What’s Screening: December 28 – January 3

Still no festivals. But as we move in 2013, we do have some good movies.

A Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday through Monday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection to do it justice. The Castro has the screen, but only 2K digital projection. I don’t know how well it will hold up that way, which is why I’m giving it an A rather than the usual A+. I’ll try to catch it over the weekend and let you know. For more on this epic, read Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia.

B- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Castro, Tuesday through the following Sunday. The first American animated feature, and one of Walt Disney’s biggest triumphs, really does suffer from the sugary sweetness so often associated with Disney. But the picture is technically astounding and a visual delight. The dwarfs are funny and have distinct–if shallow–personalities. But Snow White herself and her Prince Charming are so dull that you might find yourself rooting for the evil stepmother (who’s pretty scary, actually). Newly restored and projected off of a DCP, the engagement is in conjunction with The Walt Disney Family Museum’s current exhibition on the film.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The various theaters will be showing it digitally, but I don’t know exactly how and on screens of what size. A 4K DCP would be the digital equivalent of 70mm, but I’m not sure that Warner Brothers has even made it available in that format.

A Steamboat Bill, Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Billsteamboatbill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man that the very-macho Bill imagined, but as an urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story,and you really can’t ask for more. And it contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. With two shorts, and Frederick Hodges on the piano.

A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a double bill with Arabesque, which I haven’t seen.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving 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.

B The Intouchables, Rafael, opens Friday. I really can’t complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowdthe_intouchablespleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza–the movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life, it stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma, and it’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Read my full review.

What’s Screening: November 23 – 29

After all the film festivals we’ve had lately, you might feel that the Bay Area needs another one like it needs another hole in the head. And so, appropriately enough, the Another Hole in the Head Film Festival opens Wednesday.

Here’s what else is going on:

A McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Vogue, Thursday, 8:00 (movie starts at 9:00). Few people realize, at least on first viewing, how much the plot of Robert Altman’s genre-bending mood poem resembles a traditional western: A lone stranger with a violent reputation rides into a remote frontier town, tries to settle down to a peaceful existence, and eventually finds himself menaced by a trio of hired killers. Yet there’s nothing conventional about this sad yet beautiful tale of prostitution, alienated community, unrequited love, and a west that seems not so much wild as stranded in the middle of nowhere. Vilmos Zsigmond’s golden Panavision cinematography makes this one of the most perfectly photographed films ever made. Proceeded by a musical performance by Conspiracy of Beards.

A+ The Third Man, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in thirdmanimpoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both a wanted criminal and newly dead. Or is he? Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. Presented by David Thomson.

Trailer War!, Roxie, Thursday, 8:00. Ever go to the movies, enjoy four or five entertaining trailers, only to then sit through a horribly boring feature? No danger of that here. Instead of a feature, the Roxie will screen "A meticulous selection of the best, strangest and most amazing trailers in the world! From the high flying, explosive metal mayhem of STUNT ROCK to THUNDER COPS’ disembodied flying head chaos…"

All the Trimmings: A Cornucopia of Comedy, Cartoons and Music, Oddball Films, Friday, 8:00. Short subjects from Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones, Laurel and Hardy, Jonathan Winters, Betty Hutton, and others. Sounds like a great way to spend an evening. RSVP required; 415-558-8117 or programming@oddballfilm.com.

A Beauty and the Beast, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:20. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another film that’s anything like Jean Cocteau’s post-war fantasy. It’s a fairytale, told with a charming and often naïve innocence, and contains absolutely no objectionable-for-children content. It’s also a supremely atmospheric motion picture, and one that takes its magical story seriously. But its slow pace and quiet magic never panders to unsophisticated viewers. And yet, I once saw a very young audience sit enraptured by it. See my Blu-ray review. Part of the series Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960.

C Sing-Along Sound of Music, Castro, opens Friday and continues through December 2.. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies. I’ve never experienced a Sing-Along Sound of Music presentation, however. This might be something entirely different.

Hendrix 70: Live at Woodstock, Embarcadero, Shattuck, Thursday, 7:00. The classic rockumentary Woodstock ends with two songs by Jimi Hendrix/. Now, you’ll get to see his entire performance at that legendary festival. Also on the bill: the documentary "Road to Woodstock."

D+ The Three Ages, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30.  Buster Keaton’s first and worst feature tells the same story three times—in caveman days, imperial Rome, and modern times—intercutting between them. The result is a thin story told thrice, with a lot of forced anachronistic humor, and only occasional flashes of Keaton genius–including one of his most spectacular falls. The film’s structure suggests that Keaton didn’t yet feel ready to make a feature, and the film as a whole suggests that his intuition was right. With the short subjects "Koko’s Thanksgiving" and "The Caretaker’s Daughter." Frederick Hodges will accompany on piano.

What’s Screening: November 9 – 15

The Italian Film Festival closes Saturday night, but New Italian Cinema opens tonight and runs through the weekend. Both Doc Fest and the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival continue through this week and beyond. Cinema by the Bay opens today and runs through the week.

B- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the leading ladies. Gentlemen helpedturn Marilyn Monroe into a star, but co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water, giving a far funnier and sexier performance.

