Movies for the Week of March 30, 2007

Click here for descriptionSierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Red Vic, Friday through Tuesday. A sad, harrowing, yet ultimately inspiring true story told with only moderate competence. Refugee All Stars focuses on six musicians, refugees from Sierra Leone’s horrifyingly brutal civil war, who came together in the Guinean refugee camps in which they’d lived for many years. In the course of the film, they tour the camps, visit their homeland to record their first record and consider moving back. But directors Zach Niles and Banker White don’t give us a real chance to fall in love with the music, nor do they stay on the individual musicians long enough for us to fall in love with them. The result feels like it’s skirting over the top and not quite opening itself up to show us how these six have turned tragedy and poverty into music.

Click here for descriptionStereotypes in Silent Films, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 3:00. This looks like an interesting presentation: Seven short silent films depicting Hispanics or Native Americans, accompanied by Bruce Loeb at the piano and discussed by Niles Museum historian David Kiehn, anthropologist Nina Egert, and Ohlone educator Ruth Orta. Sponsored by the Vinapa Foundation.. And it’s free!

Click here for descriptionPan’s Labyrinth, Parkway, opening Friday. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) lives in fascist Spain with a cruel and powerful stepfather–a very dangerous and scary place to live. But so is the fantasy realm into which she frequently escapes. But at least the fantasy world, which may or may not be a figment of her imagination, holds out the possibility of hope. Guillermo del Toro fashioned a nightmare inside of a nightmare, filled with dark, gruesome, and often gory imagery, a child’s fantasy that’s appropriate only for adults, and an unforgettable experience.

Grandma’s Boy, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. In his second feature, made years after he donned those horn-rimmed glasses, Harold Lloyd finally found the shy, scared, but clever and ambitious character to go with them. Harold is too much of a coward to face the bully or win the girl, but a fairy tale lie from his grandmother helps him find the courage that was always inside. This sweet fable about the power of self-confidence avoids excess sentimentality by the simple (but actually quite difficult) trick of never letting up on the laughs. I’ve seen people almost asphyxiate from laughter during the mothball scene. Five years later he would return to the rural setting, and the theme, for his best film, The Kid Brother. Shown, along with some shorts, with piano accompaniment by Molly Axtmann.

Letters from Iwo Jima, Cerrito, opening Friday. I didn’t think Clint Eastwood could top Flags of Our Fathers, but he did…just barely. By concentrating on the Japanese experience and turning Americans into the briefly-glimpsed “other,” he forces us to consider not only the dehumanizing aspects of war itself, but also the distortions in conventional war movies. Leaving such high-minded talk aside, he tells a very sad tale of ordinary people selected for death by an exceptionally cruel government.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel manages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his young daughter. (Had there been a sequel with a teenage Scout, Atticus would have been an idiotic tyrant.) Part of the archive’s Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

The Last King of Scotland, 4Star, opening Friday. The “King” in the title refers to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker in the performance finally won 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.

Little Children, Cerrito, opening Friday. 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 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.