The Found Footage Festival

Something very funny is coming to the Bay Area the first weekend in October. If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and regular readers know I’m one), you’re going to love The Found Footage Festival.

Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett collect the garbage of our video-saturated culture. Rummaging through garage sales, dumpsters, and other not-so-unlikely places, they’ve built up a collection of public access TV shows, home movies, outtakes, instructional videos, and other oddities. But instead of going through this stuff seriously as archaeologists (or perhaps in addition to this; I certainly hope someone is doing the serious research), Prueher and Pickett turn their findings into a comedy routine of video montage and live standup.

They’re currently on tour with their second show, which I watched last night on a review DVD. The show includes the foul-mouthed outtakes from RV dealer commercials, two very different preachers, an “instructional” video on “How to Seduce Women Through Hypnosis” that would seem evil if it wasn’t so ludicrous, and the no-talent contestants on a defunct show called “Stairway to Stardom.”

Like anything this episodic, it’s uneven. But even the weakest moments (Harvey Sid Fisher singing about the signs of the zodiac) produce a reasonable stream of giggles. And the best sequences, such as the exercise video montage, had me laughing so hard I could barely breath. Between a young Arnold Schwarzenegger explaining why he feels like he’s cumming all the time, exercise routines by Marky Mark (Wahlberg) and Pat Boone, something called Disrobics, and a pre-scandal O. J. Simpson recommending exercises for controlling your anger, I was utterly helpless.

The The Found Footage Festival plays at the Red Vic Friday, October 5 and Saturday, October 6. Then it moves across the Bay to the Parkway for a Sunday screening on October 7. This is strictly adult entertainment.

Lebowski of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday and Sunday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence–at least in this film–both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. This masterpiece isn’t worth seeing on DVD and barely worthwhile in 35mm. Shot in Super Panavision 70, it takes 70mm to reach it’s potential. Part of the Castro’s 70mm Festival series

3:10 To Yuma, Presidio, opens Friday, Balboa, ongoing. Good news: The western is very much alive! The second film version of Elmore Leonard’s short story doesn’t feel like a neo-western, an anti-western, or a western parody. It feels like a great, classic western, and stands a good chance of achieving classic status in future decades. Like all great westerns, it offers plenty of action and suspense, but is really about men, how they relate to each other, and the difficult moral choices that the frontier forces on them. Russell Crowe, as a notorious criminal, and Christian Bale, as a rancher desperate enough to take a very dangerous job, both bring to the film the right look, talent, charisma, and American accent (has anyone else noticed that this very American story stars an Aussie and a Welshman). Despite a third act filled with implausible motivations, 3:10 To Yuma is thoughtful, intelligent, testosterone-pumping entertainment.

Strange Culture, Rafael and Roxie, opens Friday. Like American Splendor, Strange Culture mixes scripted drama performed by professional actors with documentary footage and interviews of the real-life, still-living people those actors are playing. And while Steve Kurtz lacks Harvey Pekar’s fascinating personality, his story is both compelling and frightening. Kurtz woke up one morning to find his wife dead. Then he was arrested as a bioterrorist. The terrorism charges have been dropped, but he’s still awaiting trial for mail fraud (although no one was defrauded). It’s hard to go wrong with so powerful a story, and writer/director Lynn Hershman Leeson makes an effective piece of agitprop.

Spartacus, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. When we think of toga movies from the late ’50s and early ’60s, the adjective “great” doesn’t come to mind (unless we mean size rather than quality). Sure, Spartacus has everything we look for in the old roadshow epics: stirring music, thousands of extras, an intermission. But it moves you to triumph and tragedy instead of laughter and boredom, while making important points about the exploitation of human beings and the ease with which a morally compromised republic can slide into dictatorship. The first Hollywood film to credit a blacklisted screenwriter (Dalton Trumbo) and the only movie directed by Stanley Kubrick that isn’t a Stanley Kubrick film, Spartacus is so good you can almost forgive it Tony Curtis’ performance. (Hey, it’s a toga movie; there has to be something laughable.)

