What’s Screening: July 25 – 31

No festivals open this week, but three of them continue. The Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie festival runs through Saturday. The Japan Film Festival of San Francisco ends Sunday. And the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival plays through this week and well beyond it.

I’ve listed Jewish Film Festival screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A+ The General, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. . Buster Keaton pushedgeneral film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. With musical accompaniment from electric cellist Gideon Freudmann, who–according to his website, "plays a fusion of Blues Jazz, Folk, Classical, Rock and more."

A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, various CineMark theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00. Bump your coconuts and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, montygrailbut watch out for the Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. After Airplane!, the funniest film of the 1970s—and the 1070s.

A+ Some Like It Hot, Lark, Thursday, 5:30. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review.

A+ Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. I agree with common wisdom:Raider of the Lost Ark is a masterpiece of escapist action entertainment. But I split with the herd on this second sequel; to my mind, it improves on near-perfection. The action sequences are just as well done, but the pacing is better; this time Spielberg knew exactly when to give you a breather. Best of all, adding Sean Connery as the hero’s father humanizes Jones and provides plenty of good laughs. Just don’t confuse The Last Crusade with the wretched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

A Boyhood, California (Berkeley), Piedmont, Guild, Rafael, opens Friday. Fifty years from now, people will still watch Richard Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years,Boyhood imageallows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films, and it’s all the better for that. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. Read my full review.

A Life Itself, Roxie, opens Friday. This totally biased, yet entertaining and informative documentary Siskel and Ebert in the early daysexamines the life and death of Roger Ebert–the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. But be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but Ebert’s upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust. And, of course, there’s a lot about movies, as well. Read my full review.

C The Sound of Music, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough for light entertainment, yet lacking the substance necessary for anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture-postcard sort of way.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A Swim Little Fish Swim, Castro, Saturday, 9:30. Don’t let the funny, kind-of-kinky artist and model gag that opens this French/American film fool you. This is a serious drama, and an excellent one, about the conflicts of artistic dreams, political idealism, and the very real imageresponsibilities of parenthood. Dustin Guy Defa plays a New York singer/songwriter who won’t take commercial work. In fact, he doesn’t do any work for money, much to the frustration of his long-suffering wife. He takes care of their four-year-old daughter, but he’s more of a fun dad than a responsible one. Meanwhile, a beautiful, struggling French artist (Lola Bessis) needs a professional breakthrough to avoid deportation.This is the rare film about struggling artists and idealists that asks if the struggle is worth it–especially if you have young mouths to feed.

A- Comedy Warriors, Castro, Wednesday, 6:25. Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to watch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help imagethese wounded newbies turn their frustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they’re missing feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.

C+ Anywhere Else, Castro. Tuesday, 1:45. A graduate student in Berlin–stuck in academic and emotional crises–returns to her crazy Jewish family in Israel. Her German boyfriend soon follows. That sounds like a comedy, but it plays here as imagestraight drama. That would be fine, except that too many of the characters are merely skin deep. There are, fortunately, exceptions. The lead character has moments of realistic angst. Her brother is a truly original, unpredictable joker with something eating him inside.  Her boyfriend, presumably raised to deplore his country’s Nazi past, finds the militarization of Israeli life frightening and disorienting. But you have to put that up against the stereotypical Jewish mother, the clueless father, and the angry sister who couldn’t keep her husband home. For too much of its runtime, Anywhere Else feels like a paint-by-the-numbers drama.

C The Village of Peace, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Wednesday, 3:50. On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the African-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true imagedecedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a community, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (their young adults do serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.

What’s Screening: July 18 – 24

Plenty of film festivals in the air–and two of them are in Oakland. The Matatu Film Festival continues through Saturday. The Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie festival plays Friday and Saturday and again next weekend. The Japan Film Festival of San Francisco opens Saturday and plays through this weekend and beyond. And the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday.

And now this:

A Boyhood, Embarcadero, Kabuki, opens Friday. Fifty years from now, people will still watch Richard Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood imageallows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films, and it’s all the better for that. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. Read my full review. Writer/director Richard Linklater in person at the Friday, 7:00 show.

B+ Godzilla (original 1954 version), Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:55. We associate the name Godzilla with trash, so it’s surprising to realize that the original imageJapanese monster movie–before English dubbing and Raymond Burr–was actually a pretty good picture. Made in a country with recent memories of horrific bombings and destroyed cities, it presents the emotions of mass terror more vividly than Hollywood’s giant monster movies of the same decade. The cast includes Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura.

B- The Landlord, Castro, Tuesday. Beau Bridges plays a spoiled rich kid who buys an apartment house in a Brooklyn ghetto with the intention of evicting the residents. imageInstead, he becomes involved with their lives. The scenes with Bridges’ rich family play as broad, exaggerated farce, while Pearl Bailey does another stereotype as the wise, ethnic mother figure.  In the end, you get a lot of good scenes and a few near great ones, but it never jells into a single work. First-time director Hal Ashby had greater work ahead of him. On a double bill with Pennies from Heaven, which I’ve never seen.

