Movies for the Week of February 24, 2006

Cutting to the chase, this week. Sorry, but I don’t have time to write more than the bare bones.

Okay, one comment: Two big festivals are hitting the Bay Area simultaneously: Cinequest (which I discussed last week) and the Tiburon International Film Festival. I’ll be providing only partial lists of the films they’re showing. Check the festivals’ own schedules for more details.

And now, those bare bones:

Recommended, with Reservations: Inherit the Wind, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Who would have ever thought that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s fictionalized account of the Scope’s Monkey Trial would be relevant today? Stanley Kramer’s film version is a decent enough adaptation, with a good if not great Spencer Tracy performance and a rare, non-musical turn by Gene Kelly, but it never quite soars. The Stanford is showing Inherit the Wind on a double-bill with East of Eden, another –˜50’s drama inspired by the book of Genesis.

Recommended: Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, Red Vic, all week; and the Rafael, Tuesday and Wednesday, 7:00. Created by an irrigation accident in the early 20th century, the Salton Sea is California’s largest lake and was once a major tourist destination (I camped there one childhood winter). Now, it’s a shrinking, rotting mess, and home to a small community of eccentrics, nostalgia buffs, and people who can’t afford to live anywhere else. Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer caught the whole weird and wonderful history and spirit of the place in this entertaining documentary on the death of the American dream. Narrated by John Waters–an oddly appropriate choice. The Red Vic is showing the film with an strange and entertaining short called LSD A Go Go, which, like Plagues and Pleasures, features Sonny Bono. The Rafael will offer no LSD, but the filmmakers will be there in person.

Recommended: Waging A Living, Bay Model, Sausalito, Saturday, 1:00. This is one hell of a sobering and depressing documentary (gee, I bet that line won’t appear in the ads). The filmmakers follow four low-wage workers over a three-year period, recording their struggles to get by on salaries that hardly cover the rent. They work hard to improve their situations, going to school and getting better jobs, but the game is fixed by the winners. If you’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (and you should), you’ll have some idea what to expect. But unlike Ehrenreich, these folks don’t have a secret life as a successful journalist; they’re stuck where they are. Presented by the Tiburon Film Society.

Recommended: Winter Soldier, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 5:00. Who knew that 95 minutes of people talking about atrocities would be so riveting? In 1971, more than 125 Viet Nam veterans bore witness to war crimes in which they themselves participated. This filmed record of the event, shot in grainy, black and white close-ups, was hardly seen at the time. Today, as Americans debate what we are and are not allowed to do to our suspected enemies, it is all the more relevant. Watch for a young John Kerry near the beginning. Part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2006.

Recommended: Occupation: Dreamland, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00. This may be the only truly objective documentary about our current war in Iraq. Filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds follow a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Fallujah before that city made international headlines. We see them on patrol, searching houses, talking to the locals in both friendly and tense situations, hunting down a sniper. We hear them talk about their lives back home and about the war (some for it, some against). And we hear the Iraqis complain about life under occupation. But most of all, we feel the horrible situation that neither Iraqis nor Americans can escape. Another part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2006.

Recommended, with Reservations: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Act 1 & 2, Saturday, midnight. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own 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 film, is alone worth the price of admission. A Peaches Christ Midnight Mass.

Recommended: ENRON: The Smartest Guys In the Room, Balboa, Tuesday, 2:50 and 9:10. The biggest financial scandal ever becomes the Great American tragedy in this highly entertaining documentary. Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the rest of the scoundrels are so filled with optimism and faith in their own narrowly-created worldview that their fall becomes inevitable. But the filmmakers never lose sight of the real tragedy–the innocent victims that these hubris-filled businessmen took down with them. Part of the Balboa’s Doc Days, a two-day series of Oscar-nominated documentaries.

Recommended: March of the Penguins, Balboa, Tuesday, 4:50, and Wednesday, 12:00 noon. Yes, emperor penguins are very cute and extremely funny. Luc Jacquet offers plenty of footage to make you laugh and sigh, but he goes beyond that, showing the tremendous hardships these birds endure to raise their young. No living creatures are as adorable as penguin chicks, which is a good thing considering what their parents go through for them. And Morgan Freeman is the best celebrity narrator since Orson Welles. Also part of Doc Days.

Recommended: Rear Window, Castro, Tuesday through Thursday. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by watching 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. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly begins to dawn on us that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory (something they don’t realize until it’s almost too late). Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, and to treat his audience to a great entertainment. On a double-bill with Frenzy (see below).