2001: A Space Odyssey, Castro, Tuesday and Wednesday. 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. Another attraction in the Castro’s 70mm Festival series.

Fight Club, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. Strange flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s not only shagging Helena Bonham Carter, he’s also a free-spirited kind of guy and a real man. Or maybe he’s just a fascist? Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains credibility more than a speech by George W. Bush. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.A benefit for Heroes.

Double Indemnity, Cerrito, Saturday and Sunday. 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. Another Cerrito Classic.

No End in Sight, 4Star, and Elmwood, opens Friday. You may think you know how badly the administration bungled the war in Iraq, but Charles Ferguson‘s documentary tells the story so carefully, so dispassionately, and so authoritatively that you’re awed by the enormity of these people’s incompetence and the tragedy of its results. And you feel in your gut not only that today’s situation is hopeless, but that it didn’t have to be this way. Most Iraq war documentaries focus on the regular folks caught in the war, but Ferguson tells most of the story through the people who ran the occupation during its first few months, such as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Ambassador-to-Iraq Barbara Bodine. No End in Sight is easily be the best documentary of the year so far, as well as the most depressing. Click here for a full review.

Once, Balboa, opens Friday; continuing at the Parkway. The most romantic picture since Before Sunrise, Once charms you with winning characters, an odd kind of low-key suspense, and terrific music. The music comes out of the story, which concerns two talented but unprofessional musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) becoming close friends and collaborators. There’s clearly a romantic attraction, but you’re never quite clear where it’s going to go. Wherever it goes, it gets there musically; if the film isn’t a hit, the singer/songwriter-style soundtrack will be. Sorry, but I have to say it: You’ll want to see Once twice. The Balboa will screen Once on a double-bill with Waitress.

Little Miss Sunshine, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Friday, 8:30. 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 four 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). Like all Film Night in the Park presentations, this one is just from a DVD.

Cars, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Saturday, 8:30. So much for the animation studio that could do no wrong. Pixar’s first bad movie suffers from two inexcusable faults. First, the protagonist is neither likeable nor interesting, despite being voiced by Owen Wilson, who is quite capable of being both. And second, the 116-minute picture is too long for its few laughs and predicable characters. Cars lets the mind wander, and mine wandered towards some very basic problems with the premise that wouldn’t have bothered me in an entertaining movie. Another Film Night in the Park DVD presentation.

The Big Lebowski, Aquarius, 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. It’s also built quite a cult following;The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the last two years than than any three other movies put together.

Ongoing Engagements

Taking Less Time

I started Bayflicks.net almost three years ago when my business was in a slump. Now business is doing pretty well. That’s good, but it’s giving me less time to maintain this site. Since I can’t afford to turn down paying work, Bayflicks has been eating into my recreational time. In other words, it’s keeping me from seeing movies. And what’s the point of that?

Rather than give up Bayflicks, I’m looking for ways to streamline the work. To that end, I’m phasing out posting the times for every movie listed in my weekly schedules. If it’s convenient to do so, I’ll list the times. Otherwise, I won’t. If you see a movie listed here that you want to see, you’ll have to go to the theater’s web site to get the times. Expect to see the changes in the schedule for the week of September 30.

And I won’t list every film for as many festivals. I’m listing all of the films for DocFest, because I set them up before making this decision. But I won’t be listing the program for Berkeley Video & Film Festival like I did last year. I haven’t yet decided for the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Interesting Events–Not In Mill Valley

Some interesting events coming up, none connected to the Mill Valley Film Festival.

First, in honor of its 90th birthday, Oakland’s Piedmont Theater will celebrate its 90th birthday with a week of classic cinema. The movies include Lawrence of Arabia, Safety Last, His Girl Friday, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. All films will be in 35mm. The celebration runs from Friday, September 28 through Thursday, October 4.

As soon as that’s over, the Berkeley Video & Film Festival opens its annual three-day run, this time at the California (which, like the Piedmont, is a Landmark Theater). BVFF has a very unique ticketing structure. You don’t buy a ticket for a single feature or collection of shorts, but for an entire day’s marathon screening. For instance, if you shell out $11 for a Saturday ticket, you could start out at 1:00 with the three-minute “Rufus’ Adventure” and stay through the 88-minute Johnny Was, which won’t start until 9:40. According to the schedule, there will be only one 13-minute intermission.