A Galaxy Quest, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00. There’s no better way to parody a well-known genre than to write characters who are familiar with the genre and find themselves living what imagethey thought was fiction. And few movies do this better than Galaxy Quest. The cast of a long-cancelled sci-fi TV show with a fanatical following (think Star Trek) find themselves on a real space adventure with good and bad aliens. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman star. The funniest film of 1999–one of the best years for comedy in recent decades. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.

A- Life Itself, Guild Theatre, opens Friday. This totally biased, yet entertaining and informative documentary Siskel and Ebert in the early daysexamines the life and death of Roger Ebert–the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. But be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but Ebert’s upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust. And, of course, there’s a lot about movies, as well. Read my full review.

A Double Indemnity, Castro, Wednesday. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray by the nose from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s near-perfect imagethriller. Not that she has any trouble leading him (this is not the wholesome MacMurray we remember from My Three Sons).  Edward G. Robinson is in fine form as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal, Double Indemnity can reasonably be called the first true film noir. On a double bill with The Postman Always Rings Twice, which I haven’t seen in a very long time but remember fondly.

C The Wild Bunch, Castro, Sunday. Sometimes I think I’m the only male, heterosexual cinephile who doesn’t love The Wild Bunch. I don’t object to violence in imagemovies. I even love The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which also presents violent, amoral protagonists and asks us to root for them. But unlike Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, The Wild Bunch takes itself seriously and even indulges in sentimentality. It’s one thing to vicariously enjoy fictional characters with few if any scruples; it’s another to get all weepy about them. On a double bill with The Long Riders, a film about Jesse James and his family that I saw long ago and remember liking reasonably well.

B Belle, Lark, opens Friday. Yes, it feels very much like a Jane Austen movie, except that it’s based on a true story rather than a novel, is set a couple ofimage generations earlier, and deals with race. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the daughter of a 18th-century British nobleman and an African slave. She’s raised by her loving uncle and aunt (the always wonderful Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), almost as an equal. Most of the film concerns itself with the question of how to marry off a proper young lady of wealth and high birth who lacks the right skin color. As you’d expect, it’s all very well acted against beautiful backgrounds.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving Oz a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

C The Sound of Music, Stanford, Friday and Saturday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough for light entertainment, yet lacking the substance necessary for anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture-postcard sort of way.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Lark, Sunday, 3:30 & Wednesday, 1:00. In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a imagelarge part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is long gone, so we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part.

What’s Screening: July 11 – 17

The Matatu Film Festival opens Wednesday, ending the Bay Area’s mid-summer film festival draught.

A- Ealing Studios/Alec Guinness double bill: The Ladykillers & The Lavender Hill Mob, Castro, Sunday. In the early 1950s, Britain’s Ealing Studios made several droll but wonderful comedies starring Alec Guinness, often about crime. In The Ladykillers,The Lavender Hill Mob probably the darkest Ealing comedy, Guinness leads a gang on a complex heist. But when their sweet, old landlady finds out what they’re doing, it’s either her or them. In The Lavender Hill Mob, Guinness has no experience in crime, yet he gathers a gang together to smuggle gold out of England. Not as dark as The Lady Killers, but funnier. EAch movie would earn an A- on its own.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Castro, Saturday. No one under 13 admitted. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I only give Oz a B+.Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else loves. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. Preceded by a live parody, The Wizard of Odd,  starring Sharon Needles and Peaches Christ.

B+ François Ozon double bill: Young & Beautiful & Swimming Pool, Castro, Thursday. The B+ goes to Swimming Pool, a stylish and very erotic thriller starring Charlotte Rampling as a mystery writer trying to cure herself of writer’s block by Young & Beautifulspending time at a French villa. But the arrival of a younger woman (Ludivine Sagnier) who just might have committed murder gives her more to write about than she expected. Young & Beautiful earns a straight B, which is pretty impressive considering that the first half–where the 17-year-old protagonist goes from virgin to whore–is almost unwatchable. But the film gets better when her mother finds out, conflicts arise, and we begin to understand what’s really going on. It actually turns into a pretty good film. Read my full review.

A Manhattan, Castro, Tuesday. Made two years after Annie Hall, Manhattan doesn’t quite measure up to Woody Allen’s masterpiece, but it’s still one of his best. A group of New Yorkers fall in and out of love, cheat on their significant others, and try to justify their actions–all in glorious widescreen black and white and accompanied by Gershwin tunes. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Klute, which I haven’t seen since it was new.

A+ The Godfather, Castro, Wednesday. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned imageMario 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 youngest son inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he proves exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and heart-stopping violence.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Lark, Thursday, 6:00 (also the following Sunday). In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was aimage large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is long gone, so we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part.

