What’s Screening: November 28-December 4

Wow! No festivals. But we still have some movies worth watching.

A Century Ago: The Films of 1908, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. One hundred years ago, movies were just about to discover they were an art form. And Thursday night, the Rafael will screen about two hours of shorts from the year D.W. Griffith first started working in the medium. Organized and presented by Randy Haberkamp, Director of Educational Programs for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla.

Our Hospitality, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. Three years before he made The General, Buster Keaton mined the antebellum South for comic gold in this almost gentle comedy about a Hatfield/McCoy–type feud. Still adjusting to the long form of the feature film (this was only his second), Keaton fills Our Hospitality with funny gems that have little to do with the story–like the journey from New York to the backwoods on a very early train (the movie is set around 1840). When Buster finally arrives at his destination, he finds himself a guest in the home of men sworn to kill him. Luckily, the code of southern hospitality forbids killing a guest…as long as he’s in your house. As one of the PFA’s Movie Matinees for All Ages, the PFA will screen Our Hospitality with Keaton’s short, The Haunted House. Judith Rosenberg will accompany both on piano.

Burn After Reading, Red Vic, Friday through Sunday. 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. Read my review.

Double bill: The Maltese Falcon and To Have and Have Not, Stanford, all week. Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. On the other hand, Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not has almost nothing to do with the book (or so I’ve been told; I’ve never read it). It’s best known for igniting the Bogart-Bacall romance, which itself ignites the screen.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Red Vic, Thursday through the following Saturday. 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.

Two Quick Reviews

Two movies I’ve seen theatrically in the last few days:

The Secret Life of Bees
Hollywood makes terrific action movies and romantic comedies, but nothing helps you appreciate independent cinema like a major studio attempt at serious social drama. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel (which I haven’t read) is well-meant, well-designed, and well-acted, but it’s just a little too precious and way too full of itself. The lovely, soft-focus photography made it look beautiful and nostalgic when the subject matter demanded a hard edge. And although the story had a couple of surprises (I thought that one scene set us up for a later disaster sequence that never materialized), you could see most of what was coming from a mile away. On the other hand, it’s nice to see that Dakota Fanning is maturing into an extremely talented actor.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Kevin Smith doesn’t make a porno, but he makes a very funny and very dirty comedy. And when all is said and done, I’d rather watch that. Following the Judd Apatow formula of raunchy-but-sweet (to be fair, the Farrelly brothers invented the formula in Something About Mary), and casting Apatow regular Seth Rogen, Smith made a decidedly silly movie, and one whose plot wouldn’t hold water if you thought about it. Making a porn film might make you some money, but you wouldn’t make it fast enough to avoid eviction. Yet both Rogen and Elizabeth Banks play likable characters, and it’s fun to watch them slowly realize how much they mean to each other. Besides, the movie is hysterically funny. It’s worth noting that Smith successfully appealed the MPAA’s original NC-17 rating; I would love to know the arguments he used.

What’s Screening: November 21-Thanksgiving

The Latino Film Festival closes Sunday. Then we’re festival-free for awhile.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, Elmwood, opens Friday. People don’t recognize the name Anita O’Day the way they do Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but as a jazz vocalist she’s arguably in their class. She possessed a beautiful voice, a unique and expressive way of making familiar lyrics her own, and a phenomenal sense of rhythm and pacing. Filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden provide you with a great introduction, wisely concentrating on the music rather than her bad marriages and drug addictions. The movie left me wanting to buy some Anita O’Day recordings; I guess it did its job. Read my full review.

Strangers On a Train, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 5:00. One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. Another Cerrito Classic.

Godfather Part I & Part II, Lark, continues through Tuesday. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable son inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but seems most suited for. A masterpiece. And yet the sequel (which is also a prequel) tops it. By juxtaposing the rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film, a young Robert De Niro here) with the moral fall of his son Michael (Al Pacino again), Puzo and Coppola show us how the decision a seemingly good man makes to care for his family will eventually destroy the very people he loves. Both films have recently undergone a major restoration by the master of the craft, Robert A. Harris.

What’s Screening: November 14-20

The Stanford is going to weekly engagements. That’s the big news this week. The just-announced Humphrey Bogart festival will open a different double bill every Friday and run it through Thursday.

3rd I, the Chinese American, and the Latino Film Festival continue this week.

