What’s Screening: May 1 – 7

Only one film festival this week, but it’s a big one and it continues through Thursday. I’m talking, of course, about the San Francisco International Film Festival. The SFIFF films are listed at the bottom of this newsletter.

Save Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley City Council Chambers, Tuesday, 7:00. As I’ve mentioned before, Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinema is in danger, and not because of low ticket sales. The real estate company that owns the building wants to tear it down and put up an 18-story residential tower for rich people. Tuesday night, the City Council will have a special, open session to discus the issue. The more people opposed to the theater, the better.

B+ Lambert & Stamp, Roxie, opens Friday. If Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp hadn’t come across an obscure London rock band, none of us would have ever heard of Theimage Who. Lacking any experience as managers, they shepherded the group to fame and fortune. Director James D. Cooper’s visual flair in filming the interviews (he’s known mostly as a cinematographer), his creative use of stock footage, and Christopher Tellefsen’s frenetic editing style gives Lambert & Stamp a rough, energetic quality appropriate for the subject. Not surprisingly, songs by The Who dominate the soundtrack–although I don’t think we hear one from beginning to end. Read my full review.

A A Fish Called Wanda, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. One of the funniest comedies to come out of Monty Python veterans, and certainly the cruelest. John Cleese, who also imagewrote the film, stars as a very properly British lawyer who finds himself caught up with a group of ruthless but utterly inept crooks. Fellow Python Michael Palin plays an animal-loving criminal assigned to murder a little old lady, who, in a wonderful running gag, keeps killing off her dogs instead. Kevin Kline won an Oscar (very rare for broad comedy) as the most evil and stupid of the crooks. And Cleese has one of the funniest nude scenes in movie history.

A Mary Poppins, Lark, Sunday, 3:00. The best live-action movie Waltmarypoppins Disney ever made is, not surprisingly, one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really lights up the screen in her first movie appearance, managing to upstage Dick Van Dyke and some wonderful special effects. So what if it takes liberties with the books?

B School of Rock, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. When Richard Linklater decided to make a commercial, conventional comedy, it came out imagepretty darn good. Jack Black plays a struggling rock musician who steals his roommate’s identity to take a temporary position in a very staid and proper private school. Impressed by the kids’ strictly classical music skills, he turns the class into a rock band that he hopes will win an upcoming contest. Of course the story is silly and predictable, and it bows too much to star power (Black really should have stayed off-stage at the climax), but it’s fun and catches the rebellious spirit of all good rock.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight). I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it 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.

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, Piedmont, opens Friday. A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. But this time, she’ll be playingimage a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only  slightly echoes play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Read my full review.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Opera Plaza, opens Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead existance. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

San Francisco International Film Festival

A- The Iron Ministry, Kabuki, Monday, 4:00. Life on a Chinese railroad. This narration-free documentary catches life on a long train trip in China. (From where to where? It doesn’t say.) People find comfort in close quarters. They tell funny stories. imageThey drink and flirt. They buy food from a cart. And they talk about religion, ethnicity, and politics. The staff serve dinner in the dining car, object to being filmed, sweep the floor, and in one case agree to talk to the filmmaker (American J.P. Sniadecki). A handful of shots go on too long, but altogether it’s an amazing slice of life in a foreign country, set on one of the most social–and cinematic–forms of transportation.

State of Cinema Address: Douglas Trumbull, Kabuki, Sunday, 6:30. The special effects wizard (2001, Blade Runner, Close Encounters) imageand sometimes writer/director (Silent Running) will take the stage to discuss, well, the state of the cinema. A major proponent of high frame rates, he’ll probably discuss how more immersive technology will inspire people to turn off their TVs and smartphones and go to the movies.

A- Democrats, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:15; Kabuki, Monday, 6:30; Clay, Wednesday, 9:30. How does a country transition from dictatorship to democracy–especially when the dictator is still running imagethe show? Camilla Nielsson’s cinema vérité documentary tries to answer that question as it follows the process of creating a new, more democratic constitution for Zimbabwe. The film’s clear hero is Douglas Mwonzora, an activist fighting for what he sees as his country’s second liberation struggle (the first involved kicking out the British). It seems like an impossible dream, with President (and in reality dictator) Robert Mugabe holding all of the cards. Yet Mwonzora and his collaborators can laugh and joke about every roadblock thrown up in front of them. More suspense than your average thriller, and far more informative.

imageMel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger: Monte-Cristo, Kabuki, Sunday, 1:00. This year’s Novikoff Award goes to scholar, film restorer, and subtitle translator Lenny Borger. In addition to a talk, he’ll be screening the recently rediscovered Monte-Cristo from 1929. It will be a long afternoon; the movie itself will run over 3 1/2 hours. I don’t know how long the talk will go. The music by Marc-Olivier Dupin, alas, will not be live.