Watership Down, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. I haven’t seen this animated parable imagesince it was new in 1978. I don’t remember it very well, but I do remember being very very impressed with this story of wild rabbits setting off to find a new home. I also remember that, for a PG-rated cartoon with fuzzy, talking animals, it really isn’t appropriate for young children.

A Shrek, Lark, Friday through Sunday. Enough bad sequels can make us forget how much we loved the original, and in the case of Shrek, the original was imagevery lovable indeed. This story of an ogre on a reluctant quest to save a princess turns both traditional fairy tales and their Disneyfied adaptations inside out. The evil prince’s castle looks like Disneyland, familiar characters make odd cameos, and that old song “Have You Seen the Muffin Man” gets turned into a scene from Gitmo. But it isn’t just for laughs. In the third act, it rips apart one of the worst lessons that children can pick from these old stories, providing a happy ending that neither Grimm nor Disney could have imagined. The computer animation–ahead of the curve in 2001–still impresses today.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

B The Big Lebowski, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. Critics originally panned thisimage Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to their 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 maintained this site than than any other three movies put together. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.

What’s Screening: July 4 – 10

Celebrate Independence Day! Don’t go to a film festival! Actually, you have no choice. There are no film festivals in the Bay Area this week. Luckily, you can still go to a theater and see a movie.

A- Life Itself, Embarcadero Center, Albany Twin, Rafael, opens Friday. This totally biased, yet entertaining and informative documentary Siskel and Ebert in the early daysexamines the life and death of Roger Ebert–the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. But be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but Ebert’s upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust. And, of course, there’s a lot about movies, as well. Read my full review.

Lark 10th Anniversary Celebration, Wednesday, 1:00. The Lark is, of course, considerably older than 10, but this event celebrates the anniversary of it becoming a non-profit art house. The people running the theater promise "cake, root beer floats, and cartoons in the afternoon. Then, at 6pm in the evening, you’ll be treated to free wine and popcorn, as we venture back in time for a repeat screening of our 2004 Opening Night movie, IMPACT, a 1949 film noir drama."

A A Hard Day’s Night, Elmwood, opens Friday; Castro, Wednesday; Rafael, Sunday. New 4K digital restoration. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, andimage could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles are still popular, all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll. The Castro will screen A Hard Day’s Night on a double bill with a 1978 comedy called I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

B Belle, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Yes, it feels very much like a Jane Austen movie, except that it’s based on a true story rather than a novel, is set a couple of imagegenerations earlier, and deals with race. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the daughter of a 18th-century British nobleman and an African slave. She’s raised by her loving uncle and aunt (the always wonderful Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), almost as an equal. Most of the film concerns itself with the question of who can a proper young lady of wealth and high birth marry when she lacks the right skin color. As you’d expect, it’s all very well acted against beautiful backgrounds.

B+ Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. Bad sequels can ruin one’s memory of a good original, and that’s very much the case with the first Austin Powers movie. Anyone who saw all three of these spy spoofs imagecould be forgiven for forgetting just how fun the first movie was. Parodying everything about 1960s swinging London, and especially the early James Bond movies, it takes one cliché after another and blows each one to bits. Both the brilliant but bucktoothed spy Austin Powers (Mike Myers),  and his arch-enemy, Dr. Evil (Mike Myers), are frozen in 1967 and thawed out in 1997, where they’re clearly fish out of water. Myers also wrote the screenplay. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lark, Friday and Saturday, 3:15; Sunday, 1:00. 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. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. imageThere’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark; just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, don’t see it; otherwise, you probably already love it.

A- The Grand Budapest Hotel, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story within a story imagewithin a story, the concierge of a magnificent European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young bellhop under his wing and teaches him about hostelry and life, while also trying to save his skin from some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except that I think there’s a message about the rise of Fascism in there somewhere (the innermost story is set in the early ’30s). The hotel, which sits on a high mountain’s peak, is one of those places that you want to visit but could only exist in a movie. This is the sort of picture where the local newspaper is called The Trans-Alpine Yodeler.

C- Vertigo, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem with the movie is that neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.

A+ Jaws, Lark, Saturday, 8:30 and Sunday, 3:45. People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really starts. For that first half, it’s a suspenseful, jaws2witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, but with a central character more conflicted and less noble (Roy Scheider). Then the three men board the boat and the picture turns into a hair-raising variation on Moby Dick. Jaws‘ phenomenal success helped create the summer blockbuster, yet by today’s standards, it’s practically an art film–albeit one that could scare the living eyeballs out of you. See my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article.

A+ MGM Technicolor Double Bill; The Wizard of Oz & Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford,singininrainFriday through Sunday. The A+ goes easily to Singin’ in the Rain, arguably the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. I don’t really have to tell you about The Wizard of Oz, do I? Okay. It’s got clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). It never struck me as the masterpiece others see, but it’s a good, fun movie that I grade as B+.

