What’s Screening: October 31-November 6

I’m stepping back into Bayflicks, and plan to get to writing about movies–and going to them. So what’s going on?

DocFest moves from San Francisco to Berkeley’s Shattuck for its final week. I didn’t have time to check out what they’re showing this year, and I’m not about to start now. Here’s what else is playing this week:

Ikiru, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. One of Akira Kurosawa’s best, and arguably the greatest serious drama ever put up on the screen. Takashi Shimura gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging government bureaucrat who discovers he’s dying of cancer. Emotionally cut off from his family–including the son and daughter-in-law that live with him–he struggles to find some meaning in his life before he dies. A deep and moving meditation on mortality and what it means to be human, Ikiru manages to be deeply spiritual without ever mentioning God or religion. Kurosawa followed Ikiru with Seven Samurai, a very different and arguably better masterpiece, and one where Shimura got to play an action hero. The PFA will screen a new 35mm print as part of its Cinema Japan: A Wreath for Madame Kawakita series.

An Evening With Animation Legend Richard Williams, Balboa, Sunday, 7:00. Award-winning animator Richard Williams (Who Afraid of Roger Rabbit) will discuss his work and promote his new book and DVD collection, The Animator’s Survival Kit. Karl Cohen, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Association Internationale du Film d’Animation, will moderate. The show is a benefit for the ASIFA-SF.

Delwende, Kabuki, Friday through Thursday. Children mysteriously die in an African village, and the elders suspect witchcraft. But the ancient traditions they use to find the witch appear to have more to do with local politics than detective work or even magic. And so the wife of an elder is cast out from respectable society, and her daughter sets out to rescue her mother and prove her innocence. Writer/director S. Pierre Yameogo gives us a feminist fable set in a very male-dominated world, with the pleasures of a mystery thrown in. But he ends the film too soon; I would have liked another 10 minutes or so to better finish the story. See my full review.

Rashomon, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. I know that I’ve reviewed Kurosawa’s first masterpiece–the film that opened Japanese cinema to the world. But according to a search of my site, I’ve never reviewed it. How could I remember it one way, when the WordPress search engine remembers it differently? I could check Google, but what if its memory contradicts both? If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, you haven’t seen Rashomon, and that’s a real shame. The PFA will screen a new 35mm print as part of its Cinema Japan: A Wreath for Madame Kawakita series.

Happy-Go-Lucky, Albany, Aquarius, opening Friday. There’s no excuse for hHappy-Go-Lucky working as well as it does, and not only because the term “Mike Leigh comedy” sounds like an oxymoron. This movie has no real plot, no significant conflict, and not an overwhelming supply of laughs. But it has a bubbly, upbeat, outgoing, loving, caring and extremely happy protagonist named Poppy (Sally Hawkins in a glowing performance). Nothing truly horrible happens to her in the course of the entire film, aside from a few sessions with a truly obnoxious driving instructor (Eddie Marsan). Leigh’s films have always observed everyday life, and this one observes the everyday life of a very happy person. Read my full review.

Delwende

drama

Written and directed by S. Pierre Yameogo

Children mysteriously die in an African village, and the elders suspect witchcraft. But the ancient traditions they use to find the witch appear to have more to do with local politics than detective work or even magic. And so Napoko, the wife of an elder and the mother of a girl forcibly married to a stranger from another tribe, is cast out from respectable society. Her daughter, Pougbila, responds to the news by leaving her husband’s village to rescue her mother and prove her innocence.

A large part of Delwende‘s charm, at least for westerners, is it’s view of village life in today’s Burkina Faso. People wear modern clothes–although they seem to prefer African-style prints. When they can get the batteries, they listen to the radio. But they live in grass huts, use wooden farming tools, and use magic to find the evil one killing their children.

Writer/director S. Pierre Yameogo offers more than exoticism. He gives us a feminist fable set in a very male-dominated world, with the pleasures of a mystery thrown in. (The mystery is not who’s killing the children, but how Napoko received the blame.) But he ends the film too soon. I would have liked another 10 minutes or so to better finish the story.

The press material compares Delwende to Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé. It’s an appropriate comparison in terms of settings and themes. But while Delwende is a very fine film, it doesn’t approach Sembene’s work in story, character, or sheer cinematic brilliance. But then, few films do.

Burn After Reading

[B] Espionage comedy

  • Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

The Coen brothers are back to their old tricks, mining the dark comic prospects of a crime gone wrong. While Burn After Reading lacks the humanity of Fargo and the blazing, non-stop lunacy of Intolerable Cruelty, it still provides 95 very entertaining minutes.

