So Much to Cover!

So much to cover! The Bay Area is hosting a lot of interesting film events in the next couple of weeks. Here are a few quick summaries.

But first, if you’re not entirely bored with all the coverage I gave the Castro’s recent 70mm series, check out some discussions of sound problems on my Letters page. I wasn’t the only one to notice them, and the Castro has supplied me with an excellent explanation of what went wrong.

Speaking of the Castro, tonight (Friday) starts a four-week long Almodóvar series, Viva Pedro, there and at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. I haven’t seen all of his work by any stretch of the imagination, and I’ve seen even less of it recently enough to comment on it. But Almodóvar’s films are always interesting, often funny (only when it’s intentional), and very sexy.

The Shattuck is also one of three Landmark theaters starting a midnight movie series next weekend. The movies tend to be horror, science fiction, and cult favorites from the ‘80s and ‘90s (it’s as easy to see The Big Lebowski on the big screen these days as it was to see Duck Soup there 30 years ago). If you can’t stay up that late, the UA Berkeley multiplex (just a block from the Shattuck) is holding a similar series, Flashback Flicks, at 8:00 on Thursdays.

Want something more esoteric? The new Pacific Film Archive calendar starts tonight. There’s a Syrian Cinema series (try saying that ten times really fast), giving us a glimpse of a country whose films are almost unknown in this country, plus tributes to Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène and the Belgian Dardenne brothers. A series on The Mechanical Age offers a good excuse to show some wonderful silent films by Lang, Chaplin, Keaton, Eisenstein, and people you’ve probably never heard of. Best of all, in my modest opinion, is Arrr, Matey: Pirates and Piracy. But I should disclose that I’m hardly unprejudiced; my son is writing a pirate novel.

The 10th Annual Arab Film Festival starts next week. With “more than 40 films from more than 12 countries” (don’t you just love the way PR people handle math?), it should provide some interesting views of a people Americans are too ready to kill and know too little about.

The MadCat 10 Women’s International Film Festival starts the week after next. This isn’t an intensive festival; it spreads its twelve programs of avant-garde films made by women over two weeks, often including a free barbeque before the movie.

Finally, the Global Lens Initiative brings its annual collection of films from developing countries to Bay Area theaters this month (and into next month). The Initiative’s goal is to “promote cross-cultural understanding through cinema,” and education is part of the program. The series includes free screenings for high school students.

That’s what’s coming. Here’s what’s here this week:

Recommended: Little Miss Sunshine, Balboa, ongoing. I’m glad this movie is a comedy; a drama with these characters would be unbearably depressing. Little Miss Sunshine puts a supremely dysfunctional family on the road in a broken down VW bus, with the goal of entering their prepubescent daughter into a beauty contest for girls too young to have any business in a beauty contest. The result opens a window into the souls of five damaged adults and two youths destined for damaged adulthood, while delivering a steady stream of strong, deep, and sustained laughs. Not a simple feat for a first-time screenwriter (Michael Arndt) and two directors experienced only in music videos (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris).

Recommended: Duck Soup, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Friday, 8:00. A blatantly corrupt politician is appointed leader at the request of the wealthy elite. Once in office, he cuts benefits for the working class, fills important positions with unqualified clowns, and starts a war on a whim. But how could a comedy made in 1933 be relevant today? The Marx Brothers at their very best. True, Film Night in the Park is presenting it on DVD rather than on actual film, but with Duck Soup, seeing it with an audience is more important than seeing the best possible picture.

Recommended: Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Castro and Shattuck, opening Friday. Men are jerks and women are crazy. At least that’s the view of Pedro Almodóvar’s comedy of infidelity. The picture starts like a reasonably serious comedy, sprinkling a few laughs in with the character study. But it keeps suggesting something broader. The décor is just a little over the top, and some of the jokes (consider the detergent commercial) are in the stratosphere. Those outrageous bits are a harbinger of things to come. By the half-way point, the movie is as wacky as classic American screwball comedy–and considerably bawdier. Carmen Maura stars as the woman wronged (well, the main woman wronged), with a very young Antonio Banderas playing the son of the man who wronged her. Part of the Viva Pedro series of Almodóvar films.

Not Recommended: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Parkway, opening Friday. Yet another bad sequel to a good movie. Whereas the original Pirates of the Caribbean tread lightly over its silly story, this one takes itself seriously. But as there’s nothing serious about the shallow and meaningless story, the dark imagery and poor attempts at character development just get in the way of the fun. Worse yet, it ends with a cliffhanger; no one is supposed to see Dead Man’s Chest and skip the third installment. Two good action scenes aren’t enough to justify an otherwise dreary 2 ½-hour movie.

Recommended: March of the Penguins, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Saturday, 8:00. 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. Another Film Night in the Park presentation on DVD.

Recommended: Notorious, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:50. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. The PFA will screen a rare print from the vault.

Recommended, with Reservations: Metropolis (1927), Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. The first important science fiction feature film still strikes a considerable visual punch. The images–workers in a hellish underground factory, the wealthy at play, a robot brought to life in the form of a beautiful woman–are a permanent part of our collective memory. Even people who haven’t seen Metropolis know it through the countless films its influenced. But the beautiful imagery only make the melodramatic plot and characters seem all the more trite. As part of its Mechanical Age series, the PFA presents Metropolis with piano accompaniment by Judy Rosenberg.

Recommended: Modern Times, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00. Leave it to Charlie Chaplin to call an extremely anachronistic movie Modern Times. Why anachronistic? Because it’s a mostly silent picture (with a recorded score) made years after everyone else had stopped making silent pictures. Why Modern Times? Because it’s about assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression. Chaplin’s tramp moves from job to job and jail to jail as he tries to better his condition and that of an underage fugitive (Paulette Goddard, his future wife and the best leading lady of his career). The plot sounds depressing, but the tramp’s innate dignity and optimism, upholstered by Chaplin’s perfectly choreographed comedy, keeps Modern Times light despite the heavy theme. Another part of PFA’s Mechanical Age series.

Recommended: Stolen Life, San Francisco Art Institute, Wednesday, 7:30. An emotionally stunted teenage girl leaves her loveless home for college, then makes a really bad romantic decision that will ruin her life. That’s not a particularly new story, but Xun Zhou, who is in almost every scene as well as narrating the picture, plays the lead with such depth and conviction that she overcomes the melodramatic contrivances in Liao Yimei’s screenplay. Stolen Life also offers a view of modern China that few Americans get to see. Global Lens‘ opening screening.

Recommended: The Sea Hawk (1940), Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:30. If only British history was really like this! Errol Flynn buckles his swash as a Francis Drake-like privateer who saves Elizabethan England from evil Spaniards bent on world domination (an obvious 1940 metaphor for the Nazis). The story bears no resemblance to the Rafael Sabatini novel on which it’s allegedly based, but that doesn’t mar the fun of Flynn’s second best picture (after Adventures of Robin Hood). The dialog, much of it by Howard (Casablanca) Koch, snaps with wit, the action set pieces thrill, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score is as lush and romantic as you would expect. Part of the PFA’s pirate series, Arrr, Matey.