Rebel Without a Cause, Castro, Friday. I haven’t seen the iconic teenage rebel movie (also the iconic James Dean flick) in well over a decade, so I won’t try to give it a grade. I remember it being touching, thoughtful, melodramatic, and over-the-top silly–yet it all seemed to work. One more thing: I remember it being unusually sexist–not so much  in its treatment of women but in its sense of proper and acceptable masculinity. On a double bill with This Property is Condemned (which I haven’t seen), this is the opening night presentation of a very special, three-day tribute to the late Natalie Wood.

A+ Grand Illusion, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Set in a POW camp during World War I (and made two years before WW2), Grand Illusion sets the conflicts of nationality and class against the healing power of our common humanity. The French prisoners and their German guards try their best to be civilized in a world where civilization is not allowed. Jean Gabin stars as a French officer of common stock, but you’ll likely remember Erich von Stroheim as an aristocratic German facing the end of his way of life. The original negative was discovered and the film restored in the 1990s, but the new restoration (which I haven’t seen), is supposed to beat even that. Part of the series Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960.

A- French paraplegic double bill: The Intouchables &The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Castro, Thursday. The A- goes to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the moving story of a successful magazine editor in the prime of life (Mathieu Amalric) who suffers a stroke and wakes up with a full mind inside of an almost entirely useless body. Only by blinking can he communicate with the outside world, yet his determination drives him to write a book about his experiences. The film works best in the first half, where you see everything from his limited point of view, but I guess you The Intouchablescouldn’t carry the whole film that way. The Intouchables, a far more commercial work, follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Enjoyable, but predictable. Read my full review. Both films are based on true stories.

B Dr. Jack, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30.  This early Harold Lloyd feature lacks the strong sense of story and character found in his later silents, but it still delivers laughs. Its general attitude–preferring the common-sense small-town general practitioner to the fancy-pants medical specialist–was probably conservative in 1922. Today it feels like holistic medicine. Bruce Loeb accompanies on piano.

A+ Children of Paradise, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Shot while the Nazi occupation fell apart, Children of Paradise may be the most ecstatically French film ever made.children_of_paradise A three-hour epic set in the theater scene of early 19th-century Paris, it follows the life of a beautiful woman (Arletty) and four men who fall under her spell—each in his own unique way. The story is rich, romantic, and deeply in love with theatrical traditions. In this version of Paris, even the violent thugs see their lives as works of art. Written by Jacques Prévert and directed by Marcel Carné. Film purists will be happy to know that the PFA will screen a 35mm print, rather than the DCP screened last spring at the Castro; I do not know if this print is from the new restoration.  I discuss Children of Paradise in more detail here and here. Part of the series Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960. Last minute update: The print was struck in 2006, before the recent restoration.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, UA Berkeley, Thursday. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and no message to help uplift you. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero, Indiana Jones (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 the rest of it just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it.

B- Sing Along West Side Story, Castro, Sunday, 2:00. I’m commenting on the movie, not the sing-a-long experience. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–West Side Storyespecially 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. Another part of the Castro’s Natalie Wood weekend.

C+ Buck Privates, Stanford, Friday. If you’re not already a fan of Abbott & Costello, their first movie won’t make you one. And if you are a fan, Buck Privates may cause you to question that allegiance. But it will make you a fan of the Andrews Sisters, who blow Bud and Lou out of the picture with their singing and dancing, and their fun personalities. On a double-bill with Hold That Ghost, another early Abbott & Costello vehicle.

What’s Screening: July 6 – 12

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens Thursday.

Wings, Castro, Thursday, 7:00. Primarily rememberedwings as winner of the first Best Picture Oscar (except that the award wasn’t called Best Picture back then), Wings was until a few months ago the only silent film so honored. I saw Wings many, many years ago, and remember being reasonably entertained. However, there are reasons to suspect it will be better this time around. It has recently gone through a major restoration. And it will be accompanied not only by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, but also by sound effects wizard Ben Burtt, the man who crafted the sound for Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Wall-e. (Read my report on another Burtt personal appearance.) Opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, various theaters, Thursday, 7:00. In 1952, the late twenties singininrainseemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and 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. For the film’s 60th anniversary, Fathom Events and TCM will be beaming it to hundreds of theaters across the country, as they did with Casablanca back in March.

B+ Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, SF Film Society Cinema, opens Friday for one-week run. I’ve never seen the point of performance art (as opposed to the performing arts, which Marina AbramovicI love), but Matthew Akers’ documentary on this particular performing artist won me over. It follows Abramovic’s preparations and presentation of a major show at MOMA, with sidelines into her past life and work. She’s a fascinating person, filled with life, devoted to her work, humane, empathetic, and sexy as all hell (at 63). For her art, she puts herself through more physical torture than a ballerina or a stunt double. For this show, she sat for many hours a day, not saying a word and barely moving, as museum patrons sat down across from her and looked into her eyes for a few minutes. Often, they ended up crying.

