The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is finished with the Castro, but it reopens Saturday at the JCCSF, the Roda, and the Cinearts at Palo Alto Square. The festival screenings are at the bottom of this newsletter.
A The Maltese Falcon, Castro, Wednesday and Thursday. Dashiell Hammett’s novel 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 a double bill with The Asphalt Jungle.
B- Blazing Saddles, Castro, Friday, 9:25. The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to institutional racism to the clichés of every other genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sherriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles. On a double bill with Brooks’ Spaceballs, which I’ve never seen (and which starts at 7:30).
B+ Fight Club, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guy and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains credibility more than a Glenn Beck conspiracy theory. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history. Part of the series Cool World.
A- Live Theater on the Big Screen: Frankenstein, Cerrito, Monday and Wednesday. Finally, something directed by Danny Boyle that I actually liked! Playwright Nick Dear starts his adaptation with the monster’s lonely birth, putting the focus on the creature. This poor child-man’s journey, and his inevitable clash with his arrogant creator, make up the heart of the play. A lot of philosophy and religion get discussed, but it never feels forced. In some screenings, Jonny Lee Miller plays the monster and Benedict Cumberbatch plays Frankenstein. In others, they switch roles (I saw it with Cumberbatch as the monster). For more on this, see Live Theater on the Big Screen and Frankenstein.
A Hava Nagila (The Movie), Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Sunday, 6:45; Roda Theatre, Wednesday, 6:25. Hava Nagila, a documentary about the famous tune, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even the titles that introduce interview subjects make casual jokes. This fun and joyful movie about a fun and joyful song still manages to inform audiences as well as any serious doc. The tune was born in Chasidic Eastern Europe as a nigun (a wordless song used in prayer), and the happy lyrics were added by early an Zionist–although which early Zionist is a matter of debate. Hava Nagila never lost its Jewish identity, even as it became a major hit for Harry Belafonte and a tune known all around the world. This rare documentary will have you laughing, clapping, and tapping your feet, and give you new appreciation of a tune you’ve heard all of your life. Read my full report.
B+ The Law In These Parts, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 2:20. Dense and filled with legalese (which usually makes my eyes glaze over), this Israeli documentary isn’t easy to follow. But if you give it your all, it becomes impossible to turn away. Comprised entirely of interviews with retired military judges who once administered “justice” in the West Bank and Gaza, it examines the legal structure of a temporary military occupation that became permanent. The old men interviewed discuss the legal justifications (excuses, really) they found to hold people indefinitely without trial, hand Palestinian land over to Israeli settlers, and allow those settlers to get away with pretty much anything they wanted. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz asks probing questions that reveal these men’s complicity in oppression.
B+ Under African Skies, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 12:00 noon. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which examines the making of Paul Simon’s hit album Graceland, and the controversy over Simon’s breaking the South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. It mixes the politics vs. art issues with more conventional making-of footage–jam sessions, mixing, and so on. But it left me, like so many other such documentaries do, wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end.
B Arab Labor Season 3, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Monday, 6:35 , Roda Theatre, Tuesday, 6:25. I loved the first season of this hit Israeli sitcom, as well as the three episodes I saw of season 2. But I didn’t enjoy this year’s subset of season 3 anywhere near as much. The humor and satire hit home, but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Arabs, and the next day the other way around. With much of the satire aimed at the obvious target of celebrity culture, the bite gets lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.
C+ The Day I Saw Your Heart, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Saturday, 6:10. Justine, an X-Ray technician and aspiring artist, doesn’t much care for her sixtyish father. He’s critical, cruel, and so emotionally distant that he can’t get excited by his much younger third wife’s pregnancy. Neither can Justine, who doesn’t want another child raised by that monster. He also has a habit of befriending her ex-boyfriends as soon as she breaks up with them. Then, in the course of her work, she discovers that he’s got a heart condition.The Day I Saw Your Heart starts as comedy and ends as drama, but works only moderately well as either. Justine herself is a reasonably interesting character, and well played by Mélanie Laurent, but everyone else seems only a foil for her reactions.
Note: I have corrected this post.
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