This Week’s Movies

Since I’ve posted all of the Jewish Film Festival descriptions before, this time I’m placing them at the end of the listings.

She’s Gotta Have It, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30. Spike Lee jumped from film school to the big time with this low-budget, extremely sexy comic drama about a life-embracing woman juggling three very different lovers. On one level, this film explores Brooklyn’s African-American subculture with an intimacy seldom seen before. On another, any adult who isn’t saving themselves for marriage can identify with what Nola Darling and her three boyfriends go through. If She’s Gotta Have It hadn’t launched Spike Lee’s career as a director, it would have established him as a comic character actor; his Kookie Mars (“Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please”) Blackmon steals the film.

The Lady Eve, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 8:30. Screwball comedy reached its peak in Preston Sturges’ 1941 delight. Barbara Stanwyck glows as a card shark and con artist who falls in love with her latest mark–a naive heir to an ale fortune who prefers snakes to suds–played to perfection by Henry Fonda (who knew he could be so funny). But when Fonda’s “Hopsy” Pike discovers the racket and drops his new-found love, her vengeance proves astonishingly sweet. Set on an ocean liner and the exclusive wealthy homes of Connecticut, The Lady Eve allows us to wallow in wealth while laughing at the foolish gullibility of those born to money. Part of the PFA’s Barbara Stanwyck series.

Ladies They Talk About, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Wow! I never imagined that the woman’s section at San Quentin had a beauty parlor! This pre-code women-in-prison B picture packs a lot of silliness into its 69 minutes, and not a shred of believability. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see Ladies They Talk About, but I’d stay to see it on the bottom half of a double bill. Part of the PFA’s Barbara Stanwyck series.

The Toll of the Sea, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Anna May Wong received one of her few starring roles in this blatant rip-off of Madame Butterfly. But the real star is the very early two-color Technicolor process. A good but not great movie in its own right, lifted into special interest by Ms. Wong’s beauty and talent, and its value as an excellent record of a now-dead color process. The print is from a UCLA restoration made from the original negative (rare for a silent film). However, the last reel of The Toll of the Sea is missing, and the story filled in through new footage and title cards. Piano accompaniment by Greg Pane.

Swing Time, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time is a close second, and the only other unqualified masterpiece in the series. Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Fred is an incredibly lucky gambler who for private reasons has to limit his winnings. It’s just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On a double bill with Midnight.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. The biggest and the best of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” westerns was the Pulp Fiction of its day, reveling in its own amorality and bringing you along to enjoy the ride. It’s violent, beautiful, iconic, and funny, with the best performance of Eli Wallach’s career and that incredible Ennio Morricone score. Another Cerrito Classic.

Wizard Of Oz, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. Part of a “Fabulous Fashion in Film– Festival triple bill with Funny Face and My Fair Lady.

Casino Royale, Albert Park, San Rafael, Saturday, 8:30. 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. Warning: This is a DVD presentation.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 4Star, opens Friday. First-rate books seldom make first-rate films–especially when the book is nearly 900 pages long. Yet screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, new to the franchise, manages just that type of magic by stripping J.K. Rowling’s best and longest novel to the bone. True, he left out many of the book’s best scenes and characters–there’s no embarrassing first date, McGonagall doesn’t ignore and insult Umbridge while discussing Harry’s career plans, and you could miss Percy if you blink. But Goldenberg and director David Yates (also new to the franchise) keep the story’s essential themes about courage, friendship, adolescent disillusionment, sexual awakening, and how a supposed democracy can turn repressive with the help of a compliant press. They’ve also made one hell of a tight, dark, and scary supernatural thriller.

Knocked Up, Elmwood, opens Friday. Writer/Director Judd Apatow tops his The 40 Year Old Virgin (no small feat) in another raunchy-yet-sweet comedy about the complexities and problems of heterosexual romance. This time around, a rising television personality with career ambitions (the stunningly gorgeous Katherine Heigl) shares a drunken one-night stand with a slacker stoner (the stunningly dumpy Seth Rogen), then eight weeks later discovers she’s pregnant. As the two leads, their friends, and their families react to this life-changing accident, Apatow explores how people fall in and out of love, the way parenthood changes people, and the need for both men and women to get away from each other and bond with those of their own gender–all while providing plenty of laughs. For a full-length review, click here.

Jewish Film Festival Listings:

My Mexican Shivah, Aquarius Theatre, Saturday, 7:00. Death brings families together–even families that should probably remain apart. In Alejandro Springall’s mildly comic drama (Do we call these things a dramedy or a coma?), the death of the family patriarch brings out the worst, and a little of the best, in everyone. Hardly surprising; the departed apparently loved life–and women–a little too much, leaving his survivors bitter, divided, and confused. But according to Jewish law, they must spend a week in each others’ company, where old attractions and animosities inevitably come to the surface. Particularly wonderful is Emilio Savinni as the Chassidic grandson who’s wistfully nostalgic for his wilder days. A touching, truthful, and occasionally funny look at Jewish observance and human behavior.

