New Icons; Berlin & Beyond

You may have already noticed a change in the weekly schedules. I’m now grading movies like a school teacher. If I place an in front of a film title, it’s not to be missed. If I give one an , missing it is a top priority. And when I mark a film with a , I haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it recently enough to reliably grade it, but I still have something to say about it. As before, click on any of these icons for a short commentary.

Within the next two weeks, I hope to grade at least a few of the 38 German-language films showing at the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, which opens January 11 at the Castro with Summer In Berlin, a study of a friendship stressed by life’s difficulties. The Festival ends a six days later with The Fisherman and His Wife, which the program describes as “a contemporary romantic comedy [wrapped] around a Grimm’s fairy tale.” In between there’s a drama about a once-successful model, a documentary on the first American soldier to die in Iraq, and a family-friendly fantasy about a revived Neanderthal.

As usual, Berlin & Beyond will also present a silent feature screened with live accompaniment. This year, it’s Nathan the Wise, a 1924 call for religious tolerance based on a 1779 play. Dennis James will accompany the film on the Castro’s Organ.

Next week I’ll give you my Top Ten Films of 2006. In the meantime, here’s some movies to catch, and to miss, in theaters this week:

Baraka, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Strange, haunting, beautiful, and terrifying, Baraka defies description. Without plot, narration, or explanation, it simply presents images of nature, humanity, and humanity’s effect on nature. Even if you don’t see a message (there is one), you’re captivated by the music and the clear and perfect visuals. Baraka was one of the last films, and one of the few art films, shot in 65mm. Because the larger film format so enhances this picture, I grade Baraka A when presented in 70mm, but only B in 35mm.

Charlotte’s Web, Balboa, ongoing. New rule: If a movie makes me cry, I have to give it an A. By the end of the latest version of E.B. White’s classic children’s tale, my tear ducts were in full spigot mode, despite such “hip” additions to the tale as fart jokes (hey, the film is set in a barn). The story, concerning a piglet destined for the slaughterhouse and a kindly spider who befriends him, deals honestly with issues seldom touched in big-budget Hollywood family fare, including our own mortality. The technology of computer animation makes us believe that a spider and pig can talk; the art of computer animation makes us care what they say.

Night at the Museum, Presidio, ongoing. Yes, it’s predictable Hollywood family fare (Why must every children’s film preach about believing in yourself?), and half the jokes fall flat. But the idea is cute, most of the performances are lively, and a reasonable number of jokes stand up. As much as I disapprove of product placement, it’s nice to see a movie that works as one big commercial for New York’s Museum of Natural History.

Little Children, Presidio, ongoing. Good films don’t have to tell you what a character is thinking or feeling; you sense it from the dialog and the performances. But Todd Field and Tom Perrotta didn’t trust their characters or their actors (which is too bad because the cast couldn’t have been better) and filled Little Children with detailed and annoying narration. Every time the story and performances build dramatic tension, Will Lyman’s omnipotent voice destroys it by telling you what everyone is thinking and to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Things improve after the halfway mark–there’s less narration, giving you a chance to truly appreciate the good performances–but there’s still the overabundance of subplots and some unbelievably idiotic character behavior.

His Girl Friday, Castro, Saturday. Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution. On a double-bill with The Women.

Woman of the Year, Castro, Friday. One of only a handful of Hollywood films (Annie Hall is another) that accurately conveys the ups, downs, and sideways motions of romantic love as a long-term commitment. Sexist by today’s standard, this love story between two independently-minded professionals was cutting-edge feminist for its time (or at least as cutting-edge feminist as MGM would allow). And its sense of two people who love each other but can’t easily stay compatible never ages. It also started one of Hollywood’s most famous real-life romances–that of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. On a double-bill with The Philadelphia Story.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Elmwood, Saturday and Sunday. An eccentric inventor, his long-suffering dog, snooty aristocrats, cute bunnies, and whole lot of clay make up the funniest movie of 2005. I vote for putting this G-rated, claymation extravaganza on a double-bill with that other hilarious British comedy with killer rabbits, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Black Orpheus, Castro, Monday through Thursday. It’s been decades since I saw Marcel Camus’ retelling of the Orpheus myth, set in Rio during Carnaval. I remember exciting music, eye-popping color, and a strange mixture of joyous celebration and tragedy. I also remember liking it very much. The Castro presents a new 35mm print.