C La strada, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Back when I was in high school, this became the first old, black-and-white, European, subtitled film I ever loved. But it turned out to be one of those loves you eventually outgrow. Giulietta Masina brilliantly plays a simple, innocent girl sold by her parents to a coarse, crude, and violent traveling strongman (Anthony Quinn in another strong performance). But for all the great acting, Fellini’s 1954 heartbreaker comes off now as shallow. Even worse, it manages to romanticize child abuse. (Or is it spouse abuse? The movie is never too sure about that.) Part of the series Bellissima: Leading Ladies of the Italian Screen.

Triple Bill: Clueless, Mean Girls, & Heavenly Creatures, Castro, Friday, 7:30. Three features about teenage girls. I haven’t seen any of them in years, but I remember liking all of them–despite having never been a teenage girl. The first is a loose adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, the second was written by Tina Fey, and the third is early Peter Jackson.   I don’t know if it was intentional, but over the course of the movies in the order they’ll be presented, the protagonists go from reasonably civilized to vicious to homicidal. A MiDNiTES for MANiACS presentation.

B+ Wizard of Oz Sing-A-Long, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.

B- Clockwork Orange, Kabuki, Wednesday. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in 1971, 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 doesn’t add up.

Weekend, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:05. I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s satire many years ago. I don’t remember it well enough to give it a grade, but if I did, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a high one. I remember finding the early scenes mildly amusing as it attacked obvious targets, but it quickly bogged down into agitprop. I’m sorry, but two workmen staring into the camera, eating their lunch, while an unseen narrator gives the audience a lecture on Marxist dialectics, doesn’t make good art, good entertainment, or even good agitprop. But then, with the single exception of Breathless, I’ve yet to see a Goddard film I could stand. New 35mm print.

French Cancan

I finished French Cancan last night. I say “finished” because I started it Tuesday night, streaming on Hulu Plus. About 25 minutes before the ending, when the big opening night stage show begins, either Hulu or my Internet connectionI started giving me trouble. It would freeze, start, freeze, start, and so on. Forty minutes later and 15 more minutes into the movie, I gave up.

This evening I tried again, starting where I left off, and rewinding to just before the point where the problem started. Everything went fine.

So I saw the movie in two parts. Not ideal, but I still got the gist of it.

If you primarily know Jean Renoir from Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, French Cancan can throw you for a loop. This is more like something coming out of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit–especially The Band Wagon. It’s a backstage musical shot in three-strip Technicolor, funny, upbeat, and utterly entertaining. And, since it’s French, it’s far sexier than anything Hollywood would have made in 1954.

Renoir spins an origin myth, this one about the birth of the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. It has no more bearing the true story than Adam and Eve have with evolution. But then, one should never look to a myth for historical accuracy.

Renoir fixture Jean Gabin–looking grayer and pudgier than in Grand Illusion, stars asfrench_cancan a theatrical producer of style, taste, ambition, and little money. He struggles to find backers while juggling mistresses. The main mistress is young, red-haired, and initially innocent (Françoise Arnoul). She must choose between the exciting world of dance and the young baker who loves her ardently and jealously.

Now here’s a difference between American and French musicals. She must choose between an honest young man who will always be loyal to her, and a philanderer and charlatan. Renoir has us rooting for the philanderer. The baker’s insistence on fidelity makes him an unlikeable jerk.

Also wonderful: The thin and extremely flexible Philippe Clay steals every scene he’s in as a performer who moves like no one else, sings comic songs, and twists his body like a pretzel.

This is Jean Renoir having fun.

What’s Screening: December 30–January 5

West Side Story, Douglas Fairbanks’ last silent, and The Wizard of Oz.

No festivals this week. And the Pacific Film Archive and Stanford are closed, as well.

B Sing-a-Long West Side Story, Castro, Friday through Monday. I’m commenting on the movie, not the sing-a-long experience. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–West Side Storyespecially 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.

Short Films from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Rafael, starts Friday. I haven’t seen them, but people who went to Sundance did.

C+ The Iron Mask, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Douglas Douglas Fairbanks' last silent, The Iron MaskFairbanks must have felt melancholy as he made what he knew would be his last silent film. Based on Dumas’ oft-filmed The Three Musketeers sequel,The Iron Mask is unusually dark for a Fairbanks movie, with several likeable characters meeting untimely deaths. But writer-producer-star Fairbanks lacked the knack for serious drama, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of bad melodrama and entertaining swashbuckling. Shown with “Mud and Sand,” a Stan Laurel comedy short from before he was teamed with Oliver Hardy. Accompanied by Bruce Loeb on piano.

B+ The Tree of Life, Lumiere, opens Friday for return engagement. Terrence Malick made a career of taking risks (if someone who has made only five films in 40 years can be said to have a career). But sometimes, when you go out on a limb, the branch breaks. His latest film works beautifully when it concentrates on a loving but troubled family in the 1950s—a story with no plot and many conflicts. The contemporary scenes with Sean Penn as one of the young sons, now a middle-aged man, don’t play as well. Few are as convincing as Penn at looking miserable, but Malick provides us with so little about his current life that we’re not sure what he’s miserable about. And then there are the scenes that are just plain weird. But it’s a Malick film, so at least it’s always beautiful to look at.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

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