X-Men, Silent Directors, and the Oakland Paramount

Back in August, I bemoaned the lack of good big-budget action movies this summer. At that time I hadn’t yet seen X-Men: The Last Stand. I loved the first two X-Men movies, but wasn’t optimistic about number three as director Bryan Singer had left the franchise and the far less talented Brett Ratner had taken over. I finally caught it on DVD recently. It’s not as good as the first two, but it’s way ahead of Singer’s Superman Returns. Story and character trump technique. No matter who is directing, the tortured, doubt-filled, and morally ambiguous mutants of the X-Men make better drama than the straight-arrow alien from Krypton. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Inside the Oakland Paramount
photo by Cathe Centorbe

But enough of recent movies. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum presents this weekend a big Behind the Megaphone series, hosted by David Shepard and Russell Merritt. Friday night is a silent Hitchcock double bill. Saturday are four European silent masterpieces, and Sunday is D.W. Griffith day. That means a rare screening of Birth of a Nation, still the most controversial American film of all time. The bad news: The museum is showing several of the films, including Birth, with recorded, rather than live, music.

Finally, classic movies return to Oakland’s Paramount Theater after 20 movie-free months. Movie night at the Paramount is about more than the film. The doors open an hour before the show, giving you plenty of time to enjoy and explore the incredible, art deco ambiance. The show itself includes an organ concert, a cartoon, a newsreel, a wheel-of-fortune-like game, and the feature presentation.

Speaking of feature presentations, here’s some of what’s going on this week:

Recommended, with Reservations: Birth of a Nation, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 9:30am. No other motion picture (except, perhaps, The Jazz Singer) so profoundly changed the art and business of the cinema, and none raised as much controversy. The power and excitement of D.W. Griffith’s Civil War and Reconstruction epic shocked people into recognizing film as an art form, while it’s massive commercial success opened eyes to the cinema’s other potential. But few today are comfortable with its unflinching racism (the Ku Klux Klan ride to the rescue). Most revival theaters refuse to show Birth of a Nation, which is too bad. Yes, it’s grossly offensive. But it’s important to see as a major step in the evolution of an art, and as an unintended record of early twentieth century racial attitudes. (It’s also, if you can lay your repugnance aside, a thrilling and entertaining movie.)

Recommended: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Rafael, ongoing. Dangerous, tyrannical, and megalomaniac religious leaders don’t just exist on the political right. Stanley Nelson’s documentary takes us into the heart of the left-leaning, San Francisco-based Christian cult that ended in mass murder and suicide in 1978. Nelson shows us, and survivors tell us, why people followed Jim Jones, how the good things he did (including creating what was perhaps the first integrated church in Indiana) attracted so many, how he robbed his followers of their facility for critical thought, and finally, how he robbed them of their lives. Through archival footage, photos, and audio recordings, plus interviews with survivors, Nelson does more than tell you what happened; he makes you feel it, understand it, and shiver all the more for the reality of it.

Recommended: My Darling Clementine, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. There’s little history in John Ford’s retelling of the shootout at the OK Corral, but there’s brilliant Western mythology. Ford sets aside the main plot of the Earp/Clanton feud for much of the film, concentrating instead on an uneasy friendship between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Doc Holiday (Victor Mature in what may be his only good performance). Meanwhile, the wide open town of Tombstone–set beautifully yet improbably in Monument Valley–slowly turns civilized, a change that necessitates the Clantons’ deaths and the Earps’ moving on. On a double-bill with the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro.

Recommended: Broken Blossoms, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 2:00. D. W. Griffith treats the Chinese with a sympathy and understanding sorely lacking in Birth of a Nation‘s view of African Americans. This bleak and depressing tale of London low-life stars Lillian Gish as the abused daughter of a sadistic prizefighter (Donald Crisp), and Richard Barthelmess as the once-idealistic Chinese immigrant who loves her (and yes, that’s a white actor playing a Chinese character, not unusual in 1919). As part of its Behind the Megaphone weekend, the museum is screening Broken Blossoms with recorded accompaniment.

Recommended: The Mark of Zorro (1940), Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role his own in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. Power, who was bisexual in real life, plays Don Diego as an effeminate fop, and his masked alter ego as dashing masculinity. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone. Double-billed with My Darling Clementine.