I’ve yet to attend this event, although last year I was able to screen a couple of films beforehand.

Finally, there’s the 2007 edition of the Found Footage Festival. This touring show puts together live comedy and videos found at garage sales, thrift stores, dumpsters and other such unlikely places. According to the press release, this year’s show includes “exercise videos featuring Marky Mark Wahlberg, O.J. Simpson and a group of rapping pregnant ladies” and “An instructional video for a cosmetic device so frightening that it will forever haunt you.” It will play the Red Vic October 5 and 6, and the Parkway October 7.

This Week’s Recommendations

Sorry I’m a bit late with the newsletter this week. Rosh Hashanah.

I’ve also changed my weekly newsletter (what you’re reading). I now list ongoing engagements of reviewed films at the bottom, without repeating the reviews.

Delirious, Lumiere and Shattuck, opens Friday for one-week run. It’s official: Low-budget independent films can be as slick and lightweight as Hollywood entertainment–and as entertaining. Tom DiCillo’s comedy about paparazzi and the celebrities they prey upon lightly satirizes our obsession with the rich and famous, but still falls for the glamour of its supposed target. Basically a buddy movie only marginally more realistic than Blades of Glory, it offers nothing in the way of any real insight. On the other hand, it offers likeable characters, a touch of cynicism, a bit of suspense, Gina Gershon in very tight pants, and plenty of laughs built organically into the story. For those not interested in Gina Gershon, you also see plenty of Michael Pitt. But it’s Steve Buscemi who steals the picture (and gives it indie cred) as a self-hating paparazzi–excuse me, “licensed professional.”

Shadow of a Doubt, Stanford, Friday through Tuesday. In Alfred Hitchcock’s first great American film, a serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming) returns to his small-town roots. When his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that all is not right with her beloved Uncle Charlie, her own life is in danger. The locations were shot in Santa Rosa. On a double feature with Laura.

Brokeback Mountain, Castro, Sunday. Ang Lee’s gay love story may one day seem as dated as Kramer vs. Kramer and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but today it looks like a masterpiece. Heath Ledger turns the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy on its head, playing a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. (I sometimes wonder how many people caught the richness of this film’s use of classic Hollywood western iconography.) Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are also brilliant as his lover and wife. And, of course, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, working from a short story by E. Annie Proulx, deserve considerable credit.

All My Loving & The Pink Floyd and Syd Barret Story, Roxie, Monday, 9:00. For one night only, the Roxie presents two documentaries, each just under an hour, about ’60s British rock ‘n’ roll. The Pink Floyd and Syd Barret Story is the better of the two, and it’s not a must-see by a long shot. John Edginton has fashioned a workable and reasonably interesting documentary about Syd Barret, a major force in Pink Floyd in the group’s early years, before nsanity, possibly brought on by too much acid, destroyed his career. All My Loving is a “classic” BBC doc from 1968 that hasn’t aged well, at all. Rock stars pontificate. People who hate rock pontificate. The narrator speaks with such formality you think he’s introducing the queen. The choices of songs and performance clips are almost always poor, and the footage from Vietnam and the Holocaust just seemed tacked on for attempted relevance. Click here for a slightly longer review.

Once, Lark, opens Friday. The most romantic picture since Before Sunrise, Once charms you with winning characters, an odd kind of low-key suspense, and terrific music. The music comes out of the story, which concerns two talented but unprofessional musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) becoming close friends and collaborators. There’s clearly a romantic attraction, but you’re never quite clear where it’s going to go. Wherever it goes, it gets there musically; if the film isn’t a hit, the singer/songwriter-style soundtrack will be. Sorry, but I have to say it: You’ll want to see Once twice. Also continuing at the Parkway.