What’s Screening: June 27 – July 3

Didn’t get enough silent films a month ago? Then head to Niles this weekend for the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival. Unless, of course, you’re attending Frameline, which like Broncho Billy, ends Sunday. I list a couple of Brocho Billy screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A+ Jaws, Castro & Lark, Thursday. People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really starts. For that first half, it’s a suspenseful, jaws2witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, but with a central character more conflicted and less noble (Roy Scheider). Then the three men board the boat and the picture turns into a hair-raising variation on Moby Dick. Jaws‘ phenomenal success helped create the summer blockbuster, yet by today’s standards, it’s practically an art film–albeit one that could scare the living eyeballs out of you. See my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article. The Castro will screen Jaws on a double bill with The Towering Inferno.

A+ Groundhog Day, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00. Spiritual, humane, and hilarious, Groundhog Day wraps its thoughtful world view inside a imageslick, Hollywood comedy. Without explanation, the movie plunges its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory, living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years). Bill Murray’s weatherman goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out that life is about serving others. And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure entertainment. For more on this great comedy, see Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.

B+ American Graffiti, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00. A long time ago, in a Bayimage Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. You can also talk about old-time rock ‘n’ roll–American Graffiti makes great use of early 60s music in one of the most effective and creative sound mixes of the ’70s. On a double bill with Two-Lane Blacktop, which I’ve never seen.

C- The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Only fans of this genre-shattering klezmer band are likely to enjoy this music 3435_klezmatics_00_weblg[1]documentary; if you come into the theater a Klezmatics virgin (as I did), it won’t make you a convert. Director Erik Anjou gives the audience samples of a lot of songs, but only twice stays until the song is finished. Most of the time, we’re learning about the group’s history and working methods. How much can you care about that sort of thing if you’re not allowed to listen to their music?) There’s probably a better documentary inside the material Anjou shot, but I doubt we’ll ever see it.

A+ MGM Technicolor Double Bill; The Wizard of Oz & Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford, singininrainFriday through Sunday (and revived next weekend, as well). The A+ goes easily to Singin’ in the Rain, arguably the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. I don’t really have to tell you about The Wizard of Oz, do I? Okay. It’s got clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). It never struck me as the masterpiece others see, but it’s a good, fun movie that I grade as B+.

Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival

A+ The Big Parade, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00. As we enter the centenary of World War I, how appropriate to start the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival with one of the best films made about that horrible and pointless disaster. imageJohn Gilbert sans mustache plays a spoiled rich kid who signs up almost on a lark, has a fun and games safely behind the lines, falls in love with a French girl, and then is dropped into an unrelenting Hell. Before the horrors get unleashed,  the romance between two people who can’t speak each other’s languages makes a wonderful subject for a silent film. Also in the program, the short Broncho Billy & the Bandit’s Secret. With Jon Mirsalis providing music on the Kurzweil electric keyboard.

B The Circus, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Made in between Chaplin’s two feature imagemasterpieces (The Gold Rush and City Lights), this reasonably fully comedy can’t help but suffer by comparison. the Tramp finds himself working in a small circus, where he accidentally becomes a comic star without knowing it. He also falls in love with a beautiful girl  who sees him only as a friend. The film will screen with Chaplin’s recorded music track, made decades after he originally released the silent movie; I’m assuming Chaplin’s estate insisted on that..

What’s Screening: June 20 – 26

Frameline, San Francisco’s LGBT film festival, continues through the week. I’ve placed two Frameline screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

C+ Manakamana, Lark, Friday, 3:30; Sunday, 6:00. The setting: a cable car that transports people to a Hindu temple high in the Nepalese mountains. Filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez set their camera in one seat and film the people across from them, as well as the passing scenery. The camera doesn’t move and each 8-minute ride is shown without cuts. The scenery is beautiful at first, but loses its luster as it’s repeated. The passengers, who clearly were told not to look at or acknowledge the camera and filmmakers, are sometimes boring and sometimes interesting. Despite the bright spots, I soon found myself disappointed as each new trip began; it meant the movie wasn’t over. Read my full review.

B Walking the Camino, Lark, Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. For centuries, religious Christians have walked the Camino de Santiago–a 800km imagepilgrimage across northern Spain. Today, spiritual seekers of all kinds, as well as those just looking for adventure, take the arduous route. This documentary follows a handful of walkers, each going for their own reasons and finding, if not what they were looking for, than at least something worth knowing. The film is pleasant, and provides a sense of what the journey might be like (obviously, no film can recreate the actual experience). Warning: You’re likely to come out of the theater ready to make the journey yourself.

A+ The Godfather, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday, 2:00. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned imageMario 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 youngest son inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he seems exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and heart-stopping violence, recently restored by the master of the craft, Robert A. Harris. Separate admission for Godfather I & II.