Recommended, with Reservations: Frenzy, Castro, Tuesday through Thursday. Hitchcock’s penultimate movie is far from his best work, but it’s not without its pleasures. An innocent-accused-of-murder thriller set and shot in England, it harkens back to the thrillers that first made him famous. It’s also his only R-rated film, and it’s interesting to see what he did without the confines of censorship. Somewhat perverse and reasonably entertaining, but it suffers from the lack of a likeable protagonist.

Oscar Parties and Festivals

Where are you going to watch the Academy Awards? (Yes, I know, many of you wouldn’t dream of watching them. Please excuse my absurd fascination with meaningless exercises in self-congratulations.) These days, thanks to many of the theaters I track here at Bayflicks, the Oscars can be a communal experience–even if you’re not nominated. The Balboa, Castro, Lark, Parkway, Rafael, and Roxie are all doing Oscar parties on Sunday, March 5–and most are already selling tickets. Even Cinequest, devoted to maverick filmmakers outside of Hollywood, is hosting Oscar parties at two locations during its San Jose Festival.

I’ve never been to an Oscar party at a movie theater, but judging from the assorted announcements on the theaters’ Web sites, they involve big screen TV, costume contests, quality food, and improvised stand-up comedy during the commercials. The Rafael hosts the only “official” Oscar party in the Bay Area, meaning that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences approves of what they are doing. The Roxie’s Web site suggests an almost Mystery Science Theater approach, opening up the Oscars “to public scrutiny…no one gets away clean.” I doubt the Academy approves of that.

If you’ve been to one of these events and would like to share the experience, please drop me a line.

In other news, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival comes to the Bay Area soon, playing at the Pacific Film Archive later this month and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in March. It’s a small festival, all documentaries and all on video, but it includes some important films that aren’t otherwise available.

For something bigger, there’s the Cinequest Film Festival, running in San Jose, March 1 through 12. Cinequest is devoted to independent, foreign, and “maverick” films. This is a huge festival, with over 191 feature and short films, including 21 world, 14 North American, and four United States premieres. Plus two silent classics with live organ accompaniment.

Cinequest is pushing the concept of “film festival” into the realm of home video with their own line of DVDs and Internet-downloadable movies. I’m glad they’re still showing films in theaters, too.

And here are some films showing in theaters this week:

Recommended: ENRON The Smartest Guys In The Room, Roxie, playing through Thursday. The biggest financial scandal ever becomes the Great American tragedy in this highly entertaining documentary. Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the rest of the scoundrels are so filled with optimism and faith in their own narrowly-created worldview that their fall becomes inevitable. But the filmmakers never lose sight of the real tragedy–the innocent victims that these hubris-filled businessmen took down with them.

Recommended, with Reservations: Talkie Comedy Shorts, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 7:00. Something unusual for the Silent Film Museum: talkies. The collection includes one of my favorite Laurel and Hardy shorts, “Tit For Tat,” and Robert Benchley’s classic “The Courtship of the Newt.” W. C. Fields’ “The Pharmacist” is also pretty funny. I can’t vouch for the other four scheduled shorts. Part of the Museum’s Midwinter Comedy Film Festival.

Noteworthy: The Qatsi Trilogy, Davies Symphony Hall, different films Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Here’s your chance to see Godfrey Reggio’s three cult classics–Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi–with their Phillip Glass scores performed live (and yes, by Phillip Glass). Lacking the structures of either narrative fiction or conventional documentaries, these films simply present photographed images to explore the state of life on earth.

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Act 1 & 2, Friday and Saturday, midnight; Saturday and Sunday, noon. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it, anyway. If you don’t, you already know that it’s one of the most entertaining movies ever made.

Recommended: King Kong (2005), Parkway, opening Friday. Peter Jackson’s version isn’t as good as the original, but not as good as a masterpiece still leaves plenty of room for excellence. Jackson didn’t just improve the special effects; he rethought all of the main characters (human and simian), finding new themes in the old story. But cutting it by half an hour would have made it even better.

Recommended: Shoulder Arms, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 1:30. Charlie Chaplin took a big risk making this four-reel semi-feature in 1918. Longer than any film he’d yet produced, it dared to milk laughs out of a war that was still going on and had already killed millions. The result isn’t the anti-war statement many of us would have liked, but it’s one of his funniest movies. As part of its Midwinter Comedy Film Festival, the Museum is showing Shoulder Arms with the Raymond Griffith feature Paths To Paradise. I haven’t seen that one, but I loved the one Griffith feature I’ve seen.