Stardust, Cerrito, opens Friday. Magic. Every positive implication of that word applies to Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel. No attempt to describe the plot can do it justice, so let me just say it concerns a callow youth (Charlie Cox), a fallen star (Claire Danes), an evil witch temporarily restored to her youthful beauty (Michelle Pfeiffer), seven evil princes, and a flamingly gay pirate (Robert De Niro). Like Princess Bride, Stardust manages to mix silly humor with likable (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them realistic) characters and thrilling fantasy swashbuckling. Easily the best action film I’ve seen this year. Also continuing at the Parkway.

La Vie En Rose, Balboa, opens Friday. Early in this Edith Piaf biopic, a hunched, aged-before-her-time Piaf walks up to a recording studio microphone. She looks bored and mildly annoyed. When she starts singing in that incredible voice, she still looks bored and annoyed, her facial expression contrasting sharply with her soaring vocals. I knew then that La Vie En Rose wasn’t going to be a happy film about the redemption of art. Marion Cotillard gives one of cinema’s great performances as Piaf, whose short life–at least in writer/director Olivier Dahan’s view–was about as miserable as a life can get. Horrendous childhood, bad luck, and her own selfish and unpleasant personality hurt her at every turn. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is also impossible to ignore. Great songs, too. On a Double Feature with Paris, je t’aime. Also continuing at the Elmwood.

Hairspray, 4Star, opens Friday. In the early 1960′s, Americans died horrible, violent deaths over issues of racial equality. And now it’s a musical! Well, why not? The Hollywood version of the Broadway musical based upon John Water’s original independent film celebrates the spirit of the civil rights movement by turning it into one big, happy dance contest on local daytime TV. The result is charming, upbeat, and very funny, with pleasant musical numbers, joyous dancing, political themes that would have been radically dangerous 45 years ago, and John Travolta in a fat suit and a dress. What’s not to like? Also continuing at the Lark.

The Big Lebowski, Piedmont, 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. It’s also built quite a cult following;The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the last two years than than any three other movies put together.

Ongoing Engagements

Mill Valley Turns 30

1977 must have been some year from Marin County cinemaphiles. First, a film made by one of their own broke box office records and redefined the Hollywood blockbuster. Then the Mill Valley Film Festival debuted–fated to become the other big festival in the Bay Area.
The Mill Valley Film Festival turns 30 this year, and will run from October 4 through October 14 in San Rafael as well as Mill Valley.

Note: As I post this, the festival’s schedule isn’t yet online (I have a hard copy). I can therefore not post to film descriptions. I’ll fix that when I can.
Because of its early fall setting, the MVFF generally provides Bay Area moviegoers with our first glimpse the year’s Oscar bait–Hollywood and indiewood “prestige” pictures that glut the high-brow market in November and December, hoping to score a few Academy Awards. This year is no exception. The festival opens with Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which just won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, and with The Savages, featuring excellent performances by indiewood megastars Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It closes with the film version of Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller, The Kite Runner. Other high-profile screenings include The Darjeeling Limited, The Orphanage, Main in a Chair, and Todd Haynes’ bizarre-sounding Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. They even have Woody Allen’s latest, Cassandra’s Dream.

Among the lesser-known films that sound promising (I have yet to see any of these) are an animated version of the Chicago 10 trial (yeah, I thought it was the Chicago 8, too), several films from Romania, Djanta–about a young, educated African woman in for a shock when she returns to the village of her birth, and Kenny–an Australian mockumentary about man who cleans toilets. And there’s also something called Autism: The Musical.

Speaking of music, the festival will also present a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 agitprop masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, accompanied by the Marin Symphony performing Shostakovich’s score.

The festival includes tributes to Ang Lee, Terry George, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

All My Loving & The Pink Floyd and Syd Barret Story

Seems like a good deal. Two documentaries about ’60s British rock ‘n’ roll for the price of one. But since the two movies combined only run 101 minutes, it’s more like one movie for the price of one. And since only one of the two is even remotely worth seeing, it’s more like half a movie.

