What’s Screening: May 22 – 28

No festivals this week…until the very last day. Both the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Green Film Festival open Thursday night.

All Quiet On The Western Front, Castro, Thursday, 7:00.

The first great talkie war movie delivers a powerful anti-war message. When war breaks out, a young, naïve German student patriotically and enthusiastically volunteers for the grand adventure. 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. I give the talking version an A, but the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens, of course, with the silent version (made in 1930 for theaters that hadn’t yet converted). I haven’t seen this one, but that will be remedied Thursday night. Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

A- Double bill: The Mark of Zorro (1940 version) & Ninotchka, Wednesday through next Sunday.

Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role of Zorro his own, and earned this double bill it’s A+, in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone.  Ninotchka–Greta Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film–is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” Written by Billy Wilder and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, I give it a B+. Read my longer report.

A- Harold and Maude, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00.

The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans embraced non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably. But I do wish screenwriter Colin Higgins had found a better ending. See my full discussion.

B+ Super 8, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

An excellent example of a small film hidden inside a big Hollywood blockbuster, Super 8 follows a bunch of middle schoolkids in 1979, while they try to make a short, amateur zombie movie and struggle with all the garbage of early adolescence. Meanwhile, a strange crisis and a military invasion ravages their small town. Writer/director J.J. Abrams provides a handful of spectacular action sequences, filled with explosions and special effects, but they always take a back seat to the kids’ more normal problems. The movie looks like something Steven Spielberg would have made that year.

Bikes vs. Cars, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Thursday, 6:00.

Director Fredrik Gertten follows various bicycle advocates in various cities around the world, concentrating on two large, horribly auto-centric metropolitan areas–Sao Paulo and Los Angeles. The activists talk both on camera and off, discussing congestion, pollution, bad urban design, and the economic/political forces that emphasize automobiles over common sense. We also visit exceptionally bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and get a chance to boo Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who removed bike lanes to make his city more car-friendly. Read my longer discussion. The Green Film Festival ‘s opening night film.

Alien, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30; Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight).

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 why Alien came out so well, 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–amongst 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, Castro, Sunday.

Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning felt self-consciously arty in 1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several 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. On a double bill with Immortal Beloved, which I remember not liking; I called it Citizen Beethoven.

A- Ex Machina, Balboa, Shattuck, opens Friday.

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

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, Lark, opens Friday.

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

What’s Screening: May 15 – 21

No film festivals this week. Not many films I can tell you about, either. If it wasn’t for the Castro, this would be a very short newsletter.

On the other hand, the newsletter has a whole new look–one that should be more mobile friendly.

A Orson Welles Centennial Double Bill: Touch of Evil & Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles , Castro, Sunday

Every cinephile must contemplate the strange phenomenon of Orson Welles. His first film, Citizen Kane, has frequently been called the “greatest film ever made.” And yet he spent most of his life a failure, scrambling to raise money to make films, few of which made a profit. Welles’ noir classic, Touch of Evil, earns this double bill an A. Along with directing, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely damsel in distress, and hero Charlton Heston, though miscast, manages the role well. Chuck Workman’s documentary about Welles, Magician, suffers from an ignore-the-warts perspective, but it’s still an informative and entertaining look at a sometimes great artist. I give it a B+. Read my full review.

A Matt Shepard is a Friend of MineNew Parkway, Saturday, 4:20; Tuesday, 7:00.

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

A+ The Godfather, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00.

Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable youngest son reluctantly and inevitably pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he proves exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and heart-stopping violence.

A- The Grand Budapest HotelCastro, Tuesday.

Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story within a story within a story, the concierge of a magnificent European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young bellhop under his wing and teaches him about hostelry and life, while also trying to save his own skin from some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except that I think there’s a message about the rise of Fascism in there somewhere (the innermost story is set in the early ’30s). The hotel, which sits on a high mountain’s peak, is one of those places that you want to visit but could only exist in a movie. This is the sort of picture where the local newspaper is called The Trans-Alpine Yodeler. On a double bill with The Hotel New Hampshire.

B The Wrecking CrewCastro, Monday

Now you can meet the artists behind the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “California Dreamin’,” and the theme music for Mission: Impossible. This mostly entertaining documentary introduces the successful but little-known musicians who added magic to some of the best songs of the 1960s. The musicians profiled include Carol Kaye or the late Tommy Tedesco (the director’s father); you may not know those names, but you’ve heard their playing. The film lacks a strong narrative line, and thus sags a bit in the middle. But for the most part, it’s a fun look at how professional music gets (or got) made. Read my full review. On a double bill with Danny Collins.

B- The BirdsCastro, Saturday.

Alfred Hitchcock’s only out-and-out fantasy has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment, and the following attack on the children, are classics. The lovely Bodega Bay location adds atmosphere and local color, and many of the special effects were way ahead of their time. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and that lovely scenery plays side-by-side with obvious soundstage mockups. Worse yet, new-comer Hedren doesn’t provide a single believable moment. She’s beautiful, but utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma. On a double bill with Q, which I haven’t seen.

What’s Screening: May 8 – 14

The Albert Maysles Memorial Film Festival opens tonight and runs through the week. Although I’ve seen several of the films to be screened, I haven’t seen any of them recently enough for me to offer an opinion.

