What’s Screening: July 24 – 30

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs through this weekend and beyond. And the Brainwash Movie Festival opens tonight, runs through the weekend, takes the week off, then revives for next weekend. I’ve placed the festival films that I’ve seen at the bottom of this newsletter.

A+ Red River, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

John Wayne gives one of his best performances, showing us the villain in the hero and the hero in the villain as the Captain Bligh figure in this western variation on Mutiny on the Bounty. The character starts out as your classic Wayne hero—strong, stubborn, a man of his word who is quick with a gun. But these traits prove his moral undoing as he leads others on a dangerous cattle drive. To make matters worse, his adopted son (Montgomery Clift in his breakout role) leads the rebellion. Read my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Film discussion.

A- Aparajito, Rafael, Sunday

As is so common with trilogies, the middle film is the weakest. But with the Apu Trilogy, the weakest can be far from weak. In Aparajito, Apu grows from late childhood into late adolescence, and his view of India and the world widens considerably. He excels in school and becomes excited by science. In many ways, it’s a more optimistic film than its predecessor; this kid just might be going places. But there’s a heavy price to pay for advancement out of his class. His now widowed mother can’t bear to lose her last surviving child to the world. See my discussion of the entire trilogy.

B+ This Is Spinal Tap, Lark, Saturday, 8:00

The mockumentary to end all rockumentaries. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer play the subject of this fake documentary–an English heavy metal band of questionable talent on a disastrous American tour. Director Rob Reiner plays, appropriately enough, the documentary’s director. Uneven, but often brilliantly hilarious, although you need a good grounding in rock music and concert movies to get most of the jokes. On a scale of one to ten, the best scenes rate an eleven.

B+ American Graffiti, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30

A long time ago, in a Bay 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.

Blade Runner, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30

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 variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. 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.

The Big Lebowski, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

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.) Read my full report.

B+
Scarlet StreetStanford, through Friday

If you’re lonely, bored, professionally unfulfilled, and stuck in a bad marriage, beware of beautiful women who seem interested in you–especially if you look like Edward G. Robinson. A cashier who dabbles in painting on the side (Robinson) falls for a dame who easily wraps him around her finger (Joan Bennett). Soon he’s stealing from his boss and letting the dame take credit for his suddenly successful paintings. You know this isn’t going to go well. A fine noir written by Dudley Nichols and directed by Fritz Lang. On a double bill with Father of the Bride.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A- My Shortest Love Affair, Castro, Wednesday, 6:30; CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, 6:15

Funny, serious, sexy, and true to life, this French gem catches the struggles and futility of a bad romance. Months after a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy, Louisa (Karin Albou, who also wrote and directed) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) move in together to raise their soon-to-be-born child. But they’re hopelessly incompatible. They like different music. He’s allergic to her cat. She takes her Jewish identity seriously; he doesn’t. But worst of all, they’re horrible together in bed. Attempts at sex continually turn into arguments. (Both stars are naked for much of the film, and you can clearly see that Albou was very pregnant while directing and acting with her clothes off.) The only misstep is the ending, which is too quick and convenient.

The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, Castro, Saturday, 6:50; CineArts (Palo Alto),Monday, 6:30

Two cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, built a successful Israeli movie studio, then moved to Los Angeles, mass-produced action flicks, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse. Hilla Madalia’s documentary, filled with interviews and film clips, entertains and informs, but isn’t really exceptional. Both men, and especially the more artistic Golan, make good on-screen interview subjects, and their interviews carry the movie.

A La Vie (To Life), CineArts (Palo Alto), Saturday, 8:30

Three Auschwitz survivors, best friends in the camp, reunite at a French beach resort in 1962. The story concentrates on Hélène (Julie Depardieu); married and very much in love with a man who was castrated by the Nazis (Hippolyte Girardot), her desires and her loyalties are in serious conflict. Rose (Suzanne Clément) seems at first to be the healthiest mentally, but her short temper belies issues she doesn’t want to surface. Lily (Johanna ter Steege) seems way ahead of her time as an activist for a feminist, egalitarian Judaism. The story is reasonably well-told, but predictable.

