This Week’s Films

What have I got for you this week?I started off on Friday with a newsflash of the Elmwood changing hands. Then, on Sunday, I gave you my thoughts on the American Film Institute’s new, updated list of the 100 greatest American films of all time. On Tuesday, I posted microreviews of five films that will screen at the Jewish Film Festival. Finally, I gave you some news about the Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie Festival and more on the Elmwood.

I also posted a microreview of Spiderman 3.

Hippie Temptation, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. I saw this already aging CBS news special in a club not too far from the current location of the Red Vic, probably about 1977. At the time, I thought it was hilarious (unintentionally, of course). I have no idea how I would react to it today.

The Big Lebowski, Cerrito, weekdays through Thursday. 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. A Cerrito Flashback.

Hot Fuzz, Elmwood, opening 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 for comedies in a very long time. Also continuing at the Parkway.

Casablanca, Union Square, Saturday, 8:30. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. Presented, like all Film Night in the Park shows, off DVD.

Over the Hedge, Albert Park, San Rafael, Friday, 8:30. Like any good, child-oriented, computer-animated feature, Over the Hedge keeps you laughing at the jokes and dazzled at the visuals. It even makes you care a bit about the characters. But it goes beyond those commercial requirements, saying something real and important about the damage that our consumer-oriented culture does both to us and to the natural world on the outskirts of our civilization. Besides, you’ve got to love a kids’ movie that undercuts the obligatory “families stick together” speech. Yet another Film Night in the Park presentation.

Shrek the Third, Parkway, opening Friday. 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.

Brainwash and Elmwood in the East Bay

Just a few quick notes.

The Brainwash  Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In  Movie Festival screens in a little over a week. I’ve never been to this two-night event (and won’t be able to make it this year), but it sounds like one of the odder events to hit the Bay Area on an annual basis. The festival presents two programs of short subjects, ranging from the unusual to the bizarre. Titles include “Great Moments in Cocktail History”  and “Legend of the Bunny Man.” They’re also showing the original trailer for “Hercules in New York,” a truly wretched low-budget ‘70s flick starring our current governor.

The presentation is as strange as the content. As the name implies, the screening is out of doors (in an Oakland parking lot, actually), and you can sit in your car or in the open. The movies’ soundtracks are broadcast as a low-power FM signal, so you need a radio.

In other news, I like the programming tastes of the Elmwood’s new management. For their first week, they’ve got the East Bay’s exclusive engagement of both Colma – The Musical and I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal. Between that and the theater’s physical upgrade (which, I admit, I haven’t seen yet), it all seems promising.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve been able to preview five films playing at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July and August. Here, from best to worst (although none is really bad), is what I think of them:

My Mexican Shivah
Death brings families together–even families that should probably remain apart. In Alejandro Springall’s mildly comic drama (Do we call these things a dramady or a coma?), the death of the family patriarch brings out the worst, and a little of the best, in everyone. Hardly surprising; the departed apparently loved life–and women–a little too much, leaving his survivors bitter, divided, and confused. But according to Jewish law, they must spend a week in each others’ company, where old attractions and animosities must come to the surface. Particularly wonderful is Emilio Savinni as the Chassidic grandson who’s wistfully nostalgic for his wilder days. A touching, truthful, and occasionally funny look at Jewish observance and human behavior.

9 Star Hotel
Illegal immigrants suffer and endure in Israel as well as America. Actually, they’re plight is probably worse, since the Israeli/Palestinian relationship is considerably more strained than the Yankee/Mexican one. In the best cinema verite tradition, Ido Haar avoids commentary and simply follows a group of undocumented, Palestinian construction workers. We watch as they sneak across the border, work, camp out in the hills (the title reflects a joking reference to the cardboard boxes they sleep in), avoid police, and talk about the things that young men talk about all over the world. The result is a window into a difficult way of life most of us know little about.

My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler
Dani (Go For Zucker) Levy’s strange little film about Hitler’s Jewish acting coach walks a thin line between absurdist comedy and Holocaust tragedy. It’s a delicate balance, and while Levy stumbles a bit, he quickly recovers and dazzles the audience. The setup: 1944 is drawing to a close, Germany is losing the war, and Hitler’s suffering from depression, So his handlers pull his Jewish former acting coach out of a concentration camp to prepare him for a major speech. The coach (The Lives of Others’ Ulrich Mühe) takes the job and begins to bond with his student while wrestling with his opportunity to change the course of history. My Fuehrer owes an obvious debt to other Holocaust-inspired comedies–notably The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful--but has a feeling all of its own.

Between Two Notes
Finally, a music documentary that’s got its priorities right–it’s about the music. Arabic classical music, to be precise, as played in Damascus, Lebanon, and mostly in Israel, by both Arabs and Jews. Some of the talk about music bringing people together and leading to world peace sounded forced and unreasonably idealistic (to say nothing of repetitive), but the discussions of musical and religious styles coming together and influencing each other proved worth listening to. And best of all, there’s the music–haunting, exciting, and digging into the depth of your soul. The musicians are captured, for the most part, not in concerts or recording studios, but playing together in living rooms, and director Florence Strauss keeps the camera tied on their faces, capturing their infectious exuberance.

