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.