The Law, Castro, Tuesday, 9:00, CineArts (Palo Alto), Wednesday, 8:50

A great cause doesn’t always make a great film. France’s struggle to legalize abortion in the mid-1970s comes off as a lot of compromises and backdoor deals done in smoke-filled rooms (literally smoke-filled; it’s France in the 1970s). As the film’s heroine, Minister of Health Simone Veil (Rue Mandar) comes off as steadfast and strong, but not particularly interesting. A subplot concerning a young photographer who wants to become a real journalist shows some human interest, but not enough. The real story, of pregnant women facing disaster, comes in only rarely.

C-  Mr. Kaplan, CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, 8:35

In Uruguay at the end of the 20th century, an old, senile Jewish man almost randomly decides that an equally old German man is a Nazi in hiding. So he teams up with an unemployed, alcoholic loser of an ex-cop to bring the mass murderer to justice. Writer/director Alvaro Brechner tries to mix broad comedy with sentimental drama, but he only moderately succeeds with either style, and never succeeds in bringing them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.

What’s Screening: July 17 – 23

The Frozen Film Festival opens today and runs through the weekend. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday night.

Here’s what else is screening:

Tangerine, Embarcadero Center, California (Berkeley), opens Friday

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be. Sean Baker’s tale of a transgender prostitute out for justice creates just that sort of magic. Fast, frenetic, funny, and sad, Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, probably because it was shot entirely on iPhones. And yes, that works, allowing the filmmakers to capture the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood. The most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. Did I tell you it’s a Christmas movie? Read my full review. Special appearances by filmmakers at the Embarcadero (Friday after the 7:30 show) and the California (Saturday, after the 7:20 show)

B+ Mr. Holmes, Clay, Albany, Piedmont, Guild, opens Friday

Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes as an old man and as a very old man—mostly the later—in this entertaining but not too deep 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—to correct Watson’s exaggerations—before senility sinks too deep. For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies. Read my full review.

Panther Panchali, Rafael, Sunday

Our hero’s birth starts this first chapter of Satyajit Ray’s great Apu Trilogy, which then skips a few years so we can know him as a curious and mischievous child. Upbeat in nature, Apu seems to delight in the world around him–despite considerable hardship. His rural family lives in desperate poverty, and his educated but dreamy father’s unrealistic optimism doesn’t help. Apu’s mother is far more level-headed, and that makes her far more scared. Meanwhile, Apu and his older sister Durga play and fight and avoid their responsibilities. There’s a great deal of joy in this film, but a greater deal of tragedy. The Rafael will screen the trilogy chronologically over the course of three Sundays. Read my Apu discussion.

B+ Scarlet Street, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday

If you’re lonely, bored, professionally unfulfilled, and stuck in a bad marriage, beware of beautiful women who seem interested in you–especially if you look like Edward G. Robinson. A cashier who dabbles in painting on the side (Robinson) falls for a dame who easily wraps him around her finger (Joan Bennett). Soon he’s stealing from his boss and letting the dame take credit for his suddenly successful paintings. You know this isn’t going to go well. A fine noir written by Dudley Nichols and directed by Fritz Lang. On a double bill with Father of the Bride.

Early British Hitchcock double bill: The Lady Vanishes & the 39 Steps, Castro, Sunday

If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were watching a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she was there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Of his work, only North by Northwest is more entertaining. Read my Blu-ray review. Although The 39 Steps is the lesser of these twoit’s very well made and an important step in Hitchcock’s transition to the Master of Suspense. The basic story, which he’d repeat twice again, involves an everyman (Robert Donat) chased both by evil foreign spies and the police.

Tommy, Lark, Saturday, 8:00

Ken Russell’s over-the-top film version of Pete Townsend’s and The Who’s rock opera hits you over the head with all the subtlety of Pete Townsend smashing a guitar, while turning a parable of spiritual quest into a carnival satire of materialism and cults. Oliver Reed proves he can’t sing as he plays a male version of the stereotypical evil stepmother, but Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margaret sing, dance, and act like the professionals they are. So do Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, and Elton John in smaller roles. Townsend’s music is still brilliant, and if this isn’t the best version of Tommy, it’s certainly the most fun.