The Wizard of Oz, San Jose California, Friday, 7:00 and Saturday, 2:00; Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. You don’t really need me to tell you about this one, do you?

Bloody Diamonds!

Sickness kept me out of movie theaters for a couple of weeks. And when I finally felt up to going out, what did I see? Blood Diamond. Big mistake.

Writer Charles Leavitt and director Edward Zwick tried to create an entertaining thriller and a lesson on the diamond industry’s horrible toll on African lives. But a bad thriller makes worse agitprop.

Blood Diamond centers around fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) and his struggles to reunite his family, separated when evil rebels sack and destroy his village. Solomon is a sort of third-world version of the sympathetic everyman that filmmakers have centered thrillers around since Hitchcock refined the genre. Except that he’s a saint–too perfect and virtuous to identify, or even sympathize, with. And since he’s black, African, and played by an actor with a difficult-to-pronounce name, Hollywood provides us with two white movie stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly) who fall in love while helping Solomon.

Actually, DiCaprio’s Danny Archer isn’t trying to help anyone; he’s a self-centered and untrustworthy smuggler who attaches himself onto Solomon for purely mercenary reasons. I don’t think I’m giving anything away in telling you that Solomon’s predicament and Connelly’s gorgeous eyes melt that hard exterior to reveal the diamond smuggler’s heart of gold.

The plot involves a giant diamond that Solomon finds and hides while working as a slave in the rebels’ diamond mine. Danny becomes Solomon’s protector because he wants the diamond. So do the rebels and the army, resulting in enough automatic weapons fire to satisfy Rambo. Not that the rebels and the army need a large diamond MacGuffin to fire off huge rounds of ammunition; they do it for no apparent reason beyond the joy of killing innocent bystanders.

Because this is a “serious” thriller, the violence isn’t toned down or glorified. It looks ugly and scary. But that makes it all the more ridiculous when our heroes come out of one battle or massacre after another unscathed. Maybe the bad guys need to arm themselves with kryptonite.

Speaking of realism, let’s take a moment to consider Jennifer Connelly’s role, investigative reporter Maddy Bowen. When she discovers that the guy hitting on her in a bar is involved with illegal activities, she tells him exactly what she’s looking for and asks for sensitive information that no criminal in his right mind would give a stranger–even a stranger that looks like Jennifer Connelly. The next time she runs into him, she drags him onto a dance floor and rubs her body against him while pretty much begging for a scoop. If the character is sufficiently badly written, even Jennifer Connelly can’t give a good performance.

Read up on the diamond trade and you’ll feel sorry for its victims. See Blood Diamond and you’ll feel sorry for the audience.

But you won’t feel sorry about catching any of these movies:

Recommended: Lord of the Rings Triple Bill, Castro, Saturday, 1:30. Three long movies, one short review: Peter Jackson’s nine-hour retelling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy (eleven hours in the extended editions, which won’t be shown here) is surely one of the most ambitious film-making projects ever completed. And he pulls it off, sticking close enough to the books to keep most literary fans happy without getting ridiculous about it. Whereas Tolkien makes you believe in Middle Earth by offering detailed histories and languages, Jackson depends on art direction, special effects, and the natural beauty of his native New Zealand. The films are massive, spectacular, and action-packed, yet always focused on a handful of decent, simple souls forced to become unwilling heroes.

Recommended: Casablanca, Castro, Wednesday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. On a double-bill with The African Queen.

Recommended: The African Queen, Castro, Wednesday. Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Africa, and Technicolor all make for splendid entertainment in John Huston’s romantic comedy action adventure. The outbreak of World War I traps Bogart’s working-class drunk and Hepburn’s prim and proper missionary on a small boat up an African river with little chance of survival. So naturally they fall in love. On a double-bill with Casablanca.