9 Star Hotel, Roda Theatre, Sunday, 8:45. Illegal immigrants suffer and endure in Israel as well as America. Actually, their plight is probably worse, since the Israeli/Palestinian relationship is considerably more strained than the Yankee/Mexican one. In the best cinema verite tradition, Ido Haar avoids commentary and simply follows a group of undocumented, Palestinian construction workers. We watch as they sneak across the border, work, camp out in the hills (the title reflects a joking reference to the cardboard boxes they sleep in), avoid police, and talk about the things that young men talk about all over the world. The result is a window into a difficult way of life most of us know little about.

The Chosen Ones, Roda Theatre, Monday, 8:15; Aquarius Theatre, Thursday, 1:45. What does modern Jewish music mean to you? German musician/filmmaker Wendla Nölle came to New York to answer that question and found a lot of answers. Her film profiles several young, hip, and mostly orthodox performers who put their Jewish culture and faith into rock, blues, and hip-hop. My favorite? Y-Love, an African-American convert to Chasidism who raps about Law and Scripture. Other standouts include singer/songwriter/rabbi Rav Shmuel (imagine Tom Lehrer with payes), and the rock group Blue Fringe. As with so many music documentaries, there’s not enough music (I don’t think it shows a single song performed in its entirety), and Nölle’s total ignorance of Judiasm hinders the film almost as often as it helps (it’s pretty clear she shot part of the movie during Purim, but never seems to mention this). But the positives–engaging people, good music, and a sense of cultures coming together in unexpected ways–more than make up for this documentary’s shortcomings.

Between Two Notes, Aquarius Theatre, Monday, 8:45. Finally, a music documentary that’s got its priorities right–it’s about the music. Arabic classical music, to be precise, as played in Damascus, Lebanon, and mostly in Israel, by both Arabs and Jews. Some of the talk about music bringing people together and leading to world peace sounded forced and unreasonably idealistic (to say nothing of repetitive), but the discussions of musical and religious styles coming together and influencing each other proved worth listening to. And best of all, there’s the music–haunting, exciting, and digging into the depth of your soul. The musicians are captured, for the most part, not in concerts or recording studios, but playing together in living rooms, and director Florence Strauss keeps the camera tied on their faces, capturing their infectious exuberance.

Body and Soul, Roda Theatre, Monday, 4:15. John Garfield commands this boxing noir as a kid from the slums who fights his way up to the top, then must face the mob. Entertaining and occasionally realistic, Body and Soul stands out as an example of left-leaning Hollywood commercial filmmaking just before the blacklist clamped down on certain values (and ruined Garfield’s career).

My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, Aquarius Theatre, Saturday, 9:15; Roda Theatre, Tuesday, 8:45. Dani (Go For Zucker) Levy’s strange little film about Hitler’s Jewish acting coach walks a thin line between absurdist comedy and Holocaust tragedy. It’s a delicate balance, and while Levy stumbles a bit, he quickly recovers and dazzles the audience. The setup: 1944 is drawing to a close, Germany is losing the war, and Hitler’s suffering from depression, So his handlers pull his Jewish former acting coach out of a concentration camp to prepare him for a major speech. The coach (The Lives of Others’ Ulrich Mühe) takes the job and begins to bond with his student while wrestling with his opportunity to change the course of history. My Fuehrer owes an obvious debt to other Holocaust-inspired comedies–notably The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful--but has a feeling all its own.

Making Trouble, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 10:00; Aquarius Theatre, Thursday, 8:30. A documentary about Jewish women comedians, should, first and foremost, be funny. After that it can delve into issues of why female comics see things differently than males, the unique attributes of Jewish humor, and so forth. But before it tells you about these women’s lives and struggles, it must let you appreciate what makes these individuals special. It’s not that Rachel Talbot’s Making Trouble isn’t funny–of course, it is–but the clips it presents of Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein don’t last long enough to give us a real appreciation of their work. Perhaps Talbot should have stuck to three or four subjects instead of six. If you already appreciate these artists’ work, the film entertains and educates by giving you a brief window into their lives, but it feels like a television special–hardly worthy of the big screen.

My Son, The Hero, Aquarius Theatre, Monday, 2:00; Roda Theatre, Wednesday, 2:00. Recent years have turned B picture auteur Edgar Ulmer into a cult favorite, and judging from most of the Ulmer films I’ve seen, he deserves it. But not for My Son, the Hero. This nearly laughless comedy from 1943 blatantly rips off the plot of Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day–a struggling con artist tries to fool his visiting son into believing he’s rich and successful–without any of Capra’s charm or wit. And this time, Ulmer’s usual lack of budget shows, not as an obstacle he can cleverly maneuver around, but as a dead weight dragging the film to the bottom. A couple of moderately likable characters and a mercifully short 66-minute runtime are all that recommend it.

Just an Ordinary Jew, Aquarius Theatre, Saturday, 2:30, Aquarius Theatre, Monday, 4:30. There’s something about someone talking extensively with no one around to listen that feels contrived and theatrical in close-up, even when he’s holding a dictation recorder. To make matters worse, this 90-minute rant by a German Jewish journalist with serious identity issues says little that’s new or enlightening about either German Jews in general or this particular individual. Ben Becker, the star of this nearly one-man show, makes everything worse by sticking to one vocal tone–barely suppressed anger–throughout this feature-length monolog. One more thing: According to my wife, who speaks fluent German, the subtitle translations are pretty bad, too.