Noteworthy: The Troubles We’ve Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. I can’t give a decisive recommendation one way or the other to this one; technical difficulties kept me from seeing the last 44 minutes of this nearly four-hour opus. But I’d recommend what I saw–with reservations. Marcel Ophüls’ 1994 documentary on war correspondents in Sarajevo contains some fascinating stuff, but not really enough to justify the epic length. And despite the subtitle, the movie concentrates on then-current events, not history. Part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

Recommended, with Reservations: Inherit the Wind, Parkway, Sunday, 8:00. Who would have ever thought that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s fictionalized account of the Scope’s Monkey Trial would be relevant today? Stanley Kramer’s film version is a decent enough adaptation, with a good if not great Spencer Tracy performance and a rare, non-musical turn by Gene Kelly. But it never quite soars. The Parkway is presenting Inherit the Wind as part of an evening with local politicians John Russo and Matt Gonzalez.

Recommended: Valley Girl, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. Was there ever a less promising film to become a classic? Made on a miniscule budget, financed by people more concerned with tits than story, with a title ripped off from a recent hit novelty song, it was just one of many teenage sexploitation movies then glutting the drive-ins. Yet writers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane and director Martha Coolidge made it the ultimate teenage romantic comedy. Valley Girl sports Nicolas Cage in his first major role and some of the best use of rock ‘n’ roll ever in a non-concert movie. The Parkway is showing Valley Girl free for Audience Appreciation Night.

Not Recommended: Mardi Gras: Made in China, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. David Redmon had a terrific idea for a 20-minute film: Compare the wild partying at New Orleans Mardi Gras–specifically, the tradition of women exposing their breasts in exchange for cheap, plastic beads–with the hard lives of the Chinese workers who make those beads. But Redmon fails to keep this idea compelling for a full 78 minutes. It doesn’t help that Hurricane Katrina changed our view of New Orleans. Part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

The Art of Editing

Let’s start with something fun. Click here for a very funny and short movie parody (actually a trailer parody). Enjoy. And then consider it an object lesson in the power of editing–context completely changing the meaning of what was filmed.

Editing is the great, overlooked filmmaking art. A few examples:

The shooting script for The Great Escape contained an elaborate scene involving an early, failed escape attempt. Before the scene was shot, director John Sturges viewed a rough cut that included the “Here’s how we’ll do it” sequence before the escape, and the “Just been captured” scene afterwards. The juxtaposition of those two scenes worked so well that Sturges didn’t bother shooting this particular escape.

Steven Spielberg thought his career was over. His first theatrical feature had flopped, and his second was turning into a disaster. The big mechanical shark kept breaking down, sending the film way over schedule and budget, and leaving him with little of the footage he desperately needed. It took editor Verna Fields to turn Spielberg’s biggest problem–the lack of usable shark footage–into Jaws’ biggest asset.

In 1976, Woody Allen made an overlong, disjointed movie called Anhedonia, about a stand-up comic unable to experience pleasure. According to film editor Ralph Rosenblum, the first cut was “funny, but…nondramatic and ultimately uninteresting.” So Allen and Rosenblum began to hack away at it. As they cut, a romantic subplot began to dominate the picture. The final version was released in 1977, retitled Annie Hall.

As an art form, editing is unique to motion pictures. Writing, photography, acting, and set design all existed before movies. Editing had be figured out from scratch as filmmakers glued scenes together that had been shot separately, and slowly came to realize the power in those scissors and glue.

And now for some well-edited films.

Recommended: Match Point, Presidio, ongoing. The opening and closing credits have that distinct Woody Allen look, and one plot twist may remind you of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but nothing else in this very British class and sex drama reveals its writer/director. And while it’s no Annie Hall, this tale of a social-climbing tennis pro who lusts too much for another gold digger is probably Allen’s best film in 20 years.

Recommended: Casablanca, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. On a double bill with The Maltese Falcon.

Recommended: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Dashiell Hammett’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 that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett 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. On a double bill–in case you haven’t guessed–with Casablanca.

Recommended: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Like the book it was based on, the fourth Harry Potter film takes the series to a new level, both scarier and emotionally deeper than its predecessors. In his fourth year at Hogwarts, Harry must contend with Lord Voldemort’s growing power, a very dangerous tournament, and the most horrible fear to ever strike a 14-year-old boy: girls. Kudos go to long-time Potter screenwriter Steven Kloves for his willingness to leave out subplots, first-time Potter director Mike Newell for putting the people ahead of the special effects, Warner Brothers for okaying the PG-13 rating, and J. K. Rowling for the wonderful books.