4-Star Saved

In case you haven’t heard, we cinephiles won the struggle to save the 4Star last week. For nearly three years now, the theater’s owners, Frank and Lida Lee, have been at odds with the owners of the property, the Canaan Lutheran Church. The Lee’s wanted to keep running the 4Star as a movie theater–something it’s been since nickelodeon times. The Church wanted to use it as, well, a church.

Back in July, the two sides came to an agreement giving the Lees 150 days to raise $1.45 million and purchase the property. They did it.

I must admit feeling a bit odd about rejoicing. The church has a valid point of view. They bought a property to use as a house of worship, waited years, then founds themselves in a legal fight. But the 4Star has been a movie theater for nearly a century, and that carries its own sanctity. I wouldn’t be happy if one of San Francisco’s great old churches was turned into a multiplex.

This whole films-before-religion thing feels like something that Fox News might call “San Francisco Values.” I can see Bill O’Reilly now–Nancy Pelosi wants to turn your church into a godless movie theater, and not the type that plays Mel Gibson flicks.”

In other slightly-stale news, the San Francisco Film Society announced last week that it will give George Lucas a “one-time-only” Irving “Bud” Levin Award at next year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Why? According to Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat, Lucas “has created characters, films and technologies that have gripped audiences and changed the face of filmmaking, distribution, and licensing.”

I suspect a generous contribution (or hoped-for contribution) from Lucasfilm has more to do with it. Cultural non-profits have to kiss a lot of ass just to survive. On one level I can’t blame the Society; they do some great things, and an award to a rich and powerful patron could allow them to do more.

But George Lucas? His treatment of his own original Star Wars trilogy (his one important contribution to the art of cinema), which apparently exists today in no better source than a Laserdisc transfer, speaks volumes about his commitment to film preservation. For that alone he should be called onto the carpet.

So much for my rant. Here’s this week’s movies:

Recommended: Babel, Rafael, opening Friday. A stupid act committed by a boy too young to understand the consequences sends shockwaves around the world, effecting the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, a Mexican nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu weave a complex, four-strand tale of love, tragedy, parental responsibility, and the borders–political, economic, linguistic, and emotional–that separate us all. In the end, Babel (an appropriate title for a film told in Arabic, English, Spanish, Japanese, and Japanese sign language) hails the incredible human ability to heal. The cast, which ranges from major international stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho) to complete novices, is uniformly excellent. Emotionally draining yet exhilarating, and filled with an intense love of humanity that never ignores our weaker selves, Babel is easily the best new movie I’ve seen this year.

Recommended: Half Nelson, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. 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.

Recommended: Yojimbo, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 4:00. A masterless samurai (always the best for story-telling purposes) wanders into a small town torn apart by two gangs fighting a brutal turf war. Disgusted by everyone, our hero (who else but Toshiro Mifune) uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a nihilistic black comedy all rolled into one. Allegedly inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, it was remade twice as Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. The Archive will screen a new 35mm print as the last movie in its two Janus film festivals, and its last presentation of 2006.

Recommended: Duck Soup, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. A blatantly corrupt politician becomes the country’s all-powerful leader on the whim 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.

Recommended: Borat, Cerrito and Parkway, opens Friday. Don’t expect the reported insights into American bigotry; only a couple of scenes show unknowing local folk spouting bile (including the frat boys now suing the studio). Instead, 90% of Borat’s jokes attack writer/star Sacha Baron Cohen’s sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and completely idiotic Kazakhstani journalist. Most of the remaining 10% take pot shots at the ludicrous customs of the utterly fictitious society that Cohen and his collaborators have named after the real country of Kazakhstan. The movie is offensive, grotesque, cringe-inducing, and completely lacking in any sense of decency. It’s also side-achingly funny.

Recommended, with Reservations: The Thin Man, Cerrito, Friday, 7:00, Saturday, 6:00, and Sunday, 5:00. A murder mystery, a screwball comedy, a wallow in classic MGM glamour, and a 93-minute commercial for alcohol as the secret to a happy marriage. Also the start of a very long franchise. William Powell and Myrna Loy make great chemistry as Nick and Nora Charles, the rich, drunk-and-in-love couple with a little murder to clear up. The mystery and the comedy never quite gel, but it’s so fun to watch Powell and Loy together that you really don’t care. This weekend’s Cerrito Classic.