Double Indemnity, various CineMark theaters, Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday

Rich, unhappy, and evil housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray by the libido from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s near-perfect thriller. 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 great, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal, Double Indemnity can reasonably be called the first true film noir.

Pulp Fiction, Castro, Saturday

Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong. On a double bill with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which I haven’t seen in a very long time.

To Kill A Mockingbird, Elmwood, Sunday, 11:00am; Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

The Elmwood will screen the film digitally off a DCP; the Stanford 35mm film. So you can choose your preferred technology, or go to both theaters and compare them.
The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel manages 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’s only believable because the story is told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter, Scout. (It’s worth noting that in the new sequel to the novel, the now-grown Scout discovers her father’s flaws.) The Stanford will screen it on a double bill with Billy Wilder’s comic murder mystery, Witness for the Prosecution.

B+ Fight Club, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guy and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains more credibility than a Fox News commentary. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.

West Side Story, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00

West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs 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 Paramount will screen the movie in 35mm (and, I assume in mono).

What’s Screening: July 10 – 16

No film festivals this week, but there are still plenty of movies.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Castro, Sunday, 1:00

An evil, megalomaniac music teacher imprisons young boys in his strange world and forces them to play the piano. The only Dr. Seuss feature film made during his lifetime and with is input is as creative, visually daring, and funny as one would expect. Even the sets, photographed in three-strip Technicolor, look as if Seuss had painted them himself. At least that’s how I remember it. I haven’t seen Dr. T in many years.

A Airplane!, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

They’re flying on instruments, blowing the autopilot, and translating English into Jive. So win one for the Zipper, but whatever you do, don’t call him “Shirley.” Airplane! throws jokes like confetti–carelessly tossing them in all directions in hopes that some might hit their target. Surprisingly enough, most of them do. There’s no logical reason why a movie this silly can be so satisfying, but then logic never was part of the Airplane! formula. I’d be hard-pressed to name another post-silent feature-length comedy with such a high laugh-to-minute ratio.

? 3-D Rarities, Rafael, Sunday

I’ve seen two collections of 3D shorts in recent years (SFIFF and Mill Valley), but as near as I can tell, there aren’t many repeats in this one. It includes the earliest extant 3D film (from 1922), a color 3D short from the 1940 World’s Fair, a Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon from 1953, and various 3D trailers.

B- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Castro, Sunday

Howard Hawks’  musical battle of the sexes contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the leading ladies. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a star, but co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water, giving a far funnier and sexier performance. On a Marilyn Monroe double bill with Niagara.

A+ Groundhog Day, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

Spiritual, humane, and hilarious, Groundhog Day wraps its thoughtful world view inside a slick, 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.

The Maltese Falcon, Castro, Wednesday

Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay (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. On a double bill with In a Lonely Place.

A Blade Runner, Castro, Monday and Tuesday

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 variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. 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.

Christopher Lee double bill: Horror of Dracula & the Wicker Man, Castro, Thursday

I haven’t seen either of these films in decades, but I have fond memories of both of them. I remember Horror of Dracula as a stylish, lurid, and–for 1958–rather sexy adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. I recall loving The Wicker Man as an anti-Puritan, pro-Pagan movie until…I should stop before giving too much away.

? The Lighthouse By the Sea, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

I haven’t seen this 1924 Warner Brothers programmer, but it stars Rin-Tin-Tin–the most charismatic movie star ever to walk on four legs and wear his own fur coat. The plot has something to do with outsmarting smugglers. But the title worries me; where else would you put a lighthouse? Also on the bill is the cute and entertaining A Canine Sherlock Holmes (it played at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival) and the Keystone classic Teddy at the Throttle, which I haven’t seen. With Bruce Loeb on the piano.

C+ Way Out West, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 4:00

Many fans count this western parody amongst Laurel and Hardy’s best movies, but I’m not one of them. It has its funny moments, including a very famous dance routine, but in too many places  the film drags. Like so many of their features, it gets hung up in plot (a plot, by the way, which the Marx Brothers stole for their western parody, Go West). L&H were always at their best in plotless or near-plotless stories.

