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.