Recommended: The Queen, 4Star, opens Friday. 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.

Recommended, with Reservations: Cleopatra, Stanford, Saturday, 7:30, Sunday, 2:00. At 243 minutes, this widescreen epic clocks in as the longest single theatrical release by a major American studio. And at an estimated 40 million 1963 dollars, it’s probably the most expensive. On DVD, the first half (Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar) is mildly entertaining, and the second half (Richard Burton as Mark Antony), unbearably boring. Despite a torrid off-camera affair, Burton and Taylor fail to light up the screen. But 70mm and a very large screen change everything, so that the props, costumes, and extra-filled sets take on a life of their own. Thus, the first half becomes spectacular entertainment and the second…well, not quite as boring. I’m not sure how it will hold up in 35mm on the reasonably large Stanford screen.

Recommended: Shut Up & Sing, 4Star and Roxie, opens Friday. We all know what happened when Dixie Chick lead singer Natalie Maines spoke her mind during the lead-up to the Iraqi War. But if you haven’t seen Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s documentary, you probably don’t know the group dynamics that helped the trio, their management, and their families cope with the hatred, lost revenue, and death threats that followed. Or how the experience helped them grow as people and as musicians. One complaint: Kopple and Peck should have let us hear and see at least one entire song, performed from beginning to end.

Best Films You Haven’t Seen

Here’s a list you can really use: The Best Unavailable Films of 2006.

I attended a lot of festival screenings this year, so it’s not surprising that many of the best movies I saw didn’t get a wide–or even an art house–release in this country. Since I lack the resources to produce the Bayflicks Second Chance Film Festival, here’s my Top 10 Festival-Only Films from 2006:

berkeley 10) Berkeley, Berkeley Video & Film Festival. I don’t know if anyone but a baby boomer can appreciate Bobby Roth’s look back at the radical end of the 1960’s; it may even require an East Bay Baby Boomer. But Berkeley progresses beyond nostalgia, examining the both the excitement and the shortcomings of youthful idealism.

zozo 9) Zozo, 10th Annual Arab Film Festival. An eleven-year-old boy (Imad Creidi) suddenly loses his family in Lebanon’s extremely uncivil civil war, and must make it on his own to Sweden, where his grandparents are waiting. Writer-director Josef Fares uses a style reminiscent of Latin American magical realism to show us two cultures through the eyes of a child.

iberia 8) Iberia, San Francisco International Film Festival. Dance. Pure, simple, graceful, beautiful, and without story-filling dialog scenes to get in the way. The dances in this tribute to Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz are plentiful and short; in the unlikely event you don’t like one, something wonderful is only a few minutes away.

7) Beethoven’s Hair, Docfest. Part forensic mystery and part history lesson, this documentary stuffs a lot of fascinating stories into its 84-minute running time. There’s an Arizona urologist named Che Guevara, the Holocaust in Denmark, a particle accelerator, the 19th century composer Ferdinand Hiller, and Ludwig himself. Great music, too.

localcall 6) Local Call!, Jewish Film Festival. What’s scarier than your dead father calling constantly from beyond the grave? The phone bills. Director/co-writer Arthur Joffé meditates hilariously on memory, communication, Jewish spirituality, and the precariousness of our comfortable lives.

5) Au Bonheur Des Dames, San Francisco Silent Film Festival. A silent film from 1930 is hardly a product of 2006, but it qualifies on the grounds of getting its first Bay Area screening this year. If it wasn’t for the total cop-out of an ending, this Emile Zola adaptation about a giant department store and the people it displaces would equal The Crowd as the greatest serious drama of the silent era.

