What’s Screening: November 13 – 19

In last week’s newsletter, I failed to mention the Chinese American Film Festival that opened yesterday. It runs through Thursday at the 4-Star. The San Francisco International Animation Festival continues through Sunday. And on that very day, New Italian Cinema opens an eight-day run at the Embarcadero.

B For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, Roxie, opens Friday; Rafael, Tuesday and Wednesday. The very idea of reviewing a history of film criticism  sounds like a journalistic conflict of interest. It doesn’t helploveofmovies when the documentary begins and ends with the warning that film criticism is a dying profession, and that bloggers who work for free are a large part of the problem. So let me add my disclaimer: I review all sorts of things professionally, but when it comes to movies, I’m another unpaid blogger. For the Love of Movies celebrates the people who have defined our film culture for the last century, telling us what’s worth seeing and defining greatness both in films and filmmakers. It introduces us to great critics living and dead, and gives plenty of time to the multi-decade Pauline Kael/Andrew Sarris feud. It’s informative and entertaining, but unless you’re a real fanatic, it’s hardly essential.

The Three Fathers of Cinema: A Lecture by Walter Murch, Rafael, Saturday, 7:30. Film editor and sound designer (and Marin County resident) Walter Murch will discuss his theories on the evolution of narrative cinema, and the importance of Edison, Flaubert and Beethoven in that evolution. (Yeah, I also would have guessed put Griffith ahead of Beethoven in this particular art.) Another part of the Rafael’s Art of Walter Murch series.

A The Hurt Locker, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. “War is drug.” Writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow illustrate that point effectively in this hurtlocker suspense drama about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq. Jeremy Renner is brilliant as the expert who must get up close and defuse the bombs. This is a man who loves his job–especially the danger that goes with it. The other members of the team (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) aren’t as happy with the risks, or with the dangers that their partner’s risk-taking forces on them. Although The Hurt Locker is edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, it’s not really a thriller. The scary scenes are set pieces, not connected with the others as a hero works towards his goal, but pieces of the puzzle of this man’s psych.

B+ District 9, Red Vic, Thursday through Saturday. For once, aliens come to Earth and they’re neither conquerors or saviors; they’re a minority ready to be oppressed. District 9 is a number of things. It’s an obvious parable of Apartheid made in South Africa, itself. It’s a science fiction made–very effectively–on an amazingly small budget. It’s a black comedy. But it’s mostly a thriller and an action movie, with touches of the mockumentary. For the most part it works remarkably well, in large part because of a smart script and the extremely well-designed and executed CGI aliens. On the other hand, director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp can’t completely escape the attitudes that color his country’s past, even in a film that confronts them. The movie’s Nigerian gangsters come off as a bizarre racial stereotype.

A+ Double Bill: Citizen Kane & The Maltese Falcon, Stanford, Friday and Saturday. 1941 saw the release of two great films by first-time directors. I discuss Citizen Kane below (the Castro is showing it later in the week).  Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, had been filmed twice before, citizenkanebut 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, an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.

A+ Citizen Kane, Castro, Tuesday. How does a movie survive a half-century  reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. True, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name many this insightful that are also this dazzling and fun. Now I’ll identify Rosebud: It’s a McGuffin. On the double bill with The Magnificent Ambersens, which if memory serves is another excellent movie.

A+ The Godfather & The Godfather Part II, Castro, Friday and Saturday. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando maygodfather 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.

B The Mark of Zorro (1920), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This 1920 adventure flick is where it all began. Douglas Fairbanks bought the rights to a then-recent novel, projected his already-famous athletic comic hero into a romanticized past, grabbed a sword, and invented the movie swashbuckler. There are better Zorro movies (including Fairbanks’ sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro), but no other catches the birth of a genre. With piano accompaniment by Judy Rosenberg.

B The Mark of Zorro (1940), Stanford, Sunday and Monday. After watching the original in Niles Saturday night, you can cross the Bay and watch the better remake on Sunday. Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role his own in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. Power, who was bisexual in real life, plays Don Diego as an effeminate fop, and his masked alter ego as dashing masculinity. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone. On a double bill with The Prisoner of Zenda.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight.raiderslostark Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it.

A The Conversation, Rafael, Friday, 7:00. Francis Coppola’s low-budget “personal” film, made between Godfathers I and II, is almost as good as the two epics that sandwich it. The story of a professional voyeur, and therefore, indirectly, a story about filmmaking, The Conversation concerns one Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional snoop who bugs people’s private conversation for a living. Remote and lonely, his emotional armor begins to crack when he suspects that his work is about to result in murder. Walter Murch’s sound mix is one of the best ever, exposing us to layers of meaning within the titular recorded discussion. Part of the Rafael’s Art of Walter Murch series.

A Touch of Evil, Rafael, Monday, 7:00. Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and one of his few Hollywood studio features. He lacked the freedom he found in Europe, but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress (although Psycho apparently didn’t teach her to stay away from seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say. Film and sound editor Walter Murch wasn’t part of the film’s original post-production team, but oversaw it’s restoration, which qualifies this as part of the Rafael’s Art of Walter Murch series.

A Spirited Away, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy never had to deal with in Oz. I don’t know if this will be the dubbed of subtitled version.

B- Foreign Correspondent, Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday. Not one of Hitchcock’s best, but fun, with a couple of great Hitchcockian setpieces. It’s also an anti-Nazi film from a time when such a thing was still controversial in America (it was only Hitchcock’s second American film, made at a time when his native England was fighting alone for its life).

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