A+ The Godfather, Part IIvarious CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday, 7:00. By juxtaposing the material rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film, imagea young Robert De Niro here) with the moral fall of his son Michael (Al Pacino again), Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola show us the long-term effects of what seemed like a good idea at the time. De Niro plays young Vito as a loving family man who cares only for his wife and children, and turns to crime to better support them. But in Michael–consolidating his empire some thirty years later–we see the ultimate disastrous effects of that decision. Pacino plays him as a tragic monster who senses his own emptiness.

B+ The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Lark, opens Friday. This big, splashy, fun, CGI-heavy action flick has a small, character-driven independent art film hidden inside. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a teenager in imagecrisis. His parents deserted him when he was young.  His girlfriend is about to desert him. A now-powerful old friend is putting him in a moral dilemma . The widowed aunt who’s raising him (Sally Field) can barely make ends meet. And because he has superpowers, he feels responsible for stopping all the crime in New York City. The personal story and the big action set pieces merge easily into a single whole. Not as good as the first Spider-Man 2 (yeah, I know that sounds weird), but worth catching. I’ve written more on this one.

A- The Princess Bride, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. William Goldman’s enchanting imageand funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers, and Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos really grate on your nerves.

B+ Palo Alto, Lark, Sunday and Tuesday, 8:30. Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who also imageacts in the film), Palo Alto exams a handful of teenagers reaching an emotional boiling point.  Fueled by booze, pot, and raging hormones, they deal poorly with the choices they’re making on their way to adulthood. Drunk driving, random vandalism, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, and other serious mistakes mar these kid’s lives. Yet you really hope they get their acts together. A slick yet compassionate and well-acted drama. Read my full review.

C+ Serenity, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Ever hear of a science fiction TV series called Firefly? Like many superb, original shows imagethat somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Firefly failed to find an audience and soon died. This big-screen spin-off is a gift from the series’ creators to the handful of people who saw the show and wanted more. And while it’s nice to see all of the characters again, its attempt to close the story is a bit of a let-down. So if you haven’t seen Firefly, skip the movie and see the show; it’s streaming on Netflix.

C- Last Year at Marienbad, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:50. Slow and pretentious, Alain Resnais’  Very Important European Art Film of the early 1960s gives you almost no information about the people onscreen (I hesitate to call them characters) and no reason whatsoever to care if they live or die. But the film is visually striking and technically dazzling, and if you’re willing to meet it halfway, it has a certain hypnotic charm. Too bad it refuses to meet you halfway. See my essay.

A+ Casablanca,Lark, Sunday, 3:30. What can I say? You’ve either already casablancaseen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

Frameline

A- Bad Hair, Roxie, Saturday, 1:30. Ten-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) bewilders, confuses, and worries his widowed mother (Samantha Castillo). Not only is he imagemischievous and occasionally thoughtless–hardly surprising for a boy that age. He obsessively hates his curly hair, does everything he can to straighten it, and behaves in ways that don’t measure up to his mother’s ideas about masculinity. Meanwhile, Mom–horrified that she may have a gay son–struggles to get her job back and make ends meet with little or no money. Both Lange and Castillo give great performances in this unique drama about poverty, race, and homophobia.

Boys Don’t Cry, Castro, Thursday, 11:00am. I haven’t seen Kimberly Peirce’s ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy since it was new, so I’m not going to give it an official imagegrade. But if I did, it would almost certainly be an A. Hilary Swank, in a breakout role, plays a transgender man who comes to a small town hiding the fact that he was born–and is still biologically–a woman. He finds romance with a beautiful blonde (Chloë Sevigny), but as his secret seeps out, his life and the lives of those near him become endangered. I do remember this: Boys Don’t Cry has the most suspenseful sex scene I’ve ever seen; and the suspense made it all the more erotic.

What’s Screening: June 13 – 19

In festival news, New Filipino Cinema closes Sunday, while DocFest continues through the rest of this week. And just as that one closes, Frameline opens Thursday night.

B+ Interview with the Vampire, Castro, Friday, 7:20. Writer Anne Rice and director Neil Jordan create a vampire epic stretching across three centuries. And a very dark imageyet sexy three centuries it is. Tom Cruise gets top billing as the immortal sociopath Lestat, but a not-yet-famous Brian Pitt is the real star, playing the tormented vampire being interviewed. Between them and Antonio Banderas, you call this Great-Looling Guys With an Eating Distorder. A 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst expertly plays a grown woman in a little girl’s body. On a Midnites for Maniacs double bill with Vampire’s Kiss, which I’ve never seen.

B L’avventura, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:30. Michelangelo Antonioni’s story of the young and amoral hardly counts as an adventure–although it almost starts as one. imageA group of wealthy young adults yacht to a deserted island, where one of them mysteriously disappears. The others look for her, then give up and go about their regular business. I hated L’avventura when I saw it in college. When I saw it again recently, I realized the point of how it played with my expectations. This is not about rescuing a friend or lover; but about the shallowness of modern relationships. New, restored 35mm print.

