What’s Screening: February 13 – 19

aIndieFest and the Mostly British Film Festival continue through this week.

A Romeo & Juliet (1967 version), Castro, Saturday, 8:00. Star Leonard Whiting in person. Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare’s popular romantic tragedy changed forever how filmmakers approached the Bard–and changed it for the better. Beautiful, violent, funny, sexy, sad, and lusciously romantic, it makes the 400-year-old play new (well, 1960’s new) and immediately exciting. Zeffirelli’s decision to cast actual teenagers in the leading roles was controversial at the time, but was absolutely the right thing to do. Warning: ticket prices are very high for this special event.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Roxie, Saturday and Thursday, 7:15. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the thrills, terrors, and transitions of teenage life through the looking glass of high school imagemovies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko,and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining. Part of IndieFest.

A Giant, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday & Wednesday. James Dean only plays a supporting role in George Steven’s sprawling epic about 20th-century Texas. The picture really imagebelongs to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as a couple who marry almost on a whim and have to find common ground in the long decades of their marriage. As they age, the world evolves around them, with a world war, changing attitudes about race and gender, and a cattle economy transitioning to an oil-based one. Dennis Hopper plays Hudson and Taylor’s grown son, while Dean grows from his usual alienated youth to a middle-aged man.

B Akeelah and the Bee, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. A talent forimage 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.

C- The Eagle, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Rudolph Valentino in an extremely silly imagemelodrama, with the saving grace of not taking itself seriously. The top hearthrob of the 1920s holds the screen well–even for a straight male like myself for whom he doesn’t excite sexual fantasies. But even a silly melodrama deserves a better resolution than the one that The Eagle provides. If you really want to learn what Valentino was all about, see The Son of the Sheik. With Frederick Hodges on piano.

B Ninotchka, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny.image It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939. As Garbo’s character points out, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” But it’s not quite as good as you might expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder. Part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder; it’s nice to see the PFA include a film that Wilder wrote but didn’t direct.

A+ Some Like It Hot, New Parkway, Saturday, 6:30; Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:40. 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. Also part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder.

A The Apartment, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. How do you top Some Like It Hot? Billy Wilder found the answer in this far more serious comedy about powerful men exploiting both women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. In order to gain traction in the rat race, he loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. With Fred MacMurray as the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane as the woman he exploits. Read my Blu-ray review. Another part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder. I mistakenly left The Apartment out of the original version of this newsletter. I fixed that Sunday afternoon.

B West Side Story, Castro, Saturday, 1:00. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songsWest Side Story and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen musical. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in. See West Side Story in 70mm for more on the movie.

A Double Indemnity, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray by the libido from imageadultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s near-perfect thriller. 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.

A Blade Runner – The Final Cut, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget imagevariety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. I’m assuming this is the same final cut I saw in 2008, and not a even more final cut made since.

C+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Vertigo & The Trouble with Harry, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The C+ goes to The Trouble with Harry. Alfred Hitchcock laced his thrillers with humor, but his second and last attempt at an out-and-out comedy succeeds in merely being pleasant–despite the promising theme of a dead body that everyone wants to hide.. Although Vertigo is officially now the greatest film ever made, I can’t give it more than a C-. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations.  Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough.

A Timbuktu, Shattuck, opens Friday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

A- Two Days, One Night, Lark, opens Friday. The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. Rather than becoming a political tract, this film feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise. Read my full review.

A- Birdman, Cerrito, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B+ The Theory of Everything, Lark, opens Friday. Like so many British pictures, this Stephen Hawking biopic provides a showcase for great acting. Hawking is the sort of character that cries out for an Oscar–he’s a real person, he’s British, and he has a disability. Eddie Redmayne makes full use of that opportunity, catching not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable. Felicity Jones co-stars as his first wife and does an excellent job, Very well made but not exceptional. Read my longer comments.