B+ Mr. Holmes, Kabuki, Tuesday, 2:00. Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes as an old man and as a very old man—mostly the later—in this entertaining but not too imagedeep drama. Retired from solving crimes, Holmes is now a 90ish beekeeper (the film is set in 1947–about 20 years after Doyle wrote his last Holmes story), living with a widowed housekeeper and her young son. Holmes is in a race against time, trying to write down the true story of his last case before senility sinks too deep. A wonderful gift for Holmes fans, and an enjoyable day at the movies for everyone else.

B Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, Kabuki, Saturday, 9:15. This Vietnamese drama succeeds in producing an atmosphere, and makes us care about the main imagecharacter. But her repeated poor choices can wear down audience sympathy. The film follows the misfortunes of a young, immature, broke, single, pregnant college student who can’t seem to make a decision–and when she does, it’s inevitably a bad one. Her even less mature boyfriend has a good job, but he’s a gambling addict (cock fighting) and is totally unreliable. Her transgender roommate appears to be her only true friend.

What’s Screening: April 24 – 30

The big one (well, one of the big two), the San Francisco International Film Festival,  runs through this week and beyond. My festival listings are at the bottom of this newsletter.

But even if you don’t go to the festival, you can still catch some good movies.

B+ In the Footsteps of Godzilla, Roxie, Sunday, 3:30. The B+ goes to the original, image1954, Japanese language Godzilla. 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. After the screening, the movie will play again, this time with live commentary by Japanese-monster expert Armand Vaquer.

A Design for Living, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. Impeccable credentials occasionally pay off. Design for Living is every bit as good as you’d expect from Ernstimage Lubitsch directing a Ben Hecht screen adaptation of a Noel Coward play. Of course, it also helps to have a cast headed by Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins as a sort-of romantic threesome, and Edward Everett Horton as a disapproving bluenose. A very funny and sexy pre-code charmer. On a double bill with Becky Sharp, remembered primarily as the first feature shot entirely in Three-Strip Technicolor;. I saw it once maybe 30 years ago and found it reasonably entertaining.

A Tootsie, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. Gender roles turn upside-down in what is easily the second best Hollywood comedy about straight men in drag image(the best, of course, is Some Like It Hot). Dustin Hoffman plays a struggling actor who no one wants to hire. So he disguises himself as a woman, gets a job on a soap opera, and becomes a sensation. Things get complicated when he falls for one of his co-stars (Jessica Lange), who likes him as a friend but doesn’t know he’s a man. The very funny screenplay by Larry Gelbart (who also created the character of Klinger on TV’s M*A*S*H) is played mostly straight, although Teri Garr and Bill Murray show off their exceptional comic timing. .

A- Gay-themed thrillers with titles that go together beautifully double bill: Bound & Rope, Castro, Wednesday. The A- goes to Bound, the Wachowski brothers’ first and best movie. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon become lovers, then set out to steal a Ropefortune from the mob. A very sexy, violent, and suspenseful thriller which adds new meaning to the phrase "laundering money."  In Alfred Hitchcock’s most frustrating film, a presumably gay couple murder a man for kicks, then throw a party with the body hidden in a chest. Hitchcock made Rope in eight moving camera shots; an interesting experiment that robbed him of the ability to edit. Hitchcock without editing is handicapped Hitchcock. I give it a B.

B- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00AM. Tim Burton’s first feature peeweesbigadvenrevels in its own silliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action flick, is alone worth the price of admission.

A+ Rear Window, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment imageand 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) 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 The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30. I revisited this cult favorite last year, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.)

A- Ex Machina, California (Berkeley), opens Friday. This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the imageTuring test to determine if a "female" robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein,and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? Do you have a right to replace a sentient machine with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, New Parkway, opens Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead lives. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

San Francisco International Film Festival

A Dearest, Clay, Saturday, 6:00; Kabuki, Thursday, 6:30.Heart-breaking, thoughtful, suspenseful, imageand complex, Dearest is easily the best new drama I’ve seen this year. A young child is kidnapped (apparently a common crime in China), and his divorced parents react in different ways. While his mother (Hao Lei) sinks into depression, his father (Huang Bo) takes a reckless proactive approach, following pointless leads and con artists. They find some solace with a support group. Then, halfway through the picture, the plot  takes a very unexpected turn and the moral issues become much more complicated.