? Mystery Science Theater 3000New 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: July 3 – 9

No festivals this week. And unless I’ve missed something, it will be almost three weeks before the next one.

A+ The Third Man, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday

New 4K restoration. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both newly dead and a wanted criminal. Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. See my longer discussion on Noir City Opening Night.

C+In Stereo, Roxie, opens Friday

This story of former lovers who may or may not get back together has its own rewards, but also some serious flaws. Not funny enough to be a comedy nor deep enough to be a drama, it merely glides along on the charisma of the two leads, never really bringing us into their souls. In Stereo comes most alive in the second half, when the couple dance around the possibility of getting back together. Micah Hauptman and Beau Garrett have a nice chemistry together, and it’s easy to root for them falling back into love. Read my full review.

Andrei Rublev, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00

How can a film that’s plotless, episodic, slow, and runs 205 minutes be so good? Andrei Rublev tells us multiple stories in the life of the title character–a famous 15th-century religious painter. Sometimes an active participant and sometimes a passive observer, Rublev observes is a world of poverty, faith, political and religious conflict, and horrifying, seemingly random violence. Andrei Tarkovsky’s great medieval epic questions the meaning of faith in a hostile universe, while emphasizing its immense importance. Truly magnificent. Part of the series The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky.

A- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

Ang Lee and James Schamus turn the period kung fu epic into a character study of warriors who must choose between love and duty. The action scenes are among the most amazing ever filmed—complete with the gravity-defying leaps found only in Hong Kong cinema—but with a very human story at its core.

B+ V For Vendetta, New Parkway, Friday, 10:00

Stunningly subversive for a big-budget Hollywood explosion movie, V For Vendetta celebrates rebellion against an oppressive, ultra-Christian government that feeds on hatred of Muslims and homosexuals. It works as an escapist fantasy action flick and as a call to arms, but when its hero crosses the line (and he does), it forces you to wonder just what is justified in the fight against tyranny.

A+ Hungry fish double bill: Jaws & Piranha, Castro, Sunday

The A+ goes to Jaws, which starts as a suspenseful, witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, and ends as a hair-raising variation on Moby Dick. Its huge success made Steven Spielberg famous. See my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article. Roger Corman’s low-budget Jaws rip-off, Piranha, has little wit, not much suspense, and a handful of modest but effective action scenes. But it’s John Sayles’ first produced screenplay, which makes it historically interesting. I give it a C.

A+ Casablanca, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

You’ve either already seen 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, the sausage came out perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

A- The Princess Bride, Clay, Friday & Saturday, 1:55PM (just before midnight)

William Goldman’s enchanting 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.

A- Ex Machina, Castro, Tuesday; New Parkway, opens Friday

This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the Turing 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. The Castro will screen Ex Machina on a double bill with Under the Skin.

C+ Dracula (1931 version)Stanford, through Friday

The film that started Universal’s famed horror series, and the first to star Bela Lugosi in the role that made him famous, really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies, especially those based on stage plays. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless. On a double bill with This Old Dark House.

What’s Screening: June 26 – July 2

Two film festivals this week:

B+ The Cheat, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 12:30

Cecil B. Demille’s darkly erotic melodrama of lust, greed, and conspicuous consumption was way ahead of its time–especially in its use of evocative and atmospheric lighting. A society wife who spends too much of her husband’s money (Fannie Ward) becomes dangerously fascinated with a good-looking but potentially dangerous Asian (Sessue Hayakawa, who easily gives the best performance in the film). Yes, it’s racist, but not too much by the standards of 1915. Preceded by the short The Doll House Mystery. Introduced by yours truly, Lincoln Spector. Part of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

Kiss Me Kate, Rafael, opens Friday for one week, 3D

I used to call this 1953 musical my all-time favorite 3D movie, but that was at a time when I hadn’t seen all that many 3D features. Very stagy and very sexist, it’s both a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, and a backstage comedy about a production of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Hermes Pan’s choreography steals the show, and makes full use of the extra dimension.

