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.