Cinema Visionaries: Alex Gibney, Kabuki, Friday, 4:00. The documentarian whoimage made  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and the festival’s opening file, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, will be on hand to discuss his work with California College of the Arts students and anyone who buys a ticket.

A- Best of Enemies, Kabuki, Friday, 9:00; Clay, Sunday, 3:30. In the tumultuous year of 1968, the ABC television network imageput the reactionary William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal on TV to debate the issues of the day. They were both erudite, east-coast intellectuals, and their world views were as different as they could get. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that those debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film.

B+ The Postman’s White Nights, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00; Clay, Tuesday, 6:15, Kabuki, Wednesday, 3:45. This Russian ethnographic tale has three strong elements going for it. It’s a beautifully photographed film. Second, it brings us to a imageplace that most of us have never experienced–summer in a small village in northern Russia. And finally, it introduces us to Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn), the affable but lonely mailman who climbs into his boat every morning and travels across the water to collect the village mail. Lyokha is kind, knowledgeable, makes a good surrogate father for the son of a single mother, and is utterly helpless in his attempts to find romance. Filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky brings us to a community that holds on to its roots while still being part of the modern world.

B Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, Kabuki, Friday, 9:30 & Sunday, 9:30. The National Lampoon magazine was irreverent, offensive, bold, crazy, satirical, and often hilarious. It spawned, among other things, Saturday Night Live. As imagesomeone who grew up on Mad Magazine, and reached adulthood (if not maturity) in the early 1970s, I was very much part of the Lampoon’s target audience. Douglas Tirola’s fast-paced documentary brought back a lot of fun memories while introducing me to the people who made the laughs. Zany graphics, interviews with very funny people, a 70s rock soundtrack, video clips from their live shows, and animated versions of the magazine’s cartoons keep it lively. But the film crams too much history into 93 minutes, making it occasionally hard to follow. And it never really confronts the extreme sexism of the Lampoon.

What’s Screening: April 17- 23

The Tiburon International Film Festival closes tonight, and the  San Francisco International Film Festival opens Thursday.

A Cheatin’, Elmwood, Roxie, opens Friday. Visuals reflect emotional states in this dialog-free romance by Bill Plympton, arguably the strangest, most imagebrilliant animator around. For instance, when a wife reaches out to touch her estranged husband, her hand keeps extending across great distances as she tries to bridge the widening gap in their widening bed. The story of love, lust, and jealousy is funny, touching, heartbreaking, and carried entirely by Plympton’s surreal and instantly recognizable hand-drawn animation. Read my full review.

A- Ex Machina, Kabuki, opens Friday. This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the imageTuring test to determine if a "female" robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein, and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? If you create a sentient machine, is it immoral to replace it with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review.

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, Embarcadero, Albany, Rafael, opens Friday. A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. But this time, she’ll be playingimage a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only  slightly echoes play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Read my full review.

A Trouble in Paradise, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. What’s so fascinating and entertaining about imagewitty, sophisticated crooks that makes us want to root for them? I’m not sure, but this near-perfect pre-code screwball proves that whatever it is, it works. Yet another wonderfully amoral Ernst Lubitsch comedy about sex, love, money, and larceny. Starring Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, and Herbert Marshall. On a double bill with We Live Again, which I have not seen.

B+ Wendy and Lucy, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. Wendy (Michelle Williams) hopes she can find work in Alaska, but first she has to get to Alaska. Traveling with her dog Lucy, she sleeps in her car and watches every penny. In other words, she can’t afford disaster. And when her car breaks down in a small Oregon town, one disaster leads to another. A sobering film for economic hard times. Read my full review. Part of the series and college class, Film 50: History of Cinema.

A- Harold and Maude, Castro, Wednesday. The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans were imageembracing non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably. But I do wish that screenwriter Colin Higgins had found a better ending. See my full discussion. On a double bill with A New Leaf, which I haven’t seen.

