Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve previewed five films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order from best to worst.

Curiously, the two best are also the least Jewish. I guess they were so good they had to be added anyway.

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

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So what makes this a Jewish film? In one extended sequence, Leeward and his family go to his parent’s home for Shabbat.

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

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And what makes this one a Jewish film? One of the five is a religious Jew. Also, although this is never discussed in the film, standup comedy is essentially a Jewish art honed in the Catskills. But that’s a bit of a stretch.

I’m glad to say that I don’t have to answer that question for the remaining three films.

B God’s Slave
A Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the call comes, he knows it’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.

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

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

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Note: I altered this article on July 23, corrected the time that The Village of Peace will play at the Castro on August 1.

Boyhood: As Real as Fiction Gets

A Long-form drama

  • Written and directed by Richard Linklater

I’m a sucker for long films that take place over the course of several years. But I’ve never seen one as real as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This isn’t a story of an extraordinary person, or of a normal person going through an extraordinary experience. But it does something even more special. It follows the experiences of a relatively normal boy growing up, from elementary school until his arrival at college. With few exceptions, most of his experiences are pretty common.

The result is an exceptional motion picture. Running nearly three hours, without conventional setups and manufactured disasters, it never lags. This just may be the best new film of the year.

You probably already know Boyhood‘s gimmick–it was shot off and on over a period of 12 years. Thus, we get to watch young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up for real. And we see his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) move into middle age.

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But this time, the gimmick works–beautifully. In most films set over a long period of time, we’re aware of the moment when the child actor is replaced by an adult. Or we notice the changing makeup as the characters age. Not here. Aside from occasional hairstyle changes, people in one scene look pretty much as they did in the last. But not quite. You can see those subtle, barely noticeable changes that happen to everyone year by year. The 18-year-old Mason looks very different from the six-year-old, but since we see the whole transition, as we do in life.

This technique has another benefit. The film begins in 2002, with the attitudes, fads, and technologies of the time, and slowly works up to 2013. Yet the early scenes never feel like period pieces, because they weren’t shot as period pieces. The scenes set in 2002 were shot in 2002, by people who didn’t know about smartphones or Barak Obama.

Now then, on to the story:

Mason’s life isn’t all that easy. His parents are divorced, and neither of them have much money. He and his sister live with their mom, who became a mother way too soon and has a history of making poor romantic choices. Their father loves them, but needs to grow up himself.

For the most part, Boyhood avoids the sort of dramatic and disastrous situations that drive most narrative films. Several times, I thought that a horrible accident was eminent, or that Linklater was setting up a conflict for a subplot, but I was almost always wrong. For instance, a scene involving middle school bullies lacks the obvious follow-up.

A lifetime of movie going had taught me to expect these plot points. But when they didn’t materialize, I felt relieved, not disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that everything goes smoothly for Mason and his family. There are the usual problems of childhood and adolescence, but there are also some very scary scenes that go beyond normal childhood experiences. Like I said, their mom makes some poor romantic choices.

Fifty years from now, if civilization survives, people will still be watching Boyhood, both as a document of the early 21st century, and because it so perfectly reflects life as we all know it. It’s a remarkable work.

What’s Screening: July 4 – 10

Celebrate Independence Day! Don’t go to a film festival! Actually, you have no choice. There are no film festivals in the Bay Area this week. Luckily, you can still go to a theater and see a movie.

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

Lark 10th Anniversary Celebration, Wednesday, 1:00. The Lark is, of course, considerably older than 10, but this event celebrates the anniversary of it becoming a non-profit art house. The people running the theater promise "cake, root beer floats, and cartoons in the afternoon. Then, at 6pm in the evening, you’ll be treated to free wine and popcorn, as we venture back in time for a repeat screening of our 2004 Opening Night movie, IMPACT, a 1949 film noir drama."

