady Vanishes, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00. The best (and almost the last) film Alfred Hitchcock made in England before jumping the pond. This is Hitchcock light–starting out as a gentle comedy and slowly building suspense, but never taking itself seriously. Part of the Film 50: History of Cinema class.

The Music Man, Rafael, Wednesday, 7:00. One of my childhood favorites doesn’t quite look like a masterpiece anymore. But it’s still big, dazzling, funny, and filled with catchy tunes. Robert Preston carries the picture as Professor Harold Hill, the conman who pretends to be a music teacher, and deep down wants to be one. The cast is rounded out with Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, and the Buffalo Bills (this may be the only major Hollywood movie with a featured barbershop quartet). Shot in Technirama–a process that used twice as much film for each frame than standard 35mm–The Music Man really should be experienced on a large, wide screen. A Love of Literacy fundraiser.

Safety Last, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. Harold Lloyd’s iconic image, hanging from a large clock high over a city street, comes from this boy-makes-good-by-risking-his-neck fairytale. Lloyd made better pictures, but even mediocre Lloyd is funnier than most comics. And when he starts climbing that building, the laughs–and thrills–don’t stop. Part of the Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

Shanghai Express, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Josef von Sternberg wasn’t a great storyteller, but he could really photograph women. And no one could beat him at turning a Hollywood soundstage into an exotic location. He does both superbly in this otherwise silly melodrama set on a train crossing war-torn China. In addition to his usual muse, Marlene Dietrich, Sternberg also turns Anna May Wong into an object of the camera’s affection. On a double bill with Love Me Tonight.

Annie Hall, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. 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.

La Strada, Castro, Thursday. Giulietta Masina brilliantly plays a simple, innocent girl sold by her parents to a coarse, crude, and violent traveling strongman (Anthony Quinn in another strong performance). But for all the great acting, Fellini’s 1954 heartbreaker comes off as shallow. Even worse, it manages to romanticize child abuse. (Or is it spouse abuse? The movie is never too sure about that.) On a double bill with Jules and Jim as part of the Janus Films series.

Crossfire, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. This low-budget film noir, one of the first Hollywood films to address American anti-Semitism, was actually based on a novel that dealt with a more controversial taboo: homophobia. The thematic change isn’t seamless–we don’t associate Judaism with one man taking another to his apartment after meeting him in a bar. No masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but of considerable historical interest, not only for the bigotries it examines and avoids examining, but also because of the role it played in the Hollywood Ten hearings. This double bill with Cat People opened Wednesday, but I didn’t see the announcement in time for last week’s newsletter.

The Last King of Scotland, Presidio, opens Friday. 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 thriller. My big complaint: The ending is a moral cop-out.

Children of Men, Parkway, opens Friday. Set in a dystopian, near-future Britain living under a Fascism that looks all too familiar, Alfonso Cuarón’s labor of love feels a bit like V for Vendetta. But it’s better. It’s 2027, with the human race slowly dying out due to mysterious, world-wide infertility, and the British government rounding up illegal aliens the way the Nazi’s rounded up Jews. When one of these aliens turns up pregnant (the last successful birth was more than 18 years ago), an apolitical former radical (Clive Owen) is forced to think beyond himself. One of the rare thrillers that actually keeps you guessing what will happen next.

Little Children, 4Star, opening Friday. 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.

Blood Diamond, Lark and Elmwood, opens Friday. Good intentions aren’t enough. Writer Charles Leavitt and director Edward Zwick try to deliver an exciting thriller and teach us something important about the diamond industry’s horrible toll on African lives. But Blood Diamond is too predictable, too ineptly written, and too preachy to work as a thriller, and a bad thriller doesn’t make for good education (unless, of course, the lesson is How Not to Make a Thriller). I did learn one important lesson from Blood Diamond: Jennifer Connelly is capable of giving a bad performance–all she needs is lame dialog and an unbelievable character.

Movies for the Week of February 2, 2007

There’s limited room in my life for Bayflicks at the moment, so I’m doing the bare minimum. I’ll keep the weekly schedules going and the microreviews, but I won’t start the newsletter with an essay.

I hope to be back to full mode in a few weeks.

Design for Living, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:45. Impeccable credentials occasionally pay off. Design for Living is every bit as good as you’d expect from Ernst Lubitsch directing a Ben Hecht screen adaptation of a Noel Coward play. Of course, it also helps to have a cast headed by Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins as a sort-of romantic threesome and Edward Everett Horton as the voice of misguided morality. A very funny and sexy pre-code charmer. Another great movie in the Archive’s series on The Lubitsch Touch.

Rio Bravo, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. Director Howard Hawks’ second western lacks the epic sweep and moral complexity of John Ford’s best work, or of Hawk’s first western, the very Fordian Red River. But it’s still great, character-driven, often funny entertainment. John Wayne plays it light as a sheriff in trouble for arresting a murderer with very powerful friends. The sheriff’s own friends aren’t as powerful, but they’re loyal, and as played by Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, and a very cool Ricky Nelson, they’re a lot of fun to watch. Wayne’s scenes with ingénue Angie Dickinson play like romantic comedy. This week’s entry in David Thomson’s 1,000 Decisions In the Dark series.

Double Indemnity, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray astray in Billy Wilder’s noir thriller. Not that she has much trouble doing it (this is not how those who grew up on “My Three Sons– remember MacMurray). A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal. On a double bill with The Big Sleep.

Children of Men, Cerrito, opening Friday. Set in a dystopian, near-future Britain living under a Fascism that looks all too familiar, Alfonso Cuarón’s labor of love feels a bit like V for Vendetta. But it’s better. It’s 2027, with the human race slowly dying out due to mysterious, world-wide infertility, and the British government rounding up illegal aliens the way the Nazi’s rounded up Jews. When one of these aliens turns up pregnant (the last successful birth was more than 18 years ago), an apolitical former radical (Clive Owen) is forced to think beyond himself. One of the rare thrillers that actually keeps you guessing what will happen next.

Babel, Parkway, opening Friday. A stupid act committed by a boy too young to understand the consequences sends shockwaves around the world, affecting the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, an immigrant nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu 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. The cast, which ranges from major international stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho) to complete novices, is uniformly excellent. Emotionally draining yet exhilarating, and filled with an intense love of humanity that never ignores our weaker selves, Babel is easily the best new movie I saw in 2006.

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