D- Jacky and the Kingdom of Women, Roxie, Sunday, 7:115; Thursday, 9:30. This French satire imagines a society of reverse sexism. The women are leaders and warriors. The men are sex objects and obedient husbands. (Eight years ago I wrote and performed in a imageone-act play with the same theme.) But two problems sink Jacky. First, the fantasy society in which it’s set–sort of a combination of North Korea, the Islamic State, and horse worship–is too bizarre to use for making a satirical point. There’s nothing to recognize. Second, it’s just not funny. My favorite moment was a chase; not because it made me laugh–it didn’t–but because it held the promise that the movie would soon be over. It didn’t even keep that promise. IndieFest‘s closing night disappointment.

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

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Strangers on a Train & The Lady Vanishes,Stanford, through Sunday. If you love Alfred Hitchcock and you love trains, this is the double bill for you. In Strangers on a Train, a rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) strangersontrainconvinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife, and by a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were enjoying a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she had ever been there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Read my Blu-ray review. Each film earns an A on its own merit.

American Cinema’s Problem Child: Birth of a Nation turns 100 today

D. W. Griffith’s Civil War and Reconstruction epic,  The Birth of a Nation, premiered on February 8, 1915, a hundred years ago today (at that time it was called The Clansman; the more grandiose title came later). Cinema changed irrevocably that night.

Much as we would like to, we can’t ignore or underestimate The Birth’s artistry, impact, and commercial success. Even the best films made before 1915 are static and crude. But Birth is fluid, dramatic, and stirring. Even today, it’s action climax–with a riot, an attempted rape, a small battle, and a brave band of heroes riding frantically to the rescue–can stir your blood and leave you ready to cheer.

Except for the very problematic fact that those heroes riding to the rescue are wearing white sheets. Yes, cinema’s first great feature film idolizes the Ku Klux Klan.

image

Like Gone with the Wind 15 years later, Birth tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction from a very white, southern, aristocratic point of view. The pre-war South is pictured as a paradise where everyone knew their place and were happy with it. Then the war came and ruined everything.

It’s important to look at Birth of a Nation in its historical context. Griffith was the son of former Kentucky slave owners impoverished by war and emancipation. The civil war was a living memory in 1915, almost as recent as Vietnam is today, and the Confederacy was still worshipped. White supremacy was automatically assumed and unquestioned–at least amongst people of European decent.

You also need to consider it in its film historical context. At the beginning of 1915, the earliest feature-length films were only a few years old. Americans were just beginning to make them, and most were four to six reels. The most daring directors, including Griffith, were still discovering and experimenting with cinema’s possibilities–learning to use close-ups, long-shots, moving cameras, and editing for effect. And only a handful of actors understood the subtle, intimate art of performing in close-up.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Griffith releases a 13-reel epic with an intermission and–in its initial run–a full orchestra. All those tricks that Griffith and his contemporaries invented melded together to tell a powerful story in a smooth, relatively sophisticated way. Birth of a Nation can’t claim the technical brilliance and professionalism of the best silent features of the 1920s, but it comes amazingly close.

The film surprised everyone. At a time when the take from a very successful movie was counted in thousands of dollars, Birth made six million for its investors and may have made 60 million at the box office. It was the first film screened at the White House. And people who looked down at the flickers suddenly had to acknowledge that there was something there.

The first half, concentrating on the Civil War, isn’t all that racist. If you have any significant experience watching silent films, you’ll squirm a bit at the servile slaves, the suggestion that a sordid interracial romance caused the war, and the white actors smeared with burnt cork. But really, It’s no worse than Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances.

But the second half, set in Reconstruction, takes hate to a whole other level. The ex-slaves, driven on by an evil mulatto (George Siegmann), take control of the city and oppresses the innocent white people. These hoodwinked former slaves even–God forbid–vote. In one memorable scene, the hero (Henry B. Walthall) refuses to shake the mulatto’s hand. I think this was meant as a cue for the audience to cheer.

