What’s Screening: September 26 – October 2

The Iranian Film Festival runs through the weekend. And the fall’s biggie, the Mill Valley Film Festival, opens Thursday.

A Samuel Fuller Triple Bill: Pickup on South Street, Park Row, & A Fuller Life, Castro, Sunday. The A goes Pickup on South Street, a fantastic Cold War noir written and directed by the great Samuel Fuller. A pickpocket (Richard Widmark) steals a wallet containing top secret microfilm that was on its way to Soviet agents. Before you can say "Alfred Hitchcock," this petty thief is being chased about by the feds and the reds. Snappy dialog, well-choreographed action scenes (without today’s quick cutting), and the always wonderful Thelma Ritter keep it lively. This is my favorite Fuller film; I’ve written about it in more detail. Park Row, on the other hand, is Fuller at his didactic worst. This ode to the brave men of the 19th century newspaper business is mawkish and preachy. I haven’t seen A Fuller Life, Samantha Fullers’ documentary about her father.

A The Cartoon Genius of Chuck Jones, Oddball Films, Friday, 8:00. Few filmmakers understood comedy as well as animator extraordinaire Chuck Jones, who directed over 200 six-minute cartoons for Warner Brothers from the late 30s imageto the early 60s–many of them masterpieces. This evening’s selection includes such Warner gems as Rabbit Seasoning, Beep Prepared, and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century. But it leaves out much of his best work, including One Froggy Evening, What’s Opera, Doc, and Duck Amuck–possibly because they’re shown so often. Amongst his non-Warner work, Oddball will show the World War II training film Pvt. Snafu vs. Malaria Mike and Jones’ 1975 TV adaptation of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. All in 16mm.

B Tommy, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. 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 Beach Blanket Babylon, turning a parable of imagespiritual 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. He’s not the only embarrassment in the all-star cast, 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.

C- Gone With the Wind, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. I love big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s the blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, and generally just wince. But the racism in Gone with the Wind makes me cringe. The entire story depends on assumptions of white masters and black slaves as the natural order (you can read my in-depth comments). Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is pretty good, but boredom sets in after the intermission. The picture has one thing going for it: It used color far more creatively and effectively than any previous movie.

A- The Ladykillers (1955 version), Rafael, Sunday. In the 1950s, Britain’s Ealing Studios made several droll but wonderful comedies starring Alec Guinness, often imageabout crime. In The Ladykillers, probably the darkest Ealing comedy, Guinness leads a gang on a complex heist, and part of the complexity involves renting a room. But when their sweet, old landlady finds out that they’re not really musicians, their only option is to kill her–a task that proves far more difficult than they expected. Perhaps a more descriptive title would have been The Incompetent Ladykillers. Not be be confused with the Coen Brothers remake. The last film in the series Alec Guinness at 100.

B To Have and Have Not, Castro, Wednesday. This production ignited imagethe Bogart-Bacall romance, which itself ignites the screen. Aside from the considerable charisma and sexual sparks that its stars set off, it’s an entertaining tale of war-time intrigue but not really an exceptional one. A good movie with a couple of great scenes. On a double bill with Dark Passage, which I have yet to see.

A+ Casablanca, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. What can I say? You’ve either casablancaalready 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 To Kill A Mockingbird, Lark, Sunday, 1:10; Wednesday, 4:00. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel imagemanages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter. (Had there been a sequel set in her teen years, Atticus would have been an idiotic tyrant.)

A Dr. Strangelove, Roxie, Sunday. A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) imageorders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (several of them played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than the Three Stooges.  We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. On a Kubrick double bill with The Shining, which I’ve never seen. I have more to say on both Dr. Strangelove and Stanley Kubrick. Both films in 35mm.

F 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 imagemaking 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 The Hundred-Foot Journey, New Parkway, opens Friday. An Indian family in a small French town set up an eatery across the street from a famous and highly-imageregarded French restaurant, and the battle of culinary cultures begins. The first half is a lot of fun, but the main conflict gets settled–not very believably–way too soon. Then you spend too much time watching everyone be happy while waiting for two separate couples to realize that they’re in love. But I have to give kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren; this is the best photographed new film I’ve seen in a long time.