One other important note: With Works from the Eisner Competition tonight, the Pacific Film Archive will close for five weeks.

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

A+ Hoop Dreams, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday and Sunday, 2:00. I’d be hard put to name another documentary that feels so much like a narrative feature. This cinéma vérité story of two inner-city teenagers imagehoping to win basketball scholarships offers charismatic protagonists, interesting and likeable supporting players, plot twists, joy, disappointment, and suspense–just like the best narrative features. The filmmakers followed both boys  through high school, and over the nearly three-hour running time (and the five years of shooting), you become completely invested in their story and their families. The picture is really about the American dream, and the people whom society all but disqualifies from attaining it. Read my Blu-ray review. Part of the series Basketball Jones.

A- Man with a Movie Camera, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Several features from the late silent era recreated a day in the life of a city through documentary footage of people at work and play. But Dziga Vertov livened it up with strange and comical double exposures and visual effects, and by creating a 1015[1]maddeningly fast pace in the editing room. He also made this movie something of a meta-documentary, spending considerable time following a cameraman traveling throughout the city filming what he sees. The result is exhilarating and entertaining. It’s also, of course, Communist propaganda. Vertov paints a picture of the Stalinist USSR as a place where people work hard, then play hard in healthy activities. No starving Ukrainians here. Fredrick Hodges will accompany the film on piano.

A His Girl Friday, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle imageby making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with some of the fastest dialog ever recorded, yet always clear and almost always funny. And as a side bit, there’s a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution. On a double bill with Wedding Present.

A+ Taxi Driver, Castro, Wednesday. When I think of the 1970s astaxidriver1 a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. It isn’t that De Niro’s character hasn’t found the right companion, or society has failed him, or that he doesn’t understand intimacy. His problems stem from the fact that he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. For more about Taxi Driver, seemy Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Rolling Thunder.

A+ The Godfather Part II, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. By juxtaposing the material rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film,imagea young Robert De Niro here) with the moral fall of his son Michael (Al Pacino again), Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola show us the long-term effects of what seemed like a good idea at the time. De Niro plays young Vito as a loving family man who cares only for his wife and children, and turns to crime to better support them. But in Michael–consolidating his empire some thirty years later–we see the ultimate disastrous effects of that decision. Pacino plays him as a tragic monster who senses his own emptiness. My apologies for failing to note last week’s screening of The Godfather.

A Fargo, Castro, Tuesday; New Parkway, 9:30. The ultimate crime-gone-wrong thriller and theimageCoen Brothers’ masterpiece,Fargo treads that thin line between the horrific and the hilarious while never forgetting the humane. With star-making performances by William H. Macy, as a man in way over his head, and Frances McDormand, as a very pregnant cop with a lot of empathy and common sense. Also starring the the bleakest snowscapes in American cinema. Read My Thoughts on Fargo. On a double bill with Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

A Cheatin’, Roxie, Sunday, 5:15. Visuals reflect emotional states in this dialog-free romance by Bill Plympton, arguably the strangest, most imagebrilliant animator around. For instance, when a wife reaches out to touch her estranged husband, her hand keeps extending across great distances as she tries to bridge the widening gap in their widening bed. The story of love, lust, and jealousy is funny, touching, heartbreaking, and carried entirely by Plympton’s surreal and instantly recognizable hand-drawn animation. Read my full review.

B The Wrecking Crew, Lark, Saturday, 8:25; Wednesday, 8:00. Now you can meet the artists behind the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," and the theme music for Mission: Impossible. This mostly entertaining Carol Kayedocumentary introduces the successful but little-known musicians who added magic to some of the best songs of the 1960s. The musicians profiled include Carol Kaye or the late Tommy Tedesco (the director’s father); you may not know those names, but you’ve heard their playing. The film lacks a strong narrative line, and thus sags a bit in the middle. But for the most part, it’s a fun look at how professional music gets (or got) made. Read my full review.

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

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: May 1 – 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight). I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

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

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

San Francisco International Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Screening: April 24 – 30

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

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

B+ In the Footsteps of Godzilla, Roxie, Sunday, 3:30. The B+ goes to the original, image1954, Japanese language Godzilla. Made in a country with recent memories of horrific bombings and destroyed cities, it presents the emotions of mass terror more vividly than Hollywood’s giant monster movies of the same decade. The cast includes Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. After the screening, the movie will play again, this time with live commentary by Japanese-monster expert Armand Vaquer.

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

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

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

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

A+ Rear Window, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment imageand a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.

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

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

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

San Francisco International Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Screening: April 17- 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Castro, Sunday. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. imageThere’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark;  just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter. On a double bill with 1941, which I’ve never seen.

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

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

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

B+ Sing-Along Wizard of Oz, Lark, Sunday, 3:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I have not experienced the sing-along version.

C Sound of Music, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s just plain bland–not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture postcard kind of way.

What’s Screening: April 10 – 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A- The Princess Bride, New Parkway, opens Friday. William Goldman’s enchantingimage and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright , back when they were young and gorgeous, make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers. And Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos can grate on your nerves.

B+ Under African Skies, Lark, Saturday, 8:00. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which covers the making of Paul Simon’s hit album Graceland and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. Despite a few brief scenes of jam sessions, it left me wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end. Also on the bill: The  Vukani Mawethu Choir.

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

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

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show,Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

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