(The special evil of mulattos is a common trope in racist mythology. Supposedly, someone who is half-white has the intelligence of a white man but not the moral fiber. If you think this stereotype died away with the civil rights movement, I suggest you revisit Lonesome Dove and consider  Frederic Forrest’s character.)

And let’s not ignore the sexual issues. Among the many horrible things these former slaves want, the worst is white wives. Interracial marriage, in Griffith’s mind, is a form of rape. One character throws herself to her death because a black man expresses his desire to marry her.

The movie has a happy ending, of course, The hero forms the Klan, which takes over the town (and, we assume, the South), and brings back white superiority. They even keep the former slaves from voting. One intertitle at the climax assures us that former enemies of the North and South have now reunited "in defense of their Aryan birthright."

One odd thing: For all of its Southern rabble-rousing, Birth treats Abraham Lincoln as a saint. When they hear about his assassination, the hero’s family are crestfallen.

The Birth of a Nation’s racism was controversial even in 1915. The NAACP formed largely in response to the film. There were riots and calls for its suppression. Even today, a movie theater can’t screen it with risking vandalism.

And yet, I think it should be screened. It’s too important a piece of film history to be ignored. What’s more, it tells a lot about American racism. The senseless fears generated by Barak Obama’s election are a direct ancestor of Griffith’s nightmare view of a politically active black South..

What’s Screening: February 6 – 12

We’ve got four festivals running this week.

SF Sketchfest screenings are at the bottom of this newsletter.

A- Elevator to the Gallows, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Louis Malle launched his directing career, and arguably the New Wave, with this noir tale of a perfect crime gone wrong. Laced with dark, ironic humor, the film cuts back and forth between a murderer (Maurice Ronet) trapped in an elevator in a building closed for the weekend, the murderer’s lover (Jeanne Moreau) wandering the streets searching for him, and two young lovers enjoying a crime spree in a stolen car (they stole it from the murderer). And all of is set to a powerful jazz score by Miles Davis. Read my longer comments.

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Strangers on a Train & The Lady Vanishes, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. If you love Alfred Hitchcock and you love trains, this is the double bill for you. In Strangers on a Train, a rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) strangersontrainconvinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife, and by a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were enjoying a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she had ever been there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Read my Blu-ray review. Each film earns an A on its own merit.

A The Maltese Falcon, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. DashiellmaltesefalconHammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay (by Huston) that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett mo5ion picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. This movie is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

A- Grand Budapest Hotel, Lark, Friday, 12:45; Sunday, 8:30; Thursday, 3:40. Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story imagewithin 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 avoiding some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except 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.

B+ Interview with the Vampire, New Parkway, Sunday, 9:10. Writer Anne Rice and director Neil Jordan create a vampire epic stretching across three centuries. And a imagevery dark yet sexy three centuries it is. Tom Cruise gets top billing as the immortal sociopath Lestat, but a not-yet-famous Brian Pitt is the real star, playing the tormented vampire being interviewed. Between them and Antonio Banderas, you could call this film Great-Looling Guys With an Eating Distorder. A 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst expertly plays a grown woman in a little girl’s body.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, New Parkway, 9:30. 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 imagethen, 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 Timbuktu, Rafael, opens Friday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

B+ Altman, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 2:00. Robert Altman had been directing television and movies for 17 years before M*A*S*H made this gray-bearded imagegrandfather one of the leaders of Hollywood’s youth movement. Documentary director Ron Mann provides an informative and entertaining overview of the cinematic rebel who enjoyed a decade of success before changing tastes left him behind. Filled with clips from his movies and interviews with his co-workers and loved ones, it’s a pretty conventional film about a very unconventional filmmaker. But still worth catching. Part of the series Altmanesque.

Force Majeure, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneer of a troubled marriage in this imageSwedish drama set in the French alps. When an avalanche threatens his family, Tomas fails to measure up as a man. Soon his wife loses all respect for her husband, and Tomas loses all respect for himself. All this is set within a resort that appears to be just a bit more realistic than Disneyland.  Force Majeure studies courage and fear, and the destructive behavior that can destroy a marriage. But it’s also about the artificial worlds we create for our own enjoyment. See my full review. Part of the series In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund.