What’s Screening: September 19 – 25

The big event this week is the one-day Silent Autumn festival. I’ve placed festival films at the bottom of this newsletter.

C+ The Zero Theorem, 4-Star, Elmwood, opens Friday. In the 1980s, Terry Gilliam’s new film  feels like a less-effective retreat of his brilliant Brazil. Like that far superior picture, imageit’s set in a dystopian society that may be in the future, but in some strange ways feels like the past. Christoph Waltz stars as a brilliant programmer and mathematician trying to solve an impossible problem while his corporate overlords track him closely and watch everything he does. Although visually exciting and occasionally provocative, The Zero Theorem doesn’t actually go anywhere. See my full review.

A Giant, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00. James Dean only plays a supporting role in George Steven’s sprawling epic about 20th-century Texas. The picture really imagebelongs to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as a couple who marry almost on a whim and have to find common ground in the long decades of their marriage. As they age, the world evolves around them, with a world war, changing attitudes about race and gender, and a cattle economy transitioning to an oil-based one. Dennis Hopper plays Hudson and Taylor’s grown son, while Dean grows from his usual alienated youth to a middle-aged man. As James Dean’s last picture, it’s appropriate that Giant closes the series James Dean, Restored Classics from Warner Bros.

B+ American Pie, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. It’s easy to dismiss a Hollywood-financed horny teenager comedy as commercial schlock–especially one followed by imagetwo sequels. But this story of four male high school seniors determined to lose their virginity, and help their friends do the same, manages to be both raunchy and sweet, as well as very funny. Despite the Hollywood polish, it’s a reasonably accurate look at young, male sexuality. I know; I’ve been there.

A Red Desert, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00. No one has ever called Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness a thriller, yet it filled me with a red_desertsense of foreboding and dread that Alfred Hitchcock seldom matched. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a housewife and mother struggling to maintain her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large factory spewing poison into the air, water, and ground (Antonioni made absolutely sure that his first color film would not be beautiful). Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation. On a double bill with Mickey One, which I haven’t seen.

A+ Charlie Chaplin’s Silent Short Films, Roxie, Sunday, 2:00. Free admission for kids under 12. This selection includes three films from Chaplin’s amazing Mutual imageperiod–The Adventurer, Easy Street, and The Immigrant. All three are near-perfect examples of silent comedy. Also on the program, his second film and first as the Tramp, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Live scores provided by local musicians V.Vale, Ethan Li, Kevin Baricar, Benji Marx, and Matt Norman. Part of the Roxie Kids series.

B- Rebecca, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film feels little like a Hitchcock movie.imageBasically a weepie, it stars Joan Fontaine as a young American who marries a British aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), only to find that she has to compete with the memory of his dead first wife. This entertaining melodrama includes a fine, over-the-top performance by  Judith Anderson as the brooding servant who cannot bear to think that a usurper has replaced her lady. This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner, which just goes to show you how silly the Oscars can be.

B To Be Takei, New Parkway, opens Friday. Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered, George Takei would be the most beloved imagemember of the original cast. And why not? A childhood in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, a part in the iconic sci-fi TV series, and coming out as gay at age 67 all make for a great story. Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about this extraordinary person, filled with interviews, video of Takei and husband Brad Altman going about their daily business, and old movie and TV clips. It’s the story, not the story-telling, that makes this film worth seeing. Read my full review.

B Tarzan and His Mate, Stanford, Monday and Tuesday. The second and the best of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, while still juvenile–and, let’s face it, racist–imageentertainment, feels very different from the dumb sequels that followed. At this stage in their lives, Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan made a very sexy Tarzan and Jane, and since the movie was pre-code, the sexuality didn’t have to be hidden. (Okay, the nude swimming scene was cut soon after the film’s release, but it has since been restored.) The stars’ chemistry and the story’s general outlandishness makes for a fun evening. On a double bill with something called Love Is a Headache.

