Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Strange Case of the Stereotyped Detective

Racism clouds old Hollywood movies. Even films intended in their time to be progressive and tolerant can look shockingly bigoted today. Consider Charlie Chan at the Opera, which the Stanford will screen Thursday and Friday.

And that’s just the beginning. The theater will screen Charlie Chan mysteries every Thursday and Friday through October 10, each double-billed with a Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. Most of these pictures were cheap B movies, running little more than an hour and intended to fill out the bottom half of a double bill.

The Stanford gives the series a good start this week with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the aforementioned Charlie Chan at the Opera. I consider Adventures the best of the Rathbone/Bruce series. Opera–the only Charlie Chan movie I’ve yet seen–has a high reputation amongst fans of the series.

I want to talk primarily about Chan, but I’ll cover Holmes at the end of this article.

Charlie Chan at the Opera

Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American police detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. He first appeared in novels, then made the leap to movies.

Charlie Chan at the Opera’s racism can shock modern movie-goers. The title character, an Asian, is played by the Swedish-born actor Warner Oland. His yellow-face makeup looks ridiculous, and he speaks with a Chinese accent that wouldn’t fool a cow. His stilted English dialog contains such gems as “Murderer always return to scene of crime,” “Be so kind to explain,” and “Confucius say ‘Luck happy combination of foolish accident.'”

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And yet, I can’t condemn the film entirely. Taken in context of its time (1936), it offers a surprisingly positive view of Chinese Americans.

After all, Chan is the hero. He’s not a Fu Manchu-type yellow horde villain. Nor is he a helpless victim or sidekick. He’s always the smartest, wisest, and most ethical person in the room.

Chan isn’t a sidekick, but he has one–his son Lee, played by actual Asian-American Keye Luke. Luke gives Lee Chan the slightest of Chinese accents, and plays him as a fashionable American young man of his time. He speaks in the youth vernacular of the 1930s. Although Chan famously refers to Lee as “Number One Son” (although I didn’t catch that phrase in Opera), Lee calls the detective not  “honorable father,” but “Pop.” Or even “Gee, Pop.”

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The result is a parent/child relationship that would have looked very familiar to a great many American families of the 1930s–including that of my light-skinned, blonde-haired mother. Immigrant parents struggled with the English language and kept one foot in the customs of the old country, while their American-raised kids assimilated into the surrounding culture. This is still happening now, of course, but was happening in greater numbers back then.

Charlie Chan at the Opera has a Lestrade character–the bumbling detective who gets everything wrong. But two things make this conventional mystery character particularly interesting. First, he’s played by the wonderful William Demarest, who would light up so much of Preston Sturges’ work in the next decade. Second, he’s a bigot who doesn’t like taking orders from “chop suey.” With this character, the film strongly suggests that bigotry and stupidity go hand and hand.

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Aside from its racial undercurrent, Charlie Chan at the Opera succeeds in being exactly what it was intended to be–an unexceptional but entertaining short mystery feature. The presence of Demarest, and even more so of Boris Karloff as an escaped lunatic, raises Opera above other such movies.

I’d give it a C+.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

No racial issues in this film…unless, of course, you think about the fact that everyone in it is white. But I’ve covered that issue already.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the second of 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the famous detective and Nigel Bruce as his sidekick, Dr. Watson. It’s the last of the series shot on a decent budget and the last one made at 20th Century-Fox.

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It’s also set in Victorian times, which seems obvious today but was somewhat daring back then. As far as I know, every Sherlock Holmes movie made before Adventures’ predecessor, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was updated to the present. But Fox made Hound and Adventures as period pieces. At the time, this may have felt like setting a James Bond flick in the 1950s (which would actually be pretty cool).

Officially based on William Gillette’s 1899 stage play Sherlock Holmes, but very much an original story, Adventures pits Holmes and Watson against arch-villain Professor Moriarty (George Zucco). Holmes and Moriarty enjoy an interesting relationship in this film. They appear to admire and even like each other, even though they know that one of them must eventually destroy the other.

