This Week’s Movies

Double bill: San Francisco and The Maltese Falcon, Castro, Saturday, 7:00. The Castro celebrates its 85th Birthday with two studio-era classics set in San Francisco but shot, of course, in Hollywood. The big, silly, melodramatic special effects vehicle San Francisco tries to have it both ways, celebrating the non-conformist, hedonistic, open-minded joy that–at least to the screenwriters–symbolized the Barbary Coast, while covering itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing that’s as annoying as it is laughable. Highlights include a spectacular earthquake and fire, plus the best song ever written about a city. Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.

Way Out West, Castro, Saturday, 11:00am. I hesitate to pan this movie because of the low price and double bill, but here goes: Laurel and Hardy made some of the funniest short films ever shot. Unfortunately, economics forced them into features, and their utterly inept characters seldom worked well within the longer format. This dreary western parody, for instance, barely has enough laughs to fill a two-reeler. If you want to experience how great L&H could be, catch Sons of the Desert or Blockheads (their two best features) or just about any of their shorts. On the other hand, as part of its 85th Birthday Celebration, the Castro will screen Way Out West along with several Bugs Bunny cartoons, and they’ll probably have enough laughs to make up for the feature’s shortcomings. Besides, the entire presentation costs only 25 cents.

Singalong Wizard Of Oz, Castro, Saturday, 2:00. 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 under normal conditions, not quite fun enough to earn an A. On the other hand, a sing-along Wizard of Oz, preceded by a Monique Argent concert as part of the Castro’s 85th Birthday Celebration, may be worth seeing.

The Bourne Ultimatum, Balboa and Presidio, ongoing. A hand-held camera, incoherently fast editing, an ear-shatteringly loud soundtrack, and a modicum of very subtle left-wing posturing don’t add up to a great action movie. Director Paul (United 93) Greengrass and his three screenwriters deliver one exhausting chase after another, offering loud percussion music and cutting so fast you can’t tell what’s going on. Even when the picture slows down for the occasional dialog scenes, the camera shakes so much you pray for a tripod. Some real suspense and interesting (if not entirely original) ideas manage to poke their way through the technique, but in the end they’re overwhelmed by the visual and literal noise.

City Lights, Rafael, Friday, Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. 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.

Silent Running, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:30. First, a disclaimer: My late stepfather, John H. Newman, cut the sound effects on this sci-fi ecological parable. He considered it the best work he ever did. As a teenager, I got to hang around the post-production offices one day and watch everyone shoot special effects. The movie today feels somewhat preachy and heavy-handed, with a story about as believable as testimony by Alberto Gonzales. But the 2001-influenced special effects make nice eye candy (director Douglas Trumbull was one of Kubrick’s effects specialists), the robots clearly influenced R2D2, Bruce Dern gives a good performance in a nearly one-man show, and the movie has its heart in the right place. Great sound effects, too.

Casablanca, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. 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.

Sicko, Cerrito, 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.