B+ Fight Club, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guyfight_club 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.

A Dr. Strangelove, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (2:00) and Wednesday (2:00 & 7:00). A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) imageorders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (several of them played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than the Three Stooges.  We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. I have more to say about Dr. Strangelove.

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

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

B The Hundred-Foot Journey, Lark, opens Friday. An Indian family in a small French town set up an eatery across the street from a famous and highly-regarded imageFrench restaurant, and the battle of cultures begins. The first half is a lot of fun, but the main conflict is settled–not very believably–way too soon. Then you spend too much time watching everyone be happy while waiting for two separate couples to realize that they’re in love. But I have to give kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren; this is the best photographed new film I’ve seen in a long time.

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

Silent Autumn

All films at Saturday at the Castro.

A+ The General, 7:00. Buster Keaton pushedgeneral film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. With musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.

Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts, 11:00am. Of all the great silent comedians, only the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made a seamless imagetransition into talkies. They’re equally good in each medium. The Festival has announced three shorts to be screened. I’ve only seen one of them, Big Business, but if the other two (Should Married Men Go Home? and Two Tars) are as good as that one, this selection would easily earn an A+.  Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 9:00. I haven’t seen Caligari in a great many years, so I’m not going to give it a grade. The story of a murderous hypnotist and his somnambulist slave would make a fairly conventional horror movie, but three important factors keep Caligari above the conventional. 1) The impressionistic sets and photography make it look like nothing you’ve ever seen in a genre picture. 2) The surprise ending can really throw you for a loop, and is still debated nearly a century after the film’s release. And 3) The horror genre was too new to have any conventions when this film was made. Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

What’s Screening: September 12 – 18

The California Independent Film Festival continues through Sunday. And the Legacy Film Festival on Aging, which opens today (Friday), plays through Sunday.

A Woman of the Year, Lark, Sunday, 3:30 & Wednesday, 5:50. One of only a handful of Hollywood films that accurately conveys the ups, downs, and sideways motions of romantic love as a long-term commitment(Annie Hall is another). Sexist by today’s standard, this love story between two independently-minded professionals was cutting-edge feminist for its time (or at least as cutting-edge feminist as MGM would allow). And its sense of two people who love each other but can’t easily stay compatible never ages. It also started one of Hollywood’s most famous on-screen and real-life romances–that of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin.

A- Rebel Without a Cause, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:10. The only film where James Dean received top billing is a shallow, silly, melodramatic message picture about what’s wrong with kids these days. And here’s what’s wrong: Their parents don’t spend time with them, and the boys need fathers who are man enough to put the womenfolk in their place. And yet, thanks largely to Dean’s electrifying. frightening, and sympathetic performance, it’s a far better movie than it has any right to be. As a middle-class juvenile delinquent adjusting to a new school, Dean defines the word teenager when it was still a new concept. Of course, he got a lot of help from director Nicholas Ray, and by supporting players Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as his only friends. In very wide early Cinemascope. Part of the series James Dean, Restored Classics from Warner Bros.

B Lost in Translation, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. I can’t believe it’s been over a decade since Sophia Coppola introduced us to Scarlett Johansson, and gave Bill Murray his best performance since imageGroundhog Day. And she did it by making a film in which nothing of note happens. Murray plays an American movie star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial. Johansson plays the bored wife of a photographer. They sense a bond. And what you expect to happen never does. But that’s okay because it probably wouldn’t happen in real life, either. Coppola allows us to enjoy these people’s company, and their reaction to a foreign culture, for 104 minutes.

A- The Fisher King, Castro, Sunday, 7:00. Terry Gilliam’s first film from someone else’s screenplay, and his first shot in imagehis native USA, isn’t quite up to his best work. But it’s damn close. Jeff Bridges plays a guilt-ridden former shock jock who befriends a homeless lunatic (Robin Williams in one of his best performances) in hope of redemption. But helping this tragic victim of random violence involves both playing cupid and jumping down the rabbit hole of a brilliant but deeply unhinged mind. Only Williams could sing Lydia the Tattooed Lady and make it sound sweet and romantic. On a double bill with Good Morning, Vietnam, which I recall liking, but not loving, when it was new.