A+ The Grapes Of Wrath, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. No one associates serious social criticism with classic, studio-era  Hollywood. Yet this 20th Century-Fox production of John imageSteinbeck’s flip side of the California dream pulls few punches. As the desperately-poor Joad family moves from Oklahoma to California in their rickety truck, only to find poverty, bigotry, and exploitation, the picture shows us an America where mere survival is a victory and revolution a logical reaction. John Ford directed from producer Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay, but a lot of credit must go to studio head Darryl Zanuck for the courage to make a film that exposes the ugly underbelly of American capitalism.

A+ Casablanca,Lark, Thursday, 6:00. What can I say? You’ve either already casablancaseen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

rosemarysbaby_picC Rosemary’s Baby, Castro, Wednesday. Roman Polanski’s first American film only half-way 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 her husband, and everyone she thought she could trust, is in on the conspiracy. Yes, it’s an effectively creepy story. But’s it’s also slow enough to let you see what’s coming a mile off. Rosemary’s Baby never quite builds the sense of dread that the material, and the director, were capable of bringing to it.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

What’s Screening: June 6 – 12

Need some film festivals? DocFest continues through this week and beyond. New Filipino Cinema opens Wednesday.

Charlie Chaplin: The Little Tramp at 100 Years, The irreplaceable David Shepard will imageprovide commentary for a two-hour survey of the great comedian and filmmaker. The show will include three complete shorts–Kid Auto Races in Venice, Mabel’s Married Life, and Easy Street–along with excerpts from his other films. When Shepard isn’t talking and the movie doesn’t have its own soundtrack, Judy Rosenberg with accompany on the piano.

B+ The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Shattuck, opens Friday. This big, splashy, fun, CGI-heavy action flick has a small, character-driven independent art film hidden inside. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a teenager in imagecrisis. His parents deserted him when he was young.  His girlfriend is about to desert him. A now-powerful old friend is putting him in a moral dilemma . The widowed aunt who’s raising him (Sally Field) can barely make ends meet. And because he has superpowers, he feels responsible for stopping all the crime in New York City. The personal story and the big action set pieces merge easily into a single whole. Not as good as the first Spider-Man 2 (yeah, I know that sounds weird), but worth catching. I’ve written more on this one.

A Dr. Strangelove, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) imageorders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (several of them played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than the Three Stooges.  We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. I have more to say about Dr. Strangelove.

B+ The Iron Giant, New Parkway, Sunday, 12:30. The young hero of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s first feature befriends a massively-huge robot from outer space. Hey, Steven Spielberg’s Elliot only had to hide the diminutive ET. The robot seems friendly enough, but there’s good reason to believe he was built as a weapon of mass destruction. Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation with plenty of sharp angles, Bird creates a stylized view of small-town American life circa 1958 that straddles satire and nostalgia, and treats most of its inhabitants with warmth and affection. A good movie for all but the youngest kids. A benefit for Urban Montessori.

A- The Grand Budapest Hotel, Castro, Friday and Saturday. Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story within a story imagewithin a story, the concierge of a magnificent European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young bellhop under his wing and teaches him about hostelry and life, while also trying to save his skin from some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except that I think there’s a message about the rise of Fascism in there somewhere (the innermost story is set in the early ’30s). The hotel, which sits on a high mountain’s peak, is one of those places that you want to visit but could only exist in a movie. This is the sort of picture where the local newspaper is called The Trans-Alpine Yodeler.

C- The Creature from the Black Lagoon, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:00. Set in a previously-unexplored tributary of the Amazon–that looks suspiciously like the imageUniversal back lot–Creature follows a small group of scientists, plus a colorful local fisherman, as they search for fossils and find something stranger–a sort of man-fish highbred that doesn’t appear to be particularly well-adapted for anything. All very silly and unintentionally funny. This screening will not be in 3D. Read my longer comments.

F Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Absolutely the worst Indiana Jones movie ever. First, Spielberg and company tried to make it dark and atmospheric, but only succeeded in imagemaking it unpleasant.  Second, leading lady Kate Capshaw may have captured Spielberg’s heart (they’re still married), but her performance here is as enticing as nails on a chalkboard. And finally, the movie is horribly, irredeemably, D.W. Griffith-level racist. Two years after Attenborough’s Gandhi,Spielberg and Lucas assure us that India needed white people to protect the good, but helpless and child-like Indians from their evil, fanatical compatriots.

A+ Rear Window, Lark, Sunday, 3:30. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.

A Astaire/Rogers double bill: Swing Time & Roberta, Stanford, Wed Friday. The A imagegoes to Swing Time, the second-best Astaire/Rogers vehicle (after Top Hat). Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Gambler Fred and dance teacher Ginger fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On its own, Roberta earns only a C-. It’s really an Irene Dunne vehicle, with Astaire and Rogers in supporting roles. They’re not onscreen enough to turn this dull musical love story into a winner.