What! No Beer?, Roxie, Sunday, 7:00

I haven’t seen this Buster Keaton/Jimmy Durante comedy from 1933, but in general, I find Keaton’s MGM talkies depressing. Between sound, the loss of artistic control, and his personal issues, his films of this period are but a shadow of his once-great work. As part of the Roxie’s Science on Screen series, brew master Shaun O’Sullivan will discuss his craft before the movie.

A+ The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:30

As much as any other artist, John Ford defined and deepened the myth of the American West. But in his last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford tears that myth down, reminding us that a myth is, when you come right down to it, a lie. Avoiding beautiful scenery and even color (a black and white western was a risky investment in 1962), Ford strips this story down to the essentials, and splits the classic Western hero into two: the man of principle (James Stewart) and the gunfighter (John Wayne). Part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

A Hard Day’s Night, Castro, Thursday, 7:30

When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a suddenly popular British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, and 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. On a double bill with the Maysles brothers’ documentary on the flip side of Woodstock, Gimme Shelter; I haven’t seen this one recently enough to give it a grade.

A+ Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

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 threequel; 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+ Jaws, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00

People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really begins. For that first half, Jaws is a suspenseful, witty 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 get on 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.

C+ Dracula (1931 version), Stanford, Wednesday through Friday

The film that started Universal’s famed horror series, and the first to star Bela Lugosi in the role that made him famous, really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies, especially those based on stage plays. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless. On a double bill with This Old Dark House.

A- Iris, Lark, Sunday, 3:35; Tuesday, 6:20

Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling. Read my full review.

What’s Screening: June 19 – 25

In festival news, Frameline continues through this week. But, in a push against Frameline, Outside the Frame opens today and runs through Sunday. No, it’s not a Republican homophobic festival, but one that “challenges Frameline’s complicity with Israeli apartheid,” under the banner “Queers for Palestine.”

Akeelah and the Bee, Roxie, Sunday, 10:30am

A talent for spelling gives Akeelah—a poor, eleven-year-old African American—a shot at escaping the ghetto. But first, she’s going to have to learn about more than words from her mentor, played by Laurence Fishburne. Yes, it’s inspirational, but that’s not always a bad thing. A family movie screening at the Frameline LGBTQ festival.

Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

The monthly collection of two-reelers includes one of Buster Keaton’s best, One Week. I can also recommend the Laurel and Hardy entry, You’re Darn Tootin’–not they’re best silent but very funny. I haven’t seen the Chaplin short, Shanghaied, or the Charley Chase entry, No Father to Guide Him.

B+ Godzilla, Bal Theatre, San Leandro, Saturday, 7:00

Made in a country with recent memories of horrific bombings and destroyed cities, the original Godzilla presents the emotions of mass terror far more vividly than any of Hollywood’s giant monster movies of the same decade. Without English dubbing or added scenes with Raymond Burr, it’s a much better movie than you’d expect. It’s also, of course, the seed of one of cinema’s most popular and long-lasting franchises. The cast includes Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. Also on the bill: A new documentary on Japanese horror films called Kaiju Gaiden.

A+ Jaws, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday

People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really begins. For that first half, Jaws is a suspenseful, witty 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 get on 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+ Casablanca, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55PM (just before midnight)

You’ve either already seen 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.

A- Harold and Maude, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

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 embraced 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 screenwriter Colin Higgins had found a better ending. See my full discussion.

C+ Serenity, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30

Like many superb, original shows that somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Joss Whedon’s Firefly failed to find an audience and died after only a few episodes. 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, the movie’s 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.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

Absolutely the worst Indiana Jones movie ever. First, Spielberg and company tried to make it dark and atmospheric, but only succeeded in making it unpleasant. Second, leading lady Kate Capshaw, now Spielberg’s wife, gives a performance about 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, child-like Indians from their evil, fanatical compatriots.

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, 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 playing 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 the play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Read my full review.

What’s Screening: June 12 – 18

I have a confession to make. Years ago, the San Francisco Black Film Festival fell off my radar, and I haven’t been promoting it since. That’s why I didn’t note its opening night last week. I won’t let that happen again. It runs through Sunday.

