Movies for the Week of March 2, 2007

The General, California Theatre, San Jose, Friday, 7:00. 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. Cinequest presents The General accompanied by Chris Elliott on the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Dodsworth, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. It’s been years since I’ve seen how Samuel Goldwyn and William Wyler adapted Sinclair Lewis’ novel to the screen. But if I recall correctly, it’s one of the most realistic depictions of a disintegrating marriage ever put on the screen–at least by Hollywood. On a double-bill with Roberta (see below).

Roberta, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Generally considered an Astaire/Rogers musical, Roberta actually stars Irene Dunne. True, Fred and Ginger get billed above her love interest, Randolph Scott, but they’re not onscreen enough to turn this dull musical love story into a winner. On a double-bill with Dodsworth.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Castro, Wednesday. 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. On a Robert Altman double bill with 3 Women.

Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Bump your coconuts together and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for the Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end.

Borat, Red Vic, Friday through Sunday. 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.

The Last King of Scotland, Parkway, opens Friday. 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 thriller. My big complaint: The ending is a moral cop-out.

The Departed, Balboa, 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. I don’t agree with the Academy’s opinion, but this is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years. On a double bill with Pan’s Labyrinth.