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The soundstage recreation of 19th-century London provides atmosphere, as do the supporting characters. And even though we’re told who the villain is from the start, it’s still a lot of fun. Besides, it has Ida Lupino.

Fox decided not to continue the series. But after Pearl Harbor, Universal picked it up again, updating the stories to the present so that Holmes could track down Nazi spies–although in most of these movies he goes after conventional criminals. Universal made 12 pictures before Rathbone called it quits in 1946. These movies were quickly written and quickly shot, and suffer from huge plot holes. But they’re all reasonably fun. None of them come up to the quality of the two Fox pictures.

What’s Screening: August 1 – 7

For personal reasons, I’m writing this newsletter early–nine days before it goes live. So please forgive me if it’s incomplete.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival continues through this week and into next, moving from San Francisco itself to other parts of the Bay Area. You’ll find festival screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A The Big Lebowski, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00. I recently revisited this cult favorite, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Ze–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.)

A A Hard Days Night, Castro, Wednesday. New 4K digital restoration. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a new British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to Europe, andimage could die before the film got into theaters. Fifty years later, The Beatles are still popular all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll. On a double bill with The Knack.

Classic Race Relations Double Bill: Do the Right Thing & In the Heat of the Night, Castro, Thursday. I’m not giving this double bill a grade because it’s been too long since I’ve seen Spike Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing. I suspect, imagehowever, that I would give it an A or even an A+. But I’ve seen In the Heat of the Night recently enough to confidently give it a B-. The 1967 Best Picture Oscar winner still works moderately well as a murder mystery, but it comes from a time when white Americans who didn’t hail from Dixie could still pat themselves on the back and be glad they weren’t like those bigoted Southerners. This story of a black police detective from Philadelphia investigating a murder in a small, Mississippi town has a few good scenes and one great one, but that’s about it.

A Shoulder Arms, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:15. Charlie Chaplin made a very funny war comedy, parodying every aspect of World War I, while real soldiers were imagedying in the trenches. The result is extremely funny, often in very silly ways, but without any real message about the horror of war. This four-reel semi-feature runs only 46 minutes, but a lecture by Russell Merritt and two shorter shorts stretch the program out to an estimated 95 minutes. Accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano. This is the opening show in the PFA series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.

A Alien, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:00. In the wake of Jaws’ and Star Wars’ phenomenal success, someone had to make a big-budget movie about a large predator on a spaceship. But the obvious marketing value imagedoesn’t explain how good Alien actually turned out, and on so many levels. First you’ve got the extraordinary art direction, giving us a spaceship that feels like a strange and unsettling high-tech haunted house, yet is absolutely believable. Then there’s the working-class astronauts complaining about the food and pay–easily the most realistic people Hollywood has ever shot into space. Don’t forget the star-making performance by Sigourney Weaver, or the overriding sense of loneliness, corporate exploitation, and–dare I say it–alienation. It’s also one hell of a fun, scary ride.

B- A Clockwork Orange, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed imageself-consciously arty in1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it just doesn’t add up.

A Twenty Feet from Stardom, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocalimage texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton (“Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!”), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without credit (“He’s a Rebel”). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) pop up among the talking heads (as do The Talking Heads), but this time, the spotlight points to the lesser-known artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration. A celebration of the human voice.

B- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its ownpeeweesbigadven silliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action flick, is alone worth the price of admission.

A+ Some Like It Hot, Lark, Sunday, 3:30. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A- Comedy Warriors, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Thursday, 7:00. Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to imagewatch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help these wounded newbies turn their frustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they’re missing feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.

B God’s Slave, Castro Friday, 12:00 noon. An Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the call comes, he knows imageit’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.

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

C The Village of Peace, Castro Friday, 2:00. On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the African-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true decedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a imagecommunity, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (their young adults do serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.

What’s Screening: July 25 – 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

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

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

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

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

The Castro now has 4K projection

Top technology has been an important part of the Castro‘s appeal for a long time. The theater was, I believe, the first rep house to get Dolby stereo, digital sound, and DCP-compatible digital projection. I believe it’s the only local rep house that can project 70mm film, and one of only two that can handle 50’s-style,dual-strip 3D.