Here are this week’s other festivals. There are a lot of them:

The Apu Trilogy, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday

It’s been way too long since I’ve seen Satyajit Ray’s trilogy about a young boy growing into a man, which is why I’m giving it a question mark rather than the obvious A or A+. All three films will be screened throughout the week from new 4K restorations (although they will be screened in 2K). Sorry, but you have to pay a separate admission for each film. On Sunday, in Berkeley, at the 7:15 show, San Francisco Film Society Programmer Rod Armstrong will introduce the first film, Pather Panchali.

Laurel & Hardy Shorts, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:30. FREE

The East Bay will actually host two separate series of Laurel and Hardy shorts on Sunday, almost simultaneously. But the three shorts screening at the PFA–Busy Bodies, County Hospital, and the one that won them their only Oscar, The Music Box–represent the comedy team at their best. The other screening is at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

The Magnificent Ambersons, Rafael, Sunday

It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Orson Welles’ second film–or at least what’s left of it after RKO severely recut it between previews and premiere. I remember it being warm and nostalgic, with a strong sense of loss for a way of life that is no more. Film historian Joseph McBride will discuss the studio-mandated changes.

B+ Himalaya, Rafael, Monday, 2:00

This narrative feature, that feels very much like a documentary, takes you to one of the most remote places human beings call home–Nepal’s harsh, high-altitude Dolpo region. Members of a small tribe must move over treacherous mountains to sell the salt they have gathered–a trip that would be dangerous enough without internal strife. But the chief’s son and heir apparent has just died, and the aging leader won’t give his blessing to the man most competent to lead the journey. Set against breathtaking scenery, Himalaya brings us into a culture most of us will never experience first-hand. Part of a one-day event benefitting Nepalese earthquake recovery.

A- Leave Her to Heaven, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30

Gene Tierney’s “woman who loves too much” isn’t the typical film noir femme fatale, seducing men to their doom in her quest for material ends. She doesn’t need material things, but she needs her man (Cornel Wilde) so desperately she can’t bear the thought of sharing him with friends or family. And she’s willing to do anything to keep him to herself. Tierney gets top billing, but the real star of Leave Her to Heaven is Technicolor–a rarity for 40s noir–that helps capture the many scenic locations.

The Terminator, various CineMark theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00

James Cameron’s first hit provides non-stop thrills that keep you on the edge of a heart attack. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title character–a heartless machine sent back in time to murder the future mother of the man who will save humanity. Simple, straightforward, and modestly budgeted (three things you can’t say about recent Cameron pictures), The Terminator maintains an internal logic rare in time travel stories. Besides, it offers a now-rare view of our ex-governor’s naked butt. With Linda Hamilton as the killing machine’s intended victim, and Michael Biehn as the man sent back in time to save her.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock/Ernest Lehman double bill: North By Northwest & Family Plot, Castro, Wednesday

The A+ goes to Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, North by Northwest. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while spending quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint. I can only give Family Plot, Hitchcock’s last film, a C. It has its moments, but not many of them, and it overdoes the suave, gentlemanly villain to the point where he isn’t scary. These are the only collaborations between Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

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. There’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.

A+ Die Hard, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

The 1980s was a great decade for big, loud action movies, and this just may be the best. It starts out as a relationship drama about a New York cop (Bruce Willis) in LA for Christmas, hoping to win back his estranged wife and kids. About half an hour into the movie, a group of Not Very Nice People take over the office building, interrupt a holiday party, and hold everyone hostage. Well, everyone except Willis, who spends the rest of the movie playing cat-and-mouse with the bad guys, bonding with an LA cop over a walkie-talkie, and mumbling about his rotten luck. The result is top-notch entertainment–even if its politics lean a bit to the right. See my appreciation.

A- Iris, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling. Read my full review.

A+ Casablanca, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55PM (just before midnight)

You’ve either already seen 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.

Mystery Science Theater 3000New 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.

Sing-a-Long Sound of Music, Castro, Saturday

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 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. I have not actually experienced the sing-a-long version.

C- Vertigo, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

I know. For many cinephiles, this isn’t just Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest films ever made. But I just don’t get it. 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.

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