Listings for the Week of April 13, 2007

Journey From the Fall, 4Star and Elmwood, opens Friday. “Nothing is more precious than freedom.– Ho Chi Minh’s hypocritical quote adorns the entrance to a re-education center (in other words, a slave-labor camp) in Ham Tran’s small-scale historical epic. But Ham blows his wad early as he shows us a Vietnamese family’s horrific journey away from Communist oppression in the years after the fall of Saigon. All of the film’s power hits you in the haunting, gut-wrenching first half as it cross-cuts between a father’s degradation and torture in the above-mentioned camp and his family’s attempts to flee the country. While the second half–“about the family’s adjustment to life in America–“is reasonably good drama, it feels anticlimactic after the harrowing and nightmarish beginning.

The Host, Parkway, ongoing. A barely-functional family fights an uncaring government and a giant mutant carnivore, and it’s hard to say which is the scarier threat. The political points are obvious, the third act gets confusing, and the big finale fails to satisfy, but director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong succeeds where it counts: He makes you care about the characters and scares you out of your seat. Much of the credit goes to the talented computer animators at San Francisco’s own The Orphanage, who brought the monster to life.

On the Town, Castro, Saturday. Three sailors arrive in New York for a 24-hour leave. That’s precious little time to see the sights, drink in the atmosphere, and fall in love. What makes On the Town so special–“beyond the great songs, terrific choreography, and witty script–“is the prevailing sense of friendship and camaraderie. These three sailors and the women who fall for them all seem to genuinely like each other and care very much for the others’ happiness. The movie also treats sexuality in a surprisingly upbeat and positive way for a 1949 Hollywood feature. The women in the story (Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, and the infinitely funny Betty Garrett) seem at least as motivated by lust as the men (Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and Frank Sinatra). It’s just too bad that screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden updated their own wartime stage musical to the post-war period, losing the urgency that came from not knowing if the sailors would come back alive. On a double-bill with Singin’ in the Rain.

Singin’ in the Rain, Castro, Saturday. 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 still 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. On a double-bill with On the Town.

Dr. Strangelove, Parkway, Tuesday. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy– reminds you just how scary things once were. Thank heaven we no longer have idiots like those running the country! It’s also very funny. A Veterans for Peace benefit.

Shall We Dance (1937), Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Along with Top Hat and Swingtime, Shall We Dance represents the best of what Astaire and Rogers had to offer. The story–¦well, who cares about the story. The only collaboration between Astaire, Rogers, and the two Gershwins gives us “They All Laughed,– “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,– dancing on shipboard, dancing on stage, dancing in roller skates, and the most romantic song ever written, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.– When Fred and Ginger aren’t singing or dancing, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore provide plenty of comedy, with light satire aimed at celebrity scandals and the culture gap between ballet and popular music.

Top Hat, Castro, Sunday. If escapism is a valid artistic goal, Top Hat is a great work of art. From the perfect clothes that everyone wears so well to the absurd mistaken-identity plot to the art deco set that makes Venice look like a very exclusive water park, everything about the ultimate Astaire-Rogers musical tells you not to take it seriously. But who needs realism when Fred Astaire dances his way into Ginger Rogers’ heart to four great (and one mediocre) Irving Berlin tunes? And when the music stops, it’s still a very good comedy. On a double-bill with:

Swing Time, Castro, Sunday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time is a close second, and the only other unqualified masterpiece in the series. Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Fred is an incredibly lucky gambler who for private reasons has to limit his winnings. It’s just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (–Pick Yourself Up,– “The Way You Look Tonight,– “A Fine Romance–) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance– number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever.

Bad Day at Black Rock, Stanford, Wednesday through the following Friday. I’d probably rate this one a B, but it’s been years since I’ve seen it and I don’t trust my memory. Spencer Tracy plays the mysterious stranger whose appearance in a small town may reveal secrets the locals would prefer stayed hidden. A movie about anti-Japanese bigotry with an all-white cast, and a film noir shot in bright daylight in color and the then new miracle of Cinemascope, Black Rock builds dread not in shadows, but in vast, empty desert landscapes. On a double-bill with The Blue Dahlia.

A Clockwork Orange, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. 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. Another Flashback Feature.

The Big Lebowski, Red Vic, Thursday through the following Saturday. 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.

Buck Privates, Castro, Tuesday. If you’re not already a fan of Abbott & Costello, their first movie won’t make you one. And if you are a fan, Buck Privates may cause you to question that allegiance. But it will make you a fan of the Andrews Sisters, who blow Bud and Lou out of the picture with their singing, dancing, and fun personalities. On a double-bill with In the Navy, also starring Abbott, Costello, and the three Andrews.

San Francisco, Balboa, Wednesday (April 18, of course). A big, silly, melodramatic special effects vehicle made before people thought of movies as special effects vehicles, San Francisco is a classic example of code-era Hollywood trying to have it both ways. It celebrates the non-conformist, hedonistic, open-minded joy that, at least to the screenwriters, symbolized the Barbary Coast. But it covers itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing that’s as annoying as it is laughable. Still, San Francisco has considerable pleasures, especially in the last half hour when the earth shakes and the fires break out. And let’s not forget the title song–”the best ever written about a city. On a double bill with the recent documentary The Damnedest Finest Ruins.

One thought on “Listings for the Week of April 13, 2007

  1. If I may contribute my two cents on On the Town, I think what really makes the aforementioned camaraderie so wonderful is that the sailors also each seem to get along great with each others’ girls as well–which is something we don’t see in fiction nearly enough.

    Too bad Vera-Ellen is a dead freakin’ weight. (I dunno if it’s because of the actor or the character.)

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