Excelsior Presents The Ciname Obscura 16mm Crazy Quilt, Art House Gallery, imageBerkeley, Sunday, 7:30. This collection of 16mm clips promises to include "Camp, Schlock, and Weird Stuff of Every Description," including "short films, soundies, clips, fragments of early TV, home movies, adult entertainment, cartoons, educational subjects and just plain oddities."

A Disaster triple bill: Airplane, San Francisco, & Airport 1975, Castro, Saturday. The A goes to Airplane, where they’re flying on instruments, blowing the autopilot, and translating English into jive.  I’d be hard-Airplanepressed to name another post-silent feature with such a high laugh-to-minute ratio. San Francisco, a big, silly, melodramatic special effects vehicle from 1936, earns a B-, thanks to the earthquake, the fire, and the great title song. It also tries to have it both ways–celebrating the non-conformist, hedonistic city by the bay while covering itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing. I haven’t seen Airport 1975, and I plan to keep it that way.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Castro, Sunday. 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. On a double bill with 1941, which I’ve never seen.

A Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Castro, Friday. The most-loved Star Trek movie gives us everything that its predecessor failed to deliver: animage exciting and entertaining adventure starring the seven actors and characters that we learned to love from the original TV show.–and a chance for several of those actors to shine. This has almost everything you would want in a Star Trek movie. On a double bill with the 1960 version of The Time Machine which I haven’t seen in decades.

B+ (maybe A) Aliens, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30. Less of a horror film and more of an action flick (or, arguably, a war imagemovie), it strands a platoon of marines on a barely hospitable planet infested with the big, egg-laying predators. Sigourney Weaver stars again. I suspect that the New Parkway will screen the original, 137-minute cut, which deserves a B+. But I’m hoping they screen the 154-minute director’s cut, which goes into more character detail and is a much better film. I’d give that version an A.

A The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Monday, 9:30. I revisited this cult favorite last year, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.) Subject to change due to Warriors playoffs.

B+ Sing-Along Wizard of Oz, Lark, Sunday, 3:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it 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. I have not experienced the sing-along version.

C Sound of Music, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s just plain bland–not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be 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 kind of way.

What’s Screening: April 10 – 16

Both the Tiburon International Film Festival and the Buddhist Film Festival play through this week.

A Kill Me Three Times, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday. Simon Pegg stars as a professional killer surrounded by amateurs in this very funny thriller from Australia. imageThis is the sort of movie where a gruesome, bloody murder is interrupted by a ringtone, and the murderer delays pulling the trigger to answer the call. I can’t tell you a lot about the plot without giving too much of it away, but I can tell you that it reminded me of the Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple. With Alice Braga as the very nice person that everyone wants to kill. Read my full review.

B+ Invasion of the Body Snatchers double bill: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) & Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Roxie, Friday. The best alien imageinvasion movie of the 1950’s (and no, that’s not damning with faint praise), is noir, sci-fi, and political allegory. Whether it’s an anti-Communist parable or an anti-McCarthy one depends on your point of view. The 1978 remake, made in San Francisco, isn’t quite as good as the original, but it’s still an enjoyable thriller. Each film earns a B+. Phil Kaufman, who directed the 1978 version, will be there in person.

B+ Unforgiven, Castro, Sunday, 6:25. For most of the film’s runtime, Unforgiven brilliantly critiques and deconstructs the western genre. Violence is ugly, painful, and unforgiven_2cruel. What’s more, it never solves anything. "It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man," says Eastwood’s character, "You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have." But it all falls apart in the last act, when it becomes worse than unbelievable. It destroys everything that the film said up until that point, and turning a great film into a disappointment. You can read my longer essay, but be warned; it has spoilers. On a double bill with American Sniper.

A Bonnie and Clyde, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. This low-budget gangster movie, produced by and starring Warren Beatty , hit imagea nerve with young audiences in 1967 and became a big surprise hit. Shocking in its time for both the violence and sexual frankness (matching a horny Bonnie with an impotent Clyde), it still hits below the belt today. The title characters become alienated youth, glamorous celebrities, good kids who made a bad decision, selfish jerks, and tragic heroes with a sealed fate.

A+ Brazil, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30. One of the best black comedies ever  filmed, and the best dystopian fantasy on celluloid. In a bizarre, repressive, anallybrazil bureaucratic, and thoroughly dysfunctional society, one government worker (Jonathan Pryce) tries to escape into his own romantically heroic imagination. But when he finds a real woman who looks like the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), everything starts to fall apart. With Robert De Niro as a heroic plumber. This is the second and best of Gilliam’s three great fantasies of the 1980’s, and the only one clearly intended for adults. Read my Blu-ray review.