The Washington D.C.-set plot concerns a couple of idiotic gym employees (Frances McDormand and a wonderfully silly Brad Pitt) trying to extort a disgruntled former CIA analyst (John Malkovich). Complicating the festivities is a married Treasury employee (George Clooney) who’s sleeping with the analyst’s wife (Tilda Swinton in cold bitch mode) and falls for McDormand’s character, as well.

I didn’t mention Swinton’s character’s career. Let’s just say it’s not important to the story but makes a very good gag.

The Coens aren’t going for realism here. No one acts like a real human being, nor wins our sympathies. The brothers want us to laugh at the characters’ well-earned misfortunes, and by and large we do. But there are moments when the laughs curdle with horror. When someone gets shot point-blank in the head in Fargo (the Coen’s best film IMHO), we’re shocked. When that happens in Intolerable Cruelty (their funniest), we laugh. In Burn After Reading, we laugh while shocked.

All the big names in the cast play their roles big, broad and funny. Once again, Clooney channels Cary Grant in his ability to make fun of his good looks and suave demeanor. On the other hand, you’d never guess from his asexual exercise nut (a bad haircut over an empty brain) that Brad Pitt built his stardom on sex appeal.

But the real movie stealer is the ever-reliable J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman movies, as well as Juno‘s father). He only has a couple of scenes as a CIA superior who wants the problem to go away, but he makes the most of them.

W.

Political biopic

  • Written by Stanley Weiser
  • Directed by Oliver Stone

The very fact of W.‘s existence raises an interesting and important question: Why go to an Oliver Stone movie after all the times he’s disappointed us?

And W. provides an answer: There is no good reason.

Judging from the final result, Stone didn’t know whether he was making a comic farce or a serious character study of our soon-to-be-ex, totally disastrous president. He fails on all counts, creating a film that isn’t funny, dramatic, or particularly insightful. Other than suggesting that Bush lacks the self-confidence that always seemed to be his primary asset, Stone tells us little that we didn’t already know.

Stone anchors the film with two very good performances: Josh Brolin as the title character and the always exceptional James Cromwell as the first President Bush. The cast brims with talented names, but no one else is allowed to go beyond mere imitation. Yes, the makeup folks did an impressive job disguising Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, and transforming Thandie Newton into Condoleezza Rice, but neither of them find their characters’ soul. Newton’s magnetic screen presence disappears entirely in an imitation that’s more appropriate to Saturday Night Live than serious drama.

Once again, Stone’s love of stunt casting gets in the way of the movie. What was the point of casting Daily Show alumni Rob Corddry as press secretary Ari Fleischer? I kept expecting him to be funny.

Jeffrey Wright does a fine job as Colin Powell, but he doesn’t have enough to do. The real Powell’s White House role is the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy–the hero and good man who knows right from wrong but does wrong, anyway. Reasonably enough, screenwriter Stanley Weiser treats Powell as the voice of reason, questioning the lies and predicting what the audience knows will come true. But neither Weiser, Stone, nor Wright tries to examine why this good man lied before the UN.

Stone uses songs to remark ironically (or at least to try to remark ironically) on the goings on. These include everything from “Yellow Road to Texas” to the theme of an old Robin Hood TV show. One song that isn’t in the movie is The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” used heavily for the movie’s television commercials. I’m not sure if that qualifies as false advertising.

W. has its moments. The best, near the end, being a father-son confrontation in the oval office. But these rare flashes of insight don’t add up to anything like a good movie.

What’s Screening: October 24-30

In a week or two I’ll get back to a serious Bayflicks commitment. In the meantime, the Arab Film Festival, DocFest, and the United Nations Association Film Festival continue.

Nosferatu, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The first (and unauthorized) film version of Dracula, and you can forget about sexy vampires here. Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (renamed in a failed attempt to avoid lawsuits) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. Short subjects include Buster Keaton’s “The Haunted House.” Accompanied by the Invisible Ensemble led by Molly Axtmann.

Double Feature: Iron Man & The Dark Knight, Castro, Friday and Saturday. For Iron Man, Director Jon Favreau and his team of writers inserted all the requisite thrills into a story strong enough to support the pyrotechnics rather than get buried by them. That story centers on weapons tycoon, genius, and all-around jerk Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a man whose latent conscience brings him to turn himself into a superhero. See my full review. As far back as Memento, the Nolan brothers have seen evil as an influence most likely to corrupt those dedicated to fighting it. In The Dark Kight, no one–including Bruce Wayne/Batman himself (Christian Bale)–gets away without moral compromises. But what can you expect when fighting the Joker, who is absolutely nuts in Heath Ledger’s final performance. For more details, see my full review.