A Sons of the Desert, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. Feature films weren’t Laurel and Hardy’s strong point; something about their humor workedimage best in the short form. But Sons of the Desert is one of only two exceptions that prove the rule (the other being Blockheads). This simple tale of two married men trying to have a good time away from their wives is loose, leisurely, and very funny.  With the short subjects Midnight Patrol and Something Simple. That last one stars Charley Chase, not Laurel and Hardy.

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

A Spartacus, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00. This very fictionalized version of the famous Roman slave revolt is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of imagetoga epics. And yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. Stanley Kubrick’s only work as a director-for-hire doesn’t give us the glory of Rome, concentrating instead on the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of an empire. Star and Executive Producer Kirk Douglas gave Dalton Trumbo a well-deserved screen credit, which helped end the blacklist. For more, see Cemeteries and Gladiators, On the Moral Dilemma of Gladiator Movies, and How I lost my love for Stanley Kubrick. Part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick. 

B+ The Iron Giant, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. The young hero of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s first feature befriends a massively-huge robot from outer space. Hey, Steven Spielberg’s Elliot only had to hide the diminutive ET. The robot seems friendly enough, but there’s good reason to believe he was built as a weapon of mass destruction. Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation with plenty of sharp angles, Bird creates a stylized view of small-town American life circa 1958 that straddles satire and nostalgia, and treats most of its inhabitants with warmth and affection. A good movie for all but the youngest kids.

C- The Nutty Professor (1963 version), various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday. As a young child, I adored Jerry Lewis, but as I matured Iimage found his comedy grating and tremendously unfunny. Today, The Nutty Professor is considered his masterpiece, and I suppose it is–in the sense that it’s not all that awful. The basic concept–a very clever twist of Jekyll and Hyde–is audacious and thought-provoking, especially for what is basically a children’s movie. But the execution is so clumsy and clunky that to a large degree, it sinks the wonderful concept.

C+ Universal Horror Double Bill: The Black Cat & Dracula (1931 version), Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. imageLow-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer made The Black Cat for very little money, and it looks it. But this silly story of revenge, lost honeymooners, a very modern spooky castle, and fear of cats offers a good share of laughs, some of them intentional. Dracula is a much more important movie–it started Universal’s famed horror series–but it really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless. Each of these films would earn a C+ on its own.

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: September 5 – 11

The drought is over! At least, the film festival draught. CAAMFest San Jose opens today and runs through Sunday. And the California Independent Film Festival opens Thursday.

A Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:00. The most-loved Star Trek movie gives us everything that its predecessor failed to deliver: an excitingimage 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. Ricardo Montalban reprises his supervillian Khan from one first-season episode. This has almost everything you would want in a Star Trek movie.

A Dog Day Afternoon, Castro, Thursday. Two incompetent robbers (Al Pacino and John Cazale, both fresh from Godfather II) try to hold up a bank and find themselves in a hostage situation in one those rare comedies based on an actual news story. dogdayaftPacino’s character, the brains behind the plot, is a basically nice guy who wants to help everyone. That’s a real problem when you’re threatening to kill innocent bystanders. He only wants the money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation. But Cazale’s character is slow, dumb, and potentially violent. The result is touching, tragic, and very funny. On a double bill with The Dog.

B+ East of Eden, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:50. Most people remember this John Steinbeck adaptation as the movie that brought us James Dean. That seems imagereasonable. Dean electrifies the screen as an alienated teenager at odds with his strict and religious father and his ever-so-upright younger brother. An updating of the Cain and Abel story set in early 20th-century rural California, Eden occasionally steers towards the over-dramatic, but for the most part it’s an effective story of a generation gap made a decade before that term was coined. Dean became a star instantly after this film’s release. Five months later, with two other films in the can, he was dead. Part of the series James Dean, Restored Classics from Warner Bros.