All My Loving
This BBC look at the current state of popular music makes you thankful that the ’60s are history. Rock stars pontificate. People who hate rock pontificate. The narrator speaks with such formality you think he’s introducing the queen. The choices of songs and performance clips are almost always poor, and the footage from Vietnam and the Holocaust just seemed tacked on for attempted relevance. Take it from a baby boomer who loves the Beatles and Stones and almost worships The Who: All My Loving is the perfect cure for ’60′s nostalgia.
The Pink Floyd and Syd Barret Story
It’s very strange to watch a documentary about an important rock figure who self-destructed at an early age, and whose band mates talk about him in the past tense, and then realize at the end that he’s still  alive (or was on this movie was made in 2003; he died last year). Syd Barret was a major force in Pink Floyd in the group’s early years, before Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. But insanity, possibly brought on by too much acid, destroyed his career. John Edginton has fashioned a workable and reasonably interesting documentary for Barret’s story, but nothing really exceptional.

Documentaries and Hand-Colored Silents

San Francisco Indiefest used to hold its Documentary Film Festival (called DocFest for short) in late spring–just after the San Francisco International Film Festival. Now they have it in late summer/early fall, just before Mill Valley. This year, DocFest occupies the Roxie from September 29 through October 10. I haven’t seen any of the films yet (I couldn’t attend the press conference last week), but it looks like an interesting line-up.

Communism, that great savior of humankind that turned into utter disaster, gets examined from three apparently very different perspectives. Judging from the program description, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil still looks fondly at Fidel Castro as it shows how his country is cutting back on the crude. But Luchando, about Cuba’s gay sex trade, probably takes a less enthusiastic point of view. Cowboys & Communists, on the other hand, looks at an American setting up a burger joint in recently-liberated East Berlin and an unrepentant Communist determined to put him out of business. I can’t even guess its point of view.

Other docs look at deserting soldiers, TV horror movie hosts (remember Creature Features?), and the rise and fall of a rock band. There’s even an expose of Michael Moore called Manufacturing Dissent. And what can I say about a festival screening of a movie already on sale at my local grocery store? I do much of the family shopping at Berkeley’s Monterey Market, the subject of Eat at Bill’s. They sell the DVD at the counter.

And now for something completely different.

Silent filmmakers had so many ways of adding color to their movies that they used the term natural color to describe hues actually captured by the camera–what we today just call color. One of the most extraordinary formats they had involved hand-cut stencils that allowed them to effectively paint detailed colors onto black-and-white prints. Hollywood rarely used this extremely expensive process, reserving it for individual objects in particular scenes–an ambulance’s red cross in one shot of The Big Parade, for instance.

But the French and Italians used stencil color extensively (and before stencils were invented, actual hand-coloring of every print). To my knowledge, the French 1925 version of Cyrano de Bergerac is the only feature film to use stencil coloring throughout. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum will screen a color, 35mm print of the film on Saturday, September 29. I haven’t seen it, so I have no opinion on the movie as drama, but I suspect it will be beautiful to look at. David Giovacchini and the Ahl-i Nafs will provide musical accompaniment.

Finally, on the weekend of October 28/29, the Cerrito has its last weekly Cerrito Classic with Sweet Smell of Success. It’s been too long since I’ve seen Burt Lancaster’s Broadway noire for me to trust my memory with a wholehearted recommendation. But not by much. Lancaster risked his career by producing this exploration of the seamy side of fame and by playing a truly despicable character. The result, if I recall correctly, is fantastic. Tony Curtis co-stars, from a script by Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman.

This Week’s Movies

Cruising, one-week engagement starts Friday. Now that the controversy has passed, we can see William Friedkin’s 1980 gay S&M murder mystery for what it is: a mess. While it may offer nostalgia for older gay men who miss their wilder days, it has little to offer the rest of us. As a study of a unique subculture at a particular time that’s lost forever, it’s shallow and exploitative. As a murder mystery, it’s poorly structured and unsatisfying. As a character study, it offers an uninteresting character who’s hardly worth studying. Al Pacino, as an inexperienced, heterosexual cop going undercover in New York’s leather scene, mostly just looks confused. Read my full-length review. This presentation uses 4K digital projection.