A A Hard Day’s Night, Elmwood, opens Friday; Castro, Wednesday; Rafael, Sunday. New 4K digital restoration. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, andimage could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles are still popular, all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll. The Castro will screen A Hard Day’s Night on a double bill with a 1978 comedy called I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

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

B+ Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. Bad sequels can ruin one’s memory of a good original, and that’s very much the case with the first Austin Powers movie. Anyone who saw all three of these spy spoofs imagecould be forgiven for forgetting just how fun the first movie was. Parodying everything about 1960s swinging London, and especially the early James Bond movies, it takes one cliché after another and blows each one to bits. Both the brilliant but bucktoothed spy Austin Powers (Mike Myers),  and his arch-enemy, Dr. Evil (Mike Myers), are frozen in 1967 and thawed out in 1997, where they’re clearly fish out of water. Myers also wrote the screenplay. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lark, Friday and Saturday, 3:15; Sunday, 1:00. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. imageThere’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark; just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, don’t see it; otherwise, you probably already love it.

A- The Grand Budapest Hotel, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story within a story imagewithin 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 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.

C- Vertigo, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem with the movie is that 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.

A+ Jaws, Lark, Saturday, 8:30 and Sunday, 3:45. People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really starts. For that first half, it’s a suspenseful, jaws2witty 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 board 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+ MGM Technicolor Double Bill; The Wizard of Oz & Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford,singininrainFriday through Sunday. The A+ goes easily to Singin’ in the Rain, arguably the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. I don’t really have to tell you about The Wizard of Oz, do I? Okay. It’s got clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). It never struck me as the masterpiece others see, but it’s a good, fun movie that I grade as B+.

A Life Itself at the Movies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Steve James

The first thing you have to understand about Life Itself, Steve James’ biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, is that James is hardly a dispassionate observer. He was not a close friend to Ebert, but he owed a lot to the famous film critic. It was Ebert, and his partner Gene Siskel, who championed James’ first feature, Hoop Dreams, and made him an important filmmaker.

The next thing you need to know is that Life Itself is no rehash of Ebert’s autobiography. The book, like all autobiographies, is told from one point of view–Ebert’s. The film shows Ebert’s life from many points of view. Friends, family, co-workers, filmmakers, and other critics–some of whom didn’t care much for Ebert–get their chance to discuss the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. And one of the best.

Siskel and Ebert in the early days

Overall, the film gives us a far more positive view of Ebert than modesty would have allowed him to say about himself. But others can gush about Ebert’s fast yet concise writing style, his advocacy for rare and wonderful films that might never have had a chance without him, and his enthusiastic lust for life. And, of course, his courage in the face of cancer and the botched operations that robbed him of the ability to eat, drink, or talk.

James started working on the film just before Ebert went into the hospital once again, in what they didn’t know at the time was the beginning of the end. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end for Ebert. The film cuts between two timelines–the physical deterioration of his last months and his entire life. Obviously, the two stories come together in the end.

Be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. Well, he sort of has a jaw–a u-shaped piece of flesh–sans bones and muscles–hanging below his gaping mouth. And when you look into that mouth, you see his neck or, depending on the camera angle, what’s behind him. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but his upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust.

We hear a lot of Ebert’s words in Life Itself. Sometimes, they’re from old recordings. Sometimes they’re his computer voice. Other times it’s an actor–one who sounds very much like him.

The film has another hero: his wife (and now widow), Chaz. Ebert didn’t marry until he was 50–to a woman who already had grown children. It’s clear that she has been his rock through the tribulations of his final decade. It’s a touching romance, and like all near-perfect love stories, it has to end in death.

And yes, there’s a lot about movies here. We see clips from films as we hear his reviews. Many of those movies are now classics and readily available. But the film’s real nostalgia comes from clips of the TV shows, with Siskel and Ebert agreeing or arguing about one film or another. (Richard Roeper, who became Ebert’s on-screen partner after Siskel died, isn’t even mentioned. I’m not complaining.)

Steve James has given us a completely biased look at Ebert’s life. But it’s also an entertaining and informative work about a man who joyfully embraced both the pleasures of cinema, and of life itself.

What’s Screening: June 27 – July 3

Didn’t get enough silent films a month ago? Then head to Niles this weekend for the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival. Unless, of course, you’re attending Frameline, which like Broncho Billy, ends Sunday. I list a couple of Brocho Billy screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A+ Jaws, Castro & Lark, Thursday. People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really starts. For that first half, it’s a suspenseful, jaws2witty 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 board 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. The Castro will screen Jaws on a double bill with The Towering Inferno.