This Week’s Movies–Jewish and Goyish

I’m separating the Jewish Film Festival listings from everything else on this week’s list. So first:

Jewish Film Festival:

My Mexican Shivah, Castro, Monday, 6:45. Death brings families together”“even families that should probably remain apart. In Alejandro Springall’s mildly comic drama (Do we call these things a dramedy or a coma?), the death of the family patriarch brings out the worst, and a little of the best, in everyone. Hardly surprising; the departed apparently loved life”“and women”“a little too much, leaving his survivors bitter, divided, and confused. But according to Jewish law, they must spend a week in each others’ company, where old attractions and animosities inevitably come to the surface. Particularly wonderful is Emilio Savinni as the Chassidic grandson who’s wistfully nostalgic for his wilder days. A touching, truthful, and occasionally funny look at Jewish observance and human behavior.

9 Star Hotel, Castro, Tuesday, 9:30. Illegal immigrants suffer and endure in Israel as well as America. Actually, their plight is probably worse, since the Israeli/Palestinian relationship is considerably more strained than the Yankee/Mexican one. In the best cinema verite tradition, Ido Haar avoids commentary and simply follows a group of undocumented, Palestinian construction workers. We watch as they sneak across the border, work, camp out in the hills (the title reflects a joking reference to the cardboard boxes they sleep in), avoid police, and talk about the things that young men talk about all over the world. The result is a window into a difficult way of life most of us know little about.

The Chosen Ones, Castro, Monday, 9:15. What does modern Jewish music mean to you? German musician/filmmaker Wendla Nölle came to New York to answer that question and found a lot of answers. Her film profiles several young, hip, and mostly orthodox performers who put their Jewish culture and faith into rock, blues, and hip-hop. My favorite? Y-Love, an African-American convert to Chasidism who raps about Law and Scripture. Other standouts include singer/songwriter/rabbi Rav Shmuel (imagine Tom Lehrer with payes), and the rock group Blue Fringe. As with so many music documentaries, there’s not enough music (I don’t think it shows a single song performed in its entirety), and Nölle’s total ignorance of Judiasm hinders the film almost as often as it helps (it’s pretty clear she shot part of the movie during Purim, but never seems to mention this). But the positives”“engaging people, good music, and a sense of cultures coming together in unexpected ways”“more than make up for this documentary’s shortcomings.

Between Two Notes, Castro, Saturday, 12:00 noon. Finally, a music documentary that’s got its priorities right”“it’s about the music. Arabic classical music, to be precise, as played in Damascus, Lebanon, and mostly in Israel, by both Arabs and Jews. Some of the talk about music bringing people together and leading to world peace sounded forced and unreasonably idealistic (to say nothing of repetitive), but the discussions of musical and religious styles coming together and influencing each other proved worth listening to. And best of all, there’s the music”“haunting, exciting, and digging into the depth of your soul. The musicians are captured, for the most part, not in concerts or recording studios, but playing together in living rooms, and director Florence Strauss keeps the camera tied on their faces, capturing their infectious exuberance.

My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, Castro, Tuesday, 6:45. Dani (Go For Zucker) Levy’s strange little film about Hitler’s Jewish acting coach walks a thin line between absurdist comedy and Holocaust tragedy. It’s a delicate balance, and while Levy stumbles a bit, he quickly recovers and dazzles the audience. The setup: 1944 is drawing to a close, Germany is losing the war, and Hitler’s suffering from depression, So his handlers pull his Jewish former acting coach out of a concentration camp to prepare him for a major speech. The coach (The Lives of Others’ Ulrich Mühe) takes the job and begins to bond with his student while wrestling with his opportunity to change the course of history. My Fuehrer owes an obvious debt to other Holocaust-inspired comedies”“notably The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful--but has a feeling all its own.

Body and Soul, Castro, Monday, 1:30. John Garfield commands this boxing noir as a kid from the slums who fights his way up to the top, then must face the mob. Entertaining and occasionally realistic, Body and Soul stands out as an example of left-leaning Hollywood commercial filmmaking just before the blacklist clamped down on certain values (and ruined Garfield’s career).

Making Trouble, Castro, Thursday, 8:30. A documentary about Jewish women comedians, should, first and foremost, be funny. After that it can delve into issues of why female comics see things differently than males, the unique attributes of Jewish humor, and so forth. But before it tells you about these women’s lives and struggles, it must let you appreciate what makes these individuals special. It’s not that Rachel Talbot’s Making Trouble isn’t funny”“of course, it is”“but the clips it presents of Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein don’t last long enough to give us a real appreciation of their work. Perhaps Talbot should have stuck to three or four subjects instead of six. If you already appreciate these artists’ work, the film entertains and educates by giving you a brief window into their lives, but it feels like a television special”“hardly worthy of the big screen.

My Son, The Hero, Castro, Sunday, 9:45. Recent years have turned B picture auteur Edgar Ulmer into a cult favorite, and judging from most of the Ulmer films I’ve seen, he deserves it. But not for My Son, the Hero. This nearly laughless comedy from 1943 blatantly rips off the plot of Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day““a struggling con artist tries to fool his visiting son into believing he’s rich and successful”“without any of Capra’s charm or wit. And this time, Ulmer’s usual lack of budget shows, not as an obstacle he can cleverly maneuver around, but as a dead weight dragging the film to the bottom. A couple of moderately likable characters and a mercifully short 66-minute runtime are all that recommend it.