B+ The Theory of Everything, Balboa, Kabuki, opens Friday. Like so many British pictures, this Stephen Hawking biopic provides a showcase for great acting. Hawking is the sort of character that cries out for an Oscar–he’s a real person, he’s British, and he has a disability. Eddie Redmayne makes full use of the opportunity, catching not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable. Felicity Jones co-stars as his first wife and does an excellent job, Very well made but not exceptional. Read my longer comments.

C+ Interstellar, Castro, Tuesday and Wednesday. 70mm! Christopher Nolan’s space epic tries hard to be another 2001: A Space Odyssey–plot points, individual shots, and at least one character imagecomes straight from Kubrick’s work. But whereas Kubrick explained very little, Nolan fills his picture with badly-written expository dialog. And that doesn’t help–the movie still confuses audiences. And when it’s not confusing, it’s often dumb. On the other hand, it’s visually stunning, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen and format available (the Castro, with 70mm projection, qualifies). It’s often exciting and suspenseful. And for most of its runtime, it carries a strong sense of doom for both the main characters and the human race as a whole.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Rear Window & Saboteur, Stanford, through Sunday. The A+ goes to Rear Windows. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing imagehimself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, while treating his audience to a great entertainment. In Saboteur, an innocent man is blamed for a dastardly deed done by evil, foreign spies. Now he must run from the law while chasing the villains. Hitchcock used this basic plot three times, and while Saboteur is the weakest of the three, it’s still entertaining enough to earn a B.

SF Sketchfest

A Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla, Roxie, Saturday, 7:15,  Tuesday, 9:30. 
Imagine Milton from Office Space slowly turning into Travis Bickle. That’s pretty much what you get in this very black comedy from Australia. imageThe main character has his own business–an ice cream truck–that brings him into contact with a lot of people. But he’s a very shy, lonely, and awkward man. He lives alone. He doesn’t have any real friends. He worships Clint Eastwood. He’s obsessed with a soap opera star. He spends most of his workday parked in a horrible location where he’s bullied by a very thuggish pimp. His cat just died, but he still puts food in the bowl every morning. He’s nearing a very dangerous boiling point. The humor drains away appropriately as darkness and violence takes over the movie. A remarkable, brutal, funny, and heartfelt little gem.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Humanist Hall, Saturday, 5:00. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the teenage thrills, terrors, and transitions through the looking glass of high school imagemovies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining.

D- Jacky and the Kingdom of Women, Humanist Hall, Sunday, 9:15. This French satire imagines a society of reverse sexism. The women are leaders and warriors. The men are sex objects and obedient husbands. (Eight years ago I wrote and performed in a imageone-act play with the same theme.) But two problems sink Jacky. First, the society in which it’s set–a combination of North Korea, the Islamic State, and horse worship–is too bizarre to make a satirical point about western society. There’s nothing to recognize. Second, it’s just not funny. My favorite moment was a chase; not because it made me laugh–it didn’t–but because it held the promise that the movie would soon be over. It didn’t even keep that promise.

D- For the Plasma, Roxie, Sunday, 7:15; Thursday, 7:15. Talk about a movie that doesn’t go anywhere. Two young women live in a house in rural, coastal Maine, imagewhere they’re supposed to check various cameras and sensors in the woods for early forest fires warnings. One of them has figured out a foolproof way to turn all this data into profitable stock market predictions. Both actresses are flat and dull. Almost nothing happens to them, and the few things that do don’t amount to anything. Even basic continuity is lacking. I kept hoping it would turn into a slasher movie–and I don’t care much for slasher movies.

The Shattuck Cinema is in Danger

Landmark’s 10-screen Shattuck Cinema is an oasis for Berkeley and Oakland film lovers. Probably the largest multiplex in the East Bay devoted primarily to foreign and independent cinema, it usually offers several films worth seeing.  As I write this, It’s showing Two Days, One Night, Birdman, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Wild, and that’s just the films that I’ve seen and given an A or A-.