Making Trouble
A documentary about Jewish women comedians, should, first and foremost, be funny. After that it get delve into issues of why female comics see things differently than males, the unique attributes of Jewish humor, and so forth. But before it tells you about these women’s lives and struggles, it must let you appreciate what makes these individuals special. It’s not that Rachel Talbot’s Making Trouble isn’t funny–of course, it is–but the clips it presents of Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein don’t last long enough to give us a real appreciation of their work. Perhaps Talbot should have stuck to three or four subjects instead of six. If you already appreciate these artists’ work, the film entertains and educates by giving you a brief window into their lives, but it feels like a television special–hardly worthy of the big screen.


The 100 Greatest 100 Greatest Lists of All Time

You’ve probably heard that the American Film Institute just released a 10th anniversary edition of its “100 Years…100 Movies” list, although they’re not calling it “110 Years…100 Movies.” They also describe this as a list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, despite the fact that only American movies qualify.

Of course, the AFI often seemed to go out of its way to be idiotic about lists. The first list they did, in 1997, was useful and interesting. Then they started hunting for original list categories, and it quickly got silly. 100 Cheers? 100 Passions? Heroes and Villains? (Actually, by listing the heroes and villains side by side, they unintentionally created some interesting teams. Who wouldn’t want to see Atticus Finch protect the world from Dr. Hannibal Lecter? Or Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood fight the shark from Jaws?)

But the new list, once again going for simply the best American feature films of all time, returns some sanity to this whole enterprise. Such lists are invaluable for someone who has recently discovered the joys of classic cinema and wants to get acquainted with the best.  And even for those of us who know the subject inside and out, this list shows the current consensus.

For instance, I expected the new list to reflect more new films than the old one, but that didn’t happen. Of the 23 films on the list that hadn’t made 1997’s, 14 were made before 1980. The two top-rated newly-added films, The General and Intolerance, are both silent. Citizen Kane held onto its place as the best American film of all time.

Of course you’ll find plenty of boneheaded decisions on the list–that’s the nature of the beast. After all, this isn’t a list of your 100 favorite American movies. It certainly isn’t mine. But it’s a reasonably good list.

Back in March, I offered a short list of my eight greatest films of all time. Five of those eight made the list, and two others didn’t qualify on the grounds that they weren’t American. Perhaps The Crowd didn’t make it because it’s silent, or because it’s not on DVD, but it should have been there.

Newsflash: Elmwood Changes Hands

Rialto Cinemas (not to be confused with the Renaissance Rialto chain) recently bought Berkeley’s Elmwood theater, a regular venue. The theater is dark this week as the new owners give it some much needed renovations.

The buy appears to have happened suddenly, or at least quietly. Only about a week ago I received an announcement from the Buddhist Film Festival that Dreaming Lhasa would open at the Elmwood today. But I didn’t receive the usual press announcement of what the theater will play this week. The theater’s old web site simply said (and still says) that “Showtimes are not available for this date,” even though the date is today.

Aside from physical improvements, I’m in the dark about Rialto’s plans for the Elmwood. Judging from their existing theater in Santa Rosa, and a brief conversation I had with a Rialto representative who could only make an educated guess, I suspect they’re going the indiewood route, with pictures like Sicko and A Mighty Heart.

I wish them luck. Unless their programming turns into a real disappointment, I will keep them in the schedules.

This Week’s Films

I’m back in form. I wrote four posts this week. On Friday, in Getting Back in Touch, I apologized for not writing (and a few other things), and recommended a couple of excellent films that are playing around but not in my weekly schedules. Then, on Sunday I wrote a full-length review of Knocked Up. On Monday, I wrote about the two upcoming silent film festivals on the way. Finally, on Wednesday, I told you about the Jewish Film Festival that opens next month.And here are some movies worth catching, and worth skipping, this week:

Knocked Up, Balboa, Presidio, and Cerrito, continuing. Writer/Director Judd Apatow tops his The 40 Year Old Virgin (no small feat) in another raunchy-yet-sweet comedy about the complexities and problems of heterosexual romance. This time around, a rising television personality with career ambitions (the stunningly gorgeous Katherine Heigl) shares a drunken one-night stand with a slacker stoner (the stunningly dumpy Seth Rogen), then eight weeks later discovers she’s pregnant. As the two leads, their friends, and their families react to this life-changing accident, Apatow explores how people fall in and out of love, the way parenthood changes people, and the need for both men and women to get away from each other and bond with those of their own gender”“all while providing plenty of laughs. For my full-length review, click here.

Vengeance Is Mine, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Director Shohei Imamura takes us into the mind of a psychopath as he tracks the life of and manhunt for one of Japan’s most notorious serial killers. The result isn’t pretty. Imamura and screenwriter Masaru Baba treat Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) analytically, neither asking for nor receiving any sympathy for a man incapable of feeling sympathy towards others. Yet the film itself is far from cold. For while Enokizu himself fascinates and repels us, Imamura makes us care deeply for the imperfect people whose lives Enokizu touches, ruins, and in some cases cuts short. A great film. A repeat screening in the Archive’s Shohei Imamura series.