Just an Ordinary Jew, Castro, Tuesday, 4:00. There’s something about someone talking extensively with no one around to listen that feels contrived and theatrical in close-up, even when he’s holding a dictation recorder. To make matters worse, this 90-minute rant by a German Jewish journalist with serious identity issues says little that’s new or enlightening about either German Jews in general or this particular individual. Ben Becker, the star of this nearly one-man show, makes everything worse by sticking to one vocal tone”“barely suppressed anger”“throughout this feature-length monolog. One more thing: According to my wife, who speaks fluent German, the subtitle translations are pretty bad, too.

Everything Else:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Presidio, ongoing. First-rate books seldom make first-rate films”“especially when the book is nearly 900 pages long. Yet screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, new to the franchise, manages just that type of magic by stripping J.K. Rowling’s best and longest novel to the bone. True, he left out many of the book’s best scenes and characters”“there’s no embarrassing first date, McGonagall doesn’t ignore and insult Umbridge while discussing Harry’s career plans, and you could miss Percy if you blink. But Goldenberg and director David Yates (also new to the franchise) keep the story’s essential themes about courage, friendship, adolescent disillusionment, sexual awakening, and how a supposed democracy can turn repressive with the help of a compliant press. They’ve also made one hell of a tight, dark, and scary supernatural thriller.

Ten Canoes, Roxie, opening Friday (but not playing Saturday). Don’t expect a conventional narrative made exotic by a pre-contact, aboriginal Australian setting. Ten Canoes feels more like a piece of native oral tradition recorded on film. While a heavily-accented, English-speaking off-screen narrator explains the people, actions, and motivations, we watch ten men build canoes and use them for an annual goose hunt. As the hunt stretches over days, an old man tells a young one an ancient story of a great hunter and his family. It’s this tale of jealousy, fear of other tribes (often justified), and human nature that drives this sad, poignant, yet often wryly funny movie. Few motion pictures put you into another world (one of cinema’s primary functions as an art) so completely as this one.

His Girl Friday, Stanford, Friday through Tuesday. 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 Broadway Melody of 1940.

Double Indemnity, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s noir thriller. Not that she has much trouble doing it (this is not how we who grew up on “My Three Sons” remember MacMurray). A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal.

The Night Cry, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Calling a Rin-Tin-Tin movie silly is like calling Fred Astaire a dancer”“well, duh. But a well-made silly movie can still entertain, and this particular Rin-Tin-Tin movie, concerning a sheepdog wrongfully accused of killing sheep, succeeds reasonably well. But having also seen Hollywood’s greatest four-legged actor in Clash of the Wolves, I must report that this is not one of the star’s better efforts. Accompanied by Greg Pane at the piano.

Suspicion, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. On a double bill with A Damsel in Distress. Every filmmaker who worked in Hollywood mid-century had to contend with dreadful and ridiculous censorship. This early American effort by Alfred Hitchcock might have been a decent but unexceptional entry, but a “happy” ending forced onto Hitchcock makes it, quite possibly, his worst.

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Parkway, Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980′s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise””which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless. This is a benefit for the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, but I’m sure they’ll be just as happy if you sent them a check.

Hot Fuzz, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Director/co-writer Edgar Wright fills every frame of Hot Fuzz with his love for mindless action movies. More precisely, he fills the splices between the frames, cutting even the scenes of quiet village life in the frantic style of Hollywood violence”“accompanied by overloud sound effects, of course. (And yes, he’s smart enough not to overdo it.) This technique, along with a funny story, clever dialog, and charming performances, help make this genre parody the funniest film in years, with the longest sustained laugh I’ve experienced since I first discovered Buster Keaton. If Hot Fuzz doesn’t make my Top Ten list as the funniest film of the year, 2007 will be the best year for comedies in a very long time.

Novel Thoughts

Let me start with a list of titles:

  • 1984
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Catch-22
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Moby Dick
  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
  • Ulysses

And now, another list:

  • The African Queen
  • Ben Hur
  • The Godfather
  • The Graduate
  • Jaws
  • M*A*S*H
  • Psycho
  • Sparticus

At a casual glance, the first list appears to be great novels that have stood the test of time. The second, similarly great films. But, in fact, both list novels that have been turned into films. In the first case, the films have been forgotten. In the second, the novels are now regarded like the sources of Shakespeare’s plays–interesting only in that they inspired something worth remembering.

Of course, there are great novels that have been turned into great films, but that’s a decidedly shorter list:

  • Grapes of Wrath
  • To Kill a Mockingbird

My point? What makes a great novel seldom makes a great motion picture. A novel can handle exposition by simply telling you the back story. It can juggle scores of characters, locations and subplots. It can go on for a very long time.

On the other hand, while a novel can give you a long and detailed description of a setting, a film can show it to you in an instant, offering subliminal details that a book couldn’t include without being obvious and risking boredom. The character’s emotions become your emotions, because you’re seeing them on a human face. The experience is much more intense.

Let me put it another way: What’s the best praise you’re likely to hear about a humorous book: “I laughed out loud.” What’s the worst you’re likely to hear about a film comedy: “I barely laughed, at all.” We don’t expect the same visceral reaction from a book as a film.