A- From Up on Poppy Hill, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 3:30. Warm, sweet, and nostalgic, this whimsicalimage dramatic comedy from Studio Ghibli focuses on a teenage girl falling in love for the first time. Set in the early 1960s, it tells its love story against a backdrop of students trying to save an old, rundown clubhouse. But first love never runs smooth, and family histories threaten to derail it before it begins. A rare animated feature without talking animals, fantasy creatures, magic, or broadly caricatured human beings. For more on this picture, see Friday Night Report: Rare Hitchcock and New Studio Ghibli. Part of the series Astonishing Animation: the Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

A Spirited Away, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:00. 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 ever had to deal with in Oz.. A truly amazing work of animation. Another part of the series Astonishing Animation: the Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

What’s Screening: May 30 = June 5

There’s at least one film festival running every day this week. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival dominates the weekend, closing Sunday. But the Green Film Festival runs through Wednesday. And DocFest opens Thursday.

A- The Navigator, Castro, Sunday, 9:00. Buster Keaton in his spoiled rich boy mode, finds himself stranded on a drifting ocean liner with only one other person–an equallyimage rich and spoiled girl who doesn’t return his love. The big ship makes for a wonderfully comic prop, as the hapless kids try to find comfortable berths or cook dinner in a galley designed to feed hundreds. But to my mind, the funniest sequence is the smallest one: a close-up of Keaton’s hands as he attempts to shuffle a soaking-wet deck of cards. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble. Closing night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

A Astaire/Rogers double bill: Swing Time & Roberta, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. The A goes to Swing Time, the second-best imageAstaire/Rogers vehicle (after Top Hat). Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Gambler Fred and dance teacher Ginger fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On its own, Roberta earns only a C-. It’s really an Irene Dunne vehicle, with Astaire and Rogers in supporting roles. They’re not onscreen enough to turn this dull musical love story into a winner.

A Chinatown, Roxie, Saturday, 9:30. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, but you chinatowncan’t deny his talent as a filmmaker (which doesn’t excuse his actions as a human being). And that talent was never better than when he made this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed the whole story over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece. Part of the Green Film Festival.

A Safety Last!, Rafael, Monday, 7:30. Even Alfred Hitchcock never mastered the delicate balance between comedy and suspense as well as Harold Lloyd, who made that balance perfect in Safety Last‘s final act.. The first two thirds of the feature, with Harold struggling with a lousy job and a girlfriend who thinks he’s a successful executive, makes an excellent piece of comic work, with more than enough laughs for a comedy twice as long. But the final third, where Harold climbs a skyscraper, tops any other comic sequence that I have ever seen. Indeed, the sight of Lloyd, hanging from the minute hand of a clock, far above a busy city street, is one of the strongest, most memorable images in the history of cinema. Read my Blu-ray review. Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

A To Kill a Mockingbird, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel imagemanages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter. (Had there been a sequel set in her teen years, Atticus would have been an idiotic tyrant.)

A+ Rear Window, Lark, Thursday, 6:30. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. 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. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. imageThere’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark; just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, don’t see it; otherwise, you probably already love it.

C Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am.
Here’s an object lesson in how to turn a good novel into a mediocre movie by sticking imageas close to the book as possible. Screenwriter Steven Kloves and director Chris Columbus follow J.K. Rowling’s story almost scene by scene, but what worked on the page seems flabby and excessive onscreen. At least it’s better than its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, if only because Kenneth Branagh has so much fun as Professor Lockhart.

B+ Palo Alto, New Parkway, opens Friday. Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who also imageacts in the film), Palo Alto exams a handful of teenagers reaching an emotional boiling point.  Fueled by booze, pot, and raging hormones, they deal poorly with the choices they’re making on their way to adulthood. Drunk driving, random vandalism, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, and other serious mistakes mar these kid’s lives. Yet you really hope they get their acts together. A slick yet compassionate and well-acted drama. Read my full review.

A- From Up on Poppy Hill, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 1:00. Warm, sweet, and nostalgic, this whimsicalimage dramatic comedy from Studio Ghibli focuses on a teenage girl falling in love for the first time. Set in the early 1960s, it tells its love story against a backdrop of students trying to save an old, rundown clubhouse. But first love never runs smooth, and family histories threaten to derail it before it begins. A rare animated feature without talking animals, fantasy creatures, magic, or broadly caricatured human beings. For more on this picture, see Friday Night Report: Rare Hitchcock and New Studio Ghibli. Part of the series Astonishing Animation: the Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

C+ Le Week-End, Castro, Wednesday. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.This dark and depressing imagedrama about a marriage in horrible decline has several very good scenes (even some funny ones) and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character. But it suffers from an overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight. A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows. Read my full review. On a double bill with Goddard’s Band of Outsiders, which–I have to admit–I haven’t seen.