4) In Bed, San Francisco International Film Festival. Before you’ve seen anything but credits, In Bed treats you to the sound of a very long orgasm. Then we meet two peoplein_bed_02 who’ve just had incredible sex but don’t know what to say to each other. Eventually they say a lot. Writer Julio Rojas and director Mati as Bize catch the intimacy that casual sex can produce in near-total strangers in this talkie and erotic two-person character study.

3) Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Jewish Film Festival. "Getting even has never healed a single person.– Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor devotes herself to keeping the memory of the Shoah alive, even running a small museum in her adopted home town. Yet the subject of this documentary has done something altogether remarkable, and controversial: She has publicly forgiven the mass murderers who killed her family and turned her childhood into a living hell.

facade 2) Facade, San Francisco Independent Film Festival. Keep an eye on Brian Bedard; we’ve got a major new talent here. The 23-year-old Bedard wrote, directed, and acts in Façade, a small-scale film about five young people partying their way towards disaster. While two characters fall sweetly in love (or at least lust), the other three dig themselves deeper into an emotional quagmire in this thoughtful, surprising, and disturbing first film.

1) Adam’s Apples, San Francisco International Film Festival. The plot sounds like vapid,adamsapple2 Hollywood, feel-good drek. But Anders Thomas Jensen’s tale of a hate-filled neo-Nazi who learns compassion with the help of an optimistic minister and some oddball eccentrics is actually the blackest of black comedies. That minister and those oddballs should be locked away for their own safety–and ours. On one hand, this is a profoundly religious picture, built on redemption and filled with miracles. On the other, I never laughed so hard at a man shooting a cat.

Now, how about some movies that you actually can see:

Recommended: For Your Consideration, Balboa, ongoing; Cerrito, opening Friday. A foryourconsid conventional narrative rather than a mockumentary, For Your Consideration still feels much like director/co-writer’s Christopher Guest’s previous works like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. It stars the same Guest repertory company (including Fred Willard, Parker Posey, and Guest’s writing collaborator, Eugene Levy), examines a show business subculture (in this case, independent films), and delivers a hearty supply of honest laughs. And like A Mighty Wind (still Guest’s best), it mixes a bit of pathos with the humor. Catherine O’Hara makes the movie her own as an aging actress who’s head is turned by an Oscar rumor.

Recommended: Seven Samurai, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:10. If you think all7sam action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours and watch Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–”a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–”has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. When the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made. Part of the Archive’s Janus Samurai series.

Recommended: A Christmas Story, Parkway, 9:15. Sweet, sentimental Christmas movies, at least those not authored by Charles Dickens or Frank Capra, generally make me want to throw up. But writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth comes with enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays. A Speakeasy Theaters Tribe Night event.

Recommended, with Reservations: La Strada, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 5:00. lastrada Giulietta Masina brilliantly plays a simple, innocent girl sold by her parents to a coarse, crude, and violent traveling strongman (Anthony Quinn in another strong performance). But for all the great acting, Fellini’s 1954 heartbreaker comes off as shallow. Even worse, it manages to romanticize child abuse. (Or is it spouse abuse? The movie is never too sure about that.) Part of the Archive’s Janus Films series.

Recommended: The Princess Bride, Cerrito, opening Friday for a one-week run. William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere. A Cerrito Flashback.

Recommended: Throne of Blood, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:30. Kurosawathroneblood stands Shakespeare on his head with this haunting, noh- and kabuki-inspired loose adaptation of Macbeth. Toshiro Mifune gives an over-the-top but still effective performance as the military officer tempted by his wife (Isuzu Yamada) into murdering his lord. The finale–which is far more democratic than anything Shakespeare ever dared–is one of the great action sequences ever. Another part of the Archive’s Janus Samurai series.

Recommended, with Reservations: Lifeboat, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. Alfred Hitchcock liked a challenge. He set this entire World War II drama in a lifeboat and shot it in a studio tank. There he created a microcosm of society, putting the wealthy and the working class–and even an African-American and a Nazi–together in extremely close quarters where they must cooperate to survive. It doesn’t quite work as well as it should, feeling contrived and talky at times, but it’s an interesting experiment in both constricted storytelling and social commentary. Hitchcock would make two more one-set movies before getting it right (extraordinarily right) in Rear Window. On a double-bill with Lancer Spy.