I purposely avoided recent books and recent films in the above lists–I have no way of knowing, for instance, if Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings will stand the test of time as well as J.R.R. Tolkien’s original. But for textbook examples of what to do, and not to do, with book-to-film adaptations, you couldn’t do better than examine the Harry Potter franchise. The first two films followed the books as closely as possible, resulting in mediocre movies with a few good scenes.

But as the books get longer and more complex, close adaptations become impossible. The most recent film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, contains just a fraction of the nearly-900-page novel. There’s no embarrassing first date, McGonagall doesn’t ignore and insult Umbridge while discussing Harry’s career plans, and you could miss Percy if you blink. But screenwriter Michael Goldenberg and director David Yates (both new to the franchise) keep the story’s essential themes of courage, friendship, adolescent disillusionment and alienation, sexual awakening, and totalitarianism in a supposed democracy. They’ve also made one hell of a tight, dark, and scary supernatural thriller. It’s not as good as the book (the best of the lot, in my opinion), but their willingness to play fast and loose with the story resulted in a film that stands up very well on its own.

Silent Night, Day, and Night Again

I spent Friday night and all day yesterday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I hate missing it today, but life sometimes gets in the way of movie-going.

Have I told you about the costumes? A great many people, mostly women, take the trouble to dress up for the festival. It’s great to see flappers walk by in the aisles or waiting in the concession line.

Many of the films were introduced by well-known film scholars, including Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne, and Mick LaSalle, but it was Board President Judy Sheldon, in her opening remarks Friday night, who made the most intriguing statement. She said we’re living in a second golden age of silent films. She didn’t elaborate, but I think I know what she meant. Thanks to DVDs and Turner Classic Movies, silent films are readily available, with good transfers and soundtracks, resulting in a growing audience. Studios and museums are finding it easier (although still not easy) to finance the restoration and perseveration of silent films. Musicians tour the country to accompany them. New filmmakers like Guy Madden are reaching into silent films’ bag of tricks. The art form is more popular today than it has been since it suddenly died nearly 80 years ago.

So what about the movies I saw?

Let’s start with the bad news. The 1921 Camille, produced by and starring Alla Nazimova, could reinforce every bad stereotype people have of silent films. Between her ridiculous hairstyle, bizarre make-up, and way over-the-top acting style, she appeared to be not so much a beautiful courtesan as a space alien sent to Earth because her own people couldn’t stand her. Natasha Rambova’s sets were as outlandish as Nazimova’s performance, but at least showed greater range. The film’s one bright spot is Rudolph Valentino, on the cusp of fame, as the man who adores her above all else. But I couldn’t help wondering what Valentino saw in this woman.

On the other hand, William Wellman’s Beggars of Life almost vibrates with romantic realism. Louise Brooks is luminescent as a young orphan on the run from the law (she killed her would-be rapist in self-defense). She falls in first with one hobo (Richard Arlen), and then a crowd of them, ruled by the great Wallace Beery as a charismatic tramp who may have his own reasons for helping her. One could accuse Wellman of romanticizing the homeless life (not one tramp even considers turning her in for the substantial reward), but he doesn’t shy away from at least some of its ugliness. I’ve been wanting to see Beggars of Life for years; I wasn’t disappointed.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanied Beggars of Life; my first time hearing this quintet. Far more traditional than other small “orchestras” on the silent film circuit (The Alloy Orchestra, the Silent Orchestra, the Devil Music Ensemble, the Clubfoot Orchestra), Mont Alto sticks to classical acoustic instruments and often to scores written when the films were new. I’m not a purist when it comes to silent film accompaniment, but you don’t have to be to appreciate what purists can do. Judging from this one performance, Mont Alto can do wonders. The Orchestra will accompany Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. at the Rafael Monday night.

Other great festival experiences included The Valley of the Giants (but I knew that going in), The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, and three of the four Hal Roach comedy shorts screened Saturday morning.

This Week’s Movies

Ten Canoes, Lumiere, Shattuck, and Rafael, opening Friday. Don’t expect a conventional narrative made exotic by a pre-contact, aboriginal Australian setting. Ten Canoes feels more like a piece of native oral tradition recorded on film. While a heavily-accented, English-speaking off-screen narrator explains the people, actions, and motivations, we watch ten men build canoes and use them for an annual goose hunt. As the hunt stretches over days, an old man tells a young one an ancient story of a great hunter and his family. It’s this tale of jealousy, fear of other tribes (often justified), and human nature that drives this sad, poignant, yet often wryly funny movie. Few motion pictures put you into another world (one of cinema’s primary functions as an art) so completely as this one.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., Rafael, 7:00. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man the very-macho Bill imagined, but as a urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story–“and you really can’t ask for more than that. The spectacular, climatic hurricane sequence contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. Also on the bill is the very funny Charley Chase short comedy, Mighty Like a Moose. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, fresh from their weekend performances at the Castro, will accompany both movies.

The Valley of Giants (1927), Castro, Saturday, 1:15. This story of good loggers vs. evil loggers is simple, lurid, yet well-done melodrama, and highly out-of-date by today’s more environmentally-enlightened standards. (Someone must have liked it, though; this is one of three film versions.) But never mind the story; the action sequences are as thrilling and suspenseful as any you’re likely to see. The location photography, shot near Eureka before that area was, well, ruined by loggers, makes The Valley of the Giants terrific eye candy. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen a 35mm print accompanied on piano by Stephen Horne.