Groundhog Day, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. Is Groundhog Day a deep, spiritual meditation on the nature of human existence and the power of redemption? Or is it simply the best comedy (although not quite the funniest) of the 1990′s? It’s hard to say, but as weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over again, with no changes except the ones he makes himself, there appears to be something profound going on along with something profoundly entertaining. A benefit for Oakland Yellowjackets Bike for Breast Cancer Research.

Walking to Werner, Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. Some ultra-low budget, independent films make you thank God that low-cost video cameras have put the art of cinema into almost anyone’s hands. Walking To Werner isn’t one of those films. The picture documents director Linas Phillips’ 1,200-mile walk from Seattle to Los Angeles to meet his idol, Werner Herzog. Phillips met some interesting people on his journey, but he doesn’t spend much of his film letting us get to know them. He walked through some of the most beautiful terrain on the planet, but I know this from my own wanderings”“it’s not in the picture. Instead, he fills the film’s endless 92 minutes with his own whiny monologues about the physical difficulties of walking 1,200 miles. He knows early on that he has no chance of meeting Herzog at the end of his journey, but the great director’s voice (from interviews and DVD commentaries) plays frequently on the soundtrack, as if Herzog is talking about Phillips life and movie rather than his own work.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., Stanford, Wednesday, 7:30. 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. On a Buster Keaton Double Bill with The Navigator; both movies accompanied by Christian Elliott at the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Once, Parkway, opens Friday. The most romantic picture since Before Sunrise, Once charms you with winning characters, an odd kind of low-key suspense, and terrific music. The music comes out of the story, which concerns two talented but unprofessional musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) becoming close friends and collaborators. There’s clearly a romantic attraction, but you’re never quite clear where it’s going to go. Wherever it goes, it gets there musically; if the film isn’t a hit, the singer/songwriter-style soundtrack will be. Sorry, but I have to say it: You’ll want to see Once twice.

Follow That Bird, Cerrito, Saturday, 3:00; Sunday, 2:00. I had a very young Sesame Street fan in the house when the only feature film built around that show was new, and it became his first theatrical movie experience. I haven’t seen Follow That Bird in many years, so I hesitate to grade it, but I remember it fondly. Like a Muppet movie (which, in a sense, it is), the movie serves up silly jokes, pleasant but forgettable songs, colorful visuals, and celebrity cameos. It also celebrates diversity and criticizes bigotry. If it were made today, no doubt it would instead tell children that they have to believe in themselves.

No End in Sight, Parkway, opens Friday. You may think you know how badly the administration bungled the war in Iraq, but Charles Ferguson‘s documentary tells the story so carefully, so dispassionately, and so authoritatively that you’re awed by the enormity of these people’s incompetence and the tragedy of its results. And you feel in your gut not only that today’s situation is hopeless, but that it didn’t have to be this way. Most Iraq war documentaries focus on the regular folks caught in the war, but Ferguson tells most of the story through the people who ran the occupation during its first few months, such as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Ambassador-to-Iraq Barbara Bodine. No End in Sight is easily be the best documentary of the year so far, as well as the most depressing. Click here for a full review.

Stardust, Parkway, opens Friday. Magic. Every positive implication of that word applies to Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel. No attempt to describe the plot can do it justice, so let me just say it concerns a callow youth (Charlie Cox), a fallen star (Claire Danes), an evil witch temporarily restored to her youthful beauty (Michelle Pfeiffer), seven evil princes, and a flamingly gay pirate (Robert De Niro). Like Princess Bride, Stardust manages to mix silly humor with likable (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them realistic) characters and thrilling fantasy swashbuckling. Easily the best action film I’ve seen this year.

Hairspray, Lark, opens Friday (not playing Monday or Tuesday). In the early 1960′s, Americans died horrible, violent deaths over issues of racial equality. And now it’s a musical! Well, why not? The Hollywood version of the Broadway musical based upon John Water’s original independent film celebrates the spirit of the civil rights movement by turning it into one big, happy dance contest on local daytime TV. The result is charming, upbeat, and very funny, with pleasant musical numbers, joyous dancing, political themes that would have been radically dangerous 45 years ago, and John Travolta in a fat suit and a dress. What’s not to like?

