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.

What’s Screening: August 8 – 14

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival closes Sunday, and that’s the festival until September.  I put the SFJFF listings at the end of this newsletter.

A Before Sunrise, Castro, Thursday. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy starts with one of the most romantic films ever made. After meeting on a train, a young man and woman (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) go off together on a whim. Over the imagecourse of a single night, they wander the streets of Vienna, talk about every subject imaginable, flirt, and wonder if they’re going to end up having sex. No other film (at least that I’ve seen) so thoroughly catches the exhilaration of new love–especially among the young–as does Before Sunrise. I used to describe this film as "My Dinner with Andre with scenery and sex appeal," but by now it’s far better remembered than the earlier talkfest. On a triple bill with two films by Leos Carax, whose work I’m not familiar with.

A+ Grand Illusion, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:30. Set in a POW camp during World War I (and made two years before WW2), Grand Illusion sets the conflicts of nationality and class against the healing power of our common humanity. The French prisoners imageand their German guards try their best to be civilized in a world where civilization is all but outlawed. Jean Gabin stars as a French officer of common stock, but you’ll likely remember Erich von Stroheim as an aristocratic German facing the end of his way of life. The original negative was discovered and the film restored in the 1990s, but the new restoration (which I haven’t yet seen), is supposed to beat even that. Part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.

C+ The Rules of the Game, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. I know; everyone else considers this one of cinema’s great masterpieces–an immensely important influence on many imagefilmmakers (one can hardly imagine Robert Altman’s career without it). And yes, I’ve read all about its deep and important commentary on the class system and the institution of marriage. But all I see is a modest comedy of manners without much comedy and nothing exceptional to say about our manners. For me, Grand Illusion remains Renior’s masterpiece.

A Stop Making Sense, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage in this lively film; just the performance (actually compiled from three different concerts). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that turns Stop Making Sense into the most danceable motion picture ever to receive a theatrical release.

A- Mystery Double Bill: Charlie Chan at the Opera & The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesStanford, Friday. The A- goes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second and best of 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel imageBruce. Unlike the movies that followed, this one is set in the Victorian England of the original stories. Adventures pits Holmes and Watson against cinema’s best Professor Moriarty (George Zucc). A reasonably entertaining B picture, Charlie Chan at the Opera is both way ahead of its time in its treatment of Chinese Americans, but way behind the 21st century. The presence of Boris Karloff as an escaped lunatic adds to the fun. I’d give it a B-. I discuss both films in more detail in a recent post..

C Gabriel Over the White House, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. I’m not sure what to make of this very strange 1933 movie by Gregory (My Man Godfrey) La Cava, imageabout a president who goes from crook to saint after a near-fatal car crash. On one level, it might be saying “Here’s what we need to do to fix the country and the world.” On the other, it seems to be warning against fascism. I wouldn’t call it a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s an interesting view of a society desperate for solutions. Also part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film, although I can’t figure out what it has to do with the war.

B+ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939 version), Stanford, Thursday and next 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.

B+ Sing-Along Wizard of Oz, Castro, Friday through Sunday. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.

B Hugo, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Martin Scorsese’s family film (that almost sounds like an oxymoron) proves to be reasonably hugoentertaining. But then, its very plot seems intended to enchant cinephiles like myself. I doubt I would have liked it near as much if it had been about the meat-packing industry. Scorsese uses the latest CGI and 3D technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. And while that story is slight and cliché-ridden, it has the virtue of touching on early film history and ending with a message—integrated into the story—of the importance of film preservation. The Balboa will not be presenting it in 3D. Read my Thoughts on Hugo.

A Life Itself, Magick Lantern, Friday, 5:00; Saturday, 2:00. 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.

B- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, New Parkway, Friday, 4:00; Saturday, 12:25; Thursday, 7:00. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own peeweesbigadvensilliness. 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.

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.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A Swim Little Fish Swim, Rafael, Friday, 4:20; Grand Lake Theater, Sunday, 8:55. Don’t let the funny, kind-of-kinky artist and model gag that opens this French/American film fool you. This is a serious drama, and an excellent one, about the conflicts of artistic dreams, political idealism, imageand the very real responsibilities of parenthood. Dustin Guy Defa plays a New York singer/songwriter who won’t take commercial work. In fact, he doesn’t do any work for money, much to the frustration of his long-suffering wife. He takes care of their four-year-old daughter, but he’s more of a fun dad than a responsible one. Meanwhile, a beautiful, struggling French artist (Lola Bessis) needs a professional breakthrough to avoid deportation.This is the rare film about struggling artists and idealists that asks if the struggle is worth it–especially if you have young mouths to feed.

A- Comedy Warriors, Rafael, Saturday, 8:55. 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 imagefrustrations 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 have no 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, Grand Lake, Friday, 6:45; Rafael, Saturday, 4:45. A 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 imagecall 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 The Village of Peace, Grand Lake Theater, Friday, 2:35. 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 imageAfrican-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 (we are told that their young adults serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.

What’s Screening: August 1 – 7

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, andimage 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, imagehowever, 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 imagedying 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 imagedoesn’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 imageself-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 vocalimage 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 ownpeeweesbigadven 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.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

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 imagewatch 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 imageit’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 imagecharacters 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 imagecommunity, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (their young adults do serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.

What’s Screening: July 25 – 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

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

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

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

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

What’s Screening: July 18 – 24

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

And now this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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