A+ Groundhog Day, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00. Spiritual, humane, and hilarious, Groundhog Day wraps its thoughtful world view inside a imageslick, Hollywood comedy. Without explanation, the movie plunges its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory, living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years). Bill Murray’s weatherman goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out that life is about serving others. And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure entertainment. For more on this great comedy, see Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.

B+ American Graffiti, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00. A long time ago, in a Bayimage Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. You can also talk about old-time rock ‘n’ roll–American Graffiti makes great use of early 60s music in one of the most effective and creative sound mixes of the ’70s. On a double bill with Two-Lane Blacktop, which I’ve never seen.

C- The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Only fans of this genre-shattering klezmer band are likely to enjoy this music 3435_klezmatics_00_weblg[1]documentary; if you come into the theater a Klezmatics virgin (as I did), it won’t make you a convert. Director Erik Anjou gives the audience samples of a lot of songs, but only twice stays until the song is finished. Most of the time, we’re learning about the group’s history and working methods. How much can you care about that sort of thing if you’re not allowed to listen to their music?) There’s probably a better documentary inside the material Anjou shot, but I doubt we’ll ever see it.

A+ MGM Technicolor Double Bill; The Wizard of Oz & Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford, singininrainFriday through Sunday (and revived next weekend, as well). The A+ goes easily to Singin’ in the Rain, arguably the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. I don’t really have to tell you about The Wizard of Oz, do I? Okay. It’s got clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). It never struck me as the masterpiece others see, but it’s a good, fun movie that I grade as B+.

Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival

A+ The Big Parade, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00. As we enter the centenary of World War I, how appropriate to start the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival with one of the best films made about that horrible and pointless disaster. imageJohn Gilbert sans mustache plays a spoiled rich kid who signs up almost on a lark, has a fun and games safely behind the lines, falls in love with a French girl, and then is dropped into an unrelenting Hell. Before the horrors get unleashed,  the romance between two people who can’t speak each other’s languages makes a wonderful subject for a silent film. Also in the program, the short Broncho Billy & the Bandit’s Secret. With Jon Mirsalis providing music on the Kurzweil electric keyboard.

B The Circus, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Made in between Chaplin’s two feature imagemasterpieces (The Gold Rush and City Lights), this reasonably fully comedy can’t help but suffer by comparison. the Tramp finds himself working in a small circus, where he accidentally becomes a comic star without knowing it. He also falls in love with a beautiful girl  who sees him only as a friend. The film will screen with Chaplin’s recorded music track, made decades after he originally released the silent movie; I’m assuming Chaplin’s estate insisted on that..

This Year’s SF Jewish Film Fest Coming in July

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival claims to be the oldest and largest Jewish film festival in the world. And at 34, it may also be the oldest film festival geared to a particular ethnicity.

Since I am personally of that ethnicity, this festival catches my attention more than the others. Which explains why I’m not writing a similar article on the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco (although I’d do that too if I had the time).

Unfortunately, I was fighting a cold Tuesday (still am), so I missed the press conference. But I have various press releases in front of me, so I’ll try to give you an overview.

The Festival runs from July 24 through August 10 at various locations around the Bay Area. For instance, it runs in San Francisco from opening night to August 3rd, but plays Berkeley August 1 – 7. Other venues are in Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael–eight theaters in all.

It will screen 49 features, more than half of them documentaries, as well as 18 shorts.

This year, the Freedom of Expression Award goes to actor (and, according to the press release, activist) Theodore Bikel. His award ceremony will include a screening of a new documentary, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem.

Another of those documentaries, The Green Prince, opens the festival. It’s the story of a Palestinian fighter who is captured by the Israeli government and turned into a spy. From what I gather, it’s pretty much from the Israeli point of view, but I haven’t seen it so I’m not sure.

This year, there’s a spotlight on one of Judaism’s finest traditions: comedy. This includes two documentaries on the art of making people laugh: Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story and Comedy Warriors. Among the comic features is an Israeli military farce called Zero Motivation.

In fact, there seems to be an unofficial focus on the Israeli military. God’s Slave is a thriller involving an Islamic terrorist and a Mossad agent in Buenos Aires.

