What’s Screening: July 3 – 9

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

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

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

C+In Stereo, Roxie, opens Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A+ Casablanca, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, the sausage came out perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

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

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

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

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

C+ Dracula (1931 version)Stanford, through Friday

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

What’s Screening: June 26 – July 2

Two film festivals this week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a suddenly popular British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, and could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles are still popular all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll. On a double bill with the Maysles brothers’ documentary on the flip side of Woodstock, Gimme Shelter; I haven’t seen this one recently enough to give it a grade.

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

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

A+ Jaws, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00

People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really begins. For that first half, Jaws is a suspenseful, witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, but with a central character more conflicted and less noble (Roy Scheider). Then the three men get on the boat and the picture turns into a hair-raising variation on Moby Dick. Jaws’ phenomenal success helped create the summer blockbuster, yet by today’s standards, it’s practically an art film–albeit one that could scare the living eyeballs out of you. See my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article.

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

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

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

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

What’s Screening: June 19 – 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A+ Jaws, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday

People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really begins. For that first half, Jaws is a suspenseful, witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, but with a central character more conflicted and less noble (Roy Scheider). Then the three men get on the boat and the picture turns into a hair-raising variation on Moby Dick. Jaws’ phenomenal success helped create the summer blockbuster, yet by today’s standards, it’s practically an art film–albeit one that could scare the living eyeballs out of you. See my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article.

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

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

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

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

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

Like many superb, original shows that somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Joss Whedon’s Firefly failed to find an audience and died after only a few episodes. This big-screen spin-off is a gift from the series’ creators to the handful of people who saw the show and wanted more. And while it’s nice to see all of the characters again, the movie’s attempt to close the story is a bit of a let-down. So if you haven’t seen Firefly, skip the movie and see the show; it’s streaming on Netflix.

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

Absolutely the worst Indiana Jones movie ever. First, Spielberg and company tried to make it dark and atmospheric, but only succeeded in making it unpleasant. Second, leading lady Kate Capshaw, now Spielberg’s wife, gives a performance about as enticing as nails on a chalkboard. And finally, the movie is horribly, irredeemably, D.W. Griffith-level racist. Two years after Attenborough’s Gandhi, Spielberg and Lucas assure us that India needed white people to protect the good, child-like Indians from their evil, fanatical compatriots.

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, opens Friday

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

What’s Screening: June 12 – 18

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

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

The Apu Trilogy, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday

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

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

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

The Magnificent Ambersons, Rafael, Sunday

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

B+ Himalaya, Rafael, Monday, 2:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark; just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter.

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

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

A- Iris, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

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

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

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

Mystery Science Theater 3000New Parkway, Friday, 10:30.

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

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

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

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

I know. For many cinephiles, this isn’t just Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest films ever made. But I just don’t get it. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.

What’s Screening: May 29 – June 4

We’ve got three film festivals going on in the Bay Area this week:

You’ll find festival screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A+ Citizen Kane, Rafael, Sunday

How does any movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. True, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name any this insightful that is also this dazzling and entertaining. As Orson Welles and his collaborators tell the life story of a newspaper tycoon through the flashback memories of those who knew him, they also turn the techniques of cinema inside out. Now I’ll tell you what Rosebud really is: a McGuffin. Read my A+ appreciation. The opening movie for the Rafael’s series, Welles 100: Part One: 1941-1948. Note: After this screening, Warner Brothers will remove Citizen Kane from theatrical release until next year.

Days of Heaven, Castro,Wednesday, 7:00

The story seems a better fit for a 64-minute, 1940s B noir, but Days of Heaven isn’t about story, and only moderately about character. It’s about time, place, atmosphere, and arguably the Bible. The time is around 1916, and for most of the film, the place is a large wheat farm on the Texas panhandle–empty fields stretching out to the horizon, broken up by gentle hills and a stream that gives it a unique beauty. Through the yellow of the wheat fields, the haze of the sun, and the smoke of early 20th-century technology, cinematographer Nestor Almendros creates a sense of something that is not quite nostalgia, and not quite a dream, but a reality seen through the haze of distant memory. See my longer commentary. On a double bill with Out of the Blue, which I haven’t seen.

Rosemary’s Baby, Castro, Thursday, 7:00

Roman Polanski’s first American film barely works. Mia Farrow looks fidgety and nervous as a pregnant wife who slowly begins to suspect that she’s carrying the devil’s spawn, and that everyone she thought she could trust is in a conspiracy against her. Slow enough to let you see what’s coming a mile off, it never quite builds the sense of dread that the material, and the director, were capable of bringing to it. On a double bill with the original, 1975 version of The Stepford Wives.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Berkeley UA, Thursday, 9:00

Absolutely the worst Indiana Jones movie ever. First, Spielberg and company tried to make it dark and atmospheric, but only succeeded in making it unpleasant. Second, leading lady Kate Capshaw, now Spielberg’s wife, gives a performance about as enticing as nails on a chalkboard. And finally, the movie is horribly, irredeemably, D.W. Griffith-level racist. Two years after Attenborough’s Gandhi, Spielberg and Lucas assure us that India needed white people to protect the good, child-like Indians from their evil, fanatical compatriots.