Double Indemnity, Castro, Tuesday. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s noir thriller. Not that she has much trouble doing it (this is not how we 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 a new 35mm print of Clash by Night as part of the PFA at the Castro: Barbara Stanwyck series.

The Band Wagon, Stanford, Saturday. Singin’ in the Rain‘s producer and writers teamed up with director Vincente Minnelli to make the one great post-Ginger Fred Astaire vehicle. Their trick? They blended a small dose of reality into the otherwise frivolous mix. For instance, Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to the Broadway stage he abandoned years before, is clearly based on Astaire himself. The result is a sly satire of Broadway’s intellectual aspirations, lightened up with exceptional songs and dances including “That’s Entertainment– and “I Love Louisa.– On a double bill with Funny Face.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Cerrito, Saturday at 6:00, Sunday at 5:00. The first and best of Ray Harryhausen’s three Sinbad movies. In fact, of all his movies, only Jason and the Argonauts is better. The stop-motion animation is splendid, and the story, while trivial, is fun. Not a must-see like Jason, but still an entertaining escape into a fantasy past. Another Cerrito Classic.

Monkey Business (1952), Stanford, Monday through next Friday. I can’t say that this screwball comedy, about a middle-aged but still glamorous couple who drink a youth potion and start acting like teenagers, lacks laughs. But considering all the talent here–“Howard Hawks directing Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers through a Ben Hecht screenplay–“it should have been a whole lot funnier. By the way, today Twentieth Century-Fox markets Monkey Business as a Marilyn Monroe movie, although the then-unknown actress has only a small, supporting part.`

Knocked Up, Parkway, opening Friday. Writer/Director Judd Apatow tops his The 40 Year Old Virgin (no small feat) in another raunchy-yet-sweet comedy about the complexities and problems of heterosexual romance. This time around, a rising television personality with career ambitions (the stunningly gorgeous Katherine Heigl) shares a drunken one-night stand with a slacker stoner (the stunningly dumpy Seth Rogen), then eight weeks later discovers she’s pregnant. As the two leads, their friends, and their families react to this life-changing accident, Apatow explores how people fall in and out of love, the way parenthood changes people, and the need for both men and women to get away from each other and bond with those of their own gender–“all while providing plenty of laughs. For a full-length review, click here.

NYC2: MOMA and the Film Forum

Since I last wrote you, I attended screenings at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Film Forum.

Last night, MOMA screened a selection of D.W. Griffith Biograph shorts, with piano accompaniment, in one theater, and Alfred Hitchcock’s only romantic comedy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, in the other theater. A difficult choice, but schedule considerations and the preferences to my movie-going companion made me pick the later.

The theater was large, with a screen that felt equal to that at Lincoln Center. The seats were okay. I noticed squares along the sides of the walls that looked like mountings where surround speakers used to go. I don’t know why they were gone. Since the movie was in mono, it wasn’t an issue.

But speakers do not a good-sounding theater make. The underground MOMA theater sits too close to a subway line, and the film’s audio universe was frequently interrupted by the rumble of trains going passed. Since the movie was set in New York, one could argue that it added realism, but it didn’t.

About the movie: The 1941 Mr. & Mrs. Smith (not to be confused with the recent picture of the same name) gets a bum rap by the auteurists because it’s not what we think of as an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s not suspenseful, no one commits murder, and there’s little in the way of original photography. The one Hitchcockian moment, when the camera dollies back across the street, prepares us for his cameo. But Norman Krasna wrote a very witty screenplay about a married couple who discover they’re not actually married, Carole Lombard gave one of her best performances, and Hitchcock directs it all with the appropriate light touch. The result isn’t a great screwball comedy, but it’s a good one.

Today I visited the Film Forum and saw Le Doulos, a 1962 French thriller by Jean-Pierre Melville of Army of Darkness fame. The theater (one of three in the facility) wasn’t as impressive as MOMA’s or Lincoln Center’s. It felt small, and was kept dark before the movie. The screen wasn’t particularly large, and there was no curtain. The seats didn’t conform well to my aging back.

But the projection was fine, they got the European widescreen aspect ratio (1.66×1) right, and the place has a great concession stand.

Why have I never seen a French film noir before? True, Americans invented the genre, but the French named it. Le Doulos doesn’t add anything really new and exciting to the genre (besides some brief nudity–something that wasn’t allowed on American screens in 1962), but it’s a darkly fun story of double-crosses and quadruple-crosses amongst hardened criminals. The story confused me a few times, but it all comes together in some surprising ways at the end.

Speaking of ends, I’m flying back to the Bay Area tomorrow.

Reporting from New York–Finally!

Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. I’ve been having Internet-connection problems (not to mention laptop hardware problems), and I decided that enjoying my New York vacation was more important than dealing with connectivity issues.

Of course, the very idea of this vacation brings up a question: Why visit NYC in the summer, when the weather could melt Tom Cruise’s face. Because this is the time of year we could come. Funny thing: This is my fourth or fifth trip to this city, and they’ve all been in the summer.

Anyway, on Friday I took my son (who lives here) to Lincoln Center for a screening of Dersu Uzala. That is one terrific theater. The 35-foot screen is no record breaker, but if felt big, especially from the front row, where we sat. The seats are very comfortable and the sound system, from what I read, is excellent, although I couldn’t judge it from this presentation.

