Classics–Not So Common

I wasn’t as clear as I should have been in last week’s newsletter. I didn’t mean to imply that San Francisco still enjoyed a huge market for revival house cinema.

There was such a market 30 years ago. In the late 1970’s, cinephiles not wishing to leave the City’s borders could catch classics any day of the week at the Castro, Roxie, 4Star, Gateway, Richelieu, and other theaters. The Avenue showed silents every Friday night with Bob Vaughn on he Wurlitzer. Even music clubs would occasionally pull out a 16mm projector and show Laurel and Hardy shorts or early animation.

Today, with the Balboa‘s recent change in policy, only the Castro and Red Vic show classics with any frequency in the City itself. In the entire Bay Area, only the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and the Stanford, both non-profits that are open far less than 365 days a year, devote their schedules exclusively to classics. The Pacific Film Archive (another non-profit) shows classics frequently, and the Parkway, Rafael, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (three out of four, non-profits) show them occasionally.

Truly independent films (as opposed to “indiewood” pictures financed and released by the major studio’s boutique subsidiaries) do somewhat better. They’re the Roxie‘s bread and butter, frequently screen at the Castro, Rafael, and Red Vic, and can be seen occasionally now and then at most of the other theaters Bayflicks covers..

And as long as you’re deciding what movies to see in theaters:

Recommended, with Reservations: Sabrina (1953), Stanford, Friday through Monday. Light, upbeat, romantic comedy isn’t what we associate with Billy Wilder. We associate it even less with Humphrey Bogart. On the other hand, it’s exactly what we expect from a young Audrey Hepburn. The work of a great master who doesn’t appear to be trying very hard, Sabrina just floats along, nice and friendly, occasionally funny, never challenging, and moving towards a resolution as predictable as a full moon. The result is pleasant, but nothing more.

Not Recommended: Azumi, Lumiere and Shattuck, opens Friday. Does the world really need a self-consciously hip samurai movie? The young fighters in Azumi use words like “cool” (at least in the English subtitles) and fight to electronic, semi-rock music. That would be forgivable if the characters and story were interesting, but it’s hard to care about a group of youthful government assassins with a master who tests his students by ordering them to kill their best friends. (The youngsters occasionally question such orders, but never enough to rebel.) This leaves nothing to hang onto but the endless, Hong Kong-inspired fights, filled with the now clichéd flying people and overloud sound effects, all washed down with more gushing blood than a busy day in a slaughterhouse.

Recommended: Four Weeks in June, Century Cinema 16, Mountain View, Saturday, 6:00; Roda Theatre, Wednesday, 9:15. An alienated young woman in trouble with the law (for violently attacking her philandering boyfriend) befriends an old woman with a secret past. By keeping close to the dark edges of both characters, writer/director Henry Meyer avoids the story’s obvious sentimentality and gives us two wounded souls in search of healing. Think of it as Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont with fully-developed human beings. Part of the Jewish Film Festival.

Noteworthy: The Lighthouse by the Sea, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. I haven’t seen (or even heard of) this 1924 Warner Brothers B picture, and the name, frankly, isn’t promising. (Where would you put a lighthouse? In the Desert?) But it stars Rin Tin Tin, the most charismatic and talented movie star to ever wear a full-body fur coat, so it can’t be a complete loss. Accompanied by Molly Axtmann on the piano

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dolores Park, San Francisco, Saturday, 8:30. 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. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. As with all Film Night in the Park presentations, it is, unfortunately, a DVD presentation.

Not Recommended: Roots (2005); Century Cinema 16, Sunday, 11:30am; Roda Theatre, Berkeley, Monday, 2:00. A conman pays Ukrainian villagers to pretend they’re the long-lost relatives of western Jewish tourists. Any competent laughsmith could have made a hilarious farce out of this story. A really talented one could have mixed real pathos in with the laughter. Alas, writer Gennady Ostrovsky and director Pavel Loungin are neither talented nor competent. Roots (not to be confused with the American miniseries) is slow, plodding, nearly laughless, and lacks a single likeable nor interesting character. And the love story subplot is about as romantic and sexy as a colonoscopy. Part of the Jewish Film Festival.

Recommended: Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Century Cinema 16, Sunday, 4:15; Roda Theatre, Tuesday, 6:45. “Getting even has never healed a single person.” I didn’t think there was anything new for a Holocaust documentary to say, but then I’d never before seen one about Eva Mozes Kor. A survivor of Mengele’s notorious “experiments” at Auschwitz, and now a real estate agent in Indiana, Kor devotes herself to keeping the memory of the Shoah alive, even running a small museum in her adopted home town. Yet this feisty little woman has done something else altogether remarkable, and controversial among survivors. She has publicly forgiven the mass murderers who killed her family and turned her childhood into a living hell. An expertly-made documentary about a remarkable human being. Part of the Jewish Film Festival.

Recommended: Local Call!, Century Cinema 16, Sunday, 7:15. What’s scarier than your dead father calling you constantly from beyond the grave? The phone bills. That’s what Sergio Castellitto discovers in this very funny French comedy that appears to be inspired by the Book of Job. As his father (voiced by Michel Serrault) continues to harass him about a coat, and the phone bills send him into poverty, every other aspect of his respectable, middleclass life falls apart. Director/co-writer Arthur Joffé meditates hilariously on memory, communication, Jewish spirituality, and the precariousness of our comfortable lives. Part of the Jewish Film Festival.

Recommended, with Reservations: Blues by the Beach, Roda Theatre, Monday, 8:30; Century Cinema 16, Thursday, 2:30. A potentially great picture fell into the filmmakers’ laps. The focus of their documentary about a popular Tel Aviv music bar changed in a second through the murderous act of a suicide bomber. But they fumbled the ball, spending far too much time on their own problems and not enough on the folks who made the bar a special place. The result isn’t a complete loss–you couldn’t go completely wrong with the subject matter–but a less narcissistic Blues by the Beach would have been so much better. Part of the Jewish Film Festival.

Recommended: Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, Red Vic, Tuesday through Thursday. 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.

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