Recommended: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Roxie, opens Friday. Dangerous, tyrannical, and megalomaniac religious leaders don’t just exist on the political jonestown 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 Indiana’s first integrated church) 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, 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.

Noteworthy: The Robe, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. One of the first two films shot, and the first one released, in Cinemascope, The Robe brought the wide screen and stereo sound to the masses. It’s been many years since I saw this very Christian sword-and-toga movie, which I remember as being pompous, silly, and mildly entertaining in ways that probably weren’t intended. But this movie literally changed the shape of cinema. On a double-bill with Anastasia.

Recommended: Shut Up & Sing, Presidio, opening Friday. We all know what happened when Dixie Chick lead singer Natalie Mainesshutupsing spoke her mind during the lead-up to the Iraqi War. But if you haven’t seen Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s documentary, you probably don’t know the group dynamics that helped the trio, their management, and their families cope with the hatred, lost revenue, and death threats that followed. Or how the experience helped them grow as people and as musicians. One complaint: Kopple and Peck should have let us hear and see at least one entire song, performed from beginning to end.

Recommended: Flags of Our Fathers, Elmwood, opening Friday. The film that Saving Private Ryan should have been. According to director Clint Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, many heroic and horrifying acts occurred during the Battle of Iwo Jima, but raising that flag wasn’t one of them. Still, that famous photo made it look heroic, and the War Department needed heroes. The filmmakers cut between the battle itself and a War Bonds tour starring the three surviving flag raisers (the rest died elsewhere in the battle), contrasting the horrors of war with the absurdity of wartime propaganda. It also shows us three very believable young men trapped both in carnage and in what they see as undeserved hero-worship.

Recommended: The Wizard of Oz, Castro, Saturday. You don’t really need me to tell you about this one, do you?

Movies for the Week of December 1, 2006

Another one of those busy weeks. If you’re not as overwhelmed as I am, perhaps you’ll have time to see some movies.

Recommended: Flags of Our Fathers, 4Star, ongoing. The film that Saving Private Ryan  should have been. According to director Clint Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, raising the flag on Iwo Jima wasn’t a particularly heroic act. Plenty of people acted courageously, and many of them died that way, in the horribly bloody 40-day battle. Yet the actual flag-raising (the second flag-raising, actually) happened in a safe, secured location. But the famous photo made it look heroic, and the War Department needed heroes. The filmmakers cut between the battle itself and a War Bonds tour starring the three flag raisers who survived the rest of the battle, contrasting the horrors of war with the absurdity of wartime propaganda. It also shows us three very believable young men trapped both in carnage and in what they see as undeserved hero-worship.

Recommended: Shut Up and Sing, Parkway, opening Friday. We all know what happened when Dixie Chick lead singer Natalie Maines spoke her mind during the lead-up to the Iraqi War. But if you haven’t seen Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s documentary, you probably don’t know the group dynamics that helped the trio, their management, and their families cope with the hatred, lost revenue, and death threats that followed. Or how the experience helped them grow as people and as musicians. One complaint: Kopple and Peck should have let us hear and see an entire song, performed from beginning to end, at least once.

Recommended, with Reservations: 3 Needles, Roxie, opening Friday. Thom Fitzgerald tells three stories about AIDS and poverty, set in China, Canada, and South Africa. But the farther Fitzgerald strays from Western Civilization, the less sure his storytelling becomes. The opening Chinese section is a complete washout, confusing as pure narrative and lacking any emotional punch beyond the simplest of manipulations. The closing South African tale improves on that one, but largely misses the point by focusing on white missionaries. Only when Fitzgerald returns to his native Canada in the middle section does he tell a good story, this time about of a porn actor (Shawn Ashmore) hiding his HIV-positive status from his co-workers, and the moral dilemmas his actions thrust upon his religious mother (Stockard Channing).