Donnie Darko, Cerrito, Thursday, 9:15. How many alienated-teenager-in-suburbia-time-travel-science-fantasy comedies can you name? Okay, there’s Back to the Future and its sequels, but add the adjectives horrific and surreal to that description, and Donnie Darko stands alone. And how many alienated movie teenagers have to deal with a slick self-help guru and a six-foot rabbit named Frank (think Harvey, only vicious). It’s not entirely clear what’s going on in this strange movie, but that just adds to the fun.

What’s Screening: October 17-23

I don’t get paid to review movies, but I do get paid to review TV sets. And since PC World wants me to review a lot of them for the January issue, I won’t have much time for Bayflicks. I’ve got one review already written and scheduled to go live late this month, and I’ll try to keep this newsletter going, but aside from that, don’t expect anything until November.

The Arab Film Festival continues through this week. I’ve placed the two related capsule reviews at the bottom of the newsletter. And DocFest opens at the Roxie on Friday. Also opening this week, the United Nations Association Film Festival and various locations. This year’s theme is Blue Planet, Green Planet. I haven’t seen any of the films listed, but there are several I’m already feeling guilty I missed, including Taxi To the Dark Side, Flow, and All Together Now. The festival also includes three world premieres: Belonging, Immaculate Confession, and La Americana. Other films of note include Trouble the Water, Oscar winner Freeheld, and something called My Daughter the Terrorist.

Fanny and Alexander Part 1 and Part 2, Rafael, Sunday through Thursday. As with most of the movies in the Rafael’s Ingmar Bergman: Scenes From A Master series, I haven’t seen Fanny and Alexander in a great many years, but I loved it when I saw it. On the other hand, I’ve never really seen it. This will be the Bay Area’s first big-screen presentation of Bergman’s complete, five-hour, two-part cut. Check the times to make sure you see Part 1 first. This will be a high-definition digital screening rather than 35mm film. I don’t yet know if that constitutes an acceptable replacement.

Ballast, Kabuki, Rafael, Elmwood. Opens Friday. Vast, flat, cold, muddy landscapes make a perfect metaphor for the lonely human heart in Lance Hammer’s directorial debut. Set in a sparsely-populated piece of the Mississippi Delta, Ballast brings us into the lives of three troubled souls struggling with loss and a need for family. Hammer avoids professional actors, music, and artificial lighting, creating a reality that Hollywood could never match. Hollywood would have turned Ballast into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit (I can almost hear that line narrated in the trailer). That would have been a good movie, but Hammer made the story into a great one. Read my full review.

Home Movie Day, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday. I’ll just quote from the PFA website: “Don’t let your movies decay—don’t throw them away—help celebrate Home Movie Day! PFA wants to see your home movies on 8mm, Super-8mm, and 16mm formats. Submit them to us between now and October 3 and we will include as many as possible in a special program on October 18, as part of the international celebration of Home Movie Day. Admission is free to anyone who submits a movie for consideration.” There’s a 12:30 workshop on caring for and restoring your home movies; the screenings start at 4:00.

Happy-Go-Lucky, Embarcadero, already playing; Kabuki, Albany, opening Friday. There’s no excuse for Happy-Go-Lucky working as well as it does, and not only because the term “Mike Leigh comedy” sounds like an oxymoron. This movie has no real plot, no significant conflict, and not an overwhelming supply of laughs. But it has a bubbly, upbeat, outgoing, loving, caring and extremely happy protagonist named Poppy (Sally Hawkins in a glowing performance). Nothing truly horrible happens to her in the course of the entire film, aside from a few sessions with a truly obnoxious driving instructor (Eddie Marsan). Leigh’s films have always observed everyday life, and this one observes the everyday life of a very happy person. Read my full review.