And although it appears to be profitable, the Shattuck is in danger. The building that contains it is owned by Hill Street Realty LLC, which wants to tear down the building and build an 18-story residential tower in its place. This would require demolishing the multiplex. What’s more, I suspect that "the Residences at Berkeley Plaza" won’t provide affordable homes.

The Shattuck won’t be the only victim. The Habitot Children’s Museum, also in that building, would have to find another home.

Landmark has invested considerably in the Shattuck over the years. The company remodeled the Shattuck in 2008/09, with an improved concession stand and more comfortable seats. They went fully digital a couple of years ago, but kept one 35mm projector just in case.

Which isn’t to day that everything has always been perfect there. My first digital, and first 3D experience at the Shattuck was a considerable disappointment. But generally, the Shattuck has been a great place to see new non-Hollywood films in the East Bay.

According to a San Francisco Business Times article, "The developer plans a new six-screen cinema that would replace the current theater." But six screens isn’t ten, and Hill Street hasn’t promised the theater to Landmark. Besides, "plans" isn’t the same as "signed a contract."

If this bothers you, send an angry email to the city government at zab@ci.berkeley.ca.us, and drop by https://www.facebook.com/saveshattuckcinemas.

What’s Screening: January 30 – February 5

We’ve got film festivals:

  • Berlin & Beyond continues at the Castro through Sunday, then has one-day events in Palo Alto and Berkeley, closing on Monday.
  • SF Sketchfest, which is not really a film festival but has some film events, continues through this week and beyond.
  • IndieFest opens Friday.

I’ve placed SF Sketchfest screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Timbuktu, Kabuki, opens Friday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

B+ Altman, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. Robert Altman had been directing television and movies for 17 years before M*A*S*H made this gray-bearded imagegrandfather one of the leaders of the new, young Hollywood. Documentary director Ron Mann provides an informative and entertaining overview of the cinematic rebel who enjoyed a decade of success before changing tastes left him behind. Filled with clips from his movies and interviews with his co-workers and loved ones, it’s a pretty conventional film about a very unconventional filmmaker. But still worth catching. Part of the series Altmanesque.

A Wild, Lark, opens Friday. Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that reveal what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

A+ Citizen Kane, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. How does any movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. imageTrue, 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 are 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.

A+ Groundhog Day, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30; Monday, 9:30. Spiritual, humane, and hilarious, Groundhog Day wraps its thoughtful world view inside a slick, Hollywood comedy. imageWithout 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.

C+ The Lost Weekend, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:45. Quite noirish in style, but anything but not really noirish in content, The Lost Weekend is the sort of social imageproblem picture we don’t expect from Wilder. The problem is alcoholism, and while Ray Milland earned the Oscar he won for his performance, the picture seems to be more about the problem than the person. I’m not really sure that anyone else associated with this film deserved their Oscars (this one really cleaned up on awards night), but they all did excellent work elsewhere. Part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Rear Window & Saboteur, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The A+ goes to Rear Windows. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing imagehimself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, while treating his audience to a great entertainment. In Saboteur, an innocent man is blamed for a dastardly deed done by evil, foreign spies. Now he must run from the law while chasing the villains. Hitchcock used this basic plot three times, and while Saboteur is the weakest of the three, it’s still entertaining enough to earn a B.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Friday. It’s been a very long imagetime since I’ve seen this 1988 comic fantasy about animated characters and flesh-and-blood people living side by side in late 1940’s Hollywood. I remember it being funny, outrageous, and delightful for anyone who loves old cartoons. The special effects were cutting edge for their day, but still based on pencil, ink, and an optical printer. Today, of course, they’d be digital, and would lose a lot of their old-time charm.

B+ Ghostbusters, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Comedy rarely gets this scary or this imagevisually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say that special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny (at least intentionally so). Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver appear to be having a great time as they try to control the phantasm and monsters suddenly attacking New York City. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon or evening.

