The Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday. Here’s what else is happening:
Red River, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:30. John Wayne gives one of his best performances, showing us the villain in the hero and the hero in the villain as the Captain Bligh character in this western variation on Mutiny on the Bounty. The character starts out as your classic Wayne hero—strong, stubborn, a man of his word who is quick with a gun. But these traits prove his moral undoing as he leads others on a dangerous cattle drive. To make matters worse, it’s his adopted son (Montgomery Clift in his first major role) who leads the rebellion. Part of the PFA’s United Artists: 90 Years series.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. Few people realize, at least on first viewing, how much the plot of Robert Altman’s genre-bending mood poem resembles a traditional western: A lone stranger with a dangerous reputation rides into a remote frontier town, tries to settle down to a peaceful existence, but is soon menaced by a trio of hired killers. Yet there’s nothing conventional about this sad yet beautiful tale of prostitution, alienated community, unrequited love, and a west that seems not so much wild as stranded in the middle of nowhere. A very good choice for the PFA’s The Long View: A Celebration of Widescreen series, since Vilmos Zsigmond’s golden Panavision cinematography turns this very good film into a masterpiece.
The Strangers, Castro, Thursday, 8:00. A Israeli man and a Palestinian woman, both young, meet in Berlin, fall in love/lust, have great sex, then must figure out the rest of their lives. To make matters more complicated, it’s the summer of 2006, war is raging in Lebanon, and each blames the other side for the resulting carnage. This sort of movie depends on the leads’ chemistry, and stars Liron Levbo and Lubna Azabal have it at Bogart/Bacall levels. Writers/directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor deserve praise for avoiding easy political or emotional solutions. But the film’s overly grainy, handheld photography–made worse by the scope aspect ratio and some distracting photographic clichés–hurt the storytelling. Opening night of the Jewish Film Festival.
Thief of Bagdad, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday. 4:00. What’s more fun than state-of-the-art special effects? State-of-the-art special effects circa 1924. Douglas Fairbanks’ massively spectacular Arabian Nights fantasy never actually fools you into thinking a horse can fly, but the clever effects and imaginative set design inspire awe and delight all the same. As does Fairbanks’ performance as the energetic and happily ambitious thief. Don’t expect actual Arabian flavor here; this is pure early Hollywood fancy. And don’t expect 21st century racial attitudes in Fairbanks’ treatment of the Chinese. A lot of fun, but not up to the 1940 Technicolor remake. Judith Rosenberg accompanies on piano in this screening for the PFA’s United Artists: 90 Years series.
Double Bill: The Band Wagon & Top Hat, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. One of the best Astaire-Rogers movies paired with Fred’s best without Rogers. 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 the ultimate Astaire-Rogers musical 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. Eighteen years after Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain’s producer and writers teamed up with director Vincente Minnelli to make The Bandwagon, the one great post-Ginger Fred Astaire vehicle. Their trick? They blended a small dose of reality into the otherwise frivolous mix, creating a sly satire of Broadway’s intellectual aspirations, lightened up with exceptional songs and dances.
The Last Mistress, Embarcadero Center, Shattuck, opens Friday. Pretty tame by the standards of writer/director Catherine Breillat, but still very erotic, The Last Mistress concerns itself with the sex lives of the rich and noble-born, all done with the sumptuous costumes and scenery one expects in such period pieces. The film works best in a long flashback that dominates the middle of the story. That’s where we really get to know the title character for the strange and impulsive person she is. Unfortunately, The Last Mistress sags horribly before the flashback begins, and not-so-horribly-but-still-not-so-good after it’s over. The good parts don’t quite earn it a B, but they’re close. See my full review.
Standard Operating Procedure, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. We all know Lynndie England–or we think we do. She’s the young, seemingly carefree soldier photographed taunting prisoners in those infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos. Errol Morris wants you to see England and many of her former companions in a different light. He interviews them extensively in Standard Operating Procedure, shows us the letters they wrote home, and uses actors to re-enact some of the most gut-wrenching scenes they witnessed and committed. The result isn’t an easy film to watch; it has you squirming in your seat, trying not to turn away your eyes. It also forces you to ask yourself some very tough questions. See my full review.
Shine a Light, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert film bombs horribly in the first half, but rights itself in the span of one song and sails on to to a glorious but too-soon finish. If the first half had been as good as the second, Shine a Light would sit next to Scorsese’s The Last Waltz among the greatest rock movies ever made. And considering the age and apparent health of Mick, Keith, and the gang, it’s also one hell of an endorsement for the rock and roll lifestyle. See my full review.
Animals Attacking Humans, Castro, Saturday, 3:00 until very late. In one of their “MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS” presentations, the Castro will present five edifying works of cinematic art on the important theme of humanity as a protein source for other earthly creatures. Actually, one genuine masterpiece will screen: Jaws. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career, but it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid; and with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. I haven’t seen any of the other movies, but it’s worth noting that Alligator was written by John Sayles, and Piranha II: The Spawning was directed by James Cameron, and was the sequel to something else written by John Sayles. And you thought he only did art films.
Student Documentaries, Cerrito, Tuesday, 9:15. Short documentaries by UC Berkeley journalism students ranging in subject matter from great white sharks to murdered journalist Chauncey Bailey to the naked guy (if you remember him).
Where the North Begins, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum Saturday, 7:30. I haven’t seen it. In fact, I never even heard of it until I got the museum schedule. But it stars Rin-Tin-Tin, easily the most charismatic movie star ever to grow his own fur coat. With two shorts and Frederick Hodges on the piano.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Bridge, Saturday, midnight. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own silliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action film, alone is worth the price of admission.
Indiana Jones & Crystal Skull, Red Vic, Friday & Saturday. Easily the best entertainment to come out of the once-reliable Lucasfilm since, well, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Don’t worry about the plot, which is as implausible as the hero’s luck. Like all Indiana Jones flicks, this one is about clever lines, period costumes, self-referential jokes, and ridiculously exciting action–especially action. We get Indie, armed with a whip, fighting off armies with machine guns, surviving a nuclear blast, and riding a motorcycle through a university library (a bit that ends with a great gag reminding us that he is, after all, a college professor). There’s dry sand (not quite the same as quick sand), a multi-vehicle chase with characters jumping from one car to another, an attack by monkeys, and another by giant ants. And, of course, there’s a snake. See my full review at for details.