The Cranes Are Flying, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. War has a nasty way to interfering with true love. This sweet Russian story of young lovers separated by the casualties of their time never comes off as Soviet propaganda (it was made during Khrushchev’s “thaw”), but as a clear-eyed look at the realities of romance in difficult times. Part of the PFA’s series, Envisioning Russia: A Century of Filmmaking.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Lumiere, Shattuck, opens Friday. Director Steven Sebring spent over a decade following Patti Smith around with a camera (okay, I’m not sure how much of that time he actually devoted to the project), trying to get to the core of the cutting-edge rocker, poet, and generally arty person. He succeeds–with a great deal of help from Smith herself–in introducing us to a very nice woman. But aside from an innate need to express herself and her strong political feelings, we know little about what motivates her to do what she does. Read my full review.

Dr. Zhivago, Castro, Sunday. The first time I mentioned David Lean’s follow-up to Lawrence of Arabia in Bayflicks, I said that it “lacks that masterpiece’s depth, and Omar Shariff is horribly miscast, but it’s still a spectacular epic. On the other hand, I’ve never seen it on the big screen, so it might be a better film than I recall.” Since then, I have seen it on the big screen (although not as big a screen as the Castro) and can now recommend it enthusiastically. This is one of the great romantic historical epics. I’m even willing to forgive the casting of Omar Sharif, who doesn’t look Russian but still gives a fine performance. For more on the big-screen Zhivago experience, see Dr. Zhivago at the Cerrito. Part of the Castro’s Epics of David Lean series.

Thrillville´s Halloween Hellabaloo, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:30. I attended last year’s Thrillville Halloween event, and it was a gas. This year, in the spirit of presidential debates, they’re presenting Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, from the tired last years of Universal’s monster series, plus a live act called The Hubba Hubba Revue.

American Teen, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. I can’t think of another documentary that felt so much like narrative fiction. American Teen, which follows four kids in their last year in a Warsaw, Indiana high school, is structured very much like a Hollywood movie, with struggles, lessons, and triumphs all in the right order. On one hand, this makes you wonder how much writer/director Nanette Burstein manipulated reality and the cinéma vérité tradition to get what she wanted. On the other hand, it makes for good story-telling. Read my full review.

 

Last Year At Marienbad, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. I saw Last Year at Marienbad once, in college, a long time ago. The teachers didn’t tell us what to expect, they just gathered several classes together in the auditorium and screened this “important film.” I found it deathly boring. We all did. One friend said it needed a pie fight. The teachers were shocked at our response. Perhaps it’s time for me to give it a second chance.

The Dark Knight, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. As far back as Memento, the Nolan brothers have seen evil as an influence very likely to corrupt those dedicated to fighting it. Here no one, including Bruce Wayne/Batman himself (Christian Bale) get away without moral compromises. But what can you expect when fighting the Joker, who is absolutely nuts in Heath Ledger’s final performance. For more details, see my full review.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. 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.

Arab Film Festival

Captain Abu Raed, : Clay (San Francisco), Friday, 4:00; Camera 12 (San Jose), October 18, 4:00. This Jordanian tale of a wise and kindly airport janitor who befriends the neighborhood children occasionally steers towards the mawkish and sentimental, but usually skirts the danger zone. Nadim Sawalha is charming and likeable as the widowed protagonist whom the local kids mistake for a pilot (hence the Captain in the title). He begins by telling them stories, but gradually becomes involved in their lives. Although his intentions are good, his interference can have unintended consequences.

The Yellow House, Clay (San Francisco), Friday, October 17, 6:30; Camera 12 (San Jose), Saturday, October 18, 6:30. This Algerian story looks at an important and universal tragedy: the death of a child. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shed much light on the experience, and succeeds merely in being sad and vaguely heartwarming. Heartwarming? Yes, because love and community heal even the worst of wounds. The first half concerns a simple farmer’s journey to the big city to identify and collect his son’s body. In the second half, the man tries, with the help of his daughters, to ease his wife out of her resulting depression. All in all, only moderately effective.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Musical Documentary

  • Directed by Steven Sebring

Steven Sebring spent over a decade following Patti Smith around with a camera (okay, I’m not sure how much of that time he actually devoted to the project), trying to get to the core of the cutting-edge rocker, poet, and generally arty person. He succeeds–with a great deal of help from Smith herself–in introducing us to a very nice person.

He didn’t make a movie about her music. The live performance sequences concentrate mostly on her poetry, and when she talks to the camera, she’s more likely to discuss Blake than Dylan.

She also talks a lot about death. Her husband and her brother both died young, as did such famed collaborators as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Mapplethorpe. She seems to have handled the tragedies well.

By the end of the movie, most of which is in black and white, we feel as if we kind of know her, and we like her. But aside from an innate need to express herself and her strong political feelings, we know little about what motivates her to do what she does.

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