Films for the Week of May 25, 2007

Operation Homecoming, Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. Coached by professional writers, American soldiers and veterans of the Iraq war tell their stories. That’s the idea behind the National Endowment for the Arts’ Operation Homecoming, and the inspiration for this haunting documentary. Much of the film consists of the usual talking heads–the veterans who are telling their stories and the skilled authors (all war veterans, themselves) who helped them. But the best moments come out of the stories themselves, read by professional actors and illustrated with news footage, dramatic recreations, and even animation. Operation Homecoming doesn’t have an axe to grind; there’s no preaching about how we should or should not be in this particular war. But the vivid sense of what it’s like there stays with you long after the credits fade.

Rifftrax Live!, Rafael, Sunday, 7:30. What’s the best possible way to experience the worst examples of cinematic trash? With people who can crack wise at the screen–especially if those people are professional comedians working from a carefully-written script. Three leading creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000–the long-running (but no longer running) TV show that did more for bad movies than did Roger Corman–will appear onstage at the Rafael to comment on…I don’t know. They’re not telling us in advance exactly what they will be showing.

Woman of the Year, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30. 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. As part of the Stanford’s celebration of Katharine Hepburn’s Centenary, they’re showing Woman of the Year with Song of Love.

From Russia with Love, Castro, Sunday. The James Bond films never got better than the second entry in the long series. Low-budget and rough around the edges by later standards, From Russia with Love benefits from not feeling obliged to stick to formula. It’s simply an exceptionally well-made little espionage triller about a British spy named James Bond. On a double bill with The Spy Who Loved Me as part of the Castro’s 007 weekend.

Jaws, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid; and with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. A Flashback Feature.

A Shot In the Dark, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, and Sunday, 5:00. The first movie based around the character of Inspector Clouseau (a supporting character in the original Pink Panther) supplies more laughs than any three normal characters. Peter Sellers created one of cinema’s great comic characters in this dignified yet idiotic detective who believes himself a crime-solving mastermind, and A Shot In the Dark gives Clouseau his best vehicle. The cast includes George Sanders as a possibly guilty nobleman and a beautiful (if talent-impaired) Elke Sommer as the obvious suspect whom Clouseau refuses to suspect. Another Cerrito Classic.

Shrek the Third, Presidio, ongoing. The second sequel to the original, wonderful computer-animated Shrek isn’t a complete loss. It has enough truly funny jokes to fill a seven-minute Road Runner cartoon. But since the picture runs 92 minutes, there’s a lot of waiting between the laughs. While the first Shrek blew the lid off fairy tale traditions to teach children that conventional good looks were not a requirement for living happily ever after, and the still pretty good Shrek 2 suggested that even fairy godmothers may charge a price that’s too high, what does Shrek the Third have to teach our children? You guessed it: Believe in yourself. Like the theme, the third Shrek outing is guaranteed originality-free.

Hot Fuzz, Parkway and Presidio, opens Friday. Director/co-writer Edgar Wright fills every frame of Hot Fuzz with his love for mindless action movies. More precisely, he fills the splices between the frames, cutting even the scenes of quiet village life in the frantic style of Hollywood violence–accompanied by overloud sound effects, of course. (And yes, he’s smart enough not to overdo it.) This technique, along with a funny story, clever dialog, and charming performances, help make this genre parody the funniest film in years, with the longest sustained laugh I’ve experienced since I first discovered Buster Keaton. If Hot Fuzz doesn’t make my Top Ten list as the funniest film of the year, 2007 will be the best year from comedies in a very long time.