And now they’ve added the digital equivalent of 70mm film–4K projection. 4K projects four times the resolution of standard 2K. I’ve never seen a side-by-side comparison of the two, and I’ve heard conflicting opinions from experts on this. But I suspect that the difference is significant, especially if the film was shot in a large format and if you’re sitting close to the screen (as I usually do).

Last year, I was delighted to learn that the Pacific Film Archive had a new, 4K projector. But the PFA has a small screen–too small for an immersive experience. Not so with the Castro’s large screen.

Back in May, I wrote about a stuck pixel that marred the Castro’s digital screenings. At the end of that article, I disclosed that I had "emailed my Castro press contact about this issue, but he could only give me information off the record." Now I can tell you what he told me: that they might simply fix the problem, or they might instead upgrade to 4K projection. Today, he revealed that "We have completed installation of the 4K projector."

I am, of course, delighted.

When can you see the new projector in action? The Castro will screen Double Indemnity off a DCP tomorrow night, but that one is probably 2K (although I honestly don’t know). However, they’ll be screening The Leopard in 4K on August 24, and Lawrence of Arabia that way August 30 and September 1. Both films were shot in large film formats (Technirama and Super Panavision 70 respectively). I suspect that both films will look great in 4K projection.

James Garner and Some Forgotten Western Laughs

James Garner’s recent death left me thinking about some of my favorite films starring the low-key star. And one title, rarely mentioned today, leaped up immediately: Support Your Local Sheriff.

That title pretty much guarantees that the movie would be forgotten. A topical joke in 1969 (a popular conservative bumper sticker of the day read "Support your local police"), it just seems weird to people too young to remember the reference. The title has aged; the movie has not–or at least not as much.

Although marred with some serious flaws (more about them below), this western parody makes good use of Garner’s talent and star appeal. As the fastest draw, the most accurate sharpshooter, and the smartest man in the unnamed territory, Garner gets to play his laid-back, unflappable persona at its calmest, all the while showing off a sense of comic timing that seems almost unfair in such a handsome leading man.

Most comic protagonists start out utterly inept–the worst possible person for the job (consider The Big Lebowski and anything starring Bob Hope). But Garner here plays the opposite. He’s always a step ahead of everyone, and never seems truly worried. While remaining calm and polite, he keeps a blood-thirsty murderer (Bruce Dern) in a not-quite-finished jail with big open spaces where there should be iron bars. (It helps that this particular killer has the brains of a drugged sparrow.)

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Comic westerns have been a movie mainstay for about a century. Harold Lloyd, Bob Hope, Don Knots, and Jackie Chan all made them. When the Marx Brothers made theirs, they stole the title from Buster Keaton’s entry in the form and the plot of Laurel and Hardy’s. But if there’s a comic western that understands the western genre as well as Support Your Local Sheriff, I haven’t seen it. The plot comes from Rio Bravo, with a little bit of High Noon thrown in.

Garner did a number of westerns, and the cast is peppered with veterans from the glory days of the genre. Walter Brennan (Red River, Rio Bravo) does a comic variation of his vicious patriarch from My Darling Clementine. Henry Morgan (High Noon, How the West was Won) shows off the low-key timing he would soon bring to the sitcom MASH, and has some wonderful comic dialog with Garner. Dern (Hang ‘Em High, Will Penny) does wonders as a fool who thinks he’s a tough guy. But it’s Jack Elam (The Comancheros, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), who steals the picture as Garner’s somewhat reluctant, wild-eyed sidekick. Director Burt Kennedy and writer/producer William Bowers were also western veterans.

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Overall, Support Your Local Sheriff provides a healthy collection of big laughs, with a real understanding and love of the genre it’s lampooning. But as I said before, It’s far from perfect.

Consider Jeff Alexander’s horrendous score, which has the horrible habit of telling you when you should laugh. Alexander provides a few good musical moments–especially in a sequence when hired killers come to town. But for the most part, the music just annoys the audience, and hurts more gags than it helps.

Other flaws include a clumsily-written romantic subplot (Joan Hackett plays the spirited ingénue), a slow first act, and a prospecting sequence that offers nothing and changes Garner’s character for some cheap laughs.