Sounds of Wall-E, Rafael, Sunday, 3:00. Andrew Stanton and Pixar made a courageous movie. When Disney finances your big-budget family entertainment, it takes guts to look closely and critically at such consequences of our consumer culture as garbage, obesity, and planetary destruction. Making an almost dialog-free film also took a fair amount of backbone. It also took sound designer Ben Burtt, who contributed as much to WALL-E as Humphrey Bogart did to Casablanca. Along with screening of the film itself (read my full review), Burtt and some co-workers will discuss and demonstrate how they created the sounds.

Godfather Part I & Part II, Lark, opens Friday for a 12-day run. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable son inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but fits him perfectly. A masterpiece. And yet the sequel (which is also a prequel) tops it. By juxtaposing the rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film, a young Robert De Niro here) with the moral fall of his son Michael (Al Pacino again), Puzo and Coppola show us how the decision a seemingly good man makes to care for his family will eventually destroy the very people he loves. Both films have recently undergone a major restoration by the master of the craft, Robert A. Harris.

Techno Chaplin: Modern Times, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. Leave it to Charlie Chaplin to call an extremely anachronistic movie Modern Times. Why anachronistic? Because it’s a mostly silent picture (with a recorded score) made years after everyone else had started talking. Why Modern Times? Because it’s about assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression. Chaplin’s tramp moves from job to job and jail to jail as he tries to better his condition and that of an underage fugitive (Paulette Goddard, his future wife and the best leading lady of his career). For this special screening, visual effects supervisor Craig Barron, silent film historian John Bengtson, and sound designer Ben Burtt will discuss the effects and tricks Chaplin used to make his last (mostly) silent picture.

Family Friendly, Xmas Thrillville, Cerrito, Saturday, 2:00. This “Holiday Thrill-O-Tronic Show” will feature “a Christmas-theme cavalcade of vintage yuletide shorts, cartoons, TV shows, and more surprises from the festive 16mm film collections of SciFi Bob Ekman and Paul Etcheverry.” But no Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

Lola Montes, Elmwood, Rafael, Castro, opens Wednesday for one-week run. I’ve never seen Max Ophuls’ biopic of the notorious 19th-century performer with the string of famous lovers. But it’s worth noting that the Elmwood–not a theater that does a lot of revival stuff–is one of three Bay Area venues that will be showing the restored director’s cut (okay, it was returned nearly 40 years ago).

Vengeance Is Mine, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:35. Director Shohei Imamura takes us into the mind of a psychopath as he tracks the life of and manhunt for one of Japan’s most notorious serial killers. The result isn’t pretty. Imamura and screenwriter Masaru Baba treat Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) analytically, neither asking for nor receiving any sympathy for a man incapable of giving any. Yet the film itself is far from cold. For while Enokizu himself fascinates and repels us, Imamura makes us care deeply for the imperfect people whose lives Enokizu touches, ruins, and in some cases cuts short. A great film.

Sherlock Jr., Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. There’s nothing new about special effects. Buster Keaton used them extensively, in part to comment on the nature of film itself, in this story of a projectionist who dreams he’s a great detective. The sequence where he enters the movie screen and finds the scenes changing around him would be impressive if it were made today; for 1924, when the effects had to be done in the camera, it’s mind-boggling. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr.is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags. This is an extremely short “feature,” running only about 45 minutes (depending on the projection speed). As one of the PFA’s Movie Matinees for All Ages, Sherlock Jr. will screen with two of Keaton’s best shorts, The Scarecrow and Cops, with Judith Rosenberg on Piano.

Some Like It Hot, Castro, Tuesday. Maybe this isn’t, as the American Film Institute called it, the greatest American film comedy yet made. But Billy Wilder’s farce about desperate musicians, vicious gangsters, and straight (as in heterosexual) men in drag definitely belongs in the top 20. And its closing line has never been beat. As the final and main night of the Castro’s Tony Curtis Tribute, Curtis himself will be in attendance.

Casablanca, Stanford, all week. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. On a double bill with Beat the Devil, which I didn’t care for when I saw it long, long ago.

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 years I’ve been maintaining this site than than any three other movies put together.

Arab Labor Comes to American TV

Last summer I raved about Arab Labor, a very funny Israeli sitcom shown at the Jewish Film Festival. Now the Link TV satellite network will broadcast the show the way it was meant to be seen–at home in weekly installments. The series starts this Saturday night at 7:00.

Amjad, an Arab reporter working for a Jewish newspaper, struggles with indignities, tries to fit in (buying a “Jewish” car so he won’t be stopped at checkpoints, and creating a Muslim analogue to Passover). Things aren’t helped by his scheming father, his love-sick Jewish photographer friend, or the wife who’s always one step ahead of him (actually, the wife helps him quite a bit). With wit and loveable characters, the show explores what does it mean to be an Israeli citizen and an Arab. Amjad isn’t particularly political or religious–just an average Joe trying to get on in the country of his birth, where he’s treated as an alien. The characters don’t conform to ethnic stereotypes, but they’re always expecting others to do so.