A Bringing Up Baby, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. How does one define a screwball comedy? You could say it’s a romantic comedy with glamorous movie starsbringing_up_baby behaving like broad, slapstick comedians. You could point out that screwballs are usually set amongst the excessively wealthy, and often explore class barriers. Or you could simply show Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby,a frivolous and hilarious tale about a mild-mannered paleontologist (Cary Grant), a ditzy heiress (Katharine Hepburn), and a tame leopard (a tame leopard).

B The Hundred-Foot Journey, Balboa, opens Friday. An Indian family in a small French town set up an eatery across the street from a famous and highly-regarded imageFrench restaurant, and the battle of cultures begins. The first half is a lot of fun, but the main conflict is settled–not very believably–way too soon. Then you spend too much time watching everyone be happy while waiting for two separate couples to realize that they’re in love. But I have to give kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren; this is the best photographed new film I’ve seen in a long time.

B+ Under African Skies, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. 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.

B+ Bridge On the River Kwai, Rafael, Sunday. The longer it’s been since you’ve seen David Lean’s World War II adventure, the better it gets in your  memory. That’s because the brilliant story of an over-proud British bridgeriverkwaiPOW whose actions become arguably treasonable (Alec Guinness) sticks in the mind. But to see the actual movie again is to be reminded that Guinness’ tale is just a subplot (the actor received third billing). The bulk of Kwai is a very well made but conventional action movie with some uncomfortably Hollywoodish elements. Remember the Burmese porters who all just happen to all be beautiful young women? Read my Blu-ray review. Part of the series, Alec Guinness at 100.

B Fantastic Mr. Fox, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. There’s a cartoon-like quality to a lot of Wes Anderson’s work, so it isn’t surprising that imagehe would eventually try his hand at animation. Based on a story by Roald Dahl, Fantastic follows the adventures of a very sophisticated but not altogether competent fox (voiced by George Clooney) as he tries to outwit a farmer and keep his marriage together. Children and adults will find different reasons to enjoy this frantically-paced comic adventure.

A A Hard Day’s Night, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, andimage could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles still have a following. And 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.

A Chinatown, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, but you chinatowncan’t deny his talent as a filmmaker (which doesn’t excuse his actions as a human being). And that talent was never better than when he made this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed the whole story over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece.

A+ Paths of Glory, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer, more powerful men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviouslyimage pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon is one of the best. When an impossible mission inevitably fails, the officers who planned it arrange for three enlisted men to be tried for cowardice, convicted, and executed–it’s easier than admitting their mistake. Kirk Douglas–in the first performance by a major star in a Kubrick film–plays the honorable officer who tilts at the windmills of corrupted military justice. Another part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

What’s Screening: August 29 – September 4

Still no festivals this week. But you can watch a lot of Robin Williams (not all of which I list here).

A+ Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday through Monday; Rafael, Sunday. 4K digital projection at the Castro. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and excellent projection–either 70mm or 4K DCP–to do it full justice, and that’s what the Castro will deliver. I do not know how the Rafael, which is screening Lawrence as part of its Alec Guinness at 100 series, will project the movie. For more on this epic, read The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience and Thoughts on Lawrence of Arabia.

A Babe, Lark, Saturday, 3:30, Sunday, 1:30. At least among narrative features, Babe is easily the greatest work of imagevegetarian propaganda in the history of cinema. It’s also a sweet, funny, and charming fairy tale about a pig who wants to become a sheep dog. This Australian import helped audiences and critics recognize and appreciate character actor James Cromwell, and technically broke considerable ground in the category of live-action talking-animal movies. Warning: If you take your young children to this G-rated movie, you may have trouble getting them to eat bacon. Part of the Lark’s Family Film Series.

A- The Fisher King, New Parkway, Sunday, 12:40; Monday, 8:20. (Note: I gave this film a B+ just two weeks ago. But I have since revisited it and upped the grade.) Terry Gilliam’s first film from someone else’s screenplay, and his first shot in imagehis native USA, isn’t quite up to his best work. But it’s damn close. Jeff Bridges plays a guilt-ridden former shock jock who befriends a homeless lunatic (Robin Williams in one of his best performances) in hope of redemption. But helping this tragic victim of random violence involves both playing cupid and jumping down the rabbit hole of a brilliant but deeply unhinged mind. Only Williams could sing Lydia the Tattooed Lady and make it sound sweet and romantic.