And the climax disappoints. It has its funny moments–some very funny moments–but there should have been more. After watching Garner outsmart everyone for over an hour, we have every right to expect a brilliant for the finale. Screenwriter Bowers failed to come up with one.

I can’t honestly call Support Your Local Sheriff a comic masterpiece. But if you really love westerns, this is a comedy worth catching. And a celebration of Garner’s comic strength.

What’s Screening: July 18 – 24

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

And now this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rediscovering The Big Lebowski

I saw The Big Lebowski at the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night–my first time seeing the cult favorite with an audience. Now I get it. I may be the last person to realize this, but on the big screen, with a room full of people, Lebowski is an exceptional comedy. The laughs are nearly constant.

And yet there’s more to it than laughs. The characters, although broadly drawn and larger-than-life, have a ring of truth to them. And the plot is as complex as a Raymond Chandler novel.

In fact, the story feels very much like something from Raymond Chandler, except that the protagonist is no Philip Marlowe. He’s a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned slacker and competitive bowler who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). In other words, he’s the least competent person you could possibly imagine to be placed in the middle of a Raymond Chandler story.

A bit of personal history:

Lukewarm reviews kept me from seeing The Big Lebowski when it was released in 1998–despite my already being a Coen brothers fan. But I rented it soon after it came out on DVD, and watched it when my then-teenaged son. (My son was also with me Wednesday night at the PFA; this time with his wife.)

Soon after I started this blog, I started recommending The Big Lebowski
when it played in local theaters. It wasn’t long before I realized that it played more one-night stands than any other movie. This perplexed me. I remembered it as a pleasant comedy but not a great one. When I started the letter grades, I gave it a B.

But it kept turning up. People obviously loved it. I even made jokes about it in my weekly newsletter, calling one Lebowski of Arabia and another A Lebowski-Free Week. Slowly, I began to suspect that I needed to see it again, and this time in a theater.

On Wednesday night, I finally did it.

As usual, Steve Seid introduced the movie, which the PFA was screening as part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010. This is the last of three American comedy series that the Archive has been running since the beginning of the year.

To help program this final series, the PFA "worked in cahoots with the East Bay Express," with readers recommending films. Seid called Lebowski part of a "great bowling trilogy" that also included King Pin and Spare Me, which is "about a kind of outlaw bowler who gets kicked out of the league because he has anger issues," and was advertised with the tag line "When you hear thunder, God is bowling."

Seid also brought out his father’s bowling ball. His father bowled until he was in his 90s.

The Big Lebowski is more than a bowling movie, and more than a Raymond Chandler story with a comically inept protagonist. There’s a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen to it–as if you could throw yourself out to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t.

Consider Sam Elliott’s prairie philosopher narration, which sort of sets the scene but is stylistically at odds with everything else in the picture. Or John Turturro’s utterly bizarre turn as a bejeweled bowler named Jesus. Or the dancing dream sequence that looks like something out of Busby Berkeley, only weirder.

Amongst a great supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman at his funniest, John Goodman stands out as the Dude’s friend Walter–a Vietnam vet with a very bad case of PTSD. This is a guy who pulls a gun to settle an argument over bowling scores. On one level, Walter is the sort of dependable friend who will always have your back. On the other, he’s crazy, dangerous, and doesn’t think things through. The Dude gets into a lot of trouble because of Walter’s shenanigans.

The Big Lebowski is a blissfully vulgar movie. It just may have more f-words than any other picture shot. And it uses the word, and its constant repetitions, effectively to get laughs. The Coen brothers understand just how funny a word it is.

The PFA screened The Big Lebowski off of a DCP. As a rule, this doesn’t bother me; I like digital projection. But not this time. Universal’s transfer was over-processed. It looked like video, with film grain removed and everything smoothed over. I suspect this was an early transfer, done before people realized that a film projected digitally should still look like a film, and not like CGI. Considering the quality of this transfer, I would rather have seen a 35mm print.

But I suppose I have to accept the bad with the good. After all, "the Dude abides."

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