Flanders, Lumiere and Shattuck, opening Friday. Judging from Bruno Dumont’s film, you don’t want to spend your vacation in the bleak Flemish winter. On the other hand, it’s a lot better than a war of attrition in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Dumont puts us in both environments in this atmospheric study of how war affects those who go and those that stay behind. The film suffers a bit early on from the dull nature of the leading characters (who take part in some of the most depressing sex I’ve ever seen), but stick around; it improves.

The Lady Eve and Ladies They Talk About, Castro, Wednesday. Screwball comedy reached its peak with Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a con artist who falls in love with her latest mark–Henry Fonda. On the other hand, most of the laughs in Ladies They ‘Talk About appear to be unintentional. Still, a great movie and a marginally good one make for a very entertaining double bill. Click the and icons for my micro reviews.

Dreaming Lhasa, Rafael and Roxie, opening Friday. A small wonder of a film about Tibetan refuges. The principle setting is Dharamsala, a “little Tibet” in the Indian Himalayas; a place for refugees from China’s oppressive policies. The plot, concerning a Tibetan-American documentary filmmaker helping an ex-monk return a charm box to its original owner, is little more than an excuse to explore a culture in exile. The Tibetan world explored here is one of contrasts, of soothsayers and hermit monks, torture victims, and rock “˜n’ roll. Warning: This film contains positive references to the CIA.

Ball of Fire, Castro, Tuesday. Can you possibly go wrong with Howard Hawks directing a screwball comedy from a script by Billy Wilder (one of Wilder’s last before making the leap to writer/director)? It’s been too many years since I’ve seen Ball of Fire for me to say with absolute certainty that you can’t go wrong, but from what I remember, this one isn’t up to Hawks’ or Wilder’s best work, but it’s still a worthy entertainment. On a double feature with Forty Guns (which I’ve never seen) as the opening bill of the PFA at the Castro Barbara Stanwyck series.

American Cannibal, Red Vic, Friday through Thursday. A documentary about reality television feels a bit like inbreeding”“one camera crew filming another camera crew filming people without a script. And indeed, one of American Cannibal’s primary subjects, TV writer Gil Ripley, unintentionally sums up this picture’s modest appeal when he explains reality TV’s popularity: “People want to see really horrible things happen because, unfortunately, you can’t take your eyes off them.” The movie follows Ripley and his partner, Dave Roberts, as they shed their artistic integrity to launch the next big television event, only to have everything come crashing down on them through bad planning and worse luck. The picture doesn’t say much that’s really new, but a few of the interview subjects make interesting points, and the train-wreck feel of Ripley and Roberts’ disaster keeps the second half moderately entertaining.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Saturday, 8:30. Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father, Walter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed. One of the all-time greats. Unfortunately, like all Film Night in the Park presentations, this one is free, but is off of a DVD.

King of Hearts, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Friday, 8:30. Philippe de Broca’s fantasy parable about war and insanity lost some of its magic over the decades, but not all of it. The picture still provides laughs as it illustrates the merits of creating your own reality when the one forced upon us by the world’s leaders is just too horrible. Today that theme seems shallow, immature, and quaint, but it’s still fun to escape into that vision for 102 minutes. Another free (good) but DVD rather than film (bad) Film Night in the Park presentation.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise””which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless.

The Cinematic Mitzvah

Four days after the silent films leave the Castro next month, everyone will be speaking Yiddish. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens there on July 19 (my birthday) with Sweet Mud, an Israeli drama set on a kibbutz in 1974. It closes August 6 at the Rafael with another Israeli drama, Three Mothers. (The official closing film is the American documentary Making Trouble, which closes the eight-day Castro run on July 26.)

In between we’ll get to see “more than 500 films” (not all of them feature-length, I hope). These include several Israeli documentaries, including the potentially controversial 9 Star Hotel, about Israel’s own illegal immigrants, Palestinian construction workers. The narrative features include My Mexican Shivah (the name itself sounds promising), and a Parisian cross-cultural romance, Bad Faith. The eight-episode Israeli TV serieis, A Touch Away, will be screened in its entirety.

Several films examine and celebrate music, including Between Two Notes, The Chosen Ones, and Yiddish Soul. And in case you haven’t gotten your fill of silent films already, the Festival will screen a 1925 melodrama, His People, with Paul Shapiro’s jazz sextet providing live accompaniment.

This year’s Freedom of Expression Award goes to German-Jewish filmmaker Dani Levy, whose wonderful comedy Go For Zucker opened the 2005 festival. His newest satire, to be screened at the festival, seems especially bizarre: My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler puts the most evil man of the 20th century at the mercy of a Jewish acting coach. An older Levy film, The Giraffe, will also screen.

Does the term “Jewish Boxer” sound like an oxymoron? According to the Festival’s press release, there were 27 Jewish world-champion boxers in the first four decades of the last century. Boxing films to be screened include the above-mentioned silent His People, a documentary on an orthodox boxer, and the 1947 John Garfield classic Body and Soul.