Why So Many Recommendations?

If you read this newsletter regularly, or check out the star icons in the weekly schedules, you may have noticed that I recommend far more movies than I warn you against. Indeed, last week’s newsletter had nothing but recommendations. I realize that doesn’t help my image as an honest journalist. So let me explain:

Unlike fulltime, professional critics, I don’t have an editor deciding what films I must see; like you, I get to pick. (Well, not always. I’m a parent, and children, like editors, demand that you see certain movies.) Since I pick what movies I’m going to see, and I usually pick carefully, there’s a very good chance that I’ll like a movie before I buy my ticket. But if I don’t like a film, or like only parts of it, I promise that I’ll let you know.

Before I tell you what I did and didn’t like this week, let me mention the Taiwan Film Festival. It’s going on this weekend at the Pacific Film Archive, although it’s not part of the Archive’s programming. The films are free, but seating is limited. The Archive has opened up its old theater at the UC Berkeley Art Museum for one Taiwan screening this evening (Friday). Saturday night’s The Magic Lantern and the Mechanical Age show will also be held at the old theater.

And now, on with the week’s movies:

Noteworthy: The Fabulous Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Wednesday, 7:00. I only vaguely remember Karel Zeman’s version of the Munchausen fables (not to be confused with Terry Gilliam’s excellent 1988 retelling), but the faded memories are happy ones. I recall an almost silent movie feel to this highly imaginative combination of live action and cheap but clever animation, complete with tinted black and white and a fair amount of slapstick. I also remember it being available only, unfortunately, in dubbed English.

Recommended: The Last King of Scotland, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. The “king– in the title refers to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker in a performance that may finally win him that Oscar he’s so long deserved. Whitaker shows us all the sides of a paranoid megalomaniac, at one moment winning us over with his easy-going charisma and the next leaving us shaking in fear. We get to know him through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who accidentally falls into Amin’s inner circle and gets seduced by the good life. The film doesn’t give you much reason to like McAvoy’s character–even when doing the altruistic work that brought him to Africa he seems shallow and self-centered–but you care if he lives or dies. And that becomes a real issue as this political character study gradually turns into an effective thriller. Worth seeing, even through the ending is a moral cop-out. One of the Mill Valley Film Festival‘s two opening night offerings, so seeing it this week will be more for the event than for the movie (which you’ll be able to see in more sane conditions, soon).

Recommended: Young Frankenstein, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks was talented. And never more so than in this sweet-natured parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930’s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies).

Recommended: The Child (L’Enfant), Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:00. A petty thief (Jérémie Renier) with no sense of morality or responsibility–in fact, no sense–sells his own baby on the black market, then is caught off-guard when his girlfriend reacts violently. Everything goes downhill for him from there. This is not the sort of foreign-language “art” film that crosses over and appeals to conventional movie-goers. Shot in long, hand-held takes and almost entirely devoid of music, L’Enfant doesn’t even give us a sympathetic protagonist. But watching this young man dig himself deeper into a pit of his own making is endlessly fascinating–at least until the ending stretches our credibility. Part of the PFA’s tribute to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight, and 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 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. If you don’t, you probably already love it.

Recommended: The Illusionist, 4Star, opens Friday. Film lovers know not to trust their eyes; every movie is a lie, a deceit, a trick. And the biggest illusion in this particular movie is its independent (or at least indiewood) cred. Don’t be deceived by the lack of a major studio logo or the presence of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. The Illusionist is light entertainment, not serious art. It’s as inconsequential as the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, but ten times as much fun and made for a fraction of the cost. On a rather strange double bill with An Inconvenient Truth.

Recommended: This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Elmwood, opens Friday. Who decides which films get an R rating and which have their chances for commercial success blown by an NC-17? Kirby Dick sets out to find the answer in a documentary clearly inspired by Michael Moore (in other words, it’s funny, the director is the central character, and it’s unabashedly partisan). Dick hired a private detective to discover the raters’ identities (which the MPAA doesn’t disclose), and cuts between the sleuthing story and interviews with filmmakers who’ve tangled with the rating system. There’s plenty to chew on here, and it all goes down easily with plenty of comedy–plus steamy sex scenes cut from other movies. But the effect is diluted by a strong bias and factual errors.

Not Recommended: Superman Returns, Elmwood, opens Friday. Back in 2000, Bryan Singer turned the comic book superhero movie into art with X-Men, combining an intriguing concept, political symbolism, emotionally believable characters, and great action sequences. So it’s a big disappointment that he fails so utterly with the most famous superhero of modern times. The big problem is in the casting; it takes someone special to make you believe in their powers and care about their inner demons. His Superman, Brandon Routh, is anything but special. Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane is a perfect match for Routh; she’s lousy, too. The great special effects and Kevin Spacey’s wonderful turn as Lex Luthor help, but not enough to fill a 152-minute movie.