Even the best theater can’t help a lousy print, and that’s what they showed. Considering that it was part of a series celebrating the film’s American distributor, Kino Films,this is probably the best print available. That’s a shame. The colors appear to have shifted heavily towards yellow. That’s usually not a sign of a faded print, but something worse: a faded negative (or, hopefully, internegative). The print bore the signs of Roger Corman’s original 1976 American release–and not only with Corman’s credit. Much of the Russian dialog wasn’t subtitled, and what there was probably wasn’t well translated.

It’s still a good movie, although it doesn’t strike me as masterpiece I thought it was 30 years ago. But I couldn’t be sure how much of that is me, and how much of that was the print.

I’m hoping to get to MOMA or the Film Forum before I return home on Wednesday.

This Week’s Movies

I’m writing this at 37,000 feet, enroute to New York, hoping my laptop’s battery holds out. The inflight movie, The Last Mimsy, is drawing to an end. I didn’t watch it, but my eyes are naturally drawn to moving images on a screen, so I glanced up every so often. I can’t stand inflight movies–censored and panned-and-scanned (actually, I doubt that one was censored)–a truly crummy way to watch one.

Curiously, before the movie started, they showed a trailer for it so people would want to watch. The trailer was letterboxed; the movie wasn’t. I never could figure that out. If people hate letterboxing, why use it when you’re trying to convince people to see the movie?

It’s strange glancing up at a movie every so often, and watching without hearing. The frightening thing is that, with conventional Hollywood fare, you can still tell what’s going on. “Yup,” I thought when I glanced up to see FBI agents arresting that nice suburban family, “the second act is ending.”

I didn’t post much this week, just another set of Jewish Film Festival Previews.

And now now I’m at the hotel, and I’ve got to get to bed, so on with the this week’s presentations, none of which I’ll be in town to watch.

Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie Festival, Alliance for West Oakland Development Parking Lot, Friday and Saturday nights. I’ve never been to this two-night festival (and won’t be able to make it this year), but it sounds like one of the odder events to hit the Bay Area on an annual basis. Brainwash presents two programs of short subjects, ranging from the unusual to the bizarre. Titles include “Great Moments in Cocktail History” and “Legend of the Bunny Man.” They’re also showing the original trailer for “Hercules in New York,” a truly wretched low-budget ’70s flick starring our current governor. As the name implies, the screening is out of doors, and you can sit in your car or in the open. The movies’ soundtracks are broadcast as a low-power FM signal, so you need a radio.

Ratatouille, Balboa, ongoing. Brad Bird keeps proving himself the most original, talented, and interesting animator since Chuck Jones. While there’s nothing really original about building a cartoon around sympathetic, anthropomorphic rodents (just ask Walt Disney), Bird does something totally different. He gives us the unpleasant, relatively realistic image of rats in the kitchen–he even lets our skin crawl at the spectacle–but he still gets us rooting for the rat. And for the hapless, human chef-in-training who intentionally sneaks a rat into a gourmet restaurant. The animation is, as you’d expect from Pixar, technically perfect, but you don’t really notice it except as an afterthought. You’re too caught up in the story to notice how it was made.

Sicko, Balboa, opens Friday. It’s probably impossible to review Sicko objectively. If you agree with Michael Moore on the subject at hand, you’re going to like the film. If you don’t, you won’t. So let me begin by saying that I’m in favor of universal healthcare, and find the American system of treating the sick a national disgrace. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with unquestioned praise for Cuba–a totalitarian dictatorship without the free press necessary to question government statistics and representations. As a movie, Sicko entertains as it educates, enrages, and rouses the rabble. Yes, Moore could have made a stronger case if he had honestly reported the problems of the Canadian, British, and French healthcare systems while showing their superiority (if he asked anyone what they pay in taxes, it didn’t make the final cut), and if he had left Cuba out entirely. A year ago, An Inconvenient Truth proved that a widely-distributed documentary can shift the paradigm; let’s hope Sicko does this, as well.

Double Bill: Shall We Dance (1937) and Follow the Fleet, Stanford, Thursday. Along with Top Hat and Swingtime, Shall We Dance represents the best of what Astaire and Rogers had to offer. The only collaboration between Astaire, Rogers, and the two Gershwins gives us “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” dancing on shipboard, dancing on stage, dancing in roller skates, and the most romantic song ever written, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” When Fred and Ginger aren’t singing or dancing, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore provide plenty of comedy, with light satire aimed at celebrity scandals and the culture gap between ballet and popular music. The somewhat experimental co-feature, Follow the Fleet gives us a working-class Fred–a gum-chewing sailor enjoying shore leave in San Francisco. The story is weak, even by the standards of the series, but the Irving Berlin songs include “We Saw the Sea,” “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” and the transcendent “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Double Bill: Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee, Stanford, Tuesday. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Gay Divorcee, arguably the first Astaire-Rogers movie (certainly the first where they were the real stars). What I remember is a flawed entertainment with one great dance number, a few funny lines, and some historical interest. You could easily mistake The Gay Divorcee for an inferior rip-off of the very similar but vastly-superior Top Hat.