A Shall We Dance (1937), Stanford, Friday. Along with Top Hat and Swing Time, Shall We Dance represents the best of what Astaire and Rogers imagehad to offer. The story–¦well, who cares about the story. The only collaboration between Astaire, Rogers, and the two Gershwins gives us “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” dancing on shipboard, dancing on stage, dancing in roller skates, and the most romantic song ever written: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” When Fred and Ginger aren’t singing or dancing, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore provide plenty of comedy, with light satire aimed at celebrity scandals and the culture gap between ballet and popular music. On a double bill with another Astaire/Rogers vehicle, Carefree; I saw it long ago and wasn’t impressed then.

A Spirited Away, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Friday & Thursday, 7:30. 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 ever had to deal with in Oz.. A truly amazing work of animation. Part of the series Astonishing Animation: the Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

What’s Screening: May 23 – 29

I Wake Up Dreaming continues (which sounds better than "I will continue to wake up dreaming") through Sunday. Then, after three festival-free days, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Green Film Festival both open on Thursday.

A- The Grand Budapest Hotel, Lark, opens Friday. Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and I at least enjoy it immensely. In this story within a story imagewithin a story, the concierge of a magnificent European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young bellhop under his wing and teaches him about hostelry and life, while also trying to save his skin from some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except that I think there’s a message about the rise of Fascism in there somewhere (the innermost story is set in the early ’30s). The hotel, which sits on a high mountain’s peak, is one of those places that you want to visit but could only exist in a movie. This is the sort of picture where the local newspaper is called The Trans-Alpine Yodeler.

A+ Fred Astaire Double Bill: The Band Wagon & Top Hat, Stanford, Saturday and tophatSunday. The A+ goes to Top Hat. But I give a very high A to The Band Wagon, easily The best Fred Astaire vehicle without Ginger Rogers. What sets it apart is a small dose of reality in the otherwise frivolous mix. For instance, Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to Broadway, is clearly based on Astaire himself. You’ll find no such echoes of reality in Top Hat. From the perfect clothes to the absurd mistaken-identity plot, to the art deco set that makes Venice look like a very exclusive water park, everything about Top Hat screams "Don’t take this seriously!" But who needs realism when Fred Astaire dances his way into Ginger Rogers’ heart.

B The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Castro, Thursday, 7:00. Rudolph Valentino danced, female hearts fluttered, and a star was born. Aside from that imagejustifiably famous tango sequence, the lavishly-produced Four Horseman makes for an entertaining evening. This World War I epic follows two Argentinian families who find themselves on different sides of the European war. The antiwar message is significantly diluted, however, by an insistence on blaming everything on the Germans. Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

A Shall We Dance (1937), Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. Along with Top Hat and Swingtime, Shall We Dance represents the best of what Astaire and Rogers imagehad to offer. The story–¦well, who cares about the story. The only collaboration between Astaire, Rogers, and the two Gershwins gives us “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” dancing on shipboard, dancing on stage, dancing in roller skates, and the most romantic song ever written, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” When Fred and Ginger aren’t singing or dancing, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore provide plenty of comedy, with light satire aimed at celebrity scandals and the culture gap between ballet and popular music. On a double bill with another Astaire/Rogers vehicle, Carefree; I saw it long ago and wasn’t impressed.

B+ Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. One great short comedy and three good ones. The Cure is arguably the funniest imageof Charlie Chaplin’s 12 Mutual shorts, and that’s saying a lot. It’s also an excellent example of his rich drunk character. Fatty Arbuckle’s The Bellboy (with Buster Keaton in a supporting role) is little more than a string of gags, but enough of them work to make it enjoyable. In High and Dizzy, Harold Lloyd gets drunk and walks along a skyscraper’s edge. Moderately funny and historically interesting. Made before Laurel and Hardy officially became a team, Do Detectives Think? comes very close to being a fully-mature L&H short. Greg Pane accompanying everything on piano.

A Spirited Away, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. 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 ever had to deal with in Oz.. A truly amazing work of animation. Part of the series Astonishing Animation: the Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

C- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Although entertaining, the first Harry Potter novel showed little of the power, complexity, imagecharacter, wit, and entertainment value of the sequels. The first Harry Potter movie, trying desperately to be as faithful to the book as possible, showed even less. Skip the movie, read the book, and then read the rest of the books. Then you can enjoy the later movies, as well.

F Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Clay, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, midnight. Absolutely the worst Indiana Jones movie ever. First, Spielberg and company tried to make it dark and atmospheric, but only succeeded in imagemaking it unpleasant.  Second, leading lady Kate Capshaw may have captured Spielberg’s heart (they’re still married), but her performance here is as enticing as nails on a chalkboard. And finally, the movie is horribly, irredeemably, D.W. Griffith-level racist. Two years after Attenborough’s Gandhi,Spielberg and Lucas assure us that India needed white people to protect the good, but helpless and child-like Indians from the evil, fanatical Indians.

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