A- Chaplin Shorts, Coastside Senior Housing, Half Moon Bay, Friday, 7:30. I only just imagediscovered that there’s a silent film society in Half Moon Bay! This Friday, they’ll screen three Charlie Chaplin shorts from his First National period. These include two of my favorite short Chaplins: A Dog’s Life and The Idle Class. Unfortunately, the third is one of the worst First National’s, Payday. But the first two easily make up for the other. With Shauna Pickett-Gordon accompanying on piano.

B+ Ghostbusters, various CineMark theaters, week-long engagement starts Friday. Comedy rarely gets this scary or this visually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say imagethat special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny (at least intentionally so). Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver appear to be having a great time as they try to control the phantasm and monsters suddenly attacking New York City. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon.

C- Popeye, Castro, Friday, 7:20; New Parkway, Friday, 4:00; Monday, 3:00. Robert Altman’s one attempt at a big-budget family musical manages to be both imageextremely odd and utterly mediocre. The story is a mess, the gags are too outrageous to be funny (there are some things that only work in animation), and Harry Nilsson’s songs are utterly forgettable. The only real joy is watching actors who are both recognizable as themselves and near-perfect physical embodiments of famous cartoon character; consider Shelley Duvall’s amazing likeness to Olive Oyl. On a Midnites for Maniacs double bill with The Wiz.

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

What’s Screening: August 22-28

Still no film festivals. We’ll get some in September.

B+ To Be Takei, Kabuki, opens Friday; Rafael, Thursday, 7:00 (one screening, only). Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered, George Takei would be the most beloved imagemember of the original cast. And why not? A childhood in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, a part in the iconic sci-fi TV series, and coming out as gay at age 67 all make for a great story. Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about this extraordinary person,  filled with interviews, video of Takei and husband Brad Altman going about their daily business, and old movie and TV clips. It’s the story, not the story-telling, that makes this film worth seeing. Read my full review. Director Kroot in person Friday at the Kabuki and Thursday at the Rafeal.

A All Quiet on the Western Front, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. The first great talkie war movie delivers a powerful anti-war message. When The Great War (AKA World War I) breaks out, a young, naïve imageGerman student patriotically and enthusiastically volunteers for the grand adventure he had been taught to expect. What he finds instead is a non-stop hellhole with no good guys or bad guys…just losers no matter what side they’re on. A rare Hollywood film that looks at war from the enemy’s side; I doubt it could have been made if it had shown our authority figures pushing our boys to the slaughterhouse. Part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.

A- Knocked Up, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. Writer/Director Judd Apatow tops his The 40 Year Old Virgin in another raunchy-yet-sweet comedy about the complexities and problems of romance. This time around, a rising television personality (the stunningly gorgeous Katherine Heigl) shares a drunken one-night stand with a slacker stoner (the stunningly dumpy Seth Rogen), then discovers she’s pregnant. As the two leads, their friends, and their families react to this life-changing accident, Apatow explores romantic entanglements and the effects of expectant parenthood–all while providing plenty of laughs. Read my full review. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.

A The Leopard, Castro, Sunday. 4K digital projection. For a three-hour film where almost nothing happens, Luchino Visconti’s 1963 epic is remarkably spell-binding. The sumptuous Technirama photography helps. Aristocrats led by patriarch Burt Lancaster live through a theleopardrevolution that changes Italy’s government, but leaves their lives hardly effected. Visconti was an aristocrat by birth but a Marxist by inclination, and his film shows considerable nostalgia for the days of fancy balls and peasants who knew their place, but also understands why this society had to die. The Leopard is a big, bold film about people barely touched by momentous events. It’s graceful in design and shows great sympathy for its flawed characters. I enjoyed it immensely. Read my longer report.

