Janus Films

A Janus Film Festival brought me my first major emersion into classic and foreign films at the idealistic age of 18. Among the movies I first saw at this and subsequent Janus festivals were The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Rashomon, The 400 Blows, and Shoot the Piano Player. (I hate to admit how many of those films I haven’t seen since.) Either the festivals stopped or I stopped noticing them about 30 years ago, but many a masterpiece I’ve seen since started with Janus’ two-faced logo.

In the 1980’s, Janus teamed up with Voyager to bring many of these classics into people’s home with the then cutting-edge Laserdisc technology. They called this joint venture The Criterion Collection.

A new Janus Film Festival–celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary, starts Friday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The films include Jules and Jim, The Rules of the Game, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and the above-mentioned 400 Blows and Seventh Seal. If the line-up seems short on Japanese cinema, a follow-up series on Janus Samurai Classics plays in December. For what it’s worth, Gary Meyer planned to bring Janus to the Balboa, as well, but had to cancel due to fears of poor box office. Your loss, San Francisco.

In other East Bay news, and in a follow-up to last week’s report, I was one of many to receive a quick tour of the Cerrito days before it opened. The place looks great, freshly-painted in the art deco style of its original construction, complete with murals and edged glass. Not many couches (and the ones they have are so close to the screen that even I might hate them), but very comfortable chairs with tables. Both theaters have nice screens and digital sound, and the bottom one can manage the changeover projection needed for screening old and rare prints (click here if you’re wondering what I’m talking about.)

On the west side of the bay, the American Indian and Latino film festivals both start Friday. I haven’t seen any of the films at either festival, so I can’t make any recommendations.

But there are a few things I can recommend:

Recommended: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Red Vic, Saturday. Few people realize, at least on first viewing, how much the plot of Robert Altman’s genre-bending mood poem resembles a traditional western: A lone stranger with a dangerous reputation rides into a remote frontier town, tries to settle down to a peaceful existence, but is soon menaced by a trio of hired killers. But there’s nothing conventional about this sad yet beautiful tale of prostitution, alienated community, unrequited love, and a West that seems not so much wild as stranded in the middle of nowhere. Without Vilmos Zsigmond’s golden cinematography, this would be a very good film; with it, it’s a masterpiece.

Recommended: The Grapes of Wrath, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. Serious social criticism doesn’t come to mind when we think of classic, studio-era Hollywood. But this Darryl Zanuck/Nunnally Johnson/John Ford production of John Steinbeck’s flip side of the California dream doesn’t pull any punches (well, not many of them, anyway). The ending may be considerably less shocking than Steinbeck’s original, but as the desperately-poor Joad family moves from Oklahoma to California in their rickety truck, only to find bigotry and exploitation, Ford and his collaborators don’t pull any punches. On a double-bill with Tobacco Road.

Recommended: The Black Swan, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. Tyrone Power plays like the dark side of Errol Flynn–a swashbuckler with a hint of real menace and warped sexuality (at least as warped as Hollywood allowed in 1942). Here he’s a violent pirate who takes whatever and whomever he desires. True, he tries to clean up his act and enter even politics when given the chance, but as W. S. Gilbert said about piracy, when “contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest.” A big, fun, Technicolor adventure and one of the best pirate movies ever made. On a double-bill with Sitting Pretty.

Recommended: Alien, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight. In 1975, Jaws broke box office records. Two years later, Star Wars jumped light-years over Jaws’ grosses . Is it any wonder that Hollywood would put a scary, carnivorous creature on a spaceship? No, the wonder is that screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scot did such a good job. First, they created the most realistic space jockeys yet to grace movie science fiction: eight working-class astronauts who gripe about the pay and the food. Then they placed these unfortunates on a ship that somehow feels both believable and creepy. Finally, O’Bannon Scot added a difficult-to-see, constantly changing, and very hungry monster. And let us not forget Sigourney Weaver in the role that made her a star.

Recommended: Donnie Darko, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. How many alienated-teenager-in-suburbia-time-travel-science-fantasy comedies can you name? Okay, there’s Back to the Future and its sequels, but add the adjectives horrific and surreal to that description, and Donnie Darko stands alone. And how many alienated movie teenagers have to deal with a slick self-help guru and a six-foot rabbit named Frank (think Harvey, only vicious). It’s not entirely clear what’s going on in this strange movie, but that just adds to the fun.

Recommended: Little Miss Sunshine, Cerrito, opens Friday. 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: The Illusionist, Cerrito, opens Friday. Every film lover knows not to trust their eyes, because a movie is nothing but a lie, a deceit, and 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. But it’s very good light entertainment, as inconsequential as the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, but ten times as much fun and made for a fraction of the cost.

Recommended: One, Two, Three, Castro, Tuesday. Billy Wilder’s cold war comedy can’t compare to his Some Like It Hot, but its fast pace and farcical nature keep it funny, even when the topical satire has long since lost its edge. James Cagney plays broad as a hard-driving, easily-angered Coca Cola executive stationed in West Berlin, suddenly having to cope with a daughter in love with a Communist. On a Billy Wilder double-bill with Ace in the Hole.