A- Ex Machina, Lark, New Parkway, Vogue, 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, Opera Plaza, 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.

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

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

B+ Flesh and the Devil, Castro, Saturday, 7:00

A silly story, but a sexy one, well-told. I’ll skip the plot, and just tell you that it’s about friendship, young love, uncontrollable lust, and the inherent evil of a woman acting upon her libido. It’s the sort of vamp picture that went out of style in the early 20′s, but came back to life magnificently here thanks largely to Greta Garbo’s talent and charisma, and the burning passion–both onscreen and off–between her and leading man John Gilbert (director Clarence Brown described it as “kind of embarrassing”). This was only Garbo’s third American film, bit it’s the one that made her a star. Live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble.

Sherlock Holmes, Castro, Sunday, 7:00

I haven’t seen this one, but then, very few living people have. At the end of the 19th century, William Gillette–a very popular and respected actor of his day–wrote and starred in the first authorized Sherlock Holmes stage play. To this day, the image we have of Holmes comes as much from Gillette as it does from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and illustrator Sidney Paget. This 1916 film adaptation of Gillette’s play is not only the first Holmes feature film; it’s also Gillette’s only filmed performance. And this 99-year-old movie, long considered lost, has only just been discovered and restored. Musical accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble.

B+ Speedy, Castro, Saturday, 10:00am

Shot in New York, Harold Lloyd’s last silent provides plenty of laughs, even if it isn’t amongst his best. The story involves his struggle to help his girlfriend’s father keep his small streetcar line, but that’s really just an excuse to do Lloyd routines in Big Apple locations. We get a sequence in Cony Island, a cameo with Babe Ruth, and (of course), a great streetcar race.  Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

The Last Laugh, Castro, Friday, 7:00

An aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) loves his job, apparently because of the status conferred on him by his uniform. But when age catches up with him, he’s given a new assignment as a washroom attendant, and his self-esteem plummets. He can’t even tell his wife about the change. Director F.W. Murnau uses his patented expressionistic style (see Sunrise and Nosferatu) to show us what’s happening in the former doorman’s head. Told entirely in pantomime, this is the rare silent feature with almost no intertitles. Musical accompaniment by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.

The Amazing Charley Bowers, Castro, Sunday, 10:00am

I’ve only seen one of Charley Bowers’ short comedies, but I liked it a lot. A former animator, he relied on whimsical special effects (a lot of stop motion) and a sense of the absurd that makes Keaton almost pedestrian. The short that I’ve seen, Now You Tell One, is on the program, so I know that at least a quarter of the show will be wonderful. Music (and I assume an introduction) by Serge Bromberg.

B- Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Castro, Monday, 7:00.

The original isn’t always better than the sequel. The first feature-length version of the best-selling novel–essentially The Count of Monte Cristo meets Jesus Christ–doesn’t quite measure up to the much more impressive 1959 version. Ramon Novarro seems a bit lightweight for the hero, and the story comes off as much more simplistic in its preaching. But it still offers spectacle, suspense, and a wonderful chariot race. The music, I’m sorry to say, will not be live. On the other hand, it’s by Carl Davis, so it will probably be excellent. Still, I would have preferred live music. The movie will be preceded by an on-stage discussion between Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg.

Green Film Festival

A- WALL-E, Roxie, Saturday, 1:00


Andrew Stanton and Pixar made a courageous movie. When Disney finances your big-budget family entertainment, it takes guts to look closely and critically at such consequences of our consumer culture as garbage, obesity, and planetary destruction. Making an almost dialog-free film also took a fair amount of backbone. WALL-E wimps out in the third act–which is both disappointing and probably inevitable–and while that diminishes Stanton’s achievement, it doesn’t destroy it. Read my full review and my report on the Sound of Wall-E .

A- Landfill Harmonic, Roxie, Wednesday, 6:00

Cateura, Paraguay is not really a town; it’s an inhabited garbage dump. But out of that dump comes beautiful music according to this inspiring documentary. Environmental engineer turned music teacher Favio Chávez put together a young people’s orchestra playing home-made instruments built from recycled materials. The group gains Internet fame, accompanies Megadeth in concert, performs around the world, and enjoys some relief from grinding poverty. You can’t watch it without rooting for these children, and for the adults shaping their lives. The movie will be followed by a discussion with the filmmakers.

B , Roxie, Saturday, 9:30

First, a disclaimer: My late stepfather, John H. Newman, cut the sound effects on this sci-fi ecological parable. He considered it the best work he ever did. As a teenager, I got to hang around the post-production offices one day and watch everyone shoot special effects. The movie today feels somewhat preachy and heavy-handed, with a story about as believable as Dick Chaney. But the 2001-influenced special effects make nice eye candy (director Douglas Trumbull was one of Kubrick’s effects specialists), the robots clearly influenced R2D2, Bruce Dern gives a good performance in a nearly one-man show, and the movie has its heart in the right place. Great sound effects, too.

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.

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