For personal reasons, I’m writing this newsletter early–nine days before it goes live. So please forgive me if it’s incomplete.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival continues through this week and into next, moving from San Francisco itself to other parts of the Bay Area. You’ll find festival screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.
A The Big Lebowski, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00. I recently revisited this cult favorite, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Ze–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.)
A A Hard Days Night, Castro, Wednesday. New 4K digital restoration. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a new British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to Europe, and could die before the film got into theaters. Fifty years later, 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 Knack.
Classic Race Relations Double Bill: Do the Right Thing & In the Heat of the Night, Castro, Thursday. I’m not giving this double bill a grade because it’s been too long since I’ve seen Spike Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing. I suspect, however, that I would give it an A or even an A+. But I’ve seen In the Heat of the Night recently enough to confidently give it a B-. The 1967 Best Picture Oscar winner still works moderately well as a murder mystery, but it comes from a time when white Americans who didn’t hail from Dixie could still pat themselves on the back and be glad they weren’t like those bigoted Southerners. This story of a black police detective from Philadelphia investigating a murder in a small, Mississippi town has a few good scenes and one great one, but that’s about it.
A Shoulder Arms, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:15. Charlie Chaplin made a very funny war comedy, parodying every aspect of World War I, while real soldiers were dying in the trenches. The result is extremely funny, often in very silly ways, but without any real message about the horror of war. This four-reel semi-feature runs only 46 minutes, but a lecture by Russell Merritt and two shorter shorts stretch the program out to an estimated 95 minutes. Accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano. This is the opening show in the PFA series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.
A Alien, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:00. In the wake of Jaws’ and Star Wars’ phenomenal success, someone had to make a big-budget movie about a large predator on a spaceship. But the obvious marketing value doesn’t explain how good Alien actually turned out, and on so many levels. First you’ve got the extraordinary art direction, giving us a spaceship that feels like a strange and unsettling high-tech haunted house, yet is absolutely believable. Then there’s the working-class astronauts complaining about the food and pay–easily the most realistic people Hollywood has ever shot into space. Don’t forget the star-making performance by Sigourney Weaver, or the overriding sense of loneliness, corporate exploitation, and–dare I say it–alienation. It’s also one hell of a fun, scary ride.
B- A Clockwork Orange, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it just doesn’t add up.
A Twenty Feet from Stardom, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocal texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton (“Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!”), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without credit (“He’s a Rebel”). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) pop up among the talking heads (as do The Talking Heads), but this time, the spotlight points to the lesser-known artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration. A celebration of the human voice.
B- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own silliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action flick, is alone worth the price of admission.
A+ Some Like It Hot, Lark, Sunday, 3:30. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review.
A- Comedy Warriors, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Thursday, 7:00. Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to watch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help these wounded newbies turn their frustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they’re missing feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.
B God’s Slave, Castro Friday, 12:00 noon. An Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the call comes, he knows it’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.
C+ Anywhere Else, California Theatre (Berkeley), Wednesday, 1:45. A graduate student in Berlin–stuck in academic and emotional crises–returns to her crazy Jewish family in Israel. Her German boyfriend soon follows. That sounds like a comedy, but it plays here as straight drama. That would be fine, except that too many of the characters are merely skin deep. There are, fortunately, exceptions. The lead character has moments of realistic angst. Her brother is a truly original, unpredictable joker with something eating him inside. Her boyfriend, presumably raised to deplore his country’s Nazi past, finds the militarization of Israeli life frightening and disorienting. But you have to put that up against the stereotypical Jewish mother, the clueless father, and the angry sister who couldn’t keep her husband home. For too much of its runtime, Anywhere Else feels like a paint-by-the-numbers drama.
C The Village of Peace, Castro Friday, 2:00. On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the African-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true decedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a community, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (their young adults do serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.