A+ Paths of Glory, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer, more powerful men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviouslyimage pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon is one of the best. When an impossible mission inevitably fails, the officers who planned it arrange for three enlisted men to be tried for cowardice, convicted, and executed–it’s easier than admitting their mistake. Kirk Douglas–in the first performance by a major star in a Kubrick film–plays the honorable officer who tilts at the windmills of corrupted military justice. Another part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.

A- The Lavender Hill Mob, Rafael, Sunday. New digital restoration. In one of the best Ealing comedies, Alec Guinness plays a imagemeek, low-level bank clerk who decides he’s going to become very wealthy very quickly–by stealing a large amount of gold and smuggling it out of the country. He has no experience in crime, but he gathers together a more experienced gang to help him in this endeavor. The result is one of the funniest heist films ever made.  Part of the series Alec Guinness at 100.

A Before Midnight, Castro, Thursday. In this threequel to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) imagehave been living together for nine years, and they might as well be married. They have twins, a life together, and bodies transitioning into middle age. Like the previous films, this one takes place in a single day, but this time, they’re vacationing in Greece, and they drive, share a talkative dinner with six other people, and spend considerable time in a hotel room. And they fight. Hard. They still love each other, but you’re not sure if the relationship will last. The result is both sad and sexy. Read my full review. On a double bill with The Lovers on the Bridge.

A Monty Python Live (Mostly), Cerrito, Monday, Thursday, 7:00; Elmwood, Wednesday, 7:00. I know this isn’t technically a movie, but it’s screening in movie theaters and that’s what counts. The five surviving imagemembers of Monty Python, along with a large dancing troupe and the ever-adorable Carol Cleveland, celebrate everything Python in this recorded stage performance. We get old routines with new twists, new routines hopelessly twisted, and clips from the old TV show that often upstage the live acts (Philosopher’s Football is especially hilarious with a full audience). Everyone but the dancers have aged, but they’re just as talented and silly as they were 45 years ago.

C+ Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Stanford,Friday. It’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Nazi spies (and Professor Moriarty) in the fourth Rathbone/Bruce Holmes picture and the second one made by Universal. imageThe low budget shows, and the plot is filled with holes, but it’s still fun to watch Rathbone as the best-cast Sherlock Holmes ever. But the real mystery:Who at Universal thought that Rathbone looked good in that ridiculous hairstyle (which would be abandoned a picture of two later). On a double bill with Charlie Chan in London, which I haven’t seen. I discuss both of these series in a recent article.

What’s Screening: August 15 – 21

No film festivals this week. In fact, no more Bay Area film festivals this month. But we still have movies.

A Monty Python Live (Mostly), Cerrito, Tuesday, 7:00. I know this isn’t technically a movie, but it’s screening in movie theaters and that’s what counts. The five surviving imagemembers of Monty Python, along with a large dancing troupe and the ever-adorable Carol Cleveland celebrate everything Python in this recorded stage performance. We get old routines with new twists, new routines hopelessly twisted, and clips from the old TV show that often upstage the live acts (Philosopher’s Football is especially hilarious with a full audience). Everyone but the dancers have aged, but they’re just as talented and silly as they were 45 years ago.

A- Office Space, Castro, Saturday, 9:00. Archival print. Work…there’s a reason they have to pay you to show up. In this broad and funny satire by Mike Judge, threeimage young men struggle with their jobs in a soul-killing tech company. They conspire to fool the computers and skim enough money off the top to allow for early retirement –but not enough to be noticed. Jennifer Aniston plays the waitress whose job is as soul-killing as theirs, but pays considerably less. Stephen Root steals the movie as the employee who’s soul was crushed long ago. This special SF Sketchfest presentation will include Root in person.

A Kind Hearts and Coronets, Rafael, Sunday, 4:30 & 7:00. This very dark comedy from Ealing Studios takes a hammer to the British class system with vicious glee.image Dennis Price stars as a distant cousin to a wealthy and well-born aristocrat. He desperately desires to escape from his modest and humble life, but that requires killing several relatives–all played by Alec Guinness. Warning: In one scene the N-word is used in a shockingly casual way–it was apparently acceptable in 1949 England. Part of the series Alec Guinness at 100.