But Top Hat is the rip-off, albeit one that vastly improves upon the original. If escapism is a valid artistic goal, Top Hat is a great work of art. From the perfect clothes that everyone wears so well to the absurd mistaken-identity plot to the art deco set that makes Venice look like a very exclusive water park, everything about Top Hat tells you not to take it seriously. But who needs realism when Fred Astaire dances his way into Ginger Rogers’ heart to four great (and one mediocre) Irving Berlin tunes? And when the music stops, it’s still a very good comedy.

Ball of Fire, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:00. Can you possibly go wrong with Howard Hawks directing a screwball comedy from a script by Billy Wilder (one of Wilder’s last before making the leap to writer/director)? It’s been too many years since I’ve seen Ball of Fire for me to say with absolute certainty that you can’t go wrong, but from what I remember, this one isn’t up to Hawks’ or Wilder’s best work, but it’s still a worthy entertainment. Part of the PFA’s Barbara Stanwyck series.

City Lights, Castro, Friday through Thursday. In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of the great tear-jerking endings. Sound came to movies as Chaplin was shooting City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. The Castro will present a new 35mm print.

Double Bill: Swing Time and Flying Down to Rio, Stanford, Wednesday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time comes in a close second, and the only other unqualified masterpiece in the series. The thin plot is just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing to some great Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance,” “Never Gonna Dance”). On the other hand, the moderately entertaining Dolores del Rio musical Flying Down to Rio wouldn’t be worth a second glance if RKO hadn’t cast a new-to-the-movies Broadway hoofer named Fred Astaire as male lead Gene Raymond’s buddy, and experienced supporting actress Ginger Rogers as Astaire’s girlfriend.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, Cerrito, Saturday and Sunday. Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights. And who else could speak treason so fluently? The great supporting cast includes Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Technicolor, a name that really meant something special in 1938. Another Cerrito Classic.

Shrek the Third, Cerrito, opens Friday. The second sequel to the original, wonderful computer-animated Shrek isn’t a complete loss. It has enough truly funny jokes to fill a seven-minute Road Runner cartoon. But since the picture runs 92 minutes, there’s a lot of waiting between the laughs. While the first Shrek blew the lid off fairy tale traditions to teach children that conventional good looks were not a requirement for living happily ever after, and the still pretty good Shrek 2 suggested that even fairy godmothers may charge a price that’s too high, what does Shrek the Third have to teach our children? You guessed it: Believe in yourself. Like the theme, the third Shrek outing is guaranteed originality-free.

Independence Day and More on the Jewish Film Festival

Happy Independence Day! In its honor, perhaps today you should see a wholesome, patriotic movie. Or an independent film. Me? I’m taking my daughter to see a movie about a French rat.Sorry I haven’t written much this week. I’ve been busy with paying work, and with preparing for a vacation. I’m flying to New York tomorrow to visit my son. I’m hoping to get in some interesting movie-going experiences while I’m there; I’ll tell you about them.

In the meantime, here are my last San Francisco Jewish Film Festival previews. Like the previous batch, I’m listing them from best to worst. But this time, unfortunately, worst is really bad.

The Chosen Ones
What does modern Jewish music mean to you? German musician/filmmaker Wendla Nölle came to New York to answer that question and found a lot of answers. Her film profiles several young, hip, and mostly orthodox performers who put their Jewish culture and faith into rock, blues, and hip-hop. My favorite? Y-Love, an African-American convert to Chasidism who raps about Law and Scripture. Other standouts include singer/songwriter/rabbi Rav Shmuel (imagine Tom Lehrer with payes), and the rock group Blue Fringe. As with so many music documentaries, there’s not enough music (I don’t think it shows a single song performed in its entirety), and Nölle’s total ignorance of Judiasm hinders the film almost as often as it helps (it’s pretty clear she shot part of the movie during Purim, but never seems to mention this). But the positives–engaging people, good music, and a sense of cultures coming together in unexpected ways–more than make up for this documentary’s shortcomings.

Body and Soul
John Garfield commands this boxing noir as a kid from the slums who fights his way up to the top, then must face the mob. Entertaining and occasionally realistic, Body and Soul stands out as an example of left-leaning Hollywood commercial filmmaking just before the blacklist clamped down on certain values (and ruined Garfield’s career).

My Son, The Hero
Recent years have turned B picture auteur Edgar Ulmer into a cult favorite, and judging from most of the Ulmer films I’ve seen, he deserves it. But not for My Son, the Hero. This nearly laughless comedy from 1943 blatantly rips off the plot of Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day–a struggling con artist tries to fool his visiting son into believing he’s rich and successful–without any of Capra’s charm or wit. And this time, Ulmer’s usual lack of budget shows, not as an obstacle he can cleverly maneuver around, but as a dead weight dragging the film to the bottom. A couple of moderately likable characters and a mercifully short 66-minute runtime are all that recommend it.

Just an Ordinary Jew
Soliloquies seldom work well in films. There’s something about someone talking extensively with no one around to listen that feels contrived and theatrical in close-up, even when he’s holding a dictation recorder. To make matters worse, this 90-minute rant by a German Jewish journalist with serious identity issues says little that’s new or enlightening about either German Jews in general or this particular individual. Ben Becker, the star of this nearly one-man show, makes everything worse by sticking to one vocal tone–barely suppressed anger–throughout this feature-length monolog. One more thing: According to my wife, who speaks fluent German, the subtitle translations are pretty bad, too.

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