Noteworthy: The Education of Shelby Knox, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. I caught a fascinating television news segment about Shelby Knox a few months ago. She’s an open-minded teenager from Lubbock, Texas, a town where an open mind is a mortal sin. She challenged her high school’s abstinence-only sex education curriculum (taught by the local preacher) and found herself in the center of a storm. I haven’t seen the film, but I liked her in that news segment. And she’ll make a personal appearance at the Rafael Thursday night.

Oscar Nominations and the Religious Right

I guess the Oscars are now officially irrelevant. I know, a lot of my readers have considered them irrelevant for years, and while I follow them closely, I don’t take them seriously.

But I’m not talking here about people in Bayflicks’ demographics. After Brokeback Mountain’s Golden Globe victory, Dr. Ted Baehr of the Christian Film & Television Commission ministry declared those awards “more irrelevant every day.” After seeing the Academy Award nominations announced Friday, I suspect that the Oscars are irrelevant, as well.

The Academy does seem to be thumbing its nose at the conservative Christians running so much of our country these days. I’ve seen four of the five Best Picture nominees, and I doubt they’ll please those who believe Jesus said “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a homosexual to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Brokeback Mountain and Capote have gay protagonists. Munich suggests that violent revenge, even when targeted at terrorists, isn’t always good policy. Good Night, and Good Luck doesn’t treat Joseph McCarthy with the reverence due that Great American Hero.

All things considered, it’s a pretty good selection. They’re not my favorite films of 2005, but three out of those four made my Top Ten List, and the other came close. When you consider that official Academy rules and unofficial Academy traditions effectively disqualified The Best of Youth, The Power of Nightmares, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin, it’s as good a selection as we could realistically expect.

Actually, all of these films break those unofficial traditions, which usually favor movies that are kind of liberal without getting too controversial. The one nominee I haven’t seen, Crash, breaks those traditions in another way: It came out early in the year.

In other news, February is a dreary month that needs lightening up. So it’s a good thing that The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is running a special, three-day Midwinter Comedy Film Festival on the 17th through the 19th. Mostly silent with piano accompaniment, mostly short subjects, and, I suspect, mostly funny (although why they’re showing “A Day’s Pleasure,” one of Chaplin’s worst, is beyond me).

The movies below aren’t beyond me, and will contribute to your day’s pleasure.

Recommended, with Reservations:  December Ends, The Women’s Building, Friday, 7:00; Roxie, Monday, 2:15. A teenage boy gets in over his head when his mother’s death sends his father into a severe depression. Suddenly the bread-winner, he turns to drug dealing–his only way to bring in a living wage. Falling in love with his boss’ girlfriend doesn’t help his situation. Josh Janowicz and Alex Thayer make an appealing couple, but writer/director Lee Toland Krieger never quite succeeds in merging the excellent drama with the mediocre thriller elements. Part of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Sing-a-Long Mary Poppins, Castro, one-week engagement opens Friday. If this was simply a screening of Mary Poppins, I’d give it a wholehearted recommendation. Walt Disney’s final masterpiece stands amongst the greatest of children’s films. But a sing-along Mary Poppins? I’ll forgo judgment.

Recommended: Munich, Balboa and Parkway, extended runs opening Friday. If your view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be summed up with “Our side is virtuous; it’s all their fault,” you’re going to hate Steven Spielberg’s latest. By making what could have been a conventional thriller into a morally ambiguous and emotionally complex drama, he’s created his best work since Schindler’s List, and his most daring yet. Although Spielberg clearly sides with the Israelis, he’s not ready to let them off the hook.  He understands all too painfully that revenge breeds revenge and violence breeds violence. The Balboa is showing Munich on a double-bill with Paradise Now, which I haven’t seen. But from what I’ve read, the two should go well together.

Recommended: Facade, The Women’s Building, Saturday, 7:00; Roxie, Monday, 4:30. Keep an eye on Brian Bedard; we’ve got a major new talent here. The 23-year-old Bedard wrote, directed, and acts in Façade, a small-scale film about five young people partying their way towards disaster. The central figure is birthday boy Harold (Patrick J. Adams), who can’t handle the copious drugs, the rivalry between his girlfriend (Shannon Coltrane) and his best friend (Bedard), or, for that matter, life. While two characters fall sweetly in love (or at least, in lust), the other three dig themselves deeper into an emotional quagmire in this thoughtful, surprising, and disturbing film. Part of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.

Recommended: Touch of Evil, Lark, Monday, 7:00. Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and one of his few Hollywood studio features. He lacked the freedom he found in Europe, but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress (although Psycho apparently didn’t teach her to stay away from seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say.