This Week’s Movies

Since I’ve posted all of the Jewish Film Festival descriptions before, this time I’m placing them at the end of the listings.

She’s Gotta Have It, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30. Spike Lee jumped from film school to the big time with this low-budget, extremely sexy comic drama about a life-embracing woman juggling three very different lovers. On one level, this film explores Brooklyn’s African-American subculture with an intimacy seldom seen before. On another, any adult who isn’t saving themselves for marriage can identify with what Nola Darling and her three boyfriends go through. If She’s Gotta Have It hadn’t launched Spike Lee’s career as a director, it would have established him as a comic character actor; his Kookie Mars (“Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please”) Blackmon steals the film.

The Lady Eve, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 8:30. Screwball comedy reached its peak in Preston Sturges’ 1941 delight. Barbara Stanwyck glows as a card shark and con artist who falls in love with her latest mark–a naive heir to an ale fortune who prefers snakes to suds–played to perfection by Henry Fonda (who knew he could be so funny). But when Fonda’s “Hopsy” Pike discovers the racket and drops his new-found love, her vengeance proves astonishingly sweet. Set on an ocean liner and the exclusive wealthy homes of Connecticut, The Lady Eve allows us to wallow in wealth while laughing at the foolish gullibility of those born to money. Part of the PFA’s Barbara Stanwyck series.

Ladies They Talk About, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Wow! I never imagined that the woman’s section at San Quentin had a beauty parlor! This pre-code women-in-prison B picture packs a lot of silliness into its 69 minutes, and not a shred of believability. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see Ladies They Talk About, but I’d stay to see it on the bottom half of a double bill. Part of the PFA’s Barbara Stanwyck series.

The Toll of the Sea, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Anna May Wong received one of her few starring roles in this blatant rip-off of Madame Butterfly. But the real star is the very early two-color Technicolor process. A good but not great movie in its own right, lifted into special interest by Ms. Wong’s beauty and talent, and its value as an excellent record of a now-dead color process. The print is from a UCLA restoration made from the original negative (rare for a silent film). However, the last reel of The Toll of the Sea is missing, and the story filled in through new footage and title cards. Piano accompaniment by Greg Pane.

Swing Time, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. 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. On a double bill with Midnight.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. The biggest and the best of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” westerns was the Pulp Fiction of its day, reveling in its own amorality and bringing you along to enjoy the ride. It’s violent, beautiful, iconic, and funny, with the best performance of Eli Wallach’s career and that incredible Ennio Morricone score. Another Cerrito Classic.

Wizard Of Oz, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. Part of a “Fabulous Fashion in Film– Festival triple bill with Funny Face and My Fair Lady.

Casino Royale, Albert Park, San Rafael, Saturday, 8:30. The best James Bond flick since From Russia With Love, in large part because it doesn’t feel like a James Bond flick. (In fact, to a large degree, it feels like a James Bond book. And the book it feels like is, amazingly enough, Casino Royale.) Instead of gadgets, countless babes, wit, and incredible cool, you get a well-made and gritty thriller with several great action sequences (and a couple of babes). It just so happens that the protagonist, a newly-promoted, borderline psychotic government agent with a huge chip on his shoulder, is named Bond–James Bond. Warning: This is a DVD presentation.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 4Star, opens Friday. First-rate books seldom make first-rate films–especially when the book is nearly 900 pages long. Yet screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, new to the franchise, manages just that type of magic by stripping J.K. Rowling’s best and longest novel to the bone. True, he left out many of the book’s best scenes and characters–there’s no embarrassing first date, McGonagall doesn’t ignore and insult Umbridge while discussing Harry’s career plans, and you could miss Percy if you blink. But Goldenberg and director David Yates (also new to the franchise) keep the story’s essential themes about courage, friendship, adolescent disillusionment, sexual awakening, and how a supposed democracy can turn repressive with the help of a compliant press. They’ve also made one hell of a tight, dark, and scary supernatural thriller.

Knocked Up, Elmwood, opens Friday. 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 a full-length review, click here.

Jewish Film Festival Listings:

My Mexican Shivah, Aquarius Theatre, Saturday, 7:00. Death brings families together–even families that should probably remain apart. In Alejandro Springall’s mildly comic drama (Do we call these things a dramedy 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 inevitably 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, Roda Theatre, Sunday, 8:45. Illegal immigrants suffer and endure in Israel as well as America. Actually, their 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.

The Chosen Ones, Roda Theatre, Monday, 8:15; Aquarius Theatre, Thursday, 1:45. What does modern Jewish music mean to you? German musician/filmmaker Wendla Nölle came to New York to answer that question and found a lot of answers. Her film profiles several young, hip, and mostly orthodox performers who put their Jewish culture and faith into rock, blues, and hip-hop. My favorite? Y-Love, an African-American convert to Chasidism who raps about Law and Scripture. Other standouts include singer/songwriter/rabbi Rav Shmuel (imagine Tom Lehrer with payes), and the rock group Blue Fringe. As with so many music documentaries, there’s not enough music (I don’t think it shows a single song performed in its entirety), and Nölle’s total ignorance of Judiasm hinders the film almost as often as it helps (it’s pretty clear she shot part of the movie during Purim, but never seems to mention this). But the positives–engaging people, good music, and a sense of cultures coming together in unexpected ways–more than make up for this documentary’s shortcomings.

Between Two Notes, Aquarius Theatre, Monday, 8:45. 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.

Body and Soul, Roda Theatre, Monday, 4:15. John Garfield commands this boxing noir as a kid from the slums who fights his way up to the top, then must face the mob. Entertaining and occasionally realistic, Body and Soul stands out as an example of left-leaning Hollywood commercial filmmaking just before the blacklist clamped down on certain values (and ruined Garfield’s career).

My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, Aquarius Theatre, Saturday, 9:15; Roda Theatre, Tuesday, 8:45. 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 its own.

Making Trouble, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 10:00; Aquarius Theatre, Thursday, 8:30. A documentary about Jewish women comedians, should, first and foremost, be funny. After that it can 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.

My Son, The Hero, Aquarius Theatre, Monday, 2:00; Roda Theatre, Wednesday, 2:00. Recent years have turned B picture auteur Edgar Ulmer into a cult favorite, and judging from most of the Ulmer films I’ve seen, he deserves it. But not for My Son, the Hero. This nearly laughless comedy from 1943 blatantly rips off the plot of Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day–a struggling con artist tries to fool his visiting son into believing he’s rich and successful–without any of Capra’s charm or wit. And this time, Ulmer’s usual lack of budget shows, not as an obstacle he can cleverly maneuver around, but as a dead weight dragging the film to the bottom. A couple of moderately likable characters and a mercifully short 66-minute runtime are all that recommend it.

Just an Ordinary Jew, Aquarius Theatre, Saturday, 2:30, Aquarius Theatre, Monday, 4:30. There’s something about someone talking extensively with no one around to listen that feels contrived and theatrical in close-up, even when he’s holding a dictation recorder. To make matters worse, this 90-minute rant by a German Jewish journalist with serious identity issues says little that’s new or enlightening about either German Jews in general or this particular individual. Ben Becker, the star of this nearly one-man show, makes everything worse by sticking to one vocal tone–barely suppressed anger–throughout this feature-length monolog. One more thing: According to my wife, who speaks fluent German, the subtitle translations are pretty bad, too.

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