A The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Considering the unethical behavior of the three leads, Sergio Leone’s epic Civil War western should have been called The Bad, image_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumbthe Worse, and the Totally Reprehensible. While the Civil War rages around them, three outlaws battle lawmen, prison guards, and each other for a fortune in stolen gold. They’re all killers, but morality is relative when armies are slaughtering thousands. Check your scruples at the door and enjoy the double- and triple-crosses, the black comedy, the beautiful Techniscope photography of Spain doubling as the American west, and Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Read my longer report.

A Sunset Boulevard, Castro, Wednesday. Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s  imageseedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history.

A The Big Lebowski, Castro, Thursday. I revisited this cult favorite last year, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.) On a double bill with Cutter’s Way.

A- The Princess Bride, New Parkway, opens Friday. William Goldman’s enchantingimage and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright , back when they were young and gorgeous, 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 can grate on your nerves.

B+ Under African Skies, Lark, Saturday, 8:00. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which covers the making of Paul Simon’s hit album Graceland and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe 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. Despite a few brief scenes of jam sessions, it left me wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end. Also on the bill: The  Vukani Mawethu Choir.

B+ British Genius Double Bill: The Imitation Game & The Theory of Everything, Castro, Monday. Two very good showcases for English acting., Theimage Imitation Game takes considerable liberties with the life of Alan Turing, but successfully provides an entertaining story. See my longer article. Since Stephen Hawking is still alive, we can safely assume that The Theory of Everything is the authorized version. But it still works as a drama covering many decades in the man’s life. Read my full comments. Each film earns an B+ on its own merits.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Balboa, Lark, opens Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: A documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

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: April 3 – 9

The Tiburon International Film Festival officially opens Thursday, although the first movie screening will be the following Friday.

But here are a few movies actually playing this week:

B+ Girlhood, Elmwood, opens Friday. Considering Marieme’s family situation, it’s no surprise she’s doing badly in school. Her mother works long hours and is rarely imagehome. There’s no mention of a father. Her older brother is abusive and violent. French society is pushing her towards a future of menial labor. So she joins up with three girls who wear cool clothing, strut with confidence, and take what they want–often with the threat of violence. Writer/Director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies) tells her story with an unblinking but sympathetic eye, showing what makes this new life attractive while revealing the rot beneath.

The Man I Killed (also known as Broken Lullaby), Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. Soon after the end of World War I, a young French veteran (Phillips imageHolmes), deeply guilty about killing a German soldier on the battlefield, seeks out the man’s family to apologize. But once there, his courage fails him and he lies about his connection to their son. He also falls in love with his victim’s fiancé. Unfortunately, the star’s acting chops weren’t up to the part; he overplayed to the point of deep annoyance. The rest of the cast is excellent. A surprisingly serious work by Ernst Lubitsch. For more on this film, see Rare Lubitsch in New York. On a double bill with Love Me Tonight.

D- The Passion of the Christ, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) & Wednesday. Mel Gibson’s religious mess can best be described as ultra-reverent, self-righteous torture imageporn. For the bulk of its 127 minutes, it shows you nothing but a healthy, good-looking man being beaten, tortured, and killed in the most graphic way possible. The picture had a few good moments, almost all of them in the all-too-short flashbacks, but for the most part the film is just gross. Is the movie anti-Semitic? That’s a question that requires more context than I can put into this brief paragraph. I suggest you read My Thoughts on The Passion of the Christ.

B Seven Years Bad Luck, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This Max Linder vehicle hits its comic peak early, when Max’s servants imageconspire to keep him ignorant of a broken mirror. One servant, who vaguely resembles Linder, stands on the other side of the empty mirror frame and imitates his master’s every move while shaving. It’s the old mirror routine (Groucho and Harpo did it in Duck Soup), but I’ve never seen it done as well as here. The rest of the film plays fine, but never again reaches that level. Max keeps expecting to have a lot of bad luck. That sort of thing tends to be self-fulfilling. With Felix the Cat and Mary Astor shorts. Bruce Loeb will provide piano accompaniment.

A Dr. Strangelove, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30; UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. General imageJack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders 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 almost as competent as 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 wrote about it more detail in 2013.

A Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, Clay, Friday & Saturday, 11:55pm. The most-loved Star Trek movie gives us everything that its predecessor failed to deliver: an imageexciting and entertaining adventure starring the seven actors and characters that we learned to love from the original TV show.–and a chance for several of those actors to shine. Ricardo Montalban reprises his supervillain Khan from one first-season episode. This has almost everything you would want in a Star Trek movie.

A Shadow of a Doubt, Cerrito, Thursday, 8:00. In Alfred Hitchcock’s first great American film, a serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming) returns to his small-town roots. When his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that all is not right with her beloved Uncle Charlie, her own life is in danger. Cotton’s performance makes the movie. Most of the time he’s warm, friendly, and relaxed. But he can turn brooding and dark, and say things that no well-adjusted person could possibly say. Written in part by Our Town playwright Thorton Wilder. The locations were shot in Santa Rosa.

A Only Angels Have Wings, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Cary Grant heads a imageteam of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. The only non-comedy out of the five films that Grant made for director Howard Hawks. On a double bill with something called Gambling Ship.

B+ 2001: A Space Odyssey, New Parkway, Thursday, 9;00. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got 2001almost everything wrong. Although I’ve lost my love of Stanley Kubrick, there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–and you’re not going to get anything near that experience at the New Parkway.

B+ Magician: The life and times of Citizen Welles, Roxie, opens Friday. Every cinephile must contemplate the strange phenomenon of Orson Welles. His first film, Citizen Kane, has frequently been called the "greatest film ever made." And yet he spent most of his life a failure, scrambling to raise money to make films, few of which made any money back. Chuck Workman’s documentary wisely replaces the usual voice-of-god narration with interviews–both archival and original–with friends, co-workers, admirers, lovers, and, of course, Welles, himself. Magician suffers from an ignore-the-warts perspective, but it’s still an informative and entertaining look at a sometimes great artist. Read my full review.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Guild, starts Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

What’s Screening: March 27 – April 2

The Sonoma International Film Festival runs Through Sunday, which is the only day for the Albany Film Festival.

B The Wrecking Crew, Opera Plaza, Rafael, Shattuck, opens Friday. Now you can meet the artists behind the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," and the theme music for Mission: Impossible. This mostly entertaining Carol Kayedocumentary introduces the successful but little-known musicians who added magic to some of the best songs of the 1960s. The musicians profiled include Carol Kaye or the late Tommy Tedesco (the director’s father); you may not know those names, but you’ve heard their playing. The film lacks a strong narrative line, and thus sags a bit in the middle. But for the most part, it’s a fun look at how professional music gets (or got) made. Read my full review. Director Denny Tedesco will do Q&A at these times and locations:

  • Rafael: Friday, 7:00 show
  • Shattuck: Saturday, 2:35 show
  • Opera Plaza: Saturday, 7:25 show

A- Elevator to the Gallows, Castro, Thursday. Louis Malle launched his directing career, and arguably the New Wave, with this noir tale of a perfect crime gone wrong. Laced with dark, ironic humor, the film cuts back and forth between a murderer (Maurice Ronet) trapped in an elevator in a building closed for the weekend, the murderer’s lover (Jeanne Moreau) wandering the streets searching for him, and two young lovers enjoying a crime spree in a stolen car (they stole it from the murderer). And all of is set to a powerful jazz score by Miles Davis. Read my longer comments. On a double bill with Orson Welles’ The Trial, which I saw long ago and didn’t like.

B+ The Red Shoes, Lark, Sunday, 1:00; Wednesday, 5:30. This 1948 Technicolor fable about  sacrificing oneself for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their art, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet sequence is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I’ve discussed The Red Shoes in more detail.

B West Side Story, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songsWest Side Story and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen musical. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in. See West Side Story in 70mm for more on the movie–even though the Balboa will not be showing it in 70mm..

A- Selma, New Parkway, opens Friday. I found it difficult at first to accept David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Tom Wilkinson as LBJ. They didn’t look and sound right. But as the film progressed, I accepted them and got lost in the powerful imageand (unfortunately) still timely story. I had no problem accepting Carmen Ejogo’s spot-on perfect performance as Coretta Scott King. The film’s biggest strength comes from its picture of King as a flawed human being filled with doubts, exhaustion, and guilt–a man who would lie to his wife, badly, about his infidelities–but still a great hero. The film’s biggest mistake was letting us meet this real person before showing us the great orator that he is his public image.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Sonoma Woman’s Club, Thursday, 3:15. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the thrills, terrors, and transitions of teenage life through the looking glass of high schoolimage movies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail about a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining. Part of the Sonoma International Film Festival.