B Citizenfour, Elmwood, starts Friday. Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room whreimage Edward Snowden tells Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy. Those four days of interviews make up the film’s centerpiece. Snowden comes off mostly as a self-effacing nerd who understands right from wrong. But the long discussions in the hotel room become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. Read my longer essay.

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Shadow of a Doubt & Under Capricorn, Stanford, through Sunday. The A goes to Hitchcock’s first great American film, Shadow of a Doubt. A serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming) returns to his small-town roots. When his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that all is not right with her beloved Uncle Charlie, her own life is in danger. Under Capricorn is a reasonably entertaining but unexceptional romantic melodrama set in 19th century Australia. Hitchcock didn’t make many period pieces, and this one shows you why. On its own, I’d give it a B-.

SF Sketchfest

A The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Roxie, Friday, 7:00. SOLD OUT. The real miracle is that this movie got passed the censors. In 1944, the production code didn’t allow the word pregnant in Hollywood movies; nor could you show a woman visibly pregnant. You imagecertainly couldn’t suggest that being…in that way…could be caused by anything other than a marriage license. What’s more, the American military was beyond criticism. Yet that was when  Preston Sturges made this very funny comedy about a small-town girl who goes dancing with a bunch of soldiers and comes home pregnant. With Betty Hutton as expecting mother Trudy Kockenlocker, and Eddie Bracken as the 4F friend who loves her. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer will attend this screening in person.

A+ Groundhog Day, Roxie, Monday, 8:00. See above for my comments about the movie. This particular screening will include a personal appearance by Stephen (Ned) Tobolowsky.

A- The Princess Bride Quote-Along, Castro, Monday, 7:30. 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. In this special screening, "audience members will be encouraged to call out all of their favorite lines from the film." Cary Elwes will attend in person.

RiffTrax Night of the Shorts 5: A Good Day to Riff Hard, Castro, Thursday, 8:00. The RiffTrax gang of Mystery Science Theater veterans will add their own comic commentary to PSA, educational, scientific and promotional shorts. Guest riffers include John Hodgman.

Fort Apache at the Alameda

imageTuesday night, I visited the Alameda Theater for the first time, for a screening of John Ford’s Fort Apache. This was also my first time seeing this classic on the big screen.

The Alameda is a huge, beautiful, art deco theater originally built in 1932. It was, of course, originally built as a single-screen theater. And although it has been turned into a multiplex, the original auditorium remains in its original size–including the balcony. I’d guess that it can sit about 1,000. There are some modern changes–the chairs are new and comfortable, with drink holders. Surround speakers line the wall (a lot of them). And, unfortunately, there’s no curtain.

But the Alameda is impressive before you get to the auditorium. The lobby is huge and sumptuous.

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While it mostly shows new films, the Alameda has a classic movie series that runs on Tuesday and Wednesday in the main theater. I’ve been mentioning their classics in the weekly newsletter for years, but until this Tuesday I had never attended one.

Before the film started, the head of the classics series, Cassady Toles–Host of the Alameda Classic Series–came out and talked about it. He mentioned other movies coming up, their Oscar party, and especially plugged Elevator to the Gallows (I’m happy to plug that one, too). He hawked the Classic Movie Passes–eight films for $44–and asked people not to pay full price. (I did, and it was only $8.) He asked trivia questions about the film before starting it.

Unfortunately, Warner Brothers hasn’t made Fort Apache available on DCP, so the Alameda had to make due with a Blu-ray. (The theater has one 35mm projector, but old films generally require two.) A really good Blu-ray would have been fine, but this one suffered from mediocre transfer, with a bit of a  video look. Chances are that if Warner did provide a DCP, it would be of the same transfer and with the same look.

There were other technical problems. The audio was slightly out of sync for the entire film. And in the film’s last minutes, everything just stopped. After a few seconds, everything came back on again, back where we left off. But this time, the aspect ratio was off, cropping off part of the image vertically.