I’m hoping to preview some of these films before the Festival opens. Stay tuned.

What’s Screening: June 20 – 26

Frameline, San Francisco’s LGBT film festival, continues through the week. I’ve placed two Frameline screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

C+ Manakamana, Lark, Friday, 3:30; Sunday, 6:00. The setting: a cable car that transports people to a Hindu temple high in the Nepalese mountains. Filmmakers Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez set their camera in one seat and film the people across from them, as well as the passing scenery. The camera doesn’t move and each 8-minute ride is shown without cuts. The scenery is beautiful at first, but loses its luster as it’s repeated. The passengers, who clearly were told not to look at or acknowledge the camera and filmmakers, are sometimes boring and sometimes interesting. Despite the bright spots, I soon found myself disappointed as each new trip began; it meant the movie wasn’t over. Read my full review.

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

A+ The Godfather, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday, 2:00. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned imageMario 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 inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he seems exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and heart-stopping violence, recently restored by the master of the craft, Robert A. Harris. Separate admission for Godfather I & II.

A+ The Godfather, Part IIvarious CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday, 7:00. 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.

B+ The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Lark, opens Friday. This big, splashy, fun, CGI-heavy action flick has a small, character-driven independent art film hidden inside. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a teenager in imagecrisis. His parents deserted him when he was young.  His girlfriend is about to desert him. A now-powerful old friend is putting him in a moral dilemma . The widowed aunt who’s raising him (Sally Field) can barely make ends meet. And because he has superpowers, he feels responsible for stopping all the crime in New York City. The personal story and the big action set pieces merge easily into a single whole. Not as good as the first Spider-Man 2 (yeah, I know that sounds weird), but worth catching. I’ve written more on this one.

A- The Princess Bride, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. William Goldman’s enchanting imageand funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright 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 really grate on your nerves.

B+ Palo Alto, Lark, Sunday and Tuesday, 8:30. Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who also imageacts in the film), Palo Alto exams a handful of teenagers reaching an emotional boiling point.  Fueled by booze, pot, and raging hormones, they deal poorly with the choices they’re making on their way to adulthood. Drunk driving, random vandalism, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, and other serious mistakes mar these kid’s lives. Yet you really hope they get their acts together. A slick yet compassionate and well-acted drama. Read my full review.

C+ Serenity, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Ever hear of a science fiction TV series called Firefly? Like many superb, original shows imagethat somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Firefly failed to find an audience and soon died. 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, its 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.

C- Last Year at Marienbad, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:50. Slow and pretentious, Alain Resnais’  Very Important European Art Film of the early 1960s gives you almost no information about the people onscreen (I hesitate to call them characters) and no reason whatsoever to care if they live or die. But the film is visually striking and technically dazzling, and if you’re willing to meet it halfway, it has a certain hypnotic charm. Too bad it refuses to meet you halfway. See my essay.

A+ Casablanca,Lark, Sunday, 3:30. What can I say? You’ve either already casablancaseen 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.

Frameline

A- Bad Hair, Roxie, Saturday, 1:30. Ten-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) bewilders, confuses, and worries his widowed mother (Samantha Castillo). Not only is he imagemischievous and occasionally thoughtless–hardly surprising for a boy that age. He obsessively hates his curly hair, does everything he can to straighten it, and behaves in ways that don’t measure up to his mother’s ideas about masculinity. Meanwhile, Mom–horrified that she may have a gay son–struggles to get her job back and make ends meet with little or no money. Both Lange and Castillo give great performances in this unique drama about poverty, race, and homophobia.

Boys Don’t Cry, Castro, Thursday, 11:00am. I haven’t seen Kimberly Peirce’s ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy since it was new, so I’m not going to give it an official imagegrade. But if I did, it would almost certainly be an A. Hilary Swank, in a breakout role, plays a transgender man who comes to a small town hiding the fact that he was born–and is still biologically–a woman. He finds romance with a beautiful blonde (Chloë Sevigny), but as his secret seeps out, his life and the lives of those near him become endangered. I do remember this: Boys Don’t Cry has the most suspenseful sex scene I’ve ever seen; and the suspense made it all the more erotic.

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