Recommended, with Reservations: The Rules of the Game, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. I know; everyone else considers this one of cinema’s great masterpieces–an immensely important influence on many filmmakers (one can hardly imagine Robert Altman’s career without it). And yes, I’ve read all about its deep and important commentary on the class system and the institution of marriage. But all I see is a modest comedy of manners without much comedy and nothing exceptional to say about our manners. For me, Grand Illusion remains Renior’s masterpiece. Another new 35mm print for the Janus Films series.

Recommended: Beauty and the Beast (1946), Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 5:00. Many years ago, I attended a double bill of the original King Kong and Jean Cocteau’s haunting retelling of the famous fairytale. The audience, mostly young children, ruined Kong by running, playing, and talking throughout the screening. I cringed, imagining how bad those little devils would behave when confronted with a slow-paced, atmospheric film with subtitles. But when Beauty and the Beast came on, they sat quiet, spellbound by a story they all knew but had never imagined it quite like this. The Archive will screen a new, 35mm print as part of its Janus Films series.

Noteworthy: The Moon Is Blue, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Otto Preminger’s 1953 romantic comedy (which I’ve never seen) played an important role in the history of film censorship. Preminger refused to make the cuts necessary for production code authorization, and United Artists released the picture without the censors’ official seal of approval–pretty much unthinkable for a major studio at that time. Despite (or perhaps because) of this controversy, the movie was a huge hit, putting a chink in the armor of Hollywood’s self-censoring institution, which would continually loosen up until it became the ratings board 15 years later. As part of its Otto Preminger series, the Rafael will screen a restored print.

Recommended: Harakiri, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:40. Absolutely the best samurai film not made by Akira Kurosawa. A samurai (Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to a fort and asks permission to kill himself, then tells a harrowing tale of poverty made unbearable by the strict samurai code. Director Masaki Kobayashi had no love for feudal Japan’s social structure, which he shows as cruel, arrogant, and hypocritical. Part of the Archive’s Janus Samurai series, and yes, it’s a new 35mm print.

Recommended: The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. What’s more fun than state-of-the-art special effects? State-of-the-art special effects circa 1924. Douglas Fairbanks’ massively spectacular Arabian Nights fantasy never actually fools you into thinking a horse can fly, but the clever effects and imaginative set design inspire awe and delight all the same. As does Fairbanks’ performance as the energetic and happily ambitious thief. Don’t expect actual Arabian flavor here; this is pure early Hollywood fancy. And don’t expect 21st century racial attitudes in Fairbanks’ treatment of the Chinese. Accompanied by Bruce Loeb on piano.

Recommended: Singin’ In the Rain, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. In 1952, the late twenties were a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you have one of the best comedies of the 1950’s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. Just don’t take its story–about the talkie revolution–seriously as film history. For what it’s worth, screenwriter Betty Comden died last week (her creative partner, Adolph Green, died a few years ago), so you can think of this screening–booked before she died–as a memorial to one of musical comedy’s most talented teams. Part of the Cerrito Classics series.

Recommended, with Reservations: Unfaithfully Yours, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. Preston Sturges’ last memorable film lacks the social bite and wall-to-wall laughs of his wartime work at Paramount, but it’s funny enough to justify 105 minutes of your time and the price of a ticket. Rex Harrison plays a symphony conductor who believes his wife is cheating on him, and imagines his revenge set to classical music. But outside of dreams, revenge proves an elusive goal. On a double-bill with Molly and Me.

Recommended: The Big Lebowski, Cerrito, weeknights, starting Friday. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie.

Recommended: The Departed, Parkway, opening Friday. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn’t mind plot holes as long as they went unnoticed until the audience was driving home. That’s exactly how my wife and I reacted to Martin Scorsese’s all-star remake of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs. As long we were in the theater, Scorsese’s intense police thriller about two undercover moles–one a cop pretending to be a gangster, the other a gangster pretending to be a cop–riveted our eyes to the screen. Talking about the movie on the way home, the problems kept coming up. But Hitchcock was right. The Departed carries you along like a river, offering fascinating characters portrayed by some of the biggest and most talented male stars around, moral ambiguity, graphic violence, and surprising plot twists that heighten the suspense. So what if it’s full of holes. This is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years.