B+ The Fisher King, Lark, Friday, 8:45. Terry Gilliam’s first film from someone else’s screenplay, and his first shot in his native USA, isn’t up to his best work. But it’s still imagevery good. Jeff Bridges plays a guilt-ridden former shock jock who befriends a homeless lunatic (Robin Williams in one of his best performances) in hope of redemption. But helping this tragic victim of random violence involves both playing cupid and jumping down the rabbit hole of a brilliant but deeply unhinged mind. As with all of Gilliam’s work, fantasy and reality converge. The Lark is screening The Fisher King as a tribute to Robin Williams.

Jurassic Park, Lark, Saturday, 5:00. I find it odd that the Lark would put this PG-13 rated movie in their Family Film Series, but then, I saw it in first run with my nine-year-imageold son, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I remember it as a moderately entertaining fantasy thriller with what at the time were cutting-edge special effects. If I remembered it well enough to grade it, that grade would probably be a B-.Three important members of the special effects team will do Q&A after the movie.

A The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Castro, Sunday, 1:40 (double bill starts at noon). Considering the unethical behavior of the three leads, Sergio Leone’s epic Civil War western should have been called The Bad, the Worse, and the Totally Reprehensible. But morality is relative when armies are slaughtering thousands, and besides, it doesn’t really enter into Leone’s tongue-in-cheek point of view. While the war rages around them, three outlaws battle lawmen, prison guards, and each other for a fortune in stolen gold. 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. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are fine, but Eli Wallach’s performance as the half-bright, devious Tuco steals the picture. On a double bill with The Lineup, a Don Siegel movie I haven’t seen.

B+ Bullitt, Roxie, Monday, 7:00. Age hasn’t been altogether kind to this once cutting-edge police thriller. It seems more pedestrian than it once did. But it hasimage its pleasures, especially Steve McQueen’s exceptionally cool charisma and the best car chase ever shot on the streets of San Francisco. Another marker: To my knowledge, McQueen’s single use of the word “bullshit  marks the first time anyone said such a word in a Hollywood movie; Bullitt was released precisely two weeks before the rating system replaced the old production code, but the new freedom was already bubbling up. Presented to Zipcar.

C+ Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Stanford,Thursday and next Friday. It’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Nazi spies (and Professor Moriarty) in the fourth Rathbone/Bruce Holmes picture and the second one made by Universal. imageThe low budget shows, and the plot is filled with holes, but it’s still fun to watch Rathbone as the best-cast Sherlock Holmes ever. But the real mystery:Who at Universal thought that Rathbone looked good in that ridiculous hairstyle (which would be abandoned a picture of two later). On a double bill with Charlie Chan in London, which I haven’t seen. I discuss both of these series in a recent article.

D+ Mamma Mia, Castro, Friday, 7:00. What could go wrong with a musical comedy about long-passed promiscuity, starring Meryl Streep and set on a picturesque Mediterranean island? Plenty, including formless choreography, ABBA’s catchy but imageultimately unmemorable music, and way too many exterior scenes obviously shot on a soundstage. But in terms of sheer embarrassing badness, nothing in Mama Mia! comes close to Pierce Brosnan’s nails-on-chalkboard singing voice. I like Brosnan a lot as an actor, but when he tries to sing, the effect is something like strangling a cat. On a double bill with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, which I haven’t seen in many years. If memory serves, I’d give that one a low grade, too.

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

A A Hard Day’s Night, Roxie, Saturday & Sunday. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, andimage could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles are still popular, all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll.

B+ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939 version), Stanford, imageFriday. The best Sherlock Holmes novel gets a reasonably close and very effective adaptation in the first Holmes adventure starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Yes, the forbidding English moors are on a soundstage, but they still provide the sense of dread that the story requires. Rathbone is the perfect Holmes, and this is one of his best vehicles. On a double bill with Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which I have not seen.

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