What’s Screening: March 20 – 26

We’ve got three festivals this week:

A Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, Elmwood, opens Friday. If a film makes me cry, it gets an A. This documentary about the imagehorrific, homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die. In telling his story, Director Michele Josue wisely focuses on his friends and–more importantly–his parents. The result is deeply sad, but also inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings. Read my full review.

C+ Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, Rafael, Roxie, opens Friday. This is a very pleasant picture. For almost two hours, you get to hang out with three very likeable imagepeople who, in their travels together, meet other likeable people (and some who aren’t that nice). The scenery is lovely. In 1966 Spain, a middle-aged Beatles fanatic sets out by car to meet John Lennon, who’s in Spain shooting a movie. On the way, the fan picks up one young teenager and then another, and they become something of a temporary family. The movie is sweet, upbeat, and touching. But that’s about it. Read my full review.

The Great Nickelodeon Show, Vogue, Thursday, 8:00. In the early 20th century, the imagenickelodeons were the first theaters to specialize is showing motion pictures. They screened one-reel shorts and slideshows, added sing-a-longs and live vaudeville, and charged only five cents admission. This recreation of the experience will have shorts from Melies and Griffith, a contortionist, illustrated songs, and Frederick Hodges accompanying the movies on piano. But no, they can’t afford to let you in for five cents. Admission is $12.

A- The Great Dictator, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. Charlie Chaplin made his one good talkie on his first attempt, playing dual roles as a Jewish barber (basically the tramp with a voice and an imageethnicity), and Der Fooey, Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania. Slapstick and dark satire seldom work well together, but they do here. Many people criticize the final scene, where Chaplin faces the camera and pleas for peace, tolerance, and democracy, but I’ve seen audiences burst into applause as it concludes. I have to admit that I’ve burst into applause myself. With Paulette Goddard (his wife at the time) as the barber’s romantic interest and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini-like Napaloni – Dictator of Bacteria.

A Leonard Nimoy Tribute Star Trek Double Bill: The Wrath of Khan & The Search for Spock, Balboa, Wednesday, 7:00. The A goes to The Wrath of Khan, the most-imageloved Star Trek movie ever. It’s an exciting and entertaining adventure starring the seven actors and characters that we learned to love from the original TV show.–and a chance to let several of those actors shine. The sequel, The Search for Spock, is only a moderately entertaining actioner, with some interesting scenes of the crew off-duty on Earth. Nimoy is hardly in this one, but it’s his debut as a director. I’d give it a C+.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Burlingame Hall, Thursday, 3:15. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the thrills, terrors, and transitions of teenage life through the looking glass of high schoolimage movies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining. Part of the Sonoma International Film Festival.

B+ Aliens, UA Berkeley,Thursday, 9:00. Like most sequels, James Cameron’s first big-budget movie isn’t as good as the original Alien, but it comes close.. Less of a imagehorror film and more of an action picture (or, arguably, a war movie), it strands a platoon of marines on a barely hospitable planet infested with the big, egg-laying predators. Sigourney Weaver stars again. Unfortunately, the UA will screen the original, 137-minute cut. Cameron’s 154-minute director’s cut, which to my knowledge has never been shown theatrically. That one goes into more character detail and is a much better film. I’d give that version an A.

A The Maltese Falcon, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice maltesefalconbefore, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay (by Huston) that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett motion 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. This movie is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

A+ Some Like It Hot, Castro, Sunday; Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic imagemasterpiece. 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. The Castro screening is a double-bill with the only other Wilder/Monroe collaboration, The Seven Year Itch.

A+ Rear Window, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment imageand 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) 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 Blade Runner, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget imagevariety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. Read my longer essay.

B The Man Who Fell to Earth, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30. Movies were pretty weird in the ‘70s, but they didn’t get much weirder than this—at least with a major director and stars. David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, but imageinstead discovers capitalism, TV, alcohol, and human sex. Yet it’s not entirely clear what the film is about. Nicolas Roeg directed it, so you know that the movie won’t be about story. But the images are intriguing, the central characters are puzzles that cry out to be solved, and it has some very sexy scenes for your enjoyment. If for no other reason, see it to remind yourself what science fiction films could be like in the years between 2001 and Star Wars. Part of the series Cracked Actor: David Bowie On Screen.

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