Recommended: The Queen, Balboa, opening Friday. A good movie anchored by a great performance, The Queen works best as a study of a totally bizarre one-family lifestyle. Helen Mirren is perfect, brittle yet human, as the monarch Bette Midler once called “the whitest woman in the world.” Concentrating on the week after Princess Di’s death, the film focuses on Elizabeth’s failure to react to or understand her subjects’ affection for her son’s estranged ex-wife. But there’s a coldness to The Queen, as if the film, like its central character, is keeping everyone at arm’s length. And it’s strange to watch a movie that asks you to root for Tony Blair. This isn’t a must-see movie, but you won’t regret going.

Not Recommended: Flushed Away, Presidio, ongoing. Aardman Animations of Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit fame abandon clay for computer graphics. That might have worked if they hadn’t also exchanged most that quirky Aardman humor for predictable plot, characters, and moral lessons. As entertainment, this tale of the London sewers falls closer to Chicken Little than Chicken Run.

Recommended: Catch a Fire, 4Star, opening Friday. Police arrest and torture an innocent man suspected of terrorist activity, and thus produce a militant. No, it’s not ripped from today’s headlines, but set in apartheid South Africa. Director Phillip Noyce turns the story of actual ANC freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) into both a morality play and an effective thriller, all without sacrificing the complexity of the situation. Six years ago, this movie would hardly have been controversial; today, it’s courageous.

Recommended: Winged Migration, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. You won’t actually learn much from this almost narration-free documentary, but if you have any taste for the majestic beauty of nature, you’ll be in heaven from beginning to end.

Recommended: The General (1926), Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:00. Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used it as the setup for a punch line told in a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. Judith Rosenberg will accompany The General on piano as part of the Archive’s Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

Recommended: Pandora’s Box, Rafael, Saturday, 7:00. Nearly 70 years after her last film, cinephiles still debate whether Louise Brooks was a first-class talent or just a beautiful woman in the hands of a great director. Either way, her oddly innocent femme fatale wins our sympathy and our lust as she sends men to their destruction without, apparently, understanding what she’s doing. A great example of what the silent drama could do in the hands of a master; in this case, G.W. Pabst. British critic and historian Peter Cowie will introduce this screening of a new, restored, 35mm print. The music, unfortunately, won’t be live.

Noteworthy: Louise Brooks Centenary Celebration, Balboa, Sunday, 7:30. If you miss Pandora’s Box at the Rafael, or if it left you wanting more Louise Brooks and Peter Cowie, the show continues the next day at the Balboa. Cowie will give a talk, followed by “one of the most rarely shown Louise Brooks features, a short comedy and coming attractions.” Film titles are as yet unannounced.

Recommended: Blackmail, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:15. Hitchcock’s last silent film was also his first talkie; making two versions wasn’t unusual when some but not all theaters had sound. Either way, Blackmail is vintage early Hitchcock. A young woman kills an obnoxious artist in self defense, then fears the repercussions (including those of her police detective boyfriend). And there’s a witness willing to take advantage of the situation. Even the resolution puts our heroine (Anny Ondra) into a moral dilemma. The sound version is very good, making clever use of the new medium, but better pacing makes Blackmail work best as a silent. As part of its Behind the Megaphone weekend, the Museum is screening Blackmail on a double-bill with The Manxman, accompanied by Frederick Hodges on piano.

Recommended, with Reservations: A Clockwork Orange, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in 1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the “Singin’ in the Rain” rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim.

Recommended: Half Nelson, Cerrito, opening Friday. Half Nelson is about drug addiction the way Citizen Kane is about journalism. The drug addict in question (Ryan Gosling in one of the year’s best performances) teaches history in an inner-city middle school, and teaches it well. But when school is out, he consumes as much cocaine as he can buy, smoking crack when he can’t afford the expensive stuff. His drug-fueled life is coming apart at the seams, but he can’t step outside his destructive path. And one student whose difficult life may be turned around by his teaching (Shareeka Epps) discovers his habit and finds herself tempted by the business end of the drug economy. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have created a work about high ideals and low achievements that avoids clichés, melodrama (even the drug dealer is sympathetic), and easy answers.