You’ll find Link TV is available on DirecTV as channel 375 and on the Dish Network as channel 9410. If you have cable or an antenna, you’re out of luck.

I haven’t yet decided if this disqualifies Arab Labor from making this year’s Top Ten Festival Films.

Japanese Films at the PFA

I haven’t had a chance to write up the new Pacific Film Archive schedule, but it includes a series of Japanese films meant to honor the late curator Kashiko Kawakita. It includes a few films I’ve seen, more I want to see, and two I saw for the first time Friday night.

That’s when my wife and I went to two films in the series, Naked Island and Branded to Kill.Technically, it wasn’t a double bill, since the PFA charges separately for each feature (although the second one is discounted if you buy tickets for both). And this would make a very strange double bill, anyway. What do they have in common? They’re both Japanese, of course. They were both made in the 1960s, although at opposite ends of that decade. They’re both in black and white and scope (pretty much the norm in that time and country). That’s about it.

Dialog-free, Naked Island can be classified as a post-talkie silent film–with music and sound effects, of course. It focuses on a nuclear family living on and farming a tiny island in what appears to be a pretty large harbor in present-day (for 1960) Japan. Their life is tough beyond measure. The island doesn’t even have enough water for their needs; several times a day they row to a larger island, fill four large wooden buckets, row back, carry the buckets up a steep incline, and water their crops. Yet they persevere through the seasons and through heartbreak. In fact, they persevere through problems that shouldn’t be so insurmountable if they would buy an outboard motor or build a pulley system. Writer/director Kaneto Shindo brings us into a way of life we can scarce imagine, but a part of me couldn’t help wondering how much of that lifestyle came out of his imagination–or out of a history already gone.

Naked Island is arthouse fare; Branded to Kill is a slick, commercial crime thriller–although a strange one–filled with sex and violence. Written by Hachiro Guryu and directed by Seijun Suzuki, it follows the career ups and downs of a promising professional killer (a chipmunk-faced Jo Shishido). And what a life he has. He shoots lesser killers down by seemingly the hundreds in order to deliver one man safely to a destination. He has wild and violent sex with his wife in all sorts of positions (including at the top of a spiral staircase). And he indulges in his greatest weakness: sniffing boiling rice. Then he botches a job, everyone is out to kill him for a change, and things get really weird. Even if you like this sort of thing (and I do), Branded to Kill works better in individual scenes than as a whole.

Let the Right One In

Horror

  • Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, from his own novel
  • Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Last night I saw what may be the best vampire movie I’ve ever seen. Better than Horror of Dracula, Interview with a Vampire, and Lost Boys; better even than Nosferatu. It’s called Let the Right One In. I’m really glad I finally caught it. I missed it at the Mill Valley Film Festival and at the Dead Channels festival, where it won the Best Film Award.

It opens today at the Bridge, the Shattuck, and the Rafael. Bad timing for a horror flick–coming out a week after Halloween.

Let the Right One In is a Swedish film, set in winter, and that’s an advantage right there. The nights are very long. And snow covers everything. People drink heavily and seem depressed to begin with. It’s like Bergman, only with undead bloodsuckers.

It’s also a coming of age story, about first love in the blush of early adolescence. Or is it early adolescence? The girl says she’s twelve, but later admits that she’s been twelve “for a very long time.”

The boy she admits this to is the film’s protagonist, Oskar ( Kåre Hedebrant). Skinny, shy, and frustrated, Oskar suffers the pains of youth worse than most twelve-year-olds. He has no friends, and makes an easy target for especially cruel bullies.

Then Eli (Lina Leandersson) moves into his apartment building. She’s his age (or appears to be), seems almost as shy, and doesn’t go to school. How could she? She only comes out at night. Slowly, tentatively, they each let down their guard and become friends. Very close friends.

As is appropriate considering the age of the characters (and presumably, the actors), this is not a sexual vampire story. Yes, Oskar and Eli fall in love, but it’s the innocent, pre-sexual love of twelve-year-olds who’ve never so much as kissed. Even when she climbs into his bed, she does it for friendship and warmth (it is a Swedish winter), not passion.

Let the Right One In earns its R rating for language and gore. There’s quite a bit of gore. Many of the grisliest scenes are played, effectively, for laughs.

This may well be the first horror movie to make my top ten list.

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