The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival moves out of San Francisco this week to settle in Palo Alto and Berkeley. (That’s why we’re called Wandering Jews.) And once again, I’m placing the SFJFF screenings at the end of this post.
Also, the SFFS Screen opens again Friday at the Kabuki with Alamar. Since I missed that film at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, and didn’t have time to view it since, I’m not reviewing it below.
Cinematic Titanic: “War of the Insects”, Castro, Tuesday, 8:00. Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, along with other MST3K veterans, will riff live on a 1968 Japanese science fiction flick called War of the Insects. I’ve never seen the movie, and I’ve never seen a live Cinematic Titanic performance, but I’m an MST3K fan and am looking forward to the event. Hodgson told me that the movie is “kind of the story of a heroin addict bomber pilot and a beautiful mad scientist who’s trying to take over the world with insects.” Sounds like typical MST3K fodder to me. For more on the event, see Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater, and Cinematic Titanic.
A+ Double Bill: Casablanca & The Maltese Falcon, Castro, Sunday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen Casablanca 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 entertaining propaganda movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right this time 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 Sanjuro, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Yojimbo was such a huge hit that Kurosawa made a sequel. This time, Mifune’s masterless swordsman reluctantly helps a group of naive young samurai clean up their clan. Of course, they insist on doing everything properly and honorably; without him, they wouldn’t last a minute. The result is an action comedy and genre parody that ties with The Hidden Fortress as Kurosawa’s lightest entertainment. The climax involves one of the greatest, and most unique, swordfights in movie history. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.
A King Kong (1933 version), Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up. It’s not just Willis O’Brien’s breathtaking special effects–technically crude by today’s standards but still awe-inspiring. It’s the intelligent script by Ruth Rose, the evocative score by Max Steiner, and the wonderful cast headed by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. But most of all, it’s the complex title character. Kong is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying as he grinds people into the ground or bites them to death, but also confused, loving, majestic, and ultimately doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Sure, the story is silly, but so are dreams. This screening for the summer’s Paramount Movie Classics series was postponed from an original July 9 date.
B Dead Man, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. A very different type of western. The plot, concerning a timid accountant from Cleveland (Johnny Depp) who becomes a wanted outlaw within a day of getting off the train, sounds like a Bob Hope comedy. But Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, which by definition makes it a very weird flick. And it earns its weirdness with the quirky humor and strange occurrences we associate with Jarmusch. The supporting cast includes John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum.
C Rosemary’s Baby, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Roman Polanski’s first American film barely works. Mia Farrow looks fidgety and nervous as a pregnant wife who slowly begins to suspect that she’s carrying the devil’s spawn, and that everyone she thought she could trust is in on it. Slow enough to let you see what’s coming a mile off, it never quite builds the sense of dread that the material, and the director, were capable of bringing to it. On a double-bill with See No Evil, another thriller starring Farrow (proving that some things are scarier than Woody Allen). Terry Castle, the daughter of Baby producer (and cult director) William Castle, will be there in person.
F Scandal, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. After opening credits that promise a fast-paced film noir, we get a preachy, dull, and utterly predictable story about a semi-famous painter who innocently meets a beautiful, much more famous singer, only to find their names and photos splashed together by the 1949 Japanese equivalent of the National Enquirer. Although the protagonist is a) an artist, b) rides a motorcycle, c) considers himself something of a rebel, and d) is played by Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa still manages to make him dull, lifeless, and annoyingly flawless. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Another part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.
F The Idiot, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. Kurosawa blew it badly when he adapted this Dostoyevsky novel to the screen. The dull and lifeless story concerns a man with a mental disability, his romantic prospects, and those prospects’ other romantic prospects. That sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is. Minute by minute, this is worse than Scandal, but since it runs 166 minutes instead of 104, it’s much worse. (Kurosawa’s original cut ran 265 minutes, and the studio insisted he cut it. We’ll never know if the suits destroyed a masterpiece or saved our sanity. I suspect the later.) The good news is that The Idiot, made in between Rashomon and Ikiru, was the last bad film he would make for a very long time. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.
A Stop Making Sense, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage; just the performance (actually compiled from three performances). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that makes you want to get up and dance.
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
B+ Scarface (1932 version), Roda, Wednesday, August 4, 9:15. The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” (And that’s when he’s being shot at with it.) Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that. Good as it is, I wonder if it really belongs in a Jewish film festival; even one with a retrospective of Jewish gangster films. After all, the gangster here is Italian-American; only the actor is Jewish. The festival argues that Muni was famous in the Yiddish theater before he went Hollywood, and that gave the movie a Jewish subtext in 1932. I don’t buy it.
B+ Stalin Thought of You, Roda, Thursday, August 5, 2:00, August 7, 4:00. The very idea that a satirical cartoonist could survive the Stalin years seemspreposterous, but Boris Efimov survived throughout the entire Soviet era, and died in 2008 at the ripe age of 109. How did he manage? By aiming his poisoned pencil only at those that the powers-that-be didn’t like. Kevin McNeer’s documentary, built around interviews with the still-clear-minded-at-103 Efimov, takes the form of something like a confession. This artist stayed alive and employed throughout Stalin’s reign, and that couldn’t be done without moral compromises. His brother, a successful journalist and at one time editor-in-chief of Pravda, wasn’t so lucky. McNeer keeps the story lively with newsreel footage, illustrations, and old animations based on Efimov’s drawings.
Arab Labor: Season 2, Roda, Saturday, 2:00; Cinearts, Sunday, 8:45. I haven’t seen the new season, but I loved the first season of this controversial but hilarious Israeli sitcom, and I’m looking forward to the three new episodes the festival will be screening. Writer Sayed Kashua will be on hand for Q&A.
B Saviors in the Night, Cinearts, Saturday, July 31, 6:45. Director Ludi Boeken and his three screenwriters have made a respectable, well-made drama, based on true events, about German Jews hiding from the SS, sometimes in plain sight. The movie is dramatic, suspenseful, and gives a real sense of how war and Nazi propaganda effected a tight-knit, rural, German farm community where everybody looks after everybody else. The story of people living in constant danger holds you in suspense. You very much want to see these people come out of the war okay. Especially interesting are the teenage characters, flirting and fighting, and enthusiastically embracing fascism and anti-Semitism before eagerly going off to war as if it was a grand adventure.
C- Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared, Roda, Monday, August 2, 4:00. An Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew, Sayed Kashua is Israel’sleading satirist, and the creator of the 2008 Jewish Film Festival sitcom hit, Arab Labor. He’s also the winner of this year’s Freedom of Expression Award. All that suggests a very interesting and entertaining person. But Dorit Zimbalist’s brief (only 52 minutes) and dry documentary portrait presents us with an unpleasant bore. Clearly intended for people already familiar with Kashua’s work, it shows little of his genius. Nor does it dig deep enough to work simply as a profile of a profoundly unhappy man. On the other hand, it does reveal how closely the fictitious family at the center of Arab Labor resembles Kashua’s real world.