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Old Mill Park, Mill Valley, Friday, 8:30. Yet another bad sequel to a good movie. Whereas the original Pirates of the Caribbean (which will be screened the following night) tread lightly over its silly story, this one takes itself seriously. But as there’s nothing serious about the shallow and meaningless story, so the dark imagery and poor attempts at character development just get in the way of the fun. Worse yet, it ends with a cliffhanger; no one is supposed to see Dead Man’s Chest and skip the third installment. Two good action scenes aren’t enough to justify an otherwise dreary 2 ½-hours. Like all Film Night in the Park presentations, it’s just a DVD.

The Big Lebowski, Clay, 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. It’s also built quite a cult following;The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the last two years than than any three other movies put together.

Cruising for a Bruising

William Friedkin’s Cruising earned nothing but controversy and bad reviews when it came out in 1980. The controversy came from a gay community that had only recently won a modicum of political respectability. Openly homosexual images and characters were almost unheard of in Hollywood films of those days, and a knife-wielding murderer preying on the promiscuous denizens of S&M leather bars hardly seemed like a good first impression.

The good news: Cruising is no longer controversial. Today, positive gay images are as common in Hollywood movies as…well, more common than they were in 1980. And judging from the invitation-only audience at the Castro where I saw Cruising last week, it’s even attained cult status in the gay community.

The bad news: It’s about to get one more bad review.

Cruising tries to be three things: a murder mystery, a character study of a young man dropped into a world in which he feels utterly alienated, and an anthropological study of a little-understood subculture. It fails on all three counts.
The story concerns a series of murders within New York’s gay S&M bar scene. Someone is picking up guys, then having sex before or while fatally knifing them. (In one scene, he actually kills a man who is going down on him. That just seems dangerous.) The police initially ignore the whole issue (that’s one thing in Cruising’s favor: It looks honestly at police hostility to gays), but political pressure forces them to take action. So they ask a young, inexperienced, heterosexual cop named Steve Burns (Al Pacino) to go underground–without badge or gun–and “attract” the killer. The idiot does it.

I think Burns is supposed to go through some sort of transformation in the course of the story, discovering a dark side of himself he didn’t know was there. But mostly, Pacino just looks confused. Confused as he eyes guys in bars but refuses their advances. Confused as he gets into a pointless fight with a friend’s jealous lover. And confused as he breaks up with his girlfriend (Karen Allen) for reasons that are never even hinted at.

The scenes with Allen show what a bad job Friedkin did on the script. Burns’ boss has told him to disappear while on this investigation, and he can’t give his lover details about the assignment. (Actually, keeping mum sounds better than saying “Honey, I’m spending the next few months picking up guys in leather bars. Hey, it’s my job.”) He keeps visiting her, and we’re never told if this is a violation of orders. In one scene, after passionate sex, he holds her and tells her he needs her badly, and she comforts him. But the next time we see her, she’s complaining that he’s become distant and he suggests breaking up. Yet we never see the relationship go bad.

Nor is Cruising much of a murder mystery. Until the last act, when his boss hands him an important document and orders him to study it, Burns barely does anything to help with the investigation. He just wanders around looking confused. Every so often the story shifts from Burns to some gay character we haven’t seen before, so we can get to know this new guy a little before he’s brutally murdered. The ending is completely unsatisfying.

Cruising probably has sentimental value for gays who look back fondly at the wild days before AIDS, when men seeking anonymous sex had nothing to fear but the occasional knife-wielding maniac. But it offers little insight into the community it allegedly explores. We never really learn what these men feel, how they reconcile their clubbing with other aspects of their lives, to what extent they have publicly come out either as gay and as S&M enthusiasts. We just get the shock value.

The film is technically sloppy, too. At one point when police are investigating a crime scene, we get a close-up of the blood-splattered murder victim’s face, his eyes frozen wide in terror. Friedkin holds the shot for so long we begin to wonder why the cops don’t notice that this dead man is breathing.

The corpse was more alive than the movie.

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