Toles told me before the film that most of the classics are projected off DCPs. I imagine that these sorts of problems would be less likely in that situation.

There was a good-sized audience. After the movie, people stuck around a bit and talked about it.

Now then, about the movie itself:

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The first and best film in Ford’s accidental "Cavalry Trilogy" both romances the horse soldiers who cleared the West of its rightful inhabitants, and looks on in horror at the prejudice that made that crime possible. It’s a film about our mistreatment of Native Americans told entirely from a white perspective.

Henry Fonda plays the new commanding officer at the fort–extremely strict, close-minded and bigoted. He hate the Apaches, whom he views unworthy adversaries. He doesn’t seem to like much of anyone. He won’t allow his daughter (Shirley Temple, now in her late teens) to marry a young Lieutenant (John Agar) because the Lieutenant’s father is only a sergeant. John Wayne’s Captain York is the film’s liberal voice of reason.

Much of the film explores and celebrates life in the fort. It’s a full community, housing the wives and children of the soldiers, with its own rituals and celebrations. There’s warmth, love, humor, and good-natured kidding around. Fonda’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday seems to find all of this uncomfortable.

Our first encounter with the Apaches follows the worst of stereotypes. They’re murdering savages who need to be put down. Then we meet the trader who has been bilking them. York tries to explain to Thursday why the Apaches–or anyone who cared about their people–left the reservation. But Thursday is set on a military victory. His ambition and hatred of the Apaches sends him into battle. His contempt for these "breech-clothed savages" drives him, and his men, into a trap.

Much as Ford clearly condemns Thursday, he can’t quite condemn the military mind. The men, with little or no respect for Thursday, follow him into what they know will be their death. And Ford celebrates this. These soldiers are wonderful, in Ford’s view, because when told to march into a death trap by a commander who won’t see what they all know, they follow orders.

The ending, with Wayne’s York at a press conference, can be viewed many ways. I always think of Colin Powell at the UN, lying, hating himself for lying, but doing it anyway because he’s a soldier.

It’s playing again tonight (Wednesday), in case you’re looking for a classic to watch on the big screen.

Timbuktu: Tyranny works slowly

A political drama

  • Written by Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall
  • Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

At first glance, life in the fabled city and the surrounding prairie seem to have changed little over the centuries. But there are changes far more unsettling than the ubiquity of cellphones. An armed group of Muslim fundamentalists have taken over the area. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film sometimes feels like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. We meet the gentle and forgiving imam who tries to tame the fanatics, the fishmonger who refuses to wear gloves while selling her fish, the young people unwilling to give up music, and the Islamist official who secretly smokes.

But mostly, we get to know the cow herder Kidane and his family. They live in a tent outside of town, they don’t have much money, but their lives are rich in love. Not that they’re living in the past. A prized cow is affectionately named GPS (I suspect that the 12-year-old daughter had something to do about that). Kidane will face horrible consequences before the film is over.

Timbuktu

At least his tragedy is, to a large extent, self-inflicted. Everyone else is inflicted by the new, fanatical rulers of Timbuktu. And yet, at least at the beginning, even they don’t come off the way we westerners imagine such people. Yes, they’re walking around with big guns and creating ever-more restrictive rules. But they act calm and friendly, and they seem reluctant to enforce the new rules. In other words, their fanaticism hasn’t completely destroyed their humanity.

Sissako and film editor Nadia Ben Rachid give Timbuktu a slow and stately pace. People think before they act. Much of the dialog is through interpreters (not everyone speaks the same language), so much of the dialog has to be said twice. The camera often lingers on an image. And yet, not for second did the film bore me.

The slow pace also enhances the strange, off-beat humor. In one remarkable scene, a group of teenage boys in a field play soccer with an imaginary ball. When some Islamists drive into and around the field, the boys quickly switch the calisthenics. Once the men with guns disappear, the imaginary game restarts.

As the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. People get whipped for infractions. An Islamist takes an unwilling bride over the objections of the young woman’s mother. A couple are buried up to their necks and stoned to death.

Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life.

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