This Week’s Movies

I’m writing this at 37,000 feet, enroute to New York, hoping my laptop’s battery holds out. The inflight movie, The Last Mimsy, is drawing to an end. I didn’t watch it, but my eyes are naturally drawn to moving images on a screen, so I glanced up every so often. I can’t stand inflight movies–censored and panned-and-scanned (actually, I doubt that one was censored)–a truly crummy way to watch one.

Curiously, before the movie started, they showed a trailer for it so people would want to watch. The trailer was letterboxed; the movie wasn’t. I never could figure that out. If people hate letterboxing, why use it when you’re trying to convince people to see the movie?

It’s strange glancing up at a movie every so often, and watching without hearing. The frightening thing is that, with conventional Hollywood fare, you can still tell what’s going on. “Yup,” I thought when I glanced up to see FBI agents arresting that nice suburban family, “the second act is ending.”

I didn’t post much this week, just another set of Jewish Film Festival Previews.

And now now I’m at the hotel, and I’ve got to get to bed, so on with the this week’s presentations, none of which I’ll be in town to watch.

Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie Festival, Alliance for West Oakland Development Parking Lot, Friday and Saturday nights. I’ve never been to this two-night festival (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. Brainwash 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. As the name implies, the screening is out of doors, 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.

Ratatouille, Balboa, ongoing. Brad Bird keeps proving himself the most original, talented, and interesting animator since Chuck Jones. While there’s nothing really original about building a cartoon around sympathetic, anthropomorphic rodents (just ask Walt Disney), Bird does something totally different. He gives us the unpleasant, relatively realistic image of rats in the kitchen–he even lets our skin crawl at the spectacle–but he still gets us rooting for the rat. And for the hapless, human chef-in-training who intentionally sneaks a rat into a gourmet restaurant. The animation is, as you’d expect from Pixar, technically perfect, but you don’t really notice it except as an afterthought. You’re too caught up in the story to notice how it was made.

Sicko, Balboa, opens Friday. It’s probably impossible to review Sicko objectively. If you agree with Michael Moore on the subject at hand, you’re going to like the film. If you don’t, you won’t. So let me begin by saying that I’m in favor of universal healthcare, and find the American system of treating the sick a national disgrace. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with unquestioned praise for Cuba–a totalitarian dictatorship without the free press necessary to question government statistics and representations. As a movie, Sicko entertains as it educates, enrages, and rouses the rabble. Yes, Moore could have made a stronger case if he had honestly reported the problems of the Canadian, British, and French healthcare systems while showing their superiority (if he asked anyone what they pay in taxes, it didn’t make the final cut), and if he had left Cuba out entirely. A year ago, An Inconvenient Truth proved that a widely-distributed documentary can shift the paradigm; let’s hope Sicko does this, as well.

Double Bill: Shall We Dance (1937) and Follow the Fleet, Stanford, Thursday. Along with Top Hat and Swingtime, Shall We Dance represents the best of what Astaire and Rogers had to offer. 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. The somewhat experimental co-feature, Follow the Fleet gives us a working-class Fred–a gum-chewing sailor enjoying shore leave in San Francisco. The story is weak, even by the standards of the series, but the Irving Berlin songs include “We Saw the Sea,” “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” and the transcendent “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Double Bill: Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee, Stanford, Tuesday. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Gay Divorcee, arguably the first Astaire-Rogers movie (certainly the first where they were the real stars). What I remember is a flawed entertainment with one great dance number, a few funny lines, and some historical interest. You could easily mistake The Gay Divorcee for an inferior rip-off of the very similar but vastly-superior Top Hat.

But Top Hat is the rip-off, albeit one that vastly improves upon the original. 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 Top Hat 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.

Ball of Fire, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:00. 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. Part of the PFA’s Barbara Stanwyck series.

City Lights, Castro, Friday through Thursday. In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of the great tear-jerking endings. Sound came to movies as Chaplin was shooting City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. The Castro will present a new 35mm print.

Double Bill: Swing Time and Flying Down to Rio, Stanford, Wednesday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time comes in a close second, and the only other unqualified masterpiece in the series. The thin plot is 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 to some great Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance,” “Never Gonna Dance”). On the other hand, the moderately entertaining Dolores del Rio musical Flying Down to Rio wouldn’t be worth a second glance if RKO hadn’t cast a new-to-the-movies Broadway hoofer named Fred Astaire as male lead Gene Raymond’s buddy, and experienced supporting actress Ginger Rogers as Astaire’s girlfriend.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, Cerrito, Saturday and Sunday. Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights. And who else could speak treason so fluently? The great supporting cast includes Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Technicolor, a name that really meant something special in 1938. Another Cerrito Classic.

Shrek the Third, Cerrito, opens 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.